Of all the post-Nicene fathers, St. John Chrysostom is the one whose theological writings enthrall me the most. He wrote that:
‘For nothing is so inconsiderate as sin: nothing so senseless, so utterly foolish and outrageous. All is overturned and confounded and destroyed by it, wheresoever it may alight. Unsightly to behold, disgusting and grievous.
And should a painter draw her picture, he would not, methinks, err in fashioning her after this sort. A woman with the form of a beast, savage, breathing flames, hideous, black; such as the heathen poets depict their Scyllas. For with ten thousand hands she lays hold of our thoughts, and comes on unexpected, and tears everything in pieces, like those dogs that bite slyly’
Chrysostom was a 4th century Archbishop from Byzantium. My Church history major, is probably the reason for my deep appreciation of this preacher, theologian and the sharp contemporary relevance I find in his writings.
I once read the quip: why don’t radical feminists, in the spirit of inclusive language, argue for Christians to stop referring to the devil as a ‘he’?
With this in mind, I therefore think that in saying I like Chrysostom’s parallel, I am not reaching beyond the realms of gender equality and inclusive language. The simple truth is that our Christian forebears equated sin with the image of a woman, and the devil with the image of a man. Post-1960’s nothing seems to have changed a great deal in that department.
Researching artistic expressions of sin is not an easy task. The reasons for this are twofold. First, while sin is associated with the feminine image, it is also primarily associated with an apple. Understandably, this association reflects the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, depicted by many artists over the centuries. However, I think this is unhelpful because the image of an apple limits our understanding of what sin is. The use of such an image rarely conveys the same visual impact as say, Chrysostom’s contextualising of sin with the image of the Greek goddess Scylla. In my view, against such a vivid depiction, the apple-as-sin metaphor just doesn’t cut it. – Apple meet Scylla.
Secondly, sin appears to have been pushed aside in favour of the word temptation. Sin is always attached to temptation, and temptation trumps sin, especially when it comes to understanding “who’s on first”! Having said this, my initial observations showed that these words were, and still are often used interchangeably. The result is a confusion of meaning. It must therefore be stated categorically that temptation is not sin.
Furthermore popular culture has a warm fascination with the so-called ‘seven deadly sins’. Here temptation almost appears as a thing of promise, beauty, something to be consumed, entertained, indulged in, nurtured, and loved.
In God’s yes to humanity, sin has been rejected, therefore temptation which leads to sin is to be rejected also. For theologians such as Karl Barth, to willingly sin is to reject grace. He writes that:
‘Sin is when the creature avails itself of this impossible possibility in opposition to God and to the meaning of its own existence…It follows inevitably only from the incomprehensible fact that the creature rejects the preserving grace of God’ (Barth CD.II.I:503-504)
This idea also forms the backbone of Richard Baxters’ 1656 work ‘The reformed Pastor’, which noted that grace and self-denial go hand in hand. Here self-denial is exhibited in the rejection of temptation which is empowered by the human ‘acts of gratitude and prayer’ (Barth).
Perhaps, like Chrysostom, Grunewald Matthias illustrates this understanding of sin in his 1503, ante-reformation painting the ‘Mocking of Jesus the Christ’…
Sin is the rejection of THE grace that disrupts us in our sin. As Barth puts it ‘the Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths…by the Gospel the whole world is dissolved and established’ (Romerbrief, 1933:35)
Commenting on Barth’s ideas surrounding sin, Eberhard Busch wrote that :
‘Christians are not simply saints but, in contrast to undisturbed sinners, they are “disturbed sinners” . They are being sanctified. Although they are still threatened and sinners in need of forgiveness, they are nevertheless already “differentiated from the world, . . . fellow-saints with the Holy One, His people” . (2008: Loc.1426-1428 see also Barth CD.IV.II:524)
Other images which capture this idea are located in the ‘temptation of St.Anthony’. Salvador Dali’s 1946 surrealist depiction embraces this idea of rejection, sin, self-denial, grace and disturbance.
Unlike Scylla, sin exists. However, Chrysostom’s idea has gravitas. Sin should be viewed artistically, as being like the Greek goddess Scylla who ‘with ten thousand hands lays hold of our thoughts, and comes on unexpected, tearing everything to pieces’.
Ultimately, grace is God’s restorative yes to humanity, and His no to the destructiveness of sin (Barth).The former overcomes the latter in the victory of the Gospel. Sin is undone, the choice with regards to temptation is now clear (think Jesus’ example in the desert and the ephemeral nature of temptation’s promises). It is a very real act that involves ‘renunciation and pledge – command and obedience – faith and confession – moral disarmament and moral rearmament’ (Barth, CD.IV.4). It is a human response to the divine act on our behalf, which empowers us to rightly reject the denial of the other and the imposition of self.
Where words fail, music succeeds (Hans Christian Anderson). Whiteheart express it well.
Barth, K. 1957 Church Dogmatics: The doctrine of God CD.II.I Hendrickson Publishers
Barth, K. 1933 RomerBrief: The Epistle to the Romans Oxford University Press London
Busch, E. 2008 Barth (Abingdon Pillars of Theology) (Kindle Ed. ). Abingdon Press.
Album: Redemption, 1997
Song: Man Overboard (disclaimer the youtube video – not mine)
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