June 29, 2007


Category: Theology :: Permalink

Recently, I’ve been reading Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s I Am an Impure Thinker, though when I read it in a coffeeshop, as I have been, I wonder if people who see it think it’s a book about having impure thoughts.  In the opening essay, “Farewell to Descartes,” Rosenstock-Huessy takes on Rene Descartes and the philosophers who strived for “pure thought,” unaffected by emotion or circumstances or the fact that humans don’t always behave strictly rationally.  He writes:

Our attack on Cartesianism is inevitable since “pure” thought encroaches everywhere on the field of social studies.  Historians and economists and psychologists cannot stand the idea of not being “pure” thinkers, real scientists.  What a frustration!

I am an impure thinker.  I am hurt, swayed, shaken, elated, disillusioned, shocked, comforted, and I have to transmit my mental experiences lest I die.  And although I may die.  To write a book is no luxury.  It is a means of survival.  By writing a book, a man frees his mind from an overwhelming impression.  The test for a book is its lack of arbitrariness, the fact that it had to be done in order to clear the road for further life and work (p. 2).

In the course of this essay, Rosenstock-Huessy proposes a new grammar, which doesn’t start with the first person indicative (“I do this or that”) but rather with the second person imperative (“Do this!”):

King Ptolemaeus’ grammarians in Alexandria first invented the table which all of us had to learn in school: “I love, he loves, we love, you love, they love.”  Probably that table of tenses set the keystone into the arch of the wrong psychology.  For in this scheme all persons and forms of action seem to be interchangeable.  This scheme, used as the logic of philosophy from Descartes to Spencer and as the principle of politics from Machiavelli to Marx, is a grammar of human caricatures.

How far, in fact, does the “I” apply to man?  For an answer to this question let us look into the imperative.  A man is commanded from outside for a longer time in his life than he can dispose of the “I.”  Before we can speak or think, the imperative is aiming at us all the time, by mother, nurse, sisters and neighbors: “Eat, come, drink, be quiet!”  The first form and the permanent form under which a man can recognize himself and the unity of his existence is the imperative.  We are called a Man and we are summoned by our name long before we are aware of ourselves as an Ego.  And in all weak and childlike situations later we find ourselves in need of somebody to talk to us, call us by our name and tell us what to do.  We talk to ourselves in hours of dispair, and ask ourselves: How could you?  Where are you?  What will you do next?  There we have the real man, waiting and hoping for his name and his imperative.  There we have the man on whom we build society….  A man who can listen to his imperative is governable, educatable, answerable.  And when we leave the age of childhood behind us we receive our personality once more by love: “It is my soul that calls upon my name,” says Romeo (p. 7).

Baffled yet?  Perhaps.  Rosenstock-Huessy isn’t the easiest writer to read.

But his point is that we aren’t the kind of person that Descartes and his followers claim we are.  We aren’t primarily minds.  We are not the initiators of our own thoughts, as if our minds are isolated from society and the world and thinking independently.  Nor is it the case that we are because we think.

On the contrary, others come before we do.  Before we can think our own thoughts, we have other people addressing us.  Before we say “I,” they are saying “You” to us.  And above all, God addresses us:

We do not exist because we think.  Man is the son of God and not brought into being by thinking.  We are called into society by a mighty entreaty, “Who art thou, man, that I should care for thee?”  And long before our intelligence can help us, the new-born individual survives this tremendous question by his naive faith in his elders.  We grow into society on faith, listening to all kinds of human imperatives.  Later, we stammer and stutter, nations and individuals alike, in the effort to justify our existence by responding to the call (pp. 10-11).

And so, instead of Descartes’ slogan Cogito ergo sum (“I think; therefore I am”), Rosenstock-Huessy proposes this one: Respondeo etsi mutabor (“I respond although I will be changed”).  We are never “pure thinkers,” independent of the world around us, churning out our own ideas.  Rather, we live in the world and in society and are always responding, and called to respond, even though that means that we also are always being changed, moving into new situations, becoming new people.

Again, Rosenstock-Huessy isn’t the easiest writer to read, nor is it always clear (to me, at least) exactly what he’s getting at or what the significance of what he’s saying might be.  I’ve heard that he’s worth reading, and so I’m wrestling my way through him, which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds, even when he baffles me.  (I also am an impure thinker.  I am baffled.  But bafflement is part of how God grows us toward wisdom.)

All of which leads up to this, my thankfulness that there are others who have wrestled with Rosenstock-Huessy and who can point out what I may fail to grasp.  So enough of my few quotations from one essay I probably don’t even understand.  On, if you’re interested, to Peter Leithart’s essay on “The Relevance of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy,” which may whet your appetite more than my comments.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:03 pm | Discuss (2)
June 28, 2007


Category: Theology :: Permalink

Screwtape predicts internet surfing?

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations.  As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forego (for this is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention.

You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do.  You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him.  You can make him do nothing at all for long periods.  You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.

All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”

The Christians describe the Enemy as one “without whom Nothing is strong.”  And Nothing is very strong, strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters 63-64, paragraph breaks added.)

And now … back to work!

Posted by John Barach @ 12:01 pm | Discuss (2)
June 26, 2007

Small Groups

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

Screwtape on small groups and small churches:

Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. 

Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.  We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, pp. 40-41).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:35 pm | Discuss (2)


Category: Music :: Permalink

Sinead O’Connor has just released her latest recording, which is entitled Theology.  It seems to be biblical theology, not systematic, since most of it is … wait for it … psalms, along with some stuff from Jeremiah (“Something Beautiful”), Job (“Watcher of Men”), Isaiah (“If You Had a Vineyard”), and Song of Songs (“Dark I Am Yet Lovely”).  Oh, and there’s some Curtis Mayfield, too.

Unexpected?  Well, she sang something from Psalm 91 on her first album and has included some nods to Christianity on several of her recordings since, so it isn’t a completely new direction for her.  Still, a whole album of it is a surprise and it’s a surprise to find her going so directly to the Bible.

There are two discs — the first stripped-down and acoustic, the second with a band — with basically the same material on each.  The second disc sounds more accessible to me, based on the Amazon clips.  One of the reviewers said that the second disc sounds like pop and the first sounds like prayer.

It’s not word for word from Scripture, and there are a few glitches that I can catch from the clips on Amazon.  She pronounces the “j” in “Jah” like the “j” in “jam,” instead of as a “y” sound, and that grates on me a bit.  The bad grammar in the title of “Whomsoever Dwells” is jarring.

More questionable: it sounds as if in one song she says something like “They say that you are to be feared / But I don’t believe everything I hear…,” which, of course, isn’t what Psalm 130 says.  On the other hand, what she says may be a personal response to certain ways in which God is presented and may, in that context, be correct.  But I will say that I haven’t listened to the whole song, let alone the whole album, and so in mentioning it to you, I’m not necessarily endorsing her theology.

Even if she doesn’t get everything right, it’s still surprising to see an artist like Sinead produce an album of psalms and other biblical passages.  What’s next?  A Sinead O’Connor/Jamie Soles duet album?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:26 pm | Discuss (9)
June 25, 2007


Category: Updates :: Permalink

June 25, 2004

Happy third anniversary, Moriah!

You are more precious than rubies, the Lady Wisdom who beautifies my house (Prov. 3:15; 8:11; 31:10).  “Houses and riches are an inheritance from fathers, but a prudent wife is from Yahweh” (Prov. 19:14).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:48 pm | Discuss (1)

Psalm 25

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

By David.

?    To you, Yahweh,
I lift up my soul!
?    My God, in you I trust: do not let me be shamed;
Do not let my enemies triumph over me.
?    Indeed, all who wait for you will not be shamed;
Shamed will be those who deal treacherously without cause.
?    Your ways, Yahweh, make me know!
Your paths, teach me!
?    Make me walk in your trustworthiness and teach me,
Because you are the God of my salvation;
You I have awaited all the day.
?    Remember your mercies, Yahweh, and your loyalties,
Because they are from everlasting.
?    Sins of my youth and my transgressions do not remember;
According to your loyalty remember me
Because of your goodness, Yahweh.
?    Good and upright is Yahweh;
Therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
?    He leads the afflicted in justice
And he teaches the afflicted his way.
?    All Yahweh’s paths are loyalty and trustworthiness
For those who guard his covenant and his testimonies.
?    For your name’s sake, Yahweh,
Pardon my liability, for it is great.
?    Who is the man who fears Yahweh?
He will instruct him in the way he should choose.
?    His soul will lodge in goodness,
And his seed will inherit the land.
?    The secret counsel of Yahweh is for those who fear him,
And his covenant in order to make them know.
?    My eyes are always toward Yahweh,
Because he will bring my feet out of the net.
?    Turn to me and be gracious to me,
Because lonely and afflicted am I.
?    The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
From my distresses bring me out.
?    See my affliction and my trouble
And forgive all my sins.
?    See my enemies, for they have increased,
And with violent hatred they hate me.
?    Guard my soul and deliver me.
Do not let me be shamed, for I take refuge in you.
?    Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,
Because I wait for you.
Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.

Psalm 25 is an acrostic.  Each of the twenty-two verses of this psalm starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which has twenty-two letters.  Interestingly, though, there are two anomalies.  The letter vav is missing: we’d expect it between “Make me walk” and “Remember your mercies.”  Also missing is the letter qoph, which we’d expect where we have “See my affliction.”  Instead, we have the letter resh twice (“See my afflection” and “See my enemies”).  Why these anomalies?  I have no idea.

[Update, June 10, 2011: When I first wrote this blog entry, I was able to put the Hebrew font in without a problem. Then … well, it’s become garbled. And now it’s only question marks. Someday, I’ll revisit this blog entry and try to fix that.]

Posted by John Barach @ 1:11 pm | Discuss (0)
June 22, 2007

Mowing the Glass

Category: Updates :: Permalink

I’ve been meaning to get to it for some time, but today I finally took down our Christmas lights.  To get the ones on the highest peak in the front of our house, I climbed out an upstairs window and unhooked them, only to discover that the roof was extremely hot.  (Note to self: Wear gloves next time.)

But most of the task was easy: several of the lights just flicked right off the gutters to which they had been attached.  But some were more persistent, and that’s where the trouble struck.  I found that I could flick the cord and some would jump off their hooks.  But others didn’t.  So I flicked the cord again … and two bulbs shattered against the side of the house.

I’ve managed to pick up the larger pieces (at least, the ones I saw).  I swept the porch, the front steps, and the sidewalk.  I’ve looked through the grass for more.  But how in the world do you get small pieces of glass out of the lawn?  I don’t want Moriah or Aletheia to get cut as they walk on the lawn with bare feet.  But if I take the vacuum cleaner out, I think the neighbors might stare.

Any suggestions?

Posted by John Barach @ 11:39 am | Discuss (6)
June 21, 2007

Family Camp

Category: Literature,Updates :: Permalink

Last week, Moriah and I attended Reformation Covenant Church‘s annual family camp on the Oregon coast near Rockaway Beach.  We arrived Sunday evening and returned home again Saturday.

The speaker this year was Peter Leithart, who gave a series of lectures on prayer.  In the first, he told us that he had only two things to say all week: (1) Pray, and (2) Pray according to the Scriptures.  But of course that last exhortation was the one that we often need unpacked more, which he proceeded to do, showing us some things in the Scriptures that ought not only to encourage us to pray but also to shape our prayers.

For instance, he spent part of one lecture dealing with whether we are righteous.  James says that the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much, but, some say, we aren’t righteous.  We’re miserable sinners.  Leithart strongly emphasized that in Christ we are righteous and, more than that, that God is changing us to be faithful and righteous.  This promise in James isn’t only for specially holy people; it’s meant to comfort all of us and move us to pray fervently.

A couple of the lectures dealt with the imprecatory prayers in Scripture and with the authority of believers and of the church to pass the sorts of judgments contained in the imprecatory psalms.  Other lectures covered such matters as unanswered prayers and the relationship between personal prayer and corporate liturgical prayer.  The lectures are available from Reformation Covenant Church.

I very much like the camp’s schedule.  There was a lecture in chapel in the morning and one in the evening, both begun with some very enthusiastic and beautiful singing led by Mark Reagan from Moscow, Idaho, who taught us several songs, some of which he himself composed.  But the rest of the day was basically free.  There were games and competitions.  Some people went to the beach.  Some sat and read.  Almost every evening there was a campfire, one evening there was a ball, and the final evening was the talent night.  I’d highly recommend this camp to you.

We greatly enjoyed spending time with some old friends and meeting some new ones.

During the camp, I finished up Gene Wolfe’s magnificent The Wizard, which is the second volume of his two-volume novel The Wizard Knight.  The ending, as if often the case with Wolfe’s books, made me want to start reading the novel from the beginning all over again, looking for clues I’d missed and trying to figure out some of the stuff that I didn’t catch the first time.

I also read a good chunk of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I highly recommend, not only for the main story, which is about a literature prof in Iran during the Islamic revolution, but also for its discussion of several novels, including Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice.  She made me want to read the books she was discussing.  I especially appreciated her approach to Pride and Prejudice, treating it as a sort of dance, where the characters draw together and then apart in various combinations.

I also started read Brendan O’Donnell’s Rain from a Rainless Sky: A Work of Theological Botany.  Brendan is a friend of mine and this book was his dissertation at New St. Andrews College.

I had heard some time ago that Brendan was doing his dissertation on sagebrush, and sagebrush is indeed what this book is about.  But it’s also about the symbolism of the world God has created and why God, who spoke the world into existence, has created “words” like sagebrush and places such as the desert of western Washington.  It’s about apostasy, and how thorns and thistles can grow in the church and choke out life.  It’s about the history of Israel and the coming of Jesus.  It’s about Gene Robinson, the homosexual bishop of New Hampshire, and about Peter Akinola, the bishop of Nigeria. 

Brendan writes well.  He makes you smell and feel and perhaps even taste the sagebrush, nor does he rush to give you answers or the finished results of his meditations on why there is such a thing as sagebrush.  He makes you share his quest and his questions.  Would that there were more such books.

And now that I’m home, by the way, I’m reading N. D. Wilson’s Leepike Ridge, which is a very fun young adults adventure story.  C’mon: Buy a copy and let’s cataput Nate into teenage stardom (albeit a bit late).

Posted by John Barach @ 11:49 am | Discuss (0)
June 19, 2007

Screwtape on Prayer

Category: Prayer,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Glancing through The Screwtape Letters, I realize that my temptation is to quote large sections.  For instance, the third letter, in which Screwtape instructs Wormwood on how to mess up the patient’s relationship with his mother, is worth reading and re-reading but I’m not going to quote the whole thing here.  But I will quote a couple things from later letters.

And so here’s Screwtape on prayer:

The best thing, wehre it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether.  When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.  In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part….

At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls….

If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention.  Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so.  The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him toward themselves.  Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills.  When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing.  When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave.  When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven.  Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment (pp. 24-26; I’ve added a paragraph break).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:13 pm | Discuss (1)
June 18, 2007

Psalm 24

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

By David.
A psalm.

Yahweh’s is the earth and her fulness,
The world and those who dwell in her,
Because he himself founded her upon the seas,
And upon the rivers he established her.

Who may ascend to Yahweh’s mountain?
And who may stand in his holy place?
The clean of hands and pure of heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to vanity,
And has not sworn to falsehood.
He will receive a blessing from Yahweh
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
This is the generation of those who seek him,
Who seek your face — Jacob. Selah.

Lift up your heads, O gates,
And be lifted up, O everlasting doors,
And the king of glory will come in!
Who is this king of glory?
Yahweh, strong and mighty!
Yahweh, mighty in battle!

Lift up your heads, O gates,
And lift them up, you everlasting doors,
And the king of glory will come in!

Who is this king of glory?
Yahweh of hosts!
He is the king of glory! Selah.

The end of the second stanza is interesting: “Jacob.”  Jacob is the man who can ascend Yahweh’s mountain and stand in his holy place.  But Jacob here is corporate: the generation of whose who seek Yahweh’s face.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:37 pm | Discuss (0)
June 9, 2007


Category: Marriage,Theology :: Permalink

More wisdom from Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in the form of advice from a senior devil writing to a junior tempter whose “patient” has just become a Christian:

Work hard … on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.  The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour.  It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek.  It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together.  In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.

The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His “free” lovers and servants — “sons” is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liasons with the two-legged animals.  Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to “do it on their own.”

And there lies our opportunity.  But also, remember, there lies our danger.  If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt (pp. 17-18; I’ve added paragraph breaks).

Let me first quibble with a couple things in this quotation.  While I understand what Lewis is saying about getting past dependence on emotion, I’m a little leary about Lewis’s love of reason, which shows up strongly in the first letter here, and his perhaps related distrust of emotion.  Even when we persevere in the face of dryness, it seems to me that emotion is still involved, not least the emotion we associate with a longing for joy and a memory of past joy.

I’ll quibble also with Lewis’s emphasis on freedom.  It’s not just freedom God is after, it seems to me.  It’s maturity.  God allows the disappointment and dryness at the outset of our endeavours because he wants us to grow to maturity.  Children have decisions made for them.  They are carried from place to place.  When the chair they’re trying to climb into is too high for them, someone picks them up and puts them into it.  Grown-ups generally have to get into their own chairs, make their own decisions, and so forth.  And God’s goal for us is that we be mature, that we be grown-up.

To that end, He makes life puzzling, so puzzling we just have to give up trying to figure it all out and go and eat and drink and be merry because God has already accepted our works, as Ecclesiastes says.  And to that end, God also allows life to be a vapor so that the great art works of the past decay, so that we lose many of Bach’s great compositions, so that great architecture crumbles and buildings fall down, and things we love change.  That would likely have been the case even apart from the Fall.

Quibbles aside, what struck me as so important about the phenomenon Screwtape mentions here is that it often goes unnoticed.  Well, we all notice it.  We all notice that the job we thought we’d love rapidly becomes drudgery.  As Alexander Schmemann has said, “Every job which has had three Mondays in its history already becomes meaningless, or at least to some extent oppressive.”

We notice that, but we don’t notice it as a general phenomenon.  We feel the disappointment, the dryness, when we buckle down to doing our new job, the job we thought we’d love.  We feel it, as Lewis says, when we get married and start learning to love each other in that new situation.  We feel it sometimes even when we finally start reading a book we’d been hoping to get to for some time.  And we feel it, as Screwtape points out, when we become Christians and start attending church.

We feel it, but we don’t say to ourselves, “Hey, that’s how it is with everything in life.  The initial excitement wears off and we go through a dry period or a series of dry periods.”  Instead, we act as if this disappointment and dryness are surprising (“Oh, no!  What’s happening?  This isn’t what I expected”) and that gives the devil a foothold.

Now if only I could remember all of this the next time it happens.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:44 am | Discuss (1)
June 8, 2007

Surveillance & Torture

Category: Television :: Permalink

For the past couple of days, I’ve been blogging about my reactions to Alias, as well as to 24 and Lost.  I’d been planning to blog about these things for some time, and in particular about the topic of torture, but I discovered that my friend and former elder Dale Callahan beat me to it.  So you can read his blog or you can just keep reading mine ’cause I’m going to steal some of what he said and run with it.

Spoiler alert: If you plan to watch any of these shows, you’ll probably want to stop reading at this point.

I hadn’t thought about it a lot until I read Dale’s blog entry, but I had noticed in several episodes of Alias that the CIA guys were able to track people and find their location by using all kinds of surveillance equipment.  Somehow, their computers were able to tap into ATM cameras and cameras on traffic lights and security cameras and satellite cameras.  A guy would detect the bug they planted on him and throw it away, but they’d find him almost instantly, thanks to Marshall’s computer geek genius, by using one of these cameras.

Now I recognize that a lot of this is science fiction.  Alias, after all, was a science fiction show, whether its fans recognized it as such or not.  What else was all that Rambaldi stuff if not science fiction bordering on fantasy?  And the fact that they could download things from the villains’ computers in just a few minutes and never have the computer hang up with a little hourglass on the screen the way mine does so often — what was that if not sheer science fiction?  (And did you ever notice that computer screens on TV never look the way they do in real life?  The font is always huge so that you, the viewer, can read it.)

But this surveillance stuff is also science fiction, I think.  I don’t believe that the CIA or anyone else can track people quite as well as they did on Alias.  At least … I hope they can’t, though Google Maps Street View is causing some people some concern.

And there’s the rub.  As we watch the show, we’re supposed to be glad that such technology exists.  It helps people catch criminals, right?  It helps APO find the guys who’ve kidnapped Sydney.  We want the good guys to be able to track the bad guys.

But at what cost?  At the cost of the loss of privacy for countless people?  After watching a show like Alias, it’s not too hard for me to imagine face recognition software associated with a surveillance system installed in a home.  Of course, the technology would be expensive at first, but maybe not forever.  Cameras in your house would survey everything in the home, maybe sending images to a security company’s big computer where the face-recognition program would verify that the person in the house was you or your wife or your son or an authorized guest … or someone the system didn’t know.  It would store all those images, and then if you reported that something had been stolen while you were out, the system would spit out the images of everyone who was in the house during the time of the robbery.

Sounds great, right?  If a study showed that such a system reduced home invasions significantly, would you want one?  Maybe some people would.  I, on the other hand, wouldn’t want cameras taking pictures of me and my family and sending them to other people, no matter how “safe” it would make my house.  I want to preserve my privacy, not just my possessions.

But shows like Alias, I suspect, may be getting us used to the idea of constant surveillance.  We no longer flinch when we hear about traffic cameras on street lights.  The fact that our picture is being taken at an ATM or that we’re being videotaped by a store’s security camera doesn’t phase us at all anymore.

In short, we’re learning to live without the privacy that previous generations took for granted, not because someone is trying to persuade us that such privacy is bad and that constant surveillance is good but because our entertainment shows us the benefits of that surveillance in terms of the show we’re watching.  We know the guys in that car are bad because they just kidnapped the main character and so they don’t have the right to privacy.  But the technology that would take away theirs so that they can be caught also takes away ours.

In his blog entry, Dale also talks about torture and that’s what has bothered me for some time about Lost, 24, and, most recently for me, Alias.  When Sayid, who used to be a torturer, plied his trade on Sawyer in the first season of Lost, it was disturbing, not only to me but also to Sayid himself who didn’t want to go back to the evil he had left behind.  But by the second season, Sayid seemed to overcome those qualms.  And he wasn’t alone.  Others joined him in tormenting a man whom they thought was one of “the Others,” but who claimed to be an innocent man stranded, like them, on the island. 

And never mind what the outcome was.  It’s not as if torture becomes wrong only at the point when you discover you’re torturing an innocent person, nor is it the case that torture becomes justified if you discover the person you’re torturing really is guilty.  On Lost, they didn’t know if the man was guilty or not but they tortured him anyway.  And even if he had been one of “the Others,” what crime had he committed to warrant the torture?

But torture is relatively rare on Lost.  It’s common in Alias and 24.  Time and again, the good guys want or need information from someone and so they torture him to get it.  Never mind that people who are being tortured have been known to lie to escape from pain and that torture is not necessarily a reliable means for extracting truth, in these shows the quick way to get accurate information is by torturing someone.  The need (or desire) for that information overrides the person’s rights — he gets no phone call, no lawyer, no trial — and appears to justify any outrage that the “good guy” perpetrates.

“But,” you might say, “the guy being tortured really is guilty!  Weren’t you watching?  He’s the guy who kidnapped the girl and she’s buried alive and unless they get him to tell them where she is, she’ll die!”

Yeah, you know that.  But Jack Bauer doesn’t.  As Dale Callahan points out,

One of the subtle tricks that television plays on us is that it gives the viewer a type of divinity.

We watch the behind the scenes “dirty stuff” that even the characters in the show are not privy to. This means that “we” know that the dirt bag in the back room is guilty…we saw him in the last episode planning to plant the bomb or whatever slime ball activity he was doing…so when we see the torture instruments getting pulled out…we tend to justify it…because…hey the guy is guilty…right?

But in the eyes of Jack Bauer…or the other CTU agents…they didn’t see the guy planning…they are just assuming his guilt…and violating his rights as a U.S citizen…as most of the viewers [many who are U.S citizens] nod their heads in approval…

But what about the fact that the torture leads to the rescue of many people who might otherwise have died?

First, I doubt that people who are being tortured in those kinds of circumstances always blurt out the truth, so that information extracted through torture isn’t necessarily reliable.  If the guy tells you where the person he buried alive is located, you’ll stop torturing him.  But you’ll stop if he lies, too, at least until you find out that he lies.  But by then, it’s probably too late.

Or do you keep torturing him for a while, to see if his story stays consistent?  What if he was telling the truth all along?  Does the concern to make sure he’s telling the truth justify the prolonged torture after he blurted out the location?

Second, but even more importantly, this argument boils down to a claim that the end justifies the means.  The torture, the argument is saying, is valid because it leads to something that we, the viewers of the show, think is good.  But ends don’t justify means.  Sin is not legitimate if it leads to something genuinely good.  If you commit adultery with someone’s wife and she reveals to you her plot to murder him and so you’re able to rescue him, the adultery is still sin, no matter how much good comes out of it.

And where do you draw the line?  I don’t know how much torture I’d be able to take.  As William Cavanaugh says, “It should be clear that resistance to torture and refusal to talk belong almost exclusively to the realm of movies and cheap novels, not to the modern reality of the secret police apparatus” (Torture and Eucharist, p. 38n48).  Everybody talks.

But even if I could hold out if someone tortured me, would I hold out if someone threatened to torture my wife or daughter?  Suppose the kidnapper who has the girl buried alive could hold out for three hours before talking.  By then, the girl might be dead.  Would it be legitimate to torture the man’s wife or child to get him to talk right now so that the girl could be rescued? 

Or what about the technique used by the character Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, who solves crimes by going to a seedy bar where criminal types hang out and starts breaking fingers until someone talks, confessing guilt, revealing important information, passing on a story he heard, or naming someone who might know more.  Is it a big leap from Rorschach to Jack Bauer?

The kind of surveillance presented in Alias and 24 is still, I think, science fiction.  At least, I hope it is.  And even if the technology develops, not everyone can access it as quickly as Marshall does in Alias.  But the more we see it on these sorts of shows, the more we may become used to the idea of being under constant (potential) surveillance.

But unlike this sophisticated surveillance, the kind of torture we’re being led to approve in these shows has been going on for a long time, and not just among the people we’re expected to think of as “bad guys.”  Even back in the 1960s, the United States had men such as Dan Mitrione training the Brazilian miltary regime in torture, “using beggars taken off the streets as his subjects” (Cavanaugh 24n5).  I don’t know if everything in this Wikipedia article is accurate, but it’s extremely disturbing.  There’s been an outcry about the kinds of torture practiced in places like Abu Ghraib.  We may be disgusted by the reports we hear.

But on our televisions, Jack Bauer and Jack Bristow and others whom we treat as heroes practice torture and we are expected to approve it because it gets the job done, because someone we care about is rescued as a result, because the good end is supposed to justify whatever means brought it about.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I’ve recommended 24 to people.  I haven’t seen any of the recent seasons, but I can imagine enjoying a lot of things in them.  I’ve enjoyed many episodes of Alias.  But I’m disturbed by the subtle endorsements of evil and what Dale calls the “mental conditioning” in these shows.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:39 pm | Discuss (8)