Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity
by William Murchison
Encounter, 215 pages, $25.95
The Episcopal Church, grande dame of mainline Protestantism, is not what she used to be. Of course, we all know that, but William Murchison, longtime Episcopalian and columnist for the Dallas Morning News, tells with verve and skill the story of how his church changed during his time in the pews. As he explains it, the story is in large part a tale of the church’s flight from authority, and her exchange of the God of Israel for the small, less demanding gods of the prevailing winds of American culture.
Murchison is an exponent of the Protestant Episcopal tradition, a type not much seen anymore—he argues with passion for the beautiful, penitential language of Cranmer’s prayer book, against the ordination of women to the priesthood, and against same-sex blessings and the consecration of Gene Robinson. Some readers might dismiss all of this as yet another “change is bad” exercise in knee-jerk conservatism, but they would be wrong. Murchison’s book is written in a spirit of friendly debate; his aim is conversation, not condemnation, and he himself has quite clearly chosen the path of active engagement in the Episcopal Church.
More important, the deeper problem identified by Murchison is not change itself, but the way in which changes in the church have come about—more often than not, he says, revisions have been understood as a casting-off of the outdated, “authoritarian,” and “guilt-obsessed” teachings of Scripture and prayer book, in favor of new movements in the spirit of our therapeutic age, gussied up and repackaged as the Holy Spirit. The end result, he argues, is a church that no longer knows what it means to kneel before her Lord—a church almost impossible to distinguish from the world around it. I fear that the book will not find many sympathetic readers among the church’s leadership, as they have stopped listening to such arguments long ago. It is a pity.
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
edited by Ronald L. Numbers
Harvard , 302 pages, $27.95
We all know the aphorism—“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, but what you think you know that just ain’t so.”
Now, thanks to the historical sleuthing of eminent science historian Ronald Numbers and his cadre of two-dozen “myth-busters,” we have ample evidence that much received wisdom concerning the historical relations between science and religion has caused real intellectual trouble because it just ain’t so. The book’s title names one of the iconic myths from a canon of false claims in the history of Western science. The volume contains twenty-five such guffaws in all, each with its own brief chapter devoted to defusing the myth. One by one they fall, beginning with the “greatest myth,” the notion that the history of encounters between science and religion is a tale of “constant conflict.”
The volume’s careful organization and execution reveal the kind of planning and teamwork absent from too many edited collections, but which have come to be expected from Numbers. Each chapter of Galileo Goes to Jail begins with two or three epigraphs that clearly convict scholarly and popular literature of perpetuating the myth in question. Most authors then explore the nuances of the myth, its origin, complexity, and longevity, before telling the “rest of the story.”
Was Galileo imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism? Of course not, despite the fact that the clueless and ignorant persist in recycling all those long-ago discredited accounts.
Nor did medieval Christians teach that the earth was flat, nor did Copernicanism demote humans from the middle of the cosmos. Further, Darwin neither destroyed natural theology nor inspired Nazi biology nor converted back to Christianity on his deathbed. And depending upon the company one keeps, some think they know that Christianity gave birth to modern science while others are sure that the scientific revolution liberated science from religion. Neither happened.
From the Church Fathers’ encounter with ancient science to the recent attempts of new-age mystics to coopt quantum physics, this volume has something to intrigue and instruct both popular and academic readers, whatever their theological tradition.
While a couple chapters do little more than tear down mythical straw men and another is overly derivative from previous publications, these are minor weaknesses. Numbers and his colleagues have successfully called propaganda by its real name and demonstrated, in the words of one contributor, that “history fails to be reliable whenever it neglects to show us the world as it looked to the historical actors themselves.”
—Mark A. Kalthoff
Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives
by Peter C. Bouteneff
Baker Academic, 256 pages, $22.99
Peter C. Bouteneff, of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, has done a great service to Scripture scholars and systematic theologians alike by compiling in one volume several patristic interpretations of the biblical creation narratives. Before his examination of such writers as Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Theophilus of Antioch, and Irenaeus of Lyons, Bouteneff devotes a chapter to Paul and the New Testament. The Pauline theme most pertinent to his discussion is Paul’s juxtaposition of Adam and Christ. Readers may find Bouteneff’s reliance on Stanley Stowers in his discussion of Paul a bit unnerving, and Bouteneff’s own position on whether Adam is merely a literary technique is seemingly unresolved. At the end of the chapter on Paul, one is left wondering if Adam really matters at all, or if Paul simply needed a foil for Christ. This lack of clarity, perhaps intended, is a thread that runs throughout the subsequent treatment of the Fathers.
Aside from the main theme of the text, Bouteneff reflects ably on the process of scriptural canonization and the distinctiveness of the Septuagint in the Church’s nascent theological development. Some readers may be annoyed with Bouteneff’s use of gender-inclusive language (despite his sincere caveat) and the sympathetic titling “B.C.E.” for the epoch formerly known in its relation to Christ. Nonetheless, Bouteneff has proven himself capable of researching and discussing a wide range of issues pertinent to many fields of theology: Scripture, patristics, and creation theology. Beginnings deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in a coherent and thorough discussion of how those fields intersect.
—Joseph R. Upton
Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic
by Paul A. Rahe
Cambridge, 432 pages, $90
In 1637, Marchamont Nedham graduated from All Souls College, Oxford. Both facts, that the prestigious All Souls has ever had students and that Nedham was a founding father of modern politics, have been forgotten.
As Paul A. Rahe tells us in his erudite and fascinating account of English politics under the republic (1649–1660), Nedham was the first person in modern times to realize the importance of the press. He used it to its limits, editing a “newsbook,” or political weekly as we would call it today, in order to make the opinions of ordinary people matter.
Politics and political survival was everything to Nedham. To those of us who want to employ moral categories, he was a man without principles, a political mercenary. Yet Nedham was politically “dexterous” and “risk averse,” Rahe notes, and “if he was quite often bent, Nedham never once bowed.” Nedham, with his idea of raison d’etat, made material interest—not justice, honor, or religion—a regulative principle in politics, and thus he was not only a student of Machiavelli but a real embodiment of Machiavelli’s teaching. It was partly thanks to him that Machiavelli’s pernicious “new science of politics” made inroads into England.
Nedham’s contemporary, the poet John Milton, supported Oliver Cromwell. And for Milton—who was, after all, a representative of classical republicanism with virtue as its foundation—the failure of the republic was due to the fact that Britain was “not over fertile of men able to govern justlie & prudently in peace.” Its collapse may have been the result of what Milton saw, but Nedham’s ability to adapt to every political turn only proves that a new breed of political activists was already in existence.
Thomas Hobbes was also a new breed and is today the most widely read of English political theorists. But, as Rahe argues, it was Nedham and James Harrington who were England’s true progeny of the Italian sage. Their influence stretched far beyond England, and their writings became vehicles for Machiavelli’s new ideas in France and America.
Today, our almost instinctive faith in democratic procedures makes us either naively dismissive of, or oblivious to, the ancient idea of virtue in politics. Not surprisingly, historians of American history tend to gloss over some rather disturbing words from Benjamin Franklin: “Constitution . . . can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” Although Rahe does not cite Franklin’s admonition, he, like a gadfly, reminded us of virtue’s necessity in his magnum opus Republics Ancient and Modern.