No Imagination

During Lent for several years in a row my church worked through series’ on the 7 Deadly Sins. In each instance I was responsible for teaching one of the sessions, first sloth and then wrath. In researching for these teachings I found myself drawn into the visual art that’s been created over the centuries depicting lust, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, envy, and pride. People went to great imaginative lengths to draw out the deadly, destructive effects of these sins on the human soul. One series in particular really impacted me, first with this depiction of sloth Notice the spider webs on her body, the crow waiting for her to die, her partly open eyes. Sloth isn’t about laziness; it’s about choosing not to act for so long that you cease to care. It’s a matter of inertia. The woman in this image is conscious, she’s aware of her state. Yet she chooses to do nothing, and has been choosing so for a very long time. I found many other images, some reaching back into the Middle Ages and beyond, that revealed the deep insidiousness of sin.

I also spent time reading Dante, listening to some creepy music, and even watched a disturbing film on the subject. It seems this idea of the 7 Deadly Sins has been fascinating people since it was first used as a teaching tool in the early Church. Eventually I realized that if this was the case, then the contrary virtues (chastity, patience, diligence, generosity, temperance, kindness/love, humility) should also have some amazing reflections in art. I was wrong.

I searched and searched for depictions of the virtues. I really do think I looked at every single image on the Internet during one spring (including some I wished I could unsee). Even artists who had produced phenomenal, insightful series’ of the sins and endeavored to represent the virtues churned out pieces that looked like they could have been made by 5th graders at a Christian middle school. No matter how far back in history I looked, nothing held the same power, insight, or nuance for the virtues as I’d seen for the sins.

In the end I was really bent out of shape by the inability of the human imagination to conceptualize virtue. It seems we are much more familiar with evil than with good, much more aware of sin’s presence and effects on the human soul. I set out to do what hadn’t been done. I would write descriptions of the virtues personified. And I failed, miserably. It was a frustrating experience, to see my writing devolve to junior high poetry so quickly. Eventually I had to give up, and I’ve grieved for us as a species since then. If followers of Jesus really have been invited to participate in the Kingdom of God, really have been made new, if our minds really are being renewed, then why can’t we conceptualize the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues that overwhelm sin?

I was recently discussing all of this with friends, and made the out-of-hand remark that the sins can all be depicted by a lone image, a single individual. But when I imagine the virtues they all require another person. I said this in frustration by the seeming limitation of my imagination. I’ve been thinking about it since, though. Maybe that’s the point. We were created to be always interacting with one another. We inflict our sin on others, our souls and theirs are damaged, but we are usually only aware of the damage done to us. When we “inflict” virtue on another, however, we can see the benefits to their soul. I don’t know how your wrath affects you on a spiritual level. But when I show you patience, something in me knows what that does for you. Because your patience does the same for me.

So I’m expanding my search, so to speak. Rather than seeking individual representations, I’m looking for the virtues in action. In the end, maybe virtue only takes life when it moves.


1 Comment

  1. Jason W. said,

    May 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Reminds me of Ben. Franklin’s attempt to live out the virtues in his autobiography. He created a check list that he would daily review and check the ones he accomplished and reflect on the ones he missed. He quickly gave up on the endeavor realizing that the conceptualizing and systematizing of the virtues wasn’t in of itself virtuous; especially in regards to humility.

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