Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 1991

June 1991

Antonio Gramsci: Architect of a New Policy

By Dante Germino

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Pages: 265

Price: $37.50

Review Author: Angelo A. DeGennaro

Antonio Gramsci, a key founder of the Italian Communist Party, was born in Sardinia in 1891. He was elected to parliament in 1924 and became an important force in Italian political life prior to the Fascist takeover. He turned to philosophical study when the Fascists jailed him in 1926. His frail health was undermined by ill treatment during his incarceration, and he died in Rome in 1937, a week after his commuted term ended. Because of his ideas and strength of character, Gramsci is today a hero of the Italian Left.

Dante Germino’s well-researched book introduces us to a thinker of immense erudition and originality. It is true that Gramsci culled certain ideas from Marx and Sorel, but he stamped them with the seal of a strong and unique philosophy whose significance endures.

One aspect of Gramsci’s originality as a Marxist was his personal conception of history. Against classical Marxism, which tends to regard ideas as reflections of the material process which makes up the economy, Gramsci saw history as the product of artists, philosophers, saints, and industrialists in interaction with the material forces.

Another original contribution was Gramsci’s criticism of the international Communist movement for being closed to new ideas. Thus Germino portrays Gramsci as a forerunner of Gorbachev’s policies.

Germino certainly presents a vivid portrait of Gramsci; however, it has a weak side. The author overemphasizes the environmental factor. He attributes Gramsci’s ideas, personality, and championing of the lower classes to the following facts: He was a hunchback, suffered poverty in his childhood, and lived in the harsh socio-economic milieu of Sardinia. Such reductionism does an injustice to the force of ideas in general and to Gramsci in particular, and mars what is otherwise an excellent study.

Our God is Nonviolent

By John Dear

Publisher: Pilgrim Press

Pages: 733

Price: $10.95

Review Author: Anita Fitzgerald

As I opened this book, I was brought back to the time of my first exposures to nonviolent resistance. It had seemed like a pointless idea in my violent youth: To be successful was to play by society’s unwritten rules, which say fight back, beat the demon by becoming a demon. I was reminded of these times because John Dear’s book explains the reason for my own transition to nonviolent resistance — God’s love shows that you don’t have to be successful.

Our God Is Nonviolent provides a clearly written introduction to nonviolent resistance through the witness of various peacemakers. The first three chapters are an overview of nonviolence: a description of how Jesus set the ultimate example of nonviolent resistance and how Gandhi “reinvented” this example for modern times. Chapters Four through Nine set forth the lives and writings of numerous contemporary peacemakers, from Martin Luther King to Dorothy Day to Jim Douglass. Dear, a Jesuit scholastic, concludes with a personal history of his own journey into and through the peace movement and into his own vocation as a nonviolent resister.

Dear presents the crux of nonviolent activism clearly: “The courage and the fearlessness required to accept suffering without retaliation in pursuit of justice can only be enacted by a lively faith in God and in God’s reign of justice and love.”

Nuclear Catholics and Other Essays

By J.M. Cameron

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 261

Price: $21.95

Review Author: Paul J. Weithman

Nuclear Catholics and Other Essays is J.M. Cameron’s second volume of collected essays and follows his first, The Night Battle, by 28 years. The essays it collects fall into two sections. The first is comprised of “occasional pieces,” mostly reviews from The New York Review of Books; the second consists of scholarly pieces written for more specialized audiences.

A backward glance at The Night Battle helps us appreciate Nuclear Catholics. Remarks in that book shed more light on the task of Nuclear Catholics than does anything in the later book, illuminating why he writes what he does.

In The Night Battle, Cameron, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, writes that, “Few philosophers…make a decisive breakthrough in philosophy itself. What the rest of us can do…is either to do minute work on small problems, using methods we owe to the masters, or to use the tools of the philosopher to analyse problems thrown up by the sciences or by the arts or by the political and moral articulation of human life. All these essays are of the latter kind: they are concerned with politics, literature and religion.”

The Night Battle also suggests why the essay “Nuclear Catholics” wins the status of title essay in the present volume. There Cameron remarks that the threat of nuclear war is “the gravest issue of the period.” He says that, “in conscience Catholics are bound not to cooperate in the defence policies of the great powers, not on account of any foreseeable consequences, good or bad of the use of nuclear weapons, but because their use against centers of population would be gravely sinful.”

The passage of time has done nothing to lighten the gravity of the issue. In “Nuclear Catholics,” a penetratingly critical review of two books by Michael Novak, Cameron argues that Catholics should not condone nuclear deterrence and critiques Novak’s confused appeal to the doctrine of double effect.

The Night Battle is heavily spiced with politics. Readers with a taste for the stuff will, however, finish Nuclear Catholics wanting more politics than the book serves up. There are two essays on just war theory, the review of Novak and a review of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars; but one wonders why other of Cameron’s political review-essays were not included. “Meeting the Lord in the Air,” Cameron’s review of Harvey Cox’s Religion in the Secular City and Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square, appeared in The New York Review of Book. It makes good reading, and is brief enough to have found its way into Nuclear Catholics without displacing the other entries.

The cautious and expository review of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is the most disappointing essay in Nuclear Catholics, for a valuable opportunity for political theorizing was lost. And a more adventurous review of MacIntyre’s book would have worked well with “Meeting the Lord in the Air,” had the two been juxtaposed in Nuclear Catholics. “Meeting the Lord” suggests that “for serious Christians, another [political] strategy may be worth thinking about: a resolute turning away from the public square and a cultivation of ways of thinking and living that go against the main trends of American commercial society.” This suggestion is not elaborated in the review of Cox and Neuhaus, but it could easily have been drawn out in the review of MacIntyre, for in After Virtue, MacIntyre argues against the Enlightenment liberalism from which “American commercial society” emerged, advocates a communitarian political life, and concludes with the enigmatic but inviting suggestion that construction of such a polity awaits “another — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”

Despite these complaints, Nuclear Catholics is a pleasure to read. Cameron’s prose is wondrously crafted. His greatest skill is choosing just the right word for the task at hand. My favorite is his use of the Victorian adjective “gimcrack” to describe arguments of Novak’s that Cameron thinks cheap and showy. Cameron’s command of the language also heightens his sensitivity to others’ misuse of it, all to the amusement of his readers. “Sex in the Head,” his attack on “fashionable and progressive views” on the subject, jests at Rosemary Ruether’s linguistic infelicities; the joke is too good to ruin by repetition here.

Cameron’s vocation is Christian humanism of a philosophical bent. The soul that his essays bespeak has been molded by a lifetime’s liberal education and is steeped in the Christian intellectual tradition, as the literary, philosophical, and biblical allusions that crowd Cameron’s pages testify.

Liberal Arts and Community The Feeding of the Larger Body

By Marion Montgomery

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Pages: 170

Price: $27.50

Review Author: Carroll C. Kearley

To rescue is the mission. In this book Marion Montgomery, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, reflects on the rescue of community through a recovery of liberal arts. As I started the book, I asked myself, does my civic community of Los Angeles need rescue and can the university where I teach help in the rescue? Does L.A. need to be rescued? The question has the ring of sick humor. Anyone can make a long list of our maladies. Let me note just one. Go to the corner of Inglewood and Manchester, about three miles from where I teach. Three days a week, women stream into the “clinic” there for doctors to take the lives of their unborn. A security guard says, “Sure they kill babies here. But…”

Given such a scene, how does Montgomery propose to rescue us? Let’s carry out the rescue through the recovery of the liberal arts, he says. Is he kidding?

Montgomery says we can be rescuers provided we work together, using our studies to recover virtuous habits of thought. An effective rescue effort has to be communal. But the university cannot be the all-competent rescuer. Montgomery says that the proper calling of the university is to minister directly to its own community, through commitment to the improvement of intellectual understanding. Thereby it can be of service to other communities.

But unbridled professionalism, among other things, is pulling our university communities apart. Faculty members individualistically pursue their teaching and writing in their own fields with inadequate concern for what they should be doing together. Their minds are not sufficiently filled with piety (affection and reverence for the goodness of things wherever met). Since it is not self-seeking, piety enables the human mind to establish community. A pious mind in the academy would be much more concerned with truth than with personal success.

In an age when merit pay spurs teachers, and GRE and LSAT scores drive students, Montgomery would have us restrain our individualism. He links the individual to family, academy, and body politic. The family as sacral body has the first responsibility for helping the young to integrate themselves as virtuous persons. When it lives up to its calling, it is the best of all communities for beginning the nurturing of piety toward all that is good.

The university can help individuals understand and cherish bonds of fidelity that complement the efforts of the family. Within any university we can do something about the slaughter at Inglewood and Manchester by doing all we can to speak truthfully about human life. We can address its biological beginnings, the realities of family life, the blessedness and blight that can imbue sexual bonding, the responsibility for procreation, the processes of nurturing children, and the economic and political structures that can best sustain families. We can let our deepened understanding foster the courage to rescue the unborn and all others whose lives and quality of life are imperiled anyplace in the world.

Beyond the Mirror

By Henri Nouwen

Publisher: Crossroads

Pages: 67

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Brett Webb-Mitchell

Accidents and illnesses are the part of being human we would like to forget. Nothing ruins a day of dreams and hopes quicker than an accident. We hope to avoid these bumps in life by preventive care and exercising. But accidents happen.

One reason we fear accidents is because they remind us that we may not control our lives as much as we think. And with serious accidents we are suddenly confronted with our need for other people who will love us. It is in this love that we are anchored, have our home, and find our help when an accident causes us to look into the portal of death.

When an accident transforms its victim’s life, allowing one to look at life’s events from a different perspective, then it becomes an event whereby God can address us in a none too subtle way.

Beyond the Mirror is Henri Nouwen’s reflection on an accident he had some ye.us ago. He was struck by the side mirror of a van while he was walking on the side of a road one icy winter day. At the time, he was to be with Hsi-Fu, a mentally retarded member of a l’Arche community. But his destination changed with the accident, and he was rushed to the hospital by the man who struck him. While in the hospital, Nouwen almost died from internal bleeding.

Within this spiritual story, Nouwen has a transforming experience as the old self, the tense and anxious Nouwen, finds in Christ a new sense of peace, joy, and security. In this transformation Nouwen touches upon two themes that gain prominence with the accident and recovery. One theme is forgiveness. Nouwen sees that “the real struggle is leaving behind people I hadn’t forgiven and people who hadn’t forgiven me.” While, at times, he had been under the illusion that he was appointed to be the judge of human behavior, he now understands this role is too much of a burden, and he wishes to be freed from it. It is only God in Christ who can free him.

The second theme is his vocation to proclaim the love of God in a new way. Nouwen now understands that being like Jesus means that we, too, will have to confront resentments and hatred and still be able to love others, which is only possible when one is anchored in God. Being anchored in God’s love enables one to be free in the world — free to speak when certain words aren’t wanted, free to act and yet to be criticized. Being anchored in God’s love gives Nouwen the freedom and energy to look at the world from God’s perspective. He gets a glimpses beyond the mirror of this life and understands, with Meister Eckhart, that we are in the far country while God is at home.

In Beyond the Mirror Nouwen the care-giver is now the care-receiver. In his vulnerability he depends on the care of others. Even a member of l’Arche like Hsi-Fu, for whom he was to care on the morning of the accident, now cares for Nouwen.

For some readers, this book will be just another roadmarker Nouwen has left on his pilgrimage. For others it will create a space where they find meaning in the seemingly destructive interruptions in life.

But this is not a book of easy answers as to why accidents happen. Instead, Nouwen’s story reveals God as one who will use these interruptions in life to show us that, being anchored in His love, we are free to escape the compulsions of this world. In Nouwen’s story we see life from above, from God’s perspective. Having this glimpse can make all the difference in the world.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity

By John McManners

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 724

Price: $45.00

Review Author: Susan Rabe

This monumental book of essays examines the history of Christianity in three basic sections. The first is a treatment of the development of the faith to 1800. While its focus is essentially European, it includes a chapter on Eastern Christendom and a provocative chapter on the problematic relationship between Christianity and Islam. In the latter, Jeremy Johns questions why Islam has historically been able to absorb Christian communities into Muslim society, whereas Christian Europe has been unable to accommodate Muslims. The chapter forces one into a necessary reassessment of the stereotypes of Muslim and Christian. One wishes for a similar reassessment of Christian-Jewish relations. There is an inexplicable failure, given the integral relationship of the two faiths, to consider Judaism in its historical and current dialectic with Christianity. The final chapter of this section discusses the expansion of Christianity through European colonization, thereby providing the transition into the second section, which examines Christianity worldwide since 1800. The global approach offers unique insight into the way the faith both transforms and is transformed as it enters a culture. The final section of the book, “Christianity Today and Tomorrow,” is an often disturbing analysis of the state of the faith in both belief and practice.

The emphasis of the book is on the political and institutional. Often this works well. At other times, however, this approach is less felicitous, and one longs for some insight into religious experience, into what it meant to be a Christian. Henry Chadwick’s chapter on the earliest Christian community is one such case. Chadwick beautifully organizes key issues of the institutional development of the faith. He is particularly effective when discussing the complexities of persecution and the ways in which believer got around political tangles without compromising their consciences. One wonders, nevertheless, why they bothered. What was the prayer life of the Church, and what engendered the commitment that could sustain persecution?

Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador

By Jon Sobrino, Ignacio Ellacuria, and others

Publisher: Orbis

Pages: 180

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

In the age of computers and informational overload, statistics have a fascination that is almost removed from humanity. Two thousand murdered in New York City or 70,000 killed in El Salvador don’t really mean anything to us unless we happen to know someone killed. It is not likely that we know any of the individuals in the statistics because most of us are white, educated, and economically secure. Chances are that those who are in jail, murdered in El Salvador or New York City, are none of the above. The poor die or fade away anonymously, often buried under the weight of ignorance and injustice. Their deaths, violent or peaceful, are accepted as part of the natural order of things — without horror or an excess of grief because, in the eyes of the powerful, they don’t matter a great deal.

These two books are really about the nameless poor, what happens to their advocates, but mostly they deal with evil and forgiveness.

Companions of Jesus tells of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador, but it is about much more and is not a book that will make North Americans comfortable. It is hard for people in the U.S. to grasp the horror that has tormented this small nation, whose very name means “The Savior.” Nor will it be easy to acknowledge the negative role of the U.S. in perpetuating the power of the small number of families who control that nation and in thwarting the aspirations of peasants and small farmers who seek only to work their own land in peace.

Quite probably, El Salvador would have remained relatively unknown in the U.S. had it not been for the murders of Archbishop Romero, the four American church workers, and the six Jesuits. Stan Granot Duncan gives a documentary account of the Jesuit murders by the Salvadoran army and the collusion of the U.S. and the Salvadoran government in covering up the crime. The rest of the book is by the Jesuits.

The six Jesuits, five of whom were naturalized Salvadorans, were targeted for brutal death because they had supported the poor and oppressed and had been critical of the Salvadoran government and the role of the U.S. in the long civil war. They were also senior faculty of the University of Central America, recently established by the Jesuits not only to develop the mind but to be a social force to “transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.” “A Christian University must take into account the gospel preference for the poor.” It was for this that they were savagely murdered.

Companions of Jesus provides readers with details of the priests’ lives and deaths and contains a meditation on their martyrdom by Jon Sobrino, another member of the community who happened to be out of the country when the others were murdered. Companions of Jesus also provides biographies and writings of those who were murdered. The book, a memorial for those who gave their lives for justice, can be read with profit by those who need to know what has been going on in El Salvador.

Inside Rikers Island by Pierre Raphael, a French priest, tells of many aspects of his ministry in this bleak and oversized prison colony in New York City. The reader is caught between conflicting concerns: the need to protect society from crime and the societal causes of crime (poverty, ignorance, and despair). Those most affected by criminals are the poor, minorities, and those who suffer from despair. The vignettes of prison life are powerful, as is Raphael’s chapter on “Elements of Prison Theology.” They call attention to the necessity of thinking about the work of mercy encouraged in Matthew 25: “I was in prison and you visited me.” Most of us may never do that, but perhaps after reading this book the failure to do so may make us nervous enough at least to pray for the imprisoned.

Inside Rikers Island: A Chaplain's Search for God

By Pierre Raphael

Publisher: Orbis

Pages: 140

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

It is often said that the spiritual renewal offered by the Second Vatican Council has not been widely realized. With wit and gentleness, Fr. Groeschel, Director of Spiritual Development for the Archdiocese of New York, calls us to personal reform and conversion as the way to realize the renewal.

Groeschel admits that a book of this sort is usually seen as “the province of conservatives.” So, we are not surprised when Groeschel notes — quite accurately — that, “An examination of conscience might lead some liberals to ask themselves if they adopt certain problematic, or even questionable, theological positions because these are convenient,” because these positions take liberals “off the hook of being witnesses to the hard sayings of the Gospel.”

But this is a Catholic, not a conservative, book. Says Groeschel, “When it comes to vices such as pride, sensuality, lust and envy, the conservatives are just as good at them as is anybody else.” And: “Conservatives…have a very fast trigger finger when it comes to innovation in the Church. They often overlook the historical fact that some of the Church’s greatest innovators who earned the wrath of their contemporary Catholics are the heroes of the conservative movement at the present time. One need only mention people such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Alphonsus Liguori, who had their works vigorously condemned or brought into question, to gee that conservatives ought at times to be more circumspect and gentle in their condemnation of the new.”

The Catholic Church needs the triumph, not of liberalism or conservatism (mind-sets heavily influenced by secular priorities), but of holiness and commitment to Christ. Groeschel, who also authored The Courage to be Chaste, knows what it’s all about.

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