Friday 3 February 2012

Warped, Twisted and Broken Art Thou

"...the Bible sees humans as sinful, warped and twisted. Nice middle-class liberal moderns may not like it, but we are all broken and in need of repair."

I like a lot of what the blogger who wrote that statement says.  He strikes me as an honest and reflective theologian, not afraid to tack into the wind from time to time.  There's a good deal that I find jarring too; but that's not to knock him personally.  He faithfully adheres to - admittedly with a degree of nuance and sophistication well beyond the capacities of a poor, common clod like myself - the traditional dogmas.

One of these traditional dogmas is the belief that humanity is flawed, twisted, wrecked, derailed, "broken and in need of repair."

Looking carefully at the language used in the introductory quote, this scholar - in common with most conservative Christians - understands the consequences of this tragic situation in an individualistic sense: "we are all [you, me, our neighbours, kids and role models alike] broken..."

If that's true, who dropped us, smashed us, caused us to be broken and in need of repair.  How did it happen?  Who or what was (and is) responsible? 

Being a 'fact fundamentalist', or so I've been told, I'm no longer happy to accept a mythological story as sufficient cause.  I do understand the role of aetiology in providing an insightful metaphor, and that's okay as far as it goes.  But if we're going to slag off our entire species as corrupted, warped and twisted, I want much more than an ancient campfire tale togged out as "a privileged text."  It's not that I want to purge the world of Genesis, or (God forbid!) the Epic of Gilgamesh, but at the end of the day, as profound as these tales might be, they are incapable of providing any kind of normative foundation for a sensible worldview.

If we are broken, as the writer asserts, then it's logical that there was a time before we were broken.  Brokenness follows an unbroken state.  So when was that?  In an age of animal innocence perhaps?  I'm not sure anyone even faintly familiar with non-human 'creatureliness' would agree with that.

But then, maybe Paul hit the nail on the head when he talked about the whole creation - including dogs, pigs, scorpions and sharks - being caught up in this whole warping and twisting.

But that hardly settles matters.  In fact it complicates things further.  The whole framework is just bizarre.

Can we escape by pleading poetry?
"Faithfulness too can be truth. In fiction when a character acts in ways which ring true to their nature (as built up elsewhere in the story or the corpus) and to the relevant aspects of the world as we know it (remembering that willing suspension of disbelief plays a role in all poetics) we say the story is “true”. Likewise when the other things all good fictions communicate, the attitudes and elements of worldview “fit” with (i.e. are faithful to) what we believe, we say the story is true."
But there's the rub.  If we're talking about the Bible (or certain parts of the Bible), there has to be a good deal of massaging and apologetic shoehorning in order to make things "fit".  Poetry may reflect our deepest understanding of reality, but it can't create it out of whole cloth.  Gilgamesh is powerful poetry, saturated with deep insights, but would you cherry-pick it for a dish of take-home dogma?

Life is as it is.  Species compete.  Individuals within species compete.  Nature is red in tooth and claw.  Was there ever a time when this wasn't true?  Self aware and sentient we may be, but this is our backstory too.  What's sin got to do with it?

Is 'sin' even a useful category in trying to make sense of the human condition?

Evil deeds, along with the predictable temptations to rampant self interest certainly exist, as they also do among troops of chimpanzees.  But let's not forget about altruism, compassion and our unique human willingness to preserve and sustain our planet, even at considerable cost.

Talk of sin just avoids hard thinking, pasting a label on an observed condition and pretending it amounts to an explanation.  This way lies madness, self-loathing, and the vilest forms of Calvinism.

If you want to break, shatter, derail and wreck that warped and twisted paradigm (or even just give it a gentle exploratory poke), Steven Pinker's very readable The Better Angels of Our Nature might be just the thing to whack it with.  It's one of those books that not only pushes the reader up the learning curve at a fairly gentle incline, but arguably makes you smarter with each page turn. 


  1. Yeah, hate thyself for being warped, twisted and broken but love thy neighbor as thyself. Quite a dilemma. If you love yourself, then you're sinful but yet you have to love your enemies? as thyself? That might explain why there are so many wars, you know, people loving their neighbor as themselves...

    Anyone ever hear of "Scheme Your Way to Profit"? Well, that's the only way you're ever going to do it. That includes the religious profiteers who rake in your tithes. What? You don't think someone was scheming when religious crap was invented? Are you kidding me? Yes, they were scheming their way to profit and I might even add "conniving" to the vocabulary.

    Of course you're broken...if they say so and you believe it. Otherwise, the thinking brain of humans is working just the way it should be - if it's allowed to work and not handicapped by mental disease or religion. Not much difference between the two if you ask me.

  2. The descriptive words I prefer are "imperfect", or perhaps "not up to speed". And, not only religion seems to acknowledge this basic fact of humanness, but also psychology and philosophy as well. Moreover, there are any number of disciplines supposedly devoted to correcting this condition.

    Mickey Rourke advanced a rather unique view on this topic. In an interview, he stated (and I'm paraphrasing here) that such things make him a more interesting actor, providing greater range.

    I think the same can be said of the flawed characters in the Bible. It was always amusing to observe that our former leaders picked flattering examples as being parallel to or similar to themselves. Being a bit more honest myself, the only biblical character to whom I bore any similarity was Jepthah. And, frankly, even that's a stretch as I wish my own positive exploits could rise to the level of Jepthah's.


  3. If we are to believe the Bible, it seems inescapable that we were created flawed (and then went downhill from there).

    So the question remains that since that is (or seems to be) the case, should anyone feel guilty for that which is the natural state since (apparently) God created us all prestressed and unable to be perfect?

    Would that not make the Creator a master manipulator to create drama because He likes a good story?

  4. According to the bible, Jephthah committed human sacrifice - of his own daughter. He gets praised for this because he kept his promise to god.

    Bob says "I wish my own positive exploits could rise to the level of Jepthah's".

    'Nuff said.

  5. "If we are to believe the Bible, it seems inescapable that we were created flawed". True enough, but why believe the bible?

    However, in this case, I have to agree that we are flawed. But what in all the universe isn't flawed. Nothing is perfect - not humans, not animals, not plants, not stars nor planets. Not even gods. They all have imperfections. So I have to agree we are imperfect.

    But "warped, twisted and broken"? Really? Isn't that a bit much? Most of us are out here trying to live good lives after all.

  6. Most of us are out here trying to live good lives after all.

    Yeah...but that doesn't count, see, 'cause all of man's righteousness is as "filthy rags" to God.

    What you have to be is a murdering thief and rapist who has been forgiven and accepted JC as your Lord and Savior - then you are as "white as snow".

    Well, to me, THAT'S what is "warped, twisted and broken". Christianity is vile and nasty and guilty of all of the above and much more.

    Admittedly, there are some good people who are Xians but it's not because of being Xians and probably believing the Xian nonsense is the only really bad thing they ever did in their whole lives.

    The Roman historian, Tacitus, said that Xians were despised because of their hatred of mankind - and it's true. The hatred of mankind, that is. After all, mankind isn't good enough, no, you have to be Xian and believe in nonsense to be good enough. Oh, and it has to be the right nonsense too. None of that other mumbo jumbo that only claims to be Xian - you have to be a "real" Xian. Or else.

  7. Corky, you make everything complicated.

    Humility is the price of admission to the Kingdom of God.

  8. Gavin, I can't help wondering how the Nazis managed to recruit concentration camp guards, or the Russian Comunists guards for the gulags or the Burmese their army... if we are all basically nice and kind except a few rotten rapists and murderers!

    PS: I know I am charicaturing your position Gavin, but you did the same ;)

  9. Well Rupert,

    To flip your argument around, if all mankind is basically "warped, twisted and broken", why aren't we ALL Nazi concentration camp guards or Russian Communist gulag guards? Yes, we have seen shocking evil in the recent past, including Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and now Syria. But that doesn't mean every person on earth is rotten to the core. It means evil still exists.

    You have to look at totals and averages. The fact is that 3000 years ago things like slavery, torture and human sacrifice were common and widespread. Today they're not. That's progress.

    What drove this progress? God? Religion? If you look at history honestly, you have to answer "no". Frankly, I don't know the driving factors, but the fact is, mankind is gradually evolving, it fits and starts, into a less cruel, more cooperative species.

  10. larry said...

    Corky, you make everything complicated.

    Hey, it was already complicated before I got here...

    Humility is the price of admission to the Kingdom of God.

    That's what someone says when they want me to bow down to their worldview and not question. Besides, there is a bigger price tag than humility and I'm not looking for a ticket to a Utopia that I know doesn't exist.

    That Utopia will never exist either because the guy who's in charge of it has too many human emotions like love, hate, jealousy, revenge and a need to be adored. It'll never fly.

    A kingdom of God with human emotions has already been tried on this planet. Of course, we call it "the dark ages" these days.

  11. The Princeton Prison Experiment explains the guard vs prisoner thing -- pay attention!