Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail
by charles a. coulombe
saint benedict, 264 pages, $27.95

Despite its frequent ­appearances in pop culture, the Holy Grail is elusive to us—even more elusive than it was to ­Perceval and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Films that present it as a relic of a dead age often prevent us from venerating it as a relic of Christ. In this slim volume, which documents Charles A. ­Coulombe’s quest to identify the Grail’s material location and various legends, the author reawakens us to the reality of the Heart that sanctifies it. “Few, if any, of the miracles encountered by ­Gawain, ­Perceval, ­Galahad, and the rest have not occurred in real life,” Coulombe reminds us. “Indeed, they are ­occurring today.”

Everywhere the faithful partake of the Eucharist, Grail stories accumulate. The bulk of the book examines these stories—the relics, holy sites, and miracles loosely related to the Grail, and the traditions surrounding devotion to the Eucharist. Coulombe spends a chapter discussing various candidates for the original Grail, another cataloguing various Eucharistic miracles (including the bleeding Host of Ferrara), and another charting the locations of other famous relics (Helena’s True Cross, the shrouds of Turin and Oviedo, the Holy Blood of Bruges). He thus reclaims the Grail from both romanticized Arthurianism and New Age paganism to its role as the “Vase of Heaven.”

Although it sometimes reads like a tedious catalogue of battles and reliquaries, the book is worth reading for its reminder that the Holy Grail’s mystery is daily surpassed by its contents. 

—Madison Michieli

The Evangelicals:
The Struggle to Shape America

by frances fitzgerald
simon & schuster, 752 pages, $35

Frances FitzGerald argues that “evangelical” is a religious, not a political, category, yet the majority of her narrative examines the political rise of the Christian right after Jimmy Carter’s election. It is notoriously difficult to define evangelicalism theologically (Bebbington’s quadrilateral notwithstanding), but FitzGerald’s focus on politics leads her to make sweeping generalizations about the movement’s doctrinal heritage. She neglects its diverse liturgical and social practices, making her tome regrettably narrow in scope.

After discussing the 1976 issue of Newsweek that claimed to introduce the demographic of “born-again” believers to mainstream America, she briskly covers the last two hundred years of U.S. history before returning to her main interest: the rise of the religious right that culminated in the Trumpist takeover of white evangelicalism—or 81 percent of it. Evangelicals, she concludes, are inevitably drawn to power, especially of the blustering, charismatic variety first encountered in revival tents.

FitzGerald purposely omits the history of black—not to mention Latino and Asian—churches that have identified with evangelicals, because “theirs is a different story.” But this permits her to characterize the evangelical movement as an ivory monolith. She leaves evangelical resistance to Trump out of the story, and the narrative takes on a determinist character leading to the infamous 81 percent and the present day. Curious readers are better off turning to the work of Jemar Tisby, Molly ­Worthen, and John Fea—each of whom has taken a more original angle on this amorphous demographic.

—David P. Henreckson

Maker of Middle-earth

edited by catherine mcilwaine
bodleian library, 416 pages, $65

This book is the catalogue for an exhibition of J. R. R. ­Tolkien’s art and papers, on loan from the Bodleian Libraries and Marquette University. The exhibit, which recently opened at New York’s ­Morgan Library and runs through May 12, begins with family memorabilia: Tolkien’s mother’s letters describing “Ronald” as an infant, wartime letters to his future wife Edith, and many photographs. His scarlet and gray honorary D.Litt. gown, which he received toward the end of his life, stands opposite a book from his student days, accounting his daily hours of work. In order to improve his ­studiousness, Edith had agreed he would be “repaid” at the rate of one kiss per hour.

Tolkien’s art comprises most of the exhibit. His early drawings are ­brightly colored and almost ­psychedelic, reminiscent of the 1960s in their whimsicality. Although he drew many maps of Middle-earth, the best is his first, drawn on multiple sheets of paper taped together and featuring a hole west of the Misty Mountains burned by his pipe. He sketched landscapes on holiday and the adventures of Father Christmas in letters to his children. The finest paintings are five exquisitely detailed watercolors for the American edition of The Hobbit.

Nothing beats seeing original artifacts in person, but this catalogue surpasses the exhibit in several respects. It offers supplementary essays, such as one by Tom Shippey on how Tolkien’s faith infused fatalistic Norse mythology with a sense of hope and divine providence, and includes photographs of several pieces not on display in New York. Most important, unlike the exhibit itself, it acknowledges Tolkien’s deep ­Catholic faith.

—Nathaniel Peters

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift