Dinty W. Moore
To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno
University of Nebraska Press/2021/180 pp/19.95
Reviewed by the Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti
At his inauguration President Biden said, “Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” Dinty Moore has a different take in his new book, To Hell with It: “Augustine, understand, was a great and devoted man, a spiritual genius, and honestly, a bit of a wackadoodle.”
The latest in the American Lives series from the University of Nebraska Press, To Hell with It wades through Dante’s Inferno alongside copious references to Augustine and his doctrine of original sin, making a case that the way many Christians, particularly in the Roman Catholic church, envision sin and hell has been overly influenced by the Infernoas well as by Augustine. Why would a self-professed agnostic care enough to make a case against hell as envisioned by the Italian poet? Moore explains that the concepts of hell and sin permeate our culture as well as “our legal structure, our penal systems, our views on poverty and class, our classic and contemporary literature, and much of our interpretation of history.” Amen.
As an Episcopal priest, I applaud Moore’s explanation, and routinely teach at my church that our cultural ideas of hell are more influenced by Dante than by the Bible; and as a lover of sarcasm, I enjoyed many of Moore’s assertions. As a Christian and a pastor, however, I sometimes found his tone dismissive toward my own beliefs, such as his reflection that “It has been thousands upon thousands of years since the Old Testament stories were first shared, and no credible sightings of Satan have occurred lately.”
Most of Moore’s personal stories amuse, such as the metaphorical comparison between his first chicken-eating contest and Dante’s third circle of hell, Gluttony (spoiler alert: Moore did not win). He also includes snippets about his struggles with depression and some serious family history, about his mother’s sorrows and his car mechanic father’s grappling with the monotony and isolation of laboring in an underground hole all day. When writing about his parents’ losses, Moore drops some of his defensive, snarky tone.
Moore’s humor, combining intellect with pop culture knowledge, shines throughout the book. For example, he refers to Dante’s Inferno as “at its most basic level a revenge fantasy, in rhymed tercets,” and further remarks that “his hellish adventure was loosely based on the popular listicle known as the Seven Deadly Sins.”
A searing skeptical commentary weaving literature and Catholic church doctrine with memoir.
The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti, the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, earned an MFA from Spalding University in 2020 (CNF) and has reviewed books for The Christian Century, Kirkus Reviews, Episcopal Café, and now Good River Review.