Winter Books
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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

By John Portmann
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 240 pages, $24.95
The pallid wages of sin


John Portmann’s latest book is curious for what it does and does not emphasize.

A History of Sin reflects the University of Virginia religious studies professor’s continuing interest in problematic behaviors and attitudes, which he previously treated in such volumes as In Defense of Sin (which he edited), Sex and Heaven: Catholics in Bed and at Prayer and Bad for Us: The Lure of Self-Harm. His new work is eclectic, but perhaps too much so. In an effort to lace scholarship with popular culture and a reader-friendly style, the author throws out one intriguing observation after another without developing many of them.

One theme that runs through the book is sin fatigue, which Dr. Portmann defines as “the weary condition of having to decide whether to hold on to or discard a tradition that just doesn’t excite us anymore.” The definition illustrates two recurring problems of the book: Is the author being ironic or straightforward (it seems peculiar to weigh the validity of a tradition by its degree of excitement), and who does he mean by “us” (the United States, Christendom in general or the Catholic community in particular, with which Dr. Portmann identifies himself)?

In tracing the history of concepts of sin, the writer touches on such intriguing topics as the difference between sin as a social and an individual phenomenon, the grounding of the concept of sin in belief in God and the appropriateness of forgiveness and who should do the forgiving. Occasionally Dr. Portmann introduces a topic that promises much food for thought, such as the idea that human behavior can wound God or disagreements among Christians on the extent to which Jesus atoned for human sin. After introducing such weighty topics, however, he often polishes them off in a quick paragraph or two and is on to the next pop references to a television show such as “The Real World,” or an ex-porn star such as Linda Lovelace.

Dr. Portmann’s offbeat way of examining a subject such as sin is also shown by his devoting an entire chapter to masturbation (titled “Catholic Masturbation and Modern Science”) while throwing such things as environmental pollution, obesity, abusing children and wives, homophobia, racism, and drunken driving into one chapter. The curious collection of items raises the question: Which ones do not belong?

Masturbation receives a separate chapter apparently because it is still classified as a mortal sin in official Catholic teaching and because a group of Australian researchers reported in 2003 that frequent masturbation might help to prevent prostate cancer. Despite Dr. Portmann’s interest, however, there seems to be a lack of public controversy about the church’s teaching on this particular subject. And in referring to the medical study as a possible occasion for the church to re-examine its position, the author fails to consider the implications of deciding whether a practice is sinful for both men and women because of its effect only on men.

One might think the clergy sex scandals that have roiled the Catholic church for the past quarter-century would get significant attention in a book on sin written by a Catholic. Instead, it gets two references -- one a half-sentence in a discussion of restitution and the other an observation that the crisis showed Catholics that “their community, their culture, was every bit as liable to sin as any other in America.” Here, as in so many other places in the book, the comment “Well, duh!” comes to mind.

Despite these shortcomings, Dr. Portmann’s book has one thought-provoking chapter on affirmative action and the dilemma it poses for both black and white Americans. He examines the problem from the standpoint of justice and fairness and uses the Catholic principle of double effect to hint at a possible way of justifying such programs, at least temporarily. The author also suggests that white university presidents who defend such programs on their campuses might consider giving up some of their authority to black administrators so that disappointed white applicants wouldn’t be the only people who experience the negative effects of affirmative action.

One may question to what extent affirmative action should be discussed in a book about sin that gives short shrift to other topics. However, it would be interesting to see Dr. Portmann devote his next book to the topic of racial justice -- particularly if he stayed focused.

Darrell Turner writes the annual religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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