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A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

This is Amy Laura typing.  I am so very grateful that The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade has agreed to allow me to post this sermon.  Her words continually help me to remember whose I am. 


The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Hamlet, NC

September 11, 2016

Proper 19, Year C RCL

1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

I preached slightly different versions of this sermon twice this week: once at a morning Eucharist at Duke Divinity School and then today, September 11, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hamlet, NC. The homiletic and pastoral challenge on this occasion was to note the anniversary of the 2001 attacks without participating in either sentimentality or nationalism. Ironically, the lectionary provided me with a tremendous gift. Fr. Stuart Hoke, the vicar of All Saints’, was a priest at Trinity, Wall Street in September 2001, and I was very aware he would have preached a very different sermon than this one. (In fact, he preached this morning at the 9/11 commemoration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.) The lectionary readings opened the door for me to give the only sermon I could on this occasion, as someone who participated in the days and years following September 11, 2001 in a very different capacity.

The Epistle and Gospel readings this morning were:

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


My words for you this morning require a caveat – or maybe two. The first is that I wish I had 30 minutes to talk with you about these texts instead of the brief time I have, because I have a lot to say that won’t get said. The second is that in order to think about how to read the lessons we just heard, we may need to consider first how NOT to think about them.

In a seminary community like the one I work in, and I think in many churches too, it’s easy to hear today’s Gospel as a summons to heroic ministry. Yes, I could tell you to be like Jesus, to welcome sinners and eat with them, to go after the lost sheep with conviction and zeal. And that would be a fun sermon to preach – much more fun than this one. Telling people to be pastoral and welcoming is like crack for nice Episcopalians like me. And it’s certainly true that the notion of the imitation of Christ is a prominent feature in Anglican spiritual practice. But as a theologian, one of my constant concerns is not so much to tell people to be like Jesus as it is to point them – and myself – towards how much we need Jesus.

And that’s what I think these texts are ultimately telling us. They aren’t marching orders for ministry so much as they’re about what Rowan Williams called “the anarchic mercy of God,” the mercy that “ignores order, rank and merit.”(1) And that is the mercy offered to you today, even as it was offered to St. Paul. Even as it has been offered to me. Let me explain.

While I know it’s early in the morning for such things, I’m about to get very personal and very real for a minute. As we come to the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I can’t help but read Paul’s words today with a shiver of recognition: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Because I, too, am all too familiar with violence – the kind of violence that sits behind a desk and acts at a bureaucratic distance.  I recognize far too much of myself in Robert MacNamara’s account of the firebombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 civilians: “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”(2)

But I received mercy. I remember walking outside my office at Langley Air Force Base, looking up at the sky, and saying “My God, is this what my life is going to be?”

Now admittedly, God’s resounding “no” to that question involved five more years of harrowing experiences that I never want to repeat. But that, too, was a kind of mercy. The mercy that raises the dead and turns the chief of sinners into an apostle won’t do much for those who think they’ve got it all together. And that’s part of my story. That’s how I ended up in this pulpit.

I don’t know all of your stories. I don’t know what precisely has brought you to this place or to this point in your lives. Maybe sometimes you still wonder the same thing. What I do know is who has brought you here today. And I do know that for church people it can be much easier to make a propositional claim that the lost sheep and the lost coin matters – and much harder to know yourself first as that sheep, as that coin, as the one over whom heaven rejoices. As the one who stands in need of mercy.

As my favorite dead Danish philosopher says, it is a little mystery that it is better to give than to receive. The greater mystery is that it is far more difficult to receive than to give.(3)

That is where we are today, on this strange anniversary in our nation’s history and on this seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. In his commentary on Romans, Karl Barth reminds us that the primary ethical action – the starting point of Christian life together – is repentance.(4)

And so it’s particularly fitting that we come to the end of the summer and begin the new school year, with all its new challenges and new opportunities, with repentance in mind. Each one of us has particular things to turn from, but the same particular One to turn to. Christ Jesus, the one who came into the world to save sinners, whose grace is overflowing, and who has appointed you – yes, you – to his service.  My brothers and sisters, your sins are forgiven. My sins are forgiven. That – and only that – is the condition of possibility for the work of ministry that is yours and mine.(5)

Remember that, especially when it seems like everyone but you has it all together, when you just aren’t sure you can get everything done, when you wonder yet again why you came here. And while I can’t answer that question for you, I can point you along the way, as T.S. Eliot did in Little Gidding:

What you thought you came for Is only a shell, a husk of meaning  From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled  If at all. Either you had no purpose  Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured  And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places  Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,  Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–  But this is the nearest, in place and time,  Now and in England.

If you came this way,  Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season,  It would always be the same: you would have to put off  Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity  Or carry report. You are here to kneel  Where prayer has been valid.(6)

Welcome – or welcome back – to this place that is also the world’s end. Here, prayer has been, and is, valid. Here is the free and difficult gift of grace. Can you receive it?


(1) Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (Cowley, 1991), 17.


(2) This quotation appears in The Fog of War, a 2003 documentary by Errol Morris that I recommend very highly.


(3) See Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problema III.


(4) See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, in the commentary on Romans 12 entitled “The Problem of Ethics.”


(5) I remain grateful to Amy Laura Hall for first saying a variation on this to me at my ordination to the priesthood.


(6) T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, online version at

The Naked Emperor and Labor Unions

This essay originally appeared in the September 4, 2016 (Labor Day Weekend) edition of the Durham Herald-Sun

I have been working for two years on a project to encourage people of faith to talk about labor unions on Labor Day weekend. The most radical thing I wrote about our effort is this:  “You are the very best person to compose a prayer or story for your faith community.”  I was brought up in a faith community (Methodist) that is at our best when we stay with a set of practices for worship.  When it comes to matters of conscience, however, people should formulate their own words and thoughts.

Praying, like dancing, is a gift best lived when you do not care who is watching.

Some friends have complimented me for sharing my time to “advocate for workers.” I continue to explain that I am a worker too, and that I am volunteering my gut and brain to work with the AFL-CIO because I think everyone who works needs labor unions.  I teach, and I have written before on why teachers need labor unions.  I am also a writer, and I want to explain here, in writing, why people who write for a living need labor unions.

Writers need labor unions like dancers need labor unions.  Writers need to be free to write or dance like Fred Astaire and not be pressured to write or dance like Ginger Rogers.  Robert Thaves noted that Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels.  I am not downplaying the brilliance of Ginger Rogers.  The point is that Ginger Rogers had to follow Fred Astaire’s lead, and look as free as possible, while following his lead.  She had to dance backwards, following a leader, while in high-heels.  Writers need the freedom to write forward, seeking our own best footing.

Without labor unions, writers can become liars for-hire.

Two writers who wrote against lying are Augustine of Hippo and Immanuel Kant. If I were to give a bumper sticker version of their insight it would be this:  the gift of language is for discovering truthfulness together, so, using words to lie to one another is to make our lives into nonsense.

To believe that language is a gift that allows us to discover things together, and to consider truth together, does not mean we are forbidden to use words to tell jokes, make up fanciful stories, or come up with zany combinations of words that allow for play, irony, sarcasm, or poetry.  (I often use a Sesame Street vaudeville routine “Kermit the Frog here,” and then say something true about a fairy tale being told in the media.)


But, to believe that words are a gift for truth does mean that, if I use my words intentionally to mislead people, it will eventually make my soul sick.  Or, put differently, if I use my gift of words primarily to please someone who is paying me to write, then my sense of the world will wither.  Humans are creatures who best live together when not primarily trying to deceive one another or to please someone who pays us to be well-versed liars.

I write in Christian Ethics.  If there is a field where someone ought to feel free from the pressure to dance backwards in high heels, it should be someone writing from their own faith, about “ethics.”  But scholars from many disciplines can testify to the pressure at their institutions to stay away from certain questions, to shy away from subjects, and to fudge the truth as they see it if a student asks them a tricky question.  This is different than “knowing-one’s-audience.”  Understanding what words a group of readers will or will not be able to hear is different than trying to please a funder.  When considering my “audience,” I should not have in mind a foundation or a corporation . . . or my institution’s development office.

It did not serve Mr. Inadvertently Naked Emperor well to surround himself with people who were afraid to use their words for truth.  Journalists, scholars — writers of every kind — help people from being fools.  At our best, writers help us to see the truth we know when we look in the mirror, keeping us from lying to ourselves about ourselves.  Writers are at our best when we are neither biting our tongues nor speaking through a forked one.

Love, and Kierkegaard

This is a first draft of an essay on “love” for a new volume, The T&T Clark Companion to the Theology of Kierkegaard to be published by Bloomsbury T&T Clark, edited by David Gouwens and Aaron Edwards. treachery cover My first book was on Kierkegaard, and is available from Cambridge University Press.  It has a pretty cover.

Amy Laura Hall



“When we speak this way, we are speaking of the love that sustains all existence, of God’s love. If for one moment, one single moment, it were to be absent, everything would be confused.”[1]

In Paul Holmer’s introduction to Søren Kierkegaard’s writing, he uses a very helpful phrase to describe the setting into which Kierkegaard makes a literary intervention: ‘the moving stair that human history is supposed to be’.[2] Kierkegaard creates a world different than the one that most of his contemporaries assumed. Whereas the assumption in philosophy was that one is to use ‘reason’ to ‘find’ her ‘place on the moving stair that human history is supposed to be,’ Kierkegaard sought to reorient his readers to a whole different way of seeing themselves, God, and everything that is. Holmer’s choice of words warrants close attention. The task in Kierkegaard’s era was for a person to use a particular kind of reckoning, a kind of reckoning that writers had made synonymous with ‘reason’. Any other kind of reckoning therefore became unreasonable, even irrational. Also, this kind of reckoning is toward the purpose of a person finding her ‘place’. So, the way to orient oneself, or to ‘place’ oneself, is to reckon in a very specific manner. And, the sort of reckoning that is labeled as rationality itself is related to a ‘moving stair’. The image Holmer uses here reminds me of an escalator upward. That ‘moving stair’ is moving through ‘human history,’ indicating that proper orientation requires something called ‘history,’ and that this history is moving upward. So, a person is to use a manner of thinking to orient herself on the escalator of human history – as that history is ‘supposed to be’. Holmer’s use of ‘suppose’ is useful, in that it can mean both assumed to be and also purposefully, even providentially, designated to be.

A little later in his introduction, Holmer explains that this working assumption about the mode and purpose of a reasonable life was not simply an academic matter. This working assumption was everywhere, shaping hearts and minds far beyond the hallways of academies where people were expected to learn proper German. This section of Holmer’s writing bears repeating:

“When one sketches in the details about the theology of that day, the homogeneity becomes almost overpowering. For theologians could scarcely resist making Christianity into something exquisitely metaphysical, especially when historical studies and dispositions well fed on the natural sciences were beginning to make light of miracles, of divine causes and providential orderings. Besides, the reign of philosophy extended so far as to provide the frame of concepts within which empirical science was done, in addition to being understood and subsequently taught. Most of the cultural energies seemed to be not only documented but also forecast by a philosophical scheme. General as it was and tolerant of all kinds of opposition, that philosophy became the climate of opinion within which programs were projected, political policies evaluated, education measured and perpetrated. Even religion was so prefigured.”[3]

Holmer describes a world of meaning-making, where a particular mode of philosophy shapes the concepts that shape what counts as scientific inquiry, and scientific inquiry underscores the legitimacy of a particular kind of philosophy, which helps to shape what counts as legitimate in politics, learning, even what was considered valid religiosity. These policies, forms of education, and validated ways of being religious then could project, legislate, and educate in a way that reinforces the ‘theology of the day’ and the questions that counted as proper to ‘the natural sciences’. The task of any one person, if there even is a task for any one person, is to fit oneself within the machinery of meaning-making. Holmer puts this succinctly: ‘To fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it seemed the only philosophical and ‘objective’ thing to do’.[4]

Holmer notes that Kierkegaard writings are ‘indigenous’.[5]  Kierkegaard studied in German, but he returned home to write in Danish. He wrote a form of vernacular theology, not in that he wrote simply, but in that he wrote for his neighbors in their spoken language, often using phrases and fairy tales particular to Denmark. I do not find his choice incidental, but instructive for my own writing on Kierkegaard, including for this essay on love. Writing about Kierkegaard’s writings on love requires me to risk saying a timely, not a timeless, word – connecting his own intervention to an intervention helpful to readers living and reading during my own lifetime. I continue to teach Kierkegaard’s Works of Love in part because I believe the setting Holmer describes continues to pertain today. The unspooling of what I will call ‘Hegelianism,’ through Marxism, social-Darwinism, and multiple other compatible descriptions of the ‘moving stair of human history’ continues in dominant Western culture and, inasmuch as dominant Western culture continues to define everything that marks an upward trend of ‘progress’ and ‘development,’ also in non-Western areas seeking the legitimacy of dominant Western culture.[6] There is still very much of an incentive to, as Holmer describes Kierkegaard’s time, ‘fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it’. ‘God’ can become the liquidator of individuality, to make a person see herself as a serviceable tool for the ideology and economic machinery of a region, a family, a nation, or any other human institution.

Into this, I repeat that to speak with any truth about love necessitates a recurring miracle of God’s loving presence. If we are to speak (or write) of love, then we must speak ‘of the love that sustains all existence, of God’s love’. It is only with the repeated presence of this love that I am able to speak at all. If God’s love ‘were to be absent,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘everything would be confused’.[7] This recurring miracle of ‘the love that sustains all existence’ has a different shape than a ‘moving stair of history’. This recurring miracle of God’s presence interrupts and reconfigures an individual, her mode of orienting herself, and her perspective on her present and her future. Works of Love is Kierkegaard’s gift to readers who find themselves so defined by the machinery of their age that they are not even sure where to turn for help. I will begin to try to elicit this giftedness of Works of Love by describing some of Kierkegaard’s most pastorally helpful turns in the book. Then, using several examples from my own context, I will show why readers continue to need his pastoral work. Kierkegaard wrote Works of Love with his own name affixed. He wrote in the voice of other characters in a way that is useful to show what I called (in my book on Kierkegaard) ‘the treachery of love’. These characters twist love around in ways that all but dissolve a person into a beautifully useful nothing. So, in the third section, I note how a few characters embody different ways that love goes awry. I have found reading Kierkegaard alongside Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth to be helpful in further noting this contrast between God’s loving presence and a world where everything is ‘confused’. So, in an interlude, I will link Wharton’s heroine to Kierkegaard’s insights. In the final, fourth section, I will turn to Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a text that illumines the presence of grace presumed in Works of Love. Do not be anxious. I will do this succinctly.

Works of Love

“The commandment is that you shall love, but ah, if you will understand yourself and life, then it seems that it should not need to be commanded, because to love people is the only thing worth living for, and without this love, you are not really living.”[8]

These words come in the ‘Conclusion’ to Works of Love, and they are Kierkegaard’s gloss on 1 John 4:7: ‘Beloved, let us love one another’. Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love is more legible than his complicated book about his own writing. Some readers find Concluding Unscientific Postscript a key text for understanding what Kierkegaard’s writing is all about. They use that (pseudonymous) book to map what Kierkegaard meant to be doing in his copious outpouring of non-pseudonymous and pseudonymous books. I have found Works of Love to be more homiletically, pastorally, pedagogically, and personally helpful for hearing Kierkegaard well. Kierkegaard takes the scriptural command to love my neighbor so seriously that he spends more than four hundred pages to pull his readers into that command. He uses the command to love my neighbor as the necessary disorientation to expose what Holmer calls the ‘moving stair that human history is supposed to be’. Works of Love is a book that, when read slowly and openly, can help a reader to see where she has been placed, even where she has placed herself. Works of Love can help a reader to see that the task to which she has been put, or has put herself, is itself confused. When ‘To fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it seem[s] the only philosophical and ‘objective’ thing to do’ (repeating Holmer here) the command to love my neighbor as myself may intervene. Kierkegaard’s Works of Love is such a sustained, scriptural intervention. He seeks to show that the system of knowing of his own time was fundamentally confused, even though it purported to be the definition of clarity itself.

The best way Kierkegaard can recommend to discover oneself as confused is first through prayer, which is how he opens the book. More specifically, it is through a prayer of reception of grace from ‘you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth’.[9] The book is often not directly didactic. The subtitle to Works of Love is ‘Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses’. In this subtitle, Kierkegaard distinguishes Works of Love from a more straightforward lesson about love. As he explains in a note, a ‘Christian discourse’ ‘presupposes that people know essentially what love is and seeks to win them to it’.[10] In contrast, he says, a deliberation ‘must not so much move, mollify, reassure, persuade as awaken and provoke people and sharpen thought’ seeking first to ‘fetch [the readers] up out of the cellar, call to them, turn their comfortable way of thinking topsy-turvy’.[11] In other words, a disorientation is necessary to show someone that the system they are supposedly well-placed within is itself confused. If people are expecting a list of loving works, to check off on their way up the ladder of holiness, they will gain nothing. Kierkegaard indicates this literarily with a repeated preface that opens each of the two series that make up Works of Love. The preface to each of the two series that make up the book explains that love occurs within a relation of infinite inexhaustibility: the love Kierkegaard wishes to evoke is ‘essentially inexhaustible’ and ‘in its smallest work essentially indescribable just because essentially it is totally present everywhere and essentially cannot be described’.[12] In his commentary on the preface, Kierkegaard imaginatively gives life to a character that embodies the way that I am not to read Works of Love: He writes about a comical emperor who leaves home determined to record all his deeds and thus brings with him ‘a large number of writers’ to document his works of love. Kierkegaard comments, ‘This might have succeeded if all of his many and great works had amounted to anything . . . But love is devoutly oblivious of its works’.[13] Kierkegaard hopes to evoke a new, precarious, meaning prayerful, life. Works of Love is not a list of loving works, but an evocation of an alternative stance, a particular relation. This relation is a relation to God in grace. Grace is the essentially inexhaustible and essentially indescribable setting that is proper to love.

In my book length treatment of Kierkegaard, I go into detail about how Works of Love works literarily on a reader. By my reading, Kierkegaard layers facet on facet of real love and false love, especially in the first of the two series, to disorient a reader, so that she recognizes that she has been confused by the assumptions of her day about everything from who to love, to how to love, to who she is, and who God is. Kierkegaard makes the task of love so strenuous that it seems, well . . . almost inhuman. This is his homiletic aim. In a reading of Matthew 21:28-31, Kierkegaard explains that the son who eagerly promises but does not recognize the import of his promise is ‘facing the direction of the good,’ but ‘is moving backward further away from it,’ due to his continual inattention to the import of his promise.[14] ‘The yes of the promise is sleep-inducing, but the no, spoken and therefore audible to oneself is awakening, and repentance is usually not far away.’[15] Kierkegaard seeks to wake up readers to love in a way that I have likened to Martin Luther’s second, or theological, use of the law. That is, the duty to love each neighbor, including those closest to me, as an individual uniquely and singularly beloved by God, is to strike me as insurmountably difficult, moving me into a context where I receive the inexhaustible, essentially immeasurable context of God’s grace in Jesus Christ:

“But when a person in the infinite transformation discovers the eternal itself so close to life that there is not the distance of one single claim, of one single evasion, of one single excuse, of one single moment of time from what he is this instant, in this second, in this holy moment shall do — then he is on the way to becoming a Christian.”[16]

And the ‘way to becoming a Christian’ is not about getting some list of attributes down to perfection. It is a reception, at each moment, of the presence of God’s love. (For, if God’s love is absent, everything is confused.) The very next chapter after this quote, above, is on the ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law’. There he is explicit: ‘What the Law was not capable of accomplishing, as little as it could save a person – that Christ was’. He continues, ‘Yes, he was Love, and his love was the fulfilling of the Law.’[17]

Kierkegaard reminds Christian readers that, in extravagant non-necessity, God ‘has created you from nothing’.[18] You and I do not exist out of necessity. We come to be out of God’s gift. And, Jesus Christ has brought me into a setting of infinite gift and therefore immeasurably profligate debt. Kierkegaard asks the reader to see how God has pulled each and every life into God’s grace, as if we are under ‘divine confiscation’. (I am borrowing this phrase from Fear and Trembling, a pseudonymous text also by Kierkegaard.)[19] This means that each individual is first God’s own. If Kierkegaard’s use of ‘love’s shall’ is similar to Martin Luther’s theological, or convicting use of the law, his use of God as the ‘middle term’ is perhaps akin to Martin Luther’s first, or restraining, use of the law. Kierkegaard layers uses of the law so that one is not subsequent to the other. The ‘shall’ of the command to love my neighbor creates the graced context in which I may actually begin to see that I have a neighbor to love. So, this might be called Kierkegaard’s creative use of the law. God becomes the ‘middle term’ between myself and another person, in such a way that God has created the possibility that there is a neighbor in front of me.[20] The way Kierkegaard defines the term ‘neighbor,’ a neighbor is a human being recognized by another as God’s own.[21] Seeing a creature in front of me through the prism of grace, with God as the ‘middle term,’ I come to see that the creature in front of me is not an extension of my will, a tool for anyone else’s project, or a divinity who can command my obedience or my total allegiance. To ‘go with God,’ as Kierkegaard repeats a common blessing, reminds us that ‘it is indeed only in this company that one discovers the neighbor, because God is the middle term’.[22] Without God as this ‘middle term,’ everything becomes ‘confused’. While Kierkegaard is often read in disagreement with Immanuel Kant, in this case he has taken Kant’s insistence that no human being is a mere means to someone else’s project and described this in such a way that it is impossible even to see this imperative without receiving the presence of God. If God is absent, everything would become (and has become) confused.

Kierkegaard also gives an account of transformation, from one who obediently regards other people as neighbors from a distance to someone with the courage to love another person ‘despite and with his weaknesses and defects and imperfections’.[23] This has to do with the context of an indebtedness, which makes comparison and measuring in love nonsensical. In his discussion of 1 Corinthians 13:13, ‘Love Abides,’ Kierkegaard exclaims, ‘Yes, praise God, love abides!’ – ‘if any of your actions, in any of your words you truly have had love as your confidant, take comfort, because love abides’.[24] This ‘very upbuilding thought’ is of God’s love, which ‘sustains all existence’.[25] To loop back into an earlier section in Works of Love, Kierkegaard suggests that, as God has made loving my neighbor a matter of incalculable grace, it becomes a task of ‘eternity,’ not my own effort, to fulfill the ‘shall’ of ‘You Shall Love’.[26] He writes, ‘only this shall eternally and happily saves from despair,’ and a ‘love that has undergone eternity’s change by becoming duty is not exempted from misfortune, but it is saved from despair’.[27] As a person turns over to God the task of fulfilling the law, she receives the gift of seeing the world as a wonder, not a threat. This is too simple, in that Kierkegaard is clear this is no one-and-done conversion of the soul. And Kierkegaard also is clear in many of his writings that people do threaten one another with all sorts of treachery, including the kind that manipulates someone’s trust. But he has also here described a kind of freedom, or lightness, that comes from seeing my neighbor as God’s own first, and myself as God’s beloved first. Kierkegaard makes a comparison between what it feels like to walk around in the world afraid you are going to go ass-over-teacups, and to walk around in the world in trust:

“It is well known how anxiously, how ineffectively, and yet how fearfully laboriously a person walks when he knows he is walking on smooth ice, but it is equally well known that a person walks confidently and firmly on smooth ice if because of darkness or in some other way he has remained unaware that he is walking on smooth ice.”[28]

By releasing the responsibility to make love work through dint of my own effort, saved by God from that burden, I am freed. This leads me to be able to walk on ice – to love with courage.

There are multiple ways that Kierkegaard makes the import of his deliberations practical. I will make this explicit in the section on how he writes about love gone badly. But please note here that his practical, pastoral wisdom requires an entire shift of scenery, and even a shift of what a person is looking at and for. So, for example, his description that a truly loving person does not compare himself to another person, or look closely in suspicion to see whether or not someone he loves loves him to a similar degree, is set within a context of God’s miraculous, sustaining, gratuitous presence. In the Denmark of Kierkegaard’s time – when people in Copenhagen were abuzz with anticipation of the newest means of conveyance, or the newest fashions from Europe – to claim that all that is, and all that makes life worth living is set within a context of incalculability was odd. People were sizing one another up by what they could afford, even then. In his chapter ‘Mercifulness, a Work of Love,’ he notes this, ‘Yet money, money, money! . . . how often might not one have been tempted despondently to turn one’s back on all existence and say, ‘ Here lies a world for sale and only awaits a buyer’.[29] To use Holmer’s imagery again, Kierkegaard describes the setting around him in such a way that a reader can see how calculated and/or calculating she has been taught to perceive reality itself. Kierkegaard closes Works of Love with a warning that the prudential ‘like for like’ is always beckoning a person away from a context of incalculable grace. He warns us that, in a version of supposed reality where all that you hear is about what can be measured, then you yourself will be measured.[30] Granted, both then and now there were writers cordoning off certain spaces of existence as immeasurable – marriage, the family, something ineffable often called spirituality. But Kierkegaard takes all that exists, all knowledge, each wife, each child, each lily growing in the field, even the reader herself, and claims them to be only in existence if in a setting of God’s grace. Apart from grace, everything becomes confused.

‘All of World History’

Kierkegaard’s writing on love continues to be helpful. His writings are a way to recognize the unspooling of Hegelianism in dominant, Western culture today. In this section, I will use Philosophical Fragments to explain one reason why people who know Kierkegaard’s writing need to continue teaching Kierkegaard’s writings. Kierkegaard created a pseudonym to write a book called Philosophical Fragments. The character is a thinker named Johannes Climacus, John the Climber, named after a seventh-century monk who wrote the Ladder of Paradise. The Climacus who authors Philosophical Fragments also writes a kind of poetic concatenation, but the links or steps do not climb upward. They tangle around like a finely linked necklace left in a drawer. As Howard and Edna Hong write in the introduction to their translation, this is ‘the most abstract of all Kierkegaard’s writings’.[31] I would use the word ‘intricate’ rather than abstract. As I have already quoted, Paul Holmer suggests that, at Kierkegaard’s time, ‘Most of the cultural energies seemed to be not only documented but also forecast by a philosophical scheme’.[32] Kierkegaard’s playful earnestness in the book is one way to address a machinery of meaning into which the individual is supposed properly to find her place. Kara N. Slade and I wrote an article called ‘The Single Individual in Ordinary Time: Theological Engagement with Sociobiology’.[33] We go into more depth about modern Hegelianism there. I will show what is apropos regarding love briefly here, then return again to Philosophical Fragments and Holy Communion in my conclusion.

Kierkegaard’s epigraph to Philosophical Fragments is a warning for anyone trying to create an exhaustive, scientific system of knowledge: ‘Better well hanged than ill wed’ (a paraphrase from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night).[34] In his ‘Preface’ to a later book, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Climacus (the same pseudonymous author) fills in this quotation, ‘better well hanged than by a hapless marriage to be brought into a systematic in-law relationship with the whole world’.[35]  Unless a Christian begins, and begins again, with Jesus Christ, she will find alluringly legitimating methods of authority, many reasonable diversions toward a career in the world of reason. Unless she begins with Jesus Christ, she may never know herself as a self or her neighbor as a neighbor. A focus on ‘the savior’ may make a scholar look like a fool, but Kierkegaard recommends a kind of foolhardiness. Climacus writes in Philosophical Fragments that ‘to write a pamphlet is frivolity – but to promise the system, that is seriousness and has made many a man a supremely serious man both in his own eyes and in the eyes of others’.[36] He is explaining here indirectly, through a form of humor, that what appears to be serious is actually a way of avoiding the most difficult and yet worthwhile task of knowing oneself and loving other people.

Kierkegaard’s interlocutors in Philosophical Fragments are people trying to show their inheritance of a coherent system. Hegel was the philosopher whose name had become synonymous with the creation of a system that explains everything. One of Kierkegaard’s deleted sections in Philosophical Fragments makes this clear:

“Too bad that Hegel lacked time; but if one is to dispose of all of world history, how does one get time for the little test as to whether the absolute method, which explains everything, is also able to explain the life of a single human being. In ancient times, one would have smiled at a method that can explain all of world history absolutely but cannot explain a single person even mediocrely.”[37]

Kierkegaard intends to reveal as fraudulent any form of thought that tries to explain ‘people,’ because to explain everyone, and history, and reason itself, is to lose the possibility of knowing a single person ‘even mediocrely’. My assertion comes from reading Kierkegaard’s texts, pseudonymous and signed, in relation to Works of Love. Reading Philosophical Fragments in this way highlights that, in being ill-wed to a system of thought, a neo-Hegelian loses ‘ethics’. In a succinct essay, Julia Watkin named the cost:

“Loss of contact with ethics occurs firstly through the thinker’s make-believe standpoint in which he or she takes some fantastical God’s-eye position outside the universe, that is, outside existence. Since objective thinking, in that it concerns description of the world, has no relation to the individual thinker’s personal life, daily life becomes an inconvenient appendage to the great work of System-building (CUP, 1:119, 122-23). Secondly, there is a loss of ethics in the Hegelian-style System because it contains ethics and morality as a necessary process. Yet in a necessary process there can be no freedom and hence no ethics.”[38]

As Holmer explained, when your description begins within a system that has its own working assumptions, the description holds within the description a particular way of seeing human-beings. To combine Holmer’s words with Watkin’s, as people who determine the rules of legitimate speech define objectivity as the capacity to fit within a System, and that System carries within it also a sense of ‘necessary process,’ there can be no single individual apart from the all-encompassing system and, in a way, no sense that ethics pertains to daily life. As Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love, each aspect of an individual’s daily life matters, and matters in a way that frees an individual not only from her own self-legitimizing projects, but also from a System that has taught her to find and stay in her place within a System of meaning. I will here name briefly two examples of how this aspect of Kierkegaard’s writing about love and ethics is helpful.

First, best-selling moralist David Brooks writes and speaks about ethics. He has written in popular books like The Road to Character that a primary problem people face in the early-twentieth-century is selfish individualism. In a condensed essay called ‘The Moral Bucket List’ (which was well-timed to promote The Road to Character) Brooks diagnoses the problem facing his reading public with this phrase: ‘the culture of the Big Me’.[39] In that widely shared essay, Brooks highlights three women he believes worthy of emulating to rectify what he determines to be the complex of a ‘Big Me’. The words Brooks uses for these women matter, and I want to draw attention to these words. By his narration, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins was ‘shamed’ and ‘purified’ on her way toward losing her ‘Big Me’. In this moral development, Frances Perkins ‘turned herself into an instrument’. (Note, please, Brooks means this as a goalpost, not a criticism.) Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day was saved by the birth of her daughter, by Brooks’s account, which moved Day from living a ‘disorganized’ life to one of direction. Becoming a mother, as he narrates it, allowed Day to lose what he calls ‘the natural self-centeredness all of us feel’. Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym George Elliot, was ‘stabilized,’ he explains, by choosing a good man. Her life as a writer flourished because she found a strong partner to be her psychological splint. So, Dorothy Day is saved by childbearing, Frances Perkins is saved by becoming an instrument, and Evans was saved by a good mate.

David Brooks writes in a form of moralism that does not exist within a context of grace, but a context of self-improvement set within a definition of serviceability. Into a vacuum, Brooks inserts serviceable hagiographies of three complicated, merely mortal women. The problem, as he writes it, is a ‘Big Me,’ and so three women become serviceable icons for the project of ‘Us,’ instruments for a larger purpose. He continues:

“The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.”

Brooks’s prescription for his readers is very different than the disorientation Kierkegaard attempts in Works of Love. Kierkegaard describes a relation where an individual becomes primarily God’s own, confiscated and held in a way that she becomes precisely not an instrument of anyone’s project. His intervention remains timely.

A second public intellectual who writes about the importance of losing oneself is Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who won the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology in 2001. By his account, organized religion is useful inasmuch as it binds individuals toward a clear goal; the celebration of violence is functional inasmuch as it allows disparate groups to identify themselves as a nation-state; and patriotism is natural, and conducive to overall human flourishing, because it channels biological instincts toward a common good. Group-thinking helps ‘suppress our inner chimp and bring out our inner bee,’ allowing for a ‘hive’ mentality. In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt succinctly applies these basics to a purposeful life at one’s workplace:

“[A]n organization that takes advantage of our hivish nature can activate pride, loyalty and enthusiasm amongst employees and then monitor them less closely. This approach to leadership (sometimes called transformational leadership) generates more social capital – the bonds of trust that help employees get more work done at a lower cost than employees at other firms. Hivish employees work harder, have more fun, and are less likely to quit or to sue the company.”[40]

Haidt’s emphasis on channeling human hive instincts is thorough. In another essay, ‘Doing Science as if Groups Existed,’ he makes a case against the ‘spell’ of ‘methodological individualism,’ a ‘belief system’ that limits an evolutionary perspective on ‘group level selection’ and downplays the benefits of living in ‘bee-like ways’. He recommends that evolutionary scientists appreciate the goods of organized religion: ‘Like fraternities, religions may generate many positive externalities, including charity, social capital (based on shared trust), and even team spirit (patriotism)’.[41] In June, 2016, Haidt promoted through social media an article in Fast Company that recommend workers will do better at work if we compare ourselves to others more. The title of the essay is blunt: ‘You Should Probably Compare Yourself To Others More, Not Less,’ and continues with the headline, ‘Comparing yourself to others is frowned upon because it leads to envy, but even that can be productive’.[42] Haidt combines a kind of Hegelianism with self-striving. The individual is to strive in every way to be serviceable to a larger purpose, and even comparison to one’s fellow instruments is useful. Whereas Kierkegaard disorients an individual to see that grace is the proper context of finding self and neighbor, Haidt defines ethics itself as being instrumental to a larger national project.

Neither Haidt nor Brooks writes from within a particular faith tradition, although their writings are widely shared and promoted by Christian publications and thought-leaders. There are writers within Christian publishing who have themselves adopted an account of Christian faithfulness that focuses on obedience to those in obvious authority and who name moral chaos as our besetting danger. When combined with an assumption that God’s providence has set up the structures of power in a family, a region, or a nation, conformity with social expectations can pass as faithfulness. And non-conformity, or refusal to be obviously of service to social expectations can pass as transgression. Kierkegaard spoke into this form of Christianity in Denmark, and speaks well into these mistakes today.

Love and Conscience

“We speak of a man’s conscientiously loving his wife or his friend or those nearest and dearest to him, but we often speak in a way that involves a great misconception.”[43]

In a footnote in Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard makes an important point about the assumptions required for an assessment of ethics within an all-encompassing system of thought. After the pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, suggests ‘let us assume that we know what a human being is,’ Kierkegaard, as editor of the book, uses a footnote to play around with the word ‘assume’. After all, Kierkegaard suggests, does not ‘assume’ itself assume some sense of ‘doubt’? And, ‘in our theocentric age’ doesn’t everyone ‘know . . . what a human being is’? His emphasis here is on the word ‘know’. Kierkegaard then relates a story of skepticism whereby ‘man is what we all know,’ and, because ‘we all know what a dog is,’ it follows that ‘man is a dog’.  It is characteristic of Kierkegaard to place a key point in a seemingly tangential footnote, using what seems like a child’s joke. It is precisely the case, he intimates, that I have no idea who I am, and that I am not in any sort of position to discover who I am, without receiving myself as a gift. One clever character in his book Either/Or puts this beautifully: ‘When I consider its various epochs, my life is like the word Schnur in the dictionary, which first of all means a string, and second a daughter-in-law. All that is lacking is that in the third place the word Schnur means a camel, in the fourth a wisk broom’. [44] This character, given only by the name ‘A,’ incites the reader to ask, ‘What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding?’ ‘A’ gives a kind of prayer after this: ‘God knows what our Lord actually intended with me or what he wants to make of me’.[45]

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard names that ‘it is God who by himself and by means of the middle term ‘neighbor’ checks on whether the love for wife and friend is conscientious’. Only in this way is love ‘a matter of conscience’.[46] The ‘great misconception’ Kierkegaard names is that having a preference, a friendship, an intimacy or goal in common, secures that ‘love’ is really ‘love’. Pulling us out of this assumption is a significant part of his effort in the book. This aspect of his work leads him to write sections so focused on the incalculability of life that some justice-oriented students in my class have dismissed him. Kierkegaard seems to some readers to lead toward a romanticizing of poverty, or at least a neglect of the real, material circumstances of someone who has nothing. In one passage, in his chapter ‘Mercifulness, a Work of Love,’ he writes about the ‘woman who laid two pennies in the temple box,’ a reference to Luke 21:1-4. Kierkegaard accentuates the meaning of the story, adding that ‘a swindler’ had ‘tricked her out of [her coin cloth] and put instead an identical cloth in which where was nothing,’ so that the woman actually, unbeknownst to her, comes to the temple with nothing.[47] Kierkegaard’s point here is not that a life of starvation is better than a life that includes food. His point here is that ‘the world understands only about money – and Christ only about mercifulness’.[48] He continues, ‘mercifulness is infinitely unrelated to money’.[49] Kierkegaard has taken the calculation away from love between lovers, and from love between neighbors. To put another person within a system, and see that person as a part of a system of any sort of project, or, to use Holmer’s phrase again, as a part of the ‘moving stair that history is supposed to be,’ is to lose that person as a person.

Kierkegaard takes in every human relation – from the bedroom to the workplace to the hustle-bustle of the Danish fashion scene – and submits it to the test of this little word ‘neighbor,’ revealing that what often passes as the appearance of Christianity is a sham. And these fabrications become substantial because the thinkers of his time had cast the world according to a particular way of perceiving all that is. Holmer’s description again notes this:

“Most of the cultural energies seemed to be not only documented but also forecast by a philosophical scheme. General as it was and tolerant of all kinds of opposition, that philosophy became the climate of opinion within which programs were projected, political policies evaluated, education measured and perpetrated. Even religion was so prefigured.”[50]

People could walk around thinking they are known and that they know themselves, evaluated, educated, and measured, even religiously assessed, by this philosophical scheme that was mid-century Hegelianism. Kierkegaard uses the imagery of vision repeatedly in Works of Love; to see another person as part of a project is to see oneself as merely part of a project as well. One of his extended passages on vision redefines aesthetics, casting the term ‘artist’ as one who ‘by bringing a certain something with him found right on the spot what the well-traveled artist did not find anywhere in the world – perhaps because he did not bring a certain something with him’.[51] He asks what it would be like if artistry ‘only fastidiously discovered that none of us is beautiful!’ and in this way made love into a ‘curse,’ revealing that ‘none of us is worth loving’.[52] Trying to determine where to place another human being on a continuum of any sort – and this includes oneself – is to make a category error as a Christian. It is to see another person but not see her at all. The middle-term ‘neighbor’ that God illumines also illumines a person who is ‘worth’ nothing, because ‘worth’ means nothing in a context of love. This includes the person in the mirror. I am not the word Schnur in the dictionary, you are not a whisk broom, because God created us out of nothing, and recreates us daily.

One of Kierkegaard’s characters names bluntly part of what is at stake in the ‘misconception’ or ‘misunderstanding’ that can result if we see ourselves and others without the ‘middle-term’ of ‘neighbor’. Kierkegaard has a section in a long book called Stages on Life’s Way that convenes a group of men talking about ‘woman’. Joking to his ‘fellow conspirators’ in a section named ‘In Vino Veritas,’ a character known as the ‘Fashion Designer’ boasts of his ability to convince a human being that she functions only for assessment and adornment. Various other men at the banquet have offered soliloquies on ‘woman,’ after having designated that ‘woman’ is not to be allowed in the room. To make a complicatedly dehumanizing text simple, Kierkegaard uses different characters to embody different subtle and overt ways that women have been designated by men as incapable of true friendship, citizenship, pedagogy or camaraderie. The Designer counters that ‘woman does have spirit’ and is quite ‘reflective’. ‘Woman’ therefore cannot be let off the hook of ethics, so to speak, as easily as some of the men in the room assert. The Designer means by this that ‘woman’ does have a capacity to know truth, but that she is easily tricked to subsume herself and truth itself in a game that has no meaning at all. He continues, is ‘woman’ not able infinitely to transform all that is sacred into that which is ‘suitable for adornment?’[53] As the ‘high priest’ of this sustained joke, the Fashion Designer vows that, eventually, by submitting herself to the world of fashion, ‘she is going to wear a ring in her nose’.[54]

In my book on love and treachery, I detail how Kierkegaard creates characters who give life to ways of seeing that preclude actually seeing another person as a person. I spend less time in that book describing how Kierkegaard interrupts a system of thought that erases the viewer herself as a self. I do briefly discuss a section in Either/Or entitled ‘Silhouettes’. In the preface to ‘Silhouettes,’ the character who pens the section, the character ‘A,’ offers a warning: ‘Foresworn may love at all times be;/ Love-magic lulls down in this cave/ The soul surprised, intoxicated,/ In forgetfulness of any oath’.[55] The oath forgotten, supplanted and distorted in this section is a woman’s covenant with God. ‘A’ draws on different stories in which women erased themselves in an attempt to approximate what they think is love, defined within a context other than God as the ‘middle-term’. The shadowy women attempt to find some self-indicting explanation for their abysmal treatment by bad lovers, to avoid rethinking the system that has defined for them their place within that system. Their attempt to find coherent meaning leads them elastically to reconfigure what they otherwise would have to face as their violation by the person they ostensibly ‘love’.[56] The elasticity and resilience of their devotion might seem initially similar to Kierkegaard’s description of the love which, indebted to God, ‘hides a multitude of sins’ and abides in spite of the faults of one’s lover.[57] But their veneration is a distortion of God’s command for love to ‘abide’ as Kierkegaard describes it in Works of Love. God is absent, the middle-term is missing, and no one is a neighbor. The women in that section of Kierkegaard’s perceptive writing have become lost as selves, and they do not even know they are lost. The Fashion Designer of Stages on Life’s Way seems right after all.

Kierkegaard’s interruption of meaning-making systems remains pertinent, as people continue to try to find their place, or just a foothold, in a thoroughgoing system of evaluation and measurement. The temptation to find a way to be useful to a larger project – whether the project be ostensibly good, true, beautiful or merely lucrative – remains strong. When asked to describe Kierkegaard’s Works of Love to someone new, I have sometimes compared his book to novelist Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.[58] In a different form, a few decades after Kierkegaard, Wharton digs up layer through layer of the false wisdom making up nineteenth-century New York society, revealing a complex system of propriety and property, station and money. The book’s title notes that Wharton’s work is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 7:4-5: ‘The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools’. The heroine of the story, Lily Bart, tries to secure her place in a system arbitrated in part by the propriety of women like her aunt, Mrs. Peniston. In one scene, while Lily is relating to her aunt the details of a wedding that her aunt deigned not to attend, Wharton underscores the title of the book:

“Mrs. Peniston rose abruptly, and, advancing to the ormolu clock surmounted by a helmeted Minerva, which throned on the chimney-piece between two malachite vases, passed her lace handkerchief between the helmet and its visor. ‘I knew it – the parlour maid never dusts there!’ she exclaimed, triumphantly displaying a minute spot on the handkerchief; then, reseating herself, she went on . . .” [59]

Within the world Edith Wharton depicts, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, has become an adornment, sitting ‘throned on the chimney piece’ between two malachite vases. In Wharton’s New York, much like Kierkegaard’s Denmark, fashion plus seemliness plus upward mobility equal a kind of providence. Lack of beauty, any sort of disruption, and downward association are marks of divine disfavor. Knowing one’s place is the definition of morality: ‘dread of a scene gave her an inexorableness which the greatest strength of character could not have produced, since it was independent of all considerations of right or wrong,’ and, again, regarding Mrs. Peniston, she ‘had kept her imagination shrouded, like the drawing-room furniture,’ and any disruption of decorum leaves her ‘as much aghast as if she had been accused of leaving her carpets down all summer, or of violating any of the other cardinal laws of housekeeping’.[60] Mrs. Peniston avoids knowledge of anything that might disturb her peace: ‘the mere idea of immorality was as offensive to Mrs. Peniston as a smell of cooking in the drawing room’.[61] She sees Lily’s difficulties navigating what Holmer might call the ‘moving stair’ of their system as a kind of ‘contagious illness’. This is not one woman’s idiosyncrasy. Wharton narrates the general religiosity baptizing the configuration of morality:

“The observance of Sunday at Belmont was chiefly marked by the punctual appearance of the smart omnibus destined to convey the household to the little church at the gates. Whether any one got into the omnibus or not was a matter of secondary importance, since by standing there it not only bore witness to the orthodox intentions of the family, but made Mrs. Trenor feel, when she finally heard it drive away, that she had somehow vicariously made use of it.”[62]

And in another passage: ‘The Wetheralls always went to church . . . Mr. And Mrs. Wetherall’s circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list’.[63] Very much like Kierkegaard describes his own Denmark, God becomes the guarantor of propriety and property, and Christianity a matter of decorum. Rather than living a life under divine confiscation, known and knowing one’s life as a profligate gift from God, God becomes an acquaintance you might consider visiting when not otherwise occupied with the real work of navigating the ‘moving stair’. The characters in House of Mirth, as with the many characters in Kierkegaard’s corpus, variously strive to maintain their status or climb upward by wits, beauty, subterfuge, and inheritance. The task is to navigate that system.

Lily Bart, the heroine in House of Mirth, is alternatively the meticulous planner of circumstances and the ‘victim of the civilization which had produced her . . . the links of her bracelet seem[ing] like manacles chaining her to her fate’.[64] Lily is decidedly, perpetually unwed, spoiling chance after chance for marriage, but she is also certain that she must attach herself. As Wharton words it, Lily Bart attempts to ‘sustain the weight of human vanity’ on mere ‘threads’.[65] Always ‘in an attitude of uneasy alertness toward every possibility of life,’ Lily seeks carefully to spin and to step while also entangled in a complex web much larger than herself.[66] Lily both chooses and is entrapped. She commits suicide, and, according to the system of morality governing her life, the specifics of her destruction do not matter: ‘The whole truth?’  Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe’.[67] Wharton makes the exact same observation that Kierkegaard makes regarding a default mode of weighing the worth of a person by calculation and comparison: ‘She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it’.[68]

‘Church,’ in the novel, is not a place for refuge. Church is a place of judgement. But Wharton ends the novel with an eye-blink moment of life together. Wharton takes her reader into the world hidden from the women and men who cast Lily out. As Lily notes early on, ‘Affluence, unless stimulated by a keen imagination, forms but the vaguest notion of the practical strain of poverty’.[69] This is the ‘luxurious world, whose machinery is so carefully concealed that one scene flows into another without perceptible agency’.[70] It is not in luxury that Lily glimpses hope, but in the home of a friend she has made in what we might called the unconcealed machinery. This other young woman’s home has ‘the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff – a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss’.[71]


“Thus at no moment does the past become necessary, no more than it was necessary when it came into existence or appeared necessary to the contemporary who believed it – that is, believed that it had come into existence.”[72]

Holmer notes about Kierkegaard’s time: ‘To fathom the regularities of the world plan and know one’s place in it seemed the only philosophical and ‘objective’ thing to do’.[73] In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard uses a pseudonym to offer one of many interventions into this working assumption. To layer Wharton’s imagery with Holmer’s, Kierkegaard asks the reader to imagine a world such that the machinery is not the world plan. What would it take to imagine ‘one’s place’ as more like (to use Wharton’s words) ‘the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff’? What kind of re-configuring of vision does it take to receive one’s life as a miracle? What is your own working definition of a miracle? People around me use the word for a gift that does not fit their usual sense of how the world works. Kierkegaard uses this working definition of miracle and suggests that the world works according to the miraculous. He changes the working order of the world and the usual meaning of this word.

The conundrum of existence, in Philosophical Fragments, is a matter of love. Through this pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard backs the reader into the singular importance of Philippians 2:5-11. God came in time, as a servant, to seek, in love, nothing less than equality with each one of us. In his ‘fairy tale’ of a king and a beloved maiden, Climacus connects the existence of a true self not with our ascent upward out of untruth toward truth but with God’s descent toward us, in time, out of love. ‘If the moment is to have decisive significance,’ so the refrain of Philosophical Fragments goes, ‘the god’s love . . . must be not only an assisting love but also a procreative love by which he gives birth to the learner’.[74]  It is within such a relation of love that I receive myself and a neighbor to love. What Kierkegaard spends hundreds of pages narrating in Works of Love, Climacus depicts briefly in a scene of philosophical sparring: the wonder of life is love, and God’s grace in Jesus creates both a lover and a beloved. In a section entitled ‘Interlude,’ Climacus introduces the non-necessity of existence as requisite for individuality and freedom. Climacus recommends this ‘Interlude’ as an intermission, to take up time between his discussion of the contemporary follower of the savior and the one who follows the savior many centuries after the savior’s death. Kierkegaard here plays a helpful, philosophical game with his readers, making an oblique case for God’s gratuitous love as the continued, sustaining given.

I believe Philosophical Fragments is not only about grace generally, but about a very specific, embodied practice of grace, in which God becomes tangible in time. It was precisely the enchantment of transubstantiation that offended some of Hegel’s followers. Yet, by Kierkegaard’s reckoning, love is not naturally necessary, and the presence of God in time is a miracle. Love is free, and more akin to magic, more conducive to fairy poetry than to prose. The ‘Interlude’ dwells on the non-necessity of the actual, on the freely occurring present that exists because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And this section in the book connects the situation of the contemporary follower, who sees the savior face to face, and the current follower, who seemingly follows at a distance of centuries. Climacus suggests that his own readers, by grace, encounter the same presence of the savior as did the savior’s original followers, through the moment that is the eternal in time. I believe he is intimating Holy Communion. He writes:

“But, humanly speaking, consequences built upon a paradox are built upon the abyss, and the total content of the consequences, which is handed down to the single individual only under the agreement that it is by virtue of a paradox, is not to be passed on like real estate, since the whole thing is in suspense.”[75]

Howard and Edna Hong helpfully note that the Danish word Kierkegaard uses that they have translated as ‘abyss’ means, literally, without ground. The paradox of God in time, of Jesus Christ, is groundless, and the moment that is Jesus Christ present for each individual is wholly inexplicable. My response, in the real (but absolutely non-necessary) presence of the one who makes me actually, magically, present, is wonder. This is the creation and recreation of an individual in time – the individual created and sustained each moment by the grace-filled presence of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. And this brings us back to Kierkegaard’s straight-up notation in Works of Love with which I opened this essay: ‘When we speak this way, we are speaking of the love that sustains all existence, of God’s love. If for one moment, one single moment, it were to be absent, everything would be confused’.[76] So, I return, again and again, to the table, to receive the real presence of this miracle, the grace to know myself known, and the gift of a neighbor to love. This is my way out of the machinery – an escape from the moving-stair that history is supposed to be.


For Further Reading:

Mackey, Louis. Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Müller, Paul. Kierkegaard’s Works of Love: Christian Ethics and the Maieutic Ideal, trans. C. Stephen Evans and Jan Evans. Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel, 1992.

Watkin, Julia, Kierkegaard. New York: Continuum, 1997.

Mooney, Edward. Selves in Discord and Resolve: Kierkegaard’s Moral-Religious Psychology From Either/Or to Sickness Unto Death,New York: Routledge, 1996.

[1] WL, 301.

[2] Paul L. Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, ed. David J. Gouwens and Lee C. Barrett III (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) 26.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] I will not here address whether any form of ‘Hegelianism’ is faithful to the complexity of the actual writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

[7] WL, 301.

[8] Ibid., 375.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid., 469, supplement.

[11] Ibid., 470, supplement.

[12] Ibid., 3, emphasis in the original.

[13] Ibid., 427, supplement.

[14] Ibid., 94.

[15] Ibid., 93.

[16] Ibid., 90.

[17] Ibid., 99.

[18] Ibid., 102.

[19] FT, 77. The full quote is, ‘Nor could Abraham explain further, for his life is like a book under divine confiscation and never becomes publice juris [public property]’.

[20] WL, 58, 102, 107, 142.

[21] Ibid., 141.

[22] Ibid., 77.

[23] Ibid., 158.

[24] Ibid., 300.

[25] Ibid., 301.

[26] Ibid., 42-43.

[27] Ibid., 42.

[28] Ibid., 186.

[29] Ibid., 319.

[30] Ibid., 384.

[31] PF, xix.

[32] Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, 38.

[33] Amy Laura Hall and Kara N. Slade, ‘The Single Individual in Ordinary Time: Theological Engagement with Sociobiology’, Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 26, no. 1 (2013): 66-82.

[34] PF, 3.

[35] CUP, 5.

[36] PF, 109.

[37] Ibid., 206.

[38] Julia Watkin, ‘Boom! The Earth Is Round! – On the Impossibility of an Existential System,’ International Kierkegaard Commentary: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 101.

[39] David Brooks, ‘The Moral Bucket List’, New York Times, April 11, 2015.

[40] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 237-238.

[41] Jonathan Haidt, ‘Doing science as if groups existed: Jonathan Haidt replies to David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Marc D. Hauser,’ Edge,

[42] David Mayer, ‘‘You Should Probably Compare Yourself To Others More, Not Less’, Fast Company, June 17, 2016,

[43] WL, 142.

[44] EO1, 36.

[45] Ibid., 36, 26.

[46] WL, 142.

[47] Ibid., 317-318.

[48] Ibid., 318.

[49] Ibid., 158.

[50] Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, 38.

[51] WL, 158.

[52] Ibid.

[53] SLW, 67.

[54] Ibid., 71.

[55] EO1, 166.

[56] Ibid., 180.

[57] WL, 289.

[58] Edith Wharton, House of Mirth (New York: Scribner Paperback, 1995).

[59] Ibid., 160.

[60] Ibid., 181.

[61] Ibid., 186.

[62] Ibid., 82.

[63] Ibid., 84.

[64] Ibid., 23.

[65] Ibid., 166.

[66] Ibid., 145.

[67] Ibid., 319.

[68] Ibid., 243.

[69] Ibid., 117.

[70] Ibid., 424.

[71] Ibid., 448.

[72] PF, 86.

[73] Holmer, On Kierkegaard and the Truth, 25.

[74] PF, 30-31.

[75] PF, 98.

[76] WL, 301.

Why I Teach a Dead Danish Philosopher

treachery coverWhen people find out I teach at Duke, they often ask what I teach. Given that I teach classes ranging from “War and Masculinity,” “Sexual Ethics,” “The Love Commandment,” and classes on medicine, and technology, my answer is complicated.  If I have not totally bored them, their next question is often about my writing.  I skip quickly over my first book, saying it is on a dead Danish philosopher, moving on to my second book about advertising.  I realized recently this is silly.  Just because his name is odd does not mean I should shy away from talking about him.  So, this month, I will explain why I teach a dead Danish philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard.  A friend suggested I say his name is pronounced “Cookie Guard,” which works fine.

I was taught early that the only Christian affirmation you can see with your own eyes is that we find original ways of sinning. One way of sinning I have seen with my own eyes is treating another person or a group of people as tools.  I have met people who even seem to think of themselves primarily as tools.  Kierkegaard borrowed this description of human sin from a Prussian philosopher named Immanuel Kant, who borrowed it from Jewish and Christian teachings.  Basically, thou shalt not treat another person as a tool.  That is one of Kierkegaard’s core affirmations, and this made him odd for his time.  Kierkegaard studied in Germany in the nineteenth-century, when most of Western Europe was keen on a style of thinking about people and history that sorts people into different types.  There are people who are useful, but who are not really people; people who are useful, and possibly capable of deciding some things for themselves; people who make themselves useful by doing the sorting of other people; and a small number of people fit to make decisions for the other three types of people.  This stair-step sorting of people was not new, but there was a new sense that all of human history depended on sorting and using people efficiently.  Due in part to industrialization, which meant new machines and new ways of moving people around, people at universities across Europe preached a message of sorting people, for the sake of moving history upward toward a goal.  When combined with a sense that this sorting is God’s will, the message was powerful.  Wisdom could be confused with knowing your place, and your neighbor’s place, and faith could be confused with obedience to whomever was above you in this sorting scheme.

I continue to teach Kierkegaard because this way of thinking continues. The unspooling of this sin happens in different forms of Darwinism, capitalism, Marxism, and progressivism, to name only a few Western isms, and there are Christians who mistake this as truth.  And, given that dominant Western culture continues to define what marks an upward trend of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ in non-Western countries, this sorting-people-as-tools ideology shapes the lives of people outside Western culture.  Many of us have been taught in some form to make ourselves useful for the sake of a larger project, and to measure and judge other people, even people close to us, by their fitness for that larger project.  ‘God’ can become the liquidator of individuality, to make a person see herself and other people as tools for the sake of a region, a family, a nation, or another human institution.  Kierkegaard went back home to Denmark after studying in Germany to write books that resituate everything.  He writes that to be human is to be infinitely known and extravagantly beloved by God.  This being-known-by-God is not progressive; it is not up a ladder toward a goal.  God does not know us little by little, as we become more useful as tools for some project.  Instead, Kierkegaard describes this being-known-by-God as a repetitive “moment” called grace.  God recreates us daily, just as God created all of the world out of nothing.  So, for me to assess myself or people around me by whether I have become more useful to a larger project is to make an error in perspective.  I am seeing badly, because I am seeing apart from the incalculable gratuity that is you, me, and everything that is.

The implications for this way of thinking can shape everything from sexual intimacy to education, from the workplace to parenthood. Kierkegaard did not sentimentalize Christianity so that I am only shaped by grace in certain circles.  He suggested I risk seeming outright foolish by every form of tool-thinking.  For students who have been taught to justify their very existence on the planet, by scoring well on this or that tool-measuring test, this foolishness is both scary, and very good news.

Draft of 2013 essay for The Muslim World on Torture and Television

This is a draft of an essay that was published by The Muslim World,

Special Issue: Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture. Edited by Daniel E. Arnold and Amy Laura Hall of Duke University, April 2013, Volume 103, Issue 2, Pages 195–286.

Torture and Television in the United States

Amy Laura Hall,, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Duke University

What exactly, we must ask ourselves, is missing from our world that we should require spilled blood and incinerated flesh, and the fear such havoc and loss create, to feel alive?

Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (23).

Many scholars of American culture see our national preoccupation with female rescue as mere cover story, a pretext employed to justify the sanguinary pleasure our pioneers took in the slaughter of the continent’s natives and the decimation of the wilderness . . . But what if the reverse is also true? What if the unbounded appetite for conquest derives not only from our long relish for the kill but from our even longer sense of disgrace on the receiving end of assault? . . . What if the deepest psychological legacy of our original war on terror wasn’t the pleasure we now take in dominance but the original shame that domination seeks desperately to conceal?

Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (213).

Although much of this book details how easy it is for ordinary people to begin to engage in evil deeds, or to be passively indifferent to the suffering of others, the deeper message is a positive one. It is by understanding the how and why of such evils that we are all in a better position to uncover, oppose, defy, and triumph over them . . .

Philip Zimbardo (creator of the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment), The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Forward (viii).


Part of Abdullah Antepli’s anti-torture appeal in 2011, which appears in this volume, was for American citizens to risk the moral injury of viewing real footage of torture. In this, he and I shared an assumption. We assumed that most people in the US had been avoiding such viewing. As conference organizer Matthew Elia explained in the months leading up to the event, the planning team thought we were asking people to make a shift – to “turn their eyes in this direction” and pay attention to what was being done in the name of American security. But, during the course of the conference, it became clear that there was a sizeable, and not idiosyncratic, segment of the population that wanted to view torture. American eyes had already been looking in the direction of interrogation since 9/11, turning to the Fox Broadcasting Company’s television show 24 each week for nearly a decade (2001-2010), as a character named Jack Bauer from 24 did “whatever it takes” to keep Americans safe. Robin Kirk named this pattern specifically in her talk, here in essay form: Why did a significant part of the United States wish for scenes of torture?

This question assumes that it does not lie within a default pattern of human behavior to seek out images of another human being suffering. Working with that assumption for over a year after the conference, I am willing to venture an interpretation. It is by no means a novel one, but it is one that I think bears repeating. 9/11 involved a mass spectacle of violation that continues to shape conceptions of gender, sexuality, and safety in the US. One need not be steeped in Freudian analysis to perceive the visual of the felled towers as emasculating, and several generations of viewers in the US watched the grand display of cruelty and vulnerability on screen, together, also watching one another’s reaction to national impotence. For a segment of the population, the horror was not only unimaginable, but it threatened basic notions of the home and family. That is, the spectacle of American castration was repeated as children watched adults in immobilized fear, as they watched the screen, and adults perceived the critical, confused gaze of children, who were watching them watch the screen. With Susan Faludi, I believe that the event tapped into anxieties about masculine authority, and, following her lead, I suggest here that torture on television (specifically, through the Fox Broadcasting Network’s serial drama 24) provided a kind of collective catharsis – a way many Americans sought manageably to endure violation and also to recalibrate a myth of afflicted, but yet still potent, masculinity.[1] I also interpret the widely-popular spectacle of violence on the new (2011) Home Box Office television show Game of Thrones better to understand the work 24 did for viewers. By watching characters suffer and die in horrific ways, viewers may have been trying to form a kind of affective callus to cover over past fears, to harden current fears of vulnerability, and to steel themselves for potential, future loss. I posit in closing that such viewing, while seemingly therapeutic, may leave a generation of viewers less capable of both self-dignity and empathy toward the designated enemy.

This question has confounded me to such an extent that I will not even attempt to untangle two related questions. First, who is to say who makes up the “we” and the “our” for any reading public? The authors of the opening quotes above use first person, plural pronouns. In Faludi’s The Terror Dream, she works through American myths and memories, and the ways that these shape “our” imagination. It is fair to say that she does not seek to analyze or give voice to non-dominant myths and memories, except inasmuch as she recounts how white women’s resistance to dominant myths were squelched. Corey Robin writes about the “unspectacular, quotidian fear” that permeates the lives of Americans by considering the multiple permutations of domination that make up what appears “normal” to us – the forms of fear that constitute the “American way of repression.”[2] Robin does tell stories of resistance, but his appeal of “we” is to a particular, book-reading segment of Americans. Philip Zimbardo, as a social psychologist, attempts both to cut through and diagnose the particularity of torture-culture, and to delineate scientifically the collective conditions that made up Abu Ghraib in a way that can warn peoples across the specificity of time and place. I appreciate each focused effort to understand “ourselves,” and I here limit myself to beginning the sufficiently confounding task of sorting through the desire for scenes of torture, with little attention to counter-narratives and sub-narratives of resistance.

Again, this is an imposing enough question to begin asking here: How did people I know and love, citizens of the US who consider themselves loyal Democrats as well as those who are passionately, evangelically Republican, come reliably to partake of storylines in which torture seems to secure the homeland? Why did “we” make torture part of “our” lives? Fox’s television show 24 seems to have functioned as a kind of romantic bond for some of its fans in the US. Over the course of this research, I personally heard about a couple who took the first six seasons of 24 on their honeymoon, and about a couple whose weekly date nights consisted of watching each episode. These two couples might have eschewed one another at any social gathering, but they had in common a few decades, their race (white), and a basically Christian upbringing.

Regarding the second unanswered query, I will not try to solve the chicken and the egg question of whether a) Americans get what we want from the media, or b) Americans are told what to want by the media. Mostly, I will ask questions about a). But, regarding b), permit me a long, preliminary remark. It is now considered politically-aware, common sense that mainstream media, after 9/11, made torture appear a customary component of national security. Fox News’s unapologetic, rightward leaning, pro-torture commentary in the US is overt, but the more mainstream New York Times and liberal-leaning National Public Radio’s reticence to use the term “torture” (much less offer an ongoing account for the prohibition of torture) has done its part in acclimating Americans to a culture of torture as well.[3] I hope eventually to probe the various ways that the effort at equating torture with everydayness has been concerted. The Rupert Murdoch scandal in 2011 forced a reckoning with the well-organized, power politics of Western media, but that pattern is far from new. For the skeptical, I will cite a salient example. Recently, the WYNC radio series On the Media featured a historical piece entitled “White House Meddling in First Film about the Atomic Bomb,” noting how MGM and political architects of the Manhattan Project sought one another out to sell and tell a particular story about atomic weaponry. As Greg Mitchell explains in the radio interview, General Leslie Groves was given script approval authority, with the goal of shaping public perceptions of “The Truth”:

One of his main goals was to downplay the impact of radiation, so there was a portion of the script that was rewritten to show that radiation wasn’t that big a deal. Each variation of the script adhered more and more to the official Hiroshima narrative, that there was no choice but to use the bomb and that the President not only made the right decision but there was really no controversy around it . . . One of the planes in the attack, they changed the name on the side of the plane from Boxcar to Necessary Evil, which I love the blatant nature of that. In the explanation in the movie, both in what Truman says and what others say, continually talk about Hiroshima being basically one big military base, which was not true at all. There was a military base there but 95 percent of the casualties were civilians, mainly women and children. He claims that they dropped warning leaflets on Hiroshima beforehand, which was – it was completely false. The film also does not mention Nagasaki at all.[4]

There are many more such stories. Might some enterprising thinkers under the Department of Defense’s “Public Affairs” umbrella have colluded to create the Fox television series 24, or to shape the plotlines once the show was off and running? We would be underestimating their ambition if we did not at least allow for the possibility.[5] But I would wager that even the brilliant men and women of the pro-torture propaganda machinery in the US could not have successfully created desire in the viewer out of thin air. The popularity of television depictions of torture tug on the pain and pleasure impulses in the mix of “our” current culture. It is incumbent on “us,” as Zimbardo urges, to “uncover, oppose, and defy” the pro-torture memes that have shaped our imaginations.[6]

Television as Cathedral

On December 19, 2012, “The Stephanie Miller Show” replayed on their radio broadcast footage of a right-leaning television commentator, as he appealed to left-leaning commentators not to politicize a tragic, school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut the week before. He argued, “Television is the cathedral where the American public goes to mourn after an event like this.”[7] It seems a helpful phrase. Although there are an infinite variety of options on the screen for distraction from what counts as national news, there are only a few choices for partaking of and sorting through the official, common-sense account of what counts as national news in the US. There was a need, the commentator argued, for an atmosphere of structured, common purpose to be presented to a viewing public suffering from trauma and stricken by grief. The cathedral is a useful heuristic, I believe, for thinking about the function that widely popular television shows serve in the US. Until the splintering of the Protestant Reformation, the general population in Western European cities attended the liturgies that marked particular feast and fast days in cathedrals. And there, through words, bodily practices, static and moving images, and music, they were influenced to perceive their daily lives and human history in particular ways. When, years ago, one of my Yale Divinity professors noted that our own American culture had no narratives in common – that we had lost a sense of common story – I (irreverently) began singing the theme song to Gilligan’s Island, a CBS situation comedy that ran in syndication on US television for decades. Everyone in the seminar except the two international (German) students hummed along. There are common, meaning-making narratives in American culture, many of them televised.

So, in October, 2012, when President Obama said that another Fox Television network series, Showtime’s Homeland, was among his favorite television shows, he did not have to justify an eccentricity.[8] This very popular US drama series features an established, female darling of American television, who previously struggled with adolescence on the critically acclaimed ABC drama My So-Called Life, now, as an adult, attentively tracing and then tearfully raging against plots of Muslim terrorism in the US. This image has become a new icon in the cathedral that is television. In the first season of the show, millions watched screens as actress Claire Danes watched a potential terrorist on her own screen, in an unsubtle joining of voyeurism and arm-chair (or couch) military intelligence gathering. As one reviewer notes, it is a perfect terrorism serial for a purportedly gender-egalitarian administration conducting remote drone attacks.[9] Our female heroine bests her on-site male colleagues with her stationary, off-site screen sleuthing. The creators of the new Fox series Homeland had accomplished cultural iconography a decade prior, with another baby-faced, blonde darling of a previous generation, Kiefer Sutherland and Fox’s 24.

Television is a meaning-making medium, and the form of that meaning matters. In 2002, Gregory M. Lamb, staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor wondered at the precipitous increase in television violence after 9/11: “So much for media critics’ expectations that grisly fictional violence on TV would abate after the sobering events of September 11. Instead, scenes of torture and sadism appeared on network entertainment TV at a rate nearly double that over the previous two years.”[10] The piece names in particular a Parents Television Council (PTC) study, the same organization that, in 2008, characterized 24 as the biggest offender: “A Parents Television Council review found that 24 showed 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons. [The main character of 24,] Jack Bauer has been involved in more than 160 separate instances of violence since the show began (all six seasons) and has killed at least 71 individuals.” But other television programming was keeping up: “there were 110 scenes of torture on prime time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001. From 2002 to 2005, the number increased to 624 scenes of torture. Data from 2006 to 2007 showed that there were 212 scenes of torture.”[11] Why? Lamb gives one clear answer, and, by way of a metaphor, a helpful interpretive tool. He quotes Jamsheed Akrami, communications professor at William Paterson University: “Violence, as odd as it sounds, can have a sort of cathartic effect on people. When they are exposed to violence there is something of a vicarious element … [of] participation that could have a soothing effect on them.” Lamb also likens the increase in violence with “the proverbial frog in a pot of warming water.”[12]

Was there a desire on the part of many in the television viewing public, after 9/11, to partake of violence in a controlled, scripted manner, and, more specifically, to view torture as a form of cultural catharsis? As the PTC study notes, there was not only an increase in the number of torture and sadism scenes, but there was a shift. The supposedly “good guys” were practicing torture and sadism. And, by watching “our own” “good guys” torture again, and again, and again, saving “our own” women and children, were we like frogs, with the temperature rising just slowly enough that we were eventually willing to accept as par for the safety course the images of naked, hooded prisoners piled in a pyramid? I mean, at least the interrogators at Abu Ghraib had not severed the prisoner’s heads, right? That’s what Jack Bauer did to one recalcitrant informant early in the second season of Fox’s show 24, after all, and he had saved the entire West Coast as a result.

Susan Faludi builds her hypothesis in her book The Terror Dream by linking example after example of erroneous but gripping storytelling after 9/11. The actual firefighters who entered the actual buildings died, in large part, due to an ill-funded force with faulty radio-equipment. In the post-9/11 mythic narratives, however, they became superheroes who died saving vulnerable women and children, even though the victims of the 9/11 murder were overwhelmingly male. As a rule, the widows of those male victims were not eager to become domestic heroines, holding down the suburban fort with apron and cupcakes, but there was a concerted effort to have them tell such a story, again and again. Faludi shows how the actual survivors of the trauma – the ones whose lives were directly shaped by the murders – were resolutely trying to deal with reality. Meanwhile, those of us in the US who were surviving the trauma from a distance, trying to go about our daily lives while intermittently viewing scenes of horror, seemed eager to buy (literally) a story written as a familiar, domestic myth of effective male protection and female vulnerability. Why? Faludi suggests that the hero/damsel myth was a well-worn way to deal with the shame of an unspeakable national failure, a well-worn set of gender myths built up after the prolonged period of conflict with Native Americans under American expansion:

“We perceive our country as inviolable, shielded from enemy penetration. Indeed, in recent history the United States has been, among nations, one of the most immune to attack on its home soil. And yet, our foundational drama as a society was apposite, a profound exposure to just such assaults, murderous homeland incursions by dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants under the flag of no recognized nation, complying with no accepted Western rules of engagement and subscribing to an alien culture, who attacked white America on its “own” soil and against civilian targets. September 11 was aimed at our cultural solar plexus precisely because it was an “unthinkable” occurrence for a nation that once could think of little else. It was not, in fact, an inconceivable event; it was the characteristic and formative American ordeal, the primal injury of which we could not speak, the shard of memory stuck in our throats. Our ancestors had already fought a war on terror, a very long war, and we have lived with its scars ever since.”[13]

I believe it is helpful to apply Faludi’s hypothesis to interpret the popularity of shows that have depicted escalating torture as an efficacious and necessary means of preserving (or saving) the social body.

I will also go one step further, to suggest that the gender politics of such shows may take their form from the same cultural impulse that led to the ritualized emasculation of Muslim prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib. Why were prisoners not only intimidated, but sexually violated, when study after military study has shown that such methods are ineffective for securing intelligence information? As Zimbardo explains in detail (using government reports) in his book The Lucifer Effect, the story that sexually intimidating and violating practices at Abu Ghraib were the result of the unique depravity of the “Abu Ghraib Seven,” is disproven repeatedly: “This thorough investigation [the Jones/Faye report] by two Army generals should lay to rest any claims that the MPs on the night shift of Tier 1A abused and tortured the prisoners solely out of their personally deviant motivations or sadistic impulses. Instead, the picture that is emerging is one of complex multiple causality.”[14] One of the causes, according to The Schlesinger Report, was the toxic mix of institutionalized dehumanization that Zimbardo himself had documented in his Stanford Prison Project. And, as Zimbardo explains, the Schlesinger Report highlighted in particular the ways that nakedness had been used to dehumanize the prisoners, rendering them violable within a system of perpetual fear of attack, unlivable filth in an overcrowded torture facility (that the U.K. military command had tried to condemn as obviously unusable), and the overall disorientation of the Iraq war. Dealing daily with their own vulnerability, and the pressure to produce “intelligence results” that would “save American lives,” military police officers dehumanized and violated the prisoners under their watch.[15] I believe it possible to view American viewing habits after 9/11 in a related way. Due in part to the shame of violation, we desired a narrative of necessary, controlled, and effective violation. By this reading, the treatment of Muslim men suspected of terrorism involved their standing in not only for the terrorists who got away, by dying on 9/11, but all of the original, Native American terrorists in mythic, American memory, who had repeatedly rendered male colonists, settlers, and pioneers impotent.

“Get Your Hands Dirty” on 24

This section title comes from a key scene in the second season of Fox’s 24. The first episode of the second season opens immediately with a scene that is unambiguously, blatantly of torture. A man is stretched across a table, while his torturers, all of some unspecified Asian descent, administer electric shock to break his silence. He “breaks” and tells the interrogators what they were seeking, and they walk down the hallway to tell the US military officers the news. It is the first extended, obvious torture scene in the series, and it is important to note that the foreign torturers seem to have been hired to do the repugnant work for the US military. Viewers sitting in their living rooms have to choose whether to watch the torture scene or, like the fastidious men in the other room, avoid the spectacle. Are you “man” enough to watch what must be done? This is the implicit question posed, already, in the very first scene of the second season. Soon after this, in case viewers had not gotten the point, Jack excoriates a key character with the “Counter Terrorist Unit” for just such squeamishness: “That’s the problem with you, George. You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty. I’d start rolling up your sleeves.” Jack Bauer then uses a hacksaw to sever a man’s head from his body, right there in a CTU board room.

I have avoided graphic espionage and police dramas like 24 not because I am morally superior, but because I am morally nauseous. Watching violence makes me physically ill. When my first daughter was a baby, I gave up television, and I have not looked back. After 9/11, I intentionally stayed away from visual images of the horror, hearing only news reports on the radio. They were enough to make me never want to fly again. But, in the midst of the fear, I absolutely was uninterested in watching a show that involved people inflicting pain on other human beings, for any reason. So, in preparation for this essay, I had to watch from scratch, so to speak, the first two seasons of 24, along with multiple episodes of Homeland, and Game of Thrones. I like to fancy myself the ideal, naïve, interpreter. I have become so unused to television that all of the tricks work on me. I became hooked on all three shows and had to swear off of further watching in order to avoid more nightmares.

In case any other readers have been able to avoid 24, this basic summary, from Jane Mayer’s piece on 24 creator Joel Surnow may be helpful:

“Each season of 24, which has been airing on Fox since 2001, depicts a single, panic-laced day in which Jack Bauer–a heroic C.T.U. agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland–must unravel and undermine a conspiracy that imperils the nation. Terrorists are poised to set off nuclear bombs or bioweapons, or in some other way annihilate entire cities. The twisting story line forces Bauer and his colleagues to make a series of grim choices that pit liberty against security. Frequently, the dilemma is stark: a resistant suspect can either be accorded due process–allowing a terrorist plot to proceed–or be tortured in pursuit of a lead. Bauer invariably chooses coercion. With unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused; almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.”[16]

As Mayer recounts later in the article, the man at Fox who secured the series for the network explained to her, “[It] doesn’t have much patience for the niceties of civil liberties or due process.” “Extreme measures,” he explains, “are sometimes necessary for the greater good.” The show features a repetitive liturgy of moral meaning, and it draws on different storytelling genres – cliffhanging serial, soap opera, film noir – to pull the viewer into a world where the lived details of family, kinship, local and national politics, are all set on a precipice, dependent on the charisma and potency of one man.   A colleague told me, when I explained I was going to watch as much of the series as I could stomach, that he thinks 24 is “Scooby-Doo for grownups,” referring to a wildly popular cartoon franchise for children in the US, featuring a goofy dog and a sleuthing band of teenagers, which aired for decades on Saturday mornings. 24 is similarly formulaic. The resolution of the besetting conflict on 24 does not come until the end of the season, whereas for Scooby-Doo and his pals the resolution comes at the end of each half-hour episode. But the comparison is useful, down even to the predictable musical score for each show. Watching 24, I came to foresee fairly quickly which sort of music would accompany which kind of scene. As with Scooby and his best friend Shaggy, Jack Bauer’s snooping around where he wasn’t wanted came with an initially creepy, but, after so much repetition, eventually reassuring type of score. And 24 routinely plays Wagnerian-Important music when Jack Bauer must c-o-n-c-e-n-t-r-a-t-e to keep his cool, much as Scooby-Doo played bubble-gum pop tunes when Shaggy and Scooby had to stop running in place and actually RUN. (This being one of the regular gags on the cartoon series.) One big difference: the series Scooby-Doo, Where are You was intentionally created as a non-violent alternative to the usual children’s television programming at the time: a team solving a mystery without weapons.

People who think about the meaning of television as a story-telling device explain that “the basic mechanisms of following a story are not ‘natural’ or simply automatic. We must learn how to process the fragmented camera shots, multiple streams of auditory material, and conventions of visual composition, turning them into a story that typically appears ‘realistic’ even though we never experience the real world through such devices.” Jason Mittell continues, “Viewers learn to comprehend media by building mental schemata, or cognitive patterns, that process visual and aural information into recognizable conventions that can be applied to any moving-image example.”[17]  And, in a serial, the writers are able to repeat these cognitive patterns in such a way as to shape cognition itself.  One of my most rudimentary, teaching examples on this point involves the game of checkers.  After playing the game for hours, I found myself thinking of pieces of furniture, people, whatever object, as set up in a pattern to allow for a good move on the board.  When taught repetitively to think in a pattern, many of us maintain that pattern in other, totally unrelated arenas of life.  (If this example does not work, I ask students to consider how often they wish they had a “mute” button to apply to a live person.)  The creators of 24 well matched form with content for a show on terrorism and US counter-terrorism policies, in that their use of various serial, even soap-opera, motifs allowed for what one teacher called “an indefinitely expandable middle.”  Tania Modleski continues the interpretation of soap operas, explaining that “successful soap operas do not end.”  Indeed, “they cannot end.”[18] 24 works like a soap opera, in that it is set up for repeated non-resolution, formally identical to the “War on Terror” which cannot end either.  Fox Network’s new series, Homeland continues the 24 soap opera, set appropriately for the Obama administration.

Something that struck me quickly with the first season of 24 is the anxiety over marriage, motherhood, sex, and fatherhood.  The series is well-constructed to attract female as well as male viewers, and not only because it features the aesthetically normative Kiefer Sutherland.  Faludi seeks to understand why the murders of 9/11, ostensibly by an anti-Western, anti-feminist movement, became a catalyst for anti-feminist, pro-maternal and downright paternalistic ideology in the US.  One quotation she cites, from a May 10, 2004, piece by Kay Daly, “Happy ‘Security’ Moms Day,” is helpful to hear the tone:

“On a clear September morning in 2001, the most basic instinct of mothers – protection of home and family – took top priority over any other concerns. In an instant, all other concerns outside the realm of survival seemed trivial.  Suddenly, the enemy had not only invaded our nation, but the realities of everyday life.”[19]

The storylines in both of the first two seasons of 24 intertwine a terror threat around issues within the family:  marital conflict and struggle between children and parents, most specifically around paternal authority, female sexuality, and feminine vulnerability.  On the packaged DVD set of the first season, the background image for the concluding episodes is helpfully obvious.  It shows an overlaid collage of Jack Bauer hugging his wife and daughter, with their heads visually muted into the outline of the continental US.  The fate and future of the family is tangled up with the fate and future of the nation, and vice versa.  What Anthony N. Smith writes about HBO’s series, The Sopranos, is true of 24, although 24 heightens the importance beyond an exotic, ethnic sub-culture in New Jersey: “it is likely that one storyline in a Sopranos episode will feature domestic concerns, while another graphic violence,” and, “the utilisation of this traditional technique of cutting between disparate story-strands frequently presented Chase [the Sopranos creator] with many opportunities to cut between beats presenting mob violence [or, in our case, intelligence/terrorist violence] and beats documenting everyday suburban living.”[20]  Smith suggests, along with many others, that this back and forth allowed for the wide-spread popularity of a character as deceitful as Tony Soprano, and, I would suggest, a similar rhythm in 24 appealed to viewers anxious not only about national security, but about the ways that traditional, male authority within the homeland had been undermined after 9/11.  After all, although Bauer was able to save the nation by the end of the first season, he still was unable to save his own wife.  While critics at the time marveled at this turn in the storyline, I would suggest that Jack’s failure to save his own wife may have been as visually therapeutic to viewers as the earlier scenes in which he tortured his wife and daughter’s master-mind tormentor.  Viewing Jack’s helplessness may have allowed a kind of reassurance that even a hero can massively fail, and still return the next season to fight.

The conflict between Jack Bauer and his wife and daughter, and the conflict within the soon-to-be presidential Palmer family, is vital for setting up the arc of the 24 storyline. First, I will try briefly to relate the drama regarding the Bauer family. A key scene in the first episode of the first season involves Jack failing to be present when his own teenage daughter seems on the verge of having sex with a boy she has just recently met. Against the backdrop of the literally ticking time bomb is the race to save his daughter’s virginity – not to mention, as it turns out, the ticking of his wife’s ovaries. When Jack’s wife searches a furniture warehouse for their daughter, who has gone on an escapade (turned kidnapping) with a girlfriend and two teenage boys (who turn out to be thugs-for-hire), the girlfriend’s father (who, it turns out, is not really her father) helps Jack’s wife find a condom package . . . wait for it . . . torn open. It is obvious, at that point, that one of the teenage girls has had sex. At this point, Jack’s wife tries desperately to reach him, to give him the news that his daughter may have had sex. But, sadly, Jack is too busy saving the nation to save his daughter’s virginity. Another aspect to this ongoing search drama in the first series is the viewer’s expectation that Jack’s wife, who is increasingly distraught and feeling abandoned by her super-intelligence-anti-terrorist husband, may turn to the other girl’s (single) father for intimate solace. Within the first three episodes, the writers have interspersed anxiety about (protected) teen sex, and anxiety over what appears potentially to be (perhaps justified) impending marital infidelity with the first scene of dismemberment. Jack Bauer removes the extended finger of a dead man, chopping it off in a way that is quite unsubtly phallic.

The first scene of torture in the first series may not, at first, read as torture. But I would argue it is not only torture, but torture related to female sexuality. Jack Bauer’s daughter has been kidnapped, in part due to her girlfriend’s lack of judgment about teenage boys. Her girlfriend, as the viewers know, is the foolish one who has had sex in the furniture warehouse, and, after their kidnapping, the bad girl eventually ends up unconscious in the hospital. Jack has, in the meantime, figured out that his daughter’s disappearance is likely linked to his role in the ongoing terrorist plot of the season, and he (finally) contacts his wife to tell her to watch out, lest the one person (his daughter’s girlfriend) who can tell them about their daughter’s whereabouts be silenced by someone posing as benevolent. So, the viewers, who are as clueless at this point as Jack’s wife, watch as a new doctor enters the girl’s room and administers shocks to resuscitate her. The question is left excruciatingly open. Was the girl actually in cardiac arrest, or was the entire thing feigned, so that she could be shocked to death by a counter-agent posing as her doctor. The first scene of possible torture is to the “bad” girl, who chose foolishly to have sex, and who, it turns out, will be eventually suffocated, while whimpering, at the hands of the man who has been impersonating her father.

I assert that this scene is the first torture scene, in part due to the fact that it repeats itself in the second season. Here, another young woman, barely out of her teens, is also submitted to electrical shocks, even as the doctor insists it might kill her – all because she may be able to remember computer codes that can help Jack Bauer trace the mystery of the season. In the latter case, it is obvious within the storyline that this young Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) employee suffers bodily violation for the sake of the cause. There is no question about the motives of the people ordering the shock treatment. They are the “good guys,” willing in this case to dirty their hands even when it comes to a person for whom they have real affection. Both scenes are linked to a key part of the storyline in the second series, regarding the willingness of the President of the United States to countenance the torture of a colleague, through the same shock method, this time administered to his brain. Finally, to close the loop, although Jack Bauer’s own daughter has avoided illicit sex, and, perhaps thereby avoided the fate that the series writers meted out to her bad friend, Bauer fails to protect his own wife from being raped in his daughter’s stead.

The end of the first season thus ends with a “security mom’s” nightmare. Jack ensconces his wife and daughter in what he hopes will be a “safe house” in the suburbs, complete not only with a male guard hiding out in a cherry-picker outside, but also a male guard mowing the lawn. When the viewer discovers that the terrorists have invaded the domicile, the camera shows . . . again, wait for it . . . the lawn mower is unoccupied. The good men have been shot, and the women eventually must, again, fend for themselves. By the end of the season, Jack’s wife is not only pregnant, possibly by her rapist, but she is also dead, shot by Jack’s former lover, a CTU rogue who returns in the second series to endure torture at Jack’s hands. The themes of sex, marriage, torture and terror are obviously and explicitly intertwined, in ways that reveal a brilliant writing feat – the “War on Terror” is not only about ticking time bombs and torture. It is about real families living with the daily struggles of teen sex, infidelity, and paternal impotence.

Intertwined with the Bauer drama is the Palmer drama, as David Palmer, candidate for US President (and, eventually President) must reckon with the past lies of his wife, who has deceived him ostensibly to save her children and his political career. To go through the serpentine details of this plot-line would test the reader’s patience, so I will concentrate on one contrast. Whereas Jack Bauer’s wife is thin (arguably anorexic), helpless, and relatively clueless, David Palmer’s wife is hale, resourceful, and brilliant. But, a key aspect of the first two seasons is Mrs. Palmer’s manifestation of what one friend called “pure evil.” Mrs. Palmer, who is, we should note, African-American, serves as the stereotype of an emasculating matriarch, even masterminding a plan for her husband’s infidelity so that she can potentially control him through the compliance of a younger, female aide. While the first season ends with Jack holding his dead wife, as he weeps and repeatedly apologizes for his inability to protect her, it also ends with David Palmer dismissing his wife in steely-resolved, humiliating fashion, stating that “You’ve lost touch with what it is to be a parent, a friend, a wife.” Finally, in front of the secret-service agents assigned to protect them, he tells her through clinched teeth, “I just don’t think you’re fit to be First Lady.” The viewers have been prompted, by this point, to cheer him on.

In a New York Times essay entitled “Normalizing Torture on ’24,’” Adam Green notes a pattern in subsequent seasons:

“What is most striking about torture on 24 is how it affects not only politics but also emotional and professional relationships. The C.T.U. data technician Sarah Gavin, interrogated with tasers to discover if she were a terrorist mole, subsequently returns to work showing no signs of trauma. Indeed, she marshals the clarity of mind to renegotiate her terms of employment with her superior, who approved her interrogation just hours earlier. The war-protester son of Secretary of Defense Heller, more alienated than ever after a session of sensory deprivation in a C.T.U. holding room, receives a strikingly paternal lecture from his father about why that treatment was appropriate. Even Audrey’s husband, Paul, somehow rises above his grievance to view his erstwhile tormentor as a buddy, helping Jack extract documents from a defense contractor and fend off attack – and even loyally taking a bullet for him. In all of these interactions, torture doesn’t deaden the feelings between people, rather it deepens them.. . . It is often noted that torture goes against the tenets of human community in two fundamental ways. Because torturers deny the basic humanity of their victims, it’s a violation of the norms governing everyday society. At the same time, torture constitutes society’s ultimate perversion, shaking or breaking its victims’ faith in humanity by turning their bodies and their deepest commitments – political or spiritual belief, love of family – against them to produce pain and fear. In the counterterrorist world of “24,” though, torture represents not the breakdown of a just society, but the turning point – at times even the starting point – for social relations. Through this artistic sleight of hand, the show makes torture appear normal.” [21]

And torture is not just normal. Submitting to the suffering necessary to secure the safety of one’s loved ones is a key part of a torture scene early on in the series (as I noted above) when the young female computer tech is submitted to electrical shocks to allow her to resume consciousness just long enough to regurgitate the code that might save the storyline. Soon after, as the doctor predicted, she dies. She is a heroine, albeit unconscious and involuntary, for suffering at the hands of her comrades. And, those who are willing to sacrifice their own friends for the sake of the cause may be even more brave than those who endure the torture itself. Affliction for the good of the group elicits love.

As a Christian ethicist, I must note that this may be read as a kind of macabre reversal and re-distribution of what some Christians call the Eucharist, in which the wound that saves the faithful is distributed back out to the faithful. Here, brothers and sisters willingly suffer the letting of their own blood, and the taking of one another’s blood, because the blood of the Christian savior, Jesus Christ, was insufficient to bring about national security. 24 presents a kind of pilgrimage by way of violence, in a narratively compelling, if formulaic manner. Slavoj Žižek names this starkly in a 2006 piece about the series:

It is here that we encounter the series’ ideological lie: in spite of the CTU’s ruthlessness, its agents, especially Bauer, are warm human beings – loving, caught in the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people. . . Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents’ and the terrorists’ behaviour serves this lie.[22]

There are also sacrifices that do not bond but mutilate.  The writers have intertwined suffering for one another with suffering that severs ties.  Two families come apart at the seams in the second series, with a case of unambiguous domestic violence and a case whereby a young, elite Californian blonde woman turns against her family, and her Muslim fiancé, in order to serve the cause of her adopted terrorist group.  A young man who attempts to help Jack’s daughter in the second series breaks off their relationship over the phone, from the hospital.  On the other end of the telephone line, she is confused, but the viewer watches as the camera rises to show him recovering in the bed, having had one of his legs severed.   The writers of 24 give a simple answer to terrorism, again, and again, and again, intertwined with a complex set of stories that ask viewers to trust that all of the carnage will, eventually, lead to the remembering of all who have been dismembered.

“Winter is Coming”

As the study I noted above cites, the rise of television violence has been precipitous since 9/11.  The increase in scenes of torture is set within a larger pattern of increasing “sadism,” as the study names it.[23]  I believe it helpful to think through the work of violence in 24 by considering another, currently popular show that also features routine acts of violation.  This section’s sub-heading serves as the motto of the family line for which many viewers are to cheer in the HBO series Game of Thrones.  A horrific winter is coming, and there is only one family in the series apparently capable of toughening themselves for the impending disaster.  Several former students suggested to me that I had also to view this series, if I am to begin to interpret the allure of television violence and sexual domination.  When I posted online that I was fairly certain that something was amiss in the revival of medieval gore and supposedly “realistic” sexual hierarchy and exploitation in the series, I was inundated with the defensive comments of fans – men and women, African-American and Anglo.  It turns out that this is a wildly and widely popular series, with parents of my daughters’ school-mates and with colleagues across disparate walks of life.  “The stories just pull you in!” I heard again and again, in some form or another.

There are formal similarities to 24, even while the two shows are from different genres. Game of Thrones is fantasy, and, although any military analyst will tell you 24 is fantastical, it is not strictly within the “fantasy” genre.  As with 24, the violence is intertwined with sexual and gendered themes.  I watched the show in part to consider how gender and violence interact differently or similarly to 24.  In this case, many of its admirers suggest that the repeated scenes wherein women are sexually violated are warranted, because they are “realistic” to the vaguely designated time period in which the fairy tale is set, that is, once upon a time, in a land far, far away. . . .  As with the case of another popular television show of the new millennium set in an earlier era, AMC’s period drama Mad Men, the abominable treatment of women seems to provide a kind of masochistic/sadistic viewing pleasure justified somehow by a kind of purported, historical accuracy.  If 24 is like Scooby Doo for grown-ups, Game of Thrones is like a popular medieval, role-playing game in the US called Dungeons and Dragons, combined with online porn for people who also love the novels of English author J.R.R. Tolkien. Game of Thrones is much more prone to show women naked and men dressed in large, metal armor than is 24.  The contrast between naked, female vulnerability and male strength is both more overt and more complicated than on 24. But I would argue that ultimately the messages similarly undergird a gender binary of strength/vulnerability, encouraging a kind of emotional distance and preparing the viewer to suffer loss.

The depiction of violence in the two shows is similarly graphic, repetitive, gendered, and vital. Men and women must variously muster the strength to endure their own and their loved ones prolonged suffering and dismemberment.  In both shows, characters are presented with complex personalities and motives, but, in each show, human beings are also presented as “mere meat,” to use a phrase popular in post-modern film studies.[24]  A key question in 24 is whether or not viewers will have the courage to watch, endure, and commit the torture necessary to protect the nation.  As noted above, the series implies that a telling dynamic within a culture of torture is whether or not one is willing to endure suffering at the hands of one’s own comrades, for the sake of proving his or her loyalty.  And, in reverse, is one willing to commit torture, not only on one’s clearly demarcated “enemy,” but on one’s ambiguously designated, potential loved one? Game of Thrones continues this question in a different form, presenting the challenge for viewers to endure, to watch, the deaths of characters designated as real human beings.

Richard Hofstadter suggested in his classic 1964 essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” that “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is, on many counts, the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.”[25]  I believe there is a kind of boomerang effect in American culture during a time of perpetual fear, whereby there is an urge to enact retributive violence on those who serve to symbolize our past and potential violators, but also a desire to endure a controlled viewing of our own suffering.  Within the politics of fear after 9/11, there seems again to be a theme of self-sacrifice, and the necessity of sacrificing one’s own attachments, for the sake of facing the monstrosity of terrorism and, perhaps in the midst of an economic recession, also the specter of fratricide during drastic austerity.

This, then, is the set-up in Game of Thrones, which (like 24) plays on themes of temporality.  The opening features not a map of the continental US and a digital clock-face (as in 24), but an intricate, moving, miniature map of the fantasy-land and a medieval-esque globe-dial, resembling an astrolabe, spinning toward the resumption of another brutal, indefinitely enduring winter.  Yet again, the clock is ticking.  It is a time of urgency, when men and women must act to save the future.  The first season sets up a world-view where kinship and friendship connections are simultaneously crucial, and necessarily, often violently, relinquished in the face of the preparations for winter.  In the midst of impending apocalypse, viewers are themselves drawn in to see the unique vulnerabilities and gifts of even cursory characters, and compelled to watch while these individuals are killed.

The severing of heads from bodies seems particularly important in the series, and the symbolism fits.  If one’s face involves one’s capacity to think, then the removal of head from body enacts the disconnection of individuality and relationality from a body.  Within the very first scene of the very first episode, there are multiple beheadings, including one that sets up a central premise of the show.  A member of the monastic military guard called The Night’s Watch has just narrowly escaped the land from whence monsters and savages come.  He has just viewed the brutal murders of two of his friends, but, having run away from the scene, he is considered a deserter and must, by the king’s law, have his head removed from his body.  But, before he is executed, he calmly but vulnerably avers his honesty – he has indeed viewed the monsters from the north.  His desertion was not one of cowardice, he explains, but borne of the amoral chaos inflicted by what he has viewed.  The youngest son of the hero’s family, still a child, must watch this execution.  He is told by his brother that their father will know if he looks away.  He is told this not unkindly, but with compassion combined with stoicism.  In order to prepare to be a man, he must watch as an honest man has his own eyes closed, by having his head chopped off.  The viewer is given a similar challenge.  Will we have the nerve to continue watching, even while, eventually, the hero himself is beheaded at the end of the first season?  And, just to be clear, this is not a gender-specific challenge.  The hero’s oldest daughter must not only watch her father’s beheading, but later view his severed head on a spike.

The relationship between sexual desire and violence is fraught in this series in ways similar to 24.  Both series simultaneously present sexually explicit scenes and punish those whose sexual desires reveal their vulnerability.  And, again, beheading is a part of the symbolism.  In one of the most cited, graphic scenes, a brutally successful knight who is felled during a joust stands up after his horse has thrown him, pulls out his massive sword, and chops off the head of his whinnying horse.  (This is all shown in excruciating detail, please note.)  The viewer soon learns that the dismembered horse has failed his master due to the fact that the other knight’s mare was in heat.  The cost of sexual distraction is death.  Soon after this episode, the hero’s most trusted guard, called on to protect him as they attempt escape from their enemy’s compound, is momentarily distracted by the alluring gaze of one of the show’s many naked prostitutes.  This is the first sign of this man’s humanity, as he is both tempted and visibly embarrassed by the woman’s recognition that she has distracted him.  It is the first scene in which the viewer sees him seeing, and being seen back, as an embodied person, rather than as a mere tool for protection of his master.  Immediately afterward, when he walks out of the door with his master, this guard is killed by another swordsman, by receiving a knife through the eyes.  The viewer watches as a person who has been caught viewing is punished with death by blindness.

It is not incidental that the unequivocal, unambiguous heroes of the first season are soldiers sworn to monastic celibacy.  And, following scene after repetitive scene of naked, female love-slaves, the heroine of the season first must suffocate her rapist-husband turned (we are asked to believe genuine) lover to his death, and then emerge naked but unscathed from a fire, a fire in which another, older woman is ritually burned to death (while screaming for mercy, no less).  If the question left at the end of the first series is whether one, like the youngest son in the first scene of the first season, has the courage to continue watching as people we have come to care about are disemboweled, raped, tortured, and impaled, I declare failure.

I would suggest, following Faludi’s thesis, that both 24 and Game of Thrones represent a kind of ritual, visual, cultural self-cutting, whereby viewers not only want to view with vengeance, but to master the violent loss and perpetual fear of future loss, whether such fear is conspiratorially promoted (which I believe it is) or viscerally, psychologically wired (which is perhaps also is the case).  Regardless of the cause and effect (which I warned I would not try to answer) the spectacle continues to be widely, wildly popular, streamed reliably into the moral imaginations of American citizens.

Both Abdullah Antepli and Ingrid Mattson’s presentations at the 2011 conference appealed to the common humanity of their listeners. They each appealed to our common sense of connection through our love for kin – through our capacity to relate to and empathize with our neighbors.  If, through the viewing of violent suffering in shows like 24 and Game of Thrones, Americans are not only learning to hate our neighbor, but also practicing a kind of liturgy of self-sacrifice and loss, then what will happen to such appeals for empathy?  If we are practicing a stoicism born of shame, what will happen to our capacity for relationship?  With deep sorrow, I now hear Abdullah Antepli’s call for us to risk the viewing of torture as coming from within my own world of isolated idealism, a world where people actually experience a moral shift usually known as empathy when they view another human being in pain, rather than experiencing some kind of solace or affective armor through such viewing.

Inconclusive Postscript from Homeland

In a comment posted on the feminist website Jezebel, under a whimsical blog relating Fox’s new show Homeland’s main character to another eccentric character in a comedy series, a person designated as “LarHar” states: “I am usually not into the whole, CIA, Military, Terrorist series, but I am hooked on Homeland. I didn’t think I would like it, and now I freaking love it! I think Claire is brilliant.”[26] By shifting the anti-terrorist operative to female, and by rendering her a non-threatening, typically feminine form of unstable (she is presented as “bi-polar” and weeps frequently), the former writers of 24 continue the soap opera of the perpetual War on Terror, which replaced the perpetual Cold War. Rather than being unhinged by necessary violence toward others and needing anger-management therapy (as did Jack Bauer), Homeland’s heroine is hysterical and needs to be protected from her own worst, self-harming impulses. She is a reassuring warrior for a new era of fighting the designated enemy of radical Islam. Writer Stan Goff names with his usual analytical clarity a Hollywood phenomenon he calls using “decoys.” In his interpretation of the film Man on Fire, Goff names Denzel Washington as the perfect “decoy.” By writing an African-American man as the cowboy savior who must use supposedly effective interrogation techniques like anal rape to save a young girl, the writers distract viewers from the racial context of America’s current wars.[27] Similarly, I would suggest that the camaraderie between the hero and heroine of Homeland, portrayed by Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, as they work together to make the Western world safe from Muslim terrorists, distracts viewers from the gendered nature of selling war today. Homeland actually bests stories like Man on Fire, in that the writers have embedded concerns about female vulnerability into the storyline about a woman fighting terrorism. Claire Danes remains perpetually a version of the adolescent girl she played in her television debut, needing Patinkin’s fatherly protection and also, repeatedly, eliciting the protective affection of the audience. She is brilliant but unstable, eventually giving herself “totally” over to the man viewers have been cued to perceive as a threat.

I also believe it is no small matter when, in the first season, our heroine realizes a crucial piece of the terrorism puzzle just as she self-sacrificially submits to her own ritualized torture through electro-convulsive therapy. In doing so, she submits to her own pain, and through her acceptance of suffering, lying horizontal, strapped down to a bed, she gains her wisdom. This cannot be what Susan Faludi had in mind when she calls, at the end of The Terror Dream, for Americans to draw on “the talents and vitality of all of us equally, men and women both.”[28]

Finally, I want to close with an appeal from Kalman Bland’s essay in this volume, his paraphrase of the Jewish proscription of torture, as a prayer. If torture in America is in part a ramification of shame, may these words be of some use, to women as well as to men. Rather than steel ourselves, preparing for self-sacrifice, loss, and possibly the call to sacrifice our beloveds, may we be willing still to believe sufficiently in love.[29]

“Consequently, we are meant to hear God saying something like this: I know how humans tend to react to adversity. Precisely because you have been the victims of injustice and torture, your hearts are hardened and you are inclined to commit those acts yourself, for injustice and torture perpetuate themselves by scarring the soul, making it more difficult to empathize with the other. Physical violence and psychological abuse in one generation are among the major causes for reproducing abuse and violence in the next generation. I weep for your pain, with you I am lost in exile, but knowing the scars in your tormented collective consciousness, I command you, my people, to be extraordinarily vigilant in resisting the abominations and crimes of torture. Don’t let your oppressive history have the last word. Overcome it. Don’t commit atrocities. Don’t torture.”


[1] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[2] C. Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 20.

[3] See G. Greenwald, “The NYT’s nice, new euphemism for torture,” Salon (June 6, 2009),  Also, for examples of NPR avoiding the term “torture,” see this website:

[4] “White House Meddling in the First Film about the Atomic Bomb: Transcript,” On the Media (August 13, 2010),

[5] The reverse has been documented, in that numerous Bush administration officials were explicit in their appreciation and emulation of the show:

According to British lawyer and writer Sands, Jack Bauer-played by Kiefer Sutherland-was an inspiration at early “brainstorming meetings” of military officials at Guantanamo in September 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer “gave people lots of ideas.” Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show “reflects real life.” D. Lithwick, “The Fiction Behind Torture Policy,” Newsweek Vol 152, Issue 5 (Aug 4, 2008), 11.


[6] P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).


[7] “The Stephanie Miller Show,” December 19, 2012.

[8] Stephen Battaglio, “The Biz: President Barack Obama Reveals His Favorite TV Shows,”


[9] R. Beck, “Threat Level: Against Homeland,” n+1 (Dec 3, 2012),


[10] G. Lamb, “TV’s higher threshold of pain,” The Christian Science Monitor (Aug 23, 2002),

[11] “Parents Beware of 24,” Parents Television Council (Nov 21, 2008),


[12] G. Lamb, “TV’s higher threshold of pain,” The Christian Science Monitor (Aug 23, 2002),

[13] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 208.

[14] P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008), 397.
[15] See especially P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, 362, 346, 333.

[16] J. Mayer, “Whatever It Takes: The politics of the man behind ‘24’,” The New Yorker (Feb 19, 2007),

[17] J. Mittell, “Film and Television Narrative.” In The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, ed. D. Herman. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007),163,164,167.


[18] D. Porter, ‘Soap Time: Thoughts on a Commodity Art Form’, College English (Apr. 1977), 783. Quoted in: T. Modleski, “The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Opera.” In Loving With a Vengeances: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2007), 29-40, 29.


[19] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream, 160, from K. R. Daly, “Happy ‘Security’ Moms Day,” GOPUSA (May 10, 2004),


[20] A. N. Smith, “TV or Not TV? The Sopranos and Contemporary Episode Architecture in US Network and Premium Cable Drama.” Critical Studies in Television. 6.1 (2011), 36-51, 44, 45. Please note British spelling in the original.



[21] A. Green, “Normalizing Torture on ‘24’,” New York Times (May 22, 2005),

[22] S. Žižek, “The depraved heroes of 24 are the Himmlers of Hollywood,” The Guardian (Jan 10, 2006),

[23] Lamb, “TV’s higher threshold of pain,” The Christian Science Monitor (Aug 23, 2002),

[24] For a helpful overview, see W. Brown, “Monstrous Cinema.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 10.4 (2012), 409-424.
[25] R. Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine (Nov 1964),


[26] M. Davies, “Carrie on Homeland Is Actually Charlie on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Jezebel (Dec 7, 2012),

[27] S. Goff, Sex and War (, 2006), 18-20.

[28] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream, 296.

[29] I would like to thank Kara Slade, Matthew Elia, Isaac Villegas, and the people at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture for organizing the conference that helped me finally to begin trying to write on this issue. Kara Slade continually helped with thinking and editing.  I am grateful to my co-editor, Danny Arnold, for helping me process the misery of watching these shows, and to his brilliant wife, Kate Roberts, for her gender analysis of all things pop-culture.  Thanks to my pastor Ryan Quanstrom, for the Scooby-Doo reference, to Namaan Wood for many helpful articles pertaining to media analysis, and to several friends and former students who allowed me to question them mercilessly about shows that they love.

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