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Ominous diagnosis remains true


McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP) - In 1973, Karl Menninger penned a book titled, Whatever Became of Sin? Within its pages the eminent psychiatrist lamented the fact that American society seemed to be in the process of rejecting the concept of a divine standard of right and wrong.

The word "sin," Menninger maintained, was disappearing from the American vocabulary. The definition of sin the good doctor had in mind was not sociological, which would only entail the violation of a society's norms or code of laws. No, Menninger's denotation of sin was religious and included the idea of willful rebellion against the standards of God.

Menninger made the case that simply removing the word "sin" from our collective vocabularies would not make its reality disappear. Nor would rejecting the religious definition of sin render its reality null and void.

Sin, in the religious sense, was a living reality in Menninger's mind. Even if the concept was ignored, he believed that individuals and society would still suffer the consequences.

Menninger was correct in his analysis. In the three decades since his views on sin were first published, the word in its religious sense has slowly disappeared from use in American society. As a result, the idea of transgressing a divine standard has become nothing more than a concept rooted in nostalgia.

Rejecting the concept of sin has not kept individuals and society from being negatively impacted. One such consequence has been the death of shame in American culture. Actions that would have shocked society now have a difficult time producing a collective blush.

At present in American society it seems that few are ashamed of even the most outrageous behavior.

One recent example of the above is the experience of Jessica Cutler earlier this year.

Using the pseudonym Washingtonienne, the 26-year-old Capital Hill staffer wrote about her immoral sexual exploits and published them on the Internet via a weblog (she even used her office computer to post the accounts of her lurid liaisons). Before her identity was exposed and she was subsequently fired, Cutler had become known as the Harlot on the Hill.

Once upon a time such behavior would have resulted in shame and perhaps remorse. However, in a nation where sin no longer exists, Cutler is rewarded. Hyperion, the publishing arm of the Disney Corporation, signed her to a book deal reported to be worth $300,000. In addition, Cutler will bare it all in the pages of Playboy - for a hefty price, of course.

Another illustration of the absence of shame in our culture is evidenced in the public's reaction to the recent revelations by New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey.

On Aug. 12, McGreevey confessed to having committed adultery with another man. He then submitted his resignation as governor to be effective Nov. 15. Before sin and shame vanished from the American conscience, such a revelation on the part of an elected official would have been disastrous. Instead, according to, McGreevey's approval rating actually rose in the wake of his confession.

In 1973, Dr. Karl Menninger posed the question, "Whatever became of sin?" If he were alive today, he might well ask, "Whatever became of shame?" Both concepts have vanished from America's moral landscape.

Like any good doctor, Menninger prescribed a solution to the problem of "vanishing" sin. Menninger called on America's clergy to: "Preach! Tell it like it is. Say it from the pulpit. Cry it from the housetops." He continued, "Cry comfort, cry repentance, cry hope. Because recognition of our part in the world transgression is the only remaining hope."

Menninger's prescription is still the only remaining hope.

Boggs is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville.