by thomas joseph white, o.p.
brazos, 336 pages, $32.99
In days past, to study Scripture was to study the tradition of its reception. The sacred text was read with the Fathers of the Church, accompanied by commentaries and catenae, with frequent glosses explaining the meaning of difficult phrases. The greatest commentaries of the medieval period—written by men like Bede, Gregory the Great, and Hugh of Saint-Cher—were tissues of citations, and contained multiple layers of theological and literary analysis, each looking at the text from a different angle. This tradition of scholarship was so deeply embedded in the Catholic Church that Pope Gregory XVI condemned Protestant Bible societies because by distributing the text without notes or access to tradition, they were leading new Christians into inevitable theological confusion.
That was then. Over the past century, the vast majority of commentaries on the Bible have been consumed with arcane debates over the origins and chronology of hypothetical source documents and the hermeneutical import of archaeological discoveries. Both the practice of reading Scripture through tradition and interest in authentic doctrinal interpretation have been tossed aside. Brazos’s ongoing Theological Commentary on the Bible series seeks to restore the doctrinal interpretation of Scripture by offering a range of interdenominational commentaries on individual books of the Bible. They aim at reading the text as divine revelation, in search of its theological meaning.
The latest volume in the series is Thomas Joseph White’s commentary on the book of Exodus. The work done here is excellent. White has been bold enough not only to grapple with the rich symbolism and moral theology of Exodus, but to do so with the constant support of patristic, medieval, and modern systematic theology, leaning especially on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose analysis of the dispensations of divine law is especially helpful.
Best of all is the Thomistic love of careful distinction and dialectical reasoning White brings to the text. Frequently, after interpreting key passages, he will highlight important historical and modern objections to his interpretation, thinking them through and answering each in turn. While White’s commentary is short compared to the greatest of the medieval works on which it is modeled, its appearance makes one hope that we are entering a new era of scripture scholarship. Perhaps in the century to come we will see new imitators of Bede, Gregory, and Hugh of Saint-Cher arise, and equal the great interpreters of old.
—Elliot Milco is deputy editor of First Things.
Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World
by miroslav volf
yale, 304 pages, $28
Miroslav Volf contends, citing both Pope St. John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, that religions are uniquely equipped to bridle unprecedented material abundance with an ethic of humility. Modernity tends toward the “affirmation of ordinary life” and hence of this-worldly desires. Religions have the theological resources not to reject bodily striving for wealth but to subordinate and sublimate it.
Volf’s prose is most moving when he draws on his own experience, but when Flourishing leaves the personal and becomes a more sociological argument about the role of religion in the modern world, it stumbles. Volf’s vision for authentic, respectful engagement between religions does not emphasize the uniquely Christian resources for treating those in error with humility and love. In seeking a neutral criterion for mutual respect, he falls into the same error that many of us do: minimizing the good news of Jesus as Lord and Redeemer to make him one palatable prophet and teacher among many.
—Luke Foster is pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Chicago.
Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History
by rodney stark
templeton, 272 pages, $27.95
Rodney Stark is a Protestant who grew up believing many anti-Catholic myths, including that old canard from Washington Irving that Columbus’s voyage had been discouraged by the Church because of her belief that the world was flat. Stark dismantles this quaint piece of ahistorical folklore in his introduction, then sets his sights on the many “Black Legends” maliciously promulgated throughout history to justify bigotry towards Catholics, first by rival denominations (English and Dutch Protestants invented the lurid, baseless cartoon we picture when we hear “Spanish Inquisition”) and then by secular forces (like the Soviet propagandists who started the lie that Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope”).
Every chapter includes a box identifying the leading historians whose work Stark draws on to refute these common misconceptions and historical frauds. A Garrett Mattingly quotation serves as the book’s statement of purpose: “Nor does it matter at all to the dead whether they receive justice at the hands of succeeding generations. But to the living, to do justice, however belatedly, should matter.” This is an admirable across-the-aisle attempt to right some of the wrongs of history, however belatedly.
—Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor of First Things.
Who Designed the Designer? A Rediscovered Path to God’s Existence
by michael augros
ignatius, 244 pages, $17.95
Despite its title, Michael Augros’s new work focuses little on issues of design in nature. Instead, the Thomas Aquinas College philosopher offers an updated version of Aquinas’s basic natural theology (the attempt to learn about God using natural reason rather than divine revelation).
He argues that there must be one first cause of all we see that is not caused to exist by something else. By “first cause,” he doesn’t necessarily mean a cause at the beginning of time. One of the strengths of such Thomistic arguments is that they imply a first cause even if the world is eternal.
Augros extends our knowledge of the first cause to show that it is worthy of the name “God.” Taking pains to demonstrate that it cannot be anything material (since it is the cause of matter itself), he argues that it must be bodiless, unchangeable, intelligent, and more.
Few educated people realize how powerful such a natural theology can be—probably because Aquinas himself is difficult to read, using unfamiliar terminology and offering few illustrations. For this reason Augros does a great service in updating Aquinas’s arguments for a contemporary audience, using more familiar language and accessible examples.
—Logan Paul Gage is assistant professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits
by robert menasse
translated by craig decker
seagull, 112 pages, $14.50
Take a train to Brussels and walk across the Warendepark into the Berlaymont. This office building houses the European Commission—and, depending on which entomologist you consult, is either the cocoon from which a new Europe will emerge or the center of a vast spider-web of regulation that threatens to choke the continent.
My preferred entomologist, though I can’t say that I trust him, is Robert Menasse, an Austrian writer who went to Brussels to write a novel about a Eurocrat (now there’s an idea for a bestseller!). He produced instead a short polemic in defense of the European project. Don’t let its cumbersome title (Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits) discourage you. This is a vivid, oddball screed, the most eloquent possible defense of an indefensible secular Europe.
Menasse makes no apologies for the European Commission’s high-handedness. He views it as a modern version of Josephinism, the enlightened top-down reform of the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Joseph II (1780–1790). “Everything for the people, nothing by the people” is the motto for this revolution from above. Menasse has in mind various political and economic schemes for ensuring the resulting order is democratic despite its elite construction. So far, so Habermasian.
Then Menasse turns to the vexed question of cultural policy. Whereas every other door at Berlaymont is open to him, he can’t seem to get a meeting with any of the relevant officials in the culture department. Persistence has its reward when he sits down with then–Deputy Chief of Cabinet Themis Christophidou:
THEMIS CHRISTOPHIDOU. I’ve been told you’re writing a book.
ROBERT MENASSE. Yes, that’s correct.
TC. I don’t understand why you want to speak to me. My spokesman can give you all the statistical information you need.
RM. I don’t need any statistical information. I’m writing a novel.
TC. A novel? Why, for heaven’s sake, are you writing a novel?
So we see that Europe’s cultural policy has been left to the philistines, a fact that Menasse blames on underfunding and a consequent lack of prestige. He wants to increase funding for the promotion of a “diversity” of European cultures. Expand culture’s budget line and we can breathe life into a secular, ahistorical, and anti-imperial Holy Roman Empire!
I have my doubts. Every culture needs a cult: Rome had its vestal virgins and civic pieties, Christendom its martyrs and Masses. Perhaps history, liberation, and hygienic sex can become the hearth gods of a new European civilization, but any culture produced by such idols will be unworthy of the talents of a writer like Robert Menasse.
A final note: This book was published by Seagull Books, a publishing house in Calcutta that prints beautifully designed and bound English translations of foreign-language works. Earlier this year I read another of its titles, Martin Mosebach’s What Was Before,and now I’m reading a third, Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff. Seagull deserves all the praise it can get—especially its graphic designer Sunandini Banerjee, whose work is slowly gentrifying my shabby shelves.
—Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.
American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global
by john t. mcgreevy
princeton, 328 pages, $35
Standing against the mountains of western Montana are the missions of St. Ignatius and St. Mary’s. They were established in the mid-1800s by Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit who made his way to these distant places decades prior to statehood.
Why did so many Jesuits leave Europe in the 1800s, come to some of the most remote locations in the United States, and then use the United States as a base for their global mission efforts? John McGreevy, a professor of history and dean of the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, offers an answer in American Jesuits and the World.
The book is a compelling series of portraits of Jesuits. Threaded into these stories is McGreevy’s belief that no other group possessed the “Jesuit reach.” The order’s influence spanned “from the Roman curia to hundreds of schools and colleges and far-flung mission stations.” Persecution in Europe, along with the call to baptize all nations, spurred Jesuits to go to America, a land that promised religious freedom and opportunities for mission. The end of this impressive volume turns to how their successors were well-positioned to extend those efforts to locales as far from Montana as the Philippines.
—Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University.