Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs is a fascinating exploration of a theological topic using tools outside the academic discipline of theology. As an English professor writing a cultural history, Jacobs brings insights and perspective to the subject that one is not likely to find in a systematic theology. The premise of the book is that the Augustinian* doctrine of original sin, though repugnant, is essential to understanding humanity. Apart from the grim explanatory power of original sin, we remain a mystery to ourselves and others.
Jacobs’ defines original sin in a classic Augustinian sense: it is not merely that everyone does wrong or that we bear the consequences for a past wrong, but moreover that each of us enters the world already bent, simply because we were born. The majority of the book is narrative with generous reflection upon the narrative interwoven. Jacobs rarely comments directly on events; he prefers to set forth influential actors’ or commentators’ own thoughts, using them as a foil for his own. His range is impressively broad, for contained within Original Sin are the stories of ancients, medievals, and moderns; Westerners, Easterners, and tribesmen; Christians, atheists, and Confucians; philosophers, poets, and businessmen. He does not confine himself to those who agree with him, nor does he employ a book of quotes approach, simply stacking up statements for and against his thesis. Instead, his characters have depth, and his reflections upon them are insightful and critical, yet appreciative.
Jacobs’ style is splendid for a learned but not scholastic project as this. He does not shy from profound thought or reasoned argument, yet he abjures unhelpful technical jargon. He is humorous but without trying too hard. He illustrates concepts through popular culture without “dumbing down” the narrative. Although it is not strictly chronological, there is a clear progression throughout the book. Jacobs’ skill is evident in that he can make you think hard and enjoy it at the same time.
Jacobs argues his thesis admirably, although the argument rests on the cumulative persuasive power of stories and reflections rather than on syllogistic demonstration. I do have a quibble with one of his conclusions that appears in the Afterword (really not a dispensable part of the book). After delineating five components of Augustinian anthropology, Jacobs writes, “It may be surprising that anyone has ever affirmed it. Yet millions have, and millions more will. Perhaps that’s because each of these positions is well warranted by careful observation of human beings.” I find this statement remarkably amoral (not immoral). Do most people who believe in Augustinian Christian anthropology really do so because they find themselves forced into this position through overwhelming evidence? I think it much more likely that most do so because they believe in the authority of either a book or a church that affirms this doctrine. By faith, not by sight, most of these believers are made. Conversely, do those who disbelieve simply lack sufficient proof? Clearly not, for that contradicts the central line of argumentation in Original Sin. More true to his Christian principles and his own thesis, Jacobs could have said that original sin is the cause of disbelief in original sin, and deliverance from it is a requirement for full-fledged belief in it.
Original Sin is an enjoyable, enlightening book for readers of any level. Christians in regular contact with unbelievers will likely find its treatment of an awkward doctrine eminently useful. It probably holds its greatest value for theologians, who can learn to consider a familiar theme through a fresh perspective.
* Although he describes his position as Augustinian, Jacobs rejects some of the logical conclusions Augustine drew from original sin, such as infant damnation.