Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 1988

October 1988

God Land: Reflections on Reli­gion and Nationalism

By Conor Cruise O'Brien

Publisher: Harvard Universi­ty Press

Pages: 97

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

When religion and national­ism join in unholy wedlock, the prudent man heads for foxhole or bomb shelter. As an Irishman, Conor Cruise O’Brien is well situ­ated to perceive the wisdom in this advice, for he has long pondered the murderous rage in neighboring Ulster. “Holy nation­alism” repels him, but his revul­sion debouches into neither dis­dain for Christianity nor con­tempt for love of country. Ad­mirable when taken separately, the two in combination, especial­ly when apotheosized into the “deified nation,” can eventuate in a mindless fanaticism that drenches the earth with blood.

In these piquant “reflec­tions” — delivered at Harvard in 1987 as the Massey Lectures in the History of American Civiliza­tion — O’Brien brings wry humor and pellucid reason to a subject rarely blessed with either. He carves out a broad swath of his­tory, ranging all the way from the ancient Hebrews to the Rea­gan Administration, to illustrate his suppositions. As O’Brien sees it, early Christianity repudiated Hebrew nationalism, only to re-nationalize the faith by linking it to the Roman Empire. From then on, it has been downhill all the way. It took long centuries, however, for holy nationalism to achieve its fullest expression: America bought the theory in toto and converted it into a nation­al creed. From the Puritans on­ward, Americans have conflated God and country, an act of pres­tidigitation that has engendered almost four centuries of lament­able results. Ronald Reagan is only the latest victim of the city-on-a-hill virus that John Winthrop and his dour companions introduced to these shores. A cure for the disease has yet to be discovered; in the absence of that, O’Brien’s medicine might palliate the harshest symptoms of the ill­ness.

Mary McCarthy: A Life

By Car­ol Gelderman

Publisher: St. Martin's

Pages: 430

Price: $24.95

Review Author:

Like the jackasses encoun­tered by Tristram Shandy, Mary McCarthy’s critics “bray, bray, bray.” Finding the usual lexicon inadequate to describe her, they introduced a new term into refin­ed literary discourse: “bitch” — as in “modern American bitch” and “our leading bitch intellectu­al.” My, my: what could provoke normally mild-mannered critics to such pique? For one thing, suggests Carol Gelderman, Mc­Carthy is ferocious in “exposing literary ineptitude”; when it comes to egos, she is a wounder, not a stroker. In her novels she has exposed the giddiness and in­anity of the professoriate and in­telligentsia. Her refusal to con­done the mendacity of American Stalinists earned her the enmity of a host of leftists. Just as read­ily, however, she infuriated the anti-communists by declining to squeeze into their procrustean bed. Her vehement opposition to the Vietnam War led some conservative intellectuals to castigate her with epithets they normally reserved for Jane Fonda. Femi­nists don’t like her either; “as for Women’s Lib,” she once snapped, “it bores me.” McCarthy entitled her first novel The Company She Keeps; Gelderman might have called this biography “The Ene­mies She Made.”

Catholics have engaged in their own braying at McCarthy, for she repudiated the Church in her adolescence, and her Memo­ries of a Catholic Girlhood, pub­lished in 1957, did not endear her to the faithful. Unlike many former Catholics, however, Mc­Carthy has not spent the rest of her life berating the Church. Her memoir of growing up Catholic is not a tale of escape from a loath­some institution; fondness and affection color the narrative.

In an interview in 1979 Mc­Carthy remarked that “aside from Christian doctrine, the thing that has most formed my cast of mind has probably been Shakes­peare. Whether the two are con­nected in some way I’m not sure….” Yes, they are — as McCar­thy unwittingly reveals in prais­ing Shakespeare in terms that could be applied to St. Thomas. In Shakespeare she finds a re­spect for the created world, and a refusal to seek to “control the world, to control reality.”

McCarthy is a peculiar atheist, one who still bears (without anger or bitterness) the markings of the Catholicism she abandon­ed long ago. As Gelderman ob­serves, “the legacy of her child­hood Catholicism lasted a lifetime.” In the 1979 interview Mc­Carthy admitted that “even though I don’t believe in an af­terlife, I’m still concerned with the salvation of my soul.” Even more poignantly, she wrote in 1974 of the “ubiquity of God.… Being an unbeliever made no difference. I had swallowed Him too many times as a child at the communion rail, so that He had come to live inside me like a cherry stone growing….”

What is one to make of such a comment from a self-avowed atheist? Is this simply another example of the intellectual con­fusion of our age? Perhaps, but there may be something deeper, a something that not even McCarthy comprehends.

Mario Cuomo: A Biography

By Robert S. McElvaine

Publisher: Scribner's

Pages: 449

Price: $19.95

Review Author:

“Mario Cuomo sometimes seems too good to be true.” One groans in despair: another piece of puffery from the folks who have brought us a succession of political golems, each one exquis­itely packaged to induce throbbings in the voter’s heart. Robert McElvaine is another wandering liberal refugee who has found a political savior. Despite this, Mario Cuomo is not a slavishly adulatory depiction of the Gov­ernor of New York. McElvaine endeavors to penetrate the enig­ma of Mario Cuomo, and if he falls short of his goal, he at least illuminates the mind and soul of the man who may yet sit in the Oval Office.

Some will be dismayed, oth­ers delighted by McElvaine’s as­sertion that Cuomo’s “religion is central to everything he believes and does.”

On the personal side, Cuo­mo’s religious intensity reveals it­self in an indefatigable introspec­tion that leaves no motive un­questioned, no deed unexamin­ed. McElvaine labels Cuomo “a sort of Catholic Puritan” — a fair assessment when one notes that Cuomo daily arises at 5:00 A.M. to scrutinize his soul in the pages of his diary. Cotton Mather would be both pleased and per­plexed: the spiritual scab-picking of 17th-century New England still thrives, but it does so in the person of an Italian-American Catholic from Queens.

Is Mario Cuomo different from the assorted egomaniacs, power-lusters, boodlers, and geeks who have pandered for votes in recent years? Cuomo, contends McElvaine, “does not belong in the category of mind­less, valueless, blow-dried or computer-generated politicians.” Certainly his self-conscious Ca­tholicism sets him apart, but he is also smarter, more intellectual­ly honest, less programed, and more outspoken than most other politicians. Moreover, Cuomo ap­pears to be the only major politi­cal figure since Robert Kennedy who could restore the coalition that invigorated the New Deal. Yet, one still wonders if he’s for real.

The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship

By J.G. Davies

Publisher: Westminster

Pages: 544

Price: $29.95

Review Author:

It can be as starkly plain as the silent meditation of a Quaker assembly or as sublimely magnif­icent as a High Mass at Notre Dame de Paris, but wherever and however it occurs, “ritual,” writes J.G. Davies, “would appear to be natural to man.” The New West­minster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, a much-revised ver­sion of a volume published ori­ginally in 1972, contains a stag­gering fund of information on the ways Christians have translat­ed praise of God into formal wor­ship services. New articles abound, as the contributors — leading scholars from a host of different communions — have taken cognizance of the liturgical innovations of the past 15 years. From “Ablutions” to “Words of Administration,” the volume an­swers most any question a cur­ious inquirer could imagine.

Sudden Family

By Debi and Steve Standiford

Publisher: Word

Pages: 163

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

This book might be subtitl­ed “Up from Yuppieism.” In 1980 Debi and Steve Standiford were, as they say in such circles, “on the fast track.” Fresh from the University of Virginia Law School, living in chic George­town, and employed by high-powered Washington law firms, Debi and Steve were, in the latter’s words, “upwardly mobile workaholic lawyers.” There was one oddity in their upscale lives: they belonged to an evangelical church that sought to mitigate the sufferings of society’s cast-offs. With “nothing to lose and an adventure to gain,” they vol­unteered to spend a month labor­ing in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Thailand. They got more than they bargained for. When they met Nhi and Hy Phan — both teenagers, the former crippled by polio — God called them to His fast track: “Provide a home for these boys.” Debi and Steve obeyed the command and adopt­ed the brothers. Sudden Family recounts — without a trace of mawkishness — the sorrows and joys, defeats and victories, tears and laughter that flowed from their act of selflessness. Yuppies beware: God may foil your best-laid plans.

Spiritual Journeys

By Robert Baram

Publisher: St. Paul Editions

Pages: 442

Price: $11.95

Review Author:

Now and again one hears the grudging skeptic admit to the “persistence” of religion. What might such an observer make of these 27 contemporary accounts of conversion to Roman Catholi­cism?

Our observer, for a start bwould do well to abandon the abstract category of “religion” and consider the faith of flesh-and-blood human beings, a faith that changes lives. For here we meet feminists and fundamental­ists, activists and intellectuals, secular Jews and sturdy evangeli­cals who discover in Catholicism a truth larger and stronger than they had supposed to exist.

This truth is not merely a set of propositions, but a person, the person of Jesus Christ. And how is it that the Church presents Christ? These chronicles, again and again, give three answers: Christ is present in the Eucharist. And Christ, who taught with authority, is present in the teaching authority of the Church. Finally, the Church, a community of prayer and healing in a broken world, brings Christ the Healer to these seekers.

Friends of the NOR will find this collection especially wel­come, since many of its contribu­tors have written for the NOR.

This volume challenges not only the skeptic but also the Catholic who finds conversion passé and converts much too zealous. These converts are not triumphalists, nor is their faith free of struggle. They recognize that it is humility, not arrogance, that must characterize the Chris­tian. Writing of humility’s source, Nancy Cross confesses: “Catholic faith requires submission and the result is a beauty that has its roots in ‘It is not I who live…but Christ who lives in me.'”

Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance

By Wayne F. Cooper

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Pages: 441

Price: $29.95

Review Author:

Claude McKay did not lead a charmed life. He won acclaim as poet and novelist in the 1920s, only to see the applauding crowds drift away; by the 1940s he could not even find a publisher. He abandoned his wife after only six months of marriage, and never saw the daughter she bore him. He indulged in bisexual promis­cuity that brought no lasting love, but did infect him with both syphilis and gonorrhea. His politics antagonized most everyone. He turned to communism in the 1920s before it was in vogue, and then promptly repud­iated the Party during its heyday in the 1930s. In that decade — one rife with extremisms of every sort — McKay was the unusual leftist who, as Wayne Cooper ob­serves, “argued consistently for tolerance, moderation, and the defense of democratic freedoms.” After World War II he assailed capitalism and deplored Ameri­ca’s muscle-flexing foreign policy. Such “un-American” behavior deepened his unpopularity. He spent the last decade of his life (he died in 1948) penniless, sick, disillusioned with politics, and ig­nored by readers.

It is not difficult to deem this a sad and unfortunate life. But to do so omits one momen­tous fact: in 1944 McKay con­verted to Catholicism. This did not eradicate the sorrows of a lifetime, nor did it restore his health or re-establish his literary standing. But it accomplished something more important: it en­abled him, as Cooper writes, “to die with some solace, dignity, and assurance that he had not labored wholly in vain….” One hopes his soul has found rest.

A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanaly­sis

By Peter Gay

Publisher: Yale Universi­ty Press

Pages: 182

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

To Freud, religion was the “enemy” and Catholicism the most malignant enemy of all. “Sheer exuberance” best de­scribes the tone of Freud’s athe­ism, according to Peter Gay in this illuminating inquiry into his mentor’s Jewishness and hostility to religion. Freud’s candor is re­freshing: no dissembling, no equivocating, no mincing of words. As Oskar Pfister, a Prot­estant pastor and psychoanalyst, wrote to Freud: “An intellectual­ly powerful adversary of religion is surely more useful to it than a thousand useless adherents.” Bet­ter a Freudian than a Laodicean.

The real danger comes not from the Viennese atheist, but from, for example, Carl Jung, the self-styled friend of Christianity. Flannery O’Connor, who read both men (and rightly found something of value in each), once remarked to a friend: “To reli­gion I think he [Freud] is much less dangerous than Jung.” As Gay points out, Freud plays no tricks on Christians; his atheism is unmistakable. Jung utters hon­eyed words, engages in God-talk, cozens the Christian into a quag­mire. Jung’s gnosticism is a great­er problem for the faith than Freud’s atheism.

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Briefly: May 1991

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