Volume > Issue > Briefly: February 2007

February 2007

Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints

By Thomas J. Craughwell

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 191

Price: $15.95

Review Author: James B. Spencer

A title as provocative as Saints Behaving Badly might suggest a down-and-dirty exposé of the secret lives of deceased Catholics whom the Church has long presented as lofty and luminous models of holiness. But Craughwell has not given us the latest follow-on to recent revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests nor is the author positing that Church history is little more than a filthy trail of scandalous behavior.

Granted, Saints Behaving Badly does deal in some detail with the sins of men and women the Catholic Church eventually canonized. Each of its 28 chapters presents the life of one such saint, emphasizing the evil that saint did before — and sometimes after — accepting God’s grace of conversion.

There’s St. Pelagia, the promiscuous actress; St. Moses the Ethiopian, the cutthroat and gang leader; St. Camillus, the cardsharp and con man; and even Blessed Giles of Portugal, the Satanist. We’re all familiar with the typical presentation of a saint, like Augustine, who started out as a notorious sinner: He was born a pagan and did all the horrible things pagans of his day did, but then he was converted, miraculously or otherwise, after which he became a heroic model of Catholic virtue, for which he was canonized. Craughwell covers these cases, yes, but he also includes biographical accounts that differ strikingly from this model. Many were born Catholic yet lived unbecoming lives for many years before beginning to co-operate with God’s grace. Even after their conversions, some of them occasionally relapsed into their sins and only gradually became models of holiness. One of them, “St. Olga, Mass Murderer,” didn’t come around completely until near the very end of his life.

These brief biographies of sinners-turned-saints, each racing or stumbling along on his own path at his own speed, offer today’s ordinary Catholic renewed hope. Craughwell shows that it is the grace of God, not mere human effort, that produces saints. Granted, human effort — sometimes heroic effort — is necessary, but only the grace of God makes that effort efficacious.

Craughwell also offers us a range of exemplars. Whatever a person’s sinful inclinations may be, he will likely find here a down-to-earth model, a saint who suffered the same weaknesses, fell into the same sins, yet eventually overcame them. In some cases, the temptations persisted until death. For example, after her conversion, St. Mary of Egypt, the once skillful seductress, suffered extremely strong sexual temptations for the rest of her life. Fortunately, God manifests His divine strength in the weakness of our fallen nature — if we let Him. St. Mary conquered these horrible temptations by imploring God’s grace and then co-operating with it.

Thomas Craughwell’s tightly written chapters and engaging style make these stories extremely pleasurable reading. Saints Behaving Badly is one of those rare books one can read and reread, and then sample from time to time the rest of one’s life.

Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown Up

By Christopher Noxon

Publisher: Crown

Pages: 288

Price: $23.95

Review Author: Michael S. Rose

Newly minted terminology, however ephemeral, typically reflects some socio-cultural phenomenon, real or imagined. Credit this season goes to culture voyeur Christopher Noxon for defining one of the newer terms being slung around by trend spotters from Santa Monica to Madison Avenue. “Rejuvenile,” explains Noxon, refers to adults who “cultivate tastes and mindsets” traditionally associated with children. That may sound innocuous enough, but wait, there’s more! Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown Up gives the distinct impression that the rejuvenile is more akin to the adult who lives like a self-indulgent teenager. It may be interesting marginalia that “boomerangers” and their Gen X offspring collect Japanese manga, indulge in a love of Scooby-Doo, or wear superhero Underoos. More telling is that this self-conscious regression reflects the strident unwillingness of so many to accept long-term responsibility — a point that Noxon bends over backward to disprove, without success. Noxon tries overly hard to present the “findings” of his anecdotal research with politically correct nonjudmentalism — he claims the term “rejuvenile” is “value neutral” — but the book is obviously a paean to youth consumer culture.

Noxon does give a nod to the oft-bemoaned evidence that adults are putting off marriage much longer than previous generations. Members of the urban, professional class now commonly wait until their mid- to late-30s before tying the knot. Even those who opt for the rare twenty-something wedding often defer childbirth for another decade, waiting until those very last ticks of the biological clock before attempting to squeeze in that single child with whom they will eventually share their toys. The reasons for postponing “adulthood” are many, but it often comes down to that Peter Pan-like desire to maintain the frivolity of their privileged childhoods. Other married couples make a conscious decision to remain forever “childfree,” often out of a desire to continue living as children. At the same time, “kidults” (“adults who take care of their kid inside”) are living with their parents far longer than ever before. If Noxon’s statistics can be believed, a whopping 38 percent of single adults aged 20 to 34 still live with their parents.

It seems to me that Joseph Epstein had a point when, years before Noxon coined the term, he referred to rejuvenalia as “perpetual adolescence.” But it was Florence King who I think hit the bull’s eye when she called it “arrested development.”

Noxon’s rejuvenalia didn’t spring up overnight. It has been evolving since the Good Day Sunshine generation of the late-1960s deferred adulthood until the Reagan years. But this whole rejuvenile culture has now reached such advanced stages that the phenomenon deserves to be classified, analyzed, and critiqued. Though Noxon, like a microbiologist, is sufficiently adept at analysis and classification, he lacks either the desire or ability to provide a meaningful critique. Not for Noxon is pointing a finger at the obvious ill ramifications of a Pee Wee Herman generation of non-adults that lacks the seriousness to make the kind of lifelong commitments necessary for fruitful marriage, family, and vocation. Noxon instead provides a sly built-in scoff (an old trick of the trade) at anyone who doesn’t embrace, or at least tolerate, the capricious youth-worship culture he chronicles. Social critics such as King and Epstein, who see the rejuvenile impulse as destructive, regressive, and quite possibly a harbinger of the collapse of Western Civilization, are pejoratively dubbed “Harrumphing Codgers.” Apparently, it’s “way uncool” to burst the Neverland bubble by pointing out that these perpetual adolescents are too often confused, unfocused, and ill-prepared to face the basic demands of life as a “grown up.”

One popular misconception Noxon seems to nurture is that “maturity” necessarily means chronic dullness, depression, stress, and an inability to crack a smile. Ah, what balderdash! In fact, maintaining one’s youthful enthusiasm is one of the great rewards of having children of your own. Instead of joining an adult kickball league (that’s where Noxon says he met his wife-to-be) or entering a Lincoln Log competition, the adult’s best chance to relive his childhood is through the playful lives of his children. That’s not to say that the adult returns to acting with childish impulse as many kidults do; rather, it means playing wiffle ball with your sons, riding bikes with your daughters, running Tyco trains in your basement, flying remote-control airplanes, building Lego spaceships, painting model cars, blowing bubbles — for the benefit of your children. Doing all that “fun stuff” without kids can easily devolve into self-indulgent silliness.

The Evolution-Creation Strug­gle

By Michael Ruse

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 327

Price: $25.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In the past quarter-century, philosopher Michael Ruse has published three books on science and values. Here in The Evolution-Creation Struggle he examines the conflict between what he calls two “rival religions” — evolutionism and creationism. Under the second rubric, he includes those who argue for Intelligent Design (ID), a movement he calls “creationism lite.” Raised as a Quaker in England, he tells us he is now somewhere between a deist and an agnostic.

Writing in a clear, candid, irenic style, Ruse reveals that evolutionists have been creating an alternative to Christianity for around a century and a half. Their spokesman, Julian Huxley, acknowledged two generations ago that evolutionists are in the business of providing “a religion without revelation,” a faith called “evolutionism.” Ruse points out that it is easy to slide from evolution as science to evolutionism as religion. There is a slippery slope from “methodological naturalism” to “metaphysical naturalism” to “atheistic metaphysical naturalism.” What troubles Ruse is that evolutionists who go all the way think themselves justified in seeing those who will not follow them as “ignorant” or, as Richard Dawkins put it, “wicked.”

It was the ideology of progress that first turned the science of Darwin into a religious worldview. While Darwin tried to produce value-free science in The Origin of the Species, his followers Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer soon made his work the basis of what Ruse calls “a now-respectable evolutionary substitute for Christianity,” and a “religion of evolutionary naturalism.” Ruse explains that evolutionary biology functioned from the start as a “secular religion” by giving humans a “place at the top,” by exhorting them to action on progressive, “evolutionary principles,” and by pointing to a bright future for the human race — which Ruse calls a “postmillennial” theology full of optimism.

By the start of the 20th century, evolutionism and creationism were bitter rivals — each with its own account of the origin of life and the meaning of existence, each with its own idea of morality. But it was only in the 1950s that “a thoroughly progressionist version of neo-Darwinism became common currency” in American public schools and universities. By this point, evolutionary biologists expressed their beliefs openly, and new textbooks appeared endorsing not only evolution, but the “virtues and necessity” of progress. The morality attached to evolutionism was different from the traditional one, as evolutionist William Hamilton showed when he said that we should let people, on religious grounds, practice “parent-decided selective infanticide.”

From Thomas Huxley to Richard Dawkins, evolutionists have heaped open contempt on biblical religion. Speaking as if evolution had disproved God’s existence, Dawkins crowed that after Darwin one could be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” William Provine observed that people needed to check their brains at the church door if they took “modern evolutionary biology seriously.” Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould dismissed as “silly or stupid” the belief that God sent His Son to save us from our sins.

These sneers are only the tip of the iceberg, Ruse informs us. He urges his fellow evolutionists to have a “little modesty” about their “own nihilistic position,” and to show some “tolerance” for those who believe there is more to “the mystery of life.” As one can infer from Ruse’s account, their vituperation is meant to establish evolutionism more firmly as the national religion — all under the cloak of science. To establish a religion is to use public money to support it and to put it beyond criticism.

Ruse rejects ID as a “science stopper,” something extra-scientific that contradicts the methodological naturalism of science. This is a little disingenuous, since he has already admitted that the “methodology” of evolutionary biology in practice easily slips into the “religion” of atheistic naturalism. Ruse concedes that the leaders of the ID movement, unlike the fundamentalist creationists, “subscribe to, or at least are open to, some form of evolution.” In fact, Michael Behe (a Catholic) and William Dembski (formerly a Calvinist, but now, Ruse notes, moving to Eastern Orthodoxy) are both willing to accept a pre-programmed design to empower changes over time by evolution. But Ruse will have none of it — no design and no implied Designer. He insists that evolution today is a “genuine scientific discipline” with no room for ID or “creationism lite.”

Yet he ruefully confesses that evolutionism, the religion, continues to cause “trouble.” One might ask whether, if the religion of evolutionism is already there in the public schools and universities, why is it that no other religion is allowed to critique it? The presence of evolutionism in textbooks and lectures surely warrants the introduction of the Book of Genesis, with all its various interpretations. Since public money is already supporting the teaching of one religion in the classroom, does it not amount to its complete establishment as our country’s religion (contrary to the Constitution) to put it beyond criticism? For why should a single religious account of the origin of life and the meaning of existence be taught to our children without contradiction?

Ruse calls himself “a very publicly committed evolutionist, an ardent Darwinian” who for 30 years has been fighting creationism in the media and courts. Since this is the case, he shows a remarkable candor and a spirit of fair play when he admits that there is indeed a “secular religion of Darwinism” being promoted today and that a struggle is taking place “for the hearts and souls of people, with deep implications for the ways in which we live our lives and regulate our conduct. It is a religious or metaphysical battle, not simply a dispute about scientific theory.”

The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege

By Damon Linker

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 272

Price: $26

Review Author: Paul Bower

In May 2001 Damon Linker accepted the position of Associate Editor of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s journal First Things. Eventually becoming Editor of the publication (Neuhaus is Editor in Chief), Linker worked closely with the most influential theoconservatives. By February 2005 Linker became dissatisfied with the practical effects of their ideas, namely the intrusion of religious rhetoric into the public square of political discourse, and left the journal. He subsequently found himself in the best possible circumstances to write The Theocons — a scathing critique of theoconservatives in general and Fr. Neuhaus in particular.

In the 1960s, fed up with what they considered “a slum of a decade,” a small number of Catholic intellectuals sought to bring America back to what they perceived as better times. Their ultimate goal was to reinstate a traditionally Judeo-Christian ethic as the status quo of American discourse, and undo the wrongs done by a decadent culture and government that had lost its moral compass. The Theocons details the steady transformation of both Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak (co-founder of Crisis magazine) from ultra-leftists in the 1960s to staunch ultra-capitalist Republicans by the 1980s. For instance, Linker cites Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) in which its author sees the free market as representative of the Holy Trinity in the way that it enables “many diverse individuals to function as one, in perfect harmony.” Linker makes it clear that the underlying problem he has with the theocons is their use — or rather, abuse — of religion for political purposes, bending traditional and magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church to suit their largely hegemonic aims.

Neuhaus founded First Things, a neoconservative-funded journal that would strive to bridge the gap between Catholics and evangelicals by bringing about a unified Christian front which, when all was said and done, would prove a rather formidable political force. Linker cites a concrete, formalized union between all denominations under the banner of theoconservatism as having taken place on March 29, 1994, when Neuhaus, along with George Weigel, Avery Dulles, and “representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, and the World Evangelical Fellowship…. announced that the group had completed a declaration to be titled ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission for the Third Millennium.'”

Linker carefully paints a portrait of Neuhaus as a man who plays to the eschatological leanings of many Christians, constantly referring to America as a country in the midst of a struggle between good and evil. For Neuhaus, America is and has always been a country ripe for revolution, constantly threatened with pervasive nihilism and eventual annihilation by a secular humanism that Neuhaus sees as the enemy of God and His Plan for Our Great Nation. Particularly scathing is Linker’s recounting of Neuhaus and Weigel’s blatant twisting of John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus into an unequivocally pro-capitalist work.

Linker’s work is timely and urgent when he surveys just how much support theoconservatives have lent to the Bush Admin­istration’s decisions concerning the war on Iraq. Men who, in the swingin’ 1960s, protested the Vietnam War almost to the point of attempting a violent coup of the American government, have found themselves lending theological arguments to bolster naïve support of the Iraq war on the part of religious people.

Linker’s critique (more accurately, lambasting) of theocon­servatives suffers from a particularly bitter tone that reverberates throughout the work. The author too often comes across as a disgruntled ex-employee out to drag some names through the mud. Of course, Linker’s critics will use his status as an angry former co-worker to discredit his more crucially damaging points about the theocon movement. Ultimately, whether one agrees with Linker about the necessity for religion to be barred from the public square, one can see the political chicanery of Neuhaus and his fellow theocons as detrimental to the credibility of Catholicism in the eyes of the general public.

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