Tuesday, 06 October 2009
I agree with that. But in practice it's a little more difficult. See, what we don't want to think about is that what has been thought of as sin does change. I'm not talking about some little cult group on the fringes. I'm talking about large swaths of the church being absolutely sure that something is a sin for a long period of time -- but now those same things seem silly. Something to think about next time you are so sure that you've got a direct line to God and everyone else is wrong.
1. Christmas. That's right all you spiritual descendants of Puritanism, those who idealize Oliver Cromwell and his ilk (for the rest of you, there are more of those people around than you might believe). Throughout the 1640s, a group of clergy and politicians ostensibly known as "the Godly" began gaining power in the British government. This group felt it was their responsibility to bring British law in line with their own Religious beliefs. Part of that was abolishing all feasts any holy days except for the sabbath (which was Sunday to them). So in June of 1647 the parliament succeeded in canceling Christmas. For thirteen years the celebration of Christmas was a crime, not based on an atheist's communist regime but based on the idea that celebrating it was a sin. In fact, celebrating it during that time would have been doubly sinful: first, because it was seen as pagan, and second because it was against the law (and of course breaking the law of "The godly" was a sin). So next time your teenager gets all cynical about the holidays, just tell her to think of Christmas carols as an act of rebellion.
2. Acting. Anyone who has ever read the "Anne of Green Gables" series probably remembers the nervousness of the girls when they were afraid of being caught in the woods play-acting. Throughout much of Christian history, acting has been thought of as sinful because you stand up on a stage and basically lie about who you are. The most famous "victim" of this sin was the French playwright and actor known as "Moliere" (real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), who suffered a hemorrhage in the middle of a performance in 1673. Before dying, he was refused the opportunity for last confession because he was an actor and all actors had been excommunicated all the way back in the fifth century AD (at the Second Synod of Arles, for those keeping score). So for over a thousand years, being actor was enough to keep you out of heaven. Somebody better tell Kirk Cameron.
3. Interracial Marriage. This one didn't change all that long ago (maybe 20 years in some parts of the country), but that makes a very interesting point: it's strange how fast a theological construct can go from being widely accepted to being absolutely laughable. Laws against interracial marriage (on a primarily "moral" basis) date back to at least the 15th century in Spain, and existed on the books in many nations, including many parts of the U.S., until the 1960s. GooddbyeSickan has an excellent blog entry on some of the arguments that were used to justify this using the Bible.
4. Being Left-Handed. You're thinking this one is a joke, right? Nope. You know where the word "sinister" comes from? The latin for "left." The Bible is actually full of demeaning things to say about the Left Hand. Ecclesiastes 10:2 ("A wise man's heart is at his right hand, but a fool's heart at his left") is probably my favorite. Up until about 50 years ago, people who were left-handed were considered weak or unnatural, and there was a big effort in schools to teach left-handed children to become right-handed. I guess if this were still the case today we'd probably have Ex-Left ministries and big debates over whether being left-handed was acceptable as long as you promised to live your entire life with your hands in your pockets.
5.. Masturbation. Yup. Onanism. The solo tango. Now, this is actually something that still gets argued about. Prominent voices like James Dobson (who is not exactly licentious) have come down on the side of it not being a sin. I'm not sure that Dobson realizes what a big shock that would have been to most Christians throughout all of history. Not only does it have a long history of being a sin, I think you might be surprised by what verses were used to prove is immorality.
Lets open our Bibles to I Corinthians 6:9. There's a word in the original Greek (malakos) that literally means "soft." It has been translated a ton of different ways, suggesting such meanings as effeminate, lack of self-control, or (more recently) homosexuals. Lets be clear though: historically, that is not what the word has usually been thought to mean. The next phrase does include a term that could arguably be translated homosexual (arsenokoites), but malakos has historically been thought of as referring to self-abuse (as in masturbation). For the first 1900 years of Church history, theologians and clergy, especially the ones most familiar with Greek, had a pretty unanimous consensus that masturbation was what malakos referred to. As late as the 1888, John Kellogg (yes, the inventor of Corn Flakes) was selling books based around the argument that masturbation was a sin best prevented by circumcision in boys and by pouring acid the clitorises of women. Kellogg was a physician and a very popular lecturer in his day, giving advice on everything from nutrition to sexual purity. He was, in a way, the James Dobson of his day.
It really wasn't until the sexual revolution of the twentieth century that theologians started changing their tune, possibly based around the fact that they finally realized masturbation is a practically universal trait. Translations soon followed suit, and almost all modern translations skip over malakos or blend it with arsenokoites to nudge the verse toward an anti-homosexual stand and away from the traditional anti-masturbatory perspective.
Five sites I referenced in writing this post: http://www.olivercromwell.org/faqs4.htm, http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc35.html, http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-free/10/graham.htm, http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/19924, http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474977234688
Does this make you less sure of your own beliefs? And if we can decide some things aren't sins after all, does that mean maybe there a sins we haven't realized yet? Can a person be forgiven of a sin if they don't know it's a sin?