January-February 1988

What’s Happening to My Life? A Teenage Journey.  By Tom McKillop, with photos by Bill Wittman. Paulist. 95 pages. $16.95.

This book is a jewel. It is a beautifully written, artfully illustrated, and very well laid-out book about teenagers. It is written for teenagers and for all who live with them, work with them, and care for them. Tom McKillop’s deep love for the teenagers he worked with as a shepherd for many years shows on every page of this insightful book.

The form in which McKillop’s words are printed may be a little misleading. It suggests poetry and intimate reflection. But, although this book is poetic and intimate, it is very straightforward, practical, and down-to-earth. Every time I read one of the reflections I know a little better how teenagers feel and how to be their friend.

I probably share with many others a certain fear of teenagers. Their world often seems so personal, so hidden, so sensitive that it seems nearly impossible to enter it and offer a hand of friendship. The temptation is to run away. McKillop helps us move in the other direction, overcome our fear, join the struggle of teenagers, and trust that they are waiting for us. There is no sentimentality here. McKillop offers commonsense ideas: A young person wants to hear his or her own name; a young person is very sensitive to his or her own face, and very aware of any physical imperfection; a young person can be terribly preoccupied with the sense that he or she has done something seriously wrong; a young person tends to cling to known friends and places; a young person is easily plagued by feelings of guilt, fear, and loneliness, etc. McKillop also shows how crucial relationships with adults are. In many places he stresses the gift of an older person “who respects the stumbling, the fears, the questions, and affirms the young person as being precious, distinct, unique, lovable and real.”

Thus this book is truly a book that can and should be read by both teenagers and adults. It is an ideal book to bridge the perennial gap between the generations.

What most convinced me of the value of this book was that everything McKillop writes about teenagers proved also to be very important for myself. Teenagers need people to trust them and love them. So do I! Teenagers want to be treated fairly. So do I! Teenagers are eager to be fully part of life. So am I! Teenagers question the value of their lives in the context of an impending nuclear holocaust. So do I!

Not one thing that is written in this book about teenagers is not true — to some degree — of adults. Being a teenager is such a real part of life that we always remain teenagers somehow, somewhere, just as we always stay babies, toddlers, little kids, and curious young adults. Every past stage of life stays with us and every stage to come is already a little bit a part of us. The mature adult and the fragile elderly are in us long before we reach those ages. This is a joyful mystery, since it allows us to live truly compassionate lives. The teenager in the adult can speak to the teenager he meets, and the elderly in the teenager can speak to the elderly person he meets. We belong to the human family called by God to live together in peace. This is what this book so beautifully expresses, not only in the good words of Tom McKillop but also in the splendid photographs by Bill Wittman.

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Reinhold Niebuhr and the Issues of Our Time.  Edited by Richard Harries. Eerdmans. 205 pages. $9.95.

Two words — tension and paradox — unite these 10 essays; not one of the contributors fails to use one or both terms.

The purpose of these essays is not to reconsider Niebuhr in his own time, but to assess his significance for our era. Niebuhr’s politics receive considerable attention. Ronald Preston refutes Michael Novak’s attempt to co-opt Niebuhr for the Right-wing’s political and economic agenda. Langdon Gilkey emphasizes Niebuhr’s Marxist side and sees him as a proto-liberation theologian. Richard Fox observes that both conservatives and liberals might claim Niebuhr, the Christian realist, as a prophet of their respective positions.

The other essays focus on war and peace, and theology and culture. There is not a dull essay in the book.

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Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life.  By William Griffin. Harper & Row. 507 pages. $24.95.

William Griffin’s new biography comes like a breath of fresh air. He indulges in no tiresome rehashing of plots, no hagiographical folderol, no paraphrase in academic jargon of ideas originally expressed simply and clearly. That Lewis was perhaps the most pellucid writer of his epoch will remain a problem for those writing about him until Lewis’s language becomes sufficiently archaic to require notes. The secondary writer is left with little to say that is worth elucidating, although I do shudder when I try to imagine what nonsense someone ignorant of the traditions of mythopoeic art might make of much of his imaginative work. Even there, other writings by Lewis himself offer better explanations of his practice than can be discovered in the pages of the bulk of critical commentaries in the field.

Because Griffin has eschewed the reticence of Lewis’s first biographers, Roger Lanceyln Green and Walter Hooper, and has remembered that the first duty of anyone who writes a book is to make the reader want to continue reading, he has authored the first satisfactory biography of Lewis to date. Some may dislike the idea of dramatizing a subject’s life by imagining his probable thoughts or by recreating conversations that are impossible to document exactly. Too often such techniques fail miserably. Such writing demands a certain mental acumen, coupled with a graceful style, to be successful. Griffin possesses these qualities.

He presents his material pointillistically — i.e., he creates setting and provides detail, but makes no comment. Consequently, we see the events of Lewis’s life and surmise his character from snippets that continuously fade in and fade out like a movie. This approach takes a bit of getting used to, partially because, I fear, Lewis himself would probably have disapproved of the technique. Lewis, however, would have disapproved of anybody writing his biography; but he also thought biography “ought to deal strongly and simply with strong, simple emotions: the directness, the unelaborate, downright portraiture of easily recognizable realities in their familiar aspects, will not be a fault unless it pretends to be something else.” This volume does what Lewis requires, though it does provide something else as well: a deftly executed literary artifice, although its author aspires to no such distinction.

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Words in Pain.  By John J. Wright. Ignatius. 147 pages. $7.95.

The austere Protestant sensibility recoils from Catholicism’s gruesome preoccupation with the physical agony of the crucified Christ. Especially in Mediterranean and Latin lands this custom fosters lugubrious wailings, veneration of bloody crucifixes, and graphic re-enactments of the death throes of Christ. It is well to contemplate the torn flesh of Christ, lest we forget the monstrous horror of what happened on Golgotha. But there is danger too in this absorption in suffering and death, a peril discerned by Cardinal John J. Wright: “The traditional emphasis on the human sufferings of Calvary seems to be due to the notion that Jesus was somehow defeated, even if only momentarily, on the Cross.”

Although Cardinal Wright (in the last decade of his life, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy) acknowledges the horror of the Cross, he transcends the ghastliness of the spectacle to extol its triumphant splendor. Christ died to defeat death, and his cry — “It is finished” — signified not that life had ceased, but that he had defanged death and banished the abyss of nothingness.

It is easy in the ruck and moil of daily existence to lose sight of this divine victory, for “the world wins so many skirmishes” that we forget that the war’s outcome was decided 2,000 years ago in an obscure outpost of the Roman Empire. The old order collapsed, and though evil lingers in the world, it lives on borrowed time, a relic of an “order which every Christian knows is doomed unto utter extinction.” Christ hung on the Cross in agony for one day while the Satanic powers cackled with malignant merriment. But Christ shattered the bonds of death and broke Satan’s stranglehold on man’s fate. “Good Friday was for a day,” writes Cardinal Wright, but “Easter is forever!”

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The Source: The Bible for Today’s Young Catholic.   . Thomas Nelson. 1,661 pages. $14.95.

Catholics do not excel when it comes to Bible study or the theological nurture of their young people. Here is a Catholic Bible designed for Catholic youth — but curiously, published by a Protestant press. Chalk up another debt owed by Catholics to their Protestant brethren.

This Good News Bible is uniquely valuable because included with it are 64 questions characteristically asked by young people, from “What right does the Church have to tell me what to believe and what to do?” and “Is there really a Hell?” through “How can I stop following the crowd?” and “How can I know whom to marry?” The answers, supplied by NOR Contributing Editor Peter Kreeft, go a long way in helping young people navigate through difficult years. An ideal Confirmation present.

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The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, Survival.  By Susan Zuccotti. Basic. 334 pages. $19.95.

Susan Zuccotti’s book tempts a Catholic to indulge in self-congratulation. Of Catholic Italy’s Jews, 85 percent survived the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Catholics risked imprisonment — even death — to shelter fugitives. Convents, monasteries, and rectories opened their doors to the hunted; 170 priests were murdered for aiding Jews and other anti-Fascists. Catholic army officers protected Jews from Nazi wrath in Greece and Yugoslavia.

But what of the other 15 percent? Why did 6,800 Italian Jews die at the hands of Fascist thugs or choke to death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz? It would be comforting to blame the Germans, but that is too easy. Italian Catholics bit the ap¬ple of anti-Semitism; they be¬trayed Jews who begged for refuge and succor; some of them even joined the hunters in hounding Jews to death. Most lamentable, Pope Pius XII maintained a “stony silence” as the Nazis stuffed Italian Jews into boxcars and sent them rolling toward the death camps.

Only 6,800? Why even one? Zuccotti renders an unarguable verdict: “In contrast to other countries, perhaps, the worthy behavior outweighed the unworthy, but the horror was nonetheless real.”

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Technology and Justice.  By George Parkin Grant. University of Notre Dame Press. 133 pages. $8.95.

Allan Bloom is the hot ticket in political philosophy these days; the Canadian George Grant is scarcely known. A turnabout might begin with the six essays collected in Technology and Justice. Grant brings to whatever topic he tackles — whether Nietzsche, the role of the humanities, the multiversity, abortion, or eu-thanasia — the clarity and calm of Christian reason. He addresses alarming topics, but he shuns alarmism; he plies the quiet way of reasoned discourse. The theme of justice weaves these disparate essays into a unified meditation: How fares the age-old quest in today’s technological society? He concludes the book with a stun-ning reminder: “Obviously the justice of a society is well defined in terms of how it treats the weak. And there is nothing human which is weaker than the foetus.”

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Butler’s Lives of the Saints.  Edited by Michael Walsh. Harper & Row. 466 pages. $19.95.

One doubts if today’s young Catholics pore over Butler’s Lives of the Saints. For earlier generations of Catholics, though, daily readings in Butler often formed part of their routine devotions. But saints’ lives — records of heroism, martyrdom, and steadfast piety — spur little interest among a generation sated and jaded on a daily fare of rock singers, Hollywood stars, coke-snorting athletes, and other assorted media favorites; notoriety, not sanctity, sells in the marketplace. The English writer Michael Walsh apparently disagrees, for he has labored to produce a one-volume edition of the massive work that Fr. Alban Butler brought out in the 18th century. Walsh’s “concise edition” provides brief lives of 365 saints, one for each day of the year. In the Foreword, Basil Cardinal Hume of England notes that “the heroic men and women described and speculated upon in this book have bequeathed to us an inspiration that transcends ordinary history.” Catholics of an earlier time knew that; we are the lesser for having forgotten it.

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Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World.  By Alan F. Segal. Harvard University Press. 207 pages. $19.95.

The metaphor in the title of Alan Segal’s book makes one wary. Recall a smattering of Old Testament history: Rebecca’s children were Esau and Jacob. In Segal’s subtitle, then, Judaism — the “elder brother” — must be Esau and Christianity, Jacob. Hmmm. Does Segal intend to portray Judaism as the rough, hirsute lout — swaggering, bullying, and snarling of vengeance? And Christianity as the craven, double-crossing sneak? Is Rebecca’s Children another of those sensationalist books thinly disguised as dispassionate scholarship?

No. Segal’s scholarship is impeccable, his motives pure, his metaphor illuminating. He contends that Christianity and rab¬binic Judaism — both rooted in Hebrew religion — were intertwined in the womb, quarreled bitterly as they grew up, and then diverged down separate paths. With elegant sociological insight, Segal examines the so¬cial, political, and psychological facets of each movement within the matrix of the Roman Empire of the first century. For Segal, both religions are true sons of Rebecca, co-heirs to the sacred deposit of the Old Testament.

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Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968.  By Heda Margolius Kovaly. Plunkett Lake Press. 192 pages. $9.95.

Franz Kafka, a native of Prague, died a quarter-century before the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia, but he could have scripted the course of the regime. One wonders if Czechoslovak Communists did not read Kafka as assiduously as they combed the pages of Marx and Lenin, for Heda Kovaly de¬scribes, in this new translation of her 1973 book, a Kafkaesque world if there ever was one. There is even a trial with ele¬ments straight out of The Trial: the infamous “Slansky Affair” in which her husband, a loyal Com¬munist and high official in the ministry of foreign trade, was ex¬ecuted on patently false charges of conspiring against the people’s republic. Heda Kovaly eked out an existence for 15 years as a pariah in a state where “the more dignified and humane an image of man was drawn by the Party, the less did men themselves come to mean in society.” The fragile hope for a humane socialism budded in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, but the Soviets crushed it before it could blossom. Kova¬ly chose exile; as she crossed the border she leaned from the train window to snatch a final glimpse of her homeland: “The last thing I saw was a Russian soldier, standing guard with a fixed bayonet.”

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The Rule of Saint Augustine.  By St. Augustine. Image. 192 pages. $3.95.

St. Augustine composed his Rule (presented here in a fresh translation, with an elucidating commentary by Tarsicius J. Van Bavel, O.S.A.) 1,600 years ago. Given our penchant for the new, surely a document written in the fourth century is no more than an antiquarian curiosity. Yet it speaks to the enduring challenges of Christian living almost as cer¬tainly as do the Scriptures. Au¬gustine sought to forge a com¬munity that respected individual differences; he exalted the ideal, but comprehended the exigencies of quotidian reality; and he es¬pied the permanency of love amidst the “fleeting necessities of human life.” Two sentences — one drawn from the beginning of the brief Rule, the other from the concluding exhortation — capture the essence of Augus¬tine’s vision. “Before all else, live in harmony, being of one mind and heart on the way to God.” And: “Live in such a way that you spread abroad the life-giving aroma of Christ.” Together we seek God; together we suffuse the world with the fragrance of divinity: in these twin adjura¬tions Augustine discloses what it means to be a Christian.

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Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict.  By Duane K. Friesen. Herald Press. 301 pages. $19.95.

John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris insists that “it is hardly possible to imagine that in the atomic era war could be used as an instrument of justice.” The “peace churches” — Mennonites, Quakers, and others — add that in any era one could hardly see war as justifiable. Yet sin is a reality, justice elusive. How would Friesen, a Mennonite, have us pursue this elusive justice? He asks us to adopt and expand the nonviolent strategies pioneered by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., strategies that assume that “power resides in people, not just statesmen.”

Friesen takes great pains to develop his own “realist pacifist perspective,” moving from a biblical basis to a “deconfessionalized” ethical framework and, finally, to a review of research from the social sciences. Welcome as this synthesis is, its results are sometimes stacked up like so many logs on a woodpile: citation heaped upon citation and analytic model upon analytic model. We must edit as we read, but the task is worth the effort.

Friesen’s scholarship suggests a crucial consideration: the importance for Catholics of the peace churches’ witness. For Friesen is right when he argues that the “honest application of the just war criteria has led to a practical pacifism.” As Catholics come to recognize that current warfare almost always entails the intentional killing of the innocent, they will be more ready to learn from the peace churches and to understand their charism.

Friesen recognizes that peacemaking cannot rest on naive optimism; it must be carried out in a world marked by sin. The waging of peace, if it is to succeed, should lead to a sacramental dimension. Though he speaks of the Eucharist as symbol and ritual, he is struck by its power in the lives of Catholic peacemakers. “If we can see Jesus in the appearance of bread,” Mother Teresa teaches, “we can see Him in the broken bodies of the poor….” And, we might hope, even in our enemies.

Two of Friesen’s points carry a special urgency. The first is that if any state calls us to war, the burden of proof is on that state to show how such an action could be just. The second? “Both the left and the right are quite sure they know what produces peace and security, but more likely they do not know.” Let the church, then, set its own agenda.

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