Shifting Christian Narratives: Evil and the Good News
The I-Am-Not-Worthy and Only-by-the-Grace-of-God Schools
Although my father was Lutheran, I grew up as a Roman Catholic. My mother was Catholic and she insisted that my sister and I go to the local Catholic elementary school.
My sister went on to attend a Catholic High School. As a teenager, I went into the Franciscan seminary but left after my sophomore year, finishing my last two high school years at a Catholic high school and then going on to a Catholic university where I had every intention of becoming a Trappist monk after I graduated.
I lived through my Roman Catholic heritage but found myself moving towards a liberal and progressive Protestantism, until I eventually made the leap into a local Unitarian Universalist church as a non-theist.
My Roman Catholic heritage made me very aware of how strong the “I-am-not-worthy” and “only-by-the-grace-of-God” schools of theology dominated so much of Catholic teaching during the fifties.
According to the theology I was taught, we are all born with Original Sin. In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God who forbade them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. That was the sin we all supposedly inherit at our births. It is only through baptism that that sin is washed away. (From my brief conversations with some Catholic friends, Original Sin does not seem to have the draw it once had.)
The bad news is that humans (again, according to the traditional Christian narrative) still inherit all the collateral effects of that sin, including death, a natural inclination to play out all the “seven deadly sins,” and an instinctive leaning towards everything that is not good for us.
Concomitant with that I-am-a-sinner-from-birth philosophy is the strong emphasis on what I call “salvation theology.” Within this theological model, sinners need a redeemer, a divinity who can, literally, “save” them from either Hell or the fatalistic desire to keep sinning. (In the traditional Christian story, Christ is portrayed as that redeemer/savior)
Grace, Salvation, and Redemption
Here’s where the other human construct comes in—grace. And grace appears to come in many forms. Basically, however, it is supposed to be a “gift” from God to the unworthy, a gift that has all kinds of powerful effects: strength; will power to overcome temptation; compassion; forgiveness; steadiness—among others. But it is always God-given (And quite arbitrarily, it often seems)
The rituals of redemption and salvation within many Christian churches are varied and complex, especially to any outside observer.
Within the Roman Catholic church and other high-church sects (those with lots of icons and “smells and bells” rituals), baptism, confirmation, and communion, seem to be the rituals that, theoretically, have the power to “transform” the sinner into some state of grace, at least temporarily. That state-of-grace, supposedly, makes people more compassionate and loving Christians.
For other Christian churches, and the range is quite wide here, salvation and redemption rituals are quite varied: healing ceremonies through the placing of hands on participants by someone who has received the “calling”; individual epiphanies; word-of-God preaching rituals where an anointed minister or motivational speaker, through a sermon, an exegesis of a biblical text, or prayer, has the “power,” at the very least, to transmit the “strength” to change through the “word.”
Suffice it to say that “grace” is the theological mainstay of all these Christian churches. It is the connecting force, as Christians believe, between humans and their sky-god, or Christians and their God of the Old and New Testaments (God the Father and Christ, his son, according to the Christian narrative).
Depending on the particular Christian church you belong to, that “grace” to believe, to be transformed, to do good, can only be given by God through an intermediary (a minister, a priest, or an “anointed” clergy) or through a direct, unmediated experience of God leading towards an epiphany or a radical transformation.
Underlying the concept of grace, however, is the notion that humans, on their own, cannot, or are not inclined by their nature, to do good. Only God, as the story goes, can intervene, directly or through an intermediary (clergy or an anointed surrogate), into their lives. And that intervention, at least ideally, gives Christians the grace to be, and to do good; without that intervention, as the narrative goes, we cannot morally, or ethically, survive on our own.
The Depravity-of-Man versus The “Good-News” Narratives
Although many, if not most Christian churches believe that their God is the only one who can change peoples’ behaviors, I have noticed, both as an insider and outsider, a kind of tectonic shift in those Churches’ notions of human nature. “We are all sinners” is certainly a common motif in a wide variety of Christian churches. But there seems to be a radical shift away from what I call the “depravity-of-man” school within those churches.
Over the many years that I have studied Christianity, both as an insider and outsider, I have come to realize that many mainline Christian churches do not seem to emphasize the old Calvinist and Jonathan-Edwards notion that we are all sinners hanging precipitously over the pit of hell by a thin thread. This humans-are-innately-evil school was very popular during the nineteenth century among many tent-gathering, home-brewed evangelicals and itinerant preachers wandering around the US telling congregations how evil they were and “to repent.”
What I’m beginning to notice, particularly within the more evangelical sides of Christianity, however, is that the devil-driven inner-depravity school has lightened up over the years. It is now being replaced by what I call the “Good News” theology of hope, optimism, healing, compassion, reconciliation, and moral-strength schools.
In some ways, sin, among the general Christian populace, is seen more as a daily nuisance rather than a constant demon-driven predator. Whenever “evil” arrives in the media vocabulary, it is usually made as a reference to exceptionally cruel and inhumane behavior among a few rotten apples. In general, the contemporary Christian notion of evil is not viewed as a common cause for all human imperfections but as depraved behavior among a select few who choose to follow their own downward-spiral paths to destruction.
The rest of us, as the Good-News theological model would suggest, are inside the struggle against temptation but will eventually win out with our firm faiths; our adherence to the ancient Christian notion of “The Word” (the Bible); or our surrender to those walking the paths of the “anointed.”
The Rites of the Anointed
Who among Christians actually becomes one of the anointed gets very tricky. Some of the more mainline Christian churches require arduous schooling in Christian theology curricula ending in a divinity degree. Some clergy go through an ordination process. Others are vetted and chosen by their local congregations. Some clergy are chosen by a church hierarchy. Some Christian churches seem to vet their clergy and motivational-speakers by judging their on-the-job skills in the pulpit, their knowledge of scriptures, their healing skills, their ability to move a congregation, and their ability to “read” their own in-house prayers in the choosing process.
And the tv Christian-motivational speaker circuit seems to be driven by a vetting process involving both healing/motivational powers and a strong knowledge of the Bible (Quite frankly, I have never heard a Christian motivational speaker talk about their educational backgrounds or the importance of having a well-rounded education or even a reservoir of personal experience in the world.)
So, Christianity, over the centuries, has moved from a highly Calvinistic notion that we are all Sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God to a more redemptive model of salvation through grace and the power of the anointed as intermediaries ( I use the word “anointed” both in its literal and metaphorical sense to suggest a clerical vocation or a calling).
Perhaps it’s the gradual secularization of Western society that has toned down the darker, devil-driven battle and salvation/redemption narratives of old-time Christianity. Or it may be our individual experiences that tell us that humans are basically good but sometimes wander into self-destructive behaviors, behaviors that often have collateral damage to those around them.
In any event, humans are still with us. Bad things happen. And human behavior will never cease to surprise us.