Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: December 1986

Briefly Reviewed: December 1986

God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School

By Alan Peshkin

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 349

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Bryce J. Christensen

A fundamentalist Christian high school is the last place one would expect to find a Jewish professor of education. For 18 months, Alan Peshkin of the Uni­versity of Illinois attended classes at “Bethany Baptist Academy” (BBA) in “Hartney,” Illinois, and visited the homes and worship services of its students and fac­ulty. In God’s Choice, Peshkin tries to be fair to a group whose beliefs diverge sharply from his own. For the most part, he suc­ceeds.

Drawing upon his extensive surveys and interviews, Peshkin allows teachers, administrators, and students to speak for them­selves about their hopes for this distinctively Christian school. Overall, the picture is one of re­markable success in overcoming countervailing cultural pressures on modern American teenagers. A few Bethany students harbor doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture and other Baptist doc­trines. A few break school rules by listening to rock music, danc­ing, reading racy novels, or drink­ing beer at summer parties. But most of the student body find fulfillment and self-identity by accepting the prescribed beliefs, conduct, and dress. Nor has this religious discipline been achieved at the expense of academic train­ing: Bethany students score at or above the national norms on standardized tests.

Peshkin emphasizes the sharp contrast between Bethany and the public schools, from the religious calendars on the walls to the sermonettes in math class on tithing. (A discussion of the differences between Bethany and a Catholic or Lutheran school might have further clarified the peculiarities of the fundamental­ist ethos.) Because of the public schools’ descent into academic and moral chaos in recent dec­ades, it comes as no surprise that Peshkin found a significant num­ber of non-fundamentalist parents attracted to the school by its dis­cipline and orderliness. Most re­port satisfaction with the results.

Yet Peshkin has doubts. He worries about the cultural and political narrowness of the edu­cation Bethany gives its pupils. Students do not learn to cherish democratic pluralism at BBA and instead are turned into True Be­lievers. Catholics, Mormons, Hin­dus, and other religious groups come in for classroom attacks, and Peshkin fears that anti-Sem­itism lurks not far beneath the surface. The title, God’s Choice, is clearly ironic.

But the irony cuts in a different direction if we ask not whether God has chosen the fun­damentalists as His people (a proposition many Christians would dispute as vigorously as Peshkin), but whether God has chosen the parents of all chil­dren, including the students at BBA, to bear the primary respon­sibility for educating their own offspring. That understanding of “God’s choice” extends far be­yond fundamentalism, far be­yond Christianity, and at least as far back as the days when Anchises instructed Aeneas on the history of Troy and Ulysses gave Telemachus lessons in vengeful archery.

In theory, American parents still enjoy the right to direct the education of their children, while school teachers are still common­ly supposed to act in loco paren­tis. In fact, many parents can af­ford nothing but the public schools, paid for with their taxes, where the few teachers who dare touch moral or religious topics seem hell-bent on erasing every vestige of parental conviction. Perhaps Peshkin “cannot believe that children…leave the public schools any more or any less god­less than when they entered.” An increasing number of parents be­lieve otherwise. Some, like the parents of Bethany’s students, make the necessary sacrifice to send their children to a private school that will inculcate their own beliefs. Others can only hope and pray for the day that parental choice becomes less costly. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s proposal for a $600 tax credit for poor blacks who choose private schools, a proposal supported by the Amer­ican Catholic bishops, could mark an important first step in that direction.

Peshkin regards the exis­tence of fundamentalist schools in America as one of the inescap­able “paradoxes of pluralism,” and he hopes “the day never comes when…Christian schools must be suppressed or curtailed in any way.” But since many more parents of every creed would give their children a religious education if not economically forced into the public schools, it is hard not to con­clude that Christian schooling has already been effectively cur­tailed. If Peshkin’s solicitude for pluralism extended as fully to in­stitutions as it does to individu­als, perhaps he could see that by allowing the public schools to en­joy a virtual monopoly on af­fordable education, we have cre­ated less than a paradox. We have created a standing contradiction.

The Christian Faith: An Essay on the Structure of the Apostles’ Creed

By Henri de Lubac

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 353

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Thomas W. Case

Henri de Lubac, one of the most respected theologians of our age, gives us in this book an exhaustive analysis of the Apos­tles’ Creed — what it is historical­ly, what it means, what it does for the Christian faith. The book may be divided roughly into two parts. The first marshals state­ments of the early Fathers and usages of liturgical forms in apostolic times to prove (in a not too convincing manner) that the Creed is not a laundry list of disparate articles, but a strictly Trinitarian formulation that first identifies the Father, then tells the story of the Son, and finally signifies the works of the Holy Spirit. Following the words, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” are these works: the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints the forgiveness of sins, the resur­rection of the body, and life ev­erlasting.

The second part of the book reveals — through linguistic analysis — the essential quality of Christian faith, which is unique to Christianity and, in fact, de­fines it. De Lubac points out that the phrase credere in is a sole­cism. It is as if one were to say, “I love in you” rather than “I love you.” This is almost to say, “I love within and because of you,” and the early Christian in­vention of credere in means something analogous: My faith is a faith of hope and love engen­dered in me under the shield of the Holy Spirit. De Lubac con­cludes (following St. Augustine), “there is no difference between the impulse of faith and that of charity.”

Regarding charity, I was thrilled to see an eminently orth­odox theologian refuse to con­sign it to some unreachable an­gelic realm. I must end with a quote that is a succinct and pro­found antidote to both the “angelizers” and “secularizers” of Christianity: “Periodically in the history of Christian thought, a discussion will bring into conflict the defenders of a natural love and those of an entirely disinter­ested love; reproaches of egoism and of utopianism are exchanged…both [sides are] wrong…. It is on the level of natural love, or rather it is from the root of this love, that there arises either, through depravity, the poisonous tree of egoism which ‘bends’ back to the earth; or else, by transfiguration, the stem which bears the flower of pure love.”

Origen: Spirit and Fire

By Edited by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Publisher: The Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 416

Price: No price given

Review Author: Raymond T. Gawronski

Quality must abide, with­standing the moths and rust and fire of time. This book, now translated into English after its appearance in German in 1938, is witness to that truth. The thought and work of Origen wit­nesses to it many times over.

Born not quite 200 years af­ter Christ, Origen was a theolo­gian of incomparable brilliance. His greatness prompted von Bal­thasar to write in his Introduc­tion: “It is all but impossible to overestimate Origen and his im­portance for the history of Chris­tian thought. To rank him be­side Augustine and Thomas sim­ply accords him his rightful place in this history.”

Although certain ideas at­tributed to Origen were subse­quently condemned, the basic greatness of his work was such that “there is no thinker in the Church who is so invisibly all-present as Origen.” This antholo­gy represents the fruit of seminal labors to bring his work, purified by a Sahara of time, to the light.

Von Balthasar has topically structured the readings under four headings in ascending order: Soul, Word, Spirit, and God. The main sections are further divided in a brilliantly organized organic fashion, giving continuity to the inevitable choppiness of selec­tions placed together. Moreover, each subsection is introduced by a paragraph that summarizes its contents.

The book offers a ready taste of the thought of the great Alexandrian. Being at the very fonts of the Christian theological tradition, it is no surprise to read excerpts from the first doctrine of spiritual senses, from the first mystical commentary on the Song of Songs, and from some of the earliest work on the “spiri­tual battle” which provided for­mulations that would find their way to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Although contemporary readers may stumble at Origen’s exegesis, von Balthasar observes that “few today know, in the age of philological precision and analysis, that the bible has God as its author and that as Origen can’t help repeating, it must have a meaning that is worthy of God — or none at all.”

Lest one cling to an illusion that Origen’s spirituality is all spiritualizing avoidance, he beau­tifully writes: “If ‘the way that leads to life is narrow and hard,’ then you must have much bitter­ness in this life and be separated from all sweetness. Or do you not know that your festival is to be celebrated with bitter herbs?”

The translator, Robert J. Daly, S.J., notes that, “Von Balthasar’s introduction, although written in 1938, still remains the best brief introduction to the heart, soul and spirit of Origen’s writings.” Something of the re­verse would seem to be true as well: von Balthasar has been so clearly influenced by Origen, that those who enjoy von Baltha­sar will find their appreciation greatly enhanced by the knowl­edge of Origen they can here se­cure.

Something of the devotion behind this work is captured in these words of Origen: “I want to be a man of the Church. I do not want to be called by the name of some founder of a here­sy, but by the name of Christ, and to bear that name which is blessed on the earth. It is my de­sire, in deed as in Spirit, both to be and to be called a Christian. If I…do something against the discipline of the Church and the rule of the Gospel so that I be­come a scandal to…the Church, then may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and throw me away.”

In the pages of this book, one will have the pleasure of en­countering the mind and heart of the Man of Steel, as early theolo­gians called Origen.

Family and Nation

By Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Pages: 207

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Keith Bower

This book is an articulate and charming explanation of sev­eral social conundrums and a his­tory of the programs that re­sponded to them. Senator Moy­nihan, as the title of his book in­dicates, shows concern for the fate of the family in our society. However, not far into the book, which he presented initially in 1985 as the Godkin Lectures at Harvard, one suspicions that his concern has shifted toward pro­tecting the fate of the Great So­ciety programs he helped birth and nurture in the 1960s and 1970s. As a good midwife, he evinces a vicarious maternal protectiveness toward that baby born of Camelotian optimism and LBJ’s ambition to be anoth­er FDR.

Moynihan argues that Reaganite welfare-bashers (like Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground, the critique of child-support programs to which these lectures were a response) cannot legitimately prove any link be­tween the programs and huge black and white illegitimacy rates, which everyone agrees have soared since 1960. But Moynihan’s suggestion that the gradual lowering of the age of menarche is a possible cause of the rise in illegitimacy rates is as close as he comes to admitting that the de­struction of poor families might have something to do with sex. The age of menstruation wasn’t the only thing lowered in the past half century that might have resulted in an increased birthrate to unmarried females.

That the large-scale destruc­tion of family life among the poor might have something to do with morality is something soci­ologists — and Moynihan is also an accomplished sociologist — usually aren’t prepared to ad­dress. Society’s inability to keep its daughters unsullied is not dis­cerned by scanning the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau’s Abstract for clues — they don’t show up; immorality is radar-proof. For all the talk about dependency on govern­ment assistance causing family break-up, the dependency of sin­ners on their particular brand of sin could stand scrutiny. A man of Moynihan’s brilliance is bound to get around to that eventually.

Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas

By Arvin Vos

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 178

Price: $13.95

Review Author: Franklin Debrot

Books by Protestant schol­ars making a sympathetic effort at comparing Thomas Aquinas’s theology with that of the Re­formers’ or the Protestant tradi­tion are rare. The present one, written by Arvin Vos, a Reform­ed Christian and Professor of Phi­losophy at Western Kentucky University, is broadly conceived and aimed at a fairly wide audience. It compares Aquinas’s gen­eral theology with Calvin’s and that of contemporary Protestant critics of Aquinas. It is an im­pressive book, admirable both in its purpose and the effectiveness with which it achieves it. It would be easy in a study of this sort to gloss over the complex­ities and slip into vague general­ities and simplemindedness. But Vos is energetic in discerning substantial compatibility where most have previously found tan­gled knots of disagreement. Moreover, Vos’s arguments are always substantial — sufficiently detailed and well documented.

The reader is in good hands with Vos. His analysis skillfully finds its way through Aquinas’s formidable analytical circum­spection, demonstrating to the reader that Aquinas’s contempo­rary Protestant critics should have little to object to in Aqui­nas’s position, any more than Calvin would have, had he had first-hand knowledge of Aquinas, which Vos gives us reason seri­ously to doubt.

Throughout this book one senses a wonderful spirit of ecu­menism — but not what, govern­ed by the rule of the lowest com­mon denominator, all too often goes by that name. Being a peacemaker, seeking the reconcil­iation of two estranged brothers, Vos cultivates an awareness of what is central — the common bond, the identity which was lost sight of in turbulent times.

The Liberation of One

By Romuald Spasowski

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Pages: 687

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Lucy Mazareski

In the modern age ideology is a flourishing successor to faith. Unwilling or unable to place his faith in God, the ideological man invests his hopes for meaning and transcendent human destiny in a man-made material project.

Romuald Spasowski was a typical ideological man. A com­munist and the son of one, he carved out an impressive career in Poland’s communist official­dom: military intelligence agent, Deputy Foreign Minister, envoy and ambassador to foreign coun­tries, including twice Ambassa­dor to the United States. When in 1981, in protest against the imposition of martial law in Po­land and the suppression of Soli­darity, Spasowski requested po­litical asylum in the U.S., he be­came the highest-ranking com­munist official ever to defect to the West. His autobiography is a study of one man’s liberation from the constricted thought patterns of ideology, and his entry into the infinite expanses of faith in God. It is a rather unex­pected conversion story.

Spasowski insists that when he joined fortunes with the So­viet-installed Polish communist government after World War II, he acted not out of opportunism but out of idealism, even patrio­tism, in the sincere belief that the communist ideal of “univer­sal justice and material good” alone could emancipate the mass­es from exploitation. Like his father, a Russophile and one of Poland’s foremost pre-war com­munist writers, Spasowski was convinced of Soviet ideological, cultural, and economic ascendan­cy. When the Soviet Army occu­pied the eastern provinces of Po­land in 1939, Spasowski welcom­ed its arrival. Two years later, when Hitler declared war on Rus­sia, father and son headed east to join the Soviet Army and fight the Nazis. In the attempt, Spas­owski found himself in the Soviet-occupied Polish lands and there discovered the atrocities committed by the Soviet Army and NKVD against the Polish population, and the fixed elec­tions that had “incorporated” those lands into the Soviet Union. He was especially appall­ed by the railway convoys of 1939-1940 in which an estimat­ed two million Polish civilians were deported to Siberia, half of whom perished within the first year — among them his own grandmother, uncle, and the let­ter’s entire family.

Nor does he claim ignorance of the estimated 15,000 Polish officers who vanished from Sovi­et captivity in early 1940 — the remains of some 5,000 of whom showed up later in mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, each with a bullet in the base of his skull. But there was no deter­ring the young communist. War­saw’s rubble had scarcely ceased to smoke when Spasowski joined the new Polish Communist Army School for Political Officers. Continued protestations of ideal­ism, patriotism, and especially Soviet “superiority” in the face of such wanton butchery will ring barefacedly hollow to many readers.

Nevertheless, he writes that the apogee of his life was the day in 1985 when he was baptized in­to the Catholic Church by John Cardinal Krol in Philadelphia. He is a man who experienced the loss of his dignity (and his son through suicide) in the service of a false and murderous ideology, but who ultimately rose to spiri­tual liberation.

Tikkun magazine. Vol. 1, No. 1

By

Publisher:

Pages: 130

Price: $5

Review Author:

Jewish ideological quarrels resemble blood feuds among West Virginia mountaineers in their ferocity and savagery. Since the 1930s the intellectual land­scape has been littered with the casualties of a warfare that, in its various guises, has pitted Trotskyites against Stalinists, anti-communists against anti-anti-communists, socialists against liberals. New Left against Old Left. In recent years this conflict has taken a surprising turn: sig­nificant numbers of Jewish intel­lectuals — led by writers associ­ated with Commentary and The Public Interest — have migrated to the Right, leaving the Left de­pleted of some of its keenest minds.

Although the Left has re­sponded with a sharp counterat­tack on “neoconservatives,” no magazine has existed to give fo­cus to this opposition — that is, until the appearance this year of Tikkun, a quarterly (soon to be bi-monthly) edited by Michael Lerner. Describing itself as the “liberal alternative to Commen­tary,” Lerner’s magazine seeks to attract both Jews and non-Jews who are disheartened by the rise of neoconservatism. It proposes to reinvigorate a Jewish Left that has lost some of its old fire and panache.

“Tikkun,” a Hebrew word, means “to mend, repair, and transform the world.” Toward this end, Lerner draws inspira­tion from the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, a heritage many Jews have abandoned in an America that offers wealth, influ­ence, and freedom from persecu­tion. He wants to resuscitate a Jewish sense of identity that has been rooted historically in fami­ly, community, and the Hebrew religion. Like the Old Testament prophets, Lerner believes that “the world needs to be and can be transformed.” Such a trans­formation, Lerner argues, must be grounded in the moral wis­dom of Judaism, a religion forg­ed in the crucible of suffering. Tikkun intends “to provide,’’ Lerner writes in the founding ed­itorial statement, “a voice…for those…who are not embarrassed to dream, for those…who are still moved by the radical spirit of the Prophets and who insist on keeping their message alive.”

While admiring Tikkun’s efforts to restore a noble dream, one must point out certain disconcerting elements in Lerner’s statement of editorial principles. His emphasis on transforming the world hints at utopianism that
has often degenerated into an urge to establish the good society with naked force. Lerner’s admiration for Catholic liberation theology raises the specter of religion in the service of such coercive reconstruction. His enthusiasm for feminism makes one wonder if the Left has learned anything from the ideological debacles of the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite these caveats, one looks with hope upon Tikkun. Christians need to be reminded that the Old Testament contains more than crabbed legalism and bloodthirsty reprisals, and Amer­ica as a whole could benefit from the piercing vision of the Hebrew Prophets. Tikkun’s defense of family, community, and religion should encourage Christians en­gaged in similar efforts.

You don’t have to be Jew­ish to like rye bread, and you don’t have to be Jewish to wel­come the appearance of Tikkun. One wishes it a long and success­ful life.

The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy

By Joseph Ratzinger

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 153

Price: $8.95

Review Author:

Appalled by the “funda­mental breakdown of liturgical consciousness” in recent decades, Cardinal Ratzinger calls for a re­vivification of the faltering litur­gical tradition that has been the lifeblood of the Church for two millennia. Without a vigorous lit­urgy — rites that bind us to our Christian forebears and fuse our being with divine transcendence — the communion of believers will wither. Liturgy cannot be “made” — despite the noisy clamor about novelty and experi­mentation that emanates from clerical projectors and innova­tors; “it has to be simply receiv­ed as a given reality and continu­ally revitalized.” Ratzinger is a traditionalist in the best sense; he does not worship tradition qua tradition: he reveres it because it embodies a timeless transcen­dence that surpasses man’s frail powers of comprehension.

The Cardinal’s ruminations on the importance of liturgy and his prescriptions for renewal will please neither those who pine for the 16th century nor those who look upon the Mass as a three-ring circus to entertain the congregants. The Feast of Faith will, however, hearten those confused and perplexed Catholics who seek to live in the present with­out abandoning the legacy of the past.

East Germany and Detente: Building Authority after the Wall

By A. James McAdams

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 233

Price: No price given

Review Author:

A. James McAdams, an As­sistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a Con­tributing Editor of the NOR, has written a fascinating account of East Germany’s evolving rela­tionship to the outside world since its official establishment in 1949.

Those who think books about communist countries must be either demonological or hagiographic will be disappointed with this one, for it attempts to be non-ideological and succeeds in being an example of political science at its best.

We’ve all heard about the Berlin Wall and how it is a testi­mony to the failure of the East German system. This is true, but only in part. As McAdams notes: the West Germans “had inherited both the more prosperous and least war-ravaged portions” of old Germany, as well as the in­dustrial Ruhr heartland. Further­more, and in sharp contrast, East Germany “had inherited far few­er natural resources, and enjoyed considerably less tangible foreign assistance. Moreover…the East Germans had been afflicted with enormous material losses under Soviet occupation — whole fac­tories had been packed off to the Soviet Union! — and they had been subsequently subjected to huge war reparations payments.” This is not to make excuses for the Wall, but rather to under­stand some of the factors which contributed to it, and also to un­derstand the profound disadvan­tages the East German govern­ment has suffered vis a vis both its own people and West Ger­many since the founding of the two Germanies.

While the Wall was an at­tempt by the East German re­gime to establish its authority in the eyes of its people, McAdams argues that East Germany’s (re­luctant) engagement in the (risky) detente process with West Germany and the West generally — a process the East German elite clearly feared — bestowed an authority on the East German regime in the eyes of its own people which the Wall never did really give it. One senses that the East German elite was as surpris­ed by this outcome as was most everyone else.

East Germany started out as a pariah state, a “sick man” of post-war Europe, a state which many people felt had no reason to exist and only slight prospects for viability. This book is really a study in irony — an account of the surprising transformation of East Germany over the last 37 years into “one of Europe’s…increasingly important” coun­tries.

The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Volume II: The Tender Passion

By Peter Gay

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 490

Price: $24.95

Review Author:

Peter Gay ought to win the Religious Right’s award for Secu­lar Humanist of the Year. In his many books he has, among other things, hailed the Enlighten­ment’s repudiation of Christian­ity; engagingly portrayed that arch-villain, Voltaire; written ad­miringly of the German socialist Eduard Bernstein; celebrated the rise of artistic modernism; and urged Freudianism upon his fel­low historians. This is the stuff of which conservative Christians fabricate their enemies. But if Gay is a scoundrel to some Chris­tians, he also happens to be a gifted scholar, a historian who has risen to the top of his profes­sion. No one, no matter how strong his aversion to socialism, Freud, modernism, or the En­lightenment, can comprehend the intellectual history of mod­ern Europe without perusing Peter Gay’s books.

In 1984 Gay embarked up­on a projected five-volume exam­ination of bourgeois culture be­tween the 1820s and World War I. In the first book he treated the Victorians’ sexual manners and mores; in the second volume, The Tender Passion, he delves in­to their thinking on love, an emotion that conjoined, in their view, equal measures of “affec­tion” and “concupiscence,” or, to use Freud’s terminology, “the tender and the sensual.” Gay is an enthusiastic Freudian, but like the old Viennese master himself, he knows that if a cigar is a phal­lic symbol, it is also a cigar. He deftly skirts the pit of psycho­logical reductionism as he ranges broadly across the middle-class culture of 19th-century Europe and America.

Far from the uniformly crabbed, neurotic, hypocritical figures of popular imagination, Gay’s Victorians emerge as peo­ple who forged sex and love into the foundation for frequently successful and happy marriages. Repressions, anxieties, misdirect­ed urges, and neurotic syndromes abounded (as they do in any so­ciety), and the Victorians evinc­ed a fair share of “prissiness and prudery,” but there was some­thing else besides. As Gay re­marks, their “ideal was, in two words, married love,” and the Victorians experienced both the ecstatic realization and miserable illusoriness of that ideal. Never again will the epithet “Victor­ian” convey the authoritative ring with which ignorance once so foolishly invested it.

 

©1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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