Friday, April 6, 2012

Ancient Sins in a Modern Society

Todd D. Hunter, Our Favorite Sins: The Sins We Commit and How You Can Quit

According to new research, the majority of Americans, and between a third and half of Christians, do nothing when faced with temptation. No spiritual discipline, no accountability measures, just wing it. And that “wing it” often consists of ad hoc solutions, like distracting oneself, which don’t solve the underlying problem, or else giving in and feeding the beast. No wonder we’ve become a fat, procrastinating, media-addicted nation on a historic scale.

Todd Hunter, Anglican priest and recovering vice addict, believes we could do better. But he sees it as no coincidence that our vices have run rampant as pop psychology and cultural messages have devalued the concept of sin. Until we recognize where temptation comes from, and how it transforms from a fleeting thought into a sin, can we redress the problem. And it is a problem, no matter what talk show psychologists say. Sin arises from a deeply disordered spirit.

Hunter examines the misplaced priorities and riotous desires that foster temptation. Not all wants are temptations, he says; only when desire matches offer does temptation arise. In other words, I’m not tempted by Las Vegas indulgences or plush circumstances, as some people are, but I am tempted to stay in bed an extra hour, do today’s work tomorrow, and plug the holes in my soul with food. And you have your own set of temptations.

No less an authority than Thomas Aquinas asserts that things themselves—even vilified things like sex, food, and leisure—have no moral weight of their own. Only our relationship to those things makes them good or bad. It is we, and not something external, that turns the morally inert substance of this earth into lust, gluttony, or sloth. And recovery from our bad relationships marks the beginning of our recovery from temptation.

I am not the first to notice our culture's diminishment of the concept of "sin." Because sin and redemption lack the economic cachet of illness and recovery, pop psychologists like Dr. Phil treat us like colds that need cured. But Todd Hunter asserts we are souls which need aligned to a source that can give us meaning. In this opinion he has the backing of such august sources as John Chrysostom, CS Lewis, Saint Anthony, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Once we know how we reached this position, Hunter examines how we can emerge to a life of freedom and productivity. He contrasts “modern and futile” solutions, which in his telling are mere rationalizations, to the “ancient and fruitful” traditions which have stood the test of time. His solutions come from Christianity (and in a few cases, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, even earlier), yet they speak to the disorder at the heart of our modern struggle.

I especially appreciate two choices Hunter makes in this book. The first is that he doesn’t prettify common sins in euphemism. Many Christian writers seem queasy when they need to talk about sex in particular, as though Christian audiences are made up of Victorian schoolmarms. Hunter not only speaks frankly about sex, but he doesn’t blush to admit his former struggles with porn, as well as food. This honesty makes a remarkable, and refreshing, change.

Second, I appreciate Hunter’s emphasis on silence and solitude as the beginning of spiritual realignment. We cannot put our spirits right if we continue to immerse ourselves in the noisy, crowded environment that fostered our original disordered desires. Many evangelists create multimedia extravaganzas to stir our emotions, but don’t give us a moment’s peace to speak with God. In this, Hunter jibes with what I've said before about the need for Godly silence.

Hunter offers us difficult, unhip options that will cause us discomfort and suffering, at least in the near term. But he admits this early and often. Christians used to embrace suffering and privation as signs of growing sanctification. Hunter urges Christians regain the ideal of self-sacrifice, in the sense of striving to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Anyone offering easy, painless redemption is an advertiser who wants to part you from your money.

In a world of pat solutions and eager justifications, Hunter offers hope that we need not live at the whim of momentary appetites. We needn’t enslave ourselves to somebody else’s vision of happiness and prosperity. Hunter’s time-tested Christian solutions encourage motivated readers to take responsibility for their choices. More important, it reminds us where we can’t take such responsibility, and so turn it over to the only one who can.

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