October 2000

Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.  By Thomas S. Hibbs. Spence. 196 pages. $22.95.

Like it or not, pop culture is an ever-present phenomenon in our postmodern world. Often it seems as though there is no other culture that we commonly share. Pop culture constantly confronts us through various media: billboards, radio, television, movies, the Internet, etc. In fact, says Hibbs, “the universal availability of pop culture…means that no one can escape its influence.” That said, Hibbs does a commendable job of exposing the nihilistic tendencies of a culture most would rather consume than analyze and decipher. What makes his tome especially relevant is the uniqueness of his undertaking.

Hibbs opens with a brief discourse on the machinations of philosophical nihilism and its place in American democratic liberalism, which he claims is a veritable breeding ground for radical individualism and moral dissonance. It stands to reason then that this tendency toward nihilism would find expression in pop culture, the “creative” arm of democracy.

Hibbs probes recent Hollywood hits in his effort to expose the nihilism of pop culture. Under scrutiny are such features as The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs, Natural Born Killers, and even Titanic and Forrest Gump. But Hibbs saves his best effort for the wildly popular television series Seinfeld, which is perhaps the best example of nihilism in pop culture. Nihilism, in the world of Seinfeld, is an “unspoken assumption.” Seinfeld takes it for granted that life is “devoid of any ultimate meaning or fundamental purpose.” As truth fades into obscurity, so does the combative antagonism between good and evil. Lacking the ability to distinguish between the two, the characters of Seinfeld represent “Nietzsche’s last men, who, when faced with the great questions and ultimate issues of life, blink and giggle.” Which, of course, is Nietzsche taken to absurdity.

Despite his provocative theory and adept analyses, Hibbs fails in his effort to point a way out of nihilism from within the structures of pop culture. His assertion that a movie such as Pulp Fiction explores the “possibility of an integrating and ennobling purpose” fails to persuade in light of its comical glorification of violence and whimsical attitude toward evil. Nevertheless, Hibbs succeeds in exposing the underlying presuppositions of the entertainment so readily consumed today.

- Pieter Vree



Friendship and Society: An Introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy.  By Donald X. Burt, O.S.A. Eerdmans. 239 pages. $18.

Pope John Paul II certainly had St. Augustine in mind when in his encyclical Faith and Reason he advised the faithful to fly, not only upon the wing of faith, but also upon the wing of reason. The implication is that, if they don’t, they will wobble about the intellectual horizon like one-winged birds. St. Augustine certainly flew with both wings in his thinking about life. He was a master of the Scriptures and a master of reason.

Consequently, Donald Burt performs a distinct service to those who wish to accept the Pope’s invitation to tap into the Church’s great intellectual tradition where grace and nature are brought to bear upon the practical matters of life. Burt has written an introduction to St. Augustine’s practical philosophy dealing with such matters as ethics, friendship, the family, law, war and peace, crime and punishment, Church and State. The author shows St. Augustine as a working bishop who was also an intellectual genius in a turbulent period of history. Thus the reader is able to consider general principles in the context of the lively events from which they were drawn.

The author also squarely faces some prejudices about St. Augustine, presenting both sides of the question and then letting the saint speak for himself. On the matter of sex, for example, the saint shows his thinking to be quite sound, no small achievement for anyone in this area. In brief, the author does a fine job of showing how St. Augustine employed the wings of faith and reason in his writings.

- Richard Geraghty



The Renovation Manipulation: The Church Counter-Renovation Handbook.  By Michael S. Rose. Aquinas Publishing Ltd. 161 pages. $12.95.

Catholics instinctually know that there is an inseparable connection between doctrine and design. Architect and journalist Michael Rose has compiled a manual showing the link between certain trendy ecclesiologies and much of recent church architecture. Divided into six chapters, the first half of this book presents Rose’s understanding of the last fifty years of church design. He contends that changes in Catholic architecture in America actually began as early as the late 1940s, evidenced by the growing number of suburban churches marked by their “cold and hard lines, their starkness and over-emphasis on utility.” These changes accelerated and were crystallized in the 1978 U.S. bishops’ document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) which, Rose argues, was inspired more by people such as Protestant architect Edward Sövik than by Catholic theology or any Church council. Rose’s commentary is worthy of attention, but when discussing the psychological process by which architectural changes have been effected, he surely borders on conjecture. For example, when analyzing how parishes came up with renovations, Rose attempts to establish a direct link between the proceedings of planning meetings and a “manipulative stratagem” suggestive of the Soviet Politburo.

The second half of this work is a very helpful resource guide. Chapter 4 introduces the reader to official documentation for discussing issues such as the binding force of EACW; it provides the Magisterium’s pronouncements on the placement of the Tabernacle, the Altar, and the Crucifix, on statues and shrines, the baptismal font, and Communion rails, and on pews versus chairs, and other liturgical issues. The final chapter is worth the price of the book. Here one will find addresses and phone numbers for recommended architects, books, essays, and even journals now beginning to take up the renovation challenge.

- David Vincent Meconi



Furthermore! Memories of a Parish Priest.  By Andrew M. Greeley. Tom Doherty Associates. 303 pages. $24.95.

Actually, he’s a pretty nice guy. The gadfly of American Catholicism reveals himself to be a charming fellow in this book written shortly after his 70th birthday. He uses it — among the dozens he has written, fiction and nonfiction — to unburden himself, to attempt to set the record straight on certain issues, and to prove that his ability to infuriate the widest number of people remains intact (he even comments on that skill). After all these years, agree with him or not, he still needs — no, make that demands! — to be heard on all manner of issues. The strange thing about the book is that often he’s right on the money.

Never forget that in spite of all his public feuds with Church authority, Fr. Greeley counts innumerable enemies among liberal American Catholics. In one chapter, he describes a teacher of a pre-Confirmation class for parents as “a National Catholic Reporter leftist who has simple solutions for all social problems.” Later, he criticizes young Irish missionaries for indulging too enthusiastically in liberation theology. Too bad he refers to the Supreme Being as “She.” Otherwise, his conversations with, say, the average NOR subscriber might be considerably more convivial.

When he lays off the charm, Fr. Greeley makes himself heard loudest. In this book, he shouts from the rooftops on the continuing scandal of priests and pedophilia. Early and often, he has not only condemned these offenders, but the diocesan officials who cover up and protect them.

Not that Greeley plays Jeremiah throughout Furthermore! His descriptions of visits to the Ould Sod, and its influence on his novels, is delightful. He also analyzes, with wit, his peculiar academic schedule: autumns in his native Chicago, winters at the University of Arizona. His best chapter compares his professions of novelist and sociologist, pursuits that he believes are not significantly different from each other. I’ve read few explanations of the creative process that were as insightful.

Sad to say, I’ve read better theology, even by Andrew Greeley. Don’t take his ideas on the Church too seriously (I know you won’t). Just enjoy his company — even if he provokes a dozen or more arguments.

- Gerard Einhaus





Back to October 2000 Issue


©