Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828.
By Walter A. McDougall.
HarperCollins. 638 pp. $29.95.

In this first installment of a projected three-volume national history, Walter McDougall, whose panoramic history of the Space Age won the Pulitzer Prize, surveys the shifting landscape and shifty characters of early America. Hoping to steer between extremes of national censure and celebration, McDougall portrays Americans as inveterate “hustlers,” in both senses of the word. No slouch himself, the author has mastered an astonishing range of specialized scholarship and presents it as the engaging story of dynamic individuals rather than the product of abstract forces. His emphasis upon the energizing effect of New World opportunities recalls Daniel Boorstin’s lively trilogy The Americans , completed a generation ago. The heroes are similar: Winthrop, Franklin, Madison, and a gallery of lesser-known inventors and go-getters. So are the happy paradoxes (“creative corruption”), the lucid explanations of how things are produced, and the vivid pocket biographies. McDougall, like Boorstin, moves Indians and African Americans off to the side as he profiles those closer to political power”an exclusion less forgivable after three decades of new social history. Yet from the outset McDougall sees a dark side to unbridled individualism that Boorstin began to glimpse only in his third volume. Thus Freedom Just Around the Corner opens by invoking Twain’s Connecticut Yankee and closes with Fenimore Cooper’s democratic dystopia, The Crater . The double-edged theme works especially well for religion. Attuned to the risk of marrying the Word and the world, McDougall notes that when Protestant revivalists from Whitefield to Finney replaced original sin with millennial perfectionism, they opened new possibilities for reform, but they also reassured Americans that hustling was nothing to feel guilty about. McDougall leaves Jacksonian Americans wondering whether their experiment in freedom “would end in apotheosis or apocalypse.” One suspects that volume three will close with twenty-first century Americans in much the same position. Those who share McDougall’s passion for storytelling and his bemusement in the face of human imperfection will look forward to seeing how he gets them there.

”Carl J. Guarneri

The Privileged Planet.
By Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards.
Regnery. 464 pp. $27.95.

The slogan that “there is nothing special about the earth” is an assumption, rooted in atheism, that scientists such as Carl Sagan have publicized as the Copernican Principle, on this dubious logic: it follows from the fact that the earth orbits the sun that a mindless process of stellar evolution must have filled the cosmos with innumerable planets every bit as fitted for harboring life as our earth. Although most scientists today take that prejudice for granted, Copernicus never asserted such a principle, much less proved it, and the great Polish Catholic astronomer would surely be pleased that astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards have rescued him from a tradition of misinterpretation. The Privileged Planet demonstrates in lucid prose with meticulously detailed evidence that the earth actually does seem to be a very unusual planet, with its clear atmosphere, happily positioned satellite, and favorable position in both the solar system and the galaxy. All the se fortunate factors (and many more) had to come together to make the earth habitable, and the combination of beneficial coincidences is unlikely to have been repeated elsewhere. Even more startling is the fact that, in the authors’ words, “habitability correlates with measurability.” This means that the same factors that combine to make the earth habitable also make our planet uniquely suitable for making astronomical observations. There is no apparent reason why habitability and measurability should be so correlated, unless a creator wanted us not only to live but also to be able to explore the cosmos scientifically. This highly original book relies on orthodox scientific data, but the authors’ imaginative reinterpretation could dispose of much accumulated prejudice and make possible a new and far more realistic understanding of our place in the cosmos and in the mind of its Creator.

”Phillip E. Johnson

Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity.
By Andrea Sterk.
Harvard University Press. 368 pp. $45.

The bishop and the monk have different vocations. The responsibility of the former is to oversee the Christian community, to preside at worship, to teach; the calling of the latter is to seek God in prayer and solitude. Accordingly, in monastic lore the greatest temptation of the monk was ordination. Yet in the late fourth century the way of life of the monk was adopted by many of the leading bishops of the Church. Andrea Sterk’s fine book is an examination of this transformation in the Eastern Church in the early Byzantine period (the West would require another study), as the life of these isolated and world-renouncing monastics became a normative model for leadership in the post-Constantinian epoch. Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church , though historical in conception and execution, is eerily prescient. Between the lines there seems to be an implicit suggestion that this ancient ideal, the ascetic bishop, one who has purged his passions and seen God, is as relevant today as it was fifteen hundred years ago.

”Robert Louis Wilken

Alexander Hamilton.
By Ron Chernow.
Penguin. 818 pp. $35.

Stocks in the reputations of the Founders, as is the way with stocks in anything, go up and down. In the last few years, Jefferson has been a big loser, with John Adams and now, thanks to Mr. Chernow, Hamilton on the rise. It is not evident that it required more than 800 pages, but Chernow effectively depicts the stunning ambition, talent, and devotion that impelled a foreign-born youngster of disreputable background to the heights of influence in the War of Independence and, most importantly, in the shaping of the way in which the polity established by the Constitution would actually govern itself. As in David McCullough’s John Adams , Jefferson is portrayed as a sly, self-serving, and even cowardly figure who indulged fanatical fantasies about the promise of the French Revolution while Hamilton and Washington coped with putting together a nation that works. Chernow makes much of Hamilton’s abolitionist convictions in contrast to Jefferson’s hypocrisy in spouting liberty while living off the sweat of his slaves. Especially affecting is the telling of Hamilton’s moral qualms about the duel with Aaron Burr in which he was fatally wounded, and his last hours of yearning for religious solace. Alexander Hamilton will undoubtedly take its deserved place as a standard reference on the founding era of the American experiment.

Inside: A Public and Private Life.
By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Public Affairs. 539 pp. $30.

Once called LBJ’s “vice president for domestic affairs,” and serving as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under Jimmy Carter, Joe Califano has led a life of hard-driving ambition to be “inside” wherever the public action is. Also weaving in and out of this memoir, however, are the ponderings of a Brooklyn boy trying to figure out what it means to be faithful to the Catholicism of his early formation. Califano provides a lively recounting of the political battles of the 1960s and ’70s, and of his later leadership in the abolitionist movement against tobacco and drug use. As in most memoirs, there is score-settling here, but none of it is vicious”except, possibly, in the treatment of former governor Mario Cuomo, who will not, as many others undoubtedly will, enjoy this book.

The Forgotten.
By Christopher Lawrence Zugger.
Syracuse University Press. 552 pp. $39.95.

Those who the author insists should not be forgotten are the Catholics of the Soviet Union under the great terror from Lenin through Stalin. There were one million in 1925 and twelve million by 1991, despite their fierce persecution and many martyrs. Even in the worst of times, sad to say, competition and resentments continue between Christians, notably with the Orthodox. The Forgotten is suggestive of the many dramas that could not be included in more general histories, such as Anne Applebaum’s recent and admirable Gulag , but are deserving of their own respected place in our memories.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture.
By Mark Oppenheimer.
Yale University Press. 284 pp. $30.

The author celebrates the creativity, adaptability, and insatiable appetite for change in American religion. Some groups are ahead of others. Unitarian Universalists established an Office on Gay Affairs as early as 1973, and Episcopalians were on the cutting edge of ordaining women. Catholicism, too, despite its stodgy oppressive hierarchy, moved into the liturgical future, as “sandals, guitars, and hugging seized the day.” The book appears to be based on Mr. Oppenheimer’s doctoral thesis, which must have been written a very long time ago.

Memory, History, Forgetting.
By Paul Ricoeur.
University of Chicago Press. 640 pp. $40.

One of the world’s most admired philosophers, who has made formative contributions on questions related to biblical narrative and conflicted notions of the self, here traverses the interstices of continental philosophies on the complex relationships between the subjects of his title. Ricoeur brings a Husserlian phenomenological perspective to bear on Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and other usual suspects in a tour de force that will be of particular interest to other philosophers. The last third of the book, and especially an extended epilogue dealing with memory, forgetting, and forgiving, is more accessible to the general reader. Of particular value are the author’s reflections on the limits of forgetting and “commanded forgetting” in the case of legal amnesties for the “founding violence” of societies and crimes against humanity.

Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail.
Edited by Timothy George.
Baker. 235 pp. $19.99 paper.

Ecumenism is a word that is alien to many evangelical Protestants. In fact, evangelicalism frequently identifies itself in opposition to the “ecumenical” Christian bodies. This book, generated by a conference at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrates the depth and breadth of changes underway. It is dedicated to two prominent leaders of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Avery Cardinal Dulles and J. I. Packer, describing them as “theologians of unity-in-truth,” and citing the maxim usually attributed to the seventeenth-century Richard Baxter, “In necessary things, unity; in disputed things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Contributors include Joel Carpenter, Richard Mouw, Gabriel Fackre, Richard John Neuhaus, and Thomas Oden. This book, with its informative foreword by historian Mark Noll, serves as a valuable introduction to the ways in which evangelical Protestants are thinking about their relationship with other Christians.

Heroic Leadership .
By Chris Lowney.
Loyola. 335 pp. $24.95.

Lowney left the Jesuits to join the world of finance but, like many former Jesuits and laymen who boast of being “Jesuit educated,” is still much taken with the mystique of the Society of Jesus. The book purports to be the success story of the Society guided by four Ignatian “leadership pillars””self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. In a time when the number of ex-Jesuits has exploded and the number of active Jesuits has plummeted, when new recruits (outside India) are almost nonexistent and the Society can no longer man its educational institutions and other apostolates, Heroic Leadership is both counterintuitive and counterfactual. The book is published by a Jesuit press and strongly endorsed by current leaders of the Society. They apparently agree with Mr. Lowrey that they have the right leadership principles.

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.
By Simon Winchester.
Oxford University Press. 304 pp. $25.

After Mr. Winchester had written the best-selling The Professor and the Madman , the remarkable story of how an imprisoned murderer helped James Murray edit the Oxford English Dictionary, he obviously had all kinds of unused material left over. The Meaning of Everything is not as gripping a tale, but it is a very readable light history of the OED from its nineteenth-century beginnings up to its present state of open-ended revision and expansion. This is a book to be relished by lovers of words. And one comes away from it with enhanced admiration for James Murray, who, as a good Calvinist, had no doubt about his being predestined to direct this extraordinary undertaking.

One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus.
Edited by J. I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden.
InterVarsity. 222 pp. $17.

An annotated collection of confessional statements from a wide array of evangelical Protestant sources. In their extended commentary the editors contend, and the collection demonstrates, that notoriously fissiparous evangelical enthusiasms are, in recent decades, converging in a creedal affirmation of the Great Tradition grounded in Scripture as authoritatively interpreted by the early fathers and councils of the Church. The convergence is far from complete but it is impressive and it is growing, which augurs well for the future of Christian witness in the world.

The Reformation: A History.
By Diarmaid MacCulloch.
Viking. 789 pp. $34.95.

A marvelously detailed but, for the most part, conventional account of the Reformation as the bloody precursor of modernity. Despite his obvious knowledge to the contrary, MacCulloch, an Oxford historian, follows the story line of the wars of religion as being dominantly about religion and Christianity’s slow learning of the virtues of tolerance. Nonetheless, the detail and colorful depiction of main actors, especially in the Counter-Reformation and in Queen Mary’s effort to restore Catholicism in England, makes the book a pleasure to read. Exercising the virtue of tolerance, skip lightly over the anachronistically correct discussions of sexuality.

The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design.
By William A. Dembski.
InterVarsity. 334 pp. $22.

Although more dogmatic Darwinists stubbornly try to ignore it, the Intelligent Design (ID) argument has changed the way many thinkers understand the world. Dembski is one of the pioneers of ID and here develops positions advanced earlier, also in these pages, in specific response to the most common objections to, and suspicions of, the ID project. This is a necessary reference for those who are attentive to never-ending debates about creation, evolution, design, and purpose in history.

Articles by Various

Loading...