In Tiers of Glory: The Organic Development of Catholic Church Architecture Through the Ages.
By Michael S. Rose.
Mesa Folio. 136 pp. $29.95.
A few years back, Michael S. Rose wrote Ugly As Sin, a fine denunciation of the sterility of contemporary Catholic church architecture and the damage it has done to the celebration of the Eucharist. He also offered traditionally oriented alternatives to the thin modernist gruel “liturgical designers” continue to inflict on the faithful. Now he has written a stylistic history of Catholic places of worship, from their roots in the Hebrew tabernacle and Temple of Solomon and the basilicas of ancient Rome right down to the modernist dark age and the traditionalist movement now slowly gathering force. In Tiers of Glory is addressed to the layman, not the scholar. Excellent idea. But telling this vast story in an extensively illustrated text of just 113 pages (excluding the glossary) is a tall order. By and large, Rose has brought it off nicely. He is not a graceful writer, but he has a knack for cutting to the chase. He proceeds sequentially, from the sacred architecture of the Old Testament to the early Christian basilicas, then on to the Byzantine and Romanesque cathedrals and churches, and from there to the Gothic, the classicism of the Renaissance, the baroque and rococo, the neoclassicism and “revival” styles of the nineteenth century, and on to the present day. He does not, however, pursue the “organic development” theme to the extent that it warrants inclusion in the book's title. There are also minor problems with the text. It makes no sense for Rose to name, with precise dates, the three successive stylistic phases of English Gothic without offering any description of those phases. It makes even less sense to quote, uncritically, the discredited materialist claptrap of the French architect and theorist, Viollet-le-Duc, about the Gothic boiling down to a structurally determined system. (Viollet might as well have called the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris a machine for worshiping in.) Moreover, it is not true that Le Corbusier's histrionic monastery of La Tourette closed. It ceased to house a studium decades ago, but a reduced community of Dominicans resides there still. As for the illustrations, it would be better to include no image of the Temple of Solomon at all than the weird, misconceived colossus that Rose includes. There are some fine photographs—a couple of baroque churches in Lima, Peru, are particularly memorable—but I don't think many readers want to look at the campanile of St. Mark's in Venice tilted at a sixty-degree angle. Too many photos are similarly skewed. On the other hand, renderings of traditional church designs by contemporary classicists including Matthew Enquist, Dino Marcantonio, and Duncan Stroik make for an encouraging conclusion to this informative and eminently readable book.
Creed Without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers.
by Laura K. Simmons.
Baker. 182 pp. $19.99.
“Everyone who lives on milk lacks experience of the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil”—or so the Letter to the Hebrews tells us. Dorothy L. Sayers infused her writing with the same purpose. Her nonfiction works on Christian doctrine and the role of Christianity in every aspect of daily life posited the reader's acceptance of or at least interest in a call to progress toward spiritual maturity. Her goal? To emphasize that “religion is concerned, not merely with what happens in the spiritual world, or what becomes of us after death, but also with what happens here and now in this world.” Laura K. Simmons, a professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, examines Sayers' nonfiction, revealing her advocacy of clear religious thought as well as her passion for bringing a living Christ back into the daily routine. Simmons insists that Sayers' work remains relevant today, with its rejection of a vaguely formed personal relationship with God in favor of solid intellectual understanding of theological principles. Simmons' book serves as an outline of Sayers' theological writings, focusing on essays, speeches, and letters that exhibit Sayers' skill in rendering Christianity intelligible. Sayers sought both to explain theology in familiar terms and to relate it to daily life, writing, as she put it, “in terms of cats and cabbages and other familiar phenomena” to create understanding and motivate worship. Exploring Sayers' three principal contributions to theological reflection and discussion, Creed Without Chaos examines how Sayers educates her readers through specific restatement and clarification of Christian doctrine, “countering the prevalent impression that the Christian religion is unreal, depressing, and fit only for very stupid people.” Simmons explores how Sayers investigated traditional theological themes including, for example, the Incarnation, which Sayers believed was “the most dramatic thing that entered into the mind of man.” The book also highlights Sayers' theological reflections on secular themes and her vision that all labor, including work as mundane as the making of safety pins, is a sacramental act by which God is both glorified and worshiped. The final chapters emphasize how pertinent Sayers' doctrinal explanations and theological work ethic remain for today's believers—a call to the spiritual adulthood demanded by the Letter to the Hebrews.
—Maria Andraca Carano
The American Classsics: A Personal Essay.
By Denis Donoghue.
Yale University Press. 295 pp. $27.
New literary criticism from Denis Donoghue should be cause for celebration, and this latest volume initially promises much: a “personal essay” on five classics of American literature. Unfortunately, the result is something of a muddle. Under cover of demonstrating why certain mid-nineteenth-century works continue to matter to American national life, Donoghue has produced a cranky polemic about the ills of American Empire. Moreover, the book is done in by bouts of vertiginous critical commentary that affirm Donoghue's deep reserves but fail to remind us of his lively, incisive sensibility. Donoghue sets out to read Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, Leaves of Grass and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with two worthy aims: first, to explain how these works “make available to readers . . . a shared cultural experience, something in which American society is otherwise impoverished,” and second, to suggest how they “put in question the otherwise facile ideology of individualism on which American culture complacently prides itself.” The opening chapter on Emerson, whose thought created “most of the context of these five books,” criticizes him for extolling the virtues of unrestrained individualism to the point of romanticizing a national character prone to hubris. While subsequently advancing this thesis through readings of the literature, Donoghue gets sidetracked into shrill complaints about the current administration and the ugliness of American power in general. For instance, since “Bush has been remarkably successful in persuading the American people to endorse a simple allegory of good and evil,” Donoghue complains, “it would be difficult, in these lurid circumstances, to read Moby-Dick as anything but a revenge play.” Besides revealing ivory-tower distaste for lowly leaders and citizens alike, Donoghue here joins a crowded chorus in lamenting the difficulty of dissenting from imperial consensus these days. This canard in turn limits his critical imagination to the rather banal contention that Moby-Dick's primary focus should be understood as “good and evil interpenetrated.” Later readings are gratefully stronger, particularly on the misanthropic hypocrisy that opens up between the substance of Walden and of its author, and on the “easy” glory of sin when “theology is reduced to psychology, and morality to good fellowship” in The Scarlet Letter. Yet this same chapter also exposes Donoghue's tendency to engage in painfully overwrought critical play. Donoghue's reading of Huck Finn is actually a running commentary on the novel's scholarly paper trail. Meanwhile, with Whitman, Donoghue indulges in especially snide remarks: If “‘The United States are essentially the greatest poem,'” as the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass proposed, then, in this critic's opinion, “it is a poem long disfigured by stanzas featuring murderous adventures in the Philippines, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq (to name a few, with probably more to come).” While these five books are indeed works of permanent relevance to American civilization, the same cannot be said of this angry little brief from an erstwhile accomplished scholar.
The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living.
By John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak.
Crossroad. 240 pp. $14.95.
Chesterton remarks somewhere that a Protestant typically says he is a good Protestant while a Catholic typically says he is a bad Catholic. Two young Catholics who manifestly love the Church make the most of that, offering a frequently hilarious, sometimes sophomoric, romp through the church year, the legends of the saints, and the oddments of Catholic sacramental practice. Recipes for the celebration of feasts and fantasies abound. The book will not be everybody's cup of tea—or, more aptly, pint of ale—but those who like this kind of thing will undoubtedly like it very much.