Volume > Issue > Briefly: January-February 1987

January-February 1987

Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture

By Jaroslav Pelikan

Publisher: Yale University Press

Pages: 270

Price: $22.95

Review Author: Isabel Anders

This book traces the history of the images of Christ that have predominated in various periods and cultures. Pelikan draws upon a profusion of disparate sources: painting, sculpture, and mosaic; literature that ranges from the Old English Dream of the Rood through the Divine Comedy to Dostoevsky’s tale of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov; and interpretations of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life.

In a chapter entitled “The Cosmic Christ,” Pelikan writes: “The chief monument of the fourth-century consideration of Jesus as the Logos was the dogma of the Holy Trinity, as enshrined in the Nicene Creed…the most important single chapter in the history of the development of Christian doctrine.… The identification of Jesus as Logos also made intellectual, philosophical, and scientific history,” enabling Christian philosophers “to interpret him as the divine clue to the structure of reality (metaphysics), and, within metaphysics, to the riddle of being (ontology) – in a word, as the Cosmic Christ.”

The term “Logos of God” came to mean far more than the “Word” as revelation; it grew to include the idea of Jesus Christ as the reason and mind of the entire cosmos. This development enabled the Church to counteract early Christian tendencies to celebrate the paradox of faith in Christ to the point of promoting irrationality. By the second half of the fourth century the believer could simultaneously hold onto the paradoxes of faith (and man’s limited understanding of ultimate reality) and affirm the rationality of the cosmos. “Because the Logos incarnate in Jesus was the Reason of God, it was also possible to see the Logos as the very Structure of the universe.”

In this image of the Cosmic Christ, one finds not only the metaphysical understanding of a transcendent Creator-Logos, but also the necessary declaration that the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, a real Man who suffered and died on a real cross. The scandal of particularity anchors this image in history with profound implications for humankind. “By becoming incarnate in Jesus, the Logos had enabled human beings to transcend themselves and…’to become partakers in the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). ‘The Logos of God has become human,’ one Greek father after another would say, ‘so that you might learn from a human being how a human being may become divine.'”

This glorious opportunity for union with God intended not to remove mankind from the created order, but to transmute that order into “a fit setting for a transformed humanity.” Inherent in the term Logos, then, is the possibility of coming full circle from creation to re-creation: the hope that Christ as the Reason of God and the Structure of the cosmos will eventually bring wholeness to His creation.

Pelikan illuminates other images of Christ that evince aspects of the truth and reveal alternate means of approaching divine reality: Christ as Rabbi, Light of the Gentiles, Son of Man, the Monk Who Rules the World, Bridegroom of the Soul, Universal Man, Teacher of Common Sense, Poet of the Spirit, and Liberator. Because Pelikan’s approach encompasses much more than theology, he is able to elucidate the images in terms of their implications for politics, religious art, the advance of literacy, and the rising influence of science.

These portraits of Jesus serve not only to explain the development of his image through the ages, but also to deepen our understanding of our inheritance in Christ.

How I Met God: An Unusual Conversion

By Hellmut Laun

Publisher: Franciscan Herald Press

Pages: 154

Price: $10.50

Review Author: Elaine S. Hallett

While on the operating table under anesthesia, Hellmut Laun “awakened” into “a space on the other side, a spiritual space – separated from this world.” He was aware of “a spiritual center, at first indistinct and distant, but gradually coming closer, a light of immense intensity toward which everything in the space was orientated.” He found himself being drawn, in spiral movements, toward that Great Reality. “It was as though everything I had ever longed for in my life were gathered together here in a single focal point, all my desires were directed toward this center in a fullness that transcended anything that I could imagine…. The closer I came, the clearer it became to me that nothing on earth had ever given me so much happiness as this incomprehensible light.”

During the operation the anesthetist, concerned that Laun had become too still, withdrew the ether until signs of restored life appeared. At this moment, apparently, the direction of the movement Laun had been experiencing toward this luminous center was reversed, and he was drawn back to this world. This wrenching separation was what obsessed the reviving man so deeply that for several days he could murmur only “terrible, terrible…dreadful…terrible.”

This experience was one of two that highlighted Laun’s journey from irreligious worldliness to joyful and glowing faith. There were many stages between it and the conversion of the subtitle: Laun’s realization upon seeing the crucifix on the wall opposite his hospital bed “that the crucifix was connected with what I had experienced in the night”; his meeting with a fervent Catholic who patiently explained the faith to him; his discovery of the Mass; the inevitable doubts and ever-recurring hesitations; and then the “instant and absolute certainty that I was to become a Catholic.”

The second experience of grace, as awesome as the first, occurred three months after Laun’s reception into the Church. As he describes it: “I woke up with the image of a dream imprinted firmly on my mind…. In this mental picture of great force and compelling significance for me personally, I saw my soul imprisoned between solid, high walls. My soul was, I knew, in a dungeon. There were windows, affording a view of the world outside, but they were covered with iron bars which, together with the huge blocks of stone forming the walls themselves, made escape impossible.” Laun despaired. He pressed his face against the iron bars and “in my hopelessness, saw the spiritual space that my soul longed to inhabit – a space of freedom, happiness and fulfillment, the only space where the soul could live and breathe in an environment that was in accordance with its own nature.” Turning away in grief over the inaccessibility of the freedom he so intensely desired, he chanced to look up to the ceiling. “There,” he reports, “I saw something which I could at first hardly believe.… It was an opening…which led to that freedom that every human soul longed to experience. That opening was Christ!”

Laun awakened with this image still vividly in his thoughts. His only impulse was to pray: “I was shaking with fear and leaped out of bed. Kneeling beside the bed I gave myself over to prayer more intensely than I had ever done in my life before. I was fully awake and fully conscious, and while I was on my knees it became abundantly clear to me that the reality of God Himself was penetrating into my soul and filling my body.” On the day following the ecstasy, Laun went to see a man he had recently met in Vienna, the great philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, who became his spiritual director.

How I Met God, published in German shortly after the author’s death in 1981 at 79 and recently issued in English, is cast in the form of an autobiography. But Laun tells only enough about his life to enable one to judge in clear perspective the events through which God drew Laun to Himself. This is the autobiography of a soul which will encourage anyone who longs to come closer to the Source and Center of all life.

Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas

By A.G. Mojtabai

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Pages: 255

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

In 1982 the Yankee lady-novelist A.G. Mojtabai descended upon the unsuspecting citizens of Amarillo to find out how they felt about having Pantex, the plant that puts the finishing touches on nuclear weapons, in their backyard. To her chagrin, she discovered they didn’t much think about it at all, being too busy scurrying around screaming “Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!” As a self-confessed “northeastern urban liberal,” Mojtabai was unequipped to deal with a people who put more stock in the Bible than in the New York Times. But she had a book to write, so she plunged headfirst into the murky waters of chiliasm and prophetic arcana. She must have been a royal pain-in-the-posterior to the folks of Amarillo: badgering them about Pantex, poking around their churches, prodding their preachers “with a clipboard of impertinent questions.” She concluded mainly that nuclear warfare didn’t trouble them because they all expect to be “raptured” when the Bomb goes off. It is difficult to decide which is more grotesque: the apocalypticism of Amarilloans or Mojtabai’s relentless efforts to get to the bottom of this weirdness.

Conversations with Lillian Hellman

By University Press of Mississippi

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 298

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

Rolling Stone canonized Lillian Hellman in 1977, calling her the “matron saint of the women’s movement.” Sainthood demands an exemplary life; in Hellman’s case she exemplified much of the worst in American culture. As a playwright she won fame and fortune writing third-rate Ibsenesque dramas. She sided with the Stalinists in the ideological wars of the 1930s and 1940s. Averring that “luxury is a lovely thing,” she denounced capitalism from her Park Avenue apartment while raking in profits from books, plays, and movies and modeling Blackglama minks in the glossy pages of The New Yorker. Feminists hailed her as a pioneer, for she denigrated marriage and lived openly for three decades with her paramour, Dashiell Hammett. Of abortion, he remarked in 1979: “It’s a very necessary, civilized, proper act.” By the standards of American society she led an immensely attractive and successful life; by less corrupt criteria it was a muddled, sad, and self-deluding existence.

Growing Up Hard in Harlan County

By G.C. Jones

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky

Pages: 177

Price: $19

Review Author:

In the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, a character advises at a man born in the mountains has three choices: “Coal mine, moonshine, or get on down the line.” G.C. Jones, born in 1913 in Harlan County, Kentucky, had tried all three by the time he turned 21. He chose the mines finally, entering in the 1930s when a UMW organizing drive and the owners’ recalcitrance turned the county into “Bloody Harlan,” scene of perhaps as much dynamiting, beating, and killing as the labor movement has ever faced in the U.S. Jones plunged into the fray as an organizer in the mines owned by the Blue Diamond Coal Company. The drive succeeded, and Jones, called by one company man a “God damned Russian redneck,” was instrumental in the victory. In Growing Up Hard in Harlan County he recounts his entire life, but the heart of the book portrays graphically the turbulent years that brought hope, higher wages, and better working conditions to Harlan’s miners. It is a tale well-told.

A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Publisher: William Morrow

Pages: 461

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike would do well to attend Sylvia Hewlett’s words with surpassing care, for A Lesser Life broaches an issue that could garner millions of votes. Quite simply, Hewlett outlines why and how working women – women who have to work, not me-first viragoes of the fast track – should be aided as mothers. One fears that neither party will rise to the bait. Liberals are mesmerized – or terrified – by extreme feminists who bellow for abortion and lesbian rights. Conservatives, for all their prattle about the family, are too obsessed with hacking away at big government to heed Hewlett’s prescriptions. Because of ignorance, insensitivity, timorousness, and ideological obduracy, one of the most pressing matters of the hour goes un-mentioned.

A Lesser Life is one of those rare and wonderful books that slashes through ideological barriers, barricades erected by weak-witted men to ensure that no one has to think. Although she is a leftist, Hewlett deplores the “anti-children and anti-motherhood” virus that infects radical circles; her paeans to motherhood (“the deepest emotion in women’s lives”) will provoke spasms of wrath among the ladies of NOW. To the Right, she hurls a challenge: Put up or shut up. If conservatives truly care about the family they must apprehend a salient fact: divorce, male irresponsibility, and economic exigency force millions of mothers into the marketplace to survive, and they don’t survive very well. These women, Hewlett writes, “need job protected maternity leave, child care, flextime, and specially tailored career ladders.” These ends can be achieved only through the combined efforts of government, business, and labor. Sylvia Hewlett has written wisely and well; it is now up to politicians, labor leaders, corporate executives – God save us – to act.

Mother Angelica: Her Life Story

By Dan O'Neill

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 155

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

This is a fascinating book about a complex woman – a prayerful Franciscan nun who has made her cloistered Alabama monastery the site of the high-tech Eternal Word Television Network, with some 300 cable systems reaching some nine million homes.

As a child, Mother Angelica was quickly introduced to material, physical, and psychological hardship. But when she was miraculously healed of a severe and painful ailment, she discovered God in a vivid and deeply personal way. Nevertheless, pain has been a constant companion in her life – and, interestingly, it has played a decisive role in strengthening her resolve, weakening her pride, and keeping her dependent on her Lord.

Some will wince at the way she cajoles and bargains with God, but somehow He always meets her needs – just barely. Mother Angelica is a tenacious and head-strong woman, and one never quite knows whether the phenomenal “success” of her ministry is due to her own bluster and drive, her pressuring God, or pure grace – or some paradoxical combination of all three.

Throughout Mother’s “career,” she has taken wild risks that ordinary mortals would regard as utter foolishness – and yet she always seems to win the gambles. Her motto is: “Unless we are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.” Not a magical formula, it is a motto not everyone will or ought to emulate. Yet when Mother speaks of the need for a “theology of risk,” we cautious and overly rational Christians must take her to heart.

Mother Angelica is a Catholic charismatic, and her Catholicism seems to differentiate her from most of the Protestant charismatic preachers on the airwaves. For one thing, she doesn’t go for “overselling” the Gospel. She recognizes the salutary role of pain and adversity in the working out of our salvation, and so, is not inclined to give people illusory hope by glibly promising instant miracles. For another, she doesn’t go in for the often extravagant and mean-spirited political agenda of the electronic Protestants, whether charismatic or non-charismatic.

She is also well aware of the dangers in the charismatic movement, such as emotionalism and sensationalism. For Mother Angelica Catholic doctrine and sacramental life have been anchors – and antidotes to that spiritual dabbling which, as she says, seeks “an experience instead of Christ.”

She is totally dedicated to the Catholic Magisterium, and if she seems a bit weak on Catholic social teaching, still she has spiritually nourished throngs, and she has been the instrument for rescuing the lives of countless lost souls.

Mother has suffered aplenty (even initial opposition from within her own Church) for what she has dared to accomplish. But a simple and rock-solid faith has always propelled her forward. Her achievements have been recognized by everyone from Morley Safer of 60 Minutes to Pope John Paul II. Given Mother Angelica’s audacious faith and restless energy, we can only ask, “What next?”

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