We’ve already taken one peek into Unapologetic, Francis Spufford’s enigmatic–and really enjoyable–treatise on the emotional understandability of the Christian faith. Here he talks about the word “sin,” how weird it sounds from religious folks, most because of how its been lost in modern translation and, therefore, gone on to mean something it was never meant to mean. Going back to a very, ahem, blunt way of describing it seems to make new, illustrative sense of a word we always say and do not always approach with very much understanding.
The vocabulary that used to describe religious emotions hasn’t gone away, or sunk into an obscurity from which you could carefully reintroduce it, giving a little explanation as each unfamiliar new/old term emerged. Instead, it’s still in circulation, but repurposed, with new meanings generated by new usages; meanings that make people think that they know what believers are talking about when they really, really don’t.
Case in point: the word ‘sin’, that well-known contemporary brand name for ice cream. And high-end chocolate truffles. And lingerie in which the colour red predominates. And sex toys; and cocktails. There’s a brand-management agency in Australia called Sin. There’s a fish restaurant in Lima, Peru, called Los Pescadores Capitales, which is a Spanish-language pun on the similarity between the words for sinning and fishing. (An English equivalent would be the Seven Deadly Fins.) There used, God help us, to be a seaside panto for adults starring Jim Davidson which went by the name Sinderella. Taxes on cigarettes and booze are ‘sin taxes’. Sin City, in Frank Miller’s comic book and the movie adaptation of it, is a locale where the population are entirely occupied in lap-dancing and extreme violence. Keep piling up the examples, and a picture emerges–meaning congealing from a pointillist cloud. It isn’t tidy, this definition-by-use, and the cloud of meaning clearly has light end (truffles) and noir end (Frank Miller) but it’s entirely comprehensible all the same.
…Everybody knows, then, that ‘sin’ basically means ‘indulgence’ or ‘enjoyable naughtiness’. If you were worried (the indulgence was a little more serious), you’d use a different word or phrase. You’d talk about ‘eating disorders’ or ‘addictions'; you’d go to another vocabulary cloud altogether. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use ‘sin’ in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they must mean something which isn’t principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so insistent that it’s hard to hear anything except an invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure. And if someone talks, gravely and earnestly, about what a sorrowful burden it is, the result will be to make that speaker seem swiftly much, much more alarming than the thing they’re getting worked up about. For which would seem to you to be the bigger problem, the bigger threat to human happiness: a plate of praline, or a killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?
If I say the word ‘sin’ to you, I’m basically buggered (as we like to say in the Church of England). It’s going to sound as if I’m bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the continuing link between ‘sin’ and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex. You will diagnose me a Christian body-hater. You’ll corral me among the enemies of ordinary joy…So I won’t do that. Because that isn’t at all what I mean. What I and most other believers understand by the word I’m not saying to you has got very little to do with yummy transgression. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*** up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*** things up, because what we’re talking about is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. Now, I hope, we’re on common ground. In the end, almost everyone recognises this as one of the truths about themselves. You can get quite a long way through an adult life without having to acknowledge your own personal propensity to (etc. etc.); maybe even all the way through, if you’re someone with a very high threshold of obliviousness, or with the kind of disposition that registers sunshine even when a storm is howling all around. But for most of us the point eventually arrives when, at least for an hour or a day or a season, we find we have to take notice of our HPtFtU (as I think I’d better call it). Our appointment with realisation often comes at one of the classic moments of adult failure: when a marriage ends, when a career stalls or crumbles, when a relationship fades away with a child seen only on Saturdays, when the supposedly recreational coke habit turn out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream. It need not be dramatic, though. It can equally well just be the drifting into place of one more pleasant, indistinguishable little atom of wasted time, one more morning like all the others, which quietly discloses you to yourself. You’re lying in the bath and you notice that you’re thirty-nine and that the way you’re living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you’ve always wanted; you got her by choice, by a long series of choices for things which, at any one moment, temporarily outbid the things you said you wanted most…The HPtFtU dawns on you. You have, indeed, f***ed things up. Of course you have. You’re human, and that’s where we live; that’s our normal experience.