Harnessing both my theological and literary training, I present the curious parallel between BOMB Magazine’s “tips for writers” and Romans chapter 7.
Please do not send genre fiction. Please read the magazine before you even think of submitting work. Sample copies are available for purchase.
Setting aside the fact that samples aren’t usually something one pays for, BOMB has, by the sly legalism of these suggestions, already made me an offender. Had I not thought of submitting to BOMB, I never would have read the commandment to read BOMB before thinking of submitting. Sisters and brothers, this is a quandary.
I’m inevitably reminded of St. Paul’s lament in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Roman church:
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”[b]8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Then, one of my favorite Pauline images:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
It’s quite the predicament we’re in. Even if the language of slavery and sin doesn’t resonate with you, I’m reminded at a very basic level how quickly our good intentions can turn to crap, or how, from one moment to the next, our tempers flare and we lose the plot with peers, co-workers, and loved ones. We do things we don’t mean to do. Say things we don’t mean to say. Hurt people we don’t mean to hurt. Having to balance the tradition of the law and the freedom he felt in Christ, Paul does some exhausting footwork getting us to the point that shame for our shortcomings is only such because the law has named them. The law has, in a sense, enshrined our every failing.
Paul loses me when he says next that it’s not him sinning in these moments, but sin in him. I mean, I get it, I guess: if sin is the manifestation of the all the marks we miss, and we wouldn’t think of it as sin without knowing the marks the law sets, and if knowing what the standards are entices us to miss them, then, yes, okay, who can really blame us? Except for when we choose to miss the mark, when we fail, on purpose, to help the poor, speak justice to the powerful, or extend care to those who need it. I think what Paul’s groping for is some explanation of why our good intentions don’t keep us from both kinds of failings: the harsh treatment of a friend in a moment of stress or the convenient overlooking of a neighbor’s plight. Why do we do the things we do? Why aren’t we perfect? Why does Paul suffer from this thorn? Why intrusive thoughts, anxieties, distractions?
I don’t know. What I can say is that theologies of guilt, of fear, of shame, can lead to dangerous places. I’m back on track with Paul when he talks about God’s power being made perfect in our weakness. When he points us to the cross and encourages us to see the world through the lens of a broken, beaten God. A God who mourns when we mourn, who’s mourning even now, with you, with me.
I don’t know if the law makes us sinners, but it can make us feel like shit. It made a dead man out of Jesus…it made a mourner out of God. And that makes God our ally, help, and hope.