March 2001

King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel.  By Jonathan Kirsch. The Ballantine Publishing Group. 368 pages. $28.

Funny how scholarship and popular culture mirror each other. This biography of an Old Testament “superstar” resembles an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. Kirsch’s study of David’s violence, adultery, and other weaknesses are remarkably similar to the TV series’ often painful examinations of the rehab visits, bankruptcies, and bad hair days of rock stars. Kirsch wants to show that the first monarch of Israel was flawed. Trouble is, not everyone receives the title “a man after God’s own heart.” Kirsch, a Los Angeles Times staff member and author of previous books on the Old Testament, never quite explains why David held that honor.

Kirsch spends extensive space showing how David’s affair with Bathsheba had implications that lasted the rest of his earthly life. Kirsch tries to rationalize David’s behavior in light of the extramarital affairs of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton in the White House. Yet David’s predecessor was far more flawed than he, and God, through the prophet Samuel, didn’t waste much time replacing the unstable, paranoid Saul — the “people’s choice,” after all — with a young shepherd boy from an unimportant family. But at least Kirsch identifies the tension running though this story between those who supported a monarchy for the children of Israel and those who did not.

Kirsch consults with contemporary Scripture scholars on any and all matters. Trouble is, he hangs out with a bad academic crowd. His sources tend to have outlandish theories about David, particularly regarding his close friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan. Needless to say, none of these scholars appears to be in harmony with the Catholic Church’s official teachings on Scripture. Keeping a reliable Catholic Bible commentary handy would be a good idea.

- Gerard Einhaus



One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: The Early Church Was the Catholic Church.  By Kenneth D. Whitehead. Ignatius. 334 pages. $14.95.

Among the questions John Henry Cardinal Newman poses throughout his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine are: What current form of Christianity most resembles the first Christian communities? What group is criticized for its conservative approach to doctrine as well as its desire to thrive in every area of the world? Which religion most often sets father against son and daughter against mother? Which religion declares that it has unique power to cast out heretics and raise up saints and, for that, is called apostate and Antichrist by other believing factions? Find that form of Christianity, and you have found the Christianity intended and sustained by its Divine Author. Like Newman, Kenneth Whitehead sets out to show how the Church enjoys a consistent and organic development traceable to Christ’s mandate to make disciples of all nations.

Whitehead’s focus is on the first 500 years of this development: from the Gospels and Book of Acts roughly up to the Acacian schism and the death of Pope Hormisdas in 523. The first Christians, argues Whitehead, were identified by three main characteristics: They subscribed to a specific doctrine about God and human salvation (apostolic teaching), they belonged to a definite community with a developing structure and way of life (the Church), and they centered their lives around sacred rites (the Sacraments). “Thus necessarily there had to be a living Church in addition to the Scriptures, to dispense Jesus’ Flesh and Blood, which he himself said had to be consumed…. For this reason, Jesus, in addition to committing his saving message to the apostles, gave them the power to carry out certain sacred actions instituted by him, which he indissolubly linked to the sanctification and salvation that he had come into the world to bring.” As Acts tells us, the apostles saw themselves not only as the divinely-appointed messengers of Christ’s teaching, but also as those primarily responsible for choosing other men to continue to spread this new life. The second generation of bishops, men such as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Clement of Rome, are treated accordingly.

The Roman Empire’s legalization of Christianity, in 313, allowed the Church to direct her attention to defining and defending matters of universal importance. Ecumenical councils thus arose to explicate doctrine and dogma, which would further and more clearly unite the Church around the world. Whitehead gives a detailed account of the first four such councils: Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431, and Chalcedon in 451. He supplies not only the background to the theological questions which were in need of clarification but also the proceedings and the persons involved in each Council.

Most of this book is devoted to showing how the primacy of Rome was understood in the early Church. Whitehead demonstrates how the most ancient Sees, such as Alexandria and Antioch, looked to Rome to decide once and for all such questions as the dating of Easter, episcopal appointments, and whether or not those Christians who capitulated to pagans during times of persecution needed to be baptized again. Whitehead does a good job in showing that Rome enjoyed pre-eminence not because it happened to be the home of the Emperor, but because it was the home of Peter and his Successors. Even as temporal power shifted to Constantinople in the middle of the fourth century, Christians around the world continued to look to Rome for spiritual guidance and strength.

This book is a helpful introduction to the first five centuries of Christianity, and includes a beginner’s glossary to the various heresies against which the early Church battled. Whitehead does not avoid thorny questions (e.g., anti-Popes, heretical bishops, Church Fathers who didn’t admit a clear Petrine Primacy). Although the book’s lack of footnotes is frustrating, its bibliography provides the reader with much pertinent secondary literature.

This book is a sweeping overview, and as such cannot help but at times tend toward generalization. Nonetheless, this work will prove worthwhile for those who want to get acquainted with a crucial period in Church history, as well as those who question the roots and beginnings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

- David Vincent Meconi



The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet.  By Thomas Dubay, S.M. Ignatius. 365 pages. $14.95.

Two unchallenged assumptions float across the world like Goodyear blimp ads, kept aloft by their gaseous appeal. The first is that Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder, that mantra trundled out whenever obscene “art” is defended in the courts. The second is that Religion and Science Are Incompatible.

This second assumption claims that theology deals with dogma and other intangible whatevers brought to us by a God who may or may not exist, while science, grounded in experimental verification, deals with reality. Put more baldly, the former is about feelings, the latter about facts.

A new book by renowned spiritual writer and retreat director Fr. Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty, takes on these and other assumptions, and attempts to offer an apologetic that would find common ground between the two disciplines. Drawing on many sources from both camps, Dubay locates this common ground in beauty itself, or, as he frequently puts it, elegance.

In other books, Fr. Dubay presented vexing spiritual and intellectual problems in a solid and satisfying way (see The Fire Within, Faith and Certitude, and And You Are Christ’s). Whether he is translating the it’s-too-arcane-for-me world of mystical theology into popular — even humorous — parlance or guiding the ordinary reader to the heights of St. John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, he is second to none. In The Evidential Power of Beauty, when he describes prodigious pulsars, scintillating subatomic particles, or hearty hummingbirds, one is tempted to cheer aloud at the mind-boggling symmetry and intricacy of it all. The excitement in his prose shines most brightly in the middle chapters, which present a variety of scientific wonders — those unseen marvels of nature we take for granted. He masterfully leads us through a gold mine of nature’s “everyday” wonders, showing how they display the work — the charm, really — of the divine Designer. Dubay also takes pains to show that theology’s Hatfield doesn’t have to bait science’s McCoy into a feud. Although he repeats it too often, his point is that as long as the two disciplines adhere to their respective methodologies and distinct starting points, the truths at which they arrive will display a convergence in the domain of beauty.

This would be a perfect introduction to some sound counter-arguments to the Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder assumption, which he calls nothing more than a “subjective preference” that “crumbles under careful analysis,” but, unfortunately, he offers no careful analysis. Moreover, despite the book’s edifying theological content, the science writing is far more about chase than capture. There are only vague appeals to “recent developments in biochemistry,” the “latest findings of the best and most widely educated scientists,” and “scholarly consensus.”

As hockey players are wont to say, The Evidential Power of Beauty retreats when it needs to body check. Even the tantalizing view that “beauty is the standard for scientific truth” (gleaned from Robert Augros and George Stanciu’s 1974 book The New Story of Science) is not sufficiently explored, only repeated in several ways. Thus, when attempting to synthesize it all, to show the points of harmony between science and theology, the hammer fails to consistently hit the nail. Instead, The Evidential Power of Beauty often rambles into extended discussions of the beauty of personal sanctity, the nature of ugliness, the anthropic principle (the view that man is the pinnacle and end of creation), or the splendor of Revelation — all of which make for a book about a third too long.

Readers looking for helpful spiritual reading with a smattering of interesting science factoids will relish this book. Pro-faith scientists and pro-science theologians alike will find enough light between its covers. But as a coherent presentation of the meeting place of science and theology, The Evidential Power of Beauty is unlikely to command the attention of either the materialist enemy of religious faith or the anti-science religious fundamentalist.

- Patrick Coffin





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