The Love That Is God:
An Invitation to Christian Faith
by frederick christian bauerschmidt
eerdmans, 147 pages, $18.99
Bauerschmidt has the heart of an evangelist. The Love That Is God reads like a manifesto for those jaded by the Christian faith, in which Bauerschmidt insists that the God of the Christian tradition may not be who its cultured despisers think he is. Love, claims Bauerschmidt, is the very essence of the triune God. Once we recognize this love in the Cross, it changes our lives: Jesus becomes our friend, we extend the love of friendship to one another, and we live out this friendship in the community of the church.
While in no way sentimental, The Love That Is God does, at times, fail to accentuate the particularities of the Christian faith. Has punishment no place at all in our understanding of redemption? Is there a positive role for the use of force? While it’s (rather obviously) true that old and young, black and white, conservative and liberal, gay and straight are all called into friendship with Christ, doesn’t Bauerschmidt’s sermon at the end of the book engage in some serious category obfuscation at this point? And what could he possibly mean with the suggestion that baptism washes away the boundaries of ethnicity, social status, and gender?
All the same, lucid rays of light make the reader sit up and take note. The portrayal of Jesus’s life as “the manifestation in history of the eternal joy that is Father, Son, and Spirit” is wonderfully reminiscent of Herbert McCabe’s Christology. Jesus’s friendship is not earned but a gift of grace, Bauerschmidt rightly insists. To the traditional difficulty of how God can be our friend, Bauerschmidt appeals to Catherine of Siena: In loving others, we love God himself. And among the book’s many aphorisms, this one surely stands out: “If . . . what it means for us to love someone or something is to say ‘I am glad you exist,’ then what it means for God to love us is for God to say, ‘Because I am glad, you exist.’”
In the Wine Press
by joshua hren
angelico, 158 pages, $24
Joshua Hren’s new collection of short stories will not be to everyone’s taste, for Hren’s is an apocalyptic vision. In the Wine Press often features lonely millennial men caught in a moment of desperation, unveiling the outrageous situation in which modern man finds himself: After a failed suicide attempt, one character declares that he is “another sham liberal arts B.A. doing work that a rat could if well-trained.” In another story about a mass shooting, the shooter, deep in student debt, gives his motive: “Saving them lives of misery . . . I’d rather be in prison anyhow than keep living under the long arm of the bank. Con game. College. Conspiracy.” Modern man is devoid of meaning.
Hren’s vision crystalizes in “Work of Human Hands,” where a molesting priest fantasizes about cutting off his own hands with a pair of gardening shears—the same shears he used to cut the rope his brother used to attempt suicide years earlier. In the most grotesque and poignant image in the book, the priest imagines how he might celebrate Mass. He would “elevate the host with the nubs, not even the nubs but the thorny stitches that stuck out like stick fingers from a child’s first drawing.” The pairing of this brutal act and the innocence of childhood creativity would be perverse, except that it is folded up in the immolation of Christ on the altar.
It is better to think of this work not as literary fiction—that stronghold of bourgeois taste—but as modern-day fable. These stories are grotesque, bizarre, and unapologetically didactic, though they do stumble. Florid prose, gratuitous metaphor, and underdeveloped characters mire the plot at times. For all that, this book is an important marker for Catholic fiction. The airy moment of “beauty will save the world” is over. The world is more hideous than we imagine, and only the wrath of God, which is a function of his love, will save it.
The Christian Faith:
by carl e. braaten
cascade books, 186 pages, $24
Old theologians don’t die; they just keep writing. In this case, it is a blessing that Carl Braaten—now in his nineties—has continued to write. His latest work explicates the basics of the Christian faith in a nontechnical manner that will be intelligible to interested Christians at several levels—college students, lay adults, and seminarians. Braaten’s prose is clear, forthright, and economical—a gift he has exercised in all of his work.
The book’s subtitle defines well Braaten’s intentions. “Ecumenical” refers to Braaten’s attempt to articulate the “great tradition,” what has been believed by Christians “everywhere, always, and by all,” to quote Vincent of Lérins. By “dogmatics” he means the exposition of the Christian faith “straightforwardly in language drawn mostly from the Scriptures and the creeds of the church.” He is careful to distinguish dogmatics from systematic theology, which employs philosophical disciplines to construct a “system of understanding that encompasses all human experience and knowledge accessible to reason.” One could add to those two descriptors a third: orthodox. Braaten’s book avoids the revisionist tendencies that have invaded so much of modern theology, though some may quarrel with his reflections on universalism.
He works through all the traditional topics of dogmatics from the Holy Scriptures to eschatology in thirteen chapters, drawing upon a lifetime of learning to offer salient insights of the classical faith on each topic. Happily, he also includes as part of his dogmatics something that is often absent from the theological enterprise: reflections on the Christian life. Braaten’s vocation as a theologian reaches another high-water mark with this volume. We shall see whether it continues to rise.
Sex and the Unreal City:
The Demolition of the Western Mind
by anthony esolen
ignatius, 209 pages, $17.95
Anthony Esolen’s latest volume is a fine book for edification, but unlikely to win over any new converts to Christianity or conservatism. If you find Esolen’s wit amusing and insightful, then I heartily recommend Sex and the Unreal City. The first three chapters consist of cultural polemics aimed at the contemporary university, the latest stages of the sexual revolution, and the perils of democracy unchecked by a virtuous citizenry devoted to the common good. In the final two chapters, Esolen dials back the sarcasm in order to offer a valuable apology for Christian realism as the solution to our societal woes.
Throughout the book, Esolen highlights the blatant contradictions of liberal ideology, and identifies the glue that holds these contradictions together: sentimentality. His keenest insight is that sentimentality is both “destructive of genuine feeling” and “destructive of rational clarity.” In order to illustrate the importance of the proper ordering of one’s emotions, Esolen turns to Plato’s image in the Phaedrus of the charioteer with two horses. Having established reason’s role as charioteer, Esolen briefly argues for rational belief in God, and then the Christian God. He concludes: “I think of that Blessed Sacrament, and there is no infinitesimal portion of the material universe that does not gleam with the possibility . . . to turn and be converted and be real.”
Especially at the beginning, Esolen’s tone makes his work unreadable for the unsympathetic, but the clarity of his thought is a much-needed antidote to today’s strident emotionalism. For this reason, I most of all recommend Unreal City to church youth groups. I can think of no other population who would benefit more from Esolen’s commentary on sexual ethics, warnings about university life, and insistence upon the primacy of reason for human flourishing.