30 October 2006

A Good War is Hard to Find

One evening last week I stopped at a local mega-bookstore to read for a while in between my office and the more or less constant prospect of domestic disharmony. It is a shame that these logo bookstores are among the only places to sit and read in this town; there are few decent coffee shops and none even vaguely on the route home from my office. At one point I got up and headed upstairs to see if there were new additions in the photography or philosophy sections (conveniently located adjacent to one another). On the way I spied an excellent new book by David Griffith A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press).

This is the sort of book I aspire to write. I couldn't write this book because, unlike Griffith, whose Catholicism informs his very personal reflections on American culture and politics, my own is very much lapsed, beaten out of me by the humiliations and hypocrisies of nine years in parochial schools.

Griffith is a writer and a teacher. On the evidence here, his students are very lucky to have him. He himself is deeply endebted to Southern writers Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and, especially, Flannery O'Connor. (Griffith's title is a reference to a story by O'Connor.) His writings here almost all have an autobiographical theme and almost all revolve around images of violence and particularly the images of torture from Abu Ghraib. His diagnosis of what led American servicemen and servicewomen to engage in torture and to photograph their crimes departs markedly from the moralism of Sontag for whom the bahavior reflects our pornographic culture. It departs even more from the sort of social psychological pronouncements about a few "bad apples" that we hear from apologists for Bush administration policy. Griffith inists that "moral and psychological interpretations of the scandal - usually in the service of ideology - fall short. There's another tragic, spiritual sense in which to understand the disturbing images of Abu Ghraib, a view formed by notions of innocence, sin and grace." He explores this alternative with considerable ethical insight. (I espsecially learned from his discussion of the grotesque.)

I find Griffith's stance in many ways persuasive, but also remain deeply skeptical. He repeatedly chastises Americans for mis-understanding or mis-interpreting what it means to inhabit a "Christian Nation." He at several points calls attention to the literal ignorance of American Chirstians, many of whom when questioned cannot, for instance, name the ten commandments. But I find this narrative of authentic Christianity despoiled by those who are inattentive to or ignorant of its teachings too easy. Here is Griffith: "Nations cannot be Christian, only individuals. And while it may be true that all those who believe in Christ are united in one body, they quickly find themselves at odds with one another, divided by those things that belong to Caesar." The problem for me is that the differences in political and social outlook among various sorts of American Christian cannot be attrbuted simply to the distractions of this world - as though there would not be differences in interpretation and doctrine absent such factors. Any cultural system (of which a religion is one variety) will be contested and contestable for all sorts of internal reasons. Such differences, it seems to me, invariably will play themselves out in politics.

Griffith's argument is thought provoking and he presents it in graceful prose and modest tone. Moreover the book is extremely well designed. Griffith collaborated with graphic designer Brett Yasko to produce a truly affecting volume. As I said, this is the kind of book I aspire to write.

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Blogger Space Bar said...

Any cultural system (of which a religion is one variety) will be contested and contestable for all sorts of internal reasons. Such differences, it seems to me, invariably will play themselves out in politics.

Yes! The argument that many people offer, that the watered-down, kitschy version of any religion is not the 'true' one, is misguided at best.

In India, as in the US, there is a very political dimension to the representation of the 'truths' of the dominant religions; and this should be examined in political, and not spiritual, terms.

31 October, 2006 22:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, they will "play themselves out in politics"--we've been seeing that with the "Christian Right" over the past several years--but there is a level at which religion is apolitical, a still center that very few people recognize exists, or, of they do, even strive to achieve because they feel that it is weak. This is why C.S. Lewis said that Manichaenism is the manliest of all religions; of course, he was being critical of that world view.

01 November, 2006 08:40  

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