Monthly Archives: August 2013

Fun with Calvinism: Total Depravity

I recently preached a five-week sermon series on what I figured was a generally safe subject for Christian consideration:  sin.  Most specifically, sinful temptations that are, in many ways, life- and faith-limiting.  Things like pride and avoiding risk and applying Meyer-Briggs analyses to Biblical characters.  Okay, so, that last one only applies to me, but in my defense, I didn’t realize the full gravity of the temptation until I mentioned the idea to a couple of retired pastors and one of them laughed so hard, he spewed beer out his nose.

Two things occurred to me that evening.  First, there are some topics that no one, not even a seasoned second-year seminarian with 18 whole sermons under her belt, should tackle from the pulpit.  (Judas Iscariot’s Meyer-Briggs type being at the top of that particular list.[i])  Second, I seriously need to bone up on my party-line theology.

So, as a service to my readers and in an effort to avoid more tragicomic self-humiliation, Marian will begin periodically posting robust theological reflections on some of the most compelling points of Calvinism.  All are welcome to bring your most pressing theological concerns to Marian by replying to this post.  Rest assured, Marian will address your questions before the End Times (unto itself, a theological topic deserving attention.)

To kick off this sporadic series, then, we shall begin at the beginning.

TOTAL DEPRAVITY

Picture the scene.  Twilight descends like a lover upon a verdant land replete with trees of every type.  The river of life winds through the tall grasses and birds and animals abound…okay, okay, what we’re really looking at here is a benignly neglected suburban lawn with a couple of flaccid Chinese elms and a garden hose that someone forgot to wind up.  But it’s the closest thing to Eden most of us can aspire to, so stick with me.

A couple, who we’ll call Adam and Eve, tends the garden (meaning, they just bought the house and a new lawnmower).  And lo!  Behold their friend from out of town, who we’ll call Sophia, emerging from the house, having just put her toddler, who we’ll call Lilith[ii], to bed.  The three friends gather in the purpling nightfall, feeling the brush of soft cool wind on their faces, savoring a quiet moment of mutual affection before retiring to the house to watch “Reservoir Dogs” on Comcast On-Demand.

And that’s when the snake enters the garden.

Eternal temptation of the reptilian brain stem...

Eternal temptation of the reptilian brain stem…

Having been informed of Mommy’s intention to spend the evening with her grown-up friends, a plan predicated on Lilith’s going to sleep now, Lilith goes berserk.  She screams bloody murder that makes Quentin Tarantino look like Nora Ephron.  Adam, Eve, and Sophia are helpless in the wake of Lilith’s total body meltdown.  Lilith’s shrieks continue until she’s too hoarse to shriek anymore, whereupon the sobs start.  This goes on for forty-five minutes.  Finally, Lilith collapses in a soggy heap in her bedroom where she basically sleeps it off for the next six hours.

The End…or is it Only the Beginning???

This tragic object lesson illustrates where Calvin’s idea of total depravity must have come from. Children come into this world with a hyena-like mentality, although, based on what I’ve witnessed in the cereal aisle, that analogy is rather unfair to hyenas.  Face it.  The reason kids raised by wolves do so well[iii] is because, like wolves, if given the chance, kids would prefer to run around naked, pee on everything, and eat raw voles.  THAT, my friends, is how we know total depravity is rooted in the human condition.  It comes into the world full-formed and expresses itself in tantrums, stealing cookies, not sharing toys, and diaper-escape artistry.

Now, my theory actually has nothing to do with whether or not, spiritually speaking, human beings come into the world stained by the original sin of Adam and Eve (the Genesis ones, not the ones in today’s story).  Rather, I think the reason Calvin came up with the idea of total depravity is because it’s just so frickin’ obvious when you watch little kids.  They’re savages, for crap’s sake.  And the fact that kids are like this only reinforces the old idea that the sin of Adam and Eve must have had something to do with sex:

So, although I realize I’ve shed far less light on whether or not Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity is correct than on the obvious fact that I have no children of my own (and it’s probably best that I don’t), now you know why the idea actually makes a lot of practical sense.  It’s a social coping mechanism.  So parents don’t feel so alone in the cereal aisle.


[i]  Although I’m sure you’re just dying to know what type he is.

[ii]  One of religious history’s more complicated characters.  Check her out here.

[iii]  Plenty of kids with wild animals for parents have turned out just fine.  For example: Mowgli, Romulus and Remus, and Moon Unit Zappa.

__________________

© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


Message in a Bottle, Part Deux

The most inquisitive creature in Africa is the baboon.

[A baboon swipes the Coke bottle from Xi, is subsequently chased, and climbs a tree.]

Xi said, “That is a very evil thing you’ve got.  You better give it back so I can take it and throw it off the earth.  It brought unhappiness to my family. If you don’t give it to me it’ll bring grief to you and your family too.”  He spoke long and earnestly until the baboon began to pay attention.  He must have convinced it, and it dropped the thing.  And Xi said, “You have done a very wise thing.”   – The Gods Must Be Crazy

Gods must be crazy

In my June 22 post, I suggested that our tendency to read miracle stories as events, rather than messages, gets us into some sticky theological territory.  Using the Elijah story as a springboard, I suggest that we look for the messages within miracles.

One of the great temptations in reading miracle stories is triggered by lines like this one:  “Elijah prayed and God listened to the voice of Elijah.”  And then God proceeds to bring the child back from the dead.  Right on cue.  Because we’re reading a story of faith here, not a live broadcast on CNN.

We, as readers, should be cautious about assuming that Elijah said some magic words and God responded.  The message of this story is not “presto, change-o, and God raises the dead.  How DOES he do it?”  The messaage is that God is near.

Here’s another message.  Nobody falls outside God’s attention.  Case in point:  Widows had it bad at the time and place in which these stories were written.  Women’s livelihoods depended upon the men in their families.  If their husbands died, their only hope for survival was their sons.  Women back then couldn’t even inherit the property owned by their husbands and sons.  That went to the closest male relative and if he didn’t see fit to support the widow, too bad.  These women were as vulnerable as anyone could possibly be back then.

And yet, we have this account[i] of the greatest of all Hebrew prophets interceding on behalf of people who the rest of society couldn’t care less about.  Through Elijah, God’s grace is freely and fully extended to the most vulnerable people in that world.

Then there is God’s presence, revealed in the compassion the Elijah clearly feels for this family.  Elijah’s is very recognizable human compassion.  The phrase “he stretched himself over the child three times” seems rather creepy at first reading.  But when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I saw more than one person sitting beside a hospital bed, their arms overlying their sick loved one, burying their face in the bedspread and praying just like Elijah prayed.

I have no doubt there are other ways to read Biblical miracle stories like this one; there are many notes inside these bottles.  But I suspect the take-home messages will reveal some consistent themes:

  • Nobody falls outside God’s attention – not widows, not orphans, not immigrants, not non-Christians, not homeless people, not criminals, not people with mental illnesses or with disabilities, not poor people, not old people, not young people, not addicts, not red, yellow, black or white people.  Nobody, nobody lives beyond God’s view.
  • Nobody lives beyond God’s compassion – God is near enough to hear our most fervent prayers, even those too deep for words, even the valley of the shadow of death.

These messages are true heart of these stories.  When our own miracles don’t materialize, these truths still apply.  They are the touchstones of our faith, they are what’s real about our relationship with God.  The miracles are just a container.  The truth is in the message.

Readers, I suspect many if not most of us are praying for miracles right now.  Let’s not get hung up on the bottle – let us not get too hung up on the results we’re hoping for.  Let us contemplate the messages, in our sacred texts and in the events of our lives.   As we pray the desires of our hearts, let us remember that God loves us more than we can believe or even imagine.  That, my friends, is truly a miracle.


[i] See also this story’s New Testament counterpart where Jesus raises a widow’s son in very similar circumstances.  The author of the book of Luke was profoundly concerned with issues of social justice.  It’s likely that he drew upon the Elijah story for inspiration in his retelling of Jesus’ life.

_______________________________

© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


Anti-Gay Bigots Unite!

Faithful readers, I’ve enjoyed a wonderful summer of fill-in preaching at several churches while their real pastors have vacationed in places like Cody, Wyoming…which is apparently where Presbyterians go to party like the totally depraved Calvinists we are.  My rounds haven’t left much time for online missives, but I haven’t forgotten you all.  There’s a Part Deux in the works to follow the last post, but in the meantime and in the spirit of vintage Marian, I thought I’d share a recent, glorious screed-within-a-screed by one of my new favorite authors and Christian commentators, Frank Schaeffer:

Anti-Gay Bigots Unite!

In Christ’s peace…or, lacking that, in cutting the crap and saying my piece,

Marian


%d bloggers like this: