Q & R: Turtles and Salvation

Here’s the Q:

As I was browsing your slideshares, which I love by the way, I occasionally see a slide of a turtle distorted in its shell by a piece of plastic. What is narrative that goes with the slide? Environmental destruction made visible? The distorted nature of the way we read the scriptures? Something else?
This has been like one of the Lord’s parables. I wonder, “What does this mean?”

Here’s the R:
I’m so glad you enjoy the slides. I told this story in Chapter 4 of A Generous Orthodoxy as a reflection on the concept of salvation:

Some people I know of once found a snapping turtle crossing a road in New Jersey. Snapping turtles are normally ugly: grey, often sporting a slimy coating of green algae, trailing a long, serrated tail and fronted by massive and sharp jaws that can damage if not sever a careless finger or two. This turtle was even uglier than most: it was grossly deformed due to a plastic bottle top, a ring about and inch-and-a-half in diameter that it had accidentally acquired as a hatchling when it too was about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. The ring had fit around its midsection like a belt back then, but now, nearly a foot long, weighing about 9 pounds, the animal was corseted by the ring so that it looked like a figure 8.
My friends realized that if they left the turtle in its current state, it would die. The deformity was survivable at 9 pounds, but a full-grown snapper can weigh 30; at that size, the constriction would not be survivable. So, they snipped the ring. And nothing happened. Nothing.
Except for one thing: at that moment, the turtle had a future. It was rescued. It was saved. It would take years for the animal to grow into more normal proportions, maybe decades. Perhaps even in old age, it would still be somewhat guitar-shaped. But it would survive.
Our species has been similarly been deformed by a ring of selfishness, greed, lust, injustice, fear, prejudice, arrogance, apathy, chauvinism, and ignorance. When I say that Jesus is savior, I believe he snipped the ring by judging, forgiving, teaching, suffering, dying, rising, and more. And he’s still working to restore us, to lead us, to heal us. Jesus is still in the process of saving us. Because I have confidence in Jesus as savior, I’m seeking to be part of his ongoing saving work, sharing his saving love for our world.
Like Vincent Donovan, I used to believe that Jesus’ primary focus was on saving me as an individual, and on saving other “me’s” as individuals. For that reason, I often spoke of Jesus as my “personal savior,” and I urged others to believe in Jesus in the same way. I still believe that Jesus is vitally interested in saving me and you by individually judging us (exposing and naming our wrong and hypocrisy, so we can turn away from – or repent of – them), by forgiving us of our wrongs (so we don’t feel defeated and alienated by them, and so we won’t be trapped in their ugly consequences), and teaching us to live in a better way (so that we can become part of the solution instead of part of the problem). But I fear that for too many Christians, “personal salvation” has become another personal consumer product (like personal computers, personal deodorants, personal toothpaste, etc.) and Christianity has become its marketing program. If so, then in the end, salvation is “all about me,” and like Vincent Donovan, I think we need another song.

I also use the slide to illustrate the “plastic rings” of assumptions or notions that limit us. We can survive with them for a long time … and sometimes even “grow” and “reproduce,” but eventually, they will be lethal if we don’t have the courage to snip them. Often a deep change in viewpoint doesn’t have immediate consequences. But longer term, such changes can be matters of survival. Not a bad insight with which to face the new year!