From the Bookshelf: Born Bad, by James Boyce

P1030207My Christian upbringing did not take long to get to the point: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). But, what is this concept of Original Sin? While reading The Righteous Mind, we happened to hear an NPR interview with James Boyce, the author of Born Bad, Original Sin and the Making of the Western World. This seemed to be a good follow-up read after a tome on moral decision-making. Are not moral decisions attempts to overcome our corrupt nature, or at least rationalize our actions as thus?

For a Baptist, the concept of Original Sin is a no-brainer. From my first attempts to climb out of the crib, to spouting off “Mine!” when stealing my brother’s cookie, to finding and looking at that Playboy magazine… well we’ll stop there. The point is being bad came pretty easy. But, is Original Sin one’s sinful actions? or, the potential for those sinful actions? or, Adam’s disobedience in Eden? or, an inherited or genetic trait (coming from the male sperm, of course, as Mary could not pass this onto Jesus when the Holy Spirit helped her conceive with non-human sperm)? or, an evolutionary survival trait? or, a function of societal failures? or… hmmm Boyce chronicles 1500 years of theological, social, and scientific hypothesis about why we are a pretty rotten lot.

In Born Bad, Boyce provides a historical survey, starting with St. Augustine (he was the sperm guy, thus also the first to advocate celibacy to contain those nasty buggers) and ending with Richard Dawkins, an atheist who sees sperm as literal (genetic transmission) and meme’s as symbolic (cultural influences) methods of generational transfer of bad behavior. In between we have many other familiar religious figures, such as St. Francis, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, a bunch of popes and cardinals with their relics and Indulgences, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards (The First Great Awakening of the 18th century), and Billy Graham (The Third Great Awakening of the 20th century).

While we would not be surprised that each of these theologians promoted one view or the other about Original Sin, Boyce adds a whole list of secular figures, scientists and atheists, who essentially came up with related dismal views of human nature, regardless of whether this linked to God, Adam, or Jesus: Francis Bacon, David Hume, and John Locke (Enlightenment philosophers), Adam Smith (Economist), Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin (revolutionary politicians), Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Carl Marx (19th century natural and social philosophers).

Ironically, Boyce points out that after 1500 years of contemplation and replication of our sinful nature, Billy Graham begin the feel-good Christianity movement. In his first “Crusade for Christ” in Los Angeles in 1949, at one of the gatherings, Graham recited Jonathan Edwards 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. But, he cut the sermon short, stopping just before Edwards railed about how what wretched creatures people are, thus needing the grace of God for salvation. Rather, Graham’s message focus on God’s love and what a great experience someone would have by being Born-Again.

While, I recall the Baptist fire-and-brimstone message of Graham, as well as variations of a theme such as the Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts, containing implied you-are-wretched premises, I also recall that the message that the Christian life was fun and exciting. Larry Norman picked this up with his Jesus People response to the 1960’s Flower Children hedonism (must be Original Sin on parade there), thus starting the Contemporary Christian music phenomenon which brought us the Praise Band at Contemporary (we-ain’t Baptists) churches. Mega-churches now give members a couple of services on Saturday evening and several more on Sunday morning, catering to the church service consumer. Pentecostal churches are growing rapidly, especially in developing church markets in Asia, African and Latin America. Notice all those Adam Smith economic terms creeping into church organizational language? Boyce argues that Christianity has dropped the concept of Original Sin because Awesome God sells better and fills the seats (churches with pews are smoldering ashes, unless you live in England).

Boyce articulates the underlying question that I thought of through this read: regardless of what theologians, philosophers or scientists say, directly or through implication, does that actually demonstrate the Original Sin is true. Boyce concludes, Who the hell knows? Rather, regardless of the veracity of the idea, the idea that people are corrupt is so pervasive in our western traditions (religious, social, political, and economic) that we cannot put the apple back on the tree or extract the animal out of the human. Original Sin is here to stay.

Thus, we sell men erectile dysfunction medications so that they can get a hard on. Now the FDA is considering a medication to increase female libido (is that so that they can take care of male enhanced erections?). Our pop stars act like strippers. Our novelists and film producers provide us with soft porn Sn’M teasers (of course, she really likes being tied up and he falls in love, RRRRRight). Our father-figure comedian confesses to lying about using quaaludes to seduce women to lay with him. The Islamic State captures Kurds, killing the men and busing the women to holding pens in Mosul where they await sale as sex-slaves. Maybe we should be taking about Original Sin a bit more, and the need for civilization to contain our impulses a bit more.

If you think that the images of Original Sin are out-there some where, just look at my computer. Yep, right there on my opening screen, an apple with a bite taken out of it. Steve Job’s puts Adam’s Fall in front of us all. Technology will not set me free. But, at least every time I turn on my MacBook Air, I am reminded of what a wretch I am… What shall I read next.

We need a solution, We need salvation, Let’s send some people to the moon, and gather information

Larry Norman, Reader’s Digest

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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2 Responses to From the Bookshelf: Born Bad, by James Boyce

  1. freeborng says:

    Thank you for the post. For more on John Wesley and George Whitefield, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement’s effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.

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