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A Review of
Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay
Despite constant occurrences of politician’s sexting employees, NFL players assaulting women and Wall Street tycoons cheating investors, sin remains fascinating, and ubiquitously destructive. The litany of lousy things people do to each other, and to themselves, continues to need our attention.
Dennis Okholm’s, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of the Ancient Monks is a study of sin, of what the Catholic church and many others, refer to as the cardinal sins: gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth and vain glory. These seven aren’t just the most common; they’re the parents from which all other sins originate. More specifically, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins is a look at the seven sins from parallel perspectives: that of early monks, namely, Evagrius (4th C.), Cassian (5th C.) and Gregory the Great (6th C.), and that of current psychologists.
Okholm is an Episcopal priest in Southern California, as well as a Systematic Theologian who teaches at Azusa Pacific College and Fuller Seminary – a combination of head and heart that serves his readers well. And while he’s neither a trained psychologist nor a counselor, Okholm is a Benedictine oblate, a serious student of the early monastics, and an astute observer of sin.
Each of the seven sins gets their moment (and full chapter) under the microscope. Beginning with a dissection of that particular sin, Okholm aptly traces what the monks view as the most common routes from desire to passion to sin. Gluttony, for example, arises from the “manner in which we consume food, involving inordinate desire and immoderate pleasure” (18). Eating is good – it’s how we “use” food, how it controls us, that gets us onto problematic trajectories. After dissection, Okholm delves into the “ancients’ “ and “moderns’ ” perspectives on that sin’s manifestations, and then its parallel remedies or treatments. Gluttony can surface both as an eating disorder (of which the monks were well-apprised), and as a community problem – First world consumption at the expense of Third world scarcity. For treatment, those struggling with gluttony must first unearth where it’s become a medical and a moral problem. Contemporary psychologists often focus on the language of disease (thus minimizing our responsibility for both our vice and the actions they catalyze), but ancient monks used the language of sickness, not to “excuse us from responsibility from our vices but to advise us as the soul’s physician to change our habits”(21).
In the chapter on lust (cleverly subtitled “Abstinence Resistant“), Okholm looks at a number of manifestations, including sexual addiction and violence. From Cassian’s observations, he quotes “passions are not even the sufficient cause of sexual sin but only its occasion. The direct cause of such sin is when one fails to resist a passion by the use of reason, either because one did not think it through … or the lower impulses won out”(42). Okholm highlights what the ancients knew, and the moderns increasingly acknowledge – the essential role of anger in the treatment of sexual, and all, addictions. Patrick Carnes, a psychologist and leading expert on sexual addiction, concurs: “Most addicts do not connect their behavior with anger. The excitement and arousal of the trance block the feelings, along with the rest of the pain. The greater the anger and the pain, the more excitement is required to block it” (52).
For envy, Okholm revisits the true account of the mother of the cheerleader who was convicted of attempting to have her daughter’s rival murdered. The mother felt that Shanna’s (her daughter) failures and Amber’s successes had driven her to an irrational jealousy. While monks may not have known cheerleaders, they were familiar with envy that leads to irrational action. Okholm paraphrases Cassian and Gregory,
Like an engorged tick, envy is a parasite that swells to the degree that the other prospers. Worse, the envier begins to look for faults amid the good qualities of the righteous and becomes disheartened when the envied one makes further progress. This is a person who will not rejoice with those who rejoice but is eager to hypocritically weep with those who weep. (122)
Underlying Okholm’s hope to showcase the ancient monks’ foundational and scriptural wisdom is a determination to offer a holistic approach. He writes,
… I intend to bring forward the insights of the early church monks in order to offer what one might call a truly Christian psychology rather than the more typical approach that begins with the template of contemporary understanding from the social sciences and then attempts to insert Christian concepts to make them fit the alien structure.” (8) (All Italics are Okholm’s.)
While I am not confident he quite arrives at this goal, Okholm makes an excellent start, and his book earns its spot as a highly useful tool for understanding sin in our own lives, and in our culture. In a tone that is gentle but frank, it’s full of useful observations and counsel, from both the ancients and the moderns. Okholm delves into the monks’ focus on concepts such as the importance of habits – habits for good and habits that degenerate into sin, or, seeing sin in the context of community and its counterproductive privatizing impact. There’s a strong pastoral and devotional impact to this volume, and while it’s aimed at Christians who assume that sin is essential to address, a great deal will be useful to all students of the soul. Lastly, some readers will be frustrated that sources are not handled adequately, as modern psychologists and academics are cited without a complementary clause verifying why they are quoted. It is hard not to puzzle, “Who is he quoting now?”
The first book on sin that many people read was C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Reading Dangerous Sins, Deadly Passions, it was easy to imagine that Screwtape used the insights of these monks, and moderns, to discern precisely how to mess with us. Dennis Okholm has generously provided a readable, highly useful, antidote.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com