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Annals of Eden

Does the serpent have the last word?

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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Original Sin

A Cultural History

by Alan Jacobs

HarperOne, 304 pp., $24.95

As St. Paul told the Romans: "Sin came into the world through one man; many died through one man's trespass; the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation; because of one man's trespass, death reigned; one trespass led to condemnation; by one man's disobedience the many were made sinners."

Well, actually, that's not quite all Paul said. It's what you get if you take the Letter to the Romans and remove all mention of Christ, leaving just the fallen world that Adam made for us. Alan Jacobs gives this stripped-down passage from Paul in his new book, Original Sin--and rightly so, for Jacobs, who teaches English at Wheaton College, has set out to explore how the concept of original sin is key to understanding ourselves.

The Book of Genesis is clear enough about what happened that fateful day in the Garden, but the Jewish tradition developed no doctrine of original sin. For that, we needed Paul, with his description of man's alienation from God and his discussion of the fallen nature it produced: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."

Jacobs walks through the historical controversies surrounding these passages' interpretation, especially the battles with Pelagius in which St. Augustine emphasized the existential reality of the soul's bondage to sin. To Pelagius, that seemed an excuse; even in this life we can follow Christ's command to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Fortunately, Pelagius's spiritual elitism (he wanted everyone to be a monk) was rejected by the Church. It proved to be Augustine's recognition of our fettering that left room for our liberation by grace.

But we shouldn't get lost in theological thickets. Jacobs's subtitle, "A Cultural History," is apt. The book's concern is not so much to trace the development of the doctrine as to show how it permeates our culture and our identity. Of original sin, Pascal remarked that "nothing jolts us more rudely .  .  . and yet but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves." Jacobs agrees that the key to "explaining ourselves to ourselves" is "reconsidering that curious concept called peccatum originalis, the belief that we arrive in this world predisposed to wrongdoing."

Original Sin explores the concept with key examples from history, works of literature, cinema, music, political theory, social criticism, and even psychology and evolutionary biology. Jacobs includes the predictable cast: Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Edwards, Lewis, Tolkien. But he also invites some surprising guests: Plato, the Confucian Xun Zu, Rousseau, Muddy Waters, Richard Dawkins, and such movies as Animal House, The Emperor's New Groove, and Hellboy. Jacobs's use of examples is, by necessity, somewhat erratic, and it makes the book's thesis and overarching narrative a little hard to discern.

Still, some examples stand out. Jacobs considers the relation of original sin to educational theory. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that just as disease makes medicine necessary, "so the disorders of our rational nature have introduced the necessity of education and tutors." Education aims at "discerning these sins and rooting them out as aggressively as possible." But then there
is Rousseau, who believed that naturally good human beings are corrupted by society. He claimed that his discourse on education offers "simply a treatise on the natural goodness of man, intended to show how vice and error are foreign to his constitution, invade it from outside, and imperceptibly alter it."

Of course, Rousseau leaves us no answer for the question of where the evil in society comes from. And Christian views about the origin of this evil provide, surprisingly enough, an even stronger grounding for human equality. All humans--the rich and the poor, the high and the low--inherit the stain of Adam, Jacobs argues, and stand in equal need of redemption.

To buttress this claim, Jacobs recounts how Odilo, a 10th-century abbot of Cluny, introduced the Feast of All Souls (when the church prays for all the departed) just after the Feast of All Saints (when the church honors the saints in heaven). Such a move, Jacobs says, promotes democracy here on earth, "based on .  .  . the judgment that each of us stands under because of our inheritance from Adam." The spirit of Odilo's feast "offends every aristocracy, real or imagined, traditional or inverted--every attempt to separate 'us' from 'them.' "