The best book I read in 2008 was Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs, who teaches English at Wheaton College, begins by pointing out that throughout history (and in almost every culture) humankind has always pondered the question, “if we are basically good, or at best morally neutral, then why is the world so bad?” The Christian answer to this question, of course is doctrine of Original Sin, which states that from birth we are born corrupt, guilty, and worthy of condemnation. Beginning with St Augustine, Jacobs tracks the history of this controversial doctrine, illustrating the innumerable debates it has sparked, among them the one between Augustine and Pelagius. In doing so, Jacobs beautifully shows us that the only thing that has ever really made sense of the human predicament is Original Sin. “Only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.” One cannot finish this book and objectively still believe that “free will” is an historically Christian idea.

Jacobs sees Original Sin as the one doctrine that truly unites us in our common humanity. Quoting Eugen Rosenstock Huessy, who taught art at Harvard and Dartmouth, Jacob’s calls the doctrine, “the universal democracy of sinners.” But because it is such a downer, the church and western culture have sought to find alternative or substitute commonalities, in particular the concept of the “image of God.” This is the idea that comes from the book of Genesis that we are all created in the God’s image, and if we just rediscover that image and its importance, all will be well with world.To address this idea, Jacobs references the life and research of the eminent Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was the last major naturalist to repudiate Darwin’s theory of natural selection, that the natural world could not be the product of an accident. While visiting the U.S. for the first time, he came into contact with his first African American, and it terrified him. So much so that he claimed there was no way that he could be from the same blood-line. Expounding upon Agassiz’s experience Jacobs states (and this is amazing):

A genuine commitment to the belief that we are all related equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination. Instinctive revulsion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments almost every time. By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though that person is not all he or she might be, neither am I.

In general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word-to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others-than to lift up people whom our culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always loves, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow feelings could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.

This is a great book. If you are involved in any sort of Reformational ministry, swimming upstream in the sea of Charles Finney American Evangelicalism, you will find this book to be an immense comfort. It serves as a powerful reminder that you are not crazy, and that you are in fact standing in legitimate historical Christianity. This book is also loaded with obscure historical facts and references that will make you sound brilliant at dinner parties and give you plenty of great sermon illustrations. I have never been one to “should” people, but this a book that “should” be read and cherished because it concludes that at the end of the day all of us are “bad to the bone.”