Volume > Issue > Briefly: April 1996

April 1996

Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings

By Daniel Liechty

Publisher: Paulist

Pages: 304

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Paul C. Fox

These days the descendants of the early Anabaptists — Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites — are apt to be regarded as harmless curiosities, of interest more because of their “lifestyle” than their faith. Yet in the 16th century, Anabaptism was seen as a threat to the very foundations of Christendom, something to be ruthlessly stamped out. As Hans Hillerbrand notes in his preface, Anabaptism “supplied victims of the executioner’s sword in greater numbers than any other ecclesiastical faction of the time.” What was it about these “radical reformers” that provoked both Protestant and Catholic authorities to such intense hostility?

It was not, in Hillerbrand’s estimation, their practice of adult baptism, though that was often the overt cause of persecution. Rather, by insisting on freedom of conscience and opposing the use of force in support of Christianity, Anabaptists threatened “the identity of civic and religious community, as it had prevailed since the Emperor Constantine” — an identity which Luther took as much for granted as Leo X.

There is a yearning these days, more among certain fundamentalists than among Catholics, for the restoration of that identity, for a Christian America in which even theological virtues would be enforced by the state. In the face of this Erastian temptation, we need the reminder from Felix Mantz (1527) that “Christ the Lord does not force anyone to his glory.”

We also need to hear another typically Anabaptist assertion, namely, that genuine faith must find expression in practical love. This is best attested to in this book by Peter Walpot’s “True Yieldedness and the Christian Community of Goods.” To Walpot, Elder of the Hutterian church from 1565 to 1578, it was obvious that if the commandment of Christ — “love one another as I have loved you” — is obeyed to the limit, it must lead to Christian community: a full sharing of one’s life and possessions with fellow believers. Commenting on 1 John 4, he writes: “If Christ did live here bodily among us, you would most gladly share all that you have with him, and even more. Then do this with others now. That is how people will know that what you do you do as to Christ.” Is this common use of goods too simple for our sophisticated times? Or is such simplicity precisely what we need? It seems that everybody is talking about “community” these days — but who is actually living it?

Anabaptists are best known for their commitment to nonviolence. Curiously, their non-resistant stance is scantily documented in this anthology. Felix Mantz insists that a true Christian must hate no one, Hans Denck asserts that no Christian “can use force or be a ruler,” and Dirk Philips chides believers who, “lacking understanding,” take up arms to defend themselves. It seems strange that this collection gives so little space to the vital question of the Christian’s attitude toward violence.

An inadequate index diminishes the usefulness of this compilation, and the failure of the bibliography to mention the many Anabaptist works available in English translation is disappointing. But despite these blemishes, Early Anabaptist Spirituality gives ample evidence that the 16th-century radicals can still challenge us to re-examine our assumptions about the nature of Christianity and its relationship to society.

The Railway Man: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness

By Eric Lomax

Publisher: Norton

Pages: 276

Price: $22

Review Author: Michelle Bobier

Eric Lomax, as a member of the British Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War, was captured by the Japanese and forced to work on the Burma-Siam railway. This ill-conceived and brutally executed feat of engineering (the author terms it “this criminal folly of a line” and “the worst civil engineering disaster in history”) cost 250,000 people their lives. Lomax survived, but the worst was yet to be. When prison camp guards discovered a homemade radio among the British soldiers’ effects, their lives became a hell of interrogation and torture. Lomax was singled out and subjected to special brutality in an effort to force him to admit he was a spy. They nearly killed him.

At the end of the war, he went home to Scotland with a severe case of what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. At that time, PTSD was neither recognized nor treated. Unable to talk to anyone about his ordeal, Lomax suffered acutely for the next half-century with terrifying nightmares, emotional deadness, obsessive thoughts of revenge, and interpersonal difficulties. He hated the Japanese with “absolute totality,” conceiving a special, vengeful loathing for the young Japanese translator present during the interrogations. As decades passed, the author underwent virtually no emotional healing.

Eventually a new life began for Lomax that culminated in reconciliation with Nagase Takashi, the translator, who had spent his life since the war tormented by guilt, striving to make amends. The scenes of reconciliation are among the most compelling ones in this remarkable book. The two men meet in a courtyard in Thailand. Nagase, trembling and in tears, repeats, “I am very, very sorry….” Lomax offers reassurance to his former tormentor. As they talk, the men discover the basis for genuine friendship. Their bond is based on mutual suffering, and Lomax’s empathy for Nagase is striking: “He was kind enough to say that compared to my suffering his was nothing; and yet it was so obvious that he had suffered too.” Before returning home weeks later, Lomax presents “my friend Nagase” with a formal letter of forgiveness.

Lomax’s healing did not begin until he began to tell his story to others. “It is important for others to help you come to terms with the past…,” but “remembering is not enough, if it simply hardens hate,” Lomax writes. “Sometime the hating has to stop.” When that happens for him, we see an emotional resurrection paralleling the physical one of liberation from prison camp. It is not for nothing that the book’s epigraph is Revelation 1:18-19: “I am alive, and was dead…. Write therefore the things thou hast seen.” Eric Lomax did just that, and the result is a fascinating book, one written with grace, conviction, and profound emotional power.

The Tiniest Humans

By Robert L. Sassone

Publisher: Second Edition. American Life League (703-659-4171)

Pages: 110

Price: $8

Review Author: Maria Vree Briggs

“Don’t impose your morality on me,” we hear from the proabortion crowd. However, the strongest case against abortion is scientific, which The Tiniest Humans brings to light. The book is a record of interviews with two doctors whose research deals with the preborn. Dr. Albert Liley has been called the “Father of Modern Fetology,” for he developed intrauterine blood transfusions for Rh-affected babies. Dr. Jerome Lejeune discovered that Downs Syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome in those affected, and worked to find a cure.

The purpose of the interviews with these two doctors is to determine if there is scientific evidence that proves that a preborn baby is both a unique individual and a human being from the moment of conception.

Lejeune has proven through DNA that it can be scientifically demonstrated that each person is unique from conception and has never before existed and will never again exist. Moreover, the preborn baby is not merely a part of his or her mother, as has been asserted by proabortionists. To the contrary, the preborn baby and his mother are genetically different from one another (half of the baby’s genetic make-up came from the father). With the development of test-tube babies and surrogate motherhood, it is now clear to all that a baby can be created and born independent of his biological mother. Lejeune also exposes the misconception that the mother’s body controls and directs the pregnancy. In fact, it is the microscopic baby who, five days after conception, sends a chemical message which results in stopping the mother’s menses. The baby then buries himself in the mucosa of the uterus and develops (by himself) a placenta, umbilical cord, and amniotic sack. The mother’s contribution to the process is nutrients delivered through her blood. The preborn baby, Lejeune has demonstrated, is a unique individual who creates the environment which will, unless outside forces intervene, enable him to grow and develop and eventually be born.

Liley has been able to diagnose at just 14 weeks gestation, and surgically correct at 18 weeks gestation, medical problems in preborn babies. In his work he has found that at eight to 10 weeks the preborn baby responds to touch, sound, and light, feels pain, and can taste. Of great significance is the fact that Liley has found that the preborn baby is distinct in behavior. Preborn babies show behavior traits and preferences (which continue to be evident after they are born). For example, some drink large quantities of amniotic fluid while in utero and others are light drinkers. Some drink more vigorously when the amniotic fluid is artificially sweetened while others cease to drink.

Given such scientific evidence, the individuality, uniqueness, and humanity of the preborn baby cannot be denied. If we, as a society, accept the simple premise that murder is wrong, then abortion too is wrong, as it is the murder of a life as unique as yours or mine.

The Tiniest Humans contains vitally important scientific facts of great social impact. However, finding them in this poorly organized book is somewhat tedious. The format is question and answer. Some of the questions are poorly stated, redundant, and don’t elicit pertinent answers. Some of the answers don’t stay with the topic. The information contained in The Tiniest Humans could have been more effectively presented in the form of an article, with the many pages of conversation extraneous to the abortion debate excluded.

When asked when human life begins, Lejeune replies common-sensically, “The beginning is at the beginning.” Unfortunately, and at the cost of many lives, the proabortionists don’t have this “common sense,” and for this reason The Tiniest Humans is worth reading, so we can awaken them to the facts. As Lejeune warns, “The soul of our civilization is at stake.”

The Glory To Be Revealed in You

By Kristen West McGuire

Publisher: Alba House

Pages: 140

Price: $8.95

Review Author: Monica Migliorino Miller

As the mother of a three-year-old, a two-year-old, and a baby born in August, I am well aware of pregnancy companion books. The market is glutted with them — books that tell a woman what to eat while she is expecting, what she should anticipate in terms of bodily changes and discomforts, etc. Into their midst comes this very rare book by Kristen West McGuire, which, unlike most pregnancy guides, helps a woman discover the spiritual dimensions of her nine-month life-giving journey.

Appropriately, the book is broken up into nine chapters. The first part of each chapter is devoted to a theological/spiritual commentary pertinent to the particular stage of pregnancy. This is followed by meditative passages from people such as Mother Teresa, Adrienne von Speyr, and St. Augustine. The reader is then invited to meditate on biblical passages that correspond to the theme of the chapter. This is followed by a short prayer composed by the author. Several chapters are structured around St. Paul’s teaching that “women will be saved through motherhood, provided they persevere in faith, love and holiness with self-control” (1 Tim. 2:15). The book examines the meaning of faith, love, holiness, and self-control within the context of pregnancy.

The overall intent of this book is to show a woman how God is her companion in pregnancy. As McGuire states: “The growth of God’s beautiful creation is housed within your womb.” By His power a glory will be revealed within the woman, namely, her child for all the world to see. One of the strengths of this book lies in its use of metaphors and analogies. McGuire frequently speaks of the pregnant woman as a symbol for the Church. The unborn baby “is like the newly baptized Christian in the Body of Christ, which is the Church. The mother, and the Church, pledges to nurture the developing embryo, or the embryonic faith of the newly baptized. The pregnant woman’s body is able to provide for every physical need of the child, just as the Church is able to provide for the spiritual needs of her children through the sacraments.” Indeed, McGuire would find support for her perspective in the Church Fathers, who spoke of the baptismal font as the uterus of the Church.

Her chapter on “Pregnancy as Prophecy” is very valuable. In our society many women are ashamed of being pregnant or reject their unborn child through abortion. McGuire points out that the physical manifestation of pregnancy is a sign to the mother and to others of God’s love and of how man is like God in the power to give life. The protruding and rounded belly is a prophecy in the way that it manifests God’s creative will to others. It is something the woman should be proud of.

The eighth chapter, “Freedom from Fear,” is most intriguing. Most women approach the pain of labor and delivery with a certain dread. But this pain can be transformed. McGuire points out how “going through childbirth” is a participation in Christ’s Cross. On the other side of this cross is life: “Just as Jesus had to suffer to enter into God’s glory, so we too must suffer to enter into our glory as mothers.” The focus of the drama is not the pain, but the baby.

As valuable as this book is, it is not without flaws. McGuire seems hesitant to refer to God as “Father.” She refers to “God the Creator, Christ the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit the Comforter.” Notice that the Father becomes simply the “Creator,” and that she opts not to refer to the Second Person of the Trinity as “Son.” By doing this McGuire treats the masculine words that refer to Godhead as arbitrary, as if when they become inconvenient they can be altered. But it is inaccurate to call only the Father “Creator,” since the Son and Holy Spirit comprise the creative essence of the Godhead as well. The persons of the Trinity cannot be reduced to their functions (as if the Father were not also “redeemer”). Moreover, calling the Father “Creator” does not express the relationality among the divine persons. But relationality is what is ultimately important in explaining the essence of human relations, such as the bond between father, mother, and child.

The book contains valuable appendices — e.g., an explanation of why contraception is against God’s plan, and an examination of conscience for pregnant women. Any Christian woman should see her pregnancy as a time of deep spiritual growth. McGuire’s book will help such a woman appreciate her pregnancy in relation to the love of God for her.

Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma

By Warren A. Nord

Publisher: University of North Carolina Press

Pages: 481

Price: $4995

Review Author: Edmund B. Miller

Nord believes that “there is something fundamentally wrong with our culture,” that “we have failed in matters of the heart and soul.” He believes education can do something about this. His argument for reform, though, goes both too far and not far enough.

Nord’s argument is simple enough: Religion has been driven from the public schools. In violation of the First Amendment, public education has gagged all religious voices, creating not neutrality toward religion, but passive hostility to it. Moreover, a secular faith has effectively been established in our schools. This, Nord argues, is wrong: Deleting religious voices from the educational process narrows the range of education, denying students access to all voices. Further, the secular, pseudo-scientific approach to the world, the only one available in public education, teaches students the values of “self-actualization and self-esteem, utility and cost-benefit analysis,” but says next to nothing about “love and justice and community.”

The remedy, argues Nord, is a return to liberal education. Now, liberal education, I would say, reveals to the student a larger pattern of reality in which he finds meaning. Nord’s definition of a liberal education is similar, except he switches “larger pattern of reality” to the plural form. He believes a liberal education should liberate the student from “parochialism” by including instruction about all important cultures and religions. Nord maintains that the search for truth proceeds best only after the evidence from all witnesses is in, and it must, finally, be carried out alone. Although particular texts or teachers may under certain conditions argue in favor of a particular position, the curriculum must maintain neutrality. The student uses his own critical thinking to judge the merit of each belief he encounters.

At this point Nord’s argument goes too far — because he asks too much of public education. He acknowledges that “children inevitably acquire a set of beliefs and values before they are able to think reasonably and responsibly about the world,” but implicitly asks that these beliefs and values be suspended during the high school and college years; the student, he maintains, must have a “willingness to think critically about one’s most basic assumptions in light of the full range of human experience.”

Beyond the practical difficulties of bringing “the full range of human experience” into the curriculum, there is a fundamental wrong in the assumption that all beliefs and values acquired from home and parents are to be set out on the table with all the other creeds of the world and subjected to the heat of the critical lamp. For Nord, real education takes place not at home but through formal education. Nord does quote the Vatican’s statement on the rights of parents as “the first and foremost educators of their children,” but he loses sight of that right in his enthusiasm for public education. His argument goes too far, then, in its tendency to supplant the educational roles and duties of parents.

Nord’s argument also goes too far in the demands put upon the student in “critical thinking.” Nord doesn’t mention that thinking critically requires one to place all propositions or ideas in reference to a final standard of judgment, a final norm of reality. For some this final norm might be the Trinity; for others it could be the absurd, democracy, or progress. One cannot, as Nord would have it, question basic assumptions and at the same time think critically. Critical thought must be rooted in some fundamental assumption about the world; yet Nord would have the student set aside that assumption and then, in that vacuum, assess the merit of various world-views. It cannot be done.

There’s also an area where Nord is not asking enough. He favors “restoring the tension between the secular and the spiritual in education…. Students should be taught the conflicts; they should feel the pull of the contending alternatives….” Fine. Then what? How does this translate into life? Does a man love because he is aware of such conflicts? Does he make a daily sacrifice of himself because he is open to “the broad variety of secular and religious ways of making sense of the world”?

In short, Nord asks too much of the school and too little of the home.

The Life of Saint Benedict

By Gregory the Great

Publisher: St. Bede's Publications. 184 pages. $12.95

Pages: 395

Price: $Pope Gregory the Great's Dialogues, in which Book II is devoted to the life of St. Benedict, is not a historical biography of the sort that would be familiar to modern readers. Book II, printed here with the title The Life of Saint Benedict, is a spiritual biography, devoted not to the subject's character or even his theological contributions, but to the miracles he performed by his devotion to the spiritual life. Gregory's treatment of the Rule, which Benedict is most famous for, helps to illustrate this point; the author praised the Rule once yet never bothered to discuss its contents.

Review Author: John M. Vella

Gregory’s biographical style is by no means original, as one discovers from reading Fr. Adalbert de Vogüé’s commentary; there is a hagiographic tradition already established by the time Gregory writes. De Vogüé draws comparisons between aspects of Gregory’s biography and other lives of saints, Augustine’s Confessions, and even Cicero’s De Republica.

The miracles of St. Benedict are similar to those performed by previous saints and by figures in the Bible. But de Vogüé avoids treating the authenticity of these miracles with any depth. His primary concern is the literary and spiritual dimension of the work, not whether each miracle actually took place. There are radical skeptics, however.

Francis Clark, for instance, goes much further than merely questioning the accuracy of reported miracles. He actually calls into doubt the historical existence of St. Benedict, claiming the saint was a fictional character invented by a Roman cleric who took unpublished Gregorian texts and added false stories to produce the Dialogues supposedly a century after Gregory was to have penned the work. De Vogüé attempts to save St. Benedict from the fate of other saints whose historical haziness relegates them to the category of legend. Pace Clark, the reader is assured that St. Benedict was a historical figure and that Pope Gregory did indeed write the Dialogues during the years 593-594, a conclusion the vast majority of opinion supports.

Further assurance is given by William D. McCready in his recent study, noted by de Vogüé, where the former argues that the miracles, over 40 in all, were reported to Gregory, who merely recorded them on paper. To de Vogüé this would be good news if true, yet he admits his uncertainty about such evidence and proceeds to illuminate the reader with the rich literary tradition surrounding the miracles of the saints. To him, it would not be a scandal if it were discovered that Gregory used creative license to embellish his biography of St. Benedict. Gregory was not writing for the purpose of acquiring tenure! He was writing to cultivate holiness among his brothers, and he was holding up St. Benedict as an example of faithfulness.

The message of Gregory, ultimately, is that with the cultivation of holiness, one not only develops power over the things of this world, but one also comes to see that our material surroundings are ultimately insignificant. It is not only a Christian message, but a particularly monastic view coming — not surprisingly — from a saintly monk writing a life of another saintly monk.

An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald

By Adalbert de Vogüé

Publisher: Eerdmans


Price: $24.95

Review Author: Paul F. Ford

George MacDonald is arguably the greatest Scottish storyteller of the 19th century. Lady Byron was his great benefactor. American audiences greeted his one lecture tour here with an enthusiasm comparable only to that accorded Charles Dickens. As a novelist, MacDonald was in Dickens’s shadow, but Chesterton, C.S.Lewis, Eliot, and Auden all sang his praises. The “all but unique merit” of MacDonald’s novels was that “the ‘good’ characters are always the best and most convincing. His saints live…” (Lewis). It is just this goodness that the correspondence before us reveals.

The substance of MacDonald’s letter-writing was to encourage. His letters of comfort to friends and relatives over the death of loved ones stand as testimonial to the hope MacDonald learned in the furnace of his own bereavements (of his mother, two brothers, sister, father, son, three daughters, and many friends — most from the scourge of tuberculosis). Consider: “We have just heard that dear old Mr. W. is gone home. Now he knows something at least of what lay so mysteriously hidden from him all his long life. It seems strange to us to know so little of the only event in our lives of which we can be certain before it comes. But He will justify himself to the love and hope of his children!… If we are not the little ones of a perfect love, I can see no sense in things…. If God is, all is as well as a perfect imagination could desire — and divinely better. If there be no God, then is the universe a mockery. But what mocking Power could have invented such a world!… What a little way it is across the shadow of this life to the more light beyond!… How the good people there must sometimes talk! And by and by we shall talk with them — not as here so many talk, ‘of who is in and who is out,’ but of what was and ever will be, and is making our hearts burn within us.” This is the expression of MacDonald’s character; if such moves you, read his letters.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

Embarrassing & Contradictory

In Catholic doctrine, God gives us free will, so we can repent or not. Kendall gets free will and predestination mixed up. Embarrassing!

Femi-Nuns in the Echo-Chamber

Mainstream news reports of the Vatican's 'Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious' reported on what the nuns say they see as the controversy, rather than on the controversy itself.

Mario Cuomo Isn’t Your Daddy

Review of Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy by Michael Sandel