Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Christian and Buddhist
by Robert Aitken and David Steindl-Rast
Triumph Books. 232 pp. $27.95

Aitken is a Zen Buddhist Roshi and one of the most active and articulate American teachers of, and apologists for, Zen. Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk who has a wide knowledge of non-Christian religions and a special interest, both practical and theoretical, in Buddhism. This book is an edited transcript of conversations held between them in Hawaii in 1991. It provides an excellent conspectus of the state of play in Buddhist-Christian dialogue as practiced by the leisured and religiously inclined middle classes in the United States in the early 1990s. The discussion proceeds from three axioms: that Buddhism and Christianity are complementary rather than opposed; that the choice to be a Buddhist or a Christian is a “personal thing”; and that those who think there is more than personal preference at stake in this matter are “less accomplished” than those who do not. None of these points is argued for; their truth is taken to be self-evident, as it usually is by participants in interreligious dialogue. On the basis of them Steindl-Rast and Aitken offer some interesting (and occasionally profound) observations on religious practice, religious institutions, and the religious emotions. But in the end this is just one more self-help book, lightly seasoned with religious rhetoric. It won’t tell you much about either Buddhism or Christianity, though it will (inadvertently) give you a detailed picture of the things that the contemporary American middle classes find it especially difficult to deal with: divorce, emotional dysfunction, sexual harassment, and (of course) authority.

”Paul J. Griffiths

Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions
by David B. Burrell, C.S.C.
University of Notre Dame Press. 211 pp. $29.95 cloth, $13.95 paper.

With wonderful clarity and compression, this book presents a series of subtle philosophical and theological discussions concerning the doctrine of creation. Burrell devotes particular attention to the relation of divine causality to human action and freedom, as these issues have been treated by major Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers. Thus, in marked contrast to much standard Western philosophical theology-where these issues are often studied in abstraction from their specific religious contexts-this book both exemplifies and advocates a comparative and tradition-centered approach. Burrell strives to do philosophical theology in a pluralistic mode instead of being content merely to talk about doing it.

”Augustine Di Noia

Tocqueville’s Civil Religion: American Christianity and the Prospects for Freedom
by Sanford Kessler
SUNY Press. 238 pp. $17.95

Kessler, who teaches political science at North Carolina State and Duke, believes that Tocqueville would be sympathetic to today’s proponents of a “functionalist” approach to religion (he has in mind Stephen Carter, Richard John Neuhaus, and Glenn Tinder, and, to a lesser extent, Robert Bellah). At the same time, Kessler suspects that Christianity in America may be too weak to serve democracy today as Tocqueville thought it did in the early nineteenth century. A modest and generally intelligent discussion.

God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking
by Carol V. R. George
Oxford University Press. 268 pp. $9.95 paper.

Adlai Stevenson famously quipped that he found Paul appealing and Peale appalling, there being no evidence that Stevenson had read either with care, if at all. Carol George of Hobart and William Smith Colleges makes a real contribution to our understanding of contemporary American religion by taking both Peale and his many critics seriously. Although she does not say so, many of the debates about Peale’s very “enculturated” form of Christianity continue today in connection with the marketing techniques of the church growth movement. God’s Salesman is an engaging and informative read, and an excellent window on the curious things that millions of Americans mean by saying that they are Christians.

“Come, Black Robe”: De Smet and the Indian Tragedy
by John J. Killoren, S.J.
University of Oklahoma Press. 447 pp. $29.95

Beginning in St. Louis in 1823, Father Peter John De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit, began a half century of heroic labor on behalf of American Indians. In evangelizing, educating, and building communities, De Smet left a large but not indelible mark. The depredations of the traders and settlers, joined to the perfidy of politicians, erased much that De Smet and his colleagues had achieved. De Smet became a powerful advocate of what today would be called the rights of Native Americans, which then was generally viewed as an eccentric and inconvenient obsession. This is a great story well told. Over it all, however, hangs the tragedy alluded to by the subtitle, a tragedy that shows no sign of lifting to this day.

Tensions of Order and Freedom: Catholic Political Thought, 1789-1848
by Bela Menczer
Transaction. 205 pp. $32.95

First published in 1952, this intriguing study of Catholic political thought between 1789 and 1848 by a Hungarian intellectual in exile highlights the continuing war between tradition and utopian revolutionism. Includes a new introduction by the late Russell Kirk.

Professing the Faith
by Douglas John Hall
Augsburg/Fortress. 563 pp. $35

This is the second in a trilogy that is designed to set forth “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” Hall is a United Church of Christ minister who teaches at McGill. Although working in what is undoubtedly a liberal Protestant tradition, Hall does not limit himself to that tradition. His influence in the mainline/oldline churches is very considerable, and the present volume provides helpful insight into those religious worlds that at present receive little serious intellectual attention.

Jewish Meditations on the Meaning of Death
by Chaim Z. Rozwaski
Aronson. 213 pp. $30

Despite the book’s title, these short sermonic essays deal not so much with the meaning of death as the meaning of life in the face of death. Occasionally inspiring, Rabbi Rozwaski draws on a richness of Jewish sources-scriptural, talmudic, rabbinic, folk. There is relatively little speculation about the afterlife here, but in the best Jewish tradition, the hope and expectation of a world to come is strongly affirmed.

The Presbyterians
by Randall Balmer and John R. Fitzmier
Praeger. 132 pp. $14.95 paper

An overview of Presbyterianism in Europe and North America written from a generally liberal perspective that includes the assumption that the price of cultural “relevance” may be institutional decline. Designed, apparently, for use in the college classroom.

In the Shade of the Terebinth
by Gabriel Meyer
Forest of Peace (p.o. box 269 leavenworth, KS 66048). 142 pp. $14.95

The fictional elaboration of biblical narratives is a parlous genre. meyer offers us a young boy and a sage who unfold events occurring at the edges of the familiar accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. the experiment succeeds in holding our attention in large part because meyer has the good sense and skill to work by indirection, leaving it to the reader to reflect on what these stories might mean for our understanding of the gospel accounts.

Accounting for Fundamentalisms
Edited by Martin E. Marty and R. scott Appleby
University of Chicago Press. 852 pp. $47.50

The fourth volume in the Fundamentalism Project directed by Marty and Appleby includes twenty-eight essays on Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and South Asian “fundamentalisms.” Such a grab-bag approach inevitably results in very uneven quality, although there is a common denominator in the way it is made clear that fundamentalists are certainly not like the people who write about them for projects such as this.

To Set the Dawn Free: When Life and Choice Collide
Edited by David Mall
Kairos (Libertyville, IL). 352 pp. $15.

“When God sends the dawn, he sends it for all,” wrote Miguel de Cervantes, and these fifteen powerful essays urging that “all” must include the unborn add significantly to our understanding of the rhetoric of the abortion debate. Readers engaged in that debate will welcome both the fresh arguments advanced and, perhaps less wholeheartedly, the challenge to old arguments that are doomed to fail. Introduction by Nat Hentoff.

The Ritual Year: Christmas, Winter, and Other Seasons
by Arnold Kenseth
Amherst Writers (P.O. Box 1076, Amherst MA 01004). 123 pp. $14 paper.

Kenseth is a poet and Episcopalian priest who here brings together work that reinforces his reputation as an artist of feeling and expression. It is said that today there are more people writing poems than reading them. Reading Kenseth is likely to set more people to writing, which is not a bad thing.