Centralia, Pennsylvania. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either, until I borrowed a copy of Weird Pennsylvania, a new book which explores the bizarre stuff that happens in our beloved Commonwealth. Recently, Centralia has created quite a buzz. In fact, the recent horror flic, Silent Hill (roughly based on the same-titled video game), was inspired by the town of Centralia.

Centralia is a small town located about an hour east of Philadelphia. In the 1960’s, Centralia was a fairly happening place and had over 1,000 residents. But during the 60’s, something terrible happened; the immense coal depositsl under the burgeoning town caught fire. And to this day, fifty years later, the blaze continues to rage, sometimes just thirty feet beneath the surface. Smoke still rises from the buckled concrete, most of the trees are dead, and the decaying homes remain vacant. Only 11 people remain in the town.

So what can we learn from this odd, near-ghostlike town in Eastern PA? Well, theologically speaking, Centralia is a picture of what Christians call Original Sin.

When many Christians talk about sin, they are really talking about behavior (cheating, being mean, lusting, taking staplers from work, etc.). Such folks are–in Centralia-speak–concerned with cracked asphalt, dead forests, and emptying houses. And these people think a great deal about how to deal with these persistent problems. The solution is a Remake Centralia Campaign, with proposals to fill up the steaming cracks in the streets, uproot the dead trees and plant new ones, and start flashy advertising campaigns to get people living in Centralia once again. All the while the hidden fires continue to rage.

But when people equate sin with bad behavior, they make a tragic mistake. In the 15th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the nature of Sin with people that believed that if people could purify their behavior, they would become holy and God would bless them because of it. Here’s what Jesus says about this perspective:
“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’.”

Thus, the real problem does not come from ‘outside’ a person–from bad influences and rap music and body piercings. Original Sin resides in who we (already) are, and the cure must start in that place if we are to be truly helped. But because many people (and many Christians) fail to understand the depth of the problem, they often give us cheap cures that don’t really work. They tell us that we simply need to clean up our acts, be more disciplined, more cautious, make more boundaries, and forgo the stapler stealing. But what happens when we can’t, or don’t, or won’t? What happens when we can’t control our stapler stealing, or our anger, or our resentment, or our self-righteousness, or our lust, or ourselves? What happens when the Remake Centralia Campaign fails?

The Gospel declares that Jesus came to rescue us before the failed Remake Centralia Campaign. He came to extinguish that unseen fire which lives miles beneath the surface, the part of you that no one really sees, the part you’ve been working on (read: failing at!) for years. That is the place targeted by grace. If we trust in the radical cure of divine grace, we may find that the surface, along with the soul, becomes well again.