The Wine Of Certitude: A Literary Biography Of Ronald Knox
by David Rooney
Ignatius, 412 pages, $17.95 paper
Any man who elicited the veneration of Evelyn Waugh and could do the Times crossword in his head without benefit of pencil deserves more than one biography. There have been biographies of Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, the Anglican convert to Catholicism, with that of Waugh heading the list, but this is a study of the vast literature of Knox, who simply was a genius and polymath, as a classicist and priestly apologist. Besides that, he was a splendidly agreeable man, and not one of my acquaintances who knew him well spoke less than affectionately of “Ronnie.”
David Rooney is a professor of engineering and a specialist in aerodynamics, but this is not the work of a dilettante: The preface and first chapter are as fine a synopsis of Knox’s life as one could want. About one-fourth of the text is excerpted from the subject’s writings. I am glad they include Let Dons Delight, his historical tour de force; Literary Distractions, which places him with Wodehouse as premier wit; and Enthusiasm, whose pages would be a calming influence on any overwrought charismatic inspired to read it.
Knox’s detective novels are his only lapses, but they were written to raise money for his Oxford chaplaincy, and he wrote them as lesser men play golf. The quiet didacticism of the retreat addresses yields to spiritual brilliance in the sermons, not one of which is without some original insight. He reaches high art in those for special occasions, and only someone impressed by theatrics and vulgarity would deny that Knox was the greatest preacher of the twentieth century. Rooney’s important literary study challenges our coarsened culture, which may be impatient and even tone-deaf to Knox’s inspired siren. But as the dying priest, quoting Corey’s “Heraclitus,” said in his 1957 Romanes Lecture: “Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake.”
—George W. Rutler
To the Jew First: The Case for Jewish Evangelism in Scripture and History
edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser
Kregel, 352 pages, $16.99 paper
To the Jew First issues a powerful and biblically convincing wake-up call to a Church that has, in large part, abdicated its responsibility to evangelize the Jews. The essays, all of which balance eschatological urgency with sensitivity to post-Holocaust realities, combine top-notch scholarship with a high degree of lucidity. Together, they present a compelling case for abandoning both supersessionism (the belief that Israel has been completely replaced by the Church) and two-covenant theology (the belief that God saves Gentiles through Christ but Jews through Torah), returning, instead, to the practice and theology of the early apostles, as evidenced in Acts and Romans: “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
In one of the finest essays, Craig A. Blaising, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, convincingly argues that supersessionism not only robbed Israel of her ethnic distinctiveness, but also Jesus of his ethnic distinctiveness. Today, largely thanks to the theological recovery of Israel, most scholars study Jesus through the lens of first-century Judaism, but many still fail to grasp the full implications of Jesus’ Jewishness. “The Incarnation,” Blaising reminds us:
is not just the union of God and humanity; it is the incarnation of the Son of God in the house of David as the Son of covenant promise. From a human standpoint, Jesus is not just a man, or generic man; he is that Man—that descendant of David who has a great inheritance and a future set forth in the eschatological fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel.
Apart from the Jewishness of Jesus, we cannot fully know either Jesus himself or the historical plan that the Father enacted through him.
Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible
by Joel B. Green
Baker, 240 pages, $19.99 paper
Although the dust has not yet settled from the Darwinian revolution, new advances in the neurosciences continue to challenge common understandings of the nature of humanity. With data increasingly pointing to a neurological basis for basic personality traits and the process of moral reasoning, many scientists have concluded that the idea of an ontologically distinct soul is no longer sustainable. Those who have seen a friend or loved one radically altered by a neurological disorder can readily identify with the theological questions these advances raise. Is there any room left for moral accountability? Are such religious experiences as conversion and contemplative prayer simply the result of synaptic firings, thus proving illusory?
Avoiding the extremes of apologetic rejection and undue harmonization, Green demonstrates that recent work in biblical anthropology shows a degree of convergence with the advances in neuroscience on this fundamental issue: We are not souls encased in physical bodies, but we are thoroughly integrated, embodied creatures. Both neuroscience and the Bible picture human choices as shaped and continually reshaped by our past narrative and current relational contexts. This does not nullify the concept of free will, but it does mean that moral choices are always deeply contextualized.
This anthropology also raises important questions about what happens when we die. If our identities are inseparable from our embodiedness, then what happens to our identities between the time of physical death and the reception of our transformed bodies in the resurrection? One is tempted to draw the conclusion either that we simply have no cognition between the two points or, more disturbingly, that our identities are lost with the decomposition of our bodies. The answer, according to Green, is that, because who we are is fundamentally narratival and relational, our identities after death are mysteriously bound up in our relationship to Christ. This is why Paul predominantly speaks of the state after death as “in Christ.”
This is an illuminating book because of its insight and suggestiveness. Although Green briefly discusses Jesus’ resurrected body, his study would benefit from further reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation, bringing his insights into conversation with recent discussions of Christology.
—Bradley C. Gregory
The Great Commission:
Models of Evangelization in American Catholicism
by Timothy E. Byerley
Paulist, 161 pages, $18.95 paper
Taking its structure from Avery Dulles’ seminal Models of the Church, Byerley’s The Great Commission sets forth six Scripture-based models or means of evangelization: the St. Stephen model (witness), the Jerusalem model (liturgy), the Proclamation model (preaching), the Fraternity model (small faith-based communities), the Areopagus model (inculturation), and the Loaves and Fishes model (charitable works).
Each section firmly roots its respective model in the apostolic age and then explores and evaluates a particular manifestation of the model in the American experience. Byerley pays close attention to the relevance these methods currently retain, as well as to the challenges they pose for education and application. He is a gifted storyteller, and his American examples in each section make for a compelling read.
One soon finds oneself looking for other and perhaps more contemporary examples of each model, however. The preaching model, illustrated by the parish missions of the late ninteenth century, calls to mind Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s use of modern media as a vehicle for spreading the Gospel message. Likewise, in the Loaves and Fishes model, the story of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, foundress of a religious order dedicated to cancer patients, leads one to consider the heroic charity of Dorothy Day and Catherine Doherty. This extension underscores the significance of Byerley’s book insofar as it raises awareness of the pressing need for modern evangelization.
As Dulles mentions in his foreword (surely among his last published writings), evangelization has fallen on hard times, plagued by a lingering misinterpretation of Vatican II. Catholics consistently rank among those least concerned with spreading their faith to others, with dire consequences for the future of the Church in America. Byerley’s book comes as a welcome antidote to this malaise, grounding, as it does, the evangelical spirit firmly in the heart of the American Catholic experience.
—Brian A. Graebe
The Book of All Saints
by Adrienne von Speyr
edited by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Ignatius, 429 pages, $24.95
For forty years, this book and eleven companion volumes have been circulating privately among the friends of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar. Representing the posthumous works of Adrienne von Speyr, Balthasar’s convert and collaborator, these books are among the jewels of contemporary theology and spirituality. At once objective and inspiring, with a scope and significance of exceptional magnitude, they seemed to Balthasar more important than his own prodigious contribution, although he was careful to add that the two constitute “halves of a single whole, not to be separated.”
Balthasar, who doubled as Speyr’s spiritual director and editor, penned a general introduction to the twelve volumes of her work. The English publication of the first of these volumes opens a new perspective on the inner attitudes of saints from across the spectrum of Christian history. This project presupposes sensitive insight into the prayer lives of countless biblical, patristic, ancient, and modern figures by one whose mission was to live at once in heaven and on earth.
A medical doctor and the founder of a secular institute, Speyr possessed a realistic eye for the spiritual along with a breathtaking theological comprehension that gave her work an uncanny sense of the genuine—a trait much evidenced in this book about true and false approaches to prayer. Not everyone treated in this book is a saint in the canonical sense. Shakespeare and Calderon are here, as are Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Each portrait is vivid and draws the reader into prayer while instructing on its defects and excesses.
Today, homilists are inclined to invoke Scripture scholars. Formerly, they invoked the Fathers of the Church. Maybe soon we will see—and, what is more, relish—a return to the teaching and example of the saints.
—Kenneth M. Batinovich
Being Catholic Now:
Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning
by Kerry Kennedy
Canon Press, 247 pages, $24.95
What does it mean to be Catholic today? Being Catholic Now offers an assortment of answers. It juxtaposes devout voices such as that of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, who describes the need for repentance and divine love, with the voices of blasphemers such as Bill Maher who “speak their mind,” in his case declaring, “I hate religion. It’s the worst thing in the world.” Kerry Kennedy, editor of the collection and daughter of Robert F., has accomplished no small feat in persuading these thirty-seven contributors, many of them celebrities, to speak so candidly about their religion. Together their essays seek to redefine the ancient institution of Catholicism “in the most contemporary of terms.”
If there is a common thread among the various contributions, it is the emphasis on social justice—the need to manifest tangibly divine love and peace in the world. This clarion call is sounded from the outset in Kennedy’s introduction, and its melodic line continues to reverberate through nearly every page. Of course, the emphasis on social justice is a thoroughly Catholic note; it is where the Church often shines most brightly in the world. Yet, after a few chapters, the reader realizes that a vital element of Catholic social justice is missing. What is missing is God.
Perhaps the most telling omission of divine reality is that of Cokie Roberts when she summarizes the value of her religion: “Catholicism is a place that gives me a solid sense of justice, hope, and love.” This emendation of the triad of theological virtues, however unintentional, applies to the overall message of Being Catholic. The objective truth of God, manifest in redemptive grace—what the Church calls “the Faith”—is largely omitted, leaving readers with a horizontal religion devoid of God’s presence. Kerry Kennedy and most of her contributors seem to be theologically illiterate, or at least reticent. Of all the latitude and complexity that is afforded by the Catholic Church, understanding the Triune God and his redemptive love must remain the heart and soul of Christian life.
—Christopher A. Castaldo
by Jim Powell
Pantheon, 138 pages, $26
It seems almost unfair to point out classicist Jim Powell’s MacArthur Fellowship, since it is so commonly called a “genius” grant, a term that opens its recipients to ridicule. But in this case, an exception has to be made.
In the seventy-one poems of Substrate, we learn that Powell believes that traditional religious faith is pernicious and animism superior (“the Resurrection of the Body” and “Rates of Combustion”); that landlords are evil rack-rents who crush the perpetually poor (“Pyramid Scheme”); that “Yankee” extermination of the grizzly (“Human”) was the equivalent of the Holocaust; that prisons are the fault of the state (“Ghost Dance Witch Hunt Blues”—nice touch, the anti-McCarthy allusion); that clear-cutters, strip-miners, legislators(!), and “profiteers” are all monsters (“Doxology”); that Liberty has been “crucified” by Mammon, Inc. (not just common, everyday greed or the worship of wealth, mind you, but corporate greed); that rush-hour traffic signals the (justly deserved) apocalypse; that economics is a zero-sum game (“Scarcity Economics”); that early California (and Western) history is an abysmally unrelieved chronicle of (white) missionary, military, and settler cruelty and oppression (“Substrate”); that hippies represented a New Age dispensation of peace and love; that ejected squatters in San Francisco were forced to riot in 1854 (some things just never seem to change); that . . . well, enough.
Powell occasionally writes in meter and rhyme, but the prosody tends to be employed in the service of his typically ranting antinomian silliness, and every decent metaphor must be bought with a socio-political banality that would make Elizabeth Alexander blush. If you yearn to worship pure mountain tarns in your buckskins, beads, and anti-WTO bandanna, all the while cursing the moneyed classes who sneak into the bedrooms of the poor each night and steal the gold they sweat, then here is comfort verse aplenty.