I hear them all  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

            Last night we went to a concert at an amphitheater at the Minnesota Zoo. Storms had raged through two hours before, and the concert was delayed to give the crew time to squeegee water off the rows of benches. As we stood in line to gain entrance a lion roared in the growing twilight. The Music in the Zoo series is one of our favorite venues, and the music last night by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings as the moon rose over the ponds where swans and geese swim was like a dose of joy in audio form.
            I hear the crying of the hungry
            In the deserts where they’re wandering
            Hear them crying out for Heaven’s own
            Benevolence upon them

            I hear them all
            I hear them all
            I hear them all

            The set list last night included Rawlings performing “I Hear Them All,” a song he co-wrote and that was originally released by the Old Crow Medicine Show on their album, Big Iron World (2006). It fits nicely into the long tradition of folk/country songs that are shaped by the ancient cries of prophets who are unwilling to remain silent in the face of the brokenness of the world.

            I hear the sounds of tearing pages
            And the roar of burnin’ paper
            All the crimes and acquisitions
            Turned to air and ash, and vapor

            I hear them all
            I hear them all
            I hear them all

            I find the song deeply moving, a reminder that to cover my ears to the sound of suffering proves not only the poverty of my own soul but that I have hardened my heart to the call of my Lord. Still, I am glad the song is not true in the narrow literal sense of that term. I could not bear hearing them all.

            I hear the tender words from Zion
            I hear Noah’s water fall
            Hear the gentle Lamb of Judah
            Sleeping at the feet of Buddha

            And the prophets from Elijah
            To the old Paiute Wovoka
            Take their places at the table
            When they’re called

            I hear them all
            I hear them all
            I hear them all

            Both grace and wrath are evoked by the injustice that has made humankind act like a cancer upon the earth, and the memory of the sound of rushing water in the days of Noah is a hint of what is to come. It is not wise to be complacent, and a world in which it is imagined that justice will never
finally prevail is a world that seems to me to be unworthy of the sufferers that inhabit it. And how appropriate for our postmodern world: the gentle Lamb of Judah and Buddha, not standing as equals but one at the other’s feet. The instinct (if not belief) of hierarchy is correct, though my reading of reality as a Christian would reverse the order.
            I left the Zoo last night so glad I had been there. It began raining again as we drove home. Rawlings’ fine guitar work, Welch’s sensitive vocals, the lovely harmonies, and lyrics that made me think and imagine and wonder.

            I cannot hear them all, and that is a good thing. I am glad to serve One who can and does. But I do want to hear. May it be so.

Detective stories (1): restoring order  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

            “What the detective story is about,” author P. D. James says, “is not murder but the restoration of order.” Something has gone astray in the world of the story—perhaps horribly astray—and only when things have been put right do we have some sense of resolution, and until that resolution we feel on edge.
            We were made to exist in an orderly universe. The opening pages of Scripture, the story of Genesis 1, is many things, one of which is a narrative of creation, differentiation, and providential ordering that reflects the goodness of God. Four words—“Did God actually say…”—disrupted that gracious orderliness and disorder shattered what had been made good. Now we yearn for order, prefer it, and instinctively know that disorder can blossom into a chaos that can be deadly. In such a world, when a detective solves the crime a bit of order is restored in a corner of our badly fragmented world. Even a fictional account can refresh our hope that against all odds order just might be able to be restored.
            The best detective stories tell the truth about existence, evil, and justice. They are not limited to law and order, but show that mercy must also be present if the order that is restored is to allow human flourishing. It is this full-orbed realism that makes the 19th century story of Les Misérables contemporary, even in a pluralistic, secular society like our own.

Foyle’s War
            Starring Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, this BBC series is a superb production in every way. Kitchen is not well known as an actor, but he plays Foyle with a quiet, powerful dignity that makes the viewer care about him and about the victims of the crimes he investigates. Foyle’s War also stars Samantha “Sam” Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks) as Foyle’s driver, and Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) as Foyle’s assistant.
            World War II has begun, and to his disappointment, the British government believes Foyle to be of greater value working as a detective in Hastings, a small town on the southern coast of England than serving in the war effort. Crime continues, of course, even in wartime, and so in each episode Foyle is called upon to investigate some foul deed.
            The historical accuracy—in dialogue, sets, events, costuming, etc.—is impeccable, and watching Foyle’s War is a fascinating education in what life was like in the British Isles during World War II. The writers do not cheat, like many detective writers do, but allow us to see all the clues as Foyle uncovers them. When he reveals the culprit at the end we realize we knew all we needed to know to come to the correct conclusion but unlike Foyle were not observing the details of the case with enough care. Perhaps most admirable of all, Foyle is consistently depicted as a man of integrity and honesty. It is difficult, in a drama, to depict good and moral characters without having them seem bland and boring. In Foyle’s War, the crime provides the color and the detective, rather than being made interesting by having weird quirks, inner struggles, or special effects, is allowed to be a man of few words and deep character.
            We have watched some of the episodes multiple times, purely for the enjoyment of seeing them. At the end we are always satisfied, not simply because a measure of order has been restored, but because we feel edified, having watched a virtuous character bring law, justice, and mercy into his corner of a broken world.
            [Each episode of Foyle’s War, 2002-2013, created by Anthony Horowitz, runs 90-100 minutes and is available on Netflix and DVD.]

Kidnap and Ransom
            Produced for British TV, Kidnap and Ransom follows the efforts of professional negotiator Dominic King (played brilliantly by Trevor Eve) as he seeks the release of hostages held by international terrorists and paramilitary gangs. King’s goal is not justice—to maintain his ability to negotiate with the bad guys he permits no police involvement—but to restore the victim to their life and family, hopefully unharmed.
            The locations are exotic, the trajectory of each story is plausible, and the fact that the crime is ongoing as King intercedes for the kidnapped increases the tension. King is shown to be a man of integrity and great courage, whose commitment to his calling costs him greatly, fracturing his relationship with his wife and daughter.
            Kidnap and Ransom is not always easy to watch. Each kidnapping, fraught with danger and shock, is filmed in enough detail to draw us into the fright that is overwhelming for the victim. Often the negotiations take time, sometimes lots of time, and as they drag on the victim languishes is some vile cell. This too is depicted realistically, and reveals the awful emotional and spiritual toll that must be involved.
            International kidnapping has become a tool of war in our world, a way to raise funds, gain notice in the media, and impress recruits. It is a wicked practice and one that should cause us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth even as it is in heaven. Kidnap and Ransom has helped me see the news behind the headlines with greater clarity and compassion.

            [Each episode of Kidnap and Ransom, 2011-2012, runs 45 minutes. There are two series of 3 episodes each and is available on Netflix and DVD.]

Responding to a changing world  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , , , ,

            Hans Rookmaaker, art historian and colleague of Francis Schaeffer published Modern Art and the Death of a Culture in 1970. It was written, in other words, in the Sixties, a time of cultural ferment and protest in the West, and increasing defensiveness within the American church. We live in a world that still bears the marks of that decade, for blessing and for curse.
            At the beginning of the Sixties Reinhold Niebuhr was arguably the best-known and most influential public intellectual in American society. “Niebuhr was the ideal type of a species all but lost to us today,” Ross Douthat notes, “the public theologian, deeply engaged in a particular Christian tradition—in his case, a ‘neo-orthodox’ Protestantism—but capable of setting the agenda for the secular world as well.” I suspect Douthat is understating the case—the idea that a Christian theologian of whatever stripe could be America’s premier public intellectual is simply unimaginable today at the beginning of the 21st century.
            It was also a time when technology and a technological mindset started to assume a larger, or more obvious and noteworthy role in daily life and society. We are so used to living in a technological world by now, of course, that this may not sound like much, but at the time it was significant. Things felt different, looked different, was different, and people were thinking differently as a result. There were gadgets, innovations and conveniences, new weaponry, state power and governmental reach, a flood of images and news available so quickly after the events occurred—as I say, commonplace now but novel then.
            A lot of new things appeared and happened. The birth control pill received FDA approval and scientists invented lasers (1960), the Berlin Wall was constructed and the Soviets put a man in space (1961), the first Wal-Mart opened (1962), John F. Kennedy was assassinated (1963), the British band The Beatles hit America and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison (1964), American troops were sent to Vietnam (1965), Star Trek series appeared on T.V., Black Panther Party and National Association of Women were established (1966), the first heart transplant, the first Super Bowl, and the first black, Thurgood Marshall, on US Supreme Court (1967), Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and the horrible My Lai massacre occured (1968), Neil Armstrong became the first man to land on the moon and the first episode of Sesame Street was shown (1969), computer floppy disks became available (1970).
            The Sixties were also a decade of unrest, protest and revolution. Four black college students conducted a sit-in at the Woolworth’s whites-only luncheon counter in Greensboro, NC (1960), Freedom Riders challenged segregation on interstate buses (1961), the first person was killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall and at the University of Mississippi James Meredith became the first black admitted as a student (1962), the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s  “I Have a Dream” speech occurred, and activist Medgar Evers was shot in Jackson, MS and was initially refused care at the hospital, where he died, because he was black (1963), the Civil Rights Act became law in the U.S. (1964),
street riots exploded in Los Angeles and Malcolm X was assassinated (1965), mass protests against the military draft spread across America (1966), Che Guevara was tracked down and killed (1967), in Czechoslovakia what became known as the Prague Spring brought thousands into the streets (1968), Woodstock made rock and roll history (1969), Palestinians hijacked five planes, and troops fired on protesting students at Kent State in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine (1970).
            This list perhaps can serve to provide a feeble hint—admittedly wildly selective and incomplete—of what seemed at the time to be a brave new world of technological advance and social protest that was the Sixties. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture was written into and out of this cultural moment. The fact that Hans Rookmaaker wrote it more than four decades ago means it is dated; the fact that his perspective was firmly rooted in the ancient wisdom of the biblical worldview means what he wrote can serve as a model of Christian discernment.
            In reviewing the book recently I remembered how great an impact it had on me. The Sixties were a time of spiritual crisis for me. The Christianity in which I had been raised did not provide reasonable answers for the questions and challenges I faced in my classes and in the late night conversations I had with friends. Rookmaaker’s book arrived like a glimmer of hope. Never before had I known any serious Christian to take art seriously. Reviewing Modern Art and the Death of the Culture also reminded me that the perspective on life and faith that Rookmaaker advanced was radical. That is probably why the bookwas, as far as I could tell, by and large ignored by a church that was increasingly defensive, withdrawn, and reactionary.
            This excerpt captures a hint of what I mean.

            Those who put their faith in a perfected technology have of course some grounds for their optimism, even if they also have their problems. We are living in an advanced world, better equipped than any before to tackle the great problems of mankind: housing, transport, safety, health, home comforts, efficiency. We have better communications, safer systems, more convenient utensils, better organization. Much of our western society is wealthy, affluent. Economics, by applying the methods of the sciences, has been able to break through old barriers; together with sociology it has been the means of providing for everyone goods and services previously undreamt of. No longer is the world one with a happy few, a small class, at the top, with the masses of the nameless poor at the bottom. Democracy, leisure and convenience for everyone have been achieved—well, perhaps not quite, for we are still uncomfortably aware of the areas where they have not yet arrived.
            Certainly the world is a fast-changing one: air transport is faster, and within the reach of an ever-increasing number of people. Television, in the course of one or two decades, has changed the habits, knowledge and whole outlook on the world of a large majority of the people. Cars are now a commodity instead of a luxury. More people get better schooling and higher education at university and college level. Books are cheap and within the reach of all. People live longer as a result of the rapidly advancing medical care and research.
            All this is true, and many of these things have no doubt led to much greater happiness and satisfaction in life for many. No-one wants to undo them, or go back to being without them, or deny their importance. Nor can it be denied that they all have a deep influence on our lives. Certainly one aspect of the crisis of our age is to be found in the fact that we have not yet completely adjusted to them; we have not yet found the right attitude to them, for we are often still like children completely taken up with a new toy. But the overwhelming ecological problems of today show that we must stop playing at random: our utensils may destroy us, our machines cause the decay of the very earth on which they stand. Perhaps we have bought our affluence at too high a price.
            Our world is changing, and we with it. It has become much larger, as our horizons have widened; but also much smaller, for we get instant information on problems and events in places far away. We get involved in things we have never even thought of before. So our world has become much more complex, and in our answers to the problems of life we have to cope with far more factors than ever before.
            All this means that Christians must go through a period of study, thought and re-evaluation that will take much of our energy. Conflicts will arise within Christian circles as older people especially are not consciously aware of this need for re-orientation, and therefore think that the old answers are still valid and sufficient. It is not that the foundation has to change, or that the basic doctrines have lost their meaning. But the expression and formulation of them sometimes needs rethinking as we listen afresh to God's Word, and seek to present it to the new world in which we are living.
            The whole cultural situation however is much more complex than can be dealt with simply by asserting that we have to adjust and rethink. There are many negative elements in the technocracy of today. We must find out what they really are, think through the means of removing them or at least formulating our attitude to them.
            We must also learn to react positively to the positive elements of the revolt and protest around us. For it, too, is against the evils of technocracy. We must rejoice in the fact that man is shown to be still human by his protest against the forces that would dehumanize him. We must be alert to see that the lawless and negative revolutionary elements do not obscure the real issues, so that they do not become themselves an obstruction to finding the solution they seek.

Reading this excerpt after so many years also raised questions in my mind as to how Rookmaaker’s vision of Christian faith could be applied to the opening decades of the 21st century.

Questions for reflection and discussion:
            1. What is your first impression of what Dr. Rookmaaker communicates? Why do you think you responded as you did?
            2. Do you know anyone personally who tends to “put their faith in a perfected technology”?
            3. Writing in 1970, Rookmaaker says, “All this means that Christians must go through a period of study, thought and re-evaluation that will take much of our energy.” Did this occur in the last 40+ years? If so, to what extent was it adequate for the task?
            4. Rookmaaker goes on to argue there is both a negative and a positive aspect to our task as Christians. The negative, he says, consists of naming the social and technological changes that affect us and then assess them in distinctly Christian categories. In his words: “There are many negative elements in the technocracy of today. We must find out what they really are, think through the means of removing them or at least formulating our attitude to them.” Has this been accomplished adequately over the past four decades? Why or why not?
            5. The positive aspect to the Christians assessment may surprise many Christians. In most retellings of the story of the Sixties, the numerous protests and revolutionary movements tended to be viewed with unrelenting disapproval by conservative Christians—then and now. How do you respond to Rookmaaker’s perspective, especially as it is expressed in the final paragraph?
            6. This is purely speculative, of course, because Dr. Rookmaaker is dead and cannot speak for himself. Still, I suspect that he would have a very similar thing to say to Christians at the beginning of the 21st century. What might that consist of?

Excerpt: From Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H. R. Rookmaaker (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; 1970) pp. 197-199.

Source: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat (New York, NY: Free Press; 2012) p. 25.

The View on the Ground  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

            The world remains a troubled, and troubling place. Wars have proliferated into seemingly never ending skirmishes in numerous places around the globe, and the process of globalization means the West will be party to them even if we believe we are a force for goodness and freedom in a world torn apart by intolerance, greed, religious, nationalist and ethnic fervor, and old grievances. Too much is at stake for us to remain aloof, whether what is at stake is oil, or international terrorism, or human dignity. Most of the time I hear of all this in three forms: brief videos or photos that capture single decontextualized moments in the larger conflict, news stories that try to give some impression of what is happening, and horrific statistics of numbers killed, displaced, or maimed.
            One perspective that is difficult to achieve is the view on the ground, the way things look as events unfold not to policy makers, or military commanders, or media correspondents but to the individuals taking part in the action. I sometimes assume I can imagine that perspective, but that is an illusion. Once the conflict is underway, decisions must be made not with careful reflection but in the moment, and all the moments during armed conflict are fiercely unforgiving. Hesitate to shoot, and you might be shot, but pulling the trigger might result in some tragedy far beyond the death of the enemy combatant who has you in his sites. Brokenness is far messier than we usually admit, and armed conflict is the messiest of all. This does not mean we give up on trying to understand, but it does mean our conclusions should reflect a measure of nuance that is far deeper than what we hear from pundits, talk show hosts, culture warriors, and partisan political debates.
            Trying to gain some sense of the view on the ground—though it will always remain badly incomplete—can help in this process. Here are two books that help provide that.

Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi (Fred Burton & Samuel Katz, 2013)
            On September 11, 2012, armed men stormed the American diplomatic mission compound in Benghazi, Libya. When the attack was over at dawn the next day, the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, the Information Officer, Sean Smith, and two CIA agents, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were dead. Several of the Diplomatic Security (DS) agents, whose task is to provide protection for the Ambassador (and other diplomats) were badly injured, and all were exhausted and dispirited over the fact that on their watch such a tragedy unfolded. Under Fire is their story, told from the perspective of the DS agents on the ground in Benghazi.
            One of the authors of Under Fire, Fred Burton, is a former State Department counterterrorism deputy chief and DS agent. The other, Samuel Katz, is an expert on Middle East security and international terrorism.

The linchpin of America’s ability to lead the world, from around the world, even in locations and war zones where the intelligence community drives the diplomatic engine, is the courage, dedication, and sacrifice of the men and women of the Diplomatic Security Service who find themselves in harm’s way, driving a follow car or maintaining security programs at fortresslike embassies, and those that are not fortresses, in locations that few Americans would be able to locate on a map. American diplomatic interests—and the realities of day-to-day expeditionary diplomacy—could never be protected if this intrepid force of federal agents were not on post and on guard. The true story of the Benghazi attack is not one of failure or cover-up. The true story of Benghazi is that men and women volunteer to place themselves between a bullet or a bomb and America's diplomats and interests inside the crosshairs, inside the most dangerous and volatile locations in the world. [p. 264]

            Under Fire is not all you will need to read about the Benghazi attack. Numerous hearings have been held and reports issued in an attempt to discover what happened and why, and who, if anyone is to blame. Some of this involves an honest effort to find the truth, while much is little more than partisan posturing. Under Fire does not try to sort all that out, but rather tells the story of what the attack was like for the DS agents on the ground that had a tough, unenviable, if not utterly impossible job to do in Benghazi, and put their lives on the line attempting to fulfill it. It is easy, in discussions of Benghazi and similar events and places, for some of the players to fade into invisibility in the background. That must not happen, not because these DS agents are Americans but because they are created in the image of God.

The Good Soldiers (David Finkel, 2009)
            In 2007-2008 an army battalion of soldiers known as the “Rangers,” were sent to Iraq as part of President Bush’s strategy (“the surge”) of increasing the number of American forces in that country. Over a period of 15 months the 2-16 Battalion waited ready to dive for cover when rockets or mortar shells were lobbed into their base, went out on patrol into urban areas where the enemy, indistinguishable from ordinary civilians, prepared hidden traps designed to kill and maim, and kept one another steady in their determination to make a difference in the war. For 8 of those 15 months, Washington Post reporter David Finkel was embedded with the 2-16, living with the soldiers, going with them on missions, and promising to tell their story. “From the beginning,” Finkel says, “I explained to them that my intent was to document their corner of the war, without agenda.” The Good Soldier is Finkel’s attempt to fulfill that promise. Fourteen soldiers of the 2-16 did not return alive, and many more returned to civilian life badly broken in body and soul. And in the background Iraq remains in the news, torn by continuing armed conflict.

            It happened soon after sunrise on a quiet Sunday morning and shook every building on the FOB [Forward Operating Base]. Doors bowed from the concussion. Windows broke and blew out. It wasn't the usual rocket or mortar, but something louder and scarier. There’d been no siren, no warning at all, just a sudden explosion that felt like the end of the world had arrived, and before anyone had a chance to do anything, such as run for a bunker or crawl under a bed, there was a second explosion, and a third.
            The day of the lob bombs, this would be called. Soldiers counted fifteen explosions in all, although some may have been mixed in with the roars of missiles being fired from Apache gunships or their own racing hearts. Whatever the true number, the explosions went on for twenty minutes, and only as calm returned did the audacity of what had just happened become clear.
            There had been two long dump trucks. They had pulled off Route Pluto across from the FOB, into a dirt area beyond which was a cement factory. Each was carrying a load of thousands of brightly colored bags of chicken-flavored potato chips that had been manufactured in Syria, but hidden beneath were propane tanks on launching rails, which became visible only as the backs of the trucks rose and the bags of potato chips fell away.
            These tanks were the bombs. Each had been packed with ball bearings and explosives. A 107-millimeter rocket booster attached to the bottom was just strong enough to lob a tank over the high wall surrounding the FOB, at which point it turned nose down and plummeted onto its detonator, exploding with the noise and force of a five-hundred-pound bomb and spraying shrapnel and ball bearings in every direction for hundreds of yards. One after another, the bombs exploded in terrifying succession, until the two launching trucks were finally destroyed by Hellfire missiles, and when the wreckage had cooled enough to be searched, soldiers discovered an inscription on one of the trucks that read, when translated: “A statement from the Holy Koran. Victory is coming from God, and the entire triumph is near.” Other statements had been left, too, in the form of text messages on cell phones. “Little Hiroshima is going to happen to you,” was one. “How was your morning now? Surprises are coming.”
            This was the very first use in Iraq of a weapon that would eventually spread across much of Baghdad and be described by the military as ‘the greatest threat right now that we face” because of its capacity to kill “scores of soldiers” at once. If there was any good news to this first attack, it was that no one was seriously injured. But the damage to the FOB was significant, perhaps in the millions of dollars, and after the attack ended, Kauzlarich went to survey the extent of it, eventually arriving at a collapsed trailer outside of which stood Jeffrey Sauer.
            The trailer had been his. He had been inside, waking up, when the lob bombs began landing nearby. Blast walls surrounding the trailer had stopped the shrapnel, but concussions caved in the roof and walls, and as the trailer came down he covered his head and waited to die. Explosion after explosion—this time Sauer heard them all. Finally, he crawled outside into a smoking landscape of broken buildings and vehicles, and when Kauzlarich arrived, he was standing with a dazed expression, staring at something crawling across the ground.
            “See that bug?” he said to Kauzlarich.
            Kauzlarich nodded.
            “A week ago, I would have crushed it. But it’s Sunday, and I almost got my ass waxed, so I’m gonna let it live,” he said, and as he continued to watch the bug, Kauzlarich continued to watch the face of a man soon would be going home. [175-176]

            What happens to soldiers on the front line is always horrible. For those of us who have never been there, it is also unimaginable. The horror of the front lines is not necessarily reason not to go to war in a just cause, but it is sufficient reason to care for the soldiers who were there, regardless of the cost.
            The Good Soldiers allows us to come along through the long stretches of boredom and brief periods of intense terror that occupied the days of the 2-16 Battalion in Iraq. We not only learn what they did and talked about, but how being there changed them forever, even if they were one of the fortunate ones that were missed by the bullets and shrapnel and crushing explosions.

Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi by Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press; 2013) 275 pages + notes + index.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel (New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books; 2009) 273 pages + appendix.