The Girard Reader .
Edited by James G. Williams.
Crossroad/Herder. 310 pages, $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
It is entirely possible that René Girard is one of the most important Christian thinkers now alive. It is certain that he is one of the most fascinating. In a biographical interview he gave in 1995, Girard declared that all the work he has done over the last three decades was present in his mind even in the late 1950s-as a dense intuition, a block to be penetrated little by little. It is possible for readers to see that now in the torrent of books, articles, and interviews he has produced. His work began to appear in the early 1960s with widely acclaimed expositions of the way triangular relations form among characters in novels, particularly in Dostoevsky. He then moved to anthropology, holding that culture is invariably based on sacrificial violence against a scapegoat. The connection came with his increasing study of psychology and his argument that desire is mimetic-that we learn what it is we want by watching what others want. And when at last he turned to explicit Christian theology, he found, bit by bit, the solution: At the center of his thought lies the Cross, the Sacrifice that breaks the cycle of violence, sacrifice, and mimetic desire. But the problem with discerning the unity of Girard’s thought was always that different audiences were reading different books from him: literary critics reading one set, anthropologists another, and theologians yet another. That’s exactly what makes The Girard Reader, James G. Williams’ new collection of essays and chapters from Girard, so helpful. Arranged topically rather than chronologically, the book lays out Girard’s completed thought and allows the reader to make out the unity of all that the man has done since he first sat down in 1959 to penetrate that dense, complex, and fascinating intuition.
” J. Bottum
The Social Meaning of Modern Biology: From Social Darwinism to Sociobiology .
By Howard L. Kaye. With a new epilogue by the author.
Transaction. 208 pages, $19.95 paper.
Evolutionary psychology (an up-dated form of sociobiology) is a rapidly growing field, and has spilled over into the popular press through articles on the adaptive benefits of such things as infanticide. All of which makes this a propitious time for the republication of Howard Kaye’s incisive philosophical critique of sociobiology, first published ten years ago. Sociobiology is a secularized form of natural theology, Kaye explains: an attempt to translat[e] our lives and history back into the language of nature so that we might once again find a cosmic guide for the problems of living. But the attempt fails, he argues, because in order to derive moral guidance from things like genes, sociobiologists first have to attribute to them various cognitive and moral attributes (e.g., selfish genes). In short, the sociobiologist first reads his own moral program into nature and then, unsurprisingly, discovers it from nature. Moreover, Kaye argues, these attempts at moral guidance are logically incoherent, given sociobiology’s reduction of human beings to mechanisms, programmed by natural selection. What, then, can it mean to talk about choice and values? Evolutionary psychology avoids some of the cruder reductionism of the older sociobiology. But by attempting to unmask all thought and feelings as genetically programmed survival strategies, Kaye warns, it may still have a corrosive effect on our moral principles, social order, and even our souls.
” Nancy R. Pearcey
The Rise of the Islamic Empire and the Threat to the West.
By Anthony J. Dennis.
Wyndham Hall (Bristol, IN). 156 pages, $19.95 paper.
The title may sound a bit over the top and in some quarters the author will surely be accused of Islamophobia, but the book has garnered endorsements from influential players in the worlds of foreign policy and defense, and the tone is generally more temperate than the title. Led by Iran, the author contends, militant Muslims press the view that there is a third way between communism and the decadence of Western democracy, and that third way is Islam as a world force that transcends national boundaries. In that worldview, what others call terrorism takes on the appearance of eminently sensible strategy. It is not the purpose of this book, but in the discussion of which it is part there is a responsibility to try to distinguish between Islam as a political movement and Islam as a religion with innumerable adherents who want nothing more than to live in peace.
Catholic Lives, Contemporary America.
Edited by Thomas J. Ferraro.
Duke University Press. 274 pages, $49.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.
A collection of articles about or by middle-aged Catholics, former Catholics, and fellow travelers, this book intends to be a reflection on the state of contemporary Catholicism but is interesting only insofar as it shows the variety of ways Catholicism can be imbibed without being believed. A worthwhile scholarly article by Patrick Allitt about contemporary Catholic conservatives breaks with the autobiographical tone of the rest of the articles and is welcome relief from their self-consciously trendy and superficial treatment of what it means to be a Catholic. The effect of the Second Vatican Council is seen not in spiritual terms, but in how it changed the author’s childish perceptions of the world, or denuded the lovely intertextuality of the Catholic aesthetic, or opened the road to Catholic feminism, only to close it later. This category mistake does reveal something about the way many Catholics who have left the Church experience their relationship with their childhood faith, and why they have the complicated and tortured relationships that they do. But as a statement about the emergent intellectual force represented by such cultural Catholics as Madonna, Camille Paglia, Andrew Sullivan, Martin Scorsese, Richard Rodriguez, Mary Jo Weaver, and Mickey Rourke, the book is simply mundane.
The Life of Mary and the Birth of Jesus: The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James .
By Ronald F. Hock.
Ulysses Press. 104 pages, $16.
This book is a translation of the apocryphal gospel attributed to St. James the Great, which tells the story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Elizabeth, and Zechariah. In his readable and balanced introduction, Ronald Hock, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, summarizes the history of this most interesting of apocryphal works. Unlike the obviously Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, for example, the Gospel of James is not written in the service of any subversive heresy. Hock argues that it is partly a defense of Mary’s virginity and innocence against anti-Christian polemics, partly an encomium, one of the classical genres intended to praise a virtuous and worthy person. Since details of the work are mentioned by Origen and perhaps even by Justin Martyr, Hock dates it no later than the middle of the second century. Since St. James died in a.d 62, and the Gospel attributed to him clearly alludes to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that most scholars date years later, Hock concludes that the apostle could not be the author of this narrative. St. Jerome concurred, leaving it out of his Latin translation of Scripture despite what Hock calls its widespread acceptance in the Eastern Churches. Although not in the canon, this gospel, or at least the traditions to which it attests, has played a major role in fleshing out the sketch of Mary presented in the New Testament. Traditions found in James include that Jesus was born in a cave rather than a stable, that Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anne, that Joseph was an elderly man, that Mary had taken a vow of celibacy despite her betrothal to Joseph, that Mary’s birth was announced to each of her parents by angels, and that she was a virgin even after giving birth. The narrative also fills in some interesting details: how the infant John the Baptist escaped being massacred by Herod (he was hidden by Elizabeth while Zechariah was martyred for not turning him over), why Simeon had received the promise that he would see the Messiah (he was Zechariah’s successor among the priests of the Temple, and so had a special relationship with the protagonists of salvation history), who were Jesus’ siblings mentioned, e.g., in Mark 6:1-3 (they were the sons of the widower Joseph by a previous marriage), and the identity of the Zechariah who was killed between the sanctuary and the altar in Matthew 23:35 (none other than the father of John the Baptist). Whether the gospel was actually written by St. James or some similarly named older step-brother of Jesus or by someone else entirely, it does attest to the prevalence of some of these Marian traditions even among the earliest Christians.
The Constitution and the Pride of Reason .
By Stephen D. Smith.
Oxford University Press. 203 pages, $39.95.
This book, which was the source for Professor Smith’s article The Constitution of Babel in the January 1998 issue of First Things , is a reevaluation of the place of reason in the theories of constitutional law and in the Constitution itself. He suggests, after detailed historical examination and an investigation of the secondary literature, that the proliferation of incommensurable interpretations of the Constitution is the result of both the pride of the founders and the pride of their interpreters. In his epilogue, he examines what the state of today’s constitutional jurisprudence tells us about the larger philosophical question of whether it is possible to guide a civilization by reason and rationality.
100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments .
By Edward N. Peters.
Basilica Press (Granville, OH). 224 pages, $24.95.
This handsome book, published by a division of Simon & Schuster, serves a felt need, felt all the more keenly as a result of recent popular attacks on the annulment process. The author, a canon lawyer with first-hand experience with marriage tribunals, is thoroughly familiar with the criticisms of the idea and practice of annulments, and he offers a generally effective defense without being excessively defensive. This is not the final word on annulments. Even among those who recognize that the Catholic Church has no choice but to support the indissolubility of marriage, there is an earnest search to improve the present system. But this book is a reliable introduction to the state of the question.
Bioethics: A Primer for Christians .
By Gilbert Meilaender.
Eerdmans. 131 pages, $10 paper.
The books written on bioethics in the last thirty years would fill a very sizable library. The Christian who simply wants to get a reliable handle on the subject will find nothing better than this splendid little book. Meilaender, a regular contributor to this journal, provides a solid introduction to subjects as various as contraception, genetic engineering, prenatal screening, assisted suicide, and organ donation. It is seldom, and therefore all the more welcome, that one who is a master of his field takes the time to walk the nonspecialist through it. Meilaender does that without a hint of condescension, and with an easy style that will engage those who might otherwise be intimidated by his expertise. Highly recommended.