Saturday, November 2, 2013

Whatever became of sin?

When did sin begin to leave our American vocabulary?  Columnist David Brooks chronicles a much earlier history than most.

It begins, according to Brooks, in the aftermath of WWII, the advent of the nuclear age, and a population weary of bad news.  Along came Reform Jewish Rabbi Joshua Liebman and a little tract he called "The Road to Inner Serenity."  It eventually became a book.  In Peace of Mind, Liebman "addressed himself to the individual whose personal grief and anxiety, unassuageable by social betterment alone, required an inner peace that psychology and religion, working together, could provide." Peace of Mind became one of the year's best-selling books. Reaching #1 on the New York Times nonfiction best-sellers list on October 27, 1946, Peace of Mind held the top position on the list for a total of 58 (non-consecutive) weeks, and spent more than three straight years on the list.  That book shifted the attention away from the poles of sin and goodness and encouraged the idea of inner joy through peace with your self.

This was followed by The Mature Mind by Harry Allen Overstreet whose 1949 book was on the NY Times best selling list for more than half a year and won the Parents Magazine book award in 1950.  Working to combine psychology and psychoanalysis, he emphasized education and social tolerance.  Mental and moral maturity would be achieved when a person developed self-respect and a respectful attitude toward other cultures and belief systems.  Put another way, he attacked the Augustinian model which said you were broken and instead encouraged you to see yourself as whole, good, and worthy.

At the same time How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie was published in August 2, 1948.  Then a few years later, Norman Vincent Peale produced a book that would sit on the best seller list for 186 weeks and at the top for half that time.  Peale's work was largely anecdotal and a series of unnamed and unattributed testimonials.  Though some were quick to challenge the work, it did not  lessen its popularity of The Power of Positive Thinking.  This book continues to impact upon the thought of much of Christianity though it has been accused of depersonalized religion and an optimistic thinking without any sense of limit, evil, or wrong.

Who can deny the impact of Dr. Benjamin Spock and his work Baby and Child Care?  Throughout its first 52 years, Baby and Child Care was the second-best-selling book, next to the Bible. Its message to mothers is that "you know more than you think you do." Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis to try to understand children's needs and family dynamics. His ideas about childcare influenced several generations of parents to be more flexible and affectionate with their children, and to treat them as individuals.  Spock de-emphasized the idea of wrong (sin) in favor a more positive and permissive spirit of parenting.  Even Peale criticized Spock for his pattern of instantaneous gratification of needs and encouraging nothing less than narcissism.

Carl Ransom Rogers came along with additional psychological advice to encourage the belief in self and wrote some 16 books to defend both conditional and unconditional positive self regard as the key to the fully self-actualized individual.  Self worth, an openness to new experience, trust in your own judgement, freedom of choice, and the goal of a rich and good life were all themes relating to the fully functional person.

Finally we get to Eat, Pray, Love in 2006 by Elizabeth Gilbert which sat on the NY Times best seller list for 187 weeks and spawned a movie starring Julia Roberts.  Her response to a divorce and failed rebound relationship was to eat (Italy), pray (India and spirituality), and love (Bali and a new love interest).  In the end, her advice is to get in touch with the God who is you by learning to speak in your own true voice -- something many have criticized as too fake, too willful, and too focused on self-consciousness.

So there it is... a journey through the NYT best seller list on a path that helps ease sin out of vocabulary.  Whether you agree or not, Brooks offers us something to gnaw on.

1 comment:

ErnestO said...

The video by David Brooks is packed with a lifetime of insight, thanks for leading me to it.