Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota)
by zach czaia
wipf and stock, 66 pages, $7.50
fter years of controversy over the mishandling of sexual predators among the priests of his archdiocese, Archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul John Nienstedt resigned last June. Now facing criminal prosecution, the diocese is legally bankrupt. These are among the precipitating events of Zach Czaia’s first book of poems, Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota).
A writer of fiction as well as poetry, Czaia has previously written an appreciation of his fellow Minnesotan J. F. Powers’s novels and stories, which share a style and subject matter with many of these poems. Narratively driven and possessed of clear protagonists, they exhibit a seasoned plotter’s sense of timing, pacing, and wholeness.
An especially absorbing sequence of poems, the “Father X” poems, portray a charismatic and trusted priest who was later stripped of his ministry for soliciting a prostitute and sexually abusing a girl in a former diocese. Like Powers depicting his eminently fleshly and fallen clerics, Czaia speaks to the paradox of an embodied, sinful, human priesthood: “death poured out of his mouth along with the gospel.”
Like Dante, Czaia is both loyal son and scourger of ecclesiastical princes, speculating in one poem—“If Dante Were Alive Today”—which circle of hell his archbishop and the archdiocese’s vicar general would be placed in. And equally like Dante, Czaia is too smart not to realize the pitfalls of such a project, how it opens him up to criticism, looking foolish, or worse. As he writes in the same poem, “And I know people in glass homes shouldn’t throw stones./And yes, this poem is a stone/and I aim to hit.”
For Czaia, the proper name is all-important, especially when it is conspicuously absent. He never names the school he attended, and he explains his choice to withhold “Father X’s” name in “Why I Won’t Publish Father X’s Name, Though the Newspapers Do”: “Because Christ was crucified on a cross, and the cross is a tipped sideways X, and you, Father X, are a cross to me.”
Formally, these poems range from the free-verse compositions common in much contemporary poetry to “prose poems”: short, verbally dense, and compressed paragraphs. The poems can be at times richly allusive; “john chapter thirteen verse eight,” for instance, echoes T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” in its opening lines: “unless i wash you / unless i wash / unless i . . .” With Blake, Auden, and Milton also stored in his memory, Czaia has brought forth treasures old and new.
—Michael West is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Columbia University.
Atlas of the European Reformations
by tim dowley
fortress, 160 pages, $24
im Dowley’s Atlas of the European Reformations offers a plentitude of useful, well-organized information. After eight pages of timeline and a short introduction, the next 120 pages generally follow the format of text on the left (often accompanied by pictures of the persons and places described) and a map taking up the entirety of the right-hand page. Dowley divides his text into four sections: the late medieval world, the Protestant reformations, the Catholic reformation, and the wars, exploration, and evangelization projects of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
This text is a necessary contribution to the vast array of Reformation resources because so few of the standard texts have sufficient maps, and those that do are not as informative as the ones presented in this book. Indeed, the major histories usually have fewer than ten maps, if they have any at all; a book containing sixty is in a league of its own. Furthermore, even the books that do include maps do not use the full-color format, which allows for considerably more nuance in presentation.
By packing his maps with information, Dowley demonstrates the power of visual images. For example, the map of “The rise and distribution of the Jesuits” (map 40) shows areas that were Catholic in 1560, Catholic areas lost to Protestantism after 1560, areas regained by Catholicism by 1648, and areas that were consistently Protestant, Orthodox, and Muslim. In addition (all in the same map), Dowley plants markers for various Jesuit institutions. This demonstrates that areas that were Catholic in 1560 had mostly Jesuit centers and that the Jesuits concentrated their schools and seminaries in Protestant areas. Moreover, those Protestant areas containing Jesuit schools and seminaries returned to the Catholic fold; consistently Protestant areas lacked Jesuit presence.
Unfortunately, the book’s text rarely refers to the maps directly. In the case of the example above, the facing text describes the Jesuits’ mission without suggesting reasons for their success. Nor does it explain how the Jesuits got themselves into Protestant areas for the purpose of reconversion or what work they were doing in areas that began and ended as Catholic. In another example, the map of the English Reformation divides England into areas marked “predominantly Protestant” and “predominantly Catholic,” but the text narrates only the religious differences between the Tudor monarchs. Dowley does not explain why the Reformation took longer to take hold in Wales and the North or what he means by calling these areas “Catholic.”
In Atlas of the European Reformations, the significance of place to sixteenth-century religious politics is given its due. Minor frustrations aside, it is a joy to possess a useful geographical history of sixteenth-century religious transformations.
—Eleanor Everett Pettus teaches history at Atlanta Classical Academy.
We Have Been Friends Together & Adventures in Grace
by raïssa maritain
translated by julie kernan
edited by michael s. sherwin, o.p.
st. augustine’s, 448 pages, $40
n the first pages of We Have Been Friends Together, Raïssa Maritain recounts one of her earliest memories. She is five, and her parents have rented a room in their house to a woman who holds classes for young children. She remembers watching this strange woman from afar with hushed reverence: “I heard the multiplication table being repeated . . . and I was overwhelmed with the feeling that here was instruction and knowledge and a truth to be known; and my heart almost burst with the desire to know.”
This desire set the course for Raïssa’s life. Twelve years later, Raïssa is an increasingly discontented student at the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne. She takes courses in botany, geology, physiology, and embryology, but finds that none of her “questions” are dealt with there. “For myself I wanted to know nature after another fashion in its causes, in its essence, in its end. One day I was so bold as to say this to Professor Lapicque. ‘But that is mysticism,’ he cried out indignantly.”
This autobiography, originally published in two parts in 1941 and 1944, has now been reissued as a single volume. It is a fine chronicle of this unusual woman’s “metaphysical anguish,” brush with suicide, and subsequent conversion. There are rich descriptions of her marriage to Jacques Maritain, a man with whom, for the first time, “[she] could emerge from [her] silent reflections in order to share them, put [her] torment into words.”
It is also a chronicle of the Catholic revival in twentieth-century France. Entire chapters are devoted to the French painter Georges Rouault, to Charles Péguy, to the philosopher Henri Bergson, and to her beloved Léon Bloy. As the volume’s editor, Michael Sherwin, observes, this book is “nothing less than a theology of conversion and Christian vocation expressed in a narrative that traces the effects of God’s mercy upon the lives of a generation searching for meaning.” A story of a soul, and of the soul of France.
—Bianca Czaderna is an assistant editor of First Things.
The Case Against Satan
by ray russell
foreword by laird barron
penguin classics, 160 pages, $15
ay Russell enjoys the distinction and curse of being a horror writer’s horror writer. Though he helped rescue baroque gothic tales from Lovecraftian tendrils with his more Hemingwayesque renderings, he achieved nothing higher than cult status. Better-known figures such as Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro tout him, and his short story “Sardonicus,” a minor classic, received a film adaptation for which he wrote the screenplay.
Still, a majority of Russell’s bibliography remains out of print. If one wants to find a copy of Unholy Trinity, a 1967 paperback is available on Amazon for as little as $19.99 and as much as $83.95. A few updated and mercifully cheaper editions are fairly recent developments. In 2013, Penguin released a story collection, introduced by del Toro. Last year, his 1962 debut novel, The Case Against Satan, was brought back into print.
In the novel, sixteen-year-old Susan Garth is described as “very disturbed mentally” and suffering from “fits.” She is physically incapable of entering her local church, and soon enough she is shifting from her devout, almost idealized persona of passive purity into an infernal beast eager for defilement. When her widowed father refuses psychiatric help (“They just want you to talk about every nasty, filthy thing that ever passed through your mind”), she is left in the care of her newly, and unhappily, transferred parish priest and his bishop to remove what at least one of them is convinced truly ails her.
The Case Against Satan is the prototypical novel of demonic meddling in earthly things, coming ahead of the modern occult classics Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist by six and nine years respectively. In the latter, the Holy Trinity, in a manner of speaking, is accounted for: the innocent child under siege; the intellectually passionate, spiritually bereft, and personally flawed young priest; and the older clergyman with a “faith and . . . attitude towards dogma . . . as strong and imperishable as rock. And as rigid.” Present, too, are the gory details that fuel our idea of exorcism today: the chants, levitations, blasphemy, profanity, and projectile vomiting (“her gaping mouth spewing jet after jet of reeking substance that covered her and splattered the wall and ran sluggishly in long viscous tendrils down to the floor”).
The Exorcist, the book and its condensed film version, was masterly in its ability to captivate, and even traumatize, its audience with a combination of Catholic ritual and grindhouse shocks. Though pulpy in subject and purple in prose, William Peter Blatty’s bestseller has endured. Its characterizations created modern archetypes. By contrast, The Case Against Satan seems restrained and dated. It is less interested in characters—very little is heard from Susan Garth—than it is in depicting their multilayered struggles.
But where The Exorcist leaves no doubt as to what the adversary is, Russell leaves open more than a few possibilities, almost to the point that his title assumes a double meaning. The Case Against Satan anticipates the Twin Peaks idea that the demonic is enabled, if not manifested, by “the evil that men do.” Here one gets the sense of del Toro’s assessment that Russell is “a fascinating combination of the liberal and the heretic.”
—Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.
Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith
by francis j. beckwith
cambridge, 240 pages, $28.99
eligious views are subjective and irrational, and therefore have no place in public disputes. That, at least, is the old truism, and its acceptance has had far-reaching implications for political life in America. In Taking Rites Seriously, Francis J. Beckwith takes a critical look at the intersection of religious reasoning and law, and argues that in many cases the American legal system has excluded religious reasoning where fundamental legal principles justify its use.
After taking on secular rationalism as a theory of law, Beckwith examines several prominent legal disputes in which religious reasoning plays a major role: personal dignity, bioethics and stem-cell research, the unborn, intelligent design, and same-sex marriage. Beckwith’s legal perspective and clarity make this short survey of the role of religious reasoning in American jurisprudence a valuable contribution to the defense of religion’s place in public life.
—Elliot Milco is an editorial assistant at First Things.
Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy
by markus rathey
yale, 256 pages, $35
s the cantor of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for composing music for Sunday services, which produced reams of choral music, mostly cantatas. Because of this, it would be difficult to find a composer who wrote more sacred music. Like Victoria and Bruckner, Bach’s works stem from his own devotion. But more than any other composer, Bach uses complex music to articulate theology.
Readers who enjoy Bach’s music and want to understand this interplay between music and theology better will be grateful for Markus Rathey’s new book. Rathey has taught at Yale for many years and collaborated with great interpreters of Bach, including Masaaki Suzuki. Like Suzuki, he has an appreciation for Bach’s faith and has formally studied theology as well as musicology.
Many introductions to religious literature and music presume that the reader is skeptical and secular. An implicit apology must be made for the author’s faith, an assurance that, yes, this is religious but it can be understood and appreciated by people who are not religious (everyone who is normal and cultured). Faith is embarrassing, and it needs be sent away like a bothersome child.
Rathey makes no such apologies. He explains Bach’s theology no differently than his musical ideas, showing how the two must be understood together. His book offers a musical, historical, and theological analysis of Bach’s major vocal works: the Magnificat; the Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Oratorios; the St. John and St. Matthew Passions; and the B minor Mass. These are the program notes you have always wanted.
As Rathey’s subtitle suggests, these works are dramas set in a liturgical context. The oratorios were integrated into Lutheran worship services, bracketed by prayers and readings from Scripture. Bach frequently borrowed movements from his own secular music and integrated them into an oratorio, which was seen as a form of dramatic music, a kind of theological opera. Thus a love duet between Hercules and Virtue from a secular cantata becomes a meditation on the love between God and the soul in the Christmas Oratorio. Rathey shows how Bach repeatedly used love duets to describe mystical union throughout his vocal works. The gospel of John sees the passion as the ultimate revelation of the Son’s glory, while Matthew focuses more on Jesus’s human suffering. Bach reflects these emphases in his settings. Hence the St. Matthew Passion begins with a dialogue between Christ the bridegroom and his bride. The music interprets Christ’s suffering as a love story.
The B minor Mass stands as Bach’s magnum opus, one of the last works he finished. Bach wrote it in part as an application for a post in the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden, a testament to his accomplishment as a composer. He revised many movements from previous works and carefully arranged the parts so that their symmetry underscores important textual and musical aspects (such as putting the Crucifixus as the center movement of the Credo). Rathey helps the amateur listener appreciate details he might otherwise miss. Those who seek to take the next step in their enjoyment of Bach’s genius would do well to turn to him.
—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.