An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt
By James M. Gustafson
Fortress. 119 pp. $15 paper.
America’s senior Protestant ethicist here gives us another volume that ought not to pass without due appreciation and due concern. In this collection of recent lectures James Gustafson continues his quest to make sense of the interaction between theology and the natural and social sciences. The main burden of the book is to analyze what criteria Christian theology and ethics should use in rejecting, absorbing, or accommodating theories and information from nontheological disciplines. Readers of Gustafson will not be surprised to find that he is anxious about the adequacy of Christian beliefs in the face of “confrontations” with biology and neuroscience. Gustafson is at his best when explaining different strategies that theology has used in clarifying (or obscuring) its relationship to the claims of secular knowledge. Things grow perplexing, however, when it becomes evident that Gustafson has about had it with theologians who have (he tells us) tried to escape from modernity by making theology impervious to secular critique. Gustafson has particularly in mind postliberal and postmodern theologians such as George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank, who have supposedly made a game of avoiding secular claims by arguing that Christian theology has its own privileged forms of reasoning and life. One wonders on what grounds Gustafson would allow any uniquely Christian claims to determine Christian theology. The chief effect of these portions of the book is to emphasize the growing gulf between what Christians are required to proclaim about God and what Gustafson now believes is intellectually permissible. In the end, the persuasiveness of the book will depend largely on whether the reader agrees with Gustafson that there is no avoiding the concerns and methods of liberal theology.
Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling.
By Alan Jacobs.
Eerdmans. 231 pp. $20.
Books of literate and entertaining essays on occasional topics—what used to be called belles-lettres—are no longer common, and that is a shame. There’s no better book to have on your end table or nightstand than a small volume of belletristic essays: they’re easy on the arm, you can usually read an essay in less than thirty minutes, and when they’re well done they have high literary virtues: concision, elegance, wit, and above all the ability to provoke thought made possible by a literary form in which a position can be stated and ornamented without being accompanied by imaginations and rebuttals of all possible objections. Seneca on renouncing busyness, Montaigne on cannibals, Charles Lamb on Mrs. Battle’s opinions on the game of whist—these are classics of the genre from various ages. Among the best bellettrists of our day, worthy to be mentioned in company with Seneca, Montaigne, and Lamb (and to put him in company with the last is very high praise), is Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College. Shaming the Devil is his second collection; his first, A Visit to Vanity Fair, was published in 2001. Both collections are deeply literary, profoundly (but not always overtly) Christian, and always a delight to read. The essays in Shaming are linked by the theme of truth and truth-telling, but that this ligature is loose can be seen from the range of topics treated: W. H. Auden, Albert Camus, Leon Kass on Genesis, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Iris Murdoch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Jacobs’ is one of the rare discussions of Rousseau that avoids both moral outrage and fawning admiration), Wole Soyinka (Jacobs offers an utterly convincing analysis of the frustrated anger so evident in Soyinka’s recent work, and of the concomitant decay in its artistic power), and more. Jacobs has a deeply sacramental understanding of the nature of literary work, a delicate and careful way with other people’s texts, and a style of his own that filigrees profundity with wit. Reading this book provides almost unalloyed pleasure, of the kind that comes from being in the close company of an intelligent, widely read, and unpretentious man who is able and willing to share his thoughts with you, to your invariable stimulation.
—Paul J. Griffiths
My Cup of Tea.
By Danielle Bean.
Pauline. 192 pp. $15.95 paper
Although many excellent books have been published about the teaching of John Paul II on marriage and the family, excellent books about how to apply this teaching and put it into practice on a daily basis are more difficult to find. Enter Danielle Bean. She is not a theologian, and this book is not an elaboration on how the family is an icon of the Trinity. Rather, it is about what such lofty ideals imply in the daily struggles of raising a large family in a hostile world. Bean takes on the gamut of obstacles that a mother faces—everything from dirty diapers to terminal illness. But the book is not only for hard-pressed mothers who look for light or yearn for solidarity in their trials. Counselors and spiritual directors who sympathize with their plight will find solid and specific advice on how to console them. In her essays, Bean is conscious of God’s superintending providence: she focuses on the positive side of the setbacks she faces, and manages to draw universal lessons from personal experience without ever being preachy. Her captivating style makes these edifying reflections a pleasure to read. What is perhaps most striking about My Cup of Tea is that the author has forgotten herself. Although she candidly admits her faults and is never boastful, it is clear that her life is not her own. Her joy and consolation is the joy and consolation of her children. It is this gift of self, which is at the center of John Paul II’s teaching on marriage and the family, that this book will inspire its readers to attain.
Four Cultures of the West.
By John W. O’Malley.
Harvard University Press. 261 pp. $24.95.
Like all good historians John O’Malley, the distinguished historian of the Catholic Reformation, has always read far beyond his field of specialization. In this reflective work he summons up years of study of the history of Christianity and Western culture. This is a book about style, what O’Malley calls cultures: the different ways in which the great figures in Western history—philosophers, churchmen, writers, artists—sought to give form to the true, the good, and the beautiful. “How things were said,” writes O’Malley, “was just as important as what was said.” The cultures are four: prophecy and reform, illustrated by persons such as Isaiah, Paul, Tertullian, Luther; the academy and the professions, such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, the Académie Française, and Benjamin Franklin; poetry, rhetoric and the common good, such as Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Petrarch, and Erasmus; and art and performance, such as Phidias, Agia Sophia, Cluny, Michelangelo, and Palestrina. These are but a few of the persons and things that enliven his pages, but they illustrate that O’Malley’s reach is wide. His comments are always informed and judicious, sometimes unexpected, and on occasion provocative. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the book is to debate with oneself some of his choices, to wonder why some are missing (where are Bach and Mozart?), to fill in the gaps from one’s own reading, and in all to ponder afresh the grand tradition of life and thought that still animates our intellectual and spiritual life even amidst the lengthening shadows of our civilization.
—Robert Louis Wilken
C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason.
By Victor Reppert.
InterVarsity. 132pp. $13 paper.
Judging them solely by their impact on the educated public, Blaise Pascal and C. S. Lewis must count as the two most effective apologists for the Christian religion in modern times. But to narrow the focus and judge them solely by their impact on professional philosophers, Pascal must count as the more effective. I say this not to denigrate Lewis or to praise Pascal’s evident genius but merely to point out a fact of readership: that Lewis, perhaps because of his pleasantly accessible and avuncular style or maybe because he was a literary critic by profession and not a tenured philosopher, is often dismissed by philosophers as a lightweight. Victor Reppert begs to disagree. By carefully confronting Lewis’ “argument from reason” (which states that logical arguments cannot be the result of brain events alone but are ultimately founded on the inexorable entailment of truth, or at least on the desire for it) with a whole array of arguments from Darwinian naturalists (who insist that mental events, including the logical operations of reason, are caused solely and sufficiently by the brain), Reppert not only shows the tenability of Lewis’ argument against all comers but also demonstrates how much Lewis anticipated and refuted arguments that never seem to die out (as seen most recently in Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, to which Reppert’s essay serves as the obvious riposte). The only question that remains is why these arguments—which had appeared as early as the Sophists in ancient Athens and had already been effectively demolished by both Plato and Aristotle—still linger on. Surely the annoying recurrence of such obviously fallacious reasoning must be due to the pathos of the human condition. And for an analysis of the dynamic of that pathos I think we must still turn to Pascal as the better apologist.
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis.
By Bat Ye’or.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 384 pp. $23.95 paper.
Bat Ye’or is an Egyptian-born French scholar of Islam who has been in the forefront of those trying to awaken the West to the multiple threats posed by Islam. Her previous books, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam and Islam and Dhimmitude, have received extensive attention in these pages (see FT August/September 1997, February 1998, May 2002). The term “Eurabia” was first used with a favorable connotation by Europeans in the early twentieth century who, inspired by a mix of fascist sympathies, anti-Semitism, and fear of American power, worked for the establishment of a French-led imperial hegemony in collusion with Islam. In Bat Ye’or’s telling of the post–World War II story, Charles de Gaulle is the central villain and Jacques Chirac, who has stated that “Europe is as much Islamic as Christian,” is the faithful heir to his legacy. The book provides copious documentation for the argument that there is a not-very-secret conspiracy between Europe and Arab states to oppose U.S. world influence and, most particularly, American support for Israel. Much deserved attention is paid to the reappearance of anti-Semitism in Europe, as well as to the ways in which churches in the Middle East, supported by those of Europe, are regressing to a Marcionite divorce of Christianity from its Jewish connections. (On the other side, there is an appendix with the Vatican’s Walter Cardinal Kasper strongly affirming the indissoluble bonds between Judaism and Christianity.) Against the popular notion of “three Abrahamic faiths” in dialogue, Bat Ye’or contends that it is the unshakeable Muslim position that Islam is the true origin of both Judaism and Christianity (Abraham being the father of Ishmael, not Isaac). Bat Ye’or insists that Islam is unremittingly set upon conquest by jihad. As for what is to be done, the author ends on a note of strong support for the Bush administration’s policies in the Middle East. The language of Eurabia is sometimes overheated, and there are curious omissions that might complicate the monothematic story, such as France’s joining with Britain and Israel in the failed 1956 effort to control the Suez Canal. Nonetheless, the book supplies important information on many scores and will enlighten those who think that European hostility to the U.S. and Israel is a recent development dating from the 2003 invasion of Iraq.