Posts Tagged ‘new york times’

Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate’


Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8

I post the videos for Michael Epstein’s superb documentary from 2004, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of ‘Heaven’s Gate’, which is based on former United Artists studio executive Steven Bach’s book, Final Cut: Art, Money and EGO in the Making of ‘Heaven’s Gate’, the Film That Sank United Artists.


Upon release and for thirty years afterwards, Michael Cimino’s epic western Heaven’s Gate has been shorthand for “cinematic disaster of the very first, second and third orders”.  Following the enormous critical and commercial success of The Deer Hunter, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, United Artists handed Cimino an $11.5million cheque and allowed him to make his dream picture.

Heaven’s Gate is an epic Western loosely based on the Johnson County War of 1892, with a plot that takes its protagonists Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) from their Harvard graduation to the untamed wilderness of Wyoming to fight a cartel of ruthless cattle barons lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson), who have hired ruthless bounty hunter Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), and are determined to wipe out every male Russian immigrant in the county for cattle rustling.  Meanwhile Averill and Champion vie for the affections of French prostitute Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) who runs a bordello in barrens.

What followed has gone down in Hollywood folklore for all the wrong reasons.  Cimino spent the next two years engaging in what the critic Leslie Halliwell described as “self abuse” and the production spiralled out of control, making Francis Ford Coppola’s experiences on Apocalypse Now seem like a low-key art house project.

The original $11.5million budget ballooned to between $35million and $50million and stories flooded the film press during production that Cimino had all but lost his mind by tearing down and rebuilding sets and shooting endless takes.  One story has it that he ordered the set of an entire town to be taken down and rebuilt because he wanted the main street to be six feet wider; he would not accept the crew’s suggestion simply to knock down one side of the set and rebuild it further away from the other.  And the scene where Jim Averill played by Kris Kristofferson is awoken from a drunken stupor by a group of townsfolk and angrily cracks his bullwhip at them took upwards of 50 takes before Cimino was happy.

There were also stories of widespread drug use on set by the cast and crew as well as cruelty to animals.  The American Humane Association has blacklisted the film and it is alleged that real horse and cattle entrails were used in certain scenes and the cockfight scene actually did result in two birds ripping each other apart on set with the cameras rolling.

After months of editing, Cimino finally delivered a cut to studio that was five and half hours long; one executive commented that the climatic shoot out at end between the cattle barons and the immigrants was longer than the entire running time of many “normal” films!


Cimino eventually had “final cut” on the film and a three and a half hour version was premiered in November 1980 so that it was eligible for nomination at the following year’s academy awards, but the New York critics panned it to smithereens.  Writing for The New York Times, the usually polite and restrained Vincent Canby described it as akin to “a forced, four hour walking tour of one’s own living room” and that “it fails so completely, you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to the Devil in return for the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect” before sealing its fate as “an unqualified disaster”.

A story from the film’s New York premiere had it that Cimino wondered aloud why no one was drinking champagne during the interval.  “That’s because they hate the movie, Michael”, came the reply.

When audiences failed to turn up for the first week of release in New York, Cimino panicked.  In a rash move that conceded that the critics were right in their condemnation of the film, Cimino sent an open letter to UA President Andy Albeck by way of full-page adverts Variety and The Hollywood Reporter requesting that the film be pulled from release and re-edited before it went on nationwide release.  UA granted his request and there then followed another frantic five months of editing.  The film re-emerged a leaner, cleaner 165 minutes.  It was different, but it wasn’t better.  Along with the excess of the original version, Cimino had also removed much of its epic scope and character development while the plot made little sense.  The re-released version fared no better at the box office and died a high-profile death.  The domestic box office from its original theatrical run was a mere $3.5million.

Eventually, art director Tambi Larsen took the Heaven Gate’s sole Academy Award nomination, but the film featured prominently at the 1981 Golden Raspberry Awards being nominated for Worst Film, Director, Musical Score and Actor (Kristofferson); “winning” for Worst Director.


The film’s failure destroyed UA and it was bought out by MGM shortly afterwards.  Cimino’s career was left in tatters.  Since Heaven’s Gate he has directed a mere four feature-length films; all of them low budget thrillers and indie-pics, with the last one, The Sunchaser, released in 1996.  Although all were brought in on time and on budget, none of them made any money.  Cimino also managed to get himself fired from the helm of Kevin Bacon’s breakout hit, Footloose.  Go figure…

For many years, critics’ and audiences’ opinions remained steadfastly unchanged.  In a recent poll, readers of Empire voted Heaven’s Gate the sixth worst film of all time, while writing in The Guardian in 2008, film critic Joe Queenan had the following to say:

I am firmly in the camp that believes that Heaven’s Gate is the worst movie ever made.  For my money, none of these other films can hold a candle to Michael Cimino’s 1980 apocalyptic disaster.  This is a movie that destroyed the director’s career.  This is a movie that lost so much money it literally drove a major American studio out of business.  This is a movie about Harvard-educated gunslingers who face off against eastern European sodbusters in an epic struggle for the soul of America. This is a movie that stars Isabelle Huppert as a shotgun-toting cowgirl.  This is a movie in which Jeff Bridges pukes while mounted on roller skates.  This is a movie that has five minutes of uninterrupted fiddle-playing by a fiddler who is also mounted on roller skates.  This is a movie that defies belief.

A friend of mine, now deceased, was working for the public relations company handling Heaven’s Gate when it was released.  He told me that when the 220-minute extravaganza debuted at the Toronto film festival, the reaction was so thermonuclear that the stars and the film-maker had to immediately be flown back to Hollywood, perhaps out of fear for their lives.  No one at the studio wanted to go out and greet them upon their return; no one wanted to be seen in that particular hearse.  My friend eventually agreed to man the limo that would meet the children of the damned on the airport tarmac and whisk them to safety, but only provided he was given free use of the vehicle for the next three days.  After he dropped off the halt and the lame at suitable safe houses and hiding places, he went to Mexico for the weekend.  Nothing like this ever happened when Showgirls or Gigli or Ishtar or Xanadu or Glitter or Cleopatra were released.  Nothing like this happened when The Hottie and the Nottie dropped dead the day it was released.  Heaven’s Gate was so bad that people literally had to be bribed to go meet the survivors. Proving that, in living memory, giants of bad taste once ruled the earth.  Giants.  By comparison with the titans who brought you Heaven’s Gate, Paris Hilton is a rank amateur.

Empire’s DVD review is rather more even-handed, awarding the film three stars out of five and stating:

The film itself… is gorgeous, tranquil, and terribly slow, with shades of Terrence Mallick’s floaty dreams.  For much of the endless running time, the narrative remains wispy and indistinct as Cimino searches for the melancholy vagueness of life.  It has the looks of a Western, but the naturalism of Euro-art.  There is no doubting the stunning creativity at work, including strong performances from unshowy talents like Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and John Hurt, but it also frustrates with its languid disregard for story.  Cimino lacks Mallick’s ability to ignite images with meaning, here they remain just eloquent images, stark and beautiful like as the spinning wonder of the roller-skating rink, but over-priced sideshows in a little story.

The final eruption of violence, when the cattle-baron’s private-army push to eradicate the lowly farmers carries the chilling edge of tragedy, but it is an emotion not fully won.  This is an extraordinary piece of fateful art, but its imperfections are as loud as its reputation.


I have seen both the full and edited versions of Heaven’s Gate on television and VHS some years ago and broadly agree with Empire’s DVD review as well as Michael Souter’s opinion in his excellent book The Worst Movies Of All Time: or, What Were They Thinking? There is no genuine example of incompetence on the screen that makes you stare in shock and disbelief as in a real turkey like Gigli or Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.  The performances are generally good (although Walken is miscast and Huppert makes for an improbable French madam in the American wilderness) and the scope and passion of Cimino’s vision is clear for all to see.

Yet the $50million price tag is simply not on screen due to Cimino’s gratuitous waste leaving most of the production on the cutting room floor (and indeed on the set’s rubbish heap!), while the vintage steam locomotive that was sourced and shipped at enormous cost is on screen for mere minutes.  The screenplay is reduced to a “motiveless mess” with the characters’ incentives and back stories are left untold.  Who are these people?  Why should we care about them?  Why does Averill only half-heartedly help the immigrants?  How did Irvine become such a lumbering drunk and why does he stay with the cattle barons even though he disagrees with their course of action?  As Souter comments, a few simple reminiscences would have helped; a voiceover would have worked wonders.

Particularly galling are the presence of some truly brilliant moments that suggest somewhere in this bloated dirge of film, there was a great film struggling to get out: an immigrant woman pulls a cart along a rocky road with the corpse of her husband on top; Walken explains to Hubbert that wallpapering his log cabin with newspaper “civilises the wilderness”; the bitterly ironic ending in the full version where Averill’s life finishes (quite literally) where it started.  The film also benefits greatly from David Mansfield’s wonderful score (surely the least deserving of the film’s Golden Raspberry nominations).

I agree with the opinions of many of cast and producers expressed in the Final Cut documentary that the disastrous critical response on first release was less a true reflection of the film’s artistic merits and entertainment value, but more an extreme and gratuitous reaction to the film’s torrid production history and “payback” to Cimino following the unprecedented success of The Deer Hunter.

If Heaven’s Gate is among the worst films ever made, then it probably the best bad film of all time.


Having refused to give interviews about Heaven’s Gate since its final box office death in 1981 (with the exception of a few brief comments in 1990 while promoting Desperate Hours when he admirably took a JFK-on-The-Bay-of-Pigs-line and accepted full responsibility for what happened), Cimino was finally tempted to “go back to Golgotha” and re-cut and restore the film for a 2012 cinema and Blu Ray release.

The response was the diametrical opposite of its initial release in 1980: the film received a prolonged standing ovation at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, Empire awarded it the full five stars for its UK cinema release and The New York Times, while not exactly recanting the opinion of its original critic, Vincent Canby, still gave the film positive press.

Although it took much, much longer than many other films that failed critically and commercially on their initial release before taking their rightful place in cinematic history, such as Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir Blade Runner, perhaps time has healed the wounds of Heaven’s Gate and it has finally joined the elite of lost classics.

I have not yet seen the re-cut version of Heaven’s Gate; however, I will acquire a Blu Ray copy as soon as it is released in the UK and watch it with great interest and an open mind.

If my opinion of the film alters substantially, you will read it here first.

Richard Dawkins on David Berlinski



manicstreetpreacher presents the damning verdict on a pseudo-intellectual by a genuine one.

Further to my recent series of posts on the Intelligent Design creationist propaganda piece Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Mike Godfrey over at God3’s Blog quotes one of the film’s participants, David Berlinski.  In his response to the New Atheism, The Devil’s Delusion, Berlinski, a supposedly secular Jew, writes on the crimes of so-called atheist totalitarianisms in the 20th century:

Dawkins is prepared to acknowledge the facts while denying their significance.  Neither the Nazis nor the Communists, he affirms, acted because of their atheism. They were simply keen to kill a great many people. Atheism had nothing to do with it.  They might well have been Christian Scientists.

In the early days of the German advance into Eastern Europe, before the possibility of Soviet retribution even entered their untroubled imagination, Nazi extermination squads would sweep into villages, and after forcing the villagers to dig their own graves, murder their victims with machine guns.  On one such occasion somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave.

Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner.  “God is watching what you are doing,” he said.

And then he was shot dead.

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.

That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

I can only assume that Berlinski had forgotten about the events of September 11, 2001 when he was writing this passage.  This was an outrage carried out by people who were thinking only too much of what heaven would think of them.  Hopefully, the more recent events on the Moscow tube will jog his memory.

Appealing to authority and credential inflation are common tactics of creationists and Intelligent Design proponents.  Expelled’s host, Ben Stein, went to great lengths to hold out Berlinski as an example of a smart guy who believed in Intelligent Design in order to give it some credibility.  However, all Berlinski succeeded in doing was to be a particularly obnoxious and unlikeable character, saying that Richard Dawkins is “a crummy philosopher” and “a little bit of a reptile”.

In an article reminiscing on an infamous book review for The New York Times in 1989 where he wrote, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that),” Dawkins had this to say about Berlinski:

Are there, then, any examples of anti-evolution poseurs who are not ignorant, stupid or insane, and who might be genuine candidates for the wicked category?  I once shared a platform with someone called David Berlinski, who is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.  He denies that he is a creationist, but claims strong scientific arguments against evolution (which disappointingly turn out to be the same old creationist arguments).  Together with the great John Maynard Smith and others, he and I were guest speakers at a debate organized by a prominent Oxford rabbi.  Maynard Smith spoke after Berlinski and, not surprisingly, he soon had the audience roaring with laughter as he lampooned Berlinski’s bad arguments.  But what amused me was Berlinski’s tactic for dealing with this mocking laughter.  He sprang to his feet, held up a reproachful open palm towards the audience, and said (approximately of course, I can’t remember the exact words): “No no!  Don’t laugh.  Let Maynard Smith have his say!  It’s only fair!”  Happily, the Oxford audience saw through this tactic of pretending to think the audience were laughing at Maynard Smith rather than with him.  And the rabbi, himself a devout creationist, afterwards told me he had been shocked at Berlinski’s duplicity.  By itself, this is too trivial an example to deserve the name wicked.  But it did make me wonder about Berlinski’s motives.  As I said, he is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.

After witnessing his performance in Expelled, Dawkins’ assessment of Berlinski is borne out all too well.

William Lane Craig Provides the “Scholarly” Basis for Holy Horror



manicstreetpreacher finally has his answer as to what one of America’s top Christian apologists has to say about the butchery of the Old Testament.


Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?

– Plato

Earlier this year, I reported on the Craig/Hitchens debate at Biola University.  I had been wondering about Craig’s views on evolution for a while, but during the debate he finally revealed that he did not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.   According to Craig’s “science” based on John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, evolution was so “improbable” (surely Craig’s favourite word in the English language) that the sun would have burned out long before Homo sapiens could have evolved.

Craig has stiffened his position in the last couple of years.  During his 2007 debate in London against embryologist Lewis Wolpert, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Craig stated  that he “neither believed nor disbelieved” in evolution, but had reservations over it on the grounds of improbability.

In the Hitchens debate, however, Craig rubbished evolution completely.  I suppose it was the only way he could overthrow Hitchens’ “98,000 Year Wait Gambit” that in order to believe Christianity in the light of what we now know about the origins of the human race, you have to believe that Homo sapiens crawled painfully on their hands and knees for tens of thousands of years with low life expectancy and massive infant mortality with God watching with folded arms before finally intervening with a human sacrifice in a very remote part of the Middle East, the news of which still hasn’t permeated large parts of the civilised world.

As I wrote at the time, even to me as a non-scientist this was “a load of anthropic bunkum”.  Richard Dawkins convincingly argues that the Anthropic Principle is similar to evolution: it is an alternative to the design explanation.  We on Earth just happen to be lucky that our planet possesses the right “Goldilocks qualities” of being “just right” for life to emerge.  After all, physical parameters ought to be irrelevant to an omnipotent God; he could have designed us to survive in a cold, hard vacuum if he wanted.

In addition, Craig appears totally ignorant of the fact that evolution is about small steps producing gradual, but ultimately massive change over very long periods of time.  Improbable, my foot!  Far from Craig “following the evidence wherever it leads” as he is so proud of saying, he is massaging the scientific evidence to ensure that his fantasy of the universe being designed with him in mind can remain in tact.

My other great Craig-curio was what he thought of the atrocities of the Old Testament.  Craig teaches at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University where I understand that the students are taught that the Bible is free from error in all its words.  I’ve always wondered what Craig made of the God-ordered massacres of the Old Testament, however, in the debates I have seen up until now; he has always cordoned off that topic.

I was mildly disappointed that Hitchens did not tear Craig in half like he usually does at the lectern.  Craig smugly declared himself the victor of that clash.  However, as good as it would have been to see Hitchens wipe the floor with his opponent he showed Craig as a right-wing fundamentalist.  It was almost like watching Ted Haggard or Pat Robertson adopt the guise of a “serious scholar” as Craig harped on about the Gospels’ promise of eternal life as embodied in the resurrection of Jesus.

Continuing this gradual breaking down of Craig’s shell, I recently came across this audio clip of Craig on YouTube replying to The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation author Sam Harris (homepage / The Reason Project) and his objections to the barbarism of the Old Testament:

You will note that Craig says that rather than being an argument against the existence of God, the violence in the Old Testament that was apparently mandated by God is a question of whether the Bible is inerrant.  It is open to debate as to whether the Israelites correctly interpreted the word of God in slaughtering all those poor Canaanites.

However, Craig well and truly lets his veil slip by stating that the Israelites were carrying out the will of God in dispensing with his enemies after emerging from 400 years in Egyptian captivity!  Craig admitted that their acts would have been immoral but for the fact that they were ordered by God.  The acts of murder and genocide became moral because God had ordered them.

Craig even admits that God has the right to end the lives of everyone on Earth this second if he so chooses.  Talk about self-imposed slavery!

I couldn’t believe my ears and wanted further proof that this really was Craig’s view.  After all, this is a man who argues that objective moral values such as the wrongness of rape and torturing a child can only come from God and therefore the existence of objective morality is an argument for the existence of God.  As Craig puts it:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist;
  2. Objective moral values do exist;
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Seeking further evidence, I came across this article on Craig’s ironically titled website, Reasonable Faith, written in response to a couple of email questions on the violence of the Old Testament and discovered that it just keeps on getting worse.

For your shock, if not your consideration:

[T]he problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives.  The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them.  Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder?  No, it’s not.  Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.  The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

God can do anything.  Even make genocide morally right:

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command. [My emphasis]

This segment clearly demonstrates that Craig knows that murder, rape and torture are wrong independently of any divine command.  But he says that they can be morally right if ordered by God as per Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma quoted at the head of this article.

Do you see what Craig has done there?  He has totally undermined his own argument that without God there can be no objective morality!

Craig goes on to explain that the destruction of unclean races by a super-race favoured by God is a virtuous thing (three guesses who tried to put that one into practice in the last century?):

By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable.  It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity.  God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel.  The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

The murder of children is all fine and dandy as long as we think that God wants it.  It was for their own good and they’ve actually gone to a better place:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

But please spare a thought for those poor child murderers:

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?  Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement.  Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.  So who is wronged?  Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

Someone please pass me a bucket.  I’m about to blow chunks over all this moral relativism:

But then, again, we’re thinking of this from a Christianized, Western standpoint.  For people in the ancient world, life was already brutal.  Violence and war were a fact of life for people living in the ancient Near East.  Evidence of this fact is that the people who told these stories apparently thought nothing of what the Israeli soldiers were commanded to do (especially if these are founding legends of the nation).  No one was wringing his hands over the soldiers’ having to kill the Canaanites; those who did so were national heroes.

It always brings a smile to my lips when apologists claim that God can be the only source of objective morality, yet when a sceptic pulls out a nasty passage from the Good Book, they go all relativist on you and say things like, “Well ok, but things were a lot different back then.  Genocide, rape and slavery were the norm…”

No, genocide, rape and slavery were not morally right, even for people living 3,000 years ago.  Perhaps books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy were the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of their day when simply compiling a short list of reasons to kill your enemies was an improvement over the general barbarity of the time.  But values such as self-sacrifice, charity and love were still admired while murder and rape were reviled.

If we are unable to say that it was morally wrong of Moses to issue an order to his troops, as Thomas Paine put it in The Age of Reason, “to butcher the boys, massacre the mothers and debauch the daughters,” (Numbers 31: 13 – 18) then conversely, we cannot say that him leading the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt was morally right either!

Craig’s response continues by contending that Osama bin Laden has it soooooo wrong:

Now how does all this relate to Islamic jihad?  Islam sees violence as a means of propagating the Muslim faith.  Islam divides the world into two camps:  the dar al-Islam (House of Submission) and the dar al-harb (House of War).  The former are those lands which have been brought into submission to Islam; the latter are those nations which have not yet been brought into submission.  This is how Islam actually views the world!

No, Dr Craig, those nineteen pious men who showed your pious nation the social benefits of this level of blind faith on 11 September 2001 were not trying to convert anybody that day.  They were exacting what they saw as retribution from their god for America’s decadence and moral depravity.  Rather like the Israelites exterminating the Canaanites in fact.  If you are in any doubt as to this, perhaps you should take a look at this clip from two men whom you worryingly resemble:

Craig’s final conjecture can only be settled once and for all by force of arms:

By contrast, the conquest of Canaan represented God’s just judgement upon those peoples.  The purpose was not at all to get them to convert to Judaism!  War was not being used as an instrument of propagating the Jewish faith.  Moreover, the slaughter of the Canaanites represented an unusual historical circumstance, not a regular means of behavior.

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God.  If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him.  But Muslims and Christians differ radically over God’s nature.  Christians believe that God is all-loving, while Muslims believe that God loves only Muslims.  Allah has no love for unbelievers and sinners.  Therefore, they can be killed indiscriminately.  Moreover, in Islam God’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature.  He is therefore utterly arbitrary in His dealing with mankind.  By contrast Christians hold that God’s holy and loving nature determines what He commands.

The question, then, is not whose moral theory is correct, but which is the true God?

Why don’t you and the Muslims settle it once and for all by stepping outside, Dr Craig?  This has clearly been the approach of certain Jewish rabbis in the upper quarters of the Israeli Defence Forces which continue to this day, not least during Israel’s military strikes against the Palestinians at the start of 2009.  As Hitchens reported in March this year:

I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army “chaplain” in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as “the enemies of Israel.”  Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively – if rather alarmingly – the man of God replied, “Germans.”  There are no Germans in Judaea and Samaria or, indeed, in the Old Testament, so the rabbi’s exhortation to slay all Germans as well as quite probably all Palestinians was referred to the Judge Advocate General’s Office. Forty military rabbis publicly came to Derlich’s support, and the rather spineless conclusion of the JAG was that he had committed no legal offense but should perhaps refrain in the future from making political statements on the army’s behalf…

Now, it’s common to hear people say [that violent passages in the Bible are] not intended to be “taken literally.”  One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done “in the name of” religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation.  But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally.  (I hate to break it to you, but the people who think that God’s will is revealed in scripture are known as “religious.”  Those who do not think so must try to find another name for themselves.)

Possibly you remember Dr Baruch Goldstein, the man who in February 1994 unslung his weapon and killed more than two dozen worshippers at the mosque in Hebron.  He had been a physician in the Israeli army and had first attracted attention by saying that he would refuse to treat non-Jews on the Sabbath.  Now read Ethan Bronner’s report in the March 22 New York Times about the preachments of the Israeli army’s latest chief rabbi, a West Bank settler named Avichai Rontzski who also holds the rank of brigadier general.  He has “said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath … is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.”  Those of us who follow these things recognize that statement as one of the leading indicators of a truly determined racist and fundamentalist.  Yet it comes not this time in the garb of a homicidal lone-wolf nut bag but in the full uniform and accoutrement of a general and a high priest…  The latest news, according to Bronner, is that the Israeli Defense Ministry has felt compelled to reprimand Rontzski for “a rabbinal edict against showing the enemy mercy” that was distributed in booklet form to men and women in uniform (see Numbers 31: 13 – 18).

At least Craig is correct when he says at one point in the article that many Old Testament scholars are sceptical that the conquest of Canaan was an actual historical event, but that’s hardly the point.  The Bible is supposed to be a document containing timeless social and moral codes while portraying the actions of people we ought to admire.  In this exercise, it fails miserably.  As he and Hitchens discussed in their Biola debate, Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov wonders whether “without God, all things are possible.”  But as Hitchens argued, surely the corollary is true: that with God, all things are thinkable as well.

If one of the world’s foremost Christian apologists can issue such a grotesque defence of Yahweh that contradicts all of his own arguments for the divine source of human morality at a stroke, then it is unsurprising that PhD graduates in the 21st century will fly aeroplanes into buildings believing that they are morally right to do so and will be rewarded by God in the afterlife.

I don’t say that all religious people are mad, bad or sad per se, but they very often can be when it comes to their religious beliefs.  As the Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg famously once said, “With or without religion, good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things.  But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

William Lane Craig is living proof of this.

UPDATE 06/04/2010:

Since publishing this piece, I have come across a podcast on this topic as part of the “Reasonable Faith: Conversations with Dr William Lane Craig” series that Craig’s website produces  if you can bear it.  Lukeprog over at Common Sense Atheism has posted an excellent discussion.

I have also found this comment by Richard Dawkins posted on the debate forum of his website:

Theological justification for genocide Part One

Richard Dawkins >> Mon Apr 21, 2008 8:22 am

One of our commenters on another thread, stevencarrwork, posted a link to this article by the American theologian and Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  I read it and found it so dumbfoundingly, staggeringly awful that I wanted to post it again.  It is a stunning example of the theological mind at work.  And remember, this is NOT an ‘extremist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘picking on the worst case’ example.  My understanding is that William Lane Craig is a widely respected apologist for the Christian religion.  Read his article and rub your eyes to make sure you are not having a bad dream.


That just about says it all.

(H/T: Steven Carr)