Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1995

September 1995

Essentials of the Faith: A Guide to the Catechism of the Catholic Church

By Alfred McBride

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books

Pages: 224

Price: No price given

Review Author: Stephen F. Miletic

There are many studies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) being published throughout the English-speaking world. Pastors, catechists, religion teachers, or ordinary Catholics who want a reliable, competent, spiritually nurturing, and commonsensical study guide to the CCC should try Fr. McBride’s work.

This work has other things to commend it. First, it is well written. The language will afford the neophyte the opportunity to grasp the theological and spiritual significance of the CCC‘s teachings without having to drag out the Dictionary of Theological German, rumored to exist in theology departments all across Germany. Second, the book follows the design of the CCC itself. Such a close structural correlation between McBride’s exposition and the CCC makes it easy to move from the exposition to the CCC and back — no small issue for a neophyte who might find the CCC‘s 803 pages somewhat overwhelming.

Third, the content of McBride’s exposition is faithful to the CCC. McBride frames the question of revelation and its reception within the context of a love relationship with God. In love, God reaches out to us, reveals Himself as friend, and invites us into a covenant relationship with Him. To lose sight of this fundamental context is to miss the most important element of the “big picture.” Without this frame of reference, even a technically correct understanding of the CCC‘s content lends itself to distortion.

The Introduction contains useful information about the recent history of catechesis, the development of catechisms, and the overall purpose of catechesis. The beginner will appreciate the glossary of terms in each chapter. This enables one to build up a functional religious vocabulary drawn directly from the CCC. With a working vocabulary well established, it is possible to articulate the most basic tenets of the faith.

McBride brings understanding and insight into the study of the catechism for the ordinary Catholic. I highly recommend his work for adult study groups, high school religion classes, and introductory college and seminary courses.

A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1500

By Samuel Hugh Moffett

Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco

Pages: 560

Price: $45

Review Author: Santiago Sia

While much has been done to tell the story of Christianity in the West, the spread and development of the same Good News in Asia is not as well-documented. This is surprising because, as the present volume clearly shows, Christianity moved eastward across Asia as early as it moved westward into Europe. In fact, the author reminds the reader that Christianity actually began in Asia and that its earliest history and first centers were Asian.

The comparative paucity of available sources, a reason for the neglect of the Asian dimension of Christianity, has now been remedied with the publication of Moffett’s important book, which covers the early period of the spread of Christianity in Asia — from the time of the Apostles to about 1500. The book also interprets certain events and developments from a fresh perspective. The result is a work that provides both pleasurable reading and valuable information. Moreover, the author provides copious notes, allowing the reader to follow up on Moffett’s sources. This is a much-needed book, and one looks forward to the author’s next volume on the history of Christianity in Asia.

Heidegger and Christianity

By John Macquarrie

Publisher: Continuum

Pages: 155

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Philip E. Devine

The philosophy of Martin Heidegger is controversial on a number of grounds. One is the philosopher’s collaboration with the Nazis; another is his active contempt for English-speaking concerns about linguistic clarity. Yet another is his ambiguous relationship with Christianity: While some theologians have attempted to use him as St. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle, others have detected in him a veiled but ingrained hostility to Christian faith. In his Hensley Henson lectures, recently delivered at Oxford, John Macquarrie, without presuming to “conscript” Heidegger into the Church, attempts to read his thought as “highly compatible with Christianity.” Macquarrie begins by citing the importance of the temporal and the historical in contemporary thought — our tendency to see everything as swept along in a flux of becoming. Thus philosophers have treated metaphysical systems as historical products. One source of this climate of opinion is Nietzsche, who proclaimed the death of God and the descent of civilization into relativism and nihilism, while calling for the creation of “new values” by human self-assertion. Macquarrie’s attempt to free Heidegger from the atheist historicism of Nietzsche distinguishes between Heidegger’s early works, such as Being and Time (1927), and the works written after Heidegger’s “turn,” such as the “Letter on Humanism” (1947) and The Country Path (ca. 1949). Macquarrie sees Heidegger’s “furthest departure from Christianity” in the metaphysics of rebellion and nihilistic love of death suggested by the earlier works, but is troubled by the denial of individual responsibility that pervades the entire corpus.

Yet Macquarrie sees elements in Heidegger’s later philosophy that can be turned to Christian purposes. One of them is his rejection, in opposition to Sartre’s atheism, of the maxim that man is the measure of all things. Another is his language about the self-giving of Being and his endorsement of the Pietist maxim that to think is to thank. Yet another is his increased respect for the world’s “intrinsic dignity and beauty,” after treating the world as a toolbox in Being and Time. Last is his frequent remark, toward the end of his life, that “only a God can save us” (it is not certain that Macquarrie is entitled to this capital “G”). Macquarrie also discovers some points of contact, although also some differences, between Heidegger’s thought and the mysticism of Plotinus and Meister Eckhart.

Heidegger’s thought, particularly in his later years, is as ambiguous as it is suggestive. We cannot expect any well-defined Heideggerian doctrine — about God, human nature, or anything else — to be reconciled or contrasted with the doctrines of Christianity. Not surprisingly, other interpreters have read his relationship to religion differently from Macquarrie’s reading. For example, Hans Jonas argues that Heidegger is a Gnostic.

How far the wax nose of Heidegger’s “authority” can be pushed in a Christian direction is, in any case, a secondary issue. If Heidegger’s philosophy is intellectually compelling, the Christian theologian is bound to take it into account, even if the truths it contains are surrounded by an anti-Christian atmosphere. (Aristotle, after all, was a thoroughgoing pagan.) If it is not persuasive as philosophy, the theologian would do well to neglect it, even if Heidegger’s intentions were supportive of Christian faith.


By James Limburg

Publisher: Westminster/John Knox

Pages: 123

Price: $20

Review Author: Keith A.J. Massey

This commentary displays the depth of scholarship that has given Limburg a fine reputation in the field of biblical studies. The Introduction is a good, concise study of the Book of Jonah, treating its background, literary qualities, and theological themes. From there the author proceeds with a verse by verse translation with commentary.

For the most part, readers will find the commentary clear and informative. For the student who needs help with any aspect of the Book of Jonah, Limburg’s work is a fine place to turn.

One strength of the commentary is a commitment to offering a theological perspective along with the linguistic, literary study. An admirable integration of the Book of Jonah with the rest of the canon, including the New Testament message, is found throughout.

One problem, however, is that Jonah is a very short book to be discussed all on its own. Of the nine other commentaries Limburg cites, six have a commentary on Jonah along with at least one other prophet. In the standard Hebrew text used by most scholars, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensia (also used by Limburg), Jonah occupies only three pages. In preparation for reading the commentary, I sat down to read Jonah in Hebrew and spent all of eight minutes on the task. The inevitable unfortunate outcome is that one could pretty much say it all and not say a lot.

My only real criticism applies to the Appendix. In this section, Limburg surveys the continued use of Jonah in the Deuterocanonical books, first-century A.D. literature, Judaism, Islam, and Luther and Calvin. Explaining this section, he writes, “What is offered here are some highlights from the continuing history of the interpretation of the book. I have included works that seem to me both interesting and of significance for the task of the present-day interpreter. Since Jonah is the property of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities, examples from all three traditions have been included.” What happens in this Appendix, however, is that quite lengthy passages from Josephus, Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, and the Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i are simply quoted verbatim, with little commentary. Put together, this material exceeds the actual length of the Book of Jonah by at least two times. The reason for this is explained by Limburg in the Introduction, “These works, many of which are not easily accessible, are cited in their entirety or in larger segments, so that the reader can use them on their own and make independent judgments about them.” The lack of accessibility to some of these, to me at least, is some indication of their actual “significance for the task of the present-day interpreter.” While “the continuing history of the interpretation of’ the Book of Jonah is certainly an important subject, it probably belongs outside the scope of a critical commentary on the Book. The impression this reviewer gets from this section is that it is little more than padding for a commentary on a book too small to stand alone in one volume. Another thing, for Luther and Calvin to stand as the representatives of the Christian tradition’s interpretation of the Book of Jonah is to lose quite a few centuries of voices.

What's Wrong With the World

By G.K. Chesterton

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 200

Price: No price given

Review Author: Jeffrey C. Trapp

Chesterton said, “Modern women defend their office with all the fierceness of domesticity. They fight for desk and typewriter as for hearth and home, and develop a sort of wolfish wifehood on behalf of the invisible head of the firm. That is why they do office work so well; and that is why they ought not to do it.” I have deliberately chosen a statement from Chesterton’s newly reissued What’s Wrong With the World that would surely offend modern sensibilities. Chesterton’s prescription was made almost a century ago, and has gone more or less unheeded. The ideal of female domesticity is an ultimate good in Chesterton’s idea of civilization. Because civilization has eroded so radically since Chesterton’s time, perhaps it is an ideal that should be reconsidered.

What is important to men, according to Chesterton, is the comradeship of a common tavern. Even the Houses of Parliament can function only as long as this camaraderie exists. This, in sum, is Chesterton’s ideal of democracy — camaraderie above commerce. “Business will have no truck with comradeship.” What is important to women are the ideals of thrift and dignity. Men’s ideals and women’s ideals necessarily complement each other, both are needed for democracy to work. Women want no part of the common tavern or the Houses of Parliament — it offends their dignity. They prefer to stay at home and exercise their ideal of thrift. Men cannot go about their daily business without the feminine ideal of thrift as a complement. Feminine thrift is thus a cornerstone of democracy.

What jeopardizes female domesticity? In Chesterton’s mind it is feminism and poverty, with poverty the greater threat. For him feminism is merely a call to anarchy that will be rejected by most women — the true danger is that women will abandon their domestic role out of sheer poverty. They will thus neglect one of the chief duties of a mother, the education of her children, and especially education toward cleanliness. He makes a most revealing comment on the English law: that all school-age girls were to have short hair due to the possibility of lice. But every mother, according to Chesterton, deserves to be proud of her daughter’s long hair — that is an unmistakable good. From this starting point, he deduces that (1) every mother should be free enough to ensure that her daughter’s hair is clean, (2) that said mother should not have a usurious landlord, (3) there should be a redistribution of property, and (4) there should be a revolution. This revolution will redistribute the landlord’s property in such a way that the mother need not work, and male camaraderie, rather than commerce, will become the foundation of democracy. My question is: Will such a radical redistribution improve matters today, or is some other cure needed?

Our children today are relatively clean and educated. If they are nonetheless bad, is redistribution of property still the right cure? I would maintain that Chesterton would view our situation as even worse than his, because our affluence hides the suffering caused by unstable family life. Perhaps the change needed now is not a change of property distribution, but a change in our souls.

Letters to Love By

By David Athey

Publisher: Winston-Derek

Pages: 150

Price: $6.95

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

In the letters section of the April 1991 New Oxford Review, there was a brief query from David Athey in Iowa City: “I believe the two greatest commandments are: ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But I’m wondering: How does a person actually do it? Your Catholic readers may know. Will some of them please tell me: How do I love?” Athey also put this question before his friends and relatives. Hundreds of people replied to his query, and eventually Athey made a book of the responses. Some of the answers: “We love by taking God so seriously that we take everything else, especially ourselves, lightheartedly,” says one. “How do I love? Like God does. Fully, completely, entirely,” says another. And: “Have you ever taken your crucifix and sat and just looked at it? That is the greatest answer to the question, How do I love?”

Most respondents point out that loving is not so much feeling as doing; loving is an act. And many say that the biggest obstacle to love is utter concentration on oneself, to love others you must be aware that their pain is as real as yours. In all of the responses, people who love God speak from the heart about how they learned to love.

One way to “love your neighbor” is to give him a copy of Letters to Love By. This little book is a treasure.

C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium

By Peter Kreeft

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 190

Price: $11.95

Review Author: James Prothero

C. S. Lewis for the Third Millennium is mistitled. Ostensibly it is an exposition of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and certainly, throughout the text, Kreeft turns to that work. But, though Kreeft does not misconstrue Lewis’s meaning anywhere, this is clearly not an exposition of Lewis’s worry, but Kreeft setting off on his own. This book should be titled Peter Kreeft for the Third Millennium. But I do not fault the work for that. Kreeft has an important message that desperately needs saying. Building equally on Lewis, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Walker Percy, Kreeft points out Western culture’s certain doom if belief in Natural Law is abandoned. And he’s quite right. America in particular is rotting from within. Kreeft’s conclusion, that we should hope because dark ages breed great saints, and that the solution is not political but is to become saints ourselves, rings with wisdom.

Kreeft has long been an apologist for Christianity, and in this Lewis has been his teacher. Kreeft has Lewis’s talent of being able to explain difficult concepts clearly to the general reader. But this book — and other of Kreeft’s recent works — leaves no doubt that he has parted company with his mentor in a significant way. Whereas reading Lewis is like having a calm intellectual discussion on a stroll around Addison’s Walk, reading Kreeft is like listening to Henry V calling his troops once more into the breach.

It is a difference in tone, and it is immense. Chapter 2, “Darkness at Noon,” and Chapter 5, “Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Abolition of Man in Late-Night Comedy Format,” are especially grim and foreboding. The late-night comedy metaphor is apt, because Kreeft slashes and burns his way through his topic with the bitter, satirical humor characteristic of “Saturday Night Live.” Clearly this book owes more to Walker Percy than to C. S. Lewis.

But in all this slashing and burning, Kreeft’s case shows weakness, and I would rather it didn’t. A broadsword is a poor instrument for making surgically fine distinctions, and Kreeft’s arguments often suffer from overgeneralization and a tendency to build straw men opponents, especially when using the dialogue method. Kreeft has enjoyed using the philosophical dialogue in past books, and it has always been entertaining, even if it left one feeling that the discussion might have not gone so neatly if real people with opposing views had written the counterarguments.

Moreover, Kreeft throws great laundry lists of social ills at us without examining them closely or noting the ones that are really mixed blessings. Kreeft doesn’t bother to make many careful distinctions. His world is black and white. We’re made to feel that the Orcs of Mordor are upon us: Every man to his post!

Ironically, what Kreeft has lost here is what Lewis gained so delicately. It was said of Lewis’s work that it “was found on the coffee tables of the heathen.” Lewis’s cool, rational style has proved useful, generation after generation, in reaching the half-convinced with the Faith. Kreeft has forsaken any such connection with readers. His book is likely to be read only by those who already agree with him. Anyone disagreeing with him would soon be offended and put the book down. This would be tragic, if only for the deliciously beautiful last chapter on the Great Dance in Perelandra, the only chapter that properly fits the title. I do not expect to find this book on any heathen coffee tables. The converted will enjoy the sermon very much, but it is not the converted who need to hear it.

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