Briefly Reviewed: October 1986
The Humiliation of the Word
By Jacques Ellul
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
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
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
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
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
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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