Sin vs. Flourishing

This week’s Mubi selection prompted a viewing of Brighton Rock, an allegedly classic British film noir based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name.

Pinkie Brown is a small-town hoodlum whose gang runs a protection racket based at Brighton race course. When Pinkie murders a journalist called Fred Hale whom he believes is responsible for the death of a fellow gang-member, the police believe it to be suicide. This doesn’t convince Ida Arnold, who was with Fred just before he died, and she sets out to find the truth. She comes across naive waitress Rose, who can prove that Fred was murdered. In an attempt to keep Rose quiet Pinkie marries her. But with his gang beginning to doubt his ability, and his rivals taking over his business, Pinkie starts to become more desperate and violent. (from IMDB)

The Roman Catholic aspect of the movie was striking. Pinkie seems to know that God exists and will exact a penalty for his life of crime. His wife, Rose, is a Roman Catholic like Pinkie and also has a strong sense of right and wrong even while aiding and abetting her criminal husband. (Yes, the Roman Catholic version of antinomianism — think Mafia dons and whiskey priests — comes to mind.) Here is one description of Greene’s novel and his characters:

All of Greene’s novels were written after his conversion to Catholicism and a religious sense pervades most of them. However, Catholicism was not a vital ingredient in his fiction until Brighton Rock (1938) in which it was developed with a Manichean rigor. . . . In Brighton Rock, for example. Pinkie, the seventeen-year-old Catholic punk, seems possessed by evil and, therefore, in his own eyes—and in those of many of Greene’s readers—capable of being condemned to hell. Brighton Rock is easily classified as a religious novel. But Greene has commented in recent years that Pinkie’s actions were conditioned by the social circumstances in which he had been born and he could not, therefore, be guilty of mortal sin. . . .

[Greene] says, “I don’t believe in hell. I never have believed in hell. . . . They say God is mercy … so it’s contradictory.” (Many years earlier Greene wrote in Lawless Roads, a work of non-fiction: “One began to believe in heaven because one believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell one could picture with a certain intimacy.” This view is quite close to that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, except that Pinkie had difficulty in making the leap to a belief in heaven. Still, as Greene noted, one shouldn’t expect unchanging constancy in a writer.)

Greene was, obviously, all over the place when it came to faith. An excerpt from one of his books, which included an interview on faith, suggests he was not in step with the trads, the rads, or the trad-rads:

I don’t like the term ”sin”: It’s redolent of a child’s catechism. The term has always stuck in my throat, because of the Catholic distinction between ”mortal” and ”venial” sin. The latter is often so trivial as not even to deserve the name of sin. As for mortal sin, I find the idea difficult to accept because it must by definition be committed in defiance of God. I doubt whether a man making love to a woman ever does so with the intention of defying God! I always remember the example of a Dominican priest who found his life in Europe too easy and left for Africa, where he lived for years in a hut made out of old tin cans, only to discover that he was suffering from the sin of pride. He came back to England and confided to a friend that during all this time of hearing the confessions of the faithful, he had never come across a single mortal sin. In other words, for him, mortal sin didn’t exist. The word ”mortal” presupposes a fear of hell, which I find meaningless. This being the case, I fear that I’m a Protestant in the bosom of the church.

Vatican officials worried about Greene’s views (and especially the adultery that supplied material for his novels). But they gave him a long leash because England was Protestant and it wouldn’t look good to crack down on Roman Catholic novelists with so many Protestants watching:

Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, according to expert opinion, are to be considered the two major living English novelists: being Catholic they do credit to Rome’s faith, and they do credit to it in a country that is of Protestant civilization and culture. How can Rome be gruff and cruel? They are the successors of Chesterton and Belloc and, like them, rather than attempting to convert the small fry, strive to influence superior intelligences and the spirit of the age in a manner favorable to Catholicism. Their level, unlike that of a Bruce Marshall, is not that of average I.Q.s or, like the clergy in general, that of uneducated readers or pure professionals. Their level is the higher intelligentsia in the contemporary world which they sway and influence towards Rome …

All of this is fascinating, but what is striking about Greene’s novels (and the movies based on them), along with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is that the point of becoming Roman Catholic is not to flourish as a human being or civilizationally. The believing characters like Rose, and the defiant non-practicing ones like Pinkie, do not look at Christianity as a way to live the good life. Theirs is a world haunted by moral choices and a God who judges them. Heaven and hell give meaning, not flourishing.

16 thoughts on “Sin vs. Flourishing

  1. But you only understand Romanists this way because you are hyper Protestant.

    William Evans—Number Ten: You define the “gospel” primarily in terms of freedom from the condemnation of sin (justification) rather than freedom from both the condemnation and the power of sin (justification and sanctification).

    Number Six: It is not enough to affirm that justification is forensic and synthetic and received by faith as the instrument that unites us to Christ who is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Rather, if the gratuity of justification is to be properly safeguarded justification must be completely abstracted from transformation of life….

    Number Five: In order further to keep justification and sanctification separate you are suspicious of any real transformation intrinsic to the Christian.


  2. Nick Batzig—The young man then gave my friend the common rebuttal, “Jesus talked more about self-righteousness than sexual sin; and, he said that self-righteousness was worse than sexual sin.” Ironically, this response only lends support to the idea that some sins are more heinous than others. However, it has sadly become the most common way in which many pastors have recently sought to downplay the severity of sexual sin. Contrary to the current narrative, the Scriptures, the Reformed Confessions and principles of nature teach us that some sins are more reprehensible than others.


  3. I learned an appropriate new word while reading that Roth interview that McMark linked at the Mencken post. It describes succinctly the spirit of the times since the fall of Adam- tumescent. Heaven forbid, it might even describe me as sinner but not saint. Honestly though, I’m not gay, I’m not addicted to porn, I’m not a pedophile and I don’t hold up convenient stores while packin. And I’m still not sure of the point of the Batzig quote, the Mose Allison tune or the post in general- enlighten me.


  4. Interesting. im curious why intellectuals often turn to Catholicism. You note here that Catholicism provides meaning, not flourishing… but for the life of the mind, is there really any difference?

    Specificaly, I wonder what British intellectuals saw in Catholicism that wasn’t available in Anglicanism/reformed circles. As protestants, we’d say that if Catholicism provides a basis for meaning, it’s a distorted sense of meaning (e.g. Greene’s discussion of venial vs mortal sin). That being said, I’m reading a book about Adam Smith’s and David Hume’s friendship, and the author proposes that both thinkers developed in spite of the overbearing Calvinism of their society. Anyway, I may need to turn to Allitt’s _Catholic Converts_ for help in this area.


  5. DGH doing some “narrative theology” —The believing characters like Rose, and the defiant non-practicing ones like Pinkie, do not look at Christianity as a way to live the good life…. Heaven and hell give meaning, not flourishing.

    I don’t think Hart is assuming that success is inherently sin, but he does well to ask if “flourishing” means “less sinning”. If we can always be both faithful but also “effective”, then what would be the point of needing Jesus to come to earth again one day to transform and to make us flourish?

    For those who say that pacifism might be faithful but can never be “realistically” effective, by what standard do you measure effectiveness?

    For those who warn that talking about election will make your church not big enough (and perhaps keep some of the elect from believing the gospel), by what standard you do you “accredit” your church?


  6. McMark,

    No sarcasm intended on my previous reply. The reason the King’s of the world rage is because they don’t know the Lord. (The Covenanters use the term Lord, for the Godhead, certainly with any Old Book reference. Understandably it is not as clear from context for their New Covenant teaching.

    Your link and your comments do not miss the mark when you target faithfulness instead of success (as measured by this world). What a blessing if both can be achieved, but with both faithfulness and “flourishing” one can certainly expect greater trials.

    My thought is that if you want to hear “well done” from your Lord, then strive for faithfulness and accept “flourishing” if it comes your way.


  7. Oh the irony… I’d like to think there’s also wise guys in Rome who try to buck the establishment by turning to Protestantism. Might not be flashy enough, though

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bill Evans—”Number Three: You are firmly committed to the notion of ‘immediate imputation’ as an adequate description of the mode of imputation whereby both the SIN of Adam and the righteousness of Christ )are credited. This “immediate imputation” involves a purely extrinsic legal or forensic divine act that is independent of any realistic relationship between the persons involved ”

    Chris Bruno–Apart from insisting that our union with Christ is in fact a “real” union it is not clear to me that our union with Adam is the same kind of “real.” Our union with Adam is a seminal reality–the entire human race really was in his DNA, so to speak. While this is certainly a parallelism of sorts, I remain convinced that the language of Romans 5 requires a more precise parallel and that the federal headship view better accounts for this parallelism. Just as all who die in Adam are united to Adam as their federal, covenantal representative, so also all who live in Christ are united to Christ as their federal, covenantal representative. While granting the real danger of objectifying salvation, we must also let the text speak for itself. My concern …is letting our definition of union with Christ color our interpretation rather than letting the text guide his definition.

    mcmark—We were never “in the loins of” Christ. When God imputes Adam’s guilt to people as soon as they are born, God on that basis declare those people guilty. When God imputes Christ’s death to people who are condemned, God on that basis declares those people righteous and does not impute sins to those justified people. The imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ was a purely extrinsic divine act independent of any “flourishing” by the elect. The elect were born by nature ungodly sinners, but Christ (before and after the divine imputation of sins to Christ) was never a sinner by nature nor did Christ ever need regeneration. The guilt imputed to Christ was as mediator of the new covenant and for the elect alone.. Despite incarnation, Christ did not bear the sins of non-elect humans. The gospel is not about “infusion” or “impartation.”

    Romans 6:9–”Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all time..


  9. DGH, Your opposite of ding remark got me thinking. This morning I read Galatians in light of this thread. I literally and figuratively beat upon my breast. How could I be so easily beguiled? (Don’t tell me any jokes on Saturday night!) Thanks be to God for gentle correction!


  10. In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, he has some rather strong words regarding those who do things to gain the approval of men. If what you do, you do because it is approved of God, then it is fine if it is approved of men as well. But, as they say, a little leaven will spread through the whole lump of dough. In my neck of the woods, metaphorically speaking, the current priestly position is more like Quinn’s thought than Senior’s. (Of course, if anyone was to contradict either, Frank would be all over them.)

    (Yah, yah – I know. There are those who don’t want us to be able to communicate using the common language. Maybe the old Rome would do better with modern heretics, disbelievers and such. {Though I don’t believe that for a second.})


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