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 ...

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Hope for Fools
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July 2008

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