Volume > Issue > Briefly: May 2001

May 2001

The Idea of Culture

By Terry Eagleton

Publisher: Blackwell (England)

Pages: 156

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Thomas Storck

“Culture” is a word and a concept that has grown more prominent throughout the last fifty years. Although, in certain contexts, “culture” is still taken to mean the fine arts, museums, concerts, and the like, the sense that culture denotes the total way of life of a people has become more widely accepted. Writers such a Christopher Dawson, Hilaire Belloc, and T.S. Eliot have fruitfully used this notion of culture to examine Christian culture.

Terry Eagleton, Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, critically examines the different senses of the word, and their permutations and interactions, especially during the last fifty years. Although Eagleton makes reference to 19th-century thinkers such as Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, and spends nearly half a chapter on T.S. Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, his book takes part in an ongoing discussion between Marxists, anthropologists, and postmodernists about the significance of culture both as word and thing.

In the first chapter, and part of the second, Eagleton discusses the different senses of “culture,” chiefly “culture as an organic way of life” and “culture as perfection, sweetness and light.” He points out that culture is sometimes a matter of description, sometimes of evaluation (thus, as regards the latter, multiculturalists celebrate all cultures equally, though non-Western cultures are considered more equab~ Eagleton finds both approaches to culture lacking in some respects, but does not clearly formulate any definition of his own, simply examining various concepts and connotations associated with culture.

Eagleton takes frequent jibes at those with whom he disagrees or whose outlook he finds wanting, including postmodernists, Protestants, Americans, reductionists, and others. For the most part he writes without jargon, though it is sometimes difficult to discover exactly what the point of his argument is or where it is going. He does, however, make a number of accurate observations, along with some that seem unfair, contradictory, or ridiculous.

Eagleton’s best chapter is titled “Culture and Nature,” wherein he attacks the claims of those, mostly postmodernists, who say that human existence is purely cultural, that human nature is merely a cultural construct.

But it is not until his final chapter, “Towards a Common Culture,” that Eagleton really shows his hand. Eagleton is a Marxist, and he is chiefly exasperated by postmodernists, who have retreated from a leftist political agenda into a preoccupation with nonpolitical cultural questions. “The counter-culture of the 1960s…modulated into postmodernism” — a postmodernism obsessively concerned with “identity politics,” one that represents “a kind of group individualism which reflects the dominant social ethos as much as it dissents from it.” Thus Eagleton’s real concern, and the entire raison d’être of his book, is to protest what postmodernists have made of culture, and to suggest what its proper role should be — more modest but still important. (Although a Marxist, Eagleton does not subscribe to the crude Marxism that sees culture as simply a product of material economic forces.)

Whatever merits The Idea of Culture has lie less in its argument and thesis (which are not entirely without value) than in its laying out some of the important questions that need to be considered in constructing a correct philosophy of culture: the relation of culture to human nature, of culture to religion, of high to low culture, etc. These are all important questions that bear more than we might think on our political and social situation. But it is principally with such Christian authors as Dawson, Belloc, and Eliot that we must begin our investigations. Whatever credit Eagleton deserves for raising these issues, he does not, however, provide the answers we are looking for.

The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest

By Fr. John Gerard, S.J

Publisher: Four Faces Press (P.O. Box 834, Springfield VA 22150)

Pages: 290

Price: $13.95

Review Author: Patrick O'Hannigan

One comes away from these two memoirs by Jesuit priests of different eras and cultures with a better understanding of why Catholics once referred to the Church on earth as the “Church militant.”

Both books testify to the virtue of perseverance and are marked by a heroism that their authors would deny on the grounds that many of their associates were more heroic than they themselves. Fr. Gerard, who worked among the English in Elizabethan times, speaks highly of Nicholas Owen, a man known for his craftsmanship and reliability as “chief designer and builder of hiding places [for Catholic priests] in England” before his own death by torture at the hands of Protestants. Four centuries later, Fr. Wong draws similar inspiration from the memory of Beda Tsang, the first Chinese Jesuit killed by Communists.

Fr. Gerard and Fr. Wong both make liberal use of the spiritual patrimony left to the Society of Jesus by St. Ignatius of Loyola. For Fr. Gerard the Spiritual Exercises are a favorite means of converting others to the Catholic faith; for Fr. Wong they are a significant part of the prayer life that sustained him through his years in Communist prisons.

By the Dale Carnegie standard of how to win friends and influence people, Fr. Gerard should not have made as many converts as he apparently did. Parts of his unadorned narrative may offend those single-mindedly devoted to ecumenism and tact. Anticipating this, Thomas Storck introduces Gerard’s work by lamenting that “we in the West have come to question the need for any very rigorous adherence to dogma.” Laboring as he did in the vineyards of the Counter-Reformation, Fr. Gerard held that if Catholicism is true, “then it is the greatest charity to our brothers to preach that faith to them.”

In the course of Fr. Gerard’s account we also learn why the priests of his day spent more time evangelizing nobles than peasants, why invisible writing with orange juice has different properties than invisible writing with lemon juice, and how to escape from the Tower of London. Much of what happens to Fr. Gerard is inherently exciting, but adventure lovers should be warned that even as a bona fide member of the sword-and-breeches crowd with a handful of narrow escapes to his credit, Fr. Gerard is a spiritual warrior, not a swashbuckler.

Fr. Wong became a Jesuit in 1939, 351 years after Fr. Gerard preceded him into the Society of Jesus. Differences in time and temperament make Bamboo Swaying in the Wind warmer than The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest. Fr. Wong’s memoir retains the informality of his conversations with co-author, Claudia Devaux, on which it is based. The book’s tone changes only when Mrs. Devaux supplies historical context for Fr. Wong’s life by writing well-researched introductions to each chapter.

Fr. Wong has a fondness for interfaith dialogue that might have puzzled Fr. Gerard. He praises the Protestant missionaries who suffered alongside Catholics under state-sponsored atheism in China. He also extends the benefit of doubt to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, despite the fact that his rebuffing of the overtures of that state-approved religious body earned him hard time in an agricultural labor camp.

Shanghai-born Fr. Wong never escaped from the Communist prisons and labor camps, where he spent 13 years. The retirement he now enjoys with other Jesuits in Los Gatos, California, is a consequence of age, grace, and political change rather than derring-do. Nevertheless, his memoir reveals a mind as ingenious as that of his Elizabethan counterpart. For example, Fr. Wong used misdirection to baptize another prisoner under the uncomprehending eyes of their guards: “After seven days of preparation, I had him fall in behind me in the circle of prisoners walking in the outdoor shower. With water sprinkled over my shoulder, he was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Readers looking for cross-cultural sustenance would be well served by feasting on both of these nourishing books.

Bamboo Swaying in the Wind: A Survivor's Story of Faith and Imprisonment in Communist China

By Claudia Devaux and Fr. George Bernard Wong, S.J

Publisher: Loyola University Press

Pages: 214

Price: $21.95

Review Author: Rosemary Lunardini

The Mass is the Lord’s Supper, even though the Lord is the Lamb, as in the words the priest speaks just before Communion: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”

I daresay Catholics are not as familiar with the following words, also from John, that appear in the Book of Revelation: “Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.”

Revelation is probably the most difficult book of the New Testament, and Catholics shy away from it. However, if Hahn is to be believed, the Book of Revelation (a.k.a. the Apocalypse) is overwhelmingly about our invitation to the Lamb’s Supper. Hahn’s proposal, which he calls “outlandish,” is that “the key to understanding the Mass is the biblical Book of Revelation — and, further, that the Mass is the only way a Christian can truly make sense of the Book of Revelation.”

A Presbyterian minister before his conversion to Catholicism some 15 years ago, Hahn certainly knows his Bible. He discovered the link between the Mass and the Apocalypse on his own the first time he attended a Mass, sitting in the back row with his Bible at his side. In virtually every part of the liturgy he detected sights and sounds from the Apocalypse, such as the Sign of the Cross, the Gloria, the Alleluia, the intercession of angels and saints, antiphonal chants, the “Amen,” and especially the “Lamb of God.” He writes: “I was in the Book of Revelation, where Jesus is called the Lamb no less than 28 times in 22 chapters. I was at the marriage feast that John describes at the end of that very last book of the Bible. I was before the throne of heaven, where Jesus is hailed forever as the Lamb.” All of Hahn’s earlier efforts to understand Revelation had failed — but now he understood.

What, then, are we to think of the other, better-known ways of reading Revelation: as a metaphor for the struggles of the spiritual life, an encoded description of first-century Christian persecution, or a prophecy of Jesus’ Second Coming at the end of time? While Hahn does not entirely dispense with these other levels of understanding the Apocalypse, he believes the primary one to be the heavenly liturgy come to earth. His discovery that the Church Fathers had made an explicit connection between the Mass and the Book of Revelation gave him further confidence. Strangely, this connection has been nearly lost in the Church over time.

Hahn acknowledges that this idea of the Mass as heavenly is not new (he cites both the Catechism and Pope John Paul II), but he appears to have thoroughly unveiled a neglected Catholic gem, and his book could make many other books on the Apocalypse incomplete, if not obsolete. I found nary a trace of such a linkage to the Mass in the Collegeville Bible Commentary on the Book of Revelation, nor in Romano Guardini’s several chapters based on Revelation in The Lord.

But the idea of the Mass as heavenly liturgy is not strange; it is actually very Catholic. The Lamb’s Supper is the best explanation I have ever read of the Book of Revelation, and it is a profound book on the Mass.

The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth

By Scott Hahn

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 174

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Gerard Einhaus

It’s ironic that the Catholic Church’s wisdom is always far ahead of “the world.” In recent years, worldly experts have called on “role models” to serve as mentors for young people. We’ve always had them in the Church. We call them saints.

Bert Ghezzi knows his saints. A veteran writer and editor who had a presiding hand in New Covenant magazine when it was truly the voice of the international Catholic charismatic renewal (i.e., before its sale to Our Sunday Visitor Inc.), he has superbly researched and written profiles of 365 extraordinarily holy men and women. Most of his subjects have officially received the title of saint. The legitimate “superstars of faith” are present, including Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Thérèse of Lisieux, and the Virgin Mary. Ghezzi goes further to include other people of sanctity, such as Mother Teresa and Matt Talbot. Ghezzi has literally found somebody for everybody — for every day and every situation, canonized or otherwise.

Ghezzi’s editing of his book is one of its principal strengths. Each holy person is presented in alphabetical order, from Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century abbot in northern England, to Willibrord, who helped evangelize Friesland five centuries earlier. But following Willibrord, he lists categories of specific charisms or needs for the reader to dig out. Among these categories are “countercultural witness,” “difficult marriages,” “martyrs” (his longest listing), “porcupine saints” (those on the grumpy side), and “twenty-something saints.” Following these groupings, he also matches, as much as possible, the saints with their feast days in the Church’s calendar.

The book’s other dominant characteristic is Ghezzi’s writing style. No profile is submerged in syrup — frailties, faults, and nervous ticks are included. And Ghezzi understands the importance of reaching an audience bombarded daily by temptations.

This book belongs in every Catholic home, certainly as a welcome addition to a Catholic’s daily prayer life. Its ultimate theme may be summarized in the final paragraph of the profile on Philadelphia’s first bishop: “Many think that being ‘spiritual’ has to be supernatural, preternatural, exotic, and even weird. But a person who is truly spiritual simply asks the Holy Spirit to inspire, guide, and direct him in the natural things of life and then goes about his business. Like John Neumann.”

Voices of the Saints

By Bert Ghezzi

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 791

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Elizabeth C. Hanink

Montessori is a method of early childhood education which, in this country at least, is frequently misunderstood. Perhaps you have visions of toddlers freely spinning around in a completely unstructured space, each in his own orbit, while the teacher maintains a presence but nothing more. In fact, as Montessori’s recently reprinted book makes evident, nothing is random, unplanned, or unobserved.

Yet it is not the specific pedagogical method that is so riveting in this explication of her ideas and work, but the educator’s focus on the intrinsic worth of each child. Her aim was to preserve the spiritual fire of her young charges while helping them acquire the mastery of self so essential to community. Her timeless observations on the necessary interplay of work, liberty, discipline, and independence are useful to readers almost a century later. Our society, too, should hope to produce children who are good, educated to their potential, and capable of adding to the beauty around them.

Though most of her work was with young slum dwellers left in her “Children’s Houses” for extended periods of the day while their parents worked, she never failed to acknowledge the crucial importance of parental involvement. She required their participation, and at one point she states that much of what she advocated might be better done at home. No one can replace the family in the physical and moral care of children.

On a lighter note, there are some very amusing sections on the adequate nutrition of young children, early 20th-century ideas regarding proper hygiene, and some delightful photographs of her charges at work.

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