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

Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic Approach to Literature.
By Nicholas Boyle.
University of Notre Dame Press. 304 pp. $55.

In Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic Approach to Literature , the Cambridge literary scholar Nicholas Boyle hopes to find “some new ways in which some of the greatest modern literature . . . can speak to us about the relation of the modern world to God, about God’s hiddenness and the revelation of the hiddenness, and about His reconciliation of our world to Himself through His Son and through His Son’s mystical body, the Church.” Boyle is highly critical of the main currents in secular modernity and of the biblical and literary scholarship under its sway. His own very Catholic theological sensibility draws him toward a redemptive reading of modern literature, one which takes its bearings from Holy Scripture. In response to the still-too-common assumption that Catholics are allergic to the Bible, Boyle emphasizes that a properly theological approach to modern culture and literature requires the integration of biblical wisdom with magisterial tradition. He argues that the Reformation’s claim of sola scriptura ”along with the subsequent development of aggressively Protestant scriptural study”led in the twentieth century to a biblical scholarship that “has pulsed away decoupled from the task of integrating theology and secular culture.” Nicholas Boyle’s own ambitious effort of reintegration does not entirely succeed; he is usually better at applying his hermeneutic theories than he is at formulating them for the reader. Still, this work does demonstrate the finer things that literary criticism can achieve when it seeks something of the divine in a body of writing that too many religious intellectuals and scholars have effectively abandoned to the high priests of secularism.

”Randy Boyagoda

Whose Bible is it? A History of Scripture Through the Ages.
By Jaroslav Pelikan.
Viking. 288 pp. $24.95 paper.

Readers of Jaroslav Pelikan’s books are familiar with the vast erudition, subtlety of thought, and careful discernment he brings to the texts he studies. In addition to these qualities, his books are also typically marked by a clear prose style that makes them eminently accessible to the general reader; they are free of all jargon and scholarly obfuscation. Pelikan’s new book, on the history of Scripture, continues on this same path. But the title, Whose Bible Is It? , suggests a bit more thematic unity than the book itself offers. The book opens with a vignette about three women ”one Protestant, one Catholic, one Jewish”who want to buy Bibles for their daughters during the seasons of Passover and Easter (often the same week of the year). If they put their request to a clerk, the only appropriate response would be “Which Bible do you want?””since different Bibles exist for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The book closes with a rhetorical flourish enjoining the reader to remember that the Jewish and Christian scriptures become vibrant testaments to a living God only when properly situated within the communities that preserved and transmitted them. “The Tanakh and the New Testament are agreed,” the last sentence of this volume solemnly announces: “‘What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’” Yet the book fails to articulate this thesis in any explicit or consistent way. To be sure, all the data are there”Pelikan is a consummate historian and the book does not suffer from a lack of learning”but when I finished the last sentence of the volume I immediately realized that I would have to re-read it with pencil in hand if I wanted to see how the evidence related to the conclusion. That said, Whose Bible Is It? can still be recommended as a well-written and entertaining survey of twenty centuries of Jewish and Christian struggles to understand the Bible.

Gary A. Anderson

Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy:

Catholic and anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England.
By Arthur F. Marotti.
University of Notre Dame Press. 307 pp. $25.

In the past twenty years or so, a new generation of early modern historians has challenged the materialist interpretations of history that prevailed in the academy until the end of the 1970s. Among their other projects, these historians have tried to understand religion on its own terms, instead of as a superficial manifestation of purely material motivations. Arthur F. Marotti relies on many of the methods and assumptions of this newer scholarship in a cultural history of religious controversy in early modern England. Marotti attempts to show how Protestantism became a central feature of English identity”a development he charts from 1571, when the first Jesuits arrived in England, to the 1688 Glorious Revolution. He focuses on Protestant and Catholic pamphlet literature (the pop culture of the time), emphasizing how Protestants labeled Catholics as treasonous, untrustworthy, and foreign. Events such as the attack of the Spanish Armada and the 1604 Gunpowder Plot provided a model for what would become the “Protestant salvation history” of England: Foreign Catholics (first Spanish, then French) and their fifth column in England plot the destruction of the realm, but God graciously delivers Albion from its enemies. Gradually, English Catholics went from merely being despised as a superstitious minority to being feared as a distinctly foreign, anti-English menace. Marotti’s well-researched account is convincing and informative, but it does not make for an especially compelling read. This is partly because of the book’s scrupulously narrow focus. Marotti acknowledges that his treatment of the Catholic “discourses” is much shorter than his treatment of the Protestant ones”in fact, it is too short. And Marotti’s book would have been more interesting to the non-specialist if the author had allowed himself a glance beyond the early modern period, to consider some of the long-term consequences of the animus he describes.

Daniel Sullivan

The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology.
By Eberhard Busch.
Eerdmans. 302 pp. $29.

The laurel for the finest book written on Karl Barth has a new home. Despite the growth in Barth scholarship over the years, few have seriously challenged the fact that the best book about Barth was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth , a beautiful book, but one whose focus often seems as much on its author’s views as on those of its subject. Balthasar’s book is also limited by having been written when only portions of Barth’s Church Dogmatics were completed; the most innovative and lasting of Barth’s late insights were yet to emerge. But with this translation of Eberhard Busch’s book, originally published in Germany in 1998, we now have available in English a genuinely great book devoted to understanding the entire body of Barth’s work on its own terms. Busch was Barth’s close friend and last assistant and is already renowned for his biography of Barth. This theological work confirms the author’s reputation as a man of immense theological culture and as Barth’s foremost interpreter. His knowledge of Barth’s major and minor writings is unsurpassed, and the intelligent arrangement of the book masterfully combines large themes with intricate details. The Great Passion is a milestone in Barth scholarship.

Matthew Rose

Prayer: A History.
By Philip and Carol Zaleski.
Houghton Mifflin.
416 pp. $28.

Prayer: A History by Philip and Carol Zaleski, frequent contributors to these pages, is a big and capacious book, interreligious and multicultural, surveying the ways in which human beings, historically and at present, give expression to their relationship with the transcendent. The authors are determinedly irenic but, Christians that they are, they give most attention”and the most informed and fetching attention”to the ways in which Christians and Jews pray. The theologically-minded will at points be made uneasy by a generic concept of prayer suggesting that Teresa of Avila, Navajo rain dances, Sufi dervishes, and Buddhist immolators of the self are all more or less engaged in the same practice called prayer. In this respect, the book reflects the problems of all studies in comparative religion, assuming a universal phenomenon into which experienced particularities are subsumed. Nonetheless, attentiveness to the observed practices and participant reflections on those practices that are universal or near-universal do suggest, for all the dissimilarities, a commonality that, for lack of a better term, the authors call prayer. The authors are for the most part reporters rather than analysts. The reader is left to judge whether, for instance, the ecstasies of the nineteenth-century Sri Ramakrishna are more like or unlike the revelations of the Little Flower, Thérèse of Lisieux. The book is enriched by extended quotations and eye-witness accounts. Here, for instance, is Thomas Merton reflecting on worship at the Abbey of Gethsemani: “The cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature, can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.” The Zaleskis’ Prayer: A History does not make a lot of cheap demands on the reader’s sensibilities”what a fine phrase to employ against the psychologizing of liturgy and imposed spiritual enthusiasm of every sort. Philip and Carol Zaleski are writing in conscious contrast to the 1930s classic, Prayer: A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion , by Friedrich Heiler, and they have little patience with modern demythologizers who pit “authentic” prayer against the “primitive” and “magical.” The least satisfactory portion of Prayer: A History is the cursory treatment the Zaleskis give to “prayer in the public square.” Indeed, at times they seem to tilt in the direction of a false pluralism”the sort of notion that suggests deep differences should make no public difference. Nonetheless, Prayer: A History is a significant achievement. The authors’ learning and generosity of spirit will lead their readers into unfamiliar territory and reveal new depths in the familiar. The result is that one can only with difficulty escape the invitation and challenge to become more fully a person of prayer.

Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred.

By John Lukacs.
Yale. 244 pp. $25.

Over forty years ago, Father John Courtney Murray wrote, “Perhaps one day the noble many-storeyed mansion of democracy will be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool-shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.” Historian John Lukacs thinks the dismantling has been underway for a long time and looks for no help from a “conservatism” that is, in his view, nothing more than a vulgar mix of nationalism, populism, and militarism. He calls this book a jeremiad, and that it surely is. Looking around the ruins, he holds out the hope of “the Catholic Church being the last, embattled and tattered but, still, here and there visible, bastion and inspiration of personal integrity, decency, and, yes, of liberty and hope.” This is not a book for faint hearts.

The Good Life.
By Charles Colson.
Tyndale. 394 pp. $24.99.

Charles Colson, undoubtedly one of the foremost evangelical Protestant figures of our time, here offers the stories of men and women who have discovered “the good life” in service to Jesus Christ. His own story of conversion and transformation gives further credibility to the arguments that he makes. Writing with Harold Fickett, Colson repeatedly underscores the ways in which hitting the bottom and teetering on the cusp of despair so often become the turning points toward what Jesus called “life and life abundant.” The Christ-centered structure of Chuck Colson’s book and its emphasis upon the support of a sustaining community of faith make it much more than just another entry in the genre of self-help spirituality.

A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-Day Saints.
By Robert L. Millet.
Eerdmans. 226 pp. $16 paper.

A professor of religion at Brigham Young University presses the case that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church, is indisputably Christian in the most central affirmation of the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, writes a most irenic foreword and afterword, stretching as far as he can to credit Professor Millet’s argument. But in the end even Mouw is left wondering whether, Millet’s sincere beliefs notwithstanding, the Jesus Christ of the Nicene Creed can be squared with, for instance, the Latter-day Saints’ insistence that God is of the same species as humanity. While Millet’s argument will not convince most orthodox or approximately orthodox Christians, it is a serious theological effort to bring Mormon belief and piety into conversation with historic Christianity. Some Mormons claim that their church is simply Christianity with “more.” Christians of a “Bible only” persuasion, object to that more”and object strongly. Of course, they also object strongly to what they view as the “more” of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. With Catholicism and Orthodoxy, however, it is more of the same, while the Mormons’ “more” is manifestly a more of something very different. The discussion of whether and in what ways the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is and is not Christian will certainly continue, and it is the merit of this book to have elevated that discussion.

The End of Time.

By David Horowitz.
Encounter. 157 pp. $23.95.

The author is a political activist extraordinaire, first on the left and now for many years on the right. His book Radical Son is a classic of the “red-diaper baby” genre, recounting his tumultuous break with a world entranced by the Marxist “god that failed.” The present book is, for the most part, very different. Writing after a life-transforming encounter with cancer, Horowitz reflects on the deep things of life’s meaning and whether it is possible to make a difference that matters historically. Pascal figures prominently in his meditations. While he admires the master’s humility and honesty, by the end of the book Horowitz still holds back from Pascal’s faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. David Horowitz continues to live on the cusp.

The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity, and the Culture Wars.

By David Stetson and Joseph G. Conti.
Intervarsity. 207 pp. $16 paper.

An extraordinarily lucid and persuasive laying out of the case that truth and tolerance are not in conflict. Indeed, the authors contend, tolerance is required by a commitment to truth. Aimed at Christians, and evangelical Protestants in particular, The Truth About Tolerance will greatly benefit all who worry, with reason, that the culture wars Stetson and Conti refer to in their subtitle could destroy civil society, dividing the United States into camps of unremitting hostility and mutual intolerance. Warmly recommended.

Reason and the Reasons of Faith.
Edited by Paul J. Griffiths and Reinhard Hutter.
T & T Clark. 373 pp. $49.95.

There is today a crisis of faith in reason, and a crisis of reason in faith. And, in complex ways, each crisis reinforces the other, or so argue the scholarly contributors to this valuable volume. Essayists include Alan J. Torrance, Bruce D. Marshall, Robert Jenson, David Bentley Hart, Romanus Cessario, and the editors themselves.

The Third Spring.
By Adam Schwartz.
Catholic University. 415 pp. $64.95.

The author teaches history at Christendom College and has put into very readable form his meticulously researched doctoral thesis on G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and the poet David Jones. John Henry Newman spoke of the “second spring” of Catholicism in Britain, and Schwartz suggests the many literary and intellectual converts of the twentieth century constituted a “third spring.” They sought in Catholicism a solidly grounded alternative to what they viewed as a decadent secular culture. Those who lived to see the consequences of Vatican II feared that the solid ground was shifting. The argument offers no surprises but The Third Spring is an inviting introduction to figures of continuing interest.

The Beloved Community.
By Charles Marsh.
Basic. 292 pp. $26.

The subtitle is “How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today,” and the author is director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. He writes that “if you are southerner, white, and Christian”and I am all of those”you owe the credibility of your faith to the courage and conviction of your black brothers and sisters.” There is an important sense in which that may be true, but the author, whose rhetoric frequently overwhelms theological reflection, appears to mean that the truth of the Christian gospel is contingent upon its ability to effect, or at least bear witness to, radical social change. In any event, this book is a partial payment of his felt debt to black religion in the South. Like the recent and justly influential A Stone of Hope by David Chappell, The Beloved Community argues that the early civil rights movement, especially under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., is inexplicable apart from the vibrant Christian faith of southern blacks. Marsh draws on the standard accounts of King and his leadership but also provides brief portraits of lesser known figures such as Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farm, one of the more notable experiments in radical Christian community that contributed to a spiritual awakening in the South. While the writing is prosaic and the repeated jargon about “social gospel,” “prophetic religion,” and “solidarity with the poor” can be tedious, some readers may find contagious the author’s fervent sincerity. The book is marred by streaks of mean-spiritedness toward those who, in Marsh’s view, were not as clearsighted or courageous as his heroes. Yet The Beloved Community deserves a place in the still-growing library of books on the civil rights movement and related experiments in radical communitarianism.

The Doors of the Sea.

By David Bentley Hart.
Eerdmans. 109 pp. $14.

Shortly after the tsunami in Asia that may have killed more than 200,000 people, David Hart wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal which he then expanded as an opinion piece in these pages and has now greatly expanded as The Doors of the Sea . The title is from God’s challenge to Job: “Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth as if it had issued out of the womb?” Hart offers a scathing critique of both sentimental and rationalistic responses to evil that try to justify to man the ways of God. Among Christian rationalists, those of a Calvinist bent are most mercilessly dissected. The real question posed by the tsunami and all experience of evil, Hart contends, is that posed by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov : Can we morally accept any vindication of God’s justice that necessarily entails the existence of great evil? As an Orthodox Christian sympathetically engaged with the Catholic tradition of the West, David Bentley Hart contends that we can settle for nothing less than the fulfillment of eschatological promise in which the ultimate non-reality of evil will be decisively displayed in the triumph of Christ. This penetrating reflection is warmly recommended to those pondering “the problem of evil,” whether out of intellectual curiosity or out of the depths of anguish occasioned by disasters cosmic or personal.