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The language of sin

18 March 2016

Philip Welsh reflects on the wisdom of a fourth century hermit

The Dark Side of the Soul: An insider’s guide to the web of sin
Stephen Cherry
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30


STEPHEN CHERRY has an important case to make: the word “sin” has become trivialised in general usage, and “evil” has come to describe those whose depravity sets them apart, we like to think, from the rest of us. We need, he contends, to rehabilitate the language of sin — including Original Sin — as “a way of naming what is wrong without pretending that doing wrong is an extreme aspect of a few characters”. Only in this way will we accept responsibility for our own behaviour as the first step in personal and communal flourishing.

His companion throughout the book is the fourth-century hermit Evagrius, whose list of “passions” later developed into the familiar Seven Deadly Sins. Cherry arranges his own catalogue of vices into six “clusters”, with some unexpected inclusions such as boredom, snobbery, and abjectness, and offers some striking insights: busyness is an aspect of sloth, which Cherry takes to mean having a bad relationship with time; lust is “the misuse of attention”; remorse can be a kind of nostalgia.

His aim is “to help us develop a realistic, helpful, and healthy self-understanding as a relational and responsible self.” To this end, he offers “Seven Tactics for Demon Wrestling”: “recognising that sin is a serious spiritual issue, developing some spiritual assertiveness, learning from others, seeking humility, setting time-wise goals, learning to love, and identifying what is not love-worthy.”

It is refreshing to find a paperback of this nature published by a mainstream imprint (albeit at a stiffish price), and The Dark Side of the Soul is written for the general reader in conversational style. Cherry offers advice over a range of temptations whose breadth does not allow for much depth, and at times is in danger of the commonplace. He draws throughout on the Christian tradition, without assuming a personal faith in his reader, and this book will be accessible both to committed Christians and to others who are willing to examine their lives with resources from Christian thought.

This broad accessibility necessarily determines the book’s scope. It helps us to understand the interconnectedness of human sinfulness (the “web of sin”), but makes scant reference to the great Christian themes of repentance and forgiveness, redemption and grace. The only discussion of the cross is in the context of depictions of cruelty.

Not gospel, then, but a contribution to contemporary Christian wisdom literature, reflected in the book’s epigraph from Evagrius (itself echoing the famous inscription at Delphi): “You want to know God? First know yourself.”


Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

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