A De(con)struction of sin

Unfortunately I must put off dealing with the "last things" for another week or two. I am in the midst of winding down this final quarter of my first year. I have completed one paper on how pastors might use the shared narratives of a congregation as a tool for helping them care for the community. I think it is a good paper, we'll see in a two weeks when I present it to the class and professor.

I am working on my second paper which is due next Wednesday. I am looking at sin, spin and the postmodern theory of deconstruction. Below is my introduction and a little explanation of the paper. I thought it might give you a taste of what I will sleep, eat and breathe over the next week. And, yes, I am reading The Purpose Driven Life and Your Best Life Now...

Roughly one year after my graduation from college I was employed by a large urban Presbyterian congregation. It was a Caucasian dominated congregation of roughly twelve hundred members who were mostly college educated and mostly wealthy. Furthermore, it was a congregation that had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of one of its ministers. The event occurred roughly seven years before I began working in the congregation. However, the community did not deal with the event in a manner that was able to provide healing and health for the members and leadership. Therefore, the fear and anxiety that surrounded the situation reared an ugly head during my time there.

Here are the facts of the situation as I understand them. Seven years earlier the male youth minister was caught having a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old female member of the youth group. The minister admitted his guilt and was disciplined by the Presbytery. His punishment included removal from the church, his ordination was revoked for a period of seven years and he was required to enter counseling. The church received quiet guidance from the Presbytery that was restricted to the family of the abused girl and the leadership of the church. The return of many of the feelings towards this situation arose around two situations. The first situation was my presence as the first male youth minister since this incident. The second situation was the knowledge that the former minister had requested a return to the active ministry in the larger Presbyterian Church.

As the anxiety arose in the congregation concerning these two situations, conversations began to take place that opened many of the previous wounds suffered by various members in the church. It is these conversations that gave me my first taste of “spin.” As the leaders began to talk about the situation there was a great deal of disagreement on the facts surrounding the incident. There was talk about who initiated the situation of abuse, the girl or the minister. They talked about the number of sexual encounters they knew of and whether the punishment fit the crime. No one talked about it as a situation of abuse; instead it was a sexual encounter. The character of the girl was brought into question and compared to the character of the minister. These conversations rarely progressed beyond argument and speculation as different leaders “spun” the facts to fit their worldview and interpretations of what the sexual abuse, the minister and the female involved meant to them.

Generally speaking little meaning or fact was left following these conversations. The spin and interpretation served the purpose of emptying the situation of any coherent meaning useful to the leaders as a whole. Without a mutually agreeable definition of sexual abuse the situation became increasingly hostile as the leadership rallied around particular interpretations. Lost in the rhetorical whirlwinds created by each interpretation was the an understanding of what happened, namely a seventeen year old girl had sex with an adult in a position of power within the confines of the church. The minutiae that ensconced each side of the argument left no room for the proverbial elephant that stood before them. Finally, in the midst of the raging debates taking place an interim minister stepped in to provide guidance. After hearing both sides argue, he attempted to inject meaning back into the polarized argument. His statement was that for legal and moral reasons, in this denomination, no sex between a seventeen year old and an adult is considered consensual. Moreover, sex that occurs between a seventeen year old and an adult is to be considered abusive. By re-injecting a definitive meaning into the debate from an outside source, the conversation was given parameters around which the meaning for the church could be discussed. This ultimately led to a healthy conversation about what the church should do with the experience.

The ability to empty the experience of an agreed upon meaning and usurp the pain and anguish it caused has haunted me for many years. Furthermore, there was an underlying theological message that I see hidden in the arguments. Namely, there was an inability or maybe a lack of desire at wanting to judge the situation. Lost in the arguments was the ethic of a right or wrong. This rendered the church impotent to talk about the situation in theological terms such as: sin, redemption, hope and forgiveness. My goal is to add a theological ending to this conversation by discussing what meanings the word sin has for a postmodern theology and world.

I begin this essay with a personal sense that sin has been overloaded with historical meanings which have led us to a point where we have attempted to empty it of its significance and meaning for the current church. In my estimation, contemporary theology has brought about the destruction of sin. Therefore it is my intention to find what, if any, theological meanings can be used in a postmodern ecclesial and theological context. I intend to do this by first looking at a historical figure that often informs the Presbyterian tradition, John Calvin. Calvin’s writings influenced the theological anthropology of the Presbyterian Church with regard to the concepts of original sin, actual sin and total depravity. I will then undertake an examination of the destruction of sin in contemporary theology through the writings of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. These two authors have been best-selling writers in the Christian tradition for a number of years, and their theological influence is far reaching. I will use their most popular writings, The Purpose Driven Life and Your Best Life Now, to examine how they (mis)treat and spin much of the meaning out of sin. Finally, I will to return to Calvin in the hopes of deconstructing his concepts of sin for a postmodern context.

grace and peace...



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