Depravity [jay]

Today is my guest post.  I asked my friend Josh Bytwerk to wax eloquently on a topic of his choice regarding culture or theology.  Enjoy!

On the final day of my college experience, our Faculty asked several professors to provide us with their greatest bits of wisdom.  After four years of words, spoken in classrooms and read in libraries, this time was to be short and summarized, a fitting “endcap” for all our supposed learning.  Greg Quiggle, a history professor who’s generally sardonic perspective on life (as well as is his inimitable name) had endeared himself to the student body, was asked to share his thoughts.  After the thousands of words shared with us, the impressionable students who had attended his lectures and read his assigned pages were treated to a surprisingly short monologue of two points.  Mr Quiggle shared with us two oft-forgotten doctrines that, in his judgment, caused endless heartache and difficulty, especially in the church.  The first of these doctrines he labeled, “depravity.”  Mr Quiggle reminded us that the human spirit, rather than being the source of all goodness that politicians and movie stars seem to think it, is actually in a state of partial destruction.  He likened each of us to an onion who has layers. Each of these layers is indwelt with a brokenness that is profound. We must, Mr Quiggle stated, never be surprised by sin when it appears in others, our leaders or in ourselves for, according to history, sin is the second most pervasive and consequently invasive circumstance of life.

Merriam-Webster defines being depraved as being marked by corruption with connections to the term perverted.  Yet Mr Quiggle, in his desire to protect a group commencing on life’s journey from the subtle inroads of our own fallenness, labeled us all as perverted… created beings whose imago dei was distorted by a genetic defect chosen by our progenitors and enhanced by succeeding generations.

A recent multi-state travel experience caused a flashback to this last impartation of my undergraduate history professor.  Almost like Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, I was treated to three pre-Christmas encounters that reminded me of Quiggle’s enjoinder, though my encounters were far less spectral in nature.

Flying is always interesting and not least due to the neighboring parties who accompany us on our miles-high adventures.  Traveling to Alabama by four different jets provided me with three unwanted conversations.  I say unwanted because generally upon boarding a flight I wish to listen to a podcast or read a bit of a book—things I rarely have time to do otherwise.  Depravity, easily discussed in the academic lab, would be field tested on this trip.  Is it a just descriptor of our age or merely a medieval concept needing to be jettisoned with so many others?

On the first leg of my journey I sat between a Baptist and a therapist.  The therapist from Georgia, was talkative and friendly in an “un-agenda” sort of way.  The Baptist was recovering slowly from a month of caring for her first grandchild’s arrival to half-Christian, half-Jewish parents.

Planted like an observant thorn between these two roses, the conversation vacillated between theories on divine agency, personal responsibility, comparative religions and such—not that any of these sorts of words were used.  The Baptist’s soon-to-be daughter in-law’s Jewish parents had sincerely hoped and desperately fought for a religious circumcision for the new arrival.  The therapist shared that she had become bored with children and wished to work with older students or adults.  The Baptist’s Christian son wished for the sanitation generally associated with surgical procedures.  But as fate would have it, the much discussed piece of foreskin turned out to be undersized making both religious groups comfortable with foregoing the operation all together.  The therapist opined that parents, not children, are generally the problem in families.  The Baptist concluded, after a month of preparing Kosher foods and encountering Israeli post-natal care, that it was simply easier to be Christian without all of the strange cultural markers and rules she had encountered.  The therapist remained silent on overt matters of faith causing curiosity as little had been held in reserve throughout this conversation.  The Baptist attempted to encumber me with her religious perspectives as well as gain me as an accomplice in her attempts to convert the therapist.

On the second leg of my journey the gentleman next to me was silent for 45 minutes but then began speaking in three and four syllable words all of a sudden.  And of all things, he wanted to speak about sports.  Putting aside my surprise, I began a conversation with him about his occupation…baseball writer headed to the MLB meetings for the week.  The next half hour was a treat as I, a confirmed sports fan, listened to the endless sports figures this man had known through his multi-decade writing career.  From John Wooden’s exemplary character (he had attended UCLA and been given the story of Wooden’s retirement previous to other journalists) to the juicing problem in MLB (he was uncertain about Bonds and Clemens and their Hall of Fame prospects), I found myself enjoying an opinionated give-and-take conversation with my unexpectedly talkative friend.

My third reminder of depravity’s inexhaustible effects came on the first leg of my journey home.  Sitting next to a native Alabaman, the conversation was first about the rolling of the Tide and their chances against the Catholics to the North.  But it turned early to his vocation.  He was a financier, a middleman in the emerging world of commerce.  Fascinated by a subject that I understand only poorly I pressed in asking him about his role.  From the verbose beginnings of the conversation, a confidential tone was adopted as he related to me how money was made.  He, along with some partners, created relationships between companies and credit agencies.  These relationships provided the opportunity to pay for things by credit card, taking a percentage for themselves, of course.  He related that he made his money at gas pumps and on porn sites with the latter far eclipsing the former in profitability.

Now you may not easily see the links from one conversation to the next, as I did not at first.  But depravity, this supposed brokenness endemic to our race, is dependent on an observation of culture—finding people where they are and witnessing them there.  These three conversations, held aloft as we jumped from one metro-plex to the next, had in common that no names were shared.  I would never know even the first names of my conversants, let alone their last.  Their thoughts came out more cleanly in the knowledge that in a few hours they could forget me and be forgotten.  Honesty is best contexted in distance and unfamiliarity it turns out.

Though my first conversation was interesting, I left it feeling be-smirched as though something dirty had happened in our small area.  I had felt the human side of religion, the pluralism of commercial age.  God was not being discussed.  Rather it was our coping mechanisms as fellow travelers seeking to survive and hopefully succeed weighing through two of the world’s great religions—Judaism and Christianity—with a third, a sort of self-help therapeutic perspective, sending jabs into the fracas.  As Marx once wrote, this conversation really was about the opiate of the people.  I am a purveyor of religious goods and services, I thought… someone who easily forgets God and remembers people as that is the more tangible reality.

I felt most comfortable speaking of sports.  Faith is too difficult and I felt the depraved influences of our multi-optioned world, with every choice pointed at ourselves and little pointed any longer at the Transcendent.  Sport is a welcome reprieve, a place of escape, where our larger mental resources can be expended on questions that matter far less.  When the words tumble out of our mouth our consciences need not indict us when it’s merely a matter of one-time steroid-pumping icons being elevated even higher in the public view.  ESPN.com is the Club Med of mental life, I realized.

My Alabaman neighbor asked me my opinion of his occupation, a fatal openness for one whose industry is intentionally predatory.  His response to my seemingly moralistic view was that he neither filmed the filth nor viewed it.  Nor was he the one who wrote the intentionally misleading credit rules that entangle so many.  He was the guy making the money through means that fall between those tragic lines.  A conversation on addiction and the many forms of it seemed to be on tap but it turned early to the subject of finance and corporate greed instead—sexual addiction versus financial.  As one who has often been addicted, I did not walk away on any moral high ground but rather felt the closer-than-expected fire.  John Irving once wrote the statement, “Lust is a true premonition that damnation is real.”  In this conversation, the fire seemed both closer and hotter for both of us than I wished it to be.  There was no one not sweating by the time the wheels touched the runway.

It was only later that I thought of these three moments, fleeting and past as revelatory in keeping with Scrooge’s enlightened perspective.  In the moment, I was at times wistful of the time being spent in mere conversation rather than my other intended pursuits.  But life must be examined and these conversations held my thoughts for days afterwards.  And in between the lines, I heard Quiggle’s derogatory descriptor casting its pallid light over all three.  None of the people I had sat next to seemed particularly horrible, nor do I think they thought so of me.  But in our normalcy, our averageness, our interests and perspectives, the proverbial layers were being peeled back to show the common flaw we all share.

Of course, Quiggle shared with us two doctrines the second of which is more subtle, more forgotten and more profound even than the first, according to him.  The ancient prophet Micah had ended his judgmental diatribe with these words about God: Who is a God like you, removing iniquity and passing over rebellion for the remnant of his inheritance?  Forgiveness gets below the lowest level of brokenness, according to Quiggle.  Peel the layers as far as you will and fallen depravity will greet observant eyes, but forgiveness will penetrate even farther. Jesus warned us that religion, much discussed, creates sons of hell worse than any average pagan.  Jesus warned us that the truth, not escaping into the sports page, will set us free.  Jesus warned us that it is impossible to serve two masters; either money or God will win but not both.  And then Jesus died, forgiving us long before we personally committed the atrocities that he knew would come.  Like three specters who haunted Ebenezer Scrooge, these conversations haunt me, my intrigue and boredom alternately reminders that I am a participant with what is wrong with our world.  The great journalist from the last century, G.K.Chesterton was famously asked by a London newspaper, “What is wrong with the world?”  He sat down and wrote a short response: “Dear Sirs, I am.  Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.”  I could say the same.

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