Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal
by Rob Riemen
Yale, 160 pages, $22
This is an admirable but rather feckless attempt to erect a bulwark against the tide of egalitarianism that has been running so strongly for the last century. But nobility of spirit, like other kinds of nobility, is not really “a forgotten ideal.” Instead it has been quite deliberately and emphatically rejected. Rob Riemen can be persuasive in making the connection between egalitarianism and nihilism, but at times he writes as if people have chosen nihilism by some ghastly mistake and not because they like it better than his alternative.
His heroes include Thomas Mann, Socrates, Spinoza, Dostoevsky, Herzen, and Camus, and he presents them to us here as if they were all members of the same fan-club—agreed in all essentials about the nature of truth, free inquiry, and nobility of spirit. Similarly, the dark forces working against freedom, transcendence, and the nobility of spirit are conveniently embodied in the person of the anonymous Roman Catholic priest with a swastika in the place of his pectoral cross who at the climax of the book is imagined as lecturing in the style of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor the anti-fascist martyr Leone Ginzburg as the latter languishes in the Regina Coeli prison in Rome shortly before his murder by the Gestapo in 1944.
This engaging figure explains the unity of purpose of the Nazis and the Church by noting that both teach obedience to authority, and he foresees the ultimate triumph of their nihilistic worldview, in spite of the Nazis' prospective loss of the war, in the materialistic, American-style commercial civilization that in the postwar period will triumph and use its power to destroy “culture” in the old-fashioned sense. Darn those old fascists! But in my book, true nobility of spirit would have a better idea of who its enemies were.
— James Bowman
God, Man, and Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from The Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ
by Mark Royden Winchell
ISI, 490 pages, $28
A book about politically incorrect cinema can't be very long, right? I mean, Hollywood is what it means to be politically correct. Sure there's the odd maverick or what passes for an independent vision. But mainstream cinema is all about not offending the very establishment values that inform its culture and aesthetic. Well, by the time you finish Mark Royden Winchell's God, Man, and Hollywood, you'll have discovered the “subversive” in the least-expected places—and there's more of it than you might have imagined.
For Winchell, whose prose is as crisp as his critiques are sharp, the politically incorrect tends toward the socially conservative. It defends small-town life without being blind to its drawbacks; it regards Southern culture—ante- and post-bellum—with respect; it celebrates a genuine patriotism (as opposed to mere jingoism); it looks for a religious dimension to life to counter the materialistic. Personal loyalty, the sacrifices entailed in family life, and the rights of the individual also are values sought in un-PC films. And so movies as diverse as Driving Miss Daisy and Clockwork Orange, The Deer Hunter and Shadowlands, Crash and Dirty Harry, and Straw Dogs and A Mighty Wind are all on Winchell's list. Directors as varied as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Elia Kazan, Preston Sturges, Sam Peckinpah, Mel Gibson, Mel Brooks, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, and Paul Schrader all have films that made the book's final cut.
I only wish Winchell had not given away so many of the films' endings. In the first ten lengthy film analyses, it was undoubtedly necessary to do so, in order to pursue a thorough scrutiny of the films' messages. In the concluding list of a hundred PC movies, however, wherein only abstract-length commentaries are offered, I wish the author had restrained himself, as I found myself skipping entries of movies I had not yet seen and rushing to my Netflix queue before the stories were spoiled for me. (Then again, perhaps this was not such a bad thing.)
You may disagree with some of Winchell's assessments, taking offense at what he considers harmless or puzzling over omissions (where, oh where, is that Peter Sellers classic I'm All Right Jack?). But God, Man, and Hollywood provides both an entertaining course in the art of reading film subtext and a dollop of hope that there's more on offer at your local cinema than the stale harangues of the gulag and guillotine crowd.
by Michael J. Gorman
Cascade, 196 pages, $22
Michael Gorman has produced a number of important books on the apostle Paul. His approach is a most refreshing one because at the center of each of these volumes is a desire to hear this complex figure as a serious theologian with a message that is as timely in our day as it was in his. In this most recent volume, he steps back from the genre of the learned monograph and provides us with a guide to the entire corpus. His audience is the average lay reader, and he hits that mark square on the head.
For many students of the Pauline corpus, a critical point on which it turns is the doctrine of justification by faith. For Protestant thinkers—ever-wary of the Roman Catholic interest in good works—it has been standard to emphasize that the righteousness that the believer possesses has been imputed. No human merits come into the equation—it is simply a juridical decision on the part of God to see the believer as justified.
Gorman rightly worries that such an attitude pushed too far will lead to what Bonheoffer called “cheap grace.” The way around this impasse, he urges, is to reconceive the center of Paul's thinking. Our righteousness follows from our participation in Christ. “The person who says ‘yes' to the Gospel,” Gorman avers, “and is justified by co-crucifixion with Christ in the experience of faith and baptism makes a spiritual and sociological move from being outside Christ and the covenant people of God to being inside Christ and God's people.” In believing in Christ, we are “transferred” from the realm of sin and death to that of a life-giving, cruciform existence. Just as Paul modeled that existence in his own life (and in so doing, exemplified what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship”), so should we.
There is one detail in the book that I did find annoying and even troubling, a detail to which Gorman returns several times. Because he sees Paul as a thorough-going pacifist (an unlikely view), he takes tremendous liberties with the Old Testament text. In particular, Gorman understands Paul as fully repudiating violent action against the wicked as embodied in the zealotry of Phinehas (Numbers 25). He understands Phineas as a violent supporter of a dangerous, exclusivistic impulse in Judaism that is categorically rejected within the terms of the New Covenant. This is not only a terribly unfair reading of the Old Testament, it is also a reading that Paul, I am quite confident, would have regarded as simply fantastic. Paul was no Marcionite; the Old Testament was the revealed word of God. Could a figure the Torah lauds become a paradigm of evil?
That said, however, this is a fine introduction to Paul, and richly rewarding to the lay reader.
—Gary A. Anderson
Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today
by Patriarch Bartholomew
Doubleday, 304 pages, $21.95
The preacher who gets comfortable with rolling lengthy sermons off the top of his head may be an engaging speaker, but his writing is likely to be meandering and verbose. Likewise, the person who grows up in a religious minority, perennially aware of the real (if not official) hostility aimed his way, is apt to form a habit of vigilant verbal diplomacy.
Thus, when Patriarch Bartholomew writes that “after the fall of Constantinople [to Ottoman Muslim invaders in 1453], Christian buildings could not be covered with prominent domes,” he doesn't mean that the laws of physics had mysteriously altered. The passive voice enables him to finesse the awkward fact that the Turkish government laid stringent restrictions on expression of religious faith, including the forms of church architecture. I expect he would agree with the contemporary proverb: “You have to choose your fights.”
So how does he fight? Primarily through requesting dialogue. This is not as pointless as it sounds. The ground rules of dialogue provide the weaker party with a foothold, recognition, and some safety, while obligating the stronger party to stop, listen, and at least pretend respect. (I learned this while speaking with abortion advocates, as a cofounder of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice.) So when the patriarch writes at length about the Christian obligation to “cherish” strangers and renounce petty nationalism, then concludes that “we emphasize that the religious rights of minorities must be duly respected, including and especially their right to worship and education,” you may catch that he is drawing a line in the sand and drawing international attention to it. The patriarch's alma mater, the Halki Seminary, has been closed by Turkey's Constitutional Court since 1971.
Such jabs are subtle enough to be lost on readers, however. While similar matters of poverty, freedom, and the environment occupy the book's latter half, earlier chapters do a good job of presenting Orthodox faith and life in the gentle, simple terms typical of Orthodox devotional writing. While I now savor such writing and find it genuinely inspiring, Western readers, who expect theology to be in the form of propositional jousting, are apt to find such talk too vague. (As a Newsday editor told me regarding a paragraph I'd written on theosis: “It just sounds so theoretical!”) I can see how Encountering the Mystery would satisfy the aims of the author, but it wouldn't surprise me if ordinary readers find the encounter still a little too mysterious for their taste.
The American Jesuits: A History
by Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
New York University Press, 368 pages, $29.95
Father Raymond Schroth, S.J., has written a strange and strangely unsatisfactory book. Titled The American Jesuits, it is neither comprehensive, nor thematically coherent, nor notable for any originality of insight, and it reads less like a true history than an apologia for the progressive direction taken by the Society of Jesus in the years following the Second Vatican Council.
Schroth's apologia is historical in form, if quirkily so. Its four parts correspond to chronological divisions spanning the five centuries from the arrival of Jesuit missionaries to the present, although the author's treatment of each period is not systematic but anecdotal and didactic. The serious reader will be dismayed by the lack of any scholarly apparatus. There are endnotes given for each chapter, but these simply mention the sources that the author consulted without page references or checkable citations.
Schroth writes with lucidity and has an ear for the telling quotation. The pages devoted to the changes in Jesuit higher education prior to the Second World War are particularly interesting. But the reader's good will is strained by the author's didacticism, which has locked him into an unvaryingly upbeat prose that smacks of an in-flight magazine. The story itself moves rapidly, yet on every page Schroth seems impatient to finish the business at hand so as to move on to the material that really interests him. The book ends before we get there.
The book's gravest defect is its absence of any critical perspective toward its sources. No attempt is made to distinguish gossip from hard evidence; no attempt is made to weigh the bias and personal interest of the witness in presenting his testimony. In a work treating an area of highly charged ideological conflict, such a failure evicts the volume from the university library and moves it conclusively to the coffee table. At one point, Schroth quotes the Unitarian clergyman William Laurence Sullivan (1872-1953) in dispraise of the Jesuits, “whose reputation for scholarship is one of the most extraordinary delusions of the pious.” It is ironic, and regrettable, that this book should aid in curing that delusion.
The Ten Commandments for Jews, Christians, and Others
edited by Roger E. Van Harn
Eerdmans, 222 pages, $22
An essay each on the ten “words” given by God through Moses, and a response to each, usually offering a different perspective. Jewish authors include First Things contributors David Novak and Byron Sherwin, along with Christians such as Carl Braaten, Miroslav Volf, and R.R. Reno. Afterword by Richard John Neuhaus.
The Great Awakening
by Thomas S. Kidd
Yale University Press, 416 pages, $35
Journalistic accounts of the origins of evangelicalism often begin with early twentieth-century fundamentalism, the emergence from fundamentalism of neo-evangelicalism after World War II, and ending with the religious right that appeared in the late 1970s. The story is ever so much richer and more varied than that, as luminously demonstrated by Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University. He traces with care and sympathy the many forces, including such unexpected influences as German pietism, that shaped evangelicalism from the seventeenth century to the present. Many readers, including evangelicals, will be surprised to discover where “evangelical Christianity” has been and may be going.
by Jean Bernard
Zaccheus, 197 pages, $14.95
The book behind the extraordinary film The Ninth Day, this is the memoir of Father Jean Bernard, who was arrested for denouncing the Nazis and sent to Dachau's “Priest Block,” where more than three thousand clergy, mainly Catholic priests, were subjected to unspeakable degradation and torture. A gripping story of heroism and horror that must never be forgotten.
Bonds of Affection
by Matthew S. Holland
Georgetown University Press, 321 pages, $26.95
John Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are the three case studies employed by a political scientist from Brigham Young University to make a compelling case that “civil religion” is not free-standing but dependent on the transcendent truths of the biblical tradition. Lincoln, the author argues, understood this most fully, and that understanding is of increasing importance in sustaining the American experiment.
The God Strategy:How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America
by David Domke and Kevin Coe
Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $30
The book is much less polemical than the title suggests. Domke heads the school of journalism at the University of Washington and the massively documented book provides interesting data on the increased prominence of religion in political discourse since the Reagan presidency, with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush receiving the lion's share of attention. The authors conclude with the hope that politicians will increasingly calibrate their message in a way that “appeals both to devout believers and the broader citizenry.”
The Politics of Past Evil
edited by Daniel Philpott
University of Notre Dame Press, 251 pages, $25
Over the past thirty years, “truth and reconciliation commissions” have been used in countries as various as South Africa, El Salvador, Chile, and Guatemala in order to deal, personally and politically, with great crimes and injustices. The thoughtful essays in this book effectively make the case that the choice is not, or not always, between justice and reconciliation. Rather, the authors argue from various perspectives, reconciliation is an essential ingredient of justice.
Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity
by Charles Marsh
Oxford University Press, 256 pages, $25
A professor of religion at the University of Virginia rails against the uncritical adherence of evangelicals to George W. Bush and the Republican party. There is indeed much to rail against when Christ and partisan politics are conflated, and Marsh draws suggestive parallels with Karl Barth's incisive critique of liberal theology in Germany that produced the idolatry of Kulturprotestantismus. Marsh's criticism of his fellow evangelicals is frequently over the top, however, and he offers slight guidance for faithful members of what St. Augustine called the City of God in their exercise of citizenship in the city of man. All that being said, Wayward Christian Soldiers is an ever-relevant reminder that the politics of the earthly city is not, to cite the title of Jim Wallis' embarrassing book, God's Politics.