Briefly Reviewed: December 1986
God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School
By Alan Peshkin
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Price: No price given
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
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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