Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World.
By Wesley J. Smith.
Encounter. 219 pp. $25.95.
The Brave New World referred to is that of biotechnology. Specifically, Smith is concerned with the “power of biotechnology to affect the human future by harnessing our bodies at the cellular level.” In such harnessing, there can be much good: the curative powers of human stem cells in the treatment of disease and disability have already been demonstrated. But there are questions about which we must think clearly and deeply before we proceed: Should we clone human life, destructively harvest cells or organs, turn ova and embryos into commodities, patent human life, and practice the myriad tempting forms of genetic discrimination that will be within our power? Smith’s title wryly refers to “the Consumer” of these services, but in that brave new world there will be, of course, not only the consumers but also the consumed, and the latter are portrayed vividly by Smith: women whose eggs will be farmed; aborted female fetuses who will be bought for their ovaries; imperfect small humans who will be killed if their behavioral profile does not comport with the plans of their parents; small humans manipulated, experimented upon, and discarded; human-animal hybrids created for laboratory experiments. Smith painstakingly clarifies the terminology and procedures of the laboratory science involved, sorts through the commercial, cultural, and moral aspects of the matter, and exposes the obfuscations and misrepresentations of much of the public discourse. He writes that “most of us who oppose human cloning are enthusiastic believers in scientific progress. But we also recognize the dangers inherent in the philosophy of ‘anything goes.’” His report on the proven and potential uses of stem cells that are acquired non-destructively from adult donors is very good—and Smith himself would be the first to cheer the fact that his report is in need of supplementation because of new breakthrough studies suggesting that stem cells readily available from adults can be as versatile as stem cells harvested from snuffed-out embryos. Smith’s book is an excellent foundational text for readers who wish to join in the grand project of developing a biotechnology that does not threaten human dignity. To paraphrase Pastor Niemöller for the umpteenth time: When they came for the embryos, I said nothing, because I was not an embryo. . . . But, of course, we all were. And even the most avid consumer must realize that when we begin to consume one another, there are no guarantees as to where the consumption will stop.
Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer.
By Uwe Michael Lang.
Ignatius. 160 pp. $12.95 paper.
“Turning toward the Lord” is the translation of a phrase St. Augustine often used when he had finished his sermon and was beginning the Eucharistic liturgy. While reading the Scriptures and preaching, Augustine and the lectors faced the congregation; afterwards he, the assisting ministers, and the faithful turned toward the Lord, all facing in the same direction during the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice. In recent times the phrase “facing the people” (versus populum) has been used for the current practice in which the priest and people face each other during the Eucharistic prayer. This way of celebrating the Eucharist (not mentioned in the document on the liturgy at Vatican Council II) took hold a generation ago when liturgical scholars and reformers claimed it was the ancient practice. In Turning Toward the Lord, the Oratorian Uwe Lang demonstrates that there are no historical grounds for the claim that in the early Church the Eucharist was celebrated “facing the people.” All the evidence—literary, theological, archaeological—shows that during the Eucharistic prayer the priest and the faithful faced in the same direction. Not only is the phrase versus populum of very late coinage; it does not mean what its champions claim it does. First used in the middle ages, it referred to those points in the Mass when the priest turned to greet or address the people. The phrase had no special theological significance: it did not suggest that the meaning of the Eucharist is expressed more vividly if the priest and people face each other as a community around a common table. The modern meaning imposed on the phrase confuses topography with theology. In the first centuries of the Church, the most important rule about the orientation of liturgical prayer was, literally, that it face the orient. It was taken for granted that Christians should pray toward the rising sun, where the “true light rises.” This meant that when the priest began the offertory prayer, he and the faithful all turned toward the east. In most ancient church buildings the apse was to the east, so the presiding minister stood between the altar and the people. But the altar was not the locus of orientation. In those few churches in which the main entrance was to the east and the altar was in the nave, the faithful seem to have occupied the side aisles for the prayer and formed with the clergy a semicircle facing the entrance. The modern practice of having the clergy and people face each other for the offering of the Eucharist is a recent innovation unknown to the early Church. Lang argues in favor of the symbolic significance of the ancient practice, which unites the faithful in a single gesture. Turning Toward the Lord includes a preface by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who says that reading this book will help “the struggle—necessary in every generation—for the right understanding and worthy celebration of the sacred liturgy.”
—Robert Louis Wilken
Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion.
By Jonathan Z. Smith.
University of Chicago Press. 424 pp. $24.
Jonathan Z. Smith is one of the two or three most widely read and discussed living theorists of religion. He has been publishing in that field for almost forty years, and for thirty years has been teaching at the University of Chicago, which has for several generations been at the center of attempts to constitute and develop an academic discipline called the history of religions. This volume collects thirteen of his published essays, mostly from the last ten years, and adds to them four previously unpublished pieces. The collection is miscellaneous in the sense that the pieces were prompted by different occasions and treat different topics. But there is also a good deal of thematic coherence (and also repetition), since Smith, like all scholars, has a few questions and topics that he returns to with obsessive interest. First among these interests is a range of issues connected with taxonomy and comparison. These are of central concern to historians of religion, who for the last 300 years have been trying to establish a discipline whose central ordering categories—including that of “religion” itself—have had to be established comparatively and from a standpoint whose contours are not altogether clear. Smith shows with considerable learning and occasional wit what the difficulties have been here. If, as has often been the case, scholarly (and judicial) understandings of categories such as “myth,” “ritual,” “doctrine,” “church,” and “religion,” are developed by taking Christianity as prototype while at the same time obscuring this fact, difficulties are inevitable. It may reasonably be doubted whether Smith succeeds in solving these difficulties with his more deeply structuralist approach, which deploys such analytical pairs as difference/sameness, familiarity/unfamiliarity. And it may be doubted even more reasonably whether the game is worth the candle—whether it can be played without forgetfulness of its own rules. Smith’s own method requires him (rightly) to say that any analytical act must be assessed in terms of the interests and purposes of those undertaking it: none has its rightness or inevitability written on its sleeve. But he often forgets this, inveighing against some analyses—including theological ones— because of their lack of power or result rather than because he takes their purposes to be in some way dubious. These difficulties notwithstanding, an excellent sense can be had from this volume—and most especially from its opening autobiographical chapter—of the state of play in the academic study of religion.
—Paul J. Griffiths
Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity.
By Lauren F. Winner.
Brazos. 175 pp. $17.99.
A candid, readable, intelligent, and deeply Christian reflection on the meaning of sexuality and the generally unpopular and misunderstood virtue of chastity. Speaking most specifically to people who are young and single, Lauren Winner is the friendly and informed guide many are looking for in living the Christian alternative in a culture of erotic disorder. Although the author is not a Catholic, there are clear intimations of what Catholics call the theology of the body.
Stalin: A Biography.
By Robert Service.
Harvard University Press. 714 pp. $29.95.
This will likely serve for a long time as the most authoritative and comprehensive one-volume study of Stalin. The treatment is once over heavily in the sense that almost every paragraph is weighted by a judicious assessment of scholarship on the man and the period. Service portrays Stalin as an intellectual of sorts who read widely, although always within the wobbling worldview of Marxist-Leninism and with an eye to the usefulness of ideas in expanding and maintaining his own power. A mass murderer who consigned millions to death by execution and slave labor, Stalin was perversely rational in terrorizing all potential opposition, knowing that his totalitarianism was not as total as it appeared. In a short and poignant note before his execution, Stalin’s colleague Nikolai Bukharin writes, “Why is my death necessary to you?” Despite the unbridled cult of personality, Service regularly notes the large sectors of the population that were persistently, sullenly, and impotently disaffected from Stalin’s rule. With his consistent focus on political and economic factors, Service slights cultural and religious developments, although he notes Stalin’s use of the Orthodox Church in the Great Patriotic War and, after the war, as his agent during the Cold War in advancing Soviet purposes through Christian ecumenical agencies in the West. There is a strong whiff of “moral equivalence” in Service’s account of the Cold War, with Stalin’s actions explained as a reaction to America’s push for “hegemony.” Most curiously, Service is sharply critical of the U.S. for “insulting” Stalin by proposing that he participate in the Marshall Plan on the condition that he adopt something like a market economy. One can hardly imagine the U.S. pouring billions of dollars in aid into what Service consistently depicts as the stifling and corrupt economic practices of the Soviet Union. In an epilogue, “After Stalin,” Service describes how the Soviet Union “fell apart” under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but there is not one reference to Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul II, or other external actors. Nonetheless, Stalin: A Biography, with its low-key, frequently wry, and exhaustively researched telling of the story, will be a standard reference for years to come.
Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-emergence in the Modern Church.
By Charlene Spretnak.
Palgrave Macmillan. 270 pp. $24.95.
A beguiling book by a self-consciously liberal Catholic advocating a reappropriation of Marian piety. Spretnak contends that Catholics should be less ecumenically anxious about what Protestants think about what Catholics believe and do, and should move beyond stifling feminist inhibitions about Mary as a figure of subservience. Missing Mary is a book that confounds the usual intra-Catholic alignments over what went wrong and right with Vatican II and invites readers to stretch their analogical imaginations in a fuller appreciation of Christian existence that is inescapably Marian.