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.
Odens 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 détat by a clutch of religious rightists; rather, he seeks only to restore Wesleys Sermons, Notes on the New Testament, and Articles of Religion to the normative position they have traditionally held.
Odens 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.
The Correspondence of Flannery OConnor 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 OConnor 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, OConnor on a farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia. They became acquainted in 1953 when OConnor 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 OConnors 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 Gods creation. Only one note marred this loveliness: OConnors losing battle with a deadly disease. Mostly they ignored the shadow, OConnor because she refused to allow death to deface life, the Cheneys because they could not believe what lay ahead. For Brainard, OConnors redoubtable hardihood and humor masked the approaching denouement. In her last letter to the Cheneys, written two weeks before her death, OConnor closed: If I were on foot Id just come up there and join you. Cheers, Flannery.
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 Quastens 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.
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 Neusners book, then John Murray Cuddihys 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 cant 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 [Freuds] 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 dont describe them, and you read Cuddihy, not summarize him; both are marvelous experiences.
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.
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.
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 Gilsons letters to him, and annotates them with his own retorts, rejoinders, and clarifications. Happily, he doesnt take advantage of his deceased friend, though he does get testy at times over Gilsons 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, Id 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 Teilhards theories. There is no excuse, de Lubac fumes in one annotation, for so many mistakes that one just wouldnt expect from a man of Gilsons 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 mens thoughts on such topics as modernism, Church politics, Thomism, and Vatican II.
Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Edited by Matie Molinara, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Oxford University Press. 562 pages. $30.
Marshall McLuhans 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 Allens 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 McLuhans 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.
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 evils 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.
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 Gods 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).