June 1990

Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700).  By Jaroslav Pelikan. University of Chicago Press. 361 pages. $29.95.

With this imposing con­clusion Jaroslav Pelikan reach­es the end of his labors on the five volumes of The Christian Tradition: A History of the De­velopment of Doctrine, one of the monumental works of 20th-century historiography. With an erudition that never sinks into ponderousness or abstruseness, Pelikan traces the unfolding of doctrinal de­velopment as evidenced in the various divisions of Christiani­ty — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Protestant sec­tarian.

The churches’ response to attacks from secular culture forms a crucial leitmotif in this volume, but the main theme debouches from what the au­thor sees as the “tension be­tween tradition and doubt or between dogma and relativ­ism.” In whatever facet of his topic he explores, Pelikan ad­heres to his definition of “doctrine”: what the church “believes, teaches and confess­es.”

Pelikan’s elucidation of the diverse strands of doctrinal development reminds one of the richness of the Christian tradition, even in the face of the hostility and indifference of the modern era. If only these strands could be woven together in seamless unity — how much all Christians would gain! One notes with sadness the bickering, confu­sion, and animosity that have been provoked by the clash of antagonistic churches and de­nominations; at times, one struggles in vain to hear the voice of Christ amidst the sounding brass and tinkling cymbals of Christian controver­sy.

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Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation.  Edited by Timothy McDermott. Christian Classics. 651 pages. $78.

Scholars of Thomism and experts in medieval Latin will have to hand down the defini­tive verdict on Timothy McDermott’s translating and ed­iting job, but in the meantime it appears that his edition may be ideal for those who want more than snippets as an in­troduction to the Summa. In an effort to make St. Thomas’s masterpiece “accessible to twentieth-century reading hab­its,” McDermott departs from previous translations in three particulars: “in concision, in trying to avoid technicality, and in format.” Perhaps most significant is the first feature, of which McDermott explains: “The concision has been achiev­ed not by selecting out parts, but by compressing and distill­ing the whole. My aim was to try and say all that Thomas wanted to say, in his own words, but in a text condensed to about one-sixth of its length.”

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1990 Catholic Almanac.  Edited by Felician A. Foy. Our Sunday Visitor Books. 600 pages. $15.95.

Here’s a book to give to your favorite anti-Catholic fundamentalist. It won’t con­vert him — it isn’t designed for that — but it will give him a rudimentary literacy about what the Catholic Church actually teaches. It might even be worth giving to a Catholic neighbor, given that the level of literacy about Catholic doc­trine has sunk to sorry depths even among Catholics.

You’ll probably also want a copy for yourself. The book is loaded with reference mate­rial about the Church — with everything from the addresses of U.S. and Canadian bishops to a glossary of common and not-so-common terms to a list of retreat houses throughout the U.S.

Updated every year, each edition contains special reports on the major news events of the preceding year.

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Last Things.  By Madison Jones. Louisiana State University Press. 206 pages. $17.95.

Wendell Corbin, the pro­tagonist of Madison Jones’s novel, is a Southern-fried Nietzsche, an Alabama Ubermensch who bristles with “dis­dain or contempt for every­body around him.” He “had long since committed himself to the notion that the good was only what was good for him.” Blackmailed into partici­pating in a drug deal, he shakes off his initial fright and begins to relish the lawlessness and lucre of the underworld. Not content with his own cor­ruption, he insinuates himself into the confidence of Tricia Harker, a pathetic middle-aged woman who natters about Nietzsche as she putters in her garden. Wendell seduces Tricia and cajoles her into murdering her snoopy mother-in-law. Betrayed and abandoned by her seducer, Tricia kills herself to escape the terrors of guilt and remorse.

Wendell’s redemption comes through the agency of an “oversized God-crazy preacher” named Sears. Sears fills Wendell with dread, be­cause Wendell imagines that the tent-preacher can see all the nastiness that festers in a sinner’s soul. After one en­counter with Sears, Wendell lies trembling in bed, “expect­ing that at any moment something, like a hand as big as himself, would seize him.” That mysterious “something” the workings of God’s grace lies at the heart of Jones’s excellent novel.

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Creative Communion: Toward a Spirituality of Work.  By Joe Holland. Paulist. 87 pages. $4.95.

Joe Holland’s reflections groan under the weight of jargon (“we are seeing the emergence of the first seeds of a holistic, post-modern, ecolog­ically-centered culture, reinte­grating science and spirituality in a fresh cosmology, as reveal­ed by sub-atomic and astro­physics through the use of computerized microscopic and telescopic technologies from the micro-electronic revolu­tion”). They also produce an exceedingly dubious typology that correlates cultural context, forms of communication, spiri­tuality, and sexual symbol.

But despite verbal logjams and rococo typologies, Holland is often on the right track, indeed, several right tracks. For too many of us, he argues perceptively, work is deeply alienating. The primacy of the person is at risk. Holland is insightful, as well, in sketching a Christian view of work as sharing in God’s creative activ­ity. He effectively shows that unless our work puts people first, it will continue to un­dermine the social and ecologi­cal orders alike.

Holland is at his best in pointing to the pastoral impli­cations of a Christian vision of work. Parish ministry that ig­nores the working lives of its members misses a central di­mension of their existence.

Holland’s essay deserves an audience. The hard ques­tions he raises remind us that Catholic social thought is an ongoing enterprise. No one said it would be easy.

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Winning Is the Only Thing: Sports in America since 1945.  By Randy Roberts and James Olson. Johns Hopkins University Press. 258 pages. $18.95.

"Priorities are out of whack.” Politics? The military? Higher education? Everyone could probably supply his own candidate, for this blunt utter­ance would apply with equal persuasiveness to numerous facets of American society. For Randy Roberts and James Olson it boils down to one thing, that celebrated and cherished pursuit that trails only slightly behind money-making and love of country: “Sports,” the authors declare, “increasingly occupy to an unwholesome degree the at­tention of millions of Ameri­cans.”

We have blundered into a colossal mess in which sports — the playing of games by grown men and women (sure­ly something of minor conse­quence in a well-ordered socie­ty) — have swollen into a re­pellent conglomeration of big business, mass (and mindless) entertainment, and ersatz reli­gion. “Instead of work, family, or religion,” Roberts and Olson argue, “increasingly large numbers of Americans were choosing sport as the focus of their lives.”

Concentrating upon the Olympic Games, college bas­ketball, and the professional sports of football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and boxing, Roberts and Olson uncover a foul kettle of fish: greed, cheating, crime, drugs, commercialism, and political machination. Take the Olym­pics, for example, a major topic in Winning Is the Only Thing. The Games have never been a haven for pure athletic competition — witness, for starters, the political jiggering in Berlin in 1936 — but they sank to an unprecedentedly sorry pass in 1984 when Los Angeles staged a grotesque display of Hollywood glitz and nationalistic trumpery.

Although Roberts and Ol­son deal mainly with organ­ized sports, they do endeavor to debunk the current fitness craze in which the idiotic streak in the American charac­ter has been encouraged to run amok. “Millions of Americans embraced the cult of fit­ness to discover the meaning of life, retreating into the fan­tasy that they are how they look.” The authors correctly descry a religious impulse in this lunacy, remarking, for ex­ample, that “in a secular, materialistic age, dieting has become an ascetic religion.” In a particularly forceful passage, they depict the dreary state of American culture. “Five hun­dred years ago,” they observe, “European cities dedicated all their surplus capital... to build elaborate cathedrals to God. In the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, the modern equivalent of the medieval cathedral was the domed stadium.”

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Origen.  By Henri Crouzel. Harper & Row. 278 pages. $39.95.

Origen, the third-century theologian who allegorized Scripture with a vengeance, made the mistake of reading literally a verse he should have taken figuratively. Ablaze with youthful ardor, he trans­lated into deed the suggestion contained in Matthew 19:12 — “And there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eu­nuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” With his impetuous act, he won endur­ing notoriety; Fr. Crouzel notes sadly: “The mutilation [is] the only thing the general public usually knows about Origen...”

For Crouzel, Origen is the first great theologian of the Church, a thinker worthy to stand shoulder to shoulder with Augustine and Aquinas. In this detailed and weighty study, Crouzel both explicates Origen’s vast writings and de­fends him from detractors who sniff the odor of heresy when Origen is mentioned. Crouzel disdains such charges (every­thing from gnosticism to universalism) as the result of ignorance, unfairness, and misunderstanding on the part of critics. Not only did Origen secure the orthodox faith against fifth columnists — gnostics, Marcionites, millenarians, and literalists, to name only a few — but in his wran­gles with pagan philosophers he established the intellectual credibility of the Christian message.

Although one may still insist that some of Origen’s teaching — e.g., the pre-existence of souls — were, to say the least, peculiar, one will probably agree with Crouzel’s conclusion that “posterity has been seriously unjust to the memory of one of the men to whom Christian thought is most indebted.”

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