Thursday, April 11, 2013

Vices Deadly and Glittering

Honestly, I do not know what the fascination is all about, but there is something about the seven deadly sins that grabs people's attention. The Seven garner such attention that they have begun to be used in ads in direct opposition to their original intent. Searching on for books on the seven deadly sins will provide topics beyond the theological. One finds titles about Lance Armstrong, and and books on topics where you want to avoid particular behavior. My favorite title on such a search was on dressage. Yes, the seven deadly sins of dressage. Maybe the seven deadly sins have become so pervasive they have lost all of their power. They have become reduced to caricatures of themselves.

Nonetheless, it is surprising that young adults catch wind of them, and ask about them. One of the students at the campus ministry was asked by his non-Christian roommates about these seven deadly sins. He, then came to me during our GodTalk time which led to a number of times that the topic kept coming up. And over Lent this year, spent time discussing each of the sins, what they were and what they weren't.

In order to lead the conversation, and I really wanted it to be a conversation, not just me lecturing, I looked for some trustworthy sources to help me along. I came across William Willimon's Sinning Like a Christian, and Rebecca Konyndynk DeYoung's Glittering Vices. Willimon's book was useful but somewhat dated. DeYoung's work was less so and simply flowed better. It was clear that DeYoung has used Willimon's book, so if you had to buy just one, buy DeYoung's.

From the title, DeYoung is clear that she is going to help people get on the right track of understanding by placing these sins in their original frame of reference, vices. We routinely treat sins and vices as interchangeable, but vices belong in the same category as virtues, that is, vices are habits and practices that we undertake. Practices and habits will form us and our desires. Constructively, in the case of virtues. Destructively, in the case of vices. The talk of the Seven Deadlies then begins with a realization that merely stumbling into a transgression does not necessarily make one guilty of a Deadly Sin. Vices become more rooted in our life and work against the character that God desires to see in us.

DeYoung does a nice job of stripping away the caricatures of the vices, as they are, say, portrayed in the movie Seven, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Or thinking that Gluttony, Lust and Sloth are symbolized by lying around in one's underwear on the couch, gorging on Cheetos while watching porn. None of these are particularly wholesome, healthy or faithful, but we kid ourselves if we use this image as the standard of what the vices entail.

The vices are far more insidious, as DeYoung points out. She begins each chapter, detailing what a vice is and is not. In the chapter "Envy," she delineates envy from jealousy and covetousness. She writes,
Envy, on the other hand, is typically more concerned with who we are. Envy targets the internal qualities of another person, qualities that give a person worth, honor, standing, or status. If the envious do desire an external thing, it is because that object symbolizes or signifies its owner's high position or greatness. There is a difference for example, between wanting a BMW because we are car aficionados and love the driving performance of a particular model, and wanting a a BMW because it will make us feel superior to our neighbor, who just bought a new Camry. Anything but to be the only ones in the neighborhood still driving a Taurus! But it's not the car that makes us green with envy, so much as what being the owner of such a car says about who we are, the personal respect and admiration that we command when we drive up in it. Not to have the car is to not just to lack that thing, but to be less of a person, to be deficient or defective. His or her lack makes the envier feel less loveable, less admirable, less worthy as a person.  (DeYoung, Glittering Vices [Kindle], doi:710)

DeYoung consistently peels back the layers of reduction and caricature until we see our own lives reflected in the vices. Here is the power in Glittering Vices, the ability to have us examine our own lives. When we begin to grasp the breadth of the vices and what they really mean, it is not hard to see the vices springing up in our lives. In short most of the vices arise when we love ourselves more than ourselves. Lust enters the scene when we want to replace physical and spiritual intimacy in sexual intercourse with the mere pursuit of our own pleasure. Sloth is not about laziness, but about lack of care for one's commitment to religious identity and vocation. Sloth was not considered a carnal (physical) vice but a spiritual one. Gluttony, a carnal vice, is not about how much food we eat, but how much pleasure we take in eating and why.

A real strength though in Glittering Vices is the way DeYoung also brings up countering virtues. In the "Avarice" chapter, she points out that avarice is both an overzealous desire for material goods and an inability to value those things as they are, using the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 as an example. She continues lifting up the virtues of liberality and justice as the counter to avarice. She points out that practices that entail extravagance in love and justice that restores relationships is key to countering the twisted desire for more things.

Glittering Vices is a very accessible book regarding the Seven Deadlies, that could be good fodder for a pastor looking for handy sermon references and a way to speak the Law as the mirror of our existence, shedding new light onto the ways that our lives are broken by the power of sin. This book could be a good conversation starter for groups who wished for some thoughtful reflection on our lives and the way we might live in faith. While sin is clearly dealt with, DeYoung consistently writes in a way that brings the gospel to the forefront.

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