John Owen: Updating Mortification

Week before last, when we started with Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, I described it as sort of like seventeenth-century self-help. This week, we’re going to talk about the value of his book today, specifically against the backdrop of the self-help industry, and the sub-section of Christian self-help within that. The first thing to note about Christian self-help books is that it’s a pretty big industry. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages series – now, I’m told, with 5 Love Languages: Military Edition – and then there’s the attendant horde of celebrity preachers. TD Jakes, the Osteens, Joyce Meyer, et cetera. There’s often a weird, uncomfortable overtone of American conservative that comes along with these guys – it’s part of the conceptual baggage. It’s the franchising, the slick, easy ubiquity of their brand. Actually, here’s an idea – let me just jump onto Zondervan, see what’s on their front page. Love Works, by Joel Manby (“over 100,000 copies sold … reading Love Works will transform your life”); Success from the Inside Out, by Nona Jones (“corporate executive, entrepreneur, and preacher”); and Your Time-Starved Marriage, by Drs Les and Leslie Parrott (doctors, no less). That’s the Christian self-help industry.

Of course, it’s not totally fair to be discussing John Owen in that context. The man’s a seventeenth century Puritan – he doesn’t have anything to do with Nona Jones (corporate executive, entrepreneur, and preacher). But I think it’s useful to at least acknowledge the current state of the self-help industry as the inescapable context for our discussion of Owen. There’s a knee-jerk negative reaction that a lot of people have to this type of literature, and – to be honest – it’s probably for very good reason. Even the concept of this book – The Mortification of Sin – it’s the sort of title that’s bound to raise hackles. In some places, I’d argue, that’s a very reasonable hostility ultimately justified by the content of Owen’s work (just wait for next week). At the same time, some of his good ideas are hamstrung by our current cultural climate. It’s harder to hear what’s valuable in his work, because it exists today in a culture where his intellectual descendents are producing cheap, hacky self-help books that are cashing in on evangelical Christianity for its brand recognition and captive market. So sure, it’s not fair to be discussing Owen in that context – but that’s the context we’re confronted by. That’s the current cultural milieu. If you don’t like it, take it up with the Osteens.

There’s also a broader cultural stigma around the idea of sin. It’s not a hot topic in mainstream circles. Not a term people are comfortable with. It’s very One Million Moms, very sandwich-board street preacher. It feels old-fashioned to be going around talking to people about their sins. And yet conceptually our culture retains something pretty similar. We all know about abusive people and people who’re emotionally unstable and people who are uncaring or glib – and in all those cases, we’d describe those people as having something wrong. They’re assholes, or maybe they’re just sad and need some professional help. One way or another, there’s something going on inside their head that’s just not quite right. They need to work on themselves – that’s the big phrase I hear thrown around. They need to do some work on themselves. I realised that I was being awful, and I needed to go and work on myself, become a better person. Even if we’re not using the term ‘sin’, we still retain this idea that people can be shitty.

So when Owen comes along and starts talking about the mortification of sin, many of us probably see red flags. But with a bit of readjusting, some of the stuff that he’s saying is actually remarkably good advice. He comes across as a guy who has genuine insights into human nature and the way we behave. In some ways, his book feels really modern. Let me give you an example. I mentioned this last week, but when he’s talking about avoiding or mortifying negative behaviours, he says that you should think about the things that set you off, and monitor those more closely, so that you can head off potential problems before they happen. “Consider what ways, what companies, what opportunities, what studies, what businesses, what conditions, have at any time given, or do usually give, advantages to thy distempers; and set thyself heedfully against them all” (Ch 11). In the same chapter, he tells us to think about whether a specific negative behaviour might stem from our nature, from something genetic or inherent in us: “Consider whether the distemper with which thou art perplexed be not rooted in thy nature, and cherished, fomented, and heightened from thy constitution.” Again, that’s fairly insightful. We know, for instance, that addiction often has a genetic component. Those wouldn’t have been the terms he was thinking in, but in essence, he’s not wrong.

The question, really, is how far you go in giving Owen the benefit of the doubt. It’s about how generous you want to be in your reading. For example, Owen says that if there is a genetic root to your distemper, the solution is to bring the body into subjection. He talks explicitly about fasting and weakening the physical body to bring it more under your control. “This gives check to the natural root of the distemper, and withers it by taking away its fatness of soil.” That’s fucking weird. It tips over into big red flag territory. Now, if we wanted to be really generous, we could talk about subjection in terms of self-control, in terms of keeping your emotions in check. Those are much friendlier ideas. I can imagine talking about subjecting your emotions to critical analysis and deep reflection, rather than just being governed by your passions – yeah, that’s language that I’m okay with. But is it what Owen’s saying? Strictly speaking, no. There’s a point where our process of translation is doing a disservice to the integrity of the original text. We can shuffle around some of Owen’s terms, reframe it for a secular, modern audience – but at some point we’ve got to stick our hands up and acknowledge what he’s actually saying. There’s a bigger point here about self-help books, too. When we go in wanting them to have something to offer us, it’s easy to recontextualise and reframe some of what’s being said so that it fits what we want to hear. That’s not to say that these books have nothing to offer us, but it’s worth asking how much they actually offer and how much we fill in the gaps ourselves. It’s a word of warning about how we read, what we take from a text, and what we maybe gloss over too easily.

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