Original Sin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Original Sin is a slippery concept. Is it some inherited and resistant stain on the soul of each person that must be washed carefully in baptism? Is it a quaint biblical notion, an artifact from the clueless behavior of the first lady and her partner, not to be taken seriously in a postmodern world? Is it a reality located within the person’s nature or experience? Is it merely the influence of negative social context on behavior? Is it the result of some devil tempting a weak individual into immoral but alluring action? In Original Sin, Alan Jacobs considers these questions in his engaging and rich cultural study of the subject. He is clear in the introduction that his task is cultural rather than theological. His interest is in describing the serious wrestling with the question of sin’s origins across the ages of human history.

The author begins his examination with six stories that deal with the origins of evil and the differences that various cultures play in interpreting and vanquishing it. They depict the potency of evil in historical contexts and in imagination as well as the need in some way to expiate that evil. They illustrate the hope for a better future even in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil.

Much of Christian thinking about Original Sin is saturated with the theological positions of Saint Augustine, the fourth century bishop of Hippo, in northern Africa. Often drawing his conclusions through the lens of Paul the apostle, Augustine conceives of Original Sin as a tangible reality “inherited” from the first sinful father, Adam. Augustine’s theory damns unbaptized babies to hell, consistent with his idea that human beings are totally unable to achieve salvation without the intervention of God. He does not believe that human beings alone are capable of transcending the power of evil in their lives.

Augustine’s position on Original Sin may very well have become polarized because of his dealings with certain contemporary heretical movements, notably those of the Donatists and the Pelagians. It is equally possible that Augustine’s thinking is rooted in his personal negative views on sex. Sexual desire, when not regulated by the will, is a reminder of the shame of Adam and Eve’s sin, in that it “reenacts Adam’s disobedience.” Predictably Augustine’s frame of reference is his youthful firsthand experience of the difficulty controlling his sexual activity. Jacobs believes that Augustine’s somewhat odd conclusions about the connections of sin and sex have endured in centuries of theology that postulates a conjugal relationship between sexual pleasure and seminal sin.

Besides ancient stories that grapple with the experience of sin, there exist many other attempts to describe and dissect this fundamental reality. Jacobs examines not only the biblical account found in the book of Genesis but also the accounts of such well-known writers as John Milton, in Paradise Lost (1667), and C. S. Lewis, particularly in his Perelandra (1943). Over the centuries, many authors have written about sin, evil, and the devil. Some of these had primarily literary concerns, while others wrote with heavy political or ideological agenda. Jacobs samples both, putting the works in their cultural contexts.

Often fundamental evil is personified in some sort of Satan or devil. From Milton’s Lucifer to the modern comic-book fictional demon Hellboy, from the conniving snake that beguiled Eve to the diminutive but disastrous demon who perches on the shoulder of the confused agent and offers evila variety of representations that personify the human tendency to commit evil are examined. Is the Devil real, an entity with horns or cloven hooves or devoid of thumbs? Is the Devil, as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed, a projected externalization of the inner conflicts that plague the human psyche? Jacobs points out that modern psychological takes on the Devil are not so different from the conclusions at which Paul or Augustine arrived. Both recognize the struggle between good and evil that human beings wage within themselves. Still not clear, however, is whether people have real choices to make. Can Hellboy undergo a change, a metanoia, to become a good person? Can Lucifer repent his break from God to reemerge as the angel of light? Is the struggle to be good truly under human domination, or is the person controlled by nature...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

America 199, no. 9 (September 29, 2008): 39.

Booklist 104, no. 17 (May 1, 2008): 57.

The Christian Century 125, no. 25 (December 16, 2008): 24.

Christianity Today 52, no. 7 (July, 2008): 53-54.

Library Journal 133, no. 3 (February 15, 2008): 109.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 8 (February 25, 2008): 68-69.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 138 (June 13, 2008): A13.

The Wilson Quarterly 32, no. 3 (Summer, 2008): 107-108.