Speaking of Sin

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin: Between the Language of Sin and the Reality it refers to

As I have briefly mentioned before, one of my central concerns as a theologian is to bridge the gap between the language of doctrine and the contemporary realities experienced by modern persons, in order to communicate to them the language and reality of doctrine more effectively. Since every language comes into existence through the dynamic interplay between it and the realities people experience, no one linguistic expression can possibly contain all the cultural realities of all times.  This is also true of doctrinal languages, for which there will always be some degree of difficulties between the traditional language of doctrine including the realities it points to and the lived existence of contemporaries. Therefore, the restoration of doctrinal language is contingent upon 1) bridging the chasm between the language of doctrine and contemporary realities, and 2) helping people relive such realities once again in their lives. Personally for some unbeknownst reason, I have a sense of heavy burden in this regard. And this is why I am working on a dissertation on the doctrine of justification. Thus, my reading experience of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin has helped me crystalize the problems I am keenly aware of, let alone leading me to open up some new horizons into which my research can develop further. Doubtless within a little more than 100 pages this book attempts to pack up so many important issues that it inadvertently leaves out some other necessary issues to discuss in making her case for the restoration of the language of sin more fully.

The book is composed of four parts. In part one, Taylor diagnoses the current status of doctrine (of sin), how sin has come to be where it is now. In part two, Taylor contends why restoring the language of sin is absolutely necessary for understanding God’s salvation in Christ. In part three, she revisits the four steps of repentance, from the confession of sins to pardon to penance to restoration. In conclusion, Taylor briefly deals with the need to restore the language of righteousness. In part one, Taylor’s diagnosis of the current status of the doctrine of sin is the same as mine. That is, most churches no longer grasp the realities the language of sin points to, as a result of which they also lost the language of sin. In most cases, sin has reduced to rule-breaking, no longer encompassing the deeper dimensions of human experiences, such as alienation, condemnation, wrecked relationships. In particular, Taylor laments that one of the strong reasons pushing the youth away from the church is that the language of doctrine has been rendered unable to express the realities they experience. For example, she mentions a son of one of the congregational ministers, who confessed to her that he found the language of compassion in Tibetan Buddhism reflecting his realities much better than that of the Christian language of love.   In Taylor’s eyes, all these youths are seeking a sort of salvation (a transformed life characterized by peace, meaning and freedom), to which the Christian church is no longer ably expressing and capturing.

So why is that? Taylor lists three phenomena as contributing factors for such impasse between the language of sin and contemporary realities. They are: pluralism, postmodernism, and secularism. What impressed me most was that Taylor had a working definition simple and clear enough to explain her point in each case. On the other hand, I suspect whether these three phenomena really explain why the language of sin disappeared. At any rate, Taylor defines pluralism as spiritual globalization. Namely, as people get exposed to a variety of religious traditions and their languages, they are apt to abandon Christianity in case they feel that Christian language no longer appeals to their lived experiences. Taylor understands postmodernism to be leading people away from the old authorities and their institutions, part of which was the language of sin.  This is in spite of the fact that the language of sin refers to the deepest human darkness and any experience of such darkness. Lastly Taylor argues that secularism in its hostility toward religion helped change the language of sin into something more controllable, i.e., the medical and legal languages.

In light of this diagnosis, in part two Taylor analyses more closely the legal and medical languages of sin. The medical language of sin refers to sin as a kind of sickness.  Taylor judges that the mainline Protestant denominations adopted this approach, blinding the agential factor in sinning.  On the contrary, the legal language of sin has been adopted by the conservative circles of Christians, understanding sin to be nothing more than rule-breaking, and simultaneously blinding Christians to the deeper darkness of sin, shown as in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

In conclusion, Taylor sees that both conservative and progressive Christianity failed in their dealings with sin as modernity eclipses and distorts its meaning at least partially, with which I agree. In addition, I would argue that the business language should be added to the medical and legal ones. The business language of sin refers to managing sin, not killing it, through spiritual disciplines and ascetic practices, which is doing nothing to removing the deeper darkness of human existence. For this reason, Taylor argues that unless we restore the language of sin, we will lose the language of salvation. For more and more contemporaries are losing sight of sin, a natural corollary of which is their losing sight of God’s salvation in Christ. This is why, as she puts, sin is our only hope.

Building on these analyses, Taylor attempts to provide an alternative to which people get to experience the reality of sin, thereby restoring the language of sin. That alternative is to experience the communal dimension of repentance through the confession of sins-pardon-penance-restoration. Taylor tries to retrieve the traditional treasure of confessing our sins communally to one another, experiencing God’s forgiveness in community, and going through penance in order to restore the broken relationships through our sinning. However, what Taylor should have brought up prior to this was how the life and ministry of Jesus Christ addresses such deeper reality of sin and provides the way to salvation from it. Unfortunately, Taylor leaves out this important part. In addition, the four steps which Taylor suggests as an alternative is still from the past, which might cast doubt on its validity and adaptability to the lived experiences of contemporary persons in the 21st century. In other words, there is no way of knowing whether Taylor’s alternative is based on the contemporary reality or not, in which case might be considered as a romantic longing for the past and nothing else. Furthermore, while Taylor does mention the guilt of sin, she never mentions the shame deriving from the experience of sin. This is perhaps on account of the fact that Taylor does theology in the Western tradition, or of her collapsing shame into guilt altogether (which I guess is why.). Even so, the experiences of shame are vitally important for human existence as sinners both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The book of Hebrews even say that Christ disregarded the shame of sin (Heb 12:2). In this regard, my review of Curt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame will help me develop my thinking on sin further. Thompson brings in his specialty as psychiatrist to explain more fully how the experiences of guilt are different from those of shame, both of which are coming together to constitute the experiences of sin.

In conclusion, Taylor’s book shows effectively the heavy and grave realities of sin, while lacking in providing an alternative to the potentially lost language of sin. Nonetheless, this book makes an effective case for the need to link between the language of sin and the realities it points to, in which regard I highly recommend to anyone interested in understanding sin more deeply.

Speaking of Sin