January 2002

The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family.  By William J. Bennett. Doubleday. 199 pages. $22.95.

No one is really indispensable, but Bill Bennett comes extremely close. Can you think of anyone else based in Washington, D.C., with his record of public service and literary output and his uncanny ability to leave his debate opponents sputteringly mad, anyone else eager to network with other people of differing religious beliefs but similar morals, yet never hiding his Catholicism? You probably can’t. Bennett is one of a kind.

His latest release contains all the hallmarks of the other books he has written or co-written: precise logic in establishing his thesis, impeccable research, willingness to consider other conclusions without demonizing their authors, and a strong melancholy about how things have gone wrong in contemporary America. He writes as he dresses for TV talk shows — nothing flashy, just solid and dignified. Still, his resigned sadness permeates this book, sadness for how so much damage, so quickly, was inflicted on our culture.

In his first chapter, Bennett discusses “the transformations in American family life since 1960.” He rounds up the usual suspects: abortion, contraception, the sexual revolution, the increase of women in the workforce, Hollywood.

Yet, he is not predictable, not a hack writer. For example, Bennett devotes the majority of a chapter on the growth of public homosexuality to dismissing its proponents’ arguments, but at the end he throws a breaking pitch: “But if you look in terms of the damage to the children of America, you cannot compare what the homosexual movement has done…. with what divorce has done to this society. In terms of the consequences to children, it is not even close.”

The rest of the book elaborates on his argument and probably defines his public life. Bennett’s childhood was a series of horrors resulting from his mother’s fragmented relationships with men. He reminds readers that his success was the exception, not the rule, for such children. The virtues and values of a successful marriage receive extended treatment in the book’s final two chapters. This singular figure in public life will continue to produce important books, but he may never write one in which he bares his heart more completely.

- Gerard Einhaus



Tales of God: A Treasury of Great Short Stories for the Catholic Family.  Edited by Brother Michel Bettigole, O.S.F. Alba House. 237 pages. $14.95.

To achieve his goal of assisting readers to “experience the wonder of God’s presence and find their imaginations enriched, enlarged, and open to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit,” Brother Michel Bettigole offers in one compact volume stories by such gifted writers as Flannery O’Connor, J. F. Powers, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Hugh Benson, George MacDonald, and G.K. Chesterton. The tales in this excellent anthology are presented in two parts. The nine stories in the initial group were chosen for their ability to “open up the world of the divine to the young” and are meant to be read aloud in a family or classroom setting. The four stories in the latter group were selected for their appeal to both adolescents and adults. The stories fulfill the dual purposes of all fine fiction — to entertain and to edify.

Heaven and Hell meet in some way in all of the stories, and almost every tale ends in some form of epiphany. In Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation,” for example, the protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, undergoes an awakening in which, we are told, “she felt as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.” Notice the richness of meaning in O’Connor’s deliberate use of the word abysmal. On the one hand, the word hints at the agony Mrs. Turpin experiences as she has to look at and assess her colossal vanity. On the other hand, the word suggests the potential of Mrs. Turpin’s new and inner vision. O’Connor no doubt had in mind the significance mystics such as Elizabeth of the Trinity assume when using this word: to them, the abyss is that deep holy place within the soul that connects at the far end with the infinity of love that is God. In perusing the stories Bettigole has selected, one has the same sensation that O’Connor attributes to Mrs. Turpin: the reader of Tales of God absorbs life-giving knowledge from the infinite abyss of divine love.

The children’s tales in this volume prove as stimulating to the imaginative faculties as do those for adults. The fairy tales, fables, and fantasies invariably have deeper levels to engage the adult mind. In all the stories in the collection, Br. Bettigole gives us ample means to enrich and enlarge our imaginations and our ability to perceive God’s ever-abounding presence. Varied as they are, the 13 visions of divinity gathered together in Tales of God coalesce to give even the confirmed skeptic a sense of the authenticity of faith. It becomes clear that the different authors are obviously reflecting facets of the same resplendent diamond. Tales of God is a firm testament to the ultimate unity of truth.

- Elaine Hallett



Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age.  By Ruth Harris. Penguin Compass. 474 pages. $17.

Fraudulent claims of Marian apparitions — i.e., those that ultimately fail to win Church approval — can still be interesting studies in social psychology. And the authentic apparitions of, say, Lourdes, Fatima, or Tepeyac have many features that reveal the very human nature of mass movements.

Focusing on Lourdes, the author examines what considerations at that particular site contributed to the establishment of what was to be a phenomenon recognized worldwide. Aside from the personal holiness of the visionary and the sheer number of dramatic miracles, other factors are important in explaining the popularity of Lourdes over, say, La Salette. The very real role of political personalities in 19th-century republican France, economic conditions in the Pyrenees, and embattled ecclesiastics at all levels cannot be overestimated. The interplay of choreographed pilgrimages and genuine religious fervor animates these historical details and makes for a fascinating, scrupulously researched study by a non-Christian author whose respect for popular Catholic devotion is remarkable.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink



Truth and Hope.  By Peter Geach. University of Notre Dame Press. 103 pages. $24.

Rarely has this veteran reviewer opened a book that offers such pure pleasure as Peter Geach’s latest. Here, though, I will provide readers with only introductory inducements to take this slim volume into their own hands. A longer brief only risks obscuring its sparkle. And if brevity were to have a baser motive, I’d be heartened by Geach’s own insight: “Laziness is a fault Providence uses to mitigate our vices and lessen the mischief they do.”

For several decades Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe, his still more eminent wife, have been among the brightest lights of Catholic intellectual life. (Elizabeth Anscombe, requiescat in pace, died in January 2001.) Both were students of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Both were converts to Catholicism. Together they have had much to say about the apostasy of the times.

In Truth and Hope, a collection of essays that began as lectures at the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, Geach chiefly, and sharply, addresses five critical topics. We might note them in the form of questions.

- Is there a distinct human nature? Yes, he answers, man is a rational animal — and we dare not lose sight of either term of the definition.

- Does logical consistency matter? Yes, because without it we will act in a way that betrays our rational nature.

- What is truth? Not, he says, “what seems advantageous” nor “a sign of one’s assent” nor (simply) a proposition’s “correspondence with a fact.” More promising, but tricky, is that truth is a conformity between the mind that judges and that which is judged. In the end, God constitutes all truth. Only so “could God be worthy of our total worship,” unlike “the godling” of some theologians.

- Must prophecy in Scripture be less than it seems — perhaps just dramatic assertion? No, he claims, since many prophecies stand fulfilled. If nothing else, we know the future insofar as we know what we are about to do. God, of course, knows the future through His power to effect it.

- How is God — who is radically Other — good? Not, surely, by doing His job well but rather, to be metaphysically blunt, “just by being there.” We cannot measure God’s goodness, and Geach advises us not to be misled by an oft-cited epitaph:

Here lie I, Martin Elginbrod:

Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,

As I would do, were I

Lord God,

And ye were Martin Elginbrod.

A further pair of Geach’s observations has great relevance for an ethics course I teach. The first disputes the claim (made by Princeton’s Peter Singer, among others) that since some human beings are not rational (preborn babies and infants) they cannot be the bearers of human rights. But being rational, as Geach points out, doesn’t require that one here and now have the capacity to, say, ask searching or even sensible questions. Rather it requires that one have “a capacity to acquire capacities.” Human beings constitute a rational kind.

The second observation bids us think about the nature of love by reminding us of its true object. Geach applauds the view that “Love is for a person, not in respect of this or that characteristic, but just as this person….” Remember the Beatles’ plaintive query, “Will you still love me when I’m 64?” The answer? Well, no, not if you’ve loved me for my good looks. But, yes, of course, if you loved me for being me.

- James G. Hanink



The Matrix of Faith: Reclaiming a Christian Vision.  By Jeffrey C. Pugh. Crossroad. 212 pages. $16.95 .

Pugh offers a very readable and thought-provoking discussion of Christianity and the importance it should have in the postmodern world. The purpose of his book is to discover whether Christianity has a future in the ever-changing cultural and social landscape of the 21st century. Pugh uses the 1999 movie The Matrix to show how people today have created personal realities according to their own cultural and religious beliefs. He also shows us that although Christianity has doctrines that were established centuries ago, it can be the positive, meaningful force that allows us to find peace in a turbulent world.

Early on, Pugh asks a simple yet very important question: How do we define ourselves? Pugh points out that the ideas and beliefs we use to do so come from the culture we grew up in. Economic forces also influence how we define ourselves. Pugh refers to the person who bases his identity on the kind of job he has as homo economicus. Pugh mentions that a variant of this term is the ever-popular homo consumerus who is constantly manipulated by advertisers into purchasing various products and services. “We are targeted very carefully by these purveyors of purchase because they realize that people construct their identities by their consumption and present themselves to the world by their possessions.”

In analyzing various Christian scholars’ discussions of man’s struggle to define himself, Pugh mentions that Augustine’s writings are particularly relevant today because he knew that human life was somehow fundamentally distorted. Augustine believed that we have two identities: our individual identity and the one that connects us with the rest of humanity. While our personal identities are shaped by our memories, experiences, and free will, our communal identities are sometimes underdeveloped because our inherent destructive nature causes us to turn inward and isolate ourselves from the rest of humanity and from God. Augustine believed that when we look inward we build false images of ourselves that cause us to stray from God.

Pugh has provided us with a valuable resource that can help us find our way in the confusing times in which we live. This book is a needed discussion of the ever-changing identities that we create for ourselves and the role that Christianity can play in allowing us to truly know ourselves.

- Steven Silva





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