Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 38 (December 1993): 63-64.
Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. By Daniel Mark Epstein. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 496 pp. $27.95.
Among the many colorful personalities who gripped the nation’s attention in the 1920s, no one fascinated the eager public more than the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, an itinerate preacher whose considerable theatrical talent won the approbation of Hollywood and brought record-breaking crowds into tents and civic auditoriums to hear a simple gospel message with deep roots in the American revivalist tradition. Daniel Mark Epstein’s new study is, in many respects, a welcome addition to the literature on McPherson. He tells a good story with sympathy and humor, and the book makes for lively reading. Unfortunately, it leaves the reader hard-pressed to know when the story is accurate and when it is not, since the records that Epstein was able to review are far from complete, and he depends for much of his account on uncritical retellings from McPherson’s own autobiographies. Also, the book is littered with a number of factual errors, minor points for the most part, but unfortunate nonetheless in a story whose inaccuracies have been repeated until they are accepted as facts. The author, moreover, is obviously somewhat uncertain as he explores the richly textured world of early American Pentecostalism. In sum, a good read but not a definitive biography.
—Edith L. Blumhofer
Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. By Thomas V. Morris. Eerdmans. 214 pp. $12.95 paper.
Pascal, while universally admitted to be a genius, is generally relegated to the pantheon of "minor" philosophers, since most of his life was spent either in mathematical discoveries or in his famous tangle with the lax moral theologians of the Jesuit order. He died before he could assemble the disjecta membra of his famous Pensées into an organized, consistently argued book, and so he is more often known for his aphoristic brilliance than for any coherent philosophy. But coherent it is, and we owe Thomas Morris, Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, many thanks for this stimulating, witty, and utterly absorbing book on perhaps the greatest apologist for Christianity in modern times. Morris notes the contrast between Pascal and much of philosophy today: "Intellectual activities themselves can be powerfully diverting. Many philosophers and theologians are masters at keeping their distance from spiritual realities." Or, as Pascal says, "Pious scholars are rare." Why? Because "we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us from seeing it."
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
The Resilience of Christianity in the Modern World. By Joseph B. Tamney. SUNY Press. 178 pp. $19.95 paper.
"Modern societies are culturally complex and certainly not internally consistent." Regrettably, the author is given to such truisms throughout this rather diffuse discussion of religion and modernity. Despite religion’s resistance to the counterculture and what he calls socialist ideas, religion will, Tamney concludes, persist into the next century.
All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. By Marsha G. Witten. Princeton University Press. 208 pp. $19.95.
A suggestive analysis of religious language coping with the pressures of secularization, this study pays particular attention to Presbyterians (USA) and Southern Baptists. Beyond cultural accommodation and cultural resistance, Witten urges that we take seriously the need for "reframing" of rhetorics. She is rightly concerned that the downplaying of the "negative" aspects of the Christian message—sin, judgment, ultimate accountability—makes it impossible to communicate credibly the "positive"—for example, the message that "all is forgiven." Sociologists of religion will want to pay particular attention.
The Content of Faith. By Karl Rahner. Crossroad. 668 pp. $42.
Few theologians in this century have written so much and few have been so influential, at least among Roman Catholics, as Karl Rahner. What a number of editors have done here is to rifle through his ouevre and bring together in one hefty book 174 brief essays. The result is a very useful introduction to, and representative sampling of, Rahner’s life project.
Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. Joseph J. Ellis. Norton. 275 pp. $25.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Not knowing that the sage of Monticello had died hours earlier, Adams’ last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives." Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College traces the ways in which Jefferson has indeed survived in the American memory in a way that Adams has not. Adams was in almost all respects a more admirable character than Jefferson, and he was probably a greater thinkerleast a much more sober thinker. Passionate Sage might provide, the author delicately suggests, the spark for a movement to erect in Washington a monument to Adams comparable to the Jefferson Memo rial. Whether or not that happens, this is a book to be relished by those who want to understand better the philosophical and moral assumptions of the American founding.
The Parting of Friends. By David Newsome. Eerdmans. 485 pp. $29.99.
Our friend Mark Noll calls it "simply one of the best books that I have read." It is very good indeed. The subtitle is "The Wilberforces and Henry Manning," and it is the story of the sons of "The Great Emancipator"—Samuel, Robert, and Henry—and their families, and how all of these related to Henry Manning, the Anglican convert who became Cardinal Manning. (Robert and Henry became Catholic, while Samuel played an important role as Anglican Bishop of Oxford.) Of books on the Oxford Movement and related gyrations there seems to be no end. A particular merit of the present study is that Newman, Keble, and some other familiar players are kept in the background, thus permitting the author to tell the tale from a fresh angle. Newsome effectively makes the argument that in the beginning the Evangelicals and those who would come to be called Anglo-Catholic were pretty much the same people. Evangelicals were, more often than not, Anglicans of a catholic disposition who constituted the minority of serious Christians in the Church of England. Here in America a century and a half later we witness a somewhat similar development. Although it has not yet come together as a major movement, there are numerous initiatives to form some kind of "orthodox" alliance among Evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics. One expects that, as in the last century, any such movement would have to engage the ecclesiological claims of the Catholic Church. In any event, whether one reads it for the sheer pleasure of the thing or to ponder the possible futures of Evangelicals and Catholics, The Parting of Friends is warmly recommended.
Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet empire. By David Remnick. Random House. 575 pp. $25.
Beginning in 1988, the author was for four years the Washington Post’s man in Moscow, and he has made the most of it. He provides an astute and utterly absorbing inside account of the death of the brutal system of corruption that was the evil empire. Unlike many Western correspondents, he has a critically measured appreciation of Gorbachev, a man who was often driven by egomaniacal illusions that he could control forces he did not understand. Remnick is especially strong on the role of (mainly Jewish) intellectuals and other dissidents, but has very little to say about Russian Orthodoxy and almost nothing about external factors—i.e., John Paul II, Reagan, Thatcher—in precipitating the end of Soviet Communism. Lenin’s Tomb is, nonetheless, among the very best reports to date on the death throes of the most bloody regime in human history. (Someday soon there may be a book called Mao’s Tomb.)