A Reporter's Experience, and Injury, in Iraq
Journalist Michael Weisskopf is the senior correspondent for the Washington bureau of Time magazine. In 2003, while on assignment in Baghdad, he threw a live Iraqi grenade from the back of an open Humvee. He saved himself, four soldiers and Time's photographer, but lost his hand. Weisskopf's new book is Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57.
Other segments from the episode on October 3, 2006
DATE October 3, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Weisskopf, journalist and author of "Blood
Brothers," talks about the time, while on assignment in Iraq, he
threw a live grenade from an open humvee, thus saving four
soldiers, a Time photographer and himself
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
While reporting on soldiers in Iraq, my guest, Michael Weisskopf, was injured
like a soldier. He lost a hand tossing out a live grenade that had been
thrown into his humvee. Weisskopf is a senior correspondent for Time Magazine
and was embedded with the 1st Armored Division that operated in the district
of northwest Baghdad. It was December 2003, and he was doing the research for
Time's Person of the Year story, profiling the American soldier as the Person
of the Year. Now Weisskopf has written a new book called "Blood Brothers"
about his injury and his treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center Ward 57, the
wing of the military hospital reserved for amputees. His book also profiles
several soldiers who were treated in the ward. You may have seen Weisskopf on
the cover of last week's Time magazine holding out the hook which has replaced
his right hand. I asked him to describe how he lost his hand.
Mr. MICHAEL WEISSKOPF: I was driving in an open air humvee with two soldiers
and a photographer for Time magazine named James Nachtwey, and suddenly after
we were emerging from a marketplace, I heard a thud. I looked down to my
right on a bench I was sitting on, and this was an open-air humvee, almost
like a pickup truck with a cab in the front of it, and looked down I saw
something unrecognizable to me. It was dark and shiny like the back of a
tortoise shell. I leaned over, picked it up, and it was so hot, I could feel
my hand liquifying, and at that point, I arched my back and attempted to toss
it sort of backhand as one would a tennis ball over the net, and suddenly
everything went dark.
GROSS: When did you realize your hand had been blown off and that that was a
Mr. WEISSKOPF: I woke up seconds later on the cold bed of the humvee, and I
was quite disoriented, and for a minute, I thought I was having a nightmare
and noticed that my right arm was numb almost as if it had been when I was
asleep on it, and as I do in those moments, I shook my arm to sort of wake it
up and nothing happened. Raised it to look at it, and there it was without a
hand on it. Didn't look much different than sort of the decapitated head of a
chicken with blood gushing and tendons showing.
GROSS: Were--like what was your emotional reaction to seeing your stump?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: I was dazed, worried, more worried I think by the profusion
of blood coming out. I was very weak. My heart was pinging in my chest, kind
of wanly, and I thought that, given where I was, which was in the bed of a
humvee in the middle of a tough neighborhood in Baghdad, not known for great
emergency rooms, that my life was ending, and it occurred to me that this was
a pretty unglamorous place to be ending my life, and I thought of my son,
Skyler, who was then 11, the same age I was when my father died, and I had a
tremendous sense of loss and guilt that I would be doing to him what my father
had done to me, which was leaving the scene at a critical time.
GROSS: How did your father die?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: My father died of a heart attack. He was 36 years old, 1957.
I was 11 years old.
GROSS: So who rescued you that day?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: A medic in a humvee behind me--we were in a three-humvee
convoy--noticed when I lifted my right arm that there was no hand on it and it
was gushing blood, and her name was Billie Grimes. She was a specialist then
from a small town in Indiana, and she dashed from her humvee--threw it in
park, she was a driver--and ran and dodged bullets actually to get to my
humvee and sort of catapulted herself over the back of it and got in and had a
hard time gaining footing because of the blood. Not only from me but from Jim
Nachtwey, the photographer, and a couple of soldiers who were in the back of
the humvee with me. And she pulled a cord from her belt, the kind of cord
that's usually used to tighten one's arm when they're taking blood pressure,
and she used it as a tourniquet to shut off the blood and make it quite tight
and then wound a field dressing around that for a good measure.
GROSS: What happened to the other people in your Humvee?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: All three of them in the open-air cargo area I was in were
severely injured initially, and they have recovered to varying degrees. Jim
Nachtwey, the photographer, still has some metal in his knees which limits his
mobility as a photographer but he is back at work and doing great. Of the two
soldiers, both of whom received Purple Hearts, one of them is retired. He had
a couple of fractures to his femur. The other one had injuries to his knees
and hands and remained in the service.
GROSS: One of the first things that you had to do was get your stump
shortened so you could get a better prosthetic. Why did you need to have this
other surgery to shorten your stump?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: First of all, it was a shock to me that I needed to have
another amputation. After all, I had gone through one involuntarily. Now I
was asked if I wanted to lose a couple more inches of my bone of my arm in
order to do that, and the reason is that in the state-of-the-art myoelectric
arms, you can know rotate the wrist. That means turning it 360 degrees to the
right and to the left, and that it was said to provide certain advantages.
And I was given that as an option, whether or not I wanted to lose that couple
extra inches, and the reason I needed to lose it is for that capability, you
had to add about an inch and a half cartridge into the shell of an arm that's
known as a prosthesis and that if I had an arm--if I had a stump that was
longer, the prosthesis itself would hang much lower toward my knees and the
object was to try to have arm lengths of the same size.
GROSS: Would you describe that myoelectric hand that you were fitted with?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Yes, and it looks shiny and bionic but it's actually been
around for some time in various incarnations. The way it operates is the
muscles when they are flexed give off tiny electrical signals, and they lie on
top of an electrode inside of this shell, this kind of plastic shell you wear
over your stump, and the electrodes send little signals to a computer in the
hand and it makes the hand, the mechanical hand or hook, open and close or
turn, depending upon what you've got. That's the process. It's a Greek word.
Myo is a Greek word for muscle and, of course, electric means just electric.
GROSS: Now at first you had like--correct me if I'm wrong here--first you had
like a high-tech hand, but you opted instead for a hook.
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Right.
GROSS: Why did you prefer the hook to the hand?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Well, it wasn't so much really a question of the mechanical
hand itself for a hook. It was really the question of what that mechanical
hand looked like, and it was covered in a very fine spongy silicon that really
imitated life. It was sculpted and done by an artist with coloration and
texture just like a real hand. And I found that on a couple levels, it made
me unhappy. First it was dead. It was--and although it looked like my real
hand, it was frozen in a kind of clawlike position, and it reminded me of
death, not life. I felt that I wanted to remind myself of how fortunate I was
to be still living. It also wasn't very functional. Because it was kind of
spongy and silicon, knives slipped out of it, if I was trying to cut a steak,
for instance. It was difficult to hold things, difficult to pick things up.
Finally, it kind of disguised my wound, and over time I became increasingly
proud of losing my hand for the end I achieved with it, and so I felt that
there was no point in trying to disguise it.
When I started losing my hair, I didn't get a toupee or hair plugs or try a
comb-over. I just cut all my hair off, and you know, had a sort of a bald
cut. And I felt the same way eventually about my wound, that it was something
I didn't want to hide, and so I went to a silver hook, which--there was no way
of camouflaging my wound at that point. It was very much more functional.
Not quite as fast as a mechanical hand, which is driven by a new computer, but
it really was what it was. It held things well, picked up things well.
GROSS: My guest is Time magazine senior correspondent, Michael Weisskopf.
His new book is called "Blood Brothers."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Weisskopf. He's a
senior correspondent for Time magazine. His new book, "Blood Brothers," is a
memoir about what happened to him when his hand was blown off by a grenade
while covering the war in Iraq. He was doing a Person of the Year story and
the Person of the Year was the American soldier in Iraq. And the book is also
about other soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq.
Are you still in pain? I know that phantom pain is a typical problem after
amputations. I'm not sure if that lasts forever or only a certain amount of
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Phantom pain is something that is pretty individualistic. In
my case, it continues. For others, it's more severe than me. And still
others don't have any pain at all. It's an odd sensation, hard for
nonamputees to understand because the pain is in an extremity you lost, and
it's been around since the Civil War when many soldiers were treated simply by
having their limbs sawed off if they had an injury to their limbs, and very
little is known about it. It operates neurologically, and because it's so
mysterious, there really is no known cure for it.
GROSS: I know when I'm in pain, I keep thinking this is a sign of something
terrible that might get even worse. One of the differences between phantom
pain and other pain is that other pain is a warning of something that is going
wrong that needs your attention, whereas with phantom pain, it already went
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and it's kind of like too late to do anything about it, so
everybody speaks of, you know, that kind of pain as being an alarm that you
try to turn off because it's not signaling anything that you can do anything
about. Does it help deal with that pain knowing that it's not warning you of
any problem? The problem's already done.
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Well, in a sense, it--you're reminded, through the pain, of
the incident itself because my phantom pain and that of many people with upper
extremity wounds, it feels a lot like it felt when I picked up that hot
grenade and when the thing went off just as it left my hand. My hand--it
feels like a burning and a squeezing, you know, like one of those uncles you
used to have who would crunch your knuckles when he shook your hand, and
it's--you want to shake it and you want to do something internally to make it
feel better, squeeze it yourself and rub it yourself or something, but nothing
makes it go away. I've tried acupuncture, I've tried medication. I've tried
electric stimulus, hypnosis, various things, and it's just a very hard thing
GROSS: You were treated in a military hospital surrounded by soldiers who had
had, you know, injuries of every sort. And my long-distance sense of this is
that a lot of soldiers really know how to deal with injury and pain, and I
don't know whether that's just their orientation or their training, but did
you feel that you were learning from them how to deal with pain and how to
deal with loss?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Yes, and for them, of course, this was a big price for a just
cause and it helped them in a different kind of way than me. They believe in
kind of a nobility of sacrifice and see their wounds as part of the cost of
that. It was a heroic view of injury and something I was able to learn from
them although I brought to it a much different calculus. I wasn't there to
fight a war. I was there to report on a war, and I didn't enlist in the
military in order to defend it militarily, defend the country militarily. I
was there just to observe for readers, and so I had a--I brought something
different to it, but watching them made it easier for me and gave me some
courage. Particularly the guys that I wrote about.
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Their struggles were epic and really stiffened my backbone.
GROSS: The doctors and physical therapists at an Army hospital like Walter
Reed are probably in a way unfazed by extreme injuries and the pain that
results from them because they see it all the time. Was that helpful for you
to have doctors and physical therapists who weren't that impressed by your
injury or did you want more sympathy than that?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: No, I liked the fact that my injury to them was routine
because, after all, you know, in our civilian society, amputations are rare
and really frightening. We see very few people missing limbs, particularly in
urban centers. They do exist in agricultural areas and meat packing cities
and towns where there's, for instance, a timber industry, but in my life, it
was pretty rare. I would see returnees from, say, World War II with their
pants legs buttoned up or their arm sleeves pinned up at baseball games, for
instance, as a kid, and I had a friend who lost a leg, you know, when he was
hit by a car, but it was a very rare circumstance, and so it was a scary
prospect for me, and the fact that professional people saw it all the time and
were unfazed by it, I think, gave me a certain amount of security and
well-being at the start.
GROSS: You know, you write in your book that you wanted to be known for your
reporting not for your soldiering. How did being embedded and losing a hand
in the process affect your view of embedding as a form of war journalism?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: I was drawn into it like every journalist with eagerness
because we all want to be as close as possible to our subjects, and after all,
I was writing about the American soldier, and living with them and working
with them provided that amazing type of access. But I realized after the
injury that the costs of that access, you know, were even larger than my
injury and certainly exposing yourself to danger, and every time I got into a
humvee, I put myself in the cross hairs with really the targets of insurgents,
and it wasn't smart because in the end a reporter is no better than his story,
and if you're injured or killed, of course, you don't tell a story, but more
importantly than that, you sacrifice your independence. If you are fed and
protected and housed by a group of guys, you really are not in a position to
report on them objectively, particularly if it's over a period of time. If
it's 48 hours or something, it's one thing, but to engage in this for a
month's time, and I was in the fourth week of that, you really do surrender
quite a bit.
More importantly, my job there was to write about the American soldier in
December of '03 when that insurgency was really starting to get its legs, and
part of that story was reporting on the unpopularity of American troops in
Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, for that purpose, and I wasn't really able to do
that from the seat of an Army humvee. I couldn't jump out of my humvee and
walk into a room full of bad guys and say, `What do you think of the Americans
there?' Obviously, I was part of that entourage--of the Army entourage, and I
might as well have been slinging an M-16. There was no doubt that I was
considered one of them, and I was injured like one of them.
So in a way, it's a bit of a snare, and we don't really do what we should for
a reader when we are that kind of deeply engaged and enmeshed with an Army
group. You lose that kind of edge and objectivity you should bring into it as
GROSS: Michael Weisskopf is a senior correspondent for Time magazine. His
new book called "Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Weisskopf, a senior correspondent for Time
magazine. In December 2003, he was embedded with the 1st Armored Division in
Iraq, reporting on the American soldier, which Time had chosen as the Person
of the Year. When a grenade landed in his humvee, he reflexively tossed it
out. By doing that, he probably saved the lives of everyone in the vehicle
but he lost his right hand. His new book, "Blood Brothers," is about his
injury and his treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He also profiled
several soldiers who lost limbs in the war.
When you had your hand blown off by the grenade in Iraq, FRESH AIR was among
the many places that asked about an interview with you, and you write in your
book, you explain that you refused interviews for a long time, in part because
you couldn't honestly characterize what motivated you to throw the grenade out
of the humvee, and you weren't sure whether you were a hero or a fraud, or if
what you did was stupid. Can you talk about some of those doubts that you
were having them?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Well, it started out really from the start when I was in the
combat support hospital in Baghdad, and after awakening in the hospital, a
nurse came up to me and said, `You're a hero for saving people in that
humvee,' and I was still in shock and wasn't thinking it through and felt that
I was crazy to have engaged in that kind of military activity since I really
wasn't trained for it, and if I hadn't, I wouldn't have lost my hand. Of
course, I wasn't thinking straight but that was the beginning of my
characterizations of my actions as heroic and because I did it as sort of a
reflex. I didn't calculate the consequences before doing it. I was wont to
accept that kind of label as a hero. I felt that heroes, in my book, made a
conscious decision to sacrifice themselves for the better good and that I
hadn't made that type of calculation before I acted, and I resisted and felt
sort of embarrassed by that label, and particularly because after the injury
itself, many people wanted to sort of put me on their shoulders and thank me,
and I kind of avoided any type of press coverage.
GROSS: Well, before the grenade exploded, before you picked it up and felt
how hot it was, did you have any idea that it was a grenade?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: This was part of really my kind of re-analysis. I wasn't
quite sure what it was that motivated me to pick it up even. As I recall
later on, and I kind of jogged myself over a period of almost 18 months, I
remembered that the group I was out with was frequently pelted by rocks thrown
by some of the kids who greeted us with cheers until we turned our backs and
threw rocks at the humvees, and soldiers would often pick them up as, like
Mardi Gras trinkets and keep them, sort of like souvenirs. And I wasn't sure
if I'd acted, you know, that way or if I had picked it up because I spotted
danger. And I had a dream about it, and in the dream I remembered--I was put
back in the humvee and recalled the whole incident in the dream and saw smoke
coming off of this object in the humvee, and I awakened and thought, well,
that explains a lot. If I'd seen smoke coming out of the grenade, I must have
recognized its danger and, you know, grabbed it for that purpose, but then I
wasn't sure if I was conning myself in the dream. I wasn't sure if I--if this
was a delusion in order to kind of justify the nice things people were saying
about me. And so this went on for some time.
GROSS: Let me tell you my reaction to reading this part of the book where
you're wondering is it proper to describe you as a hero if what you did was
purely a reflex...
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...as opposed to a calculation. I always worry about myself, that if
I were in a situation like yours, I would be sitting there analyzing the pros
and cons, like `What is this? Should I throw it out? Should it be'--you
know, and I would be just like overthinking it, and reflexes are so important.
I always wonder if I have any, but the fact that yours just worked, and you
automatically did the right thing, isn't that a good thing? I mean, isn't
that something that you should be really relieved about and should give you
confidence about how you function?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Yes, the truth, that is the answer in short. And, you know,
I learned later on to be proud of those kind of reflexes and that goes to the
fact that I was eager to no longer disguise my wound in terms of that silicon
life-like hand, that I felt like I had earned, in other words, my wound and I
was more proud of it, and I felt that it at least reflected a few
sections--seconds of honorable action on my part. And military people think
about this all the time. What would they do if they were confronted by that
kind of danger in the midst of their men, in the midst of their colleagues?
And I wasn't trained that way, and so it made me still question whether I
deserved that kind of label, and I had to work it through for some time to
decide that I had acted honorably.
GROSS: If you hadn't thrown the grenade out of the humvee, what would have
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Well, certainly, we would have all died. It--my hand, the
fact that I hoisted it and my hand was closed to it and absorbed much of the
blast saved me and everyone else in the humvee. There were a couple of guys
also in the cab, so in all there were six of us, and we may all have died if
it was left there, and there's no question about that, and that's what that
nurse in Baghdad pointed out immediately, if I hadn't picked up that humvee,
we would have all died. It even--because I was so stunned by what happened,
it was even hard for me to grasp that logic at first.
GROSS: You know, we mentioned earlier the cover of Time magazine, the picture
of you with your hook, and this was the recent edition in which your book was
excerpted. There's another picture in Time in which in your hook you are
holding the bloodstained pad--reporter's notebook--that you had when your hand
was blown off. What have you done with that book? Where do you keep it?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: I keep it close to me at work and, more importantly, I keep a
photograph which Jim Nachtwey took of me on the bed of the humvee with my
amputated arm in the air. He is a remarkable photographer, as I said, and
shot them even after he was injured himself. As he was going down, got off a
couple frames. No one has seen that picture and--publicly that is. It's just
a handful of people including, of course, the photographer and me and family
members, and I keep it on a bulletin board next to my computer in my work
space as kind of a reminder of humility and how in a matter of seconds life
can shift and you can lose it and just how fragile life is and how easy it is
to lose it.
GROSS: You know, the moment of impact in any kind of accident is exactly the
thing that many people forget because they lose consciousness right
afterwards, and they're glad that they forget. To keep a photo of that moment
of impact so close to you all the time, how come it's not upsetting to see it?
Mr. WEISSKOPF: It is upsetting, and that's the idea. It reminds me of
life's fragility and how every moment counts.
GROSS: Hmm. I figured you had a reminder of that attached to your arm.
Mr. WEISSKOPF: I do as well but, you know, the more reminders the better,
something like that.
Mr. WEISSKOPF: And it's--we all go through life with a certain
invincibility, and some of us end up with illnesses which have a countdown
involved and you go through a similar process. In my case, I escaped death
really just because of good fortune and the skill of a medic and the proximity
of medical help, but many others don't, and it's, you know, possible to forget
that unless you've got reminders.
GROSS: Michael Weisskopf, I really appreciate you talking with us. Thank you
Mr. WEISSKOPF: Thank you.
GROSS: Michael Weisskopf is a senior correspondent for Time magazine. His
new book is called "Blood Brothers."
Coming up, how the growth of Christianity in the global south is leading
Christianity in a largely more conservative direction.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious
studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of "The New
Faces of Christianity," discusses how expansion of Christianity
in the global south is changing Christianity
TERRY GROSS, host:
Two thirds of the world's Roman Catholics live in Africa, Asia and Latin
America. The Anglican Communion, which the American Episcopal Church is part
of, is becoming more African-dominated. The Nigerian Branch will soon be its
largest representative. The spread of Christianity in the global south is
moving Christianity in largely more conservative directions and is changing
Christianity in ways that most North Americans and Europeans are unaware of.
My guest, Philip Jenkins is the author of the new book, "The New Faces of
Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South." It's a follow-up to
his book, "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity." Jenkins
is a distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania
State University. He says that Christianity's growth in the global south is
connected to population growth, but he thinks it's also connected to the fact
that many Africans and Asians relate to the Bible because it portrays a world
they can recognize.
What are some of the connections that you see between life the way it's
described in the Bible and life the way it's lived now in Africa?
Mr. PHILIP JENKINS: Some people have said if you look at African
Christianity, the greatest temptation and the greatest danger is that it is
just so easy for people to identify with the Old Testament world. Even if
people live in cities, they're familiar with communities around them which are
nomadic, which practice polygamy, which still practice blood sacrifice, for
example, sacrifice animals as a, you know, a normal part of everyday rituals.
And when you know this world as something that is around you, it makes it much
easier to understand the moral codes that are preached in the Old Testament.
Many Christians I know believe thoroughly in the doctrine of atonement which
is a, you know, sacrificial doctrine. I'm sometimes tempted to ask my
evangelical friends when they talk about sacrifice and atonement, have you
ever seen a sacrifice, have they ever smelt a sacrifice, and for many
Africans, the answer is yes. They don't need to be taught these basic ideas
of atonement. They're all around them.
The New Testament world also has its kind of appeal. It's written, above all,
for a world that is characterized by poverty, by hunger, by endemic sickness,
and it's when you look at the Bible through African eyes, through many Asian
eyes, that you realize these things and, you know, in some cases, you tend to
see them for the first time. You realize just how much of the Bible is about
food and hunger, just how much of the Bible is about perpetual sickness and
the need for healing, and when people read a very familiar world, which is
almost a documentary, if you like, and then they see the figure of Jesus who
is able to overcome the evils that they face in this world, that is a very
GROSS: Are there different stories within the Bible that are emphasized in
countries in the global south compared to the stories that are emphasized in
Mr. JENKINS: There are whole genres. There are whole styles of literature
which I think alienate or leave cold people in the global north that have an
immense appeal in some global south communities. For example, the most
devoted American Bible reader tends to glaze over, when he or she reads all
the genealogies, so-and-so begat so-and-so. There are many tribal communities
in Africa or Asia where this is part--this is among the most exciting part of
the Bible because how do you understand who somebody is unless you know where
they come from. A genealogy like this shows God's intimate care for his
people. Well, that's an extreme example, but some of the passages, some of
the stories that carry enormous weight in the global south, one is in the
Epistle of James. The Epistle of James is not a particularly well-known or
popular book in global north Christianity. In the global south, it's one of
the most popular sources of sermon texts for one simple idea: The book is
about the transience of life. It tells people that their life is a vapor, a
mist. You don't know where you will be tomorrow. You can't say that you will
be alive tomorrow. And you think about reading that in a community in Africa
where the average age of death is 35. That's a, you know, powerful, literal
comment. Interestingly, the appeal of James runs across denominations. I was
recently reading a commentary on James by none other than the Dalai Lama, who
thought that it preached excellent Buddhist truths, as well as Christian
truths. So I think by looking at the way people read the book in the global
south, we in the North can see whole parts of the Bible that maybe we've
GROSS: Well, you also talk about an emphasis on the supernatural in
Christianity as it's practiced in much of the global south.
Mr. JENKINS: Right. Not long ago, Jim Wallace made a very interesting
point, which is, he said, if you take references to the poor out of the Bible,
you don't have much left, and he's absolutely right. But if you take
references to angels, demons, exorcisms and healings out of the Bible, once
again, you're left with a pretty slim pamphlet. I think for many global
readers in the global north, stories of healings and exorcisms are almost an
embarrassment. In Africa or Asia, these are seen as absolutely fundamental.
They are a core part of the Christian message just as they were in the first
two or three centuries of Christianity. And you can look at this in different
ways. I mean, you can, I suppose, see it as an example of, if you like, a
superstitious mind-set, but I would rather see it as an expression of power
and of the democratization of power. Power is available to anyone, even if
they don't possess the right spiritual credentials. If the people who can
claim the power to exorcise and to heal are women and the young, then so be it
and very often they are. If you live in a world that is beset with fears of
supernatural forces and Christianity gives you a means of knowing that you are
in control of those forces, they need no longer frighten you, that again is a
very power cultural, intellectual message.
GROSS: Are there ways in which the view of Jesus and the view of the devil
are very different in churches of the global south than in the global north?
I know we're making big generalizations here...
Mr. JENKINS: Sure.
GROSS: ...but I guess in some level you kind of have to if you're talking
about such a large group of churches.
Mr. JENKINS: When you look at the visions of Jesus that we have in the
global north, it's only gradually that you realize how many of them are
culturally conditioned, because Christianity grew up in a Greek world, a Roman
world, a medieval European world, and that's exactly what Africans and Asians
are doing today. They are placing Jesus in contexts that make sense in those
particular cultures. A couple of examples, for instance, in Africa one of the
very powerful ideas is Jesus as the great ancestor. In a society in which
ancestors are all, in which what ancestors do still affects you, the idea that
Jesus is the most powerful ancestor of all and can, you know, scatter any
curses or inheritances like that that have been left is again powerful, and a
word I'm going to use again and again, it's liberating.
The other key one is Jesus as healer. Global south Christianity succeeds
because above all it is a healing religion. It is a religion that people seek
healing, not just in the sense of healing of the body, you know, I very much
doubt if many people who can produce film of faith healers are healing broken
legs, but healing of the problems of the spirit, the soul. South American
Pentecostal churches, for example, healing often means healing from substance
abuse, in the context of the church and the community. If you want to think
of that as therapy rather than healing, fine. These are different words for
the same thing.
GROSS: Are most of the Christians in the global south evangelical Christians?
Mr. JENKINS: A lot of northern world labels don't make very good sense in
the global south. I've certainly had the experience of asking a Nigerian
Anglican--well, you get very frustrated trying to pin them down--`Look, are
you evangelical or Catholic or charismatic,' and they will smile and say,
`Yes.' Terms like evangelical don't work very well. In northern world terms,
in terms of, if you like, a literal interpretation of the Bible, yes, they're
evangelical, but that label also extends to, for instance, many Catholics.
You find charismatic ideas across the board, so the denominational labels we
have in the North don't work quite so well.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Jenkins, author of the new book, "The New Faces of
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Jenkins, the author of the new book, "The New Faces
of Christianity." It's about how the expansion of Christianity in the new
global south is changing Christianity.
Given the increase in the size of the Catholic population in the global south,
do you see a time, perhaps sometime in the near future, when the pope would
come from a country in the global south, and if so, how do you think that
might change the church?
Mr. JENKINS: If you look at the numbers within the Catholic Church, it is
overwhelmingly likely not just that the next pope will be from the global
south, but that most popes for the foreseeable future will be from the global
south. Just to put this in perspective, already today, two thirds of Roman
Catholics are from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and that does not count people
from those continents living in the global north. That does not count, for
example, Mexican Americans. By the time you get to 2050, something like 80
percent of the world's Catholics will be global south.
John Paul II appointed a great many cardinals, especially from Latin America
and Africa, but even so, after all his efforts, those cardinals are still very
under-represented. I think it is more than likely that, I suppose, the future
of the church's leadership will be a Latin American and African leadership.
Increasingly, as the church becomes a Southern church, so the issues that
matter in the South come to be the central issues. I think in the short and
middle term, a church could be more conservative on sexual issues, issues of
sexual preference, but also I think it could be more progressive on social
economic issues. Issues of poverty, world debt and so on, so I think it could
be a mixed message. I say again and again, it's so important not to apply a
simple northern world, liberal/conservative divide. Somebody can be very
conservative on some issues and very liberal on others.
GROSS: From the travels that you've made through the global south, can you
tell us one of the most interesting visits that you've had to a church that
kind of represents how different some services are there compared to what you
might see in the United States where you live?
Mr. JENKINS: I'm going to duck around that question a little bit, and I'm
going to tell you that is one of my favorite stories which is not mine but is
a story from a friend, which is one of the best indications I know. I was
talking to an Adventist pastor who was an American who was describing visiting
the church in South Africa where you had this vast congregation crammed into
this tiny hall, and as he walked in, people were very surprised to see a white
face in this room in an area where white people were not normally very
visible, and gradually people talked to him and found out that he was a
pastor, an ordained pastor, and this was a wonderful thing. And the word went
up to the platform where the clergyman conducting the service said, `Oh, my
friends, I have wonderful news for you. Pastor Smith has come to us all the
way from the United States to visit us, and I'm going to ask him to conduct
tonight's exorcism.' And I sometimes tell that story when I'm speaking to
church or seminary audiences, and you can see people turn pale as they imagine
how they'd cope with the situation.
GROSS: What did Pastor Smith do?
Mr. JENKINS: Based on his knowledge of films about exorcisms, he apparently
did very creditably.
GROSS: So I guess that's an example of how exorcism is widely practiced in
the global south?
Mr. JENKINS: Of course. But it's not just widely practiced but it's
standard, which says a church which does not carry out exorcisms really has to
come up with a good reason for it, and you know, this is a situation you get
with Catholic Churches, for example. Catholic Churches have to produce all
these manuals and guides for how priests are to cope when somebody comes to
them complaining that they're possessed. What do they do? How do they cope
with pleas for healing, for exorcism, and what they have to do is draw on the
church's resources without making what they regard as too great concessions to
superstition. But as I sometimes say, if you are not prepared to deal with
issues of healings and exorcism and you're considering a career in religion in
Africa, then consider a different career.
GROSS: Well, Philip Jenkins, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. JENKINS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Philip Jenkins is the author of the new book, "The New Faces of
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a track from the original cast recording of "Guys and Dolls,"
featuring Isabel Bigley, who played the missionary Sister Sarah. Bigley died
Saturday at the age of 80.
(Soundbite from "If I Were A Bell")
Ms. ISABEL BIGLEY: (As Sister Sarah) (Speaking) Ask me how do I feel.
(Singing) "Ask me now that we're cozy and clinging. Well, sir, all I can say
is, if I were a bell, I'd be ringing. From the moment we kissed tonight,
that's the way I've just got to behave..."
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