Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition.

by Huston Smith.
HarperSanFrancisco, 160 pages, $22.95.

Written toward the end of a long career dedicated to the study of religion”his The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions has been a staple on college syllabi since it first appeared in 1958”this book has a definite valedictory feel. In the prologue, Huston Smith uses the story of a former student’s discovery of Plato’s allegory of the cave as a means of introducing the human hunger for something ultimate. In the coda, he speaks fondly of the joy he took in writing the book, and he reminisces about his childhood training by Methodist missionary parents, “which prepared [him] to tell the Christian Story from the inside.” Smith also clearly sees this slender book as a personal testimony to his Christian faith. An extended introduction shows why people today are spiritually hungry and states the author’s intention “to keep the Christian story from going out.” The title, then, should be understood as Smith’s own highly personal understanding of how Christianity is true within the frame of his larger understanding of the world’s religions as great wisdom traditions. The book does not really present “the voice of first millennium Christianity” or make much of an argument toward “restoring the great tradition” (as the subtitle suggests it might). The most intriguing, and also most problematic, part of the book is the section devoted to “the Christian World-View,” on which, Smith declares, “the Christian Story is stretched like a canvas on a frame.” Here Smith argues for what he might call “the soul” of all religion: a view of reality that is open to the infinite and to the revelation of the divine. He concludes with “the world is perfect, and the human opportunity is to see that and conform to that fact,” and immediately adds, “If this doesn’t sound distinctively Christian, the reason is that it isn’t. It is the world-view of all authentic, which is to say revealed, religions.” It is difficult to avoid the implication that what is authentic in Christianity is its “soul,” that is, the ways it agrees with other revealed religions, and that Christianity’s “body””all the ways it is distinct and particular”serve more to obscure than reveal the truth. Although Smith says many fine things that will be helpful especially to seekers like his former student, the book does not stand up well to a rigorous examination of its argument.

”Luke Timothy Johnson

Pius XII, The Holocaust and the Revisionists.
Edited by Patrick J. Gallo.
McFarland, 218 pp., $39.95.

This slim volume of essays adds to the growing literature defending Pope Pius XII against charges that he was complicit in the Holocaust. The editor, Patrick J. Gallo, a professor of political science at New York University, writes that much of the literature that attacks the pope is historically deficient and greatly overhyped. Gallo believes that authors who have been critical of the Vatican’s wartime conduct (such as John Cornwell, Susan Zuccotti, Robert Katz, James Carroll, and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen) selectively cite evidence to fit their preconceived theses, often rely heavily on one another’s work, and end up recycling the same misguided conclusions. “Historical complexity is lacking in many revisionist accounts,” Gallo observes. “Most revisionists fail to place events in context or else selectively quote the participants and dismiss out of hand eyewitness testimony that would provide a contrary account to theirs. Their approach to the subject matter is not rooted so much in history as in an ideology that overtakes objective historical inquiry.” Gallo himself contributes five original essays in the book. In the first and longest essay, he provides an excellent overview of the controversy and shows how the pope’s reputation has suffered at the hands of revisionist authors. In subsequent chapters, Gallo discusses the Vatican’s 1933 concordat with Germany, the pope’s active support for the German Resistance against Hitler in the early months of the war, the Vatican’s response to the round-up of Roman Jews in 1943, and the Nazi massacre of 335 civilians in the Ardeatine Caves outside of Rome in 1944 (which the revisionists have also blamed on the pope’s supposed indifference and inaction). Gallo draws from a wide range of primary and secondary sources to back up his arguments and conclusions, which are sound and persuasive. The other chapters in the book are previously published essays, book reviews, and book excerpts. The contributors include Ronald J. Rychlak, Matteo Luigi Napolitano, Robert Lockwood, Kenneth Whitehead, George Sim Johnston, Justus George Lawler, and Joseph Bottum. Rychlak finds that Goldhagen’s book, A Moral Reckoning , contains no original research and draws exclusively on secondary sources that advance his anti-Catholic thesis. Napolitano, who has examined many of the new documents that were released from the Vatican archives three years ago, critiques Peter Godman’s misuse of these new materials in his book Hitler and the Vatican . According to Napolitano, the documents that have been gradually emerging from the unsealed archives establish the Vatican’s opposition to Hitler and Nazism. Although much of the information in Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Revisionists should be familiar to knowledgeable readers, the book’s contributors successfully separate the actual facts from the propaganda that has been marketed as scholarship in recent years and strengthen the case for the defense.

”Dimitri Cavalli

by Jaroslav Pelikan.
Brazos, 320 pages, $29.99.

Preachers and teachers particularly, but thoughtful Christians more generally, have long lamented the slide of biblical scholarship into hyperspecialized studies of ancient texts in remote contexts. This first volume of a projected series of more than thirty volumes is therefore to be warmly welcomed. The intention of the series is to reclaim, at long last, the Bible as the book of the Church’s living tradition. When Pelikan’s magisterial five-volume work, The Christian Tradition , first appeared, some critics complained that he had taken an easy out by skipping the first century and the many thorny questions about the relationship between the apostolic generation and subsequent history. This book is, in important respects, the missing first volume of his great work. R.R. Reno, general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary, writes: “This series of biblical commentaries was born out of the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures. Theological exegesis of the Bible advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture.” In addition to Pelikan, the authors in the series include such notable writers as Robert Louis Wilken and Robert Jenson. Most are not biblical scholars in that guild’s narrow definition but theologians, pastors, and historians whose work reflects a profound engagement with the biblical sources. The Pelikan volume on the Book of Acts sets a very high standard for a series that promises to make a historic contribution to understanding the Bible within the living tradition that is the Church. Warmly recommended.