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The medieval seven are as fashionable as ever

by Ken Bazyn
Continuum, 246 pages, $24.95


I suddenly remembered, when I came across this book, how I first reacted when I learned there were seven deadly sins. I think I was in high school. I memorized them, in exact order. And I can recite them still. But how often does a modern reader have the opportunity to reflect, deeply, on that scheme of human fallibility and what it might mean for us lately? Ken Bazyn, editorial director of the Religious Book Club and a man deeply versed in Christian teaching and preaching, has given us a rare chance to do such reflection.

The Seven Perennial Sins and Their Offspring suggests that sin is not readily uprooted. It is perennial. And the major seven, however medieval the scheme may sound, are as fashionable as ever. Yet Ken Bazyn’s book is more than an “updating.” He extends each of the seven by another chapter, showing us compelling variations on each theme. Every one of the seven perennial sins has its “offspring.” Thus, the chapter on “Pride: the Way Up Is Down” is followed by “The Faultfinder.” The chapter “Envy, the Secret Sin” is followed by “The Overzealous Egalitarian, or Leveler.” (This is the person whose belief system takes fair-mindedness to extremes and verges on aggressive utopianism.) The chapter on anger is followed by one on violence: “Violence Begets More Violence.” “Avarice, the Gleaming Deception” is paired with “The Workaholic.” Lust is studied not just in its ancient guise but as a contemporary, and commonplace, occurrence. Next, in “The Hedonist or Aesthete,” Bazyn demonstrates how ancient are the roots of these sinful longings and how modern their self-justifications.

What gives this book such a definite edge? The author confesses, in his introduction, what he is up to: “Literature has a pleasing indirectness that captures us unawares.” That’s his plan, to set an ambush for our own deeply rooted self-delusions. “All of us,” he continues, “are dominated by illusions that we will abandon only after intense struggle.” For this reason, Bazyn explains, Kierkegaard adopted a strategy whereby one who is under an illusion must be approached from behind. In effect, Bazyn is telling us that the subtlety of literature and storytelling will help us to see our worst traits, those that we never admit to ourselves, in ways that a frontal attack could never do. Furthermore, he attributes this same strategy to Jesus, who “teases us into self-awareness, just as a bowler hooks his ball toward the center pin, hoping for a strike.” In his parables, then, Jesus is pursuing a plan of subtle indirection to bring us to confront our worst side and our best.

But even though the author has confessed his method to us from the outset, we immediately forget what he is up to, as he leads us through a rich and entertaining catalog of what is worst in human behavior and ourselves. Yet it seems that Bazyn uses this material in ways we did not anticipate. The ancient account by the Roman writer Petronius of Trimalchio’s Dinner, for example, is mentioned as part of the discussion on avarice, because the guests who gorged themselves at Trimalchio’s feast were wearing lavish arm bracelets and reveled in the show-business aspects of the featured dishes. Bazyn sees this as a description of greed and extravagance, showiness. Gluttony, on the other hand, is a “strong craving” that comes in for biblical explanations but contemporary manifestations: addiction among them. Bazyn provides humorous, light confessions of his own preoccupations with potato chips and ice cream, yet goes on to admit that such apparently innocent “secret passions” can rocket out of control. “Over time little indulgences [he is speaking here of binge drinking and narcotics] can turn into preoccupations that absorb abnormal amounts of energy and time. One’s life becomes a kind of subterfuge.”

Here as elsewhere, Bazyn enlists a literary character, Lady Marchmain of Brideshead Revisited, to supply the mot juste: “I’ve known drunkards before,” she explains to Charles Ryder. “One of the most terrible things about them is their deceit. Love of truth is the first thing that goes.”

True to his stated plan, the author follows his chapter on gluttony with one on “The Faster and Various Imitators.” Bazyn commends fasting as a spiritual discipline, but shows its many distortions. Last among the vices is “Sloth: Don’t Lose Heart,” which Bazyn sees not only in terms of laziness but as a kind of nihilism found in the plays of Eugene Ionesco and the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre. They portray a world in which nothing has meaning and no one has enough energy to care. The next chapter, on “The Despondent,” avoids contemporary language of depression and concentrates instead on the loathed melancholy so well known to poets and playwrights of earlier times. Practically anyone, Bazyn insists, can give up on himself or herself and feel forgotten by God. Faith-filled perseverance (see Galatians 6:9: “Do not grow weary in doing good”) turns out to be the perennial, evergreen answer after all.

What, then, becomes of virtue in this extended discussion of vice? It seems that throughout this wide-ranging, richly literary discussion, the author has taken a leaf from C.S. Lewis and smuggled in the possibility of virtue. On every page or two, there are exhortations to hope, discipline, faith and love. There are also numberless hints for practical ways to go about virtuous living.

“How does one live the virtuous life without some concrete example?” Bazyn asks. He gives us an answer from Seneca. “We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes ... so that we may live as if he were watching us.” Seneca recommends Cato and Laelius. But Bazyn takes his advice one step further and suggests Jesus of Nazareth as the best model.

This book is a fine companion for anyone seriously attempting the spiritual life. It is rich, complex, demanding, and leaves plenty of room for the hiddenness of grace.

Emilie Griffin writes on the spiritual life. Her most recent book is Doors Into Prayer: An Invitation.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003