Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christians.
By F. E. Peters.
Princeton University Press. 285 pp. $28.
Clearly the reading public needs a book describing Islam that avoids trendy multiculturalism as well as Christian rejectionism. That is precisely what F. E. Peters provides in this lucid guide. Peters manifests all the virtues of clarity and fairness that come from a lifetime of study devoted to this complex and multifaceted religion. Most remarkably, Peters has also managed to describe Islam in a way that explains the religion to non-Muslims without offending Muslims by adopting the tone of an Enlightened “cultured despiser.” He frankly admits, “The answer to the question ‘Who composed the Quran, God or Muhammad?’ is precisely the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims.” But rather than address that bootless question directly, he concentrates on what Muhammad shared with his audience—both those who accepted and those who rejected his message in Mecca and Medina. And precisely by concentrating on that presumed background of shared understanding between believer and nonbeliever during Muhammad’s life, Peters gives the non-Muslim the necessary background for understanding the Quran (he rightly says that no non-Muslim can understand Islam without reading the Quran from cover to cover). Without going so far as to call this Peters’ most important or best book (he has written histories of Jerusalem and Mecca, monographs on Aristotle among the Arabs, and a three-volume comparison of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), it is his most accessible and salubrious work to date. As he writes on the last page: “I have spent half of my professional life trying to explain the hate and unravel the misunderstanding that pervades religious history and the other half attempting to describe the joy and sublimity that has often accompanied the worship of God. . . . [This approach] still seems to me the only worthwhile way of coming to terms with both the evil and the good that humans do in the name of God.” Here is that most paradoxical of books: one that can change lives (and headlines), not by trying to convert, but simply by trying to describe.
— Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Terror and Liberalism.
By Paul Berman.
Norton. 214 pp. $21.
Paul Berman is a prominent left-wing intellectual, and his new book, Terror and Liberalism, presents a passionate defense of the nation’s war on terror (including its Iraqi front) in explicitly liberal terms. This in itself would be noteworthy. But Berman goes further, to castigate many of his fellow liberals for failing to recognize that militant Islam is the latest in a long line of death-obsessed antiliberal ideologies that, like fascism and communism before it, must be opposed with every resource—military, moral, intellectual—at our disposal. In his most original and enlightening chapters, Berman examines the writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the radical Egyptian philosopher who, in a series of painstaking commentaries on the Quran, recast Islam in terms largely derived from European antiliberalism and thus inspired the murderous armies of al-Qaeda and other groups. For Qutb, the enemy was Christianity and the secularized culture of the modern West it has spawned—and that in the modern age threatens to engulf the entire world. A nominal and impotent Islam may persist for a time in such a secular world, cordoned off in some “private” corner, but it will be an offense to God and all serious Muslims, who will recoil in humiliation at the “hideous schizophrenia” (Qutb’s phrase) of an Islam driven from public dominance. As Berman explains, Qutb believed that the only way to heal this psychic and social wound in the Muslim world was through “a rebellion in the name of Islam, against the liberal values of the West.” Berman would have liberals give in to their spontaneous inclination to be shocked by such antiliberal animus and endorse President Bush’s war on terror wholeheartedly. It is a bold and compelling proposal rendered all the more striking by the fact that, to the end, Berman insists that his “militant Wilsonian” views flow from an “American social-democratic heart.” Still, even those broadly sympathetic to his vision of fighting a war against militant Islam in the name of liberal traditions and institutions will find reasons to be cautious about the way that Berman conceives of it. Especially troubling is his hostility to foreign policy “realists” who view international relations through the lens of power and national interest instead of absolute moral ideals. Berman is right to caution against those who champion raison d’état, since doing so can produce a narrow and amoral vision of the world in which such intangible motives for war as honor, hatred, and humiliation (the three primary causes of strife in the Islamic world today) become inexplicable. Yet Berman rejects realist views not because of their potential to inspire foolishness but because he believes they are unsuited to the noble tasks to which we have been called by our present circumstances. Berman, it seems, is worried that realism’s insistence on making policy decisions in the light of what is good for the United States will dampen our spirits and make us less inclined to fight for liberal principles. But surely a responsible foreign policy must combine moral considerations with reflection on the national interest. To deny a place for such reflection is to run the risk of encouraging the recklessness that frequently accompanies self-righteousness.
For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery.
By Rodney Stark.
Princeton University Press. 488 pp. $35.
Stark, an influential sociologist of religion, might have chosen the title The Book of Debunkings III. Volumes one and two are his earlier The Rise of Christianity and One True God. The relentlessly contrarian, vigorously argued, and impressively documented argument is that scholars of the modern era have routinely discounted and distorted the role of religion, and of monotheism in particular, in world history. The present volume continues the argument under four headings: God’s truth, God’s handiwork, God’s enemies, and God’s justice. Belief in the unity of God’s truth explains the reformations (plural) and formation of sects in Christian history. These things did not happen in classical polytheism or the “godless” spiritualities of the East for the same reason that science did not develop in those worlds. Belief in the truth that the creation is God’s handiwork generated the scientific progress that began not in the eighteenth century but in medieval scholasticism. Stark’s discussion of science includes a succinct and convincing critique of the dogmatic materialism propounded by prominent evolutionists. The third part, “God’s enemies,” treats the outbreak of witch-hunting, concentrated in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which, contra conventional wisdom, resulted in thousands, not millions, of deaths of both men and women, and in which the Inquisition was typically a moderating influence. The belief in evil forces such as witchcraft, Stark contends, was the flip side of the unity of truth and commitment to reason, and was supported by Newton and many others revered by the Enlightenment. Witch-hunting was ended not by Enlightenment skepticism but by Christians protesting torture and other injustices entailed in the practice. Finally, “God’s justice” explains why the near-universal institution of slavery was abolished under the influence of Christian morality, having been condemned by Christian thinkers and popes—sometimes with little effect upon temporal powers and slaveholders—for many centuries. (A major reason for slavery’s survival in Islam, Stark says, is that Muhammad bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves.) On these and other questions, Stark’s findings are sometimes so sympathetic to Catholicism that he early on makes a point of his not being a Roman Catholic. In a postscript titled “Gods, Rituals, and Social Science,” Stark takes on a sociological tradition that, beginning with Durkheim, assumes that ritual rather than belief explains the influence of religion in society. Along the way, he also challenges Marxist and postmodern theorists with their sundry revisionisms that deny or relegate to epiphenomenal status the power of religion, notably of monotheism, in historical change. For the Glory of God, like the two earlier volumes, is an important book. It is immensely learned, consistently contentious, and filled with brilliant, if sometimes eccentric, insights. Its publication should create a furor, but that probably will not happen since the secularist prejudices it exposes are so deeply entrenched in the intellectual habits of modernity. Yet for those who are open to a very different interpretation of the development of Western Civilization—and the difference between the West and “the rest”—For the Glory of God is strongly recommended.
The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust.
By Martin Gilbert.
Henry Holt. 529 pp. $35.
The distinguished British historian Martin Gilbert here brings together the remarkable stories of non-Jews who risked their lives and, in many cases, gave their lives in order to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Unlike some other Jewish scholars, Gilbert celebrates their heroism without unseemly caveats about their implicit complicity in anti-Semitic cultures. Nearly twenty thousand non-Jews are honored as Righteous Gentiles in the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, and, as Gilbert notes, there were on average at least ten others who cooperated with each of those rescuers, also at the risk of their lives, by active assistance or simply by not reporting what they knew about rescue operations. The greatest number of rescuers by far were Polish Catholics, in large part because that is where the Nazi exterminationist program was pressed most fiercely. The question is raised but not pursued about the appropriateness of Yad Vashem honoring also Righteous Jews, but that touches on the awkward issue of other Jews who were not simply victims but who cooperated with their persecutors. Without entering into a detailed discussion of the alleged silence of Pius XII, Gilbert readily acknowledges the leading role of the Catholic Church—from the Pope to extraordinary nuns, priests, and monks—in protecting Jews. Gilbert’s narrative is straightforward, moving from country to country and relating one individual story after another. The cumulative effect is overwhelming, a powerful witness to the human capacity for courage even in the heart of darkness. The book can be read along with the magnificent 1988 study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. The Oliners provide a more analytical treatment of the phenomenon, demonstrating that rescuers were typically ordinary Christians uncomplicatedly committed to the biblical imperative of love for neighbor. The story told by Gilbert and the Oliners can be employed to several purposes. To suggest that they are telling the “bright side” of the Holocaust is obscene. They do demonstrate that there is no horror that can completely extinguish the lights of goodness. And that, even under the most cruel totalitarian control, there is freedom for those who are prepared to die rather than cooperate in evil.
The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism.
By David Klinghoffer.
Doubleday. 304 pp. $26.
One might say that this book by a convert to Orthodox Judaism would better have been titled The Discovery of Abraham. But then, Abraham discovered God, or, more precisely, was the one to whom God revealed Himself. Klinghoffer discovers Abraham and God by a careful sifting through of the Jewish oral tradition that reaches back almost four thousand years and includes the stories and interpretations that went into the making of the Bible that Christians call the Old Testament. This is fascinating stuff that, joined to sundry archeological and other researches, will not be familiar to most readers. The detail sometimes overwhelms, but Klinghoffer’s invitation to enter into strange worlds comes with the promise of sure rewards. While Christian interpretation
s, perhaps understandably, receive slight attention, the author ends with an unsentimental affirmation of faith that, despite all, “a grand if fractured Abrahamic civilization resting on its three foundations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” will one day be realized. “God’s plan, the plan initiated by Abraham, is still being worked out. Not tomorrow. Nor the day after. But eventually, inevitably.” Whether that is one civilization with one religion or three is not entirely clear. Klinghoffer writes that “Catholic teaching now holds the Jewish and Christian relationships with God to be separate but equally valid,” which is somewhat misleading. Relationships with God are finally something that God only knows, but Catholics and other Christians cannot say that Judaism, without an acknowledgment of Jesus as the Christ, is equally valid in conveying the fullness of the truth God has revealed. Such theological confusions notwithstanding, The Discovery of God will help Christians better understand the myriad events, stories, and beliefs that went into the making of Abraham, who in the eucharistic prayer of the Church is called “our father in faith.”
The Language Police.
By Diane Ravitch.
Knopf. 255 pp. $24.
Sissy. Swarthy. Chick. Cattleman. Actress. Egghead. What those and thousands of other words have in common is that they are proscribed from textbooks used in public schools. Diane Ravitch is one of the most astute students of contemporary educational practices, and she here offers a withering critique of the “sensitivity” and “inclusivity” dogmas that have bowdlerized, sometimes hilariously, even literary classics in public schools. The language police are overwhelmingly on the left, but she gets in some deserved whacks at right-wingers and real-wingers who have their own list of forbidden references. The chief guilt, says Ravitch, lies with publishers who are terrified of the impact on sales if they offend anyone. But it is clear that none of this nonsense could be perpetrated were it not for librarians, teachers unions, school boards, and others—usually the most vocal opponents of censorship—who have been imposing a system of censorship for years.
The Worm in the Apple: How the Teachers Unions Are Destroying American Education.
By Peter Brimelow.
HarperCollins. 322 pp. $24.95.
A lively and frequently polemical (deservedly so) elaboration of the subtitle. That doesn’t mean one doesn’t need to read the book. On the contrary, the details mustered by Brimelow provide also the directions toward remedy. But first we need to really hear the bad news: how teachers unions protect truly bad teachers, how they control the school boards with which they negotiate their contracts, how they fight tooth and nail to prevent students, especially of poor families, from having a choice of schools, and how they defend frequently rotten school systems—big city school systems in particular—from the competition that could lead to genuine reform. The Worm in the Apple is a manifesto that, if taken to heart, could help move millions of children into the adventure of learning.
From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200.
By Rachel Fulton.
Columbia University Press. 676 pp. $40.
The author teaches history at the University of Chicago and here brings together an astonishing range of materials illuminating the development of high medieval devotion to the suffering Christ and Mary’s participation in the redemptive act of the cross. Her stated thesis, that the development hinged on the disappointment of eschatological expectations surrounding the millennium of Christ’s death in 1033, gets lost in the massiveness of the texts discussed, but the book nonetheless provides a richly informative tour of the imaginative, impassioned, and sometimes erotic dimensions of empathic identification with the passion. Marian devotion relative to the suffering of her son far predates the Christian conquest of the Franks with which Fulton begins her story, but she admirably displays the flowering of that devotion as it still flourishes in much Catholic piety today.
A Brief History of Heresy.
By G. R. Evans.
Blackwell. 195 pp. $17.95
This is one in a series of Blackwell books aimed at providing short, accessible, and engaging treatments of theological and religious subjects for “the common reader.” It is a worthy project that deserves better than this once-over-lightly survey of heresy in the Christian tradition. The author, a Cambridge historian, is both superficial and slanted in her benign view of the heretic as a kind of whistle-blower who helps us to be more “tolerant” in obedience to what the World Council of Churches prescribes as “unity in diversity.” The temper of the times, she suggests, requires a sharply tempered devotion to truth.
The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War.
By Samuel Hynes.
Viking. 291 pp. $24.95.
It is not true that nostalgia is not what it used to be. Hynes, professor of literature at Princeton, tells the story of his richly ordinary boyhood in the Midwest and does so without either complaint or gilding. The war in the subtitle is, of course, World War II, and the book helps us understand the world that produced what is now often called “the greatest generation.” From a boy’s sexual curiosity to his envy of Catholic friends who appeared to have a much more interesting religion, The Growing Seasons evokes a time when the limits and possibilities of life were explored with fewer pretentious complexifications. Call it a simpler time. Or simply more honest.
Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?.
By Timothy George.
Zondervan. 159 pp. $12.99 paper.
The Dean of the Divinity School at Samford University offers an informed and accessible account of differences and similarities between Christianity and Islam. While he is attentive to other Christian communities, George is particularly alert to the beliefs and concerns of evangelical Protestantism, including the commitment to world evangelization. The answer to the title’s question is yes, in the sense that there is but one God, but also no, in the sense that Christians know God as one in three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This little book is an admirably concise primer for the rapidly growing number of Christians who have only recently been awakened to the challenge of Islam.
Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History.
By James A. Morone.
Yale University Press. 560 pp. $35.
Morone pits the “Puritans” and “Progressives” against one another and depicts, in a frequently sensationalistic manner, the fervor of their moralistic battles over witches, slavery, woman’s suffrage, and alcohol, all issuing in today’s conflicts over drugs, sex, homosexuality, and abortion. He makes an interesting point that the “Progressive” support for abortion on the basis of privacy rights may be a mistake because it leaves questions of public morality to the opposition. As a history of moralities in conflict, however, Hellfire Nation is tendentious and, well, overheated.
The Russian Church and the Papacy.
By Vladimir Soloviev.
Catholic Answers. 203 pp. $11.95 paper.
The philosopher Soloviev (1853-1900) has been called “the Russian Newman” and has been cited favorably in the teaching documents of John Paul II. He was a powerful influence on, among many others, Dostoevsky and is a continuing point of reference in discussions about the relations between Eastern and Western Christianity. The present pope, more than any of his predecessors, has made extraordinary efforts to advance the reconciliation of East and West, which makes the republication of this classic in abridged form particularly timely. While he shared many Eastern criticisms of the papacy over the centuries, Soloviev makes an intellectually compelling and poetically moving argument for Christian unity in communion with the See of Peter.
Same-Sex Attraction: A Parents’ Guide.
By John F. Harvey and Gerard V. Bradley.
St. Augustine’s. 227 pp. $25
“No problem, honey. You just be what you got to be.” Few parents would respond so insouciantly to their teenager’s announcement that he is gay. Or, of those who did, few would mean it. This is a book that many people, and not only parents, have been waiting for. With exquisite sensitivity, combined with moral clarity and a command of the facts, fourteen authors address same-sex attraction under the headings of science and medicine, morality, law, and pastoral considerations. Faced with pro-homosexual pressures in education and the general culture, always advanced under the banner of tolerance, many parents and others are at a loss in knowing how to respond. Same-Sex Attraction supplies the necessary facts and arguments but, equally important, a positive vision of sexuality that makes for human flourishing.
Office of Innocence.
By Thomas Keneally.
Doubleday. 272 pp. $25.
A young priest in Australia begins his ministry during World War II as the Japanese are threatening to invade the country. He is an innocent on many scores, and the story is about his loss of innocence in ways related to the “office of innocence”—the confessional. Keneally displays a convincing feel for the clerical life, and some will find this entertainment just the thing for a little light reading.
Meaninglessness: The Solutions of Nietzsche, Freud, and Rorty.
By M. A. Casey.
Lexington. 168 pp. $22.95
A profound examination of meaninglessness in human life—and above all, of the unhelpful attempts by modern thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Rorty to devise a therapy that will protect us from it.