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The Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah:
Legends from the Talmud and Midrash

edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky
Schocken, 897 pages, $75 

Anthologies are frequently described as “treasure troves” of this or that. But The Book of Legends really is a treasure trove of Jewish wisdom and teaching. The material of this massive volume is the aggadah—the stories, parables, and reflections of the Talmud and Midrash (that in contrast to the halakhah, or legal, ritual, and ethical rulings). Because aggadic writings were interspersed throughout many books, they remained inaccessible as an identifiable body of literature until Bialik and Ravnitzky first published a Hebrew compendium of aggadah in Odessa (1908“11), organizing diverse adages, legends, and speculations according to theme: “Man and His Needs,” “Good and Evil,” “Exile,” “Redemption and the Days of the Messiah,” etc. Now, finally, their Sefer Ha-Aggadah is available in an English translation by the late William G. Braude. The first two entries are explanations of, and invitations to, the book as a whole: “If you wish to know Him by whose word the world came into being, study Aggadah ; you will thereby come to know the Holy One, blessed be He, and hold fast to His ways.” And: “Do not let the parable appear of little worth to you. Through a parable, a man can fathom words of Torah. Consider the king who has lost a gold coin or a precious pearl in his house. May he not find it by the light of a wick worth no more than an issar [a penny]? Likewise, do not let the parable appear of little worth to you. By its light, a man may fathom words of Torah.”

The Broken Staff:
Judaism Through Christian Eyes

by Frank E. Manuel 
Harvard University Press, 363 pages, $34.95 

A secular Jewish scholar describes the attempts of Christian scholars since the Middle Ages to recover the Jewish sources of their own faith. The tradition of Christian Hebraism began as an attempt to refute the Jews, to root out blasphemy, and, to a very limited extent, to clarify technical points of scriptural interpretation. The author shows that Christian Hebraism often completely misunderstood Judaism—the perennial misrepresentation of Judaism as a religion of arid legalism being a case in point. But centuries of intensive study also revealed similiarities and affinities between the faiths, such that learned Christians eventually recognized an “umbilical cord that bound Christianity to Judaism.” In the field of Jewish-Christian relations, which seems to produce new books by the day, this volume stands out as a masterpiece of compression that brilliantly summarizes a vast literature, written in many languages and disciplines over many centuries. The author’s prose is not only readable but often quite lively.

Life in the Spirit 
by Thomas C. Oden 
HarperCollins, 548 pages, $30

A Theology of Word and Spirit
by Donald G. Bloesch
InterVarsity Press, 335 pages, $19.9

Evangelical Protestantism is about more than church growth, traditional morality, and political activism. These two volumes testify to an impressive and growing theological maturity among evangelicals. Oden and Bloesch represent theological “growth,” but not in the usual sense of accommodating to a dispirited liberalism. They breathe new life into a history of evangelical scholarship that, while sometimes close to it, has never been quite dead. Although different in many ways, they are alike in their determination to advance a vibrant orthodoxy that is grounded in Scripture, shaped by the Great Tradition of Christian history, and faithful to what they believe to be the Reformation corrective. Oden’s is the third and final volume in his systematic theology, while the Bloesch volume is the first of a promised seven. Oden, a Methodist at Drew University, has repeatedly declared that he wants to be paid the compliment that he has said nothing new. His is an exercise in unabashed repristination or ressourcement , reintroducing Protestants (or introducing them for the first time) to the richness of centuries of Christian intellectual achievement. Life in the Spirit (like the first two volumes, The Living God and The Word of Life) is especially strong in presenting the teachings of the early church fathers and catholic councils. Theology must first gets its intellectual and historical bearings, Oden insists, before it can have anything pertinent to say to contemporary questions. He further insists, and effectively demonstrates, that most of what we take to be contemporary questions are, in fact, quite ancient. Bloesch, of Dubuque Theological Seminary, aims at a more “constructive” engagement with the modern theological situation dating from Schleiermacher and reaching its peak, or at least one of its peaks, in Karl Barth. He moves with erudite ease from Pannenberg to Tillich to Tracy to Ellul to Dulles. If successor volumes fulfill the promise, Bloesch’s project will be an admirable introduction to the Christian theological situation at the edge of the Third Millennium. Both Oden and Bloesch evidence a firm sense of the importance of tradition and of the ecclesial embededness of theology, giving their work a high potential for advancing ecumenical understandings, especially with Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

Passion for Justice
by Harlan Beckley 
Westminster/John Knox Press, 391 pages, $27 

An historical study aimed at “retrieving the legacies” of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The treatment of Ryan (“Father New Deal”), who laid foundations for current Catholic social thought, is welcome, since he is unfamiliar to most Catholics and almost all Protestants. The comparative approach seems contrived and uneven, however; no doubt because Niebuhr is, as a religious thinker, head and shoulders above the other two.

by Joram Graf Haber 
Rowman & Littlefield, 146 pages, $42.50 

An exercise in moral philosophy that, although learned and lucid, comes to the unconvincing conclusion that the only factor that can justify forgiveness is the repentance of the wrongdoer. The world is untrusting, bitter, and calculating enough without this argument. (The price notwithstanding, the book appears to be printed on quite ordinary paper.)

The Visions Of The Children
by Janice T. Connell 
St. Martin’s, 269 pages, $19.95 

Among the many reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary in recent years, none have received so much attention as those at Medjugorje in now-ravaged Yugoslavia. A relatively sober but emphatically positive account of what has occasioned all the excitement.

Faces in the Clouds:
A New Theory of Religion
by Stewart Elliott Guthrie 
Oxford University Press, 336 pages, $25 

An anthropologist at Fordham University, of all places, reinvents Feuerbach. In tedious detail he explains that religion is, don’t you see, but a projection of our human relationships. Yes, yes, Dr. Guthrie, and now moving on to theories of the twentieth century . . .

Beyond Liberation Theology
by Humberto Belli and Ronald Nash 
Baker, 206 pages, $12.95 paper 

A forcefully argued demonstration that some evangelical Protestants surpass their Catholic counterparts in understanding the significance of Catholic social teaching. The book is truly beyond, and not merely against, liberation theologies that have obscured the Christian gospel and promoted economic and political directions that are very bad for the poor. Belli is minister of education in Nicaragua and Nash is professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

Religion and Sexuality in American Literature
by Ann-Janine Morey 
Cambridge University Press, 276 pages, $44.95 

One is reminded how very much American literature, from Hawthorne to Updike, is preoccupied with exploring the connections between religious and sexual experience. Morey demonstrates her familiarity with all the correct methodologies, from deconstructionism to feminist postmodernism, but her aim is to illumine the commonalities between spirit and body, men and women. She succeeds, gracefully.

Euthanasia Is Not the Answer
by David Cundiff 
Humana Press, 190 pages, $17.95 

A forceful, readable argument for hospices as the better answer to anxieties about painful and prolonged dying, written by a medical doctor who has studied hospice systems in the U.S. and Europe.

“Church And Age Unite!”:
The Modernist Impulse In American Catholicism
by R. Scott Appleby 
University of Notre Dame Press, 296 pages, $29.95

A history of the modernist and Americanist “heresies” up to 1910. The author’s suggestion that today’s testings of Rome on the limits of dissent is a reprise of those earlier conflicts is less plausible than his telling of what happened back then.

Sacrifice and Delight:
Spirituality for Ministry
by Alan Jones 
HarperCollins, 208 pages, $19

How dismal is most of what passes for “spiritual” writing in these last days. How delightful to discover the dean of Grace Cathedral (Episcopal), San Francisco, reflecting on ministry that is his, and ours. No alert reader will think time taken for this book is a sacrifice.

Abortion Rites:
A Social History of Abortion in America

by Marvin Olasky 
Crossway, 317 pages, $25 

Earlier comment on this important book appeared in The Public Square (October 1992). Now that the way toward establishing laws protective of the unborn seems to be blocked for the foreseeable future, Olasky’s study—emphasizing the importance of social censure against abortion while providing help for women with crisis pregnancies—becomes even more pertinent. The nineteenth-century history of abortion in America, he convincingly contends, should be remembered in order to be repeated.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash. Image cropped.