Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
by N.T. Wright
HarperSanFrancisco, 256 pages, $22.95
Speaking very generally, Christian apologists can go down one of two roads: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s or Blaise Pascal’s. According to Schleiermacher, man’s inchoate sense of absolute dependence can best be assuaged by following Jesus, who, more than any other human being, conducted his life not just sensing his absolute dependence on God (which Schleiermacher claims we all do) but actually living it out. In other words, man is thirsty for God, and Christianity offers the most limpid and salubrious water for slaking that thirst. But for Pascal, Christianity is not so much pleasing water for a thirsty but otherwise healthy traveler; rather, it is harsh chemotherapy for a desperately ill cancer patient.
Because C.S. Lewis—the most famous and influential of all Christian apologists in the twentieth century—adopted the avuncular style of the fireside chat (indeed, his most famous books began as a radio addresses during World War II), superficial readers often consider him to be vaguely Schleiermacherian. But a careful reading of his works, especially Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man, puts him squarely in the Pascalian camp. His style might imitate the bedside manner of the kind physician, but his diagnosis is grim.
By his title alone, N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, is clearly trying to provide a twenty-first-century reenactment of Lewis’ apologetics. But in contrast to Lewis, Wright uses an approach that is, in my judgment, too “apologetic”—in the ordinary-language sense of that term, which is to say, too Schleiermacherian (“Please don’t despise me”). Whether other readers will also consider that strategy to be unwise depends on what question they think Christianity is meant to answer.
In any event, one cannot help reading Wright’s noble effort in the context of the implosion of the contemporary Church of England (where he shines as Anglicanism’s best New Testament scholar since two earlier figures in the See of Durham, the nineteenth-century scholars J.B. Lightfoot and B.F. Westcott). Lest this juxtaposition sound too triumphalistic, Catholics, too, I think, need to reassess the Second Vatican Council—which also largely adopted the “we can answer your deepest needs” approach. Judging by its rhetoric alone, Vatican II seemed to adopt this strategy: You “cultured despisers” could really learn something from us Christians, really, if you would just sample our wares!
Despite the validation bestowed by that epochal council on this all-too “apologizing” approach, I think nearly every headline one reads today, from the rise of militant Islam to the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, has shown that approach to be a non-starter. Besides, one might also note, if only in passing, that it is always the most “pessimistic” Christian apologists (Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard) who continue to gain a hearing, while the “optimists” (Origen, Schleiermacher, Karl Rahner) go largely unread.
Much as one can respect Wright’s gentle approach in Simply Christian to win hearts and minds over to the Christian religion, his book, one can confidently predict, will never eclipse or replace Mere Christianity. I think people who reject the gospel have not the remotest idea how desperate their plight really is-and what the consequences of their rejection will prove to be.
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions
by John Agresto
Encounter, 300 pages, $25
Those expecting run-of-the-mill complaints against the Iraq War and the Bush administration will be disappointed by this book. John Agresto, former senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad, gives an honest, on-the-ground account of the struggle to rebuild the Iraqi educational system. A self-described neoconservative, Agresto says that all people may desire freedom, but what seems to have been forgotten in the planning before the Iraq War is that people may not desire that freedom for their neighbors. A side of human nature genuinely does take joy in the suffering of others. And, given the lasting damage of tyrannies, a democracy that functions well requires more than open elections. Mugged by Reality is an interesting corrective to those on both sides of the American political spectrum who seem to take the wrong lessons from the Iraq War.
Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of The Bible
by John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno
Johns Hopkins University Press, 176 pages, $16.95 (paper)
The story has been told countless times: In 1907, Pius X condemned Modernism, and the Catholic Church sank into biblical winter. The thaw began in 1943, when Pius XII promulgated Divino Afflante Spiritu, and, gradually, Catholic scholars entered the glorious summer of the historical-critical method and won the respect of the academy. And they have exegeted happily ever after.
But at what price? Both authors of Sanctified Vision were dissatisfied with modern theology, and they came to see that biblical interpretation was the heart of the problem. Almost all biblical scholars, they write, are not scholars of the Bible but of some (often tiny) part of it. Moreover, these scholars assume that the truth they seek is not in the words of the Bible but in either the human author’s original intent or a historical event that lies behind the text; in either case, the text distorts the truth that is sought, like a scratched and dirty window. Those who treat the biblical text as oracular are sneered at.
O’Keefe and Reno also came to realize that the approach of the ancient Christian Fathers was vastly different. The Fathers spent most of their effort writing about Scripture, yet the long exegetical passages in Athanasius’ three Orations Against the Arians, for example, or in Augustine’s On the Trinity are usually ignored, and patristic commentaries receive little attention—even though the common denominator of all patristic literature is biblical citation, paraphrase, and exegesis.
O’Keefe and Reno set out to explain patristic exegesis and to show its strengths and beauty. Such exegesis is not just an outdated curiosity (although the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in 1993, called patristic allegorical interpretation an embarrassment). For the Fathers, the problem was the one and the many. The one is Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets; the many are the countless words, statements, and narratives in the Bible. The method of patristic exegesis is to assemble these countless details into a single picture. To attain this coherent reading of Scripture, the Fathers developed many strategies. O’Keefe and Reno devote their main attention to three in particular: intensive reading, typology, and allegory. They remind us that typology and allegory are, far from being useless relics, strategies still commonly employed, even in television shows and rock music. They end with a consideration of the rule of faith and of the holy life.
Sanctified Vision is both a travel narrative—describing the authors’ journey out of the desert of contemporary theological writing into the lush world of patristic commentary—and an evangelical work: The authors want to attract others to their project. Their book does not presuppose much knowledge of the Fathers, and the texts the authors invoke to illustrate their points are fairly well known. Sanctified Vision will explain to a wide readership the principles of patristic exegesis. It will also waken admiration for the Fathers’ unflagging fascination with every word of the Word of God.
—Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J.
Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Whose Cruden’s Concordance Unwrote the Bible
by Julia Keay
Overlook, 288 pages, $23.95
When Cruden’s Concordance was published in 1737 in London, it was immediately recognized as a revolutionary research tool: One man had undertaken this monumental task of indexing the entire Bible, and he had done it working for a dozen years, unassisted and uncompensated. That man, Alexander Cruden, was what we might today call focused and detail-oriented. We might also call him eccentric or obsessive. During his life, he was interred in madhouses four times, and his biographers have often presented him as mad: Who but a crazy person, after all, would index the Bible so minutely?
Julia Keay now presents the case for the defense: Alexander Cruden was not mad but the victim of cruel exploitation at the hands of enemies who found the madhouse the most secure place to keep him. Alexander the Corrector is a belligerently sympathetic treatment of Cruden. Keay provides a plausible reconstruction of the misadventures of this unusual man: Suffering from unrequited love and determined not to expose his beloved’s scandalous secret, Cruden was confined in the Aberdeen Tolhouse for several months as a young man. Unable to be ordained, he worked as a proofreader until he became the romantic rival of a villain who paid to have him locked in a private madhouse. After a shrewd midnight escape, Cruden unfortunately combined his quest for exoneration with a quixotic crusade to prove “the absolute necessity of regulating Private Madhouses in a more effectual manner.” This set him at odds with an entrenched legal and medical system, and his inevitable defeats made him subject to depression, requiring further confinement in Bedlam. Finally, after another betrayal, Cruden decided to embrace his peculiar status and became a kind of public-morals superhero: Alexander the Corrector.
Keay writes deftly and accomplishes a number of impressive investigative stunts. She presents a generous dose of primary evidence, equipping the reader to develop
an independent judgment about Cruden. The most compelling scenes are Cruden’s attempts at self-defense. Eighteenth-century England was committed to keeping the peace by marginalizing anyone with “too much religion” as an enthusiast.
Cruden, who instinctively expressed himself in pious phraseology, could only confirm that judgment each time he spoke. When the mad-doctor Monro visited the madhouse and asked him his condition, Cruden replied that “he awaited God’s time for his deliverance.” Duly noting “enthusiast” on his chart, the doctor prescribed drugs, purging, and bleeding. Cruden was expressing his intent to submit to the powers that be, but the nominally Anglican doctor, tone-deaf to the voice of warm faith, supposed him to be calling for an angelic force to free him. Monro would later come into similar conflict with the “enthusiasts” of the Wesleyan revivals, just as the private madhouse system would eventually be reformed (too late for Cruden).
Keay herself is not always sufficiently perceptive about religious motivations, and she sometimes casts about for obtuse analogies to explain just why Cruden would think about the Bible so devoutly: “As the Quran to Muslims, so the Bible to Calvinists.” I cannot find in Keay a sympathetic familiarity with the passions and predilections of a concordance user, which would have equipped her to understand her beloved concordance maker even more.
Still, Alexander the Corrector is the best treatment this odd figure has ever received. While it is not quite a full biography, the book does cast its net wide enough from the theme of “tormented genius” to bring in many facts of Cruden’s later life not widely known: how he indexed Milton’s Paradise Lost; corrected Spenser’s Faerie Queene; and undertook works of mercy, generosity, and advocacy with heroic stubbornness. The book says nothing, after the ill-conceived subtitle, about “unwriting the Bible.” It says a great deal about the strange fruit borne by Alexander Cruden, a devout scholarly servant of the word of God, “a mind in which reason tottered” but was not, if Julia Keay is even half right, “entirely dethroned.”
Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self
by Joseph E. Davis
University of Chicago Press, 312 pages, $27.50
“I was not sexually abused. Yet I was sexually abused,” Ellen Bass wrote in an anthology of survivor accounts called I Never Told Anyone. “We were all sexually abused. The images and attitudes, the reality we breathe in like air, it reaches us all. We are all in need of healing.”
Perhaps so. But in Accounts of Innocence, Joseph E. Davis points out that the widespread application of the victimization model to our own experiences is a relatively recent phenomenon. On April 17, 1971, Florence Rush stood at a podium at Washington Irving High School in New York and shared her story of her sexual abuse, as part of the New York Radical Feminists’ first conference on rape. According to Davis, before this conference, abuse survivors lacked a public forum through which to share their stories. The act of sharing stories broke “the conspiracy of silence” surrounding abuse, while each new story helped create a wider narrative through which survivors could frame their own experiences.
Davis expresses concern about the ways that survivors of abuse are now categorized as victims and then routinely trained to reframe their past in terms of the abuse they experienced, following a predetermined therapeutic model. While Davis never discounts the real damage caused by abuse, he fears that contemporary therapeutic models do not account for the full scope of human complexity and the myriad ways in which different individuals respond.
Davis’ book is ultimately more descriptive than prescriptive. He does not suggest better ways of understanding abuse. Rather, he chooses instead to highlight the different ways that abuse has been framed throughout psychiatric history, as well as alluding to the “unintentional and unfortunate” results of certain therapeutic models.
Although this book is heavy-laden with jargon and will be difficult for those who lack a background in clinical psychology, it does offer a meticulous historical survey of the ways in which childhood sexual abuse has been framed by generations of therapists, popular writers, and special-interest groups. And along the way it shows how this framing colors public perceptions of abuse.
Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
by Thomas Howard
Ignatius, 148 pages, $14.95
This book deserves wide circulation among devotees of both T.S. Eliot and Thomas Howard—for Howard makes a powerful case that Eliot’s Four Quartets is, in fact, the central poem of our time.
Many students have been able to wrap their minds around Eliot’s early work. The meaning and imagery of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Hollow Men,” even “The Wasteland” yield, without too much difficulty, to youthful study. Eliot’s later work is a different matter, both for student and teacher. How to explicate Eliot’s increasing attention to metaphysical matters to people who are either relentlessly materialistic, caught up in vapid New Age spiritualities, or as indifferent to metaphysics as they are to physics?
Thankfully, these questions have been answered by Thomas Howard, a literature teacher for more than thirty years. Dove Descending is at once exposition, lecture, and meditation. A book such as this can be successful only if it is selfless to the point of being self-effacing. Its subject, ultimately, is the genius of T.S. Eliot, and its task is to mediate between the work of that genius and the readers.
In his brilliant, feisty forward to the book, Fr. George William Rutler says he “was never drawn to Eliot. He does not thrill like Yeats.” He finds Eliot “too precise and buttoned.” Eliot has “an aura of pedantry about him.” Nevertheless, Dove Descending helps Rutler reach another conclusion regarding Eliot, whom he identifies as “the last modern poet”: “In the social disintegration and moral trauma attendant upon the fall of modernity, Eliot paraphrased it in coruscating ways and radiant rays of words. A poet has no apostolic authority, and his prophecy is by intuition and sensibility to tradition; but when he is true to the truth, aesthetics burnishes his metaphysics and gives him the mantle of an evangelist.”
This is precisely the task Howard takes up: to identify the truth Eliot seeks and to show how masterful Eliot was at expressing it. The problem is, as Howard states, that “the students, critics, scholars, and biographers who have addressed themselves to Elioteana, so to speak, constitute a dazzling galaxy. Is anyone calling for yet another meteorite to dash briefly across the firmament?”
Probably not, or at least not in so many words. But Dove Descending makes only the most diffident claims for itself. It is a reading: line by line, stanza by stanza, section by section, and quartet by quartet. And yet, no special knowledge of poetry is required to follow Howard’s thinking. Dove Descending moves like a top-notch lecture-by turns erudite, humorous, and learned.
The Founders on Religion
by James H. Hutson
Princeton University Press, 280 pages, $19.95
James Hutson offers reliable quotations by the Founding Fathers on religion. Hutson himself says that recent “quote books” on religion and the founding display “a cavalier attitude toward factual accuracy.” As chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, Hutson brings some much-needed scholarly credibility to this genre.
The book also represents, with great balance, the Founders’ differing religious viewpoints. While all the Founders believed in a powerful Providence, there was a split between those who affirmed the tenets of traditional orthodox Christianity and those who subscribed to an Enlightenment-influenced “theistic rationalism.” While orthodox Christianity dominated the views of the population at large and probably a statistical majority of those who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution, an unconventional Unitarian theology seemed to engage the minds of certain key Founders—among them, those who played the most prominent roles in declaring independence and drafting the Constitution.
Certainly Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin—and very likely Washington and others—possessed unorthodox religious beliefs. This key group comprised the authors of the Declaration, a majority of the board who drafted the Declaration, the first presidents, and the prime architects of the Constitution. Any work that accurately features only their quotations will not fairly represent the mainstream religious thought of their era. And any work that seeks to portray that particular group as traditional orthodox Christians invariably distorts their views by offering remarks taken out of context and even some outright fabrications.
So Hutson’s book also features quotations by the less-well-known Founders, such as Elias Boudinot, whose views were more mainstream, and ignores Thomas Paine, whose views were openly hostile to Christianity. All in all, this is the most balanced collection of quotations representing the Founders’ religious views published thus far.
by John Lukacs
ISI, 900 pages, $18(paper)
This is a very big John Lukacs reader, collecting essays, lectures, occasional reflections, and reviews addressing, mostly, very big ideas. Born in Hungary in 1924, Lukacs has spent most of the last half century teaching at Chestnut Hill College outside Philadelphia. Long neglected by the literary and academic establishments, he has in recent years received favorable attention for his writings on Churchill and World War II. Along with Leszek Kolakowski and a very few others, he is one of a disappearing breed of Central European thinkers intellectually formed in a tradition that joined erudition and a deep immersion in the complexities of culture and history.
Editors Mark Malvasi and Jeffrey Nelson provide a helpful summary of Lukacs’ understanding of the historian’s calling to illumine the “remembered past,” an understanding in which the historian is not simply telling it as it was (which is not possible) but is a participant in the remembering. In this collection, we have Lukacs’ evaluation of other historians, sometimes scathingly critical and frequently admiring, as well as exposures, both brilliant and cranky,
of prominent writers and thinkers such as E.L. Doctorow, Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, Tom Wolfe, and Francis Fukuyama. There are marvelous and nostalgia-tinged remembrances of Budapest in 1900 and Philadelphia in 1950, as well as reflections on what it means to be a teacher and, more specifically, a teacher of history.
Again and again, Lukacs returns to what he views as the misguided “conservative movement” of the last half century in this country, which, he insists, is not conservative at all but a confused mix of the nationalism and populism that has plagued the modern era. The reach of his learning and curiosities, wedded to a writing style that is always virile and frequently beautiful, makes Remembered Past a feast for leisurely reading and a welcome reminder that there are still among us thinkers who think in the service of wisdom.
The Heritage Guide to the Constitution
edited by Edwin Meese III, Matthew Spalding, and David F. Forte
Regnery, 491 pages, $35
More than a hundred legal scholars contribute to a remarkably helpful volume that addresses every article and amendment of the Constitution. Included in almost every instance are citations of significant cases and a useful guide to further reading. The perspective throughout is “originalist,” as distinct from the idea of a “living constitution,” which turns the founding document into little more than an invitation to a never-ending constitutional convention. The generally accessible style is designed for educated lay readers, although constitutional scholars may also find it a good reference to keep at hand.
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton
Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $25
This is a book for churches that work with teenagers. Employing state-of-the-art survey research and confident common sense, the authors conclude that teenagers are a great deal more like adults than is frequently assumed, and the influence of adults on how teenagers believe and live is greater than many adults admit. The challenge is not to understand the alien world of teenagers but to connect with teenagers who are trying, frequently with great difficulty, to negotiate their way into the world of adults.
Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari’a Law
edited by Paul Marshall
Rowman & Littlefield, 248 pages, $29.95(paper)
Deeply sobering essays by human-rights experts and students of Islam. While most Muslims and Christians undoubtedly want, as is sometimes wistfully said, Islam to be a religion of peace, the evidence is to the contrary: The forms of Islam gaining dominance are friendly neither to peace nor to justice for its own adherents. Especially disturbing is the role of Saudi Arabia in spreading around the world-and in this country-the Wahhabist version of Islam that gave birth to and sustains al-Qaeda. Protesters against the Iraq War shout, “No war for oil.” With respect to Saudi Arabia, U.S. policy seems to be “No criticism for oil.”
The True Church
by Peter H. Burnett
Solas, 707 pages, $37
This remarkable book by a lawyer and pioneer who became the first civil governor of California was published in 1860. The author, who was a theological autodidact, recounts in lawyer-like detail the arguments that led him from Protestantism to full communion with the Catholic Church. Today’s reader may be surprised by how arguments from an era when public debates between Protestants and Catholics were common, and long before anyone imagined the present “age of ecumenism,” seem so very contemporary. The book is of considerably more than historical interest.
by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster
William Morrow, 256 pages, $24.95
A biography of Fr. Michael McGivney (1852–1890), founder of the Knights of the Columbus. Brinkley is a historian at Tulane University who most recently published Tour of Duty, a campaign biography of John Kerry, the presidential candidate. Fenster is a New York writer who has assisted Brinkley on other projects. The Knights hope that the book will advance the cause of Fr. McGivney’s canonization. There is certainly nothing in the book that is likely to impede the cause.