The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity.
Edited by Peter Ochs.
Paulist Press. 378 pp. $18.95 paper.
This collection originated in a colloquium of distinguished religious thinkers-Moshe Greenberg, Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Steven Fraade, and Peter Ochs-held at Yale in 1987-88. Out of their discussions emerged an awareness of a commonality of biblical interpretive practice cutting across conventional divisions of religious affiliation and academic specialization. In his editor’s introduction, Ochs relates the common practice to the semiotic philosopher Charles Peirce’s “three-part hermeneutic: claiming that the text (the first part) has its meaning (the second) for a normative community (the third), rather than identifying the meaning of the text with some historical or cognitive ‘sense’ that is available to any educated reader.” In this “postcritical” epistemology, “[t]he canons of knowledge are intracommunal or intratextual, and there is no getting at these canons without intimate acquaintance with the practices through which they are displayed.” Traditionalist interpreters may question the adequacy of such a hermeneutic, which locates truth so immanently in community and text that it cannot effectively testify to a God who transcends both-summoning the community into existence, revealing its sacred text, demanding that its deeply rooted practices be abandoned, and promising a day when all communities will bend the knee to Him alone. It might also be pointed out that while these postcritical scholars profess doubt about norms of interpretation more universal than a given “religious community’s rules for reading its sacred text” (to use Frei’s terms), they pay oblique homage to the opposing position in their lack of inhibitions about criticizing the rules for reading of communities that are not postcritical. There is, nonetheless, much of value in these essays: they extract from postcritical practice a cognitive sense that is now available to any educated reader. Despite occasional lapses into jargon (e.g., “triadic semiotics in the dichotomizing forms of context-specific polemics”), Ochs’ introductions prove him to be a lucid and masterful guide through the intricacies of this refreshing new approach to biblical interpretation.
”Jon D. Levenson
On Earth as in Heaven.
By Dorothee Soelle
Westminster/John Knox Press. 100 pp. $9.99 paper.
Against what she views as the oppressive myths of capitalism, the author asserts that “the dignity of the poor lies in their being, not in their having and not having.” True enough. So committed is she to the premise that “the poor are our teachers,” however, that she apparently accepts anything done by the poor or in the name of the poor as being above criticism. Thus the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua is equated with one of the miracles of Christ. It is apparently irrelevant to Soelle that the poor suffered most from the Sandinista war against the economic structures of that country. This book, unfortunately, demonstrates the astonishing gullibility of intelligent people who elevate any extra-biblical authority-be it “the poor,” “the Party,” “leading economic indicators,” or “leading theologians”-to the status of an absolute oracle that cannot be judged by the Bible (which, she says, is flawed by “patriarchy,” the “underestimation of women,” and even “open hatred of women”). Readers would do better to turn to Dorothy Day, whom Soelle misappropriates for her Marxist cause, or to Francis of Assisi, or, better still, to the Bible as it actually is in order to learn to pray rightly that God’s kingdom might come “on earth as in heaven.”
”Paul C. Fox
When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity.
By Karen Jo Torjesen.
HarperSan Francisco. 278 pp.
The title of this book is a come-on, an effort perhaps by its editor to sell books. The subtitle, however, is presumably the author’s doing, and that is not encouraging. As lamentable as it may be to Torjesen, professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Claremont Graduate School and associate at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, there was no period in early Christian history when women were priests in the church and her book offers no evidence to the contrary. As for the subtitle, this is another work in the tired genre of Christian history written according to what someone once called the “myth of Christian beginnings.” When Women Were Priests is a historical tract urging Christians to extricate the Christian gospel from the “patriarchal norms of the Greco-Roman gender system” in which it became embedded and return to their “own authentic heritage.” Leaving aside the deficiencies of Torjesen’s historical scholarship, one can perhaps be pardoned for not taking too seriously a book whose final chapter recommends, as part of a strategy to restore Christianity’s authentic heritage, discovering our roots in ancient European nature religion.
”Robert L. Wilken
Marriage in the Early Church.
Translated and Edited by David G. Hunter
Fortress Press. 157 pp. $10
With all the books and articles on early Christian asceticism, one would think that the Church fathers had little or nothing to say about marriage. But, as this collection of new translations shows, ascetic bishops (and others) had some very wise things to say about life in the holy estate of matrimony. Hunter’s choice is eclectic and catholic, reaching from Tertullian’s “To His Wife” in the early third century to Augustine’s “On the Good of Marriage” in the fifth century, with selections from Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, even Pelagius. Hunter also includes a poem on marriage by Paulinus of Nola, a sample of ecclesiastical legislation, and two nuptial blessings from early sacramentaries. All in all a reliable and timely collection.
The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America.
By Wilfred M. McClay
University of North Carolina Press. 366 pp. $45 cloth, $16.95 paper.
“The masterless” is D. H. Lawrence’s term for the way of being in the world nurtured by modern liberalism. Walt Whitman is another major foil in McClay’s exploration into the strange ways that our culture tries to combine individualistic absolutes with communal aspirations. An altogether elegant and intriguing work of cultural history. Readers may get a taste of the fine things the author does from his article in this issue, “The Hipster and the Organization Man.”
The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.
By William J. Bennett
Simon & Schuster. 139 pp. $8.95 paper
Bennett is no alarmist, but the data reported here are truly alarming. Beyond optimistic and pessimistic impressions are brute facts. Since 1960, violent crime has increased by 560 percent, the number of unmarried pregnant teenagers has nearly doubled, teen suicide has increased by more than 200 percent, SAT scores have declined by 75 percent while spending on education has increased 200 percent, and on and on. A great strength of Bennett’s analysis is that he unblinkingly faces the fact that the essential problems, and solutions, are cultural, moral, and religious. An important little book to keep at hand when talking with people who are ready to get serious about the state of the nation.
Reform Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook
Edited by Kerry M. Olitzky, Lance J. Sussman, and Malcolm H. Stern
Greenwood Press. 384 pp. $75
Though its high price will probably limit this book to libraries, Reform Judaism in America is a useful reference for anyone studying Jewish life and thought in this country. The book includes a capsule history of the Reform movement, short biographical essays of its leading lights, and a bibliography of essential Reform publications, books, articles, etc. This is the second volume of a projected three-part series. (The first volume, Conservative Judaism in America, was published in 1988.) One complaint: the biographical section includes only those figures who came to prominence by or before 1976.
Values and Public Policy
Edited by Henry J. Aaron et al.
Brookings Institution Publications. 216 pp. $11.95 paper.
The appearance of such a book, and from Brookings, is important. The contents are more substantive than the anodyne title, with James Q. Wilson (on the underclass) and David Popenoe (on the family) being especially effective in explaining why public policy necessarily entails moral judgment. Os Guiness says, “This is a taboo-breaking discussion.” That may be a bit much, but it does give some public policy taboos a rattling good shake.
The Drama of Democracy
By George McKenna
Dushkin Publishing (Guilford, CT). 718 pp. $36.95
Textbooks seldom appear here, but this second edition of an influential text on American government warrants mention. The author, a veteran teacher at City University of New York, is judicious and sympathetic in treating the ways in which politics, culture, and morality interact. From here students may be inspired to go on to read Tocqueville and others whom McKenna clearly reveres. Teachers take note.
Continuing the Reformation: Essays on Modern Religious Thought
By B. A. Gerrish
University of Chicago Press. 283 pp. $19.95 paper
Gerrish of the University of Chicago Divinity School is one of the most respected historical theologians working today. These essays range from reflection on the tie between experience and doctrine in Martin Luther to the role of theology in today’s university divinity school. Schleiermacher, in the view of Gerrish, turns out to be the figure who best thought ahead to many of the problems that agitate Protestant thought today.
Mutuality: The Human Image of Trinitarian Love
By Mary Timothy Prokes
Paulist Press. 167 pp. $12.95 paper
The vagrant spiritualities of our time have almost succeeded in making “spirituality” a suspect term. All the more reason to welcome this marvelous reflection by a School Sister of Notre Dame on how the Trinity illuminates all of reality and personal relations in terms of the reciprocity of giving. The author brings the classical texts into vibrant conversation with contemporary concerns about the self, community, and the possibility of love. This is a book for learning, for wondering, and for prayer.
The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought
Edited by Alister E. McGrath
Blackwell. 701 pp. $94.95
A very ambitious project is perhaps more remarkable for being done at all than for not always being done very well. With respect to the numerous entries written mainly by British and American scholars, the inevitable judgment is that they are uneven. Reinhold Niebuhr was not a Presbyterian minister, and Joseph Ratzinger, who gets no mention, is a great deal more influential than many thinkers who are discussed at length. Evangelical Protestantism is overrepresented, and is it really possible that James Cone deserves twice the attention given Yves Congar? Some entries do not rise above being opinion pieces. All that said, this is an extremely valuable book that should be in any reference library and will be welcomed also by nonspecialists who want to get a handle on the directions and confusions of contemporary Christian thought.