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The Physics of Christianity
by frank j. tipler
doubleday, 320 pages, $27.50 

People who do research in fundamental physics often receive manuscripts in the mail from crackpots who think they have unlocked the secrets of the cosmos. The Physics of Christianity is in the same genre—and made weirder by the fact that its author is actually a professional physicist. Tipler began his career doing solid research in theoretical cosmology. In 1986, he coauthored with John Barrow a fascinating book, The Anthropic Cosmological Princ­iple, which helped draw attention to an important set of ideas. Since then, Barrow has written a dozen good popular books and continued to do first-rate research in cosmology, while Tipler has descended deep into the realm of bizarre speculation.

That something had gone wrong became clear when Tipler published The Physics of Immortality in 1994. It sold well but was scathingly reviewed in Nature by the well-known cosmologist George Ellis, who called it a “masterpiece of pseudoscience.”

His new book, The Physics of Christianity, is a mixture of The Da Vinci Code and X-Men. God, Tipler informs us, is the “singularity” of the spacetime manifold at the Big Bang. Unless the universe stops expanding and recollapses into a Big Crunch or final singularity (which is none other than God the Father, by the way), other nastier kinds of spacetime singularities will appear and the universe will be destroyed—even worse, it will be rendered mathematically inconsistent. But the universe’s expansion can only be halted if mankind colonizes the whole universe and annihilates most of the atoms in it by the so-called sphaleron process (which is actually something real).

Jesus knew the secret of doing this—hence his power of dematerializing and rematerializing. Indeed, as a sort of genetic mutant (due to his virgin birth), this superpower was built into his body and is encoded in his DNA. By finding a sample of his blood (here the Shroud of Turin and the Knights Templar enter the story), we will decipher the code and quite literally save the universe.

There is much more of the same sort. To call it pseudoscience is far too kind. It seems that a few Christians are taking these ideas seriously. The people at Doubleday must be laughing into their sleeves.

Stephen M. Barr

Global Bioethics: The Collapse of Consensus
edited by h. tristram englehardt jr.
m&m scrivener press, 416 pages, $39

In Global Bioethics, H. Tristram Englehardt, one of the originators of what has come to be known as bioethics, has edited an arcane and scholarly book in which he and other internationally notable academics explore the possibility, given today’s culturally polyglot world, of achieving a truly “global bioethics.”

The title seems a bit misleading. Considering the contentious nature of the issues with which bioethics grapples—abortion, assisted suicide, human cloning, the proper status of animals, health-care rationing and resource distribution, just to name a few—not to mention the radically differing moral values contesting globally for dominance, it would perhaps take genetically enhanced powers of persuasion to convince anyone that there ever existed a global bioethical consensus that has collapsed.

But never mind. The many authors of the book valiantly search in every philosophical nook and cranny for an overarching value system to which most of the world could ascribe—the best chance, as identified by one author, perhaps being “the human rights agenda of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” But given that the Declaration has not exactly succeeded in bringing an end to despotism, terrorism, torture, slavery, genocide, oppression, exploitation, and general mayhem, one can see the difficulties in enforcing such an international mandate, even if a globally agreed-upon moral framework for making crucial moral judgments could be found.

Perhaps then Englehardt, an Orthodox Christian who swings from the libertarian side of the plate, is right when he argues that the best that a global bioethics can achieve is providing “a thin moral framework, a space within which individuals and moral communities can peaceably pursue divergent understandings of morality . . . within limited democracies and within a global market.”

But why not dare idealism and let our reach exceed our grasp? If academics, philosophers, medical professionals, lawyers, policy advocates, human rights activists, and others of goodwill can find it within themselves to strive tirelessly to create a bioethics that wholeheartedly em­braces the value of all human life as its core principle, the world just might see the beauty of the unmet potential and come willingly into the light.

Wesley J. Smith

Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi: John Selden
by jason p. rosenblatt
oxford univ. press, 328 pages, $99

In 1629, King Charles I dissolved a contentious Parliament and imprisoned nine exponents of individual rights. Among them was “the most learned person in seventeenth-cen­tury England,” John Selden (1584-1654). Hardly a firebrand, Selden consistently displayed an even-­tempered, scholarly detachment from the fierce invective that characterized the speech and writing of his day.

His imprisonment in the Tower gave him time to study in detail the voluminous Babylonian Talmud, some two and a half million words in Aramaic. Selden’s resulting scholarly works on rabbinic and Talmudic learning established him as the foremost English Hebraist, legal historian, and philologist of the seventeenth century.

Jason P. Rosenblatt’s Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi, highly at­tuned to the intricacies of Selden’s thought and the extent of his influence, provides a much-needed scholarly assessment of a remarkable polymath. Concentrating on the six massive, understudied volumes of Selden’s rabbinic and Talmudic works, Rosenblatt examines his subject’s influence on learned poets from Ben Jonson to John Milton and Andrew Marvell, as well as intellectuals such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton.

Selden’s work casts light on such diverse topics as English statutory law on marrying the widow of one’s brother (a matter of no small importance to the historical Henry VIII and the fictional Hamlet), boys dressing as women in the theater (the Deu­ter­o­nomic prohibition stems from cross-dressing in pagan worship of Venus and Mars), and Milton’s naming of the angel Zephon in Paradise Lost (the angel is “a sacred original who predates his idolatrous opposite,” Baal-Zephon).

Rosenblatt is especially articulate in discussing the irony that “Renaissance England’s chief rabbi” was a Christian in a culture scabrous with anti-Semitism. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and Selden would not live to see them return. His work, though, was instrumental in securing their readmission.

To be sure, Selden had to tread lightly, sometimes relegating to a parenthetical phrase the main point of a potentially incendiary idea. As Rosenblatt puts it, Selden loved to “bury the lead.”

There is something of this sensibility in Rosenblatt himself: A reader might do well to start not with his first chapter but his seventh, on Selden’s rabbinic scholarship and religious toleration. There one gains perspective on matters that animate the rest of the book: Selden’s Erastian conviction that “the Sanhedrin might serve as a positive model for Parliament” and his gentle insistence that the seven Noahide laws of rabbinic tradition, not the Ten Commandments or other laws of the Hebrew Bible, provide the basis for natural law.

Bryan Crockett

Ludlow: A Verse-Novel
by david mason
red hen press, 232 pages, $18.95 

David Mason has succeeded in re­storing to poetry some of the territory lost over recent centuries to prose fiction. Ludlow is both true novel—possessing complex, engaging characters, and multilayered plot—and ­genuine poetry composed in flexible blank verse. In telling the story of the Ludlow mine massacre of 1914, the language of the novel shifts registers with remarkable speed and agility, from the conversational to the lyrical. The narrative blends historical details and richly imagined characters, both real and fictional, into a compelling psychological and social drama.

Set during the Colorado coal strike of 1913, the story dramatizes the struggle of the Ludlow miners and their families to unionize. Although the brutality of management and corrupt lawmen (such as Sheriff King Farr) is fully portrayed, the story is remarkably subtle and even-handed in its treatment of characters on both sides of the conflict. Mason depicts the miners’ harsh living conditions and their various languages, accents, and regional dialects with understated grace. Luisa Mole, daughter of a Welsh father and Mexican mother, embodies the story’s conflicts. As she comes of age, the class tensions and conflicting loyalties she experiences after being adopted by the middle-class Reed family provide some of the the novel’s most compelling drama.

Paul Lake

Good News, Bad News: ­Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith
by c. john mccloskey III and ­russell shaw
ignatius, 134 pages, $12.95

“Have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic?” That is the question more of us should be posing. Or so argue C. John McCloskey and Russell Shaw in their new book. McCloskey, a Wall Street analyst turned Roman Catholic priest (of Opus Dei), and Shaw, a Catholic journalist and former communications director for the U.S. bishops’ conference, propose a plan for Catholic renewal based on the personal apostolate of the lay faithful. Drawing from his experience as Washington’s “convert maker”—notably credited with the conversions of Bernard Nathanson, Sam Brownback, Lawrence Kudlow, Laura Ingraham, Alfred Regnery, and Robert Novak—McCloskey peppers the book with the first-person written conversion accounts of those he’s led into the Church. The result is a how-to guide for a Catholic apostolatea word, the authors fear, that many Catholics don’t know.

Along the way, McCloskey and Shaw fight against the corrupting tendencies of many who champion the “vocation of the laity” as entirely lay ministries, parish committees, and administrative structures—all of which tend only to clericalize the laity while failing to reach non-Catholics. In fact, the authors say, the authentic vocation of the laity is to be Christ in the middle of the world and to bring other people to Christ right in the middle of the world—not in the parish hall. This is the real work of an apostolate that must be carried out by the laity.

Mindful that only God causes conversion, the authors provide a concise road map on what Catholics can do to prepare the way: emulate the success of the early Christians by being models of love, service, and holiness; provide a compelling re­sponse to life’s deepest questions by showing the relevance and centrality of Jesus and the intellectual coherence of the Catholic faith; educate themselves in history, theology, and apologetics—and don’t be afraid to discuss them; invite others to experience Catholicism through the liturgy, intellectual tradition, and masterpieces of literature, music, and art; clarify misconceptions, relieve doubts, answer questions, and embody Christian joy.

Ryan T. Anderson

Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature
by anthony esolen
isi, 412 pages, $18 (paper)

With his newest book, the distinguished Dante translator Anthony Esolen has produced a respectable scholarly work that also has a devotional effect on its readers. Although it shows his keen understanding of a range of works and displays his precise and elegant use of language, Esolen is primarily writing for the sake of instruction, and so he leads his readers by example to a place where Christian humility and love are the guides of interpretation.

The result is a study of irony that excavates the scriptural influences and theological truths at the heart of several literary works, from Augustine, Shakespeare, and Milton, to Dickens, Tolkien, and Dostoyevsky. By exploring how the ironies at the heart of the Christian faith overflow into ironies in ­Christian literature, Esolen makes an ever-expanding but always specific case that Christianity lends more richness to art than the pagan world assumes.

While using Christianity to teach about literature, Esolen is simultaneously training readers to use literature as a tutor for the Scriptures. Though at times he allows his arguments to get muddled with extended retellings, losing readers in a surplus of details, Esolen has still written a significant work that is not only an accessible but also an indispensable encouragement to faith and literary appreciation—awakening us to unsuspected truths that we have been too dulled by habit to notice.

Kristen Scharold

Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944
by alfred delp, s.j.
ignatius, 240 pages, $14.95 (paper)

Alfred Delp (1907-1945) is famous in Germany—and justly so. An anti-Nazi Jesuit priest executed for his resistance to Hitler (which included assistance to Jews), Delp’s life and martyrdom is being celebrated this year, the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Ignatius Press has produced this collection of his writings to bring English-language readers a taste of his greatness. Most of these meditations were written shortly before his arrest—or while he was actually in prison, with his hands shackled”as their intensity shows.

Indeed, there is an extraordinary vibrancy to his writings. Again and again, Delp addresses the apostasy of modern man and the inability of secularism to provide meaning. But he saw man­kind’s grave predicament as a spiritual opportunity: “The reason man has become so poor, damaged, and incapable of managing life,” he wrote, “is that God’s liberation has not come to him.... We must keep telling people these days that the Lord stands ready and waiting at the gates. The entire bitter course of events is not only a judgment, but should be taken just as seriously as God Himself hammering on the gates of our minds, our spirits, and our freedom, for us to surrender them to Him.” Such a surrender demands a sacrifice, but one that ultimately brings grace: “We should not avoid the burdens God gives us. They lead us into the blessing of God.”

Delp lived what he preached, offering up his own supreme sacrifice for his commitment to Christ. De­spite the circumstances of his execution, a striking optimism pervades his writings. Hence, his famous last words to the prison chaplain right before he was hanged: “In half an hour, I’ll know more than you do.” If you’re looking for a book to inspire a relative or friend this Christmas, this is it.

William Doino Jr.

Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis
by melanie m. morey and john j. piderit, s.j.
oxford univ. press, 464 pages, $35

Relying on many interviews with administrators and wide educational experience, the authors identify the current crisis: As founding religious orders withdraw after decades of ­secularization, a renewed willingness to emphasize Catholic identity emerges. Unfortunately, lay administrators, poorly prepared by their predecessors, are often unclear about that identity and the effective propagation of a Catholic vision capable of integrating faith, reason, and action.

Catholic Higher Education identifies four models of Catholic colleges and universities, each with a legitimate mission. The authors highlight the conditions necessary for each model to manifest Catholic identity in its core activities. They analyze principal aspects of the challenge, especially recruitment and retention of professors dedicated to a Catholic vision, the roles of philosophy and theology, resident-hall behavior, and campus ministry. They also suggest various solutions, depending on the types of institution involved—and offer a sympathetic analysis of how women religious, once one of the most highly educated, institutionally powerful, and organized groups in education and the Church, rendered themselves, within little more than a generation, institutionally irrelevant.

Although one might disagree with some of its proposals for renewal, the book should ignite discussion and is recommended for administrators and trustees of Catholic institutions, bishops, professors, and all those interested in preserving and enhancing Catholic higher education.

John McDermott, S.J.

The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945
by saul friedlander
harpercollins, 896 pages, $39.95

Hailed by many as the definitive book on the subject, this study reflects the author’s assiduous combing of Nazi documents, diaries of Holocaust survivors, and many other sources pertinent to that time of horror. Regrettably, Friedlander evinces little curiosity about sources bearing on the attitudes and activities of Catholics and other Christians, and the volume may thus reinforce myths about Christian indifference and complicity, including the myth of the “silence” of Pius XII. Nonetheless, the book is mandatory reading for students of the period.

The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq
by fouad ajami
free press, 416 pages, $16 (paper)

Over the years, few people have done as much to educate Americans about the realities of the Middle East as Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University. The present book is an engaging and informative commentary on his more recent visits to that part of the world—and to Iraq in particular. The focus is on the rise of the Shi’a Muslims against their ­former Sunni masters, led by Saddam ­Hussein. As for American ­policy, Ajami has many criticisms but is ­convinced that America and its allies must not leave Iraq in a way that would hand the country over to even bloodier anarchy followed by restored tyranny.

The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue
edited by robert b. stewart
fortress, 220 pages, $18 (paper)

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. The book includes an evening’s dialogue at a Baptist seminary between Crossan and Wright, followed by eight essays on their views by various scholars. Crossan, a former priest and famously dissident Catholic, is the author of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, and Wright is the Anglican bishop of Durham and author of The Resurrection of the Son of God, part of a multivolume series on Christian origins. The dialogue is friendly, but Crossan was clearly off his feed, and Wright very ably took his arguments apart, albeit in a gentlemanly way. Crossan apparently recognized that, and he returned with an “appendix” included in the book, which more carefully sets forth his view of the matters in discussion. His is a fairly conventional restatement of the liberal “historical Jesus” position of the last two centuries, emphasizing that what matters is not the “mode” but the “meaning” of the resurrection. The essays, including one by a Jewish scholar at Barnard College, are interesting in their own right. Most readers will come away with the conclusion that Wright decidedly has the better part of the argument in his defense of the gospel accounts and their portrayal of the resurrection as an event in history, without which the origins of Christian faith are inexplicable. Readers seriously ­interested in these questions are directed to the abovementioned book by Wright, which is accessible to nonspecialists and provides a fair and thorough account of the arguments of Crossan and his many ­predecessors.

Culture Matters: A Call for Consensus on Christian ­Cultural Engagement
by t.m. moore
brazos, 176 pages, $16.99

A reflection by a dean of the Wilberforce Forum (an arm of Prison Fellowship). Unanimity is unlikely, but a “consensus” on the whys and hows of such engagement is possible among biblical Christians. Foreword by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash. Image Cropped.