Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 1988

December 1988

The Wise Men Know What Wick­ed Things Are Written on the Sky

By Russell Kirk

Publisher: Regnery Gateway

Pages: 138

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

Sometime after November 1980 a band of Reaganite terror­ists kidnapped Russell Kirk and subjected him to unspeakable torture till he came round to their way of thinking. How else explain some of the things in this volume of his essays? Before the conservatives came to power, Kirk plied his own course; resist­ing cramped ideologies and expounding his vision of a humane and judicious traditionalism, he won a reputation for sagacity, good humor, and sound judgment — rare traits within an American Right more noted for self-right­eousness, hairy-chested patrio­tism, and whining self-pity. While most conservatives searched for bigger bombs, fatter profits, and unfettered individualism, Kirk tirelessly reiterated his call to re­member the enduring things of the spirit.

The wise and witty tradi­tionalist is not absent from The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky, but he is harder to find. The book’s contents were delivered originally as talks at the Heritage Foundation between 1982 and 1984. Kirk thus found himself addressing the very policy-mak­ers, think-tankers, and opinion-manipulators — those “sophisters, economists and calculators,” to quote Burke — he had long de­plored. The old Kirk of chastened wisdom and limited expectations surrendered to a triumphalist Kirk who called for moral res­toration embodied in a new “Au­gustan Age.” Was Ronald Reagan the new Caesar? His auditors must have quivered with delecta­tion when he invoked the image of a “Pax Americana.” Granted, Kirk repudiates a hegemony bas­ed upon gunboat diplomacy, but his evocation of America as ex­emplar to the world sounds sus­piciously like the “democratic globalism” of arrogant neoconservatism.

As the Reagan presidency shuffles and gasps to a close, one wonders what those eight years have achieved for the brand of conservatism Kirk has exempli­fied over the years? Piddling lit­tle, to be honest. Somebody ought to mount a raid on the Heritage Foundation, spring our friend from captivity, and let Kirk be Kirk.

The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America

By Robert Nisbet

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 145

Price: $17

Review Author:

Robert Nisbet is angry. Ev­en the dustcover of The Present Age reveals his ire: in the photo­graph of the author a scowl mars his normally benign countenance. What is he angry about? Just about everything. Those not at­tuned to the nuances of political discourse might take Nisbet for a man of the Left, for he savages a herd of conservative sacred cows: supply-side economics, the cult of Oliver North, the Strategic De­fense Initiative, Reagan’s muscle-flexing foreign policy, the “evil-empire” school of anti-Commu­nism, the Pentagon, the “cash-nexus,” Straussian political theo­ry, and the Religious Right.

But Nisbet is a conservative — one of the few legitimate ones we have left. His asperity arises from his speculations on what the Founding Fathers would think of contemporary America. They would not be happy, Nis­bet opines. They would be appall­ed by the militarism and moral­istic imperialism condoned and encouraged by Republicans and Democrats alike. The “Leviathan-­like presence of the national gov­ernment” would plunge them in­to despair. Nisbet does not use this observation as a pretext to launch a laissez-faire tirade; rath­er, he blames the engorgement of the bureaucracy primarily on the Pentagon and a middle class hap­py to feed at the public trough. Finally, the Founders would be shocked at the proliferation of “loose individuals” who racket about our society scrabbling for easy bucks.

So what makes Nisbet a “conservative”? Just this: his love of local community and de­centralized power; his respect for responsible property rights; his devotion to a freedom that exists within a web of attachment to the public good; his realistic and limited view of America’s role on the world stage; his commitment to a moral authority that promotes restraint in both the pri­vate and public spheres. Nisbet’s brand of conservatism fares poor­ly on the Right these days. A pity, that, for if conservatives would regain the honor they have bartered for a mess of Reaganite pottage, they would do well to heed Robert Nisbet’s wise counsel.

Prison Writings

By Kim Dae Jung

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 332

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

American presidential aspi­rants routinely pay lip service to Christianity, but can one imagine a serious contender averring that “unfailing belief in the Resurrec­tion provides me with the great­est strength to sustain my faith”? The words are those of Kim Dae Jung, who in 1971 came close to winning the highest office in South Korea, despite massive election fraud. Kim is a Catholic, something rarely mentioned by the American media. Unlike his American counterparts, Kim’s re­ligion forms the fulcrum upon which his entire existence turns.

His Prison Writings, 29 let­ters composed between Novem­ber 1980 and December 1982, reveal the heart and mind of a devoutly Catholic statesman. Kim has suffered grievously to advance democracy and humane government in his homeland: im­prisonment, a death sentence, house arrest, several assassination attempts (one by the Korean CIA), exile — but his faith in God and commitment to demo­cratic change remain unwavering. Though imprisoned, he was free, because he knew that the only freedom that ultimately matters is the kind Christ promises. His discipleship enabled him to tran­scend the oppression of circum­stances; he would not permit his persecutors to distort his vision. Perhaps most impressive (espe­cially for a politician), he con­fesses that “I could not be a dis­ciple of Jesus if I did not purge myself of all recrimination and hatred.”

The Gourmet and Other Stories of Modern China

By Lu Wenfu

Publisher: Readers International

Pages: 243

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

Who would blame the Chi­nese writer Lu Wenfu if he har­bored a grudge against his home­land? On three occasions in the 1950s and 1960s a society drunk on revolutionary ideology strip­ped him of his livelihood and smashed his literary career. No enemy of the revolution, he sim­ply had the misfortune to get caught zigging when the official­ly approved policy was to zag. During the years when his pen lay silent he earned his bread in a variety of ways: first in a machine factory, then in a cotton mill, and from 1969-1978 he support­ed his family by farming. How’s that for the stuff of which angry, alienated writers are made?

Neither anger nor alienation informs these stories. Rather, there is love — for China, for the city of Suzhou, for the ordinary peo­ple — wonton sellers, factory workers, peasants, obscure gov­ernment employees — who have weathered the upheavals of the past 40 years. And a keen sense of irony and wry good humor, too, for Lu Wenfu spots the hu­man comedy that bubbles beneath the major political and social hap­penings that catch the eye of journalists and scholarly analysts. Above all, he endeavors to dispel the “fog of politics” in order to write truthfully about the humble lives and small triumphs of unknown people who endure against heavy odds. “My feeble light burns,” he writes, “so that those moving through the dark night may be consoled when they see it in the distance, and feel that they will soon reach their destination.”

And On This Rock: The Witness of One Land and Two Covenants

By Stanley L. Jaki

Publisher: Trinity Com­munications

Pages: 128

Price: $5

Review Author:

Catholics are the only literalists when it comes to Matthew 16:18: “Thou art Peter, and up­on this rock I will build my church….” This verse is a bug­bear for fundamentalist Protes­tants. Some try to tiptoe past it; others interpret it to mean Peter’s faith rather than the disciple him­self; some probably darkly suspect that it is a piece of Roman­ist legerdemain slipped into St. Matthew’s Gospel when no one was looking.

For Fr. Jaki, an accomplish­ed scientist, it says what it says and means what it means. In a wonderfully concise and percipi­ent book (now revised and en­larged from its original edition in 1978), Jaki brings his massive erudition to bear upon this text and its implications for the Church from Christ’s time to the present. He contends that bibli­cal scholars (Protestant and Cath­olic alike) have — missed two sali­ent points. (1) Christ uttered his words in the neighborhood of an­cient Caesarea Philippi, near where stands a “wall of bare rock about 200 feet high and 500 feet wide.” This setting adds immense force to what Christ meant in establishing his Church upon a rock.” (2) “In the Old Testa­ment,” writes Jaki, “only God is called rock.” Yahweh-rock, Peter-rock: How firm a foundation! And on This Rock not only il­luminates Catholic teaching, but it also inspires a mischievous re­joinder to one’s fundamentalist friends: Wherefore art thou, biblical literalists?

A Universal Heart: The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of Taizé

By Kathryn Spink

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 194

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

There are places on earth where time and eternity intersect, where transcendence pierces mundaneness to reveal a hint of heaven. Such locations are pock­ets of holiness, peace, and grace in a world enamored with the wealth, power, influence, and so­phistication radiated by Paris, London, Washington, New York, and other cities that form the reference points of the 20th cen­tury. Men and women in search of “action” gravitate to these ar­rogant cities. But the real action lies elsewhere, in such places as the tiny French village of Taizé, a name unknown to those who chronicle the significant events of our era.

In a more expansive realm of significance, Taizé bulks large, because of the “life and vision” of a man known simply as “Brother Roger.” The only power in Taizé is spiritual, the only wealth, holiness; prayer, not prestige, counts. Among Brother Roger and his fellow Protestant and Catholic monks, the watchword is “reconciliation” — a healing between Catholic and Protestant, believer and unbeliever, West and East, rich and poor, young and old. Pilgrims flock to the community (as many as 3,000 a week during the summer months) to bathe in the spiritual waters that pour from the thrice-daily prayer services conducted by the brothers.

Brother Roger’s ecumenical vision arises not out of vague humanitarianism or sentimental syncretism, but, as Kathryn Spink notes, from the fact that “Christ has fashioned him with a univer­sal heart.” The friendship that exists between Brother Roger, a Protestant, and Pope John Paul II illustrates the only ecumenism that matters: one rooted not in mutual tepidness of belief but in a spirituality that draws devout Protestants and Catholics toward union in Christ. Such is the vi­sion of Brother Roger of Taizé.

Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in Amer­ica

By James Turner

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Pages: 316

Price: $12.95

Review Author:

Every page of Without God, Without Creed (published in 1985 and now available in paper­back) crackles with insight and perspicacity. Why was disbelief in God’s existence unthinkable in 1800, but easily thinkable by 1890? Christians might borrow the police inspector’s immortal phrase from Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.” But the usual suspects — Darwinists, god­less scientists, materialists, secu­larizes, assorted God-haters — tell only half the story. James Turner provides the rest.

Preachers and theologians unintentionally promoted unbe­lief by attempting to update the Gospel. They tied Christianity to the spirit of the age, especially as embodied in science, and refash­ioned God to conform to human standards. “The modernizers came close,” Turner argues, “to making religion a thing of this world and creating a God in the image and likeness of man.” By the end of the century, men could reasonably ask: Who needs such a God?

Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation

By Edwin S. Gaustad

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 196

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

Edwin Gaustad adds anoth­er brick to a tower of Babel that has been leaping upward at an alarming rate since the mid-1970s. Americans are obsessed with the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, and half the forests in North America have been ravaged in order to encase that mania in books. Gaustad meticulously explicates the opin­ions of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Adams, but unwittingly he demonstrates the aridity of the topic.

Granted, we owe these men an immense debt for their ef­forts in behalf of religious liber­ty and the separation of church and state, but beyond that, the pickings are slim. Only John Adams evinced any comprehen­sion of the depths of the religious impulse; only he engaged in a “lifelong wrestling with the sub­ject of religion.” As for the oth­ers, well, it adds up to little: Jef­ferson’s yammerings about eccle­siastical tyranny (i.e., Catholi­cism), superstition, ignorance, and sinister priests; Franklin’s sniggering pragmatism (religion is good for the masses); Washing­ton’s “broadly benign, calmly ra­tional” — and complacent — musings on the deity; Madison’s early “wrestling” deftly trans­muted into the less arduous en­terprise of political speculation.

How anyone can claim these men as God-fearing Chris­tians is a question best answered by men armed with butterfly nets. Moreover, those who believe that Washington, Franklin, Jef­ferson, and Madison (or even Adams, for that matter) meant to establish a “Christian nation” belong to the Alice in Wonder­land school of political analysis.

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