By Robert Perske
Price: No price given
Review Author: Brett Webb-Mitchell
A tireless advocate for people with mental retardation, Robert Perske writes that his emphasis — in this book on disabled people caught in the criminal justice system — is “observation, pure and simple.” Perske, a worried messenger, poignantly describes 21 cases of people with mental retardation enmeshed in the painfully obvious imperfections of our justice system. He hopes to awaken us to the travesty of a justice system that has allowed too many seemingly innocent people with mental retardation to be wrongly sentenced to die, in what amounts to a lethal lottery, and in fact to be “legally” executed.
What did Perske observe in these stories? In the 21 cases he reviews, the majority of those sentenced were poor African-American males who, with IQ scores around 70 or below, were also designated “mentally retarded.”
Why were so many people with mental retardation so easily given death sentences? On the one hand, many of them were willing and eager to please, and be accepted by, authority figures — e.g., the police. Some had little understanding of the questions the police asked them, let alone of the Miranda rights, which they often freely waived in their desire to please. Moreover, pleasing authority figures often meant confessing to a crime they hadn’t committed. On the other hand, many officials in the legal system lack an understanding of disabling mental retardation.
Perske makes it abundantly clear that a profound scandal exists, one that we have failed to address seriously. Yet what Perske needs to include to make his best case is a theological and philosophical framework, to help us understand that this continuing scandal has profound moral implications. It cannot be dismissed as merely a legal or “special education” issue.
The truest test of a people’s vision is how that people cares for the most vulnerable. Reading this book, we should be deeply concerned about our own society, one that quietly allows seemingly innocent people with retardation to be condemned to death.
Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story
By William Shannon
Review Author: Thomas Del Prete
The Thomas Merton story has been told, recast, and retold numerous times — some versions more informed and perceptive than others — since his tragic death in 1968. It is likely that the telling will continue, particularly given the expected publication beginning in 1993 of journals restricted from public view until 25 years after his death.
Merton discovered a new way to live when he first visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a monastery in the Cistercian tradition, during Holy Week in 1941. Sheltered by their voluminous cowls and the silence of the Kentucky hills, the monks of Gethsemani represented for Merton a center of spiritual strength in stark contrast to the noisy and dissolute world; they “tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude.” His subsequent entrance into the monastery meant for him enclosure “in the four walls of my new freedom.”
Merton’s life of silence resulted paradoxically in a more vocal presence in the world. Merton in a sense redefined the “walls” of his freedom and discovered a new and compassionate relationship with people in the wider world. Relationship implied responsibility; Merton responded. By the mid-1960s he had brought his ever-deepening contemplative perspective to bear on war, violence, oppression, and racial injustice.
Merton was a rare spiritual “light” in a world that needs such illumination. William Shannon reflects much of that light in his new biography, Silent Lamp. The title is derived from the Chinese form of Merton’s name, and was bestowed warmly on Merton by a Chinese philosopher. (There is some irony here, of course, considering that Merton was often far from silent; it is clear, however, that in some sense he spoke from silence; we can be glad he did.) As the general editor of Merton’s correspondence (three volumes have been published, five projected) and author of a previous book on Merton’s spirituality, Shannon brings a thoroughly informed perspective to his subject.
While he clearly admires Merton’s spiritual insight, Shannon does not ignore the complexity of his personality and life, nor the context of his times. Shannon’s overall intent, however, is to understand Merton in terms of what Merton described as the most important journey in life, “the interior journey.” Shannon describes his approach in accomplishing this task as “reflective biography,” involving reflection on significant events and experiences in Merton’s life.
The result of Shannon’s effort is a sensitive, perceptive, and balanced portrait of Merton. Shannon is particularly adept in tracking the broadening contemplative spiritual experience — and the “dialectic between solitude and community” — which gave rise to Merton’s sense of responsibility and “mission” in the world outside the cloister, and which led to his fatal trip to Asia (he was electrocuted accidentally in Bangkok — on a rare “external” journey — while at an intermonastic conference).
Shannon brings us to an understanding of the mature Merton as a profoundly and uncommonly free human being. He doesn’t force the point or overdraw the portrait in this respect. He does not pretend to have definitive answers to all the questions about Merton’s life. Shannon’s reflective discourse may not sit well with everyone, though it is judiciously sparing, and for this reader lends an air of authenticity to the work; one gets the sense that Shannon, a priest, has traveled a good distance on the “interior journey” himself. This aspect of the “personality” of the book, together with the unique use of some as yet unpublished Merton writings, make Silent Lamp distinctive among Merton biographies to date.
After Christendom? How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas
By Stanley Hauerwas
Review Author: Glenn N. Schram
Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist moral theologian, thinks American Christians have sold out to society by adopting harmful notions about freedom of religion, justice, and the nature of the church.
Freedom of religion is not a bad thing in itself, Hauerwas says, but in America it has rendered Christians complacent about the surrounding society, resulting in a society increasingly empty at its core, both morally and spiritually. For freedom of religion we have paid the price of allowing our convictions to be relegated to the private sphere.
As for justice, Hauerwas thinks we have taken our concepts from the Enlightenment, rather than allowing them to be formed by our relationship to God. Besides, we are altogether too concerned with justice; we ought to remember that “the first thing as Christians we have to hold before any society is not justice but God.”
As for the church, Hauerwas complains that it has maintained its presence in society by being a community of care at the expense of being a community of discipline. He cites the inability of mainline Protestantism, and to some extent Catholicism, to maintain authority over important aspects of church members’ behavior, notably marriage and singleness.
As a result of all three problems, Hauerwas says, we are unable to “stand against” the forces of “the state” and “our social orders.”
Hauerwas’s criticisms are accurate enough as far as they go, but I wish he had been clearer about why and how we should challenge the powers that be. An entire civilization is winding down around us; but, despite the apocalyptic title of his book, Hauerwas tell us no more than that we should not try to prop up a tottering liberal order by embracing its rationale, which is drawn from the Enlightenment and which he erroneously thinks to be the only justification possible.
He seems to be unaware that freedom of religion was espoused in the Anglo-American world at a time of profound religious belief. Sectarian Protestants in 17th-century England thought we should humbly tolerate one another’s beliefs because “another’s evidence is as dark to me as mine to him…till the Lord enlighten us both for discerning alike.”
Moreover, good arguments for liberal democracy have been made from a non-Enlightenment perspective by the neo-Thomist Catholics Jacques Maritain and Yves R. Simon and the neo-orthodox Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr. Could Hauerwas be unfamiliar with most of this literature?
Outside the church, Hauerwas thinks, salvation is impossible. This thesis is related to the fact that for him salvation has a large social dimension. He is unclear about the precise nature of social salvation, although he plainly does not believe in the kind espoused by gnostics in Eric Voegelin’s sense of the term. For, unlike modern gnostics, Hauerwas does not foresee a state of earthly bliss. Against liberation theology, he asserts: “The salvation promised in the good news is not a life free from suffering, free from servitude, but rather a life that freely suffers, that freely serves, because such suffering and service is the hallmark of the Kingdom established by Jesus.”
Wise though this statement is, I do not detect in Hauerwas’s discussion of salvation a sense that it includes going to heaven. My doubts about Hauerwas are increased by what he says about the proper way to witness to the Christian faith. Worship and conducting oneself so as to embody the truth of the story of Jesus are permissible; trying to convert others is not. Attempts at conversion involve one in “explicitly or implicitly underwriting patterns of domination and violence antithetical to the Kingdom brought by Christ.” Here I think Hauerwas is overly influenced by the Spanish conquistadors’ cruelty in trying to convert native Americans to Christianity — a matter on which he dwells at some length. If he took seriously Christ’s command, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15), Hauerwas would see that attempts at conversion may spring from a legitimate, even charitable, impulse. That the impulse may be perverted does not detract from its basic authenticity.
Finally, it must be said that this book is evidence of the much-discussed decline in the Protestant work ethic. It is plagued by many egregious grammatical errors and by the careless copying of quoted matter; the author and publisher should have spent more time on editing.
The Difficult Saint: Bernard of Clairvaux and His Tradition
By Brian P. McGuire
Publisher: Cistercian Publications
Review Author: Aaron W. Godfrey
Bernard of Clairvaux is a difficult saint, and it was the title that attracted me to this fine and readable work, which has changed my thinking. I must confess I had a rather deep prejudice against the saint because of his persecution of Abelard and his preaching of the Second Crusade, behavior which seemed inconsistent with current norms of sanctity.
The 900th anniversary of St. Bernard’s birth, celebrated in 1990, surely renewed interest in his life and work. Near Florence a large exhibit, “St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Italian Art,” showed about 50 works of art depicting the life and legends of the saint, including some of the subtopics covered by McGuire’s study. Scholars, too, have been focusing new attention on St. Bernard and have retranslated his works, making them more accessible to the general reader.
The Difficult Saint is not so much an organized biography as a series of studies on several facets of Bernard’s life and on ambiguous aspects of medieval monasticism. It is clear that Bernard was among the most dynamic and important people of his time. He was the real force behind the rapid growth of the Cistercian order, and made Clairvaux the most important European monastic foundation for at least two centuries. His theological works, hymns, and letters are a substantial body of work that have earned him the title of “Doctor of the Church.”
His influence was strong throughout Western Christendom, even in what Europeans considered the more remote areas, Ireland and Scandinavia. Before his death miraculous cures and appearances were widely reported, and after his death the folk legends grew to become part of the iconography that made Bernard one of the more venerated saints of the Middle Ages.
The Difficult Saint provides a historical context in which to judge Bernard’s actions and achievements. I learned most from the chapters on monastic friendship, which served as a corrective to the Freudian thinking of our age, with its assumption that all friendships have sexual overtones. McGuire handles this topic well, exploring the monastic and Christian concepts of friendship which must be judged by classical and 12th-century standards rather than those of our own time. By the former standards, friendship should make friends better and holier and bring them closer to God.
The Italian exhibition mentioned earlier had paintings showing Bernard obtaining wisdom and nourishment from Mary’s milk and from the side of the crucified Jesus, concepts that seem strange by today’s iconographical standards. McGuire explains this in terms of 12th-century lore and in terms that are understandable to 20th-century sensibilities.
The Difficult Saint begins to make St. Bernard understandable and even attractive. Like “the fools who came to scoff,” I “remained to pray.”
Laughter and the Love of Friends: Reminiscences of the Distinguished English Priest and Philosopher Martin Cyril D'Arcy, S.J.
By William S. Abell
Publisher: Christian Classics
Among his many distinctions, Fr. Martin D’Arcy (1888-1976) was Master of Campion Hall, Oxford, and the (Roman) Catholic representative for the BBC. William S. Abell, in his Foreword, lists many of D’Arcy’s books, and states that “the consensus appears to be that he was…not at his best in his writings…. They demonstrated no compelling style, were not often simple and clear…. They did not carry the charisma of the man himself…. His books failed to do him justice.”
Curiously, D’Arcy’s Communism and Christianity is not listed. While not compelling in style or exactly simple, it certainly is clear. But, more importantly, the book, published over 35 years ago, stands the test of time while so much of the rubbish published under the rubric of “Marxist-Christian dialogue” has found its way into the trash can of history. D’Arcy’s book was written a good decade before that dialogue — specifically, its attempt to fuse Marxism and Christianity — really got going. He anticipated many of its central theses, and accurately and carefully (for his was no cheap anti-Communist tirade) shot them down.
Well, if D’Arcy’s books don’t do him justice, what of these tape-recorded conversations? Clearly, the D’Arcy-Abell friendship was one of those rare things, but it’s not clear that the charisma of the priest is captured even here. Yet there are plenty of insights, plus engaging glimpses of numerous luminaries in D’Arcy’s circle (such as Belloc, Chesterton, Auden, Tolkien, and Eric Gilb~
Of Oxford D’Arcy observes: “There was an astonishingly fine set of thinkers [there]. And they were men of the highest rectitude. They wouldn’t let you get away with anything except what was absolutely right and accurate. There was a…mental spring-cleaning to be had from talking with them.” How many can honestly say the same of even the best universities in the U.S. today, so full are they of the cant of the politically correct and the consultantships of the entrepreneurially correct?
D’Arcy captures the essence of theological modernism, which dovetailed with philosophical pragmatism. “William James and the rest in many parts of the world said: ‘The truth is simply that which works. There is no such thing as a…conceptual truth….’ Modernism roughly came to this, saying: ‘It doesn’t make much difference about…Christ’s rising from the dead, or whether Christ actually died for man on the Cross; but the value lies in…providing a rich experience for man.'”
D’Arcy quotes the pro-modernist von Hugel, whom he knew, as saying of Pope Pius X, who crushed modernism, “That peasant Pope, he doesn’t understand.” Modernism has been reborn, and now we have an intellectual Pope, so now we hear, “That Polish Pope, he doesn’t understand.” What motivates these facile put-downs?
There’s a wonderful nugget regarding a public debate where D’Arcy found himself up against Bertrand Russell. As D’Arcy tells it: “He’d been passionately attacking white treatment of colored peoples…. So my point…was that I didn’t know why Bertrand Russell felt so strongly on this matter because, on his own assumptions, on his own philosophy, whatever happened to be his own private feelings,, he didn’t know whether anybody else had got private feelings; and if they did, those feelings were no concern of his; and therefore I couldn’t make out why he wanted to come and tell us what our private feelings should be, because it only amounted to what we privately felt. Of course, he had no answer to that.”
For anyone interested in the Oxford milieu and a golden era of English Catholicism, this book is a treat.
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