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Original Sin: A Cultural History Hardcover – April 29, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this brilliant account, Wheaton College literature professor Jacobs (The Narnian) traces the idea of original sin from the Bible to the present day. The doctrine has inspired fierce debate for the last two millennia. In every generation, it seems, someone defends the doctrine, pointing to all manner of evidence that people are (as Jacobs, in one of his rare stylistic lapses, too cutely puts it) bad to the bone. Their opponents in turn ridicule the notion, noting the unfettered greatness of human potential. Thus Augustine tangles with Julian of Eclanum, and John Wesley clashes with Rousseau. It is a compliment to Jacobs that in his hands these abstruse theological disputes are utterly engrossing. Jacobs makes clear that he has a dog in this fight—he thinks original sin is the most persuasive explanation of the world he lives in (though he dissents, irenically and charitably, from some classic Christian formulations, such as Augustine's view on infant damnation). Jacobs hazards some quirky and intriguing ideas, such as the notion that the kind of kinship created by a universal doctrine of original sin is perhaps as good a basis as any for a brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, in which no one lords it over anyone else. This book is truly sui generis. (May)
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“[A]n engaging and lucid work by a sophisticated Evangelical from the American South. . . . For all its American bias, Alan Jacobs’s highly readably ORIGINAL SIN might fill one of the gaps in the post-Christian memory banks.” (Times Literary Supplement (London))

“One wouldn’t expect a book about original sin to be entertaining, but Jacobs makes it so with deft prose and a touch of humor.” (Christian Century)

“Jacobs is a superb writer whose work is beginning to get the wider notice it has long deserved.” (Books & Culture ("Top Ten Books of the Year"))

Alan Jacobs presents an engagingly written, eminently humane, and insightful account of an all-important subject that is both timeless and timely. (George Marsden, author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life)

“Alan Jacobs’ cultural history of the controversies that Saint Augustine’s concept gave birth to is fascinating, entertaining, wonderfully researched, and thoroughly even-tempered, giving even the most disagreeable voices their say. Original Sin may well become the definitive book on the subject.” (Ron Hansen , Author of Exiles and A Stay Against Confusion)

I do not believe in original sin. I do believe in Alan Jacobs. He is one the smartest and wittiest writers around on matters involving religion, and ORIGINAL SIN is a gem. (Alan Wolfe, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College)

In this brilliant account, Wheaton College literature professor Jacobs traces the idea of original sin from the Bible to the present day. . . . In his hands these abstruse theological disputes are utterly engrossing. (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

“With extraordinary erudition and just enough lightness of touch to leaven the lump, Alan Jacobs traces the tangled ways that we have tried to think about human cussedness. (Frederick Buechner, author of Secrets in the Dark)

Replete with examples drawn from a number of different cultural expressions, including literature, film, and philosophy, [Original Sin] is intended to introduce a broad genearl audience to the complexity of explaining how human beings act evilly toward one another. (Library Journal)

A brilliantly illuminating, deeply thought-provoking intellectual journey. (Booklist)

“A strangely entertaining cultural survey . . . ” (The Wall Street Journal)

Jacobs’s discussion is terrifically worthwhile for exposing how the idea of “evil,” as enunciated iwthin the doctrine, undergoes permutations and translations over time (BN.com)

Splendid...a book endeavoring to help us say and do something about the sin which so easily ensares. Strikingly, Jacobs argues that the ‘confraternity’ of humanity is best grounded not in our being made in the image of God but in our being made sinful in Adam. Truly a revolutionary thought—that the roots of our common humanity might be found, not in our dignity or even our potential, but in our depravity.” (Books & Culture)

“A deep pool of wisdom . . . an expression of what’s wrong with all of us. Jacobs’ prose often sings . . . Careful when you open this book--it could keep you up at nights.” (Christianity Today)

“Follows the history of thinking about original sin from Augustine to ‘Hellboy’ and rewards the curious reader with unique knowledge (of good and evil) on every page.” (Beliefnet (Best Religious Book of the Year))

“Jacobs’s flowing prose keeps the book moving at a nice pace.” (Weekly Standard)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; 1St Edition edition (April 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060783400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060783402
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,048,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Three out of the five blurbs on the back cover of Original Sin manage to import some wariness over the book's content into their glowing recommendation of the book's execution. Ron Hansen acknowledges that the "even-tempered" Jacobs gives "even the most disagreeable voices their say." Publishers Weekly gives the "brilliant" book a starred review but manages to damn its subject despite this high praise: "In [Jacobs's] hands these abstruse theological disputes are utterly engrossing." And, my favourite comments, given pride of place as the first lines of the top review, are Alan Wolfe's "I do not believe in original sin. I do believe in Alan Jacobs." These reviewers, particularly the latter two, seem to be saying: any book by Alan Jacobs is worth buying, but that Jacobs's latest book is on original sin is perhaps unfortunate. The top of the back cover seems to agree, trumpeting: "How the World's Most Repugnant Idea Became the Cornerstone of Our Self-Understanding." HarperOne seems to have decided on the marketing ploy: Buy Alan Jacobs, If You Can See Past What He Writes About! Or, If You Hold Your Nose, It'll Be Good For You! We're not entirely sure why you would want to buy (or write) a book about original sin from its inception (St. Paul? Augustine? Further back?) throughout its tendentious and chequered history (the Kabbala, Pascal, John Wesley, Richard Dawkins, etc.) to its current unpopularity, but if you must, it's fortunate that you'll buy a book written by Alan Jacobs, so brilliant and humane a writer that he practically disproves his own thesis.

To be fair, Jacobs's own foreword introduces his topic by acknowledging its near-universal vilification.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'll preface by saying that I'm not a Christian (and I'm betting by reading the other 5 customer comments that I'm the only one of my ilk to've so far submitted a review).

This is a fantastic overview of the "our intrinsic wickedness" - whether you view it as something bred by natural selection or inborn by rebellion against God. I blew through it in a one day of nursing a cold, and at the end found myself (more thoroughly) unconvinced of Rousseau, et al's assertion of the intrinsic goodness/purely situational behavior of mankind. Jacobs consistently brings up and then answers intriguing lines of thought, and does so in a style both entertaining and enlightening.
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Format: Hardcover
What makes this book unique is that it is a "cultural history" of original sin, not a work of theology (though, obviously, it does engage with some theological work, particularly Augustine's). It is "an exemplary history - so-called not because it embodies excellence that other historians would do well to imitate, but because it makes its case through examples. ... [It] emphasizes narratives about people, people who engage in a serious and thoughtful way with the idea of original sin - whether by embracing it, rejecting it, or wrestling with the possibility of it" (p.xviii).

It is a engaging book. It doesn't answer all the questions I have about original sin as a doctrine but it's hardly fair to criticize it for that since that is not its purpose. What makes it so useful is its examination of how the doctrine has influenced literature, philosophy, politics - in short, how it has influenced Western culture.
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Very understandably, the notion of original sin offends a certain modern sensibility.

Isn't it immoral to suggest that everyone alive today bears the guilt of the transgression of a hypothetical Adam, lost to the mists of history? That we're all guilty before a judgmental God of something we didn't do? And isn't it a bit misogynistic, with the stuff about blaming Eve for the Fall of Man?

But then again, looking at the rivers of blood that flow through history, and perhaps even looking at our own imperfections, our own failings ("When viewed from the inside, every man's life is a series of failures," George Orwell--no Christian and well-acquainted with worldly success--is reported to have said), don't we find that there seems to be something...broken...at the heart of human nature? Something we all share--something inherited, perhaps--that, in some mysterious way, bends the timber of our humanity?

One of the most powerful and important concepts that Western civilization has used to try to make sense of this paradox of human nature has been the idea of original sin. And it's precisely nowadays, when the concept is left to the wayside, that if we want to understand our own culture, we need to know more about it. Alan Jacobs, a distinguished scholar of literature (and a Christian) provides with this excellent book a wonderful overview of, just as it says on the tin, the history of this concept of original sin in our culture.

A disclaimer here: Alan is a friend of mine. Despite our friendship, and our shared Christianity, and my knowledge of his talents as a writer and scholar, it took me a long time to pick up this book, because I was afraid it would be mostly dry, academic scholarship. Don't make the same mistake.
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