Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Baroness Caroline Cox
“A ‘must read’ for anyone who wishes to explore the most fundamental questions confronting us all.”
Rome J. Hartman
“Guinness offers a brilliant ‘map’ to help us navigate and confront the difficult landscape of modern life, and modern evil.”
Peggy Wehmeyer
“An important book for anyone who doubts the existence of human evil or who has lost faith because of it.”
Dallas Willard
“Guinness’s incisive analyses gives us hope of being able to deal with evil. A great accomplishment!”
James Davison Hunter
“A brutally honest inquiry into the darkest realities of human history...a journey that leads back to ourselves.”
“Guinness eloquently draws the distinction between evil and suffering, then exhorts us to recognize that evil lies within our hearts.”
Presbyterians Today
“[L]aced with compelling, heart-wrenching and illuminating stories...”
Christian Retailing
“...[Guinness] leaves the readers with a sense of hope, highlighting the importance of individual calling.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060833008
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/7/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 564,504
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Os Guinness, an author and social critic, has written or edited more than twenty-five books, including The Call, Long Journey Home, Unspeakable, and The American Hour. A frequent speaker and seminar leader at political and business conferences in the United States, Europe, and Asia, Guinness has lectured at many of the world's leading universities and has often spoken on Capitol Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt


Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil
By Os Guinness

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Os Guinness
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060833009

Chapter One

Evil and the Examined Life

"Where was God when the towers fell?" The ABC reporter's question to me, only two days after the horrific slaughter of the innocent thousands in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, went straight for the jugular, and it was meant to. Or as a National Public Radio interviewer asked me the same day, "I saw a woman running through the acrid smoke crying, 'God, are you here?' What should I have said to her?"

With television making the atrocity a local event for untold millions around the world, questions like that must have been asked in countless ways that day -- sometimes with heartbreak, sometimes with anger, and sometimes with mute incomprehension. But the concern was surely the same. On a clear blue, peaceful Tuesday morning, the deadly terrorist strike laid bare the two deepest issues of human life: the raw evil of the inhumanity of humanity and the agonizing question of the place of God in human suffering.

These two issues, and the piercing questions they raise, are the central theme of this book. Together they lie at the heart of our human existence. Each requires the other for an adequate response, and both are surrounded by adangerous ignorance and confusion today. The first can be expressed as: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" And the second: "What does it say of us as human beings that the worst atrocities on planet earth are done by our own species -- in other words, by people like us?"

Needless to say, these issues and questions are far older and have far wider application than the events of September 11. For one thing, while thousands died at Ground Zero, thousands of others across New York and hundreds of thousands across the world also died that day -- of cancer, stroke, hunger, accidents, murder, AIDS, suicide, and for many other tragic reasons, not to mention old age. Each of these deaths was accompanied by its own grieving family and friends, and each was a dire event that, for them as individuals, was as bad as the terrorist strike was for the United States as a whole.

A basic fact of life is that any of us may suffer and all of us will die.

For another thing, while a televised attack on two of the world's most famous buildings was shockingly extraordinary, and designed to be so, far more people in the world suffer today under the heel of grinding evils that are numbingly ordinary and will never make the newspaper headlines or the television news. Few of us, for instance, give serious thought to the millions of young girls forced into prostitution, to the women abused by their husbands, to the widows driven from their homes and their rightful lands, to the men convicted and imprisoned without justice, or to the millions of families kept for a lifetime in bonded slavery.

Another basic fact of life is that countless human beings live in abject daily fear of evil and the brutal people who abuse power and oppress them. For much of the world, evil is -- and always has been -- a daily fact of life.

The Lisbon Earthquake of Our Time

These two ancient issues are dark and difficult enough in themselves. But there is a modern twist to the discussion that makes it harder still. The events of September 11 hit America and the West at large at a time when intellectual and moral responses to evil are weaker, more controversial, and more confused than they have been for centuries. Put simply, we no longer have a shared understanding about whether there is any such thing as evil. Some even question whether it is proper to speak of anyone as our enemy. The consequences of our uncertainty damage us on all sorts of levels.

Thus, whether September 11 was viewed as a disaster, a tragedy, a crime, an act of war, or a symbolic spectacle on the grandest scale -- "the greatest work of art of all time," as the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen put it -- the force of the hijacked planes hit the Western intellectual world as damagingly as it did the World Trade Center. The lethal challenge of evil at the beginning of the twenty-first century exposes the core confusion of modern thinking just as the Great Lisbon earthquake in 1755 challenged traditional European views in the eighteenth century -- but in the opposite direction.

In the mid-eighteenth century Lisbon was the capital of the far-flung Portuguese empire and one of the most powerful and beautiful cities in the world. But on November 1, 1755, it was devastated by a triple shock: an offshore earthquake lasting ten minutes that was felt as far away as France, Italy, Switzerland, and North Africa; a gigantic killer wave that unleashed a fifty-foot wall of water pounding across the city; and a series of fires, set off by the tremors, which devastated what was left of the city. The combined death toll of all three disasters was more than 60,000 people, and the shock and horror were felt right across Europe. To the eighteenth century the mention of "Lisbon" was the equivalent of the mention of "Auschwitz" today.

The parallels between New York 2001 and Lisbon 1755 are evident at once: an autumn day; sudden, total, and appalling devastation; buildings destroyed; skies dark and thick with dust; thousands hideously slaughtered; heroic human responses; civilized life drastically disrupted; weeks following filled with a lifetime's worth of grief and funerals; and intense intellectual debates set off around the centers of the educated world.

But the difference between 1755 and 2001 is crucial too. The outcome of the Lisbon earthquake, as interpreted by Voltaire and others, was to weaken traditional faith in God and providence and strengthen the new confidence in Enlightenment progress -- God is dead and the future of humankind is one of our own making ...


Excerpted from Unspeakable by Os Guinness Copyright © 2006 by Os Guinness. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: No Stranger to Evil xi
Chapter 1 Evil and the Examined Life 1
Question 1 Where on Earth Does Evil Come From? 17
Chapter 2 Brief as a Candle, Fragile as an Eggshell 19
Chapter 3 What a Game of Chance Life Is 26
Chapter 4 Our Greatest Enemy 34
Question 2 What's So Right About a World So Wrong? 47
Chapter 5 Why Me? 49
Chapter 6 Where's God? 58
Chapter 7 How Can I Stand It? 67
Question 3 Are We Really Worse or Just Modern? 77
Chapter 8 Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil 81
Chapter 9 Freedom's Tilt Toward Evil 94
Question 4 Do the Differences Make a Difference? 109
Chapter 10 Nirvana Is Not for Egos 115
Chapter 11 I Do It My Way 125
Chapter 12 People of the Crossed Sticks 136
Question 5 Isn't There Something We Can Do? 153
Chapter 13 The Problem with the World Is Me 157
Chapter 14 The Politics of the Second Chance 170
Chapter 15 The Courage to Stand 182
Question 6 Why Can't I Know What I Need to Know? 195
Chapter 16 Don't Know, Don't Say 197
Question 7 Isn't There Any Good in All This Bad? 207
Chapter 17 "Goddamnit!" and Other Unwitting Prayers 211
Chapter 18 The Rainbow Through the Rain 222
Conclusion: But Not Through Me 229
Selected Bibliography 239
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