Encounter: Scott Cairns

“The Entrance of Sin” by Scott Cairns, from Recovered Body

Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the
wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plen-
tifully, glazed with dew of a given morning.
And there had been some talk off and on—
nothing specific—about forgoing the inclina-
tion to eat of it. But sin had very little to do
with this or with any outright prohibition.

For sin had made its entrance long before the
serpent spoke, long before the woman and the
man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy
flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite with-
out flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of
an evening stroll, when the woman had
reached to take the man’s hand and he with-
held it.

In this way, the beginning of our trouble came
to the garden almost without notice. And in
later days, as the man and the woman wan-
dered idly about their paradise, as they contin-
ued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and
drink and spirited coupling even as they sat
marveling at the approach of evening and the
more lush approach of sleep, they found within
themselves a developing habit of resistance.

One supposes that, even then, this new taste
for turning away might have been overcome,
but that is assuming the two had found the
result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was
this: Every time some manner of beauty was
offered and declined, the subsequent isolation
each conceived was irresistible.

Casting the First Stone

They remind me of Mary or the goddess: watchful, female guardians of peace. Their angular robes and faces receive the dappling mist with the same patience as the oaks. The crows shout in waves, calling to each other across the lake, their black forms punctuating nature’s claim on this land. Two of the statues have their wrists crossed over their hearts as they gaze at the autumn carpet at their feet.

They are cast, not carved, and that makes a certain difference. Their substance comes of filling-in rather than shaving away. It makes the angles sharper, and less violent. They seem ancient, especially beside the pewter lake, cloaked in lichen; but, I know they are of modern invention. Newborn in the 1950s, they were formed in the technology of concrete.

Less than a month from today, the people who live on and around this land will vote on a divisive amendment. It will determine if marriage will be constitutionally defined as the union of one man and one woman. Supporters have had plenty to say about traditional and biblical values. Opponents have had plenty to say about logs and specks.

Early last week, my father forwarded an email in which a local pastor encouraged support for the amendment on the basis that “God has established marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. 3,000 years of civilized history affirms this arrangement, as well.” He neglected to mention that the Bible and history also define marriage as a monogamous, life-long covenant with the primary purpose of creating and nurturing children—a definition that most American Christians could not uphold with any personal integrity.

Also this week, a student at the Midwestern Baptist university where I teach published an editorial in which he (a straight, evangelical Christian) decried the amendment in favor of gay marriage. He neglected to mention any of the biblical passages that define or exhort guidelines for sexual behavior.

Whether voting on such an amendment is a moral or legal issue—or whether those voting perceive any distinction between the two— is a significant question. Whether legislating behavior is a valid expression of love for neighbor is another. Whether sexuality is a definer of identity is yet another.

I hope the amendment fails. But I haven’t yet decided how I will vote. Because to cast (a vote or a stone) can mean “to throw” or it can mean “to build.” The men Jesus addressed in the Gospels were apparently willing to do neither.

Thunder tumbles over the roof and a soaking rain begins to fall. We’ve been in drought here as the seasons change and the rainfall shifts the color of walk and bark and stone. The guardian statues darken and recede, but because of how they’re made, they don’t absorb. Their gaze remains both downcast and peaceful, immutable before the weather.

Watching them, I fear that casting my vote for “biblical statues” and “traditional values” would be a weapon; that doing so would arm my faith. I fear that many of my spiritual siblings will vote this way as an attack or a defense, neither of which I can biblically justify. And yet, I’m unsettled about voting against a definition with which I agree. I do believe that marriage, before God, is the union of one man and one woman. But I don’t believe that marital status or sexual desire should have any bearing on dignity or worth—especially for followers of a single, chaste Messiah.

So I discover that I will likely vote “no.” Come November, I will likely vote to deny a definition with which I doctrinally agree because I want my casting to build rather than defend. I have no faith that voting for traditional values will do anything to build a more Christ-like society. And as I watch the rain nourish a parched earth, I want most to live a life that fills and builds: a life with angles that may remain sharp to some, but that are never violent.

Lay Down Your Life

The crucifix was bothering me. The emaciated body, pallid with that chin-turned gasp was grating at me more than usual. I’ve always been bothered by the centrality of death images in Catholic churches, unable to see beauty even in Michelangelo’s Pietà, but the tortured Christ swaying over the wedding ceremony was more than uncomfortable—it was aggravating.

The rest of the church was modern. White exposed-steel trusses, limestone and clerestory windows filled the space with light. The priest was a neat, middle-aged man whose voice struck solemn gravity, but without the quiver of superstition. Abby and Ben stood together as equals, desiring each other’s presence and love, but neither in need of the other’s family, money or protection.

Over it all dangled a grotesque idol to suffering, hate, religious self-righteousness, intolerance and abuse. I couldn’t sit still. The sickly statue swayed from its iron hooks murmuring the rhetoric of oppression religion has injected into marriage for ages: Man and wife, man and wife, she should submit as the weaker vessel, serve your husband and look to his needs, nurture the children God grants you for your salvation, homemaker, she is the emotional center of the family, to his strength she brings beauty, man and wife, man and wife. And the refrain to accompany it all, heard by women and men in Christian marriages for generations: self-sacrifice. Take up your cross; lay down your life. Die. Suffer. Obliterate yourself for the good of the other. This is love.

Certainly the religion of the crucified God will have an iconography of the holy death. Certainly we could use some pictures to remind us what our pride and politics can do to others’ bodies. Certainly being mindful that we can execute love itself injects us with desperately-needed humility. But isn’t the death only half the story? The worst half? Isn’t focusing the Christian story on death actually a deep blasphemy?

My husband started to notice my fidgeting. I needed to move something to purge my aggravation. How could they miss the second half of the story?

The priest’s pause collected my focus. “You’ve come here to lay down your life as Christ laid down his life: to pick it up again, changed. Your life— but in utterly different form.”

To pick it up again?

How could I have missed that? Of course he picked it up again. Obviously. Jesus didn’t die as one thing and rise as another—he even kept the body. A sudden image, irreverent and ridiculous enough to be holy, flashes on my mind: Jesus in a track suit jogs along a straightaway, stoops to pick something up and keeps jogging. Yep. There’s his life. Picked it up again without breaking stride. Perfectly natural.

This is unbelievable. How many wedding sermons have I heard and this has never come up? How have I never thought of this? Self-sacrifice is only half the story. Suffering is only half the story. Obviously. It’s one thing to preach a lie; it’s another thing to believe one. Oppression only succeeds with both parties. No wonder the crucifix and the sacrificial rhetoric make me so angry. I believe them.

As the priest begins to bless the rings, I stop glaring at the crucifix and look at it. It’s wan and ugly, a thing that won’t meet my gaze. It’s disturbing, but only offensive if exhaustive. Of course part of marriage is self-sacrifice. Of course part of faith includes suffering. The rhetoric and the crucifix goad me because I can’t get past them. Pictures of Christ dying bother me because my images of him living are so few. Oppressive rhetoric about Christian marriage bothers me because I hold such a shallow repertoire of alternatives.

The priest leads the vows and winds Ben’s and Abby’s hands together with his stole. The nearly-dead Christ continues to waiver overhead. The baby in front of me smacks as she chews on her knuckles, and my husband wraps his fingers around mine. Abby and Ben kiss, we clap, and I prepare to walk out of this church and pick up my life.