Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying

Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer is an eye-opening book about the amorality and monstrosities of German soldiers in the Second World War and how this mindset developed.

Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer

Sönke Neitzel, a German historian and “currently Professor of Military History at the University of Potsdam”(1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B6nke_Neitzel and Harold Welzer, a German social psychologist, combine to build a definitive and unassuming portrait based on taped conversations of Germans detained in Allied war prisons. These were secretly done and transcribed by British and American intelligence agents during the Second World War. These dialogues helped the Allied forces better understand the technological and strategic initiatives within the German military during the War. However, the social and moral dynamics found in these discussions had little strategic value and were left unused for over five decades.

Neitzel accidentally found out about these records while working as a visiting lecturer in Glasgow in 2001. Further investigation uncovered a large library of over 100,000 pages. Neitzel contacted Harold Welzer who was electrified about the findings: “. . .men were talking live, in real time, about the war and their attitudes towards it. It was a discovery that would give unique, new insight into the mentality of the Wehrmacht and perhaps of the military in general.”(2)Pg. Ix Indeed, the documents revealed a rich wealth of information to build a historical and psychological portrait. The findings offered lessons not only on the German war machine, but war in general.

Their analysis dispelled the myth that German soldiers were merely following orders or that the violence was committed by a few rogue groups or leaders. The dialogues portrayed the everyday soldier, airman, or seaman, along with the upper echelons of military brass were compliant in the atrocities. Even the civilian administration was guilty. The mass executions were a lure for a good show, a “semipublic spectacle with a high amusement value.” The circumstances extended even to police officers who wanted to kill someone for the thrill of the experience.(3)Pg. 137

The book does not delve into the hearts and minds of soldiers and leaders who worked inside the concentration camps, only those captured in battle.

The authors sought to discover what influenced German soldiers to shift into an amoral and monstrous mindset. They concluded the most important factors were unlimited power, unbridled youth, shame, group dynamics, and the military frame of reference. The analysis ruled out any socio-economic status, religious identity, education level, or ethnicity as a contributing factor. Nor was ideology a force. Most soldiers were apolitical.(4)Pg. 319 The infamous SS or its armed wing, Waffen units, were neither entirely responsible. Soldiers in the general armed forces, the Wehrmacht, had also perpetrated severe violations. The actions were consistent of any participant in the German enterprise.

Wartime soldiers are by and large youngish men who have been separated from their real or would-be partners and freed from many social constraints. When stationed in occupied areas, they are given the sort of an individual power they would never enjoy in civilian society.” (5)Pg. 165

Soldiers were most concerned with their own individual survival, their next home leave, the loot they could pilfer, and the fun they could have, and not the suffering of others, especially those considered racially inferior. Soldiers’ own fate was always at the center of their perception. Only in rare cases did the fate of enemy troops or occupied peoples seem worthy of note. Everything that threatened one’s own survival, spoiled the fun, or created problems could become the target of unlimited violence.(6)Pg. 77

The book is a much harsher reality than the one portrayed in the movie, Schindler’s List, but less intense than the narrative provided by Philippe Aziz, in his book, Doctors of Death, — which focused on the German medical leadership and experimentation on Jewish subjects. The atrocities being widespread and not restricted to loose canons or hierarchical force was also substantiated by Edwin Black in his book, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation where he shows that low-level clerks and commoners who did the data entry for identifying Jewish identity in Nazi-occupied territories were also direct contributors to the holocaust.

The prison conversations bring to light the general war problem of autotelic violence“violence committed for its own sake without any larger purpose.”(7)Pg. 49 This is a natural outcome when the modern rules of law are suspended in times of war. The authors shared a conversation of a Luftwaffe observer named Lieutenant Pohl, who said it only took him three days to get used to the violence. After the fourth day, he enjoyed shooting down soldiers — it was breakfast amusement. On one occasion he wanted to drop bombs on a crowded Polish town because he was so full of rage and he didn’t give a damn. “It would have been great fun if it had come off.”(8)Pg. 46

Another conversation shows how autotelic violence had become routine:

“We sank a children’s transport. . . which gave us great pleasure.”(9)Pg. 69

Neitzel and Welzer make a formative statement that the rape, tortures, mass killings, forced plunder, genocides, and other war-related fatalities were nothing new in the historical annals of war. The difference was the increased dimension and expression of such phenomena exercised by the Germans. The introduction of new technology and weaponry – the switch from horses, cannons and bayonets to planes, tanks, semi-automatic rifles, and weapons of mass destruction, allowed for death and destruction beyond any historical framework. This greatly expanded the ability to destroy without any limit.(10)Pg. 321 The coverage of later wars and revolts by the revered journalist, Robert Fisk, clearly points out that these evils are not a proprietary problem of Germany, but an expression of humanity’s dark side wherever a social system collapses and there are no limits on violence.(11)See the The Great War for Civilisation for more info Another distinction within the German establishment was the elimination of certain groups that had “nothing to do with the war itself.”(12)Pg. 76

The authors build a framework to answer why out of 17 million members of the Wehrmacht, there were only 100 attempts at rescuing Jews.(13)Pg. 100 They believe the solution can be found in their frame of reference. The frame of reference was built around military values in a wartime situation. It became extreme because German society was passive, tolerant of repression, restricted their opinions to the private realm, and did not question the military value systems.(14)Pgs. 34–35 More importantly was the individual soldier’s relationship with his immediate comrades. Going against the group existential existence, even if the purposes are inhuman, is tantamount to the individual’s emotional or physical death.(15)Pg. 336

Naturally, the horrendous acts of violence against Jews are included in many conversations. These come as no surprise, but the callousness and the uncaring does. Soldiers got extra rations, pay incentives and other perks for execution duty.(16)Pg. 126Ff But a switch began to happen as the war began to shift into Allied control. More emphasis was placed on hiding the killings, including exhuming bodies and destroying any evidence. There was a certain fear that if the Germans lost the war, Jews would look for revenge.

The prisoners conversations about sexual assaults, rapes and violence against women was shocking. The soldiers’ dialogues carried the sense of pleasure and power without any remorse. While some women did receive better treatment, it was far from altruistic — the soldiers traded protection for a sexual favours. The women were eventually shot and killed in order to hide the abuses and avoid public shame of sex with a Jewish woman. There was also rampant prostitution. The authors described that the sexual predation was widespread throughout the military and led to a major spread of gonorrhoea and syphilis that overwhelmed the medical facilities. Antibiotics treatment had not been introduced yet, and contracting a VD severely weakened the military’s available manpower. The military responded by setting up and sponsoring brothels in order to counter this.

But without doubt, sex was part of soldiers’ everyday existence – with a whole series of consequences for the women involved.(17)Pg. 169

A statistic for the amount of rapes, violence, and murders against women done by German soldiers has never been given. However, the conversations by the soldiers indicate the rate must have been significantly high.

The overall discussions were so dark, contorted and distasteful, that my mind has difficulty imagining them. But they compelled me to ask, what kind of persons are we dealing with here? How could men with such strong values of hard work, respect, and honour, turn dark so quickly and heartlessly? How could they go home and speak to their wives, mothers or sisters about what they did? Once the war was over, was there a place for them to live? Or did their conscience already die and they moved about as empty shells?

The authors answered the first two questions. The latter questions about the post-war lives of these soldiers are left unanswered. How could these people find peace? Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman dispatched to a concentration camp by the Nazis for concealing Jews in her family home, and author of Hiding Place gave one clue. While giving a speech in Germany shortly after the War, a former prison guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp approached her, though not familiar with each other, asked her for forgiveness against the cruelty he enacted on the people at Ravensbruck. She felt both were liberated through the act of forgiveness: letting go of her bitterness that could cripple one’s body and soul, and him, from the prison of his guilty conscience.(18)https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1 Was this type of remorse and wanting catharsis widespread with post-war soldiers, or was Ten Boom’s encounter an exception? Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, would have been a more powerful book if the authors followed up interviewing a few of these prisoners that did such atrocities to find whether they remained defiant or later became remorseful.

The popular term today in military mental health circles for soldiers in this circumstance is called moral injury — the “reaction stemming from perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs.”(19)Psynopsis: Canada’s Psychology Magazine Most literature on moral injury tend to treat the person as a victim and a mental health problem. I think the authors of Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying would dispute the claim of the perpetrator as a victim. Although many situations can be a perceived sense of guilt and not real, the victims of a person committing a moral injury are either dead, disabled or emotional invalids, while the perpetrator goes on living. This is a cop-out that avoids addressing the moral failure and prevents the perpetrator to admit wrongfulness and receive full catharsis.

The stories shared in the book evoke such anger for real justice. If there is no remorse given by the perpetrators, or any attempt to say sorry to those who have been wronged, the only solace is that these people will have to answer before God at the day of reckoning for the blood of the innocents.

What can be learned from this book for today? This is not a book about ideology but the everyday person in the German military. The idea that, I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything except what affects me, was consistent within all the discussions and a key undertone among many others. A condition that allows hatred to ignite and go unchecked. A mindset that allows the person to complete instructions even against one’s moral convictions, and removes the person from any social responsibility. This circumstance opens a pandora’s box of monstrous proportions when no rules exist. Apathy is a much harder vice to correct than hatred and is the essence of inhumanity. This is not a simply a problem of World War II Germany – examples can be found in almost any major modern conflict in the world. Every society has to guard against this sin.

Would I recommend this book? This is one of the most difficult readings I have ever done. It is well written, researched and documented, but the subject matter is grisly. This book is not recommended for the casual reader, or for anyone personally haunted by the bitterness of war, but a source work for the historian, social psychologist, teacher, or journalist. Neither should one attempt to read in one, two or three sittings. The very nature forces one to read only bits at a time and put it away for a while.

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Book Review: The Great War for Civilisation

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The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by the seasoned author and journalist, Robert Fisk is a compilation of his over 30 years of on-field experiences in the various war zones around the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The result is comprehensive portrait that makes this book a definitive work.

It is a very long book and contains over a thousand pages of small print. It takes a seriously committed reader to complete such a long and difficult task. One cannot read this in one, or even two sittings. Nor can it be read for great lengths of time because the dark corners of humanity are ever present in this book. Such imagery requires one to pause repeatedly and escape from such realities.

It is purposely over-detailed and over-documented. There is no other choice for the author to do this as detractors, especially those of government, military and enforcement institutions, would like to refute such findings and discredit him personally. The greatest strength of his book is the documentation that takes it out of the realm of his personal opinion and into the place of factual history. It is a work that has been sorely lacking in this genre.

This is not a book for those who like clichés or black and white answers. Fisk avoids both which causes the reader to wonder initially if one ever will arrive at a some conclusion amid the vast amount of information he uncovers. He seldom takes enough time to reflect or philosophize about the lessons learned from all these experiences. It is a constant barrage of facts with few references connecting these behaviors into a larger narrative. The lack in this area may be why he has succeeded in fact finding so long. Trying to figure it out would invite cynicism, and throwing in the white towel.

The book has a liberal dose of history throughout but is not history for the sake of history. It is the necessary building of a plot to explain the present.

The following quote is one of his few philosophical moments in the book:

Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death has been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter round the warhorse so that we could talk about ‘target-rich environments’ and ‘collateral damage’ – that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crime of killing – and report the victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace.

Governments like it that way. They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, ‘them’ and ‘us’, victory or defeat. However, war is primarily not about victory or defeat but death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit. [Pg. XIX]

Humanity and inhumanity is the core of his observations and message. He finds inhumanity everywhere in the vestibules of power that he has observed. It is found in the semantics where ‘collateral damage’ is replaced for the killing of innocent civilians. It is in attaching the word ‘terrorist’ to enemies of a state which strips them of human status and consequently these people can be tortured, abused, neglected and discarded without any rights.[Pg. 464] Over and over again, Fisk brings names to those who have been or are key characters in the conflict. He constantly refers to the regular person off the street who suffered or died as a result of the inhumanities involuntarily forced upon them. He does not restrict this analysis to a few despots or exceptions; it is found in almost every political entity involved in the Middle East.

He has a strong criticism towards Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees Palestinians a people who cannot manage their affairs and in need of an overseer such as Israel. [Pg. 535] He is highly critical of George Bush’s war on terror, and even harsher tones for Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld; who at one time was on good terms with Saddam Hussein. He derided President Clinton for using Iraq as a prop to deflect the Monica Lewinsky affair, and Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, also falls under his critical scrutiny. Saddam Hussein painted as an evil despot, and Yasser Arafat, as a defeated warrior who made too many compromises at the Oslo accords. No government leader, opposition, or foreign policy comes out looking right under his critical microscope. The only signs of mercy shown are his portraits of everyday people.

The overarching narrative is rarely directly addressed. It leaves readers to fill in the blanks. What do his experiences about all these conflicts have in common? Fisk would likely say it started with Western European colonialism that improperly sliced-up the Ottoman Empire.

A narrative begins to appear a third of the way in the book when he covers the massive detainment, torture, executions and rapings of Algerians sponsored by the Algerian government in the early 1990s. A conflict that was a tit-for-tat tussle between government and reactionist forces, prompting an unending cycle of provocation and retribution resulting in the loss of untold innocent civilian lives. This cycle of provocation is a thesis throughout the book applied to almost every other conflict. These governments or despots have appeased their American sponsors and avoided world scrutiny by terming their behavior as a war on ‘terrorism’. Terrorism is an arbitrary word at the best of times and often left for the lowest members of police or security forces to define.

Torture and execution become a staple diet within the confines of the book because of this.

He demonstrates the double-sided American policy with the Armenian Genocide. An event where the U.S. government has agreed to call the slaughter of a complete ethnic group by the Turks as a dispute rather than genocide to secure good relations with Turkey. Fisk displays here the U.S. government putting political aims more important than truth.

He firmly believes one of the greatest errors of the United States foreign policy is ignoring the United Nations resolution 242. A text that calls for the nation of Israel to return to their pre-1967 borders. The resolution allows forced-out Palestinians back to their land; a land that was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war. A matter no longer referenced as occupied territory by the United States, but as ‘territories in dispute’. A semantic which gives Israel more credence for ownership.[Pg. 539] Fisk believes that Israel’s acceptance of 242 would be a strong step for peace in the Middle East but finds it unattainable in the Israeli psyche. It is so far from the Israeli mindset that when he conversed with a young Israeli immigration officer she did not even know that the resolution existed.[Pg. 550]

The 1991 liberation of Kuwait, and the 2003 war on Iraq move strengthens his thesis. The United States singular desire to take down Saddam Hussein at the expense of the civilian population paid a hefty future price of disrespect. The severe sanctions against any imported items into Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait was an act of inhumanity according to Fisk. He details the problem of much needed medical supplies for hospitals badly required for treating the higher than the average number of children acquiring leukemia. A condition that is much greater than world standards and arguably through contact with depleted uranium shells used by the American and British forces. The American administration would not allow for import of these medicines for fear that they convert them for weapons of mass destruction. Fisk himself performed a donation drive in Britain, convincing both the Americans and Iraqi Government to the rightness of his cause, and personally delivered medical supplies to these children in several Iraqi hospitals.

The semantics is found in the words collateral damage. Fisk documents the cluster bombs being thrust on civilian populations and indiscriminate bombings of civilian homes to which the American Government never apologized. The U.S. simply stated that this was collateral damage. A term that dehumanized and ignored the innocent victims. This arrogant behavior intensified the anger within the Iraqi populace. He puts the reader into a paradox. If the United States was only interested in taking down Saddam and his regime why were the average citizens of Iraq being punished? The Iraqis felt like the overthrow of one regime was simply supplanted by another foreign one that didn’t care about their welfare at all. Worst of all, a non-Muslim one. These sanctions fostered a negative reaction to the West. Fisk chose to quote Margaret Hassan, a British woman married to an Iraqi, and who also who ran the CARE office in Baghdad, on how negative the sentiment was;

They think that we will be so broken, so shattered by this suffering that we will do anything – even give our lives – to get rid of Saddam. The uprising against the Baath party failed in 1991, so now they are using cruder methods. But they are wrong. These people have been reduced to penury. They live in shit. And you have no money and no food, you don’t worry about democracy or who your leaders are.[Pg. 867]

There are some references to religious conflict between Muslim and Christians, Muslim vs. Muslim, and Muslim vs. secular Muslim, but this is mostly tertiary according to Fisk. He believes these are internal and foreign government policy failures expressed in the brutality, executions, and torture. These have fomented a great part of the current Middle-Eastern scenario today. This leads the reader to think that the failure of government and international communities to bring about justice and root out brutality has led many civilians and organizations to turn to Islam as a better alternative.

Fisk does not believe religion is the most important catalyst in these conflicts. There are two exceptions to this which are traced to the U.S. and Britain’s participation in the liberation of Kuwait. The first one relates to the military staging area of Saudi Arabia which contains the two holiest places of the Muslim religion; Mecca and Medina. The Americans and the British, perceived as Christian nations, underestimated the religious backlash of militarily building up a strong presence in Saudi Arabia. Fisk quoted Ali Mahmoud, the Associated Press chief in Bahrain, to explain this repercussion which now appears prophetic, “The fact that the theocratic and nationalist regimes have invited the United States to the Middle East will long be resented and never will be condoned. When the crisis is over, [Iraq’s invasion into Kuwait] the worst is yet to come.” [Pg. 725] The Western Christian forces should never have assembled in Saudi Arabia.

The second one was in promoting an insurrection in Iraq during the 1991 war. George Bush authorized the broadcast and air-dropping of millions of leaflets in Iraq, encouraging the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam and his regime. An act that prompted the Shia Muslim minority in the south, and the Kurds in the north, to rebel. It was a strategy that ended in a bloody response by the Iraqi Republican Guard while the U.S. stood aside and did nothing to protect them. Both these groups, especially the Shiite Muslims felt betrayed.

These injustices to the Arab peoples throughout the Middle East were expressed in the destruction in the World Trade Centers in New York which Fisk believed, “represented not just a terrible crime but a terrible failure, the collapse of decades of maimed, hopeless, selfish policies in the Middle East, which we would at last recognize – if we were wise – or which, more likely, we would now bury beneath the rubble of New York, an undiscussible subject whose mere mention would indicate support for America’s enemies”, [Pg. 1027] and then further added, “No, Israel was not blame for what happened on September 11th, 2001. The culprit were Arabs, not Israelis. But America’s failure to act with honour in the Middle East, its promiscuous sale of missiles to those who use them against civilians, its blithe disregard for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions of which Washington was the principal supporter – all these were intimately related to the society that produced Arabs who plunged New York into an apocalypse of fire.”[Pg. 1037]

After reading the book, and spending a considerable amount of time reviewing his videos, he does not have a political agenda. His purpose follows the historical pillars of journalism. He believes that the role of a journalist is to “challenge authority – all authority – especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.” [Pg. XXIII] His task is to uncover truth, and convey it to the public – a truth that is often purposely obscured, misappropriated, or spun by those who possess such power to tell.

Fisk is sprinting to get this message out about Arab injustice and how to rectify it. It may also be a form of catharsis for him.

I haven’t read a historical account that takes in such a comprehensive listing of forces, influences, corruption, power and revolt since Josephus’ War on the Jews written almost 2000 years ago. The geographic location is almost the same, with Rome being replaced by the United States. It is a repeat of a similar story.

This book answers for me one of the most difficult questions that I have asked for almost thirty years, who are the Arabs, and why are they so angry?

This work explains the Middle Eastern psyche for the Western reader without spin from either a religious or government perspective. Such coverage is a rarity.

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk, answers that question in great detail, and much more. The book has an incredible amount of information about the Arab world, its psyche, and their place in the Middle East. He also focuses on the universal problems of war, corruption, lies, betrayal, and deceits. His historical record is fresh and is not the same as the typical Western accounts eschewed by Governments and pundits. In fact, he expansively wrote to rewrite history properly without the spin that is considerably different.

One thing he leaves out entirely, and maybe purposely is the role of corruption in this whole process. A factor that may be too subjective that cannot be so easily documented or proven, except on petty levels with taxis or lower government agents.

There is so much more that I would write about Fisk’s book, but it overruns the limit for standard book reviews.

If anyone wants to think about or understand the Middle East, this should be one of the primary source books for the Western reader. It is mandatory reading for anyone interested in this genre.

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For further reading see :

The Jews In Their Land During the Talmudic Age

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Book Review: The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age by Gadaliah Alon.

A magnificent piece of scholarly work that touches on life in Israel from 70 to 640 A.D.

His retelling of the story of Middle-East mankind during this period draws from classical Greek, Roman, Patristic, and Rabbinic sources that is simply astounding. He combines religion, culture, language, economic systems, leadership structures both in the Jewish community and in context of Roman occupation, historical analysis, and social perspectives into an intelligent and cohesive narrative. He especially excels covering the change in religious, social and leadership structures after the destruction of the Temple, and the traditions that underlies the development and establishment of the Mishnah and Talmud.

The work is ascribed to Gedaliah Alon, who is an enigma. There are no photos in any popular biography of him, and those bios are normally only a paragraph long. He never wrote a book, but yet there is one. In Israel, where he was a teacher at the Hebrew University, there is a street in Jerusalem named after him, but this is a quiet reminder. He was the first recipient of the Israel Prize, the highest honor given by the State of Israel for excellence, but this only extends to the modern Israeli conscience, not to the English speaking world. His name was never echoed in the halls of the Hebrew University while I was there, nor were there any statues or busts found. He was married to a Mina Alon, and had at least one child, Nahi Alon, who is a clinical psychologist, but the information is sparse.

It was chance that I picked up the book at the Hebrew University’s Akademon book store back in the 1980s. The cover looked interesting and thought it would be worth the risk. It was packed in my to be looked at later file, which took a couple of years to turn the cover. Ever since that first page was turned, it changed my approach to historical critique. This unknown man has had a deep influence on my own approach to the narratives that surround the Christian narrative.

This book is a must-read for anyone trying to develop an idea of how the Middle East world operated during this period, especially for Jews living in the land of Israel.

Alon suddenly died of a heart attack at 49 years of age back in 1950. Admirers of Alon who were deeply impressed by his teachings, collated the many monographs that he previously published, and combined them with his lecture notes to make a posthumous book dedicated to him. Shmuel Safrai, one of his students and later a professor at the Hebrew University, was instrumental in the process. The book was originally written in modern Hebrew, but later translated by Gershon Levi into English, and so the The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age was born.

His story begins in Russian controlled Kobryn, Belarus, where he excelled in his Talmudic studies, and then went to the Unversity of Berlin for a year, which likely broadened his mind to other disciplines outside of Judaism. He then immigrated to Israel and completed his studies at the Hebrew University, and remained there as a teacher for the rest of his life. The foreward in his book claims that he refined the system of interpretation set out by Adolf Büchler(1)Pg. IX an “Austro – Hungarian rabbi, historian and theologian” who wrote distinguished works on the Jews during the Second Temple period. (2)http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3787-buchler-adolf

He was a historical chronographer, not a theologian by any means, though he does greatly draw from these resources to add to his narrative, they are rarely central to any of his themes. This is what sets him apart, and likely makes him so indistinguished. He appeals neither to the practicing Jew, nor to the ardent Christian, or to those uninterested in religion. This makes his audience quite small, but to those who are looking for coverage of this period from a comprehensive historical literature perspective, this is a veritable gold mine.

The eminent teacher has not escaped criticism. Doron Mendels, a present full-time professor at the Hebrew University, claims that Alon reflected the age that he lived in. Mendels claims that Alon’s background of Orthodox to enlightened Jew, and then European nationalist reflected a writing that wished to redefine Judaism both in historic and modern terms – a “fragmetized type of memory”,(3)Doron Mendels. Memory in Jewish, Pagan and Christian Societies of the Graeco-Roman World, New York: T & T Clark International. 2004. Pg. 131 and another recent book, Judaism and Crisis: Crisis as a Catalyst in Jewish Cultural History, states that Alon wrote with Zionistic sympathies.(4)Armin Lange, K. F. Diethard Romheld, Matthias Weigold. Judaism and Crisis: Crisis as a Catalyst in Jewish Cultural History. Schriften des Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum. Vol. 9. Vandehoek & Ruprecht. 2011. Pg. 189

The greatest drawback to Alon is price. The work was originally published in Jerusalem by Magnes Press, which the picture above is from. It was two volumes and has long been out-of-print by them. Harvard University Press has reprinted a paperback version, combining both original volumes into one for under $65.00 US. It may be in your local library, but it is one of those books that you want to keep near your desk. It is a handy resource.

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Review: A.D. The Bible Continues

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My brief review of A.D. The Bible Continues “The Spirit Arrives,” as shown on NBC on Sunday, April 19th, 2015.

It was exciting to find out a TV narrative on the mystical event of Pentecost was going to be produced by an established film maker, but when broadcast, it did not supply any answers to this age old debate.

When NBC announced that they were going to do one broadcast in the A.D. The Bible Continues series on Pentecost, I was very intrigued. How were they going to cover this very difficult text in the Book of Acts? Would it be a miracle of speaking or hearing? Was it going to be ecstatic utterances, or languages? Did the Apostles possess this gift for the rest of their lives or was it just temporary? What was the purpose of it?

As many are well aware, this website is the source for the Gift of Tongues Project which is a repository of all things related to the Christian doctrine of tongues — from the earliest original Greek texts all the way to the Azusa Street Revival in the twentieth century. It has been a long process to accumulate all this data and see first-hand how the story of Christian tongues has evolved throughout the centuries.

It was eagerly anticipated how the writers, directors and actors were going to figure out this first century event that has been interpreted and reinterpreted for almost two millenniums with no known final conclusion. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I have seen scriptwriters do amazing things before, and thought this may be another opportunity for them to shine.

The show went on and on, and kept me in suspense on when the mystical Pentecost event was going to happen. Sub-plot after sub-plot it finally occurred. I blinked, and it was over.

Only a short moment was inserted about Pentecost which made the apostles look like some esoteric freaks on a language trip. It appeared that the producers didn’t know how to fit Pentecost into the narrative and inserted this brief piece only because they had to. They preferred to focus on the cruelness of Pontius Pilate and some kind of weird thing going on with his wife.

Pentecost really lost its entire meaning in this film because it refused to include the richness of the Jewish culture or symbolism of the time. The show always wanted to forward point it to the future Christian Church and not the present people, who happened to be almost all Jews, who felt that their Jewish identity was strengthened through the death and resurrection of Christ.

The clothing, and the actors physical appearance themselves were devoid of Jewish symbolism – though at least one historian on Twitter conjectured that the actors looked a lot like the paintings found in some first BC to third AD Egyptian tombs. It is a great comparative, even though it is likely accidental. Fayum tombs probably were not in the minds of the writers or the producers of the show, but the images are similar. The actors appeared to be representative of modern Western ideals more than the jewish antecedents that caused all this. But I must be less critical in the theatrical presentation. This show was made to appeal to a western audience.

Pentecost is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew holiday, Shavuot. Shevuot was the celebration of God’s giving the Law to Moses, which God was thought to have spoken in all the languages of the world to Moses when He gave it. The Apostles speaking in tongues was the giving of the new Law, and therefore God spoke again in the languages of all the nations. It was a sign that the good news of Christ was not only for the Jews, but for the whole world. This purpose was not apparent in this show. I am not so sure if the actors here spoke in foreign languages, though it seemed a line here or there was in Latin or other languages, but they did not speak in any length to say that it was a miracle. Other clips showed as if some were in a state of ecstatic speech, or a combination of both ecstasy and foreign languages. It did show the experience to be of personal benefit, but nothing impacting on the society around them, which the writer of the Book of Acts, Luke, clearly explained to be a miracle validated by public bystanders. Some of whom thought they were merely drunk.

So, this portrayal fell very short of my expectations. Here was an opportunity to either set the record straight, or forward a controversial explanation. Either would have been fine if they caused further dialogue in the Christian community that worked towards a positive account. Unfortunately, their re-enactment was so brief and puzzling that it leaves everything that happened at Pentecost very ambiguous. It doesn’t allow for much debate, as it was just a personal thing among 11 or so people in a room and nothing more.

Book Review: My Promised Land

My Promised Land Cover

My Promised Land is a controversial, thought provoking and important read for those wanting to understand the Middle East from an Israeli perspective.

The well known Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, weaves a delicate story of the ever changing doctrine of Zionism from its utopian non-sectarian, communist vision of the early 1900s to its current identity of self-preservation. He shows a modern Israel stripped of its stereotypes and what it really is — a country mired in an identity crisis. A place that is part-libertarian, hedonist, Orthodox, Western European, Middle Eastern, and everything inbetween. These competing forces along with the ominous threat of a much larger Arab community around them leads Shavit to be cynical of Israel’s future.

The story of the forced expulsion of the Arabs from the city of Lydda is the shocking highlight of this book. This may be the most controversial as well. Shavit claims that Israeli based soldiers massacred Arabs and caused further deaths during the forced exodus of the residents. The homes, cars, businesses and all that the Arab residents owned were confiscated and pillaged by the Israeli conquerors. The people of Lydda were never allowed to return. Martin Kramer refutes this in an article entitled, What Happened at Lydda for the Jewish based Mosaic. However, Kramer omits any recognition on the death march or expulsion of the Arabs from their community, nor address that they were never allowed to return.

Lydda is just one example among many others shown in his book. Shavit offers these historical travesties unapologetically. He doesn’t like this history but never goes beyond being trite. He takes the role of an intimate narrator and offers little solutions or apologies. This attitude can be understood later on in his works when he outlines the Israeli mantra of self-preservation. This appears central to the Israeli psyche even if it is often irrational.

My Promised Land is a story of the oppressed turned to oppressor. It is puzzling how this reversal occurred. Shavit often touches on this, and teases the reader, but does not adequately tie this part of the plot together.

The book begins to lose momentum after the historical portrayal of Zionism and shifts into contemporary observations. This is the same problem found in Michael B. Oren’s bestseller, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, whose factual accounts and writing style were very engaging until he reached the history relating to the formation of Israel from 1948 until the present.

The romantic stereotype of the modern Israeli and their Masada mentality is also broken by Sharit. It is not the religious symbolism, or the prophetic voice that has integrated Masada into the Israeli psyche, as most Evangelicals or Christian Zionists are led to believe, but an alternate identity based on the recent past, not the historic religious one. Zionism is charting its own identity regardless of external stereotypes or expectations and seeks to define itself on its own terms. Shmaryahu Gutman, according to Sharit, observed in the early 1940s that Zionism was losing its mission and needed to redefine itself. Masada was the answer Gutman was looking for.

”He knows that Zionism is on the brink and need a poignant symbol that will be a substitute for church and theology and mythology. In Masada he finds this symbol that will unite and Inspire Zionism’s followers. He finds a pillar for Zionist identity that is at once concrete, mythic, and sublime. In Masada, Gutman finds both the narrative and the image that will give the young Hebrews the depth they lack.”

Gutman succeeded in instilling this image within the Israeli soul — a perception that many non-Jewish readers may easily overlook. My Promised Land fortunately covers this important aspect in a comprehensive and modern way.

Hope is not found in this book, rather it is one of skepticism. The current roadmap to him is more war, not negotiation — not that he entirely subscribes to this, he simply believes it is inevitable. The rise of Iran’s nuclear program is one of his greatest fears for the future of Israel.

He neither makes any moral call for repatriation of the Arabs forced out of their homes by gunpoint, nor of compensation to their losses, or dismantling illegal settlements.

It is also a tale told from an isolationist perspective. When Shavit outlines the Israeli nightlife along with its sexual and hedonistic offerings, he thinks it an internal reaction to the problems Israel faces rather than recognizing the external forces that have molded the modern Israeli identity. Neither does he recognize the historical political and religious effect of Evangelical belief that played an integral part of Zionist dreams. Unlike Sharit’s caricature, it wasn’t Jewish Zionism or hardiness alone that succeeded in their settlement of Israel. It was cooperative effort that included a variety of foreign sources that made it happen.

This self-determination that Shavit describes may be the source of the Israeli success over such great odds, and can easily be titled modern miracles, but this can also be a serious weakness. This is something that the author failed to take a close look at.

He also believes that the introduction of Hebrew as the primary language in Israel has significance in stripping Jewish immigrants of their past identity and forcing the formation of a new Israeli based one.

My Promised Land slightly picks up some momentum towards the end but much of the second half of this book could have been significantly reduced in length.

This book is especially recommended for the Evangelical reader who has many default stereotypes about Israel and its people. This book will help build a proper modern understanding.

The Alliance between Israel and Evangelicals.

  • Is Middle East News Coverage Balanced?
  • Anti-Semitism in the Ancient Church
  • Film Review: God Loves Uganda

    God Loves Uganda Cover

    God Loves Uganda — a faulty premise that neglects important details and falls for grandiose stereotyping.

    This documentary film by the acclaimed director Roger Ross Williams is a story about the complex mix of homosexuality, faith and politics in Uganda. He sees it as religious fanaticism stoking the flames of hatred and forcefully blames the influence of American evangelicals as the root cause of Ugandan homophobia.

    His documentary thesis is supported by filming a devoted group of followers, and highlighting one of their former leaders, Lou Engle, from the International House of Prayer — an unaffiliated charismatic community located in Kansas City.

    John Stackhouse, who holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., reviewed the film for Christianity Today and wrote:

    Some people, alas, will be tempted to channel their outrage into hating evangelicals right here at home, those frightening people who are trying to wreck Africa and who, if they only could, would criminalize homosexuality here, too, and even kill unrepentant homosexuals. Such seems to be the unsubtle subtext of the film. More moderate evangelicals need to say, and say clearly, that to identify Scott Lively or Lou Engle as a typical American evangelical is like suggesting that Osama bin Laden was a typical Muslim or, closer to home, like suggesting that all homosexuals are like the most outlandish figures in Gay Pride Parades. We must speak up in public and both denounce and distance ourselves from such extremists, rather than muzzle ourselves in misguided charity for errant brothers and sisters, or we will see the gospel increasingly attacked as homophobic in just the way these people are.

    …Yes, homophobia is bad. But so is evangelophobia. And what might have seemed just a decade ago to be a ridiculous and paranoid parallel doesn’t seem so now.

    Stackhouse’s claim of evangelophobia has generated considerable buzz and I think he is right in this assessment.

    The documentary succeeds at evoking immediate anger against evangelical christians and reinforces the stereotype of them being weird, racist, white bigots who are attempting to force their brand of truth throughout the world regardless of any human consequence.

    It thrives by sweeping all evangelical christians under the same category of having a homophobic agenda. In reality, the evangelical movement is split over the topic of faith and homosexuality. This movie in no way represents this spectrum and neither is there any attempt to demonstrate that the International House of Prayer is considered a sect outside of mainstream evangelicalism. Williams selected it because it fit his premise.

    It is a movie not only about Uganda, faith and homosexuality, it is also a journey for Williams to make sense of himself as a gay person who grew up in an American religious home. This should have been stated somewhere in the movie about why he was personally motivated to cover such a topic. It would give the viewer important context.

    The film touches on an important subject that is becoming a genre. It is that of charismatic extremism. This can also be found in the controversial movies Machine Gun Preacher, and the The Jesus Camp where they are about independent and pioneer charismatic leaders doing their own thing with little training or external accountability. Williams has grouped IHOP as evangelical and pentecostal while it is actually charismatic – an important nuance neglected in his coverage.

    Charismatic churches are hard to define and has been a subject of debate for over a decade. They are typically independent bodies that have split from a mainstream denominational evangelical church over the doctrines relating to the christian mystical experience. Many of these churches have little or no external accountability, tend to rely more on personal revelation and divine encounters which do not necessarily have to be rational. This movement is much smaller than its pentecostal counterpart, but it is highly emotive and vocal This form of mystic extremism can be very damaging for the christian movement as a whole and has to be urgently called into account.

    IHOP and its brand of faith do not represent any pentecostal organized constituency which has a much larger member base. Neither am I aware of any mainline pentecostal North American organization promoting a homophobic agenda. If that was the case, then Williams would have filmed a historical masterpiece of immense value.

    The film also fails to take into account that homophobia is a part of the Ugandan and African social tapestry. Same-sex relations are illegal in 36 of Africa’s 55 countries, according to Amnesty International, and punishable by death in some states. according a Guardian.com article written by David Smith. This is a huge oversight by the Film and seriously erodes the argument of American evangelical influence interfering with Ugandan politics and being responsible for increasing homophobia in Uganda.

    God Loves Uganda starts with an important survey of homophobia in Uganda but denigrates into a poor stereotype of Christians. He took the easy-way-out on a very difficult topic and oversimplified the causes. Because of this, I would rank this movie a 4 out of 10.

    Book Review: The Swerve

    The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

    Stephen Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, is an excellently well written book that combines both history and storytelling.

    It is a scintillating work of historical fiction that is equal to the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Greenblatt’s book revolves around the life and times of a fifteenth century Florentine/Roman scholar and one time secretary to the Pope, Poggio Bracciolini, and his discovery of a lost poem entitled De Rerum Natura by the first century BC poet Titus Lucretius Carus.

    The Swerve strings together the complex weave of religion, society, corruption, greed, immorality, Greek philosophy, war, the lives of monasteries, monks, and libraries by following Poggio Bracciolini in his pursuits. It results in Poggio finding this poem which was unknown to civilization for a number of centuries.

    He believes that the discovery of this poem written by Lucretius was a cornerstone in the development of humanism and the reshaping of what is now become the modern world.

    He gives a very vivid picture of the manufacture of books, sales, and the public and private libraries of the fifteenth century which was controlled by the Church and the cultural elite. The Swerve also outlines that the lives of the copyists and book clerks was not always an easy one. As one copyist noted at the completion of a work, Thank God, it will soon be dark, (Page. 40) meaning that his job was done for the day.

    It also shows the daily lives of those clerks and administrators in the fifteenth century; their gossip, sexual innuendos, morality and secret lives — a shocking revelation by many readers assuming that those involved within the Church industry would be there for altruistic purposes.

    There is one serious flaw with the book and that is of overstatement. The discovery of the poem written by Lucretius has had minimal affect on the shift to humanism as compared to the works of Aristotle and lesser that of Plato — two Greek philosophers who, although never Christian, have always been a central part of Christian rhetoric. This is an important fact left out by Greenblatt.

    He also did not credit Greek philosophy as the only way out for a disillusioned society that recognized the greed, wickedness and immorality within their Church leaders. Any negative speech to Church leaders or doctrine could have severe repercussions. Any reference to Islam or Judaism for structural reform also would bring serious penalties. Greek philosophy, a vehicle by which ancient Christian orators have quoted and structured their rhetoric since the inception of the Church, was a tolerated genre. This form of Greek philosophy did not directly cross into the boundaries of Christian theology either. There was no direct threat. It was the only alternative that did not immediately commute harsh punishment.

    This created a natural outlet for protest and an alternative to the dominant structures of the time. It was inevitable that Greek philosophy would become a much more active force in the years to come.

    The Swerve was a Pulitzer prize winner for nonfiction. However this is a historical narrative. His storytelling, which makes it an interesting adventure, is not always historically accurate. In this instance he chose style over substance and did a very good job in doing so. His novel approach is his strength and makes this book a good read. It is given a 4.5 out of 5 for historical fiction and 3 out of 5 for historical nonfiction.

    The Swerve: How the Word Became Modern is available at amazon.com, your local bookstore, or library. ■

    Book Review: God's Plagiarist

    God’s Plagiarist: Being the Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne, by R. Howard Bloch is a wonderfully written, and documented biography of Jacques-Paul Migne.

    Who is J.P. Migne, and why would Bloch spend so much considerable time researching, analyzing, and documenting nineteenth century French archives on such a name? Migne was the principal person responsible for publishing Patrologia Graeca, and Patrologia Latina — both series contains the most comprehensive texts of the Church Fathers from Clement to the fourteenth century ever available. It is likely this feat will never be repeated again.

    However, the manner by which Migne so zealously went about to produce such works are full of intrigue. The approach of the book is part detective, part ethics, and respective of the political and religious background of nineteenth century France. Bloch believes it to be futile to figure out if Migne was altruistic or self-serving in motivation. He leaves that part for the reader to figure out.

    The book initially appeared to be a dry biography. A deeper look brought appreciation on how deeply Bloch researched the subject. Further reading made me inquisitive and wanting to know more about the history and outcome of this important character. The richness of this book is found in the small details.

    Bloch characterized Migne as a salesman, entrepreneur, industrialist, publisher, businessman, and Catholic Priest. He lived in France from 1800-1875. At the height of his company’s success, which was called Ateliers catholiques, it had over 300 employees. This was a large operation for that time.

    The company not only specialized in book publishing but religious art objects as well.

    In order for Migne’s vision to make the works of the Church fathers available to the general public, especially to the priesthood, he implemented five principles:

    • He kept the labour costs low. His workers were poorly paid — many of them were relatives, people networked from his hometown, and defrocked Priests.

    • He utilized the latest technologies to produce the works at the optimum speed. He used the new steam-driven printing presses whose output was substantially higher than the previous technologies, and so the per-unit cost was much less.

    • He wanted to print as many pre-existing texts available that were no longer under copyright — even leaving printing errors in the original unchanged. He did use those still under copyright but altered them in a small way to avoid royalty payments. Bloch believes the majority of the texts included in his works are pirated.

    • He increased sales through, pre-payment, subscription, referral incentive, and lending plans. He also bypassed the middle cost of Paris booksellers by direct selling. This brought controversy and resulted in the attempt by the Archbishop of Paris to unsuccessfully close his company.

    • Migne subcontracted priests for Church rites. France and Belgium had a severe shortage of Priests. Migne arranged Priests to visit undersupplied Churches at a fixed cost. He often paid the Priests a portion by the gifting of his books. The payment made by Migne to the priest was far less than what the Parishes were paying him. The difference went to Atelier catholique. This was outrightly banned in 1875 by the Catholic Church in Rome.

    Bloch outlined Migne’s life as full of copyright litigation and other irregular business practices. There is no doubt that the five principles above would garner some controversy. This book does a good job at outlining these difficulties, even to the level of police reports.

    The modern equivalent of Migne would be Sean Parker who started the Napster file-sharing service — a company which was shut-down due to multiple copyright infringements. Parker was also the first president of Facebook.

    Migne’s search for documents uncovered a more serious problem — the housing and care of ancient manuscripts. An associate of J.P. Migne, Dom Pitra, found a cache of parchments stockpiled for the “artillery arsenal of Metz. Ordinary paper not being sufficiently tough for the packing of cartridges.” [Page 58] The authorities were notified and this policy was changed. It demonstrates that illiteracy among the general populace and the military was still very high in the 1800s. The consequence was that many historical documents have been lost due to war preparations.

    There is a problem of ethics here. Migne clearly pirated texts to complete his task. As Christians, are we to use such a device that was illegally produced? On the other hand, why were other people hoarding ancient documents for selfish or pecuniary gain? These documents should be open-source, free for public use. No one should have to pay a hefty price. The copyright of so many hundreds of books would make it impossible to affordably collate them into one comprehensive series. It would kill any large-scale ecclesiastical study with the exception of a person or institution being afforded the privilege. This problem exists even today, though with initiatives such as Google Books, this is rapidly changing. Migne temporarily broke this cycle, and has enriched later generations immensely because of this.

    There is more to the life and times of Jacques-Paul Migne. The ending is just as interesting as the beginning. I don’t want to play the part of spoiler here. Get the book. It should be mandatory reading for anyone wanting to read or translate the Church Fathers.

    God’s Plagiarist: Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbe Migne, by R. Howard Bloch can be purchased at Amazon.