If you’re looking for a little more guilt in your life, this is the book for you. Dennis Okholm’s exploration of monastic psychology on the seven deadly sins in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins is a tour through one’s own shortcomings, and each stop on the itinerary offers a new helping of shame.
The thing is, though I wasn’t looking for it, I did need a little more guilt in my life. Since my migration from evangelical to mainline, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the word “sins” used in a sermon. It’s true that we confess our sins against God and our neighbor each week in the liturgy, and I mean that prayer when I say it, but it’s over in 20 seconds and doesn’t get very specific. It’s also true that we might acknowledge “sin” from time to time, referring to that abstract, aggregate body of our misbehavior. But rarely in our homilies and conversations do we utter words like “sins” or “sinning,” words that make the thing concrete, reminding us that our transgressions are many and recurring.
I needed a reminder that I commit particular sins, and that these sins are a serious thing. This book certainly offered that.
Okholm’s objective, of course, is not merely to create a 200-page guilt trip. As he states in the admirably lucid introductory chapter, the goal of Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins is first “to bring forward the insights of early church monks”—Evagrius of Pontus, John Cassian, and Pope Gregory I in particular—“in order to offer what one might call a truly Christian psychology,” and second to “make a bit of an apologetic case for the priority of this Christian psychology” (8).
Okholm characterizes these monks as skilled doctors of the soul, and he presents their system of observing, diagnosing, and curing human misbehavior as a sound foundation for good Christian counseling (or a sound alternative to bad Christian counseling). Thus, he offers more than an overview of the seven deadly sins. In each chapter he compares early medieval thought to contemporary studies and trends that also deal with anger, overeating, envy, etc., highlighting both agreements and divergences.
Okholm also strives to apply monastic thought to a particular “case” of each sin in a modern setting, showing how monastic prescriptions did serve, or might have served, as an effective remedy.
Okholm’s fluency in the monastics is impressive, and all the more so because it is not intimidating. He clearly has a scholar’s knowledge of his sources, but he also has a disciple’s love for them. It is this love that speaks loudest, and it allows him to quote extensively from them without seeming showy or pedantic. His attitude is not “Look what I know,” but rather “Look what they knew!”
Almost as impressive is Okholm’s familiarity with modern psychology. He is a theologian and minister; it’s never been his job to be an expert in psychology. For this book I don’t think he’s claiming to be an expert, either, but he has clearly been diligent in his homework. He provides a lot of information, and a lot of corroboration. I myself am no expert, so I’m not qualified to judge whether he always gives a fair or full picture when talking about this study or that doctor, but it all seems to have the substance and gravitas of legitimacy.
For some readers, this engagement with modern thought may be the hook. I would have been nearly as happy with the book even without it. For one thing, Okholm’s “test cases” are often a little thin or tenuous. Sometimes they feel like afterthoughts at the end of a chapter, and sometimes they seem a bit of a stretch.
For another thing, as much as the introduction seems to promise controversy, Okholm is actually a little tentative when it comes to pitting his monastic sources against their modern counterparts. He does frequently point out differences, but he often resolves them by noting a newer, even more contemporary source that has come back around to the monastic point of view; or he leaves them unresolved, noting a difference of context and the need for more study.
Surprisingly, one Amazon reviewer accuses Okholm of overstating his case. He charges the author with holding too stubbornly to monastic thought, prescribing in particular a dangerous, excessive patience in abusive relationships (which would contradict the modern mandate for victims to get out). Before I started the book, I was wary of this very kind of error—the presumption of a scholar on crusade, wielding a favorite thesis in a far-off land, and particularly a thesis stating, more or less, that the old ways are best.
But I never actually saw that error, not in Okholm’s treatment of anger and not anywhere else. Again, the author seems fairly cautious when it comes to picking a fight. He’s happy in many cases to validate both sides in a conflict, allowing each side a set of circumstances where its principles seem best. Considering that very few of us inhabit the cloistered context where Okholm’s monks wrote, this caution seems wise.
For me, Okholm’s comparison of modern and ancient psychology is the less interesting element of the book because, ultimately, I’m not sure he’s comparing like things. So much of modern psychology seems devoted to abnormal conditions and extraordinary disorders. The monastic “psychology,” on the other hand, is concerned with the very mundane sins we all wrestle with (or surrender to). As Okholm himself says at one point, “there is something extraordinarily ordinary about all this” (34).
And that is exactly why the first element of the book, the simple exposition of monastic thought on sin, is so interesting to me. My sins are such an ordinary part of my life that I had forgotten to take them seriously. They had grown comfortable in a way, and because of that I had stopped trying to get rid of them. (Or did that happen the other way around?) Then here came these monks, reminding me that my sins are deathly serious, that my comfort with them is lethal, and that despite all this there are concrete things I can do to actually overcome them.
My progress through this book seemed to parallel Dante’s journey through Purgatory. At each new terrace—gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, vainglory—I saw myself in the sins depicted. I saw my own errors dragged out into the light, exposed in harsh relief. And like Dante, I felt the sharp remorse that is, if cultivated, the seed of repentance.
This, for me at least, makes Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins an even better book than perhaps its author intended. (I doubt he’ll chafe at the comparison to Dante and the implict analogy of himself to Virgil.) It was more than informative or provocative; it was transformative. I know of no higher praise for a book.
(Full disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Brazos Press in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.)