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Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil

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We are still surprised by evil. From Auschwitz to the events of September 11, we have been shocked into recognizing the startling capacity for evil within the human heart. We now know 9/11 revealed that our country was unprepared in terms of national security, but it also showed we were intellectually and morally unprepared to deal with such a barbaric act. Our language to describe evil and our ethical will to resist it have grown uncertain and confused. Many who speak unabashedly of evil are dismissed as simplistic, old–fashioned, and out of tune with the realities of modern life. Yet we must have some kind of language to help us understand the pain and suffering at the heart of human experience. Author and speaker Os Guinness confronts our inability to understand evil – let alone respond to it effectively – by providing both a lexicon and a strategy for finding a way forward. Since 9/11, much public discussion has centered on the destructiveness of extremist religion. Guinness provocatively argues that this is far from an accurate picture and too easy an explanation. In this expansive exploration of both the causes of modern evil and solutions for the future, he faces our tragic recent past and our disturbing present with courageous honesty. In order to live an "examined life," Guinness writes, we must come to terms with our beliefs regarding evil and ultimately join the fight against it. Addressing individuals as well as a traumatized culture, Unspeakable is an invitation to explore the challenge of contemporary evil, a call to confront our culture of fear, and a journey to find words to come to terms with the unspeakable so that it will no longer leave us mute.

242 pages, Paperback

First published February 1, 2005

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About the author

Os Guinness

95 books312 followers
Os Guinness (D.Phil., Oxford) is the author or editor of more than twenty-five books, including The American Hour, Time for Truth and The Case for Civility. A frequent speaker and prominent social critic, he was the founder of the Trinity Forum and has been a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies. He lives near Washington, D.C.

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Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
Profile Image for Mary Overton.
Author 1 book41 followers
February 3, 2013
Guinness argues there are 3 ways to respond to the question of evil: as an Eastern believer in the need to extinguish meaning; as a secularist/humanist believer that the individual creates meaning; or as a Christian believer that God gives meaning to human suffering by having suffered Himself.

(1) "The Buddhist remedy for suffering is stern, even drastic. If 'the great deathless lake of Nirvana' is a state of extinguishedness, what is extinguished is not only suffering but attachment, desire, and - finally - the individual who desires.... as the philosopher Ninian Smart concluded bluntly, 'There is Nirvana, but no person who enters it.'
"To say it again, in the Buddhist view there is quite simply no remedy for suffering in this world. Nor is there any prospect of a coming world without suffering. There is not even the hope that you and I will ever live free of suffering. And finally, there is no 'you' or 'I' at all. As Buddhagosa said of his state of enlightenment, 'I am nowhere a somewhatness for anyone.' There is only the nobility of the compassion of the enlightened on their road to the 'liberation' of extinction.
"As I see it, the modern, global era raises a titanic challenge for the Eastern family of faiths at this point. These faiths are essentially and explicitly world-denying, whereas the modern world is essentially and explicitly world-affirming...." (119-120)

[Sounds like the Buddha was clear-eyed, hard-headed & realistic. He never promised us a rose garden.]

(2) "Humanism's all-decisive claim is that, since there is no God, there is no revealed meaning and no intrinsic meaning in the universe at all. Therefore meaning is not disclosed or even discovered. It has to be created. Human beings are both the source and standard of their own meaning, so it is up to each of us to create our own meaning and impose it on the world. And if we cannot impose our meaning on the world as a whole, we can impose it in our own small lives as an act of self-creation." (129)
"Here we can see the modern world's grand challenge to the secularist family of faiths. These faiths appeal to society's intellectual elites (seen in George Steiner's description of agnosticism as 'the established church of modernity. By its somewhat bleak light, the educated and the rational conduct their immanent lives'), but they hold little or no attraction for ordinary people. Bloodless as well as bleak, they are too cerebral for everyday life. This is a fatal flaw, and a central reason for the decline of atheism and the weakness of the secularist movement.
"[Bertrand] Russell prescribed this ethics 'for temperaments like my own,' but how many people are included in this sweep? How many of us, having been told about the bleakness of human prospects, will still adhere to the nobility of humanist ethics - especially if it appears that the author himself did not? Why should we care for others as ourselves? Would it not be just as consistent to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?
"On Camus's tombstone are these words from The Myth of Sisyphus: 'The struggle toward the summit itself suffices to fill a man's heart.' But how many will find rebellion to be a satisfying reason for existence when we know from the beginning that we can never reach the summit? When we know that, like Sisyphus, we can never roll the stone to the top of the hill, that even our best, highest, and ultimate efforts can end only in final defeat?
"Are secularism's bleakness and narrow appeal to elites signs of strength or weakness? Are these qualities proof of secularists' honesty and a badge of their unflinching realism, or are they an admission of secularism's ultimate inadequacy?" (133-134)

[Sounds like secularism is just too "hard" for stupid people.]

(3) "God is all-good: no other god has wounds.... In contrast to the Eastern religions, the biblical response to evil and suffering is one of engagement, not detachment. And in contrast to secularist beliefs, we are not on our own as we fight evil. Precisely because of a wisdom and strength greater than our own, those who combat wrong can have solid grounds for trusting in the final triumph of good over evil. Our individual prospects end only in death, and the cosmic prospects for the planet are a stay of execution only delayed somewhat by a few billion years. But Jewish and Christian confidence is not in science and human efforts. Even when we die, God keeps faith with us in the dust." (145)
"In contrast to those who think religious belief is mere human projection, the God of the biblical story is not simply personal for us but personal in himself. He is personal because of his own nature, not because we need him to be personal. He is not made in our image; we are made in his. And there is no other ground for justifying the preciousness and inalienable dignity of each human being. Those who prize human rights without this root will find it a cut-flower ideal as disappointing as it is short-lived." (146)

[Sounds like magical thinking to me. And there have been plenty of wounded gods in the history of religion. Check out http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... .]
Profile Image for Douglas.
248 reviews8 followers
November 4, 2010
What is the world's greatest problem? Me. This was an incredibly difficult book to read because it deals with the central fact that we are all capable of great evil, no matter how much we try to kid ourselves otherwise. As a Christian pastor, I like to pretend that I'm a good person, but the reality is that evil is as resident in my heart as it is on the heart of every person on Earth.

This would have been a 5 star review except that the first 75-80 pages were a slog to get through. Past that point, though the searing indictment of every major faith and every person on Earth begins.
Profile Image for Melanie.
723 reviews42 followers
December 19, 2008
This is the first book I've read by Os Guinness, and I found him thoughtful and articulate. What I liked most about this book was the care Guinness gave to examining evil and suffering through the many voices of men and women who have encountered it--I was impressed by how well-read he seems, and his art in pulling so many voices into his work. I also liked Guinness' section on how the differences between our answers to the challenge of evil and suffering, and the responses that flow from these conclusions, do matter. He divides this section into three parts--the 'Eastern' family of faiths (including Hinduism, Buddhism, and varieties of New Age thought), what he calls the 'secularist' family of belief (including atheism, naturalism, and secular humanism), and the 'biblical' or Abrahamic family of faiths (monotheistic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

The standards he chooses for assessing the different possible responses to the world we live in are as follows.

1) Is this response able to give an account of evil that is realistic in its diagnosis?
2) Is this response able to give an account of evil that is hopeful in its remedy?
3) Is this response able to give an account of evil that is practical in offering grounds for courage and comfort in facing evil?

He then works backward from criteria to implications.

I liked how Guinness assesses our various human responses to the problem of evil and suffering by following each through to its logical and/or observed outcomes. His source for assessing truth is the examined life. At the same time, as much as I like this approach, from a Reformed evangelical Christian perspective this is potentially problematic if it is the sole source for assessing truth (to the extent that it excludes a robust theology of Scripture and the truth-revealing function of the Word of God). My mixed feelings about how I feel about the chapter on the Christian response to evil ("People of the Crossed Sticks") are linked to this. I need to read it again.

I also suppose that there is possible criticism from another angle--why these criteria? Realism is easiest to argue for in front of a general audience, because it has to do with simply observing the world for what it is. Hope and practical grounds for courage, though (obviously?) desirable, are more difficult to account for in and of themselves, standing alone, because they may not have much to do with observation at all--hope looks beyond the observable, and practical grounds for courage are often despite the observable. This makes sense from the perspective of Christian faith, because it is often working with unobservables, or the obscured 'observables' of revelation and God-breaking-through-into-history. Passages from Hebrews and 1 Corinthians come to mind. For "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1) and "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Guinness' Christian faith is the source for these categories. But although hope and courage are arguably desirable, would they seem immediately sensible as categories for criteria to someone operating from a purely rational or materialistic perspective? What could bridge this gap?

This is a book that I intend to revisit. Overall, very good, and likely a good conversation-starter.
Profile Image for Lydia.
960 reviews47 followers
June 5, 2016
This book covers a variety of topics, but mostly focuses on issues of evil in our world. Included are how different religions view these issues (and evil itself), how they handle them and how Christians should face evil.

As an adult, I would guess it is impossible to not have had to face the realities of evil in some way, and this book helps guide that thought process. It calls evil what it is; does not descend into despair, in fact, spends much of the time facing evil by showing how we are called to spread hope; but is also grounded in historical truth not "sugar coating" certain groups or countries actions to seem better or less than what they were. (If you think I'm implying Germany and the Holocaust, that is mentioned and dealt with, but Guinness is careful to point out and provide examples that evil is not a national / racial / religious past time, it is a personal problem in every one of us.)

Honestly, I felt this book was excellent. Beyond the fact that it helped me work through my own thoughts and feelings on the subject matter (which is a struggle I've often felt), the truth of the past and the hope for the future were wonderful. Understanding that this world will never be a paradise, but in our time here we can change it for better. Guinness' conclusion states it perfectly; so many times something horrible happens, and our leaders of the time say "Never again!", when we should be saying "Not through me."

Content notes: No language issues. Painful topics like rapes, murders (often on extremely large scales) are mentioned, but though the victims' sufferings are not under played, the subjects are gently handled and would not be inappropriate for high-school or mature middle school readers.

73 reviews1 follower
August 25, 2009
there are so many books on this topic that are much better than this one. this one basically rips of all of kevin bales's work along with some other authors. it's not even well written.
527 reviews6 followers
February 1, 2013
One of the most honest and full treatments of the problem of evil. It is a book that everyone should read.
36 reviews
June 27, 2021
Cogent discussion of evil and suffering from Eastern, secular, and Judeo-Christian perspectives. Thoughtful and insightful, with clear arguments and appeals.
Profile Image for Kate.
37 reviews1 follower
August 2, 2022
I think it was helpful. I felt better at the end of the book than I did in the first 45 pages. It's dismal, but it's a book on evil, right? I think many of my issues are emotional rather than philosophical. But it was nice to see a fresh analysis from someone else in apologetics.

I agree about his point of the Christian faith as being the only Abrahamaic faith with a God that suffers. It reminded me of a discussion I had about suffering/evil with a pastor friend of mine one day when, feeling very bitter about my health issues one day, I came to Bible study and asked him, "What kind of God would make me suffer this way?" To which he replied, "What kind of God would suffer himself?" Which shut me up temporarily.

I also thought examining evil in the context of which belief system makes more sense in tackling the problem was more effective than other approaches I've seen some authors take. I like how Guinness breaks down why Buddhism is nonsensical here, why secular humanism doesn't work, etc.
Profile Image for Jeremy Manuel.
397 reviews2 followers
December 20, 2022
I went back and forth on whether to rate this a 3 or a 4, it's really probably a 3.5 for me, but there was enough that I didn't find particularly helpful here that I think rounding down more adequately reflected how I felt about the book. Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil by Os Guinness, is pretty much what the cover says. It should be noted that Guinness is coming from a Christian perspective, which isn't really clear from the title.

Guinness structures his book using seven questions as his guide. These questions range from wondering where evil comes from, what can we do about evil, how various religious or secular viewpoints tackle the issue of evil, and even what do we do about the things we can't know about in regards to evil. While Guinness does structure his book with questions, he doesn't necessarily give up easy answers, he is usually willing to admit the limits of his knowledge which I did like.

Even when he delves into comparative religion he admits his own bias and while he does proceed anyway, I felt like he tries to be fair and honest about the views of the various religions. One interesting note is that he completely skips over Islam, which I found very interesting. I know he mentions why he doesn't focus on it, but I didn't find it a very compelling reason. If you're going to compare the reactions of the major religions/philosophies of the day, then ignoring Islam seems rather foolish.

It is ultimately a lot of little things like that which just eroded my enjoyment of the book. A big point of his book is how modernity has made evil easier, which I both agree and disagree on. He focuses a lot on the evils of modernity while talking about Nazis and Auschwitz; Stalin; Pol Pot; and the genocide of the Hutus by the Tutsis. While these are all recent events and are all undoubtedly evil calling them all modern in the sense of modernity and stemming from the enlightenment doesn't really work for all of them.

While I do think that modernity has given rise to new challenges, personally I think the more modern dangers are connected with things like the nuclear bomb. While something like the Nazi concentrations camps were perhaps more efficient due to the use of technology, I'm not sure that horrific massacres and genocide is necessarily a modern thing. There have been some pretty horrific violence all through history, and while I do understand he's trying to address the belief in modern times that people are good or that the world is getting better I'm not always sure his framing is the best.

There are also many things that he mentions in passing that are just plain wrong or just kind of easy targets. There are of course the glib mentioning of violent media, which I always find to be a bit overdone to be honest. There was also a comment that he made which compared accusations of sexual abuse to be a witch hunt of the modern day. This comment just kind of made me angry as we now see many within church leadership, even big names, being found out to have been engaged in just this kind of activity. While only a passing thought, it is this kind of mentality that has allowed abusers to maintain their positions of power while victims are tossed by the wayside.

I think that this is the ultimate problem I have with Unspeakable, while Guinness does talk about personal sin and about how evil runs through all of us. I find that the targets of his broader societal criticism are a bit too much like a list of typical Christian bogeymen. You have the liberals, communism, television, video games, and major atrocities, but fails to warn about the dangers that the church itself can do, or conservatives themselves can do as we see in our own politics of the day. I just found these aspects to be a bit short sighted I guess.

These are probably things I wouldn't have been aware of the first time I read this book, but reading it now it seems glaring. Despite this, I still think that Guinness does some interesting things about evil and that you may find it useful. Personally, I don't really struggle with the traditional "problem of Evil" as some do, so a book like this was never going to probably make a big impact on me. It also won't be super helpful if you're looking for set answers, granted I find an approach like Guinness' to be more honest in what we can and can't know on such an issue.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
Author 3 books7 followers
May 3, 2015
The book provides interesting insights on our distorted view of terrorism. It challenges you to think about terrorism much more broadly than is typical - it's not just bombs being set off in markeplaces but it's also terrorist regimes that have been given so level of legitimacy by a lack of response or commerce activity. In that light, terrorism is an issue that has been with us for a very long time - really through most of recorded human history.

Beyond this view and the need to recognize that evil is real, the book does little to help us in our day-to-day response to this reality. For those who don't struggle with the concept that evil exists, the book doesn't provide much additional food for thought.
242 reviews3 followers
July 17, 2016
Great book dealing with evil. Whole 1st part of book is asking key questions so as to get them answered before dive into solutions.

1. Where does Evil come from?
Key here is that all philosophies and world views have to deal with evil. Religious as well as non-religious. Sometimes secularist make out the fault is all religion.

2. What's so right about a world so wrong?
a. Why me?
b. Where is God?
c. How can I stand it?

3. Are we really worse or just modern?
4. Do the differences between philosophies make a difference?
5. Isn't there something we can do?
6 Why can't I know what I need to know?
7. Isn't there any Good in all the bad?

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Mary.
Author 2 books3 followers
July 8, 2019
This is a hugely valuable resource on the greatest question that stands in the way of belief. Guinness has tackled it with historical understanding, Biblical grounding and a wise grasp of human nature. "We can no longer plead ignorance" said the reformer Wilberforce when facing the evils of his own time. Auschwitz is the end of our own time of progressive assumptions. The bigger questions need to be asked and answered, and we will have plenty of coming opportunities. WH Auden said "Either we serve the Unconditional, or some Hitlerian monster will supply an Iron convention to do evil by."
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