A Nation Under Lawyers
By Mary Ann Glendon
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Review Author: Bob Fauteux
In her Abortion and Divorce in Western Law (1987), Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School, delineated aspects of the radical individualism enshrined in American law, in contrast to economically comparable European nations: Pandemic divorce and virtually unrestricted abortion are the price we pay for American distinctiveness.
In her current work, Glendon details the deformation of the American legal profession over the past several decades. While allowing that most lawyers continue to ply their craft to socially productive ends, she describes the rise, beginning in the 1960s, of a vanguard of judges, law professors, and practicing attorneys in flagrant defiance of the law’s historic role.
Glendon reminds us how useful lawyers can be. In their laborious codification and rationalization of interstate commercial regulations, for example, legal scholars have expedited business transactions, reducing unnecessary expenses to the benefit of consumers and merchants alike. Similarly, by finding ways to accommodate the claims of contesting parties without litigation, attorneys often help resolve domestic, political, and other economic issues. Glendon quotes Abraham Lincoln’s advice to attorneys: “Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”
Glendon suggests that today, however, many lawyers zero in on litigation. The public increasingly endorses the exciting combativeness whose disruptive consequences we claim to decry. No more bread and circuses — we take popcorn into Judge Ito’s televised courtroom!
What distinguishes Glendon’s book from the many recent surveys of our legal mayhem is her perspective. It transcends technical considerations with a panoramic fairness informed by an implicit Christian concern for the people who are players in this complex drama. In scrutinizing what lawyers do, Glendon, a Catholic, looks for the metaphysical basis that underlies their actions, “how they imagine the good life.”
Incarnating her exposition, Glendon provides short profiles of judges, legal academics, and attorneys who exemplify either “classical” or “romantic” characteristics. In her taxonomy, classicists emphasize such things as impartiality, prudence, and especially self-restraint. In contrast, romantics put their own pride and predilections ahead of established precedent and practice; they neither subordinate their personal opinions for the sake of judicial impartiality nor restrict their interpretive role to the established legal record. They refuse to restrain their judicial roles within the tripartite federal system, thus “enticing bureaucrats everywhere to new heights of arrogance and abuse of power.” As the social fabric wears thin, other problem-solving mechanisms lose their function. Fewer and fewer people turn to, say, the churches or the extended family for mediation.
What a troubling book! How can we reasonably hope for the restoration of “classical” legal values that Glendon, in tones of restrained optimism, asserts is possible?
For this reader, Glendon’s confidence in the “resilience” of “dynamic legal traditions” fails to persuade. Such faith seems forced, a responsible citizen’s stiff upper lip in the face of imminent disaster.
The Philosopher and the Provocateur. The Correspondence of Jacques Maritain and Saul Alinsky
By Bernard Doering
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Review Author: James G. Hanink
Peter Maurin remarked that a bishop once told him, “Conservatives are up in a tree and you are trying to go down to the roots.” Knowing etymology, Maurin penned an essay titled “Yes! I am a Radical.” As this splendid collection of letters makes clear, Jacques Maritain and Saul Alinsky would happily sign on to his proclamation. We are now in Bernard Doering’s debt for making available a correspondence rich in wisdom — going down to the roots — and enduring in appeal.
The heart of this appeal is a friendship. On the eve of World War II, the Thomist Maritain wrote his Integral Humanism — a summons to radical democracy. At the same time, Alinsky was building local and participatory democracy in the notorious Back of the Yards district of Chicago, the kind of community organizing that led Maritain to dub him a “practical Thomist.” A mutual commitment to social justice brought Maritain and Alinsky together. But they were far more than allies in a noble cause. Each delighted in the personal strengths of the other. Maritain welcomed Alinsky’s rough and tumble brashness; Alinsky esteemed Maritain’s deep scholarship. And they sparked in each other a sense of fun. Alinsky tweaks Maritain over the rumor that he was to be made a cardinal, while Maritain arranges for friends to dine with an Alinsky who gargles with the wine.
Life, of course, takes us beyond our great causes and the pranks that tighten their load. The most poignant exchanges between these friends come when each faces the death of a beloved wife. Helene Alinsky dies in an act of heroism: She drowns while saving her daughter and a playmate from one of Lake Michigan’s treacherous undertows. Maritain writes his shattered friend: “Saul, she died in love and by love.” Raissa Maritain, left aphasic by a stroke, dies imprisoned by silence. Intimate with grief, Alinsky writes of his wish to “reach out with my heart and hands of love and devotion and abject misery because of your suffering.” Though Alinsky never came to share Maritain’s Catholic faith, he grasped its terms: that we will be led where we do not want to go.
We have missed the living witness of Maritain and Alinsky for over two decades now. Alinsky died in 1972, Maritain a year later. Their friendship teaches three extraordinary lessons. The first Doering himself underscores. Scholar and provocateur alike shared a “common personalist belief in the fundamental worth and dignity of every human being, in particular of the common people….” This populist conviction was not condescending. With French workers in mind, Maritain wrote: “we must first choose to exist with them and to suffer with them, to make their pain and destiny our own.” Speaking of decidedly ordinary folk, Alinsky commented: “Too often I’ve seen the have-nots turn into haves and become just as crummy as the haves they used to envy.” Yet both men shared, with a kind of connaturality, a preferential option for those on the losing end of capitalism’s social contract.
A second lesson is that the work of justice, whether Christian or humanist, is carried on in the shadow of the eternal. Alinsky wrests this truth from the agony of Helene’s death. He confides that “once you accept your death, then you are suddenly free to live…emancipated from the shackles of values and fears of the world about us.” He could admit this openly to the friend who had said, and meant, of Helene that, “She is your guide and teacher forever. She sees God….”
A final lesson comes with our listening in, as it were, to Maritain and Alinsky struggling with the question of means and ends. They are in fundamental agreement, especially in practice. Yet Alinsky is nervous about principles and insistent on the texture of particular circumstances. Maritain, in contrast, wants the moral principles clearly articulated. Nothing, he reminds us, justifies torture — or indiscriminate bombing.
To be sure, Maritain and Alinsky are not beyond criticism. Maritain was wildly mistaken in judging that Alinsky’s work was “epoch-making.” Alinsky blundered in not meeting and working with Martin Luther King Jr. But this pales in comparison to the triumph of spirit. No one, I suspect, who reads this story of grace will soon forget Maritain’s epitaph for Helene Alinsky. “She accomplished at once what we are gropingly trying to learn: to die for those we love.” The dying is to self, of course. And whether philosophers or provocateurs, saints or sinners, we share that vocation.
Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome
By Thomas Howard
Publisher: Franciscan University Press
Review Author: Dale Vree
About a block or so from the offices of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW there is reputed to be a “heroin house,” in which, amazingly, a family lives. Once, when I was walking by, the small boy from the house was out front riding his tricycle, and he hailed me down and, out of the blue, asked, “You got a lady?”
Thomas Howard’s wife played a pivotal role in his pilgrimage to Rome, and he refers to her as his “lady.” In my linguistic environment, the only guys who refer to their wives (or girlfriends) as their “lady” are lowlifes. So, who is this Howard dude? Some low-rider with a stolen word processor?
Au contraire. Howard is the product of boarding school and a genteel, old-Philadelphia family. In his linguistic world, a medieval knight on a white stallion wins the hand of his beauteous “lady.”
Howard’s 1967 book Christ the Tiger, which told of his move from the fundamentalism of his upbringing to the aristocratic Episcopal Church, was loaded with fanciful flights such as the above. Of course, then Howard was a young, wide-eyed chap giddily embracing what he now realizes to have been a giant cream puff — so it was meet and right that the rhetoric match the subject matter.
But with Lead, Kindly Light, which tells of his further journey to the Catholic Church, Howard is embracing a rugged boulder — The Rock, actually. His rhetorical rhapsodies are more selectively deployed now, and as a result they enhance and engage rather than distract. Thomas Howard the writer has come off his cloud, and not surprisingly, for he had to take some hard knocks along his Roman road.
For example, to convert he had to give up a tenured professorship at a respected evangelical college in Massachusetts, and face the prospect of selling pencils on the sidewalk. (Howard pleads with us that he is no hero. But he is.)
His ethnic sensibilities took their knocks. Howard marvels — he does not complain, as one imagines he might have done decades ago — that when he was received into the Catholic Church, “in the line-up of catechumens in front of the bishop…nearly all of the others…were either children or foreign-born, non-Saxon folks.”
The spiritual elitism of his fundamentalist formation also took its knocks: “The congregation at Mass…will comprise everyone from advanced saints to people whose conversation is laced with profanity and vulgarity, and whose whole approach to life, from one perspective, excludes even the smallest trace of anything that can be recognized as faith.”
Howard continues: “Where are these latter people — inside or outside the pale of faith? Only God knows. The Church’s task is to woo them, and to keep on in its pastoral efforts to fan any minuscule and lambent flicker of faith, and to keep offering them the gospel…. If they consciously and explicitly reject it all, then the Church can only pray for them…. If judgment must fall on any of them (or on me), the Church must accompany them all the way to the block, as it were….”
Howard adds: “Some such attitude on the part of the Catholic Church, surely, must explain why she…furnishes Christian burial to, say, those Mafiosi who have been busy murdering their rivals on Saturday nights…. The Church shares God’s seeking of the lost, not his office as Judge.” One supposes that should Howard one day find himself kneeling in church next to someone from that heroin house, he wouldn’t be speechless. Why, they actually speak the same language: Yes, Howard’s got a lady.
My only complaint is that his book is too thin. Howard says he is prone to yearn for the quiet life: “Just let me make it to my grave….” But before you do, Tom, one favor: Please tell this story again, only take 300 pages instead of 88.
The Oxford Companion to the Bible
By Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: Stephen F. Miletic
The Companion carries both the traditional earmarks of a “one volume” reference work and some features not often found in this type of book. True to the tradition of reference works, the contributing authors, editorial board, and staff are drawn from over 20 countries on five continents. There are over 250 authors representing most mainstream confessional and intellectual groupings. The over 700 articles cover biblical history, major biblical words and concepts, and so on. The articles vary in length from short summaries of a biblical theme to detailed treatments of technical issues related to anthropology, sociology, and literary and historical criticism, the history of biblical interpretation, etc. In the above sense, we have a fairly traditional Bible reference tool.
As for the distinctive, the editorial committee decided to include more than scholarly opinions and state-of-the-art research. The reader will find articles on how the Bible was interpreted in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as the Bible’s impact on the arts, law, politics, and so on. Other articles deal at length with recently developed approaches to biblical interpretation. These explicitly interpretive essays give the reader a “snapshot” of where trends are going — or, rather, were going a year or so before the Companion came into print.
There are some clear drawbacks to this volume. First, given the range of persuasions found here, the theological horizons from which the biblical data are interpreted are not, to say the least, unambiguous. Such a circumstance can be a wonderful opportunity for growth in ecumenical understanding. But the confessional reader should be cautious when reading articles on such topics as “faith,” “sin,” “love,” “God,” and so on. Second, Catholic and Orthodox readers attuned to the deposit of faith, liturgical prayer, and authentic Christian piety may prefer to refer to the biblical texts themselves for spiritual nourishment. Third, articles on the impact of the Bible on various religious communities are quite useful, but some notice of how the biblical text impacted such critical areas as evangelization, religious education/catechesis, and preaching would have been a most welcome addition.
In spite of these and other drawbacks, the Companion is a good investment, for the time being.
The Catholics of Harvard Square
By Jeffrey Wills
Publisher: St. Bede's Publications
Review Author: Paul Weithman
Harvard University was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1636, near what were then the malodorous mud flats of the Charles River. It began as a Congregationalist seminary whose motto was Veritas, Latin for Truth. The early history of Harvard was one of increasing religious diversity: The university harbored Protestantism of almost every stripe. For the past century, however, the university seems increasingly to have dissented from religion itself. Harvard now epitomizes the secular liberalism of the American intellectual elite. Few of that elite’s Harvard chapter seem to think their pursuit of truth has any connection to the prayer services held in Harvard Yard’s simple nondenominational church.
Harvard Square, that part of Cambridge that lies just outside Harvard Yard, has grown and changed with the institution that gives it its name. The mud flats along the Charles gave way to dormitories and pricey condominiums. Blacksmiths’ forges have been supplanted by cappuccino facilities. Hare Krishnas dance in front of the university’s bookstore on Friday evenings while the homeless play chess. The Square has become a carnival of human diversity, with the university in the center ring.
St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church is just a block from Harvard Yard. Its cornerstone was laid in 1916. It sits on a piece of land that local topography has placed below the level of the Yard, several blocks from the center of Harvard Square. Inside, it has the cool of clean marble and the quiet of eternity. The main church is redolent of beeswax and starched surplices. Over the church’s main door, looking upslope toward Harvard Yard, is the phrase, “The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.”
The contrasting mottoes of Harvard and St. Paul’s seem to capture an antagonism and oneupsmanship implicit in all the other contrasts between the two institutions. Secular Harvard kept Veritas as its motto. The Catholics of St. Paul’s answered that God grounds truth; the location of St. Paul’s, below the level of Harvard Yard, seems to confirm the foundational status of the Church and the Gospel. In 1916, when St. Paul’s was built, Latin was the language of the Church. Since that was also the language of Harvard’s motto, St. Paul’s responded in English, the vernacular of the Yard. That St. Paul’s epigram is inscribed in the church’s granite lintel suggests that the tensions between Harvard and Catholicism, like the words of the motto themselves, are written in stone.
Such a story, unfortunately, is too pat and static, for the relationships between Harvard and St. Paul’s, and between Harvard and Catholicism, are more complicated. The real story is inscribed on the hearts and minds of Catholics who have lived and studied in Harvard Square over the past three and a half centuries. This story is recounted in The Catholics of Harvard Square, which falls into two roughly equal parts. The first is a narrative chronicling Catholicism in Harvard Square from the earliest Catholic immigrants in Cambridge, through the earliest Catholic students at Harvard, to the appointment of Harvard alumnus Bernard Law as Cardinal Archbishop of Boston. The second is a series of reminiscences by Catholics who studied at Harvard or worked at St. Paul’s. The two halves of the book complement one another nicely. The historical narrative provides a framework on which to hang the reminiscences, while the memories give life and personality to the chronicle. The book is often fascinating.
It is a virtue of this book that it provokes the reader to ask questions that are hardly broached by the text itself. What, for example, does the story of Catholics at Harvard reveal about being seriously religious at a great university, about combining serious religiosity with serious intellectual inquiry? Such questions could only be answered by a different sort of book, one far more ambitious and probably far less enjoyable.
How to Read the Apocalypse
By Jean-Pierre Prévost
Review Author: Jeff Dietrich
Jean-Pierre Prévost’s How to Read the Apocalypse is superbly written; it takes a large and complex body of scholarly material and synthesizes it into a readily digestible format. It counters simplistic and alarmist fundamentalist readings of the book of Revelation while presenting valuable historical information and explaining esoteric literary symbols. It is a perfect text for the typical parish study group because it is guaranteed to provide copious amounts of information while offending absolutely no one.
Prévost is clear in his historical analysis: “The Apocalypse is a real indictment of emperor worship.” But one can read Prévost’s entire book without realizing that that indictment might have some contemporary implications. Prévost’s detached hermeneutical stance denies the power and authority of God’s Word to those who follow in the footsteps of the disciples and continue to resist emperor worship in its modern-day forms.
Dale Aukerman’s vision of the Apocalypse is different. He does not confine Scripture to a historical prison. Nor does he see simplistic predictions of the future. He has no trouble interpreting the implications of the Apocalypse for our own times. “Human life is now threatened as never before, not by one but by many perils, each in itself capable of destroying us, but all interrelated, and all coming upon us together.”
Aukerman does not offer a comprehensive analysis of the book of Revelation, rather he reviews the apocalyptic tradition as it manifests itself throughout Scripture. He seeks to understand the forces in history, especially those in our own time that move us inexorably toward crisis. For it is at the point of crisis that what we often call God’s judgment is manifest. “In the apostolic scriptures, apokalysis is not a grim, foreboding word. It means unveiling or disclosure — of God’s truth in Jesus…. The apocalypse is an unveiling of Jesus’ lordship over the rampages of history on to his triumph at the end, and has its center and meaning in that lordship, not in the disasters.”
Aukerman recognizes that the end times are the result of the deadly practices of the worldly powers. Just as Rome used military terror and oppression to create a world order that sacrificed the needs of others to its own voracious appetite, so too is the current world empire of the Pax Americana held in place by a similar arrangement. And likewise, the seeds of injustice and oppression that it has sown will lead to its inevitable downfall. “Empire is set inevitably against the imperium of God….” God’s judgment upon empire will surely come.
What is the job of Christians in these deadly times? Prévost rightly says that it is to give witness to the power of the Lamb and the Resurrection. Aukerman agrees with that, but he takes it a step further by giving an example of what it means to witness to the Resurrection: “Early on an Easter Sunday morning, Jennifer Haines walked in all simplicity onto the forbidden territory of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant, holding a lily: a sign of life in the domain of death. In the darkness before an Easter morning, seven friends entered the high security area of the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan, wrote on a control building ‘Christ is risen! Disarm!’ and completed the Easter liturgy at gunpoint.”
It is well known that early Christians were jailed by “the authorities” as a matter of course. But the question we need to ask ourselves is: If the authorities are not jailing us today, are we doing anything remotely equivalent to the kind of Christianity practiced by the author of the book of Revelation?
Reckoning with Apocalypse: Terminal Politics and Christian Hope
By Dale Aukerman
Review Author: Janice Daurio
Talk to a public high school student today and you hear about how education gets a higher-paying job. Talk to a Catholic student and you hear about making the world a better place. Oversimplifications? Certainly. But some of our hunches about the favorable comparison of Catholic to public schools are borne out by the extensive research done by the authors of Catholic Schools and the Common Good.
Catholic schools today have much to teach public schools, which are increasingly marked by market metaphors, radical individualism, and competition for individual economic rewards. It is Catholic high schools that educate about the common good. The authors’ research indicates that the distinctive features of Catholic high schools responsible for this are its delimited academic curriculum, its communal organization and decentralized governance, and its inspiring philosophy — which includes having teachers dedicated to developing the hearts and souls as well as the minds of students.
Requiring all students to take the same or similar courses, in contrast to the public schools’ “shopping mall curriculum,” turns out to be better for students (especially disadvantaged students). More academic coursework is required of all students in Catholic schools. This is partly because parents want their children to get a good education, but it is also the direct result of the Catholic philosophical commitment to the importance of reason and critical thinking.
The authors note a paradigm shift in Catholic high schools from 1965 to 1990 — “from protecting the faithful from a hostile Protestant majority to pursuing peace and social justice within an ecumenical and multicultural world.” This shift in no way requires soft-pedaling Catholic teaching.
Their research turned up other interesting facts. Catholic high school students are only somewhat more advantaged than their public school counterparts — average family income of $33,596 as opposed to $27,851. Another difference between public and Catholic secondary schools is the prevalence of single-sex schools among the latter; 20 percent are boys’ schools and 26 percent girls’.
The typical Catholic school is more internally diverse with respect to race and income than the typical public school. This, however, is changing. The authors are troubled that inner-city Catholic schools are closing at an alarming rate. The remaining Catholic inner-city high schools offer public high schools a model of what they should become.
Students and staff at a Catholic high school are much more likely to think of themselves as (and really be) a community. In short, the Catholic school system encourages the development of a shareable gift, commitment to the common good. It is urgent that all NOR readers involved in education (especially high school education) read this book — read it annually — and share its message.
Catholic Schools and the Common Good
By Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Review Author: Paul Ford
There is perhaps no better way to get to know the deepest spirituality of the saints and sages than to read their prayers and poetry. I know this to be true of C.S. Lewis, whose best poems are heartbreaking, mind-exploding prayers. This first ever Latin and English edition of Thomas Aquinas’s 14 prayers (on various occasions) and five hymns (four for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ) gives us similar access to the heart and mind of the Angelic Doctor.
The prayers make up three quarters of the volume. Six of these prayers are for use at Mass and the others are for ordering life wisely, for God’s blessing, for our Lady’s intercession, for acquiring virtues, before study, for the forgiveness of sin, for the attainment of Heaven, and at the time of death.
The Latin and English texts are intelligently and lovingly laid out in sense lines. Those of us who still retain the lingua Latina from our high school days can relish the way Thomas strings infinitives, adjectives, and participles. The translators are very successful in delivering the sense of Thomas’s prayer texts.
The same cannot be said, alas, for their work on Thomas’s hymns, at least to the ears of those of us raised on the translations by John Mason Neale, Edward Caswall, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. For example, Thomas’s six-line stanzas for the Pange Lingua in 87.87.87 meter and ababab rhyme-scheme are rendered (pun intended) in four-line stanzas with little attention to meter and a feeble abcb rhyme-scheme; thus “Quem in mundi pretium,/ Fructus ventris generosi,/ Rex effudit gentium” becomes “Which the King of nations shed for us/ A noble womb’s sole fruitful bud.” No, no!
But buy this book for the 75 percent of it that is both sobering tonic and sheer spiritual joy: Thomas’s prayers.
Devoutly I Adore Thee: The Prayers and Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas
By Robert Anderson and Johann Moser
Publisher: Sophia Institute Press
Review Author: Luis R. Gamez
You may as well just call it Crumbs Fal’n From King James’s Table (apologies to Sir Thomas Overbury), but such rich crumbs as these you can savor with delight. Atwan and Wieder have anthologized English poems inspired by the Bible, apparently the first such collection ever. Each volume is arranged in scriptural order, each poem being preceded by the text that inspired it. The Scripture-and-poem rubric, write the editors, “places the dialogue between individual poet and sacred text in full view…. Chapters into Verse can thus be read as a poetic commentary upon the scriptures.” For a poem to be included, “it had to possess real literary merit (as distinct from admirable sentiment, or propriety, or didactic fervor) and it had to derive from a specific scriptural source.”
Chapters into Verse overflows with treasures such as: Peter Kocan’s “AIDS, Among Other Things,” meditating on how the wages of sin is death; Melville (who else?) on the “ribs and terrors” of Jonah’s whale; the pulsing vehemence of Isaac Watts’s Sapphic meter in “The Day of Judgement”; Milton on the pain of Jesus’ circumcision; Emily Dickinson on the “loved Philology” of the Word made flesh.
No anthology can assemble all, because of Tyrant Space. It’s an inevitable pity that Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, and even Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel are so penuriously sampled that we lose sense of the majestic originals. A more serious blind spot is the 18th century, during which the editors believe “literature and scripture had pretty much parted company.” Yet the 18th century witnessed an explosion of enduring scriptural verse and hymnody — largely ignored by Atwan and Wieder. What’s wrong with William Cowper’s portrait of Enoch “Walking with God”? Why leave out Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (on Galatians 6:14) and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (Psalm 90)? Charles Wesley’s “Wrestling Jacob” is a poignant meditation on the enigma of the Divine Name in Genesis 32, and a far richer scriptural response than certain pedestrian offerings chosen here.
If inclusion in Chapters into Verse is a sign of “real literary merit,” then the greatest English scriptural poet is — hang on, now — Francis Quarles, a second-tier Cavalier epigramist whose stiff biblical paraphrases reek, according to a modern critic, of a “quaint sententious morality.” Quarles is all over this anthology: 22 poems, more than Donne and Hopkins combined. Do Atwan and Wieder truly prefer Quarles? I believe, rather, that the editors are forced to queer the concept of literary merit by slavishly adhering to their specific-scriptural-sources-only criterion. Quarles just happened to write this way. The editors’ infatuation with their criterion allows some real dogs to squeeze in under the gate.
On the other hand, many great poets didn’t write to specific scriptural passages, and Atwan and Wieder have left themselves no way to accommodate them. Masterpieces by Whitman and Blake — Leaves of Grass, The Four Zoas, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — were profoundly influenced by the language, imagery, and rhythms of the Bible, but because they don’t point to specific biblical sources, the editors don’t sample them. Can one pay tribute to either the Bible’s power or English poetry’s vitality encumbered by such strictures?
Atwan and Wieder give us Donne’s magnificent La Corona — a sequence of seven divine sonnets on the life of Christ — in its entirety, yet because of their Scripture-and-poem organization they chop up the sequence, and position one sonnet with the Annunciation poems, one with the Nativity, etc. But Donne linked the sonnets: The last line of one is the first line of the next, and the ending line of the sequence is also the beginning — he wanted a literal, physical “crown of prayer and praise.” To point out this circular structure, the 1633 edition of La Corona italicizes the first and last line of each sonnet — the bewildered reader will see that Atwan and Wieder inexplicably retain most of the italics even though they’ve disassembled Donne’s crown. Jonathan Swift’s “The Place of the Damned” also used italics in the original edition, in this case to emphasize the author’s truculent rage at his age’s brood of vipers. The editors omit Swift’s emphases, and further emasculate the poem by modernizing the original’s “ye” to “you,” destroying Swift’s rhyme scheme. Yet in the face of this textual indifference, I find Hopkins’s eccentric system of accents and counterpoint marks handled with scrupulous care. Go figure.
In spite of the shortcomings, this collection effectively asserts an alternative, vital 600-year-old English literary tradition distinct from the now prevailing classicism of Greece and Rome. Finally in English poetry we can hear the lush, multifarious voice which celebrates the Hebraic over the Hellenic.
Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible. Volume 1: Genesis to Malachi; Volume 2: Gospels to Revelation
By Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: David Hartman
Most folks who resolve to read the Bible straight through get bogged down around the 10th chapter of Genesis, where the “begats” begin in earnest. Then there’s the Holiness Code in Leviticus, which has few entries in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. This is by way of saying that Christian apologetics is a tricky business. Those who stand to gain the most are already believers, anxious to smooth out a doctrinal kink here or confirm an article of faith there. If the tome is dense, so much the better: Merit accrues to the reader who soldiers on.
Sheed argues that correct doctrinal thinking is not simply a matter of sanctity, but of actual sanity, that if we do not comprehend the world aright, we see it skewed, as the mad do; and that the ultimate form of madness is to fail to acknowledge the presence of God. All true. But Sheed slights the human imagination. “The shamrock simile tells us absolutely nothing about the Blessed Trinity, nor does the triangle….” It’s curious to argue that we can’t begin to understand what God is trying to tell us until we set aside the intellectual creativity with which God has endowed us. Besides, St. Patrick’s simile of the Shamrock helped convert the polytheistic and barbarous denizens of Ireland into some of Catholicism’s doughtiest and most winsome defenders. I’m not sure who Theology and Sanity could convert other than the converted.
The weakness of the book is, paradoxically, also its greatest strength. Freed of whimsy and passion, Sheed lays out a solid program of catechetics. He never betrays a false step. He is focused, systematic, relentless. One concludes the book thinking, “Sheed is absolutely right,” and resenting him for it. The believer who takes the book whole will find his orthodoxy greatly toughened, but its pedantry is as gristly as beef jerky and approximately as palatable. This is fitting preparation for the final exasperation, which is having the Table of Contents list an index beginning on page 463 while the book concludes, sans index, on page 461.
Theology and Sanity has been compared to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The comparison is apt. Like Lewis, Sheed’s logic is faultless, his orthodoxy exemplary. Mere Christianity is also the only one of Lewis’s major works I have been unable to muddle through, and, while the reason is unquestionably sloth on my part, there’s something about its thick arguments that tends to repel boarders. And if it repels Christian boarders, is it likely to blow the wavering clear out of the water? Lewis himself was profoundly sensitive to the mixed blessing of apologetics. Said he: “I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal, as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate…. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual encounters, into the Reality — from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself”
What written works can help believers and nonbelievers fall into the reality of Christ Himself? I have found spiritual autobiography — testimonies of the Holy Spirit working through flesh — quite helpful. St. Augustine’s Confessions, Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and A Grief Observed, Merton’s Seven-Storey Mountain, and Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy each recounts the amazing grace of God at work in its mortal author. Each of these works — and any reader could add others — is limned by grace, because in each a beggar is telling other beggars where to find bread.
Enjoyed reading this?
READ MORE! GET A FREE 7 DAY TRIALSUBSCRIBE TODAY
You May Also Enjoy
These Aren’t the Zebras You’re Looking For... Life Imitates Bart... PepsiCo’s Plastophobia... See Me Pee in Gay Paree... A Star Is Reborn... Cuddlier Cops... Compassion by Compulsion... Not Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll... Sex & the Ciudad... Cold Dogs... Milk of Human Creation... Californias on My Mind... Tiny Transportation... Twin Brides for Twin Brothers
My daily commute in St. Louis used to take me down a three-mile stretch of…
All during my psychiatric and psychoanalytic training I learned that whatever I saw and heard…