American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short
by Robert Wuthnow
Princeton University Press, 298 pages, $29.95
Myth and mythos refer to a kind of cultural story that possesses high authority and the capacity to convey powerful truths. Though the word myth seldom appears in -American Mythos, this is a book about the unexamined “deep narratives” that shape American culture. These narratives, the author believes, sharply limit our capacity to be a more inclusive and more diverse nation. Our pluralist ideals would be more fully realized, he suggests, by a turn toward “reflective democracy,” his term for a process of personal and shared examination of our national myths. Close scrutiny, he intimates, would transform the stories we tell.
The concerns that animate the chapters of Wuthnow’s book—individualism, justice, meritocracy, religious privatization, ethnic pluralism, and materialism—are undeniably important. Sustained, thoughtful reflection on them is a welcome idea. And a distinguished cultural sociologist like Robert Wuthnow would seem to be just the right guide.
But the opportunity is lost in this strange and rambling book. The principal window on our myths is supposed to be the stories of successful first- and second-generation immigrants drawn from 200 lengthy interviews. But this data was apparently collected for some other project. We hear the stories of only three. All the other references consist of very short quotations and statistical summaries. The author derives neither the myths nor their meaning from them.
Instead of “deep narratives,” we get familiar tropes or arguments—for instance, that ethnicity is primarily symbolic or that immigrants will save us from our materialism—that often have a straw-man quality to them. They don’t so much document our cultural assumptions as set up Wuthnow’s own judgments about what ethnicity or pluralism or religion should mean.
Matters do not improve when the author comes to his solution of “reflective democracy.” He recognizes that to be culturally meaningful, such reflection must have a collective dimension, and so he briefly explores a number of possible venues: from town meetings to voluntary associations to colleges and the media. After showing that all have substantial limitations, he changes the subject to the importance of cultural criticism in the human sciences. Perhaps “probing deeper” by ordinary citizens would not be such a good idea after all.
—Joseph E. Davis
John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist
by D.G. Hart
P&R, 271 pages, $22.99
Why would anyone publish, much less read, a biography of John Williamson Nevin (1803–1886), a now-obscure American Reformed theologian who spent his life in the German Reformed Church, a tiny corner of American Christianity? As it happens, Hart’s fine biography will find several audiences, and the publisher is to be commended for making this lucid summary of Nevin’s life and work readily accessible.
At the center of Nevin’s project was his conviction that Calvinism needs the nurturing of an institutional church, particularly her sacraments and the unique ministry of the pastoral office, if it is going to survive as a viable expression of Christianity. Nevin viewed the erasure of the church as the most characteristic feature of American Protestantism. The key question facing Protestants, he once wrote, is “whether the original Catholic doctrine concerning the Church, as it stood in universal authority through all ages before the Reformation, is to be received and held still as a necessary part of the Christian faith, or deliberately rejected and refused as an error dangerous to men’s souls at war with the Bible?” Revivalism was Nevin’s nemesis, the antithesis of his churchly form of Protestantism, and even the most conservative among Presbyterians were, in their liturgical and ecclesiastical instincts, more heirs of revivalism’s camp meetings than of Calvin’s Geneva.
Calvinists will find the book particularly timely. Nevin had a famous controversy with the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge concerning the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Hart describes Hodge as the “gatekeeper” of Calvinist orthodoxy, and Hodge’s victory in that debate effectively confined Nevin’s brand of Calvinism to the backwaters of the Reformed world.
But over the past decade, a form of the ecclesio-centric, sacramental, liturgical, “catholic” Calvinism represented by Nevin has revived within the conservative Reformed world. At no time since Nevin’s death has his work been so immediately relevant to American Calvinists.
Nevin is also of ecumenical interest at a time when evangelical Protestants are asking if the Reformation is over. During one period of his life, Nevin’s dissatisfaction with “Puritan” American Protestantism, along with his extensive historical studies, led him nearly to convert to Roman Catholicism. He wrote in 1852, “My Protestantism . . .is of the poorest sort. I am no longer fit for the defence of its interest in any vigorous style.” He always insisted that the divide between orthodox Christianity and modernism was more fundamental than the divide between Protestant and Catholic.
Finally, Nevin was an astute historian of American religion. Contrary to the widespread view that the key transition in American Protestantism occurred when the churches confronted modern social conditions after the Civil War, Nevin argued that the key shift was when revivalism transformed Protestantism so that, in Hart’s words, “Protestants no longer regarded the church as a medium of grace but more or less as a voluntary society of Christian disciples.”
American Protestantism has yet to recover, but Hart’s book will be an important tool in that recovery, and perhaps a sign of recovery in progress.
—Peter J. Leithart
The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church
by Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner
Eerdmans, 320 pages, $25
Episcopalians and other Anglicans know that 2007 could mark a turning point for their communion—toward either a long-hoped-for renewal or an ever-increasing downward spiral. This book is, quite simply, the best on the market for anyone who hopes for renewal. The theologians Radner and Turner, both veteran Episcopal priests, describe with admirable clarity the path that has brought us to this point. The Episcopal Church, they write, has by and large forsaken its calling as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—choosing instead to be a “liberal yet liturgical” option in American denominationalism.
And yet, rather than curse the darkness, Radner and Turner seek a path forward, daring to hope that God may use the current crisis to discipline and renew the Anglican Communion. That path, they say, does not lead to any of Christendom’s other options for solving the problem of scriptural faithfulness and tolerable diversity. Roman Catholicism, they say, relies on an unwarranted expansion of the Petrine office and a too-neat understanding of the “development of doctrine,” while Eastern Orthodoxy relies on an escape from history, and confessional Protestantism and Evangelicalism rely on artificially canonized doctrinal bulwarks.
Rather, they contend, the Anglican way of discerning truth is by means of communion itself, through the unity of a Scripture-immersed and sanctified people whose lives are shaped by the Church’s ancient eucharistic worship and prayer.
Sharply differing from the “autonomous” and “prophetic” self-understanding of the Episcopal Church, which has led only to chaos, Radner and Turner recommend a disciplined unity of mutual “subjection” and “forbearance.” It is this sort of unity, they argue, that recent church documents (such as the Windsor Report) are groping toward, and it is this to which Anglicans now are being called.
Radner and Turner offer a challenging vision, perhaps an impossible one. But it is the best on offer for the Anglican Communion, and The Fate of Communion contains much to ponder. All mainline Christians ought to read it, but for thoughtful and faithful Anglicans, it is a must.
Holy Teaching: Introducing the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas
by Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt
Brazos, 320 pages, $29.99
Frederick Bauerschmidt provides a valuable service to religious-studies teachers and instructors of other disciplines that require some knowledge of Catholic theology. In a handsomely produced paperback, he provides a concise introduction to the Summa Theologiae.
But rather than simply tell his students about the Summa, he lets
St. Thomas speak for himself. Bauerschmidt has selected articles he judges representative of the themes treated in the Summa’s three parts, and he reproduces these texts in readable English that is adapted carefully from the translation produced in the early twentieth century by the fathers of the English Dominican Province. The selected articles cover a wide range of topics that Thomas Aquinas addresses in his monumental work. Bauerschmidt starts with the question “What is theology?” He ends with three articles that touch on Christian eschatology.
Holy Teaching demonstrates its pedagogic value principally in the commentaries the author attaches to each article of the Summa selected for inclusion. The notes, containing Bauerschmidt’s own explanations, point to the provenance of this book, which is the classroom—thereby returning us to Thomas’ original motive for work. Thomas worked diligently to provide clerical students with the big picture of Catholic
truth. Both the beginner and the seasoned reader of the Thomist corpus will find the notes in Holy Teaching enlightening.
The volume contains a brief but well-written introduction to the person and period of Thomas Aquinas, a glossary of names, suggestions for further reading, and an index to the introduction and the notes. It would be difficult to imagine a better tool to interest students in the work of the Church’s Common Doctor. In an age when certain Thomists seek to distance themselves from the commentatorial tradition, Bauerschmidt demonstrates that, while it is true that Thomas remains the best interpreter of his own writings, it is not easy to penetrate the thought of Aquinas without a reliable guide.
Best Christian Writing 2006
edited by John Wilson
Jossey-Bass, 240 pages, $17.95
With an introduction by the distinguished evangelical scholar Mark Noll, Best Christian Writing 2006 is the fifth in John Wilson’s series of annual collections. Wilson does not intend the book to collect the best work in theology or philosophy, though there is some theology and philosophy in these pages. Rather, he has sought to collect what might be called the best “popular Christian writing”—as long as we remember that popular does not mean unsubtle or cheap.
The theologian Richard Lischer offers a brief meditation that, for my money, ought to be required reading for all seminarians who want their ministries to follow a biblical paradigm—a paradigm that Lischer finds in the ministry of St. Paul to the early Christian gentile churches: a ministry that for all its messiness finds as its center the repeated embodiment of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the daily tosses and turns of pastoral work with the people of God.
Another provoking essay is Paul Marshall’s, originally published in First Things, a piece that deconstructs the commonplace call for Islam to undergo a reformation—by which is meant a liberal Enlightenment—and that shows the way in which Islam instead could benefit from a kind of “Catholicization,” albeit one in which Islam looks to its own histories and traditions.
Meanwhile, the volume contains William Griffin’s translation of a wonderful Christmas sermon of St. Augustine, as well as Amy Laura Hall’s call for Christians to accept “ordinary” and even “unordinary” children instead of seeking after the evils of perfect children born of eugenics. Eugene Peterson offers incisive comments on contemporary trends in the Church and the craving by laity for reverent and holy space, while Richard John Neuhaus meditates on the goods of a genuinely liberal Catholicism and the necessity of obedience in Roman Catholic life. The Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff provides a critical history of the nature and purpose of art in modernity and suggestions for a theory of art today that could admit both its fallenness and its potency to engender some kind of salvation, and a piece by Daniel Taylor describes the abandoned Irish monastery of Skellig Michael that might make some readers want to plan a pilgrimage to this holy and—to Taylor’s mind—dangerous, place. As he does every year, John Wilson has gathered a fine collection of Christian writing.
France and the French: A Modern History
by Rod Kenward
Overlook, 712 pages, $35
Kenward’s rehearsal of life in twentieth-century France is a compendium of ideologies, lists of leading political and social leaders, an endless speculation on the nature of Frenchness, and a nearly complete absence of the cultural effects of the nation’s Catholic inheritance. In fact, Kenward appears to accept French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of cultural capital as “knowledge, skills, style and taste by which one class or social group dominated another.” He thinks that “rituals made strikes into cultural events,” while the singing of “time-honored revolutionary songs” and the “totemic identification of places, buildings, squares and marching routes” form “an inversion of religious processions.”
Kenward makes much of feminism and communism, and of “political culture that extols the rational, orderly mind at the same time it values the power of dissent so highly.” The book does contain useful information on the 1940 fall of France, and it satisfactorily recounts the conflicts created by the Dreyfus Case, Action Française, Algeria, and Vietnam. It provides, as well, useful maps of the nation’s regions and photos of significant leaders and important moments.
One wonders, however, if Kenward has ever heard of Dawson’s The Making of Europe or Belloc’s Europe and the Faith. His pathetic struggles with the question of what and where is Europe, and why populations as culturally diverse as those of Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Spain, and Britain should call themselves European, makes all his erudition seem a mere massing of incident to no purpose.
—James P. McGlone
A Monk’s Alphabet: Moments of Stillness in a Turning World
by Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.
Shambhala, 208 pages, $19.95
Driscoll is a monk at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon and the author of one of the best contemporary explanations of the Mass, What Happens at Mass. In his latest book, he collects a set of very short essays organized alphabetically and covering an engagingly idiosyncratic list of subjects—from airplanes and psalms to a deceased abbott named Zerr.
In A Monk’s Alphabet, piquant and profound observations abound. “The final judgment?” he writes. “How is it that we are all so sure nowadays that it is going to turn out alright? Such an easy, friendly thought. But is it correct?”
Or on saints: “What or who but the Catholic Church remembers so many, many men and women long since dead, remembers them and calls them by name, counts them friends, and recalls their deeds? Catholics in Oregon, the far west of what in centuries past was called the New World, remember and talk about Francis and Clare, Augustine, Gregory, Catherine, Gertrude, Cornelius, Clement, Philip, Elizabeth, Luwanga, Miki, and thousands and thousands more. This is just some measure of the respect and gratitude for one another that we learn from the Church, respect and gratitude destined to last an eternity.”
What is most satisfying about this absorbing book is its treatment of the struggles of the moral life. Under vocation, for instance, he writes: “I wish Jesus risen from the dead would appear to me, just once, for only a moment of recognition, of being sure. Ah, but I know that if he did, he would give me my vocation to be a monk. So I have his gift; I have evidence of his appearance. Let it suffice.”
—Gregory J. Sullivan
Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide
by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart
Cambridge, 348 pages, $24.99
Two political scientists provide a wealth of data, drawn mainly from the World Values Surveys, that shows both the perdurance and variety of religion in the contemporary world. The analysis, however, is less interesting, depending as it does on a version of “secularization theory” that views religion as becoming less necessary as people in developed societies gradually sense they are more secure. Despite the authors’ desire to avoid reductionist explanations, Sacred and Secular reduces religion to the epiphenomenal.
The Fate of Africa
by Martin Meredith
PublicAffairs, 752 pages, $19.95
The subtitle says it all: “From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair: A History of 50 Years of Independence.” Meredith is a British journalist who has followed African affairs for decades, and the story he tells is grim. By almost every indicator—economic, political, cultural, educational, medical—Africa is, all in all, worse off today than when the anti-colonial “winds of change” began to sweep the continent half a century ago. Unfortunately, the author largely neglects the possibly related and certainly dramatic upsurge of religion, both Christian and Muslim, in Africa. He is ambivalent about increased Western aid to Africa, although strongly critical of Western economic policies, such as agricultural subsidies, that make it difficult for Africans to compete in the world market. The burden of blame for Africa’s sorry plight is placed, appropriately, on the thugocracies that have, in almost every country, deprived Africans of decent and honest government.
The Legacy of Jihad
edited by Andrew G. Bostom
Prometheus, 759 pages, $29
A useful, and chilling, collection of documents and reports, beginning with the origins of Islam, on how consistent has been the ideology of Jihadism and the subjugation of non-Muslims. Drawing upon both Muslim and non-Muslim sources, this book demonstrates that conquest and subjugation may not be the whole of Islam, but they have been to date inseparable from Muslim identity and mission. Of course there are Muslim thinkers today, some of them believably related to the world of Islamic faith and practice, who say that history need not repeat itself. But that is a subject for another book.
Mao: The Unknown Story
by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Knopf, 864 pages, $18
Now in paperback, Mao is a detailed account of a tyranny responsible for more than seventy million deaths. Mao had many admirers in the West, including Christian thinkers who hailed him as a “Christ figure.” Like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung, he believed it was his task (appointed by history, destiny, or whatever sanctioned his willfulness) to do nothing less than change human nature. When a man understands himself to be crucial to cosmic transformation, it is not surprising that he exempts himself from general rules. “People like me have only a duty to ourselves,” Mao wrote. Throughout his reign of terror, he was supplied with a steady stream of young women to satisfy his sexual needs and had fifty-three large and luxurious estates set aside for his use. The book is a probing into human evil on a vast scale, demonstrating the power of twisted ideas to wreak monumental horror when ruthlessness is deemed the supreme virtue.