Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism:
Finding Christ Among the Karamazovs
by paul j. contino
cascade, 334 pages, $45
Pepperdine professor Paul J. Contino is a well-known and well-regarded scholar and teacher of Christianity and literature, and he proves himself an engaging and insightful guide to The Brothers Karamazov with this new study. “I began work on this book over thirty years ago,” he notes. Such candor might invite snarks about the speed of academic writing, but instead it confirms something else altogether: the fruits that come from a lifetime of reading, teaching, and reflecting on a major work of world literature that has rare capacities, as a novel, to engage the fullness of human experience—on the page and in the reader.
That transformative fullness, as is well known to generations of readers, comes most notably from the irreducibly religious features of The Brothers Karamazov, in terms of both its ideas and action, which Contino attends to via a quietly confident comprehensive reading. The effort displays a particular attentiveness to the novel’s theological and intellectual underpinnings—with related discussions of Kierkegaard, Orthodox theology, Augustine, Aquinas, and more, alongside Scriptural citations—while never scanting on the novel’s secular components and on modern scholarship and theory, particularly the work of Mikhail Bakhtin.
Refreshingly free of culture war complaints about how the novel is read (or not read) these days, and likewise indifferent to footnote skirmishing, Contino offers patient and careful readings of the novel’s main characters. He attends to their personal dilemmas, interpersonal conflicts, and rival longings for higher goods, all of which affirm the novel’s religiously-ordered representation of human experience through what Contino describes as “incarnational realism.” He puts this concept, and his related, supple readings, in service of making the case for how and why The Brothers Karamazov attests to Dostoevsky’s self-description as “only a realist in a higher sense, i.e., I depict all the depths of the human soul.”
Educating for Wisdom in the 21st Century
edited by darin h. davis
st. augustine, 128 pages, $17
Prowl the halls of social media long enough and you’re bound to bump up against hordes of overeducated, underemployed, disillusioned Millennials duped by their betters into borrowing large amounts of money for a piece of paper with which, they were promised, they could do anything.
Alas, it was not so. But they were not the ones lacking in wisdom. Once the very reason for a university’s existence, the attainment of wisdom is seldom more than a footnote, if that, in the catalogues of modern higher education.
The contributors to Educating for Wisdom in the 21st Century aren’t wringing their hands in despair, however. Rather—representing a range of disciplines and institutions both Christian and secular—these scholars mine the bountiful riches, ancient and modern, upon which the academy has been built over the centuries. Veering toward neither nostalgia nor futurism, they demonstrate just how close wisdom is to our grasp as educators.
The volume’s essays emerged from a symposium on the topic and, for good and ill, read like papers presented at such a panel. The effect is more like a series of solos than a choir, some notes prosaic, some philosophic, and one (Walter Brueggemann’s) poetic. But the territory covered is deep and wide, with abundant, fruitful citations ranging from Aristotle to Wolterstorff. Reading the insights of experts in science, law, and humanities on higher education really brightens the prospects for renewing an educational system which truly is, in the words of editor Darin H. Davis, “suffering an identity crisis.”
Cultivating wisdom within the recent generations of college graduates would not have prevented the burst of the higher education bubble we seem to be witnessing. But it might have tempered expectations, strengthened character, and stemmed the growing tide of disillusionment.
Educating for Wisdom in the 21st Century is no blueprint for putting wisdom back at the center of higher education, but it does present a compelling case that doing so is not only desirable, but possible.
—Karen Swallow Prior
A Life in Nine Pieces
by laura tunbridge
yale, 288 pages, $35
Over the years, biographies of composers have tended to swing on a pendulum between hagiography and assassination. The latter is especially popular today, as some biographers seem determined to disenchant us.
But Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces, a biographical sketch that both celebrates and demystifies the composer, stops the pendulum right in the middle. Written for a popular audience (it requires no deciphering of scores or theoretical analysis), the biography nonetheless remains firmly rooted in Beethoven’s music.
As the book’s title suggests, each chapter focuses on an opus and corresponding moment in Beethoven’s life. Tunbridge succeeds at a musicologist’s most difficult task: comprehensively describing a piece of music. Her descriptions so intrigued me that I found myself listening to Beethoven’s music as I read; quite a few of the works discussed in the book were new to me.
Tunbridge focuses on several works by Beethoven that were popular at the time they premiered but are no longer favored today. These discontinuities are usually the site of her keenest historical insights. Her report of Beethoven also differs from the popular image of him: Where most accounts emphasize his isolation, Tunbridge emphasizes his friendships. The community around Beethoven was crucial in forming his genius. Tunbridge’s Beethoven also smiles—even if only a little. Her writing sparkles with anecdotes (such as Beethoven’s tasteless fat jokes or his comment that the German town Gneixendorf sounds like a broken ankle).
Tunbridge also analyzes Beethoven’s finances, as is becoming increasingly more common in composer biographies. There is almost always a fascinating connection between a composition and Viennese economics and geopolitics.
Tunbridge’s A Life in Nine Pieces is ultimately a comprehensive and engaging account of a well-loved composer. It will take you from the personal details to the political scene and back to the music within the space of a few paragraphs. I predict you’ll keep wanting to turn the page for more.
Another Life is Possible:
Insights from 100 Years of Life Together
by clare stober and danny burrows
plough, 320 pages, $40
In the wake of the Second World War, Dorothy Day wrote: “We can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world.” At the same time and on the other side of the Atlantic, a group of pacifists was well underway in this oasis-building work.
Protestant theologian Eberhard Arnold established the first Bruderhof home with his wife and sister-in-law in early-twentieth-century Germany. Founded on the conviction to live out a vision of a just society, this community shared meals, work, and income. One hundred years later, twenty-six Bruderhof communities across the globe carry out these same commitments, embodying the witness of Christ’s peaceable kingdom. In Another Life is Possible: Insights from 100 Years of Life Together, Clare Stober and photographer Danny Burrows offer a window into the Bruderhof community by chronicling one hundred portraits of those called to cultivate peace in a harried world.
As our modern life grows seemingly more fragmented and alienated, these portraits offer an alternative. Many share similar stories of feeling isolated, a “desperate emptiness,” before they joined the Bruderhof community: One member admits to having felt “disillusioned” and “restless”; another confesses that he was “looking for life’s meaning on his own terms.”
Life together, by contrast, presents a kind of wholeness. This book speaks to those longing for wholeness, especially challenging the church to take up God’s call to live peaceably with all men. Stober, a member of the Bruderhof community herself, repeatedly presents this wholeness as difficult, arduous, and sacrificial. Another Life is Possible reveals that indeed, life together is far from saccharine or a means to pacify isolation. This book, and the Bruderhof community broadly, calls Christians to embody the wisdom of Simone Weil: “Love is not consolation. It is light.”
Great Pilgrimage Sites of Europe
by derry brabbs
frances lincoln, 256 pages, $40
Derry Brabbs’s newest book captures pilgrimage sites throughout Europe, completing his “Pilgrimage Trilogy,” which began with The Roads to Santiago and Pilgrimage. Occasionally, Brabbs makes a slight error in language—describing someone as “worshipping” the Virgin Mary or Jesus as the product of the Immaculate Conception—but he is sympathetic to pilgrims of all stripes and to the legends surrounding the places he documents. These are monuments of Europe’s Christian culture, many dating to its earliest days in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. With some modern exceptions, the buildings show the coherence of the vocabulary of Christian sacred architecture: The towers, lines, columns, and arches speak about a God who transcends and yet breaks into our world. But within that unity lies so much diversity, from dark Scandinavian cathedrals and wooden churches to the joyful riot of Austrian and Polish baroque.
Pilgrimage underscores the particularity and ordinariness of Christianity. Many of these sites exist because of a miracle associated with a particular statue, or an apparition of the Virgin Mary to a particular person. The people are never grand, and the statues and icons in question are not objects of great art. But they are deeply loved, and that love has moved thousands over the centuries to make costly journeys to them.
Many of the sites one would expect are here: Fatima, Lourdes, Częstochowa, Assisi, and Rome. But there are plenty of surprises too. The cathedral of Aachen’s architecture combines Carolingian solidity with a Byzantine-style dome and later fifteenth-century additions that draw on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It holds the throne and shrine of Charlemagne, as well as priceless relics of Christ, Mary, and John the Baptist. These are contained in a massive golden thirteenth-century shrine, the Pala d’Oro. Since 1349, a special ten-day mass pilgrimage has been held every seven years, the next one being this June. In the past, plague drove people to pilgrimage. Perhaps it will do so again for us as well.