I was flattered to be asked to contribute to the latest edition of the journal, Bible in TransMission, which is produced by the Bible Society.
The theme is ‘Sin: the human plight’, and I was asked to provide some reflections following on from my book, Atonement for a ‘Sinless’ Society.
You can find out more about the journal and download a pdf of the whole article here: http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/l3.php?id=311
But here is a taster of ‘Understanding Sin, Recognising Shame’
Unquestionably, Christian theology, has a well-developed notion of guilt and the rites and rituals deemed necessary to deal with it. Such tradition has served the church and its constituents well. However, in a society where guilt is a marginal concern , what is needed is a fresh engagement with the gospel narratives. We need to re-hear them in the light of shame, and so understand their relevance to this issue.
The fact is, any individual or institution that claims to care for the well-being of people, but ignores the existence of shame, is apathetic towards its victims, or discounts its importance in the postmodern narrative, will ultimately be discredited. There is, therefore, a clear and obvious challenge facing the church: ‘We must . . . acknowledge shame and thereby redeem it.’ However, this is not a straightforward concern. ‘Shame is not easy to live with, to transcend, or to heal. There are no easy solutions or infallible techniques that can be applied. The condition of shame is a hard one to ameliorate because alienated people are, by definition, fundamentally cut off from the individuals and communities who might help them.’
Even without such isolation, this question still remains: How can a community help the chronically shamed person if the only narratives of healing and atonement they have to offer are ones based upon a reduction of sin and guilt to moral misdemeanour?
What is needed is a fuller, more meaningful, more biblical account of the plight of humankind that speaks appropriately and often about the atonement as a restoration and reconciliation between relational beings, both human and divine, who too often live with an absence of mutual, intimate, undistorted relating. Therefore, if we are to develop narratives of atonement from the stories that surround the life and death of Jesus, then it is imperative that we keep at the forefront of our theological creativity the reality that, for the chronically shamed, relationships and ideals are more important and persuasive than law and punitive threat.
This is precisely why we need to listen to the stories being told around us, to understand what it means to be a person living in a post-industrialized, post-Christian world. But we also need to listen with a critical ear to the stories we tell as the Christian community, and ask ourselves if these truly make sense within our current context. This is not to ask ‘Do they make sense to us?’ but ‘Do they have meaning for those who know not the atoning life and death of Jesus of Nazareth?’ Let us be clear, however, that ‘making sense’ is not a call to ditch biblical, theological and doctrinal understandings of the gospel. It is the challenge to think creatively, laterally, tangentially, even abstractly, within the confines placed upon us, and to (re)tell our story with fresh and contemporary insight.