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Stephen Prothero

Sinning Boldly

Not so deadly.

Americans are doubtless a religious people, but we don't believe in the hard stuff any more. Certainly not in the doctrine of sin, original or otherwise, which seems to have gone missing, even among evangelicals, sometime around the time hell disappeared.

Still, we seem to gravitate, in fascination if not faith, to the Seven Deadly Sins, those transgressions classified by Catholic thinkers from Pope Gregory the Great on as particularly hazardous to our spiritual health. Perhaps it is the enumeration. (Why seven?) Or the parlor game of ranking them. (Is lust worse than gluttony? Is pride the worst of them all?) For whatever reason, books on the Seven Deadly Sins appear with some regularity—far more often, to be sure, than books on the Seven Cardinal Virtues.

The latest contribution to this genre is a series of books on the Seven Deadly Sins from Oxford University Press, each initially delivered as a lecture at the New York Public Library. The series runs from a Buddhist meditation on anger by Columbia University Buddhist Studies professor Robert A. F. Thurman to a raucous satire on sloth by the playwright Wendy Wasserstein (who died in January from cancer). Indulging the other sins are Francine Prose (gluttony), Simon Blackburn (lust), Joseph Epstein (envy), and Phyllis A. Tickle (greed), and, in the recently published seventh volume, Eric Michael Dyson on pride.

One of the more entertaining subplots of these books is the tendency of each writer to cast his or her subject as the King of All Sins. Greed, Tickle boasts, "is the mother and matrix, root and consort of all the other sins." Envy, Epstein insists, is the "subtlest" and "cruelest." Gluttony, claims Prose, is the "most widespread." Pride, Dyson asserts, is "the most deadly of the seven sins."

The volumes also channel a broader cultural tendency to metamorphose their respective sins into mere sicknesses, and then into virtues. In Envy, for example, Epstein diagnoses his "sin" as just "poor mental hygiene." After informing us that pride is "the fundamental sin," Dyson tells us that it may well be the "crown of the virtues." Wasserstein's satire on Sloth—cleverly gussied up as a self-help book, complete with chapters on "Success with Sloth" and "Uberslothdom"—is actually an ode to the same.

Blackburn, a University of Cambridge philosophy professor, takes a more straightforward approach in his rehabilitation of lust (not coincidentally, the fattest volume in the series). "Lust gets a bad press," Blackburn writes in his introduction, and he devotes the rest of the book to puffing it as "not merely useful but essential." In the gospel according to Blackburn, the real sinners are those—Catholics mostly—who want to regulate our sexual hydraulics, damn up its "freedom of flow." Blackburn even suggests that we might want to "take our lust neat, without the fantasies and crystallizations of love." So when he asks of prostitution and pornography, "are they quite as bad as normally painted?", we know that the correct answer is no.

Blackburn's conflation of lust, sex, the sex drive, and sexual desire illustrates another flaw of some of these books, namely a refusal to discriminate with care between their subjects and related malefactions. Tickle, for example, lists acquisitiveness, covetousness, avidity, cupidity, and avarice as greed's aliases, but does not distinguish carefully among them. One of the ways that Dyson gets around to praising pride as "a boon" and "a stroke of moral genius" is by conflating it with self-respect, self-esteem, self-love, self-regard, and self-love. Thurman, by contrast, discriminates helpfully between anger and hate, describing the latter as "more a conceptual or mental attitude" and the former an "emotional state." Epstein distinguishes between envy and wistfulness, envy and resentment, envy and revenge, envy and jealousy. "One is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have," he writes.

Epstein also provocatively divides the sins into the cold (pride, greed, sloth, envy) and the hot (lust, anger, gluttony), recalling Blackburn's very different but equally intriguing typology of the sins of youth (his beloved lust) and the sins of middle age (envy, anger, gluttony).

Of all these books, Dyson's Pride is the most frustrating, Epstein's Envy the smartest, and Thurman's Anger the most intriguing. Dyson seems to be content to channel a combination of Jesse Jackson and Gordon Gekko (of Wall Street fame), whispering—shouting actually—not "Greed is good!" but "PRIDE IS GOOD! I AM SOMEBODY!"—throughout. To put it more pointedly, he fails to fulfill his assignment, first by declining to think much about the perils of pride at all (except in the cases of racism and nationalism), and, second, by riffing repeatedly on entirely unrelated topics—from the Bush Administration's policies on electronic surveillance (bad) to international courts of justice (good). Who knew?

Epstein offers a host of insights that seem obvious once he has expressed them (for instance, the fact that envy tends to crop up among the sexes rather than across them). And he excels at seeing the big picture. Much intergenerational conflict is rooted in envy by the old of the young ("envy tinged with regret," he calls it). Feminism is built on envy, he argues, as is Marxism. (Greed is capitalism's sin, he notes; envy is socialism's.) Even the tabloids come under Epstein's envy eye—as purveyors of Schadenfreude charged with the enviable task of bringing the rich and the famous to heel.

Oddly, the only book that really seems to treat its subject as a sin (sans scare quotes) is written by an adherent to Buddhism, a religious tradition that has not classically preached this doctrine. "I am angry at anger—I hate it," Thurman's book begins. And in the chapters that follow he provides an antidote to this "poison."

To his credit, Thurman sees his sin as social. War, he says, is "organized anger," and he criticizes Hollywood's action/adventure genre (including Kill Bill, which stars his daughter Uma) for glorifying anger-turned-violent-turned-deadly. The centerpiece of this book, however, is Thurman's step-by-step exegesis of classic Buddhist teaching on the psychology of anger and its antidote: patience. Readers unfamiliar with Tibetan Buddhism's distinctive style of argumentation may find some of that exegesis rough sledding, but the reward for those who mush on to the end is a glorious trek—with the 7th-century Tibetan Buddhist scholar Shantideva as their wizened guide—down the middle path between "resignation to anger" and "resignation from anger." Thurman also includes a riotous one-page distillation of the havoc he believes was wreaked—in Eden, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Egypt—by the angry God of the Bible.

Flannery O'Connor, the sin-obsessed novelist of the once sin-obsessed South, wrote, "The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it in that way." The Seven Deadly Sins series was written for this modern reader. But what has been lost as sin has been sacrificed to freedom?

The stock answers are close at hand. What has been lost are guilt and fear, Catholic bishops who worm their way into our bedrooms, Puritan divines who take sadistic pleasure in dangling us over a fiery pit. But such answers are too pat.

What is missing from these books—and from contemporary American culture—is a sense that something is missing from this world. With the notable exception of Thurman's Anger, there is little awareness here of the incompleteness and unsatisfactoriness that Augustine took for evidence of another life, and that saints from Mary to Mother Teresa have taken as a charge to make this life conform to our imaginings of the next. Quoting Baudelaire, O'Connor once wrote that "the devil's greatest wile …is to convince us that he does not exist." If so, this is a wily series indeed.

Say what you want about the vices of the dogma of sin, one of its virtues has always been to remind us that we—all of us—live between the animals and the gods, that one of the underappreciated challenges of human life is to somehow become a human being. Of course, there are myriad ways to avoid this task, one of the most popular being to imagine that you are in some important respect (morally perhaps?) superior to your fellow human beings. The doctrine of sin reminds us that this path leads to individual and collective ruin.

But this doctrine need not only humble us. It can embolden us, too, lend us the power to talk back to power, to remind those who denounce others—other races, other nations, other religions—as evildoers that we are all evildoers. This is a hard truth for any culture, harder still for an optimistic culture tethered only to the sky. But it is one that we ignore at great cost.

Stephen Prothero is chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University. His book Religious Literacy is forthcoming from HarperSanFrancisco.

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