I wish I could tell you exactly where online I first read a review of Cullen Murphy’s 2012 book God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World but I’m embarrassed to say I cannot. However, what I can tell you is when I came across a copy of God’s Jury in the new books section of my public library it struck a familiar chord with me. So, despite already having a sizable clutch of books in my hands ready to be checked out I snagged Murphy’s book and headed to the automatic check out machine. After finishing it about a week later I asked myself if I’d made the right decision. Generally I think I did. To Murphy’s credit, he has crafted a novel and ambitious work of nonfiction. But like with any ambitious undertaking, there’s always a risk that one will overreach. Unfortunately, with God’s Jury this might be the case.
To his credit, his idea seems both bold and original. According to Murphy, by a careful examination of history one can see that the Catholic Church’s Inquisition (and not just one but roughly three of them spanning in total almost 400 years) with its pioneering use of bureaucratic organization, meticulous record keeping, interrogation, censorship and ideological motivation would eventually serve as a model for modern and secular governments as they strive to enforce conformity, stamp out dissent and eliminate perceived enemies. Just like Lisa Miller did with her 2010 book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife Murphy traveled near and far interviewing countless scholars and subject matter experts.
But in his quest to make his case I think Murphy tried to do too much. By attempting to cover so much ground, while his book might be wide in its scope, unfortunately it doesn’t feel deep enough to support his thesis. There’s no mistaking it, his book did keep me intrigued. But in the end I wasn’t sure he convincingly made his case.