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Auctoritas Patrum?: The Reception of the Church Fathers in Puritanism
by Ann-Stephane Schäfer
Peter Lang, 449 pages, $109.95

It is well known that the New England Puritan divines took great pride in their libraries. John Winthrop was reported to have one thousand volumes, and the Mather family—Richard, Increase, Cotton, and Samuel—put together a collection so large that one contemporary called it the “Glory of New England.” What is less known is that these early American libraries were well stocked with writings from the Church Fathers and the medieval schoolmen.

In this learned and original study, Ann-Stephane Schäfer shows in great detail how much Puritan thinkers owe to early Christian writings. Though the Puritans believed in the primacy of Scripture, they were not narrow biblicists and drew widely on early Christian writings in polemical, homiletical, and exegetical works.

Schäfer, who teaches English at two universities in Mainz, draws on many thinkers to make her case, but two examples can illustrate her argument. One is Cotton Mather, the other John Leverett, president of Harvard College. Mather wrote a huge commentary on the Bible, Biblia Americana, in which he marshaled such patristic writers as Origen, Basil, and Augustine in support of a “spiritual” as well as “literal” interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis.

This set his commentary against the more conventional “literal” interpretation of his day. He even singled out John Calvin as using only the “literal sense,” which, he added, “is a great fault in this learned and worthy reformer.” In another work, after quoting Ambrose and Jerome, Mather refers to early Christian writers he treasured as “Red-Lettered Father[s].”

In the early eighteenth century, it was the custom at Harvard College for the president to deliver a lecture on Saturday morning on a theological topic. When he was president, Leverett made wide use of the Fathers in his lectures. He called them “learned men” and exhorted the students to “read the Fathers.” He says explicitly that he wished “to vindicate the Fathers.” For Leverett the patres were second only to the divinely inspired Scriptures, and he put them in the first rank among other writers. “Patres sunt honorandi” (the Fathers are to be honored), he wrote.

The Church Fathers, of course, were also consulted to mount polemics against Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism by displaying the form of Christianity that, in the opinion of the Puritans, existed in the early centuries and was no longer found in those bodies. And in the final section Schäfer shows how the writings of the Fathers figured in debates among the Puritans on the nature of the Church and particularly on such issues as baptism and church membership.

Schäfer’s treatment is balanced, judicious, and thorough, and she opens up a little-known chapter in the history of Christian thought and in American intellectual history.

—Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.

Essays in Biography
by Joseph Epstein
Axios, 603 pages, $24

Almost single-handedly, Joseph Epstein has brought the self-standing literary essay back into the prominence it once enjoyed in the time of Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson. One feels better about the human race after reading his portraits of, among many others (forty-two in all), Michael Jordan, George Washington, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Gershwin, Xenophon, Joe DiMaggio, and George Eliot. Even the wildly overrated, like Gore Vidal, have their faults dissected in a way that leaves their respective talents, modest as they no doubt were, modestly appreciated.

Plus, there is the humor. He recounts the time the famous caricaturist Max Beerbohm was asked about Freudianism, to which he gave this inimitable reply: “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?” To which Epstein can only add: “Ten perfectly aimed words and—poof!—a large and highly fallacious school of thought crumples to dust.”

Of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s well-earned reputation for flippancy, Epstein reports that on his application for a fellowship to All Souls College in Oxford, the cocky petitioner described Rousseau’s Confessions as “a lucid journal of a life so utterly degraded that it has been a bestseller in France ever since.”

But for me the finest and most moving essay was the last one, devoted to one Matthew Shanahan, a man otherwise unknown to the world, who was going blind and whom the author met while he was reading aloud books at a Jewish home for the blind: “Matthew Shanahan was as Irish as Joseph Epstein is Jewish . . . . He was twenty years older than I, yet when with him I felt in the company of a contemporary and a peer . . . . What we had in common was the city of Chicago, a certain bookishness, an amusement at human foibles, our own included, and a set of standards and values bred by the Depression and World War II that seemed to be on their way out.”

To catch one of the last glimpses of those fast-receding values in their full glory, one can do no better than to read this endlessly fascinating, amusing, and ultimately edifying book.

—Edward T. Oakes is a professor of systematic theology
at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.

Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam
by Jamal J. Elias
Harvard, 432 pages, $35

The latest book by Jamal J. Elias, religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, takes its name from an early Islamic account in which the Prophet Muhammad censured one use of images but permitted another. The relationship to images and visual art asked of Muslims, then, must be more complicated than the iconoclasm it is presumed to be in this age of cartoon protests and statue bombings.

But Elias goes beyond simply complicating a stereotype, a relatively simple task for which readers could instead wander the Metropolitan Museum’s new wing of Islamic art, filled as it is with marvelous arabesques and depictions galore. Rather than searching for a defining doctrine of images in Islam, an attempt that, Elias suggests, reflects the influence of Christian debates on theologies of the image, he reframes the study of visual culture to involve active processes of perception and interpretation, not just aesthetic appreciation.

Seen this way, discussion of Islamic art can finally move from tired questions about the lack of figural representation to more interesting conversations on, for example, the complex relationships presumed between icons and idolatry or on Byzantine and patristic influences.

With chapters variously dedicated to medieval optical theories, monumental calligraphy, Sufi metaphysics, the relationship between icons and idolatry, and the identity of beauty and virtue, what this four-hundred-page work loses in depth it more than makes up in breadth. Though sometimes awkward in tone, Aisha’s Cushion is deeply comparative in spirit (aided by frequent, accessible, and literate historical explanations) and ambitious in scope.

—Basit Kareem Iqbal is an editor living in Toronto.

The Sleep of Reason
by Morri Creech
Waywiser, 72 pages, $17.95

Morri Creech, assistant professor of English at Queens University of Charlotte, and occasional poet, is afraid. No, not because of the afflicted souls who haunt his verse, or because of the despairs and demons of the dark night of the soul that lace The Sleep of Reason, but rather because he thinks that we won’t acknowledge these things sufficiently. Can’t we see? he pleads, in poems of varying degrees of almost unrelenting dolor.

Twenty-seven poems (all of them skillfully crafted in meter, metaphor, and rhyme) and two prose allegories after we start reading, we know that “the meaning” is lacking in “Trouble”; that dust spins “its bedlam universe” and that the speaker is “tired of certainties” (“The Dream of Reason”); that Hardy’s darkling thrush is just not enough to yank the speaker from a poem whose epigraph is Dante’s dark-woods opening to the Inferno (“Age of Wonders”). One begins to look for a few pitiful rays of light in all this, but, alas, only “Little Testament,” with its utterly brilliant “the sun / unwinds its bolt of bullion” offers even the slightest consolation.

Nor is art as a substitute for faith going to save us. In “The Perils of Art,” the speaker turns the pages of a coffee-table book of paintings with his nine-year-old niece, who seems to prefer only “smiling de La Tour” to various crucifixions and Goya-esque butcheries. It is, as the speaker says, no easy trick to know “where horror ends / And where the beauty starts.”

Creech’s own exquisite genius for metaphor almost belies his relentless pessimism. What can one say in the face of such a cabinet of marvels as “the startled cherry of his cigarette” (a Nazi about to be killed by a sniper), or a tool that “lathed the wrinkled lake,” or (my favorite) a line about stars on a river that lie scattered “like jacks tossed on linoleum”?

The Sleep of Reason has a lot to offer, in other words. Just be prepared to entertain the notion that gray skies are never going to clear up.

—Len Krisak is an American poet.

The Soul of a Nation: Culture, Morality, Law, Education, Faith
by Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J.
Hamilton, 230 pages, $50

A colleague suggested that Fr. Bernard Coughlin, S.J., title this collection of essays “Letters to Young People,” because it would inform and challenge college-aged students who are grappling with philosophical, spiritual, political, and ethical questions for the first time. The essays particularly explain how American society has shifted culturally and politically since World War II and how to revitalize it.

“It is through the humanities principally,” says Coughlin, president of Gonzaga University from 1974 to 1996, “that the culture, values, and moral principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition are kept alive in Western society. That tradition does not exist on paper but in the mind and in the soul.” By throwing out faith and championing neutrality and tolerance, our institutes of education “all but forgot the child.”

Society cannot use children as tools to achieve social purposes. “The person to be educated must come first and then, only afterwards, social conformity.” Neither can they become disposable accessories—a point Coughlin makes clear in one of the book’s essays, “What Truths We Hold,” which also appeared as a First Things web column. Education is fundamentally a moral exercise directed toward, to borrow William Bennett’s term, “the architecture of souls.”

If Coughlin is right, our hope lies in the fact that our souls, and therefore our nation, by nature cannot remain neutral. It is in facing this human and, by extension, political fact that we begin to turn our attention to the soul of our nation and the souls of her children and future citizens.

—Katherine Infantine is a junior fellow at First Things.