Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 1991

October 1991

Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer's Journal

By David Kline

Publisher: North Point Press

Pages: 235

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Mary Hanley

Reading Great Possessions, I had a strong inclination — at first — to criticize Old Order Amish ways. Why? Because I was frustrated by my own recent move to a farm. But, in the end, I couldn’t fault David Kline.

His life is full of the peace of embracing hard manual labor and the joy of natural beauty he finds on his 120 acres in eastern Ohio. Indeed, Kline has become a role model for our new farm life. Kline is a strong family man, committed to the ecology and his community. Because he tills only 70 of his 120 acres, he has time left for family, neighbors, and wildlife.

My one criticism of Kline is his failure to share more about his relationship with and dependence on God. Kline acknowledges God as Creator a number of times, yet he doesn’t speak of God with the same reverence and easy familiarity with which he speaks about the birds, flowers, and trees on his land.

Five months ago I, a lifelong city girl, moved to the country with my husband to develop a Catholic family farm. We planned to rear our four children in an environment where they could see God’s natural order firsthand. We also wanted to raise produce and livestock, knowing little about either! Just as the honeymoon period of our move ended — with many unexpected house and outbuilding repairs — serendipity led me to Great Possessions, a book which has helped me adjust to the realities of country life.

These essays show an Amish farmer who is comfortable with his 18th-century horse-and-plow farming methods. He is adept at finding satisfaction in each season of the year. Kline is also a friend of all the animals on his farm. I wasn’t. In fact, I was repeatedly sending my son outside to chase birds off a newly planted oat field with his slingshot.

Yes, the author’s willingness to plow with a horse and live without the comfort of electricity made me angry. Yet my anger changed to appreciation as I read of all the simple pleasures he has learned to enjoy without so much as setting foot off his property.

Kline’s essays taught me to see the role of wildlife on our farm. I began to see our enormous mulberry tree as a source of food and a refuge for birds rather than a monstrous mess. The sight of woodchucks no longer sent “destroy” signals to my brain. If Kline could accept woodchucks, I could too. I started to recognize that there would be enough food for all.

Kline knows farming. He also knows how to integrate family living into his work. Elsie and David Kline have five children. Together they handle the chores — and watch birds. They keep annual lists of birds seen on their farm.

Kline lives in a special community. One year, when he was in the hospital for surgery after an accident, his father and neighbors harvested his 12-acre wheat field. Another year, he and other Amish folk mowed 11 acres of hay for a farmer recovering from pneumonia.

We, too, live in an area where people still help one another. A farmer plowed our four-acre field and didn’t send us a bill. We asked another neighbor how to repay this man. “Bring him a ham,” he suggested. When we did, the farmer jokingly said to his wife, “We made out pretty good on this one!” A mechanical genius of a neighbor helped us fix our water tank and then later our septic tank. His time and knowledge saved us money and, more importantly, brought a rich friendship into our lives. Another farmer cut and baled our oats for hay, boasting that he wouldn’t charge a cent.

Kline graciously shares a wealth of practical information about farming and wildlife that can interest city and country readers alike. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to meet him in these natural history essays. If I could talk to David Kline beneath the serviceberry tree, I would find out more about how he relates to God. I know he could teach me a great deal.

The Church: Pilgrim of Centuries

By Thomas Molnar

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 182

Price: $15.95

Review Author: Thomas Weinandy

Except for his belief in divine providence, to which he clings in this volume by the slenderest of threads, Thomas Molnar would be a man without hope. Only his tenacious, but often unconvincing, hold upon this divine attribute keeps him from thoroughly despairing of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. So disheartened is he and so severe are his criticisms of present-day Catholicism that one wonders whether his trust in divine providence will ultimately snap under the weight. As for the future of Western society and culture, Molnar has long since despaired.

Molnar’s central thesis is that, unlike times past when its chief rival was the secular state, today’s Church competes with civil society, specifically liberal Western society. He demonstrates not only that Western governments have been thoroughly infected by the agenda of civil society — i.e., the syllabus of the liberal intellectuals and the media — but also that the Catholic Church itself has been compromised and infiltrated. Thus Molnar relentlessly and vehemently narrates the familiar evidence — the relativizing of moral theology, the compromising of doctrine and tradition, the unraveling of Church discipline.

Molnar is unhappy with practically everyone and everything in the Church. He is obviously most upset with those bishops, priests, religious, and theologians who have fallen under the liberal spell. But he also berates the Fathers of Vatican II (there “the church consented to its own secularization, surrendering to hostile ideologies in the world and in the ecclesiastical ranks”), and Pope Paul VI (“a tortured man, consumed in pride,” who symbolically capitulated to society by giving up his tiara). Even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II are not spared. The only person to receive resounding praise is Mother Teresa. In an otherwise dark assessment, Molnar detects a small glimmer of light, and thus hope, among the missionary churches of the Third World.

Molnar correctly concludes that the Church is not in the best of spiritual health. However, he is too much an institutionalist in his assessments. He myopically focuses on the confused words and deeds of certain vocal churchmen and so misses what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church to show forth the light of Christ.

Molnar rightly insists that the Church must return to its spiritual roots, but he fails to perceive that many present renewal movements within the Church are doing precisely that. Nor does he recognize the rise of the new religious communities, institutes, colleges, and orders that such movements have spawned. He denounces false and misconceived efforts at ecumenism, but is blind to the new and authentic fellowship among Christians of all denominations who take seriously the unalterable truth of the Gospel and the centrality of Jesus Christ. He deeply regrets the departure of so many Catholics from the Church, but fails to rejoice in the new and ever growing wave of converts, some of whom are aggressively intellectual. He sees the precarious state of the present Church, but forgets that this is a golden age of martyrdom. There have been more Christian martyrs during this century than during all the previous Christian centuries combined. It is upon their blood, not upon the bizarre antics of irresponsible ecclesiastics, that the future of the Church will be built.

Molnar’s book is hard to bear, for it fails to distinguish between what is important and what is not (as in the tiara example). Molnar attacks the moral evils in our society and the undermining of Church doctrine with the same tone and stridency that he attacks the demise of Latin in the Mass. Criticisms fly in all directions, and all the time. The major fault of this book, then, which colors it from beginning to end, is a thorough frustration, born from insufficient faith and expectancy. Despite Molnar’s scholarship, erudition, and sincere concern for the Gospel and the Church, he lacks a living sense that Christ will ultimately triumph over the powers of darkness (see Mt. 15:18). It is this absence of confident faith that is the ultimate cause of Molnar’s outlook.

Iraq: Military Victory, Moral Defeat

By Sheed & Ward

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books

Pages: 192

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

The author of this book, Thomas C. Fox, is Editor of the prestigious National Catholic Reporter (NCR). An index of the vitality of Catholicism in the U.S. is the fact that it has several formidable national weekly newspapers such as NCR (curiously, this still vaguely Protestant nation has no comparable Protestant publication to speak of). In terms of depth of coverage of the Gulf War, NCR clearly outperformed its fellow Catholic weekly papers. As for its point of view on the war (opposed), surely NCR was on the side of the angels. Most interestingly, NCR, which has a reputation for rambunctious dissent from Catholic teaching and coolness toward the present pope, was more in line with the vigorous papal opposition to the war than any of its fellow Catholic weekly papers.

This book is a heart-touching account of Fox’s opposition to war in general — beginning with his Vietnam experience — and to the Gulf War in particular, and a fascinating tale of how that commitment played itself out as he and others put the paper together during the crucial weeks of, and surrounding, the war.

Says Fox: “Catholics, I thought, should make the effort to see the world, and what was happening in the Middle East, through the eyes of their universal church and not through the cyclopean eye of U.S. society…. In other words, for ‘U.S. Catholics,’ the war was to pull the ‘U.S.’ from our ‘Catholic’…. NCR tried to stress what it means to be truly ‘Catholic’….” Fox and NCR succeeded admirably. If there were a Catholic Pulitzer Prize, Fox & Co. should get it.

Fox notes that the U.S. did not react with outrage against Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, Syria’s gobbling up much of Lebanon, or Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and southern Lebanon in violation of several U.N. resolutions. Yet, the U.S. reaction to Iraq’s takeover of oil-rich Kuwait was swift and ferocious. Fox quotes NCR’s August 24, 1990, editorial: “Selective sanctions and double standards do not…add to U.S. credibility.” How very true!

But, speaking of double standards, a reader of NCR might ask: Why, when it comes to issues of sexual morality and Church doctrine and discipline, do the Catholics at NCR apparently make less than wholehearted effort to see things “through the eyes of their universal church”? Why do they often stress, rather than minimize, the “U.S.” in “U.S. Catholic”? Why are they often hazy about “what it means to be truly ‘Catholic'”?

What Fox reveals in this book about his commitment to peace and his willingness to suffer personally for that commitment is inspiring — and even intimidating, the way the witness of a saint intimidates. What NCR revealed about the debauchery of the Gulf War has set yet higher standards for Catholic journalism. And what Thomas Fox reveals in this book about his Catholic loyalties should, logically speaking, set even higher standards for the future course of NCR.

William James, Public Philosopher

By George Cotkin

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Pages: 278

Price: $32.50

Review Author:

It was William James who warned that Americans had a yen for idolatry. The idol? Why, “the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” So wrote James to H.G. Wells in 1906. One suspects he’d say the same today.

Indeed, there’s an astuteness in James’s ethical and political analysis that repays our study. Like Pope John Paul II, he was keenly aware of the self-construction that our actions involve. The Pope refers to it as the intransitive dimension of human action. James is more colorful: “Sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

Or consider James on decentralization: “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and [for]…the invisible molecular forces that work from individual to individual….”

George Cotkin’s service, in this handy volume, is to sketch for us James’s role as public philosopher — a social critic grounded in philosophy but looking out to our shared political life rather than inward to academic virtuosity And yet, for all James’s savvy and appeal, his thinking — and legacy — is problematic.

It’s no surprise, for example, that Richard Rorty’s gutted vision of philosophy seeks Jamesian credentials. Nor is it entirely unfair to say that James’s pragmatism, in its own way, feeds into America’s worship of success. It is James, after all, who tells us that truth itself is “only the expedient in the way of our thinking,” that the right is “only the expedient in our way of behaving.”

So fames poses a challenge to Christians doing public philosophy in the American context. A first challenge is to highlight the enduring sources of a personal dignity. A second task is to identify the community (St. Paul writes of it as “a cloud of witnesses”) in which persons come into their own. A final project is to clarify aspects of Christian praxis that transcend the pragmatism of the expedient. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger recently wrote, “whoever does not know how to suffer does not know how to live,” and surely his point tells us much about what to expect in the work of social transformation.

But we must, by all means, read William James. The inculturation of Christianity, in America, makes doing so obligatory — and fascinating.

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