Alan Jacobs has a new book out. It is titled Original Sin: A Cultural History . Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College and also author of a biography of C.S. Lewis (among many other books). In any case, one of the first things you notice about Original Sin are the reviews on the back cover. I love the one from Alan Wolfe: “I do not believe in original sin. I do believe in Alan Jacobs.” These are the kinds of endorsements that truly reflect some of the points made in the book about the deep ambivalence (or disdain, really) regarding the concept of original sin.
For the Christian psychologist, the book makes one think about the implications for psychology of an Augustinian view of original sin. I was particularly struck by the final chapter dealing with contemporary psychology and, in particular, the work of Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. After explaining some of the design and outcomes from the study in which students were randomly assigned to “guard” and “prisoner” status and soon after had some guards engaging in abusive behavior to fellow students, Jacobs points out Zimbardo’s conclusions that include that people are essentially good and can turn evil. Jacobs is right to point out that Zimbardo fails to argue for the inherent goodness of people but simply assumes it to be true. In response to those who say the word “evil” should have “withered” from our vocabulary, Jacobs raises the question: “But doesn’t Zimbardo’s book suggest the opposite, that the word [evil] is of wider application than most of us (especially Zimbardo) would want to admit? Doesn’t it make us wonder whether something is wrong with all of us?” (p. 252).