Quotation of the month

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

There is a book review in the (yeah) New York Times today that caught my attention for a number of reasons, but I was not prepared for a quotation that knocked my eyeglasses off. The name of the book, a memoir, is Oblivion, and the author, Héctor Abad, is a well-known writer in his native Colombia. The review is favorable, so much so that I might get this book. What leapt out at me, though, was this, introduced by the reviewer’s observation that it is his “favorite sentence thus far in 2012”:

“I have never felt like a good person, but I think that, thanks to my father’s influence, I have sometimes managed to be a non-practicing bad person.”

I don’t know what that’s like in the original Spanish, but in English it’s a precise description of unredeemed human nature, and a good reason for the church’s practice of the confession of sin every day. Mr. Abad is under no illusions about “good people” and “bad people.” He does not go along with the much-misused thought of Anne Frank to the effect that people are essentially good at heart (and by the way, my files are full of critiques of the widespread sentimental fixation on that one sentence of Anne’s).

Joel Marcus, now Professor of New Testament at Duke, taught me a long time ago about the rabbinical teaching concerning the “good inclination” and the “evil inclination.” The idea was that the evil inclination can be fought off by repentance, prayer, good works, and so forth. Christianity, in the track that derives most closely from St. Paul, Augustine, and the Reformation shows us, in effect, that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Mr. Abad seems to be saying that he was blessed in this way by the undeserved gift of his father’s influence.  How often we read of murderers and child molesters who had terrible fathers!

As I get closer to my “sunset years,” I give much thought to what I want to leave behind as a theological and biblical legacy, such as it might be. Close to the center is the hope that we might give up the notion of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Putting this across is very tough going because of the ubiquitous human tendency to shuffle off blame onto others in order to conceive of oneself as blameless and innocent. 

This tendency becomes a strategy in wartime, where combat requires thinking in terms of the enemy as subhuman. Listening to the news today about Israel and Iran, I though that war and more war seems to be our doom. I hadn’t thought about Tolkien much lately, but having been invited to give a lecture recently about The Lord of the Rings, I remembered how this man, who was in the trenches of World War I and had a son in the RAF in World War II, wrote frequently in his letters about his horror of dividing the world into “good” and “bad” people–a conviction fully carried out in the plot of LOTR.

So I offer Mr. Abad’s reflection as a reminder to us all to resist the tendency to think of ourselves as “good people.” We are, all of us, dwelling in the realm of Sin and of the evil impulse. Any capacity that we can muster to be a “non-practicing” sinner is a sign of the grace of God at work in us, a guarantee of the Spirit’s power to remake us into the likeness of Christ — in spite of ourselves, even ourselves at our best (see Flannery O’Connor’s story Revelation).

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