(Ryan Mayo, Programming Director at the Oread Center, is responsible for the opinions in this essay)
GK Chesterton once described the novel Robinson Crusoe as a wild romance of prudence and limits. In the book, Crusoe has been shipwrecked and left adrift before finally reaching an isolated island. Curiously, Chesterton concludes that the most significant passage in Defoe’s entire story is a list.
This list is an inventory of all of the items Crusoe managed to retrieve from the sinking ship, and Chesterton declares it to be “the greatest of poems.” His gladdest thoughts were of an axe, book, compass, coat, and rope – with the realization that they could have been destroyed in the wreck but weren’t. Unfortunately, his most troubling thoughts were of the wonderful items that had been ruined or lost. Several times Crusoe weeps at losing pictures, matches, blankets, and other objects of utility or sentimentality.
So Crusoe endures until rescue, simultaneously giddy with his found inventory and sober-minded about his lost items. For Christians, Crusoe’s state is ours also. We are tasked with making sense of the loss, forging ahead with what survives, and considering the rescue. For Crusoe, the rescue was a future hope rooted only in his wishes. For us, the rescue has already been initiated, and yet much of its effects are still anticipated and not felt.
***Note: As a member of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, the Oread Center believes an important part of our work includes offering a Christian response to pressing matters that affect us all. The purpose of this particular response is not to address all of the complexities of racism present in American society or institutions of higher education, especially those complexities associated with the structural or systemic realities of racism. While we believe that structural and systemic racism is present in American society, and that racism must be addressed on those levels, the purpose of this statement is to offer what we believe is a Biblically faithful way to think about race and racism on the level of interpersonal relationships and immediate agency. We offer this statement to the particular Christian community in Lawrence and at the University of Kansas in the hope that it provides some immediate handles for how we can respond to the situation at hand in our own community. We ask for patience from our readers as we work in the coming days to articulate a thicker response to the structural and systemic dimensions of race in American society and appropriate Christian responses.***
***As many have observed from our title, we are leaning on Cornelius Plantinga’s work on sin for our framework.***
Many of us in Lawrence are aware that our region was politically established on the moral impetus of preventing the spread of slavery in American society. That John Brown, the 19th-century freedom-fighter, remains an iconic figure in our local memory is no historical accident. The University of Kansas is proud of the fact that the school practiced racially open admissions from the first day its doors were opened. Frequently forgotten, or never learned at all, is the more complicated history of both Lawrence and the University of Kansas- a history that in many ways is a microcosm of America’s larger racial history. While Lawrence was the seat of the Free State movement, and the University of Kansas always welcomed students of African descent to enroll, segregation within the city and the university was historically prevalent. Both Lawrence and the University of Kansas did not completely desegregate until the late 1950s and only as a result of years of dedicated work from local Civil Rights activists, which included many university students.
We often read newspaper accounts of firefighters rescuing nearly-dead victims or policemen employing brave tactics to deter violence. When reporters ask how these heroes were able to perform under such dangerous conditions, the response is frequently that “our training kicked in.” Repetition, discipline, and purposeful routines in the past are able to produce clear thinking and swift action in the moment.
The firefighter, for instance, endures extensive training to become a firefighter and to remain one. The rhythms of his life are centered on his need to be ready. He studies the city for the best routes to potential blazes. The drills at his station keep his mind sharp and his muscles poised. He is a firefighter, and all his activities are aimed toward this identity.
We would be right in saying that our firefighter is a liturgical animal. His liturgies reinforce his readiness to put out fires. Often he faces distractions and social pressure from friends and strangers to relax his routines and to pause his habits. Why must he always carry his radio to concerts? Why must he often sleep at the fire house, next to the pole? Why must he work weekends? Why must he watch his diet? We can call these counter-liturgies, for they seek to deform and devalue his identity. But our firefighter is vigilant; he must not only hold fast to his commitment to the formative rhythms that constitute a firefighter, he must also resist the deformative pressures that call him away from his role.
I have divided a longer post into two shorter parts for clarity. In part one, I hoped to show that the language of brokenness is imprecise and that Millennials are increasing the uncritical use of this term. In part two, I hope to show the dangers inherent in substituting brokenness language for the concept of sin and sinfulness. Finally, I’ll offer some guesses on why these shifts have occurred.
As we’ve seen, the concept of brokenness itself is imprecise. But it becomes even more problematic when we uncritically substitute it for the historic language of sin, for at least three reasons. First, it ignores the breadth of the historic understanding of sin. Sin and sinfulness are broad and thick concepts in Scripture, as evidenced by all the different experiential and philosophical descriptions for it. Consider some of the other Biblical metaphors for sin:
- A hard heart or a stiff neck
- Missing the mark
- A beast crouching at the door (Genesis 4)
Those who adhere to the Westminster Confession recognize sin as any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes sin as “disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony”.1 Notice that each statement addresses sin both as human moral agency and human circumstances. We are simultaneously culprit and victim. The real concern in this conversation is that brokenness is reductionist. It primarily identifies the human problem in the area of circumstance and then communicates it using the language of victimhood. If I see myself mainly as broken, I am tempted to allow that characteristic to explain more of my life than it should.
I have divided a longer post into two shorter parts for clarity. In part one, I hope to show that the language of brokenness is imprecise and that Millennials are increasing the uncritical use of this term. In part two, I hope to show the dangers inherent in substituting brokenness language for the concept of sin and sinfulness. Finally, I’ll offer some guesses on why these shifts have occurred.
The flexibility of words from generation to generation makes a fascinating study in American history. We are all familiar with words whose meanings have dramatically shifted, such as:
The changing of words typically doesn’t reorder or reshape fundamental beliefs or practices in our lives. The academy may publish interesting papers when it happens, but most of us simply shrug and move on with the new meanings. However, certain theological language commands our attention when it begins to take on new contexts, new connotations, and new meaning, since these words represent realities about ourselves and about God. Significant generational shifts in language present a danger to Christians because they hinder the ability for the old and mature to inform the young.1 Familiar words that are filled with new content lure different generations into a false sense of communication. The Greek myth-makers at least allowed Sisyphus to roll the same boulder up the same hill. Readers of theology that are trying to make sense of the ancient, the recent, and the new are confronting the same boulders, but always on a new hill, in a new direction, and rolling for a new purpose.