Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Books Note (In time for holiday buying?)

I once (part-)owned and ran a bookstore. It may have been the most fun I have had in my working life. (I was lucky: My enterprise was capitalized by a corporation, so that I only needed to keep the thing running and do the ordering and such. For that I was paid both a salary and a piece of the profits.) It fed my addiction for books -- but it enabled it at a much lower cost than if I didn't enjoy discounts!

I still like to keep up on publishing (I lament the state of consolidation of the book trade -- both publishers and retail outlets). And I really appreciate it when someone (scholars, book lovers, or otherwise) takes the trouble to write a kind of synthetic essay, comparing and contrasting works of literature around an certain theme or issue.

John Utz, of the Duke Divinity School, has done such a service with respect to the issue of terrorism in literature. And it's a really helpful guide. I encourage you to read it here.

Terrorism, as if we all don't know, is the issue in the lives of USAmericans (that, and the breakup of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt -- if you believe the front page of my local newspaper). And it has theological ramifications galore. Easy to identify is how "Islamist fundamentalists" identify what we consider "terrorist acts" with devotion to Allah. But slower to come to mind is the role of terror in our own Christian history. To cite only a couple of scenes from the Bible: We shall soon celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The civil authority slaughters children in order to try to wipe out a "pretender" to the throne. An undeniable act of terrorism that -- if state-sponsored (which, by some lights, renders it non-terrorism). But keep in mind that that act is a kind of mirror image of The Lord's wiping out innocent Egyptian baby first-borns -- all in order to convince Pharaoh to "let my people go." Is it terrorism if the Creator of All is the perpetrator?

One important point that Utz makes in his essay is that terror is in the eye of the beholder. (The same might be said of torture: Witness the casuistry in the current USAmerican Administration's attempts to say that if we do it, it's not torture; but if it's done to "our boys" -- when will they realize that women are warriors, too? -- then it is.) And fiction can be a good way of coming to understand what that means. I don't urge trying to sympathize or empathize with terrorists. But it seems to me that a good way of reducing the efficacy of programs to enlist terrorists -- whether international or intranational -- is to understand the "terror" dynamic.

I am tempted to read Doris Lessing this Christmas.

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