Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context
by douglas john jaul
augsburg press, 456 pages, $29.95
The intention is admirable, indeed urgent. It is to restate the Christian proposition in a manner critically attuned to American culture and the challenges facing our society. Hall is professor of theology at McGill in Montreal, and this large book is the first of a projected trilogy devoted to advancing the above intention. While the author engages an impressive quantity of literature, it is almost all of the genre that accepts, more or less uncritically, the cultural-political-economic presuppositions associated with current liberation theologies. The sometimes compelling theological analysis tends to be swamped by the conventional (in left-of-center religious circles) analysis of our historical moment. Whether or not Hall is aware of the larger discussion, he does little to engage alternative arguments. Therefore Thinking the Faith turns out to be more of a restatement of familiar themes than the groundbreaking work that its author apparently believes it to be. It is possible that these failings will be remedied in the two further volumes that are promised.
Morality after Auschwitz
by peter j. haas
fortress press, 257 pages, $19.95
With a disciplined dispassion that could not be easy for the son of the survivors to whom this book is dedicated, Peter Haas of Vanderbilt University urges us to recognize ourselves in the perpetrators of the Holocaust. “Even the German perpetrators, I want to argue, were victims of their own system. Eichmann was not a psychotic or a sadist. He was a middle-level bureaucrat doing his duty to serve what he honestly came to believe was a higher good. In this he was no different from any of us.” The argument is almost guaranteed to outrage many readers. Haas is not, however, suggesting a “moral equivalence” between perpetrators and victims, or between the Nazis and contemporary, enlightened Americans. Nor is he simply repeating Hannah Arendt’s contention regarding “the banality of evil.” He is contending that there was a “Nazi ethic,” a framework or grid through which the world was perceived, and by which distinctions were made between good and evil, right and wrong. His case is that the “rationality” of the Nazi ethic was most critically hinged upon the symbol of the Jew as the threatening enemy. From that construction of reality, everything else flowed, finally making Auschwitz inevitable. In the course of setting forth his position, the author offers a concise and wonderfully accessible account of the formation of German political culture from Bismarck through Hitler. In a thoughtful epilogue he analyzes how Jewish theologians (notably Richard Rubenstein, Eliezer Berkovits, and Elie Wiesel) have tried to frame the “lessons” of the Holocaust. All, he says, have broken with an earlier Jewish pattern of attempting to accommodate Enlightenment individualism and have rediscovered the power of community and myth. He notes that this is not without irony, since, with a diametrically opposed intention, the Nazis made that same turn away from the Enlightenment in constructing their ethic. Morality after Auschwitz is a serious book that should provoke long thoughts, and perhaps useful disputes, about the power of ethics to shape political cultures. One question that needs to be explored is whether, against his intention, the author’s emphasis on the social formation of morality does not undermine the sense of individual responsibility that, with Elie Wiesel, he wants to reinforce.
Distorted Truth: What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Battle for the Mind
by richard j. mouw
harper & row, 168 pages, $14.95
The dean of Fuller Theological Seminary is pleased that fundamentalist and conservative Christians have in recent years accepted the challenge to do battle on the intellectual front. But battle imagery, he suggests, runs the risk of neglecting to understand what opponents are saying. Mouw is an orthodox Christian who winsomely demonstrates that “dialogue” with non-Christians and anti-Christians is not a compromise of orthodoxy. Fuller Seminary is, of course, in California, so there is perhaps more attention to New Age, channeling, occultism, and sundry spiritual monisms than non-California readers may think necessary in a discussion of the religious and cultural battle lines in American life. Nonetheless, Distorted Truth is a welcome addition to popular apologetics in the tradition of Chesterton and Lewis.
Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self Divided
by richard s. randall
university of california press, 340 pages, $29.95
A political scientist at New York University makes the argument that pornography is about as universal as the human condition. Because there is the “internal” pornography of sexual fantasy going on in the heads of most people at least some of the time, it is inevitable that it will issue in “external” pornography in the society. Both the censor who would prohibit pornography and the libertarian for whom anything goes are, argues Randall, unrealistic and unwise. Permitting anything does not result in a society enjoying good, clean, healthy sex. Pornography by definition is “transgressive” of what people understand to be accepted behavior. When the limits are expanded, pornography will also have to “go farther” in order to find the new limits to be transgressed. Even if, as many studies argue, the connection between pornography and social pathology cannot be conclusively demonstrated, there is no doubt that most people find the present level of pornography offensive. “Offensiveness” is itself an important factor in a democratic society that claims to operate by majority rule. So it comes down to how we balance the “liberal” and the “democratic” in sustaining our social experiment in liberal democracy. More profoundly, it comes down to recognizing the complexity of sexuality in the “divided self” of each one of us. One may quibble with Randall’s use of Freudian categories, and at times the attention to statistical data seems excessive, but Freedom and Taboo impressively contributes to a debate that most certainly will be with us for the duration.
Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics
by ralph c. hancock
cornell university press, 221 pages, $26.50
Through a Strauss-like reading of John Calvin’s chief systematic text. Institutes of the Christian Religion, the author seeks to establish that “Calvin radically distinguishes the spiritual and the secular in order to join them fast together.” Thus, while it may be too much to argue that Calvin is the founder of modern thought, Hancock contends that Calvin does suggest a way of rescuing modern rationality that itself has no rational foundation. The study of Calvin is the author’s way of getting into a more comprehensive discussion of modernity and its connections with Christianity, of the relationship between the transcendent and history. His interlocutors are Leo Strauss, Max Weber, Eric Voegelin, Hans Blumenberg, Hans Jonas, and Karl Lowith—but mainly Leo Strauss. The result of Hancock’s carefully reasoned exercise is a respectful, and important, revision of the master’s depiction of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem.