Cullen Murphy – God’s Jury [ Review ]

March 15, 2012 — Leave a comment


Page 2 – God’s Jury – Cullen Murphy

First, the bad news.  Murphy’s book is a careening, chaotic, Google-search splattered whirlwind of a book that frustrates a reader’s desire for focus, depth, and narrative coherence.  A case in point – in the space of three breath-taking pages early in the book we move breezily from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to the Black Death of the 1300s in agrarian Spain to Murphy’s Eisenhower-era childhood in the Catholic Church to a recitation of present-day political interest groups from gay activists to the Marines.  All of this by way of introducing the Spanish Inquisition!

The good news is that beneath the jarring roller coaster ride of the narrative, (which perhaps should have its own photo stop to capture the reader’s dropping jaw), there is a very serious argument that deserves attention.  Murphy gets to the point just a page after this flurry.  He argues that “rather than being an ‘icon of premodern irrationality,’ the Spanish Inquisition seems ‘remarkably modern’ and an ‘unheralded ancestor’ once you get to know its procedures” [80].

It is not the Ages pejoratively referred to as Dark that produced the Inquisitorial impulse, according to Murphy, it was the Age of Reason.  When God was the measure of all things, knowing the truth of a matter was something of a mystery and final judgement was ultimately left to the divine.  But “the uncomfortable truth is that the emergence of torture as an acceptable instrument reveals glimmerings of a modern way of thinking: the truth can be ascertained without God’s help” [53].

Murphy goes on to credit the development of the modern nation-state with creating the regulated, systematized apparatus that would allow for a true Inquisition.  The Spanish version was just a hint of what was to come.  It took exquisite bureaucracies to perfect it.  Indignities from stress positions to airport pat downs are the fruit of centuries of developed technique.  Murphy cites security experts who call airport screenings “inefficient and largely pointless, even as the methods have become more invasive, mindless, and routine” [234].  So why do such methods persist?  Because “in the end, bureaucracies take on lives of their own” [235].

Murphy lingers with the Catholic Church’s Inquisition too long. (The 20th century story of the Holy Office tsk-tsking Graham Greene over passages in The Power and the Glory really can’t hold a candle to the full-scale assault on the Cathars in the 13th century that opens the narrative.)  But his mash-up style does succeed in illuminating the darker corners of our contemporary conscience.  This is particularly evident in his description of 16th century England as a place in which the developing instruments of the state were put to use in rooting out the religious ‘other.’  Murphy quotes the historian Eamon Duffy:

“‘Elizabethan England certainly wasn’t a police state, because they didn’t have a police force…But you’ve got an ideological war going on in Europe, with England very conscious that there’s a struggle for the soul.  It’s a bit like American feeling about Islam now” [191].

All of Murphy’s energy and humor can’t mask the grim message with which he concludes.  Neither can the cartoonish cover that serves up caricatures of pope, scientist, cardinal, and general peering over the judicial bench at a cowering victim.  The reader arrives at the end with the clear sense that the fruits of the Inquisition are everywhere, even if its agents are now more clearly with state than church.  “The capacities of surveillance are heading in one direction only,” Murphy says, “regardless of what any law might say.  No matter what happens to the nation-state, bureaucracies are permanent and more pervasive.  They operate with more autonomy every day” [249].  Maybe it’s time for another trip to Disney.

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Alex Joyner teaches Reformation history at the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, and is pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  He is the author of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon, 2010]