Style and Faith: Essays.
By Geoffrey Hill.
Counterpoint. 218 pp. $25.
This slim but dense collection of Geoffrey Hill’s recent essays is marked by a complex engagement with Anglo-Christianity and the English language. Many of these pieces are written against bumptious scholarship and facile tastes, and in defense of rarer qualities. It will surprise no one familiar with his poetry that Hill derides the premium that contemporary book culture places upon ensuring that readers are spared hard work or cultural embarrassment, particularly with regard to linguistic and religious matters. But while his poetry can be overly abstruse, his literary criticism is accessibly sophisticated, if not uniformly engaging. It is possible to appreciate Hill’s deep commitment to affirming the inherent value of words while finding somewhat tiresome his extended excursions into etymological and philological aspects of English public writing from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Take his essay on the literary genealogies of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which provides exhaustive (and exhausting) documentation—all for the sake of showing that Burton “conceive[d] his own work as a book of heaps out of a heap of books.” Better is an essay on Henry Vaughan’s “The Night,” which amply rewards the high demands placed on the reader. After an elegant gloss of his own on John 3, the Scripture that inspired Vaughan, Hill conducts a well-paced close analysis of Vaughan’s rhymes, leaving no doubt that the poet quite literally believed “his own words must be measured against, must chime faithfully with, the received words of Scripture.” Hill rightly esteems Vaughan’s commitment to harmonizing his words with the Word; he has sought to do likewise throughout his own career. This collection attests to his diligence in this admirable and, Hill would stress, necessary endeavor.
— Randy Boyagoda
My Struggle for Freedom: A Memoir.
By Hans Küng.
Eerdmans. 478 pp. $32.
At age seventy-five, Catholicism’s best-known theological dissenter has published a memoir that is an unmitigated embarrassment. The vulgarity of the author’s self-aggrandizement is breathtaking, the viciousness toward those who disagree with him deeply saddening. He is the courageous warrior against “spiritual dictatorship” and “church totalitarianism.” Unlike others who sold out in their ambition for ecclesiastical power and prestige, Hans Küng would not compromise his conscience. His most particular target is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, but he names many others who are allegedly traitors to the truth. But never mind, he is happy and has found power and prestige elsewhere. He notes with satisfaction that Kofi Annan has accepted an invitation to his 75th birthday party. “In all modesty, which I have learned in my childhood, in the tumult of the times I have been able to assert myself as a free man, a Christian, and a theologian.” The book ends with a letter from a Swiss pastor who compares him with the prophet Elijah. To which Küng responds, “Oh no, the fate of a professor is enough for me.” There is that modesty again. Küng says he is writing a second volume of memoirs. It is a pity that what he describes as his great success in life did not include friends who might have discouraged him from publishing the first.
American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.
By Stephen Prothero.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 346 pp. $25.
A frequently fascinating romp through American culture with the emphasis on pop culture (some would say there is no other kind), showing the myriad ways in which the figure of Jesus has been detached from theological or churchly connections to become an icon for the promotion of almost anything. America, says the author, is “a Jesus nation, not a Christian nation.” He concludes with some heavy duty but undeveloped thoughts about the “immanentizing of the transcendent,” suggesting that the marketing of the Holy Spirit, the most “immanent” of the persons of the Trinity, may be next in line for a popular makeover. The book is an interesting, although somewhat disjointed, exhibit that will find its place in departments of American Studies.
The Family in the Modern Age: More than a Lifestyle.
By Brigitte Berger.
Transaction. 244 pp. $39.95.
A distinguished sociologist offers a rousing defense of the nuclear—she does not hesitate to say “bourgeois”—family. Turning conventional thinking upside down, Berger makes a persuasive case that the family, both historically and at present, is the producer and protector of liberal values. But of course. In sharp contrast to earlier tribal and feudal patterns, the bourgeois family made possible the freedom of a man and woman to choose each other, to live with their children in relative independence from wider kinship groups, and to form a bond in which obligation is reinforced by affection. Against the institution’s detractors—from Marx to radical feminists to Michel Foucault’s theories about oppressive “disciplining” mechanisms—the family provides the modern world with a zone of freedom joined to responsibility in a way that no other institution does or could. Berger adds to her socio-historical account an assessment of the current state of the nuclear family that will strike some readers as excessively sanguine. More attention might have been paid to the factors of class and race. While marriage and family are in fairly sturdy shape among college-educated whites, the nuclear family has almost disappeared among inner-city blacks and appears to be in increasing trouble among working-class whites. That being said, however, The Family in the Modern Age is a scholarly treatise and manifesto that should be cheered by friends of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy rightly understood, of course.
Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity.
By Roger Kimball.
Ivan R. Dee. 246 pp. $26.
Roger Kimball of the New Criterion is at it again, for which thoughtful readers should be grateful. This time the subject is how antitraditional art has itself become a tradition, and a not very interesting tradition at that. Far from being just another polemical rant, Art’s Prospect takes us inside the heads of those who execute and market contemporary art, helping us understand what they think they are doing, and why doing it is such a profitable business. It is easy, and sometimes necessary, to ridicule what is currently celebrated in the world of the arts. Kimball takes on the more difficult task of explaining why art is so important to culture, and how its present debasement might be remedied.
Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition.
By E. Christian Brugger.
University of Notre Dame Press. 296 pp. $50.
A professor of ethics at Loyola University, New Orleans, argues against the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, in agreement with statements of John Paul II that have been incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His argument is the more credible because he recognizes the gap, if not contradiction, between what appears to be current teaching and centuries of Christian tradition on this question. Brugger’s goal is to suggest ways to more fully develop what he believes is a development of doctrine and thus close that gap. The book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of an unsettled and unsettling question.
A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good.
Edited by Kenneth L. Grasso and Robert P. Hunt.
ISI. 401 pp. $29.95.
For more than half a century, Father Francis Canavan, S.J., has in his writing and teaching provided arguments both insightful and disturbing about moral reason and practice in our time. His students and friends bring together in this volume a tribute of essays testifying to Canavan’s continuing influence. Not all are in agreement with Canavan. Historian George McKenna, for instance, suggests that he is undiscriminating in his critique of “liberalism,” arguing that, in the past and at present, there are liberalisms in conflict. Other contributors include Hadley Arkes, who contends that legal positivism is not as bad as some other legal “isms” now regnant, and Gerard Bradley, who displays the ways in which “the pluralist game” is undermining clear thinking about marriage and related traditions. This is a superior Festschrift, filled with fresh ideas, and eminently well deserved.
A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined.
By Reynolds Price.
Scribner. 146 pp. $23.
Novelist Reynolds Price calls himself an “outlaw Christian” and candidly acknowledges that he speaks with “no personal or institutional authority.” What he does do, in a frequently captivating manner, is “imagine” what Jesus might have taught if Jesus agreed with him about homosexuality, suicide, and the oppression of women. The result is the imagined teaching of an imaginary Jesus, presented in a manner not untouched by the grace that keeps Mr. Price in loving contention with the Jesus of the Bible and the Church.
A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement.
Edited by Michael Cromartie.
Rowman & Littlefield. 266 pp. $24.95 paper.
The discussion about “civil society” has been going strong for more than a decade, but it seldom includes a firm grip on the part played by evangelical Protestants. In his introduction, John Wilson takes to task authors such as Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart) who perpetuate the myth that evangelical “Jesus and me” piety precludes constructive civic engagement. The thirteen essays here—covering education, welfare, abortion, bioethics, and other subjects—is a welcome corrective. Here and there, one detects a note of evangelical triumphalism, and almost all the authors complain that evangelicals are misunderstood, butthere are also some bracing criticisms of evangelicals by evangelicals. Putnam and Bellah are not entirely wrong, but there is a lot more to the story than their prejudices are willing to accommodate.
Culture of Life—Culture of Death.
Edited by Luke Gormally.
Linacre Center (Distributed by St. Augustine’s Press). 342 pp. $25 paper.
A collection of scholarly reflections on the title concepts, which were given currency by the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The discussions are comprehensive, including abortion, euthanasia, biomedical research, different ideas of human dignity, and the moral responsibilities of politicians. A book that will be welcomed by students of the many facets of the pro-life cause.
By Michael S. Rose.
Sophia. 185 pp. $14.95 paper.
The author’s Goodbye, Good Men, a best-seller that recounted the “homosexualizing” of the Catholic priesthood, caused a mighty stir. Priest is the other side of the story, an admiring portrait of priests who exemplify a joyful fidelity in serving God and His people. The journalistic adage that good news is no news should not go unchallenged. Hence this notice of Mr. Rose’s good-news book.
On the Priesthood: Classic and Contemporary Texts.
Edited by Matthew Levering.
Rowman & Littlefield. 148 pp. $19.95 paper.
Just the thing to give a priest, bishop, or seminarian who may be more than a mite discouraged these days. The editor has chosen wisely from the abundant wisdom of the centuries, from Clement of Rome through Catherine of Siena and Thomas More to John Paul II. Fifteen selections, each deserving a week’s reflection, and all in various ways bringing us back to the truth that the only path to personal and communal renewal is that of holiness and fidelity. We often have a greater need to be reminded than instructed, but these texts do both.
Jews and Christians: People of God.
Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson.
Eerdmans. 195 pp. $18 paper.
There has been for more than four decades a Jewish-Christian dialogue that is mainly a matter of intercommunal relations, and that is by no means unimportant. More important, however, has been another and seriously theological dialogue between Christians and Jews. What do we believe with and against one another? In what ways can we understand ourselves as one conflicted community of faith joined in desired obedience to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus? This book is an admirable reflection of the state of that second dialogue. In addition to the editors, contributors include David B. Hart, Jon Levenson, George Lindbeck, Richard John Neuhaus, David Novak, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate.
By Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson.
Brazos. 240 pp. $14.99 paper.
Longenecker, the Catholic, and Gustafson, the evangelical Protestant, sometimes debate and sometimes puzzle together about the perduring and often strange role of the Mother of God in Christian faith and devotion. Both are theologically informed laymen who conduct their discussion in a way that provides easy entry for the general reader. Forewords by J. I. Packer and Richard John Neuhaus.