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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 ...

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