April 1988

Gods and the One God.  By Rob­ert M. Grant. Westminster. 211 pages. $18.95.

The 20th century has seen few divorces more shocking than the sundering of Sacred from Classical philology. Until the middle of the 19th century the two overlapped; 100 years later the split was almost total.

When I was studying at Chapel Hill, an intelligent classi­cist confessed in class that he was puzzled as to why so much more important Greek literature was written in the second century A.D. than in the first. (He ignor­ed the fact that the most influen­tial works in ancient Greek, the books of the New Testament, were composed in the first cen­tury. The rhetorical preciosities that comprise the Greek litera­ture of the next century are sig­nificant, but nowhere near so im­portant.) No one in the class pro­tested: the New Testament was “not our field.”

Wayne Meeks of Yale has initiated for Westminster Press a series of volumes for New Test­ament students to bridge the chasm. The first volume has been entrusted to Robert M. Grant, re­cently retired head of the Depart­ment of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Chicago.

Grant is a conscientious scholar who writes with clarity and erudition. He succeeds in por­traying the ancient world that formed the common background for Christianity and Late Antiqui­ty.

When cataloguing the traits of classical divinities, Grant’s ob­vious lack of interest in the sub­ject bores his readers. When he guides us through the history of the early Church, his own inter­est evokes ours.

Neither this book, however, nor the series as a whole, faces up to the radical divergence be­tween classical and New Testa­ment studies. Real dialogue will not be possible until this yawn­ing abyss is stared into and taken seriously.

The classicist who writes on early Christianity, whether a his­torian like A.N. Sherwin-White or a student of ancient rhetoric like George Kennedy, finds him­self in a strange environment. Sherwin-White and Kennedy are important classical scholars, yet they have been treated by New Testament “experts” as uncriti­cal and naïve because they pre­supposed — or, worse, asserted — the integrity of the New Testament and its reliability as evidence for its world.

The reason for this lies in the histories of the two disci­plines. The 19th century was an era of criticism. The philologist and historian tested every brick that sustained the edifice of our knowledge of the ancient world. Everything that could be doubted was doubted. Almost every work of Plato’s was declared spurious by one scholar or another. Then the critics were criticized. Plato was restored to pretty much his ancient dimensions. Tacitus re­covered his “Dialogue on Ora­tors,” even though the style dif­fers sharply from the rest of his work. Homer, who had swollen to a vast committee, was reduced to two or three authors, or even one.

New Testament studies trav­eled one stage of the journey, but never made the return trip. This scholarly environment affects Grant. He refuses, for example, to accept the Pastoral Epistles as Pauline, although the style is no more different from Corinthians, say, than the style of Tacitus’s Dialogus from the rest of his work, and the parallels from other Pauline letters are more impres­sive.

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The Future of Religion: Seculari­zation, Revival, and Cult Forma­tion.  By Rodney Stark and Wil­liam Sims Bainbridge. University of California Press. 571 pages. $14.95.

Many social scientists argue that religious belief is dying. Stark and Bainbridge disagree. Religion is far from moribund, as the flowering of cults shows.

Secularization, they con­tend, does not kill religious be­lief; rather it dilutes the theology of many of the mainstream churches, which in turn encour­ages revival (sects) and innova­tion (cults). As reactions to the secularization of mainstream churches, sects and cults attest to the vitality of religious belief in modern societies. Religion is a constant social fact; where and how it is practiced is what chang­es.

Most American cults are headquartered in the western part of the U.S., where there is less hostility to such experimen­tation. The West is the most “un­churched” region of the U.S.; consequently, it is particularly susceptible to cults.

The variety of cults has changed over time. Mormon groups, communes, and New Thought cults flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Flying saucer cults were promi­nent between 1950 and 1970. Hippie communes and psychedel­ic cults dominated the 1960s, and two-thirds of the Satanist groups have formed since 1970. Today’s cults on average are rela­tively young: over 75 percent of them have been founded since 1950.

Stark and Bainbridge sus­pect that cults are more accept­able today than in the past. To test this idea, they theorized that the less cults are tolerated, the more they need to cloak them­selves with Christian-sounding, or at least conventional, names. Ac­cording to the authors, the per­centage of cults using such dis­guises steadily decreased after 1900. They no longer have to hide from the normal religions.

The types of people joining cults have shifted from social iso­lates and despairers to include the college-educated. These people sense the secularization of many conventional religious bodies and understand that their needs must be met elsewhere.

The Future of Religion un­derscores a major weakness of many current faith traditions: a de-emphasis on the mystery of the supernatural. The authors unfor­tunately do not devote much space to this phenomenon, but it is important, for the rolls of the unchurched are growing. The hold of conventional religion today seems tenuous, and the discon­tented are shopping for alterna­tives. The more that Christian churches become secularized, the stronger will be the movement into other religious organizations. People seek the supernatural; if they do not find it in conventional religious bodies, they will look elsewhere.

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Totalitarian Democracy and Af­ter.  By St. Martin’s Press. St. Martin’s Press. 412 pages. $35.

In 1951 Jacob Talmon, pro­fessor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, publish­ed The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, the first part of what would become a three-vol­ume effort to comprehend the rise of 20th-century totalitarian­ism. Using the concepts of “po­litical messianism” and “totali­tarian democracy” as leitmotifs, Talmon traced the course of id­eologies that burst upon the West with the French Revolution, be­deviled Europe throughout the 19th century, and reached their ghastly denouement in our own century. He completed his magis­terial trilogy just before his death in 1980.

Two years later a number of American and European scholars, including James Billington, Karl Bracher, George Mosse, and Mi­chael Walzer, met with Israeli colleagues in Jerusalem to com­memorate Talmon and to ex­plore the ramifications of his work. Totalitarian Democracy and After contains the papers presented at the four-day confer­ence. Together they comprise a trenchant assessment of the strengths, weaknesses, and impli­cations of Talmon’s trilogy. Yehoshua Arieli’s contribution, “Jacob Talmon — An Intellectu­al Portrait,” provides a keenly discerning introduction for those unfamiliar with Talmon’s books.

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Words and the Word: Notes on Our Catholic Vocabulary.  By Christopher Derrick. Ignatius. 134 pages. $6.95.

“How many honest words have suffered corruption since Chaucer’s day!” lamented the playwright Thomas Middleton in the early 17th century. Poor Middleton: were he alive today his protest would issue as a shriek of despair. Or, he could take hope from Christopher Der­rick’s latest book. Neither pedan­tic, precious, nor antiquarian. Derrick is a lover of language who winces when it is abused, perverted, or rudely mishandled. From the Catholic lexicon he culls 41 words, ranging from “au­thority” to “world,” and sub­jects them to his lively analysis. He scouts the penchant for words that float in an ether of vaporous imprecision: celebra­tion, encounter, experience, in­sight, meaningful, openness, rele­vant, renewal. “Jargon,” writes Derrick, “is what people use for plugging the holes in their thought.” He condemns the de­basement of once proud and inci­sive terms such as authority, free­dom, gay, heresy, sacrifice, and serve. Thomas Middleton and Christopher Derrick would enjoy commiserating over a pint.

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Lillian Smith: A Southerner Con­fronting the South.  By Anne C. Loveland. Louisiana State Uni­versity Press. 298 pages. $22.95.

Hillbilly Realist: Herman Clar­ence Nixon of Possum Trot.  By Sarah Newman Shouse. Universi­ty of Alabama Press. 242 pages. $25.95.

Would you want your daughter to marry a liberal? This is no mere drollery in the South, where many folks view liberal­ism as a crime against nature, something akin to, say, molest­ing small animals. Like the pro­verbial Negro at a Klan meeting, the Southern liberal has not found an effusive welcome. Re­cent biographies of Lillian Smith and Clarence Nixon show why.

As novelist and journalist from the 1930s through the 1960s, Smith campaigned indefatigably against racial segrega­tion. Though her cause was flaw­less, she was not. She indulged in lugubrious self-pity, attributing her lack of fame as a novelist to the machinations of New York critics. She could be amazingly muddleheaded at times, as when she once indicted the South for a “totalitarianism” comparable to the Soviet brand. She dismissed Faulkner as “not mature psycho­logically and socially” and aver­red that he did not understand blacks (this, of the author of Light in August and Go Down, Moses). But she loved the South, remained there all her life, and seldom faltered in her faith in its basic decency.

Clarence Nixon cobbled his liberalism out of “Jeffersonian agrarianism, Wilsonian pragma­tism and hillbilly realism.” In the 1930s he pledged loyalty to the New Deal; he spent the rest of his life seeking — as teacher, writ­er, and social activist — to pro­mote its tenets. As a contributor to the Agrarian symposium I’ll Take My Stand, he expressed what would be an enduring hos­tility to unbridled corporate America; he became, as Sarah Shouse remarks, “one of the South’s leading critics of modern capitalism.” Like Smith, Nixon’s heart lay in Dixie; he, too, re­fused to abandon it for the more liberal climes of the North. He knew, as did Smith, that not all noble causes are lost ones.

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