Bach & God
by michael marissen
oxford, 288 pages, $35

Michael Marissen, emeritus professor of music at Swarthmore, argues that Johann Sebastian Bach’s music embodies the theology of its text, and an acquaintance with that theology helps listeners understand and appreciate Bach’s music more deeply. He also contends that there are troubling anti-Semitic currents in the Lutheranism of Bach’s time, which on rare occasions creep into his music.

For example, some of Bach’s church cantatas reflect the harsh views of Judaism present in Luther’s writings and translation of the New Testament. By contrast, Bach’s settings of the Passion focus on the complicity of sinful listeners, not the Jews, in Christ’s death, even when Luther’s word choice obscures Matthew’s linguistic distinction between the Jewish people and the mixed crowds who condemned Christ to death.

Marissen also argues that Bach’s Musical Offering, which seems like abstract chamber music, is a defense—against Enlightenment pride—of the Lutheran understanding of true glory revealed in the sacrifice of the cross. His most interesting chapters offer several examples of how Bach’s musical settings put “a religious spin on its religious text.” Later he shows how Bach’s music and text need to be understood in light of the specific phraseology and ideas of the Luther Bible and the commentaries of his day. Like many Christians, Bach underlined his annotated Bible, and we still hear his marginalia in his music.

—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation
by shane o’mara
harvard, 336 pages, $29.95

The “torture memos” released by President Obama in April 2009 are redacted versions of U.S. Department of Justice communications advising the CIA, Department of Defense, and President George W. Bush on how “enhanced interrogation techniques” could be interpreted as legally permissible.

As someone morally opposed to torture, Shane O’Mara was disturbed by what he read in the papers. He decided to launch his own investigation into the validity of torture as an “information extraction methodology” and its effects on the brains of both the tortured and the torturers. O’Mara’s conclusion is revealed in his book’s title, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation. The title also lays bare his neuro-reductionist worldview.

O’Mara outlines—from the perspective of an “experimental neuroscientist” (despite his training as an experimental psychologist)—the known effects of various psychic and physical stressors, such as pain, sleep deprivation, and starvation, on brain function, from which he draws conclusions about the probable effects of torture on the brain. In a conclusion similar to that of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, he says that torture is an excellent way to extract a false confession but not to gain accurate intelligence. More important, O’Mara articulates those conditions under which humans are capable of abandoning their natural inclination toward empathy in order to inflict pain on another human being. In the words of former Guantanamo interrogator Jennifer Bryson, “The starting point for torture is the dehumanization of a ­detainee. Those who dehumanize others corrupt themselves in the process. . . . The torturer lets go of reason, one of the marks of humanity, and descends into rage.”

The main limitation of O’Mara’s book is a philosophical one. O’Mara suggests that recent advances in neuroscience have shown that we can attend to physical realities alone and ignore psychological and moral ones. This is naive neural reductionism, the belief that all things can be understood by breaking them into basic units. The entire universe is made up of atoms; the brain is made up of neurons. True enough, but that explains nothing. We are creatures with powers of agency and with responsibility for what those powers bring to ourselves and to our world.

The neuro-reductionist worldview carries with it implications not only for how we conceptualize, treat, and prevent mental illness, but also for how we conceive of the world. It leads people like O’Mara to focus narrowly on the neurological effects of acts like torture, while ignoring broader questions of individual psychology and moral agency. Eventually, it leads to us imagining ourselves in an object-filled world of alienation.

The brain does not suffer, nor does it torture. A torture victim experiences suffering. The torturer voluntarily inflicts suffering on a fellow human being. We use our brains to choose to be the kind of person we want or do not want to be. We do not inflict torture because of the brain but because of who we want to be and what we want to live for.

Why Torture Doesn’t Work shows us that, even in dire circumstances, torture does nothing to aid in the gathering of accurate intelligence. So what? If O’Mara found that torture actually does work, would he reverse his moral stance against its use? Would we? I hope not.

Rather than using the scientific method to test the hypothesis that torture doesn’t work, we should consider whether or not a culture of torture belongs in the kind of society we want to build. The act of torture deprives the torturer and the tortured of human dignity. A culture that tolerates these acts is one that denies the inherent value of each human being. Why let science decide these matters? Our composite human nature—part animal and part angel—means we must always confront two issues: what we live through and what we live for. By focusing only on the science concerning the “brains” of the tortured and torturer, O’Mara misses an opportunity to confront and resolve the tangles of meaning that the tortured and torturer—indeed, all of us—must live with. Only when we decide that we are not for a culture of torture will torture cease to be an option.

—Margaret Chisolm is associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Receive access
to all print & web
articles for
$19.95