Aquinas at Prayer: The Bible, Mysticism and Poetry?
by paul murray, o.p.
?bloomsbury, 288 pages, $27.95

How did Thomas Aquinas pray? In Aquinas at Prayer, Paul Murray, O.P., sheds light on Thomas’s more mystical side by commenting on the prayers and liturgical poetry that he wrote as well as on his writings on prayer. While the authorship of the prayers in question will undoubtedly remain contested, Murray makes a good case, based on historical documentation and considerations of genre, that they were in fact written by Thomas.

He also shows that, contrary to critics such as Adrienne von Speyr, Thomas’s scholastic style does not indicate a lack of love or affective piety. Rather, as Jean-Pierre Torrell puts it, Thomas’s theology reveals “a religious attitude that has no equivalent except that of a mystic wholly consumed by love of the absolute.” Or as Murray says, borrowing a phrase from Ted Hughes, Thomas’s writing has “not the plainness of a white marble floor, but of deep, clear water, open and immediate.”

The prayers Murray considers all show the influence of a letter sent by Humbert of Romans, then master of the Dominican Order, to all its friars at the time when Thomas was in his thirties or late twenties. Perhaps the most beautiful of these is Thomas’s prayer for the attainment of heaven. When he asks in the Summa whether prayer should last a long time, he replies that it should last “long enough to arouse the fervor of interior desire.” This prayer seeks to fuel the desire for the beatific vision that strongly marked Thomas and his work. Murray shows how the structure and wordplay of the poem “allow us not merely to think of eternity but almost to feel something of its joyous atmosphere.”

Murray notes that while many medieval theologians undervalued prayers of petition, Thomas was unique in his argument for their importance. When prayers of petition or thanksgiving arise from the human heart, they are moved by impulses of the love given to us by the Holy Spirit. We should make such prayers confident that they will be heard because of God’s mercy, not because of our own merits. Reflection on God’s mercy gives us hope, and, Thomas writes, “prayer is the interpreter of hope.”

That hope is manifest in the office that Thomas composed for the feast of Corpus Christi, from which come some of the Western Church’s most beloved eucharistic verses. For example, in composing the “Pange Lingua Gloriosi,” Thomas drew on both the patristic hymn writer ­Venantius Fortunatus and the great poet of medieval sequences Adam of St. Victor. Here, like other medieval authors, Thomas used his hymns to revel in and ponder the paradox of God’s divine economy: The Word becomes flesh and by words changes bread into that flesh.

Murray ends by examining the “Adoro Te Devote,” which, he argues, Thomas composed for his own private use during the recitation of the eucharistic canon. This small masterpiece combines eucharistic devotion with longing for beatitude, linking two strong threads from Thomas’s academic work. With Paul ­Murray’s help, those more familiar with that academic work can gain a better sense of the spiritual life that fueled it and incorporate Thomas’s insights into their own lives of prayer.

—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College. 

Short Stories by Jesus: ?The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
?by amy-jill levine?
harperone, 320 pages, $25.99

In a conversation with a Jewish friend about interpreting the common Bible stories that Jews and Christians share, shoe leather came up. Why did Moses have to take off his sandals before the burning bush?

Moses had been told to do so by the voice of God, which told him that “where you are standing is holy ground.” I explained to my friend that this must be because sandals defiled the sacred space. “So,” the friend replied, “you think bare feet are ­better?”

Perhaps it was simply a demand for humility and respect, but my friend suggested that God wanted to be so close to Moses that not even shoe leather was permitted to intervene. God wants to be that close to each of us; that’s what made the ground holy and why Moses went barefoot into the Presence of the Almighty.

This interpretation of the story of God with Moses sent me to seek other interpretations of Hebrew Scripture, trawling the Internet for synagogue preaching and alternative ways of telling old stories. I agree with those Christians and Jews who say that synagogue and church must stay close to each other, so that we may prod one another’s study.

Amy-Jill Levine, who is Jewish and a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School, noted as author of The Misunderstood Jew and as general editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, not unreasonably points out in her new book Short Stories by Jesus that Jesus was telling stories to Jews, specifically late–Temple period, first-century Jews. She asks what that audience would have heard, originally, as Jesus told his tales.

Trying to listen to the parables as originally shared with a Jewish ­audience means listening to the stories ­Jesus told as if we were Jews during the late Temple period, hearing Jesus as if for the first time. I cannot think this entirely possible, but I imagine that Short Stories comes close.

The first thing Levine tells readers is that the parables have been tamed. In their natural habitat, they are often more provocative, frequently convicting, unexpectedly humorous, inspirational, consoling, and, being stories, more conversational than we think.

In the hands of later Christian interpreters, they often became anti-Jewish. Remembering that Jesus was hardly anti-Semitic, part of Levine’s goal in writing Short Stories was to filter out the anti-Jewish interpretations. She says this gently—at least I took it gently—yet she says it. “If we take away the complacent anti-­Judaism that so marks parable interpretation, we can keep Jesus in his own social context.”

But Short Stories clearly is not a sour critique of how Christians use ­Jesus’s parables. What is clear is Levine’s obvious affection for the stories Jesus told and the fascination she holds for them. “I do not worship ­Jesus as Lord and Savior, but I continue to return to these stories, because they are at the heart of my own Judaism.” She teaches the parables with an easy eloquence that, I suspect, springs from the heart of Jesus’s own ­Judaism.

—Russell E. Saltzman’s latest book is Speaking of the Dead.

God and the Gay Christian
?by matthew vines?
convergent, 224 pages, $22.99

According to Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian,those who oppose same-sex relationships are the real sinners: “It isn’t gay Christians who are sinning against God by entering into monogamous, loving relationships. It is the church that is sinning against them by rejecting their intimate relationships.” Vines attempts to make the case that the traditional interpretation of Scripture has led to untold pain, misery, and even suicide among gay believers, and he shares many stories regarding the traumas of these Christians. If his biblical exegesis is correct, orthodox Christians have much for which to repent.

When it comes to the feelings of gay Christians, Vines knows of what he speaks. Growing up as a gay teen in a conservative Presbyterian congregation in Wichita, Kansas, he often felt guilty for his attraction to other men, and he actively sought to change his orientation with the help of supportive parents. But ultimately, he came to the conclusion that his attractions could not be reversed.

This realization led him to plumb Holy Scripture to determine whether the traditional proscriptions against homosexual unions might be in error. Accepted to Harvard upon graduating from high school, Vines matriculated and studied there for two years before deciding to take a hiatus from his schoolwork to found an ­organization called the Reformation Project. He describes his organization as “a Bible-based, non-profit organization that seeks to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender ­identity.”

To his credit, Vines takes Scripture head-on. Purporting to hold a “high view” of the inspiration and authority of God’s Word, he eschews the textual run-arounds that are often employed by progressive commentators. In the book, he examines six passages: Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 to determine if they do in fact condemn the gay lifestyle.

After studying Genesis 19, Vines became convinced that the Sodomites’ sin was their role in preventing Lot from being hospitable, rather than their attempting homosexual rape. In Vines’s exegesis, the real sin was causing Lot to relinquish his vow of hospitality by releasing the angels into the Sodomites’ possession—quite an interpretive stretch.

Vines then proceeds to examine the New Testament, dismissing its proscriptions by arguing that they have nothing to do with today’s gay Christians. For instance, he attempts to explain away the warnings of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 that ??????? (usually translated as soft, effeminate ones) and ???????????? (usually translated as homo­sexuals) will not inherit the kingdom of God. Vines proposes that there was no first-century understanding of homosexuality per se, since all same-sex fornication was seen to be the result of an excess of lust. As such, he follows John Boswell’s exegesis and translates ???????????? as those engaged in non-celibate gay relationships or as pederasts, but not as those involved in homosexual relationships today. He uses essentially the same arguments to deal with the proscription on same-sex intimacy found in Romans 1. Vines’s novel translations of ??????? and ???????????? are refuted by Robert Gagnon, Raymond E. Brown, and countless other biblical scholars. But what is more surprising is the naivete of Vines’s own views concerning first-century understandings of sexual phenomena. Is the reader to believe that no one in first-century Jewish society thought that some people might seek out gay relationships on the basis of specifically same-sex attractions rather than simply out of an overabundance of ­indeterminate lust?

Vines also dismisses Robert ­Gagnon’s “gender complementarity” argument, which rejects homosexual marriage on the simple biological basis that the genitals of same-sex partners simply do not fit together, and therefore cannot fulfill the marital union of male and female as envisioned in Genesis 2. Such an argument reminds me of a 1980s anti-AIDS film produced by then–Surgeon General C. Everett Koop that I viewed while serving in the Army Reserve. In explaining the greater AIDS infection rates among gay couples as compared to heterosexual couples, Koop explained, “The rectum was not made for intercourse. It’s at the wrong angle, it’s the wrong size, it doesn’t have the same kind of tough lining that the vagina does.” In short, it is functioning in a manner for which it was not designed.

Vines is correct in one respect: A great deal of work is needed within the Church to ensure that gay men and women are treated with the love and respect they deserve as children of God. But given the flaws of Vines’s arguments, how can orthodox Christians “affirm” a union that lacks any biblical or biological validity?

Dennis Di Mauro is ­pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in ­Warrenton, Virginia, and he teaches at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.

Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years
?by richard a. stevick
?johns hopkins, 400 pages, $24.95

For years, “the continued success of the Amish in transmitting their culture to the upcoming generations” has been Richard A. ­Stevick’s interest. His most recent book on the topic, a second edition of Growing Up Amish, subtitled “The Rumspringa Years” (the first edition was “The Teenage Years”), focuses particularly on the challenges that new information and social technologies pose to Amish communities.

The Rumspringa years are that time in a young Amish person’s life when he or she mingles with the world before either leaving the community completely or entering the church through baptism. Needless to say, this period can cause tension within the tight-knit family groups that characterize these German-speaking American Anabaptists—will the children return to the faith, or will they fall away into the excesses of the world? As things stand, the Amish retention rate is over 80 percent.

Why do most Amish “Youngie” decide to stay in their communities? The “singings” and “band hops,” which many teenage Amish attend, take place without direct adult supervision. This lack of oversight has a constructive purpose. As a minister put it, “We don’t give our young folks leave to go out and sin just to get it out of their system. We give them a little space so they can be with people their own age and find a life partner.”

The “running-around” years can lead Youngie wayward, but for the most part this time makes room for the creation of the next generation of stable families. Once baptized and coupled, most young Amish stop going to late-night parties and settle back into the rhythms in which they were raised—this time at the helm of their own households. Reality-TV caricatures of hedonistic Rumspringa years notwithstanding, the lives of young Amish today look more like the lives of their parents than the lives of contemporary peers in a California public school.

Stevick wonders whether this will change as the illicit activities undertaken by Youngie become more digital, and he’s not the only one. Amish parents and ministers share his worries. The newness and expansiveness of the Internet imperils the pedagogical priority of parents, and by extension that of the church and its authorities. Community leaders are usually responsible for making judgments about whether a new technology will harm or help the faithful live upstanding lives. Under this structure of decision-making, more-­traditional—“plain”—Amish still won’t use tractors or have in-house landlines, because those technologies in various ways would violate commitments to healthy work, self-sufficiency, and communal integrity. But as the easily concealed smartphone becomes a major part of the lives of Amish youth, parental guidance is increasingly hamstrung.

This might induce some to doubt the future of the Amish. But Stevick ends on a somewhat hopeful note. And if a psychologist-turned–social scientist is “hopeful that with their . . .
faith in God” the Amish will remain a vibrant and viable Christian community, fellow Christians in America, who face similar difficulties in teaching their children to love God and live virtuously, should hope as well.

J. David Nolan is assistant ­editor of First Things.

The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose
?by christian smith and hilary davidson
?oxford, 280 pages, $29.95

Sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson have co-written a book with what they themselves admit is an unremarkable conclusion: Generosity is paradoxical. As the subtitle states, “Giving we receive, grasping we lose.” Why then did they write it?

Perhaps because one of the most useful functions of sociology is to find facts that remind us of what should never have been forgotten, that make it more difficult to ignore the obvious. While “many wise observers of human life have taught versions” of this same paradox, the authors tell us, “many people today seem not much shaped by the sayings of wise teachers from thousands of years ago.” For this reason, they decided it might “help to add to this traditional wisdom some empirical findings from social-scientific research.”

At an analytical level, the book seeks to contribute to scholarly social-science literature on altruism, pro-social behavior, charitable giving, volunteering, morality, positive psychology, and the like. But on a more human level, the authors hope that it will present a “deeply personal” challenge to its readers by confronting them with what will be, perhaps, a startling and complex existential question: “How generously or ungenerously will each of us live our own lives, why will we choose to do so, and with what ­effects on ourselves and those around us?”

On the first goal, the book succeeds remarkably well. Smith and Davidson are clearly top-notch socio­logists, and the chapters are chockfull of case studies, pie charts, and bar graphs. The causal mechanisms that link greater generosity and ­higher well-being in life are considered. ­Ungenerous lifestyles are shown to be associated with apathy and ­anxiety. Through detailed interviews with forty American families, we gain insight into the lives of generous versus ungenerous families.

But if we consider the second goal—posing an existential question to readers that actually prompts them to become more generous—things get a little shakier. Our authors, ever impressively self-aware, confess, “Understanding the paradox of generosity is the relatively easy part; more difficult is learning how we can actually become more generous. Generosity is not an easy, one-step way of life that is easily learned. . . . Becoming truly generous often requires overcoming some mental, emotional, and perhaps financial obstacles that get in the way of practicing what is good.”

And then, the clincher: “The paradox of generosity also seems to entail this truth: . . . Generosity itself needs to be desired. The good of other people must be what we want. Nobody can reap the personal rewards that generous practices tend to produce by going through the motions of generosity simply in order to reap those desired rewards.” Sociology can open our eyes but—as the authors suggest—something else is required to turn our hearts.

—Bianca Czaderna is a junior fellow at First Things.

Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo It
?by eva brann
?paul dry, 367 pages, $35

You can catch a glimpse of Eva Brann as she walks—always with a playful smile—around the beautiful Annapolis campus of my alma mater, St. John’s College. She has been a faculty member there for fifty-seven years, since the days when Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss walked its halls, and she has taught every class of its Great Books ­curriculum.

She translates ancient Greek texts and French poetry, and has taught mathematics, science, philosophy, politics, psychology, theology, literature, music, and more. She was the 2005 recipient of the National Humanities Medal and has published various books on the philosophy and poetry of the Greeks. And all this she has done with not the least bit of scholarly scrabble or academic self-importance.

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” This is her maxim of learning. And this is also why I think that many of her published books take the natural form of anthologies, where she picks a theme and then meanders like someone engaged with an old friend in conversation. Indeed, her readings of these great authors come with the easy familiarity of one who has been their constant companion for nearly six decades.

In her latest book, Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo It, Brann takes up roughly fifty great figures from Homer to Heidegger in order to explore their articulations of the idea of will. The diversity of thought suggests that “the will,” and what we call “free will,” refers not to just one constituent of the human psyche but to many senses, perhaps related, or perhaps distinct.

Brann’s project is to show “that even as the notion of willing was once devised, so it can be un-devised, probably for the better.” To the modern reader, this proposition will perhaps sound like nonsense. The language of will-ism is so deeply ingrained in our everyday thinking that it is difficult to imagine a world, let alone an ethics, without it.

She proposes an “un-willed life,” by which she does not mean a condition of “having let go” (à la Heidegger) or the “blow-out” (Nirvana) of desire, Eastern-style. But one of “impassioned thoughtfulness—a way as open to human beings now as it was some two and a half millennia ago. . . . It is a mode—the Greeks called it ­phronesis, ‘mindfulness’—whose tenor is not dead serious, distantly academic, but live, serious, engagedly human.”

She takes as a model Socrates, for whom the will is a life-spanning rational desire and not just the trifling of momentary choices. “Socrates carries on his life ‘ethically,’ that is, imbued by virtue: he does not perform acts ‘morally,’ that is, governed by willed decisions.” He doesn’t seem to get himself into quandaries requiring choice with respect to single acts of conduct—you know, the typical “trolley problem” morality that has become the basis of so much current pop philosophy. “To make knife’s-edge decision the locus of freedom is to confuse the explosion of impulse with free action.” There is a different path forward, which is a path all the way back to ancient Greece.

—Macarena Pallares is ­associate director of leadership ­development at the Intercollegiate
Studies ­Institute.