Is the idea of sin dead? It sometimes feels that way. Take politicians. On a good day, they are hypocrites; on a bad day, they are liars. But only rarely do we accuse them of pride, which is, it seems to me, their real problem. The same goes for fat people. Assailed by the hateful rise of fast-food outlets pushing sandwiches the size of the Mir Space Station, they are victims; they require our sympathy and encouragement. But do we ever call them gluttons? Not unless we want the poor things to develop an eating disorder (or to be visited by, God forbid, Dr Gillian McKeith, Channel 4's stool-obsessed nutritionist). In the age of self-help, even red-hot anger is an illness. Once, people fell on their knees and prayed for the strength to master it. Now, they go on courses to learn how to "manage" it. Then, if they are very lucky - or if their name is Naomi Campbell - a supermarket will offer them an advertising deal in which they can poke high-kicking, chop-socky fun at their formerly fearsome reputation.
If I am sounding a little pious here, so be it. For one thing, and for reasons I cannot fathom, given that both my parents are atheists, I am an awful old Protestant - the kind of girl who is never happier than when sitting on a spike, or sleeping on a mantelpiece, or drinking a foul-tasting herbal tea called Purity. (Do not let it be said that Catholics have the monopoly on the Seven Deadly Sins; I live with a Catholic and he is a guilt-free zone.) For another, it seems that I am not the only bleeding-heart liberal to be thoroughly fed up with a world in which the Heavenly Virtues - Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude - are thought to be old hat, a latent sign of repression and Home Counties rabidity. In Sloth, one of a series of "meditations" on the Seven Deadly Sins, the playwright Wendy Wasserstein sets out to wrestle this decadent world to the ground; that she does so with a single shove only proves how flabby our everyday ethics have become.
Wasserstein's conceit is that of the self-help manual. Sloth, she says, can change your life for ever. "The impact of sloth on my life has been overwhelmingly positive," reveals Harry, one of her acolytes, from the roll-away bed on which he sleeps at the Days Inn in Canton, Ohio. "I used to be afraid of everything. Now that I know there is nothing I have to do, I'm not afraid any more. If something awful happens, the Sloth Plan has shown me how to ignore it." In her new guise as lifestyle guru, Wasserstein then sets out, in a near-perfect parody of the relentlessly excuse-making self-help book form, her programme. Her credentials? "I am not a trained doctor. But I have had medical problems. I am not a nutritionist. However, I did work as a waiter at the Brussels Restaurant in Covent Garden when I placed mussels and French fries on a conveyor belt." Sure, she'd like to earn a few hefty royalties: "Wouldn't you like the royalties of whoever wrote The South Beach Diet? It makes a lot more sense than, say, writing poetry or academic criticism. Those things take genuine work."
And so the book goes on. Along the way, Wasserstein skewers every kind of self-absorbed 21st-century cop-out, from reality television to social ambition. Interesting, she notes, that in the days of Thomas Aquinas, "sloth" was known as "sadness". In other words, deep emotions, which we now like to discuss on Oprah and Richard and Judy, were once con-sidered sinful: "Any psychiatrist wouldn't dare say that sadness is a sin. Sadness is just a reason to buy low-priced Prozac on the internet."
As is often the case with satire, Wasserstein's tone grows wearying after a while; she does not, in all conscience, require more than a hundred pages and a pair of hard covers in which to make her point. Still, I loved this book - all the more so because its author is a plump New Yorker (the Upper East Side being the spiritual home of the horrible phrase "me-time"). Sloth is not a word much used nowadays: a person is usually said to be lazy or indolent or a total slacker and, work culture being what it is, you don't get many of those to the pound - unless you read the Daily Mail. Apathy, on the other hand, is the new laziness, and a word so overused that it has been rendered almost meaningless. The achievement of Sloth is that it imbues apathy with fresh meaning, with a seam of (whisper it softly) prickly shame.
Couches be damned. Better make that Oreo cookie your last.
Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer