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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Putting the "Sin" in Sin City

Everybody's heard the saying "What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas." Basically this saying means that a stay in Vegas gives you a license for vice. For the duration of your stay you can do whatever you please, whenever you want, and however often you want to do it. Gambling, gluttony, and sex are a few of the obvious vices that you can start off with - and that's just the stuff you see in the bright lights of the strip. For me it all begs the question of how and why Vegas is so sinful. I've always been a small town, country boy from northern Indiana. My hometown of Winona Lake, Indiana would never earn a nickname like "Sin City." Why do we call some cities "Sin City" or "Sodom and Gomorrah"? What separates the Las Vegas' and Sodom and Gomorrah's from the small towns of Winona Lake?

We might start by noticing that Winona Lake, IN is not short on vices of its own. My community has a heritage of strong religious and Christian conviction. This is particularly true of Winona Lake in that it is here that the Reverend Billy Sunday hails from. Any small community has its share of depravity. In fact, it may very well be that a little town will harbor more sin per capita than Las Vegas, despite the fact that it maintains a pristine and pious reputation. Jesus called the Pharisees in his day "white washed tombs" because they painted a pretty exterior, but on the inside they were spiritually and morally dead and rotting corpses. So, we don't want to say that a small town is any better or worse then Las Vegas. Vegas is certainly more in your face with sin, but small town America may harbor its own sins, even if they are beneath the surface.

Of course we still really haven't answered our question. Why does Las Vegas get the tag "Sin City"?? There seems to be something more that separates Vegas from Winona Lake.

It isn't necessarily the percentage of depravity that occurs, I think it has more to do with a certain set of expectations - an atmosphere and culture. And I think at this point it will be interesting to cross reference the book of Romans, particularly the first chapter. The first chapter of Romans is one of the primary chapters used by theologians to discuss human depravity and the knowledge of God. To the casual observer it often seems rather harsh. The apostle Paul seems to be going to some extremes here to paint a worst-case-scenario of human life. Verses 28-31 (of chapter 1) go as follows:

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Why does Paul paint with such broadstrokes? Realistically speaking there are very few people that are really that bad. We all have our vices, but how many of us are really as bad as Paul describes? How many of us are really Romans one bad? But Paul's point here is not to say that everyone of us possess all of these sins in the extreme. His point is that as a collective whole of humanity we are prone to develop this depravity as a collective whole. In verses 18-21 Paul seems to be pointing to a suppression of truth by the individual. But in verses 22 and following he seems to be expanding his thoughts to show how the seeds of evil in the individual human heart can bloom and grow into a community of depravity in which all kinds of evil vices flourish. And that, of course, brings us back to Vegas...

Vegas is Sin City because the city creates an atmosphere and environment for depravity. It is a community of vice. As individuals we are capable of sin and vice, but as a collective whole we are capable of so much more. This is also seen in the Tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11:1-9) where God sees that the collective will of humanity is strong enough to accomplish whatever it sets itself to do. In the case of the Tower of Babel the collective will was bent on evil and, as such, God interjected.

So, what is it? The collective will as a group, or the sinful depravity of the individual heart? Hard to say, as far as I can see. Without the depravity of the individual it is difficult to see how vice could grow into a monstrous culture of evil. On the other hand, it seems evident from the Tower of Babel, Vegas, and other such examples that groups can accomplish more vice than the individual on his or her own. It is like an avalanche effect: Once the ball gets rolling it is hard to resist from cascading down the mountain with the rest of culture. The stronger the current is the more difficult it is to resist and the farther downstream we get carried when we allow ourselves to go with the flow.

Perhaps the most relevant question is how to reverse the trends of sin cities. If negative energy can build up to a frenzy and carry individuals to the lowest depths of depravity doesn't it also seem possible that something similar could happen in the other direction? A movement of goodness, mercy, and love? I think history has played out this way. But what does it take to effect real change? To change the force and energy of sin cities and usher in the city of God?

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