Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: January-February 1985

Briefly Reviewed: January-February 1985

The Search for Christian America

By Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden

Publisher: Crossway Books

Pages: 188

Price: $6.95

Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.

The Religious Right offers an enticingly facile exposition of American history: Providence called John Winthrop and his Puritan followers out of the reli­gious corruption of England and led them to the shores of Massa­chusetts Bay where they estab­lished the New Israel, a people appointed by God to bear his truth to a sin-befouled world. A century and a half later the American colonists fought — with God’s approval — a successful war for independence and es­tablished a nation ordained by God as an exemplar to all man­kind. The new nation flourished, grew powerful and prosperous, and elicited awe and admiration from the peoples of the earth. Sometime in the 20th century a snake slithered into the garden and proceeded to poison the re­public with secular humanism. Only a crusade by militant Bible-believers can slay the monster and return America to its Chris­tian origins.

In The Search for Christian America Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden — three respected and much-pub­lished historians — undertake to refute this interpretation of American history. There is at first glance nothing surprising in their opposition to the Religious Right; after all, it is no secret that the academy harbors as high a concentration of secularists and moral relativists as one is likely to find in America. But the au­thors belong to a rare and dif­ferent breed of academician: they are dedicated evangelical Protestants who decry the moral decay and deleterious relativism of our society, but who also reject the mode of national salva­tion proffered by the Moral Ma­jority and its allies.

They not only discredit the Religious Right’s rendition of American history but also con­struct an alternative view of the past, one that will enable evan­gelicals “to respond effectively to relativistic secularism.” Theirs is, ultimately, a labor of love for the evangelical faith they profess.

After scrutinizing the Puri­tan’s “Holy Commonwealth,” the authors move to the heart of their book: a careful analysis of the era of revolution and nation-building. They dismiss the idea that America is — or ever has been — God’s chosen nation, contending instead that the con­cept of national chosenness end­ed with Christ’s coming to this earth.

Even more offensive to many evangelicals, they assert that “America is not a Christian country, nor has it ever been one.” The authors agree that sec­ular humanism threatens to crip­ple the Judeo-Christian tradition to which most Americans adhere, but they point out that Chris­tians themselves have inadver­tently fostered secularism through their enthusiastic participation in a civil religion that con­flates Christianity and American patriotism.

Escape from the present debacle lies not in attempting to resurrect a period of Christian nationhood that never existed anyway, but in struggling to win “hearts and souls to Christian commitment” and in engaging in a politics “marked by humility” and dedicated to the promotion of morality and justice.

In recent years politically conservative Roman Catholics have furnished a fertile recruiting ground for the Rev. Falwell and the other political preachers of the Right. This situation is laden with irony, for the evangelicals’ talk of Christian nationhood and chosenness springs from a long tradition of anti-Catholicism.

If America is indeed a Chris­tian nation chosen by God to do his will, then it would appear that the Lord is a Romanophobe. It is a dolorous commentary on the present religious and political confusion in America to realize that many Roman Catholics will probably denounce the efforts of Professors Noll, Hatch, and Mars­den.

Conversions: The Christian Experience

By Edited by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder

Publisher: Eerdmans


Price: $12.95

Review Author: Charlotte Hays

“I was born in England in 1903 with a strong hereditary predisposition toward the Estab­lished Church. My family tree burgeons on every twig with An­glican clergymen,” begins the de­lightfully polished selection from Evelyn Waugh in this anthology of 50 conversion experiences.

Waugh’s piece, of course, describes his famous conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930, but this book — released by a Protestant publishing house — is ecumenical in the best sense of the word. Although the book in­cludes a variety of converts, it doesn’t come across as somehow watered down. The brief intro­ductions are excellent.

As a modern reader, I was most interested in those writers, including Sergius Bulgakov and Malcolm Muggeridge, who left Christianity early in life for the religion of Marxism, but realized that this new form of faith only fosters a new barbarism.

Bulgakov (1871-1944) was “born in a priest’s family, and Levite blood of six generations flowed in my veins.” But after a brief, stultifying stint at an Or­thodox seminary, he lost his faith and “fell victim to a gloomy revolutionary nihilism.” He repudiated Orthodoxy and began a distinguished career that eventually landed him at the Uni­versity of Moscow as a political scientist.

Bulgakov became a prolific apologist for Marxism and held “a passionate emotional belief in an earthly paradise,” while “a re­ligious emptiness reigned in my soul.” But in 1908 Bulgakov went to Dresden and stood in front of a Raphael Madonna, and he experienced intense joy. He was still a Marxist, but “I was obliged to call my contemplation of the Madonna ‘prayer.’”

Later in 1908 Bulgakov vis­ited the hermitage of a monk. He arrived in a state of “acute dis­tress” and was “cold and unfeel­ing” during the Vespers. But walking alone in the woods, he came upon the monk, whose presence triggered his complete conversion: “I heard from the el­der that all human sin was like a drop of water in comparison with the ocean of divine love.” He went on to renounce Marxism and join a cluster of Russian Christian exiles in Paris.

For Malcolm Muggeridge, too, it was the Prodigal’s flight from the earthly paradise promised by Marxism that brought him to Christianity. He describes how the “dream” of such a paradise “dissolved for me, never to be revived” while in Moscow. Yet, Muggeridge writes that the communist countries “provide the perfect circumstances for the
Christian faith to bloom anew — so uncannily like the circumstances in which it first bloomed
at the beginning of the Christian era.” Muggeridge’s piece, incidentally, excerpted from his 1969 book Jesus Rediscovered, which dates from the period when he was unable “to recite with total satisfaction one of the
Church’s venerable creeds.”

Although I was especially interested in the interplay be­tween Marxism and Christianity in this book, I enjoyed reading some of the other well-known earlier conversions, including St. Paul’s being knocked off his horse and John Henry Newman’s fastidious account of his painful departure from the Church of England.

Since the language of this book is so powerfully rich, I was appalled that the editors had a lapse of good sense and felt they had to apologize for the “sexist” language in several contributions. But the book is still an excellent anthology that reflects a variety of religious conversions.

Sacrament: A Study Guide

By Peter Stravinskas et al.

Publisher: Twin Circle Publishing Co

Pages: 40

Price: $2

Review Author: Mike Knight

A careful and serious recep­tion of the sacraments is a mark of any Roman Catholic who seeks to grow in the love and ser­vice of God. Many of us might better understand the sacraments by considering this booklet, Sacrament: A Study Guide. The major author is Fr. Peter Stravin­skas, whose contributions here are reprinted from the National Catholic Register. Interspersed with these are commentaries by Henry Dieterich. Appendices are by Dieterich, James Hitchcock, and Peter Sayre.

A lot of information is packed into all these articles, but from the nature of the booklet, many ideas cannot be completely developed. Each article tries to give a sense of the sacredness and fullness of the sacrament; not only is its immediate purpose stressed, but also its broader goal and deeper meaning. Baptism, for instance, not only frees us from Original Sin but disposes us “to hear and accept God’s Word”; it is a continuing grace that enables us to grow in faith, and imposes an obligation on us (or our parents when we are chil­dren) to seek to know the teachings of our Lord and the Church.

The booklet begins with a consideration of the nature of the sacramental system and of grace. Jesus Himself “is the first and greatest sacrament,” a sign from God for our salvation. “Each sacrament is an action of Christ.”

All articles include biblical references which can be used for further consideration or medita­tion, but actual quotes are nec­essarily brief. References are also made to the documents and spir­it of Vatican II and to comments of the Holy Father.

The article on Baptism has a brief but strong meditation on its essential sign, water. Little is said about the sign of Penance, but considerable emphasis is given to the proper attitude needed to re­ceive the sacrament well. All arti­cles emphasize the communal aspect of the sacrament: the indi­vidual not only seeks to grow in grace, but shares with the com­munity as a witness to Christ and to each other. Confirmation turns one “outward with concern for the salvation of the world.” (I especially liked Dieterich’s comment on Confirmation: we receive it “only once, but to ex­perience it at any time, we need only act on it.”)

A number of controversies are considered. Among them are extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the ordination of men only, annulments in Matrimony, the current scant use of confes­sion, and the use (and abuse) of general absolution. In these, the booklet is loyal to the mind of the Church and Vatican direc­tives, and calls us to a spirit of fidelity.

There are three appendices, all interesting. Dieterich and Hitchcock speak of the Reforma­tion with respect to the sacra­ments and the nature and mean­ing of liturgy. The Roman Catho­lic view is presented approvingly, but not in a way to offend other Christians. The final appendix by Sayre, a psychotherapist, pre­sents the sacraments in a spirit of healing and making us whole with Jesus.

As a study guide, this book­let can be a starting point or an inspiring supplement to a fuller course on the sacraments. But it does not give further recom­mended readings or a full picture of the current rituals. There are two quotes from the former ma­trimonial service, for example, but nothing about the current ritual.

All in all, the authors give us a great deal of information that can help us appreciate what Christ has given us.

Power of God: Addresses for the Three Hours

By Dom Gregory Dix

Publisher: Morehouse-Barlow

Pages: 96

Price: No price given

Review Author: Rosamond Kent Sprague

This is a small book, but a jewel. Dom Gregory’s medita­tions on the Passion are the fruit of a long life of holy scholarship, and were written, as the Fore­word tells us, in the shadow of his own approaching death.

Central to the whole is the concept of Good Friday rather than Easter as the real victory ov­er death and sin. The Resurrec­tion is simply the consequence of that unimaginably agonizing bat­tle in which Righteousness became sin for our sakes. The phys­ical suffering, meticulously de­scribed, is something we can be­gin to understand. But the spir­itual suffering from the slimy tentacles of pollution sliding into the spotless soul we can never understand because, for us, sin has become second nature.

No meditation is without an attempt to bring home to the reader the implications of the Crucifixion for his own life. So in “Father, forgive,” we are en­joined “not to leave this church today until, like Him, we have forgiven all that we have to for­give.” And there is practical help offered: the praying of the Lord’s Prayer until one has been able to say the forgiveness clause “without apprehension.”

Dom Gregory was an Angli­can with a profound understand­ing of matters that are sometimes thought to be more Roman Cath­olic than Anglican. He notes, for instance, that the Sacrament of Confession, “a sure and certain channel of His grace,” was “in­stituted with loving haste” the moment Our Lord returned from Calvary. And “we are fools,” he adds, “ungrateful fools, if we ne­glect it.” Of Our Lady he writes, “you cannot be conformed to the image of Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary, unless you too become the child of God and in some sense the child of Mary. It is Jesus Himself who gives you to her to be her child, His own Mother to be your mother, with that sublime generosity with which He gives Himself.”

This would be a wonderful book for Lent. It has enormous print and would be a blessing to those who can read little. What it has to say cannot be written too large for any Christian soul.

Holiness and Politics

By Peter Hinchliff

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 213

Price: No price given

Review Author: Joseph A. Varacalli

Although Peter Hinchliff doesn’t explicitly make the con­nection, his Holiness and Politics can be interpreted as a useful ap­plication of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture.

Niebuhr presented five ideal-typical answers to the ques­tion of the relationship of Chris­tians to the world. Hinchliff’s work is devoted to the less inclu­sive but no less complex question of the relationship of Christians to political activity.

Hinchliff immediately re­jects the two extreme and sim­plistic solutions of either total re­jection or acceptance of political involvement. On the one hand, for Hinchliff, Christians are “earthed” in human society and, as such, “a Christian who does not care about what actually happens in the political sphere, who does not lift a finger to do anything practical about it, is not really a Christian at all.” On the other hand, Hinchliff equally shuns those who easily identify Christ with worldly crusades, whether in the name of the na­tion (as with the Moral Majority) or in the name of Marxism (as with liberation theology).

Hinchliff thus opts for a middle ground between what Niebuhr termed the “Christ against culture” and the “Christ of culture” postures.

Referring back to Niebuhr’s three middle ideal-typical solu­tions, Hinchliff rejects the politi­cally conservative Lutheran “Christ and Culture in Paradox” answer which sees individuals subject to the two separate mo­ralities of God and society and to the conviction that obedience to God requires simple obedience to government. While acknowledg­ing the obedience required to the state as indicated in the New Testament, the author notes that the modern democratic world has altered the meaning of politi­cal loyalty to government: “In a social democracy such as ours, we occupy a mixed status. We are not simply subjects….”

Hinchliff also rejects a sec­ond middle position, called by Niebuhr the “Christ above cul­ture” alternative. Such a position is one that posits the primacy of an otherworldly salvation that, while involving human activity, can only be obtained by power sacramentally bestowed from above — in the traditional Ro­man Catholic understanding it is the Church hierarchy that is the guardian and dispenser of this power. It follows from this posi­tion that Catholics ought to channel their political activity in line with the Church’s teaching authority. Hinchliff will have none of this, given his distinc­tion between the “ideal” Church as defined as “the Body of Christ” and the “actual” Church defined empirically in various ways such as “the denomina­tion” and the “clergy and eccles­iastical leadership.”

Hinchliff seems to prefer what Niebuhr referred to as the “Christ the transformer of cul­ture” model which, while recog­nizing that human nature is fall­en and that some opposition be­tween human institutions and Christianity is inevitable, sees Christianity as the converter of man in culture and society. Most importantly, for Hinchliff the frame of reference of this Chris­tianity is the individual: because “in a pluralist society such as ours there is no common public morality to serve as an agreed framework, the final judgement about how one ought to behave is left to the individual.”

Hinchliff’s work is pro­found and I recommend it. My only qualification, as a Roman Catholic, is regarding Hinchliff’s typically “Protestant” bias-plac­ing primacy on individual con­science over collective ecclesiasti­cal authority. The Roman Catho­lic concept of her teaching au­thority or Magisterium can better explicate, protect, and dissemi­nate the complex social implica­tions of Christian revelation than can, relatively speaking, the var­ious frail intellects of theolo­gians.

The Schillebeeckx Case: Official exchange of letters and documents in the investigation of Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1976-1980

By Edited with introduction and notes by Ted Schoof

Publisher: Paulist Press

Pages: 158

Price: $7.95

Review Author: John F. Maguire

In his meditation on the antiphon Salve Regina, Anselm of Lucca ascribes the work of Mary in guaranteeing the Church’s doc­trinal integrity to her position as Mother of God. The centuries have borne witness to Anselm’s insight. Mary, in virtue of her di­vine maternity — in virtue of the fact that she is the Theotokos — secures, as always, the purity of the doctrine of her Son. Indeed, as John Henry Newman, who had for so long hesitated about devotion to Mary for fear that any honor paid to her might de­tract from worship of God, con­cluded from his studies of the primitive tradition, the Theo­tokos is, as the Church calls her, the Turris Davidica, the Tower of David, “the high and strong de­fense of the King of the true Israel,” and therefore the defense of the true doctrine of the re­demptive Incarnation.

This is why the Church ad­dresses Mary in the Salve Regina, as having “alone destroyed all heresies in the whole world.” Ac­cording to Newman, the recogni­tion of Mary’s dignity as Mother of God involves in itself the rejection of all heresies. Crucially, those who acknowledge Mary’s divine maternity, Newman ob­serves, escape the pitfalls of doc­trinal error in Christology.

For Dutch theologian Ed­ward Schillebeeckx, whose Mar­ian devotion is attested to by his early book Mary, it must surely have been a painful moment when the Church’s Sacred Con­gregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, through an anonymous in­tervener, challenged him with the following quote, with inter­polated remarks by the interve­ner:

Quote: “Since 1953 I [Ed­ward Schillebeeckx] have always been opposed to the formula: ‘Jesus is God and [italics in the Dutch text — Ed. Ted Schoof] man’ [Remark by Congre­gation’s intervenor. But the Council of Chalcedon and later the third Council of Constantinople defined that “Jesus is truly God and truly man”: Denzinger and Schoenmetzer, Enchi­ridion Symbolorum 301 and 544], and also the confusing expression: ‘The man Jesus is God’ [Re­mark: The Blessed Virgin is the Mother of Christ in­sofar as Christ is a man, and the entire Church rightly addresses her as Mother of God]…. Such expressions as ‘Jesus is not only man but also God’ [Remark: There is nothing incorrect about such lan­guage] strip the incarna­tion of its deepest meaning.”

That the Congregation’s in­tervenor felt constrained to in­voke the dogma of Mary as Mother of God, as a way of help­ing Fr. Schillebeeckx to disam­biguate his interpretation of the meaning of the Incarnation, sig­nals the seriousness of the issues at stake in the Congregation’s in­vestigation of Fr. Schillebeeckx’s book Jesus: An Experiment in Christology.

For his part, Fr. Schille­beeckx conducted himself during this investigation (a “trial” in al­most every sense) in such a way as to win from one and all ac­knowledgment of his deep sincer­ity, his great learning, his un­daunted commitment to his work, not to say his flectar non franger, that is, his ability to ac­cept the traditional formulations of the truths of the faith with­out breaking with his own way of stating these truths.

And yet: His own way of stating these truths, even when considered in the light of a num­ber of his useful clarifications, re­mains very much an abiding source of ambiguities. This is par­ticularly true with respect to his complicated discussion of anhypostasis and enhypostasis.

Regarding such crucial but complex topics, the reader is forewarned by editor Ted Schoof, O.P.: “The non-specialist…will probably find the docu­ments [in the Schillebeeckx case] difficult going.” But diffi­culty must give way to need. As Franjo Cardinal Seper, then-prefect of the Congregation con­cludes, the great ambiguity in the book Jesus (“now known to a wide readership”) creates in the readers of Jesus “a right to have such significant information” as Schillebeeckx’s clarifications “made available to them.”

To be sure, despite these clarifications, “ambiguity per­sists.” Which suggests that per­haps the safest route for Schille­beeckx to take now would be to retrace all his steps up to his book Jesus from his early book Mary. For Anselm and Newman were not mistaken in their in­sight into the efficacy of the Theotokos in illuminating the faith in its universality.


©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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