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Briefly Reviewed: October 1986

The Humiliation of the Word

By Jacques Ellul

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 285

Price: $14.95

Review Author: William P. Anderson Jr.

Jacques Ellul, a French Protestant, generally keeps his sociological and theological writ­ings separate, but here he weaves together these two approaches to produce an interesting, if some­what extreme, analysis of the power of images in modern soci­ety.

Ellul’s theme is simple. Lan­guage is losing its importance and being replaced by visual images. Because God used language (The Word) to make contact with man, words have an almost sa­cred character. Language pro­vides the basis not only of our re­lationships with others but also with God.

In modern society images seduce us. We are drawn too closely to them to reflect critical­ly on their power and intent. Their ambiguity tempts us to reach hasty conclusions about their meaning. They become in­terlopers upon our relationships with God and others, substitut­ing false promises for true ones. To surrender language to the im­age is to become isolated, for lan­guage is subordinated, indeed hu­miliated, by visual images.

Ellul uses most of this book to show how images dominate modern society and thereby lead to the decline of the word (and The Word). He links the evolu­tion of “technique” to the sub­ordination of language by exami­ning the roles of educators, com­puters, advertising, films, televi­sion, and science in the devalua­tion of language. His conclusion is clear: technique, through the images it produces, chips away at the freedom of language and fractures our relationship with God.

The Church and the Parachurch: An Uneasy Marriage

By Jerry White

Publisher: Multnomah Press

Pages: 192

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Carl R. Schmahl

In recent years we have seen vast growth among religious or­ganizations “whose primary min­istry is outside the direct author­ity of local congregations.” Call­ed the “parachurch,” or “para-local churches,” this movement is a patchwork of TV evangelists, venerable missionary societies, and organizations like Campus Crusade, Jews for Jesus, and Youth for Christ. It has become an important force in American Protestantism beside the older mainline denominations and those churches in the evangelical and fundamentalist tradition with which it often competes. In this book Jerry White presents the case for the “parachurch,” with an eye to increasing harmo­ny between it and those who see it as a rival.

White traces the roots of the parachurch back to 17th-century German Pietism, a re­form movement which rose to protest “the low state of the life of much of Lutheranism in its day and as a reaction against the decaying morals and religion brought to Germany by the Thir­ty Years War.” Like modern fun­damentalism, which is its spiritu­al heir, “Pietism emphasized per­sonal salvation, holiness of life, and study of the Bible by lay­men.”

Other factors, too, helped bring about the rise of para­church societies, including: God’s continuing initiative “throughout history to jolt the established church, to reform it, and to reach out in unique ways to penetrate unchurched peo­ples”; “unmet needs which the church, and particularly a single local congregation, would not or cannot meet”; and the failure of the church to use sufficiently its laymen and women.

The readiness of many to leave their own churches and “flood to para-local church agen­cies” underscores one other rea­son for the growth of parachurch groups that is, in this reviewer’s opinion, more to the point: “It is likely that all [parachurch groups] are not really necessary or fruitful. Yet some people can­not seem to work under the au­thority of [others]. They have to be completely independent, and they bow to no authority but their own.” This, it seems to me, is the crux of the problem.

We live in a nation whose highest values can be summed up in the slogan “freedom of choice.” Individual sovereignty is in the very air we breathe. If we don’t like one brand of bath­room tissue or politician, we choose another. If our car bores us, we trade it in. Are we burden­ed with an inconvenient pregnancy? No problem, freedom-of-choice it away! For the modern American everything is a possi­bility waiting to be chosen; noth­ing is permitted to interfere with the exercise of our own indepen­dent wills. This situation certain­ly leaves us unprepared to deal with the restrictions imposed by tradition, theology, or Scripture. When individual sovereignty is combined with our typically American pragmatism that as­sumes something must be good because it works, the stage has been set for an explosion of ac­tivity in all areas, including the religious. And that is just what we see in the parachurch move­ment.

Are these para-local church­es visible evidence of God’s in­finitely creative activity in the world? Or are they just one more sign that the church itself cannot escape participating in the frag­mentation of a society if it ac­cepts without question that so­ciety’s values? White says “para-local churches are here to stay” and are bound to grow. “But the future must hold more accep­tance, approval, and cooperation between para-local church organ­izations and the local church. The movement is so large that if this is not done, the para-local church will simply spawn its own congregations, resulting in more divisions, more denominations, more associations.” Clearly White believes these groups are the results of God’s work, but that there must be mutual ac­commodation if we wish to avoid further divisions in the Body of Christ.

I do not wish to crowd God into the box of my own expec­tations. Perhaps the parachurch movement really is an expression of God’s redemptive work among us. If so, my only hope is that those whose path leads through these groups will not stay there, but will return to their homes in the established churches, bring­ing with them the inestimable gifts of their zeal and faith.

White is as objective as can be expected from one who is himself the executive director of a parachurch group — the Naviga­tors. Anyone interested in the tension between the church and the “parachurch” movement — as am I, a United Presbyterian minister — can read this book with profit, while waiting for other authors to continue where White leaves off.

John Paul II and the Battle for Vatican II: Report from the Synod

By Richard Cowden-Guido

Publisher: Trinity Communications

Pages: 441

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Thomas W. Case

This book is far superior to the other two volumes (one by Xavier Rynne, the other by Peter Hebblethwaite) on the 1985 Ex­traordinary Synod in Rome, not least because it is the most infor­mative of the trio. The first two-thirds of the book documents what has gone wrong with Ca­tholicism in the First World in the last 20 years — all in the name of “The Spirit of Vatican II.” This last is a shibboleth that covers a multitude of sins, pri­marily those of unbelief and moral solipsism. (A parish I know of has thrown out the Creed “in the spirit of Vatican II.”)

But all this is pretty well known. The real value of this book lies in the 100 pages on the Synod itself, for it faithfully re­ports what the various bishops said in their “interventions.” The bulk of the news reports on the Synod mentioned the call for a universal catechism and an affir­mation of the Mystery of the Cross or the Mystery of the Church, and then seemed to say, “so what?”

So what? Well, Cowden-Guido’s quoting of the particular statements of the bishops, and his comments thereon, begin to fill out the meaning of “Mystery” and “universal catechism.” Both should be seen as deep reforms of the “Spirit of Vatican II” (or the “Anti-Spirit,” as Cowden-Guido puts it), the one theoretical, the other practical.

At bottom the “what went wrong” in the Church was rec­ognized by the bishops —impulse coming from Third World bishops — as being a gradual loss of spiritual feeling and knowledge in favor of an irreli­gious worldliness. A reconsecration to the Mystery of God and Church is simply a necessary re-assertion of what religion is per se — so many of us having forgot.

The universal catechism fostered by Boston’s Bernard Cardinal Law is a much needed practical measure that will once again tell what the Faith is. It will also tell us what the Faith is as a trans-national and trans-cul­tural revelation. This is why it is opposed so fiercely by those who want to fragment the Church into national communions.

Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure

By Peter Gardella

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 202

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

Assiduous fornicators ac­complished in the 1960s what one would have thought impossi­ble: they reduced sex to banal­ity. The 1980s confront us with a bird of a different feather: the apotheosis of sexual congress. Catholics discourse about noumenal sex, Methodists explore the mystical labyrinths of copulatory worship, and born-again evangelicals babble about the or­gasmic boons of Bible-believing Christianity. Sex is sacred — one of the divine mysteries that suf­fuses the creation — but it guar­antees salvation to the Christian no more than does politics to the secularist. The current celebrators of sex convince one that there is something worse than ba­nality.

Peter Gardella’s Innocent Ecstasy argues that the latest sex­ual loopiness springs from a pro­longed campaign to elevate sex into an experience both innocent and ecstatic. “Underlying the whole story,” writes Gardella, “is a single theme: the struggle to overcome original sin.” Through­out its history the Church has taught that sexuality — however good as the source of procreation — suffers the ineluctable disabil­ity of man’s fallen state. From the middle of the 19th century onward a curious mélange of the­ologians, preachers, physicians, and psychologists sought to subvert this tenet. They first ex­punged the taint of original sin and then proceeded to boost sex as the means to restore primal in­nocence. Through orgasm one could transcend fleshly con­straints and soar to ecstatic union with God.

As a dispassionate scholar, Gardella eschews prescriptive moralizing, but at the conclu­sion of his subtle, nuanced analy­sis he urges a return to a sane un­derstanding of the relationship between sex and sin.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

By Karl Barth

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 60

Price: $3.95

Review Author:

T.S. Eliot once remarked that Dante and Shakespeare di­vide the world between them; one could say the same of Bach and Mozart. No argument on Bach, but does that “extraordi­narily small man, very thin and pale” (as a contemporary de­scribed Mozart) warrant mention in the same breath with the di­vine Johann Sebastian? Listen to the majestic solemnity of the Requiem; the interfusion of ele­gance, charm, and melancholy that ripples through the Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat; the sonor­ous grandeur of the Symphony No. 40; the delicate sadness of the adagio of the Clarinet Con­certo in A; the aching beauty of the Piano Concerto No. 21. Bet­ter than any composer, Mozart evokes the commingling of heart­break and elation, of gaiety and dolorousness, that marks the fall­en children of God who inhabit a world of ineffable glory and dis­mal obliquity.

Karl Barth prefaced his dai­ly labors on the Church Dogmat­ics by listening to a recording of Mozart. Deep called to deep across two centuries, the afflatus that had inspired the enchanter of Salzburg suffusing in like fash­ion the scholar’s cell in Basel. Barth brought no musicological sophistication to his book on Mozart, but he discerned in the music a reflection of the supernal harmony that emanates from the throne of God.

Mozart was not a deeply re­ligious man; born a Catholic, he embraced Freemasonry in the last decade of his brief life. Few would deny, however, that God fired his soul and that Mozart, through his compositions, exalt­ed his creator. “It may be,” Barth wrote, “that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.”

Too Many People?: A Problem in Values

By Christopher Derrick

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 110

Price: $6.95

Review Author:

Too Many People? evidenc­es everything one given to “Derrickism” cherishes: lapidary prose, elegant reasoning, graceful erudition, wit and wisdom. One marvels at how he does it in book after book. Derrick packs more percipience and acumen in­to 100 pages than most writers can stuff into bloated, cumbrous tomes. Over the past 20 years he has tackled some of the most hotly controverted issues of our era — sex, ecology, education, Church authority — and invariably has raised the debate to a higher plane. Derrick saps the id­eological barricades that men erect to ward off reality. He re­fuses the beguiling tendentiousness of both Left and Right, choosing instead the freedom of a man who will not be categor­ized.

In his latest book Derrick squares off against the much-discussed “population explo­sion.” We suffer not from an overabundance of mankind, Der­rick contends, but from too many people who bemoan the existence of too many people. Demographic experts thrive on dire predictions derived from charts, graphs, and statistical ex­trapolations coughed up by their computers. They are scientists, and we have learned to await with bated breath the oracular pronouncements of these fact-bristled wizards. But as Derrick shows, just beneath the surface of their “objective analyses” lurk value judgments and concealed metaphysical postures. Derrick drags these ugly brutes into full view: Western distaste for the Third World; the aversion of rich for poor; the disdain of whites for browns, blacks, and yellows; the totalitarian impulse to regi­ment the pullulating masses; Manichean hatred for the fleshly creation.

The world is cursed with over-industrialization and a sur­feit of bulging cities, with food shortages and inadequacies of distribution, but to lament the presence of “too many people,” Derrick concludes, “involves a value judgment which can only be made — if at all — by God.”

 

© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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