By Mark Mazower.
Knopf. 528 pp. $35.
In 1430, Sultan Murad II conquered Thessalonica, the second city of Byzantium, for the Ottomans. His successors welcomed Jews expelled by Spain in 1492, and for the next four-and-a-half centuries three religious communities—Christian Greeks, Muslim Turks, and Sephardic Jews—shared the city. In this comprehensive history, Columbia Professor Mark Mazower describes the complicated and often fractious relationship among these groups. Mazower begins in the fifteenth century and ends in the twentieth, when Greek sovereignty, a forced population exchange with Turkey, and Nazi deportation of the city's Jews rendered Salonica once again uniformly Greek. Mazower admires the multiethnic character of the Ottoman city and regrets its passing, but he does not gloss over the problems that Ottoman rule posed for non-Muslims. Christians and Jews were peoples of the book whom Muslims would tolerate—indeed Jews, who were a majority of the city's population, thrived in Ottoman Salonica and made it a center of rabbinical learning—but only if they paid a high tax and accepted second-class status. “The primacy of the ruling faith was axiomatic,” Mazower writes, “and any public assertion of the superiority of Christianity over Islam was punished with severity.” Pretensions to political equality with Muslims could also lead to violent retaliation. When Greeks outside Salonica rebelled in 1821, Ottoman authorities massacred thousands of Greeks in the city; Christian heads were used to decorate the villas of Muslim notables. While personal relationships could form across confessional lines—families hired servants from other communities, for example—and while some religious leaders encouraged respect and compassion for members of other faiths, the relationship among Christians, Muslims, and Jews was hardly a model of cooperation. Under the Ottoman millet system, each community was a more or less self-governing unit, and the three groups showed little interest in reaching out to one another. As a newspaper complained in 1911, “Salonica is not one city” but “a juxtaposition of tiny villages.
—Mark L. Movsesian
Augustine: A New Biography.
By James J. O'Donnell.
HarperCollins. 396 pp. $26.95 paper.
Like spouses in a bad marriage, biographers sometimes grow to hate their subjects—a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in reverse. James O'Donnell, currently provost at Georgetown University, has already written one monograph on St. Augustine in 1985. He then went on to publish a masterly three-volume commentary on the Confessions in 1992, providing an amazing amount of background material essential for understanding that most influential (and indeed the first) autobiography in Western letters. But with his most recent biography O'Donnell is clearly ready to file for divorce. While it would be too much to say he hates the Bishop of Hippo (the book's concluding chapters concede a grudging admiration for the man's greatness), the author clearly wants to bring all his erudition (which is considerable) to the task of deconstructing his subject's reputation. The chapter titles and subheadings give away the agenda: “Augustine Unvarnished,” “Augustine the Self-Promoter,” “Augustine the Social Climber,” “Augustine the Troublemaker,” on and on. Given the author's remarkable learning, most readers are likely to learn a great deal, especially when he uses Augustine's sermons as source material; but the captious tone and prosecutorial zeal of the effort starts to grate as early as the first chapter. A few years back Frank Turner (another provost, this time of Yale University) wrote a similar attack on John Henry Newman and similarly failed to do much damage. Whether this represents a trend among provosts may be doubted, but this at least is not open to doubt: Augustine's reputation will have no difficulty surviving this strangely hostile and belittling book. That's part of what makes great men great: they always transcend their biographers.
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life.
By Alister McGrath.
Blackwell. 202 pp. $18.95.
As both a scientist (Ph.D. in biophysics) and a Christian, Alister McGrath was asked by Oxford University Press decades ago to confront the noted scientific atheist Richard Dawkins in print. He declined then, but felt the time was ripe now (with a different publisher). The result is a victory in an ivory-tower battle that's of little consequence to the ground war. At the outset McGrath concedes all of evolutionary biology to Dawkins and then asks: Does Dawkins' science, even if true, really rule out religion? McGrath, who is the Oxford University Professor of Historical Theology, shows Dawkins to be an intellectual featherweight on religious topics. For example, Dawkins berates Tertullian as anti-rational for saying of the Christian Gospel, “It is certain because it is impossible.” Yet McGrath demonstrates that this single quote was torn badly out of context, and that Tertullian's real attitude was that “there is nothing that God does not wish to be investigated and understood by reason.” McGrath concludes that “Dawkins' views on the nature of faith are best regarded as an embarrassment to anyone concerned with scholarly accuracy.” Points are also scored on historical grounds. Darwin's views on religion were much less negative than Dawkins'. R.A. Fisher, a founder of theoretical evolutionary genetics, was a strong Christian who pictured evolution as God's ongoing creation. Who is Dawkins, asks McGrath, to belittle theism when such giants of evolutionary theory did not? This is all fine as far as it goes, which isn't very far. McGrath's whole argument is that Dawkins' evolutionary biology doesn't absolutely demand atheism, but he concedes that it is consistent with unbelief. This clarification is useful but not especially compelling. McGrath discusses these complex issues in the polite style of an academic seminar. Meanwhile, Dawkins and friends are aggressively simplifying their case for millions on radio, television, and in the popular press, where none of McGrath's donnish points counts for much. A number of Christians in academia share McGrath's confidence that only yokels think science can discredit religion. Perhaps they're right. Yet many nonacademic readers are indeed impressed by Dawkins' belligerent, scientistic blather. Few of them have heard of the sophisticated alternative presented here, and even fewer have been persuaded by it. It's well past time for the “no-conflict” crowd to make its most attractive case to a popular audience, to compete with Prof. Dawkins for the imagination of the general public, if they can.
—Michael J. Behe
Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father.
By Minna Proctor.
Viking Adult. 288 pp. $25.95.
Minna Proctor addresses the problem of vocational discernment as a double outsider: an agnostic daughter describing her father's unsuccessful attempt to become an Episcopalian priest. This perspective brings urgency to her memoir-essay, Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father. Proctor can't take anything for granted—she tries to figure out why religion and the priesthood matter to her father and whether they should matter to her. Unfortunately, Do You Hear What I Hear? never coheres enough to provide an illuminating answer to these questions. Proctor's book is really three smaller pieces clumsily soldered together: a moving depiction of her relationship with her father after her parents' divorce; a grimly factual trudge through the Episcopal “discernment” bureaucracy; and, in the book's final section, an interesting call to change our understanding of how someone should prove his fitness for the priesthood. Proctor is understandably dismayed at the spectacle of a committee poking and prodding an applicant in an attempt to judge the nature of his relationship with God and the veracity of his “calling.” She notes the buzzwords (“sacramental presence,” “vulnerability”) and the push for “Oprah”-style emotional displays. Her solution is, essentially, to de-emphasize the notion of vocation, to ask not “Is this man really, truly called by God to be a priest?”—a question she doubts an outsider can answer—but, rather, “Can this man do the work of a priest?” It's certainly a humbler and more answerable question. Proctor's father's religion, as portrayed in this book, is a matter of traditions, rootedness, community, and guidance for right action. Jesus doesn't get a lot of airtime. It's hard not to feel that the point has been missed. The book has many other flaws: Proctor's magpie quotations (the hallmark of the journalist's insta-education); her overuse (once is too much) of the word “mantic”; her extended detour with a talkative environmentalist nun. But Do You Hear What I Hear? does succeed in conveying the absurdities of the current Episcopalian “discernment process,” while trying to understand why the process developed the way it did.
The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology.
By Robert Service.
Eerdmans. 198 pp. $25 paper.
At a time when most Christian theologies are driven toward ecumenical convergence if not consensus, facing up to the harder edges of doctrine is not an enterprise that many theologians are inclined to take on. This is especially the case when it comes to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” has just celebrated its fifth anniversary with a variety of local, national, and international festivities. Lutherans and Roman Catholics who have not wholeheartedly embraced the joint declaration are looked upon as obstructionists. In The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology, the Lutheran theologian Mark C. Mattes goes beyond the controversy surrounding the joint declaration itself to describe and assess the place of the doctrine of justification in five prominent Protestant theologians: Eberhard Jüngel, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, Robert W. Jenson, and Oswald Bayer. Along the way, Mattes argues strenuously against all easy reductions of the doctrine: It is, he insists, the critical feature of Christian theology, and so it must not be compromised by programs of ecumenism or ethics. Indeed, facing the truth of justification will be of ultimate benefit to both ecumenical engagement and the grounding of ethics. Mattes' engaging and vigorous book demonstrates how elusive the doctrine of justification is—not only for the purposes of ecumenical dialogue but also within Protestant theology. For those tempted to overestimate the significance of the joint declaration, this book will be a sobering reminder of unfinished Reformation business—simul iustus et peccator—that cannot be effectively managed by church officialdom.
—John T. Pless
Pope Benedict XVI: A Personal Portrait.
By H.J. Fischer.
Crossroad. 213 pp. $19.95.
Crossroad is first out of the gate with a biographical book on the new pope. (Continuum's dishonest reissue of John Allen's earlier book on Cardinal Ratzinger, retitled by the publisher as Pope Benedict XVI, doesn't count, being an embarrassment that has been disowned by the author.) The present book by a German journalist who has known the pope for decades is not a biography but a “personal portrait,” and as such is limited but useful. Fischer has great respect for Benedict's intellect, a sympathetic understanding of the position he has assumed, and a deep personal liking for the man. At the same time, he is conflicted about whether, or in what way, Benedict will be a “reformist” pope. Fischer seems to side with those who think the Church should lighten up on sexual ethics, “abolish” priestly celibacy, and ordain women. The pontificate of John Paul the Great was, in his view, simultaneously too rigid and too tumultuous. Yet Fischer also recognizes the necessary weight of tradition that stands in the way of liberal desiderata for change, and ends on the note that the younger generation of “new Catholics” are “postliberal” in that they are less interested in the progressive agenda for change than in the Catholic Church providing a trustworthy alternative to the madnesses of the contemporary world. The book is more than a little padded, including, inter alia, the full texts of Benedict's homilies, and a chronology of popes with a brief discussion of each of the prior popes who used the name “Benedict.” Nonetheless, Pope Benedict XVI will be of considerable interest to those who want to understand the mind and spirit of the 264th successor to St. Peter.
South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.
By Brian C. Anderson.
Regnery. 191 pp. $24.95.
The monopoly of the overwhelmingly liberal establishment media is in the process of being broken, writes Brian Anderson of the Manhattan Institute, by conservative talk shows, bloggers, and irreverent television programs such as “South Park.” A final chapter offers a less sanguine, but still hopeful, view of the leftist dominance of the academy. While the book will jolly up conservatives, the less partisan-minded will wonder if it is good news that, if Anderson is right, there is today no forum that even approximates an honest meeting place for opposing positions. The “revolt” in the subtitle suggests that conservatives are keenly aware that there still is an establishment and they are not anywhere near being it. A more dour reading of South Park Conservatives is that Andrew Sullivan was right several years ago when he opined that there is no longer an American culture, only conflicting subcultures.
God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became A Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling.
By Mark Gavreau Judge.
Crossroad. 192 pp. $18.95 paper.
A young man's compelling account of how a putatively Catholic education led him away from the Church, and how he was led back to the discovery of Catholicism as though for the first time. At times bitter and angry, and occasionally over the top, Judge's story is enriched by a poignant appreciation of his father's faith and wisdom, a faith and wisdom that, after many wrong turns, he has made his own. His story is that of a large and growing number of young people who suffered through the silly season of flawed and failed “renewals,” finally returning to the high adventure of the truth that is, as Augustine said, ever ancient, ever new. Colleen Carroll Campbell has called our attention to a younger generation she calls “The New Faithful,” of which Judge's book is an engaging case study. God and Man at Georgetown Prep is warmly recommended for young people, their parents, and teachers who have tired of trivial alternatives to the majesty of the tradition they are called to transmit.