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Depravity

02

My friends generally fall into two categories of thinking when it comes to questions of human nature:

1) People are basically good; 2) People are basically bad.

My Christian friends mostly fall into the latter category. They use a phrase – total depravity – as though it’s a kind of non-negotiable fact of life.

Or, sometimes, they talk about how everything they do is “like filthy rags.” I can’t help but think that filthy rags generally weren’t born that way. They get filthy from making other things clean. Which, I’ve come to learn, isn’t considered a helpful response.

We’re all evil on the inside.

Dark. Desperate. Depraved.

What a way to live.

Once, in a course on philosophy, the professor asked us if we thought human nature was good or evil. I raised my hand. I said it was good. The instructor, a Christian, asked how I reconciled my answer with scripture. I quoted Genesis 1:27. The easiest way to argue with that verse is to lay the blame for evil on the nature of God. Said instructor didn’t take the bait. He smiled. And he called on someone else.

Later, in a Sunday school class, I handed out blank pieces of paper and asked participants to write down one way in which they look like Jesus on the inside. I gave them five minutes of thinking time. To come up with just one thing. Lots of blank sheets of paper. And blank stares. I got an email from one class member. She suggested that Christians aren’t used to “thinking of something positive to say about themselves.”

Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust.

And we’re starving.

Because total depravity isn’t sustainable. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and share from our gifts. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and accept others’ gifts. It’s killing the work and witness of the Church. It’s killing the Church.

It’s killing us.

A friend asked me what happened. “Church used to be fun,” she said. And we didn’t get a chance to finish the conversation, but when we do, I think I know what to say.

Filthy rags can be overwhelmed by shame, paralyzed by questions of how and why and what if I’d only. But filthy rags – used to do what rags are made to do – get good things done. Which is good.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust. And we’re starving.

Myth

02

Back when I taught introductory high school courses in literature, every year started with a lesson in myth. American literature classes read Columbus’s 1493 Letter to King Ferdinand of Spain Describing the First Voyage. World literature classes considered the Yoruba story of The Golden Chain. In freshman classes, we looked at the first two chapters of Genesis.

I taught at a Christian school. And by their junior year, most students had been through this unit two or three times. They knew in a general way where I was headed. But in my other classes, things didn’t go so well.

I persisted.

In the first weeks of school, students still have good intentions, so for the most part they listen with intent. As I ran through the initial outline, smiles would inevitably spread as it became clear that I was probably going to hell. (There’s nothing like a teaching train wreck to lighten the day of your average high school student, and every kid knows a certifiably crazy teacher will ruin the year for some and provide limitless conversational fodder for the rest.) But by the end of the first few minutes, those smiles would be fading. Fast.

That’s when I could count on some volume.

Interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. Students shouting. Students covering their ears. There were always tears.

I persisted.

Myth, I proposed, is any story of origin. If it’s a story – and if it tells of a beginning – it’s a myth. Myths answer questions of identity, purpose and morality. Myths are how a culture – all cultures – encode the answers to life’s most important questions for the shaping of future generations. A culture’s best literature, then, is always built on myth.

Other literature may be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

But good literature – the stuff that lasts, the stuff that gets passed from generation to generation, the stuff that we’re expected to have read and to know – it all contains myth or is built on myth or is myth. Together, that body of literature contributes to a culture’s mythos, its best answers to life’s big questions.

Romeo & Juliet is built on myth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenges myth. The Bible contains myth. It also comments on myth, questions myth, compares myths, challenges some competing myths and provides space for the acceptance of others. Genesis 1 and 2, for instance, are separate myths, and in some important ways, they disagree. Theologians would probably argue that they’re not so much in competition as they are in conversation. Which seems – considering that the two accounts have been placed side by side at the start of the Bible, not to mention the fact that they both lay a foundation for the same culture – a pretty strong point.

I recognize that for some readers, this conversation might be covering new ground. Or creating a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Yet I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

It’s a culture that thinks Genesis is an incomplete history. It’s a culture that thinks Exodus is an unfinished travelogue. It’s a culture that thinks Leviticus is an obsolete legal code. It’s a culture that thinks Numbers is a sloppy census. It’s a culture that thinks Deuteronomy is an abbreviated repetition of all those other Bible bits. It’s a culture that reads all the gospels as a conflated Jesus story – one with wise men and shepherds; Anna, Simeon, and the Egyptians; 8-day-old Jesus, 12-year-old Jesus, a metaphysical Word-and-Light show, and the real Jesus.

It’s a culture that fervently wants for the Bible to be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

And this, too, is my culture. I was raised in it. I live and work in it. More times than I can count, I’ve felt suffocated in it. Frustrated by it. Angry with it.

But I persist.

And I find that my people mostly know that the Bible – if it’s going to mean anything at all – must be something more than a commercial. It must be something more than a primer. It must be something more than a medium of truth exchange. It must be more than a collection of basic instructions before leaving earth.

And I find that my people – especially those that are spiritual but not religious – need the kind of mythos the Bible already offers.

And I find my people wondering whether the myths in other cultures might teach us something about our own.

In the meantime, I expect the volume to rise. I expect shouted interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. And tears.

In my life as a teacher, discomfort almost always led to growth.

So I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

Questions

02

Questions can be destructive. The nature of a question, for instance, is to dig up the ground where we’re standing. It gets mud on my shoes. Forces me to move. And more often than not, those questions reveal thinly-covered canyons. Let the questions get too deep, then, and before we know it, we’re falling.

But sometimes the question moves just enough earth and mud to help us see heretofore hidden springs of fresh water. We drink. We’re renewed. The spring bubbles up and softens the ground. The rain comes down, and before we know it, we’re dancing.

In one case we die. In another we live. In both cases, there’s plenty of digging involved. It’s dirty work, but we need water to live. So we dig.

Over the years, we’ve developed a collection of strategies for the work. Best practices, if you will.

There are those who only pretend to dig. They work over ground that’s been dug before and never dig too deep. Turn over rocks on the surface. Slide their shovels through loose dirt. Stir up dust clouds.

Some are lazy.

Some have lost sight of why the work matters.

Some have lived so long in drought that they’ve forgotten what it feels like to find water. They are already almost dead.

Many are afraid: afraid of what they might find, afraid they might die, their thoughts filled with dark holes and sharp stones.

There are those who don’t dig at all. Maybe they’ve learned that their questions aren’t welcome. Maybe they’re simply standing around, waiting for someone to hand them shovels. Maybe they just don’t know how.

Some are cynical.

Some have been hurt so badly that they just can’t dig.

Some have had their shovels stolen. They are silent. Silenced. They have no voice.

Many have yet to glimpse the source of the water they drink. They have always been provided for, and if the water runs out, they will die without knowing what it is to seek and to find. Which means, as you may have already surmised – no surprise – they don’t dance.

There are those who dig.

Some dig only the ground on which others are standing. Their questions attack. They love finding canyons. For them, digging becomes a kind of addiction, an activity they must own and control; shovels belong to them and them alone. Only they may dig. Some find water, but most self-destruct. They fall into the canyons of their own making. And they take many with them.

Some dig without discernment. They have not learned to see the signs of water. But their enthusiasm can be contagious. And given the freedom to dig, most will find both springs and canyons. They will have many close calls. Occasionally, there is an accident and people are hurt. If gifted with the freedom to dig, however, they will learn; and they will find more water than rock. They will teach us to dance.

I’ve learned, then, that there are two ways to know the people in my community. One is by the fruit of their labor. Those who dig at people rather than dirt – they must be avoided. Those who find water and share, however – those are the people whose questions I can trust, whose digging I can support, even when it feels dangerous, even if I am afraid.

What about fear? Unfortunately, those who are afraid fear both canyons and springs. When I am afraid, I desire safety more than survival. Fear may protect me from canyons, but it leads me into drought. I must be careful of fear (or at least willing to set it aside).

But what if I don’t know? What if there is no record of past work to inform my decision, to help me discern?

There is another way. It is to pay attention to where the shovel goes. If it’s pointed at a person, it cannot unearth anything and should not be trusted. But if it’s pointed at the ground, there may be water.

Many are afraid: afraid of what they might find, afraid they might die, their thoughts filled with dark holes and sharp stones.

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