An apocryphal story tells of a note of dazzling hope written on the last page of a copy of Karl Barth's commentary on Romans. The note read, simply, "Now I can preach again." After reading Alan Jacobs's new book, Original Sin: A Cultural History (5 stars), I'm tempted to jump into any available pulpit, invited or not, and let 'er rip.
Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College, writes what he calls an "exemplary history" of this most peculiar Christian doctrine. He wants to appeal to those with no interest in theology for its own sake, so he uses literary and historical examples to show what the doctrine means. It is not simply a description of a quaint story about a garden with an apple. It is an expression of what's wrong with all of us, an attempt to answer the question, Whence all this evil?
If the book were primarily a defense of the doctrine (which it is not), then its attack could be summarized as two-pronged. First, original sin makes sense of the empirical evidence. Like much of Christian teaching, original sin doesn't make sense in itself, but it makes sense of a lot of other things. Jacobs quotes Blaise Pascal to that effect: "But for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves."
Second, original sin has a deeply political function. In one of G. K. Chesterton's matchless aphorisms, only an understanding of sin can allow us to "pity the beggar and distrust the king." It makes for what philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called "the Christian democracy of the dead," in which recognition of humanity's common plight undergirds positive social relations.
I find both of these tacks debatable. But neither should keep us from reveling in Jacobs's deep pool of wisdom and occasionally breathtaking prose. John Milton tried to imagine the unimaginable: What was it like to be unfallen? Or, in Jacobs's words: "How can we, the fallen and the fearful, even guess what it might be like to have the easy freedom of sinlessness, to go to one's bed at night anxious for nothing, never suspecting peril in any rustling of the leaves or of the mind?" Amid yeoman's work with historical and literary sources, Jacobs's prose often singsmdash;and as this sentence suggests, it's not because he's showing off.
His light-hearted defense of Augustine's fascination with men's inability to control their libidos rests on Dante's notion of contrapassomdash;as Adam rose up in proud disobedience, "every man knows" what part manifests our original disobedience and subsequent punishment. Jacobs positively exults in the story of St. Martin of Tours telling the Devil that he, too, could repent. Origen and others may have been anathematized for holding this hope, but Jacobs rests his case with, "Better to hope too much than too little."
These are just highlights of Jacobs's engagement with premodern sources. His dealings with modern utopian efforts to act as though original sin were not; his provocative description of America's original sin (racism really doesn't qualify for him); his criticism of Bill Buckley and friends for missing Edmund Burke's underdeveloped sense of original sinmdash;they all delight. And this English professor is not too tweed-coated to dip into pop culturemdash;the Hellboy films and George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" come in for sympathetic yet critical exegesis, too. Careful when you open this bookmdash;it could keep you up at nights.
My disagreements with the book are two: First, is original sin really an objectively verifiable doctrine, as Chesterton, Reinhold Niebuhr, and, it seems, Jacobs hold? Certainly we Christians, on this side of baptism, see its effects everywhere. Jacobs is also right to say that utopian experiments that attempt to act as though humans are reformable tend to collapse, often violently. Yet Barth tried to correct Niebuhr by pointing out that the doctrine of original sin is different from the claim that "people do lots of bad things." Who would uphold original sin if they didn't already know the cure? Jacobs makes much of his loving engagement with Rebecca West, who held something like this doctrine without its correlative grace. But in her hands it still seems to me a deeply Christian belief, rooted in revelation not less than other parts of our faith, knowable only to us who are already in the know.
My second disagreement is about Jacobs's even more attractive political point: that original sin has a leveling effect. He notes an English aristocrat's revulsion at George Whitefield's preaching: "It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth." And he points to Whitefield's own record of coal miners' response to his open-air preaching: "[T]he white gutters made by their tears hellip; ran down their black cheeks." Original sin is a good word to the poor, bad news to tyrants, and a prescription for a politics more radical than any we've seen: a genuinely Christian democracy, inclusive of all the living and the dead, each equally bound up in a plight we cannot solve ourselves.
Jacobs thinks original sin does this leveling work in a way that other points of Christian anthropology do not. God's good Creation, humanity's crafting in the image of God, the charge to tend the Garden and to multiply: such prelapsarian pronouncements don't lift the luggage politically. They "should do so, but usually" do not, he writes. Somehow it works better for us to "condescend" than to try and lift up others to our level. Jacobs may be right, but I need more evidence for the claim than "the feeling most of us have, at least some of the time."
Jacobs offers loving exegesis of Augustine's running feud with Pelagius and with the heretic's even more clever successor, Julian of Eclanum. For Augustine's opponents, the Scriptures command holiness. Therefore it must be possible. Augustine sees in the apostle Paul a damning critique of this false optimism: What need, then, of divine grace? Further, Jacobs argues, Augustine's defense of universal depravity is "curiously liberating." Pelagius's call would result in us all being monks. Augustine's God, for Jacobs, "gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel."
That's Jacobs's Augustine, awake to the tragicomedy of our situationmdash;in dire circumstances as we are, guilty prior to any fault of our own, with no answer except the one God has already given. We need more books like this one.
Jason Byassee, assistant editor of The Christian Century and an affiliate professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
Original Sin: A Cultural History is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
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