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by Matt Jenson


Sin Happens

Alan Jacobs on Adam's curse.

It's a funny thing when an idea becomes at once singularly despised and surprisingly fascinating, simultaneously passé and sexy. Take the doctrine of original sin—that complex of theological and biological commitments developed and coordinated to make sense of our sense (and Scripture's) that we are dead ends, all of us. One wonders, though, whether it is our sense these days. Fifty years ago, evangelistic tracts did their Lutheran thing to great effect: Law, then Gospel. Evangelists established points of contact by reminding listeners that they were all sinners—who could deny it?—then moved from problem to solution and invitation. And it worked, more or less.

But things are different now. The contemporary American landscape features a striking coincidence of blatant brokenness and robust self-esteem. We know we're broke, but we don't think we need any fixin'. In fact, we resent the suggestion. We chafe at the occasional attempt to rehabilitate notions of innate sinfulness as world-denying, repressive, and death-dealing.

Whence, then, the recent rash of books on sin? We might expect that from academic monographs. After all, sin used to matter. Its historical fascination is patent, not least because we delight in figuring out what was wrong with our parents. But a series of wryly written and deftly marketed books on the seven deadly sins, selling for $9.95 a pop? I suspect that sin's reemergence into the limelight is directly, if inversely, related to its perceived claim on our lives. Now that we can breezily laugh it off, sin has become interesting (if only quaintly so).

There is always more to the story, of course. Even as our moral grammar hobbles along with its emaciated spouse, our moral sense, we navigate a world in which events (take your pick: genocide, pandemics, economic stratification, moral relativism, environmental anarchy) desperately call for both sense and grammar. At home, we go for drab colors, wearing a bland combination of moral ...

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