Netflix’s Fargo and the Morality of Crisis

‘I got a cold mind

to go tripping cross that thin line

Sick of doing straight time.’

Bruce Springsteen, Straight Time.

I have recently been enjoying the Netflix T.V. series Fargo. Set in rural Minnesota, Fargo explores a range of different storylines (allegedly based on true stories) which highlight the ambiguity, complexity, and raw emotion involved in moral decision making.

What unites the central protagonists in each instalment of Fargo is the experience of a traumatic, unplanned event which presents them with a moral crisis. In the first series, an unfortunate character named Lester Nygaard murders his wife with an ax to the head. Up until this point, Lester has lived a relatively inconsequential life as a seller of life insurance in small-town Minnesota. Impotent and ineffectual by nature, Lester has endured years of his wife’s abuse and mockery due to his inability to “be a man.” She taunts him constantly: why can’t you be more like your brother? You know he earns more than you right? You only fuck me from behind cause you are not man enough to look at me in the eyes… and so on and so forth. It’s true that the viciousness of her comments betray a deep hurt, and this may well be justified. But as viewers of the unfolding drama our sympathies- at least initially- are intended to lie with Lester.

In response to the constant denigration, Lester had been doing what all nice guys do: he suppresses his rage.  Instead of putting his wife in her place by challenging her perception of him, he simply accepts her derision meekly and with a feebleness that makes you want to reach into the screen and punch him in the face to provoke some kind of a response which would indicate the presence of a backbone. There appears to be an inner emptiness to Lester, as if the core of his being was a formless ghost. External stimuli don’t seem to be able to penetrate through to whatever substance may be present somewhere in his heart. Lester is aloof, sad, and distracted by a compulsion we don’t understand. Perhaps it is this inner sense of hollowness that has allowed Lester to be consistently abused by his wife for so long.

This dynamic all changes on that fateful evening in which his wife receives an ax strike down the middle of her skull courtesy of the long-suffering Lester. Even as he is brandishing the ax in her face his wife still taunts him with his weakness. “You’re not man enough to hit me, Lester” she mocks. With a maniacal glee, she continues to unleash her venom on Lester, but a line has been crossed. Lester’s rage has seeped over into that part of the brain that discounts reason and consequences as mere trifles. He strikes once, twice, three times;  on and on his onslaught comes, inexorable in its force and hatred. After decades spent asserting her superiority over her lowly husband, Lester’s wife falls to the floor in a bloody mess.

The moral conflict now arises for Lester. Horrified and astounded at his actions, he now faces the first of multiple moral dilemmas: does he call the police and confess, or attempt to disguise the crime? Whatever his future decision may be, there is no turning back. The moral crisis has arisen in an instinctual, reflexive moment. It is as if the years of suppression have been slowly building to a crescendo of explosive violence which would snuff out one life and forever change another. Ultimately, Lester chooses to commit to the dark path. A moral line has been crossed, rendering future actions incapable of redeeming Lester, who is now a murderer. Instead of trying to make amends, Lester abandons all to the voice inside him that drives him toward evil.

Yet however tempting it may be for viewers to consign Lester to the realm of moral oblivion, this is not a simple case of moral black and whites. Indeed, life rarely is. From a philosophical perspective, the moral issues raised by Fargo concern how we understand our internal drives as individuals. Is it our selfish desires which define us, or should we also take into account our capacity for selflessness? What does it mean to label someone as “good” or “bad”? Do these categories do justice to the complex interplay of drives which inhabit each of us? What criteria do we use when making our moral judgments? Was Lester justified in seeking revenge?

It seems to me that these are important questions to ask in an age which is so quick to identify scandal and moral outrage in others. Fargo probes beyond surface level morality by highlighting the distinct potential we all have to commit acts that our rational brain may find repulsive. This series exposes the lie that all we need in order to make upright moral decisions is to maintain a clear head and cool detachment. Unfortunately, moral decisions are so often made in the heat of the moment according to instinctual responses that we find hard to control. This does not justify them, of course, and Lester remained a murderer who needed to be stopped. Yet by decreasing the distance between ourselves and the realities of moral failure, Fargo prompts us to consider on a deeper level the complicated dynamics that fuel our moral worldview.



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On Becoming Who One Is

In 1971 the Who’s Pete Townshend wrote the following lyrics:

‘Please don’t say that you know me

Cause I don’t even know myself.’

Known for his turbulent and often troubled life, Townshend’s angst and confusion reflect the difficult journey many of us face throughout our life due to a sense of confusion as to who we really are as individuals. For me, Townshend’s pithy lyrics beautifully capture the sense of personal transitoriness that defines our existence: What do I believe? Why am I capable of such selfishness as well as disinterested kindness? What is it that lies at the core of my being? In summing up the myriad dichotomies that face each individual, Nietzsche put it most succinctly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when he wrote that life is the process of ‘becoming what one is.’ Kierkegaard too- that most tormented of existential philosophers- struggled with the idea of personal becoming. On the one hand, Kierkegaard could write that the most common form of despair is ‘not being who you are.’ On the other, he suggests that ‘what labels me negates me.’ These ideas exemplify the dilemma at hand: we strive to live in line with our values and beliefs, but at the same time our internal conflicts and drives appear to negate any possibility of a clear definition as to who we are as individuals.

For some, such talk is meaningless. One simply is who one is. Surely this is self-evident? How can one be something other than what one is? Perhaps such notions are just representations of philosophers playing their silly games? To such views, I express my unabashed jealousy. I wish I could live a black and white existence. To be truly sure of oneself from the beginning until the end is a luxury that-at least from my perspective- brings confidence and internal peace often borne of ignorance. This must surely make the living of life easier and more straight-forward. For many of us, however, the luxury of self-knowing remains elusive. It is not an impossible end, it just requires patient reflection and the ability to learn- a lifelong journey, if you will. It also presupposes that life- and individual actions undertaken within this life- are not to be fit into neat categories which determine whether a person is good or bad, evil or innocent.

Truly, there is nothing more frightening than to reflect back on one’s life and wonder if the part played by you was not, in fact, an actor in disguise. The horrible things you have done, the pain you have caused, the selfish decisions you have made…. has this all not been the dastardly work of an impostor who has claimed similarity to you but whose inner character is but a sinister shadow of who you really are? To feel such a way requires one to feel a sense of shock at the destructive potential we each harbor. It presupposes a degree of conflict amongst the various subconscious drives that compose the human heart. Certainly, this sense of dissociation tormented St. Augustine, who wrote that the first task in life is to be dissatisfied with oneself. The permanent sense of discontent and confusion about one’s own identity is not intended to keep us mired in guilt and shame, however. Known for his strong sense of sin and its personal consequences, Augustine also writes that the second task in life is to put up with the trials and temptations of this world that will be brought on by the change in your life and to persevere to the very end in the midst of these things.’ (3) The point, as I read it, is not to pretend that we are a perfect unified whole, but to instead recognize our internal dissonance and find a way to move forward in spite of it.

Where does this change Augustine speaks of come from? For Augustine, sin (understood here as chaos resulting from the conflict amongst competing internal drives) continued to be a condition plaguing the individual, but its potential to define the core of one’s being was rendered powerless by the redemptive work of Christ.  What this means for me is that no matter however much I may struggle with temptation or selfishness, I know that these things do not ultimately define me, irrespective of the judgment of others. These traits may certainly have negative consequences in my life, but ultimately my self-understanding comes from being loved by God in spite of my failings.


1. Frederich Nietzsche,  Thus Spoke Zarathustra (London: Penguin, 1964) IV.1

2. Kierkegaard’s concept of despair is outlined in Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification and Awakening by Anti-Climacus (London: Penguin, 1989)

3. Saint Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 59, 5.

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Made Me Smile #3


A Woman sitting opposite me on the train. It is peak hour. She is reading a novel which is apparently the funniest thing in the world. She cannot control her laughter, despite her best attempts at reigning it in to save face on the crowded train. Laughing in spite of herself, she remains unaware that she has brought a smile to my own face. I wonder if all the worlds ills can be healed with spontaneous outbreaks of laughter.


It is 11pm at Flinders Street station. I have just missed my train and have to wait half an hour for the next service. I assume a seat and begin to read my book. To my left are two young men- I would place them at about 21 years of age. They look like and speak like bogans. They are clearly heading home from a night out in the city. I give them a quick glance up and down and then resume reading, whereupon I am interrupted by the shorter of the two. ‘Oi mate,’ he says, with a mixture of friendliness and aggression. ‘Do you want a Ferrero Rocher?’

Somewhat startled I turned to face the voice. In front of my face is a gift box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. The contrast between these bogan personas and the box of chocolates makes me smile to myself. I eagerly accept the chocolate and continue my book, thankful for their kindness.


I am heading into the city to meet a friend for coffee. Being new to Melbourne I am still yet to get my bearings. As I head down what I think is the right street, I notice two elderly men who are volunteering as city guides. I approach one of them and ask for directions. His name is Peter, and he warmly welcomes me to Melbourne and provides me with a detailed map of where to go. I am touched by his by both his helpfulness and friendliness.


The owner of the second-hand bookstore welcomes me with an almost excessive warmth. She asked me if I need help with anything, and I tell her I am after a book on modern German history. She sets about locating anything of relevance with a determination that I find both awkward and endearing. She buries herself in piles of books, all the while muttering to herself in what sounds like a made-up dialect. She emerges some ten minutes later with a classic biography of Bismarck. It’s just the sort of thing I need. I smile, thank her and promise to come back.


My brother puts his arm around me as we bellow out the lyrics to Hall and Oates’ ‘Kiss on My List.’ We are in a small bar in inner Melbourne. We are merry, after consuming several beers. We are celebrating our reunion after over a decade of me living interstate. We have both had a long and difficult journey in life but at this moment none of that matters. We are free. We smile, laugh and abandon everything to the joy of being together.





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True Crime as Entertainment

I have always been a true crime buff. As I child, I distinctly remember my Dad regularly bringing home a periodical magazine titled Murder Casebook. Each edition of Murder Casebook would profile a different serial killer, with the first volume relating to the heinous crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper. The idea was that readers would collect the various installments of the series and then compile them in a special limited edition binder that would neatly compile the magazines together.  I remember being instantly transfixed by the presence of these magazines in our home and would endeavor to read each new edition as soon as I possibly could. The exploits of these notorious figures evoked in me a strange combination of feelings which I suspect will be common to many fans of true crime: revulsion, fear and a perverse fascination. In my view, it is the interrelatedness of these three responses to true crime narratives which account for its increasing popularity. There appears to be something profoundly human about our intrigue with brutality and darkness.  In any case, I suspect that many of us who consume such material undertake an internal but uncomfortable process of self-examination as we sit through the various documentaries and biopics: do I have a dark side? If so, what is it? How can I be so sure that I will never become like these evil personalities?

51jus4yTLHL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_Fast-forward in time some 30 years and we find ourselves in an age in which the magazine periodical is largely obsolete. In its place lies the world of the Internet, with its myriad of forums, fan pages and (of course) streaming media. A simple Google search for “true crime” will yield a staggering amount of results, with each varying greatly in credibility. For true crime fans, the Internet functions as an abyss which one enters in full knowledge of the fact that one can never hope to trawl through all the available information.  However, both the nature and prevalence of the true crime genre within digital platforms such as Netflix has in recent times caused me to reflect on the ethics of true crime as an entertainment medium as well as its long-term effects on the psyche. I have begun to wonder whether, from an entertainment perspective, true crime is actually a form of fetishism which we consume not so much because we are fascinated by the depths of the human psyche, but because we enjoy the feeling such material brings us. We are voyeurs of darkness, and we enjoy true crime because we are, simply, enthralled and captivated by the reality of violence and death. There are no ethical principles involved in our consumption. That is a lie we tell ourselves to feel better about viewing-as personal entertainment- the stories of someone else’s depravity.

It is true that serial killers have always had their fans. The trial of Richard Ramirez- L.A.’s notorious Night Stalker- was marked by the presence of adoring groupies who were (presumably) attracted to a combination of Ramirez’ internal darkness as well as his impossibly chiseled jawline. More recently, various fan accounts on the trashy website Tumblr have highlighted the problem of the glamorization of murder. A myriad of pages exists, for example, which discuss the desirability of Ted Bundy as a sexual partner. Such expressions of warped psychology remind us that there is an inherent ethical quandary involved in consuming true crime media. This quandary is centered on the tension between credible reporting on true crime cases on the one hand, and a slide into glamorizing the criminal on the other.  I propose no solutions to this dilemma, other than that if true crime is to have any integrity as a genre, it must fulfill two important criteria. First, it must avoid the tendency- subtly evident in many of the more recent documentaries- to hero worship the murderers themselves and revel in the violent details of their crimes. This is merely gratuitous and demeaning. Second, true crime must give voice to the deceased victims: who were they? what were their personalities like? Who loved them in life and what legacy have they left?  In so doing, the true crime genre can balance the inevitable horror of its narratives with an equal emphasis on the real human lives that have been so devastatingly cut short.

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Why Study the Nazi Church?

I have recently been asked on several occasions why I have decided to dedicate the next three years of my life to studying for a Ph.D. focussing the Lutheran State Church under Nazi rule. The question is asked by those who are genuinely curious but mildly incredulous. After all, surely no sane person would dedicate themselves to studying such a brutal and dark period of history? Why not focus instead on something more positive and uplifting? It seems to me that these questions are extremely important and that my response to them will help determine the rationale of the research and highlight the significance of the topic for various issues facing contemporary theological studies. I therefore offer a brief reflection on the reasons why I have chosen this specific period of theological history as the subject of my research.

To begin with, the Nazi-era Church has traditionally been neglected in the sphere of theological study, and it is this neglect which provides a distinct opportunity for the researcher to contribute to a (hopefully) emerging field of study.  The majority of the extant scholarly literature relating to this period focusses on the subversive activities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, which is, of course, a much easier historical pill for the Church to swallow. In Bonhoeffer and company, the Church has a moral hero that it can extol as the model Christian who ultimately lost his life by taking a clear stance against the demonic excesses of Nazi rule. As inspirational as Bonhoeffer’s example is, there remains the distinct problem of what the rest of the Church was doing in order to accommodate Nazi ideology. My studies will focus on the theological revisionism of Walter Grundmann’s Institute for the Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life in an attempt to highlight both the levels of ‘Christian’ complicity in Nazi ideology and the specific methods used in order to ‘Aryanize’ Jesus. Despite the existence of some important studies in this area, very few have treated in detail the production of Die Botschaft Gottes (The Message of God), which was a version of the New Testament designed to be the official state Bible under Nazism. My research will delve into this publication and explore the tools and techniques used by Nazi theologians in order to rewrite Christian history and divorce the New Testament from its Jewish origins. As one of the central aims of a Ph.D. is to produce new knowledge, I feel that my research in this area will be able to offer a humble contribution towards the emerging world of Third Reich-era theology studies.

My initial motivation, however, was stimulated by something other than the pure novelty of exploring neglected theological texts. Rather, I feel that the travesty of the Nazi Church contains important lessons not only for the Church today but for political and religious discourse generally. The Church under Nazism felt that the immediate political and cultural context of the day provided the sole lens through which the entirety of Church and theological history was to be viewed. In so doing, Nazi theologians seriously overestimated the importance of their immediate context and ascribed to it a divine revelatory status that it did not deserve. Although it can be tempting to write-off this whole period as an exercise in evil, it must be borne in mind that Nazi theologians believed they were acting from the highest moral and ethical motives. Further, they believed that both the Bible and Church history (especially Luther) legitimised their own anti-Semitism. As inconceivable as this may seem to contemporary readers, I will suggest that the slide into moral and contextual arrogance (as typified by the Nazi Church) is an ongoing danger for the Church generally,  and cannot be said to be a sole feature of right-wing or nationalistically informed theologies. The overarching lesson of the Nazi Church is that contextual approaches to the theological task can be used for evil as well as good.  In order for contextual approaches to be useful, they must be held in tension with the timeless, transcendent elements of moral and dogmatic theology. 



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The Famous Five and the Spirit of Adventure

It’s funny the things which stick with you from childhood. I am a 37-year-old man who often finds myself remembering childhood moments which captivated my imagination. Just the other day I experienced a flashback to when I was in grade five and had first discovered the largely obsolete Tonka toy Supernaturals. With holographic faces depicting all manner of the demonic, I couldn’t help but remember how truly scary these toys were, especially considering they were marketed to mere children. I recall, too, that Micro Machines evoked similar feelings of fascination. For the uninitiated, Micro Machines were silly (and tiny!) models of cars that you would collect along with various accessories. The aim was to collect enough to make a small ‘town’ and, presumably, impress one’s friends.

Most of these interests were fleeting. The Micro Machines were given-up after I was bullied by a primary school thug who called me a loser and a nerd for having them. The Supernaturals phase was over quickly, as I could never afford to buy more than one model. Over the years of my youth, other interests came and went: Batman movie trading cards, Choose Your Own Adventure novels, Pirate-themed Lego and so forth.  Yet in spite of these mostly trivial nick nacks, one particular influence has endured into my adulthood. Sometime in my childhood years, I was given a copy of an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel. Blyton’s Famous Five series were adventure stories aimed at young readers and were popular throughout the ’50s and ’60s. The characters of Julian, Dick, Ann, George, and Timmy the Dog feature in each instalment of the series as they embark on various quests to solve mysteries that, curiously enough, always seemed to coincide with their vacation time at Kirrin Cottage. Set against the beauty of rural England, the central characters work together as a team to capture various petty criminals and retrieve lost treasure. For my own young mind, such stories were addictive and captured my imagination instantly. For nights on end, I would bury myself in the pages of these intriguing storylines, the world of which seemed distant to my own. Before I knew it I had burned through all twenty-one novels. I tried to venture on to Blyton’s Secret Seven series but found that they lacked a certain magic. Unable to find a suitable replacement to the recently exhausted Famous Five, I made a decision to re-read each novel for the sheer fun of it. These days, I continue to keep to this pattern, returning to the world of the Kirrin’s when my own life gets too messy or complex. I am unashamed to say that Blyton’s writing helps me to escape, if only for brief moments.

Enid Blyton’s novels are, in many respects, products of their time. Many of her popular works feature distinctly racist overtones, and traditional gender roles are often assigned to male and female characters. Consequently, there are a plethora of voices criticizing Blyton’s cultural inappropriateness, with some insufferable, preoccupied souls even suggesting that Blyton’s work should be removed from sale to avoid corrupting young minds. For my part, I could not care one wit about these aspects of Blyton’s work, and choose instead to testify to what a truly imaginative writer she was. Were they the only books Blyton published in her lifetime, the Famous Five storylines themselves would be enough to justify an appeal to Blyton as one of the most creative writers of her time.

91W+bAnI28LOne of the ways in which Blyton captured my imagination through the Famous Five series was through her descriptions of the English landscape. Writing at a time prior to the infestation of apartment blocks, franchise superstores, and major highways, Blyton’s portrayal of the countryside evoked in me strong feelings of a beautiful vastness. As I lay in my bed at night reading, I remember thinking how much I would love to explore this world for myself, perhaps even with my closest friends in tow as we formed our own adventure gang.  The possibility of such adventures- as unrealistic as they were-was at strict variance with the relative predictability of my day-to-day childhood existence. To be sure, Blyton’s writing was simplistic and spacious, providing just enough detail to draw the one in, but not so much as to stifle a reader’s own creative contribution toward ‘filling in the details’ in their own mind. And this is precisely what I did: I imagined myself into the story, making it my own.

There was an inherently mysterious, even sinister quality to the places described by Blyton. In Five Go To Mystery Moor, for example, the moors are described as a quiet and brooding “deserted stretch of land” which evoked a distinct sense in the young adventurers that something eerie and important had happened there long ago. Throughout this story, the moor itself functions as a foreboding character, hovering around the edges of the narrative until the Five experience its creepy secrets for themselves. It was this sense of possible danger that both fascinated and frightened the Five, and I believe that in capturing the contradictory feelings of risk and intrigue Blyton arrived at the heart of what the spirit of adventure is all about.

Reflecting on the journey from childhood to maturity, the Apostle Paul remarked in his first letter to the Corinthians that when he became a man he put the ways of childhood behind him. Well and good for Paul, I say. For me, I cling to those childhood moments which continue to work as a charming spell on my creative mind. In a world of oppressive systems and cultural homogenization, I constantly seek ways to recapture the sense of imagination and possibility that I experienced as a child. Blyton’s Famous Five series was instrumental in cultivating the freedom to create imaginary worlds in my own mind, and for this reason these humble, simplistic books remain part of my life.

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Historical Interpretation and the Example of the Holocaust

In his brilliant panorama of German cultural and intellectual history, Peter Watson draws attention to a dimension of the Holocaust tragedy which is seldom acknowledged. The Holocaust, suggests Watson, ‘operates as an obstacle, a stumbling block, a reflecting mirror, that hinders us from looking back beyond that time, which has closed minds to the Germany that preceded Hitler.’ (1) For Watson, the Holocaust has come to define German historical consciousness to the point that ordinary Germans cannot conceive of their own history without it being tainted by the telos of the Holocaust’s shadow. This is perhaps inevitable but is nevertheless a tragic reminder of yet another dimension of Hitler’s legacy of destruction.

The reality of the Holocaust as the standard typology for the interpretation of German history was made evident to me on a recent trip to a favourite bookshop of mine. I was searching for a history of modern Germany prior to the Third Reich-era. Being strongly influenced by the German philosophical and theological tradition, I wanted to increase my knowledge of the movement of German history and its corresponding political developments. Despite the richness of German genius and drama, I could not find one volume which dealt with anything other than the Third Reich. Each shelf of books flaunted the Nazi era from its own unique angle: Hitler’s secret train, the Nazi’s lost art, Goering’s drug addiction, Hitler’s alleged escape to Argentina– on and on it went ad nauseum. It would seem from all this that the Nazis have a monopoly on German history, and with each passing year a new plethora of studies emerge which dissect the intricacies of Hitlerian rule. The cumulative impact of this is to give the impression that- whatever else might have occurred in Germany’s long history- it is inconsequential when compared with the evils of 1939-45. It can therefore so easily seem that the richness of German cultural and scientific achievement has been irredeemably tainted by the sinister shadow of the Holocaust.

Yet Watson also argues that there is a solution to this unfavourable state of affairs. In response to the tyranny of the German Holocaust- manifesting as this does in the form of intergenerational guilt- Watson acknowledges the obligation to remember history but simultaneously advocates for right to forget it. Watson draws on the work of Jewish Israeli philosopher Yehuda Elkana, whose article ‘The Need to Forget’ mourns the status of the Jews as eternal victims in the wake of the Holocaust. For Elkana, this victimhood status results in the ‘tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler.’ (2) Such a stance toward historical memory is adopted in the theological sphere by Miroslav Volf, who states his position succinctly when he writes that ‘to remember a wrongdoing is to struggle against it.’ (3)

I can empathise with both Watson and Elkana’s position and find much to commend in the notion of historical forgetfulness. However, I also propose that a better interpretive approach (at least when it comes to analysing the significance of tragic events) is to endeavour to remember rightly. It seems to me far better for interpreters of history to enlarge their contextual perspective enough so that it engages with a broad, panoramic view of history in order to establish the normalcy oruniqueness of events. Remembering the broader sweep of history (in this case, modern German history) is useful not only for tracing the influence of the past on present day events, but also for grasping how certain contexts were unique and in no way reflective of the cultural norms which went before it. In the case of Germany, Watson’s main point- and this is something which needs to be heard a lot more than it presently is- is that the Holocaust was an aberration in German history, not an inevitable culmination of the process of historical unfolding. But this position can only be supported when looking in a broader sense to the past. In so doing, interpreters can begin to appreciate the stunning intellectual and cultural legacy Germany has bestowed upon the world. Germany is not defined by the Holocaust, nor are all ordinary Germans synonymous with Nazism. Only when German history is freed from the tyrannical grip of past guilt can its own liberty be realised.


  1. Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, The Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century (London: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 6.
  2. Yehuda Elkana, “The Need to Forget,” Haaretz, March 2, 1998,
  3. Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 11.


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