Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Film, Literature, Religion > Madness, Gods and Norway

Madness, Gods and Norway

As yesterday’s shocking and deadly terrorist act in Norway begins to sink in and the accretion of details begins to give it form, we can see it for what it’s increasingly appearing to be: yet another in a multiplying litany of instances of right-wing extremist violence. Economic dislocation and insecurity often leads to this sort of thing, especially in Europe, although the debt-ceiling mess in the U.S. and the approaching deprivations of the Rob Ford regime in Toronto (likely to soon be followed by those of a Tim Hudak regime in Ontario as a whole, if provincial polls are to be believed) show that unchecked demagoguery has dire consequences on this side of the Atlantic, too, whether guns or bombs are going off or not. That the knee-jerk reaction from much of the media (to say nothing of the unhinged right itself) was to immediately speculate that Al-Qaeda or some other Islamist affiliate was behind the assault on Oslo and Utoeya Island simply demonstrates not merely the simmering anti-Muslim bigotry which far right rhetoric has enabled but also the enormous conservative-shaped blind spot that these stirrings have encouraged in media coverage.

How darkly apt that I recently finished reading Greg Hollingshead’s Bedlam, a novel about the thin, porous membrane between politics and madness, between discrimination and paranoia, and between good intentions and outright cruelty. Though it’s set in late Georgian and Regency England, where even the King was mad, that doesn’t mean it has no applicability to our current moment, where entire delusional realities can be created in the heads of our political classes and leaders and then foolishly acted upon.

Perhaps less apt would be Brian Flemming’s fairly inept but undoubtedly belligerent and provocative The God Who Wasn’t There, a meandering but angry challenge to unchecked Christianist propaganda which I also watched recently (although the Norwegian suspect in the attack self-identifies as a conservative Christian of the type being challenged by Flemming). Although Flemming mostly wastes his filmic outrage on dubious speculative scholarship about the historicity of Jesus, there is some useful scepticism concerning claims of religious moral superiority included as well, to say nothing of an unflinching expose of the overwrought bloodbath that was Mel Gibson’s “devotional” The Passion of the Christ.

I can’t really go along with his argument, though, and not only because it’s so poorly sourced (always a problem with the agitprop documentary). When it comes to arguments about religion, in particular extreme ones, I’ve always leaned towards the contrary position of whatever absolute assertions are being made. If an aggressive atheist in the Richard Dawkins mold is declaiming the ignorance, lies, and history of atrocious violence inherent to religious faith, I’ll counter with examples of its common moderation, its modern concern for social justice and improvement of the circumstances for the poor, and the myriad examples of enduring and beautiful culture that it has produced.

Alternately, if a rigid fundamentalist firebrand is fulminating about the evils of secularity and the need for a virtual (if not actual) theocracy along the doctrinal lines of his or her chosen denomination, then I’m likely to focus on the discriminatory violence, the blinkered tribalism, and the vicious stifling of dissenting and heretical points of view endemic to many religious movements, especially those that achieve authority over societies as a whole. Perhaps this is simply my intellectual predilection, but working to see the full complexity and contradictory nature of religious faith doesn’t strike me as a mistaken approach at all. And whatever mix of politics, religion and madness ends up being the fuel for the terrible events in Norway yesterday, I’m certain that a similar approach to understanding it will also be preferable.

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