An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches.
By John Binns.
Cambridge University Press. 270 pp. $22
The Reverend John Binns, vicar of the University Church and a director of the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge University, provides this sympathetic survey of the history, theology, and current situation of the Orthodox Christian churches. While not replacing Kallistos Ware’s classic account, The Orthodox Church, Binns’ book will be helpful for Western Christians seeking to understand more about the very different experience of Eastern Christians. Indeed, Binns improves on Ware by discussing in depth not only Chalcedonian Orthodox such as the Greeks and Russians, but non-Chalcedonian Orthodox as well—Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, and Syrians. These two families of Orthodox churches, which share much in the way of culture and spirituality, have been estranged since the Christological controversies of the fifth century, though recent years have seen a growing reconciliation. Binns effectively shows how centuries of isolation and suffering have shaped the experience of all these churches. For example, Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman empire experienced long periods of persecution as second-class citizens —sometimes called “dhimmitude”—punctuated by moments of mass murder, as in the genocide of Armenians in the early twentieth century. (Persecution of Christians in the Islamic world continues even today; Binns rightly decries the fact that Western media discuss the violation of Kurdish rights but ignore the plight of Syrian Christians in the same region of Turkey.) Binns argues that this history of oppression has contributed to Orthodoxy’s intense conservatism, as well as to its focus on liturgy, which often was the only form of Christian witness allowed. He also discusses the ethnic nationalism that has been both a blessing and an obstacle to Orthodox churches—a blessing in helping them to maintain the Christian faith through centuries of persecution, and an obstacle in occasionally distracting them from that faith and in hindering cooperation in the growing Orthodox diaspora in the West. With regard to ecumenism, Binns paints a mixed picture: the beginnings of a movement toward restored communion, after 1500 years, between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches, but recurring tensions between some Orthodox and both Catholics and Protestants. Throughout, Binns addresses the central task now facing the Orthodox churches: finding their way in a world informed by a resurgent Islam and an increasingly liberal and secular West.
— Mark L. Movsesian
The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.
By Philip Jenkins.
Oxford University Press. 258 pp. $26.
“Catholic-baiting,” said the novelist Peter Viereck, “is the anti-Semitism of the liberals.” During the recent season of scandals, Catholics have generally, and with good reason, been reluctant to point out the obvious, namely, that the media carnival was in significant part motored by old-fashioned anti-Catholicism. Jenkins, an Episcopalian, has no such inhibitions and here offers a spirited account of how deep, pervasive, and multifaceted is the elite culture’s animus toward the Catholic Church. A distinguished historian at Penn State, Jenkins traces the animus back to an earlier period when “the Catholic menace” was seen as threatening American democracy, and insightfully analyzes the ways in which Catholicism is a necessary scandal to adherents of America’s regnant liberalism. The bulk of the book, however, is an evenhanded narrative of more recent assaults on the Catholic Church by feminists, abortion activists, homosexuals, and the dominant media, including the dramatic changes in the way Catholicism is portrayed in movies and television. Along the way, the author provides a refreshingly sober evaluation of the recent sex abuse scandals and their sensationalized exploitation. In a time of putative tolerance and inclusiveness, the “black legends” of Catholicism continue to provide the convenient contrast by which political correctness defines itself. Jenkins ends with a plea for honesty and fairness, but seems not to expect too much on that score. Anti-Catholicism is simply too useful to too many who are bent on shaping the culture in their image.
Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium.
By Andrew M. Greeley.
Transaction. 192 pp. $34.95
Priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley is a born and self-cultivated contrarian, and he here takes on the conventional wisdom that religion—meaning Christianity and Catholicism in particular—is dead or dying in Europe. Greeley asks: Compared to what or when? At the end of the first millennium, he says, the smart money would have bet that Europe would become Muslim or Nordic or Slavic pagan, or maybe Byzantine Christian. That didn’t happen then, and those who are now putting their money on the inexorable force of “secularization” will probably turn out to be wrong as well, Greeley argues. Sometimes his argument requires a very broad definition of religion, meaning little more than a comprehensive belief system that tries to make sense of reality. And he grants that the secularization thesis gets strong support from Britain, France, and the Netherlands. But in Europe more generally, the picture he offers on the basis of the findings of survey research is much more mixed. In some of the post-Communist countries, notably Poland, Catholicism is flourishing, and almost everywhere young people are more sympathetic than their parents to elements of Christian belief such as the promise of eternal life. Greeley acknowledges that the arguments and evidences he musters are not definitive, but he thinks they are strong enough to pose a serious challenge to the secularization theories of many of his fellow social scientists. He is right on both scores.
Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America.
By John J. Fialka.
St. Martin’s. 365 pp. $27.95
Of the more than four hundred religious orders for women in this country that forty years ago had almost 200,000 sisters running a huge empire of schools, hospitals, and other enterprises, the author, a journalist with the Wall Street Journal, focuses on the history of the Sisters of Mercy. The founding of the “Mercies” in Ireland, their high adventures in taming both hordes of Catholic immigrants and the American West, and their heroic role in caring for the wounded and dying in the Civil War is an undeservedly neglected chapter of American history that evokes deep admiration for these women of extraordinary competence, courage, and holiness. This is followed by the dreary story of fragmentation and decline following Vatican Council II, when, under the guidance of progressive male theologians and the countercultural churnings of the 1960s, the Mercies and most other orders committed a kind of institutional suicide, abandoning habits, disciplines, and communal life in favor of liberation into oblivion. While a few orders of women religious that resisted the Zeitgeist are vibrant and growing, there are today only 75,000 nuns and the average age is nearly seventy. A fuller and more sharply edged account of the decline is Ann Carey’s Sisters in Crisis (Our Sunday Visitor, 1997). Fialka concludes with indecisive and unpersuasive musings about whether ordaining women to the priesthood might not be a way to revive the heroic charisms of the past.
Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America.
Edited by Hugh Heclo and Wilfred M. McClay.
Woodrow Wilson Center. 382 pp. $22.50
As the subtitle indicates, some of these essays are focused on the more direct influence of religion on specific public policies. Others, notably those by Wilfred McClay and D. G. Hart, take on larger questions of cultural conflicts, secularization, and the ways in which religion is an inescapable part of our public language. These authors generously acknowledge the role of this journal and its Editor-in-Chief in reshaping the discussion of culture, politics, and religion in a way that could not have been anticipated a few decades ago. Although most of the arguments will be familiar to FT readers, the essays are almost all of high quality, and James Reichley’s double-entendred “Faith in Politics” is of particular interest.
Christian Language and Its Mutations.
By David Martin.
Ashgate. 219 pp. $29.95
Essays by one of the world’s foremost sociologists of religion on subjects ranging from sacred music, the eschatological significance of the city, the explosive growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere, and (contra John Milbank and company) the legitimacy of the sociological study of Christianity. With his erudition, good humor, and elegance of expression, David Martin casts in a fresh light almost every topic on which he touches. He is in some ways a traditionalist Anglican who has, among other things, led the battle for the Book of Common Prayer, but he is a traditionalist in the honorable tradition of Christian thinkers who engage the avant garde in the confidence that truth, whether presented as old or new, is always on friendly terms with truth.
Human Nature and the Freedom of Public Religious Expression.
By Stephen G. Post.
University of Notre Dame Press. 152 pp. $18
The author is professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, and he here makes a convincing case that it is long past time for us to stop tying ourselves into philosophical, psychological, and legal knots in trying to deny the obvious. The obvious is that people are, in maddeningly diverse ways, religious, and that the way people are is a public reality to be welcomed in order to make our common life more authentically human. Post draws on many sources, perhaps most originally on the neurosciences, to show that what we know about human nature increasingly confirms what has been taught all along by natural law theorists. This book is a valuable addition to the growing literature proposing promising alternatives to what has been called the naked public square.
The Other Side of the Altar.
By Paul E. Dinter.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 240 pp. $23
Subtitled “one man’s life in the Catholic priesthood,” this memoir by a priest ordained in the 1970s who left the priesthood and married more than twenty years later, is in the large, if not entirely venerable, genre of ex-nun and ex-priest stories. Dinter understood himself from the beginning to be a rebel of pretty standard left-liberal proclivities, and his critique of the Church and priesthood pushes the usual buttons, with priestly celibacy as the dominant complaint. The author believes he was and is faithful to the Church mandated by the Second Vatican Council, and, amidst the dreary depiction of the priesthood of others, his own creative and dedicated ministry stands out, by his account, as almost singular. As sour and spiritually superficial as the book is, it is not devoid of lessons that can be inferred for helping others avoid the author’s bitter experience.
Adventures in Orthodoxy.
By Dwight Longenecker.
Sophia Institute. 163 pp. $14.95
Somebody, perhaps it was the author, described this as “a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.” It is, as the title suggests, an adventurous romp, and a rewarding one. Longenecker, a former Anglican priest who is now a Catholic, is a gifted writer who has a knack for presenting the great mysteries in a manner filled with “a-ha moments” for the general reader.
America’s Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century.
By Peter W. Williams.
University of Illinois Press. 601 pp. $29.95
When the subject is as vast and various as religion in America, even a once-over-lightly treatment makes for a very big book. Expanding and updating a 1990 edition, Williams writes from a moderately liberal perspective that accents pluralism and process over substance and critical analysis. Includes a valuable bibliography of more than fifty pages.
Apparitions of Modern Saints.
By Patricia Treece.
Servant. 289 pp. $13.99 paper.
To a subject often treated with fevered credulity, an experienced journalist offers a calmly appreciative approach, reporting accounts of numerous appearances by, and messages from, such as Thérèse of Lisieux, Padre Pio, and Don Bosco. A useful appendix debunks the book by John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, which is used in many public schools to demonstrate the superiority of Native American shamanism over Christianity, which was precisely Neihardt’s purpose. In historical fact, Black Elk spent his adult life as a devoutly Catholic evangelist and catechist among the Lakota Sioux Indians. Apparitions of Modern Saints will not be everybody’s cup of tea, but, for those who are ready for it, the book opens a window on dimensions of reality much stranger than most of us dare to imagine.
Darwin’s Religious Odyssey.
By William E. Phipps.
Trinity. 206 pp. $16 paper.
The author sets out to counter those who view Darwin as an enemy of Christianity and demonstrates that he espoused an operatively atheistic materialism that made him, well, an enemy of Christianity. A kindly enemy, to be sure, who did not want to hurt more than necessary the sensibilities of his Christian friends.
How Much Is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture.
By Arthur Simon.
Baker. 192 pp. $11.99 paper.
The founder of Bread for the World, a liberal lobbying group, addresses Christians who are open to the idea that their spiritual discontent has its roots in satiety. Friends of market economics will question some of his claims about what would really help the poor, but Simon’s chief target is consumerism, and readers in thrall to that vice may welcome his liberating proposals.
The Ballad of the White Horse.
By G. K. Chesterton.
Ignatius. 230 pp. $19.95
An epic poem that has been changing lives since its first publication in 1911. Ignatius Press has rendered a great service in bringing out the 1928 edition with the marvelous woodcuts by Robert Austin and complete critical notes by Sister Bernadette Sheridan, who has devoted much of her life to the study of the poem. The Ballad is to be read out loud, preferably with friends. It is a thumping, lyrical, bracing, clashing, and strangely peaceful affirmation of the Christian view of history as a continuing battle between good and evil, waged in the confidence of victory over barbarians old and new.
The Emperor’s Handbook.
By Marcus Aurelius.
Scribner. 148 pp. $20
“What an infinitesimal fraction of time’s fathomless abyss is assigned to each of us! An instant, and it flickers out in eternity. What a speck in the plenitude of being we are! What a crumb in the bounty of life! How tiny on this broad earth the clod we crawl upon! Be mindful of all this, think nothing important except to do what your nature directs and to endure what the universal nature sends.” The foregoing is a taste of the bracingly straightforward style of this new translation by Scot and David Hicks, which may well lead a lot of people who thought him a drone in high school to give Marcus Aurelius, that noble pagan, another hearing.