The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical-Critical Method from Spinoza to Kasemann
By Roy S. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg
Eerdmans, 282 pages, $20 paper
The aim of this book is to provide “a confessionally critical history of modern biblical criticism,” that is, “an analysis that is historically aware of the influence of cultural contexts on the formulation of ideas while, at the same time, seeking to be responsible to the church and its dogmatic tradition.” Harrisville and Sundberg identify the dogmatic tradition of the church with Augustinian theology and its “dark view of human nature,” its stark opposition of nature and grace, its emphasis on election and predestination, and its trust in ecclesiastical authority. The energizing tension of the book derives from counterposing this Augustinian worldview to the Enlightenment tradition from which historical-critical study derives. Examining fairly and sympathetically an array of important thinkers (including Spinoza, J. Gresham Machen, and Rudolf Bultmann), the authors provide brief but helpful summaries of the lives and teachings of their ten main figures and offer many probing and perceptive observations about the interaction of Christian theology with modern intellectual history. The title of Harrisville and Sundberg's book can be misleading, since the role of the Bible in modern culture includes elements likely to be undervalued by those committed, like them, to “Augustinianism nuanced by Luther.” Their volume is, in fact, not just exclusively Christian, but very Lutheran, very theological, very German, and very much focused on the New Testament. Another book with the same title might have dealt with the role of the Bible in the arts, with the contribution of originally secular methods of reading to the elucidation of the Bible, with the increasing relevance of the methods and substance of rabbinic midrash to biblical studies, with the positive effects of recent historical-critical study on Jewish-Christian dialogue, and with the astonishing revival of Hebrew as a vernacular over the last century. Even with its limitations, however, The Bible in Modern Culture is a welcome and accessible contribution to an increasingly important discussion.
—Jon D, Levenson
Communion: Contemporary Writers Reveal the Bible in Their Lives
Edited by David Rosenberg
Anchor, 547 pages, $30
The latest in a booming genre, which might be called Famous Writers Review the Bible. Earlier entries include David Rosenberg's Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible (1987), Aldred Corn's Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament (1990), and Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel's Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible (1994). Here, Rosenberg (coauthor of The Book of J) assembles thirty-six literati, ranging from renowned figures like John Barth and Denise Levertov to a host of relative unknowns, and asks them to produce personal memoirs of reading the Bible, using their artistic gifts to discern the human element that lies buried within a text “layered over with religion.” In other words, he calls for—and receives—intensely subjective responses to the Holy Book, frequently based on childhood memories, adolescent reveries, or adult sexual politics. The writing in these essays is polished but the insights grow mundane, the tone cloying; one thirsts for some good old dry-as-dust scholarship. Despite Rosenberg's intentions, Communion demonstrates that classical readings of the Bible still serve us best, that self-revelation pales alongside Revelation, and that truth in the service of art is always less compelling than art in the service of truth.
The Secret Melody: And Man Created the Universe
By Trinh Xuan Thuan
Oxford University Press, 313 pages, $25
This popular account of modern cosmology, a best-seller in France, is better than its subtitle would suggest. Beginning with a chapter on prescientific and early scientific cosmologies, the author makes the interesting claim that “paradoxically, it was the reintroduction of religion into cosmology that was to advance the scientific element of later universes.” The thirteenth-century bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, suggested that the universe is infinite. Nicolas of Oresme in the next century pointed out the relativity of motion and that the apparent motion of the stars could be caused by the rotation of the earth. And Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century speculated that all bodies, including the earth, move through an infinite universe that has no center. The next five chapters are a readable account of modern cosmology and the relevant physics. The book takes a philosophical turn in the last few chapters. Thuan is not hostile to religion—he “wagers” that there is a God—but his theology is at a low level. He says, “Quantum uncertainty has shattered the argument for a first cause. In the quantum mechanical world of elementary particles, causal relations and determinism no longer hold.” This is on a par with saying that, because the first act of Hamlet does not uniquely determine the rest of the play, there is no need to posit a playwright. After explaining that there was no time before the beginning of the universe (and giving due credit to St. Augustine, who beat modern cosmology to this insight by fifteen centuries), Thuan concludes that God cannot “cause” the universe, since causes must precede their effects in time. He backpedals by allowing that the Augustinian conception of God existing outside of time makes sense, but claims that such a God must be “impersonal” and “no longer . . . able to help us” (because, being outside of time, He could not act within time). Thuan, a professor at the University of Virginia, is called “the French Carl Sagan.” That judgment, in my view, is too harsh.
Jerusalem, The Endless Crusade: The Struggle for the Holy City from its Foundation to the Modern Era
By Andrew Sinclair
Crown, 295 pages, $24
The villains in Sinclair's retelling of the Crusades (the chief subject of the book) and of the recent history of Jerusalem are religious believers—Christians, Muslims, Jews. The less people believe, the more secular things become, and the better things will be for everyone in the Middle East. Sinclair's superficial account will do little to help readers understand this city's history.
—Robert L. Wilken
A Byzantine Journey
By John Ash
Random House, 336 pages, $24.50
John Ash ends his leisurely chronicle of travels through the territory of the Byzantine Empire with the fourteenth-century fresco of the Resurrection of Christ in the former church of Saint Savior in Chora. Unlike many popular writers on Byzantine history who seem to have eyes chiefly for Constantinople's decadent court life, Ash has an interest in the religion of the Byzantines. Though the choice of topics is shaped by his travels in the Turkish interior, the book can serve as an inviting introduction to Byzantine history and culture. It includes a list of emperors, chronology, and a well-selected bibliography.
—Robert L. Wilken
True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits
By Richard Keyes
NavPress, 265 pages, $18
Are there any heroes in an age of cynicism, when everything noble is debunked and dissected into ignoble elements? The cynical debunkers of heroism should themselves be debunked. How can they know that all heroism is sham, that courage and benevolence are but masks for selfishness? In this engaging and provocative book, Richard Keyes offers a strong spiritual antidote for our culture's loss of heroes. After clarifying the difference between the celebrity (“well known for being well known”) and the hero (who is distinguished primarily by moral character), Keyes delves into the gospel accounts to reveal Jesus Christ as the paradigmatic hero of the ages. In the life of Christ, he perceives an unparalleled sense of purpose, love, forgiveness, courage, endurance, and service. Those who seek to imitate the heroic qualities of Christ, Keyes claims, will never attain his perfection. They can, however, find in Christ forgiveness, hope, and the incentive to become heroes themselves. Keyes also looks at heroic parents, and provides practical wisdom for fractured families. Parents need not be superpeople to be heroes to their children, but they must attend to the things that matter most. Savoring this book is a good step toward discerning just what those things are.
God the Almighty
By Donald G. Bloesch
InterVarsity, 329 pages, $24.99
The third in Bloesch's projected seven-volume systematic theology, this one dealing with the doctrine of God and focusing on the attributes of power, wisdom, holiness, and love. Bloesch has read widely and synthesizes wisely, presenting a Protestant orthodoxy that is fully engaged with contemporary challenges to Christian faith. For more on Bloesch's part in the resurgence of dogmatic theology among evangelicals, see Carl Braaten's review essay “A Harvest of Evangelical Theology,” (FT, May 1996).
Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America
By C. Eric Lincoln
Duke University Press, 157 pages, $17.95
Lincoln, now emeritus at Duke where he taught religion and culture, did pioneering academic work in race relations and is noted for his The Black Muslims in America, published more than twenty years ago. The present book is in some respects a memoir about being black in America, and mostly an exhortation to interracial trust and cooperation. It bears witness to one man's determination to resist the siren songs of racial separatism, regardless of the race of the singers.
All God's People: A Theology of the Church
By David L. Smith
BridgePoint/Victor, 487 pages, $22.95
One of the most striking developments among evangelical Protestants in recent years is the theological rediscovery of the Church. Smith, a Baptist theologian, goes so far as to affirm that there is “no salvation outside the church” (although he carefully distances himself from the ways Catholics have sometimes interpreted that claim). The present work is an admirably thorough treatment of the biblical, historical, and dogmatic understanding of the Church from a Protestant perspective that does not hesitate to engage Catholic and Orthodox challenges to conventional Protestant thought. Smith welcomes initiatives such as the declaration “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” as lifting up the imperatives implicit in a discipleship that cannot separate Christ the head from his body, the Church. If the convergence between Catholics and Protestants continues in the decades ahead, it may well be that historians will look back and give generous credit to All God's People as one of the books that marked the way toward a greater measure of Christian unity.
Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic
By Philip S. Kaufman
Crossroad, 222 pages, $15.95 paper
A revised and expanded version of a theological counsel on the minimum required to stay in good standing as a Catholic, at least by the standards of one Benedictine monk at St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. The author makes a point of saying that he does not encourage people to do their own thing and does encourage them to stay in the Church, but the message that comes through is that you can do your own thing in the Church. Foreword by Fr. Richard A. McCormick, a theological expert on moral minimalism.
Crimes of Perception: An Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics
By Leonard George
Paragon, 358 pages, $29.95
A Canadian psychologist with a sharp eye for the iniquities perpetrated in the name of religion offers a wildly imbalanced but not unamusing brief against all religions (most particularly, of course, the Catholic Church) except the alternative spiritualities that he seems to favor. Preaching to the anti-choir.
Rediscovering the Sacred: Spirituality in America
By Phyllis A. Tickle
Crossroad, 190 pages, $19.95
Ms. Tickle, the religion editor at Publishers Weekly, is certainly right that there is great spiritual commotion in contemporary America. However, her confidence that we are moving toward the development of an “American religion” that will incorporate parts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as various New Age eruptions, is not carefully thought through. Doctrine and tradition that transcend the contemporary configuration of American culture receive short shrift. Then there is the little matter of truth, in several old-fashioned meanings of the term.
Reconstructing Catholicism for a New Generation
By Robert A. Ludwig
Crossroad, 240 pages, $17.95 paper
The author directs campus ministry at DePaul University, Chicago. Feminist/liberationist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, “Robert Ludwig sees a generation of young people starved for spirituality, while a conflicted institutional church offers little to inspire them.” Can you imagine millions of young people being inspired by, for example, John Paul II? She continues, “Ludwig proposes a renewed vision of the Jesus experience in justice-seeking, ecologically aware sacramental communities as the reconstructed Catholicism that can live anew from its ancient roots and speak to today's spiritual hunger.” Thanks for the warning.
Ministry and Meaning: A Religious History of Catholic Health Care in the United States
By Christopher J. Kauffman
Crossroad, 354 pages, $29.95
In the seventeenth century, Vincent de Paul directed the Daughters of Charity: “When you leave your prayers for the bedside of a patient, you are leaving God for God. Looking after the sick is praying.” That, according to this splendid history of Catholic health care, is the spirit that imbued those who built an astonishing network of orders and institutions. The author recognizes that that spirit is severely attenuated in enterprises that now fret over the “Catholic identity” of institutions that frequently seem to have lost their religious way.