Saturday, November 29, 2008

From "Standard Operating Procedures", Gourevitch/Morris

How do you deal with an atrocity?

They keep happening in this golden era of ours, as we slip the chains of our superstitious religious beliefs that we might be held to account one day for our actions - ethnic cleansing, mass murder, systematic brutality. How should we react to them?

It is wrong to demonise the protagonists - to behave as though they were somehow much worse than any of us. Nobody ever gets up in the morning and says, "You know what? I feel like violating the human rights of large numbers of other people today." And it's also wrong to rationalise the actions in some way - to behave as though there could be some justification for the systematic extermination of a race, or the torture of prisoners. There isn't - and any human being reflecting with any sort of detachment on such events for more than a few minutes has to come to that conclusion.

The approach taken in this book is helpful. It is a calm, dispassionate analysis of what happened in the prison at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were abused by US military personnel, based on accounts from eyewitnesses - the people involved in the actions. It ties in with the award-winning film of the same name. The book does respond "editorially" to the events, but the response is disconnected from the reporting, and the authors work hard to establish what went on not for the sake of startling headlines, but from the perspective of the people involved - to understand how these events could have happened; what could have led these people to behave in this way.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn on the basis of the book is that given the situation that prevailed at Abu Ghraib, the events that so sensationally appeared in newspapers were perhaps not as awful as they appeared. Please note that this is not a justification - but as a matter of record, some of the pictures don't tell the whole story of what was happening. Further, the people involved - often reservists, undertrained, under pressure, uninformed, in a foul living environment themselves - could almost be considered victims themselves. The real problems lie further back - with the decision made at the highest level in the US government that the Geneva Convention could be set aside in some circumstances; with the use of different government agencies, diluting avenues of accountability and responsibility ; and frankly, with the naive way in which the US embarked upon this war in Iraq.

Here is an extract:
... the designation security detainee, or security internee (the terms were used interchangeably), is nowhere explicitly defined in law. And yet, it was from the Geneva Conventions that the occupation authorities in Iraq derived the justification for holding prisoners in this category. The fourth convention, which extends Geneva's regime of rights and protections to civilians n wartime, includes a few lines in Article Five that create an exception for anyone "detailed as a spy or saboteur, or as a person under definite suspicion of activity hostile to the security of the Occupying Power." Such captives are still to be treated with humanity, and they are covered by nearly all of Geneva's usual provisions. But, the convention says, in the name of "absolute military security" or "imperative military necessity," they may be held incommunicado and indefinitely, so long as their cases are reviewed by the occupier from time to time - "if possible every six months."

That is all the fourth convention has to say about the matter. It is as general and open to interpretation as the third convention's rules on POWs are particular and rigorously prescriptive. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its longstanding commentary on Geneva, describes the critical loophole created by Article Five of the fourth convention as uncharacteristically "involved," "open to question," and "regrettable." "What is most to be feared," the ICRC says, "is that widespread application of the Article may eventually lead to the existence of a category of civilian internees who do not receive the normal treatment laid down by the Convention but are detained under conditions which are almost impossible to check. It must be emphasized most strongly, therefore, that Article Five can only be applied in individual cases of an exceptional nature, when the existence of specific charges makes it almost certain that penal proceedings will follow. This Article should never be applied as a result of mere suspicion." (Standard Operating Procedures, p.33)
This is not a pleasant read, but it is a book that ought to be read - it ought to be mandatory reading for people at high levels in government and the military, to help them to understand the way in which policy decisions they make have a direct and perhaps unexpected impact on actions that are taken at ground level. The people at those high levels can't absolve themselves of responsibility for Abu Ghraib simply because they weren't carrying out the actions. And it ought to be read by citizens, to help them to understand why the protections of things like the Geneva Convention were put in place, and what it would mean to them if they weren't there.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What is a church minister like?

The person boring Mr Bean? (See 1.32 onwards)

Or this guy? Mark Driscoll talking about why he hates religion. "The religious people are the ones who murder Jesus!"

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The Night Following", by Morag Joss

This book can be found on Amazon, and the proper context for this review is there. To anybody who has come here from facebook (or similar) and wants to know more about the book (i.e. the characters, plot outline and so on), that site will probably fill you in.

Although I haven't read other of Joss's books, she is established as an author, and on the basis of this book, it is evident that she is very much in command of her craft.

The book is written in an assured manner, with excellent control over voice, tone, character and plot. It is not the sort of book I would have expected to appeal to me, and yet I found it compelling and read it within a couple of days.

The plot is outlined on the Amazon website. Other people have commented on the redemptive nature of the narrative. There is certainly a theme of redemption there, as the doctor's wife seeks to restore to Arthur some of what she has taken from him. But redemption doesn't normally look much like this - it generally comes with a bit more hope. Both the two main characters are in very dark places - literally, being unable to face daylight. Arthur is disintegrating for the loss of his wife Ruth, the doctor's wife (unnamed) losing her identity effectively due to a lack of love or even interest in her. And there is another big theme - the systematic and undeserved betrayal and incomprehension of women by men. The women are largely committed and engaged (if naive about the men): the men are uncomprehending, abusive, misguided and largely incompetent. Even within the relationship between Arthur and Ruth, his late wife, which is portrayed more positively than any other in the book, it is shown that Ruth is the one with emotional intelligence and depth, whilst Arthur is devoted to her but largely uncomprehending of the depths of her life, being more captivated as so many men are by such things as constellations and bird-watching.
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.
An interesting article I read recently reflected on the fact that most literature takes place "under the sun", as Ecclesiastes would put it - as though there is nothing more than purely material causes and effects - there is nothing higher - no God; increasingly no fate; no real significance. Stuff just happens. That's a reflection of where we are generally as a culture. This book shows where that perspective takes us. Random events happen - the woman discovers her husband's affair; Ruth is killed in a road accident - with no real significance - it's just how life is. It is a very bitter perspective, and few people are prepared to accept this - even whilst denying the possibility of a higher power, many people would rather close their minds to the full implications of this, or embrace a vague and un-thought-out pantheism, believing vaguely in some sort of faint guidance of fate, and some perception of their own significance. Joss's book is more honest in that regard - there is only me, nobody else, and I have to make my own sense of my life, give myself some significance.

And yet, for all that the wife of the doctor pursues a redemptive aim, she is still lost at the end. The characters who seem best able to cope with this random life under the sun are those who seem to have least comprehension - the doctor, the blind grandmother. Those who face the world as it is seem to consistently end up wrecked. Only Ruth, perhaps, carves out for herself a purposeful, meaningful place - and then she is killed by an arrow of outrageous fortune.

This is a very good book - it is definitely literature, not simply a story. I would recommend it for reading groups, and anybody keen to read and reflect on what they read.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"The Hero with a Thousand Faces"

It's the title of a seminal book by Joseph Campbell, which I'm hoping to read shortly. I mentioned it previously, having heard of the book in the context of some reading about Harry Potter.

As I said in that post, Campbell apparently suggests that the reason for the universality of this archetype is that "every one of us shares the same ordeal." Note that this isn't based on my reading of his book - I hope to say more of substance at some stage. However, my thesis, which I am certainly not in a position to defend at the moment, would be the opposite of that - none of us actually shares an ordeal like this in any sort of significant respect. And yet, we all recognise these heroic narratives. Why is that? Why do they have a universal cultural significance?

According to the reviews on Amazon,
one unique aspect of it at the time it was published was its approach to Christianity. For Campbell, Christ's life had to be seen as a myth. Before him, most Western scholars wouldn't have dare to say such a thing. Others had written on that, but in a skeptical manner. Campbell's view is that the Virgin Birth, miracles, Resurrection, etc have meaning only because they ARE myths.
This represents a particular historic/philosophical approach to Christianity, which I believe has largely been considered unsuccessful. You simply can't reduce the historical figure of Jesus, and the events surrounding his life, to the level of myth. The canonic gospel-writers evidently took some trouble to establish the events they record as real events that happened at a particular time and place, with real people. As far as I know, no attempt to show the gospels, or for that matter the rest of the historical accounts in the Bible, are unsound has proved successful.

The Jesus narrative, I would argue, makes clear that Jesus is a universal hero, according to the archetype Campbell establishes. And yet where all the other heroes that he considers are myths or stories, Jesus is grounded in history. This makes him a unique figure in literary terms, as well as historical terms. The reason we are responsive to other heroes - in all different cultures - is to prepare us for this one specific, trans-cultural figure who is the hero that all humans should be looking for. The significance of a hero isn't that they have experiences that are representative of ours, but is that they have experiences that are in place of ours - instead of us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Six Impossible Things


I keep reading remarkable and relevant essays at the bethinking website, and wanting to pass them on. Here is a lengthy analysis of Lewis Wolpert's atheism, as expressed in books and interviews. Note that the article doesn't say that atheism is wrong, or that theism is right, or unrefutable - just that his argumentation is seriously unsound - and that (for example) William Lane Craig's defence of theism is much more substantive.

From the conclusion:
Atheists, agnostics and theists alike should avoid Lewis Wolpert's narrow-minded approach to the question of God's existence, an approach that amounts to saying, 'My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the evidence.' We all have our own personal default position on the subject of God's existence, but we owe it to each other and to ourselves (and perhaps we even owe it to God) to take the alternatives seriously enough to decry blind faith.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christian worldview and the English novel

I recently wrote a long post on sex - which see below, if you are interested. This was an attempt to apply a Christian worldview to an area where it tends not to give its deliberate, reflective scrutiny.

On the bethinking website, "Chronicles of Heaven Unshackled", the lightly edited version of a doctoral thesis is being posted. Only the introduction is available so far; more is to be posted, though. In many novels, authors confine themselves to purely materialistic cause and effect - with any "divine" input being at a pretty deistic level. This is not inherent in the nature of the novel - it is quite possible to write a novel using a different set of assumptions about the nature of reality. Of course, there is no guarantee that a story written with a Christian worldview would be of good quality, any more than there would be that one written with a materialistic worldview would be. But C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, in choosing to write from a perspective that is theologically more complex than the average novel, provide us with particularly satisfying stories, that break out of the narrative "flatlands" into a more solid world. This thesis explores some of the implications of the theological worldview of Tolkien and Lewis in their work.

This is an interesting area for consideration. What, for example, is the theological framework of (say) an epic poem like Beowulf? Are there other examples of writers whose novels reflect a worldview in which the supernatural is active? Are some particular genres more amenable to such approach than others?

I would argue that the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, by Philip Pullman, is another example of a non-flatland novel - which is one of the reasons that the stories are so powerful. Pullman has stated that his books are about "killing God" - and yet, in order for him to be able to do away with the Judeo-Christian God, he needs to provide a transcendental being to take its place. Pullman's dust has many of the properties that Christians would associate with their God - transcendence, a preference for moral virtues, an idea of destiny, an ability (albeit limited) to communicate with conscious beings, and being essential to the sustaining of life. The only way in which Pullman can use his novels to write about getting rid of God is by providing an alternative.

Flew comments on "The God Delusion"

... and incidentally, refutes the suggestion that he was used by others in the production of "There is a God", on the Bethinking website.

In case you didn't know, Antony Flew is
a renowned philosopher who was arguably the best-known atheist in the English-speaking world until his announcement in 2004 that he now accepts the existence of God. The son of a Methodist minister, Flew often attended the weekly meetings of C. S. Lewis's Socratic Club as an undergraduate at Oxford, but was not convinced by Lewis's argument from morality that a God exists. In 1950, Flew set the agenda for modern atheism with his renowned essay "Theology and Falsification," which became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half century.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Today we have a weakness in our educational process in failing to understand the natural associations between the disciplines. We tend to study all our disciplines in unrelated parallel lines. This tends to be true in both Christian and secular education. This is one of the reasons why evangelical Christians have been taken by surprise at the tremendous shift that has come in our generation. We have studied our exegesis as exegesis ....; we study something about art as art; we study music as music, without understanding that these are things of man, and the things of man are never unrelated parallel lines. "Escape from Reason" ch 1.