Thursday, August 7, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 5)

In chapter 5 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs wrestles with the role that supernatural forces (read "Satan") play in our every day decision making. When we commit evil deeds, is it because "we simply chose," "we have a sinful nature," or because "the Devil made us do it"?

Jacobs meanders through Milton's Paradise Lost, J.R.R. Tokien's The Lord of the Rings, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and and the Chamber of Secrets and the 2004 movie Hellboy (yes, that Hellboy) for various approaches to the question.

Jacobs shows the similarities between these works in showing that our own desires and the promptings of the Devil are often impossible to differentiate. Does Frodo grasp the ring because he wants it or because the ring has power over him? Tolkien is deliberately vague. Is Faustus corrupted because he chooses to listen to the "bad angel," or does he listen to the bad angel because he is corrupted? Marlowe is vague. In both cases, internal desires and external pressures are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish.

Jacobs concludes:

"Do we sin because we heed the devilish voice in our ears? Or do we heed that voice because we have already sinned? Whatever answer we might give has little practical significance. The divided self is our inheritance no matter what, and in the pain and disorientation of that experience we may not even care whether we are torn from the inside out or the outside in." (Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 95.)

Is Jacobs right? Can we discern between "devilish promptings" and our own desires? Does it matter?

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