When a Lie is Not A Sin

February 21, 2016

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

 When a Lie is Not A Sin

If you grew up in a liturgical tradition, you know this psalm by heart. It is the song for the offertory, sung every week as the money comes forward. “Create in me a Clean Heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.” It is what David said when Nathan the Prophet came to him concerning his dalliance with Bathsheba. It is about the most famous kind of lie, adultery, where we not only break the promise of our vows but also take up with someone else as though we were promised to them. We basically split ourselves in two. As many people will tell you, it wasn’t the affair that broke their heart. It was the lying about it that broke their heart. Lots of us also know that as children we do a lot of experimentation with lying. It is normal for children to lie. They lie to protect themselves from something they wish they hadn’t done, like taken the money out of a guests’ pocketbook or signed up for a hidden account on which to text or not eaten their lunch and told everyone they did. They are not only protecting themselves from adult punishment or disappointment. They are also protecting themselves from themselves. Most lying is a self-protection from our self before it is protection from the Nathans who might know more about us than we think they know.

The old language actually makes sense. It asks the God who finds out about us through the prophets not cast us away. We want to be held close even after we have lied or become in some way, in the old language, unclean. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence and restore unto me the joy of your salvation. “ We have a rewrite from a Zen Buddhist author who “redid” the psalms to clean up their clean me up language. The translation uses the word clear for clean. I like it because the clean language is basically an old version of sin, one that no longer works in the age of soap and washing machines. The psalm is about the restoration of a right spirit, which usually involves a clearing as much as it involves a clearing.

The parallel for us today is how we think about sin: we don’t think we are unclean so much as thinking we are unclear. We are without aim. We are without direction. We aren’t even sure there is a God so how can it bother us so much if we feel distant from the divine or the ultimate or the big or the non-self?

Psalm 51 was first used as the offertory, first in the Eastern Church and the among us. It accompanied the produce coming to the altar. The priest would take his share and no one ever had to have a capital campaign because they worshipped in tents.

What the text tells us is that personal forgery has been around for a long, long time. It also tells us that people felt the need for a cleaning and a clearing for a very long time.
We are not the first people who need a refinishing, a restoration of our original shine, a trip to the furniture repair shop to have our joints reglued or our countenance lifted.
We are not the first people to come into Lent with a sense of frozen fear or inner twistedness or tangles and snarls. We know what it means to be all mixed up and to imagine our intestines in a tizzy. It may be less dramatic than adultery but being split in two or three or four parts is pretty much the modern condition. The real reason for the time famine, that pervasive sense that we don’t have enough time, is downright systemic. We worship at two altars, God and Mammon, or if you don’t believe in God, at two altars, best self and self who needs to pay rent, or presented self and self who does stuff alone, designed self or made up self and the one who forgot her lipstick. We even see the splits in church. Judson likes to say it is the best church you can’t find, the perfect church for imperfect people, and we are also mostly the church we wish we were, the church of our web site, not our . Being split into lesser and greater parts is the human condition, not the human exception. When our friend Rabbi Ross wrote his book, “When a Lie is not a Sin,” which I recommend to you highly, he says that lying is not a sin when we break into the truth of why we lied in the first place. Often the intention of the lie is to be better than we are and to dress up into our best self rather than going out into the world in our sweats and t-shirts. The lie is personal design, it is intention, it is untangling into the truth or leaning into the light.

Or you might find yourself saying something that is hurtful to the community. I like so and so better than so and so. Someone could correct you into a larger truth. They are likely to say, “Don’t say that, it just creates problems.” So who is lying and who is telling the truth?
In Noah Charney’s book, The Art of Forgery, he asks a lot of good questions about art forgery. He began with the Young Hare by Durer, which was presented falsely to him as an original when it was just a good reproduction. The museum director explained that Dürer’s watercolors, Young Hare and Tuft of Grass, are shown to the public only for three-month periods every few years. Otherwise they reside in temperature-, light- and humidity-controlled Solander boxes in storage.
Charney went into a kind of agony asking the readers, “what if you booked a ticket to a show weeks in advance, only to arrive on a day when the originals were hibernating”? I want to ask this question spiritually. What part of your original is hibernating on any given day? Are you and I just very fine reproductions of our restored or original self? And so what if we are?
Charney argues finally, while knowing how much museums keep hidden, that the only right thing to do is not to mislead in the slightest. Quality reproductions, clearly labeled so that no one is fooled, play an important role in the globalization and democratization of the study of art. Not everyone can afford to fly to see original work in countries beyond their borders: such art can be admired and analyzed only in print or digital reproductions.
On 25 April, the Caverne du Pont d’Arc opened in the Ardèche region of France. The €55 million project is an exact replica, down to the last stalactite, of the cave of Chauvet, which contains the world’s oldest paintings, dating from some 36,000 years ago. In order to preserve the Chauvet cave paintings from deterioration, they are closed to all but a select few researchers – and Werner Herzog, who was given a week’s window in which to make his film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). A team of scientists took around 6,000 photographs, effectively scanning the entire original cave, in order to produce a replica that can be visited by the public, and which offers a nearly identical experience to visiting the original. This new cave is a three-dimensional parallel to the Dürers.
There is a fugitive character to these opportunities. You can be very glamorous on a dating site too. You can construct an online platform that just about everybody would want to date. If art critics and King David both think it is important to get to a clean and clear heart, I wonder how we do that in a world of great capacity to make high quality reproductions? I even wonder if there is a new psalm waiting to be written, create in me a high quality reproduction of the self I want to be?
One can imagine a near-future museum with every important artwork in the world – the entire contents of E H Gombrich’s 1950 classic The Story of Art – made manifest in a single super-didactic replica collection. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as no one feels fooled. A copy is just a copy, entirely legal and often useful (not least for scholarship and education), and becomes a forgery only if the work is used to defraud. Having spent a great deal of time researching and writing about the history of forgery, I have learned an important lesson: while we admire the ability to mimic, no one wants to feel tricked. This applies as much to specialists as to the viewing public. As Devolder told me: ‘Last year I was in a museum in Prague and felt very uncomfortable, because for me (though I am not an expert in prints) there were a lot of replicas there, but no mention of it on the labels. I cannot confirm whether or not I was right, but the doubt kind of ruined my museum visit.’
But where was the sign that said: ‘For conservation reasons, certain graphic works from our collection might be in storage, with reproductions displayed in their place’? That would have been sufficient, ideally coupled with a list of those works available only in reproduction. Without such an admission, isn’t the museum itself guilty of a kind of forgery? Fooling art-lovers into believing that what they’re looking at is real?
This whole psalm acts as though people can act and this whole business about actively forging art acts as though action is way much more important than it is.
Some of us don’t forge so much as get forged. People so strongly think we are what we aren’t that we have very little hope of jumping their fence. I think of Black Lives mattering or a woman who gets cursed in her work place for being “too angry.” Or some selfish immigrant who works all day long to build the state economy only to be told on TV at night that he is ruing it.
This whole matter of privacy and presentation of self and our capacity to lie attends the question of terrorism, so dependent as it is on surprise and secrecy. ISIS finally is a crisis of meaning for people. They don’t know how to move into hybrid religion or how to be multiple or how to be more than one thing at a time. They are still people wanting to read this text as getting clean as opposed to getting clear. And there is also no they. There is a also a we who want to tell our truth to ISIS and say we are only sort of bad as they think we are. We too have been dating Bathsheba and no one knew till everyone knew. The only real solution to terrorism will be truth telling in a safe enough environment that everything and everybody has a good confession and a good cry. We have to tell truth to each other about who we are and who we aren’t and when our forged and fake mode is on display and when it is not.
In the Apple issue around protecting identity so that there is a thing called privacy left somewhere, there is also so much that isn’t being said. There is an Orwellian kind of lie hidden in all this openness: my cell phone seems to know how to find me no matter where I am. No wonder teenagers all have two phone accounts.
So a lie is not a sin when it is you who have been forged. A lie is not a sin when you tell people you are lying, like “I work here for the money.” A lie is not a sin when we engage the truth at multiple levels and tell people we are putting our best foot forward when we say whatever we just said.
Union Professor Paul Knitter tells an interesting lie. He has taken vows to become a Buddhist officially, yet insists that he remains a Catholic Christian. He says,
“Our religious self, like our cultural or social self, is at its core and in its conduct, a hybrid.” That is, each of us has “a core religious identity (which is often the tradition one grew up in) that enters into a hybrid relationship with another religious identity and tradition.” Is “post-religious-belonging” a lie, or a sin, or as some would argue an impossibility or is it that untangling, unsnarling kind of truth where a heart can become clear and a spirit new? A Chicago scholar—himself a Sri Lankan Christian with advanced degrees in Hindu and Buddhist Studies—says that “belonging” no longer interests him, but he expects that participation in practices of various religious traditions will remain endlessly fascinating.

That word Clean needs to become that word clear. Even Jamaica Kinkaid needs to get the point. She is one of my absolute favorite authors. Jamaica Kincaid objects to daffodils, because they are not native to her place, and tells a whole anti-colonial story through something yellow. The novel is called “Lucy.” Why can’t daffodils travel like people travel, to get more clear, to get less phony, to get rid of the ideas of purity and cleanliness which so mightily threaten us? Is there really that much truth to the one original or the one painting or even the one marvelous folk culture? Are we not all quality reproductions of our parents and schools and lovers and friends? These mixtures and hybrids are only wrong when we mislead and say they aren’t there. They are beautiful when untangled and untwisted and unsnarled. When cleared, they become the restoration of the joy of our salvation.


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