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.

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.

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).

Especially in the tradition of the monks, the list of vices became a teaching tool for organizing thought to fight the "evil within," which threatened advances in holiness and virtue, says Professor Grabowski.

Over the centuries, artists and authors have perpetuated the myth and meaning of the sins by depicting them in their works, including assigning them animal form. Today, Roman Catholics refer to them as "cardinal" sins because they are the ones that lead to all others. Still, everyone from James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, to readers of the nondenominational website have suggested other vices for the list - including snobbery and narcissism. Ms. Prose jokes that there should also be an allowance for offenses like "grabbing a parking place you haven't actually been waiting for."

That would probably qualify as greed, the subject Phyllis Tickle is tackling in her installment in the series, due out next April. An author and expert on religion in America, Ms. Tickle argues only somewhat facetiously that her sin is the worst, "the mother of the sins." She explains that one idea she addresses in her book sounds at first like heresy: That without sin, there would be no faith. "Ultimately, sin is the thing that drives us back on the path to righteousness.... Without [sin] there is no human progress. Human life is dependent on sin," she argues.

What's compelling and perhaps most progressive about discussions of the deadly sins today is that they are not just from the perspective of the overtly religious. Mr. Epstein, for example, writes in "Envy," the first book in the series due out this month, that for those who don't embrace the notion of sin, "I would invite you instead to consider envy less as a sin than as very poor mental hygiene."

He recommends fighting it off, as it "clouds thought, clobbers generosity, precludes any hope of serenity, and ends in shriveling the heart."

Even those at the far end of the liberal spectrum, like controversial sex columnist and author Dan Savage, see a role for these moral guideposts in determining individual behavior.

His approach to researching the sins is perhaps not for everyone - he set out to commit all seven as a way to prove that there are ethical sinners for his 2002 book "Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America." But his view on how to apply them is not uncommon: "What matters is not that you have lust in your heart, it's what you do with that," he says.

Perhaps that approach is why the seven deadly sins are increasingly being suggested as a tool for psychologists. It's an idea that was explored in depth by Jewish scholar Solomon Schimmel in his recent book "The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology."

In an interview, he sums up his goal in writing the book as trying to "help people lead happier lives by using the wisdom of religious traditions." In the book, he argues that secular psychology needs to confront the role of values in everyday life if it hopes to ameliorate anxieties: "We need to reclaim the rich insights into human nature of earlier moral reflection if we want to lead more satisfying lives."

His modern approach - like that of the Oxford writers - offers up the development of the sins. As Grabowski describes it, it's clear that "maybe this isn't just an esoteric ancient religious concept, that it really has some ongoing contribution to make in terms of behavioral sciences, other sciences, and their investigation of the human person today."

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