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Original Sin: A Cultural History Essay

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“Original Sin: A Cultural History” has been written by Alan Jacobs. What makes this book distinctive is that it is a “cultural history” of original sin, not a work of theology or spirituality though, it does engage with some theological work, predominantly with Augustine. It is an exemplary history not because it represents excellence that other historians would do well to emulate, but because it makes its case through examples. It highlights narratives about people, people who engage in a serious and considerate way with the idea of original sin, whether by accepting it, refusing it, or brawling with the possibility of it.

It is an appealing book though it doesn’t answer all the questions about the doctrine but it is more or less not fair to criticize it for that as it was not Jacob’s intention to write a work of theological history. What makes it so useful is its assessment of how the doctrine has inclined literature, philosophy, politics or in short, how it has influenced Western culture. An indispensable question through the time has been whether human nature is basically good or basically evil.

If it is good, general human development may be assumed; if it is intrinsically faulty, then the American Founders were right in proclaiming that nature has to be constrained by justice. Though some people have suggested that original sin is the only empirically provable Christian doctrine, however, views vary on what original sin is. In this deep, original, and witty book, Professor Alan Jacobs displays wide learning worn lightly as he scrutinizes the views of writers like Benjamin Franklin and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Edwards and C. S. Lewis, and Sigmund Freud and J. R. R. Tolkien.

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The concept of original sin predates Christianity, Jacobs points out, citing not only Genesis 3, in which Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and are expelled from Paradise, but also Psalm 51, which declares that humans are conceived in sin and born in iniquity. “The universality of sin,” Jacobs concludes, “is certainly a Jewish belief. ” He explains that the traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity, though changeable in their details, have that God created human nature intrinsically good.

The writer is of the view that goodness must require freedom if it is not to be robotic, and that Adam and Eve freely chose their own will over that of God, thus consigning original ¬sin. All humans take part in original sin, whether it is passed on from generation to generation through time, or whether the whole human race decides in one everlasting moment to disobey ¬God. In the book, Jacobs efficiently defends Augustine against the many attacks against him, demonstrating that doctrines of original sin similar to Augustine’s headed him by at least two centuries in both the East and the West.

Jacobs quickly neglects the belief that original sin was ¬sexual. ¬Adam and Eve practiced free sex in Eden before their expulsion. Original sin is the initial declaration of human pride against God. Augustine did maintain that original sin, once it existed, was inherited through generations, in the same way that today we understand genetic flaws are passed on. Contrary to another common misconception about Augustine, he was obdurate that the source of sin does not lie in the body but rather in the corruption of the will.

Writer’s most unique and thought provoking argument is that original sin has strong self-governing impli¬ca¬tions. Refutation of original sin leads to elitism. For instance, the Duchess simply refuses to believe that she shares a common nature with the ¬self–righteous people who trust that they can make themselves good by stacking up a higher pile of good deeds than of bad ones. Another point that the writers emphasizes is that no one receives the full brunt of his rage as much as Rousseau and the myth of the noble savage.

Writing of the “Wordsworthian fluff” about the innocence and wholesomeness of children,” he argues, “certainly I have always wondered whether those who talk about ‘childlike innocence’ have had children of their own or even spent much time around them. ” When he narrates the sad outcome of the child of an intellectual who was sent to Rousseau to be raised according to the philosopher’s indulging theories in Emile, he notes that the boy never afterwards took well to education of any kind.

He became a sailor and ultimately immigrated to America, dying in North Carolina at the age of thirty-two. ” At least Jacobs is honest in not repressing his Schadenfreude over the underdeveloped moral growth of the young man. This of course raises a perfectly valid question that how profitable is this book for a nonbeliever? Jacobs, as prominent, never hides his positions, and he certainly lays out a historically informed defense of what many have considered a most destructive doctrine that grew out of the particular self-loathing anti-humanism of Paul and Augustine.

If I see myself on such position on the doctrine of original sin, I personally agree with the concept of the original sin as discussed by the writer in this book. It illuminates that original sin has strong independent impli¬ca¬tions. It also illustrates that the basis of sin does not lie in the body but relatively in the dishonesty of the will. On the other hand it obscures or doesn’t explain the answer to the vital question that whether the human nature is good or evil. If it is good, general human progress can be understood; if it is intrinsically faulty, then it can be concluded that nature has to be constrained by justice.

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