Arts &
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Vol. 22, No. 5, 2023
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Jason McDonald
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Louis René Beres
David Solway
Nick Catalano
Robert Lyon
Chris Barry
Howard Richler
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Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
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Serge Gamache
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Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
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Charles Tayler
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Robert Lyon is a retired clergyman who divides his time between Guelph, Ontario and Melaque, Mexico. He taught high school English, Latin, Greek and science, and served as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. His latest book, Don’t Throw Out Your Bible, from which the essay below is excerpted, should be availalbe by the end of the year (2023). His monograph, A Christmas You Can Believe In, can be requested as a PDF file from


There is a proper reluctance in Christian thinking to sanitizing sin by equating it with ignorance, but unless that ignorance is willful ignorance, the equation may not be far off the truth. In the most generous words ever spoken, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus was certainly not discounting the evil of what was happening to him on that first Good Friday. But he also recognized the ignorance of those who did it: ignorance of who he was, and ignorance of the good that God was going to bring out of that evil, ignorance even of their own best interests. But ignorance is not the same as innocence. Sometimes we are ignorant because we are naïve, but as often as not we are ignorant by willful choice, neglect, or disregard. Which is why we say that someone “should have known better.”

But why should we expect anyone to ‘know better’ about anything? Because we are rational beings designed by a rational God to live in a world that can be rationally understood. And because we have an innate sense of right and wrong that can be further informed by the revelation of God’s law. We get that law from the Ten Commandments, from the insights of the prophets, from the wisdom of sages and scholars, as well as from our observation of nature and the combined force of reason and gut instinct. So the story of Adam and Eve is the story of us all: Adam and Eve should have known better because, from the beginning, they had been ‘told.’ It’s a story that eight billion people relive every day. That’s why Scripture says: “He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

We have to remember that, even though God made us “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5 – the Hebrew actually says “a little lower than God”!), we are by physiology and instinct still animals. Though we are born with capacities for language, knowledge, aesthetic appreciation and moral values, those capacities need to be shaped and filled. I recall someone who had read John Wesley on the topic of raising children saying that Wesley’s advice would be more germane to the breaking of horses. The comparison may be off-putting, but when you remember that we do have an animal side, it makes sense that we need to be trained. Despite our reason and instinct, like working horses and sociable house dogs, we need to be taught, or at least to figure out, how to live happily and usefully in community. That’s the function of law, custom, good manners and parenting. The Garden of Eden story reflects our rejection of that training.

(If you read the story of Adam, Eve, and the forbidden tree superficially, you might see it as a sexist tale that blames the woman. But Eve is not Pandora. The snake was perceptive: he knew who was supposed to be the decision maker in that family, and who didn’t have the balls to take a stand on principle and say No. Adam and Eve were equally to blame, just in different ways.)

What that story says is that for each one of us the training and self-learning sometimes doesn’t ‘take.’ Certainly our limited knowledge can be a cause of evil, but more often we resist what we already know and follow misdirected feelings and short-sighted desires. Our freedom is a gift from God, a gift we were given to use for the combined ends of our good and his glory, and those two ends are intertwined. If we choose to separate those ends – living like squatters on this earth, using its lands and resources but resenting or denying its rightful owner – that’s sin. We cannot long pursue our good apart from God’s glory. James, the Lord’s half-brother, who led the church in Jerusalem, got it right when he wrote: “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” (James 4:1).

By New Testament times, a developed notion of dark personalities was a part of popular Jewish thought. Certainly, evil does sometimes seem like a separate personality within us, even multiple personalities. So James, being a man of his time, did in fact believe in the dark world. But when he says, “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7), it is clear that, if a devil really exists, James will not let us use him as an excuse for our bad conduct. The devil (if you believe that tradition) sinned by an act of free will, but so did Adam and Eve; so we can’t pass the buck. In fact, when you consider the evil that mankind has wrought in recent history, and when you really comprehend the darkness of which our own hearts are capable, Pogo may well be right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Nothing will drive you to your knees faster than that overwhelming realization.

If you can’t use the graphic above, then insert this paren after “…he is us”: (Walt Kelly cartoon, 1971). Note that the period moved to the end of the paren.

Jesus also spoke as if he believed in a real devil. But we should understand that Jesus, as God’s incarnation, was not God-in-human-disguise (the monophysite heresy) but a real human being, who may therefore have shared the world-view of his contemporaries. For there were, you will recall, things he did not know, such as when “heaven and earth will pass away” (Mark 13:31f). Alternatively, he may also have been accommodating his teaching to what his audience understood, rather than trigger a throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bath-water rejection of ideas that were more critical to his message.

Of course, both those explanations are speculative, and there may be more to the dark-side personalities after all. I know perfectly rational people who claim to have experienced them in ministry both in Canada and on the mission field. Nevertheless, the abstraction that we call sin or evil is real, pervasive, anti-God, and a threat to both our present and our eternal well-being – so however we understand or encounter it, we must not trifle with it.

God, meanwhile, remains sovereign. And Christians believe that he has already triumphed over evil on our behalf and invites us to follow Jesus and share in that victory. But we are unlikely to do that unless we are convinced that the Jesus story is believable. But that requires another chapter.





Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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