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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 grays. Flip on the news, though, and all we see and hear screams primary colors—moral indignation, often enough moral indigestion. A strange cultural moment, this, one in which we continue to jettison the language of sin even as we scrabble for something, anything, with which to fight the bad guys.

And that leads me to Alan Jacobs' splendid Original Sin: A Cultural History, a book endeavoring to help us say and do something about the sin which so easily ensnares (even if we aren't sure it really exists). Jacobs' is not an easy task. Part apologist, part peddler of cultural curiosities, part champion of the doctrinal underdog, he aims to win another hearing for original sin. Moving back and forth in history, he details commendations and dismissals of the doctrine, beginning—where else?—with Augustine, its most influential expositor. Haven't we all, with Augustine, experienced what Jacobs nicely dubs a "forking and branching" of the will?

Jonathan Edwards argues from the way we infer that dice are loaded (how many double sixes in a row does it take?) to the common sense of the doctrine of original sin (who hasn't shown himself to be a creep?). In Edwards' eyes, children arrive in the world nasty, brutish, and, well, short. Despite their seeming innocence, if children are "out of Christ" they are "more hateful than vipers." John Wesley agrees, though his theology of love holds him back from the brazen pronouncements of the Augustinian tradition. Wesley sets up a reparative pedagogy in which "the education of children consists primarily, if not exclusively, in discerning these sins and rooting them out as aggressively as possible."

Then there's Rousseau, whose Émile begins with an axiom: "that the first movements of nature are always right; there is no original perversity in the human heart." Learning from nature is at the heart of his curriculum. But to do that, children must be kept free from the complicating variables of human society. The ironies of the highly artificial environment in which Rousseau's natural pedagogy operates are not lost on Jacobs. We have, then, an education founded on the belief that our first instincts are right and good, but one that takes great pains to keep children from other natively good people out of fear that interacting with those good people will make children bad. Curious.

This should all sound fairly familiar. Intellectual history has circled around the nature/nurture debate for the last couple of centuries, and to ask about original sin is to suggest that nature remains a meaningful category. To hard-core social constructionists, Jacobs puts the question of "why the social construction of selves is so limited in its range, so unimaginatively and repetitively attached to making us cruel and selfish." You'd think we'd come up with something a bit more interesting to be and do.

The nature/nurture debate leads us inexorably to the ancient question that haunts this book: Unde hoc malum? Whence sin? So John Milton struggled to imagine sin's point of entry, given its (originally) utter novelty. The question rings existentially, too, often enough in less articulate forms—something like, "What the hell is wrong with me?" Pretty good question, that. It recognizes the labyrinthine character of sin, the sense of being caught, sin's power over us, its systemic implications, and, of course, the infernal connection. Sin is hellish.

Another answer to the "Whence?" question takes up categories of internal and external. Did the Devil make me do it? Or is it that I, myself, am a bit of a devil? Jacobs sums up a long tradition, which moves from demonology to pathology: "For if it was the genius of Prudentius and his followers [in medieval morality plays] to reach into the divided self and pull out its voices, giving them bodily substance and individual identity, it was the genius of Freud and his followers to stuff them all back into the box." Freud's move, then, is less an evasion of biblical accounts of evil than it is a rebuke of another kind of evasion, the sinfully clever attempt to get myself off the hook in the refuge of a devil who made me do it. (Don't miss Jacobs' analysis of the Tom and Jerry cartoons in which a little Tom angel and devil perch atop big Tom's shoulders.)

Hence Pascal's comment that original sin is necessary for self-knowledge. Original sin's deniers like to claim that the doctrine does bad things, or at least discourages us from doing good things. It deals death. So they tell us. But over and over in Jacobs' account, we meet well-intentioned characters, only to find their happier, gentler anthropologies turning sour, leading to (or at least abetting) anarchy, eugenics, despair. Perhaps the greatest irony in this history is the discovery that knowledge of original sin gives life—by revealing us to ourselves, yes, but also by grounding a sense of universal human kinship.

As Jacobs notes, "To identify someone as kin is to grant that person a claim upon us." Strikingly, Jacobs argues that the "confraternity" of humanity is best grounded not in our being made in the image of God but in our being made sinful in Adam: "If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation." The history of the deployment of the imago Dei is riddled with attempts to limit its application to less than the sum of humanity—further evidence for original sin.

A final story, on the origin of the Feast of All Souls. Just before the end of the first millennium after Christ, the abbey of Cluny received a visitor. Returning from the Holy Land, this pilgrim had been shipwrecked on an island whose sole inhabitant was a hermit. The hermit told him about a hole in a rock formation from which he could hear souls groaning—and their tormentors complaining about the prayers of the living on behalf of these dead. Inspired by this tale, the young abbot, Odilo, transformed Cluny into a place devoted entirely to prayer and added what became known as All Souls' Day, "to pray for the souls who, while not damned, had not entered into blessedness." What marked All Souls' with a certain égalité et fraternité was its placement in the church calendar: on November 2, the day after All Saints' Day. All Saints' arose out of the cult of the saints, in which the dead served as spiritual patrons. That made perfect sense in the hierarchies of medieval society. But with the institution of All Souls', the living could reciprocate. It was, then, a robust doctrine of sin and judgment leading to earnest intercession that created what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called "the Christian democracy of the dead and the dying."

Truly a revolutionary thought—that the roots of our common humanity might be found, not in our dignity or even our potential, but in our depravity.

Matt Jenson is a theologian teaching great books in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He is the author of The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on 'Homo incurvatus in se' (T&T Clark). He lives with his sister in Fullerton.

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