Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad
By Michael Walzer
University of Notre Dame Press. 105 pp. $16.95
The author of Spheres of Justice and The Company of Critics considers the problem of distributive justice after the collapse of the Communist states in 1989. “This new world is marked by the collapse of the totalitarian project-and by a pervasive, at least ostensible, commitment to democratic government and an equally pervasive, and more actual, commitment to cultural autonomy and national independence.” Walzer points out that it was one thing to have a critique of Communist tyranny, but it is quite another thing to reform or reconstruct a society from the inside. Although we can recognize gross violations of justice (e.g., the appearance of secret police in the middle of the night), social criticism in detail can come only from inside a maximalist morality: a morality “idiomatic in its language, particularist in its cultural reference, and circumstantial in the two senses of that word: historically dependent and factually detailed.” Walzer does not deny the truth and value of minimalist principles of justice. Such social criticism is useful for subverting injustice when it is writ large; it is also useful for transcultural solidarity with different peoples and cultures. But the detailed criticism of a social order will have to be homegrown. Walzer notes that “the left has never understood the tribes.” “Tribalism,” as he defines it, is “the commitment of individuals and groups to their own history, culture, and identity, and this commitment (though not any particular version of it) is a permanent feature of human social life.” He adds that the moral thickness that it breeds “is similarly permanent.” The liberal political cultures of the West must recognize that their commitment to individual autonomy and equality of opportunity expresses a homegrown maximalist morality of justice, and should not be imperially imposed upon all peoples. Political judgments require prudence, and cannot be collapsed into general moral principles. In refusing to impose the details of justice from afar the liberal political cultures would not be abandoning principles, for “self-determination” in the political sense is not just a principle of modern democracy. Self-determination represents a nearly universal political and cultural aspiration.
The Kingdom of Matthias
By Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz
Oxford University Press. 223 pp. $25
The subtitle is “A Story of Sex and Salvation in nineteenth Century America” and, given the potential for sensationalism, this is a telling by two historians who are sober, sympathetic, and engaging. The story is rather simple. In the 1830s, when the second great awakening was well under way, a deranged (today we might say charismatic) fellow named Robert Matthews declared himself to be, among other things, the reincarnation of the apostle Matthias. He enlisted some well-intended evangelical businessmen of New York in establishing his “kingdom” on one of their estates at Sing Sing on the Hudson River. There Matthias reigned for a brief time as absolute dictator, controlling also the sexual pairings of his handful of followers. He possibly was complicit in the death of one of them, and was, after a fumbled trial, thoroughly discredited and driven out West where he died, no one knows quite when or where. It is a slight story, made perhaps somewhat more significant by the authors’ revelation in the very last sentence that the strange ex-slave who was Matthias’ servant came to be known by history as Sojourner Truth. The authors usefully highlight the ways in which the evangelical fervor of the nineteenth century gave women considerably expanded space for social leadership, and they view people such as Matthews and Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, as reacting, at least in significant part, to this challenge to patriarchy. In his dustjacket recommendation, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. says this book “opens up a chilling vein of continuity in the American religious experience.” Nonsense. Whatever a “chilling vein” might be, The Kingdom of Matthias is a pleasantly readable tale of a minor spasm of fanaticism at the farthest margins of the American religious experience.
God’s Plagiarist: Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbe Migne
By R. Howard Bloch
University of Chicago Press. 152 pp. $24.95
If footnotes may be said to grant a kind of immortality, however faint, then surely the great Abbe Migne must be called the “President of the Immortals.” This was Thomas Hardy’s appellation for God, but in Footnote Heaven the moniker ought really to belong to Jacques-Paul Migne, the nineteenth-century Benedictine who singlehandedly edited and published the entire corpus of the Greek and Latin Fathers and whose edition is cited in almost every work on early Christianity ever published. The man was indeed remarkable, a kind of Joe Fessio cubed, then squared. Realizing early on that the Catholic Church would be ill-served in the coming battles with secularism without an ability to draw on her own best treasures, Migne devised the scheme of publishing, in uniform format, the entire extant corpus of early Christian literature, much of which was still in manuscript. To make such a prodigious venture a going operation, Migne devised a kind of clerical “Book-of-the-every-other-Month Club,” in which the French clergy were encouraged through the Catholic press to subscribe to each volume as it came off the presses. Moreover, Migne was also instrumental in setting up a series of clerical newsletters and journals, where his project in patristics was sure to draw a great deal of free publicity. Bloch affects to find all of this industry (in both senses of the word) faintly distasteful, without ever exactly specifying why. This book, otherwise a fascinating account of a fascinating man, rather reminds me of how an anti-Catholic accountant would react upon discovering, to his dismay, that the Vatican Bank is solvent. The story of this great man is endlessly interesting-and one even detects a closet admiration for the man by his biographer. But this is still one of those peculiar muckraking books that can find no muck to rake.
”Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Beyond Culture Wars
By Michael S. Horton
Moody Press. 284 pp. $16.99
The author heads a California group called Christians United for Reformation (CURE) and his thesis, aimed especially at politicized evangelicals, is that Christians must choose between viewing America as a battlefield or a mission field. Those who make the latter choice, argues Horton, are likely to produce better results also in terms of cultural change than are Christians who take the culture wars as their primary task. Regrettably, Horton’s idea of “Christians United” appears to be limited to Christians who subscribe to his rather strident Reformed view of Protestant orthodoxy. For such Christians, nonetheless, Beyond Culture Wars is a salutary warning against what Jacques Ellul called “the political illusion.”
The Death of the Messiah
By Raymond E. Brown
Doubleday. Two volumes. 1608 pp. Boxed set $75.
Brown is one of those rare biblical scholars who can use critical methodology in a manner that enhances the spiritual reading and homiletical use of the text. It is fair to say that a great deal of Christian preaching, and not only at Christmas, has been powerfully influenced by Brown’s earlier (1977) The Birth of the Messiah, and it is possible this new work will make no less an impact. The author is especially strong in distinguishing the different arguments implied by the variations in the four gospel narratives, and where pertinent he notes the contrasts with extra-canonical literature. While Father Brown nowhere challenges classical Christian teaching regarding the suffering and death of Christ, he is theologically abstemious to a fault. As with Sergeant Friday, it’s “Just the facts, ma’am.” Many readers may be disappointed that Brown so cautiously stops short of the resurrection accounts. Even within the narrow confines of historical methodology as construed by the author, it should be possible to offer something more than silence on the event (however understood) without which the gospels would certainly not have been written in the first place. That being said, The Death of the Messiah is rightly acclaimed as an extraordinarily ambitious work that will have an important place in academic biblical studies, and will be welcomed by many who are called to proclaim the Word.
The Last Trial
By Shalom Spiegel
Jewish Lights Publishing. 167 pp. $17.95
Originally published in 1950, this classic work reviews and analyzes a wealth of Jewish sources, as the book’s subtitle indicates, “On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: The Akedah.” These fascinating materials on a pivotal event in the religious and literary imagination of Western civilization had never before been translated into English and brought together in a single book. The current reprint is by Jewish Lights Publishing, whose small but growing list includes mainly contemporary inspirational works-by such as Lawrence Kusher and Jeffrey Salkind-as well as classic reprints (e.g., Solomon Schecter’s Aspects of Rabbinic Theology ). A catalogue is available from Jewish Lights Publishing, Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091; 1-800-962-4544.
Consulting the Faithful: What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion
by Richard J. Mouw
Eerdmans. 96 pp. $6.99 paper.
The title, of course, is from John Henry Cardinal Newman, and Mouw, who is President of the evangelical Fuller Seminary in California, has written a delightful and important book that might fairly be described as Newmanesque in spirit. Although winsomely expressed, Consulting the Faithful is a polemic against intellectuals (theologians in particular) who exhibit a practiced disdain for the “tackiness” of popular religion. It is easy and finally cheap for the theologically trained to expose the fatuities and incoherences in the ways that ordinary folk understand what it means to be Christian. It is also, says Mouw, unloving and unproductive. In viewing popular religion, he urges that we replace a hermeneutics of suspicion with a hermeneutics of charity. While wanting to maintain the “high theology” of his Calvinism, Mouw insists that the great need is to nurture a “theology for everyday life,” and toward that end he suggests that respectful attention be paid the religiously unsophisticated who, in fact, may be a good deal more spiritually sophisticated than their academic and clerical betters. When asked whether there was a place for the laity in the Church, Newman replied that we (meaning clerics and theologians) would look pretty silly without them. Mouw obviously agrees. Not least of the merits of Consulting the Faithful is its evidence of Protestant openness to patterns of piety usually associated with Roman Catholicism. In this respect the book provides further support for the much-discussed convergence between evangelical Protestants and Catholics. Although the book is written in a manner entirely accessible to the nonspecialist, one hopes that theologians and professional students of religion will pay particular attention to Mouw’s argument.
Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America
by Mel White
Simon and Schuster. 333 pp. $23
In a now familiar genre that combines heavy doses of self-pity with unbridled polemic against an allegedly homophobic society and church, Mel White, an evangelical Protestant who now works with a gay church in Dallas, capitalizes on his brush with fame as ghostwriter to the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Working under what he acknowledges were false pretenses, he was a well-paid writer for the religious right until the end of 1991 when he decided to tell the world that those whom he had served for decades are in fact promoting a program comparable to that of Hitler and the Third Reich. The repeated comparison between the Holocaust and the prejudice experienced by homosexuals is one of the more hysterical aspects of this hysterical book. Along the way, White offers the usual precis of John Boswell’s discredited account of Christian attitudes toward homosexuality, and even includes his own letters to Christian notables, including John Paul II, urging them to come to terms with the “latest insights” regarding the moral goodness of the gay life. The reader is left puzzled as to why this sad, dishonest, and frequently vicious book is recommended by evangelical writers Lewis Smedes and Phil Yancey. The author says they are his friends, which is commendable, but friendship does not explain promoting a book that can only exacerbate the problems of Christians trying to attain moral clarity about human sexuality.
by Donna fletcher Crow
Crossway. 859 pp. $17.99 paper.
Subtitled “The Novel of Christian England,” this is a really big read, and a good one. Glastonbury Abbey in the South of England is, according to legend, the center of a Christian presence in that island for two thousand years. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have come there, bringing with him, on one visit, the child Jesus. The sweep is from the first Christian encounter with the Druids to the Catholic dissolution perpetrated by Henry VIII. Ms. Crow’s manner is inviting and leisurely, offering the reader a pleasurable education in the history of England and, more important, in the many ways that people over the centuries have understood what it means to be Christian.
Battling for the Modern Mind: A Beginner’s Chesterton
by Thomas C. Peters
Concordia. 172 pp. $15.95
If memory serves, it was E. M. Forster who said that there are two kinds of people in the world”the people who say there are two kinds of people in the world and the people who don’t say that. There are two kinds of people in the world-the people who love G. K. Chesterton and the people who hate him. More precisely, there is a third kind and this book is for them”the people who don’t know Chesterton. Of course the book will also be bought by, and greatly enjoyed by, the people who love GKC. They can never get enough of him. It is a wondrous book, a marvelous celebration of a man who never wearied of celebrating the wonder and marvel of a world illumined by Christian orthodoxy. So now you know to which of the above categories this scribbler of briefly noteds belongs.
The Culture of Citizenship: Inventing Postmodern Civic Culture
by Thomas Bridges
SUNY Press. 267 pp. $14.95
An extended reflection on the possibility of taking the kind of theory associated with John Rawls and fleshing it out with great respect for history, experience, and communal context. Religion, and Christian communities in particular, can and should, says the author, model the civic culture for which he hopes-a culture that will retrieve and rehabilitate the best of the liberal Enlightenment tradition.
The Glory of Christendom
by Warren H. Carroll
Christendom Press (Front Royal, VA). 774 pp. $19.95 paper.
The third in a projected seven-volume history of Christendom, this one covers the period from 1100 to 1517. This is history written, exultantly, from the top down, with the papacy unquestioningly at the center. Catholic history with all flags unfurled, what it may sacrifice in critical nuance it gains in coherence of story line. Carroll, the founding president of Christendom College, carries his readers along in a confident narrative sweep.