May 1987

Confession.  By Adrienne von Speyr. Ignatius. 262 pages. $9.95.

Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church.  By Martin L. Smith. Cowley. 121 pages. $8.95.

John the Baptist announced Jesus' public ministry with a call to repent and confess. After the resurrection our Lord's first gift to his Church was to grant the disciples the ability to forgive confessed sins. How sad that many today do not enjoy the intimate peace and rich spirituality the Lord desires to give them through confession.

Consciousness of personal sin has almost been effaced by a secular culture in which violence is endemic and perversity considered normal; current theological fashion avoids mention of our sickness unto death. In times like these, it is a profound and mysterious blessing to be able to focus on one's habitual offenses. Two new books can guide and inspire sinners called to repentance and confession. The first is Adrienne von Speyr's Confession, originally published in German in 1960. The other is Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church by Martin L. Smith, a priest belonging to the Cowley Brothers, an Anglican monastic order in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Von Speyr (1902-1967) was a Swiss convert to Roman Catholicism; she entered the Church under the direction of eminent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who served as her confessor for 27 years. Of her writings he said, "Today, after her death, her works appear far more important to me than mine." No wonder: Confession reflects rare spiritual depth and authenticity. Do not be dismayed by the early difficult chapters in which she develops a theoretical approach to confession. She interprets the life of our Lord as uniquely characterized by a transparent confessional attitude. What this meant to Christ and means to us form the subject of this book. Von Speyr describes confession as the locus of spiritual activity in Jesus. She sees the confessional attitude of our Lord as the foundation for all of his other spiritual gifts; it is also the focal point at which he stands between us and the Father. To grasp the significance of her description, one must understand the spiritual dynamic involved. Jesus' death on the Cross was necessary, not simply to pay a blood price for wrongs committed; expiation of the sins of the world required that they be recognized as such and repented of by a loving heart. We are able to join with God in spite of our sin because Jesus stands in an attitude of repentance and confession between us and the Father. In him our sins are perfectly confessed and repented.

After falling from grace through sin, Adam hid from God; by failing to confess our sins we similarly hide. In the confessional-Jesus Von Speyr sees the new Adam, flawless and transparent as a glass before God. Throughout the Lord's earthly life, he accepted the sins of the world and presented them confessionally to the Father. This lifetime of confession was Christ's preparation for his final confession when he was nailed to the Cross, hanging before God in our stead. Unlike Adam who was naked in his innocence, Christ was naked because of sin. In the foreword to this book, von Balthasar points out that von Speyr rightly sees the Cross as the archetypal confession where our Lord maintains his transparency and openness to the Father, despite the burden imposed on his holiness by the sin he accepts. Repenting of our sin, Jesus asks the Father to forgive us, and we are forgiven because he asks.

Later chapters, which build on von Speyr's initial insight, contain a wealth of spiritual teaching and advice. She describes stages of formal confession, from preparation to absolution and penance, and provides guidelines for a sinner in the confessional. One has mastered this book when one understands that "Christian sacramental confession is imitation of Christ in the strict sense."

Fr. Smith's Reconciliation is intentionally less theoretical and more practical than von Speyr's Confession. Smith examines the theological bases of confession, but he realizes that understanding the sacrament is less important than participating in its graces. Consequently, he conceives of Reconciliation as a handbook for penitents. Although he writes for Anglicans who have not commonly made personal confession part of their discipleship, anyone beginning the practice will find this book helpful.

While von Speyr takes for granted that Christians are repentant and in search of greater purity, Smith discerns a pervasive failure recognizes that one of the chief functions of confession is to make us conscious of our own sin, so that our desire for reconciliation is more than merely-mouthing words. To facilitate authentic repentance, Smith uses scriptural meditations that force the sinner to see that his sin actually causes God pain. On the road to Damascus Saul "heard the voice of Christ asking him not ‘Why are you persecuting those who believe in me?' but, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'"

Because the current religious climate does not encourage repentance and confession, these two books are welcome reminders of what Smith calls the "joy-giving grief" that comes through confession. The Cross is the central reality of our religious belief because through it we are forgiven and reconciled. If we would love God, we must love Him through our sin. The desire to sin must be transformed into desire to love. Through repentance and confession the evil in us becomes the goodness of God in Christ.

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The Cycles of American History.  By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.. Houghton Mifflin. 498 pages. $22.95.

Give Professor Schlesinger an "A" for both prediction and guts. In 1985, the year in which the title essay of this 1986 book of collected essays was written, he coolly predicted that, if his theory about the cycles of American politics held true, "the 1980s will witness the burnout of the most recent conservative ascendancy." What chutzpah! After all, 1985 was the year of conservatism triumphant - the year after Ronald Reagan's second landslide victory, when the mass media were full of fawning chatter about the profound and permanent changes the Gipper was working on America and the world, and the neoconservatives were congratulating themselves for riding the wave of history and cockily dismissing their intellectual adversaries as hopelessly behind the times, even irrelevant.

But soon we would behold Reagan's high-stakes fumbling at Reykjavik, his startling loss of the Senate in 1986, and then the long, steep, sleazy decline which is the Iran-Contra scandal - the hypocritical antiterrorism policy, the cavalier disregard for law ‘n' order by its devotees, the dithering confusion in the Oval Office, the conflicting stories of officials and former officials, the chicanery, the government out of control, Nancy's usurpations, the memory lapses and fake laryngitis, and the sure-enough failure of the Gipper's magical powers. And after Mr. Conservative attempts his last political stunt, there'll be no understudy to take his place.

You know the conservative cycle is ending when the supreme chameleon of American journalism, Time magazine, prints a two-page essay up front by Garry Wills (March 9), wherein it is declared, "There was no Reagan revolution, just a Reagan bedazzlement.... The whole thing is not falling down; it was never weighty enough for that. It is simply evanescing." For Wills, the Reagan era was "a vast communal exercise in make-believe" and the Iran-Contra thunderbolt the breaking of "a spell." It hardly takes chutzpah to say that - just common sense. From Great Communicator to Chief Sorcerer: it's a long way to fall in so short a time.

Rarely are social predictions realized - and so quickly. But is Schlesinger perhaps just a lucky guesser? Maybe. Yet, there's a (nondeterministic) logic behind his forecast, which he, a historian holding two Pulitzer Prizes, sketches for us, and which Zeitgeist-watchers would do well to scrutinize.

Afterword: Not surprisingly, days after this review was written, what should appear but the March 30 issue of Time with its cover story, "Change in the Weather: America's Agenda After Reagan." The chameleon's other three shoes have dropped. Now, in what is an extended commentary on Schlesinger's book, complete with a Schlesingeresque chart of America's political cycles, Time tells us that "there are signs of a fundamental change in the nation's political weather, a philosophical mood shift.... Now one feels the ground shifting underfoot, a grinding of the tectonic plates."

An America dreaming of finding a real-life John Rambo woke up the next morning startled to discover a sincerely spooky Ollie North at her side. But it's not just a matter of foreign policy. The public is grossed out by Wall Street scandals, corruption in government, neglected social problems, people sleeping on sidewalks, and the rich getting ever richer.

As recently as July 28, 1986, Time was merrily opining that "capitalism has become the spirit of the age." But, a scant eight months later, Time tells us that there's a general perception "of greed run wild," and (quoting Republican Mayor William Hudnut of Indianapolis) that "the swing is away from...the laissez-faire approach..." - with accompanying poll data to support the point. As Time hurriedly plays catch-up, Schlesinger (a confidant of Democratic presidents and presidential aspirants) may well be licking his chops. Given his legendary love of power, and the prophetic mantle that is being bestowed upon him, his may be a soul in jeopardy. Vindicated chutzpah can be very heady. Let's hope Smooth Arthur doesn't lose his balance.

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"A Man of Books and a Man of the People": E.Y. Mullins and the Crisis of Moderate Southern Baptist Leadership.  By William E. Ellis. Mercer University Press. 228 pages. $18.95.

One of America's most illustrious philosophers, Satchel Paige, once warned: "Don't look back, somethin' might be gainin' on you." Liberal Protestants have nervously whispered that advice to one another for years. For good reason: something is gaining on them and that something is Southern Baptists. While Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and assorted other mainline Protestants have been bankrolling Third World revolutionaries, enfeebling the Gospel, winning the accolades of the media pundits - and shrinking in umbers - Southern Baptists have been preaching the old-time religion, propagating the Word in mission fields, and cramming their churches to the bursting point. Gainin'? They have already left other Protestants far behind.

Since Southern Baptists are not about to strike their tents and decamp, one had best learn something about them. One might start with William Ellis's biography of Edgar Y. Mullins, for in recounting the particulars of Mullins's life, Ellis adumbrates many of the salient themes of Southern Baptist life in the 20th century. Mullins, a Texan, figured prominently in the early decades of this century. He presided over Southern Seminary in Louisville from 1899 until his death in 1928, headed the Southern Baptist Convention from 1921 to 1923, and participated in interdenominational activities. As theologian he infused evangelicalism with a bracing dose of reason, and persuaded many Baptists to face calmly the threats of modem thought. Although it brought censure from both sides, he hewed to a middle course, refusing to embrace either fundamentalism or theological liberalism. Largely through his efforts, Kentucky staved off the worst depredations of the anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s. Today's Baptists, engaged in renewed internecine strife, would do well to recall the sage counsel of Edgar Y. Mullins.

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Images.  By John W. Tranter. Whitaker House. 156 pages. No price given.

Fundamentalists' condemnations of salaciousness in the media have assumed a ritualistic quality. From Jerry Falwell to the humblest backwater exhorter, the litany has grown tedious. Not that they are wrong: television, movies, and advertising are rife with purring females (often buff-bare) and grunting males with oiled pectorals and sculpted latissimus dorsi. The real problem with fundamentalist censoriousness is that it is formulaic.

John Tranter, head of TWO Ministries in Wetumpka, Alabama, has latched on to something deeper, but he doesn't know what to do with it. A slashing attack on corporate capitalism struggles to fight free of the threadbare clichés in Images. One supposes that Tranter, like many fundamentalists, takes his politics from the Right. Despite this, he senses that the hallowed free market promotes some nasty business. Tranter grasps a salient fact: capitalism thrives not by meeting demand but by creating it; to stimulate consumer avarice it pumps billions of dollars into shrewd ad campaigns. Tranter assails the manipulative strategies of Madison Avenue and exposes the inutility and planned obsolescence that grease the skids of economic progress. He perceives who controls advertising, the media, and the economy: "extremely powerful corporations."

The solution? Submit "to the leading of the Holy Spirit." Well, yes, but in addition to that, might one devise some political modes of opposition? At this point Tranter begs off, steps through the Looking Glass, and begins muttering about the "last days" and "the mark of the beast." Right-wing politicos and corporate shills will be in big trouble if the John Tranters of America ever put two and two together.

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Stand Up and Be Counted: Calling for Public Confession of Faith.  By R.T. Kendall. Zondervan. 127 pages. $5.95.

Most Catholics would probably construe the term "altar call" as an odd way of referring to the point in the Mass when communicants file forward to receive the Host. If they are familiar with the Protestant meaning of the term they most likely view the practice as, shall we say, slightly goofy, a trick of showmanship invented by either Oral Roberts or Billy Graham. But among Protestants it is an old and honorable institution that dates back to the 1740s when the fires of revival scorched America from Massachusetts to Georgia. Over the past two centuries the demands of decorum and the attenuation of evangelical fervor have convinced many Protestants to abandon the custom, but it continues to thrive among Southern Baptists and numerous fundamentalist sects.

Altar calls have always invited abuse, especially from ranting flim-flam men who can orchestrate a congregation's emotions with adroit virtuosity. Still, the practice contains much merit: the "public pledge," as R.T. Kendall, pastor of London's Westminster Chapel, calls it, "sends a clear signal to the world that one is unashamed of Jesus." Those who have experienced the event at its best can attest to its profound spiritual impact. With choir and congregation singing "Just As I Am," people stream down the aisles to stand before the congregation, signifying with this act their willingness to (in the words of an old gospel song) "Stand up for Jesus." Would Catholics deny that the Holy Spirit blesses such occasions? The paths to God are many and varied. Pastor Kendall's elucidation of the public pledge suggests that those believers who are eager to "stand up and be counted" have found one of those paths.

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Brideshead Benighted.  By Auberon Waugh. Little, Brown. 221 pages. $16.95.

Aggressive young conservatives in Washington carry Brideshead Benighted - Auberon Waugh's collection of Spectator columns - in their attaché cases. When they can snatch a respite from their computer consoles, phone banks, and policy papers, they leaf through its pages, cackling over Waugh's flaying of lunatic Labourites, cretinous union bosses, and half-wits in the "caring professions." Waugh is funny, acerbic, mordant, and razor-fanged, but he is no trans-Atlantic Reaganite. If he derides the British Left, he is equally devastating on the idiocies of the Thatcherites.

Waugh loathes politicians whatever their coloration: "Politics...is for social and emotional misfits, handicapped folk, those with a grudge." One likes to imagine what he would say about the American political scene: erstwhile movie stars lurching about the White House; faith-healers hankering after high office; and, yes, young conservatives, ambition still aflame, cackling over the pages of Auberon Waugh.

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The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson.  By Irving Howe. Harvard University Press. 99 pages. $12.50.

Irving Howe combines social and literary criticism in an elegant book that opens new vistas on the heroic age of American letters when Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman created a body of literature yet to be surpassed on these shores. Howe focuses on the two decades or so before the Civil War when Americans "start to feel socially invigorated and come to think they can act to determine their fate." This era attracts him because for a brief moment there flashed through the minds of Emerson and others the conviction that America would witness the full flowering of the possibilities latent in democratic man. Although Howe shares Emerson's faith in man's potential, he discerns the flaws in the Emersonian vision, especially its tendency to apotheosize individualism. Nor does he evade the dark knowledge of man's bent nature that Hawthorne and Melville expose in their novels and short stories.

The American Newness sparkles with apercus and a wisdom won by intense intellection and quiet reflection. Howe is, of course, one of America's foremost socialist thinkers, but his socialism neither narrows his perspective nor imposes ideological rigidity; it provides instead a supple point of reference from which to launch his excursions into American history and literature.

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