Unspeakable: Facing Up To Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror by Os Guinness

Sometimes in my monthly column I am trying to describe a book by an author whose previous work has been particularly important. Friends of Hearts & Minds who follow this column or know our tastes may be fully aware how significant we find a certain writer to be. Those who read reviews in the same places we do–Books & Culture or Christian Scholar’s Review, say, or Weavings, Critique or The Christian Century or Reformation & Revival, or Ken Meyer’s Mars Hill Audio Journal or Sojourners—-may also note that we stock many of the books they discuss.

Still it is our sense that we have the exciting job to promote quality reading, suggest authors who, sadly, many folks may not read. It is our hope to expand the readership of some great, great authors. (Look for our new fiction list coming in a month or so—we’re still playfully arguing about what must be mentioned.) The author of this month’s featured book is one of these–a writer who we think is important and who ought to be better known that he is. Hearts & Minds was privileged to host him for a lecture April 8th, in fact. We hope you come to appreciate Dr. Os Guinness.

Few authors over the longer haul of their career have affected me as much as Os Guinness, the author of the brand new Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror (Harper SanFrancisco; $21.95.) His name comes up regularly in these columns and I have written in detail about his work and in his impact on my own life. (Click here
for a review of an earlier Guinness book, but please don’t forget to come back to this month’s column!) Also, you could click here for a review of his previous book, Prophetic Untimeliness.) If these reflections convince you of his insight and eloquence, you may want to order the audio CD of his talks based on what is surely one of our all time best sellers and most-often recommended books, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling Your Central Purpose in Life. The book on CD, which is actually Os delivering live lectures, are impeccably spoken and are fabulous to listen to over and over again. Because we don’t hear such visionary stuff, it is, in fact, recommended to give it repeated hearings. Or give it to others who may be attracted to this kind of an expression of faith–articulate, intelligent, charming and well-rooted in classic stories of literature, heroic politicians or artists. This isn’t scholarly or academic treatise but neither it is pabulum or sentimental.

Dr. Guinness is not the only author who reminds us of the great sage’s adage about the importance of the “examined life.” But he regularly holds to the fire the feet of those who may need to be challenged to think a bit harder, ponder a bit longer, reflect a bit more deeply. (Ahh, the busy-ness of our times, as Guinness himself has written so clearly in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, often makes it truly difficult for us to be the kind of deep people we know we ought to be. The pressures of the modern way of life just seem to gravitate against the nurturing of the heart or mind!) Still, Guinness soldiers on. Speaking, writing, teaching, networking those who may desire a kind of godliness that takes the life of the mind and the nature of culture seriously. We are exceptionally grateful for his witness and his supportive friendship.

This new book, though, Unspeakable, is a major work, and one that bears the mark of his own life experiences and struggles. Not only is it obvious that for those who want to offer a thoughtful Christian response to our time, we must tackle the problem of evil; it becomes evident that this is a matter than has haunted Guinness for his lifetime. He has seen more brutalities up close than most of us. Be assured he does not glory in his brushes with the horrific and at no times is lurid or sensational. But he surely has “earned the right” to speak to this topic he deserves our careful attention.

Guinness here chronicles a bit of the stuff he’s seen, matters that he has alluded to in other books, but never described in detail. His family lived in the midst of a horrible famine in China in the winter of 1943. Os, as a young lad, faced brutal persecution, not unlike his grandparents a generation before–who survived the slaughter of the Boxer Rebellion, once escaping by hiding in an attic as they were hunted (the murderous mob thought one building was haunted, so they didn’t burn it as they did the others and the Guinness’ missionaries were saved.) Living, as they did in the era after the spectacularly evil rape of Nanking (the Japanese plunder of China) and amidst the Maoist repression, the Guinness’ saw unmitigated horror up close. He writes,

As the long, slow, silent nightmare unfolded, my two brothers died, too. Weakened by malnutrition and racked by dysentery, one succumbed among the five million dead in the famine, and the other among the twenty million victims of the invasion. My younger brother was buried on the eve of our setting out on the long trek on foot to India and safety. I was on the verge of death too, several times, as was my mother. But somehow we survived, made it across China, over the Himalayas, and lived to tell a tale as awful as any my parents ever experienced.

Although Os is more personally revealing in this book than in any other, he isn’t autobiographical. It is an invitation to think through what we believe and why and to work out the implications of a Christian worldview for a troubled and troubling world situation. To examine the various answers proposed for the question of evil, to reflect on a Biblically-tenable approach, and to apply such an approach to both our personal and public lives is the project of Unspeakable. The subtitle clearly explains the undertaking: Facing Up To Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror.

After noting that he was in Manhattan on September 11th 2001 preparing to lead a group through a collection of readings on the problem of evil, Guinness reminds us that evil hits us all—from serious natural disasters and brutally repressive governments, to the ordinariness of mundane pain, personal hurts and betrayals, and the ubiquitous diseases and accidents.

Needless to say, these issues and questions are far older and have far wider application than the events of September 11. For one thing, while thousands died at Ground Zero, thousands of others across New York and hundreds of thousands across the world also died that day—of cancer, stroke, hunger, accidents, murder, AIDS, suicide, and for many other tragic reasons, not to mention old age. Each of these deaths was accompanied by its own grieving family and friends, and each was a dire event that, for them as individuals, was as bad as the terrorist strike for the United States as a whole.

If evil, systemic and personal, corporate and private, is a prevalent and inescapable fact of life, it is all the more urgent to understand its blunt force and how to sustain meaningful lives in its face. Especially since, as Guinness shows, the scale and scope of evil has been increasingly in modern times with a parallel decreasing ability to respond adequately. Modern people need to overcome the “chronic inability to name and judge evil and respond effectively.” This is, as I hope you see, a very important topic, and a very important book.

Unspeakable is arranged helpfully around seven basic questions that Guinness has developed to help us think about evil in the modern world. He walks us through these thickets of complex and painful matters as only a good teacher can. That is, it is clear that he has worked through (indeed, walked through) these questions himself. This is clearly not an abstract or dry treatise, but a hugely urgent and altogether personal concern. And yet, it does not trivialize or be sentimental about life’s sadnesses. Again, early on, Guinness nicely lays out these operating principles:

As far as possible, our exploration together should honor two principles. One is the importance of reason and thinking in wrestling with the issues and choices. Limited though the reach of reason may be, this is the heart of coming to terms with evil and making sense of it. The very outline of these seven questions represents an invitation to explore with open minds and indicates the points at which each of us must make choices and decisions.

The other is the principle of respect in dealing with the diverse opinions and conclusions of others. One of the plainest lessons of today’s multi-splendored diversity is that it is a cardinal error to believe that if we are nice enough to each other, and keep talking to each other long enough, we will reach the common core of all our beliefs. No one has ever found the common core—except as an article of their own particular belief. In contrast, I unashamedly make three arguments throughout this book: that there are important differences between he various answers to evil; that these differences make a difference; and that the differences make a difference no only for individuals but for societies.

He continues, then, in a way that is quintessentially Guinness. He says, “At the same time we must never lose sight of the fact that how we live with our deepest differences is a mark of our humanity and civility. Dr. Guinness is a serious follower of Jesus of Nazareth, so he stands openly in that tradition and within the context of those answers. Yet, as he says of his own views, “I am no extremist or fanatic, and my own friends and discussions include many people from a wide variety of other faiths and philosophies, some of whom are believers, some seekers, and some skeptics.” For those that want his take on this in a broader, more sweeping fashion, see his wonderful survey of worldviews and world religions and the invitation to faith in The Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search for the Meaning In Life. This book, in fact, raises the question of how various “families of faiths” respond to the reality of human suffering. It is a marvelously thoughtful, engaging, generous and yet clear-headed invitation to consider which worldviews really have the capacity to stand up to the big questions of life.

Please don’t think that the seven questions, around which Unspeakable is shaped, philosophical-sounding as they may seem, make for a boring read. Some of it is quite riveting. Not only does Guinness know the philosophical and literary works, scientists and biographies, he, as we’ve noted above, shares some of his own life struggles. As he so often can, he weaves astute philosophical reflection with plenty of quotes and illustrations. It is demanding, but accessible, serious yet very interesting. (And, yes, there are a few wonderful Winston Churchill anecdotes.)

For instance, he starts the powerful chapter “Where’s God?” this ingenious way:

On the wall of my study, behind me as I write, are signed portraits and photographs of many of my heroes, including the great reformer William Wilberforce, the scintillating and prolific writer G.K. Chesterton, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill flashing his signature V sign. One of the most arresting is a photo of Elie Wiesel, next to which is a signed page from his searing essay on Auschwitz, Night. The photo was taken in his study in Manhattan when I interviewed him for a documentary, and almost invariably it sparks comments from friends, even from those who do not know who he is or do not recognize him from his photo.

With his slightly craggy features and his half-disheveled hair, it is easy to see Elie Wiesel in the photo as the prophet of the death camp survivors and a leading witness to twentieth-century evil. But it is his eyes that make people pause. Dark, intense, visionary, they are looking into the distance, indifferent to the customary niceties of smiling vacantly for the photographer. Yet they draw you in, as if challenging you to see what he has seen and to see through the surface of things to their depth.

Those who know Night can imagine what comes next. Wiesel asks one of the hardest questions of our time: where is God in the horror of the death camps. Guinness does not settle for too easy answers, nor does he wallow in nihilism. It is a thought-provoking and moving chapter, to be sure. Later, Guinness engages us with the great story of the odd and meaningful friendship of Dr. Boris Kornfield and his gulag patient, the now-famous Alexander Sozlhenitsyn. “The night the two men met was a key link in the grand chain of events that shaped the twentieth century, though the links that led to their meeting are unknown, the place they met was uncongenial, and they themselves were unlikely prospects to have any chance to change their world, let alone the wider world.” The Jewish doctor Kornfield took his stand against the brutalities of the Soviet gulag and paid for it with his life; he did not survive the night he witnessed to Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenistsyn, of course, went on to win award after award and his prophetic call to the West helped shape the ethos and values of those who stood against communism at the end of the twenties century. The core truth–expressed famously by the beloved Chesterton, too, by the way—is the title of the chapter: “The Problem With the World Is Me.”

One of the chapters (“Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil”) was one of my favorites and I think exceptionally important. It starts with a riveting description of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his work with the testing of the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, July 16, 1945. Guinness writes, “He was so tense that he hardly seemed to be breathing. All the concerted energies of some of the world’s most brilliant minds had finally come to fruition, and it had come down to this. What happened next could be as heavy with promise and peril for the future of the world as any moment in history. As the last seconds ticked away, he found all eyes trained on him, just as all the decisions, burdens, and inspiration had looked to him throughout the entire project”¦.” Lord,” he exclaimed to a colleague, “these affairs are hard on the heart.” After the rumbling roar of the explosion, it was left to Oppenheimer to quote the dark Hindu god of death, Shiva, “the destroyer of worlds.” Guinness here offers critical reflections on detachment in the modern world, the magnification of evil, the dehumanization that allows ordinary people to be complicity in terrible matters. After citing Primo Levi’s observation about Auschwitz (“Monsters exits, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions) Guinness notes: “Modern processes come with specious neutrality that disengages ethics and discourages personal virtue as irrelevant.” To be reminded of this privatization of ethics and faith is worth the price of the book, and I hope many ponder this chapter carefully. Guinness is no mushy pacifist and, although he quotes the insightful Orwell, has no sympathies for the socialist left. Yet, few conservatives have neither the breadth of insight nor the social critique that allows Os to be so very wise, so radical, in his call to non-ideological integrity.

Last month in this column we reviewed two important new books that call for political activism. Jim Wallis’ popular God’s Politics has gotten much press and we are glad. Gary Haugen’s riveting Terrify No More has also been well reviewed and his dramatic rescue work freeing child prostitutes, sweat-shop slaves and resisting that sort of pervasive evil has been the subject of several good TV reports. We hope study groups, citizen’s action committees, reading clubs and Sunday School classes tackle these bold calls to reverse which Ron Sider, in his recent little powerhouse book, has called The Scandal of the Evangelical Social Conscience.

But, quick on the heels of such robust citizenship manifestos, let us ponder the even bigger questions. As the back cover of Unspeakable shouts, “We can’t fight what we don’t understand.” As a CBS producer from 60 Minutes has said, “Os Guinness offers a brilliant map to help us navigate and confront the difficult landscape of modern life and modern evil.” Or, as human rights leader, the prestigious Baroness Caroline Cox has written, “This is a “must read” for anyone who wishes to explore the most fundamental questions confronting us all. Guinness challenges us to face the “unspeakable”: to acknowledge and to examine the depths of human suffering and man’s brutality. If we persevere and travel with the author on his journeys into the heart of darkness, we will find light and hope.”

Light and hope. Yes, that is what we finally need. Of course philosophy majors, theologians, preachers and counselors especially need to hammer out answers to the kind of questions Unspeakable raises. Political reformers and social activists will have to come to grips with it all. (Even filmgoers, who, these days, are confronted with some amazing Hollywood studies of human depravity, need to determine which approach, as they say, holds water.) But, as we have said earlier, and as this book insists, sooner or later, everyone, everywhere, must come to grips with the problem of pain, the questions of evil, the facts of our falleness. The popularity of books that deal with this—Philip Yancey’s very good ones, C. S. Lewis, of course, Joni Eareckson Tada, John Claypool, Thomas Lynch and Gerald Sittser, and a host of others—proves that we all need resources, guides, support, understanding and consolation. Guinness now joins that company of writers who think deeply about these very deep matters of the heart.

Alongside the sympathetic guides through grief and tears, we must ask the deeper “why?” And we must, where we can, take a stand against evil. I was thrilled by the last several chapters of Unspeakable as he tells of reformers and activists who serve as heroic models. “Like an active volcano,” Guinness writes, “this same tradition [referring to the Biblical call for justice] has erupted repeatedly down the centuries.” He highlights an impressive list of those who thundered out for social change, who said “no” and who took their stand. He tells of John Chrysostom who castigated the careless wealthy in Constantinople and of Telemachus (who bravely cried out against the murder of gladiators, was stoned by the furious crowd who, in remorse, subsequently banned the games where three-quarter a million died to serve the Roman bloodlust.) Early Dominican priests challenged (as early as 1511) the Spanish exploitation of Indians and of course he tells of Edmund Burke, who protested to the House of Commons about the British rape and pillage in colonized India. William Wilberforce is one of Os’ favorite heroes, so of course he is mentioned. And on the stories go, giving us examples of those who lived by light and hope. It is no wonder that philosopher/theologian Dallas Willard calls this book “a great accomplishment.” Who will not be moved by great paragraphs such as this?

Our challenge today is not to resort to faith as a crutch because reason has stumbled, but rather to acknowledge that reason, in its’ long, arduous search, has come up short and that where it has stopped it has pointed beyond itself to answers that only faith can fulfill. In the face of the horror of the unspeakable, only such faith can provide the best truths to come to terms with evil, the highest courage to resist evil, the deepest love to care for those caught in its toils, and the profoundest hope of the prospect of a world beyond evil, beyond hatred, beyond oppression, and even beyond tears.”

“As ever,” Guinness concludes, “the choice is ours, and so also will be the consequences.”

* * * *

Share the Well Cademon’s Call (Provident Music Group) $17.98

Anyone concerned about social justice in our world and who likes contemporary Christian music should know about Share the Well. The very cool band Caedmon’s Call has an absolutely unprecedented album which they released recently, which we think is one of the most important records to come out in ages. Many of the good CCM bands do Compassion International or World Vision trips and stand as sponsors of adopting a third world child. Yet few have allowed their short-term mission trips to actually color their writing or music. Caedman’s, though, has given us an album to rival Paul Simon’s historic Graceland session. Their trip to India put them in touch with Indian musicians and rhythms and their visit to Ecuador allowed South American tempos and textures to influence them. Still a beautiful and at times rollicking rock album, their impressionistic observations about traveling through the two-thirds world and their awareness of injustices and indignities make their way into the fine writing.

After a brief interview with an Indian pastor about the plight of the ethnically oppressed and untouchable Dalits, the album kicks into a beautiful tune inviting those who have been taught to think of themselves as lower caste to rise up. And the powerful last song–a pleading protest song sung to the Prime Minister to “free the Dalits—may be the only CCM composition of its kind. Share the Well is interactive, with video footage, good liner notes and some suggestions on how to get involved in international mission and human rights work. Look out, Bono: these folkie youngsters are doing it right; listening to the voices of their hosts, allowing their agony to shape their worldviews, and, having some cross-cultural fun jamming with indigenous musicians. And they even poke some pleasant fun at themselves–a lead vocalist sings about wanting to meet the mother of a young friend he’s meet, saying, “she’s so indigenously dressed, so indigenously dressed.” Yep, we Westerners have got to learn some stuff. This album will go a long way to get us to see things just a bit differently. Order it today.

A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out To God in The Lost Language of Lament Michael Card (NavPress) $ 13.99

Voicing God’s Psalms Calvin Seerveld (Eerdmans) $20.00

Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square edited by Sally Brown & Patrick Miller (Westminister/John Knox) $24.95

Christian folk singer Michael Card is very bright, a caring, caring man, and a good writer. In the opening pages of his important new book he says that after 9-11 he got a letter from Calvin Seerveld who noted that churches may have “praise teams” but none have “lament teams.” He challenged Card to write the kind of hymns or songs that we might sing during a time of national tragedy. Sacred Sorrow is a remarkable and very readable book and may be the best thing we’ve seen on how crying out to God is a legitimate and important form of worship. In a solid preface, Eugene Peterson tells of weeping while officiating as a preacher at his mother’s funeral, and the less than helpful comments made afterwards, giving the reader a practical reminder of how important this kind of a book surely is. Complaint is a very Biblical notion and Card plumbs it well and has given us an amazing book that we believe will touch many people’s lives. There is a useful study guide, too, that is available.

Calvin Seerveld’s other stunning books on the arts or on how to read the Bible, are always raved about here. He has for decades called for a solid, theologically rich and slightly eccentric/imaginative take on the Bible’s promises and fulfillments. He has just released in a very handsome edition a collection of Psalms, Voicing God’s Psalms, that is a new translation of a handful of Psalms (including some laments) and then a re-writing of them to fit metered singing. That is, we can, as the churches of old, sing the Psalms. This is fabulous for personal devotions, for small group use or for congregational singing. Included in this exceptional package are two fine and worthy essays by Cal and a CD that illustrates how these readings can sound, with Cal accompanied with various kinds of simple instrumentation. A lament, for instance, is preformed along with a blues-jazz accompaniment. This is an amazing and rare find and we are happy to recommend it. Peterson, no stranger to the Psalms or Bible translation, says that this is “A simply remarkable recovery, vigorous and engaging”¦giving us “ËœGod talking live.'”

Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square edited by Brown & Miller is a scholarly collection, again, unlike anything of which we are familiar. All of the contributors are faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary, so there is an interesting high regard for scholarship and some kind of orthodoxy, yet most are a bit edgy and not the most typical evangelical party line. With topics as unique as “Nervous Laughter: Lament, Death Anxiety and Humor” by Donald Capps to “Woes of Captive Women: From Lament to Defiance in Times of War” this is a wide-ranging volume. Some of the essays are sharp and serious on foundational views of lament as prayer and Jesus’ own cry as the basis for our own. Other chapters are pastoral, some provocative. Many are helpful and clear, such as Ellen Charry’s finely tuned “May We Trust God and (Still) Lament? Can We Lament and (Still) Trust God?” This is an important resource and a fine collection. Kudos to the editors for what will be seen as a major contribution to the field.