Thursday, May 28, 2009

Glittering Vices - A Review

Imagine with me that you go to the doctor and tell her you are experiencing a couple of symptoms but never gave it much thought because you’ve coped okay with it but would still like a diagnosis. After many tests you return to see her and she informs you that you have cancer. Then before you can wrap your head around it she tells you that you have Leukemia, Lupus and Lou Gehrig’s disease. As you sit there in stunned silence she says, “It’s okay I have the cure for all of them.” That’s how I felt reading Rebecca DeYoung’s book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins. DeYoung was my doctor and with each chapter I was diagnosed in vivid detail with the gravity of the vices in my life. But at the end of each chapter came the remedies which are all rooted in the grace of God.

DeYoung is serious about these vices which is contrary to our contemporary society which takes pleasure in mocking them. She is equally serious about not obsessing over them but rather thinking through them in the broader context of spiritual formation. (10) It helps to know what our problems are so we can better deal with them. If I don’t know I have a disease it can’t be treated. If I don’t think I’m guilty of, say, sloth then we will not pursue the remedy. Herein lies the problem. Our culture has so redefined, trivialized, or marginalized these vices that we don’t give them a second thought except to say “that’s not me” or “so what if it is—what’s the harm?”

DeYoung starts with a brief history of the seven sins which originally were eight. Along the way the list was modified and eventually settled in at seven: vainglory, envy, sloth, avarice (greed), wrath (anger), lust and gluttony. (28) Early on pride had been on the list but with time was moved off the list and became the root of the other seven vices. Four authors are given special interest: Evargius of Pontus (346-399 AD, one of the desert fathers), John Cassian (360-430, a disciple of Evagrius, Pope Gregory I (540-604, also called Gregory the Great) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

But why these seven? Isn’t murder more deadly than sloth? The list was never intended to show the worst sins nor the ones committed most frequently rather they are the “capital” vices in the sense that they are the “source” or “fountainhead” of many other sins. DeYoung’s preferred term is “capital vices” rather than “deadly sins” though they are certainly deadly. The term “vice” is more appropriate than sins because “vices concern deeply rooted patterns in our character, patterns broader than a single act but narrower than our sinful human condition in general.” (34) But these seven were chosen because “they aim at the things that most attract human beings, the goods which we most long to possess.” (38) “When our character is distorted by vice, we seek these goods—and they are genuinely good things—in a misguided or even idolatrous manner: in the wrong way, at the wrong times and wrong places, too intensely, or at the expense of other things of greater value.” (39)

In the next seven chapters she treats each of the vices. She leans heavily on Thomas Aquinas for the elaboration of what the vices are but makes smart use of contemporary movies to illustrate her points. Thus Amadeus shows us Antonio Salieri’s envy of Mozart, the chief character in the film Groundhog Day oddly enough illustrates sloth, and the film The Mission illustrates both good and bad anger. This nicely demonstrates what she says early on: “we implicitly draw our lists from a mental picture of someone we admire (or despise) as a model of moral excellence (or corruption). Role models who embody a moral idea are anchors for moral education into the virtues (or vices), since we learn and acquire character traits by observing and imitating role models.” (17)

With each chapter I found myself cut to the quick especially as I became blindsided by one vice after another which I had assured myself was not that prevalent in my life (confession here: sloth and gluttony I never saw coming, envy hit me from new angles, and the others, well. . . let’s not go there). I began to think my chief problem was spiritual blindness but it really boils down to pride. It’s not a pleasant experience to have our vices exposed to the light of day. But when all is said and done I’m glad they were because now I know what I’m dealing with.

When Joel Osteen was once asked if he uses the word “sinners” he said, “I don't use it. I never thought about it. But I probably don't. But most people already know what they're doing wrong. When I get them to church I want to tell them that you can change." I disagreed with him then and I disagree even more now. Our sins and vices are more subtle than we can imagine and more deadly than we know. We ignore them to our own demise. To talk about “change” to a people left to their own imagination as to what is wrong with them is like a doctor giving a cancer patient a band aid because all the patient can see is a cut finger. As DeYoung so aptly concludes: “The more we understand the dynamics of sin and the deep network of its combined forces in us, however, the more amazing we will find the grace and power promised to us to help us change.” (184) Having identified and properly understood these seven vices we can all the more effectively work to take them out at the root.

With all this said those in the Reformed and Lutheran communities may object that this is, at its core, law and not gospel. It is filled with imperatives and not enough indicatives. Sanctification is ultimately up to us and not God. We started our life in Christ by faith but maintain it by works. Michael Horton asks in another context "I'm not sure, however, how directing people to greater concentration on themselves is going to overcome the narcissistic captivity on themselves." (emphasis his. Modern Reformation Vol. 18 March - April 2009, p. 48) He continues, "we just can't staple a non-evangelical practice to an evangelical theology. The right doctrine gives rise to the right kind of piety." DeYoung is not insensitive to this. She says, "seeking improvement in virtue is grace-empowered effort: it is an earnest desire to be all that God wants us to be, not a self-help program driven by willpower and a self-made conception of a new and improved self." (57) But I'm not sure this is going far enough by Reformed standards. Horton says, "Apart from the imputation of righteousness, sanctification is simply another religious self-improvement program determined by the powers of this age (the flesh) rather than of the age to come (the Spirit). This gospel not only announces our justification, but our participation in the power of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Therefore, we cannot look to Christ at the beginning for our justification, and then look away from Christ to our own progress and countless manuals that offer formulas for spiritual and moral ascent when it comes to the Christian life (sanctification)." But, DeYoung never intended to write a Reformed understanding of the seven deadly sins nor an exposition of Reformed sanctification.

I enjoyed reading this book and feel like she still has much to offer even to Reformed communities. No doubt introspection can become an obsessive habit but if we never look at ourselves with an eye to the subtle ways in which sin can manifest itself then the remedy of even the gospel will be of no effect.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is an associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College

1 comment:

Paul said...

Thanks, Louis, for this review. You raise a panoply of issues here and have given us much to think on.