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Original Sin: A Cultural History (2008)

de Alan Jacobs

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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?… (més)
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Three guys lay sun-blistered on the shore of a desert island. Something shiny washes up and one of the guys notices it glinting in the waves. He rubs the sand from it and out bursts a genie, to much sensory fanfare.

“As reward for releasing me from centuries of captivity, I grant each of you a wish,” booms the genie (but the genie probably communicates this in their heads, telepathic-like, because I don’t think anyone or anything, magical or otherwise, that has been isolated from humanity for centuries would speak in the modern vernacular; this goes for Jesus too).

The three guys stare slack jawed and the genie quickly apprehends that it isn’t dealing with the sharpest knives in the drawer, so it doesn’t go into the rules of wish granting, like one can’t wish for more wishes, or wish oneself a genie, that sort of thing.

The first guy thinks a minute and says, “My greatest wish is to be back home with my family.”

POOF!

He disappears in a cloud of B-movie smoke.

The second guy looks to where the first guy had been, thinks a minute longer and says, “I don’t have a family, so I wish to be the wealthiest man in the world.”

POOF!

He likewise disappears in a cloud of B-movie smoke, presumably to Santa Barbara or Hong Kong.

The third guy averts his eyes from the genie and cries out, “Oh wicked spirit! God was punishing us for our sins! My wish from thee is that the other two were back here with me! Of their own free will! And in accordance with the Law of Moses! Also, if you’ve got a minute, I’d like to talk to you about accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”

Can you guess which of these three individuals is the author of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs?

*****

Does it come as a great surprise to you that you’re an asshole? I don’t mean to be judgmental here, because I’m an asshole too. So are your loved ones, neighbors, therapist, everyone that has anything to do with delivering books to your doorstep, your favorite musician, Gandhi, the casts and crews of every sitcom you’ve watched, the president of the United States, whoever discovered the wheel, that woman you saw drop money in some panhandler’s jar, the panhandler himself, your favorite teacher, and any and everybody you, I, or anyone else have ever known or will ever know -- as well as everyone they’ve ever known, or ever will know -- to time immemorial, so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

Assholes, one and all.

Sure, there are varying degrees of assholism and we can argue its origins, but let’s leave it to the philosophers to tease out the nuances. For now, it’s only necessary to accept and understand the basic premise that our species is victim to this unfortunate and immutable condition.

Fine. Alan Jacobs agrees, but he is fixated. He must have thought himself quite special at some time or other because assholism is a fetish for him. And what does he do? Well, he does what every fetishist who wishes to gain acceptance in larger society does -- he rationalizes himself blue in the face. He tells us that it’s liberating to discover you’re an asshole because it’s democratizing! Thieving bureaucrats who condemn innocents to prison? Assholes! Corporatists who swindle us and can’t think past a 90-day financial quarter? Assholes! But so is everybody, so what’s the big deal? We all suffer the same fate.

Alpha assholes are no worse than us middling assholes, when you take the Jacobs-long view: let them store up riches where moth and rust decay, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, all that rot. No need to worry about the here and now because the problem is too big for any of us to get our pathetic asshole arms around. Let it be. Don’t buy into that “social progress” kerfluffle, because it’s just dressed up as “scientific progress,” itself code for LIBERAL. Besides, anything humanity proposes to improve things is doomed to failure because, well, we’re all assholes. Better to trust in tradition. Unquestioningly.

Original sin is the filthy and gnarled thread of redemption, suitable for self-flagellation.

At this point, things get existential, and Mr. Jacobs refers his readers to the nearest altar call, lest they go insane like poor Jonathan Swift who, sadly, went nuts because he recognized the Fall but couldn’t bring himself to accept the Grace. (It's not nearly as sad, but sad nevertheless, that Mr. Jacobs could stand a little of the secular crazy himself because his prose is guilty of the sin of plodding.)

So. Where does this leave us? Still assholes, certainly. Just some of us have trouble accepting the fact; we can’t take a hit, psychologically-speaking. These are the scariest assholes of all. They take the germ of a disease and magnify it to monstrous proportions, until it’s bigger than us all and we forget that we’re more than just assholes, we’re human beings trying to extricate ourselves from the medieval morass of a history guided largely by people like Alan Jacobs.
( )
  KidSisyphus | Apr 5, 2013 |
Alan Jacobs. What more needs to be said? In his capable hands, even a controversial idea such as original sin, is a delight to consider. Jacobs' writing style and insight join together in a book that is enjoyable to read and thought-provoking. ( )
  jerrikobly | Mar 1, 2013 |
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Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, theyu are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.

—G. K. Chesteron (1909)
How many volumes have been writ about angels, about immaculate conception, about original sin, when all that is solid reason or clear revelation in all these three articles may be reasonably enough comprised in forty lines?

—Jeremy Taylor (ca. 1650)
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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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