Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs

Original Sin: A Cultural HistoryTakeaway: The concept of original sin has greatly shaped western culture.

Original Sin is a doctrine I have always had trouble understanding.  It is not that I disagree that we are all sinful.  I affirm that.

My issues have been in the way that Christians understand the origin of sin, the way some understand the need for a physical Adam and Eve to affirm the doctrine of original sin (which then some need in order to justify the need for Christ’s death and resurrection), and the extent of the corruption of the world caused by the fall.

Jacobs is an author I appreciate.  He is a professor at Wheaton College and while we overlapped (he is still there) I did not have him for any classes.  But he is one of those authors that as I read I am always aware that he is much smarter than I.  Not in a snooty or negative way.  He is very readable.  It is that he always brings in ideas and sources that I would not have considered (and often do not even know exist).

This is not a theological history, but a cultural one.  So Jacobs is dealing primarily with the way that Christianity and the west have culturally understood original sin.  Occasionally the cultural and the theological understanding separate.  I think at least partially, this is my issue with original sin.  I hear people speaking of the transmission of sin as if it were literally part of our DNA.  I believe it was Augustine that proposed that one reason that Jesus could be born of a woman and not be corrupted by original sin is that sin was transferred through semen.

As with other theological concepts, the analogy and metaphors that we use to explain them, sometime distort the actual content.

Personally, I need more work on original sin to be ‘comfortable’ with it.  It is not a doctrine that I think comes easily to a post-modern world.  But Jacobs does a very good job introducing it and some of the ways that it has influence out culture for good and ill.  One of the areas that I need to explore is the different way that the Eastern Orthodox church deals with original sin.  My understanding is that the Eastern Orthodox church has a very different understanding of sin.  That is outside the realm of this book, but will be in my future reading.

I picked up a used hardback copy of Original Sin.  If you would like it, let me know in the comments and I will send it to you.

Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition

3 Comments

Hey Adam,
Sounds fascinating. I’ve only read Alan Jacobs in Books and Culture but would like to read more of him. Would you mind sending it to us? (You sure you want to give it away? =) ) I’ll FB message you the address. Thanks.

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