Original Sin: A Cultural History

Overview

Essayist and biographer Alan Jacobs introduces us to the world of original sin, which he describes as not only a profound idea but a necessary one. As G. K. Chesterton explains, "Only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king."

Do we arrive in this world predisposed to evil? St. Augustine passionately argued that we do; his opponents thought the notion was an insult to a good God. Ever since Augustine, the church has taught the doctrine of original ...

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Overview

Essayist and biographer Alan Jacobs introduces us to the world of original sin, which he describes as not only a profound idea but a necessary one. As G. K. Chesterton explains, "Only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king."

Do we arrive in this world predisposed to evil? St. Augustine passionately argued that we do; his opponents thought the notion was an insult to a good God. Ever since Augustine, the church has taught the doctrine of original sin, which is the idea that we are not born innocent, but as babes we are corrupt, guilty, and worthy of condemnation. Thus started a debate that has raged for centuries and done much to shape Western civilization.

Perhaps no Christian doctrine is more controversial; perhaps none is more consequential. Blaise Pascal claimed that "but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves." Chesterton affirmed it as the only provable Christian doctrine. Modern scholars assail the idea as baleful and pernicious. But whether or not we believe in original sin, the idea has shaped our most fundamental institutions—our political structures, how we teach and raise our young, and, perhaps most pervasively of all, how we understand ourselves. In Original Sin, Alan Jacobs takes readers on a sweeping tour of the idea of original sin, its origins, its history, and its proponents and opponents. And he leaves us better prepared to answer one of the most important questions of all: Are we really, all of us, bad to the bone?

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Editorial Reviews

Time Magazines Literary Supplement (London)
"[A]n engaging and lucid work by a sophisticated Evangelical from the American South. . . . For all its American bias, Alan Jacobs’s highly readably ORIGINAL SIN might fill one of the gaps in the post-Christian memory banks."
Ron Hansen
“Alan Jacobs’ cultural history of the controversies that Saint Augustine’s concept gave birth to is fascinating, entertaining, wonderfully researched, and thoroughly even-tempered, giving even the most disagreeable voices their say. Original Sin may well become the definitive book on the subject.”
Alan Wolfe
I do not believe in original sin. I do believe in Alan Jacobs. He is one the smartest and wittiest writers around on matters involving religion, and ORIGINAL SIN is a gem.
Frederick Buechner
“With extraordinary erudition and just enough lightness of touch to leaven the lump, Alan Jacobs traces the tangled ways that we have tried to think about human cussedness.
Beliefnet Editors
“Follows the history of thinking about original sin from Augustine to ‘Hellboy’ and rewards the curious reader with unique knowledge (of good and evil) on every page.”
George Marsden
Alan Jacobs presents an engagingly written, eminently humane, and insightful account of an all-important subject that is both timeless and timely.
Books & Culture
Splendid...a book endeavoring to help us say and do something about the sin which so easily ensares. 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. 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.”
Christianity Today
“A deep pool of wisdom . . . an expression of what’s wrong with all of us. Jacobs’ prose often sings . . . Careful when you open this book—it could keep you up at nights.”
Booklist
A brilliantly illuminating, deeply thought-provoking intellectual journey.
BN.com
Jacobs’s discussion is terrifically worthwhile for exposing how the idea of “evil,” as enunciated iwthin the doctrine, undergoes permutations and translations over time
The Wall Street Journal
“A strangely entertaining cultural survey . . . ”
Beliefnet (Best Religious Book of the Year)
“Follows the history of thinking about original sin from Augustine to ‘Hellboy’ and rewards the curious reader with unique knowledge (of good and evil) on every page.”
Christian Century
“One wouldn’t expect a book about original sin to be entertaining, but Jacobs makes it so with deft prose and a touch of humor.”
Books & Culture ("Top Ten Books of the Year")
“Jacobs is a superb writer whose work is beginning to get the wider notice it has long deserved.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“[A]n engaging and lucid work by a sophisticated Evangelical from the American South. . . . For all its American bias, Alan Jacobs’s highly readably ORIGINAL SIN might fill one of the gaps in the post-Christian memory banks.”
Weekly Standard
“Jacobs’s flowing prose keeps the book moving at a nice pace.”
The Wall Street Journal
“A strangely entertaining cultural survey . . . ”
Christian Century
“One wouldn’t expect a book about original sin to be entertaining, but Jacobs makes it so with deft prose and a touch of humor.”
Weekly Standard
“Jacobs’s flowing prose keeps the book moving at a nice pace.”
Christianity Today
“A deep pool of wisdom . . . an expression of what’s wrong with all of us. Jacobs’ prose often sings . . . Careful when you open this book--it could keep you up at nights.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“[A]n engaging and lucid work by a sophisticated Evangelical from the American South. . . . For all its American bias, Alan Jacobs’s highly readably ORIGINAL SIN might fill one of the gaps in the post-Christian memory banks.”
Books & Culture
Splendid...a book endeavoring to help us say and do something about the sin which so easily ensares. 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. 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.”
BN.com
Jacobs’s discussion is terrifically worthwhile for exposing how the idea of “evil,” as enunciated iwthin the doctrine, undergoes permutations and translations over time
Books & Culture ("Top Ten Books of the Year")
“Jacobs is a superb writer whose work is beginning to get the wider notice it has long deserved.”
School Library Journal

Jacobs (literature, Wheaton Coll.; The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis) here tackles the intellectual challenge laid down by St. Augustine's (354-430 C.E.) formulation of the doctrine of original sin and its reverberations throughout human history. Using a cultural history methodology, he examines various human expressions about and understandings of original sin as exemplified in ancient non-Christian sources (e.g., Homer's The Iliad) and modern-day writings (e.g., of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins). In 11 chapters, he compares and contrasts cultural manifestations of differing human reactions-both favorable and less so-to Augustinian anthropology (e.g., mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal and Jansenism's negative outlook on human behavior vs. Christian writer/preacher John Bunyan and Quakerism's more positive approaches). Replete with examples drawn from a number of different cultural expressions, including literature, film, and philosophy, the narrative is intended to introduce a broad general audience to the complexity of explaining how human beings act evilly toward one another by examining the various cultural manifestations of Augustine's notion of original sin. Recommended for a wide general audience.
—Charles Murray

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

The Barnes & Noble Review
It is said that when Jonathan Edwards delivered his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," to a congregation in Enfield, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1741, the burden of the imagery was so powerful that his congregants began wailing loudly over the depravity of their condition -- so much so, in fact, that Edwards had to interrupt his sermon to ask for quiet. When that didn't calm the audience, he had to abandon the sermon; it wouldn't appear in its complete form until it was later published.

Such is the power that the theological concept of "original sin" can hold over its adherents. Edwards, perhaps the greatest theologian in this country's history, grappled with its meaning his entire life, seeking to understand and justify what others, particularly in England at the dawn of the modern era, were optimistically jettisoning, installing "moral virtue" rather than utter depravity at the core of their theology. By "original sin" is meant not merely the sin of Adam in disobeying God's prohibition on eating from the Tree of Knowledge but also its devastating corollary; as St. Paul wrote in the Book of Romans, "Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin." In Romans 3:10 he more bluntly stated, "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one." If such a bedrock fact is at odds with a new spirit of melioration among liberal theologians, Edwards reckoned, the problem lies not with the concept of original sin -- or even with the thorny issue of why God would permit man to fall, making Himself something of the author of sin -- but with the limits of human understanding into the ways of God. But at any rate, he wrote in his own volume dedicated to the troubling notion, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (1757), "The immediate consequence [of Adam's action] was a fatal catastrophe, a turning of all things upside down, and the succession of a state of the most odious and dreadful confusion."

It's necessary to linger over Edwards, for he looms over the shoulder of English professor Alan Jacobs throughout Original Sin: A Cultural History. Although the tyrannical concept of pure iniquity has dominated and engaged the thought of figures as towering as Augustine, John Milton, Blaise Pascal, and, in our last century, C. P. Snow and Reinhold Niebuhr, it is Edwards who seems the most relevant to Jacobs's own understanding of the doctrine and its ramifications -- its extension of a radical democracy of sorts in which everyone, no matter what their station in life, is inherently equal because they are equally damned. (Edwards himself explicitly wrote of the Native Americans he witnessed to, and the new theologians who rejected the doctrine, as subject to "universal declension.") "In general it is easier for most of us to condescend, " Jacobs writes, "in the etymological sense of the word -- to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others -- than to lift up people whom our culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. 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."

Jacobs is forthright about his own evangelical identity. Writing on Augustine's encounter with the sharp blade of Paul's letters -- which led the African bishop to formulate, in a set of disputatious dialogues with a rival sect, that "even infants are born sinners, not by their own act but because of their origin" -- Jacobs notes, "I write this as one who was similarly pierced; it was my discovery that Paul understood my inmost griefs and self-loathings that led me to Christianity." Even as he traces the history of the doctrine, its anthropological understanding of the nature of evil, and the emphasis it places on a sort of Christian idea of inheritance -- which he does from the time of the Church Fathers through the Enlightenment and the birth of utopian thought, on up to recent thinkers (including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and social psychologist Philip Zimbardo), Jacobs shows his fangs to those who deny what Paul called the "mystery of iniquity." He clearly has a dog in this fight.

No one receives the full brunt of his wrath as much as Rousseau and the myth of the noble savage. Writing of the "Wordsworthian fluff about the innocence and purity of children," he argues, "certainly I have always wondered whether those who talk about 'childlike innocence' have had children of their own or even spent much time around them." When he recounts the sad outcome of the child of one intellectual who was sent to Rousseau to be reared according to the philosopher's coddling theories in émile, he notes that the boy never subsequently "took well to schooling of any kind. He became a sailor and eventually immigrated to America, dying in North Carolina at the age of thirty-two." At least Jacobs is honest in not repressing his Schadenfreude over the stunted moral growth of the young man.

This of course raises a perfectly valid question: how profitable is his book for a nonbeliever? Jacobs, as noted, never hides his positions, and he indeed lays out a historically informed defense of what many have considered a most pernicious doctrine that grew out of the particular self-loathing antihumanism of Paul and Augustine. (And he is probably most entertaining as a writer when he is eagerly puncturing the bloated and self-contradictory homilies of Zimbardo et al.) That said, Jacobs's discussion is terrifically worthwhile for exposing how the idea of "evil," as enunciated within the doctrine, undergoes permutations and translations over time. Paul did well in describing it as a "mystery." In a sparkling discussion of Rebecca West's prewar tome on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, he lays out what an "Augustinian anthropology without its accompanying theology" might look like. As West, a nonbeliever, confronts the bloody history of Serbia, to which she was drawn over the "corrupt," Western-oriented Croatia, she hears an ugly, death-driven sermon that it is better to be crucified than to crucify. Considering the Serbian cult of the martyred Prince Lazar, beheaded in 1389 in Kosovo, West wrote, "If it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat,, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history.... If this disposition to be at once Christ and Judas is inborn...we might as well die, and the sooner the better." Her illusions are destroyed, but she is beyond redemption. So what of that Augustinian anthropology minus the theology? In light of West's ruminations, Jacobs calls her conclusion "one of the worst positions a person can occupy in thinking of her fellow human beings." Jonathan Edwards would no doubt have agreed. --Eric Banks

Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum. He has contributed to The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, and the Financial Times and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060872571
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,117,483
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. He is the author of several books, including most recently The Narnian, a biography of C. S. Lewis. His literary and cultural criticism has appeared in a wide range of periodicals, including the Boston Globe, The American Scholar, First Things, Books & Culture, and The Oxford American.

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Read an Excerpt


Original Sin

A Cultural History


By Alan Jacobs
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009

Alan Jacobs
All right reserved.



ISBN: 9780060872571


Chapter One

Six Stories

One

When the Greek soldiers burst into the city of Troy, Cassandra—who had prophesied it all, who knew what fate awaited her and all the Trojan women—fled to the temple of Athena. Until quite recently there had stood the talisman of the Trojans, the Palladium, the great statue crafted by Athena herself, the presence of which guaranteed the safety of the city. But one night Odysseus and Diomedes had crept into the city and stolen it. Its theft dismayed and terrified the Trojans, who felt the loss of divine power and protection; they substituted a wooden copy, which under the circumstances was all they could manage. Cassandra threw herself upon this counterfeit, pleading for the divine intervention she knew would not come.

It was Ajax who found her there—Ajax son of Oileus, called "Little Ajax" in contrast to his giant comrade, Telamonian Ajax. All the tales agree that he dragged Cassandra from the temple, as she clutched still the effigy of Pallas; some poets say he raped her first. Later she was taken by the great king Agamemnon back to Argos, where she prophesied and then witnessed his murder before being murdered herself. But Ajax returned to Locris, his homeland, on the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth, where in a storm his ship broke uponthe rocks. Brought safely to land nonetheless by the aid of Poseidon, he climbed out of the surf and boasted that he had saved himself by his own power, overcoming the ill will of the gods. For this Poseidon immediately struck him dead, or perhaps Athena herself executed him with a thunderbolt from the armory of her father, Zeus.

His death was a great tragedy for the Locrians, not because they lost their chief and hero, but because now the wrath of Athena could fall only upon them. Famine and disease overcame them; not knowing that their warrior prince had defiled Athena's shrine—he had been killed before boasting of that—they consulted the great Oracle at Delphi, who told them the story, and told them also that there was a way to atone for Ajax's cruelty. But it was a harsh way.

Athena would ease their suffering under this condition: that each year, for a thousand years, two young maidens of Locris would be sent, as payment and sacrifice, to serve at Athena's shrine at Troy. However, those Trojans who remained in their ruined city considered the very presence of these girls a defilement and would stone them to death and burn their corpses—if they could catch them before their arrival at the shrine. But if the girls could reach Athena's temple, they could not then be touched; they became slaves of Athena's priests. So the Locrians took great care to arrive in stealth at various times of the year. And what the Trojans did not know (so says Aeneas Tacitus, an early Roman military strategist who wrote a survival guide for the dwellers of besieged cities) was that the same secret passage that Odysseus and Diomedes had used to steal the Palladium was the one the Locrians used to sneak this year's maidens into the temple and spirit away the ones they had brought the previous year.

A strange legend; and one with a strange and long life. The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century B.C.E., claims to have visited Locris on several occasions. He finds it curious that they trace the lineage of their aristocracy, the "Hundred Families," through the female rather than the male line. He points out that the Hundred Families had always supplied the girls who were sent to Troy; it was a point of honor for them. And he says that the practice continued even in his own day, though Robert Graves (like other modern scholars) contends that it had ended a century before.

Many historians now believe that a great Trojan War did occur and that Homer's poems may even capture some details of it, though they cannot be sure when it occurred. But by any reckoning, the Locrian maiden tribute had been paid for very nearly a millennium when Polybius visited the city. Once, the story goes, a Locrian slave girl had been killed by an invader of Troy, in Athena's temple itself, and this mirroring of the fate of Cassandra caused the Hundred Families to think that perhaps their debt was now canceled. So the next year they sent no maidens to Troy. But pestilence immediately returned to afflict them; they resumed their tribute and, it seems, never again questioned it.

No one knows for sure when the tribute finally ceased. But generation after generation these ¬people patiently endured the loss of their daughters because of the great sin of their ancestor. They accepted that the goddess's curse had fallen upon them, if not rightly then at least inevitably. Such was the way of the world; the sins of the fathers had to be expiated, even by a thousand years of children. And there was no one else to do it but them.

Two

Of course, this is a particular suffering of a particular ¬people—a historical accident, one might say. The Locrians were unfortunate enough to have had an impious braggart as their prince, just as the Ithacans were fortunate enough to have had a wise and just king, Odysseus. But Greek artists and thinkers sometimes wondered whether the sheer prevalence of impiety and arrogance suggested something—something worrisome—about the very shape or form of humanity. There are, after all, so many more Ajaxes than Odysseuses in the world.

The last and longest of Plato's dialogues, the Laws, the only one that does not feature Socrates, begins like a joke: a Cretan, a Spartan, and an Athenian are walking down the road, a road on Crete leading to a cave-shrine dedicated to Zeus, where the Cretan and Spartan, Kleinias and Megillos, plan to worship. The Athenian falls in with them along the way, and we meet the trio . . .



Continues...


Excerpted from Original Sin by Alan Jacobs Copyright © 2009 by Alan Jacobs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Six Stories 1

2 The African Bishop 23

3 Some Dreadful Thing No Doubt 37

4 The Feast of All Souls 67

5 A Few Words About the Devil 85

6 The Wicked, but Not Very 97

7 More Hateful than Vipers 127

8 New Worlds 159

9 The Confraternity of the Human Type 189

10 The Two-Headed Calf 211

11 In the Genes 239

Afterword 263

Acknowledgments 273

Bibliographical Essay 275

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