After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism.
By Fergus Kerr.
Blackwell. 254 pp. $24.95 paper.
“The problem with Thomism,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “is that it comes in such horrible wrappers.” Today’s students—if they read Thomas Aquinas at all—are likely to know only that he said something about how to prove God’s existence (that modern physics has shown to be false), virtue ethics (that was just a rehash of Aristotle), and natural law (that prefigured in some way our contemporary idea of human rights). The Angelic Doctor, in other words, could use a bit of repackaging. Fergus Kerr, a Dominican and Regent of Studies of Blackfriars, Oxford, provides an excellent account of why such misunderstandings of Thomas’ thought have arisen and directs us back to Aquinas’ own words to show what he actually wrote. The book is unusual in that it serves not only as an introduction to Thomas’ thought but also to that most unwieldy of beasts, Thomistic scholarship. Kerr has organized the book into a series of chapters that focus on such issues as Thomas’ life and times, epistemology, natural theology, natural law, ethics, grace, deification, and the place of God and Christ in Thomas’ masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae . Throughout, Kerr argues against the misunderstanding brought about by the Leonine Thomists, who after Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris were more interested in seeing Thomas as a foil to modern philosophy than as a theologian whose Summa Theologiae was, as Kerr writes, paraphrasing Anna Williams, “concerned to spell out the conditions for participation by graced human beings in the life of the blessed Trinity.” Kerr’s account is marked by an intense focus on Thomas’ text and on his life as a friar in the new order founded by Dominic. Thomas’ thought must be understood, Kerr insists, within the biblical and patristic tradition on which Thomas drew so intensely and in light of the Arabized neoplatonism that exercised such a strong influence on the theology faculty of the University of Paris. Kerr’s analysis presents fresh insight into Aquinas’ thought and the scholarship that has grown up around it, from Cajetan and Suarez to John Milbank and Eugene Rogers. It will be a valuable resource for all those new to Thomas as well as for those interested in exploring his thought in greater depth. O’Connor would be pleased.
—Scott D. Moringiello
Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century.
InterVarsity. 280 pp. $25 paper.
Essays by J. I. Packer, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten,Thomas Howard, Richard John Neuhaus, and fourteen others, published in honor of the life and work of Thomas Oden. The essays range across a wide variety of theological, moral, and historical subjects, yet each has a connection with the great contribution of the book’s honoree. Oden, a Methodist, started out in the sixties as the very model of the here-it’s-happening—now liberal theologian, and then was sharply turned around through the influence of the remarkable Jewish thinker Will Herberg, who persuaded him that his personal opinionating was of little interest if not grounded in the classic sources. Oden has gone on to be a pioneer in retrieving the patristic tradition for evangelical Protestants, and in leading a very effective confessional movement in the liberal oldline churches. He is also a prime mover in the enterprise known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. It is Oden’s dearest hope that his theology will be found to contain nothing new, since all that is most excitingly new is to be found in the old.
The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken.
By Terry Teachout.
HarperCollins. 432 pp. $29.95.
Few American journalists have so bestrided that line of work as H. L. Mencken of Baltimore (1880–1956). His capacity to be outraged and amused by the world’s doings, and the flood of his written reactions, usually in derision and caricature, were apparently inexhaustible. Mr. Teachout’s searching and sometimes painfully candid biography probes the conflicted sources of Mencken’s energies in his bargain-basement Nietzschean atheism, his robust sense of superiority in a universe ruled by Social Darwinism, and his uncritical nineteenth-century faith in Progress. About the last he was not at all the skeptic. Mencken lived to write, and along the way he practically invented the newspaper column, made the American language a subject of serious study, and indelibly imprinted upon the popular mind his interpretation of some of the great events of his time, notably the Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee. He could be frankly reactionary, as in his opposition to U.S. participation in the world wars and his vitriolic attacks on FDR. Teachout carefully examines the evidence that Mencken was an anti-Semite, and concludes that he was, although it must be said that he was equally vicious in his remarks about other groups. Prejudices were the meat and potatoes of Mencken’s life and work. Toward the end of his life, he quoted the words ofElizabeth in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice , “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good.” Mencken wrote: “I believe I might say the same thing, and put it in the past tense . . . . My sneers and abjurations have been reserved exclusively for braggarts and mountebanks, quacks and swindlers, fools and knaves.” It is a brag that does not stand the test of—to cite but a most notable instance—his vicious smearing of William Jennings Bryan, and evangelical Protestants more generally, in his classic account, written in white hot venom, of the Scopes trial. Mencken was, among other things, a master of what today might be called hate literature, albeit hate literature of high literary order. But then there were the other things: his capacity for friendship, his frequent generosity to colleagues, his gentleness with a sickly wife, his insatiable fascination with the circus that is American life, and, above all, his command of the possibilities of the written word—possibilities not always employed to debunk and deride. Terry Teachout brings narrative power, judicious judgment, and an eye for little but telling things to the story of a huge figure who has left a lasting mark on the way Americans think about themselves, and who is still read, and worth reading, today.f
The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church.
By James K. Fitzpatrick.
WinePress. 250 pp. $12.95 paper.
James K. Fitzpatrick writes regularly for the Wanderer and is not the fellow you would expect to write a novel implying that it does not really matter that much whether Jesus did or did not actually rise from the dead. But then, maybe that is not the point of the story. Maybe the point is that Teilhard thought it would not matter and, if he was convinced Jesus is still buried in Palestine, his Jesuit colleagues would do all in their power to lay the foundations for a New American Church freed from dependence upon the supernatural. Part theological puzzler, part intra-Catholic polemic, part wacky portrait of Irish Catholicism in New York, The Dead Sea Conspiracy is an entertainment that manages to amuse and disturb.
Transnational Catholicism in PostCommunist Europe.
By Timothy A. Byrnes.
Rowman &Littlefield. 154 pp. $25.95.
In this informative and thoughtful book, the author, who teaches political science at Colgate University, reports on the state of Catholicism in post-Communist Europe, especially Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Croatia. He offers a nicely balanced diagnosis of the strengths of Catholicism’s “multilayered” constitution, which provides a powerful transnational dimension centered in Rome, but is also grounded in intense national and ethnic identities that hinder the Church’s hope to provide a cultural foundation for a united Europe. That hope is opposed by secularism in Western Europe and is undermined by profound anxieties in formerly Communist countries about the possibilities of being European and, at the same time, maintaining their cultural, meaning mainly Catholic, identities.
Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.
By John L. Esposito.
Oxford University Press. 196 pp. $25.
Esposito directs the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and, like most Middle East scholars, has over the years presented a roseate picture of an Islam sorely misunderstood by the West. After September 11, some hurried academic damage control was required, and this is Esposito’s modestly revisionist acknowledgment that there are some nasty dynamics at work within Islam but we should not be excessively distracted by the recent unpleasantness. One wishes it were more convincing.
Nuremberg: The Reckoning.
By William F. Buckley, Jr.
Harcourt. 366 pp. $25.
As in his last novel, Elvis in the Morning , Buckley has a boy of German and American parentage returning to postwar Germany, in this case as a soldier—translator at the Nuremberg trials. The brisk pace of the tale is not slowed by astute reflections on what does and does not count as a crime against humanity, and whether those responsible for the Allied bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima should not also be in the dock as war criminals. The narrative hook is the question of what the young man’s father was doing during the Hitler years, and for the answer to that one must read Nuremberg , an engaging story with substantive moral provocations.
A Pelican in the Wilderness.
By Isabel Colegate.
Counterpoint. 284 pp. $25.
A writer of novels, almost by definition, has to know a good deal about solitude, and Ms. Colegate is a novelist of distinction. In this charming book she offers vignettes, almost always sympathetic, of hermits and contemplatives, Christian and otherwise, who chose to be alone with the Alone. Not all of them were religiously motivated in the usual sense of the term, and she includes, for instance, eccentric English aristocrats who were scopophobes—people averse to being seen by others. It is a strange and fetching book, and readers oppressed by a society of togetherness might well benefit by spending some time with it, almost alone.
In the Steps of the Master.
By H. V. Morton.
Da Capo. 388 pp. $16 paper.
An instructive and utterly engaging travelogue of a journey to the Holy Land in the 1930s, with a new introduction by Richard John Neuhaus. In the early 1920s, Morton scooped the world’s press on the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and went on to become one of the most celebrated travel writers of the century. Da Capo Press is to be congratulated for reissuing some of his most popular books, of which A Traveler in Italy , along with the present volume, is most particularly recommended.
Arius: Heresy and Tradition.
By Rowan Williams.
Eerdmans. 378 pp. $24 paper.
First published in 1987, this study of the fourth“century heresiarch is revised and enhanced by a final section taking up scholarly criticisms of the first edition. Williams, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, is sympathetic to Arius, who, he says, was a conservative theologian trying to be faithful to the biblical witness while also coming to terms with fundamental philosophical challenges. Williams is not an Arian, but his very Anglican conclusion is that the line between heresy and orthodoxy is not always clear and cannot be settled by church authority.
Ivan Sergeevich Gagarin.
By Jeffrey Bruce Beshoner.
University of Notre Dame Press. 360 pp. $39.95.
The subtitle is “The Search for Orthodox and Catholic Union,” and that was the life’s work of the indefatigable Gagarin, a nineteenth-century Russian aristocrat who became a Roman Catholic and Jesuit. It is a fascinating story that will be of particular interest to readers who follow current efforts to reestablish the communion that will enable the Church to, in the words of John Paul II, “breathe again with both lungs.”
Law, Life, and the Living God.
By Scott R. Murray.
Concordia. 250 pp. $32.99 paper.
A scholarly and lucid study on a subject that has loomed large in Lutheran theology, namely, the “third use” of the law as a guide to Christian living. Among Lutheran theologians, the law is a “curb” against sinful behavior and a “mirror” showing us our sinfulness, but its third use has been much disputed, leading other Christians to charge that Lutheranism is essentially antinomian. The book is an exemplary exercise in confessional theology that is ecumenically engaged.
Your Word Is Truth.
Edited by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus.
Eerdmans. 168 pp. $20 paper.
The conflict between “Scripture alone” and “Scripture and tradition” has been a staple of disagreements between Protestants and Catholics for centuries. Your Word Is Truth recasts old arguments, and advances some new ones, in ways that should substantively change familiar conversations. The book includes the joint statement of the project known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” and includes invaluable supporting essays by Avery Cardinal Dulles, Timothy George, Thomas Guarino, Francis Martin, J. I. Packer, and John Woodbridge, along with an essay by the editors providing important background on the ECT project and its proposed future.
Militant Islam Reaches America.
By Daniel Pipes.
Norton. 296 pp. $25.95.
To say this book is sobering is an understatement. Pipes has been studying Islam for more than three decades. He understands why people want to talk about “root causes” of terrorism and speak wistfully about Islam as a “religion of peace,” but he is rightly intolerant of those who refuse to face up to the very real threat of radical Islamism. An important tract for the times.
Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism.
By Randall Balmer.
Westminster/John Knox. 664 pp. $29.95.
How do you define an evangelical? Who are the major figures, what are the formative disputes and agreements, and what are the significant institutions that make up the maddeningly diverse religious empire of evangelicaldom? No one book can come even close to providing exhaustive answers, but Columbia University’s Balmer has rendered an important service by bringing so much between the covers of this handy reference.
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