Myth and Thought Among the Greeks
by Jean-Pierre Vernant
Zone, 505 pages, $25
The superciliousness of Vernant's approach to Greek myth is evident in the author's introduction, in which we are affronted with the unquestioned presumption that homo religiosus is a primitive creature who concocts myths as a product of his ignorance. Similarly, we are informed blithely about “the progression from mythical to rational thought and the gradual development of the idea of the individual person.”
In making these presumptions, Vernant is guilty of sundering fides from ratio and, in so doing, has created a gap between himself and the men of whom he writes. There was no schism between fides et ratio, or between myth and reason, in the eyes of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, or for that matter in the eyes of Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. The whole legacy of civilized culture down the ages has been a synthesizing of art and philosophy in the service of reality.
Myth and Thought Among the Greeks is also characterized by the author's imposition of his own dogmatic relativism upon the Greeks. We are told, for instance, that “there is not, nor can there be, a perfect model of the individual, abstracted from the course of the history of mankind, with its vicissitudes and its variations and transformations across space and time.” This betrays nothing less than illiteracy. Homer gives us Penelope, Dante gives us Beatrice, and Shakespeare gives us Cordelia, all of whom disprove Vernant's dogmatic denial of the existence of perfect models of the individual. This blessed trinity of idealized femininity is itself a reflection, either via prefigurement or representation, of the Marian archetype, and, of course, we have Christ himself as the perfect model of the individual. One does not need to be a Christian to see this mythical truth. Vernant is seemingly incapable of either empathy or sympathy. He is left, like Pilate, washing his hands of the moral passion of the myths unfolding before his unseeing eyes.
In a better reading of the timeless myths of antiquity we do not find distance and dissonance between ourselves and our ancestors but resolution and resonance. We can be at home with Homer because Homer is as homely as we are. He experiences the exile of life and desires the community and communion of home, in both its physical and metaphysical sense. Homer knew this, and so did Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Tolkien—all of whom knew the connection between Everyman and the Everlasting Man.
As a veritas-vampire, Vernant sucks the spirit of truth from myth, leaving only the dust and ashes of materialistic psycho-babble. Switching metaphors, he can be said to be a cheapened Midas: Everything he touches turns to dross. Whereas such analogies may transform myth into mere metaphor, Vernant turns myth into mere mechanics. He does not present us with a living myth, nor even with the corpse of a myth, but merely a lump of broken machinery. His work is truly abysmal—literally, in the sense that it creates an abyss between us and the Greeks. Far from moving “from myth to reason,” which is the title of the last part of Vernant's book, we should follow more trusted guides and find the reason in the myth.
Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry
by Christopher O. Tollefsen
Routledge, 229 pages, $95
Though Aristotle taught that “all men by nature desire to know,” surprisingly little attention has been paid to how we should go about fulfilling this desire. What are the norms that should govern our pursuit of knowledge? May medical researchers withhold facts from clinical test subjects? Can they use embryos? Is it permissible for intelligence agents to torture those they interrogate? May journalists hide their true identities and infiltrate closed communities to write exposés? Is there a truth for humanities scholars to seek, and, if so, can they avoid pushing political agendas?
While some of these questions are considered in disparate fields—medical ethics and bioethics, military and journalistic ethics—there are few integrated, systematic discussions of them. Christopher Tollefsen's carefully argued new book is an attempt at developing such an “ethics of inquiry.”
Tollefsen's project draws deeply from several disciplines: philosophical anthropology, metaphysics, meta-ethics, normative ethics, and political theory. He builds on recent work in natural-law theory, identifying the constitutive aspects of human well-being and the moral principles needed to protect those goods. He also integrates these foundations with insights from virtue ethicists about the centrality of developing the virtues that promote human flourishing. With this eudaemonistic approach, Tollefsen defines five core values that should guide the ethics of inquiry: autonomy and privacy (rightly understood), bodily integrity, fairness, and personal integrity.
He begins by applying these values to generate moral principles that protect the well-being of both inquirers and the subjects of their inquiries. Here Tollefsen examines the necessity of informed consent in biomedical research; the moral status of unborn (especially embryonic) test subjects; how humans degrade themselves by mistreating animal subjects; how the prohibition on lying and principles of fairness apply to military reconnaissance, undercover police work, and investigative journalism; and the threats that coercion, torture, and biotech enhancement pose to bodily integrity. In rigorous yet remarkably clear prose, Tollefsen surveys competing values and moral principles, proposes his solutions, and addresses the best counterarguments from leading scholars. Besides developing norms for individual inquirers, Tollefsen also analyzes the role the state should play in supporting and regulating their work.
Tollefsen closes with an extended discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre's key insights on social practices, professions, and progress in inquiry. Here he focuses not so much on the people affected by inquiry, but on the good to be sought: namely, the truth. If truth is the ultimate aim of all authentic inquiry, then inquirers need to develop certain virtues that dispose them to arrive at it. Building on Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, Tollefsen identifies and discusses the virtues he considers central: honesty, courage, moderation, studiousness, justice, prudence, and integrity. One can easily see, for example, how fear of rejection or disapproval, or love for one's own opinion even in the face of contrary evidence, could skew an honest inquiry.
It is within this context that Tollefsen focuses particularly on how modern universities can foster authentic searches for truth, even on controversial topics. Lastly, he considers the vocational implications of inquiry: the overall shape that a life committed to the search for truth should take. What becomes clear throughout is that Tollefsen himself has been practicing the intellectual virtues he preaches.
—Ryan T. Anderson
The Penitents' Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175–1375
by Robert Shaffern
University of Scranton Press, 275 pages, $25
The Penitents' Treasury is a work of Catholic revisionist history in the line of Eamon Duffy, even if it lacks the magisterial character and depth of Duffy's work. Shaffern challenges the reigning historical orthodoxies to say that instead of terrorizing and stultifying the medieval populace, indulgences served as “a reminder of God's generosity and the help of ‘fellow evenchristens.'” They were not imposed by the church hierarchy as a means of controlling or extorting the masses. Instead, they harmonized with a lively popular piety, arising from within the medieval emphasis on how corporal works' reflected the state of the soul. Shaffern is uncritically pro-indulgence in his approach, but his new perspective adds to the debate surrounding one of church history's most divisive topics.
Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family
by Alexander Waugh
Nan A. Talese, 480 pages, $27.50
Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons recounts the relationships that built one of the great English literary dynasties of the twentieth century. After an opening meditation on the death of father Auberon, Alexander looks back to great-great-grandfather Dr. Alexander Waugh, justly nicknamed “the Brute.” The doctor's savagery toward son Arthur helps explain the latter's limitations as a father. Subsequent chapters record his sentimental preference, resented by the young Evelyn, for elder son Alec. Evelyn would later take revenge by lampooning his father's worst traits in successive novels, but he in turn showed a shocking aloofness toward his own children. Alexander does record moments of familial harmony, however: Several letters from Evelyn to son Auberon reveal a loving father who encouraged his son's literary ambitions, and Alexander describes his own bond with father Auberon.
Many readers will be irritated, and sometimes repulsed, by Alexander Waugh's crude and prurient handling of the less noble episodes in his family's history. Equally frustrating is his religious semiliteracy: For example, he claims that Evelyn was “falling out of love with the Catholic Church” in the 1960s—a misreading of the novelist's distaste for the decade's liturgical reforms. The book contains a number of fascinating letters and anecdotes, but the author's own attempts to provide an insight into the nature of literary genius and father-son relationships, concluding with a contrived letter to the next generation, frequently sound pat and self-serving.
The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of Our Humanity
by Gilbert Meilaender
Brazos, 192 pages, $23.99One of the wisest Christian thinkers of our time borrows his title from Martin Luther's book dedicated to Pope Leo X, in which Luther made bold to say: “It is a small book if you regard its size. Unless I am mistaken, however, it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form.” Meilaender does not say whether Luther was mistaken, but he makes a point of saying that he would not presume to make a similar claim for the present book in which he brings together essays published here and there, including in these pages. The connecting themes are freedom, obligation, and vocation, with supplementary essays on aspects of biotechnology and a truly human understanding of living the end of life. For those not familiar with the author's work, the book will be a discovery; for those already indebted to him, it will be a reminder of their reasons for gratitude.
Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
by Steven Waldman
Random House, 304 pages, $26
A popular account of what the American founders meant by religious freedom, with strong and necessary correctives of conflicting misunderstandings of “the separation of church and state.” James Madison is, with justice, the hero of the story. Founding Faith is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the inevitable, and for the most salutary, interaction of religion and politics in our common life.
Cities of God
by Rodney Stark
Harper, 288 pages, $24.95
Sociologist Rodney Stark's latest in his series of revisionist accounts, including The Rise of Christianity and, more recently, The Victory of Reason. The present book focuses on the statistical evidence helping us to understand, from a sociological perspective, why and how Christianity grew from a peripheral cult into a movement that conquered the Roman Empire. Key to the story is the movement's concentration on urban centers (hence “Cities of God”) and the strategy of Paul—misleadingly called “the apostle to the gentiles”—who built upon the synagogue-centered Jewish communities in those centers. Stark sharply challenges now-fashionable treatments of Gnosticism as a more sophisticated version of Christianity and calls for a greater appreciation of the ways in which various mystery cults opened the way for the Christian gospel.
The Rule of Benedict
by David Gibson
HarperOne, 400 pages, $24.95
Liberal Catholicism, said Francis Cardinal George a few years ago, is an “exhausted project.” Yet it is kept on life support by journalists such as David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church, which is a church whose arrival has been announced by hundreds of similar books over the last four decades. Pope Benedict, we are told in his most recent book, is at war with the “modern world,” and Gibson is clearly on the side of the modern world. Your not being surprised is not surprising.
Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections
by Thomas Hopko
Conciliar, 128 pages, $12.95
Father Hopko is Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York and offers in this little book a clear and caring perspective on same-sex attraction that should be warmly welcomed by those coping with the experience and those who want to help them. While in solid agreement with the lowercase orthodoxy of all communions, Hopko draws on the distinctives of uppercase Orthodoxy in providing angles of vision that will be new to many readers.
God's Joust, God's Justice: Law and Religion in the Western Tradition
by John Witte Jr.
Eerdmans, 498 pages, $32
The title joins a statement by Martin Luther—“History is God's theater, God's jousting place”—and another by St. Augustine—“All things are ruled and governed by the one God as he pleases, but if God's reasons are hid, are they therefore unjust?” Witte is professor of law and ethics at Emory University and has made many contributions to understanding the intersection of law and religion. The present work mainly addresses the American founding and the first freedom of the First Amendment, with additional essays on marriage and family in the law.
Christian-Jewish Dialogue: Exploring Our Commonalities and Our Differences
by Isaac Rottenberg
Hebraic Heritage, 275 pages, $25
The anodyne subtitle to the contrary, this book takes on all the hard questions: revisionist views of anti-Semitism, Messianic Judaism, and, throughout, the Christian stake in Israel. Rottenberg, who has appeared in these pages, is a veteran of Jewish-Christian dialogue who regularly provides fresh and provocative insights on familiar disputes.
Five Germanys I Have Known
by Fritz Stern
Farrar Straus Giroux, 560 pages, $15
Columbia's emeritus professor of European history was born in Weimar Germany and provides an extremely detailed account of his relations with that country up through the present. The chronologies and itineraries related to the many studies he has done and speeches he has delivered for the Ford Foundation and similar institutions, along with a thorough accounting of honors bestowed on him, cry out for an editor. Peppered throughout are intimations that “fundamentalism” in America portends something dreadful, maybe something like the Third Reich. The book is much more about Fritz Stern than about Germany. The first section, on the cultural and religious complexities of being a baptized Jew in the Weimar period is frequently poignant and instructive.
The Regensburg Lecture
by James V. Schall
St. Augustine's, 176 pages, $20
A thoughtful and important reflection on Pope Benedict's lecture of September 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg, Germany, including the full text of the lecture. Father Schall's well-chosen epigraph is from Nietzsche: “The greatest events and thoughts—but the greatest thoughts are the greatest events—are comprehended last: the generations which are their contemporaries do not experience such events—they live past them.” Schall is determined that we not live past the pope's bold analysis of religion, reason, the challenge of Islamic Jihadism, and the possibility of civilization.
Reasonable Ethics: A Christian Approach to Social, Economic, and Political Concerns
by Robert Benne
Concordia, 341 pages, $14.99
Benne is the founder and director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Virginia. Here he brings together essays, both academic and based on his various life experiences, written from a distinctly Lutheran perspective. The ethical position proposed is instructive, morally serious, and devoid of illusions. In a word, reasonable.Strangers and Neighbors
by Maria Poggi Johnson
Thomas Nelson, 160 pages, $13.99
This fascinating little book began with a First Things article in November 2004, “Us and Them.” The author and her family moved into a neighborhood of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with a strong contingent of Orthodox Jews, and she describes in a very winning manner how that made her a stronger but a very different Christian.
Saints Behaving Badly
by Thomas J. Craughwell
Doubleday, 191 pages, $15.95
The premise of this charming and informative book is that saints are not born but made. From St. Augustine, who is an obvious candidate for inclusion, to lesser knowns such as St. Mary of Egypt who was, for lack of a better term, a street walker, Craughwell tells the stories of sinners forgiven and sanctified all the way to heaven. Which, for sinful readers, meaning all of us, should be a great encouragement.Sacred Scripture: The Disclosure of the Word
by Francis Martin
Sapientia, 304 pages, $26.95
Noted scholar Francis Martin brings critical scholarship into conversation with theology and spirituality in reflecting on a wide array of themes, from the paradox of the Beatitudes to scriptural feminism and the role of tradition and traditions in understanding the Bible. The book is a wonderful display of what it means to read the Scriptures on the liberating far side of academic specialties.
The Future of the United Nations
by Joshua Muravchik
AEI, 175 pages, $20
A sober and sobering assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the U.N. and of the reforms that are needed if it is to serve world peace in the future. Includes informative appendices on voting patterns, financial contributions, and other data correlated with the democratic politics, or lack thereof, of member nations.