May 2008

The Eyewitness: An Anthology of Short Stories.  By Hilaire Belloc. Lulu.com Publishing. 213 pages. $15.

Virtual immersion into the past is rarely won by reading history texts alone; rather, the full treatment is gained with the addition of eyewitness narratives and masterful historical fiction. Robust journeys combining all three of these literary components await within the covers of Matthew Anger's new collection of Hilaire Belloc's short fiction, The Eyewitness.

Guided expeditions to some of Europe's premier historic events are rendered through the eyes of everyday folks in this assemblage of 25 short stories, fables, fantasies, and satire. Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) also serves up shimmering travelogues in tales that focus on morality, theology, logic, and the excesses of power. This irresistible volume tenders an extended view of history by a master whose reverence for historical fiction anoints his sorties into ferocious conflicts with a companionable, conversational cadence. An­ger's Introduction tantalizes with just enough brevity to refresh readers on Belloc's biography, while furnishing an absorbing overview of the author's work.

Belloc's eloquent time capsules, usually covering only a few hours or days, hustle readers across ancient territory, soaking in the air, the dirt, the discomfort, and the dread that beleaguered enduring, ragtag masses. Crisp vignettes provide an earthy, man-on-the-street dimension rich with texture, nuance, and flashes of whimsy. Many of the players exhibit a soaring integrity even in the midst of dog-eat-dog depravities. Actual addresses are identified as readers gaze through the ancient veneer, beholding current catastrophes in all the wonder of their agelessness. (The geographic sweep is alluring; readers may want to consult maps to track the action.)

"The Climax," a story that plunges readers into a glorious springtime on the Sea of Galilee, follows a young rabbi on the fringes of the crowds around Jesus. Peripheral to the central action like so many believers, the youth trails faithfully behind the multitudes in the dusty heat of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Even the most casual reader is thoroughly embedded in the throngs by the time Pilate makes a show of washing his hands of Jesus to the mob's cries of "His blood be upon us and upon our children." Belloc's luminous prose in describing the removal of the body from the cross summons a sublime, literary pieta.

Entertaining personality portrayals from the posturing Pontius Pilate to the treasonous Henry IV to the hunted Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette adorn stories shining with imagery and irony. The stink of fear in a 1794 French prison cell permeates the pages of "Gornay" (fraternite being a sparse commodity just then). Precise examinations of tyrannical moral defectives call to mind displays of newer models across the globe today. "The Obituary Notice," a rollicking parody concerning King Herod's son and the furies of his father, mocks political doublespeak and spin.

Another excursion explores a new world order fueled by the invasions of the Roman Empire during the late fifth century. "The Barbarians," a saga uttered anecdotally through a witness, reveals the chaos churning through Britain to the extent that "for over a hundred years the anarchy was such that Britain disappears from history." St. Augustine of Canterbury ventured into the island's savagery during the sixth century, and civility took hold as Latin became the gold standard of languages. Descriptions of the seventh-century landscape around Pevensey in Sussex are a treasure.

History is usually bestowed upon us by painstaking and piecemeal methodology taken from archeology, oral traditions, DNA studies, and from actual written accounts. The voices of Belloc's erstwhile eyewitnesses, hapless low- and middle-brow souls lurching through wars, famines, and plagues, call to mind the phrase, "by a thousand snares surrounded," from the Te Deum, a sturdy hymn that many of them would have known well. Belloc's selections in this ensemble are particularly pertinent now with so many people bereft of historical perspectives. Graceful with an exceedingly evocative power, The Eyewitness is awash with the Belloc wisdom, wit, and wry humor.

- Mary McWay Seaman



Satan: A Biography.  By Henry Ansgar Kelly. Cambridge University Press. 374 pages. $65.

Henry Ansgar Kelly's new book, Satan: A Biography, is a treasure trove of interesting ideas and careful linguistic analysis that will be of great assistance to biblical scholars and to educated laymen who want to learn how Satan has been perceived throughout history. Kelly wants to dispel what he calls the "New Biography of Satan," which he sees as the product of Manichaean influences within the Christian tradition. He prefers instead the "Old Biography of Satan," which he claims is truer to the contents of both the Old and New Testaments. However, Kelly approaches his topic with the Modernist assumption that the Bible is just a book written by men and that there is no divine assistance to either its authors or its later interpreters. Kelly is also an advocate of "form criticism," which allows him, at will, to carve up the biblical text and "reassign" portions that are inconvenient to his main thesis to a "later period," and thus discount them. He also has a very rudimentary understanding of original sin as "inherited guilt," which is more in line with Protestant excesses than with Catholic dogmatics. In short, he approaches his subject from a misconstrued, non-Catholic perspective, and this skews his conclusions so that they are of little use to the Catholic searching for answers to these questions.

Kelly's thesis is that, in the Old Testament, Satan was an angelic agent of God whose job it was to test the moral resolve and loyalty of mankind to God's sovereign Kingship. Kelly rejects the idea that the serpent in Eden was the devil in disguise and sees it as just a snake. He also documents different grammatical constructions in Hebrew and Greek, which usually are all translated as "Satan," and argues that they actually should be translated differently. Some are personal references to "THE Satan" or "THE Devil"; others are more generic references to "a satan," which in many cases can be interpreted as "an adversary," not as a malevolent spirit. He also sees a shift in emphasis in the Greek Old Testament -- the Septuagint (LXX) -- from the Hebrew. The LXX is more likely to treat the term "Satan" as a personal name. Since this was the Bible of the early Church, this conditioned the first Christians to see Satan as a single evil entity who stood opposed to God.

But Kelly argues that, in the New Testament, Satan is still the angel of God who tempts men -- even Jesus -- only as part of the course of proving who is and is not loyal to God. Kelly argues strongly for this, and does make a good case for seeing some of the New Testament stories about Satan as part of the regular testing of mankind. But there are other parts where the malignancy of Satan seems clear and renders Kelly's overall argument unconvincing. Satan may be used by God to test His creatures, but that does not necessarily make him a "benign" agent of God.

Kelly makes several arguments for not seeing "Satan" as a singular opponent to God, even in the New Testament, at least until Revelation, in which Satan is thrown into Hell. Kelly interprets this event as happening after the death and resurrection of Christ. In doing this, he depends on a crassly literal interpretation of Revelation that does not take into account the highly symbolic character of the book. Past, present, and future all collide in Revelation, and trying to construct a simple linear time­­line was not St. John's intention.

Kelly also fails to appreciate the parallels between Genesis 3:15 and important portions of Revelation 12 that make it clear that the "serpent" in Eden was understood in Revelation to be "the Dragon" who was clearly "the Satan" who made war both on the woman and her child.

Kelly follows the opinions of liberal Protestants who have denied that Satan tempts men to sin and even doubt that he really exists. He does this because he finds the idea that the earth has been enthralled to a malevolent spirit that opposes God to be overly pessimistic. He finds it repugnant that people are "born guilty" of original sin and that billions, by exercising their free will, are doomed to be damned forever in Hell while only a small remnant of Christians go to Heaven. To Kelly, this means that Satan triumphs over God. He wants to see God as a merciful Father in absolute control of a good creation that will save most people and only damn very few.

- Arthur C. Sippo



The Authentic Catholic Woman.  By Genevieve Kineke. Servant Books. 156 pages. $13.99.

Here is a much-needed book -- a beautiful meditation on "authentic femininity" for our times. Genevieve Kineke sees women today as the chief victims of a culture steeped in "sexual heresies." Yet women also have the power to change things: they can offer the world "authentic femininity and take charge of transforming the culture." For a woman's love, her "primordial intimacy with the human person," is far more important in the scheme of things than worldly power.

Pope John Paul II wrote about how woman's mission is "inscribed in the mystery of the Church." Indeed, authentic femininity images the Bride and gives flesh to the motherhood of the Church, Kineke explains, just as authentic masculinity images the Bridegroom. Real masculinity requires "profound humility," she explains, for a man is called to point to the Word of God with "his very being," while a woman is necessary to give that Word "flesh."

As a vocation that is both physical and spiritual, motherhood "speaks to the essence of a woman's being," and it demands the "total gift of self." Such a gift seems impossible at first, yet since Christ is the "wellspring of love," a woman making this self-gift under His aegis will find her "energies and resources" multiplied.

Throughout this book, Kineke offers models of authentic femininity: first, the Church; second, our Lady; and third, various saintly women such as Gianna Beretta Molla, an inspiration for those "prepared for every labor and every kind of sacrifice"; Rose Hawthorne, who nursed cancer patients at a time when the disease was believed contagious; Elisabeth Le­seur, who brought her husband Felix into the Church by her faithful witness; Josephine Bakhita, who forgave her slave masters; and Edith Stein, who expressed her view of femininity in these eloquent words: "woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning."

Kineke meditates on the supernatural richness "behind the veil of ordinary life" that gives meaning to seemingly mundane acts of love. She draws ingenious analogies between various household duties and the seven Sacraments. She finds that women, including those in religious life, image the Church by providing comfort "much like the relief we find on visiting a nearby church and finding the door unlocked and the tabernacle lamp lit." Elsewhere, Kineke explains how a family might observe "sacred time" by morning and evening prayer, the Angelus, and prayer before meals, as well as by keeping the Lord's Day and marking the liturgical year: "Days that have this eternal backdrop will comfort souls in ways that we cannot gauge."

Kineke is fully aware of the perils that attend a woman's "gift of self," reflecting ruefully on how women who have made this heroic gift have sometimes been scorned and abandoned. She admits that "if we promote the generous gift of self as bedrock for the vocation of woman, we must be prepared to be rejected, misunderstood and even despised." Yet a woman who loves others for Christ's sake will not finally be disappointed: "If she gives to Him as she finds Him in those in need, He will receive her." Kineke also admits that today's woman is tempted by fear: "fear is usually at the core of a woman's 'no' to God's plan for her life." It is the biggest obstacle to love and motherhood, yet when a woman rejects God's will and embraces the world and its values, she merely increases her vulnerability. Kineke thinks the answer is love without measure -- taking "the risk of being hurt, rejected or humiliated or of losing the beloved outright." Still, discernment through prayer is needed to avoid becoming a "doormat." By letting herself be "used," a woman may feel drained and bitter, so she must discern whether a particular gift of self benefits the recipient.

Catholics are surrounded nowadays by claims that the family is merely "what man defines for himself, that sexuality is a drive that is to be harnessed and enjoyed apart from its God-given ends and that the human person has no particular dignity in the order of creation." Womanhood has suffered "defilement," Kineke observes, but she hopes that after a time of purification there may arise "a greater, deeper and more profound femininity than ever before."

This rebirth of authentic femininity will have profound effects. Once women start living out their lives modeled on God's incarnate Bride, the "order in the created world can be that much more perfectly restored." She concludes this inspiring book by inviting Catholic women to heed the call: "we are the mission as God would have it in this age. We only need to take our femininity in its purest form and cleave with it to the cross for the good of all."

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner





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