March 1989

Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition.  By Thomas C. Oden. Zondervan. 233 pages. $15.95.

The Methodist “family,” as Thomas Oden calls it, has been a deeply troubled household over the past quarter-century. No de­nomination has suffered so se­verely from the maladies of secu­larism, theological skepticism, and the more grotesque and dog­matic forms of social activism. Not coincidentally, the United Methodist Church has, in this period, lost nearly two million members, and a dismayingly small percentage of Methodists is un­der the age of 30.

Oden’s book was published in April 1988 to coincide with the meeting of the General Con­ference, a gathering at which concerned Methodists hoped to re-establish the historic Methodist witness and repair the damage of recent decades. Oden, a professor of theology at Drew University, is no fundamentalist or fire-breath­ing obscurantist. He simply be­lieves that Methodists (specifical­ly, the preachers) ought to be, well, Methodists, loyal to the his­toric faith derived from John Wesley. While Oden accepts plu­ralism, the problem comes, he contends, when it “ceases to be sufficiently pluralistic, when it becomes narrowly dogmatic and ideologically skewed and forces out those who accept traditional Christian teachings by making them feel unwanted….” Oden urges no witch-hunt, no coup d’état by a clutch of religious right­ists; rather, he seeks only to re­store Wesley’s Sermons, Notes on the New Testament, and Articles of Religion to the normative po­sition they have traditionally held.

Oden’s book apparently contributed to a modest, but dra­matic, reversal at the meeting of the General Conference, for the delegates adopted a theological statement that, according to one newspaper report, was “ground­ed in Scripture and Wesleyan tra­dition.” The victory of Oden and his colleagues is a victory for all Christians who cherish the basic tenets of the faith.

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The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and the Brainard Che­neys.  Edited by C. Ralph Ste­phens. University Press of Missis­sippi. 220 pages. $24.95.

When three Catholics get to­gether in the South, the local fundamentalists mutter darkly of papist conspiracies. Flannery O’Connor and Brainard and Frances Cheney were Southern­ers and Catholics, united by the love they shared for the Church, their native region, good books, and the craft of writing. The Cheneys — he a novelist and crit­ic, she a librarian — lived near Nashville, O’Connor on a farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia. They became acquainted in 1953 when O’Connor wrote to Brain­ard to thank him for his percep­tive review of her first novel, Wise Blood. This initial contact ripened into friendship. The trio visited back and forth between Tennessee and Georgia, but most­ly they exchanged letters, 188 of them between 1953 and Miss O’Connor’s untimely death 11 years later.

The letters brim with fond­ness and affection, with revealing comments on works in progress, with observations on Catholicism, with the myriad asides, banterings, and small confidences that make of friendship one of the re­splendent joys of God’s creation. Only one note marred this love­liness: O’Connor’s losing battle with a deadly disease. Mostly they ignored the shadow, O’Con­nor because she refused to allow death to deface life, the Cheneys because they could not believe what lay ahead. For Brainard, O’Connor’s “redoubtable hardi­hood and humor” masked the approaching denouement. In her last letter to the Cheneys, writ­ten two weeks before her death, O’Connor closed: “If I were on foot I’d just come up there and join you. Cheers, Flannery.”

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Patrology, Volume IV: The Gold­en Age of Latin Patristic Litera­ture.  Edited by Angelo Di Bernardino. Christian Classics. 667 pages. $39.95.

Patristics scholars speak simply of “Quasten.” The refer­ence is to Johannes Quasten’s three-volume Patrology, an indis­pensable aid for those who dig into the writings, doctrinal wars, and dogmatic formulations of the early Church. Volume IV, the collaborative effort of eight scholars at the Augustinian Patris­tic Institute in Rome, continues the labor begun by Quasten. The book covers the critically impor­tant period from the Council of Nicaea in 325 to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The nine chap­ters detail the intricacies of the doctrinal battles over Arianism, Pelagianism, and less troublesome heresies; examine the writings of such major Fathers as Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine; and sur­vey the works of a host of lesser figures. Anyone who delves into the history of the early Church will need this volume to accom­pany him in his explorations.

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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Exile and Return in the History of Ju­daism.  By Jacob Neusner. Bea­con. 230 pages. $25.

The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jew­ish Struggle with Modernity.  By John Murray Cuddihy. Beacon. 272 pages. $9.95.

By the latest reckoning, Ja­cob Neusner has published over 100 books. If Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is a fair example, then one understands how he does it: the book is awkwardly written, repetitive (whole paragraphs re­cur verbatim, the result, one as­sumes, of a glitched word pro­cessor), sloppily edited, and poorly proofed (even the dust cover flaunts a typo). Oddly enough, it is still worth reading. Neusner elucidates the theme of exile and return to explain Juda­ic thought from the fifth century B.C. to the present. Aside from the insights that flash from his pages, Neusner possesses the vir­tue of believing that religion is determinative, and not the mere offspring of psychological, social, and economic needs. To wit: Jews did not cobble together something called Judaism; rather, Judaism forged the worldview and self-identity of the Jewish people. From the story, Neusner derives a “singular pattern” that Christians should take to heart: “for a Jew it is a sin to despair. The Jews’ assigned task within humanity has been…to endure and abide in perfect faith and trust: to hope.”

If the staid rhythms of class­room and library emanate from Neusner’s book, then John Mur­ray Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Ci­vility (originally published in 1974 and now reissued) hops and jumps with the jagged riffs of a jazz saxophonist. To encapsulate the book in a sentence or two would be tantamount to describ­ing the taste of old-fashioned homemade biscuits in one word: it can’t be done. Cuddihy ranges from Karl Marx to Abbie Hoff­man in a scintillating analysis of the Jewish clash with modernity. Like Neusner, but with more chutzpah than most Jews have ever dreamt of, Cuddihy wrestles with the question of Jewish self-identity. Try this sample: “His [Freud’s] basic unspoken premise can be put in lapidary if vul­gar form as follows: the id of the ‘Yid’ is hid under the lid of West­ern decorum….” You eat bis­cuits, you don’t describe them, and you read Cuddihy, not sum­marize him; both are marvelous experiences.

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Against the Protestant Gnostics.  By Philip J. Lee. Oxford Univer­sity Press. 347 pages. $27.95.

Philip Lee spots the telltale signs of gnosticism, the oldest of Christian heresies, everywhere in contemporary American Protes­tantism. He hands down a capa­cious indictment. Jerry Falwell gets rounded up with Harvey Cox; Union Seminary professors share a cell with snake-handling hillbillies; theologians of civil re­ligion stand in the dock with Jesus-screaming fundamentalists. Part of the fun is to see who will be hustled into court next. Against the Protestant Gnostics is, by turns, exhilarating and ex­asperating, stunningly on the mark and egregiously wrongheaded, profoundly wise and self-righteously preachy. It is never dull.

Lee wants to rehabilitate the orthodox Protestant tradi­tion that descends from Calvin. He may be spitting into the wind, for, as he recognizes, orthodox Calvinism is the last thing most Americans want. He sneaks ad­miring glances at the Catholic Church, which, he admits, has kept the gnostic virus under con­trol. One wishes him success, but should he fail, well, the trip from Geneva to Rome is shorter than it used to be.

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Marxism and Religion: A Descrip­tion and Assessment of the Marx­ist Critique of Christianity.  By David McLellan. Harper & Row. 209 pages. $18.95.

In Marxism and Religion David McLellan endeavors to ac­complish what he has done so masterfully in such earlier books as Marx Before Marxism, The Thought of Karl Marx, and Marx­ism After Marx: to explicate Marxist thought with concision and lucidity, in terms compre­hensible to the non-specialist. He succeeds admirably. In separate chapters on Marx, Engels, Ger­man Social Democracy, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, and contemporary Marxism and Chris­tianity in Europe and Latin America, he untangles the atti­tudes Marxists have evinced to­ward Christianity and religion in general.

Marxism and Religion oper­ates on another level that trans­cends mere explanation. McLel­lan, a professor at the University of Kent, is a Catholic, convert­ed to the Church during his stu­dent days at Cambridge. He is al­so a man of the Left, worried that leftists will permit religion, with its “immense power,” to be “captured by the ideologies of the right.” He urges the Left to accept religion as more than an opiate, more than a vehicle of class oppression. To Christians, he addresses this admonition: “The question therefore confront­ing religious believers with pro­gressive social and political views is whether, without prejudicing their faith, they can present a face in which Marxists can see re­flected much of their own aspir­ations for humanity.”

Aside from the problematic nature of Marxists’ “aspirations for humanity,” one wonders why it matters what kind of “face” Christians “present” to Marxists. As McLellan himself demonstrates, most Marxists have been (and continue to be) inexorably hos­tile to Christianity. Those of a more tolerant mood seem mainly interested in using Christianity to further their own secular pro­gram. Efforts to marry Marxism to the Faith have invariably even­tuated in a distorted Christ and a truncated Gospel. The affinities between non-Marxist socialism and Christianity would seem to offer a more fruitful topic of dis­course. One hopes McLellan will tackle this subject in a future book.

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Letters of Etienne Gilson to Hen­ri de Lubac.  . Ignatius. 247 pages. $11.95.

Henri de Lubac has hit up­on a surefire way to have the last word: he publishes Etienne Gil­son’s letters to him, and annotates them with his own retorts, re­joinders, and clarifications. Hap­pily, he doesn’t take advantage of his deceased friend, though he does get testy at times over Gilson’s mulish refusal to admit Teilhard de Chardin into the ranks of great Catholic thinkers. In these 19 letters, dated from 1956 through 1975, Gilson never misses a chance to blast Teilhard. In 1967 he writes to de Lubac: “Myself, I’d a hundred times rather be a Lutheran than a Teilhardian…. The ravages he has wrought, that I have witnessed, are horrifying.” De Lubac admits in his notes that Teilhard has been victimized by “fanatical” and “incompetent” popularizers, but ultimately, he faults Gilson for not grasping Teilhard’s theo­ries. “There is no excuse,” de Lu­bac fumes in one annotation, “for so many mistakes that one just wouldn’t expect from a man of Gilson’s caliber.”

But disagreement over Teil­hard did not impede the flower­ing of a deep friendship between Gilson and de Lubac, a friend­ship charted in these letters and notes that reveal the two men’s thoughts on such topics as modernism, Church politics, Thomism, and Vatican II.

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Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Edited by Matie Molinara, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Oxford University Press. 562 pages. $30.

Marshall McLuhan’s fame evaporated as quickly as do the pop-culture images he analyzed with such gusto. Hailed as oracle and guru in the 1960s, he is re­membered by many today only as the droll character who appear in a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hail. Understanding Media, published in 1964, won him a fleeting moment before the klieg lights, and for a time McLuhan was all the rage. His pronounce­ment that “the medium is the message” was repeated endlessly, and people who had never even seen one of his books chittered about “hot” and “cool” media. His correspondents during the 1960s and 1970s included a fair number of those who tickled the fancy of a celebrity-hungry pub­lic: Tom Wolfe, Ann Landers, Pierre Trudeau, Jack Paar, Marga­ret Mead, Woody Allen, Gover­nor Jerry Brown, and a scattering of lesser fry. It is tempting to dis­miss McLuhan as a pathetic publicity-hound who cashed in on the vacuousness of the 1960s. But if the Letters reveal a man with a penchant for the famous and glamorous, they also disclose the dazzling lucubrations of a percipient thinker. For one thing, McLuhan was a serious Catholic, a convert who joined the Church in 1937 and remained loyal to it until his death in 1980. If he en­gaged pop icons in correspon­dence, he also wrote with depth and insight to such figures as Jacques Maritain, Malcolm Muggeridge, Etienne Gilson, and Fr. Walter Ong. His analyses of tech­nological change retain their co­gency, for he understood that such innovations affect not only the way we live, but more im­portantly, how we think. Perhaps William Toye, one of the editors of the Letters, best captures McLuhan’s lasting significance. McLuhan warned, Toye observes, “that any potentially crucial new technological development should be confronted squarely, and its hidden dimensions imagined so that we can foresee and prepare to master their likely effects rath­er than be surprised, decades hence, when they have carried us in unwanted directions.”

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The Altruistic Personality: Res­cuers of Jews in Nazi Europe.  By Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner. Free Press. 419 pages. $24.95.

Three books wrestle for su­premacy between the covers of The Altruistic Personality. One of them is very good, another is insipid, the other is very bad — even pernicious. First, the good: the Oliners remind one that basic human decency cannot be blotted out by even the most horrific turn of events. Amidst the un­speakable abomination of the Holocaust, “Righteous Gentiles” (a term coined by the Israeli or­ganization Yad Vashem) risked everything — life included — to aid and succor individual Jews. The number rescued pales when compared with the six million murdered, but as the inscription on a medal awarded later to one of the rescuers reads: “Whoever saves one life, it is as though he saves the whole universe.”

Who were these rescuers? “Ordinary people,” the Oliners write; simple, unexceptional men and women who looked upon iniquity, sickened at its vileness, and then lashed out at its terrible sway. When this dark century has ended, their selflessness and courage will attest that the light of decency cannot be extinguish­ed.

Now for the insipid aspect of the book: The story of the rescuers deserves to be sung by some bard, infusing the tale with the high drama of epic poetry; unfortunately, the Oliners are not poets, but social scientists, wielding the cumbrous banalities of questionnaires, tables, and “scientific” methodology. (Three appendices, totaling 95 pages, in­corporate this crazed positivism.) Opaque to the mystery of good­ness, they must quantify it, pi­geonhole and categorize it, and squeeze it into the numbing reductionism of social psychology. The refusal to accept evil’s reign must be theorized into a “type”: the “altruistic personality.” Cut­ting through the rigmarole and jargon, it comes down to this: rescuers evinced an “extensiveness” characterized by “involve­ment, commitment, care, and re­sponsibility.” Tracing these traits to their source, the Oliners con­tend that rescuers developed them through parental and other childhood influences. “To a large extent, then, helping Jews was less a decision made at a critical juncture than a choice prefigured by an established character and way of life.” Heroism is reduced to a sort of benevolent determin­ism.

Now for the pernicious part: If the “extensive personality” arises out of early formative in­fluences, then this “is not a task that should be reserved for par­ents alone.” The state, its coer­cive power embodied in the school, must take over. “Schools need to become institutions that not only prepare students for academic competence but also help them to acquire an exten­sive orientation to others.” As if the schools are not already over­burdened enough. On the one hand, the Oliners exemplify the warm-puppy mode of social pre­scription: “Schools need to be­come caring institutions — insti­tutions in which students, teach­ers, bus drivers, principals, and all others receive positive affir­mation for kindness, empathy and concern.” Then, a more omi­nous note: “What is required is nothing less than institutionaliz­ed structures that promote sup­portive relationships….” Com­pel them to be altruistic? In the hands of the Oliners, social psy­chology is transmogrified into an appalling combination of sentimentalism and coerciveness. They give altruism a bad name.

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First Steps in Prayer.  By Jean-Marie Lustiger. Doubleday. 166 pages. $16.95.

“Most often the Christian — layperson, but sometimes also the priest — lives a life of extreme spiritual solitude.” So observes Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, with painful accuracy.

But prayer can transform isolation into communion and flood solitude with light. For when we pray we can remember that God never stops attending to us. He finds “no life, no mo­ment in any life, that is insignif­icant.” In prayer, too, conversa­tion with God can open to the cares of all people, whether close at hand or at great distance, who themselves open their hearts to God and recognize our cares.

When prayer begun in soli­tude turns our eyes to God and to those who everywhere strug­gle in solitude, then we discover a new freedom. This freedom, “the fine point of our being,” lit­tle by little re-centers our lives and lets God’s beauty shine through us.

How might we begin, once more, to learn to pray? Lustiger proposes three steps. First, we should link our prayer to the lit­urgy by keeping in mind, through­out the week, a single line of the Gospel as each Sunday it is announced to the Church. Second, we might learn some of the brief­er psalms; to pray them is to pray as Jesus did. Last, we must ask Mary to pray for us. Through the apostle John, Jesus gives His mother to us all: “Woman, be­hold your son” (John 19:26).

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