Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith.
By Eric O. Jacobsen.
Brazos. 192 pp. $16.99 paper.
This readable, albeit modest, volume gives the average Christian reader a window into the problems associated with contemporary urban (and suburban) life and meditates upon the ways they may be ameliorated. Jacobsen, an associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Missoula, Montana, challenges Christians to think more theologically about cities and the redemptive possibilities therein. He explores the scriptural significance of cities and seeks to demonstrate why we must care about their nature and purpose. A member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Jacobsen deftly explains the various concepts and ideas associated with the movement, which harks back to Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Among other things, Jacobsen cites the disastrous “urban renewal” projects that the federal government helped fund in the post-World War II era as an example of what not to do when it comes to city planning. He laments that “not only is our population becoming increasingly transitory, making it difficult to develop a history with a place, more and more geographical locations are becoming standardized and are losing any sense of place.” All the same, Jacobsen does not counsel despair, but sets forth creative, yet realistic, prescriptions in order to refurbish community life on a more humane scale.
— Jeff McAlister
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.
By Robert Dallek.
Little Brown. 837 pp. $30.
The world was young and all things seemed possible. John XXIII had called a council to open the windows of the Church to the world, and of the world to the Church. From Montgomery, Alabama, there was raised up a young Moses to lead the country to the promised land of racial justice. And, for people beyond numbering here and around the globe, an urbane, eloquent, witty, and handsome young man had assumed the helm of a free world suddenly unafraid and daring to dream again. That, at least, is how the time is still remembered by many. For them, it almost defies belief that, had he lived, JFK would now be eighty-six years old. The word is that the distinguished historian Robert Dallek was expected to produce another celebration of the shining moment that was Camelot. That, presumably, is why the keepers of the flame gave him unprecedented access to carefully guarded archives. If that is the case, they must now rue their decision. Others have put severe dents in the JFK legend, notably Seymour Hersh in The Dark Side of Camelot and Thomas Reeves in A Question of Character. Dallek adds, in great detail, the disturbing facts about Kennedy’s lifelong health problems, which had been largely concealed by a campaign of mendacity that continued decades after his death in Dallas. As President, he was being injected, and injecting himself, with a wild concoction of drugs, and none of the doctors involved had control of his medical regimen. The reckless philandering—widely known at the time but not reported—is also cast in a new light, with White House aides serving as procurers of the women daily required to serve Kennedy’s compulsions. Bill Clinton’s adolescent sexual indulgences in the oval office seem tame by comparison. Here, too, is a Kennedy who was, at the very best, an indifferent Catholic, living until the very end, or so it would seem, in grave sin and undisguised contempt for the Church’s teaching. At one point, according to Dallek, he thought of leaving the Church altogether but was restrained by the thought of the political consequences. Some reviewers of An Unfinished Life have used the new information about Kennedy’s health to highlight his heroic perseverance under painful circumstances, and Dallek, too, stresses his stoic resolve. There was an impressive form of courage, yet the larger picture is that of a spoiled aristocrat who used his personal charm and family money in an unrelenting, and frequently unscrupulous, quest to fulfill his father’s ambition to put a son—first Joe, killed in the war, and then Jack —in the White House. The memory of the charm, the wit, and the dashed possibilities is all that remains of a life and a presidency mired in moral corruption. In Robert Dallek’s biography, the most severe critics of the JFK mythology have received sad confirmation from an unexpected source.
Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.
By Mark S. Massa, S.J.
Crossroad. 230 pp. $24.95.
Coming hard on the heels of Philip Jenkins’ The New Anti-Catholicism and John McGreevey’s Catholicism and American Freedom, both of which have been discussed in these pages, one may wonder whether another book on anti-Catholicism is really needed right now. Father Massa of Fordham University does, however, provide a fresh angle by telling the story as seen through the framework of theologian David Tracy’s well-known argument about Catholicism’s analogical imagination. Massa underscores the emphatically Protestant character of America’s founding and subsequent culture. Protestantism is dialectical, Catholicism is analogical. In a culture framed by the dialectic of sin vs. grace, law vs. gospel, Bible vs. tradition, individualism vs. communal authority, Catholicism is and possibly must be “the other.” The author illustrates evangelical Protestantism by chapters on the anti-Catholic propagandist Jack Chick and once-prominent televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, figures who are more culturally marginal than he allows. There is slight reference to more representative Protestantism, and none at all to those evangelicals engaged in serious theological dialogue with Catholicism. At this point in time, any book on contemporary Catholicism has to deal with the recent scandals, and Massa provides a useful chronology of events in that connection, although his analysis is disappointingly weak. Little attention is paid the culture of dissent within Catholicism, and the treatment of “pedophilia” skirts the major factor of homosexual priests abusing teenage boys. He calls for “more accountability on the part of church leaders in governing their community,” but does not say what that might mean. Particular strengths of the book are the defense of Andrew Greeley’s challenges to anti-Catholic biases in the social sciences, and an insightful chapter on how Protestant critics of John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism in the 1960 election, and Kennedy’s response, combined in further excluding religion and explicitly moral discourse from the public square. The opening chapters on the history of anti-Catholicism in America are marvelously succinct summaries accompanied by a thorough and thoughtfully annotated bibliography. The suggestive framing of the story in terms of the conflict between the Protestant dialectical culture and the Catholic analogical culture will, one hopes, be further and more searchingly developed by the author and others.
On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ.
By Maximus the Confessor.
St. Vladimir’s Press. 182 pp. $11.95 paper.
St. Vladimir’s “Popular Patristics Series” gives “popular” a whole new meaning. It includes to date twenty-six small books with newly translated, or translated for the first time, writings of Christian fathers such as Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Irenaeus, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa. The present volume includes fourteen relatively brief theological reflections and biblical commentaries by Maximus (c. 580-662), translated by Paul Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken, who also supply a splendid thirty-two-page introduction to Maximus’ life and thought. Maximus was something of a “bridge” theologian between East and West and, having been exiled from Constantinople, played an important part in trying to revive the Church in North Africa which was under attack from, among other hostile forces, Arab armies. Again imprisoned and horribly mutilated by the authorities in Constantinople, he died a heroic death, earning the title of “Confessor.” With great intellectual sophistication, he de-fended the hypostatic union of the two natures, human and divine, in Christ—or, more precisely, the union that is Jesus Christ. Responding to questions posed by a fellow monk, Thalassius, he refuted Origen’s theory regarding preexistent souls and opposed the Monothelite heresy that Christ had but one will. Maximus tirelessly returns to the story line of God’s purpose in terms of human being, well-being, and eternal well-being, the last understood as the “deification” already accomplished in Christ. This book, like the series of which it is part, is not likely to make Maximus or the other Fathers popular in any current sense of the term, but it does make a crucially important part of the Christian intellectual tradition accessible to theologically literate readers, and provides critical notes and bibliography of interest also to patristic scholars.
The Secular Revolution.
Edited by Christian Smith.
University of California Press. 484 pp. $24.95 paper.
Secularization didn’t just happen. Those who wanted it to happen, who worked to make it happen, tell us that it just happened. They use terms such as modernization, differentiation, and rationalization in order to make it appear that secularization is an inevitable and inexorable force built into the very processes of history. Christian Smith, the noted sociologist of the University of North Carolina, brings some much needed critical intelligence to bear on the usual story line. He and his colleagues offer ten essays on the persons, institutions, and power struggles that advanced the secularization agenda over the last century and more in higher education, mainline Protestantism, medicine, and other professions. Some may accuse Smith et al. of promoting a conspiracy theory, but that is exactly the opposite of what they are doing. They tell the story of agents who could not have been more transparent or explicit about their purposes. The Secular Revolution can be read in conjunction with John Sommerville’s recent article urging that we study the phenomenon of secularization “from the outside,” so to speak (“Secularism at Bay,” FT, June/July). Written chiefly for historians and social scientists, this is an important book.
A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.
By Peter Steinfels.
Simon & Schuster. 376 pp. $26.
Mr. Steinfels, formerly editor of Commonweal, draws on his years of reporting for the New York Times in offering his overview of the Catholic situation in America. A self-described liberal, he speaks chiefly to other liberals about what he views as the failures and successes of changes since the Second Vatican Council. Alternative accounts are, regrettably, ignored or derided but nowhere engaged. Steinfels’ emphasis is on the institutional and sociological, “rather than,” as he puts it, “the profoundly spiritual or theological.” A chapter is given to the recent scandals, but he believes the deeper “crisis” of his subtitle is occasioned by the Church’s failure to respond adequately to the demands of women, the reality of contraception, the acceptance of homosexuals, and related changes in the culture. He urges what he calls the “American Catholic Church” to be more independent from Rome, and asserts that the Magisterium is teaching falsely about, inter alia, the ordination of women to the priesthood, which he believes will happen “ultimately” but should be implemented cautiously. On the renewal of episcopal leadership, Mr. Steinfels’ favored models are the outspokenly liberal Kenneth Untener of Michigan, the now disgraced Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, and, above all, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. Like embattled socialists who contend that true socialism has yet to be tried, Mr. Steinfels surveys the damages wrought by liberal interpretations of the Council over nearly four decades and recommends as a solution his somewhat tempered version of the same. The book begins and ends with a touchingly nostalgic backward look at what the author views as the unfulfilled promise of the late Cardinal Bernardin and the now languishing Common Ground Initiative, which sought a dialogue between those who affirm and those who ignore or deny Catholic teachings that stand in the way of the further Americanization of Catholicism. A People Adrift is a competent and eminently readable, albeit by now very familiar, account of religious, cultural, and institutional changes, written in tones of wan hope for a new and improved liberalism that is capable of resisting what the author sees as the threat posed by the “conservative” alternative. The book may be profitably read as an informed, if highly selective and tendentious, review of the recent history of Catholicism in America. Having set spiritual and theological profundity aside, Mr. Steinfels makes as good a case as probably can be made for defending the weakened hegemony of the liberal status quo supporting an American Catholic Church.
The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism.
By David Gibson.
HarperSanFrancisco. 350 pp. $23.95.
Do not be put off by the subtitle and the publisher’s hype that Gibson is, inter alia, championing “a revolution from below.” This book is, for the most part, a temperate and thoughtful description of the current state of Catholicism in America, providing also responsible speculation about what the future might hold. Gibson is a veteran journalist who has reported on Catholicism from the Vatican and for various American publications. His is a “liberal” take on most questions, but he is determined to be doctrinally orthodox and generally treats with respect views counter to his own. He came into the Church as an adult and, unlike many liberal Catholics, recognizes the dangers of “Protestantizing” changes that could lead to a loss of what is essential and distinctive in Catholicism. For the general reader, he provides useful historical background pertinent to contemporary developments. His treatment of the recent scandals is candid and informative in attending to the very large part played by what Bishop Wilton Gregory has called the “homosexualizing” of the priesthood. He believes a married priesthood is “inevitable,” but acknowledges that such a transition must be slow and will not be without the loss of spiritual goods associated with celibacy. Regrettably, he sometimes slips into purveying the scuttlebutt of other reporters, notably against Edward Cardinal Egan of New York and Bishop William Murphy of Long Island. And he greatly overestimates the importance of distinctly American developments for the universal Church. All in all, however, The Coming Catholic Church is a knowledgeable and finely written account of the Catholic circumstance in America. David Gibson represents a Catholic liberalism that wants to be faithful to the Church’s teaching, recognizes the failures of liberalisms past, and is appropriately modest in its anticipations of the future. His book can be profitably read in tandem with, and in critical contrast with, George Weigel’s remarkable The Courage To Be Catholic.
Whose Promised Land? The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine.
By Colin Chapman.
Baker. 336 pp. $17.99 paper.
Many years ago Arthur Koestler described the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine, “as a document in which one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third nation.” Current headlines about the Bush Administration’s commitment to a “road map” on the way to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may prompt readers to try to think anew about the history and nature of that conflict. Whose Promised Land? is a promising place to begin such rethinking. Chapman draws on his extensive experience in the region, and gives a careful historical and scriptural reading of the evidence that points toward an answer to his title question. He rejects the Christian Zionist view of a Jewish right to “Greater Israel,” the Palestinian view that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, and the fatalist/eschatological view that nothing can be done about the conflict until Jesus returns to sort things out. His final answer is that the land belongs to the Lord, and those who would serve Him must continue to work toward an Israel and Palestine living side by side in security and peace.
Religious Pluralism in America.
By William R. Hutchison.
Yale University Press. 288 pp. $29.95.
The subtitle is “The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal,” and the first problem with this book by a professor of history at Harvard Divinity School is that it is by no means evident, indeed it is highly improbable, that the Founders subscribed to the contentious ideal of what today is meant by pluralism. Like his colleague Diana Eck (see “One Nation Under Many Gods,” FT, Public Square, October 2001), Professor Hutchinson, albeit in more tempered manner, holds out the hope for an America as seen through the prism of Harvard Yard. It is not an entirely unattractive vision, but it is an America very different from the confusedly Christian and tribal nation that we are and are likely to be for the foreseeable future.
One Dream or Two? Justice in America and in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nathan W. Schlueter.
Lexington. 194 pp. $60.
What would Dr. King have thought? In response to myriad controversies since his death in 1968, innumerable writers—left, right, and whatever—have presumed to speak in King’s name. Schlueter goes back to the “I Have a Dream” speech and other defining texts and, placing them in the context of King’s life and the issues of the time, has produced an even-handed evaluation of King’s thinking about conflicted notions of justice—racial, economic, and political. An additional strength of the book is that the author is as serious about the religious sources of King’s thought and life as was King himself.
The Virtues, or the Examined Life.
By Romanus Cessario.
Continuum. 202 pp. $26.95 paper.
A distinguished contribution to an international series of “handbooks of Catholic theology,” this one by a Dominican teaching at St John’s Seminary in Boston. “Handbook” is the right word, and this one covers the basics in a Thomistic understanding of the virtues with sections on, among many other things, “the provisional character of hope,” “the gift of the fear of the Lord,” “the vices and sins against fortitude,” and “infused temperance and Christian humility.” Cessario opens with an engaging reflection on “What the Angels See,” a perspective on the ecumenically controverted question of the relationship between nature and grace. This is one handbook that theologians and moralists will want to keep at hand.