Showing posts with label Genocide. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Genocide. Show all posts

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Bible Tells Me So- A Book Review






   Peter Enns

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton

Bloody violence, talking animals, mysterious beings, rules for slave holders, and managing your bodily fluids challenge anyone who makes a New Year’s resolution to read the Bible. I could have used a book like The Bible Tells Me So when I was a teenager attempting to make sense of this holy book I was dutifully bound to read. And in those days, the Bible sounded even more removed from my reality in the language of Shakespeare.

Even with modern translations, some old stories still sound quite strange and leave an intelligent inquirer wondering about what kind of God kicks people out of their home for eating a bit of fruit, changes his mind about creating people because they’ve turned out so bad, or orders his people to kill an entire tribe of other people so his tribe can have their land?

Peter Enns offers some answers in seven easy-to-read chapters. The problem with the Bible isn’t the Bible. The problem contemporary readers face is understanding a collection of ancient texts free from a defensive posture created by religious leaders who do not take challenges lightly. In Chapter 1, Enns invites us to interact with the text and appreciate how ancient people understood God and their spiritual journey.

The bloodthirsty warrior God appears in Chapter 2. He’s the one who scared the hell out of children who, like me, grew up in fundamentalist homes. You knew God meant business, because he killed, or ordered the killing of, men, women, and children who were from other tribes. And he even killed off his own people when they stepped out of line (remember the flood and other stories). By the time we get to Jesus’ talk about a loving heavenly father, we may wonder what kind of love are we talking about?

So, how does Pete deal with the big killer question?

God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” (786*)

I’ll comment on this later. It’s a big deal.

Chapter 3 is about ancient stories. Enns reminds readers that people tell and retell old stories based on imperfect memories and how the storyteller interpreted past events. The stories were told with a purpose that gave meaning to their present time and served “to persuade, motivate, and inspire.” (1085)

Peter offers a number of examples of different narratives about similar events from the Gospels and the Old Testament. He helps readers think about the big picture by explaining that the Old Testament was written during the period of the monarchy and exile. The early origins stories introduce the main story, which is Israel’s monarchy, exile, and return.

In Chapter 4, Peter explains why the Bible isn’t an owner’s manual explaining how to do life. Examples from what appear to be conflicting advice in Proverbs help make the point that wisdom is needed to deal with particular situations.

Jesus’ way of interpreting the Bible is the subject of Chapter 5. Enns illustrates how Jesus gets creative when he interprets old texts in terms of his present situation. This creative way of looking at the old text was not unique to Jesus. But Jesus stood out based on his claims to identity and authority. A quote offers a useful summary of Jesus’ way of introducing new perspectives: “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” is hard to square with a rulebook view of the Bible.” (2501)

In Chapter 6, Enns focuses attention on Jesus as the key to understanding what the Old Testament is about. The gospel stories introduce Jesus as the saviour of Israel—the one who will make good on the old promises and the one who is superior to the Roman Caesar. He adds Paul’s interpretation that the gentiles are now equal with the Jews before God and in Jesus all have freedom from the old laws. This requires faith in Jesus that what sets people apart as people of God is not circumcision but love evident in how people treat others.

Enns ends it all in Chapter 7. Readers are challenged to make an “attitude adjustment.” On the one hand, Pete writes “The Bible is God’s Word.” But on the other hand, he asserts: “The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith.” Enns draws attention to God and God’s work in Jesus as the centre of faith.


I recommend The Bible Tells Me So to all those Christians who have become disenchanted with literal, or near literal, interpretations of the Bible that produce feelings of being trapped, fearful, guilty, and struggling to make sense of ancient perspectives on science, history, and how God works in people’s lives. As a bonus, Pete’s writing is easy to read, provocative, funny, and snarky.

Ungodly Warrior

I recall a Christian professor commenting on the horrible murderous things God did to people in the Old Testament. I suggested, as a psychologist, that it seems a lot like war propaganda. The stories governments would come up with to convince their men to fight because God is on their side. And to convince the enemy that they, and their gods, are no match for what our God can do. Perhaps, it’s not unlike children having faith that when the chips are down, they can count on their dad to whip the opposition. I don’t claim to be right. And I was pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful reaction of the professor. It is hard to make sense of the God Jesus described as a loving father if the same God is not exactly prolife a few centuries before Jesus. In short, Enn’s presentation of the Warrior God should be helpful to those looking for an explanation that makes sense of the alleged atrocities.

Ancient Views

Enns points about interpreting the old stories may also help people avoid the futile efforts of trying to find ways to match biblical understandings of the world and the universe to the ongoing discoveries of modern science. Peter’s call for readers to be careful about their expectations of the Bible is on point. Reading very old texts with expectations that they are like contemporary history or science books doesn’t make sense.


Enn’s doesn’t say much about the fallibility of human memory and that’s ok—his expertise lies elsewhere. He doesn’t ignore the fact of problem memories. Fortunately, even evangelical scholars like Craig Keener are aware of the limitations of memory established by psychological scientists like Elizabeth Loftus. The problem of memory is just another important factor to consider when reading ancient texts based on distant memories of events. The limitations of human memory do not detract from the obvious history of the Bible as an enduring source of inspiration unless readers insist that all the writers had perfect memories.

God’s Word

I am inclined to give Enns some slack for his comments in Chapter 7, which I noted above. Considering the Bible as God’s Word and then saying it is not the centre of faith is a bit of a stretch. So much depends on how one interprets the phrase “God’s Word.”

In one sense, the notion that the Bible is God Word suggests an untouchable sacred document that cannot be challenged. In fact, modern fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have elevated the Bible to a lofty place as if it were God. Of course, each Christian group reserves the right to interpret God’s Word for their group creating a foundation for doubt about what it might mean to say something is “God’s Word.”

I see Enns phrasing here as a way of taking the edge off his unfundamentalist approach to biblical interpretation. Given the first six chapters, Enns’ view of the Bible is not at all like the perspectives offered by Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. And that is why Enn’s book is worth reading.


Enns, P. (2014). The Bible tells me so...why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. New York: Harper-Collins.


* The numbers in parentheses represent location numbers in the Kindle Edition.

About Peter Enns

Peter Enns has a PhD from Harvard University along with other degrees. His recent CV identifies his position as professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

About the Reviewer

Geoffrey W. Sutton is a licensed psychologist with a PhD from the University of Missouri. He is the author of A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures.  He has worked as a clinician and research professor. Now he studies and writes about psychology and religion. He no longer provides clinical services.


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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Nazi Doctors Medical Killing Psychology of Genocide- Book Review


Medical Killing and the

Psychology of Genocide

  By  Robert Jay Lifton

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton

Lifton peers into the lives of physicians who killed millions. He examines the beliefs and practices of Nazi culture, which provided a biomedical context for ridding Germany of disease by exterminating those targeted as responsible for such disease. In an evil irony, healers frame killing in an expanding narrative that ultimately reaches the level of genocide. In addition to records, Lifton included interviews with surviving Nazi physicians and some prisoner doctors who served as their underlings in Auschwitz.

Lifton discloses his perspective, which is that of a an American psychiatrist, a Jew, with a psychoanalytic perspective informed in part by the ideas of Otto Rank. In the Introduction, Lifton informs us of key elements of his psychological model. People seek to deal with mortality by seeking immortality in various life projects. Many also seek to deal with limitations via transcendence. He refers to Rank's notion of "immortality systems" to help gain a sense of the meaning of the Nazi's "Thousand Year Reich" in which ordinary Germans and professionals could be bound together in an uplifting and eternal endeavor.

Lifton also shows us that in the mass killings of Jews and others, especially as seen in the death camps, the Nazis crossed a significant barrier beyond that kind of episodic violence, which targets hated people here and there to reach a systematized elimination of certain human lives based on the logical extension of a distorted biomedical theory that harnessed physicians to a gross expansion of euthanasia to the selection of multitudes of Jews for lethal "cleansing."

In Part I, Lifton explains the early Nazi medical killing program of euthanasia presented as "life unworthy of life." There were several components beginning with required sterilization then the killing of "impaired" children and adults in hospitals-- mostly mental hospitals. The practices of injection and carbon monoxide poisoning were eventually expanded to inmates at concentration and extermination camps and then to mass killings.

Part II focuses on Auschwitz. The SS doctors performed the initial selection of arriving prisoners either for the gas chambers or temporary survival. Additional selections followed as doctors "examined" prisoners' fitness when overcrowding or health conditions commanded their attention. The "unfit" were of course selected to die in this bizarre application of triage. Lifton closes this section with three chapters each devoted to a close look at three physicians. One he considers a "human being" in an SS uniform, the other, Josef Mengele, identified as "Dr. Auschwitz," and the third, Eduard Wirths a representative of the "healing-killing conflict."

The final Part III examined the psychology of genocide. Lifton explains his view of the concept "doubling." Nazi doctors form two selves to cope with death. The previous physician self is the healer, which emerges from time to time. The Auschwitz self takes on the numbing routine necessary to psychologically survive the initially shocking assignment to carry out selections of people for immediate death. Lifton addresses some additional themes related to genocide and mentions some similarities of the Nazi killings to the earlier Armenian genocide.

Overall, I found Lifton's work informative and worthy of consideration given the in-depth interviews with Nazi and other physicians who survived the almost indescribable horrors. His analysis of "doubling" is interesting because he provides numerous examples of how this construct may help approach an understanding. Unfortunately, like many mental constructs there is a circularity that fails to satisfy my desire for a closer look at causation. Lifton does mention the cultural milieu and even provides historical perspectives that no doubt bolstered the German biological view of a healthy and superior race in contrast to those people viewed as a subspecies who were unworthy or even dangerous to life. It is this milieu, and an understanding of social psychology, that I think would offer a more useful explanation as we continue to confront extreme outgroup hatred.

Another perspective I would like to have seen is a more careful analysis of moral psychological perspectives. In fairness, much of moral psychology research has taken place in the last couple of decades and would thus be unavailable to Lifton. Nevertheless, contemporary readers would do well to consider the work of Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind, 2012) and others to examine the scheme of justifications employed by the Nazi's in their killing narrative.

Finally, Lifton appears to have ignored the work of Zimbardo and the well-known 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which offers empirically supported ideas for considering the rapid shift from fellow citizen to the split roles of guardian-inmate. A quote from Zimbardo is relevant.

"How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. Please read the story of what happened and what it tells us about the nature of human nature."

What we can glean from Lifton's research is the perspective of a psychiatric physician who offers us a face-to-face encounter with some of history's most malevolent and scariest beings-- healers turned killers.

Related Post

Psychopaths and Leadership

Read more about Auschwitz-Birkenau at


Lifton, R.J. (1985). The Nazi doctors: Medical killing and the psychology of genocide. New York: Basic Books.  (Paperback, 561 pages)


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