BLESSED ARE THE CYNICAL: How Original Sin Can Make America a Better Place

Mark Ellingsen, Author . Brazos $23.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-58743-042-8

Ellingsen, who teaches church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center, makes a plausible complaint against the narcissism and naïveté pervading American culture today, which he sees rooted in unbridled optimism about human nature. Unfortunately, the book's allusions to an Augustinian corrective in theology, anthropology and political theory are often too vague to establish a clear alternative to such optimism. One problem is historical: assessing the influence of Augustine's teaching on original sin (as mediated by classical Protestantism) on the founders and their Constitution. On this point, Ellingsen assembles a suggestive case, although students of Scottish realism or the continental Enlightenment will not be satisfied with his portrayal of the former as a vehicle for Augustinian pessimism, or the latter as its naïvely optimistic foil. The more difficult problem is contemporary: discerning and explaining how this or that cultural development implicitly denies original sin or stands to be improved by an Augustinian critique. On this front, which occupies more than half of the text, the book is less successful, relying less on historical evidence and more on a web of analogical and impressionistic comparisons whose aptness varies. Ellingsen's critique of self-love and the natural alliance of consumerism and the therapeutic culture is generally credible. But for many of the cultural developments he discusses—in the spheres of politics, business, religion, family life and education—it is often doubtful that the doctrine of original sin offers any unique or sufficient basis for responding to the problems he sees. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 03/03/2003
Release date: 02/01/2003
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