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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The Myth of ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism

I have recently enjoyed reading Kathleen Belew’s historical study of the white power movement in America. Titled Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary in America, Belew’s work is an admirable attempt to trace the development of what is a complex ideological movement. The central difficulty facing Belew and others delving into the murky underworld of extreme white politics is how to obtain accurate and credible information about its activities and history. Thankfully, Belew displays a thorough knowledge of extant primary source materials (including pamphlets, speeches, essays and other propaganda) and has painstakingly evaluated their content in order to map out a history of extreme right and paramilitary organisations in the post-Vietnam era.

After reviewing key events in its history, Belew concludes her work with an account of domestic terrorist and Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh’s activity in the lead-up to his bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. As has been noted by Gore Vidal, the media narrative surrounding McVeigh’s attack depicted the former soldier as a mentally unstable aggressor motivated by little more than a false sense that 519qlqzt3-lthe American government was his personal enemy. (1) The narrative also maintained that McVeigh acted alone in his crimes- a somewhat unbelievable proposition given the sophistication of the attack. Nevertheless, the media offered a sterilised and compartmentalised version of events that understood the tragedy of the Oklahoma Bombing as an outworking of the damaged psyche of McVeigh alone. This conclusion has now been challenged by Belew. In what is the books most insightful and provocative chapter, Belew dispels the myth of McVeigh as having acted alone with a thorough review of his links with various extreme right groups, each of whom offered a range of material and social supports. (2) As I pondered McVeigh’s inter-personal relationships, I was reminded of the essentially relational nature of much terrorist activity and its corresponding religious extremism. This is particularly the case in relation to the forms of terrorism perpetrated by those claiming fidelity to Islamic theologies.  No ideology can spread without relationships, propaganda and complex systems of networking. The dark underbelly of religious extremism is of course no different.

I wrote some years ago about the need to take seriously the role of theology in the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. That reflection was written from the perspective of youth radicalisation and some of my experiences working with Muslim youth in Western Sydney. I had grown concerned that the narrative of terrorists as being ‘lone wolves’ actually undermined the depth of the issue and, ultimately, allowed for the misallocation of government resources pledged to deal it. It was common in the not-for-profit sector in which I then worked to treat Islamic radicalisation as a sort of sociological problem that could be fixed with mere policy changes and a greater willingness on behalf of non-Muslims to listen and respond to the grievances of radicalised Islamic youth. To me, this view is not only too simplistic but also faintly patronising and condescending. This notion is, in my mind at least, predicated on the assumption that young people are incapable of forming a coherent political and religious worldview, and that expressions of claimed theological beliefs are by default warped. The rationalisation process by moderate Islamic commentators ignored the underlying issues at play, and remains for me deeply unsatisfying and ignorant of the magnitude of the problem. Rather, there is something more significant going on here than mere sociological inequality and cultural divides. It is a phenomenon that is political and religious in nature, and pertains to fundamentally different ways of seeing the world.

Why, then, has the myth of lone wolf terrorism gained such traction? In the first instance we might say that on a superficial level it certainly appears that many terrorist activities are undertaken individually. At least, this is how the media often depicts the outbreak of any new terrorist-related attack here in Australia. An article in The Age newspaper in November last year discussed the facts surrounding the Bourke Street stabbing attack, in which the authors designated the aggressor to be acting alone. However, Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton betrayed something of the complexity of the case in the same article, in which he states that ‘we are treating it as a terrorism incident. He’s (the perpetrator) got family associations that are well-known to us.’ (3) A lone attacker, therefore, does not operate in a vacuum. There are always networks of support and sympathy, often coming from immediate and extended family. Yet there is also a range of social and ideological affiliations which, in my view, can be considered part-collaborators in terrorist activity, even if these influences lie beyond the scope of prosecution. In McVeigh’s time these networks operated primarily as paramilitary organisations that operated from centralised locations. Many of these locations functioned as military-style boot camps; each featured caches of weapons and tactical training programs delivered by former vets who knew their stuff. Today, the context is vastly different. The advent of the internet has allowed terrorist ideology to disseminate its theology across international borders with ease, and this constant flow of propaganda has served to function as a new breeding ground for future radicalisation. (4) What this means is that even though lone wolf attacks might appear to be carried out by socially isolated individuals, they are in fact the result of social processes of radicalisation that justify extremist theologies. Just because these influences may not be physically present in the individuals life does not lessen their impact in any way.

If the portrait of a lone terrorist is in fact problematic and inaccurate, what function does it then serve? It seems to me that the myth of ‘lone wolf terrorism’ is a form of cognitive avoidance. It is the stance those of us take who have not been direct victims of terrorism. We employ this device in order to make things seem more rational than they are in reality. In isolating terrorism to the warped initiatives of single individuals, we overlook the basic fact that such actions not only have their precedent in Islamic scripture, but that these same individuals have invariably received support and sympathy through their social networks. In indulging in this cognitive loophole we ignore the frightening possibility that there might be irreconcilable worldviews at play in Islams clash with the West.  I don’t really have any answers to this complex issue, although perhaps one of the solutions is to dispense with the erroneous narrative that all terrorists are lonely, mentally ill misfits. Rather, we should seek to address the problem at its core, and that means to take radicalisation seriously as a theological and political problem, not as a sociological one.



  1. Gore Vidal, “The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh,” Vanity Fair, Nov 10th, 2008. Accessed Wed 23rd Jan 2019.
  2. Kathleen Belew. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 209-34.
  3. See: Erin Pearson, John Silvester & Simone Fox Koob, “Lone Terrorist Responsible for Deadly Attack on Bourke Street,” The Age, November 9th, 2018,
  4. Readers interested in this topic in its Australian context should consult Anne Aly’s thoughtful conference paper “The Internet as Ideological Battleground,” in Anne Aly (ed), 1st Australian Counter-Terrorism Conference, November 3rd 2010, pp 1-6. Perth, Western Australia: Security Research Centre, Edith Cowan University. A PDF version of the paper is available here.


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Modern Circles of Hell: Some New Proposals

As Dante’s tour guide through hell, the Roman poet Virgil introduces the former to the nine circles of torment that will face the condemned upon death. These concentric circles roughly correspond to the seven deadly sins, but are extended to include such innovations as heresy, violence, fraud and treachery.  As a new entrant to the fiery underworld, one can expect to endure a different mode of eternal suffering depending on the category and gravity of one’s sin throughout earthly existence. The arrogant, conceited, greedy and lustful can expect their own personal and unique sufferings, as befitting a life lived in self indulgence. As the author himself notes, the suffering of hell is thus reserved for those sinners who have ‘sacrificed their reason to their lust.’ (Inf. 5:38-9)

dantesinfernobannerYet as horrifying as Dante’s depiction of the brutality of Hell is, it overlooks the subtler forms of torment that, if not as physically punishing, are nevertheless psychologically unrelenting. Like God, the devil works in mysterious ways, and his tortures are not always blatantly violent. Imagine, for example, being stuck in a doctors waiting room with crying kids for all damn eternity? Sure, your body might survive but your mind will eventually fall to bits. Or imagine that you were stuck in the Woolworth’s express check out aisle for millennia? Just as you approach the counter you are magically transported to the back of the queue and are forced to repeat the process again. It is these milder forms of eternal punishment that I honour here today. As a thought experiment, I offer you six alternate circles of Hell based on my own fear and loathing.

 Circle 1: Minor Annoyances

Circle 1 is the entry point for those entering Hell. Not matter the severity of the evil committed by individuals on earth, all are lumped together in circle 1 for an observational period lasting several thousands of years. Consider it a holding cell in which people are tested according to what they can endure. Those who hold their nerves the longest are given a concession: they will stay in circle 1 for eternity, thus avoiding the tortures that will eventually face the weaker of the lot. Even the devil, it seems, operates with a modicum of grace.

In this circle, individuals are forced to endure the constant noise of construction sites; hammering, circular saws, gruff voices yelling and so forth. Nothing ever actually gets built, mind you. It is always a construction project in progress without any hope of completion. Over time, the construction noise is supplemented with the additional annoyance of a small dog yapping continuously.

There is no night or day in this level, just a soft glow emanating from the reflected light of the fires burning further along the cavern. This gentle glow shines off the surrounding rock, occasionally illuminating the pained and irritated faces of the newly arrived.

Circle 2: Narcissist Plague

Those who have not secured their place in circle 1 are ushered into the toxic world of circle 2. Before they arrive, however, they are forced into a deep sleep. Upon awakening, they find themselves getting ready for work in their former homes. All memory of dying and arriving in Hell is wiped from memory, and for all intents and purposes the individual in question resumes their former life with little more than a faint and vague sense of being in a dream like state.

The only change to their lives? Well, from now on everyone they encounter- be it family, friends, co-workers or service staff- will be either a pathological narcissist or sociopath. All future romantic relationships will also be marked by the presence of these troublesome personalities. Over time, these people wear the afflicted down and destroy their sense of peace and self-esteem. The afflicted lives a life of fear, constantly wondering what might happen to them. Like a parasite, when one narcissist saps all the energy from the afflicted they move on, only to be replaced with another. There is no end to this cycle for all eternity.  One may pray for death, but these prayers are but empty words cast into the abyss.

Circle 3: Dance Music Festivals

Through the process of observing an individual’s earthly life (as well as a pre-hell questionnaire), Satan has gathered in-depth knowledge of his subjects least favourite style of music. For those who detest dance music and hip-hop, the devil has a special torment in mind- although it is only reserved for the very worst offenders.

Similar to Circle 2, the afflicted is put to sleep via a type of sedative gas unique to hell. Upon waking, the afflicted find themselves in the middle of a huge, open-air concrete arena. There is a stage set-up at one end, and the floor of the venue is filled with a mass of shirtless people on steroids. A DJ is blasting the infernal sounds of electronic dance music. Every 3 seconds the music stops and he bellows ‘get your hands in the air.’ The temperature gauge on the arenas scoreboard states that it is 41 degrees Celsius. There is no shade, and the sun is beating down relentlessly.

You find yourself sweating and overheating. Unable to think, your friends approach you. You have taken a bad ecstasy tablet. They don’t know this, and they keep encouraging you to come up the front and party. You eventually overheat. Vomiting and dizzy, you are rushed to the St. John’s ambulance tent where they try to revive you. You pass out. With the help of the St. John Ambulance crew you eventually come to, only to relive the horrible experience over and again, ad infinitum.

 Circle 4: Work, Health & Safety Seminar

 Upon arriving at circle 4, the cursed minions are led down a passageway through the caves and led into a large auditorium lit by piercing fluorescent lights. At this point the remaining stragglers are herded through the door which is locked behind them for all eternity.

What awaits the afflicted is a repeated death by boredom, but a boredom of a particular variety. Just when it appears that nothing of significance will happen, a group of corporate types in suits emerge from behind an oversized white board. They are but ghosts, but this scarcely matters in the present context. Their presence both feels real and invokes terror and obedience. The gathered masses are now forced to sit down with paper and pens at the ready (provided courtesy of Hell). They are told that they will now be subjected to an eternity of Work Health & Safety lectures. All they can expect for millennia, they are told, are endless lectures about the importance of fire and safety, identifying hazardous substances and the appropriate posture when working at a desk. At the end of every lecture are a series of exam questions which must be passed. Failure means automatic enrolment in a second series of classes, the topic of which is ‘creating safe spaces in the work environment.’

Circle 5: Sydney Trains Debacle

It is peak hour in the Sydney CBD, and you are waiting on a crowded platform at Town Hall station. There is barely room to move. The air is oppressively hot and sticky, a fact made worse by the smell of sweat. The station manager has indicated via the loudspeaker that your train to Bankstown is running 25 minutes late. Everyone is frustrated, and you wonder how much more it would take for a violent riot to break out.

Eventually your train pulls up. You see the lights approaching from the other end of the subway tunnel. You breathe a sigh of relief, only to tense right back up again: it is an old unairconditioned tin sweat box model from the 1970’s. You groan and feel close to murder. You have no choice but to enter the sauna alongside all and sundry.

The train soon starts moving, but at a snails pace. Somewhere between Town Hall and Wynyard station it comes to a complete stop. The train guard comes over the speaker in a raspy voice: ‘Passengers, we are experience mechanical difficulties. We’ll keep you updated as we know more.’

As you sweat profusely you ponder your earthly decisions and wonder what you could have done differently to avoid this suffering. Not that such self-reflection matters. After several hours of being stuck between stations you are transported back to the platform to relive the entire experience over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Circle 6: The Eternal Church Service

Let it not be said that the Devil lacks a sense of humour.

Amidst all the suffering of hell, some poor souls see it fit to complain to the devil about the conditions. Grievances about the heat and lack of space are especially common, as is a disgust with the standard of lavatory facilities (a reality too revolting to repeat here). Amongst the more popular laments was the expression of regret for allowing themselves to be cast into hell in the first place. ‘If only I listened to those weird Christians on the street,’ they moan.’ Popular also: ‘I should have gone along to Church with my parents instead of playing FIFA on my PlayStation, maybe then I would be in heaven.’

To these people the devil reserved his most severe contempt. This contempt was, admittedly, born out of a sense of hurt; Hell wasn’t actually so bad, he reasoned. Sure, it was hot. But there were plenty of different activities to do. Constant music festivals and all that. Why did everyone hate on him so much?

In his anger, the devil decided to give these complainers exactly what they wanted: the chance for redemption. The best way, he thought, was to subject them to an eternity of stifling Church services. Although these services varied in style, they all had one thing in common: four hour sermons on Levitical law. During these expositions the congregation members were forced to remain in their seats, unable to even shift their posture. Following these epic sermons the congregation were forced to sing the contemporary praise and worship song ‘Indescribable’ a minimum of 20 times. The only sustenance they received was the post-service milk arrowroot biscuits and Nescafe instant blend.

Observing these poor souls enduring such torment, the devil couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. Maybe he would let them out in a million years or so. Then again, maybe not. In the meantime he grabbed a beer and listed to some Deep Purple.











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Jack T. Chick and The Witches of Nar Nar Goon

The sociological phenomenon known as the ‘satanic panic’ hit the country town of Warragul in the early 1990’s, where for a brief time the locals had become alarmed at the rise in satanic ritual activity amongst the towns youth. Rumours circulated amongst our Church congregation that organised groups of demon-filled young people were systematically targeting local high schools in order to gain disciples. Sinister images were evoked by my Sunday school teacher of profane drug and sex fuelled rituals occurring in the rural wastelands throughout the West Gippsland region, with the small town of Nar Nar Goon thought to be a particular centre of unholy activity. It was reported that local dairy farmers had been finding animals either missing or slaughtered on their expansive properties. Old farm sheds were said to have been hijacked by these satanically inspired hordes and used as places for animal sacrifice and other forms of devil worship. Pentagrams were routinely spray painted on the walls only to be found days later by confused and frightened farmers.

All of this was known to our Church leaders because one of the congregations members own son’s had become caught up in this infernal underworld. Beryl’s sixteen year old son Jeff was familiar to those of us who had been part of the Church for some years, as he would occasionally attend a service for special events such as Easter or Christmas celebrations. He was known as a slightly odd but otherwise pleasant lad who was content to keep to himself. Recent character changes in Jeff’s personality, however, had caused Beryl to seek prayer and spiritual guidance from the Church community. Apparently Jeff had become even further withdrawn into himself, aggressive at home and would sometimes disappear for days on end. When he was home, Jeff would sometimes appear ‘spaced out,’ which Beryl attributed to drug use. Upon further exploring, Beryl uncovered a satanic altar hidden in Jeff’s wardrobe. She had read a book on satanism and youth which had a checklist of things to be on the look out for, and the presence of black candles, animal skulls and pentagrams in the bedroom were considered definite proof of a child’s co-opting by Satanists.


The manic fear extended beyond the Church itself. I remember that it one of my year 7 religious education classes the teacher saw fit to show us a fear-mongering VHS titled ‘Exposing the Satanic Web.‘ As evidence of the sensationalism and hysteria of the era, the film is an amusing testament to the individual and collective psyche’s ability to scare itself into an illusory panic. It is the same mass-paranoia and demon obsession that fuelled the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th century. Nevertheless, for impressionable twelve and thirteen year old minds the film frightened us. It was the kind of fear that is bred from sensationalism, in which the end goal is to create a perverted sense of enjoyment and entertainment. For my own part I found the whole thing morbidly exciting. I was revulsed but by the idea of animal sacrifice, but was also distinctly intrigued with the mysterious imagery and pageantry of the whole satanic enterprise. I was also an instant fan of the heavy metal music that played throughout the various documentaries we were forced to watch. From memory, one of the bands featured was Los Angeles rockers W.A.S.P. I was later to find out that W.A.S.P. had caused no small degree of controversy in Christian circles for allegedly using the acronym for ‘We are Satan’s People’ (some also suggested it was ‘We Are Sexual Perverts’) as their band name. Whatever. they looked and sounded cool.

I must have started displaying some subtle warning signs of an impending satanic conversion because my Sunday School teacher- a large and vivacious woman named Victoria-had singled me out for special spiritual intervention. She kept me back after the scripture lesson one morning and expressed her concern that I was ‘dabbling in the dark side,’ and that if I kept heading in this direction I would end up possessed or even dead.  In order to combat the fiery arrows of Satanic attack I needed to pray for strength and read the Bible every day. In addiction, Victoria gave me a selection of comic book tracts by the fundamentalist evangelist Jack T. Chick.

Jack T. Chick’s tracts are notorious for their bigotry, which was a product of Chick’s own brand of dogmatic and miliatristic theology. Since his conversion experience whilst listening to a radio broadcast of Charles E. Fuller’s Old Time Revival Hour, Chick’s theological development was marked by rigidity and judgement. Chick was dismissive of huge swathes of both liberal and orthodox theological belief, and suggested that salvation could be received through the narrow confines of his own legalistic interpretation of the Gospel. Amongst Chick’s more controversial views were his suggestion that Roman Catholics, Freemasons and Muslims were manifestations of the demonic. He also held to the view that any translation of the Bible occurring after the publication of the King James Version in 1611 was inherently heretical. Common beliefs of the Independent Baptist movement were also subscribed to by Chick, albeit with an extremity and harshness that bordered on outright hate. Chick condemned homosexuality, abortion, popular music, astrology and drugs, to name just a few.  The man himself was something of an enigma, and not a great deal is known about his personal biography other than some brief overviews provided online. The best way to learn something of Chick’s personality is through his tracts, which are entertaining and repulsive in equal measure.

screen shot 2018-12-21 at 12.56.02 pm

Because I was displaying tendencies toward becoming a satanic metalhead, Victoria gave me a copy of a Chick tract titled ‘The Angels.’ The basic story is of a Christian rock group called The Green Angels, who are unhappy with the lukewarm reception they are receiving on the Church circuit. A satanic entity embodied in the form of a secular band manager approaches The Green Angels after a recent concert. He states that he can make them world famous and provide them with all the booze, women and money they could ever want. Allured by the temptation, the band signs a contract in their own blood at which point their souls belong to the devil. The band enjoy a brief time of rock and roll excess before the destruction kicks in; overdoses and AIDS plague the band, resulting in
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two premature deaths. Only one of the band members finds salvation via a tract given to him backstage by a concerned fan. Once he repents of his former life he commences a ministry testifying to the satanic dangers of pop music. The tract both intrigued and frightened me, and I must concede that Chick had a real knack for capturing his reader’s imagination through utilising a mixture of aggressive theology, striking graphics and an array of sinister characters and imagery that was appealing in its sense of danger. Even though I considered Chick to be another Christian fundamentalist nut job, I have always loved his comics for their unabashed forthrightness and sense of danger.


I remembered this time on my life during the Christmas holidays just past. For reasons of nostalgia I took a day trip with my wife to my hometown of Warragul, and on the way passed through the small town of Nar Nar Goon. The place looked much as I remember it in 1993, and appears to have avoided the plague of housing developments springing up throughout the West Gippsland region. As I recollected the stories about the supposed witches and satanic gatherings taking place on the farms surrounding the town, I was reminded of the reality and necessity of ‘darkness’ as an integral element of Christian faith. The light of the world- which John’s Gospel identifies as being Christ himself- only makes sense because of the corresponding darkness which was defeated on the cross. The light of Christ is grasped only when set against the dark forces that shape and govern our world- a cosmic reality also attested to by John. Light exists because darkness exists, and vice versa. I am of course not advocating some kind of morbid obsession with darkness, but I do feel that we need to think differently about the the place of darkness in the world and in our individual lives. We all have the capacity to act on this darkness, which touches the every human heart to a greater or lesser extent. When I remember back to the so-called ‘satanic panic’ era of my childhood, it seems to me that the mistake being made by the Christians around me was that the darkness being expressed through juvenile satanic rituals- however comic and anachronistic they may seem to us today- was something we must intrinsically fear and intellectually avoid. Our young minds were told that all thoughts of the devil would inevitably lead to satanism, and that any fascination with or interest in the darker side of human life was sinful. This dualistic approach to spirituality- although ultimately correct (for the light is not the darkness)- nevertheless emphasised fear rather than fearlessness. The darkness was something we were implored to automatically run from. Reflecting or thinking about its place in the Christian faith was strictly off-limits. This was a tragedy, as it prevented us from fully understanding the depth of our faith and the complex spiritual dynamics at play in the world. The Christian faith is predicated on the battle between light and darkness. The demonic is a present reality in our world, and a theological and spiritual willingness to confront it- both corporately and invididually- is necessary for our faith to deepen. That darkness exists in concrete reality should be attested to and engaged without fear and suppression, for it has ultimately been defeated.



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