Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: April 2019

Briefly Reviewed: April 2019

A Song for Else, Part II: The Overthrow

By Christopher J. Zehnder

Publisher: Savage Mountain Press

Pages: 430

Price: $15.99

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

Christopher Zehnder’s second volume in his Song for Else series continues the saga of young people caught up in the chaos at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. The setting: early 16th-century Germany, where people endured hard lives amid political, religious, and social upheaval — under a cruelly indifferent ruling class and an arrogant clergy. The added turmoil of deadly diseases and widespread economic distress spread terror across the region. Overwhelming uncertainty about the future, especially the immediate future, troubled all.

The action-packed, conversation-driven narrative moves swiftly, revealing escalating unrest. Zehnder, a master storyteller, conjures the scene of so many families awakened each day to a crisis of basic survival. Their dark lives undoubtedly contribute to the ferocious backlash against abuses perpetrated by clergymen and those profiting from trade in relics and sales of indulgences. Primitive communication channels among the populace are marked by hearsay, gossip, and innuendo, which heighten tensions. The Church appears as too entwined with entities wielding power over employment and infrastructure. Fear of authorities is pervasive, whether of corrupt leaders or petty officials, religious or otherwise, for they control material and spiritual resources. The characters’ on-the-ground reporting signals the impending conflict that will change the Christian world for all time.

Readers meet Lorenz and Sebastian, young friends who had entered a monastery together. Lorenz is saddled with guilt over a previous vow he had made to another — Beatrice, whom he refers to as his Else. (It is helpful, but not necessary, to have read the previous volume, subtitled The Vow.) Both men wrestle with the growing civil, social, and religious unrest. Lorenz’s personal dilemmas are part of the larger drama because he is a scholar and a priest who becomes a member of Martin Luther’s inner circle and supports his call for reforms. Sebastian’s wish is that “you [Lorenz] shall find your way out of the fellowship of those who would not only rend, tear, and destroy our Holy Mother the Church, but lay waste to her beloved flock in our homeland, Germany.”

Zehnder renders compelling accounts of Martin Luther, a religious young man ordained a priest at Erfurt Cathedral in 1508. Four years later, Luther became a doctor of theology and looked forward to a career position at the University of Wittenberg. He witnessed abuses and called out corrupt clergy when many others remained silent. The Church’s failure to address and mitigate scandals contributes to a backlash unleashed not only against abusers but others in power who do little to stop the outrages. Zehnder skillfully employs his characters to expose the venality and wrongdoing that lead to the eruption of violence.

In one monastery, the “rabid Gabriel Swilling” proclaims that “adoring the Eucharist is idolatry…. The Mass is blasphemy — it is high time it was abolished.” And then, “the storm struck Wittenberg.” Nearly all the members of Wittenberg (Augustinians) “abandoned the discipline of the rule.” In a short time, “the monastery’s life collapsed in the bitter gale. Only eight days before the anniversary of Luther’s first great defiance, Mass ceased in the Augustinian church. The life Lorenz had known now for so many years was entirely swept away.” The scale of the upheaval, along with the violence, shocks Lorenz. A crowd rushes into the church with knives and rocks; some of them are Lorenz’s students. Priests are accused of idolatry; a mob damages and defiles a church. Lorenz truly doubts that Luther would approve of such violence.

Lorenz’s friends, Veit and Greta Scheuerlin, maneuver through the religious turmoil with great differences of opinion. She is “decidedly Evangelical” and addresses the issue of idolatry with Lorenz: “You yourself know that monasteries are full of idolatry and even vice!” The use of images, prayer in front of statues, and the infamous abuse of indulgences are criticized. Traditions, legends, and superstitions that arose from pre-Christian history, habits, and folklore are questioned. Veit and Lorenz disagree on the value of the Evangelicals and their message. Veit “as a lawyer” declares his viewpoint that “Luther was not about correcting this abuse here and refining that doctrine there; he was about leveling the Church to its foundations, and with the Church would fall the Empire and all peace and security in Germany.” Meanwhile, Greta’s cousin Beatrice, Lorenz’s Else, has become Schwester (Sister) Agnes. (Although her name occupies the series title, Else takes a back seat in this volume.)

Zehnder’s prose dazzles with mystical overtones delivered via the formalities of the era, and he captures the full range of human emotions through the trials of his players: fear, hesitancy, caution, confusion, and, from time to time, outright panic. They wonder who is in charge. Who can be trusted? Is there a viable plan to keep order? What will happen to hierarchical structures in the Church? Of course, no one could foresee the shocking consequences that would result from the Reformation. Ordinary citizens just sought relief from clergy-driven abuses and their role merely to serve and obey.

As the narrative continues, Lorenz stays grounded in reality. He “knew the power and relentlessness of the peasant’s foes — the Church and the princes. The peasants may have driven them back…. But the hand bedecked with rings, clasping the crosier, could not be stayed for long.” He foresees that when “at last they joined together — and they would join, Catholic prelate and Evangelical prince — they would trample on the peasants in the onrush of their implacable wrath. No mercy. They would not tempt such an uprising ever again.” An attack on a church and its statues leaves Lorenz injured and a priest dead, as violent confrontations spread. The Church herself is exposed as a dominant temporal power, wielding clout in unpredictable ways.

Institutions that become too powerful and too political can turn tyrannical. Reformation-era ecclesiastical corruption led to painful divisions that persist to this day. With these bitter seeds sown, readers may wonder if the third part of Zehnder’s trilogy is on the horizon. Meanwhile, this spirited contribution to the annals of the West’s chaotic, violent history is not to be missed.

An Economics of Justice & Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, Its Development and Contemporary Relevance

By Thomas Storck

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 182

Price: $16.95

Review Author: David Arias

A scholar who has written many excellent articles for the NOR over the years, Thomas Storck needs no introduction here. Yet his most recent book, An Economics of Justice & Charity, most certainly deserves to be introduced to readers of the NOR.

After a powerful and illuminating foreword by Peter Kwasniewski, Storck provides his own introduction wherein he briefly delineates the nature of Catholic social teaching. Taken generally, it is nothing other than the Church’s “teaching that deals with the rights and duties of men organized in society.” This teaching articulates how the Church stands in relation to the state, spells out the rights of the Holy Father and the bishops, and, to quote Pope Pius XI, even concerns “the rights of the Creator, Redeemer, and Lord, Christ Himself, over men and nations.” Taken more specifically or narrowly, Catholic social teaching consists in the Church’s teaching on economic morality, which, in truth, follows from and is inseparable from the Church’s teaching on the nature of political community and the rights and duties just mentioned. It is chiefly with this narrower sense of Catholic social teaching in mind that Storck goes about his business.

Storck distills and delineates the essential teachings of the Church on economic morality, presented in historical order, beginning with our Lord’s preaching. He divides this abundance of teaching as follows: from its beginnings through Leo XIII, from Pius X through Pius XI, from Pius XII through Paul VI, John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, and, finally, Benedict XVI and Francis. These six chapters reveal that, from many years of study, Storck has mastered the teachings of these chief texts and has become an adept expositor of their content. For instance, Storck shows how the later Church teachings build on earlier ones by unfolding what is implicitly contained within them and by applying the earlier teachings to novel circumstances. Storck quotes Benedict XVI, who notes explicitly that it is a profound error to think that there are somehow two opposed social doctrines of the Church, “one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.”

In the seventh and final chapter of his book, Storck looks at the authority that belongs to the Church’s social teaching. After reviewing the teachings of both Vatican Councils on the ways in which the Church can teach something infallibly, Storck opines that, despite what many might think, at least a handful of truths pertaining to the social doctrine of the Church have been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Among them are the principle of subsidiarity and the illicitness of usury.

Storck wraps matters up with four appendices that treat the question of usury, what Centesimus Annus really teaches, a review of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and a consideration of whether economic justice is possible in this world. All four appendices are excellently thought out and argued, and the appendix on usury is so illuminating that on its own it is worth the price of the book.

Storck ends with an epilogue in which he shows how, if properly followed, Catholic social teaching can make our economic policies and economic activities nothing less than acts of homage to our Lord and God, the Sovereign King of every aspect of the created order — economic matters included! As Storck puts it, “Economic activity is for the sake of fulfilling human needs and supporting human life. It is not an end in itself. Profit is not an end in itself, but is useful only if it is a sign that the [business] firm is supplying some human need and playing its part in the great hierarchy of human actions that reaches from our lowest activities up to Jesus Christ, the king of creation.”

Storck’s book is an excellent contribution to Catholic theology. Besides being luminous in its explication of the Church’s teachings on economic morality and of the genuine development of doctrine, it inspires the reader to want to live the social teachings of the Church as fully as possible, that he might give greater glory to God. Indeed, An Economics of Justice & Charity is one of the very few texts I have recommended, and will continue to recommend, to those students of mine who want to delve deeper into the Church’s teachings on economic morality.

I recommend to NOR readers Thomas Storck’s webpage, www.thomasstorck.org. One of the treasures found there is a free PDF of Storck’s book Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (1998). That earlier book serves as a great complement to An Economics of Justice & Charity and explains many of the principles the latter book presupposes.

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture

By Anthony Esolen

Publisher: Regnery

Pages: 203

Price: $27.99

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Nowadays, most authors who excoriate our current way of life take the viewpoint of sociology, bioethics, politics, or law. But not Anthony Esolen. Instead, he surveys our contemporary society against the backdrop of Western civilization, comparing the glorious works of literature, art, architecture, and music created in the past millennia to what he calls the “rubble” made in the present. I was reminded throughout my reading of Out of the Ashes of the searing satires of Juvenal (ca. A.D. 55-127), who targeted the corruption of Roman civilization.

Esolen uses the lash effectively. Early on, he notes that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve was “to believe a lie.” Today, we swallow a vast number of lies as a matter of course, he says, such as the lies that the U.S. Constitution forbids prayers at public meetings or that family structure does not matter. Even after Drs. Bernard Nathanson and Alan Guttmacher admitted that the statistics on which the U.S. Supreme Court based its Roe v. Wade decision — that a million women had died from illegal abortions — were “made up,” the lie still prevails. Mass media, mass politics, and mass education keep cramming us with lies of an even higher order, such as those of diversity, inclusivity, and democracy.

Esolen compares the one-room schoolhouses that flourished from 1895 to 1969 with today’s public schools. The one-room schoolhouse was a place of “real culture” directed toward “the highest and noblest things,” he writes, but the modern school instructs youngsters in “sexual expression” and “transgender rights,” with textbooks providing reading material. In the past, students were taught grammar, history, and literature, but now they are given only history projected onto “the flat template of political action or political ideology.”

Our former culture passed on to the young “things that a people considers most sacred,” but now they are taught to swallow multiculturalism, “a universal cultural solvent” that destroys both religion and culture. Esolen thinks that today’s public schools are “beyond reform.” The 12 years kids spend in school are “in large part an enormous waste of time,” he says, “because very little of the true, the good, and the beautiful is learned there.” Those years waste more than time — they waste life itself.

On the topic of rebuilding the colleges, Esolen observes that an old college motto such as Veritas implicitly acknowledged the existence of God, the moral law, and the beauty of pursuing truth. Today, however, “truth” is limited to its mathematical and scientific components, and colleges are “committed to a moral inversion.” There is even a new orthodoxy that denies “rational analysis” solely to make itself “immune from criticism.”

When he was a student at Princeton, Esolen recalls, the most popular course was one on Shakespeare, but today the most popular course is called “Young Adult Fiction,” about a genre that features guerillas, vampires, sluts, and suicides. A century ago, students at Harvard were immersed in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome and from that promontory could “survey the rest of Western arts and letters.” But now they take a course in teenage dystopias, from which “puddle” they can “survey exactly nothing.” Esolen mourns that people today “can study themselves into a degree of stupidity for which Nature alone could never suffice.”

Even so, there remain a number of colleges that “keep to the immemorial truths” or “permanent things,” and he gives examples, such as Christendom College. Esolen lavishes praise on the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, once taught by John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick. Sadly, he is right when he says that such a program “could not now be established at Yale or Harvard.”

In a chapter called “Restoring Manhood,” Esolen complains of the “callous bigotry against normal boys” in the U.S., and he wonders why every culture but ours recognizes that a boy “must be made into a man,” and that manhood must be “publicly affirmed” and may be lost “by cowardice or effeminacy.” At the start of the sexual revolution, Pope St. Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae (1968) that with the widespread use of contraception, “women would become the sexual playthings of man.” But he didn’t foresee that women, in turn, would use men as their playthings. Some thought that an “open season on girls” was coming, but none foresaw that “it would be open season on boys, confusing them and corrupting them in their never-sure senses of developing masculinity.”

Esolen speaks with admiration of medieval guilds and Renaissance ateliers, in which boys were apprenticed to learn an art or craft. He states that guilds and schools for boys are needed again, for if men are to be men, “brotherhoods” must be revived. Esolen rightly calls it “willed stupidity” to refuse to admit that men and women “are different from one another, down to the roots.” Hence, he urges the “necessity” of patriarchy, that bugbear of feminists, warning that the alternative to having real fathers — in the “full sense implied by a phrase like ‘city fathers’” — is a “police state” or “brute male domination.”

In a chapter on “Restoring Womanhood,” Esolen writes on the endearing womanliness of Shakespeare’s Cordelia and Rosalind, and Dickens’s Esther Summerson. On the other side, he rightly depicts Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan as ideologues militating against homes and families. Such feminists despise the women of many talents who stay at home and raise families, instead exalting women who do “one thing well,” like dragging “paperwork up the sides of social pyramids” at the “expense of the family.” He grieves over neighborhoods with few children that are merely geographical constructs. The children who are there rarely enjoy spontaneous outdoor play but engage only in “ordered competition, arranged and controlled by adults.”

In the chapter “Recovering the Polis,” Esolen says that in 1920 there were 21 times as many people on school boards as today. Now rules are handed down from above, and authority has been stolen from local citizens. There is a fake “diversity,” not the real thing. Today’s “atomized, infantilized” man has fallen under the thumb of the “all-smothering” state with its “immense bloodsucking bureaucracies.”

In sum, Esolen has written a powerful, no-holds-barred, Juvenalian critique of our current mores. Yet by the end of his book, he still has hope: “Someday people will wake up and say, ‘Why did we believe such a mass of stupidities, cruelties, and lies?’” He believes we will then return to “the great and real things, no less real for having been so long denied, despised, and forgotten.”


©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

I Confess

I now receive Communion in my hand, after wanting to switch from receiving on the tongue for many years, for several reasons.

Briefly: March 1996

Reviews of St. Francis of Assisi: Writings for a Gospel Life... Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings... Francis de Sales: Finding God Wherever You Are... The Recovery of the Sacred: Reforming the Reformed Liturgy... The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective...

Snapshots from a Religious & Literary Pilgrimage

We travel under the pretense of being receptive, really looking for what we think we already know. Yet we are occasionally genuinely surprised.