Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins by Dennis Okholm: a Book Review

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks
(First review: 27 August 2014, 4 Stars. Updated review: 7 May 2020, 5 Stars. MWP)

For someone to wed Psychology and Christian spirituality may sound, for many, doubtful and dubious, especially after the decades-long frictions between the two. But the 240 page paperback titled “Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks” has entered the ring to help referee the match. To do this Dennis Okholm, a Benedictine oblate, assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California, professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, takes the reader back and forth from present-day psychology to three ancient monastic leaders: Evagrius of Pontus, John Cassian, and Gregory the Great. Okholm specifically takes up the diagnoses and prognoses of the seven principle vices (8): gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth and vainglory.

“Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins” begins by making the case that the ascetic theologians and monks of the fourth through seventh centuries “provide the church with a psychology that is not only specifically Christian in its orientation, but relevant to modern people” (14). Okholm explains that his two-fold approach is to bring forward a clearly Christian psychology that originated with the early Christian monks, and to make an apologetic case for the priority of this Christian psychology over against the presumption of modern technicians who act as if they are some of the first to have come to their conclusions (14). In almost every chapter the author will pair one of the principle vices with discussion of a specific pathology or addiction (16).

Okholm then takes the next seven chapters of “Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins” and unpacks each vice individually. He draws almost exclusively from Evagrius, Cassion and Gregory, while allowing Aquinas and Basil of Caesarea some say-so in the matter. Once he draws out the contours of the vice and how it looks and acts, he then brings in the moderns to speak their piece: Bunge, Cohen, Holloway, Joest, Kardong, Katz, Kavanaugh, Smith, Solomon, as well as others. The author not only looks into the mechanics of a particular defect, but draws the reader toward the sagacious remedy prescribed by the Christian soul-physicians. 

Not being a professional psychologist, it is hard to gauge whether or not the author has read the contemporary psychologists correctly. That will have to be left to the professional psychological community to decide. But if Ohkolm has presented them as fairly and accurately as he did the monastic fathers, then he characterized them properly. But assuming that many of the readers of this book will have had little contact with psychology, the real benefit of “Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins” may actually have been unintended. This made, for me at least, a nice devotional read. As the author walked me through each flaw, the way it forms in a person, the deceptions it takes on, the sinister tactics it uses, as well as the grace-empowered remedial approaches scripted by the three pastoral theologians, I found myself often in prayer as well as regularly reflecting on what I had just read, for days.

“Dangerous Passion, Deadly Sins” is a work for pastors, counselors, psychologists and Christians. It is accessible, thoughtful, instructive, devotional, and usable. It will make a good addition to an “Introduction to Christian Ministry” class at a seminary. It would be a solid supplement for any Christian pastor’s reading list. And it ought to be on the “must-read” list for a Christian reading group. I stand by this assessment, even more so, after my second reading of the book some 6 years after I wrote the first review. In fact, I have purchased a copy for my assistant minister, I found it that valuable! This is a volume I will take up and read third and fourth time in the future. I gladly recommend the book.

Thanks to Brazos Press who provided a temporary e-copy of this book, through Net Galley, for this review. And my gratitude for them sending me a physical copy sometime later.

[Feel free to re-post or publish this review. But as always, please give credit where credit is due. Mike]

View all my reviews


Anonymous said…
Just finished reading Okholm's Monk Habits for Everyday People after a summer of chewing on it. Really enjoyed reading your review of another of his books.

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