Category Archives: Wrestling with Books
I review books. Read on.
This book helped me crawl into the mind of Osama bin Laden. It helped me understand more of the mess that is the Middle East. A fascinating read. I loved it. Below are some of my observations in no particular order
Everyone needs a miracle
It is true, the Russians left Afghanistan. It was too costly, in the end, it wasn’t worth the effort, so they left. The USA was bound and determined to give Russia their own Vietnam, so they happily supplied Afghans with whatever they needed to inflict casualties on Russia. Not too long after their withdrawal, the communist superpower crumbled. Shortly before Russia’s tactical departure, a small Russian force attempted to take out Osama Bin Laden’s out of the way, mountain hide-out. Osama’s team of Saudi freedom fighters were pulverized and fled. The Afghan’s forced the Arabs back into action, and with Afghan support, they managed to kill 35 Russian soldiers and take back their enclave. The foray was not even noticed on the Russian side, one more skirmish in those God-forsaken mountains, but in the heightened religious atmosphere among the men following bin Laden, it was another story altogether, there was a dizzying sense that they were living in a supernatural world, in which reality knelt before faith. For them, the encounter at the Lion’s Den became the foundation of the myth that they defeated the superpower. Within a few years, the entire Soviet empire fell to pieces—dead of the wound that Osama and his faithful band inflicted upon the communist infidels. With Allah, anything was possible. If Russia could fall, so too could America, and so they should.
Young zealots armed themselves with the miracle stories that flowed out of Afghanistan, stories that spoke of tanks running over Jihadis with no effect and Russian bullets unable to penetrate bodies. Confidence soared as rumours spread that even the birds interfered with Russian aircraft and angles on horseback joined the faithful in battle.
The sword is the better way
Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, believed in Universal Islamic Rule and was opposed to all western ideas of democracy, capitalism, and materialism, he said:
“It is the nature of Islam to dominate not to be dominated – to impose its will on all nations and to extend it’s power to the entire planet, to be the dominant cultural force in the world we must take over, and it’s the duty of all Muslims to assist in this glorious endeavor.
Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, preached against the freedom of the west
“Yes we are reactionary, you intellectuals don’t want us to go back 1400 years! But freedom corrupts our youth, freedom paves the way for our oppressor, freedom will drag our nation to the bottom freedom is the enemy and America is the champion of freedom
Khomeini preached on:
Islam says, Whatever good there is in this world it is because of the sword and the shadow of the sword. People can only be made obedient because of the sword, the sword is the key to paradise. Obedience is better than freedom.
Western ideals cannot survive in the face of Islam, the only hope for lasting peace between the West and Isalm is if Muslims en-masse re-invent their religion embracing democracy, freedom, and love as core values. That does not seem likely.
What makes a terrorist?
The lure of an illustrious meaningful death was heightened because of government oppression and economic hardship. Saudi Arabia, for example, had buckets and buckets of money, but the king spent it all on yachts, gambling and mind-boggling excess. Radicalism prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. The young men from Saudi could see the waste they resented it. Isalm wasn’t the culprit; however, Corrupting Western influences were, they must pay!
Also, the youth were idle, unemployed and bored. Art was impoverished, and entertainment was heavily policed or altogether absent. Finally, when men are culturally set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women, it’s only a matter of time before trouble starts. — Martyrdom started looking like a pretty good option for these young men whose lives had become stunted.
Add to all this a theology which taught that a man’s sins were forgiven the moment the blood drained from his body in Martyrdom. The forgiven one’s sacrifice would also prevent 70 of his family members from the fires of hell and all his fleshly longings long denied on earth would be fulfilled by the gift of 72 eager virgins awaiting him in paradise.
The biggest “object lesson” that drove many Muslims closer into fundamentalism was the 1967 six day war debacle with Israel. A lot of Muslims came to believe that God had sided with Israel because Muslims had become soft and corrupt like the West. Only a rededication to strict Islam would bring about success in over-throwing the Jews and becoming the dominant force in the world again.
Osama bin Laden’s greatest motivation to radicalize his adherents was made evident in a speech given just before 9/11. In the statement, Osama quoted Mohammed, the prophet who had warned the people of his day against becoming weak “because of your love of life and your hatred of fighting.” He reminded all his martyrs that Islam would always be inferior until they returned to their religion to fight for it. Shame was the motivation that pushed the 19 terrorists to action on that fateful day. These men, unlike many others, were comfortable, well educated and from stable homes, but the way of Islam was still under the thumb of the West, and would always be until they threw off their comforts and fought.
Should have left them alone.
Saddam snatched up oil-rich Kuwait and stood on Saudi’s border. Would they be next? Could the West stand by as a mad man grabbed an unbelievably large share of the world’s oil? Looking back, I say “yes,” America should have stayed out of it as much as possible. Osama wanted to fight Sadaam with his Jihadi’s. Let them fight it out is what I say. Osama was radicalized against the USA when they moved their army into Saudi Arabia. The USA should have let Iraq and Saudi duke it out, and then have come in only at the desperate request of a country on the verge of collapse. The USA invested way too much in a country that could never appreciate them.
The USA is all about sex, and sex is bad.
Initially, the Arab world was fond of America. They were the only country that had fought against colonialism and won. It was a short-lived affection, however. Sayyid Qutb, the thought leader behind modern Islamic extremism, would summarize his perspective on America. “They are a reckless deluded heard chasing after sex and money, little above beasts.” Sayyid was convinced that sex led people away from salvation, and according to him, there was entirely too much of that going on in America! It probably didn’t help that he was propositioned by a drunk woman on the boat that brought him to America for his study tour, or that he managed to find time to read the Kinsey report on sex. He was thoroughly disgusted.
Sayyid Qutb also rejected Christianity as an idealized fantasy. To him, it was a dream that could never come true. Islam was a much better story to him because it was a complete system with rules and laws and the power to enforce them and not just dreams of the way things should be.
It wasn’t long before it was thought and taught that the West’s corrupting influences on Islam were the reason why Islam has not yet succeeded in taking over the world. Which is why the West must be destroyed; the other factor was the USA’s affection for Israel; this was utterly intolerable.
9/11 was completely avoidable.
. The is easily the most troubling part of the book. Intelligence agencies were different than criminal agencies. Intelligence gathering (CIA) had developed a bizarre habit of withholding information from criminal investigation agencies (FBI) The official reason for this lack of collaboration was a determination not to compromise “sensitive sources and methods.” Once a criminal investigation started, the CIA would have to give up control, operatives could lose their cover. They understandably didn’t want that. However, the CIA had more than enough info at their disposable to help the FBI both locate and arrest the 911 bombers. Indeed the CIA even knew when several of the suicide bombers had entered the United States some 20 months before the bombings! Still, they refused to share with the FBI. The FBI was convinced that a terror threat was high, and they asked the CIA repeatedly for help, but without success.
Why? was there another reason besides the official one? Some say it was because the CIA hated O’Neill, who was the FBI counter-terrorist strongman. He was impulsive, hotheaded, and had a huge personality. He was a threat to many, within the politics of bureaucracy. Whatever the reasons 9/11 was completely avoidable had the two agencies chosen to work together.
One of the great ironies of this story is that O’Neil was one of the only people who took Osama seriously. It was he alone who truly understood the threat and could have prevented it. Instead, infighting cut his career short, he took a post as a security consultant at the World Trade Centre in August of 2001 he died less than a month later in the attacks.
Sex outside of marriage is a severe sin in Islam, But Muhammed Bin Laden loved his women, so what could he do? Marry them in the morning and divorce them at night. He did that a lot, so much so that he had a full-time staff member employed to keep track of all the details to make sure no moral laws were broken, and that if any children were produced as a result of these short term marriages, they would be suitably cared for. Fifty-four children were created as a result of these arrangements, the wives numbered in the hundreds. Osama bin Laden was produced by the marriage of Mohammed and a Fourteen-year-old “wife.” Muhammed was clever, but something feels wrong about this.
What would Muhammed Do? (WWMB)
What is the justification for Muslim extremists to kill women and children? In 630, Mohammed allowed the use of a catapult to conquer a walled city even though it would kill women and children. This was all the justification needed to harden the conscience of any tender souled Jihadi. If Mohammed did it, we can too!
A doctrine of Islam that believes you can kill other Muslims that don’t agree with you. It goes against the Quran says Lawrence Wright, but does it go against Mohammed’s actions? Whatever the case “Takfir” is the reason why so many Muslim have no qualms about killing one another.
We remember what we want to remember
Every age necessarily reinterprets and rewrites the past in accord with its own interests, ideals, and illusions (33) The past is always to some extent a fiction of the present (129).
Hart is disgusted. The tale that modernity is wishing to call history has gotten entirely out of hand, most notably in its recollections of Christianity.
The story that modernity wants to remember
- Once upon a time, there was a late Roman Hellenistic culture that cherished the power of reason and pursued science and high philosophy. Then came Christianity, which valued only blind obedience and irrational dogma, and which maliciously extinguished the light of pagan wisdom. Then, thanks to Islam, thirteenth-century Christendom suddenly rediscovered reason and began to chafe against the bondage of witless fideism. And then, as if by magic, Copernicus discovered heliocentrism, and reason began its inexorable charge toward victory through the massed and hostile legions of faith.
- The emergence of the secular state rescued Western humanity from the rule of religious intolerance.
- Secularism is the exuberant adventure into the adulthood of the race so long delayed by priestcraft, superstition and intolerance. Secularism is the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.
What does Hart think of this story?
Utter bilge. Hart criticizes Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Kirsch, Gibbon, MacMullen, and Freeman to name a few. To Christopher Hitchens subtitle on his bestseller “How religion poisons everything” He directs particular malice. What precisely is meant by everything? Hart wonders, then he lists an entire page of wonderful things that would not exist were it not for Christianity, things like the abolition movement, the golden rule and hospitals. He concludes with the comment “It borders upon willful imbecility to lament the rise of Christendom.” One example of the “selective memory” of modernity comes to us through Edward Gibbon’s majestical work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, Gibbon argues that Pagan polytheism was more “tolerant” than Christianity because of the plethora of pagan deities to choose from. This “tolerance” is pure fiction. Pagans slaughtered with “extravagant violence” says Hart, Jews and Christians alike. Anyone who denied the god’s existence was in mortal danger. Adding to pagan “tolerance” was the reality of human sacrifices both on alters, and more prevalently in the coliseums. Pagan systems of belief cared nothing for the homeless, the gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixions, the disposal of unwanted infants, or the brutal slaughter of war captives or criminals. Paganisms “tolerance” was completely ambivalent towards tyranny, injustice, depravity or cruelty. In Gibbons over-reaching bid to prove paganism more tolerant than Christianity, he leaves all these considerations out these items out. Hart is not about to let him or anyone else get away with it.
“Vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness. — Their rantings are as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.”
Christianity not perfect but…
“It is true” is the single most used phrase in the entire book. Hart uses it to acknowledge that Christians were not perfect. For example,
“It is true that Christianity’s greatest historical triumph was also its most calamitous defeat”. Hart admits that when Christianity became a politically dominate force unfortunate tragedies happened. “It is true that Christendom in many respects was hardly Christian. Even so, the gospel has at best flickered through the history of the West, working upon hard and intractable natures—the frank brutality of barbarians, the refined cruelty of the civilized— producing prodigies of sanctity and charity in every age.”
Critics of Christianity point out that slavery and the abuse of women continued on into Christendom. Hart acknowledges that “it is true” but then takes us on a fascinating journey where the norms of abuse accepted without question in paganism gradually fell prey to the corrosive influence of Christian thought. Hart concludes
Christianity has been the single most creative cultural, ethical, aesthetic, social, political, and spiritual force in the history of the West, to be sure; but it has also been a profoundly destructive force; and one should perhaps praise it as much for the latter attitude as for the former, for there are many things worthy of destruction.
The extinction of Paganism was a good thing.
Pagans became Christians to such a degree that paganism became extinct because paganism was terrible.
“It was time for the gods of that age to withdraw: for too long they had served as the terrible and beautiful guardians of an order of majestic cruelty and pitiless power.”
- Pagan thought did not embrace science and reason: Christianity upended the progression of science we are told. According to Hart, science as we understand it, didn’t even exist in pagan times, “all its methods, controls, and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws and so on—came into existence only within Christendom, and specifically under the hands of believing Christians.” The “so-called” dark ages of Christendom brought about the university, the first real steps in medicine, and the devolvement of incredible new science-based technology. The same cannot be said for the Hellenistic world or the Muslim world for that matter. They remained technologically static in part because they never developed science beyond theory and they remained committed to a slave culture. The church muting Galileo always comes up as evidence that the church and science were not friends. Hart is not buying it. What’s the story then? “That story demonstrates nothing of Christianity’s aversion to Science but only how idiotic a conflict between men of titanic egotism can become.”
- Paganism was depressing: Harts assessment of paganism is particularly bleak:
“In any event, to return to my principal point, the Christianity of the early centuries did not invade a world of noonday joy, vitality, mirth, and cheerful earthiness, and darken it with malicious slanders of the senses, or chill it with a severe and bloodless otherworldliness. Rather, it entered into a twilight world of pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning….It was a pagan society that had become ever more otherworldly and joyless, ever wearier of the burden of itself, and ever more resentful of the soul’s incarceration in the closed system of a universe governed by fate.
Christianity is a better story.
In addition to the fundamental goodness of the world, Christianity taught the indispensable value of a human person. The followers of Jesus saw in persons something godlike, to be cherished and adored. Then adding to the image of the divine in all humanity comes the grand rescue story of Jesus, proving once and for all that humanity is loved by God and welcomed into a divine eternal relationship. As Hart puts it:
By contrast, Christianity taught the incorruptible goodness of the world, the original and ultimate beauty of all things, inasmuch as it understood this world to be the direct creation of the omnipotent God of love. (144) … Christianity brought a deep and imperturbable joy” (145)
The advent of Christianity unquestionably changed the world for the better. For Hart, it is unconscionable for respected historians and philosophers not to recognize this. Hart is not apologizing for Christian’s who may have misbehaved in the past. Hart quips “Humans frequently disappoint,” but this truth is not limited only to Christians. He will not accept criticism from angry, misinformed people who:
“have not even paused to acquaint themselves with, for example, the Inquisitions actual history, while at the same time completely ignoring twenty centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs. — its’ care of widows, and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, and so on.”
The secular nation-state is the problem – Hart refuses to take the blame for the “so-called” religious wars of the 15th -17th centuries. He insists that they be renamed as the first wars of the modern nation-state. “Religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatreds were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.” The protestant reformation succeeded because it served the interest of the emerging nation states. It wasn’t that the Germans became protestant and now wanted independence from the empire. They wanted independence from the empire, and so they became protestant. Hart takes us on an entertaining albeit very disturbing walk through the 15-17th centuries and concludes with a statement that hardly needed to be said. “Few would be so foolish to suggest that any side fought for religious reasons” As the common bond of Christianity decreased in Europe, so the standing armies of the future nations increased. Violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that, whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to the secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished. Before the shift, for example in the 10th-11th centuries, the church instituted “Peace of God” days and “Truce of God” days, making war illegal on certain days of the week, fast days, and feast days. By the time the church was finished with the calendar three-quarters of it consisted of periods of mandated tranquillity, the churches great work though not carried out perfectly was always tilted towards peace.
What came after Christianity faltered was the absolute state and total war. The “religious wars” were the moderns state’s great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral, and sacramental allegiances that still held it even partially in check. So that it could now get on with all those mighty tasks—nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscriptions, mass exterminations of civilians, and so on.
Is the post-Christian world better?
First, for any people, comes its story, and then whatever is possible for those people becomes conceivable within that story — slowly and relentlessly, for centuries now, another story has been replacing the Christian one. Attempts to reverse this process are probably futile. (239)
- A New God — Freedom.
At the deepest level of their thoughts and desires, they are obedient to principles and promptings that rest upon no foundation but themselves…Freedom of the will is our supreme value. It is for all intents and purposes our god and certain kinds of god (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed.
Human freedom is the thing that drives people to a passionate and often articulate hatred of belief in God. Anything that stands in the way of freedom must be destroyed. Freedom might just as well be seen — from certain more antique perspectives as a kind of slavery to untutored impulses, to empty caprice, to triviality, to dehumanizing values. Modern Freedom is nihilism. The question to ask is where does nihilism lead? Nowhere good.
- A Better Story — Knowledge. Technological mastery is not just our guiding ideal but our model of truth. Power over material reality is all that matters, that’s the better story of the post-Christian world.
Only Christianity teaches the infinite dignity of every soul and the infinite value of every life. Because of Jesus, charity became the shining sun around which all other values were made to revolve. In the Post Christian world, this is no longer the case. If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning… What Nietzsche understood was that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat…A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it…But as a cultural reality, even love requires a reason for its preeminence among the virtues. Love requires a reason, and the post-Christian world doesn’t have a reason.
Then to scare us entirely out of our minds, he quotes the ideas of Joseph Fletcher, Linus Pauling, Peter Singer, James Rachels, and Lee Silver, whose post-Christian ideals seek to manage humanity in what Hart describes as “robustly merciless terms.” When Christianity goes, so goes the sanctity of human life. Reading these guys makes this claim perfectly visible.
When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape. He will rejoice that the universe demands little more from him than an ape’s contentment. This is no description of progress, this is a descent into darkness.
What can a Christian do?
Hart is not jubilant. Christianity’s inexorable movement towards extinction is only resisted by his confidence that the Christian story is a cosmic truth that can never finally be defeated. Hart recommends retreat for the Christian into the desert as the monastics did in the 4th century. They rebelled against Christianity’s own success, to discover again in the quiet wastelands, what it really meant to live for the love of God and one’s neighbour. To banish envy, hate, and resentment from the soul and to seek the beauty of Christ in others. The success of secularism to Hart is the same as the success of institutionalized, politicized Christianity of the 4th century. The authentic Christian retreats from both. In many ways, I think Harts very brief conclusion tilts toward an agreement with another book I read recently, The Benedict Option.
Body counting might not be the best comparison.
Hart with almost monotonous regularity takes the reader back to the 20th century to remind us that the most savage and sublimely violent period in human history was brought about by secular governments who had embraced thoroughgoing materialism informed by Darwinian biology. My one issue with this constant refrain is the failure to consider technology into the body count. The real question to ask in my opinion is what would the badly behaving religious leaders of Christendom have done with weapons of mass destruction had they had them? A question impossible to answer, but I get an uneasy feeling that the body count discrepancy from the Christian to secular would not have been nearly as high if both had weapons of equal capability.
The West has a problem. We’ve gone soft. We have bought into three lies that have weakened our ability to learn and grow, to be challenged and to discover the truth. As long as we believe these lies we will never be strong; we will never be free. This is a book of the year candidate for me. Below are a handful of gems that I plucked from this provocative and helpful resource.
The three great untruths
What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The key to life is to avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences, mitigate all risks. This is a terrible untruth. The human is not fragile; the human is built to be anti-fragile. We are like our immune systems. Just like we need little bits of lousy stuff to strengthen our immunity, we also need little bits of adversity in our lives to make us better. Helicopter parenting, and a “safety first” mentality do our children no favours. The grand peanut allergy scare that has taken over North America is an example of how we are going about perceived dangers the wrong way. A broad sampling of babies which were deemed to be at risk to peanut allergy was divided into two groups, one group from the very beginning regularly consumed small doses of food containing peanuts, the other group religiously avoided all contact with peanuts. After a certain number of years, the two groups were tested for a peanut allergy. No one that had been fed peanuts from a young age was found to be allergic; they had all developed immunity. Not so with the other group, instead, a majority of those children ended up with the potentially life-threatening allergy. Protecting the children from peanuts didn’t help them get stronger; it made them weaker! Protecting children from all kinds of danger and risk doesn’t help them either. My absolute favourite quote from this book comes from US supreme court chief justice John Roberts. He was speaking to a graduating class; no one expected him to wish bad luck on these graduates, he did.
“Now, the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you, I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”
Always trust your feelings. Never question them. Feelings are compelling, but they are not always accurate. Words now in our culture of “safetyism” constitute a real threat, and therefore any word uttered that might make another person feel bad, must not be allowed. Free speech and free inquiry get strangled because hurt feelings are elevated to the level of physical violence. “Prepare the child for the road not the road for the child,” says Van Jones. We have to teach our children to handle ideas and words that might hurt their feelings. Someone should not necessarily be silenced just because what they say doesn’t make you feel good.
In the Witches book by Stacy Schiff, I learned that “spectral evidence” was accepted as true. If someone felt they saw your ghost haunting them, their feelings of reality could lead directly to your death. In today’s world “spectral evidence” has been replaced by “feeling evidence.” If someone’s feelings get hurt by what someone else says they can prosecute. The consequences for hurting a person’s feelings, while they stop short of the hanging tree, are creating a massive problem for free speech and the ability to peacefully co-exist. Instead of public shaming and threatening, instead of having to issue trigger warnings, and create safe spaces for people whose feelings might be hurt by words, we need to learn how to grapple respectfully with the ideas and words of people different than ourselves. If we are feeling driven, we won’t be able to sidestep potential offences and move into meaningful conversation. Repeatedly throughout the book, the authors refer the back to something called cognitive behavioural therapy as a means to properly manage feelings. CBT helps people to identify and control cognitive distortions brought about by misplaced feelings. According to the authors, CBT is a simple, easily acquired tool that produces much better results than anything by Freud or Prozac. Below are eight examples of cognitive distortions that if properly identified can be managed.
9 Cognitive Distortions
- Catastrophising — Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely. “We are all going to die!”
- Over-generalizing — Perceiving a global pattern of negatives based on a single incident. “She didn’t like what I said; no one will like what I said”
- Black and White thinking — Viewing people and events in all or nothing terms. “Those people are all evil, rotten and disgusting.”
- Mind-reading — Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts “That person hates me, I know it”
- Labelling — Assigning negative traits to yourself or others “He is a Jew, of course, he is cheap.” “I’m just dumb.”
- Negative filtering — Exclusive focus on the negatives, seldom on the positives. “Nothing seems to go right for me.”
- Discounting Positives — Trivializing the positives of yourself and others so you can maintain the negative “I’m no good at any of this stuff!”
- Blame-shifting — Focusing on other people as the source of negative feelings. “Its all your fault.”
Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The West has become increasingly polarized, particularly in the USA, the latest statistics reveal that at no time in the history of that country have philosophical and ideological gaps between Democrats and Republicans been wider. Things have become shrill on both sides. The line between good and evil divides party lines now. This is not healthy at all. Solzhenitsyn penned this thought after his incarceration with the Communists; he was cursing them for their callous brutality, when it dawned on him that a couple of years earlier while in the army he had treated several lower-ranking soldiers with the similar cruelty. To take Solzhenitsyn’s observation to heart is to forever prevent the fire of self-righteous bigotry from spreading.
Impact versus Intent — Some say guilt is determined by the impact of one’s words, while other’s say guilt should be established by intent. If someone’s intentions are good they should be cut some slack. This mentality is becoming less and less the case. If a word hurts regardless of intent, there is increasing hell to pay for the person who uttered it. A gracious approach will always look to intent first and will always give the benefit of the doubt. Somehow we need to find our way back to this as a first position when it comes to conversation.
Irony — In 1964 UC Berkley liberals demanded free speech. In 2018 the political progeny of those same liberals beat the crap out of some people who were supporting a free speech.
Concept Creep — When certain words gain a much broader range of meaning so that people develop an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm concept creep is happening. Words like “bullying” can mean anything. “Racism” “sexism” “abuse” can now be thrown in the direction of someone who sneezes in a way that another person doesn’t like. It’s not good. You know concept creep has gone too far when Ben Shapiro is called out to be a “Neo-Nazi” for his economic views — Ben is Jewish!
No Fly Zones — Being transgendered is ok, being transracial is not ok. Why? A liberal feminist scholar took up the question and was promptly blasted out of the water. Her inquiry was not malicious, but that didn’t seem to matter. Even the perception of disagreement created remarkable rage. Freedom of inquiry is a must for a healthy society. So many professors must now walk on eggshells these days lest they offend.
What about the Church? The authors talk about how essential opinion diversity is for the health of universities. There needs to be “room for rebuttal not calls for retractions.” They talk about how group think and orthodoxy actually lead away from the discovery of the truth. That got me wondering about the church. Could it be that churches are too orthodox, too dogmatic? Are the heresy police that stalk the hallways of many a church no different than the oversensitive left wingers that shout down all counter opinions on university campuses? Is it possible to have a healthy church that has room enough to support the full spectrum of theological, ethical and moral views that naturally tend to divide Christians into factions? My initial response is no of course not. Christians sign on to believe certain things and not others to live in certain ways and not others, and if one isn’t into believing and living in those ways than there isn’t much room at the table for that person. The church is not a university. However having said this, I do wonder if some churches would do well by substantially widening their circles.
Give the girls guns? Because girls are relationally aggressive just like boys are physically aggressive the equivalent of putting instant social media in a girls pocket is much like putting a loaded gun in a boys pocket. The authors quote heaps of statistics that bear this concerning theory out. Depression attempted suicide, and mental illness has risen to unprecedented levels among girls. The pressure to perform and compete in the virtual world combined with the social media stress bomb of F.O.M.O ( Fear of missing out) is quite literally killing our girls. A big message of this book is to stay off social media!
Pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction. — Never have truer words been written especially when considering military leaders. This was almost without fail the one constant in all of these military blunders. Napoleon brushed off any concerns regarding the long odds of success in his bid to conquer Russia by saying,
“Is there any man blind enough not to see that destiny directs all my operations.”
In the end, 90% of his 500,000 man army perished. The French empire never recovered.
Marcus Crassus, the Donald Trump of the Roman Empire, suffered from a similar infection. He left off his wildly successful business and political ventures to become a military general. His contemporaries were Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, and he could not match their glory through shrewd business maneuvers. He needed to add “military conquest” to his resume to get to their level. So he went off to conquer the Parthians. It was doable If he listened to his generals, and attacked from the north with the help of the Arminians, but he wasn’t willing to share any glory. So instead he blindly marched his troops straight into the desert, where he and they were cut to pieces by the well prepared and more mobile Parthians.
General George Custer was similarly afflicted when he arrogantly remarked, “We can kill any number of Indians” That’s why he divided his group up into 3 terribly small segments to more effectively track the Indians and press his attack. He wasn’t worried about the massive number advantage the Indians possessed. He should have been.
There is a fine line between brilliant confidence and foolish arrogance. I suppose if one wins it’s considered the former, but if one loses it’s the latter.
One of my favourite stories
The southern army of China was in desperate need of arrows for their war effort against the mighty Northern Chinese general Cao Cao. The South filled up several military ships with hay covered tightly in canvas and travelled up the river to “confront” Cao Cao’s army which was camped along the shore. As the boats passed by Cao-Cao’s army showered them with arrows. Arrows by the thousands lodged themselves safely in the hay and canvas as the ships went back and forth. After a short while, the ships left looking more like pin-cushions than anything but the mission was a complete success. The south had collected enough arrows to fight another day.
Appointments based on ability, not heredity.
This was Genghis Khan’s great idea and a significant reason for his success. He chose generals based on their abilities, not their birth. — His greatest general was a non-Mongol son of a lowly blacksmith, but he won for Genghis 65 major battles and defeated 32 different nations. Napoleon might have succeeded in Russia had he not given a high command to his inept brother.
Wars are about greed. Greed feels too wrong to justify a war, so every war needs a pretext.
The Crimean war got its start over an argument about who was supposed to have the keys to the holy church in Bethlehem. Was it the Russians (Eastern Orthodox) or the French (Roman Catholic)? Can’t get it sorted? Let’s have a war. Truthfully, the Bethlehem thing was a pretext. The Ottoman Empire was dying for decades it had been the “sick man of Europe,” and England, France, and Russia were looking for any excuse to greedily carve it up, like vultures on a dying wildebeest. The war was never really about which priest would get the keys to the church in Bethlehem, it was fundamentally about greed as wars are.
You need to know what you are up against!
The Battle of Cartagena was not one of the finest moments for the British empire. Infighting, between the navy and the army, didn’t help at all, bad planning, miscommunication, and disease also made things increasingly worse for those fighting under the banner of the union jack. But the entire bungling story was captured perfectly in the final episode of events. The Brits wanted to storm the walls of the city at dawn, but they got lost in the night, and then their porters deserted them, when they finally arrived at the walls, late and exhausted the beleaguered soldiers ran forward with their scaling ladders only to find out that they were all ten feet to short!
Failure to realize that in war pragmatism is king.
The French needed to put down a shopkeepers rebellion to the north in what is now the Netherlands. It should not have been a problem. The French had an advantage 600 knights to 50, and they also had supportive foot soldiers equipped with crossbows in abundance. Also, the shopkeepers were trapped, they had barricaded themselves on a small strip of land with marshy soil in front and a river behind. The job was simple. Have the crossbowmen pick apart the rebels from a distance, and then have the knights storm in and mop things up. “No sir!” said the knights, knights don’t do the mopping, they do the killing. So instead the knights did a full charge on marshy soil, and got bogged down, the immobile, weighed down knights, need deep in mud gave the lighter more mobile rebels with their long pikes a complete advantage. The French were slaughtered, and the victory led to nationhood for the Netherlands.
Krakatoa August 27, 1883, The Day the World Exploded is Simon Winchester’s title for his most fascinating book. It’s a bit of over speak to be sure, the world didn’t explode, but it must have seemed like it for many. Shock waves were recorded travelling eight times around the world. Nearly 40,000 people died. Sunsets all over the globe were terrific for three years after the explosion happened because of the dust in the air. Even in America, fire brigades were assembled on a couple of occasions to fight what looked to be distant fires on the horizon. The red glow turned out to be a Krakatoa caused illusion made by dust and sun. The sound of the explosion was heard over 1000 miles away. The tsunamis caused were in some places 100 feet high, and wave increases were measured as far away as England. The genius of a Winchester book, however, is not in the regurgitation of details connected to this incredible geological event, it is the many fascinating cultural, religious, sociological, and historical nuggets that he masterfully weaves into the overall narrative. When one reads Winchester on Krakatoa, one learns about far more than merely volcanoes.
- Krakatoa, fulfilled prophecy & radical Islam — In the centuries before Krakatoa, Muslims from Indonesia were liberal, to say the least. Half naked Muslim women walked the streets. They worshiped local gods along with Allah and generally lived in freedom from hard-line Islamic legalism. After Krakatoa there was a dramatic shift, radicalism became normalized, rules were enforced, and infidels unwilling to convert became the focal point for violent jihad. What happened? A local Muslim leader had been predicting the coming of the Madi. (Islam’s version of the Messiah) To precede his coming. Four cataclysms were predicted.
- Cattle in unprecedented numbers would die — Krakatoa accomplished that.
- Rain would turn red — The dust in the air turned local showers reddish brown for months on end.
- Flooding — Coastal villages, almost without number were destroyed by Krakatoa caused Tsunami’s.
- Death. — Nearly 40,000
The timing of Krakatoa’s eruption couldn’t have been more perfect for this Muslim cleric. Overnight he had the ear of the people. In the prophecy, Holy war was to follow the calamity which would then usher in the return of the Madi and final judgement upon all infidels. People fell in line, and the Dutch East Indies became a volcano of Islamic unrest and radicalism.
The Power of a Book — In 1860 a Dutch civil servant made the trip to the Dutch East Indies. What he witnessed horrified him. He saw exploitation of local populations at such extraordinary levels that he was unable to continue in his work. We travelled back to Holland and wrote a book excoriating the VOC (Dutch trading company) and the Dutch people as a whole for their maltreatment and abuse of indigenous people in their colonies. To the consternation of the VOC and all those who profited from the exploitation and violence, the book became an immediate bestseller. This book made an entire nation feel guilty. The civil servant had to flee to Germany to save his life, but the damage was done, the Dutch demanded change. New rules were drawn up and enforced that made colony governors responsible for the health and well being of all peoples under their domain.
Too Much Freedom or not enough? —The Dutch granted freedom to travel and lowered taxes. Life became better for local Indonesians. However, the immunity granted also provided fresh wind in the sales of Muslim activists who felt compelled to follow their leader into Jihad. The trip to the Hajj in Saudi Arabia was prohibited before the freedoms; now the Muslim faithful rushed to make the pilgrimage. The Dutch knew that the trip had a radicalizing effect on the population, but with the new laws, they could do little to stop it. In the end, freedom enabled the rebellion that the Dutch were hoping to avoid.
Geology and Nihilism — According to Winchester, a prevailing philosophy coming from 19th-century geological study and discovery was the incredible insignificance of man. The conclusion that we are, but specs of dust on a continually moving very dangerous earth helped to spiral man into a depressed state of nihilism. The science didn’t leave a lot of room for a loving God.
Plate Tectonics — He even made plate tectonics sound interesting! One belt of earth moving north lowly crashes into another belt of crust heading south. One slides under the other. One belt heads down and melts into the core of the earth. Mountains rise from the collision and earthquakes, and volcanos come alive along these fault lines. If plate movement per year is more or less consistent (that’s a big if) Then I wonder if one accurately guess the starting point of when the earth was one single land mass.
Elephants and Spiders — All sorts of humorous bits are scattered throughout. Whether that be the story of Miss Lockheart smuggling her pet elephant into her hotel room in Batavia to catastrophic ends, or his optimistic words describing the first life that either returned or emerged from Krakatoa “This pioneer of the renovation was discovered spinning a web. This arachnids optimism was admirable.” (I also discovered that the “returned vs. emerged” debate was very spirited among 19th-century scientists).
Capitalism — There is a whole section in the book about how the Dutch Trading Company became the first publicly funded company and how that economic approach set the course for our modern capitalistic system.
The first shared worldwide event — The 1816 eruption of Tambora was much worse. The growing season in the USA reduced from 160 days to 70. It became known as the year without summer and sparked massive famines worldwide. The global temperature reduced for over a year. Tambora’s worldwide impact was unparalleled, but it wasn’t near the news event that Krakatoa was. During the time between eruptions, telegraph cables had been laid all over the world. As a result, news for the first time could travel around the globe at speeds faster than ever imagined. Competitive news media outlets hungry for a story also fanned Krakatoa’s fame, so much so, that the story of the volcano permeated the imagination of the world for generations.
Darwin had a problem, and he knew it.
The difficulty of understanding the absence of vast piles of fossiliferous strata, which on my theory were no doubt somewhere accumulated before the Cambrian epoch, is very great…I allude to the manner in which numbers of species of the same group suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks.
Darwin’s doubt about the Cambrian explosion centred on the problem of missing fossil intermediates. Not only have those forms not been found, but the Cambrian explosion itself illustrates a profound engineering problem that fossil evidence does not address— the challenge of building a new type of animal life by gradually transforming one tightly integrated system of genetic components and their products into another.
Wrestling with uncooperative evidence to try and point it back in the direction favourable to a Darwinian explanation is proving increasingly difficult for scientists. So much so, that other explanations are becoming popular. There is only one rule to keep when asserting a new theory explaining the sudden appearance of unique organisms in the fossil record. One must express one’s opinion in strictly materialistic terms. Adherence to this rule is the scientific equivalent to the rigid religious dogma. Richard Lweontin speaks for much of the scientific community when he says “Materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” Admittedly, this book takes on a rebellious tone, it simply cannot abide by this rule. Cue the music from Twisted Sister “No, we are not going to take it anymore!” Meyer appeals to his readers: “Let’s break some rules and follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
So what is making so many scientists grumpy and rebellious with Darwinian theory?
- Irreducible complexity — Complex biological systems depend for their functions on hundreds, of independent, yet jointly necessary parts. As the number of essential components increases, the requisite number of coordinated changes increases too, rapidly driving up the difficulty of maintaining the functional integrity of the system while modifying its parts. When modifying the design of a machine, an engineer is not bound by the need to maintain a real continuity between the first machine and the modification. The evolutionary problem is, in a real sense, the gradual improvement of a machine while it is running. The more functionally integrated a system is, the more difficult it is to change any part of it without damaging or destroying the system as a whole.
- Mathematical impossibility — The idea that new genetic information arising from random mutations in the DNA runs smack into the problem of “Combinatorial inflation.” Mathematically inclined scientists have realized that if the mutations themselves were truly random— that is, if they were neither directed by an intelligence nor influenced by the functional needs of the organism (as Neo-Darwinism stipulates) — then the probability of the mutation and selection mechanism ever producing a new gene or protein could well be vanishingly small. Why? The mutations would have to generate, or “search” by trial and error, an enormous number of possibilities — far more than was realistic in the time available to the evolutionary process. The math doesn’t work out.
- Junk DNA is not Junk — For a long time the rejoinder to silence scientists dabbling with intelligent design was as follows: “If the information in DNA provides such compelling evidence for the activity of a designing intelligence, why is over 90% of the genome composed of functionless nonsense sequences?” It isn’t. “Junk DNA” as it has been called, doesn’t actually exist. According to a landmark study concluded in 2012, every part of the genome is overwhelmingly functional.
- Random mutation doesn’t cut the mustard — Mutations of any significant quality that could alter a body plan to the degree that it becomes a different creature separate from its ancestor would have to happen during the embryonic stage of life. But if you screw around with embryonic development in hopes of creating a significant mutation, you will find that early stage manipulation results in catastrophic failure for the embryo every time. Microevolutionary changes do not create new body plans, and the macro-level mutations are always harmful.
- DNA as language — All Body plans have blueprints. Blueprints are highly specific instructions pre-built into each organism. It’s like each organism is a book. Each book has arranged the alphabet into specific words strategically sequenced to make a complete story. Random mutation is when the letters of the words in the book get scrambled. Is it possible for an entirely new story to be produced by the random scrambling of these letters? Moby Dyck does not become the Hunger Games by randomly scrambling the letters. There is no way one book becomes another no matter how many times the words are rearranged.
Since genes, like English sentences, contain sequence-specific functional information, multiple changes in the genetic text will inevitably degrade function (or fitness) long before a new functional sequence will arise — just as random changes in a meaningful English sentence will typically destroy meanings long before such changes produce a significantly different sentence.
- Micro-evolution leading up to macro-evolution is a baseless assumption: Because of what we know of DNA and epigenetic information. It won’t do any more to look at finch beaks and butterfly wings as pointers to Macro-evolution. There is a big difference between shuffling and slightly altering preexisting sequence-specific modules of functional information and explaining how those modules came to possess information-rich sequences in the first place.
- Does design actually demand a designer? Some scientists like Stuart Kauffman are promoting “the self-organization” theory. He says “life bubbles forth in a natural magic beyond the confines of entailing law, beyond mathematization.” For scientists less inclined to the mystical materialism of Kauffman the only option is to hang on doggedly to large scale sudden macro-mutations as explanations for the Cambrian explosion.“A bird hatches a reptilian egg”— says Otto Schindewolf. Jeffrey Schwartz speaks of animals suddenly originated “full-blown and raring to go.” Other theories hold on to a specific mutation of the Hox gene as the explanation or geographical location being the necessary cause for macro-evolution of the quickened variety.
Whatever the materialistic explanation, all scientists today speak of the appearance of design. Selection and mutation function as a kind of “designer substitute” says Ernst Mayr. Fransicsco Alya says that natural selection explains “design without a designer” Richard Dawkins himself says that the digital information in DNA bears an uncanny resemblance to computer software or machine code. He explains that many aspects of living systems “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Nevertheless, to be faithful to Darwinian orthodoxy all must agree that evidence of design is illusory. Natural selection, though it appears in every way to the contrary, must be wholly blind and undirected.
The question comes down to is “Is design real or illusory?” Intelligent design theory contends that it’s real. Intelligent design does not negate science or even much of evolutionary theory, but it does argue that living organisms look designed because they actually are designed. This conclusion is based on evidence first of all, not religion.
The Easter Island statues — Archeologists, still don’t know the exact means by which they were carved or erected. The ancient head carvers might have used metallic hammers, rock chisels, or lasers for that matter. Though archaeologists lack the evidence to decide between various hypotheses about how the figures were constructed, they can still definitely infer that intelligent agents made them. In the same way, we can conclude that an intelligence played a causal role in the origin of the Cambrian animals. Even if we cannot decide what material means, if any, the designing intelligence used to transmit the information, or shape matters or impart its design ideas to living form.
- After giving a lecture in America J.Y. Chen, a Chineses scientist vociferously critical of Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy was asked why he wasn’t nervous about his anti-Darwin perspective. He gave his answer with a wry smile “In China, we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin!”
- Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest, the question of origins remains unsolved.
- Michael Polanyi argues that “chemistry and physics alone could not produce the information in DNA any more than ink and paper alone could produce the information in a book.”
In the dark, cold winter of 1692 several young girls inexplicably began to manifest strange behaviours: spasms, cries of pain, loss of sight, strange visions, at times they became unmanageable, even belligerent. Disobeying parents and telling off the pastor in the church was unthinkable for an 8-year-old puritan girl of that era, but it this strange season it happened with disturbing regularity. What both tortured and emboldened these girls? Three possible answers lay before the troubled town of Salem. The girls were experiencing a physical malady, they were demon-possessed, or tortured by witches. Doctors came, and physical explanations were quickly ruled out. The nature of the girl’s ailments could only be diabolical. Leading questions were asked, the girls began to name names, and the witch hunt was on. In 9 months 14 women, five men and two dogs were all executed for being witches. During that frenzied nine months, many people opted to become bewitched to save their skins as the number of bewitched individuals increased so to did the number of accusations. The jails overflowed. Finally, the witch storm blew itself out, the sheriff quit, witch hunting was too exhausting. The governor’s wife was accused, and he wasn’t about to let her be prosecuted, and the desperate appeals of innocence from those who hung for their alleged crimes began to weigh on the collective conscience. Today everyone agrees that this was a gross miscarriage of justice. What can be learned?
- Defying authority was the bigger problem: The chief justice Stoughton and several of his judges were convinced already before the trials began that witchcraft was the problem. They were only interested in guilty verdicts. To declare one’s innocence was to challenge authority and ensure their wrath, that is what got you killed. 18 out of the 19 people of those executed maintained their innocence. It was only the ones who acknowledged their guilt in agreement with the judges that ultimately went free. This is how the whole fiasco managed to balloon so much. It didn’t take long to figure out that chances of survival increased with a confession, so people started admitted to the most inane stories of witchcraft one could imagine. In the interest of survival, they freely named names of others they suspected of being witches. When the trial ended, there were over 60 “guilty” witches stacked up like cordwood in the tiny prison. They all went free.
- There was one accused witch, a 71 one-year-old man name Giles Corey, who defied the court by refusing to say the words “By God and country” at the beginning of his hearing. Without saying these words, the trial could not proceed. This stubborn refusal upended the proceedings and infuriated the judges. They found a way around the impasse, by digging up a medieval law for what to do with someone who refused to plead, as Corey had done. Turns out “pressing” was the legal way to get the indigent Corey to say the words “By God and country” and thus to be able to move forward with the trial. Pressing involves lying the victim on the ground, covering him with a board and putting increasingly heavy stones on the board until he either says the magic words that would allow the proceedings to continue or he dies. Corey was indignant to the end, having lots of choice words for his persecutors none of which resembled the words “By God and country.”
- “Justice” was more interested in having someone to blame: Life was hard in 1692. It was no picnic to live on the frontiers of Massachusetts. Sometimes people try to make sense of things by blaming others for their misfortunes. Witches must be why all the Indian attacks are happening, why I can’t solve the land dispute with my neighbour, why my child died etc. If we do away with the witches we do away with our problems was the conventional wisdom. It also helped to ease the conscience if own blamed people less desirable. With only a few exceptions the community purged itself of its nastiest people.
- There was a catastrophic failure in understanding what constitutes legitimate evidence: The primary flaw was in the acceptance of spectral evidence. The accused could press charges against someone if they felt that person’s ghost had harassed them. There was no way to defend against such charges. Chief Justice Stoughton had no reservations about spectral evidence, though increasing numbers of people did. Other inferior quality evidence used to damn a person was the discovery of slightly raised discolouration on an accused person’s body. These “Devils teats” were a clear sign of guilt. The “touch test” was another abysmal means of establishing guilt.
- The rule of law appears to be a bit of a joke. Rebecca Nurse’s story is the saddest one of all. She was happily married to Francis for over 50 years, eight kids, many grandkids and great grandkids. She was named as a witch and accused based on spectral evidence. People could believe others were witches but not Rebecca. The trial was contentious, but the jury declared her “not guilty.” The judge was very unhappy with the verdict and told them to reconsider. During all the tumult of celebration on one side and disgust on the other, the judge ordered another accused witch to come in. Rebecca was surprised to see her prison mate at her trial and wondered allowed something to the effect of “what another one of us was doing here.” The jury under incredible pressure by the judge, asked Rebecca what she meant by “us.” was this the admission of guilt that the judge wanted? By using the pronoun “us” was she implicating herself as a witch? Rebecca then over 70 years old and nearly deaf did not hear the juries question so did not answer. The Jury took her silence as an admission of guilt and overturned their verdict. Phips, the governor, didn’t like the guilty verdict, so he reversed it again, Nurse was free, but only for a short while. When Phips left the colony, he appointed Stoughton as governor in his absence. Stoughton, the chief justice of the witch trials used his additional power as governor to secure the guilty verdict he wanted for Rebecca Nurse.
- Too many logical potholes and too many muzzled mouths. One observer noted that If the witches were so convinced on their innocence why would they choose the courtroom to bewitch their victims? (The girls regularly disrupted court proceedings with outbursts) This visible logical pothole was ignored, along with stories that consistently contradicted each other. There are dozens of questions that if asked would have assuredly unravelled the prosecution, but there was no one able or willing to ask them. Unfortunately, at that time in history, defence lawyers were not invented yet and the accused by, and large were scared out of their minds. Most people were scared out of their minds, to object to the hunt often resulted in finding oneself accused of witchcraft.
- I would do anything for love. Something ailed the original girls to be sure, but one factor that helped them carry on in their state of distress was love. Most of these girls received frighteningly little attention, and now all of a sudden the entire town was concerned for their safety and well-being. Never before in the history of Puritan New England had little children received such affection and care. Why stop it? For many of these girls they were only too happy to play their roles with distinction, the pay they received in affection was worth it.
In the end, the blame should go on Stoughton the chief justice. He, in my opinion, did everything wrong. He assumed guilt, had little patience for objections, badgered the accused, forced convictions, ignored good evidence, accepted terrible evidence, and condemned the innocent without a hint of remorse or even sober second thought. He failed to listen to a growing chorus of clergy and other learned men who warned him of clear points of concern in the whole debacle. Even though the entire affair was admitted to be a terrible mistake within decades of the events, Stoughton remained untouched for his gross negligence in the whole incident. That is a shame.
The Gulag Archipelago is an incredibly intimidating 3 volume set written by a wounded man on a mission to set the record straight. On its many, many, many, pages you will find a seemingly never-ending story of heartbreak, trauma, despair, and injustice. My review only covers volume 1 of Solzhenitsyn’s written war on communism. Seventeen years of the author’s life were spent in the communist labour camp system known as the GULAG. He does his best to uncover what must surely be the worst story of human suffering in the history of humanity. How can it not be, when some 50 million people lost their lives? Experts say Solzhenitsyn’s book was the key that spelled the beginning of the end for communism.
Woman of Faith or Prostitute? — Solzhenitsyn says that Women were the more stubborn of the sexes to give up their faith, so waves and waves of them went to the GULAG. What was their crime? They were teaching the Christian faith to their children. Life in prison was not an unreasonable sentence for such wickedness. If you were convicted as a prostitute, however, the verdict was only three years, and you were freely able to ply your trade with the administrators. Returning home with suitcases full of payments after the time was up. As for the religious women, well, they were never heard from again.
Clap until you drop — The insane story of a communist party meeting in a small city where Stalin’s name was announced. The unyielding expectation for all in attendance was wildly enthusiastic clapping. As the clapping goes on and on, who would dare to stop? Finally after over an hour of clapping an exhausted official stops and sits down. He is arrested for anti-soviet sentiment and given ten years in the GULAG!
How Communism works:
- Terror as the primary mechanism for control — Lenin said in one of his final letters that “terror is necessary to bring about our ways” and to “spread terror as broadly as possible.”
- There is no such thing as the sacredness of human life in this system.
- Loyalty to party over truth. — Lying is not wrong, especially if it helps to prop up the party. Propaganda is the truth.
Russian Sailors, you better lie or else! A Russian ship ran aground on Swedish territory during the war. The Communist sailors sat out the war experiencing the freedom and plenty that neutral Sweden had to offer. At the end of the war, they went back to Russia, in private conversations with friends they admitted that Sweden was a better place to live than Russia. Their comments were discovered, and they were all given 10-year labour camp sentences for “Anti-Soviet Sentiment.” The Swedish press somehow heard about it, and they created an international news story, condemning the harsh prison sentences of the sailors. Russia denied that the sailors were in prison and set a date for foreign reporters to come and interview the sailors themselves.
Meanwhile, they pulled the sailors from the prison camps, fattened them up, and coached the crew to tell the foreign reporters that they were free, happy, well travelled, and well fed. They must communicate that the USSR was the best country in the world to live. Naturally, if they didn’t comply they would all be killed. The sailors lied to live; the Western world was convinced, the reporters issued an apology and left the Soviet Union. Whereupon the sailors were immediately sent back to their prison camps!
Easy ways to get a prison sentence
- Date a foreigner
- Say a positive thing about Western democracy
- Have praise for any technology that was not built or invented in Russia
- Write a letter to a friend that had anything other than a gleefully excited tone about the government.
- Stumble across a Soviet official who wanted something of yours
Confess — Confessions were all that mattered in this justice system. Whatever means necessary to obtain a conviction was fine. Evidence was not required. The powers that be didn’t hide this either. The philosophy that underpinned this wretched system was the conviction that absolute truth was unknowable anyway.
I’ll take the Gestapo over the KGB — Could anyone be worse than the Gestapo? Solzhenitsyn says yes, at least they were remotely interested in the truth; the Russian secret police were just interested in quotas. He shares the story of a Polish guy who was interrogated by the Gestapo on suspicion of being Anti-Nazi when they could find no evidence they let him go. When the Russians came, he was arrested on suspicion of being Anti-Soviet. There was only torture and a long train ride to the GULAG, they didn’t care about the truth.
Russia the worst country ever to fight for under the Communists
- Incompetent in battle — Solzhenitsyn cites numerous examples.
- Forsakes troops when captured — to be caught alive was a treasonous offence to mother Russia, so while other countries worked tirelessly to supply their prisoners with food and care packages, the Soviets vilified them and let them rot in enemy prisons.
- No Hero’s welcome for you — Almost all Russian POW’s that returned to the USSR at the end of the war were sent straight to the GULAG.
Thanks a lot, England! — Hundreds of thousands of Anti-Soviet partisans were ready to fight to the death against Stalin at the conclusion of WW 2. England negotiated a bunch of post-war deals with the Communist dictator, the most damning of which was the agreement to help disarm anti-soviet forces. The English used their anti-soviet reputation to lure all the partisan leaders into a special secret meeting. After the English managed to get all the various leaders together in one city, they turned them over to the Soviets. With all the leaders in Soviet hands, the battle was over before it started. The Soviets purged out of existence anyone even remotely connected to these partisans. The body count for this English betrayal was exceedingly high. Solzhenitsyn, understandably, had no great affection for Churchill.
Blame the Church — It’s 1920 and Russia is starving. Fieldworkers have been off fighting wars, and they have little incentive to work the fields upon return because the government takes everything anyway. The Communists tell the church to feed the poor, isn’t that the churches “job” after all? The church agrees to sell off all its /Icons/gold etc. to stop the famine. The Soviets tell the church to give them the money, and they will make sure the people get fed with it. The Church hesitates, they will feed the poor, but they don’t trust the government, they want to run the program themselves. The Soviets seize upon the hesitation as an opportunity to slander the church. A vicious defamation campaign ensues, and all the church leaders are arrested and slaughtered for their “lack of compassion” upon the poor starving peasants. Lies, terror, and violence is the M.O. of communism.
It’s easy to see why someone like Jordan Peterson after spending so much time studying Solzhenitsyn and the great failed experiment of communist Russia puts such a premium on telling the truth. Truth can only flourish where free speech is permitted. For Peterson, the price is just too high anytime the truth gets bent or it’s pursuit prevented, even if the reasons are for “the greater social good” After reading this book, it is impossible for me not to agree.
David Bentley Hart has “a perverse aversion to common phrases” and comes wearing the cloak of Eastern Orthodoxy, so his translation is not at all like any other I’ve ever read. His footnotes explaining his translation choices are fiery, bulldoggish, and controversial. Is he a heretic? Is he a theological liberal? Is he just a blowhard with a few axes to grind? Is he right? One thing is sure, Hart is a provocateur of deeper thought for all who engage in his writings.
Most English Translations Lousy: Hart believes that all standard English translations of the Bible make essential concepts of the New Testament largely “impenetrable.” The truth that the original authors intended becomes “hidden” and “perilously hazy.” The reason he gives is that the work is done by committee. Collaboration according to Hart is a terrible idea for translation work because it becomes “ineluctably mired in the anodyne blandness and imprecision of ‘diplomatic’ accord.” Hart believes a straight shooter is needed who don’t give a damn about great traditions and what others might think, but who will only deliver the goods on what the New Testament actually says, evidently Hart is that man. So with that rather humble start off we go.
Hart smells of Universalism: Romans 5:18 is the clincher for him. He says in his comments on the verse “Christ’s act of righteousness brings righteousness and life to absolutely everyone. Whether intentional or not, the plain meaning of the verse is that of universal condemnations annulled by universal salvation.”
Let the fire burn out: Hart argues “There are only three verses that seem to threaten eternal punishment for the wicked (though, in fact, none of them actually does)” And then he attacks the veracity of what he refers to as “the God of love’s perpetual torture chamber” with astonishing ferocity. Clearly, he doesn’t want eternal hell to be true, and he has prepared an entire armoury of reasons to support its rejection. The Greek word for age, from which spin off all the English translations for eternal and everlasting is genuinely ambiguous. In fact, Hart claims that the word “never clearly means eternal or everlasting in any incontrovertible sense.” Also “Gehenna” never meant hell as it has come to be known in English. First century Judaism in spite of its various differences were unanimous that any concept of hell was for ultimate purification. Metaphor was the idiom of the day, squeezing any literal interpretations from the dramatic language surrounding the dark side of the afterlife is to Hart the longest of reaches. Hart piles into his arguments church father after church father, 20 in all I believe, who rejected the idea that hell was a “literal kingdom of ingenious eternal tortures ruled by Satan” Paul doesn’t talk about it, nor do any early confessional texts, nor does the 4th gospel, or the pastoral epistles. Once Hart has dumped his historical truckload of evidence upon us he lets us know that “the very concept of eternal hell is nearly as historically suspect as it is morally unintelligible.” If we missed the boat so badly on this where did we go wrong? The culprit is “Latin-speaking” Augustine he tells us. Hart is Eastern Orthodox so it’s fitting that he would blame the Western church. But is he right? I hope so, who wouldn’t wish it?
Hart is no fan of complementarianism: He mentions that “Junia” the apostle referred to in Romans 16 is most certainly a woman. No one in the patristic period denied this and “there is no instance anywhere in the vast literary remains of antiquity in either Latin or Greek where the name is masculine. John Chrysostom, for instance, opined that she must have been a woman of superlative wisdom since Paul accords her the title Apostle.” It wasn’t until 1243 that Giles of Rome (who probably knew no Greek) began to argue that Junia must be a man. Then Hart looks to take a swipe at complementarianism by his following statement “the argument remains popular to this day among those eager to make the church safe for misogyny, however it can safely be dismissed as nonsense.”
Dodging the obvious: In 1 Cor 6:9 he is super careful not to use the word, homosexual. Even though the literal meaning of the terms are “effeminate male partner” and “men who bed men.” Instead, he opts for the term “feckless sensualists” and “men who couple with catamites.” He refuses the word homosexual because in that day there would have been no concept of homoerotic sexual identity like there is today. Hart is confident that the specific sin Paul had in mind was a masters exploitation of young male slaves and so he leaves it at that. Any modern day application should not in his estimation be included in the translation. He draws the same conclusions in 1 Timothy 1:10. Fair enough, although, one wonders if Harts careful tip-toeing is a result of modern cultural pressure as much as it is cautious exegesis.
Don’t Worship the Bible! Evangelical and Fundamentalist efforts to shore up confidence in a reliable Bible by making strong statements to its inerrancy don’t impress Hart at all.
All Christians believe that the New Testament is divinely inspired; but any coherent account of what this means must involve an acknowledgement that God speaks through human beings, in all their historical cultural and personal contingency. For those, however, who not only believe that scripture is inspired, but who are also deeply committed to “literalist, “inerrantist” or “dictational” understandings of inspiration, all the words of the Bible must be understood as direct locutions of God, passing through their human authors like sunlight through the clearest glass, and the canon of the New Testament — even though it took a few centuries to concreace into its present form, and has never really existed as anything but a shimmering cloud of countless variants — must be understood as a flawlessly immediate communication, in its every historical and lexical detail, of the teaching of the Holy Spirit and of the faith of the apostolic church. That has never been the only or even the dominant, Christian understanding of Scriptural inspiration. Many modern Christians, in fact, might be quite surprised at the speculative boldness and critical diffidence with which some of the greatest exegetes of Christian late antiquity and the Middle ages approached the Bible. Hart concludes his thoughts on inspiration lamenting the fact that “with the rise of the fundamentalist movement of the twentieth century (in-errantist views) have spread far and wide especially in their acute and virulent forms.
The Bible has issues: He has no care or fear in talking about textual variants, what belongs, what doesn’t belong, what’s a mistake, what isn’t a mistake. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to address some elephants that have long been standing quietly in the room, on the other hand, it’s a bit unnerving for one who grew up in a tradition of boot stepping allegiance to the Bibles inherency. After reading Hart, if he is to be believed, a strict “inerrantist” position is no longer possible.
Let the women be silent verse doesn’t even belong. This passage according to Hart doesn’t belong at all. It’s a late dated interpolation. Internally it breaks the flow of the text and contradicts chapter 11 in which women clearly are encouraged not to be silent in the church. It also contradicts Paul’s radically egalitarian point of view in places like Galatians 3:28. Externally a good number of ancient texts have the paragraph in different spots, one even footnotes it at the bottom of a page. Most scholars have now concluded the passage to be spurious. — It would have been nice to get that one right. This little paragraph screwed up church history big time!
Faithfulness is better than faith: In many places he changes the term often translated “faith” to “faithfulness” Hart is no fan of the protestant Reformation. He refers to the reformers and their offspring as “demonstrably wrong” in their understanding of Paul’s views on salvation. Paul taught that we are not justified by the works of the law (circumcision, kosher laws etc.), but we are justified only by “a faithfulness that necessarily entails works of love — good deeds— in respect of which one will be judged and either rewarded or purged.” The notion that justification is merely a formal or forensic imputation of righteousness rather than a real corrective transformation is a meaning that simply doesn’t exist in the history of the word. Salvation is a process far more than it is a declaration.
Jewish/Greek/Roman Mythology — Hart enlightens us on how the New Testament interacts with the mythologies of the day. One example is the Jewish tradition which held that God deputized angels to give out the law to the Jewish people, the only problem with this plan is that the Angels didn’t always deliver God’s instructions correctly! Therefore any law spoken through the angels is not equal to or as final as the word spoken directly by the Lord. You can imagine the debates already in ancient Judaism as to the source of some particular laws over others.
The belief that we are guilty by birth is a mistake. Romans 5:10 is “one of the most consequential mistranslations in Christian History” — What happened? The two little greek words ἐφ’ ᾧ in the Western tradition were translated into Latin to mean that death comes to us “because” we are sinners. Creating the Western theological position of original guilt. The idea that in some sense all human beings had sinned in Adam, and that therefore everyone is born already damnably guilty in the eyes of God. The Eastern tradition which had a better understanding of Greek drew no such conclusions. Humanity has not inherited a condition of criminal culpability at birth, rather, humanity has been exposed to the contagion of sin and the disease of death. The point of Romans is that Jesus reverses the disease of death by introducing eternal life in him. Death doesn’t come because we are sinners, death and sin have infected our planet, and we are caught up in the mess is the idea.
Don’t take the Bible so literally, the apostle Paul didn’t! — His translation and comments on I Cor 10:11 — Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition… As should be obvious, Paul frequently allegorizes Hebrew scripture; the “spiritual reading” of scripture typical of the Church Fathers of the early centuries was not their invention, nor just something borrowed from pagan culture, but was already a widely accepted hermeneutical practice among Jewish scholars. So it is not anachronistic to read Paul here as saying that the stories he is repeating are not accurate historical accounts of actual events, but allegorical tales composed for the edification of readers. Hart is angling for a less historically rigid Bible.
Revelation is history. The beast of Revelation is almost certainly Nero Hart says. Evidently, Nero had become a legend in the 1st century, and many had thought that his apparent suicide in 68 a.d. was a fake and that he would return. So much of Revelation according to Hart was more about current events than future events.
Penal substitutionary atonement is not a Biblical idea. As Christianity spread out through other cultures and languages words like ransom and redemption began to broaden in meaning:
Some Christians came to imagine that the word referred to a ransom paid to God the Father by the Son, to appease God’s righteous wrath, or to repair his injured dignity, or to yield tribute to the awful majesty of his sovereignty. That idea is entirely alien to the way the word is used in the New Testament; there is no suggestion there that, in Christ God pays God off, or God rescues us from God; instead the work of salvation is depicted as a single, unified act of rescue, whereby God the Father, through the Son, redeems his children from the slavery into which they have been sold.
What are the six questions?
- Why does God seem to be against gay people?
- Why should I believe in miracles in an age of science?
- Why should I worship a God who commanded genocide?
- How can there possibly be only one way to God?
- If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?
- How can a loving God send people to hell
Nothing new here, these six questions or iterations of them are precisely the ones that keep cranking out people who identify as “formerly Christian.”
Below are some of the helpful bits that I want to remember from Barton Priebe’s valiant effort to plug the six holes that seem to be sinking Christian ships everywhere.
- Gay: When it comes to the gay question, the author gives us a timely reminder in our polarizing and increasingly toxic culture that to disagree is not to hate. Human sexuality is a mighty big topic, and there must be room for differences of opinion.
- Science: Science cannot answer our most basic questions, it can do a great job with the “how” questions of life, but it is useless to answer the “why” questions, which are the most important ones. Science is no saviour, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.
- Desire: Priebe was of great assistance in confirming my contention that desire shapes our belief’s more than reason or facts ever could. Priebe quotes Thomas Nagel “I want atheism to be true…It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” and C.S. Lewis (before he became a Christian): “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’ The real work of helping people change, I believe, comes with a confrontation of desire more than a confrontation of fact.
- Violent God: Regarding the violence of God in the Bible, the author attempts to smooth out the rough edges by displaying God as exceedingly patient. For example, our God who is such a fan of justice managed to patiently wait for 700 years before dropping the hammer of judgment on the Canaanites. Indeed, it is a good thing that the Biblical God doesn’t fly off the handle like other gods. I can also appreciate a God concerned about justice and even invoking at times harsh penalties for disobedience. What I can not appreciate, and what Priebe doesn’t wrestle with is that God would deputize humans to carry out his divine wrath as the genocide passages reveal. A mass slaughter of one people group by another people group from a human point of view must always wrong. The sincere cry “My God who is committed to justice told me to do it” as the blood flows freely in the streets will never work for me. Even a hint of this must be removed from the human playbook in my estimation.
Another attempt to smooth things over that fails to land is his observation that Jericho and Ai were only military installations. That means Israel would have inflicted casualties on military personnel and not civilians. The analogy given is that of tearing down the great wall of China but leaving Beijing undisturbed. This is bilge. The walled cities were places of refuge that civilian populations would have naturally run to for protection in the face of invasion. The Bible is clear that the Canaanite people were under God’s judgement not just their armies.
What I think is right and well stated was that Israel was not the big oppressor coming in, they were a ragtag bunch of former slaves who were complete underdogs. The real miracle is how these desert wanderers managed to avoid there own annihilation! Against all the odds, they carved out a tiny existence for themselves on a perpetually violent piece of real estate that sat at the crossroads of 3 continents. Also, I agree with Priebe that it’s important to realize the hyperbole in play. The great defeat and consequent slaughter of the Canaanites were markedly less impressive than some of the bravado indicates.
The Canaanites were really bad, I get that, and the book points this out with disgusting particularity. Which brings out the question at what point does one nation interfere with another nation that is really nasty. I believe, at some point, justice must trump sovereignty. Good countries must say to bad countries “stop it or else” — Is that what happened so long ago in Canaan? Perhaps at least partly, but the point is complicated to maneuver correctly in our world. Would anyone agree if a pro-life army was mobilized in the States to go to war against the great wickedness of the pro-choicers? Somehow we’ve managed to leave that judgement in God’s hands and have, I think, rightly, stuck to non-violent protests. Those who follow Jesus happily leave off any violent judgements on people to God. Ultimately what we find in the book of Joshua sits in uncomfortable tension with the teachings of Jesus. What I don’t understand, is how any ardent atheist can in good faith criticize the actions of the Jewish people so long ago. They don’t have the moral high ground to do it. Which brings me to Priebe’s strongest point in the book, and what I believe to be the most persuasive argument for continuing in the faith.
- The Moral Argument: Dawkins is amazed that molecules that make up rocks would gather themselves into chunks of rock sized matter capable of feeling, thinking and falling in love with other chunks of complex matter. To which Priebe says:
“If we are nothing more than complicated chunks of rock, it is difficult to see how our actions can be morally right or wrong. No one holds a boulder morally accountable for falling on and crushing another boulder. But we don’t believe that a man abusing a girl is simply a collision of rocks… We hold such a man to be morally accountable and yet if we live in an impersonal material universe, it is hard to see why the actions of complex rocks should be considered morally good and evil… Ultimately if there is nothing higher than human beings, than morality can only at most be a matter of opinion…Atheism, when followed to its logical end, has no categories for absolute good and evil… Atheists want to use Christian categories of universal absolutes and yet at the same time they deny that those absolutes exist.”
- Hell: This is a tough one it’s such an immensely unpopular topic. He quotes Ingersoll a 19th-century atheist.
“It there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant…I do not believe this doctrine; neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the conscience of a hyena.”
Priebe argues that the opposite of love is indifference and because God is love it is then impossible for him to be indifferent to evil and injustice, he will always be outraged and active against all wickedness. A God who cares deeply enough to be outraged about injustice is much better than one who is indifferent to it. He also leans heavy on Lewis: “Hell is locked from the inside.”
If all we need is a teacher of enlightenment, the Buddha will do; if all we need is a collection of gods for every occasion and need, and hope, Hinduism will do; if all we need is a tribal deity, any tribal deity will do’ if all we need is a lawgiver, Moses will do; if all we need is a set of rules and a way of devotion, Muhammad or Joesph Smith will do; if all we need is inspiration and insight into the sovereign self, Oprah will do; but if we need a saviour only Jesus will do.
— Al Mohler
All of us are exclusivists — it is impossible not to be. Every time we claim something is true, we are, by definition, claiming that its opposite is false. — Don’t feel bad next time someone rips on you for being an exclusivist. We all are.