Books In Review

Briefly Noted

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 63 (May 1996): 49-71.

Briefly Noted in this issue:

The Life Of Adam Smith. By Ian Simpson Ross. Oxford/Clarendon Press. 495 pp. $35.

Professor Ross, who teaches English at the University of British Columbia, briefly mentions in his introduction various fashionable literary methodologies, but he does so only to reject them as inappropriate to the art of biography. That art involves the careful attention to detail of the historian, coupled with an imaginative sympathy-an attempt to grasp and portray the self of the biographical subject-not easy to achieve under the best of circumstances, and quite difficult when the subject is, like Smith, a philosopher who lived primarily through his writings. That Ross manages to reconstruct, often from mere fragments, a living personality is indicative of considerable skill in the biographical art. The Smith that emerges is brilliant but absent-minded, devoted to his mother, and subject to hypochondria. He is also a thoroughly decent man. While not a philosopher, Ross manages for the most part to navigate the complex intellectual currents forming the Scottish Enlightenment, the movement of which Adam Smith is perhaps the greatest representative. The Scottish Enlightenment shared little of the rationalist optimism of the continental Enlightenment, was far more sympathetic to religion, and remained keenly aware of the persistence of evil and fallibility in human affairs. Smith was not just the apostle of the market society, but a sophisticated moral thinker. Ross includes painstakingly researched chapters on the genesis on Smith's two greatest works-The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations-and shows how they must be read together. Smith embraced the potential of markets to improve the material condition of men and women only on the condition that "the laws of justice" were not violated. He thus exhibited an attentiveness to the moral preconditions of the free society-the "system of natural liberty"-that most contemporary libertarians, many of whom drink at his trough, do not share.
- Brian C. Anderson

The Sources of Christian Ethics. By Servais Pinckaers, O.P. Translated by Sister Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Catholic University Press. 489 pp. $44.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

In the Foreword to this English edition of Father Pinckaers' work, Romanus Cessario, O.P., notes that the connaturality between man and man's true good is one of the major themes of Father Pinckaers' book. Connaturality is a technical way of putting the presumption that without the virtuous habits, we endanger our relationship to God. Accordingly, Pinckaers' wonderful book is characterized by a return to the centrality of the virtues for how one thinks about the moral life. This emphasis enables Pinckaers to present Aquinas' ethics in all their theological richness, helping us to see that Aquinas' ethics is nothing less than an ongoing commentary on Scripture and in particular the significance of the Beatitudes. Pinckaers offers an alternative to the unhappy and unfruitful debates about proportionalism in contemporary Roman Catholic moral theology. Here we have Roman Catholic moral theology done in a manner that makes the Scriptures and the Fathers integral to that task. Father Pinckaers reminds us that happiness, not law, is the center of the Christian life, and he provides an illuminating history of how this insight was lost in the development of Catholic moral theology. Father Pinckaers writes with a generous spirit and deep wisdom. His book, unfortunately, could be lost amid the current polemics exactly because it is not polemical. Yet it has an edge that hopefully will attract many readers. The author writes: "Let me say that we have no need to fear presenting the Sermon on the Mount to nonbelievers, on the pretext that only a natural ethic is appropriate for them. Experience shows, and the reading of commentaries confirms it: the Sermon touches non-Christians more deeply and has far greater appeal than any moral theory based on natural law in the name of reason. It is as if the Sermon strikes a human chord more 'natural' and universal than reason by itself can ever do."
- Stanley Hauerwas

Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa. By Hans Urs von Balthasar. Translated by Mark Sebanc. Ignatius Press. $17.99.

The first move for any Christian thinker dealing with the issues of his own time, writes von Balthasar, "is to return once more to the past." In the 1930s von Balthasar began a long-range project to examine the thought of the three major Greek Christian thinkers from antiquity, Origen of Alexandria (third century), Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century), and Maximus the Confessor (seventh century). When the present volume, first published in French in 1942 and now beautifully translated by Mark Sebanc, appeared, Gregory was seldom read even in learned circles. Today, because of this book and the writings of Jean Danielou, Gregory is avidly studied as a spiritual thinker and theologian, in von Balthasar's phrase, for the "poetry of the ideas themselves." Gregory's Life of Moses has become a minor classic. The present volume is a serious historical study of Gregory against the backdrop of Platonic thought, but von Balthasar, characteristically, writes with an eye as much on the twentieth century as on the fourth and the book can be read as an illuminating chapter in the development of von Balthasar's own thought.
- Robert L. Wilken

Jews and Blacks: Let The Healing Begin. By Michael Lerner and Cornel West. Putnam. 276 pp. $24.95.

In recent years, much attention has been focused on the collapse of the Black-Jewish alliance, once the cornerstone of liberal politics in America. In their new book, Michael Lerner, editor of the left-liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, and Cornel West, a professor of religion and Afro-American studies at Harvard and one of the country's preeminent liberal black intellectuals, address a variety of issues, including Zionism, affirmative action, and the anti-Semitic diatribes of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. In this volume, which consists of transcripts from their tape-recorded conversations over several years and which was intended to create a basis for renewed dialogue and mutual understanding between Jews and blacks, they are unable to resolve their own fundamental and profound disagreements, particularly on the issue of black anti-Semitism. Especially disturbing is their emotional dialogue about Farrakhan's virulent anti-Semitism, which West refuses to repudiate or unequivocally condemn, despite Lerner's earnest pleading with him to do so. Their conversation fails completely to assuage the fears of an increasing number of Jews that Farrakhan's popularity within the black community bears testimony to a widespread and deep-rooted black anti-Semitism. West's stubborn refusal to repudiate Farrakhan should be a source of sobering concern to liberal Jewish intellectuals, such as Lerner, who all-too-naively believe that the profound rifts dividing blacks and Jews can easily be healed.
- David G. Dalin

Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. By Scott B. Rae. Zondervan. 253 pp. $17.99.

This book, written from an evangelical perspective, is a current and comprehensive survey of moral theories and controversies. Intended for undergraduates, it begins with a digest of classical ethical theories and then moves on to a series of brief intellectual snapshots of major figures in the history of ethics. The concise theoretical coverage concludes with a unique seven-step decision model designed to help students arbitrate case studies and moral quandaries. Seven issue-themed chapters follow, the two most notable of which focus on reproductive technologies and euthanasia. The look at reproductive technologies is especially helpful in that it systematically unravels the sometimes bewildering complexities of operations and treatments available to individuals and couples-of every sort-seeking children. To the author's credit he does not shy away from offering strong words of caution concerning the manipulation of human procreation. The chapter on euthanasia is fresh, and informed by the author's clinical experience as a hospital ethics committee member. The distinction between active and passive euthanasia is emphatically drawn, and clear priority throughout is given to the sanctity of life. Altogether this is a book certain to be useful for both the student and teacher.
- Brad Stetson

More Than One Way? Four Views On Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Edited by Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips. Zondervan. 283 pp. $16.99 paper.

Analysis of truth-claims in relation to religious diversity is clearly a growth industry in religious book publishing. As the plausibility of pure relativism in religion continues to strain credulity, writers from a range of Christian traditions are limning aspects of "the scandal of particularity" in increasingly creative ways. More Than One Way? furthers this project. This new contribution in Zondervan's "four views" series is the first forum strictly devoted to evangelical dialogue with the most influential theorist of relativism in religious belief, John Hick. His theory of "religious pluralism," in which a propertyless, unknown Ultimate-"the Real"-lies behind each of the great religious traditions has wielded a strong influence, one far out of proportion to its meager cogency. In this volume Hick interacts with Clark Pinnock (representing evangelical inclusivism), Alister McGrath (representing one species of evangelical particularism), and R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips (representing an "evidentialist" evangelical particularism). The dialogue format of the book, in which each contributor presents his case, followed by responses from each of the other participants, and then a rebuttal from the first author, is helpful in that it directly leads to discussion of the most contentious questions. However, one cannot help but get the impression that the participants feel rushed. Their frequent references to space constraints give the exchanges a kind of shorthand or "Cliff Notes" feeling, as though one is reading the digest of a much larger debate.
- BS

A Lie and a Libel: The History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. By Binjamin W. Segel. Translated and edited by Richard S. Levy. University of Nebraska Press. 148 pp. $22.50.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is the most famous anti- Semitic document of modern times. A forgery composed in the late 1890s by the secret police of tsarist Russia, The Protocols purported to be the minutes of a meeting among the leaders of a diabolical international Jewish conspiracy. By having fellow Jews gain positions of influence within every country, the fictitious conspirators plotted to manipulate national economies and popular passions, cause depressions and revolutions and wars, make and break diplomatic alliances, start wars and stop them at a moment's notice-whatever helped to consolidate the Jews' global power and reduce other peoples to abject poverty, servitude, and slavery. Binjamin Segel, a German Jew writing in the 1920s, made a withering critique of the document, drawing out all of its absurdity, mendaciousness, and pathetic clumsiness. Despite its implausibility on even the most superficial level, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been translated into scores of languages, and it continues to have wide circulation throughout the world, courtesy of various neofascist, anti-Semitic, and racist organizations. Many modern anti-Jewish commonplaces have their origin in The Protocols. Its influence among the credulous has not been much affected by its inaccuracies or its paucity of relevant names, places, dates, and evidence. Indeed, The Protocols has been reissued by anti- Semitic groups over the years with slight variations of locale and plot to fit the popular resentments and fears of the moment. The translator, Richard Levy, provides a very useful introductory essay that broadens the historical context of Segel's critique. One only wishes that this little volume could have been expanded to include a copy of the actual document itself.

When God Becomes Goddess: The Transformation of American Religion. By Richard Grigg. Continuum. 149 pp. $22.95.

Though the actual text runs barely a hundred pages, readers of this little book will find themselves compelled to honor its author: the writing of even a hundred pages this thoroughly silly requires no ordinary talent. Mr. Grigg's thesis seems to be that if everyone were to admit that God is dead, then there might be a use for the "feminist enactment theology" that has been making the rounds in the more breathless of theological journals the last few years. Of course, as the author himself admits, the vast majority of Americans don't think that God is dead, but they ought to, because-well, because if they did then "feminist enactment theology" could save them from the bad consequences of thinking God is dead. We should use, in other words, 1960s "Death of God" theology to force all Americans to disbelieve so that we can use 1990s Goddess theology to combat-what else?-American disbelief. Besides, Mr. Grigg argues, traditional Jewish and Christian God-talk is all translatable into new Goddess-talk. Readers may wonder why anyone would bother, since translators will necessarily arrive only at the inevitable "Death of Goddess" that translates the "Death of God." But Mr. Grigg's fears on this score seem quieted by the assurance that the effort of translation will at least give employment to a generation or two of theologians, and in the meantime there's so much fun in bashing traditionalists with three decades worth of theological fads. A sad little exercise by an author with time to kill.

Think a Second Time. By Dennis Prager. Regan Books/HarperCollins. 253 pp. $24.

Can Families Survive in Pagan America? By Samuel H. Dresner. Huntington House. 332 pp. $15.99 paper.

Two conservative critiques of modern society by religious Jews. Dennis Prager-the Los Angeles-based author, journalist, and syndicated radio talk-show host-is a traditional Jew from an Orthodox background who has long advocated "ethical monotheism" as the essential foundation of any good society. Think a Second Time is a collection of some of his most incisive commentaries on such subjects as human nature, race relations, feminism, the decline of liberalism, school choice, the moral development of children, prayer, and life after death. Prager is something of a maverick conservative who isn't afraid to occasionally move to his left a bit (see his discussion of soft-core pornography, for instance), which is part of what makes him so interesting and engaging. Prager's essay "A Jew's Thoughts on Christmas" is a little masterpiece that the leaders of Jewish secular organizations would do well to take to heart. The collection of essays by Samuel Dresner, long a distinguished faculty member at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative movement), is a nice complement to the Prager volume; it covers some similar ground, but gives more attention to fewer subjects, and with more scholarly depth (though it is always accessible). Readers seeking solid overviews on "Homosexuality and the Order of Creation," "Goddess Feminism," and "The Return of Paganism," among other topics, will not be unrewarded. Both authors are broadly sympathetic to the efforts of conservative Christians to re-moralize America's public life.

The Church. By Edmund P. Clowney. InterVarsity. 336 pp. $14.99 paper.

It is frequently and rightly observed that evangelical Protestantism is very weak when it comes to the importance of the Church in New Testament Christianity. Clowney recognizes that weakness and in this book offers a very persuasive account of what it might mean for Protestants to become more reflective about what it means when they say they believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. This volume is part of the InterVarsity series "Contours of Christian Theology."

The Mainline Church's Funding Crisis. By Ronald E. Vallet and Charles E. Zech. Eerdmans. 167 pp. $16 paper.

Do not be put off by the clumsy title. The spirited and convincing argument is that the mainline/oldline/ sideline churches are suffering a crisis of faith, with severe consequences for, inter alia, funding of missions both domestic and foreign. The authors strongly hope that God is not finished with these churches and look for a response that will vindicate their hope.

Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices. By Robert Booth Fowler and Allen D. Hertzke. Westview. 287 pp. $55 cloth, $18.95 paper.

A text to be greatly welcomed by teachers of religion and government as a reliable guide to the cultural churnings that are changing our public life. A balanced treatment, said C. Wright Mills, is frequently the achievement of "a vague equilibrium between platitudes." In that sense of the term, this book is not balanced, but it does provide a fair and accurate account of frequently conflicting forces by two authors who manifestly respect both religion and the American political experiment.

Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, 1730-1860. Edited by Donald M. Lewis. Blackwell. Two volumes, 1,259 pp. $195.

The price will preclude purchase by all but institutional libraries, but this is a notable achievement that should be welcomed by scholars. Keep in mind that "evangelical" in this case is synonymous with Protestant, since until the turn of the century almost all non-Catholic and non- Orthodox Christians styled themselves evangelical. The volumes are a great delight for browsing and will no doubt be invaluable for the serious researcher.

A Map of Twentieth Century Theology. Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson. Fortress. 388 pp. $26 paper.

An extremely useful anthology that will undoubtedly become a standard reference in classrooms, but should be welcomed also by laity looking for an introduction to contemporary theology. In the very nature of things, say the two Lutheran editors, the book is inordinately Protestant simply because "modern" theology was, until recently, almost completely a Protestant project. Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan are here, but the editors apologize (and appropriately so) for the absence of Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom they recognize as probably the greatest of Catholic theologians in this century. All of the main figures and schools of thought are provided with succinct and insightful introductions by the editors.

Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross. By Caryll Houselander. Sophia Press (Manchester, NH 03108). 166 pp. $14.95.

By the time she died in 1954, Houselander had become one of the most admired spiritual writers in the Christian world. A Rocking-Horse Catholic, the story of her childhood and youth, and The Reed of God, a reflection on the Virgin Mary, deserve to be called classics. Sophia Press renders a real service by bringing her books back into print, and for doing so in a very classy format. The present book is subtitled "the little way of the infant Jesus," and should be of interest to Christians of all communions.

Married to the Church. By Raymond Hedin. Indiana University Press. 260 pp. $29.95.

Interviews with and reflections on former priests and seminarians, and priests who "stick with it" despite a rigid Church that offends their superior sensibilities. Of the last group the author writes, "The desire to participate in larger changes is rooted deeply enough in them, in many of us who identify with the 1960s, that, in conjunction with their traditional need to belong or affiliate, they cannot find contentment in total divorce from an institution which resists change but still offers an area in which to seek it." At every point, in this view, the Church is subordinate to, instrumental to, what is thought to be required for personal fulfillment. The genre is familiar; fashionable talk about vulnerability and openness to change that is, in fact, redolent of a moral smugness disdainful of any truth that threatens the uncritically vaunted authenticity of the self. This is a desperately sad book. The author teaches American and Afro-American Studies at Indiana University.