Briefly Reviewed: September 1986
The Reed of God
By Caryll Houselander
Publisher: Christian Classics
Review Author: John Wauck
Today, when devotion to the Virgin Mary is frequently misunderstood, The Reed of God is much needed. The most popular book written by the British author and sculptor Caryll Houselander, who died in 1954 at the age of 53, this reprint of the 1944 edition examines Mary as a model for Christian living.
Houselander argues that Mary’s specific vocation is, in fact, every Christian’s vocation, because the one thing she did “is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.” Mary has special meaning for lay people, for Mary did what she did “as a lay person and through the ordinary daily life that we all live; through natural love made supernatural, as the water at Cana, at her request, turned into wine.” Written in the midst of the Battle of Britain, this book is a testimony of ordinary faith at a time of extraordinary crisis.
Through a series of meditations on moments in Mary’s life, Houselander discusses the spiritual journey of all Christians seeking sanctity. The first step is a period of virginal anticipation, an openness awaiting God. Then follows a meeting of the human and the divine, as God became man at Christmas by means of Mary’s fiat. In the loss of the Child in Jerusalem, Houselander notes the ease with which we lose sight of Christ, distracting ourselves with the false gods of this world. Last, Houselander describes how we find Christ in other people and through devotion to Mary; as her children we become acquainted with her Son.
The Reed of God benefits especially from Houselander’s firm theological and psychological grasp of Mary’s maternal love for both Christ and his Mystical Body. Combining theological subtlety with charming common sense, Houselander opens a window to shed light, as in a painting by Vermeer, upon humble affairs, suffusing the quotidian with the glow of the divine.
From Berkeley to East Berlin and Back
By Dale Vree
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Review Author: L. Brent Bozell
Dale Vree is a Christian intellectual and friend of the poor. He has striven through his still young life to bring God’s riches to those who hurt. It was mostly from his father, who was a “populist Democrat,” that Vree picked up a boyish enthusiasm for the “common man”; in college, he moved on to Marxism. From Berkeley to East Berlin and Back is the story of a pilgrimage that rewarded that boyish enthusiasm, but in a far different coin from the one intended.
Vree first went to Eastern Europe in 1964 — then again, in the summer of 1965, with the purpose of settling there. He had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, taken Elena Reyes as his wife, and set off to “raise a family, participate somehow in humanity’s steady march toward communism.…” East Germany beckoned most strongly because it was “quite militant,” and “represented Communism’s most advanced penetration into modern Western society.…” But before long, the Vrees discovered in East Berlin a breeding ground for the very consumerist and materialist evils they deplored in the West. “We had been looking for a new quality of life. But for East Germans, Communism basically meant more possessions, a new quantity in life — specifically, the promise of a standard of living even higher than that of West Germany.” “In short,” he reports, we had expected Communism to be an affirmation of working-class culture…. What we dreaded was a working class that coveted the possessions and jaded lifestyle of the uncharitable and undisciplined rich…. We didn’t want the next generation of East German youth to look like the kids at Berkeley — spoiled, confused, alienated, questing after excitement and lost meaning.”
But if Vree lost some illusions in the East, his underlying commitment to the poor persisted. While the Vrees’ experience in East Berlin “took the messianic zeal out of our interest in socialism of any kind,” nevertheless their “fundamental sense of solidarity with the ‘man with hoe,’ the common man, never melted away.” Indeed, this solidarity was to find a new toughness and spirit exactly in communist Berlin!
On Easter Sunday 1966, Vree was converted to Christ after hearing a sermon or the Resurrection by a Protestant pastor — an event he attributes mostly to the place where it happened. “What we had very unexpectedly bumped into in East Berlin was the primitive church, the ‘church of the poor.’ What happened to me was caused by more than one man, for I could see Jesus in the church of the poor and despised, whereas I really couldn’t find Him in the church of the prosperous and respected. In the States I had found Christianity a feeble thing. As part of the social establishment, it was respectable and insipid.” And when noting the vibrant churches in East, as opposed to West, Germany, Vree was told that the reason was that “people in East Germany can get nothing from church; they can only give.” This special generosity of the poor man, especially in enemy territory, is a characteristic phenomenon among Christians, and is explained by the fact, Vree says, that “the abundant life, in the sense Christ promised it, is discovered in the midst of deprivation.”
This explanation sheds light on Vree’s most arresting judgment — that “one of the most insidious threats to the church today is our own militant anti-Communism.” He says that our “extreme fear of Communism” reflects an “unwillingness to be tested by persecution” — which means, really, an unwillingness to suffer for what we believe. Moreover, it camouflages our other enemies: “Christian anti-Communism deceives us because it gives permissive, materialistic capitalism a religious gloss and fails to alert us to the beguiling enemies in our midst who wish to domesticate the gospel into a friendly lapdog.”
The short answer to Vree on this point is that militant anti-communism is perfectly consistent with militant social-justice Christianity, including militant anti-capitalism — even though it is true that the theoretical consistency is almost never demonstrated in practice. That being said, it remains that Vree has much to teach most anti-communists, which means most conservatives, about the social imperatives of Christianity. He teaches, in one word, that hostility to Soviet irreligion is no excuse for friendship for American irreligion.
The principal faces of American irreligion are capitalism, hedonism, and consumerism. The common denominator of the three is self-interest, and it is the historic fate of secular conservatism in America to bear self-interest as its crowning mark. I suspect this fate comes from addiction to Adam Smith’s economics, but whatever its explanation, it wars against Christianity, which stands for denial of self. “It is scandalous,” says Vree, “that conservatives yearn for the public enforcement of personal morality but strenuously avoid speaking prophetically on the morals of the economic marketplace…. The free market has no social sense of ‘the good.’ [Yet to] be a conservative today is to defer to the market.”
As an example, what Vree calls “cultural conservatives” are those who earnestly condemn public sexual perversion, yet “cling tenaciously to the capitalism-no-matter-what ideology. Do they really believe modern consumerist capitalism will ever say anything about homosexual bath houses, rent-a-boy, hookers’ balls, male striptease for women, women’s cosmetics packaged in phalluses — beyond the tattered nostrum about consenting adults, that is?” In other words, the conservatives’ economic views end up underwriting leftist encouragement of personal immorality. As Vree sees this interplay: “In the West the Left has concocted a rationale for sexual self-indulgence, while the capitalist Right has established a rationale for material self-indulgence. These two rationales are but two sides of the same coin: consumerism.” This observation leads to one of the book’s key charges: that “relatively little has been done in Christian circles to show that an affirmation of traditional Christian sexual morality may well entail the adoption of a more critical stance toward both capitalism and the bourgeois lifestyle it often promotes.”
Vree’s principal mission now, the reader of this book gathers, is to American right-wingers: he wishes to help make them better Christians. This does not make him a man of the Left — far from it (though one suspects he still finds conversation easier from this direction). The Right is Vree’s mission territory because that is where he loves, and the reason he loves there is that orthodox Christianity tends to get stuck there. But Vree does not see some middle trail between socialism and capitalism as the solution to consumerism and decadence; he finds the “real solution” to be each personal act of “authentic Christian faith.”
And he quickly names the kind of act that counts most. It is self-denial. “A great mystery and paradox of Christianity is that when we give [i.e., when we deny ourselves], we receive all the more; when we discipline our own desires and commit ourselves to others, we become truly free…. Self-fulfillment is not [always] sought for its own sake; it is discovered, often unexpectedly, in the midst of self-denial and self-transcendence.” What is more, involuntary suffering can also be a “passage to greater Christian joy for us” — since the offering to Christ of our suffering, of whatever origin, can “lighten the load” of His suffering.
The path that leads to the mountaintops is for saints, but Vree says that means for everyone. “Jesus Christ our Lord mandates the heroic life of self-discipline and sacrifice as virtual ends in themselves because they are congruent with the only unqualified ends in themselves, namely, God and His Will.”
This heroic life is spelled out for Vree and us by Mother Teresa who “tells her audiences that they must not only help the poor, they must also honor the poor, get to know the poor, and to identify with the poor.”
After reading Vree’s book, I felt like a poor man who was becoming richer.
Under the Mercy
By Sheldon Vanauken
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Those who were delighted by Sheldon Vanauken’s autobiographical, best-selling, and award-winning book, A Severe Mercy (ASM), and by his writings in various periodicals (including this one), will likely be delighted by his new book, Under the Mercy (UTM), which discusses numerous topics of current interest, tells the story behind the writing of ASM, and picks up the story of the author’s life where ASM left off (in the mid-1950s).
An account of the death of his beloved young wife, “Davy,” ASM was simultaneously a tender tale of grief and a moving affirmation of faith in Christ. The death of Davy left Vanauken with “a terrible emptiness,” he tells us in UTM, “a hollow at the centre of one’s being,” which was filled, not exactly by Christ (which is what we would have expected), but by the “Movement” of the 1960s.
The early years of the Movement were idealistic ones. Vanauken, a Southerner to the core, courageously involved himself — out of Christian conviction and in the face of the resistance of fellow Southerners — in desegregation efforts, notably in the church in the South. He discusses this involvement under the heading of “Putting the Neighbour First,” which, significantly, did not mean putting Neighbor ahead of God.
Then came the anti-war cause. Here, Vanauken admits, his involvement was not so clearly and compellingly Christian. Nevertheless, his objection to America’s war effort in Vietnam settled mainly on the methods we used to pursue the war. But the spirit of the 1960s got the better of Vanauken. Excessively engaged in the anti-war movement, he “almost without knowing it…drew away from God.” Religious idealism was replaced by anger, as the (often manipulative) strategies of the Movement dominated his spirit. As he puts it: “initially it was the Faith that pushed me into action in the ‘60s…. But the danger of social action is — well, what happened to me. First, a generous and loving Christian response to injustice and suffering. Then, putting the neighbour first — ahead of God. And finally, putting goals and victory first, ahead of both neighbor and God. Hating one’s enemies…. The feelings of virtue leading to pride, even arrogance. In some respects it’s a noble sin, but it may lead to Hell all the same.…” And for Vanauken there followed the almost predictable litany of dope, rock, and radical feminism.
Vanauken has clearly disavowed these last three, and his sharpest barbs in UTM are leveled at the radical feminist movement, which, contrary to the desegregation and anti-war movements, does not, he says, have the virtue of having been born in idealism — rather, it was sired by outright anger and rage.
Vanauken leaves us with the impression that his immersion in the 1960s Movement was in part at least a way of filling the void left by Davy’s death. Seemingly, much of his initial attraction to the Movement was so personal that if some other movement had come along he might well have joined it — if only for the camaraderie, vivid sense of purpose, and (initial) high-mindedness. And so, his involvement in the Movement had an epiphenomenal quality to it. Thus, when the Movement of the 1960s died, the 1960s died in him.
Simultaneously, Vanauken — no longer distracted by the sound and fury of the Movement — was reborn to the experience of God. He rediscovered Christian orthodoxy (which he left us with in ASM), and eventually found his way into the Roman Catholic Church.
In an interesting aside, Vanauken notes that his political position in the 1960s was — and to this day remains — that of “the Southern Agrarian sort.” This position is usually regarded as a variant of conservatism, which it is. But it is a conservatism that, in America, is dwarfed by the dominant Chamber-of-Commerce brand of conservatism. Moreover, it is an older form of conservatism sometimes associated with distributism and can lead to positions (racial desegregation, objections to brutal methods of warfare, and environmentalism) not usually associated with the prevalent survival-of-the-fittest style of conservatism.
Vanauken admits that in the 1960s he fell under the sway of the Spirit of the Age — which may be characterized as a spirit of secular messianism, radical feminism, and hedonism. It was a personal lapse, and not the fault of his Christianity or Southern Agrarianism, and his pen is razor sharp in UTM as he dissects that Zeitgeist. Now, of course, in the 1980s we experience another Zeitgeist, or perhaps a somewhat different face of the same Zeitgeist — which may be characterized as a spirit of the love of money, of consumerism, and of the selfsame radical feminism and hedonism. Should the Lord extend Vanauken’s days on this earth, it may be hoped that Vanauken will turn his stiletto to deflating the first two components of the Zeitgeist of the 1980s, having punctured the latter two in UTM. He could do it as only a Southern Agrarian would!
Marx and Satan
By Richard Wurmbrand
For a Christian, the words “demonic,” “diabolic,” and “satanic” evince an incontrovertible truth: Satan exists and stalks the earth like a mighty lion seeking whom he may devour. The Prince of Darkness fathered sin, and when a Christian speaks of the Holocaust or Stalin’s murderous exploits as “satanic” or “demonic,” he indicates his awareness that a palpable, infernal evil begets horrors of staggering enormity.
To discern the direct workings of Satan is, however, often as difficult as to espy the immediate hand of God. If some Christians too readily claimed to see God’s intervention in, say, the destruction of the Spanish Armada, others too eagerly seize upon Satan as a chthonic deus ex machina. The Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian emigre who endured 14 years in communist prisons, succumbs to the latter temptation, for he contends that Karl Marx belonged to “a sect of devil-worshipers” who draped themselves in the sheep’s clothing of social justice to disguise their wolfish intent to eradicate Christianity. “Marxism is a church,” writes Wurmbrand, and “Satan is obviously its god.”
Such an obsession with Satan ill serves Christianity in its contest with Marxism. It obviates the need for sober analysis of communism; if Marx and his progeny were demon-possessed, then all is explained. It encourages a division of mankind into the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, arouses the urge to kill a commie for Christ, and fosters overweening self-righteousness among the godly. Manicheism has always tempted Christians, and to pit Satan and Marxism against God and Christianity prods one toward the dualistic abyss. In a curious way, Wurmbrand’s argument underestimates the Marxist threat, for philosophical materialism saps Christianity more perniciously than does outright Satanism; demons can be cast out, but materialism would banish the supernatural. Satan is perhaps more clever than Wurmbrand realizes.
© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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