The Celestine Prophecy. By James Redfield. Warner Books. 246 pages. $17.95.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross must be nearer death than I thought. After just finishing The Celestine Prophecy, and reading her cover blurb ("A fabulous book about experiencing life -- I couldn't put it down"), I can only infer that her capacity to experience anything must be fading fast.
Billed as a spiritual mystery adventure, this piece of New Age fiction is none of those. What it is, in fact, is a dull pastiche of half-baked, trendy McConcepts (eco-femino-Mayan-Jungian-mystico-psycho-cosmico-evolutionary, etc.) whipped into a froth brimming with silly pseudo-insights into "life itself."
Make no mistake though, this new book has already found a large audience for its genial blend of nonscience, nonphilosophy, and nonreligious "spiritual" questing. Its hapless American hero is spurred on to ultimate truth by resisting the two perennial enemies of all right-thinking contemporary seekers, tradition and authority, in the form of course of the Catholic Church -- abetted by the Peruvian Army, which is viciously trying to suppress the truth.
You'd think that after almost 2,000 years of sifting and weighing Scripture and the testimony and experiences of the saints, the Church might have some dim idea of what the foundational truths of our civilization are. But not in this New Age author's subdivine comedy! Redfield effortlessly homogenizes everything in his breathless rush from truck to hut to truck to ruin, allowing us to experience the full vibration of reality, as we consciously evolve from singularity to cell to species and disappear into the great beyond, or great within, I mean within-beyond, or is it beyond-within?
Look, I'm sorry, I'm still working out my own personal "control drama," but, with enough energy from the plants which this book tells us we can find in the right places, I'll get it. And together we can join with the fearless band of good priests, that's right, you know the kind, up to the minute in meditative, vibrational, visionary vegetable growing and eating, and every other substitute for prayer, fasting, and penitence. Free from fear, we can search for the missing pages of the manuscript (Celestine = heavenly, get it?) which is the real key to the real door to the real truth bequeathed to us by the Mayans. And let's not forget along the way to think seriously about the need for limiting population growth.
If all of this sounds a bit dopey, hey, I can't argue with the sales figures, only the pandemic ignorance they reflect. But never fear, Redfield even offers you a blank in the back to send him your birthdate, from which he will astrologically derive your personal "control drama" and put you on the path to higher species evolution. Good luck, and watch out for those Peruvian troops!
The Celestine Prophecy is, in short, pure unadulterated junk. Yes, this lighter-than-air author's craft has touched a real longing in the country for something of spiritual substance. But what he delivers is just another glimpse of the ruins of the 1960s generation's abysmal preoccupations with freedom from authority (read self-indulgence) and blind, narcissistic search for anything resembling good feelings.
The idea that suffering is the path to spiritual growth, and that there have been a couple of credible testaments to that effect before the late-capitalist spiritual phantasmagoria got going, probably escaped the notice of this book's vibrating readers. But who knows, maybe enough questions will be evoked when the false fictional paths don't lead where they seem to be going, that the Lord will bring some around to a real alternative, in a real-life institution, with the authority to distinguish the true from the false.
Rather than trivialize such authority, as this book does, by turning it into cardboard cut-out villainy, we ought to be celebrating it.
- Francis X. McCarthy
The Soul of the American University. By George M. Marsden. Oxford University Press. 462 pages. $35.
The contemporary academy is bitterly divided by the "politically correct" attempt to impose a consensus founded upon relativism. In this book, Marsden, who identifies himself as a "fairly traditional" Calvinist, recounts the triumph of an older political correctness, whose effect was to banish religion from the mind of America. For example, as early as 1744 Yale adopted a speech code forbidding students to call college officers "carnal" or "unconverted," and expelled a student for saying that a tutor "had no more grace than a chair." The current p.c. wars have deep roots in the history of American education.
Marsden's story is one of the decline of Protestant -- initially Calvinist, subsequently liberal -- hegemony over higher education. Only a century ago, almost all state universities had compulsory chapel services. In the late 19th century, rates of church membership were higher among teachers at state universities than among the population at large. Today, however, the pervasive influence of Christianity has vanished, and belief in God among faculty is treated as a mild aberration.
Marsden offers a critique of the Protestant era of American higher education. The academic establishment invoked an increasingly fuzzy liberal Protestantism and adopted slogans like "inclusiveness" and "tolerance" that in the end mandated the disappearance of the Protestant Establishment itself.
Curiously, the disestablishment of academic religion has led to the infringement of its free exercise. Prevailing conceptions of academic freedom are biased against taking faith seriously: Theological disputes are avoided by the simple expedient of not allowing the teaching of theology. Student religion, where it exists, is expected to be a "religion of no offense."
The end of liberal Protestant domination of the universities is linked to the rise of a postmodern relativism that denies the authority of both science and theology. The lack of any governing standards at universities except "tolerance" and "diversity" has turned them into battlegrounds.
Marsden's strategy is to turn the relativistic culture of the contemporary academy against itself, and to call for a form of diversity that includes Calvinists like himself. He argues that, just as the academy has made room for feminist and multicultural viewpoints, so also should it make room for traditional religious perspectives. As The New York Times argued in 1880, those who believe that everything is relative have no cause to complain of education on Christian principles.
The remedy, Marsden persuasively argues, must include an invitation to religious groups of all sorts to take part in the dialogue that shapes American intellectual life. But his concessions to postmodernist relativism will make it difficult for him to define and defend the canons of "procedural rationality" that remain his one constraint on legitimate intellectual diversity.
- Philip E. Devine
Destinations Past: Traveling through History With John Lukacs. By John Lukacs. University of Missouri Press. 220 pages. $26.95.
How to describe John Lukacs to a friend? Well, like G.K. Chesterton, he's profound and witty in his observations of humanity, but there is no swish of cane-sword above your head as you read, no interminable parade of paradoxes, and none of that militant, if not wearying, Chestertonian Joy. Lukacs is sometimes unabashedly sad in his essays, something he attributes to being Hungarian. Like Hilaire Belloc, he is iron-hard and countercultural, a Catholic social critic in the truest sense, but there is no hint of Belloc's bludgeoning or his hair-trigger reaction. As to his ability as an historian, Lukacs seems to be a successor to Catholic historians like Christopher Dawson, who, as an English university don and Catholic convert, was invited to America in the 1950s to occupy, mirabile dictum, a Chair of Catholic Studies at Harvard.
An academic, Lukacs nonetheless blithely ignores the edicts of the academic establishment. He quite regularly subjects liberaldom to such excoriations as to cause writhings and gnashings of teeth. But he is certainly not foremost in the hearts of many conservatives, for he will also readily turn to grind conservative cant into powder.
Probably best known for his Historical Consciousness (recently re-issued by Transaction), in Destinations Past he seems like an art museum docent. Most of us have probably had the experience of viewing paintings in publications or institutional art collections that we take for granted or that have grown too familiar, less interesting with each viewing. But now imagine an articulate and deeply versed guide who asks us to view these familiar works again. Our attention is directed to subtle brush strokes, the effects and moods produced by chromatic blendings and contrasts. An explanation of certain motifs is given. And now the paintings' subtleties come most wonderfully into view. Lukacs is able to provide in his essays this wondrous service for many of those historical events or current scenes that have become too familiar. And since these essays are in chronological order, with the earliest dating back to shortly after the last World War, we can glimpse some of the intellectual history and evolution of the essayist.
Lukacs's essay called "Hitler's One-Hundredth Birthday" is about his visit to Hitler's birthplace in Braunau, Austria, on Hitler's birth centennial. It frames a quick, probing study of Hitler's family and his national origins. But wondrously for Lukacs and us, the national origins are also those of Franz Jägerstätter, a young Catholic peasant and father who was the only man in his village of St. Radegund (20 miles from Braunau) to vote against Hitler. Perhaps a saint, he went to his death in a Nazi prison rather than serve in the German Army. Jägerstätter's martyrdom, and the aid, counsel, and comfort given him by some Catholic priests and one fiercely traditional bishop, are contrasted with the aid, counsel, and comfort given the Nazis by all too many Austrian and German bishops and priests. There is a lesson here for anyone today with ears to hear and eyes to see.
There are 21 essays in Destinations Past. "Cook's Continental Timetable" is about as much fun for the imagination as you can have in an armchair. "Three Days in London: Churchill's Funeral" and "Easter in Warsaw" are moving and enlightening observations on two different but strangely similar nations and their leaders. "The Light from the East" is an essay of impressions of and reflections on a visit to America by Pope John Paul II. There is much, much more. But I am still looking out from the Felsenweg, the "rock road," above Lake Lucerne as I walk toward the Bernese Alps with Lukacs in "The Gotthard Walk." Quite frankly, I cannot think of a much more delightful or richly rewarding way to travel, route to take, or companion to have.
- David Denton