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Reviewed by Abram Van Engen

Mistakes Were Made

Four of the Seven Deadly Sins, as seen from a contemporary vantage point.

Recently, prominent writers from a wide variety of fields took the stage at the New York Public Library to expound upon the Seven Deadly Sins. Four of the lectures have now been published in book form, with three additional volumes forthcoming. An editor's note explains that these books are intended "to chart the ways we have approached and understood evil, one deadly sin at a time." The problem, however, is that the series lifts seven names from an old and closely detailed map in order to draw a new and rather vague one, occasionally replacing what once was a warning with a blessing.

Thus, for example, the philosopher Simon Blackburn, in Lust, specifically proposes to "lift [lust] from the category of sin to that of virtue." By pillorying the Christian tradition, he hopes "to destroy the stocks and pillories of the Puritans, to separate [lust] from other things that we know drag it down." Blackburn does not attempt to understand what the Church Doctors meant by lust; he simply offers up his own thoughts concerning the vice.

Joseph Epstein's thoughts and anecdotes concerning envy are in the same vein. Epstein—the lapidary essayist who was for many years editor of The American Scholar—defines envy by a question: "Why does he have it and not I?" And while he poses the fine line between actual and perceived injustice, he does no more than that. Nowhere in Envy do we actually find out what envy is—much less, why it constitutes a sin; what is missing is a conceptual analysis of the vice proposed. The book feels quite sophisticated, but the feeling is belied by its limited claims. Regarding the place of envy in human nature, for example, Epstein is unprepared or unwilling to comment. Some say this, some say that, no one really knows. In the end, Epstein sends us out on our own: "one must decide, finally, whether envy is or is not a part of human nature." It would be nice if he could help. Yet swept along by brilliantly smooth prose full of wit and panache, the reader almost forgets that the writer is hardly making a substantive, ethical claim.

In Gluttony, on the other hand, Francine Prose—best known for her fiction, though she has written in other forms as well—makes a number of claims, several of which manage to get the Christian tradition entirely wrong. Thus, she states, "The traditional solution to the problems of gluttony and lust has been to suggest that the element of sin enters in only when we allow ourselves to relax and enjoy satisfying the needs of the body. We are allowed to eat and have sex as long as we don't like it." She later adds (in what amounts to a stunning conspiracy-theory interpretation of history), "The pleasure haters and monastery dwellers … naturally conspired to put gluttony on the same list as lust—two impulses that, if allowed to erupt uncontrolled, would certainly hinder the smooth operation of a very particular kind of institution." Thus, saints and clerics "labored to make sure that comfort and delight should not get in the way of the austere devotions, the pure concentration that true Christians were meant to reserve for God."

Several problems arise. First, she's simply wrong. Monks knew how to feast as well as how to fast. (The wine of communion, after all, signifies celebration.) Augustine famously defended the goodness of creation and everything in it. Gifts were given to be enjoyed.

Into this context, Phyllis Tickle enters like a cool breeze on a hot day. In Greed, Tickle—who has written widely on religious matters and who recently compiled The Divine Hours, a three-volume prayer book for the discipline of the daily offices—proves herself deeply conversant with the Christian tradition. With a good deal of sympathy, she moves beyond secular stereotypes into a nuanced understanding of Christian claims concerning vice: "While others may argue or even deplore the conflation of act and thought, it is neither a caprice of Christian theologians nor a position open to negotiation for believers, since it is based on some of the clearest, least debatable sections of Christian scripture." Tickle explains how we have come from the past to the present, complete with insights that provoke the reader to consider further implications. In short, she leaves us in modernity, re-envisioning the Seven Deadly Sins from a post-Nietzschean perspective looking back to its spiritual roots.

Even so, the book does not entirely do justice to its title. While Tickle offers some valuable thoughts concerning greed (such as that in the eyes of Prudentius, it is "actually the sin of apostasy, of desiring a life subject to human control over a life of vulnerable trust in the unseen," or that greed rises in direct proportion to end-times anxiety as proven by the joint gross sales of the Left Behind series and The Prayer of Jabez), she avoids any direct analysis, opting instead for a series of images. Yet the images explain little. As I closed the book, I was still left wondering: What constitutes greed? How is it identified? What is it opposed to? How is it cured? Tickle's prologue is entitled "Being a Bit of Context," but the entire book seems to set the context for a discussion of greed that never actually occurs.

Still to come are the African American commentator Michael Eric Dyson on pride, the scholar of Buddhism Robert A.F. Thurman on anger, and the playwright Wendy Wasserstein on sloth. For an alternative perspective, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans), by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is not a bad place to start.

Abram Van Engen will begin doctoral studies in English in the fall.

Related Elsewhere:

More information on Envy, Gluttony, Greed, and Lust are available from the publisher.

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.

Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:

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Wholly, Wholly, Wholly | Calvinists and conga drums in Grand Rapids: a report from the seventeenth annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. (Feb. 02, 2004)
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A Rose Among Thorns | A new novel by the author of Father Elijah illumines the spiritual consequences of our simplest decisions. (Jan. 26, 2004)
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