God Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism
By Conor Cruise O'Brien
Publisher: Harvard University Press
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
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
“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
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.
By Debi and Steve Standiford
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.
By Robert Baram
Publisher: St. Paul Editions
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
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
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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