Today the word sin has lost its power and awesome intensity. It’s used most frequently in the context of fattening desserts. Most people in mainstream conversation don’t talk much about individual sin. If they talk about human evil at all, then that evil is most often located in the structures of society—in inequality, oppression, racism, and so on—not in the human breast.

We’ve abandoned the concept of sin because we’ve left behind the depraved view of human nature. In the 18th and 19th century many people really did embrace the dark self-estimation expressed in the old Puritan prayer, “Yet I Sin”: “Eternal Father, Thou art good beyond all thought, but I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind. . . .” That’s simply too much darkness for the modern mentality.

But sin, like vocation and soul, is one of those words it’s impossible to do without. Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral drama. No matter how hard we try to reduce everything to deterministic brain chemistry, no matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like mistake or error or weakness, the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. The person struggling against sin understands that each day is filled with moral occasions.

In places like Abilene, Kansas, the big sins, left unchallenged, would have had practical and disastrous effects. Sloth could lead to a failure of a farm; gluttony and inebriation to the destruction of a family; lust to the ruination of a young woman; vanity ...

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The Road to Character
The Road to Character
Random House
320 pp., 12.8
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