Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles
translated by a. m. juster
toronto, 173 pages, $29.95
The riddle of Samson’s strength, the riddle of the eagle’s way with the sky and the ship’s way with the sea, the riddles in royal dreams of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, the riddle of things hidden since the world began, the riddle of a temple that can be destroyed and yet rebuilt in three days. Riddling runs like a seam of gold through the rock of the Old and New Testaments. The mystery and praise of creation and sub-creation that we find in the books of the Bible emerge again as bright knowledge in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, poems of the seventh-century Aldhelm, noble and bishop and poet and saint. Translated by poet A. M. Juster from Aldhelm’s Aenigmata, these poems suggest that all things possess a mystery. Salamander and raven, candle and cauldron find their secret wonders revealed in riddle. (How appropriate, then, that A. M. Juster is also a riddle, a pen name for a man who has held two very different public roles.)
Despite the homely reputation of the riddle, sparkling beauty makes an appearance in these rhyming iambic-pentameter lines. Take this mysterious, paradoxical collision between weighty and weightless: “For I command cold metals’ airy track.” Dark and light, ethereal and material jostle in lovely ways: “Since birds and shadows each retain a claim”; “For I will hide in star-borne nests at night”; and “I’m jammed by mobs of stars on Heaven’s peak.”
With mastery of form comes ease. Juster’s metrical lines are marked by happy marriages of form and content: “Look! I’m not scared by iron’s long, hard stress” and “But peasants’ wedges split my wood with whacks.” Sparks of fire are “Vile, wild, riled, dry.” His versions at times conjure the alliteration and assonance of Anglo-Saxon half-lines, as in “bolder than a bristly boar.”
In Juster’s commentary, we meet Saint Aldhelm in another way, discovering his sources and something of his times, with news that reaches from silkworm-as-resurrection-motif to how lunar waxing and waning affected blood-letting to glassmaking in Britain. Juster’s notes on matters of philology, recent scholarship (wise or occasionally foolish), and the knowledge and folklore of Aldhelm’s age are fascinating and, at times, wonderfully lighthearted.
The riddles tell us a secret—that ours is a world of wonders. In such a kingdom, what do the poet’s words owe to creation? How should the saint behave in a realm where each thing has its own special part in the mystery of life? Aldhelm’s response is to reveal “Clandestine mysteries through spoken verse” with help from “God, whose Word controls totality.” For readers of English with little or no Latin, A. M. Juster has dispelled one cloud of mystery around the saint’s hexameter lines. For them, Saint Aldhelm may now “put forth a riddle, and speak a parable” (Ezek. 17:2).
—Marly Youmans’s most recent novel is Maze of Blood.
Book of Numbers
by joshua cohen
random house, 592 pages, $28
Joshua Cohen’s novel announces its ambitions with a biblical epigraph and its imperfect replication. Cohen first quotes the King James translation of Numbers 14, in which God condemns the children of Israel to “wander in the wilderness forty years,” throughout which “shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise.” Below that, he quotes a translation of the same passage from the Hebrew, generated by a Google-like search engine. This one features more-corporate, less-damning language, replete with binary options for the Israelites: After life as “shepherds in the desert 40 years,” God tells them, “you will support your poverty/violation . . . and you will know my opposition/pretext.” After this caustic opening, the novel evokes the texture and terms of contemporary life, understood as a tribe of atomized individuals wandering in the subtle deserts of twenty-first-century digital and material excess—and either magnificently indifferent to this sterility or hyper-aware but unable to find any fixed meaning to counteract it.
Cohen explores this situation through the experiences of a self-pitying, self-involved New York writer whose career went nowhere after his debut novel happened to be published on September 11, 2001. Divorced and living out of a storage unit alongside shady and pathetic denizens (because, for a Jewish intellectual, this is better than life with mother), our unnamed protagonist stumbles onto a stunning opportunity: A Silicon Valley titan known as Principal hires him to ghostwrite his memoir on growing up in California during the post-1970 technology boom.
Big money and mysterious adventures outweigh moral misgivings, and so the protagonist accompanies Principal on globe-spanning peregrinations on behalf of his search company, Tetration, while hearing about his early days and work at Stanford and beyond. At a birthday party in Palo Alto, Big Tech elites dance drunkenly with Nobel laureates and buxom starlets before holographic bonfires, while Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan perform in the background. In Dubai, our ambivalent protagonist gets drawn in by decadent local royals, who ply a Tetration delegation with custom watches and paradisal hotel suites while grinning away the occasional query about domestic repression and religious hypocrisy.
There is much to satirize in the world Cohen evokes—not least the mystical and religious pretensions at play in the technocratic ethos itself, as embodied especially in the Citizen Kane–like Principal, with his penchant for self-referencing gnomic runes: “We are no one. We are the horse and the chariot both.” Dave Eggers offered an accessible version of the contemporary literary reaction to the new technocracy with his recent novel The Circle. Cohen tries for an engagement that is intellectually, linguistically, and formally more involved and demanding. Beyond riffing on binary code, either/or structures, and text-message shorthand, the novel’s ideas, language, and structure seek at once to replicate and to expose as dehumanizing the expansive, amoral, amorphous, and machine-minded tendencies of our device-addled digital existence. Only, you will get the point well before this ambitious hothouse novel is finished making it.
—Randy Boyagoda is the author of the novel Beggar’s Feast and of the biography Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.
Desiring a Better Country: Forays in Political Theology
by douglas farrow
mcgill-queen’s, 216 pages, $29.95
Douglas Farrow’s “forays in political theology” expose what I would call a total individualism, or even an individualist totalitarianism, at work across the West. Looking back at the history of Church-state relationships, Farrow traces the history in which the state has become “the One” and only source of legal and moral orientation. Over and against John Courtney Murray, S.J., he argues that the resulting monism includes “totalitarianizing” tendencies and produces an “idolatry of the democratic process” (a critique of both Rawls and Habermas). As opposed to this present situation, the classical dichotomy of “the Two,” Church and state, placed healthy limits on the state’s omnipotence.
Farrow’s interpretation of the Catholic Church’s teaching on religious freedom is particularly illuminating. He shows that neither Vatican II nor subsequent popes have embraced the doctrine of neutralism, according to which the state needs to be a theology-free space that cultivates exactly the same relation to all forms of religion. Farrow is convinced that this kind of religious neutrality does not and cannot exist, because it already entails a theological statement. On the other hand, the state must not become an instrument of the Church by which she imposes her spiritual and moral rule on all people. Farrow sees an eschatological deficit in both positions: Both want to anticipate Christ’s eschatological kingdom, either by using the state for the Church or by pretending that the social and political realms can be free of religion.
Farrow deals with a point many interpreters of Dignitatis Humanae have ignored or discounted. The declaration explicitly “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” Among other things, Farrow’s book explains how this statement can be understood, unacceptable and shocking as it may sound to many.
The fact is that freedom of religion is rooted in a freedom through religion. Farrow advocates a “limited State,” and one of its limits is to recognize the Church as a political body—which means more than recognizing her corporate religious freedom through the proxy of the religious freedom of her individual members. On the pragmatic level, it would be healthy—and on the theoretical level, essential—for the secular state to recognize its unique relationship to Christianity, to respect the Church as a political body, and to consider religion not as an exclusively private affair. On these points and more, Farrow’s book will open eyes.
—Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George’s Parish in Ottawa.
Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II
by eduardo echeverria
lectio, 256 pages, $29.95
In advance of the 2015 Synod on the Family in Rome, Eduardo Echeverria of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit published a book aiming to explain the core of Pope Francis’s theological vision and to show how that vision is rooted in orthodox theology and the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. The problem Echeverria faces in this book is one confronted by most observers of Roman Catholic affairs today. Francis shows relatively little interest in systematic theological reflection and does not seem to adhere to any major theological school. He borrows rhetoric from theologians across the spectrum, adding his own idiosyncratic jargon, concepts, and mnemonics. As a result of this eclecticism, the ordinary instruments of ecclesiastical analysis and commentary become ineffective. We cannot clearly judge whether Francis, by using the rhetoric of a particular group, is signaling allegiance to that group’s aims and ideas or is simply employing available theological language to convey some idea of his own. Echeverria deals with this difficulty by handling Francis’s theology in small chunks, organized thematically. Each of the book’s six chapters offers a few quotations by Francis on a given theme (mercy, joy, ecumenism, etc.) followed by a reflection drawing on figures such as Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Germain Grisez, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Walter Kasper. The reflections Echeverria provides function less as an exegesis of Francis’s words than as a sounding board against which we can think, independently, about the topics the pope is discussing. In this way Echeverria avoids the systematic tangle of Francis’s theological impulses and gives his readers tools with which to engage and interpret the pope’s statements on some major themes.
—Elliot Milco is an editorial assistant at First Things.
Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction
edited by janet e. smith and father paul check
ignatius, 360 pages, $24.95
When Msgr. Krzysztof Charamsa, assistant secretary to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, hosted a dramatic “coming out” press conference with the prominent Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, he publicly pleaded for an interdisciplinary study of homosexuality that, in his view, would empower the Catholic Church to correct her antiquated teachings on sexual morality. If I could have nudged my way through the euphoric journalistic mob, I would have gladly given him and his partner a copy of Living the Truth in Love. The collection of essays offers an invaluable contribution to debates about human sexuality that challenge pastors and families around the globe.
In part 1, “Theoretical,” Deborah Savage demonstrates how Karol Wojtyla synthesized the Thomistic tradition’s emphasis on objective human nature with the phenomenological tradition’s sensitivity to subjective experience. The philosopher pope constructed an anthropology capable of overcoming the dualism that renders the body a mere appendage for the autonomous individual to use as he sees fit. Against certain bishops’ conferences clamor for greater attention to Lebenswirklichkeit, Savage successfully reminds us that the Polish pastor might just have a thing or two to teach us about marriage and the family.
In part 2, “Testimony,” blogger and performing artist Daniel C. Mattson records his harrowing journey from hatred of God to peace in his Church. As a young man he was so frustrated with God for allowing his persistent attractions to men that he would daily salute his middle finger to the nearby cathedral on his commute to work. As he watched Into Great Silence to satisfy a Good Friday hankering for something vaguely spiritual, he encountered a blind Carthusian who insisted that the loving Father would allow only those evils that would ultimately contribute to our benefit. This holy monk sparked Mattson’s own lifelong commitment to an abandonment to divine providence.
In the third and final part, “Pastoral,” psychologist Timothy G. Lock confirms that counseling based on an adequate anthropology can contribute to the discovery and healing of deep-seated developmental issues associated with same-sex attraction. Abuse, paternal conflict, peer rejection, poor body image, emotional deficiencies in a mother–child relationship, and other possible contributors to same-sex attractions need to be treated with respect, compassion, and sympathy rather than condemnation.
Living the Truth in Love is just the sort of compelling interdisciplinary study that the Church needs.
—Br. Michael Baggot, L.C., studies theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum.