October 2004

The New Encyclopedia of Islam.  By Cyril Glassé. Rowman & Littlefield. 582 pages. $44.95.

The publisher states that this is “the only single-volume work in print which so comprehensively encompasses the beliefs, practices, history and culture of the Islamic world, in over 1300 entries.” It is a massive reference book, with 24 pages of color photographs, 16 pages of color maps, dynastic charts, diagrams, and more.

There is much to praise in this work. The reader will find an A to Z explication of Islam that is very thorough. But this reference work is not totally comprehensive simply because there may really be no such thing. So the reader is cautioned not to make this book his only source. Several reference sources have other things to offer, such as (to name a few) The A to Z of Islam (2002), Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (2001), Historical Dictionary of Islam (2001), Historical Dictionary of Prophets in Islam and Judaism (2002), and The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (2003).

There are some items in Glassé’s book that are not so praiseworthy. His entry on the Crusades is puzzling and inaccurate: “The Crusades were the result of a nascent expansionism in Europe as well as pressures by the Saljuks upon the Byzantine empire and the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim in 1009. The enticements were booty, glory, territorial acquisition, and the promised remission of sins and service to God.” But the Crusades, in the words of the historian Thomas F. Madden, “were in every way defensive wars.” The 1908 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia stated that, from the outset, “the Crusades were defensive wars….” The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003), while being noticeably “politically correct” in its analysis of the Crusades (in sharp contrast to the 1908 edition), still acknowledges the “primarily defensive character” of the Crusades. Madden states that the Crusades “were a direct response to Muslim aggression — an attempt to…defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.” As for the “booty” that the Crusaders supposedly craved and pilfered, Madden notes that “the vast majority [of the Crusaders] returned with nothing.” Glassé seems to pass over rather lightly the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Imagine for a moment that Catholics had occupied Mecca and Medina at the same time, and had destroyed one of the Muslim holy sites. The anger and outrage would extend to this day, and beyond. Who committed the first transgressions? The answer to this is clear. One must understand the context for the Crusades. As Madden says: “The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.”

Did feverish Crusaders bent on recovering the Holy Land commit needlessly brutal acts? Of course, and Pope John Paul II has asked forgiveness for such acts. But there were brutal acts on both sides. I have not seen proportionate apologies on the part of Muslims for past — or present — aggressions toward Christians. Misconceptions about the Crusades on the part of Muslims — and Christians — will, alas, continue. The aggressive and destructive actions of some of the Crusaders should not be ignored, nor should the aggressive and destructive action by Muslims be ignored.

Despite the above reservations, this is a reference work on Islam that can be usefully employed for years to come.

- Thomas D. Watts



The Remnant Spirit: Conservative Reform in Mainline Protestantism.  By Douglas E. Cowan. Praeger. 234 pages. $64.95.

Although discussion in this book is essentially limited to “mainline” Protestantism, its major theme is the prevailing doctrinal disorder in most North American churches. Toward the end of the book, the author states that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church has suffered from similar disarray and has generated her own reform movements similar to the conservative Protestant reform movements.

Fights over changes in ceremony, liturgy, hymnals, and service books have caused havoc, as have changes in ordination standards to allow homosexuals to serve at all levels in many “mainline” churches. There is also the perception that the clergy are largely at fault for these churches’ deplorable condition, an issue pervading my own recent Clerical Failure.

Cowan asks a pertinent question: Why do people stay in such an unfamiliar, unorthodox environment? Of course, many of them leave, but those who don’t, he believes, remain for the sake of “identity and meaning.” If it comes to actual departure, people choose a church, or a reform expression, very similar to the one to which they long adhered, one solution I advocate in my Switching Churches.

To give up the fight and renounce all theological engagement would be to relinquish one’s “identity” as “the remnant faithful” and as a reformer. Cowan also notes the importance of social status and family continuity in church membership. He emphasizes that there has been a steady decline in church attendance since the 1960s in the “mainline” churches.

When people do leave, they leave over such issues as open communion; membership requirements; conditions for baptism, confirmation, and weddings; women’s ordination; the authority of Scripture; the role of the laity in the conduct of worship; the scrapping of specific basic doctrines; and the contention that all religions have as much validity as Christianity.

Because of the present-day chaos, reform is seriously underway. Cowan understands reform movements as compromising “groups whose cognitive praxis is theologically evangelical, noncharismatic, and oriented specifically toward changing or preventing something within the doctrinal, political, or practical contexts of their denomination that they regard as erroneous or in breach of traditional doctrine, polity, or practice.”

The book consists of three major parts. The first part discusses “mainline” Protes-tantism’s decline after Word War II as touching the three domains of ecclesiology, experience, and theology.

The second part greatly expands on the third domain, and the evangelical response, and lays out conservative reform movements in four denominations: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church (USA), and the United Church of Canada.

The third part shows that all reform movements follow a similar pattern and end up representing the defense of a particular religious identity, rather than merely opposing specific church actions. In other words, there is virtually no “brand betrayal.”

The book is not easy bedtime reading and thus is better suited for academic and seminary libraries than for the general public. It is primarily a history and reference source of 20th-century Protestant reform efforts.

- Donald D. Hook



Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom. Second Edition.  By Thomas Dubay. Ignatius. 177 pages. $12.95.

Poverty is one of the central teachings of the New Testament. And it is one that has been continuously underscored by the teachings of the Church and by the lives of the saints. Thus, the life of poverty is a Christian universal that applies equally to the lives of clerics, religious, and laymen alike. But, if this is the case, why is it that so few Christians live the simple life? Fr. Thomas Dubay answers this question and provides the reader with a greater understanding of the idea of poverty as Jesus Christ intended it. He also provides a practical guide to living the life of poverty.

One reason Christians have strayed from the idea of poverty is that so few (including modern theologians and spiritual writers) understand its true meaning. Dubay begins by clarifying the confusion. First, poverty is not necessarily destitution — the lack of basic material necessities. Destitution can lead not only to physical impoverishment; it can also lead to spiritual despair. Second, poverty is not miserliness or economizing for its own sake. Finally, poverty is not an emotional or socio-political understanding of the poor, which often leads Christians to donate their “time, treasure and talent” to alleviate the conditions of the poor. True poverty is what the author calls the “sparing-sharing” way of life. It is based on material minimalism (asceticism) combined with a total dedication to God and the desire to serve others. It is a way of life that forces one to a radical renunciation of wealth and worldly things.

Dubay proceeds to diagnose the causes of the relativism that has crept into the traditional Christian definition of poverty. Christ was unequivocal about its meaning. It must be “factual poverty,” in that one must take a minimalist view of wealth and worldly things. What wealth Christians do possess must be seen as a means to spiritual ends, rather than as ends in themselves. In short, living the simple life requires the sacrifice of material goods and pleasures in order to achieve a deeper spiritual existence. By relinquishing earthly pleasures, Christians are already preparing themselves for their ultimate destination, the Kingdom of God.

To give the idea of poverty a practical dimension, Dubay presents three levels of radicality. Level One is the minimal level that must be the aspiration of all Christians. It has several criteria: all material things are means and not ends; one must work for a living, and share what one earns and avoid superfluities and vanity; and Christians must be satisfied with simplicity. Level Two requires even greater discipline. It calls for the renunciation of necessities, begging for and serving the poor and living just short of destitution. The final level is that of destitution, which is lived out of love for the destitute and for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel does not require it, but it is the ultimate Christian sacrifice.

To fully appreciate this last level of discipline and commitment, Dubay provides examples of the sacrifices made by some of the saints. St. Macrina gave her inheritance to the poor, worked as a simple laborer, and slept on two boards. When she died, she did not even have proper clothes for her burial. St. Peter of Alcantara so restricted his diet that he lost all sense of taste. He slept only once every three days and then on a barren floor. St. John Kanti also preferred to sleep on the floor; he fasted often and never ate meat. But, perhaps the most remarkable case is that of St. Catherine of Siena, who lived on virtually no food and sleep for most of her life. According to her confessor, Raymond of Capua, she finally reached a state of total abstinence from food or drink and only slept a half hour each day. Nevertheless, she was always energetic and bursting with joy.

Living the simple life at any level is difficult. To Dubay, this is the main reason people reject poverty or try to redefine it. He reserves special criticism for the clergy and religious for failing to teach the simple life or practice it. One point he does not develop sufficiently is why the desire to live the simple life has declined so drastically in the modern era. A simple answer is that laymen, as well as clergy and religious, have been so thoroughly integrated into the secular world with its enormous material trappings that even those who sincerely try to pursue the radical alternative must struggle far more than their ancestors, for whom poverty was the norm. Moreover, people today live in such isolation that pursuing poverty alone becomes severely testing. In the past there was always a community of believers to lend support to and often participate with those who sought the simple life.

The first edition of this book was published in 1981. Since then there has been a torrent of spiritual and secular literature about the importance of living a simpler existence. However, by all indicators, the culture of materialism shows no sign of dissipating. Unfortunately, it has ensnared far too many Christians. But the author does make a telling point concerning religious communities that has broader implications. Those who practice chastity and frugality flourish, whereas those who do not flounder. Thus, living the truth has powerful consequences. With respect to the laity, if more orthodox Catholics would take poverty seriously and spread their wealth and Christian love, it could lead to a revitalization of the Church. It would also reveal the hypocrisy and spiritual weakness of liberal Catholics, whose core beliefs have always been materialism and pleasure.

- Tobias J. Lanz



G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense.  By Dale Alquist. Ignatius. 188 pages. $13.95.

G.K. Chesterton needs no introduction to most readers of the NOR. I had already enjoyed several of his books, as well as a number of articles about him, yet I still found Alquist’s compendium of his legacy and major works illuminating. Apostle of Common Sense can serve not only as an excellent means of becoming better acquainted with Chesterton, but as an enjoyable introduction for those who have not yet read him.

Alquist, the President of the American Chesterton Society, a regular contributor to Gilbert! magazine, and the host of an EWTN series on Chesterton, is uniquely qualified to introduce (or re-introduce) Chesterton to today’s readers.

Chesterton debated some of the most noted anti-Christian thinkers of his time, including George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow; and yet the modern world pays greater homage to those writers, because they tell it what it wants to hear. Alquist explains why Chesterton — the man who wrote easily understandable prose for ordinary men, whose common sense could be common to all people in all places — suffers the neglect he does today: “Because the modern world finds it much more convenient to ignore him than to risk engaging him in argument, because to argue with Chesterton is to lose.”

Alquist describes Chester-ton’s impact: “This absent-minded, overgrown elf of a man, who filled up a room when he entered it, who laughed at his own jokes, and would amuse children at birthday parties…this was the man who wrote a book that led a young atheist named C.S. Lewis to become a Christian…[and] a novel that inspired Michael Collins to lead a movement for Irish independence…[and] an essay in the Illustrated London News that inspired Mohandas Gandhi to lead a movement to end British colonial rule in India.”

Not wishing to minimize Chesterton’s significance, still I would qualify Alquist’s statement above by adding that Lewis was influenced by a number of people, including his friend Tolkien. Gandhi was also deeply influenced by reading Thoreau, Tolstoi, and the Gospels. But Alquist certainly makes a valid case for the far-ranging, measurable impact Chesterton had on the best and the brightest in so many fields. And one can only guess about the immeasurable impact Chesterton had on countless numbers of common men to whom he addressed so much common sense.

Alquist surveys Chesterton’s corpus, including a chapter on each of his major works, such as Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Everlasting Man, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Father Brown series. At times the frequent peppering of quotes from Chesterton, along with Alquist’s imitative style, combine to make the readers almost think Alquist is Chesterton!

Then there is this from Alquist, which is especially relevant in light of the clerical sex scandals: “[Chesterton] says the world really pays the supreme compliment to the Catholic Church when the world will not tolerate even the appearance of evil in the Church when the same world tolerates it everywhere else.”

Alquist on Chesterton is like Plato on Socrates, or Boswell on Johnson. If you would like a good stepping stone to Chesterton, read Dale Alquist.

- Larry A. Carstens





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