Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 73-78.
James Joyce. By Edna O’Brien. Viking/Penguin. 179 pp. $19.95.
This entry in the Penguin Lives series of brief biographies is a peculiar one: it’s best described as a kind of midrash on Richard Ellmann’s magisterial, 900–page–long life of Joyce (first published in 1959, revised in 1983). Edna O’Brien is herself a gifted, if dark–visioned, novelist, whose oft–expressed reverence for Joyce would seem to make her an ideal candidate for this project. Unfortunately, her conception of her task clearly did not include the writing of a straightforward story. She is allusive, meditative, and sometimes provocative, but these are not necessarily the cardinal virtues of biographical narrative. On at least three occasions O’Brien makes a first mention of people in terms that suggest we should know them well—and indeed, if we have read Ellmann’s book we will perhaps remember who "the solicitous Aunt Josephine" is; but if we haven’t we’ll be thumbing through the pages previous to this reference, wondering how we missed the (as it turns out nonexistent) passage in which we were given her full name, her exact relation to Joyce, and the reasons to call her "solicitous." Similarly, we hear in one chapter of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus moving in with "Jim" and his family—but the Joyces are several pages into their next residence before the reader discovers that Stanislaus has been left behind. Joyce’s notorious sexual obsessions, recorded in letters to his wife, get clinical attention here, but seem to deprive O’Brien of stylistic control: "Their hectic copulations had to be relived in order to further their rabid desires and to substantiate his leap in literature." (Say what?) O’Brien seems less interested in Joyce’s equally obsessive relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, which he loathed with a pathological hatred but whose doctrines and liturgies shaped his imagination utterly. Only near the end, in chapters about the linguistic carnival of Finnegans Wake and the tragic madness of Joyce’s beloved daughter Lucia does O’Brien find a satisfying narrative stride. This book is a disappointment, not least because the world could use a sound brief biography of this brilliant, perverse, and in many ways simpleminded man, whose mastery of the English language is exceeded only by Shakespeare’s.
— Alan Jacobs
For the Time Being. By Annie Dillard. Knopf. 205 pp. $22.
Annie Dillard’s writing is a valuable attempt to cut us loose from a complacent acceptance of life’s enigmas. In For The Time Being, Dillard tries to shed light on two perennial questions: What gives human life value? And how can God be all–powerful and all–good, yet allow evil? She presents these questions forcefully; what escapes her grasp is a convincing answer. Searching for the purpose of life, she describes Teilhard de Chardin’s experience as a stretcher–bearer in World War I: "Action he loved. His ever increasing belief that God calls people to build and divinize the world, to aid God in redemption, charged every living moment with meaning." A hint of an answer begins to emerge here, but it is quickly snuffed out by, of all things, Dillard’s consternation at the overwhelming number of human beings who inhabit the planet. "Only some deeply grounded and paradoxical view of God can make sense of the notion that God knows and loves each of 5.9 billion of us." Her thoughts on the second question are no more conclusive, as the existence of evil only entangles the first question further. Throughout the book, she calls as witnesses to evil’s reality some of humanity’s most nefarious butchers. But in a theodicy devoid of considerations of freedom and original sin, Dillard must alienate God from man; there is no way, she believes, that divine omnipotence and love can mix with human suffering. So she eliminates the personal God and posits instead an impersonal deity who plays no active role in our lives. The source of all this confusion may be Dillard’s apparent belief that life’s mysteries must be taken on by naked reason, stripped of faith’s aid. If, to use Pope John Paul II’s image, faith and reason are two cooperating wings, faith for her is at best a wobbly appendage, one which she equates with "doubt"—"Doubt and dedication often go hand in hand"—and describes as "living in conscious and rededicated relationship to God." But what sort of a "conscious and rededicated relationship" can one have with an impersonal God? The vocabulary is Christian, but the content is missing. One might expect a convert to Catholicism like Dillard to find in Christ crucified and risen the overarching meaning she so desperately seeks, but as she herself appears to realize, her own response is unsatisfying and provisional. But in the absence of a superior light—only, one hopes, for the time being—it will have to do.
— Br. Andre LaSana
Justice Is Conflict. By Stuart Hampshire. Princeton University Press. 98 pp. $18.95.
If Aristotle saw politics as men deliberating about how best to live together, Stuart Hampshire thinks it ought just to be men deliberating. For if our deliberants appeal to some unified and harmonious conception of the good, they fall into the error of "monotheism" (he really means monism), which will inevitably lead to tyranny. Our political system ought simply to ensure the negation of evils, especially the evils brought about when the majority imposes its will on the minority, rather than the promotion of some imagined common good. This defense of "procedural justice" is, as Hampshire admits, Hobbesianism and Machiavellianism cleaned up for a liberal democracy, and it is the result of a lack of faith in human reason to know right and wrong. The sad consequence of this despairing antirationalism is the lowering of our aspirations for democratic politics. Politics, Hampshire suggests, is fundamentally about power, justice is at bottom conflict, and reason, to quote Hume, "both is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions." The question left unanswered is why we should bother to deliberate if we don’t think deliberating about substantive questions can ever issue in agreement. Why isn’t politics just the war of all against all? Because in democracies we happen to like our democratic institutions? But how did that come about, and how will we sustain it? Anyone who wants to grasp quickly the limitations of early modern political thought could hardly do better than these Tanner Lectures, delivered at Harvard, which inaugurate the series Princeton Monographs in Philosophy.
Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities. By Jean Bethke Elshtain. Eerdmans. 132 pp. $20.
Elshtain, a frequent contributor to these pages, reflects on literature, movies, and the stuff of everyday life, and does so unblinkingly. She understands the abyss and teaches us how to shudder, but she understands, too, the gift of grace that relentlessly proposes a better way—a better way to think and a better way to live. This is faith–filled cultural criticism of a high order. Beautifully written and warmly recommended.
Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. By Ruth Harris. Viking. 474 pp. $34.95.
A wonderful telling of a story filled with conflicts, confusions, and wonders beyond understanding. Readers familiar with Franz Werfel’s The Song of Bernadette (both the book and the movie) and other popular tellings will welcome Ms. Harris’ scholarly but marvelously readable account of the cultural, political, and religious dynamics that elevated a Marian apparition to a young, poverty–stricken, and sickly girl kneeling in a muddy grotto into a shrine that is visited by many millions each year. The author’s handling of the reports of thousands of inexplicable cures, many of them subjected to the most skeptical scientific analysis, is admirably fair–minded, as is her subtle treatment of the complex streams of feminism that brought Lourdes to prominence. Her story mainly covers the time from the apparition in 1858 to the beginning of World War I, with only occasional references to subsequent developments. A bonus is Ms. Harris’ introduction, with its very convincing debunking of current dogmas among academic historians that attempt to debunk the possibility of writing the kind of history at which she has succeeded with such painstaking panache. One of the wonders of the book is that, after she has learned all she has learned, she still calls herself a "secular Jew." Lourdes is a splendid achievement and strongly recommended.
The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology Without Weapons. By Gary Dorrien. Westminster/John Knox. 239 pp. $29.95 paper.
This admirably lucid and learned book provides a useful chart of the storms and shoals of much of Protestant theology in the twentieth century. The "Barthian revolt" refers both to Karl Barth’s challenge to nineteenth–century liberalism and to the many subsequent challenges to Barth. The author’s treatment of the monumental battles in which Barth engaged with the likes of Emil Brunner and Rudolf Bultmann is commendably evenhanded. Dorrien, who teaches at Kalamazoo College, Michigan, is himself very much a liberal, and it is his central contention that Barth, for all his polemics against liberalism, continued much more than he realized the work of his liberal teacher Wilhelm Herr mann. This is the significance of the "theology without weapons" in his subtitle, which refers to an autopistia or faith that stands on its own without support from philosophy, natural theology, historical demonstration, or ecclesial authority. The upshot, according to Dorrien, is that Karl Barth is in fact a fellow–traveler with the anti–foundationalists of contemporary postmodernism. Given his argument, it is not surprising that Dorrien gives short shrift to students of Barth such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson who interpret and react to his work with quite different intentions. Whether or not one finds Dorrien’s thesis convincing, his book is an eminently accessible account of the arguments, conflicts, and personalities that largely shaped a century of Protestant theology that, divorced from ecclesial foundation and authority, sought to liberate itself also from the constrictions of Enlightenment rationalism and from the liberal vindication of religion by demonstrating its cultural utility—and to do so in a way that bears witness to the unqualified lordship of Christ. Highly recommended.
Karl Barth: Against Hegemony. By Timothy J. Gorringe. Oxford University Press. 312 pp. $70 cloth, $19.95 paper.
A volume in a series presenting the most notable theologians and theological movements in Christian history. As the subtitle suggests, this is a "rehabilitation" of Barth that asks us to overlook his political incorrectness on the usual scores (patriarchy, homosexuality, etc.) and accept him into the company of the good Protestant liberals against whom he contended all his life. The author, who teaches theology at the University of Exeter, gives us safe Barth, which is the one thing Barth never was.
The Common Things: Essays on Thomism and Education. Edited by Daniel McInerny. American Maritain Association. 281 pp. $15.
A rich collection of essays on the errors of contemporary education and the vibrant alternatives provided by the Thomistic synthesis. The book is especially timely given the continuing debate over Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a debate in which such levelheaded and encouraging considerations as these will be eminently useful.
Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings. By John Drury. Yale University Press. 220 pp. $25.
An ambitious book that is magnificently successful. In its lavishly illustrated pages, Drury, who is Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, combines commentary that is both artistic criticism and devotional appreciation, and both of a high order, despite some off–the–wall theology. The price is modest for a book of this quality, which suggests itself as a gift and as a companion to keep and return to again and again.
Roman Catholicism in America. By Chester Gillis. Columbia University Press. 365 pp. $35.
A part of the "Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series." The author teaches theology and Catholic studies at Georgetown University and provides a reasonably balanced overview of the history and present state of Catholicism in the U.S., written from an intelligently liberal perspective.
The Emphatic Christian Center: Reforming Christian Political Practice. By Kyle A. Pasewark and Garrett E. Paul. Abingdon. 320 pp. $29 paper.
A potpourri of political philosophy, theology, and policy wonkery that asserts a "center" of conviction rather than compromise between liberals and conservatives. The great enemy is "rights talk" (Mary Ann Glendon) and among the greatest villains is Richard John Neuhaus, whom the authors, based on an eccentric reading of just one of his books (to judge by the copious notes reflecting their much reading, they seem never to have heard of this journal), accuse of simplistically promoting individualistic rights, relativism, and even fashionably postmodern nihilism. Pasewark and Paul understand themselves to be liberals in an Augustinian–Niebuhrian tradition, and their critique of the religious left, based upon broad if idiosyncratic reading, makes their book of interest to students of the state of theology and ethics in mainline/oldline Protestantism at the end of the twentieth century.
The Thoroughbred Colt: Identity and Moral Will in a Southern Family. By Caryl Johnston. Buy Books on the web.com. 185 pp. $14.95 paper.
This may be a sign of things to come, a book not only sold on the Internet but published there. It is the story of five generations of the family of General John Hartwell Cocke, an antislavery advocate and friend of Jefferson, and all very gracefully told. It is also a morally insightful commentary on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and what it meant for relations between blacks and whites in the South, with special attention to Birmingham, Alabama.
The Heart Is a Little to the Left. By William Sloane Coffin. University Press of New England. 81 pp. $15.95.
As chaplain at Yale and pastor of Riverside Church in New York, William Sloane Coffin was once a very major voice in the Protestant oldline when the Protestant oldline was a major voice. His heart and mind are very far to the left, and his talent for religio–political aphorisms is justly renowned.
Furthermore! Memories of a Parish Priest. By Andrew M. Greeley. Forge. 303 pp. $24.95.
Sociologist Andrew Greeley has over the years regularly referred to himself as "a loudmouth Irish priest," and being such has its charms, although they begin to wear thin when the priest in question gets to be seventy–two years old. A continuation of his earlier Confessions of a Parish Priest (which Father Greeley, in fact, has not been for decades), the present book is a sustained ventilation of his opinions and prejudices, sometimes raucous and good–humored, frequently mean–spirited when directed at those whom he thinks have crossed him, and they are legion. A book for hard–core members of the Greeley fan club.
Sin, Death, and the Devil. Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson. Eerdmans. 136 pp. $15 paper.
Papers delivered at a conference of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, of which the editors are the founders. Of particular interest is Jenson on why we can laugh at nihilism (because it is nothing), Richard John Neuhaus on why what John Paul II calls the gospel of life is, quite simply, the gospel, and Vigen Guroian on Eastern Orthodoxy’s joy in the Resurrection. All in all, solid theology winsomely presented.
The Faith Factor in Fatherhood: Renewing the Sacred Vocation of Fathering. Edited by Don E. Eberly. Lexington. 331 pp. $26.95 paper.
An important collection of essays and statements by scholars, activists, clergy, politicians, and others on what is wrong with fatherhood these days and what can be done about it. Eberly is head of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Foreword by the redoubtable David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values.
An Invitation to Joy: Selections from the Writings and Speeches of His Holiness John Paul II. Edited and with commentary by Greg Burke. Simon & Schuster. 224 pp. $30.
There could not be a more perfect title for this beautifully produced book, which combines a large array of photographs of the Pope from around the world (two hundred in all) with a generous selection of meditations from his writings and public statements. The book is organized around themes such as prayer, forgiveness, youth, human rights, vocation, and suffering and evil. In brief essays before each section, Greg Burke (Time’s Rome correspondent) emphasizes the depth and richness of the Pope’s response to the human situation. But the main virtue of this book is its simple, awe–filled wonder at the joy of John Paul II, which is nothing less than the joy of the Lord to whom he has borne such courageous witness. An ideal gift for Easter and an excellent resource for this Jubilee year.