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Is sin in?

Centuries after the seven deadly sins became the ultimate measure of moral depravity, a new series of essays asks if they are still relevant.

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2003

When Pope Gregory I refined the list of seven deadly sins toward the end of the 6th century, he never guessed that one day they'd become ice cream flavors.

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But 1,400 years later, people can lick gluttony off a stick while they ponder that particular sin and its infamous brethren - anger, pride, envy, sloth, lust, and greed.

Clerics aren't too happy about the sins being trivialized, especially of late in Europe, where the gimmicky ice cream originates. They also have to contend with a group of chefs in France, who earlier this year petitioned Pope John Paul II to take gluttony off the list - or, rather, to change the current word used in French to describe the sin because its meaning has changed.

All the hoopla lends itself to the idea that the deadlies don't have the fearsome reputation they once did. Even those who are religious often have to be reminded of what's on the list. But at the same time - maybe thanks to all the reality TV - analyzing human nature is more interesting than ever, and these historic vices present a good place to start. Popular culture takes a stab at exploring them every few years, through an MTV special, or a movie (1995's grisly "Seven"), or, more commonly, a book. This month, a more thoughtful approach to the deadly seven will commence when the first in a series of palm-sized volumes on the sins is published by Oxford University Press.

The chosen writers - some religious, some not - examine each of the deadly sins and what they say about contemporary society and human nature. The authors are adapting their books from related talks they gave at the New York Public Library, taking intriguing positions on the sins, which they often find are more or less deadly than advertised.

Essayist Joseph Epstein, for example, argues that envy should still have a place among the top vices, being destructive to character. But gluttony? Novelist Francine Prose isn't convinced, especially given the way overweight people are treated.

"These days, few people seriously consider the idea that eating too much or enjoying one's food is a crime against God," she writes in the second book in the series. Instead, thanks to modern standards of health and beauty, "The wages of sin have changed, and now involve a version of hell on earth: the pity, contempt, and distaste of one's fellow mortals."

In her view, the deadly sins are a checklist for the conscience, she explains in an interview. "Frankly, I don't think people are thinking about sin enough."

Secular and religious observers alike argue that the deadly sins are relevant today because they have universal application - in areas like psychology and human relations. At least one theologian points to the unbridled American consumer culture as an example of how greed, like some of the other sins, has become institutionalized.

"[The seven deadly sins] are useful and relevant today not only in terms of charting an individual's spiritual progress, but also in looking at patterns that we've developed socially and culturally, ways we oppress ourselves and one another," says John Grabowski, professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

Checklists of vices have existed since before Christianity, when outlining offensive actions was commonplace. Although the seven deadlies aren't in the Bible as a group, hints of them can be found in Proverbs 6, verses 16 to 19, for example, where "a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood," are enumerated as among seven things the "Lord doth hate."

The list that Pope Gregory I refined was first arrived at by a 4th-century monk named Evagrius of Pontus. He choose eight: gluttony, lust, avarice (greed), sadness, anger, acedia (spiritual sloth), vainglory, and pride. Gregory I added envy, and merged vainglory with pride and acedia with sadness (which eventually became sloth).