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

From Newton’s Sleep by Joseph Vining
Princeton University Press. 368 pp. $24.95

This original book by distinguished Michigan legal scholar Joseph Vining finds surprising treasures hidden in lawyers’ ways of knowing. The title refers to William Blake’s vision of minds becalmed and semi-disabled by exclusive devotion to abstract, depersonalized forms of reasoning. Legal thought, according to Vining, is the modern world’s prime example of another, vitally important, family of mental operations. By connecting language and logic to the human person, and with its own inescapable links to action and responsibility, law helps to “keep our minds from becoming kinds of minds rather than minds, our hearts from becoming emotions rather than hearts . . . . [Legal thought] is the daily exercise that not only allows us to sleep in peace, but keeps us from Newton’s sleep.” Vining makes his case through a series of meditations, verses, commentaries, tales, and dialogues. That unusual form, he explains, is “the only way experience so connected to action and identity will not be lost in the presentation.” The result is a collection of thought- provoking fragments that illuminate a variety of subjects likely to be of interest to First Things readers-authority, authenticity, community, bureaucracy, interpretation, and meaning. An innovative thinker, Vining does not spare traditional ideas about law, while critiquing single-minded Marxist, postmodern, and economic theories. He challenges with equal vigor the widely held notions that law can be reduced to processes and rules, or to power relations, or to meaningless signs and marks. Among other aims, he seeks to awaken in legal and nonlegal readers alike an awareness of how law and legal reasoning can provide openings to the transcendent in an increasingly secularized world. At several points, he suggests affinities between the task of the lawyer and that of the theologian. In a concluding fragment, Vining expresses the hope that legal thought, properly understood, may take its place beside other forms of thought that are “self-reflective.” Meanwhile, his own book is an important contribution to the recent legal literature in which scholars such as Anthony Kronman, James Boyd White, and this writer have begun to reexamine what lawyers are doing when they are knowing. This new trend in legal studies has its theological counterpart among those who are pursuing the methods of self- appropriation developed by Bernard Lonergan in Insight and Method in Theology.

- Mary Ann GlendOne of the foremost historians of the modern era offers an incisive and sometimes scathing critique of the way experts have understood and grossly misunderstood the Soviet Union from the Bolshevik coup in 1917 to the collapse of the “evil empire.” Almost to the very end, academics, think tank seers, and the CIA were issuing confident reports on the economic and political stability of the fast-crumbling USSR. Some of these analyses actually appeared in scholarly journals after the Soviet Union was no more. Laqueur provides a necessary antidote to excessive trust in expert opinion. Of course there were other experts-e.g., Laqueur, Robert Tucker, Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes-whose more skeptical views about the Soviet Union have been vindicated. So the lesson is not not to trust experts but to choose your experts very carefully. Laqueur is not sanguine about the post-Communist situation in Russia and its former satellites, believing that there is a strong possibility that nationalist and socialist bad habits could converge in a new form of an old disease, national socialism. The Western experts criticized by Laqueur were in many instances very wrongheaded indeed, but they appear as paragons of wisdom and virtue compared with sectors of religious leadership, typically associated with the World Council of Churches, that on many questions parroted the Soviet party line until the end, and do not even now acknowledge that they were wrong or even that the empire was evil. When that history is written, one hopes it will be done with the analytical skill, lucidity, and careful scholarship exemplified by Walter Laqueur.

Mere Creatures of the State? by William Bentley Ball
Crisis Books (P.O. Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556-800-852- 9962). 132 pp. $13.95 paper plus $2 s/h.

To friends of religious freedom, the author is a figure of heroic stature. From county courts to the Supreme Court, William Ball has defended Americans who dared to defy the imperious edict of the modern state that its claim to sovereignty will brook no rival claims appealing to the sovereignty of conscience and, above all, the sovereignty of God. Especially in the field of education, the government has increasingly treated children as “mere creatures of the state,” thus undermining the rights and responsibilities of the family. The present book is a marvelously readable memoir of the legal cases and the people with whom Mr. Ball has worked over the years. In the course of enjoying some ripping good stories, the reader will garner a basic education in the curious ways of jurisprudence in a legal culture that increasingly views religion as a threat, if not a form of social pathology. And those who do not already know will come to understand why William Bentley Ball is viewed as a figure of heroic stature. Foreword by Richard John Neuhaus.

Historical Romances by Mark Twain
Library of America. 1,032 pp. $35

As with all Library of America editions, this collection of three Twain novels ”The Prince and the Pauper , A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court , and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc ” is exceedingly well-produced. Taken together, these stories (particularly A Connecticut Yankee ) provide a classic modern view of premodern society: its revulsion with medieval superstition and backwardness and, at the same time, a nostalgia for medieval grandeur coupled with doubts about modern “progress.” And then there’s just the sheer fun of reading Mark Twain.

Religion and the Racist Right by Michael Barkun
University of North Carolina Press. 290 pp. $39.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

This is religious exotica, but it is utterly fascinating exotica. Where did fringe groups such as the Aryan Nation and the Posse Comitatus get their curious ideas? Barkun makes a convincing case that the source is the nineteenth-century movement known as British-Israelism, which proposed that white folk (or at least the really white white folk) are the ten lost tribes of Israel. Jews, those who pretend to be Israel, are in fact children of the Devil who will be wiped out in the great race war that is already upon us. Weird stuff interestingly told. Barkun teaches political science at Syracuse University.

King among the Theologians by Noel Leo Erskine
Pilgrim Press. 196 pp. $13.95 paper.

A book something like this needed to be written. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a very major figure in the history of what today is called public theology. Along with figures such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, King demonstrated a great talent for articulating the connections between Christian themes and public life. Indeed he is the last figure in American life to make direct connections between Christian theology and social change in a manner that was culturally and politically effective. That is what “the Christian right” is attempting to do today, but, while it has demonstrated political effectiveness, it has not yet succeeded in engaging the culture in a manner comparable to the tradition in which King stood. Of course that may change in time, although it is admittedly difficult to imagine twenty years from now a book pretending to intellectual seriousness and titled Pat Robertson Among the Theologians . Regrettably, the seriousness of the present book leaves much to be desired. The author examines King’s work through the perspective of other theologies: Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, James Cone, and “womanist theology.” King emerges from each examination as an unfailingly and unqualifiedly great theologian. What is not examined, what is not even mentioned, is the grave discrepancy between King’s personal life and his public preachments, or-and this is perhaps more pertinent to his role as theologian-the well-substantiated evidence that Dr. King was not the author of much that appeared in his name both at the divinity school of Boston University and later in his career. What Dr. King said, and the effect of what he said, are matters deserving of scholarly investigation. Such an investigation could tell us much about Dr. King and, more important, about the curious interactions of religion, culture, and politics in American life. But, in view of his plagiarism, borrowings, and lack of scholarly writing, it is very doubtful that Dr. King can be viewed as a theologian in his own right. That he was such is the unexamined premise of this thoroughly uncritical book. It is as though there is an obligation to demonstrate that a man who is widely revered and was a public figure of enormous consequence must have been great at everything he touched. King Among the Theologians is an exercise in mythmaking. The book had its origins in a class taught by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and comes with a glowing foreword by Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice A. King.

And They Shall Be My People: An American Rabbi and His Congregation by Paul Wilkes
Atlantic Monthly Press. 348 pp. $23

A chronicling of the day-to-day life and work of Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum and his congregation, Beth Israel of Worcester, Mass. On one level this study describes the kinds of rewards and frustrations experienced by clergymen of all denominations and faiths; on another it provides insight into the more specifically Jewish problem of maintaining a religious and ethnic identity against the seductions of the mainstream culture. The author, a Catholic, has done well to examine a rabbi and congregation in the Conservative movement, where the tension between modernity and tradition is most acute (Orthodoxy being largely fixed in tradition and Reform having largely capitulated to modernity). And They Shall Be My People is an interesting example of popular religious sociology, although some readers may find they are getting more quotidian detail than they really want.

An Introduction to Moral Theology by William E. May
Our Sunday Visitor. 288 pp. $9.95 paper.

A standard reference updated to take into account the new catechism and documents such as the encyclical Veritatis Splendor . May teaches moral theology at the Pope John Paul II Institute in Washington. Foreword by James Cardinal Hickey of Washington.

Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary Edited by Roy Battenhouse
Indiana University Press. 520 pp. $35

An impressive collection of ninety-two abridged essays identifying the Christian elements in Shakespeare’s plays: biblical allusions and symbols, echoes of liturgical and theological language, themes of justice and mercy, intellectual borrowings from the worldviews of Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Dante, and Erasmus. The editor, who has himself contributed several incisive essays, rightly argues that contemporary students deserve an alternative to the various hermeneutics of suspicion (advanced by deconstructionists, feminists, etc.) that would deny the timeless art and truth of the Bard. The contributors to this volume write in that older tradition of humane letters that is often a forgotten alternative in the academy today; on that account Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension is indeed a great feast of learning and beauty.

The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300“1500 Edited by Hank van Os
Princeton University Press. 192 pp. $49.50

Of the making of art books there is no end, but few are as intelligently and tastefully put together as this. Hundreds of engravings, woodcuts, paintings, and sculptures, combined with instructively engaging essays on the relationship between art and piety in the Middle Ages. The authors suggest that the West had a sacramental understanding of such art that is comparable to the Christian East’s devotion to the icon. A notable achievement.

Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity by Os Guinness
Baker. 113 pp. $6.99 paper.

An incisive critique of evangelicalism’s love affair with big, big, big churches. whatever the good intentions of the entrepreneurs in charge, guinness illuminates the ways in which the very dynamics of an obsession with church growth require subordinating the gospel to institutional goals. in fact a relatively small number of evangelical protestants actually belong to megachurches, but the megachurch “model” bids fair to dominate, and distort, the mission of numerous other local congregations that will never be big, big, big-as the world counts big.

Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle by Neil Elliott
Orbis. 308 pp. $18.95 paper.

Far from advocating subservience to an “oppressive” and “patriarchal” order, as some in the Christian tradition have suggested, Paul is a proponent of an early liberation theology who urges us to practice an “ideological intifada” against the received structures of our time. It appears that Paul anticipated and embraced almost all the progressive proposals of feminism and economic collectivism that have gained currency two millennia later. The author, who teaches at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, does not address what this might mean for the doctrine of scriptural inspiration, but one infers that his doctrine of inspiration is very high indeed.