Full Darkness

Original Sin, Moral Injury, and Wartime Violence

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Brian S. Powers
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , January
     2019.
     200 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802876515.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Brian S. Powers has done a great service to scholars of religion and the military, theologians, and counselors of veterans and service-members by writing Full Darkness: Original Sin, Moral Injury, and Wartime Violence. At its core, Full Darkness is about re-envisioning the way we think about feelings of guilt and shame associated with wartime trauma through the Augustinian lens of original sin. He argues that the recovery of an Augustinian understanding of sin and its commensurate theological language can better assist both those seeking to understand the trauma associated with wartime violence, and those seeking to help combat veterans find healing.

Powers’ argument unfolds through six chapters that build on each other, and develop his argument that the theological category of Augustinian original sin can help us better understand moral injury as perpetuated through combat. He begins by outlining the concept of original sin in chapter 1—thankfully the only chapter that reads like a dissertation. Then, from that base, he constructs a concise synopsis of the effects on the moral self in both the experience of combat and training for combat. 

Once both of these foundations are laid, Powers combines the two in chapter 3 by looking at the trauma and chaos induced by war through a lens of original sin. In this chapter, he is at his best. He diagnoses the American addiction to security, and draws attention to the uncritical valorization of military service and participation in combat present in the collective American psyche. In Powers’ words: “in the eyes of society at large, it is the veteran—in his guilt—who misperceives the world and perhaps even reflects his inability to adhere to the truth of American values” (87). That is, the combat veteran who experiences the horrors of combat becomes the mirror of original sin that the American society does not want to confront.

Chapters 4 and 5 take Powers back into the psychological effects of combat trauma, specifically how distrust of the species, a brush with one’s vulnerabilities, and betrayal by trusted agencies can damage the moral self and distort one’s view of the world. He concludes his work by tying these analyses together to demonstrate how the concept of original sin and spoiled creation can assist in describing and narrativizing the complexities associated with combat trauma.

I read Full Darkness as both a scholar of religion and a combat veteran of the 2003 Iraq invasion. On both levels, this was a stimulating and compelling read. I often felt that he was describing in a systematic way various thoughts that I have often had about this very same subject, and some of his descriptions of combat trauma hit very close to home. He accomplished what he set out to do, and more. The literature available to explore war, theology, and cultural/national together identity is extremely limited, and Powers drew the necessary connections to explore the complex relationship between a society obsessed with security and those humans that society sends out to experience the insecurities of wartime violence on their behalf. This is a discussion that should take place beyond the insular world of the academy, and Powers has forcefully demonstrated this point.

With few exceptions (chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 4) Powers’ work did not read like a dissertation, which was refreshing. However, his analysis of Augustine appeared overly reliant on Alistair McFadyen at the expense of other Augustinian scholars, and at times the book appeared to be a regurgitation of Edward Tick and Dave Grossman at the expense of Powers’ own analysis. 

These flaws, however, should not detract from what is a wonderful analysis of an important subject. Full Darkness is a must read for military Chaplains, and would provide insight for all helping professionals interested in walking alongside service-members who have either experienced the horrors of combat or have trained to do so.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Stefan is an Army Chaplain and Visiting Instructor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, in Washington, DC.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian S. Powers is the inaugural Bernard William Vann Fellow for the Study of Christianity and the Military at Durham University in the UK.

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