Thursday, February 5, 2009
Book Review: ORIGINAL SIN, A CULTURAL HISTORY by Alan Jacobs (HarperOne, 2008)
"Through Adam's fall, we sinned all"? If you don't buy into the doctrine of original sin, then, as Ricky Ricardo would say, you've "got a lot of 'splainin' to do" regarding the consistent propensity of men and women to do the wrong thing. In this lively and thought-provoking work, Jacobs traces the development of the idea of original sin and how it has permeated our culture. He discusses everything from the debate between St. Augustine (the "prime mover" in the formal development of the doctrine) and Pelagius (who thought mankind could be like Christ... and ought to be, or else) to the recurring cultural motif of angels and devils sitting on a character's shoulders and pulling him or her in different moral directions. (Just today, I saw a Fleischer POPEYE cartoon with that ever-popular scene.) The author wears his learning lightly and makes what could have been a weary read easy to digest. I wish, however, that he had grappled more with the post-modern notion that reality is "socially constructed" and that individuals are manipulated into behaving in certain ways. He does do a good job connecting modern findings in psychology and genetics to the notion of human nature as fundamentally askew in some sense, but the book really could have used one additional chapter.