December 2011

The Fathers of the Church: From Clement of Rome to Augustine of Hippo. By Pope Benedict XVI.  Edited and annotated by Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J.. Eerdmans. 179 pages. $15.

Every week when he is in Rome, with a few exceptions, the Holy Father holds a general audience during which he delivers a sermon directed to all the faithful. Pope John Paul II used some of his talks to present in small pieces his “theology of the body.” Often, the topic of today’s Pope is the heroic life of a particular saint, perhaps one with relevance to a current situation, or whose feast is honored.

For several audiences from 2007 to 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke on the Fathers of the Church, and these talks have now been collected for wider dissemination. Unlike the Doctors of the Church, who are spread across the ages and relatively few in number, the Fathers of the Church are more numerous, less likely to be saints, and all lived in the years of the Church’s infancy, by most reckonings prior to the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451).

Strictly speaking, only those who remained orthodox, lived a holy life, and continued in communion with the Church are considered “Fathers.” Others who slipped into heresy or became estranged are often called “disciples.” We grant them recognition in that they enlightened thinking on at least one aspect of Church teaching. In this volume, Benedict is not so strict, including some disciples like Tertullian, whose famous Apology defended the early Church against the persecution of political authorities and who gave us some of the elements of Trinitarian dogma. Later, unfortunately, he joined the Montanist sect.

Today it might seem unlikely to us that such topics as the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ were once issues of controversy in the conversation of ordinary believers. Now we are more likely to argue about women’s ordination, same-sex unions, or healthcare reform. All the arguments about the nature of God, transubstantiation, or even Purgatory seem largely settled. Yet there was a time when Christianity was rife with heresy, a time when as many as half the bishops and clergy believed in Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ.

So we owe much to these Fathers for their clarity and courage. It was not easy to be “the guardian of exactitude,” like Cyril of Alexandria, while seeking unity and reconciliation. Or to be persecuted and exiled like Athanasius. Or martyred like Justin. And Benedict gives them their due, from Clement to Augustine. With each entry he places the Father of the Church in historical context and explains how he is important in the development of doctrine and tradition. He also draws parallels to contemporary life and explains how the teachings of the Fathers continue to be binding.

Benedict’s style is conversational and easy to read. You can almost picture yourself in the original audience; and while the subject is primarily theology, no one, in reading this collection, would be overwhelmed by its complexity. These are not academic treatises; they are sermons to the faithful.

Some names are familiar to everyone. We find five chapters devoted to St. Augustine, in which Benedict reflects not only on the bishop of Hippo’s place in the Church but also on his personal importance in Bene­dict’s own life and work.

Other names are not so familiar. How many of us could readily identify a figure such as Paulinus of Nola? But if some Fathers are more obscure, this indicates not so much their lack of status but rather our own ignorance of Catholic patrimony. In the case of Paulinus, his great gift to us is the model of a pastor of great charity and his view of “friendship itself as a manifestation of the one Body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit.” In his correspondence with Augustine, he writes, “It is not surprising if, despite being far apart, we are present to each other and, without being acquainted, know each other, because we are members of one body, we have one head, we are steeped in one grace, we live on one loaf, we walk on one road and we dwell in the same house.”

In introducing us to Maximus of Turin, Pope Benedict presents us with a clear example of one who speaks particularly of the responsibility, both of bishops and the faithful, to participate in civic life. “In his eyes, living a Christian life also meant assuming civil commitments. Vice versa, every Christian who, ‘despite being able to live by his own work, seizes the booty of others with the ferocity of wild beasts, who tricks his neighbor, who tries every day to nibble away at the boundaries of others, to gain possession of their produce,’ does not compare to a fox biting off the heads of chickens but rather to a wolf savaging pigs.” And to describe the task of bishops of the time (during the collapse of the Roman Empire), “‘Like the bee,’ he said, bishops ‘observe bodily chastity, they offer the food of heavenly life using the sting of the law. They are pure in sanctifying, gentle in restoring and severe in punishing.’”

Reading through this collection is like reading an abbreviated history of the early Church, against which the gates of Hell did not prevail. To deliver the word of the Apostles intact and without distortion was not easy then, and we should not expect it to be easy now.

- Elizabeth Hanink



The Loser Letters.  By Mary Eberstadt. Ignatius Press. 149 pages. $13.95.

Before reading Mary Eberstadt’s The Loser Letters, I was under the impression that her book was simply another entry in the genre of Screw­tape Letters imitators. Though there are certainly affinities, The Loser Letters is a different type of book. It is composed of ten letters written by “A Former Christian” (A.F. Christian), a troubled 25-year-old woman in rehab, and addressed to her heroes in the New Atheism movement, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, et al. Though she writes to share with them the story of her “conversion” to atheism, A.F. Christian focuses primarily on pointing out the weaknesses of their approach, so that they might more successfully convert “Dulls” (believers) away from “Loser” (God) to the side of the “Brights” (atheists).

The letters make for a humorous and informal commentary on and critique of atheism. And Eberstadt pulls no punches. From the outset we are made to understand that sexuality and A.F. Christian’s wayward boyfriend, Lobo, play an important role in her life. She derides the lead atheists for acting as though the secularist project of undermining sexual mores has been good for people and society. She points out that the sexual revolution really is “proof that secular so-called morality once unleashed would do some real damage in the world.” Removing the old strictures did not make us happier, she says, and the atheists are fooling themselves if they think the emphasis on “privacy” and “consenting adults” has had positive results. The facts indicate otherwise: One need only look at the astronomical rates of adultery, divorce, and family breakdown — or better yet, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control — to grasp the sobering reality of secularized sex.

On the broader topic of religion, A.F. Christian advises atheists to avoid labeling God as a figment of our imagination. This is “a crock,” she says, because the God of Scripture is “not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.” Better, she says, to focus instead on the failure of Christians to act as Christians ought, which so happens to be the standard operating procedure of the secular media, especially in its coverage of the clerical-sex abuse scandal. “We atheists are much better off emphasizing what the other side has done wrong,” A.F. Christian admits, “rather than emphasizing anything we Brights have done right.” Pointing out the religious hypocrisy of believers is advantageous, so this should be emphasized in the hope that believers will ignore the ample evidence that Christians are significantly more charitable than atheists.

A.F. Christian also recommends that atheists avoid the topic of aesthetics because here too the historical record clearly shows the tremendous legacy and appreciation of art within religions and the banality of art created by atheists. She is very blunt, writing that “the facts of beauty and sublimity don’t seem to be issues to which atheists are sensitive — period.”

The humorously titled letter “Do Atheists Know Any Women, Children, and Families?” focuses on a particular weakness of the Brights: They do not seem to have any women, children, or families on their side. In particular, A.F. Christian is agitated by the fact that religion and love are experienced through the family, and as such she considers human families (especially the relationship between mother and child) one of the “chief enemies” of atheism. “It’s familial love that first gives people the idea of infinite love. It’s that kind of love that puts them in touch with Loser in the first place — meaning that nothing, really, is more of a problem for our side than the existence of human families.”

Toward the end of the book, the reader gains a greater understanding of A.F. Christian’s personal history. She had been a “Cafeteria Dull” before her college years, primarily because Dulls were against the worst acts in human history. However, she ends up rejecting Loser because she did not believe He was necessary to avoid the evil things she abhorred: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and bestiality. She realized that everything would be permitted if Loser were taken out of the picture — a realization, she admits, that often leads people to God. But in her case, she ended up rejecting God because she wanted freedom: especially sexual license, and the freedom of choice to abort her child and to blot out her sorrows with drugs.

Mary Eberstadt has long been a master in the use of pithy statements to cut right to the heart of the matter. In The Loser Letters she deftly wields this skill as she assumes the voice, tone, and attitude of a troubled young lady in her early twenties. More than merely another imitator of The Screw­tape Letters, Eberstadt’s Loser Letters turns out to be Mere Christianity meets the Great Divorce meets Screw­tape — an enjoyable and easy-to-read combination sure to delight any reader of the NOR.

- Arland K. Nichols



Toward the Gleam.  By T.M. Doran. Ignatius Press. 467 pages. $24.95.

In 1972 elderly John Hill carried a wooden box to St. Hugh’s Charterhouse in Sussex, England, for safekeeping. He asked the abbot to guard the antiquity it contained, declaring that “this Mystery must remain a secret.” So begins T.M. Doran’s new mystery novel, a grand saga in the heroic tradition that examines the primary philosophical and political movements of the 20th century.

In 1916, during the Great War, John Hill was a seriously ill British lieutenant in France, fighting in the miserable trenches of the Somme Valley. His particular hellhole hosted rats, and he pondered the nature of evil next to lice-ridden, flea-bitten buddies, asking if justice existed on earth: “Where was Divine Providence in this despicable business?” During a walk through the stormy English countryside while on medical leave, Hill sheltered in a cave and stumbled upon a shimmering box with a book inside. A philologist by profession, he knew the box’s etchings to be thousands of years old. As for the book: “To translate the manuscript was a linguist’s dream, and the vast content told him that the probability of some success was reasonably good.” Epic scenarios fall into place: A wounded hero returns home for a spell, whereupon he embraces a personal crucible involving voyages that thrust him into confrontations with exotic and malevolent creatures.

As a university professor after the war, Hill is approached by a student who tells him, “We have progressed beyond good and evil as certain categories…. The utility of an action defines whether it is good or not.” The student believes that this thinking prevents wars, and he asks Hill to join the new political movement espousing such beliefs. Hill has been translating the ancient book and realizes that one of its characters wanted that same world. He considers such utilitarianism to be “a new nihilism, a scientific take on materialism. It is a very old idea, older than you know.” Their lively philosophical jousting is guaranteed not to put readers to sleep.

Hill’s book “signifies that an advanced northern civilization predated recorded European history.” While teaching at Oxford in 1925, and feeling akin to “a mystic entrusted with a private revelation,” Hill decides to consult experts about the pre­historical period when the book was written. A visit to Prof. Alembert — a historian with the Sorbonne, a businessman, and a master with many servants — opens discussions about the legendary empire of Atlantis. Alem­bert recalls that Plato wrote of “an island civilization that dominated its world” thousands of years ago, and he places the supposed Atlantean civilization in the Atlantic Ocean more than 15,000 years B.C. When he brings forth a golden goblet embellished with runes, Hill is startled by its correlation to his book; however, he adheres to an old Irish rule governing conversation with questionable characters: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

Doran regularly places Hill with friends in a neighborhood pub (a brainstorming swing station) to review his “hypothetical pursuit.” This technique works well in keeping readers on track throughout a complex tale bursting with spirited sideshows and memorable characters, some of whom resemble prominent figures of the era. In 1930 Hill encounters a woodsman full of friendly bluster, and they begin a discussion about reality and the role of motives on morality. The stranger asserts that mankind is “evolving from inhibitions and superstitions to pure science and social utility.” Hill retorts: “In systems where there are no absolutes or moral norms, the end truly justifies the means, any means.” The discussion proceeds to Einstein’s theory of relativity and Gödel’s suggestion that time is nonexistent. Curiously, the woodsman introduces Plato and Atlantis into the conversation.

Hill’s consultations with scientists deliver physical and metaphysical information. A paleogeologist speaks of the socialism, social Darwinism, and atheism that are sweeping across Europe. As for science, he affirms that a warm period lasted from 60,000 to 30,000 years ago, during which the Mediterranean Sea was open to the ocean, and a north/south range of mountains ran through Europe. The continent’s characteristics during this warm period match the book’s descriptions. A paleobiologist informs Hill that the nature of man 100,000 years ago was almost identical to modern man, and ideological conversations follow. The professor is a “rational Epicurean” who is “opposed to ethical and moral inhibitions, except those necessary for social order.” Doran allows the experts to sink into some pedantry as they stray from hard science.

Hill soldiers on with another visit to Alembert, whose private business involves some serious score-settling with former employees. Alem­bert expounds on the soul as an “animating spirit,” and on “the mind, with its myriad electrochemical connections and reactions that comes into existence when we are conceived and ceases to exist when we die.” It seeks a purpose, “a practical substitute for eternal life.” He possesses an archaic document of his own that identifies a 35,000-year-old civilization with some superhuman individuals. Interestingly, the manuscript includes “a piece that has been called myth in which many cultures pass down the saga of a worldwide flood.” Alembert wishes to “touch that civilization” and gain its powers. Hill knows that some individuals in his book exhibited supernatural powers, and that the people of Atlantis believed in a “foundational melody” governing the universe. Alembert understands that Hill is hiding an artifact, and he shifts into bully-boy mode with threats that follow rebuffed bribes.

The inevitable showdown between Hill and Alembert begets a fantastical finale (befitting the nature of the entire book), and Hill vows never to reveal the book’s whole story, admitting that “even he should never have seen portions of the manuscript.” Though it is too late to undo that now, he resolves to “see to it that no one else made the same mistake.” But in 2002 the bishop arrives at St. Hugh’s Charterhouse to examine Hill’s long-hidden box. Does he open it or not? No matter the call, a sequel to T.M. Doran’s extraordinary, stirring new novel is most assuredly in order.

- Mary McWay Seaman





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