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

The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation.
By Luke Timothy Johnson and William S. Kurz, S.J.
Eerdmans. 299 pp. $24

paper .

The conversation is between two biblical scholars over the modern historical approach to the Bible and its consequences for the Catholic Church’s use of the Scriptures. Johnson is more alert to the downside than Kurz, and much readier to propose a reappropriation of the classical Christian way of reading the Bible. His challenge: “If Scripture is ever again to be a living source for theology, those who practice theology must become less preoccupied with the world that produced the Scripture and learn again to live in the world that Scripture produces.” The book begins with a brief, informed, and balanced assessment of the accomplishments and limitations of Catholic biblical scholarship in the last two generations.

” Robert Louis Wilken

Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self.

By Claire Tomalin.
Knopf. 470 pp. $30


This justly acclaimed biography of Pepys, famous for his ten years of diary-writing beginning in 1660 and dealing with matters both intimate and public, conveys a powerful sense of the author’s knowing the man personally. Rising from his origins as a poor tailor’s son to being a counselor to kings and virtual master of the royal navy, Pepys was close to the action through turbulent times of regicide, commonwealth, and restoration, ending up by honorably maintaining his loyalty to the exiled James II. At times, Tomalin overreaches in presuming personal familiarity with her subject, and does so most annoyingly with her repeated claim, unsupported by evidence, that Pepys’ regular churchgoing and many references to personal prayer are empty conventions. She tells us, for instance, that “he invokes God’s name as nonbelievers and half-believers do, a figure of speech alone.” It is as though she is trying to sanitize her subject, assuring her readers that Pepys was a thoroughly secular chap, just like us. To her credit, Tomalin does not overplay the salacious aspects of the diary, which, in fact, are quite tame by today’s nonstandards. Although of interest to the general reader, this comprehensive, albeit not exhaustive, account of the life will be appreciated most by those who have some familiarity with the diary, which is surely one of the more remarkable documents in English literature.

The Best of Triumph.
Edited by E. Michael Lawrence.
Christendom. 670 pp. $39.95


In 1966, L. Brent Bozell launched a different kind of Catholic magazine. Triumph was conservative and didn’t mind being called right wing, but presented itself as being Catholic without qualification. At the opening of its run of almost ten years, Bozell left no doubt that Triumph would represent a conservatism very different from that of National Review , edited by his brother-in-law, William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley’s conservatism, Bozell asserted, was thoroughly modern, being but the flip side of modern liberalism. Triumph ’s conservatism would be Catholic, and radically so. Most of the pieces included in this large collection are editorials or items written by the editors. There are also vigorous essays by noted Catholic thinkers who moved occasionally into the Triumph orbit: Dietrich von Hildebrand, John Lukacs, Germain Grisez, Francis Canavan, Lorenzo Albacete, and Jeffrey Hart. Triumph was frequently strident and over the top, but it could also be devastatingly witty, erudite in its evisceration of liberal pretensions, and powerfully moving in its evocation of “The Catholic Thing””a transcendent reality embedded in history and incapable of being taken captive by the partisanships of the City of Man. Triumph died of excessive eccentricity. Today there are many more publications on what might be called the Catholic right, but the erudition, the wit, and the fun of being radical are largely missing. The Best of Triumph is a useful resource for students of American religion and, more important, a testimony to fidelity’s potential for producing the outrageous, which is sometimes redemptively outrageous.

Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism.
By Beth A. Griech-Polelle.
Yale University Press. 259 pp. $35


Clemens August Graft von Galen was Bishop of Münster from 1933 until his death in 1946, and is generally honored as one of the too few Christian leaders in Germany who spoke out boldly against the Nazi regime. In this scholarly exercise in debunking, it is alleged that Galen did not do as much as he could, and the good that he did was done from mixed motives. He was a conservative, after all, and an aristocratic one to boot. The author uncritically credits the black legend of Pius XII’s “silence” regarding the Holocaust, and apparently thinks that both the Pope and Galen should have urged the German people to rise up in armed revolt against Hitler. Right. She does quote this fine passage from one of the three 1941 sermons in which Galen challenged the regime: “We are the anvil, not the hammer. The object which is forged on the anvil receives its shape not alone from the hammer but also from the anvil. Become hard! Remain firm! If it is sufficiently tough and firm and hard, the anvil usually lasts longer than the hammer.” In a dark time, Bishop Galen was a light. Perhaps he could have done more. But for what he did he will be honored long after this book and so many of its genre are forgotten.

The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933.
By Amos Elon.
Metropolitan. 446 pp. $30


The subtitle says it all. From Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin as a fourteen-year-old to the triumph of Hitler in 1933, the relatively small number of Jews in Germany (a little less than one percent) tended to be German to the core, thus magnifying the shock at the ascendancy of the Nazis. Elon tells the story in a straightforward and chronological manner. Among the uses of The Pity of It All , along with the work of Fritz Stern, Victor Klemperer, and others, is that it gives the lie to the fevered imaginings of Daniel Goldhagen and his ilk that German-Jewish relations were marked by relentless hostility and suspicion, driven by a virulent “exterminationism” just waiting to be unleashed by Hitler.

Getting It Right.
By William F. Buckley, Jr.
Regnery. 311 pp. $24.95


A documentary in the form of a novel that provides an insider’s account of the early years of the conservative movement launched by National Review . Center stage is given to Ayn Rand and her cause of “Objectivism,” along with the John Birch Society, with supporting roles for other anti-Communists who went over the edge into conspiratorial nuttiness. Mr. Buckley and his magazine were the ideological border patrol determining what would and would not gain admission to an intellectual and political movement that, from Barry Goldwater through George W. Bush, has reshaped American history. A fascinating and informative read.

Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary.
Edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa.
Westminster/John Knox. 158 pp. $19.95

paper .

Kathleen Norris notes in the foreword that powerful anti-Catholic currents make Protestants embarrassed and reticent about Mary. They bring her out for the Christmas pageant and then pack her away for another year. Most of the eleven essays here aim at remedying that spiritual and theological misfortune. Some of them are predictable feminist and “womanist” exercises on liberationist themes, but Joel Green on Mary as “curious exemplar” and Katharine Doob Sakenfeld on her Old Testament analogues are solid contributions. Particularly noteworthy is Cynthia L. Rigby on “Mary and the Artistry of God,” an engaging reflection on whether Mary might have said no to Gabriel’s announcement and what her saying yes means for human freedom.

The First Five Years of the Priesthood.
By Dean R. Hoge.
Liturgical Press. 186 pp. $19.95

paper .

The results of a 2000 national survey of priests recently ordained. While the long-term decline in the number of ordinations has slowed, Hoge says it has not been definitively reversed and notes that the replacement rate is only 35 percent for the number of priests dying, retiring, or resigning. There have been, he reports, few dramatic changes in the last twenty years, although younger priests tend to be more satisfied and less rebellious toward what he calls “authoritative institutional Church structures.” Maybe, he says, because they are in tune with the Church’s leadership, maybe because they see little chance of changing much of anything, or “maybe a different type of man is entering the priesthood.” Hoge acknowledges that most of the priests involved in the research are from “the liberal wing of the priesthood.” He suggests that the increased attention paid to homosexuality in the priesthood is simply reflective of changes in the surrounding culture.

The Vatican’s Women.
By Paul Hofmann.
St. Martin’s. 208 pp. $23.95.

The former Rome bureau chief for the New York Times reports on the women, not all of them religious sisters, who, while not holding the top positions, pull many of the important strings in the Curia. Their stories will be no surprise to most readers, apart from ideologues who are convinced that the Catholic Church is an entrenched andocracy, but they do illuminate aspects of the day-by-day life of the Holy See not generally known.

Horror: A Biography.
By E. Michael Jones.
Spence. 298 pp. $17.95

paper .

Taking off from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , the author ranges through history, gathering support for his thesis that the project of “the Enlightenment” enlists nihilism, sex, and horror in a monstrous drama that turns upon its human creators. Film buffs will be intrigued by his analysis of movies such as Alien , but the overall argument is, while sometimes suggestive, overheated.

Joseph Smith.
By Robert V. Remini.
Viking. 185 pp. $19.95


A lively addition to the “Penguin Lives” series offering a once-over-lightly introduction to the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story is heavy on the political, economic, and cultural context of Joseph Smith’s labors and does not attempt to adjudicate questions of truth or falsehood.

Islam Unveiled.
By Robert Spencer.
Encounter. 170 pp. $24.95


“Islam is a religion of peace.” That’s the tune we whistle as we pass ground zero in lower Manhattan. Spencer says we should stop kidding ourselves. His subtitle is “Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith,” and Spencer is much more than disturbed. He’s wrong of course about Islam being the world’s fastest growing faith”Christianity is that”but he’s right about the unevadable questions. He also recognizes that the questions finally must be answered by Muslims who are believably Islamic.

Present Dangers: Rediscovering the First Amendment.
By David Lowenthal.
Spence. 332 pp. $17.95


First published in 1997, and now with a post-September 11 preface by the author and a foreword by Harvey Mansfield, this is a vigorous defense of the original understanding of the First Amendment that demonstrates the Founders’ genius in synthesizing rights-based liberalism and republican responsibility. The argument never grows old.