Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 107 (November 2000): 64-68.
Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician. By Christoph Wolff. Norton. 599 pp. $39.95.
Great books do not require long reviews. If the book’s so great, why waste time reading the review? That being so, this review of Christoph Wolff’s new biography of Johann Sebastian Bach is already too long. Wolff has devoted most of his scholarly and performing life to Bach and his music. He is now Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School and somehow in his spare time has produced here what is certainly the best biography of Bach I know of and what may be the most elegantly written biography of a composer ever produced (and English isn’t even Professor Wolff’s first language). The subtitle is taken from the letter of dismissal written by Prince Leopold of Anhalt–Cöthen in April of 1723. Bach had been employed by the prince (who held him in high regard) since 1717 and was leaving to accept an appointment in Leipzig. The prince called Bach “well learned,” a testament not only to his skill as a musician but also to his highly trained and wide–ranging intellect. And although Wolff is careful to point out that Bach’s work is too multifaceted to be described from only one viewpoint, the portrait of the composer Wolff sketches is of a musical scholar who produced works of “musical science.” As a science, his music imitated nature (and thus purposefully referred to God who created nature). It is within this context that we are to understand Bach’s own view that the “ultimate end of or final goal [of true music is] the honor of God and the recreation of the soul.” I have but one serious complaint about the book (other than that I wish it were even longer). In discussing what Bach saw as the purpose for his art, Wolff concludes that “Bach’s compositions . . . may epitomize nothing less than the difficult task of finding for himself an argument for the existence of God—perhaps the ultimate goal of his musical science.” I may be wrong here, but I don’t think that Bach fretted himself a moment over the existence of God. That might have been the fashion up in Berlin or over in Paris, but not in Leipzig, or at least not in the cantor’s house. What I find again and again in Bach’s work are meditations on Jesus, which is something of a different matter. In any case, Wolff has produced a marvelous book that will benefit the professional musician and delight the music lover. A hundred and twenty years ago, Philipp Spitta produced the first comprehensive biography of Bach, a work that despite its many errors has remained in print as a model of Bach research. I predict an equally long shelf life for Prof. Wolff’s book.
— Michael Linton
A History of Celibacy: From Athena to Elizabeth I, Leonardo Da Vinci, Florence Nightingale, Ghandi, and Cher. By Elizabeth Abbott. Scribner. 493 pp. $30.
Most people today simply assume that the celebrated figures of our past had some illicit affair or perversity hiding in their closet. Great men, as we were told so often during the Lewinsky fiasco, have great passions. Into this milieu steps University of Toronto professor Elizabeth Abbott with A History of Celibacy, an exposé on people who didn’t have sex. It was a surprise bestseller in Canada last year—it seems today that kink is de rigueur and not having sex is, well, sexy. Yet though it wears the garb of serious scholarship, A History of Celibacy is really no less shallow than the Sally Hemmings movies, amounting to little more than gossip about those who abstain, for whatever reason: the angelic–voiced castrati of Italian opera; Greek goddesses Athena and Hestia; basketball star–turned–HIV–carrying–AIDS–activist Magic Johnson; the gaunt, desert–wandering ascetics of Eastern Christianity; boxers conserving energy for the big fight; nineteenth–century British proto–feminists; the poet Ovid, who described himself as “limp as yesterday’s lettuce”; the spirit–moved, fitful dancing Shakers; and doleful Hindus, widowed for life before they were able to marry. “Celibacy or chastity,” Abbott writes, “is abstaining from sexual relations, intentionally or under duress, temporarily or for indefinite periods.” If being celibate doesn’t depend on whether one wants to abstain, or for how long one abstains, then who doesn’t qualify? In trying to create a category large enough to contain all the cases in her study, she makes it too broad to be stable. Her definition evaporates in its generality, becoming meaningless. It knows no bounds, and neither does the book.
— Spencer Lewerenz
Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art. By Neil MacGregor. Yale University Press. 238 pp. $35.
Images of Christ in iconography, sculpture, and painting from the early centuries—and one wishes one could say up to the present. There is, however, little here beyond the sixteenth century and only one image from the twentieth. That, however, is not entirely the fault of MacGregor, since there is relatively little from the last three hundred years deserving of inclusion in the great tradition he presents, along with learned and engaging commentary. A book for the coffee table that will invite many return visits.
Not Ashamed: The Story of Jews for Jesus. By Ruth A. Tucker. Multnomah. 310 pp. $12.99 paper.
Twenty–five years after Moishe Rosen launched Jews for Jesus, it continues to flourish as one of the most promising, provocative, offensive, outrageous (depending on whom you ask) developments in Jewish–Christian relations. The dominant, perhaps unanimous, view of Jewish leaders is that Jews for Jesus is fraudulent, exploitative, and, at least implicitly, anti–Semitic. A common, if not dominant, view among Christians is expressed by J. I. Packer in his foreword to the present book: “Paul’s ‘to the Jew first’ (Romans 1:16) remains a pointer to a permanent priority in Christian evangelism. For many centuries the Church lost sight of it, and some moderns have argued that Jews need not be evangelized at all, but Jews for Jesus is what it sounds like—Jewish Christians sharing their faith with other Jews—and we should thank God that they are there doing that.” Wherever one comes down on these questions, Ms. Tucker has provided a very readable account of the movement and its founder, and the book must be reckoned a valuable contribution to the conflicted history of Judaism and the Christian movement to which it gave birth.
Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses. By Shawn Francis Peters. University of Kansas Press. 342 pp. $34.95.
A vivid telling of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S., especially during World War II, and the religious freedom jurisprudence sparked by the frequently courageous witness of the Witnesses. An important story, although one might wish the author were more critical of the liberal–individualistic skewing of religion in the court decisions he celebrates.
The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays. Edited by Don E. Eberly. Rowman & Littlefield. 414 pp. $22.95 paper.
The book delivers on its title and will be warmly welcomed by those who want to get on top of the still–growing discussion of civil society. Among those who have shaped the discussion and are included here: Robert Bellah, Peter Berger, John J. DiIulio, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Mary Ann Glendon, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Nisbet, Michael Sandel, and James Q. Wilson.
Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post–Cultural America. By Christopher Clausen. Ivan R. Dee. 209 pp. $25.
However many sides there are in the culture wars, they are all wrong. The sobering fact, says the author, is that culture—whether understood as a monoculture or as multiculturalism—has disappeared in America. There are only individuals consuming bits of cultural nostalgia or cultural experimentation according to individual taste. Commanding and informing traditions are dead, although Clausen leaves room for hope that something quite unexpected may take their place. The bracing argument is, as with most bracing arguments, overstated. It is also intelligently provocative.
God and Globalization: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life. Edited by Max L. Stackhouse and Peter J. Paris. Trinity. 304 pp. $40.
Issuing from a conference at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, this is the first volume in a series that tries to unpack the many meanings of “globalization” and demonstrate the increasing urgency of tempering its economic dynamic by the intelligent assertion of moral and religious truths.
The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. By David G. Myers. Yale University Press. 412 pp. $29.95.
A comprehensive survey of “communitarian” initiatives in thought and public policy. The author, professor of psychology at Hope College, Michigan, proposes a hopeful reading of a culture that is turning away from the obsession with individual rights and toward an appreciation of life ordered by tradition and community.
Fludd. By Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt. 181 pp. $13 paper.
Ms. Mantel, an English writer with eight novels on her record, is too young to have known firsthand the bad old “pre–Vatican II Church,” but she rummages with juvenile zest through the warehouse of tattered stereotypes to cobble together what she presents as a comical tale of a curmudgeonly old priest who has the saving merit of not believing in God as he caters to the risible superstitions of his piously pagan Irish parishioners. A curious fellow by the name of Fludd shows up, pretending to be the new curate sent by the fatuously tyrannical bishop who is determined that the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas be jolted into the modern age. Fludd turns out, however, to be an angel of sorts who deflowers the sexually repressed Sister Philemon, rescuing her from the regime of Mother Perpetua, a vicious shrew who gets her kicks by belaboring ignorant school children with a heavy cane. There is also a lot about statues that don’t answer prayers, faked stigmata, and the absurd casuistries of the confessional. The result is a portrayal of Catholicism, old and new, as a system of guilt–ridden credulity and hypocrisy that is easily cured by a healthy romp between the sheets. There are probably caricatures and clichés that Ms. Mantel does not enlist in this sniggeringly unimaginative send–up, but they do not readily come to mind.
To Kill the Pope: An Ecclesiastical Thriller. By Tad Szulc. Scribner. 312 pp. $25.
Szulc, who wrote a biography of the Pope, writes in this novel’s afterword that “the truth about the investigation and assassination attempt against John Paul II is disclosed here for the first time.” The truth, he claims without supplying an iota of evidence, is that a Lefebvrist–type French archbishop ordered the assassination and enlisted the help of Muslim “fundamentalists” in carrying it out. All this is discovered through the derring–do of a young American Jesuit who reports to a pretty nun who works for the Pope’s sinister secretary. Having solved the mystery of the attempted assassination, the priest and nun are ap palled by power politics in the Church, fall in love, abandon their vows, and run off together, presumably to get married. To Kill the Pope: soon to be turned into a cartoon strip.
Religion and the New Republic. Edited by James H. Hutson. Rowman & Littlefield. 212 pp. $70 cloth, $24.95 paper.
Papers by, inter alia, John Witte, Michael Novak, and Mark Noll prepared in connection with the marvelous Library of Congress exhibit on religion in the American founding.
What’s Left? Liberal American Catholics. Edited by Mary Jo Weaver. Indiana University Press. 304 pp. $39.95 paper.
Conservatives are distressed by change, writes editor Weaver, while liberals “can accept a God and a world in process and in partnership. . . . [They] recognize that order and chaos are not enemies; they are partners in the creative enterprise.” The book is a useful catalog of liberal/left enthusiasms and alarums, concluding with historian David O’Brien’s incontrovertible observation that “The story of American Catholicism is not yet finished. The next chapter remains to be written.”
Clark H. Pinnock: Journey Toward Renewal. By Barry L. Callen. Evangel. 298 pp. $18.95 paper.
Pinnock is an evangelical Protestant theologian to whom the adjective “controversial” has been attached for almost thirty years. Callen sympathetically tracks his movement from Calvinism (Pinnock calls it “paleo–Calvinism”) to an Arminian accent on free will in both God and man. The book is a valuable assist in understanding some of the more turbulent theological churnings in contemporary evangelicalism.
Paul: A Novel. By Walter Wangerin. Zondervan. 510 pp. $44.99 cloth, $18.99 paper.
A strange and rewarding book. The apostle Paul speaks only in the words of his New Testament letters, while all around him are the voices of disciples, Roman officials, and others caught up in this new thing called Christian. Wangerin, a Lutheran and prolific author, has a knack for conveying the sense of puzzlement, excitement, and wonder that must have attended the early years of the Church.
Trinity, Time, and Church: A Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson. Edited by Colin E. Gunton. Eerdmans. 331 pp. $38.
Robert Jenson is no stranger to the readers of this journal. Over almost forty years, this Lutheran deeply formed by Barthian, Catholic, and Orthodox theology has made consistently suggestive, sometimes pro vocative, and always lively contributions to Christian thought, and has done so on an astonishing range of subjects, most centrally those specified in the title. To know Jenson’s work is to know most of what needs to be known about contemporary theology. Among the twenty–one contributors to the volume are David Novak, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten, Robert Louis Wilken, Susan K. Wood, Richard John Neuhaus, Stanley Hauerwas, and Gilbert Meilaender.
Champion of Women and the Unborn: Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D. By Frederick N. Dyer. Science History Publications. 614 pp. $39.95.
Largely forgotten today is the fact that it was the medical profession that in the nineteenth century rallied public sentiment and led in establishing the laws protecting unborn children that were negated by Roe v. Wade. Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer (1830–1922) was one of the key leaders in that campaign, and this is a detailed account of his life and influence. An appendix in cludes a letter written by the socialist leader Norman Thomas on the stationery of the Nation, consoling Storer’s daughter and congratulating her on “the noble heritage your father left, not only to his family but to mankind.” A reminder that protecting women and children from abortion and abortionists was once embraced as a progressive cause—which it surely is.
The Best Christian Writing 2000. Edited by John Wilson. HarperSanFrancisco. 340 pp. $15 paper.
There is an element of arbitrariness in selecting “the best” of anything, but this is a very credible collection of twenty–seven essays on a wide range of subjects from a wide range of perspectives. Included are three FT essays, Robert Royal on Columbus and the New World, Jean Bethke Elshtain on Abraham Lincoln, and Richard John Neuhaus on the idea of moral progress.