9/11 reflection: James Bond wisdom: Shaken, not stirred

Dr. Benjamin Pratt lives near Washington D.C. and worked for many years as a pastoral counselor, specializing in helping men and women in public service. He also is a literary scholar who researched Ian Fleming’s life and literary career with James Bond. Pratt has lectured on the moral wisdom of Fleming and Bond at the Smithsonian Institution, universities, churches and synagogues. His complete series of lessons of these ideas can be found in the book Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass: A Bible Study with James Bond.

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9/11/2011: Shaken, not stirred

By Dr. Benjamin Pratt

As James Bond 007 would put it: We have been shaken, not stirred. Of course, that was Bond’s famous martini order throughout the Ian Fleming novels and nearly two dozen hit movies. It’s also an appropriate way to envision Ian Fleming’s response ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. America was shaken to its core by those attacks, but we still have not stirred ourselves to make a soul-searching analysis of our basic moral compass.

What could James Bond, 9/11 and the idea of a moral compass possibly have in common? Billions of men and women around the world are familiar with 007 from movie theaters and TV screens. He’s the secret agent with the license to kill—a daredevil spy with an insatiable appetite for sex and violence.

Surprisingly, that’s not what Ian Fleming envisioned and that’s not what readers find in the original novels. Only two of the movies were released before Fleming’s death in August 1964.

Fleming served in World War II in British naval intelligence. By the end of the war, he also supervised planning for a crack unit of British commandos. After the war, while serving on the editorial board for the Times of London, Fleming turned to deep moral reflection on the painful divisions in the post-war world. He organized a group of famous writers to collaborate on a new series of articles about The Seven Deadly Sins, which were published in the Times and later in book form.

When Fleming created the fictional James Bond, he explained that he wanted to write a series of novels that were parables about evil people. His books have far more mythological, theological and moral depth than movie fans might guess. Nearly half a century after his death, Fleming’s idea of exploring the deadly sins is as timely as ever. Nearly 8 million websites, today, involve references to “deadly sins.”

On the anniversary of 9/11, Fleming’s message as a morally scarred veteran of global conflict still is potent. There are many moral lessons one can draw from the entire series of Bond novels, which I explore fully in my book Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass. But one urgent connection seems crystal clear—the ancient sin of accidie.

Fleming included that specific word, “accidie,” in his Bond novels. He described it as the ultimate sin that can befall even dreamers, romantics and idealists. Accidie is often the most deadening sin for those of us who believe hard, and work hard, and live hard; those of us who throw our whole selves into our work, and our marriage, and our church, and our friends, and our country and our children. It is often the greatest temptation for those of us who believe that we can make a difference in the world.

Accidie is the temptation, after we are shaken—not to stir. Accidie is a sorrowfulness so heavy that any effort to improve the world seems pointless. This is not depression, although the two may be related in our lives. For centuries, accidie was regarded as a deadly sin: falling into such sluggishness and slow bitterness that we no longer can even see hopeful possibilities ahead of us. Our foundations were shaken on 9/11, and many of us now have trouble getting up each morning and trying to make the world a better place. Like the great James Bond himself, at points in the Fleming novels, we have fallen into accidie.

After publishing my book about Fleming’s moral vision in 2008, I have talked about these ideas to many audiences. One woman who heard me describe this problem wrote to me later: “Hearing these words was like having someone step inside my soul and describe the most arduous struggle I wage as I attempt to carry my concern into the wider world.”

I often recommend that people turn to the short letter of James in the New Testament of the Bible, which I argue was an important inspiration to Fleming in his own life and writing. That short letter of James is full of surprises and timeless wisdom. It is a reassuring and challenging companion in exploring the status of your moral compass.

Some English editions of James begin with a greeting from “James, a bond servant.” From the beginning, this little letter urges men and women to shake themselves free of inactivity and get back to the work of justice and rebuilding community. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,” James writes, “whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we need to summon that kind of perseverance and ask ourselves questions that Fleming posed repeatedly: What happens to us when life doesn’t hold sacred what we rest our world upon? When our dreams get dashed on the rocks, how do we cope? We can start by admitting how deeply we were shaken after 9/11—and admitting that we are long overdue for a full search of our moral compass. Yes, we were shaken. Now, it’s time to stir.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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