Volume > Issue > Briefly: May 1997

May 1997

Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter between East and West

By Raymond Gawronski

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 247

Price: $35

Review Author: Tom Dalzell

Critics of Balthasar often accuse his theology of supporting a flight into otherworldliness. By contrasting Balthasar with religions and philosophies that do promote such a flight, and down- grade the human person, Fr. Gawronski’s book does much to correct that view. Balthasar’s main concern in Theodramatik, the heart of his trilogy, is to show how Christ draws the world into God’s Trinitarian love. There is no question of the world or the per- son being lost in the divine process: One is not dissolved into God, so to speak but remains for- ever oneself. Hence, the author deals with Balthasar’s rejection of Hegel’s melting of the finite subject into the Absolute. As for Hinduism, Balthasar is shown to respond negatively to the doctrine of the world as illusion and the theory of karma; Balthasar also rules out the possibility of Christ being understood as an Avatar.

Some critics contend that Balthasar dismisses Eastern religions outright. It is interesting, therefore, that Gawronski highlights Balthasar’s positive stance toward Buddhism, with some reservations noted, and his view on a possibly fruitful dialogue with it in the realm of pneurnatology. Gawronski offers a lively treatment of Balthasar’s polemic against the idea of “divine emptiness” as it appears in Zen and elsewhere. In its place, Balthasar argues for the “fullness” of the Trinitarian God.

Ultimately, mysticism is regarded by Balthasar as peripheral to Christianity; of more importance is the concrete following of Christ in daily life. Holiness amounts to a sharing (even in this world) in the inner life of God, which effects willing acceptance of one’s mission. As for prayer, Gawronski makes it clear that despite criticisms of Eastern meditation techniques, Balthasar does respect their concentration on silence, but maintains that prayer entails a conversation.

This is a very good book well- researched and readable. Above all, it brings out what Balthasar believes is unique to Christianity: that selflessness is not emptiness but Trinitarian love.

The Heart of Virtue

By Donald DeMarco

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 231

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Kenneth D. Whitehead

This book is subtitled Lessons from Life and Literature Illustrating the Beauty and Value of Moral Character, which admirably describes what the book is about. The author is well qualified to give these “lessons.” Anyone who has read any of DeMarco’s previous dozen-plus books knows that he is a master of the illustrative anecdote and the illuminating fact or story picked up from the daily news. He is a skilled and clear writer, who usually manages to make interesting nearly everything he touches.

More than that, he is a professor of philosophy, and is quite capable of, whenever necessary, bringing out whatever Aristotle or St. Thomas — or more than a few other thinkers besides — may have said about a particular topic — and in this book the topic is virtue.

In our society, no subject is more important than virtue. Nevertheless, no matter how important the subject is, discussing it can sometimes come across as preachy or even irrelevant. DeMarco avoids these pitfalls. Moreover, there is nothing tedious or obscure about his discussion of the virtues. He treats 28 of them in all, taking them alphabetically, from Care and Chastity through Temperance and Wisdom.

He introduces these virtues, as his subtitle indicates, by using stories or incidents “from life and literature.” This anecdotal treatment is then followed by a short commentary on each virtue.

As the author himself points out when dealing with the cardinal virtue of Prudence, “throughout history the customary way of teaching morality has not been through philosophical treatises on the nature of virtue. It is a rare individual who derives any personal benefit from a strictly intellectual approach to morality. If virtue was not communicated through the good example of respected people, it was usually conveyed through folktales or fables.” William Bennett understood the value of teaching virtues through stories in his best-selling Book of Virtues, and DeMarco’s handling of the same subject matter is eminently worthy of standing alongside anything Bennett and other such writers have recently produced.

At both the beginning and the end of his book DeMarco explains why Love is not one of the 28 virtues he treats. The reason is that Love is the form of all the virtues, the heart of virtue. Without love, the author quotes Aquinas, “what passes for virtue is not true virtue.” In fact, DeMarco chose the particular virtues he did for being “particularized expressions of love.”

In one of the best-known contemporary books of philosophy, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre asks, in effect, “After virtue, what?” — now that several centuries of “enlightened” thought have undermined the traditional bases of virtue. DeMarco understands that “after virtue” we still must have virtue. There is simply no substitute for it.

Father Elijah: An Apocalypse

By Michael D. O'Brien

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 596

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Michelle Bobier

Father Elijah is a deeply flawed book, which might come as a surprise to the unwary reader, given the exceedingly favorable blurbs on the dust jacket.

Admittedly, this novel’s subject is not an easy one. Father Elijah, as its subtitle implies, is about the end times. The novel, set in Italy, depicts the story of the portentously-named Elijah, a Jewish convert and humble monk who triumphs over corrupt Vatican officials to do battle with the Antichrist. As befits its super natural subject, the book features angels, demons, visitations by the Virgin Mary, a monk who nearly bleeds to death from stigmata, an exorcism, and a priest who, while driving through the Italian countryside, picks up the hitchhiking angel Gabriel. A lot can go wrong with this kind of material.

The book has its strong points. Elijah is sympathetically drawn, and there are some nice depictions of friendship between priests. Midway through the novel there is a section that works well, in which Elijah retraces his boyhood steps in Warsaw, when he fled the Nazis. Also, the last third of the book, when the action takes over, is quite exciting.

Despite these merits, though, the book is highly problematic. For example, one of the cornerstones of successful fiction is believable characterization, and that is sadly lacking here. The virtues of the Pontiff are so endless and extreme that the reader can only wonder at the absence of a halo. The same lack of subtlety is visible in a number of other characters, such as Jakov, an exaggeratedly simple Croatian monk, and Smokrev, an elderly homosexual who embodies depravity far too neatly. Elijah himself, meanwhile, is forever experiencing a “surge of interior light” or engaging in an unconvincing internal conversation.

Unreal characters tend to speak unreal dialogue, also abundant in this book. Speechifying permeates Father Elijah. The flow of the narrative is dammed up at every turn by theological treatises disguised as letters, Catholic apologetics disguised as debate, and preaching disguised as dialogue.

Everywhere, the author’s agenda is plain, as are its artistically deadening effects. Father Elijah is virtually devoid of telling imagery or vivid metaphors; the writing is flat and largely graceless, replete with sentences that fall to the floor like lead ingots: “She smiled at him and then sat down smiling to herself.” Clunk. “The hall was filled with an immense listening.” Thud. By the same token, O’Brien consistently tells his readers what the characters are thinking and feeling rather than showing us through dialogue or action: “Elijah felt indescribably happy.” “Billy looked at him strangely, then looked down at his hands again. Elijah wondered why he was doing that. He felt mildly irritated.” More clunks and thuds.

O’Brien doesn’t play to his strengths in Father Elijah. He saves his most believable dialogue

for a minor character, Father Smith, brings him in late in the book, gives him a few scenes, then packs him off to America. Similarly, a woman named Anna is the best drawn character — and O’Brien kills her off. And, as mentioned previously, the last third of the story is exciting, but the book takes far too long to achieve liftoff. The glimmers are there, but are neither faceted nor polished.

This book could be better than it is, better than “Frank Peretti goes to Rome.” Too many aspects of the art of fiction — characters who are real characters rather than mouthpieces; believable dialogue springing, with integrity and without undue authorial interference, from those characters; fresh and memorable imagery; a free narrative flow — simply aren’t present. They should be, though. O’Brien, after all, chose to write a novel, not a tract or a volume of theology; and once a writer chooses a literary form, he must play by the literary rules.

Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North

By John T. McGreevy

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 264

Price: $27.50

Review Author: George H. Dunne

The focal point of this book is better described by the subtitle than the title. it is the story of the struggle of the Catholic Church in America to rid herself of racism. It’s not a story of which Catholics should be proud. The author himself de scribes it as “alternatively hopeful and discouraging.” Mobs of parishioners demonstrating, threatening, and, in some cases, resorting to violence to drive a black family from the neighborhood; a priest organizing 186 block clubs with 10,000 members to keep black families out of southwest Chicago: These are but two of the discouraging episodes reported by the author, who passes no judgment but allows the reader to draw his own conclusions.

On the other hand, among hopeful signs are nuns marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Montgomery; the enlightened leadership of Cardinal Meyer in Chicago and Cardinal Dearden in Detroit; and above all Fr. John LaFarge nationwide.

Some, including this reviewer, have been critical of the cautious, nonconfrontational approach of LaFarge in the struggle against racial segregation. But the frequency with which his name appears in this book testifies to the depth of his commitment to the cause of racial justice and to the extent of his influence.

Why We Live in Community

By Eberhard Arnold

Publisher: Plough

Pages: 71

Price: $5

Review Author: W.S.K. Cameron

In the dark years after World War I, a small group led by Eberhard and Emmy Arnold left Berlin to form a Christian community modeled after the Jerusalem church described in Acts 2 and 4. They called their Anabaptist community the Bruderhof, the “place of brothers.” The members distinguished themselves in three important respects. First, they remained together, overcoming not only the difficulties of migration but the weariness inevitable after the initial idealism faded. Second, they abstained from the heady elixir of self-righteousness so tempting to those who embark on a daring path; they never claimed to be the church pure or entire. Finally, they communicated their discoveries to others through books. We now turn to two of these books: a new edition of Eberhard Arnold’s Why We Live in Community and J. Heinrich Arnold’s Discipleship. The authors, related as father and son, naturally share much in common, but there is a remarkable contrast in form.

In Why We Live in Community, as its title indicates, Eberhard Arnold intended an apologia for the critical and the curious, yet he writes with a humility unsullied by any trace of defensiveness. Having trained and worked as a theologian, the elder Arnold’s writing is finely crafted. But what gives his work its power is the implicit challenge to join love and action: “We do not acknowledge sentimental love, love without work. Nor do we acknowledge dedication to practical work if it does not daily give proof of a heart-to-heart relationship between those who work together, a relationship that comes from the Spirit.”

J. Heinrich Arnold grew up within the Bruderhof. His Discipleship is the fruit of two editors who have compiled excerpts from sermons, tracts, and correspondence into a single volume. Heinrich’s reading runs from the biblical and pietist sources one would expect to the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. This book of meditations is loosely organized around its theme, and does not present any extended argument, so one must gradually gain a sense of the whole. The form is aphoristic and sometimes disruptive — one relishes individual phrases and sometimes hungers to see where they might have led — but those who do not mind the similar effect in Thomas à Kempis are unlikely to be bothered here. And there is no doubt that the fruit is well worth patient gleaning, for Heinrich writes with the authority of one who has spent time near the heart of God.

What is most interesting about each book is the Catholic commentary it has included. Eberhard’s book contains two interpretive talks by Thomas Merton, and Heinrich’s book carries a foreword by Henri Nouwen. But perhaps this should not be so surprising. While the Anabaptists have been described as heralds of a “radical” Reformation, that can wrongly suggest that they simply went further outside the Catholic fold. Actually, for example, the Anabaptists were closer to Catholicism than Luther on human nature, and the Anabaptists maintained with the ancient Church a firm commitment to seeing God’s will done on earth as it is in Heaven.


By L Heinrich Arnold

Publisher: Plough

Pages: 279

Price: $12.50

Review Author: Dale Vree

Add this book to the burgeoning literature about contemporary conversions to Catholicism. The strength of this entry is twofold: First, we get some fascinating insights into the evangelical/fundamentalist milieu by someone who was deeply steeped in it. The book opens poignantly with Currie telling us about the day JFK was assassinated. A sixth-grader at the time, Currie felt sad because he knew that, simply because JFK was a Catholic, he went to Hell that day. In the last chapter Currie tells us that, when his wife was pregnant with their sixth child, they were criticized instead of congratulated by certain evangelical friends, and their evangelical pastor insisted on driving Currie to a clinic for a vasectomy (Currie firmly declined this “pastoral” initiative). So this book has some spice.

Currie tells us bluntly, “I did not want to be a Catholic, but eventually I felt I had to in order to keep my intellectual integrity.” It’s a common tale. Like other pilgrims, Currie walks us through the differences between orthodox Protestantism and orthodox Catholicism. The second strength of this book becomes apparent here, for Currie’s approach is clear-headed and right-to-the-point. Currie, a businessman with a zeal for truth, is not the most elegant writer you’ll ever encounter, but he has an uncanny way of seeing the heart of foundational issues.

Consider these words, which are worth quoting at length: “In college I majored in philosophy. I remember the fascination I experienced when I studied the person who says, ‘I will accept as true only what science can experimentally validate as true.’ That person’s worldview … is self-destructive, because the statement itself cannot be validated by its own criterion…. What he is really saying is, ‘I will accept as true only what science can experimentally validate as true — except for this one statement.’ … The Protestant is in exactly the same logically invalid position…. Nowhere does the Bible teach [the Protestant doctrine] that Scripture is the sole authority for faith…. The Protestant is really saying, ‘Only doctrines explicitly grounded in the teaching of the Bible are ultimately trustworthy — except for this one.’ The [Protestant] system cannot be true with an internal inconsistency such as this.”

If your mind craves lucidity such as this, you’ll find this book well worth your while.

Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic

By David B. Currie

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 215

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Cecilia McGowan

As the Corinthians and Galatians knew, letters from saints are not necessarily tender and comforting. The tone of the letters in this collection ranges from the warmth of Teresa of Avila to the ferocity of Bernard of Clairvaux, but the content is always challenging.

Most of the letter writers are canonized saints, but Protestants like John Wesley and George MacDonald are also included. Enough biographical information is given to put the letters in context. The message of all the letters can be summed up in a line from Wesley: “There is one thing needful — to do the will of God; and his will is our sanctification.”

The most compelling letters are those written from prison by men about to die for their beliefs. The Elizabethan Jesuits wrote to other Catholics who faced imprisonment to assure them that the sufferings of this world are nothing compared to the glory in the next. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a strong plea for the importance of defending truth, even when it cuts one off from one’s fellows: “The Word of God separates the spirits. The bounds of this Word are also our bounds. We cannot unite what God divides.”

This book has the disadvantage of any collection like this — depth is sacrificed for the sake of breadth. But it provides an excellent introduction to a wide range of holy people.

Letters from Saints to Sinners

By John Cumming

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 259

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Mary Elizabeth Ingham, C.S.J.

This exhaustive study of women religious from early Christian times until the present describes itself as “the first definitive history of Catholic nuns in the Western world.” But this is perhaps a subject for which there can be no “definitive history,” because the contours of the reality transcend historical inquiry. Indeed, the nature of religious life is often a reality that surpasses the understanding of those of us who are living it.

If by “definitive history” one means the presentation of the historical facts, or the study of spheres of influence and power operating in Western history, or the struggle of women to remain faithful to their ideals, or even the sociology of a movement that has survived almost two millennia, then this is truly a definitive study.

But behind the story lies another reality, hardly mentioned in this book. That reality is the experience of the Risen Jesus, alive and active in women’s lives. The absence of this dimension in the book skews the interpretation at all levels. The author suggests that women (or men) religious devote their lives to an ideology, a conceptual framework, a notion of perfection, but this entirely misses the true reality behind religious vocations.

Women (and men) have stood up to the powers of this world with the courage that comes from knowing that Jesus Christ has conquered all powers, all influence. But this study often presents women’s actions in terms of gaining power and influence, climbing a hierarchical ladder, and struggling against the institutional Church.

As an apostolic religious woman, I regret the choice of title and subtitle for this book. Nowhere does the author give an account of the efforts of apostolic women to define themselves as religious who are not “nuns.” The subtitle, although it capitalizes on a common term used to describe women religious, simply adds to a confusion that women religious of apostolic congregations have long worked to clarify. And the military imagery of the title, which is used throughout the book is also disheartening.

Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia

By Jo Ann Kay McNamara

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 749

Price: $35

Review Author: Caroline A. Langston

“Believe Jesus or the devil! … Testify to one or the other,” claims the preacher in Flannery O’Connor’s story “The River,” and, in commenting upon it, Whitt effectively distills its essential O’Connor insight about Christian commitment: “there is no middle ground.” While Understanding Flannery O’Connor is a general introduction to O’Connor’s work, Whitt handles the theological complexities of O’Connor’s work knowledgeably, and, unlike some academics, does not shrink from O’Connor’s prophetic conclusions.

Whitt’s emphasis is neither on plot summary nor esoteric theorizing, but on integrating all aspects of O’Connor as a literary phenomenon: her biography, source material, critical writings, and publication history. Whitt offers close readings of all the novels and stories, quoting extensively from the text and tracing references to Southern culture and the Bible. Particularly impressive are the explanations of O’Connor’s biblical references: Whitt quotes key verses in their entirety and delineates, for example, the complicated network of references in The Violent Bear It Away to Elijah, Ezekiel, Jonah, and Daniel. The biblical knowledge of O’Connor, a Catholic, could easily put a contemporary evangelical to shame.

There is only one occasional weakness: Seeking to explain certain period elements within O’Connor’s fiction, Whitt occasionally digresses so much that the results are somewhat confusing. The greatest virtue of Understanding Flannery O’Connor, however, and what makes it a worthwhile companion for either the new or seasoned student of O’Connor’s work, is Whitt’s genius for synthesis. Throughout her discussions of the stories, novels, or essays, Whitt includes information about the work’s publishing history, and quotes from reviewers or from comments that O’Connor herself made in letters, some of which will surprise.

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