Helen Barrett Montgomery: The Global Mission of Domestic Feminism
by Kendal P. Mobley
Baylor, 420 pages, $39.95
Were it not for Kendal P. Mobley’s biography, Helen Barrett Montgomery might have remained an obscure footnote to both the women’s movement and Church history. Montgomery—a name everyone would have known at the height of the women’s suffrage movement—was a towering woman of faith and intellect who strove relentlessly beside Susan B. Anthony to bring women into higher education and politics. Montgomery, however, did not proclaim the “women’s gospel” but simply the message of the Bible, believing in the power of Christianity to transform the world—socially, politically, and intellectually. As a result of her efforts, women were eventually appointed full-fledged foreign missionaries and various social services for women finally received funding.
According to Mobley, Montgomery’s “domestic feminism” preached that because women are uniquely equipped to run the home—not in spite of the fact—they are specially qualified to lead as “municipal housekeepers” in public social spheres. With one hand, she tore down the Victorian assumptions that relegated woman to the home and, with the other, she upheld the sacred role of wife and mother, while maintaining that “the responsibilities of men and women were complimentary and parallel, not dependent and hierarchical.”
Unfortunately, the value of this biography fails to go beyond a mere dusting off of a champion’s legacy. Not only is Mobley’s writing bland, his organization weak, and his momentum lagging, but the book’s understanding of the feminist movement is debatable. Even the term “domestic feminist” is suspect, since the term was introduced much later to refer to a movement that doesn’t entirely encapsulate Montgomery’s work. Even though Mobley briefly defines his terms, and his case holds together within his insularly contextualized vocabulary, he would have done better to distance Montgomery from the term feminist, as she herself was careful to do, not even wanting to be associated with suffragism.
Some who delve into this book will be excited to find a woman of the Church fighting for the empowerment of women. Others, perhaps those with a stricter, academic understanding of feminism, will be disappointed not actually to discover a valid segment of feminism that has been lost among the shuffling conversation
Mobley primarily set out to interpret Montgomery’s great theme—“The emancipation of women through the gospel of Jesus Christ”—but because he tangled his interpretation with the controversial vocabulary of feminism, he will not please everyone. Nonetheless, thanks to this biography, Montgomery’s legacy will still inspire admiration and gratitude.
Right Place, Right Time: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement
by Richard Brookhiser
Basic, 272 pages, $27.50
The author is a friend and colleague of long standing, and his book discusses many other friends and colleagues. With the disclosures out of the way, I can proceed to the judgment: There is no better book about William F. Buckley or National Review, and it is a good, quick sketch of the conservative movement’s last few decades. The book is also a treat, written with the spare elegance and psychological insight that Rick’s fans have come to expect. Rick gives Bill his considerable due in the book. But he does not airbrush the flaws, which were not incidental to their relationship. Rick was a prodigy: Bill published him while he was still in high school. Bill told Rick in his early twenties that he would, in a few years, pass him the editorship. One day, Bill left and Rick found a note on his desk. It revoked the offer and forbade further conversation about it. The promise was impulsive, the withdrawal weak. A new normality between them was years in coming. Rick had to start a second career and fight cancer. He succeeded in both and adjusted to no longer being a prodigy. (“Stop calling yourself young before others do,” he advises.) He found his calling as a historian of the founding generation. He takes some credit, justifiably, for the boom in his genre. The new line of work detached him a bit from the conservative movement—in the most conservative way imaginable. When the towers fell on his adopted city, he took it personally. Everyone said then that everything had changed. Rick’s political priorities actually did change and stayed changed. (He is still irritated with his fellow pro-lifers for not backing Giuliani for president.) Bill Buckley gave him his start, but Rick Brookhiser made his own life—and has now proven a nice historian of it.
— Ramesh Ponnuru
Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land
by Norman Housley
Yale, 356 pages, $38
God’s War: A New History of the Crusades
by Christopher Tyerman
Belknap, 1040 pages, $22.95
The last thirty years have seen a revolution in the way historians think about the Crusades. Although Jonathan Riley-Smith has probably contributed the most to this development, the authors of these books are also major revisors. In 1954, the Eastern Orthodox scholar Stephen Runciman could conclude his three-volume history by declaring the Crusades to be an anti-Christian perversion—in his words, “the sin against the Holy Ghost.” And today terms like “Zionist Crusader invaders” have become stock in trade of Islamicists. Such sweeping moral judgments and political exploitation of anachronistic stereotypes, however, have disappeared from serious scholarship.
Tyerman’s massive narrative, recently reissued, is the more conventional book, a narrative focused principally on the “Numbered Crusades” to the Middle East and the Crusader states established there. His account is dense and complex, and a beginner is apt to get lost and give up. But for someone who wants an encyclopedic compendium of the state of the question for almost any topic in the field, this is an excellent reference work. As a replacement for Runciman’s badly dated narrative, however, it falls short because of its discursive style. Runciman was vivid, animated, and, above all, a good storyteller. Sadly, this means that he, rather than Tyerman, will continue to be considered by nonspecialists as the historian of the Crusades
Fighting for the Cross is a wholly different kind of project. In spite of its subtitle, it is not about the Crusades so much as the Crusaders. What motivated them? What did they have to do to go on Crusade? How did it affect their families? What was the impact on them of this choice? What does it say about their relationship to God and his Church? Once, historians of the Crusades could write about them using chronicle sources almost exclusively, as Runciman did. Housley shows that this is no longer possible: The Crusaders have left us a huge trove of wills, charters, and other legal and administrative documents that supplement and often correct the impressions given by chroniclers. If you want to know the logistics of getting to Outremer, who went and why, and what it meant for those left behind, this book is essential. As a study of the religious perspectives of the men (and women) who went on Crusade, this primarily administrative history is perhaps the best book I have read
Neither of these volumes, however, reflects the broadening of perspective that has internationalized the idea of the Crusades. Spain, the Baltic, and the Danube Basin are now part of the story, and again Riley-Smith provides the best short introduction.
—Augustine Thompson, O.P
How Balthasar Changed My Mind: Fifteen Scholars Reflect on the Meaning of Balthasar for Their Own Work
edited by Rodney A. Howsare and Larry S. Chapp
Crossroad, 304 pages, $34.95
Theological Aesthetics After von Balthasar
edited by Oleg V. Bychokov and James Fodor
Ashgate, 238 pages, $99.95
Love Alone Is Credible: Hans Urs von Balthasar as Interpreter of the Catholic Tradition, Volume 1
edited by David L. Schindler
Eerdmans, 360 pages, $40
Based on his long collaboration with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger was able to capture the essence of his friend’s theological aesthetics in this single, lapidary line: “Being overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction.” The trouble is, as he immediately conceded, that point has still not found its proper echo in the life of the Church, and this lamentable fact “is not only—and not even principally—a problem for theology; rather it is also a problem for pastoral ministry, whose mission is to get people to encounter the beauty of the faith.”
In their different ways, the three volumes under review try to rise to that challenge, in ascending order of difficulty. The Howsare and Chapp volume is by far the most accessible, because the essays are all personal and autographical, even anecdotal. With one exception, all the authors speak of how reading Balthasar has enriched their Christian life. The Bychokov and Fodor volume is much more hospitable to critics of Balthasar. Indeed, Part II consists of three chapters devoted to criticisms of his (alleged) failure to understand Hopkins and Protestant aesthetics, with the third chapter insisting that, at this juncture of Western civilization, an aesthetic starting point to evangelization is impossible. This volume also allows authors to branch out into strategies of their own without necessarily starting from Balthasar’s theology. The Schindler volume (the first of a two-volume project, which borrows the title of one of Balthasar’s own books) focuses much more on issues of fundamental theology, particularly such questions as physical motion as a reflection of trinitarian processions, the relation of dialectic and dialogue, and the connection between mission and Eucharist.
Like Balthasar’s own theology, each of these books is quite demanding. But, with so many theologians eagerly contributing to these collected essays, it is clear that theology is beginning to take seriously Pope Benedict’s call to get people “to encounter the beauty of the faith.”
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J
The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years
edited by Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C.J. Putnam
Yale, 1128 pages, $100
It is sometimes said that Western philosophy is only a series of footnotes to Plato. An exaggeration, to be sure, but not without a grain of truth. In a similar way, one might say that Western poetry and literature are the offspring of Virgil, whose writings, especially the Aeneid, captured the Roman and medieval mind like those of no other poet. In this volume, Michaell Putnam, one of the world’s foremost Virgilians, and Jan Ziolkowski, a medievalist at Harvard, have collected original texts—many translated for the first time into English—showing how Virgil was received, used, and explained through the Roman era and the Middle Ages. The book begins with Virgil and his contemporaries commenting on the poet himself and giving biographical details, then proceeds to the uses made of the poet’s writings.
Christian authors took a special interest in Eclogues 4, whose Cumaean Sybil was seen as a secular prophet foretelling the coming of Christ ( teste David cum Sybilla). Later writers borrowed such characters as Dido and Orpheus for their own work. And authors writing in Old French, Middle Irish, and Medieval Icelandic translated and retold the story of Aeneas in light of the literature of the period. Commentaries on Virgil and Virgilian legends—in which Virgil appears as a powerful magician—make up the last half of the book, which will be of great interest to scholars and devotees of the poet.
— Nathaniel Peters
by David Yezzi
Swallow, 56 pages, $24.95
Quotation marks make all the difference. Take the claim that there are more people writing poetry nowadays than reading it. Does this mean that genuine poetry in the manner of, say, Robert Frost’s lyrics are reviled by the remnant reading public, or does it mean that no one wishes to read unrhymed, unmetered blather about the evils of homophobic Republicans and the poet’s parents? Were poetry something worthy of the name, perhaps it wouldn’t be regarded by readers as dimly as the electric chair is by convicts
Some hope for poetry—without the quotation marks—is rendered by the publication of David Yezzi’s collection Azores. After an abbreviated career as a classically trained actor, Yezzi has emerged in the last few years as one of the country’s best versifiers, even as he has also served as an editor at the New Criterion.
In Yezzi’s first collection, The Hidden Model, he showed his ability to go from light and ironic verse ( your white meat drives me wild / dear circummortal chef, sweet Julia Child) to lines inspiring readers to wistfulness of time’s “swift retreat.”
A passionate amateur sailor, Yezzi takes his title from a sonnet series describing a gale-tossed trek that he took across the eastern Atlantic.
But there’s much more in this collection, including a memorable dramatic monologue (“The Ghost Seer”) taken from his verse play On the Rocks, some religious verse (“A Vigil”), and his special mix of unforced sentiment and unassuming humor—best shown, perhaps, in “A Dog’s Life”: Accept the things you cannot change: / The bleating clock, / The nightly go / — dog leash in tow— / around the block . . . / Forgive the things you cannot have: / the supple bod, / taut undergrads, / a nicer pad, / long chats with God. In poems like this and “Dead Letters” and “Befana: A Bedtime Story,” Yezzi charms with his wit and then, gradually, surprises us with sudden poignancy.
Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body
by Carl Anderson and José Granados
Doubleday, 272 pages, $24
From 1979 to 1984, after the Wednesday Angelus bells had rung, Pope John Paul II addressed the faithful in St. Peter’s Square. His was no humdrum catechesis: In George Weigel’s assessment, the theme that the pope developed—his theology of the body—was a time bomb ready to detonate and renew Christians’ understanding of the meaning of the human person, male and female, and our vocation to love. In Called to Love, Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Fr. José Granados of the John Paul II Institute, distill the 129 lectures (a 700-page tome) into an accessible reflection on the key insights of the theology of the body. Throughout, Anderson and Granados illustrate their explanations with literary examples from John Paul’s poetry and early plays, as well as the writings of such Christian luminaries as Dante, Dostoevesky, Bernanos, and Undset.
“I became for myself a great question,” says Augustine at the beginning of his Confessions. This universal question (What is the meaning of human existence?) is asked and answered not in esoteric speculation but through everyday experience illuminated by faith—through our receptivity to the world around us, through our bodies united with our souls. Following John Paul, Anderson and Granados take us back to Eden to explore the first man and woman’s self-discovery through love and our ongoing restoration through Christ’s witness as faithful Son and loving and fruitful Bridegroom. In particular, they discuss the threefold meaning of the body—filial, nuptial, and paternal—as it is realized in the complementary vocations of marriage and virginity. With John Paul, they pay special attention to the family as the heart of society, a “living reflection of and real sharing in” the gift of God’s own love.