Plague Wars

“Plague Wars”, by Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Macmillan, £18-99p.

When reports appeared of an outbreak of a mysterious brain virus which claimed the
lives of five people in New York, the City’s then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, gave orders for the spraying of insecticide over the city and for insect repellent to be distributed. Scientists claimed that the virus – St.Louis encephalitis – had been borne by mosquitoes and birds, and it was assumed that Mother Nature had simply carried out one of her timely reminders of our mortality and susceptibility to old diseases dressed in new clothes.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) investigated the deaths and although they did not
conclude that it was evidence of a biological attack on a civilian population, they have discovered two disturbing things. First, the origin of the disease is a previously unknown variant of West Nile virus which has never previously appeared in the USA. Second, an Iraqi defector had, six months earlier, alerted the CIA that Saddam Hussein was developing a strain of the West Nile virus for use as a biological weapon. The report had been dismissed as nonsense.

These reports were a timely scene setter for Mangold and Goldberg. Their “Plague Wars” -republished in a new edition in 2001 – should be required reading by those responsible for our security.

Although their book occasionally suffers from a strain of journalese, which sometimes makes it read like a script for a television documentary, this should not deter potential readers.

Mangold’s long and distinguished career with BBC’s Panorama and Goldberg’s work for
independent television perhaps render this mild criticism inevitable. By the same token there is an
immediacy and an urgency which breathes through this highly accessible account.

The first part of the book rehearses the history of biological weapons – and the United Kingdom’s creative role in encouraging the United States to support the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1970. When the Soviet Union signed up it was heralded as a model treaty and the basis on which the Cold War’s nuclear arms race might also be ended. The reality was that as soon as the ink has dried the Soviet Union duped the West and continued to manufacture deadly biological weapons. The technology would later be exported and,as Soviet defectors would subsequently reveal, military dictators such as Saddam would be the beneficiaries.

Throughout the 1970s manufacture and experiments continued unabated. In 1979 the worst accident in the history of biological weapons production occurred at a top secret military facility in Sverdlovsk – now known once more by the old White Russian name of Ekaterinburg. Anthrax spores contaminated the area around the site and perhaps as many as 600 people died. The Soviets instigated a massive cover-up, to deceive both the West and their own citizens. The truth did not emerge until 1990.

In the same year as the Sverdlovsk contamination, 1979, Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq.

Throughout the 1980s Iraq’s scientists developed a biological weapons programme – and conducted
inhalation and blast experiments using biological agents of various kinds on large animals, beagles, sheep, and Rhesus monkeys. Production of anthrax and botulinum toxin began in 1989. Mangold and Goldberg say that Iraq embarked on a programme to develop Plague as an offensive weapon. These chilling realities read like a sequel to C.S.Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength,” written in 1943.

Verification of these new evils was never likely to be easy and the withdrawal of weapons inspectors in Iraq made it impossible. Of course, this book predates the 9:11 attack on New York in 2001 and the commencement of the War in Iraq in 2003.

This account ends with a sobering description of the preparations which the civil authorities in New York were at that time making for a biological attack. Comparing New York’s plans with the United Kingdom, the authors remark on the absence of adequate planning in British cities susceptible to attack.

Chilling to then read the accounts of West Nile encephalitis and the spraying of public buildings which appeared after the publication of this book. Just as disturbing is the thought that such an attack would be unannounced and no responsibility taken for it. And, how will we tell when such an attack is natural or deliberate?


Loss and Gain by John Henry Newman

In 1848 John Henry Newman published his novel “Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert.” Recently re-published in paperback by the Echo Library, its beautiful prose and moving narrative is well worth reading – especially as we reflect on Newman’s beatification. It was Newman’s first literary offering after becoming a Catholic in 1845.

It was originally distributed by Burns and Oates, whose owner, James Burns, had issued some of the Tracts of the Oxford Movement.

Burns disseminated several of Newman’s theological works – books which saved the company from financial ruin. It may even be that “Loss and Gain” was written with a more popular market in mind, in order to help Burns – who became a Catholic in 1847 – to survive. It was republished eight times during Newman’s lifetime.

“Loss and Gain” is set in the early Victorian Oxford University that Newman knew so well. It is the story of a young student, Charles Reding, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and the boy’s struggle to find definition to his Christian faith. As the narrative unfolds, we are introduced to Reding’s friends and tutors, and to the theological controversies and factions that were shaping the lives of a generation.

Newman astutely observes – and surely this is true for anyone arriving in any hall of residence at any university at any time – that “Almost everything depends at Oxford, in the matter of your acquaintance, on proximity of rooms. You choose your friend, not so much by your tastes, as by your staircase.” In the case of Charles Reding this finds him living on the same staircase at St.Saviour’s College as William Sheffield, also a parson’s son.

The differences that Newman ascribes to Sheffield and Reding are probably the differences recalled from Newman’s own undergraduate days. While Reding is “gentle and affectionate”, Sheffield “easily picked up opinions and facts…without laying anything very much to heart.”

Reding embarks on his studies, initially keen to take a conventional main-stream Anglican path, and not to become drawn into any of the factions. Sheffield, by contrast, will say, do and believe whatever is necessary to emerge safely with the university’s best degree.

Reding and Sheffield’s paths diverge as Reding comes to realise that, even if he passes his examinations, ensuring graduation, he will be required to take an oath assenting to the 39 Articles of the Protestant Reformation. Gradually he comes to understand that his conscience will not permit this.

Newman now introduces us to Reding’s other compatriots and to their disputations.

We meet Freeborn, a zealous young evangelical, who is insistent that salvation will come through faith alone, without the sacraments or the panoply offered by the comforts of the Church, and certainly not by works. Here is Bateman who is an ardent High Anglican, delighting in Gothic architecture, vestments, and all the accoutrements, from piscine to tabernacles, but who views the Pope and the Roman Catholic faith as threatening, foreign, and un-English. And here is Willis, who abandons his studies and becomes a Catholic, and despite attempts by Bateman to “reconvert” him, is ordained as a Catholic priest.

We also meet Reding’s teachers – Mr.Upton, who lectures on the 39 Articles and reports Reding for asking questions which he regards as suspicious and revealing a leaning towards Catholicism; and then Jennings, the Vice Principal, who, after interrogating Reding about his religious beliefs, sends him home, fearing that Reding’s beliefs might corrupt other students.

Most moving of all, as we see Reding part from his College and from his friends, we see him part from his family too.

Reding’s father has died while Charles is at Oxford. It is to his sister, Mary that he turns and reveals the nature of his troubled soul. She sees his doubt as a betrayal of his family, of their hopes for him – and for themselves. His mother becomes cold with Charles, rejecting him as he tries to explain his spiritual dilemma and the beliefs to which his journey has led.

Separated from family and friends, Charles now travels to London. On his train journey he encounters a Catholic priest – the first he has ever met (despite the constant accusations to which he is subjected of conspiring secretly with Jesuits).

At his London lodgings he is beset by a series of visitors who try to inveigle him into various philosophical or religious cults and sects. Charles finally arrives at the Passionist Convent in London, where he is received into the Church, with his friend, Willis present. Now Fr.Aloysius – a Passionist priest – in his joy Willis physically lifts Charles off the ground. Reding tells Willis: “Too late have I known Thee, O Thou Ancient truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.” Like the fictional Reding, Newman was received into the Catholic Church by a Passionist priest, Blessed Dominic Barberi. In 1845 Fr.Dominic had visited Newman at Littlemore. In his 1864 autobiography, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” Newman describes how the Passionist was soaked to the skin by torrential rain and, as Fr.Dominic dried himself by the fire, Newman knelt and asked to be received into the Church.

Although we should look to the “Apologia” rather than “Loss and Gain” for Newman’s account of his own conversion, there is no doubt that much of Reding’s story is modelled on his experiences and those of his friends. His beautifully crafted prose illuminate the religious contours of Victorian England – what Newman described, in his famous sermon as as the English Church’s “Second Spring.” The “Second Spring” sermon began with some words from The Song of Solomon:
“Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For the winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land.”

He gave emphasis to this metaphor by asking:

Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,–of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms? Newman understood better than anyone that this new birth would not be without pain. In revisiting Newman’s “Loss and Gain”, we learn a lot about his personal journey but also, why, over 160 years later, men and women are still struggling with the same questions and making the same journey.

Apocalypse, Revelation, Lord of the World, Lord of the Rings, and Fr.Elijah.

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Elijah in Jerusalem

I have written previously about Michael O’Brien’s novel, “Father Elijah” (see below). He has just published a sequel – “Elijah in Jerusalem” –  which sees the central character, a Jewish Catholic priest, and survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto – continue to challenge and confront a politician intoxicated by the prospect of global domination. O’Brien is a master story teller and weaves together a classic tale of a man of faith willing to pit himself against seemingly impossible odds.  Also woven into this sequel are the foreshadowing of end times but, refreshingly, O’Brien makes it clear that he despises “the tyranny of unholy fears on the one hand or self reliance on the other”  and warns against personal interpretations of Scripture or the conjuring up of apocalyptic scenarios. Instead, this is a timely reminder that all our lives are lived in end times and that we are called upon to remain awake. In every generation we face spiritual dangers and O’Brien’s fugitive priest – falsely accused of murder by those who wish to silence him – has some timely warnings for each of us. As Elijah encounters fellow travellers we are reminded that whatever our weaknesses and failings there is always mercy and forgiveness. Although the politician refuses to listen others hear and the intriguing climax of the novel reminds us that even in the midst of disaster there is hope and others taking part in the same relay race.


If you haven’t encountered Michael O’Brien’s novels a good place to start is “Sophia House” – the first of the Father Elijah trilogy and in many respects the very best of his books. .

The Father's Tale

Elsewhere, he explores some very important themes – nowhere more so than in his “The Father’s Tale”. Alex Graham, a Canadian book-seller and widower, ends up tracking his missing son half way around the world.  It’s a beautiful odyssey motivated by a man’s unyielding love for his prodigal son.


Add to this,”Theophilos: A Novel “ which is a fictional account of the relationship between the evangelist and doctor, Luke, and the man he writes to by name in the Acts of the Apostles and in his Gospel account and his epic novels – a series entitled   Children of the Last Days – set in British Columbia – and you will have fiction to keep you on your toes for the whole of 2016. .


Apocalyptic literature have their origins in the Bible. These are stories which foretell the end times.

The prophets Joel and Zechariah, the Book of Daniel and four chapters of Isaiah (24-27)are either apocalyptic or reveal things which have previously been hidden. The prophets and apocalyptic writers all experience visions and dreams and their insights are often given interpretation by the presence of an angel revealing messages from the heavens.‬

Writers would anticipate the final consummation of the created with the Creator; explore the origins of evil; and the history of mankind’s eternal struggle. The bottom line is that humanity can only escape judgement if it repents and seeks a new relationship with God. Writers from the apocalyptic tradition despair of humanity’s present condition and anticipate a future world which replaces our broken and wasted dystopia.

‪ We have to enter into this Old Testament tradition if we are to have any real understanding of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible.

Sometimes called the Apocalypse of St.John the Divine, the Book of Revelation is characterised by extraordinary vivid imagery, symbolism, and a declaration of Divine Judgement. An angel proclaims the Revelation of Jesus Christ; there are prophesies of a new heaven and a new earth; and underpinning it all is the endless battle between God and Satan – the ultimate adversary.

We meet the twenty four crowned elders; the Lion of Judah who is the seven horned Lamb; the four living creatures; the seven angelic trumpeters; a star called Wormwood; and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

‪ The modern heirs to this apocalyptic emerged in the early nineteenth century. Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” marked the beginning of a more secular approach to apocalypse. Hers was a prophetic form of science fiction predicting a world ravaged by plague where the last man struggles to survive. It finds echoes in P.D.James’ excellent novel “The Children of Men” – where the story unravels of the last child to be born.‬

In “The War of the Words” H.G.Wells saw a different kind of apocalypse. This fictional violent culmination of mankind‘s story would be followed by all-too-real hideous terrors of the twentieth century, which, in turn, provoked many more works of end times fiction. ‬

The Oxford Inklings were formed in the quagmire and gas of World War One trenches – surely leading them to believe that Armageddon was upon them. The literature of C.S.Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R.Tolkien was all shaped by those events and by their Christian beliefs.

Tolkien’s ” Lord of The Rings” provides an epic apocalyptic narrative – beginning with his own Genesis story of the creation of a parallel world (“The Silmarillion”) – followed by the combat which takes place between his small people, the hobbits, who struggle to overcome overwhelming and pervasive evil. Perhaps anticipating the climax of his tales Tolkien writes that “for a Catholic history is one long defeat, with glimpses of the final victory.”‬

A more explicit account of the last days of the Church appears in Robert Hugh Benson’s “Lord of the World”, written in 1909. A teacher gave it to me to read while I was a teenager at school.

Benson foresaw a world where the Church had either been suppressed or ignored – where despondency leads to routine euthanasia; where a one world government has outlawed national diversity; and a world leader, the anti-Christ emerges.‬

‪ Almost a century after “Lord of the World”, in 1996 Ignatius Press published Michael D. O’Brien’s “Father Elijah – an apocalypse” – with themes reminiscent of Benson. The tone is set at the outset with words from the Book of Revelation: “Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death…”‬

O’Brien paints a picture of a church under siege – within and without. The book is about the struggle of orthodox Christianity and about the dangers of living within and relying upon our own strength rather than in the strength and love of God.‬

O’Brien’s hero, Fr.Elijah, is a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor who is destined for high political office in Israel. Following the death of his young wife he embraces Christianity and becomes a monk at Mount Carmel.

The Pope calls him out of his monastic seclusion, “to strengthen what remains”, to save the Church and the world. It is a clever novel with plenty of page-turning suspense. Beyond a thrilling plot it challenges its readers to consider again the essence of faith and the way the world is heading.‬

“Fr.Elijah” creates an apocalyptic novel which has its conclusion in Jerusalem. Here, Fr.Elijah’s protagonists, led by an anti-Christ leader, attempt to assert their hegemony over the world. As he and his companion look over the city, O’Brien writes: “Then, with a roar came the thunder again, pealing in circle beyond circle of those tremendous Presences – Thrones and Powers – who themselves to the world as substance to shadow, are but shadow again beneath the apex and within the ring of Absolute Deity…the thunder broke loose, shaking the earth that now cringed on the quivering edge of dissolution…” and, as they sing the Tantum Ergo, the Prince of rebels makes his last appearance and is finally eclipsed: “Then this world passed, and the glory of it.” ‬

Fr.Elijah ends where the Book of Revelation begins earning a well-deserved place in the canon of apocalyptic literature.‬

When China Rules the World…

David Alton in Beijing 2011


“When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order”  (out in paperback next January) is the provocative the title of Martin Jacques’ assessment of China’s future role as the dominant global power. For more than a decade Jacques was editor of “Marxism Today”  – having first transformed it from an obscure ideological organ of the Marxist Left into a broad platform for wide ranging political and social debate.  Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union  “Marxism Today” was also wound up and Jacques went on to become deputy editor of The Independent,  an engaging newspaper columnist and author.

Having heard him speak recently about his book on China my main reservation is that he is still overly influenced by his political antecedents, and perhaps too willing to overlook the nature of the Chinese political system as he rightly dwells on China’s extraordinary growth, economic capacity, and cultural richness.

The title of the book is itself a giveaway.

Mercifully, no nation has ever ruled the world and however much national fortunes may change no free people would accept the idea of one nation determining our destiny. It’s neither desirable nor historically probable.

In 1963 the great Welsh tenor, Sir Harry Secombe, recorded a song entitled “If I ruled the world”. It contained the memorable lines that if he ever found himself in that position “every man would be as free as a bird” and “every voice would be a voice to be heard.”  Would  this be China’s song for its own citizens or the rest of us?  A troubling answer might come from Ai Weiwei, the celebrated Chinese artist and political activist, who was incarcerated in Chinese jails for two months earlier this year;  or ask Chen Guangcheng, the blind civil and human rights activist, jailed for four years after challenging China’s one child policy, and still under house arrest having recently been beaten up by his surveillance officers.

Jacques tends to dismiss concerns for human rights as the West patronising China and he believes that because the Communist State has created economic growth (a Pew Poll indicated that over 91% of its people are satisfied with its economic performance) this confers legitimacy on the Government. He argues that there is no widespread desire for democracy or for the “enlightenment values” of the West.

His central point is that, unlike Western powers, China is not a nation state but a “civilisation state”; that China is far more diverse than we imagine, and more flexible. He cites the example of Hong Kong and the creation of “two systems in one country” as an example of both its diversity and its flexibility.

What is incontestably true is that at a moment when our western economies are in crisis and stagnating, China’s continues to accelerate.

In 1992 just 3.5% of America’s imports came from China; today it is 14.5%; in Brazil it was 0.9%, today it is 14%; and in the UK, from virtually nothing in 1990, China provides 6% of our imports today. One fifth of Australia’s imports come from China, while its two-way trade with its near neighbours – Taiwan, Singapore, and even Japan –soars. Over the next five years we will see the Chinese currency, the Renminbi (RNB)  – “the people’s currency” – increasingly challenge the mighty U.S. dollar.

Globalisation will no longer be shaped by the United States but by China – although Jacques takes far too little account of America’s military might or China’s disastrous demographic trends, or the flight of capital from China’s new rich.  The inhumane one child policy (previously a flagship of the country’s Communist ideology) has left it with an aging population which will have to be supported by a significantly reduced young workforce (the back bone of its current economic growth).

Perhaps expressed less provocatively than in the title of Jacques’ book, it could certainly be said that the twenty-first century is China’s century; just as the twentieth century was America’s century and the nineteenth century was Britain’s.

What this will mean in terms of the aspirations of its own people remains to be seen.

Even more intriguing will be to watch what happens in the developing world– especially Africa – where China has become the main show in town.  And Jacques rightly says that “the developing world and China are umbilically linked.” The rise of China and the rise of the developing world will march hand in hand.  Here Jacques provides a contradictory picture.     He says that China was never a colonial power (some in Tibet would probably beg to differ) while it “has always seen its civilisation as superior as it created relationships with its vassal states” (places like the Korean peninsula).  For thousands of years China was the epicentre of a system of tributary states – which only ended when European powers arrived in the East at the end of the nineteenth century. But does anyone seriously believe that the modern Republic of Korea or Japan would happily settle into such a subservient relationship today?  These are not vassal states but neighbours and how China behaves in East Asia will shape the way they and the rest of the world sees it.

In Africa, Chinese self interest will also have to come to terms with democratic legitimacy and the rights of sovereign nations. And the more that Chinese workers  travel and are exposed to democracy, free speech, religious freedoms, and human rights will certainly affect the way they see themselves in relationship to their own State.

China is in Africa because it has a  scarcity of oil, minerals and food. Africa provides a solution. Once again, the big question will  be whether China  will be able to avoid the age old temptation to exercise hegemony  and be better than its colonial forbearers, Britain included, in both in avoiding exploitation and in using statecraft to resolve conflict and  to provide long term infrastructure and enable sustainable development.   Harry Secombe’s idyllic world where “happiness which no man can end” might seem a little far-fetched to a Congolese or Sudanese worker trapped in a country awash with arms (many made in China) where millions have died in lawless conflicts.  If China ruled the world would it be any different?

Jacques rightly contends that Confucianism was at the heart of Chinese civilisation and that it still shapes what is the very best of China today. But here he makes a miscalculation. He has nothing to say about the rise of Christianity in China and by many calculations during this century China is set to become the biggest Christian nation in the world.

As Matteo Ricci understood in the seventeenth century, when high Confucian philosophy and Christian faith walk together, they are an extraordinarily powerful combination – and perhaps this will be China’s great  gift to the world and certainly not something to fear. Martin Jacques should perhaps also ruefully recall that Christianity is also a principal reason why Marxism is yesterday rather than today in the former Soviet Union.





Please Look After Mother – A Korean Perspective On Dementia


In September the universal Church commemorates the feast of the Korean martyrs. The one time Anglican bishop of Korea, noted scholar and, later, Catholic priest, Monsignor Richard Rutt, who died in July, put their number at between 8,000 and 10,000. Mainly lay men and women; married an unmarried; young and old – they even include children in their ranks.  The first Korean priest, St.Andrew Kim, barely 25 years of age, was also among their number:


John Paul II was deeply admiring of the Church in Korea, remarking that:


“The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.”


But out of that tragic history and the unresolved tragedy of the divided Korean peninsula the spirit of the vibrant Catholic community continues to touch countless lives – both through its institutional life and increasingly through popular culture.


I recently wrote about the movie celebrating Fr.Lee Tae Sok, whose work among the lepers of Southern Sudan has fired the imagination of thousands of Korean people ( He was nurtured in a Church which now comprises around 12% of the population and has created a hugely impressive network of universities, schools, hospitals, broadcasting outlets, and lay people committed to entering the public and political life of their nation.


But even more extraordinary and intriguing is the way in which Catholic identity and Korean identity have merged with one another, positively affecting attitudes and values; and how Catholic themes and Korean themes – such as the intrinsic worth of every human being; issues of human dignity; the commemoration of those who went before; and the value we attach to the family have synthesised so strongly.


Take, for instance, one of the best books which I have read this year: “Please Look After Mother”, a beautifully crafted novel by the Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin. It has deservedly sold more than a million copies worldwide. Available in nineteen countries, it is a spiritual classic and deserves to be read as such.


Translated into English this triumph of creative writing is a wonderful example of the increasing globalisation and worldwide appeal of Korean literature.  It explores issues which unite our cultures. It also introduces us to a growing band of female Korean writers blessed with great and sensitive insight.


The Korean mother who emerges in Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel could be any of our mothers. Affected by dementia she accompanies her husband to visit her children in the city. Separated from her husband as they try to board a train in Seoul, her husband is helpless as he leaves her stranded on the platform. It will be the last time he sees her.


The novel then takes up the affecting story of her children’s subsequent attempts to find her; now looking at their mother through different lens and from different points of view.


As the story unravels we learn about her children and about the family’s secrets. Memories are recalled of a simple life in a tougher but more innocent time. Her distraught daughter tries to piece together a picture of the woman who has now been lost but whose memory mustn’t be.


There are touching vignettes.   Mother, she recalled, had once told of her ambition to walk the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, knowing that in reality she would never leave Korea.


She insists that it will be different for her children, confidently telling her daughter that one day the girl will visit “the smallest country in the world” and there she is to get her a rosewood rosary – a memory which returns while trying to come to terms with the failure to find her mother. With a boyfriend the daughter does indeed travel to Rome and in St.Peter’s basilica she prays that God will “look after mother”. Remembering her mother’s words she finds a rosewood rosary.


In learning about the woman whom they have lost her children also discover that their mother had been quietly given away the money they had posted to her each week, giving it to the church orphanage, where, unbeknown to them, mother had become a volunteer. Overcoming illiteracy she had proudly read her daughter’s writing to the children.  It reminds us of how little we sometimes really know about the people who mean the most to us.


“I wanted to show,” said Kyung-Sook Shin, “that the mother is, yes, a point of strength, the root of the family, but is also fragile and sensitive.”  L’Osservatore Romano described the book as “a rich tapestry” and “a clamorous success.”


Born in 1963 in Jeolla Province in the South of Korea, like the character in her fiction, Shin was born in a rural village, the fourth child and first daughter of a family of six.  Her parents were subsistence farmers and struggled to pay school fees. Shin went to live with her older brother in Seoul and her first foray into publishing came in 1985 with “Winter’s Fable”, followed in 1988 with a collection of short stories.  Her subsequent works have been widely acclaimed and she is the recipient of the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as the French Prix de l’Inaperçu.


Shin herself says that people have told her that what they enjoyed about the book was those glimpses into Korean society. There are very Korean-specific parts, about Korean society, like the march, or the Korean mothers cooking, or the Korean traditional holidays — the rituals involved… so a lot’s always happening.”


But above all, this is a religious and spiritual book; appropriate to celebrate in this month when Korea’s great Catholic men and women are remembered in the liturgies of the Church.


Shin’s beautiful prose invite us to think more deeply about what matters in life; not to lose our identity; not to lose our families; not to forget the things which bind us to one another; and in the end, to entrust the ones we love – in this case the lost mother suffering from Alzheimer’s – into the hands of the One who made her, with the simple prayer, “Please Look After Mother.”      



The Great Partnership, God, Science and The Search For Meaning by Jonathan Sacks

When Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, made his Maiden Speech in the House of Lords he recounted that at the burning bush an overwhelmed Moses told God he could not speak because he was “not a man of words”.

“Mind you”, continued Lord Sacks, “that did not stop him speaking a great deal thereafter. In fact, on one occasion, when pleading with God to forgive the people for making the golden calf, he spoke for 40 days and 40 nights.”

Although it doesn’t require 40 days to read his new book, “The Great Partnership, God, Science and the Search for Meaning” (Hodder and Stoughton), once again establishes Jonathan Sacks’ reputation as a formidable apologist and wordsmith.

With admirable precision and clarity, whether it is in his public utterances, his broadcasts, his contributions to the Credo column of The Times, or through his impressive publishing output, recorded now in eighteen books, he is widely regarded as the authentic voice of faith and reason.

The Great Partnership” intelligently builds upon his previous exegesis.

Here he counters what he calls “the unusually aggressive assault on religion” by “the new atheists”, sharing with Albert Einstein the belief that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”  At all costs we must avoid a clash of fundamentalisms – what Matthew Arnold, in “Dover Beach” described as a place “where ignorant armies clash by night”

Nothing in science – whether it be cosmology, evolutionary biology or neuroscience – can lead to the conclusion that the universe is bereft of meaning or without the hand of an intelligent designer.

This is a formidable broadside against the vitriol of Richard Dawkins who argues that religious faith is “comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”   It also eschews what Chesterton called the “survival of the fiercest”, the Darwinism which has led to the infamy of eugenics.

Einstein asserted that such misuse of science could only be countered “by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion…I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith.”

Science operating in an ethical void carries huge risks for any society.

Who better to poignantly remind us than the country’s leading Jewish figure that more than half of the participants at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, which planned “the final solution to the Jewish question” – the murder of Europe’s Jews – were either medical practitioners or in receipt of other academic doctorates.  Nazi collaborators included a cast of scientists, doctors, judges, lawyers, philosophers and academics.

Tackling head on the argument that it is impossible to believe in a God who permitted the concentration camps, Sacks says: “I have known people who lost their faith in God during the Holocaust, and others who kept it. But that anyone can have faith in humanity after Auschwitz to me defies belief.”

We don’t need leg irons but we do need constraints; scientific exploration must guard against intellectual conceit.

For Sacks, science cannot be depended upon to safeguard human dignity.  Why? Because human dignity is based on human freedom.  Free will is a concept which lies outside the scope of science but rooted in the Abrahamic faiths. The blame game – of blaming others for our misfortunes – began in the Garden of Eden, with Adam blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the serpent. They failed to take the right decision because they failed to remember the principles on which their idyll had been created. Each was responsible for their own actions, their own choices, and for the consequences. The Garden’s lesson is that in discarding virtue we destroy a society from within.

Unlike the planets which have no freedom in their movements we are not constrained in our orbits: “chemical elements do not choose which way to combine, genes do not make decisions.”  We are free agents – which is why science needs the scaffold of religious ethics on which to build its discoveries.

In our own times Sacks warns that the dangers which flow from “the scientisation of the human person have not disappeared.” He says that “life becomes disposable, in the form of abortion and euthanasia. That is often the first warning signal”. He points to the dangers of human cloning, the use of psychotropic drugs and the medicalisation of human behaviour.

Jonathan Sacks tells us that “science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

He introduces a fascinating insight into science as an activity of the left hemisphere of the brain; religion as an activity of the right; contrasting Greek and Hebrew belief and culture – one concrete, the other abstract; Aristotle versus Abraham; tragedy versus hope. There are also beautifully crafted insights into the great stories and figures of the Hebrew Bible – especially the portrait of Abraham; the lessons of the Fall; the murder of Abel; the struggles of Job

When religious faith disappears five things happen: a loss of human dignity and the sanctity of human life; the loss of the politics of covenant and the common good; the loss of half remembered concepts such as duty, honour integrity, loyalty and trust; the deconsecrating of relationships; and the loss of a vocational life of “being called.”    

Sacks commends Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work, After Virtue (1981), and  the work of two other Catholic philosophers, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe, who build on Tolstoy’s contention that when Christian faith is lost Christian ethics are not far behind.

MacIntyre insists that the Enlightenment’s belief in rationality – devoid of religion and stripped of tradition – simply failed. It failed because of the cacophony of competing voices offering different takes on philosophy, economics, and the structure of society.   Politics becomes our church and we become our own gods.

It is not that there aren’t exemplary atheists; manifestly there are; and manifestly some horrendous things have been done by religious people. Pascal astutely observed that “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”.  But, that isn’t the point.

In a world where charlatans strip away a nation’s assets or looters pillage a high street’s shops, we have had a glimpse of the practical consequences of a society robbed of virtue and values.   George Washington presciently observed that “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Sacks concludes that “God and good are connected after all.” 

All of this points to the Abrahamic vision – where the monotheistic religions meet God; where we encounter the men and women made in God’s image; where we meet those we love;  where we strive for the common good.  The truly great partnership is when God and man meet and embrace.

Ethnic Cleansing in Southern Kordofan: When the Stars Fall To Earth

On July 9th the world’s newest nation was born. Under the presidential leadership of Salva Kiir Southern Sudan’s 10 million people finally broke free from the grip of Khartoum.

It is twelve years since I first entered Southern Sudan, travelling in with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The country was still in the grip of the civil war – which claimed 2 million lives and displaced 4 million people. Akio Johnson, then Auxiliary Bishop of Torit, showed me some of the scarred remains of schools, health centres, churches and homes – and the graves of the dead. Memorably, he told me that “every barrel of oil which the West buys from Khartoum is half filled with our blood.”

The ending of the war and secession leaves Southern Sudan and the Republic of Sudan with a whole host of unresolved issues and formidable challenges.

Half of the South’s population is below eighteen years of age; 72% below the age of thirty; 83% of the population is rural; only 27% of the adult population is literate; 51% live below the poverty line; 78% of households depend on crop farming or animal husbandry as their primary source of livelihood; 80% of the population does not have access to any toilet facility; Infant Mortality Rate is 102 (per 1000 live births); under 5 Mortality Rate is 135 (per 1000 live births).; Maternal Mortality Rate is 2054 (per 100,000 live births); and just 17% of children are fully immunized; 38% of the population has to walk for more than 30 minutes one way to collect drinking water; 50% of the population use firewood or grass as the primary source of lighting. 27% have no lighting at all; 96% of the population uses firewood or charcoal as the primary fuel for cooking; a mere 1% of households in Southern Sudan have a bank account – daunting odds for any Government.

But at least the Africans of the South now have the liberty and freedom for which they have craved, fought and spilt their blood.

Countless generations of their forebears knew nothing of freedom, having been sold into slavery by Arabs in the north, while hardly a family was untouched by a fatality during the campaign of aerial bombardment waged by Khartoum.

Despite the phenomenal challenges the taste of freedom is sweet.

Tragically, though, just over the new border – in Abyei and Southern Kordofan – their African brothers and sisters have not escaped Khartoum’s yolk – and like the benighted people of Darfur – that other ravaged territory of Sudan – the killing continues. Dr.Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has presciently warned that Southern Kordofan could become another Darfur.

Sudan’s President, Field Marshall Omar al-Bashir – wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court – and having announced his intention to impose strict Sharia Law throughout the north, has begun a new genocidal campaign against the Nuba people and others living in the oil rich province of Southern Kordofan. Throughout the last two months I have challenged British Ministers about the abysmal failure of the international community to make good “the duty to protect.”
In questions and letters I have detailed a bomb attack on a hospital north of Kauda Valley and the killing of fleeing refugees while United Nations “peacekeepers” simply looked on. I sent the Government a report on events in Kadugli where UN soldiers, according to one witness, were themselves responsible for handing over people who were seeking refuge in the refugee camp “like lambs to the slaughter”.
On June 20th it was reported that northern military, dressed in the humanitarian clothes of Red Crescent workers, led 7,000 refugees, including women and children, out of U.N. protective custody in Kadugli. Since then there has been no sighting or trace of these 7,000 people. There are also reports of mass graves.

State sponsored ethnic cleaning is underway and let no one pretend that they didn’t know.
Two months ago the UN received a report (which one of their own agencies had compiled) detailing “aerial bombardments resulting in destruction of property, forced displacement, significant loss of civilian lives, including of women, children, and the elderly; abductions; house-to-house searches; arbitrary arrests and detentions; targeted killings; summary executions; . . . mass graves; systematic destruction of dwellings; and attacks on churches.” Yet the international community chooses to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes.

Like an unfolding Jacobean tragedy, it is not possible to predict how many bodies will lie scattered across the stage that is Southern Kordofan when this new Sudanese drama reaches its deadly and bloody climax. What is all too easy to predict is that the international community will plead ignorance and do nothing.

Earlier this month my friend, the New Jersey Congressman, Chris Smith, chaired a Congressional Hearing on the deteriorating situation and he concluded that “Whatever the numbers involved, we can be sure that the suffering of the people in Southern Kordofan, especially the Nuba people, has been catastrophic.” The human suffering can barely be imagined.

The Catholic bishop of the Nuba, the saintly Macram Gassis, once said “Peace without justice is like building a house without foundations; it is a pseudo-peace doomed to collapse at the very first storm”. Today there is neither peace nor justice for his Nuba people.

Bishop Gassis has warned that Janjaweed militia are currently targeting the Nuba and have embarked on Darfur-style ethnic cleansing. He says that chemical weapons are being held in readiness to use against his people. And, guess who has been appointed Governor of Southern Kordofan? None other than Ahmad Harun – like Bashir a wanted war criminal –and who oversaw the Janjaweed’s rape, arson, murder and pillage of Darfur and its people.

In 2004, with Rebecca Tinsley, another long standing friend, I visited Darfur. In a sprawling refugee camp we took first-hand harrowing accounts from some of those who had suffered so grievously.

Since then, through the small charity which she founded, Waging Peace, and with single-minded determination, she has doggedly kept the story of Sudanese suffering before political leaders and commentators. Now, she has published a wonderful and timely novel, “When the Stars Fall to Earth” ( Landmarc Press and available via Amazon).
It is the story of the brave and dignified 14-year-old Darfuri girl, Zara, whose struggle to survive ultimately takes her to England and to the United States. Zara’s story, and those of others whose lives meet hers, is a sobering reminder of the new tragedy now unfolding in Sudan. The American film actor, Martin Sheen says the book is “a must read.” He’s right. It is a must read but for the world’s political leaders, ignoring the new unfolding tragedy in Sudan, it should be must act, too.