The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II
By Robert Wuthnow
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Some of the South’s more rumbustious fundamentalists execrate colleges and universities as abattoirs in which satanic professors murder the souls of unsuspecting students. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow confirms their worst suspicions. Or at least he argues that the bearer of a college degree is likely to side with the modernists in the “Great Divide” that rives Christianity in America. College graduates demonstrate “nearly twice as much support” for abortion as the less educated, according to Wuthnow, and they evince much more tolerance of pornography, homosexuality, and elastic moral standards. That, mutters the fundamentalist, is godlessness.
The impact of higher education and the opening of the “Great Divide” play conspicuous roles in the “restructuring” that Wuthnow examines in this subtle and richly rewarding study. Other features of the momentous transformation include the decline of denominations, the explosive growth of “special purpose groups” such as the Moral Majority, the rise of “megachurches” and “televangelists,” and the rupture of the civil religion that unified Christians in the 1950s.
Wuthnow directs a keen eye at how government policies and programs have affected the churches and religious sentiment in general. The most salient instance is abortion, but Wuthnow pursues the topic into less obvious areas, as, for example, the way government aid to education has indirectly encouraged the watering down of religious views.
In the most chilling facet of his thesis, Wuthnow suggests that Americans are elevating technology into the new “legitimating myth” of a revitalized civil religion. Welcome to the 21st century, home of “Technological Man” and the “Electronic Candy Store, filled with word processors and software.”
The Spanish Civil War as a Religious Tragedy
By Jose M. Sanchez
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
“Tragedy” aptly describes the Spanish debacle: both what was done to the Church and what the Church failed to do were surely tragic. Between July and December 1936, haters of the faith unleased a fury that devoured the lives of thousands of priests. When the war finally ended in 1939, the savage persecution had annihilated nearly 7,000 clerics (among whom were 13 bishops) and 283 nuns. It was, writes Sanchez, “the greatest clerical bloodletting in the entire history of the Christian Church.” The Spanish clergy compounded this horror by throwing themselves into the arms of Franco. As the Nationalists swept to victory, the Church remained silent as thousands of Spaniards were murdered in purges and reprisals. Tragedy fed upon tragedy.
During the civil war, and especially after Franco’s triumph, “a vast ideologic mythology was created by both sides.” The Left’s myth contended that a rich and oppressive Church had conspired with Franco to overthrow the republic. The Right charged that a Communist conspiracy had ignited the fury and then fed the flames of persecution. Even today, both myths retain their fierce grip on partisans of the opposing sides. Sanchez endeavors to hack through the thick jungle of mythology and open a clearing in which to view the horror with a modicum of dispassion. He succeeds admirably — so well, in fact, that Left and Right alike will probably be appalled at his book. While discounting the mythologies of both camps, he does not blink away the ghastliness of Catholics’ sufferings, nor does he evade the Spanish Church’s grievous flaws.
One searches in vain among Spaniards themselves (whether Left or Right) for voices that combined justice, mercy, and love. Outside of Spain most men seized upon one mythology or the other to explain the brutal conflict. Four devout French Catholics — Maritain, Mauriac, Bernanos, and Mounier — who together spanned the political spectrum from Left to Right, chose a more difficult and perilous course: to repudiate the myths and to seek a truly Christian perspective. Perhaps Maritain said it best: “It is a horrible sacrilege to massacre priests — be they ‘fascists’ they are still ministers of Christ — out of hatred for religion; and it is another sacrilege, horrible also, to massacre poor people — be they ‘Marxists ‘ they are still the people of Christ — in the name of religion.”
Pilgrim to the Russian Church
By Jim Forest
To know the Russian Church is to know its beauty, a beauty cherished from the start. St. Vladimir, Prince of Kiev at Russia’s conversion to Christianity in 988, chose its Eastern expression because of the report of his emissaries to Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it.”
A millennium later the veteran peace worker Jim Forest provides an engaging account of his explorations of Russian Orthodoxy in renewal. He presents, first of all, a Church at prayer. Always there is the background prayer of the simple believer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But the great prayer is the Divine Liturgy, rich in antiphonal melody, centered on the Eucharist, and reaching its crescendo in the jubilant celebration of Pascha.
Perhaps the key to the Orthodox spirit is the sacramentality of its icons. They are emblems of the transcendent. Through their mystic translucency, earth opens to heaven. For the Eastern Christian, the house of worship, walled with icons, is the point at which this life merges with the divine life begun in baptism and continued in every liturgy.
If we find the heart of Orthodox spirituality in Forest’s reflections, we also meet with reminders of failings only too human. The most serious is that the Russian Orthodox Church needs to look more closely at the continuing persecution of Ukrainian Catholics. And Forest himself needs to think more deeply about the charism of celibacy in the Catholic Church. Last, Forest — and his readers — need to learn more about the Eastern rites within the Catholic Church.
If perestroika is possible in secular Russia, the equivalent and more is possible in Catholic and Orthodox ecumenism. We might start by showing one another something of the tenderness of the familiar icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, Russia’s most holy treasure.
Letters to Marc About Jesus
By Henri J.M. Nouwen
Publisher: Harper & Row
In one of the seven letters he wrote in 1986 to his nephew Marc, a Dutch teenager, Fr. Nouwen exposes the raw terror of existence. “Despair,” he observes, “is our inner conviction that, in the end, it is utterly impossible to prevent anything from coming to nothing.” Not fame, power, influence, prestige, or the plaudits of admirers — not even, as in Nouwen’s case, academic appointments at Harvard and Yale — can stave off the bleak moment of revelation: in the end all crumbles to dust. Except…except what? One hesitates to say it, because, repeated endlessly and unthinkingly, it has been cheapened into an unctuous formula. Yet one cannot blink the fact; the answer to the terror is, as Nouwen phrases it, this: “Living with Jesus at the center.”
In Letters to Marc About Jesus, Henri Nouwen struggles to break through the fog bank of banality and to give graphic urgency to both the terror and the answer. He has a tough audience: an affluent, highly secularized, skeptical Western European teenager. Easier to be shipped to Borneo to missionize headhunters. Uncle Henri sugarcoats nothing for his nephew. “Living spiritually is made possible only through a direct, uncushioned confrontation with the reality of death.” One’s own death — source of despair — first, but then another death, the one that defeated death. “The gospel is, first and foremost, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that story constitutes the core of the spiritual life.” From the grave springs life, from contemplation of nothingness emerge hope and meaning. Christ reveals to us the “descending way” of love: God descended among men to suffer and to sacrifice himself. This contrasts starkly with the ascending way — call it “upward mobility” — of a godless society (Holland or the United States will do nicely) that provides infinite means to evade the shock of recognition when the abyss of annihilation can no longer be ignored. Christ reveals too the “hidden way”: “Again and again, you see how Jesus opts for what is small, hidden, and poor, and accordingly declines to wield influence.”
Nouwen wrote these letters, as he confides to Marc at the end, “to awaken in you a deep love for Jesus.” He also composed them for himself as part of a search for an answer to that most exigent of questions: How best to serve God? The last letter provides an answer. Nouwen writes it from Daybreak, a community near Toronto, where he had just arrived to begin his labors with people suffering from severe mental handicaps.
The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary
By Jaroslav Pelikan
Publisher: Harvard University Press
The Melody of Theology, Jaroslav Pelikan’s “intellectual autobiography in the form of a ‘philosophical dictionary,'” exemplifies the Lutheran ethos in top form; it radiates an air of sanity, common sense, and hearty good humor. Its rough and vigorous disdain for theological piffle is worthy of the master himself, Martin Luther. One can almost hear Br. Martin roaring his approbation at Pelikan’s acerbic swipe at contemporary theology’s “endemic tendency to capitulate to the Zeitgeist.”
Unlike many theologians (Protestant and Catholic alike), Pelikan does not flinch at the words “orthodoxy” and “heresy.” He stoutly denies that the former is “a synonym for obscurantism and repression”; as for heresy, well, the modern world, so eager to dismiss the concept in the realm of religion, seizes with alacrity upon the necessity to stamp out heretical opinions in various areas of politics and social policy. (One strongly suspects, for example, that at Professor Pelikan’s own Yale University a strenuous opposition to, say, ideological feminism would quickly earn one a reputation for heresy.)
Pelikan lauds orthodoxy’s historic willingness “to tolerate an astonishing variety and creativity” within a broadly inscribed circle of theological discourse. This freedom promotes ecumenism of the best kind, a catholicity that permits Pelikan to number among his favorite thinkers such diverse figures as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dostoevsky, Cardinal Newman, and, oddly enough, Ralph Waldo Emerson. From “Angel” to “Zion,” Pelikan employs the 82 entries “to express,” as he quips, “a completely personal set of prejudices.” The robust orthodoxy that infuses these pages will invigorate those who hold by the enduring truths of the faith, while, one imagines, it will appall those who have succumbed to the blandishments of the latest theological craze to sashay down the pike.
Lister Hill: Statesman from the South
By Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
For liberals who demand purity in their political heroes, Lister Hill fails the test. As Senator from Alabama from 1938-1968 he compiled an admirable record of service to the public good, save on one count: he consistently defended racial segregation. For those with short memories, this is shameful; to those who know something of Southern history, it is part of the South’s tragedy.
Shaped as a young congressman by the New Deal and his hero FDR, Hill devoted his long career to improving the lives of those too poor and powerless to make their influence felt. He defended the rights of organized labor and fought for the small farmer. His particular causes included TVA, hospital construction, medical research, and federal aid for education and public libraries. At home he contested the power of Alabama’s “Big Mules,” those who represented the arrogance of corporations and vested wealth. In both Alabama and in the larger national arena he combated the “ancient enemy,” as he called the Republican Party. As a self-styled “Jefferson-Jackson Democrat,” he sought a more just, humane, and democratic society. Support of segregation was the price exacted by the white voters of Alabama to enable him to pursue his goals.
This sad circumstance was compounded in Hill’s case, for he bore two burdens that in his day generally disqualified a man for high public office in the Deep South: he was partly Jewish and he was raised a Catholic. Hill repudiated the Church when he launched his political career in the 1920s, a decade that constitutes the golden age of Catholic-baiting in the South. As for his Jewishness, he kept that a closely guarded secret.
Did Lister Hill pay too high a price to gain and hold political power? Blacks, Catholics, and Jews might reasonably say yes, but millions of Americans — including a good number of blacks, Catholics, and Jews — benefited from his efforts to extend the boundaries of the common good. Virginia Hamilton, herself an Alabamian, understands the web of circumstance in which Hill was trapped. Her splendid biography analyzes Hill’s career with the scrutiny of dispassionate scholarship, but because of her depth of understanding and her compassion for mortal shortcomings, her book is also a tribute to a decent and humane man who represented the best side of Southern politics in a grim and tumultuous era.
The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History
By Jeffrey Burton Russell
Publisher: Cornell University Press
It is an ironic (diabolic?) commentary on human nature that a preoccupation with Satan’s existence can increase the sum total of evil in the world. A loathing of the devil and his sinister machinations repeatedly whipped Europeans (and briefly, Americans) into frenzied obsession with witches. This craze, Jeffrey Burton Russell observes, “revealed the most terrible danger of belief in the Devil: the willingness to assume, that those whom one distrusts or fears are servants of Satan and fitting targets of hatred.” Insistence upon Satan’s reality has also lured men into a baneful dualism that vitiates the majesty of God and, with its emphasis upon Satan’s fearsome might, engenders despair. A strain of fatalism can debouch from this, a view expressed mischievously by Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, who, arms akimbo and face sporting a lubricious leer, saucily tosses her hair and purrs: “Sugar, the devil made me do it!”
The denial of Satan’s existence generates its own dangers, ones that have emerged clearly only in recent centuries, for not till the rise of the Enlightenment did many men even dream of questioning Satan’s palpable presence. We reap the results of such disbelief today. Russell argues: “The flat materialistic assumptions of contemporary Western society have effectively censored concern with radical evil by expressions of contempt or condescension for transcendent views.” Does Satan exist? Russell admits that “if the existence of radical evil is clear, that of a personality controlling it is not.” Yet, having elegantly traced the idea of the Evil One from antiquity to the present (this book condenses for a broader audience Russell’s earlier four-volume study), he concludes on a note to which a Mississippi Baptist or Tennessee Pentecostal could murmur agreement. “If the Devil does exist, what is he? If the concept has any meaning at all, he is the traditional Prince of Darkness, a mighty person with intelligence and will whose energies are bent on the destruction of the cosmos and the misery of its creatures.”
Intellect and Spirit: The Life and Work of Robert Coles
By Bruce A. Ronda
Heaven knows we need a book about Robert Coles. But this isn’t quite the one he deserves.
Oh, Ronda can be perceptive. For example, Coles “sees the ways privilege undermines and weakens moral and religious sensitivity”; Coles is “an artist in lives” who, in his empathetic conversations with common people, enables readers to see life “from the bottom up.” But while Ronda highlights these qualities in Coles, he doesn’t fully appreciate them. He faults Coles for not succoring “upper-middle-class people.” Such a pity! Don’t these people already have disproportionately adequate means for succoring themselves? Because Coles, a Harvard psychiatrist, happens to be in the upper-middle class he critically scrutinizes, Ronda sees him as having a “self-hating side.” This two-bit psychologizing from a distance is reckless, as anyone who knows Coles will tell you.
What really seems to bug Ronda is Coles’s distrust of ideological feminism, gay lib, and abortion rights — themselves predominantly upper-middle-class causes. Hence, although Ronda allows that Coles is on record as a political progressive and economic egalitarian who favors, for example, workers’ ownership of enterprises, he wants to paint Coles as a neoconservative of some sort.
In this book we learn too much about Ronda and not enough about Coles. Ronda comes off as a single-issue, elite liberal. If one doesn’t pass the litmus test of cultural liberalism, one has forfeited one’s progressivism. Hence: “Coles cannot imagine (at least in his published work) the possibility of a better future.” This too is a reckless judgment.
The preciously liberal mindset at work here has gone a long way in making an invalid of political progressivism over the last quarter century. Dr. Coles has a cure — but if the patient won’t cooperate, what can one do?
Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky
By Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
“…I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have always been and shall ever be…until they close the lid of my coffin.” So wrote Dostoeysky in a letter of 1854. At the age of 33 he had arrived at candid self-knowledge; as Andrew MacAndrew, the translator of this splendid volume, has noted elsewhere, a “painful ambiguity of belief” plagued Dostoevsky throughout his life. Few figures out of the past speak more cogently to the 20th century: “doubt and disbelief” dog our heels tenaciously. In his terrible God-hunger Dostoevsky found one thing “clear and sacred”: “To believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ.” For such crystalline insight, and much else as well — his comments on socialism, Catholicism, the West, his works in progress — these letters are a treasure trove.
By Francois Mauriac
Publisher: Carroll and Graf
Francois Mauriac’s novels are not in vogue. That may seem odd: sin sells, and Mauriac was a virtuoso at depicting the slackness of flesh and spirit. The problem is that Mauriac recognized sin as sin; our era more often labels it “self-fulfillment,” “pursuing an alternative lifestyle,” “shattering bourgeois hypocrisy.” For Mauriac, sin was sin, man a sinner, and grace the only answer: not a message guaranteed to enhance an author’s reputation in the late 20th century. In Viper’s Tangle, originally published in 1932, Mauriac limns the ugly face of sinfulness, in this case an avarice and hate that blot out the image of God and transform man into a monster of pridefulness and egoism. This is not a pretty story, but it is a profound one.
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