Socrates Meets Jesus. By Peter Kreeft. Inter Varsity. 182 pages. $6.95.
A Turn of the Clock. By Peter Kreeft. Ignatius. 81 pages. $5.95.
In a time when classifications are mandatory, one fears that Peter Kreefts sparkling dialogues wherein Historys Great Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ might be shelved away under apologetics. But this gem deserves better.
Imagine Socrates, alive again, at Have It Divinity School. What would he make of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures? Suppose he enrolled in Fundamentals of Demythologizing, Science and Religion, and Christology. Then, for good measure, introduce him to such familiar characters as Bertha Broadmind, Thomas Keptic, Molly Mooney, and Ahmen Ali Louiea. Kreefts narrative involves all of the above, and the results are both engaging and instructive.
Socrates himself is unchanged by his new environment, and he artfully recapitulates for us his classic themes: the doctrine of anamnesis, the claim that no evil befalls the good man, and the insight that wisdom begins with seeing how little we know. But while we recognize Socrates philosophy, he is dismayed to find our philosophers safely confined in their academic departments!
The theology curriculum he follows soon poses its own puzzles. What he encounters (having first read through the Bible on his own) is bewildering. For a start, theres the question of myth. Sometimes myth turns out to be whatever one wants to discount in Scripture. Alternatively, it can refer to something deeper than history. An enemy of neither history nor myth, Socrates wonders why, say, the Resurrection is not at once historical and prefigured in myth.
Socrates is most alarmed, though, by how his Christology professor dodges the central question: Are Christs claims true? It is fine to be open-minded, but the point of being so is to reach the truth. Thus Socrates finds himself wrestling with the doctrine of the Incarnation. And he will not be put off by learned patter about the Resurrection as (only) an archetype. Either Christ rose from the dead or not: which is it?
Yet Socratess interest in truth is not just speculative. If it is true that Christ lives, then it is true that we can share in his life. And it can even be true that the Church is his body. Ever logical, Socrates asks us how our lives could be so so bland, if this incredible thing is true? Do we have an answer?
Dialogues are a classic medium for the philosopher. The proverb is a tool of the sage and of sober commonsense. Kreefts slim volume, A Turn of the Clock, shows him at home with both genres. Ours, he notes, is the first society in history that educates its young without proverbs, and this is worrisome. At the very least it suggests a failure of intellectual nerve.
One motif in Kreefts effort to restore our confidence (which Socrates, for all his questions, never lost!) is a refusal to bow to the gods of progress. Here we recall C.S. Lewiss disdain for chronological snobbery. Kreeft puts it this way: When the clock starts keeping crazy time, the sensible and progressive thing to do is to turn it back.
Gentle reader, read on!
Studies and Commentaries III (1987). Edited by Walter E. Frieman Jr. American Region of the Society of Mary. 31 pages. $3.
Many American Christians will be surprised to learn that Marian devotion can be found in the Anglican Communion, commonly understood to be the heir to the English Reformation. This booklet, the third in a series released by U.S. Episcopalians with a special attachment to Mary, contains two articles, two sermons, one quiet day address, and one poem (by John Donne) dedicated to the subject of Mary.
The Earl of Lauderdales article reports on the recently restored Shrine of Our Lady of Haddington in Scotland, jointly overseen by Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics, where many healings are currently occurring.
Fr. David M. Allens article notes that the 1979 revision of the U.S. Episcopal Churchs Book of Common Prayer marks what is probably the first time the ancient title for Mary, Theotokos, has appeared in an American or English version of the BCP. Unfortunately, however, the Episcopalians fudged by translating the term as God-bearer. Allen argues for the more traditional translation, Mother of God, contending that it is intended to stress [Marys] maternity in order to state in an emphatic and perhaps shocking fashion the reality of the Incarnation.
Devotion to Mary, properly understood and practiced, highlights rather than distracts from the divinity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Mary ultimately always points to her Son, never to herself; as Pope John XXIII put it: The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son. Marian devotion can also enhance the social dimension of the Gospel, for, as Bishop Robert W.S. Mercer piquantly observes here, Socialists love [Mary] because of the verse of [the] Magnificat, He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek (Lk. 1:52).
For those Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who see Marianism as shopworn, this Anglican window on St. Mary may revive a dormant aspect of their faith. For Protestants who are curious about Marys place in the drama of our salvation, but who recoil from plunging head-first into such deep waters, this inviting booklet, plus its two predecessors, can provide a pleasant way for them to get their feet wet.
No One Could Have Known, An Autobiography: The Early Years, 1904-1945. By Josef Pieper. Ignatius. 227 pages. $9.95.
One expects a German philosopher to be stodgy and ponderous, with a predilection for clotted prose that clumps across the page with all the liveliness of a decrepit mule traipsing down a cotton row on a sizzling Mississippi day. Josef Pieper exhibits a rare quality among Teutonic philosophers: a light touch but no less profound for its lightness. His account of his youthful discovery of St. Thomas crackles with the exhilaration of the seeker who finds the truth. He evinces none of the somberness and rigidity one associates with Germanic intellectual discourse; he infuses the realm of ideas with Catholic Gemütlichkeit. Even his war experiences did not deaden his spirit, for amidst the maleficence of Nazism he managed to hold on to his humanity by serving as a psychological counselor in the rehabilitation of severely wounded soldiers.
Given the joy in the goodness of creation that informs these pages, it is easy to understand how Pieper could have written such sparkling books as Leisure, In Tune with the World, and On Hope.
Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism. Edited by George M. Marsden. Eerdmans. 319 pages. $19.95.
A cynic might be tempted to dub this book How to Win Respectability in the Eyes of the Cultural Despisers. In part, that tells the story of Fuller Seminary: A PR gambit to banish the repellent image of fundamentalism by pouring old wine into new bottles labeled the new evangelicalism. But more than appearances was at stake, for the men who founded Fuller in 1947 sought nothing less man to re-establish the cultural centrality that evangelical Protestantism had enjoyed in the 19th century. Beyond this, they longed to recapture the Puritans energizing sense of mission and to revivify Protestantism with the urgent call to save Western civilization by transforming America into a godly commonwealth.
The task was arduous. It meant, on the one hand, repudiating premillennial apocalypticism and fundamentalisms carping, self-pitying negativism, without, at the same time, compromising the faith and falling prey to the vitiated teachings of liberal Protestantism. The success of this strategy can be measured, in typical Protestant fashion, in numbers: the folks at Fuller today pride themselves on belonging to the largest independent, regularly accredited theological seminary in the world.
One suspects that Fullerites prefer to forget two elements that contributed to the seminarys early success: anti-Catholicism and right-wing politics. The anti-communism expounded by the faculty enabled the institution to attract conservative money; this, in turn, gave Fuller the financial freedom it needed to pursue its independent course. The schools anti-Catholicism reassured the faithful that Fuller was standing firm in the age-old war with Rome. For Harold Lindsell, one of the early stars at Fuller, communism and Catholicism formed part of the massive world forces threatening Christianity. Students who wished to learn more about the iniquitous Roman Church could do so in Lindsells course on Modern Cults, in which the professor would open his lectures on Catholicism with the comment: It had Christian beginnings.
Although the president of Fuller commissioned Reforming Fundamentalism as part of the seminarys 40th-anniversary celebration, the volume is no piece of puffery. George Marsden ranks among the most talented historians now working the field of American religious history. This book shows that his reputation is richly deserved.
Episcopal Vision/American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America. By Robert Bruce Mullin. Yale University Press. 247 pages. $20.
In recent decades the Episcopal Church has transformed itself from the Republican Party at prayer into what? It defies description, but for certain it involves whatever loopiness is currently addling the clerical brain. Professor Mullins Episcopal Vision/American Reality reveals an older and more admirable Episcopalianism, one that resisted the siren song of the Zeitgeist. Antebellum high-church Episcopalians rejected the evangelical consensus that dominated the era. Evangelicals proclaimed America the new Israel, Gods chosen nation in which the New Jerusalem was fast abuilding. High-church Episcopalians scorned this balderdash, promulgating instead a vision based on the normative importance of the primitive church. In the spirit of Tertullian, they asked: What has Washington, D.C., to do with Jerusalem? To their chagrin, the high-churchmen discovered that Washington has more clout; they could not withstand the pull of patriotic conformity. Although Mullin focuses narrowly, his book illuminates the age-old debate between H. Richard Niebuhrs Christ and Culture. It is an elegant and insightful piece of scholarship.
Born Brothers. By Larry Woiwode. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 611 pages. $19.95.
Larry Woiwode engages in a searching meditation upon the biblical text that furnishes both the title and the epigraph for his novel: A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity (Prov. 17:17). Adversity aplenty dogs Jerome and Charles Neumiller, born a year apart in the early 1940s in a small town in North Dakota. Charles, the narrator, renders the tale through a dazzling play of memory over the events from childhood into middle age. Our memories and words and acts are linked like cells to others, so that no single version is right, and our earliest memories gather in a pattern that informs any other pattern that arrives, adding further density to the original, and that is about all we know. In interweaving past and present, Woiwode achieves a virtuosity that elevates him into the ranks of contemporary Americas premier novelists.
Beneath the surface of Charless sometimes grim, sometimes funny and always haphazard life runs the stream of faith in God, a current that gradually slows to a trickle and then dies. From the insular Catholicism of a tightly knit German-American community, he moves to adulthood and the conviction that there were no absolutes, at least not for me. Charles finds no peace in unbelief. A pain like a hole in my heart will not vanish. After years of shambling through an existence bereft of meaning, he stumbles upon a Bible-believing Presbyterian preacher in Chicago. Evangelical Protestantism turns him once more into a believer, a fool for him, he remarks in wonderment. Woiwode handles this spiritual journey with such sensitivity and artistic integrity that even a staunch Catholic can rejoice in its denouement.
Search for Nothing: The Life of John of the Cross. By Richard P. Hardy. Crossroad. 148 pages. $8.95.
Scorned, reviled, imprisoned, forced to endure a horribly painful death: St. John of the Cross might have been in Georges Bernanoss mind when he wrote: The saint is always alone, at the foot of the cross. No other friend. Yet, as Richard Hardy points out in this graceful (and grace-filled) biography, the little Spaniard loved life and Gods creation. Through God he loved it all, Hardy writes, which meant he truly saw that it was good. His life stands as both rebuke and invitation to our era: rebuke, because he embraced the suffering for Christ that we seek to avoid; invitation, because he illumines the way of the cross and the path to holiness. If it is an invitation too frightening to accept, it is also one too momentous to reject.