I’ve always been interested in the lives and spirituality of monks, so when Dennis Okholm’s Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks (Brazos, 2014) came across my desk, I dove right in. Through exploring the works of Evagrius of Pontus, John Cassian, and Gregory I on the seven deadly sins, Okholm believes that a healthy dose of ancient wisdom will go a long way in curing our contemporary struggles with these vices. While centuries apart, through an in-depth engagement with each sin (gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, and vainglory), Okholm reveals that these vices have not gone away, only changed form and name.
Okholm’s project is both academic and pastoral. He speaks as a theologian drawing wisdom from the past to reframe the Christian study of psychology. He also speaks as a fellow pilgrim on the way of Christ, hoping to point readers to the wisdom of the ancients in trying to fight temptation and live virtuous, Christ-like lives.
The strengths of this book are in his cultural analysis and use of the ancient texts. He presents these ancient Christian psychologists in such a way that they are no longer far off figures, but friendly, helpful companions on the path of Christ. The insights of these monks, with contemporary research, help illuminate the vices of the present. As someone generally suspicious of what passes for ‘Christian psychology,’ I found Okholm’s engagement with these Christian theologians both encouraging and insightful. However, there are points where Okholm understates some of theological problems of these ancient monks. All these monks hold a Platonic-Stoic understanding of the soul, which Okholm addresses only briefly in the Addendum. Their understanding of the soul and its journey toward God is a foundational assumption for their work on the deadly sins, which requires some critical reflection. Additionally, Okholm mentions John Cassian’s semi-Pelagianism multiple times, but does not sufficiently refute it.
Overall, I found Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins to be both intellectual engaging and personally challenging. I was introduced to the wealth of monastic wisdom on the Christian life and spurred on to ‘lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely…and run with perseverance the race that is set before us’ (Hebrew 12:1).