Books in Review


Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 68 (December 1996): 44-47.


  • Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars
  • Manhood in America: A Cultural History
  • The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age
  • God, Cosmos, and Humankind: The World of Early Christian Symbolism
  • When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor
  • Microcosm and Creator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor
  • Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today
  • Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Prophetic Writings of Alexander Men
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas. Volume 1: The Person and His Work
  • Brooklyn! An Illustrated History

    Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars. By Margaret Wertheim. Random House. 279 pp. $23.

    Contrary to what the subtitle night suggest, this book is no feminist screed, but an even-toned, readable, and philosophically astute claim that mathematics (and hence mathematical physics) has always been intertwined with religious and mystical themes. The book opens with Pythagoras, who regarded numbers as divine and founded a religious community to study the mysteries of geometry. Centuries later, many of the early scientists revived the Pythagorean/Platonic tradition and merged it with Christian faith, a blend that inspired Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and others. Today physics continues to have quasi- religious overtones, as contemporary scientists endow their books with titles such as The God Particle and The Mind of God. As a secondary thesis, Wertheim argues that this religious dimension explains why the scientific community has historically included so few women. Many of the early scientists regarded themselves as "priests of God" (in Kepler's phrase) and adopted a monastic model excluding women from education and science societies, a practice that continued until surprisingly recently. Wertheim weaves her two theses together persuasively, but more importantly she has produced a rarity: a book of popular science that skillfully treats the deep and enduring association of science and religion.

    - Nancy R. Pearcey

    Manhood in America: A Cultural History. By Michael Kimmel. Free Press. 544 pp. $30.

    Policy experts are finally persuaded (through earlier books such as David Blankenhorn's Fatherless in America) that our most intractable social pathologies follow on the heels of fatherlessness. What we need now is a historical grasp of the reasons for the male flight from family. A flurry of books has appeared in recent years dealing with changes in notions of masculinity through history. Michael Kimmel from the State University of New York believes a seismic shift took place during the industrial revolution. In colonial times, the definition of manhood focused on virtuous character: fulfilling the duties given by one's "station." But the industrial revolution dissolved traditional social structures, cutting men adrift to create their own identities through individual achievement. The moral and communal duties of manhood were muted-precisely those that bind men to families. Moreover, as men began to work in factories and offices, homes grew increasingly mother-centered. Family and domesticity were cast as things to be escaped in order to become a "real" man. These long-term structural effects are described by Kimmel in profuse detail, though better analysis is found in other recent works such as Robert Griswold's Fatherhood in America and E. Anthony Rotundo's American Manhood. Most scholars working in this area are culturally liberal, and Christians concerned about renewing male commitment to the family would do well to take advantage of the historical data they are uncovering and integrate it into a traditionalist moral framework.

    - NRP

    The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. By John Horgan. Helix Books/Addison-Wesley. 308 pp. $24.

    These profiles of prominent scientists by a senior staff writer for Scientific American are intended to update Gunther Stent's The Coming of the Golden Age, a 1969 declaration of the imminent end of science. It didn't quite turn out that way in the 1970s. But here in the 1990s, we're facing another crop of "end-of-science" claims, primarily because of new work in particle physics. What bothers John Horgan is that, in key areas of science, exotic theories are spun with no way to test them. It is, for instance, hard to test a theory of parallel universes, when parallel universes are by definition inaccessible. Horgan calls this activity "ironic science." Some of its practitioners, like Stephen Hawking, he believes to be essentially practical jokers. Others, like superstring theorist Edward Witten, seem to imagine their fantastically subtle but untestable ideas are validated by their subtlety. Aside from ironic scientists, Horgan spoke to a number of people who may be doing useful work, but who seem mostly interested in vending cranky metaphysical notions. This is most pronounced among the tub-thumping materialists who probably believe they have no metaphysics at all. Horgan does not deny that his interest in the limits of science is in part religious. His epilogue is entitled "The Terror of God"-as though the Divine Mind, unsupported by anything else and knowing everything there is to know, is actually terrified of the abyss. He asks several people about this idea, including the philosopher Charles Hartshorne, but without much result. Perhaps when the human race reaches the limits of knowledge, it will find itself in a similar situation, but the terror he describes is more likely the result of trying to imagine what God would be like if God were Horgan.

    - John J. Reilly

    God, Cosmos, and Humankind: The World of Early Christian Symbolism. By Gerhart B. Ladner. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. University of California Press. 334 pp. $45.

    The original German version was entitled Handbook of Early Christian Symbolism, and that title better describes this learned and fascinating work. Gerhart Ladner, who is best known for his writings on Christian intellectual history (most notably, The Idea of Reform) here gathers together in one volume an unparalleled compendium of the rich and varied world of early Christian symbolism (the lamb and the deer, grapevines and fish, serpents and dragons, creation and cosmos), biblical narratives and parables (Jonah and the whale, the wise and foolish virgins, the Eucharist and apostles receiving communion), the nimbus of saints, the pallium of popes, and much more. Lavishly illustrated and well indexed, the book is a pleasure to consult and easy to use.

    - Robert L. Wilken

    When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. By William Julius Wilson. Knopf. 307 pp. $26.

    Wilson gained deserved attention with his 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race, in which he argued that factors related to economic class were more important than racial discrimination in understanding the problems of black Americans. This was followed in 1988 by The Truly Disadvantaged, which helpfully focused on the "radical isolation" of the black poor after civil rights laws made possible the flight of more successful blacks from urban centers. The present book incorporates vast amounts of empirical data that Wilson and his many collaborators gathered through a huge research project run out of the University of Chicago, and much of the data will be of lasting interest to scholars. Regrettably, the book is totally unconvincing in its analysis, which ignores cultural, social, and moral factors in its simplistic insistence that the only remedy is jobs, mainly government- generated jobs. In light of Professor Wilson's earlier work, the book is deeply disappointing.

    Microcosm and Creator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor. By Lars Thunberg. Open Court. 488 pp. $29.95 paper.

    There was a time not so long ago when one could be a serious theologian or even a learned scholar of patristics, and yet barely have heard the name of the seventh-century mystic, Maximus the Confessor. Those days are gone, fortunately-swept away by a tide of twentieth-century interest in the theological and mystical roots of Maximus' writings. And a significant factor in the new interest was the publication in 1965 of this major study of Maximus' anthropology by a Swedish theologian, Lars Thunberg. Now brought back in a second edition with revisions and updating, Microcosm and Creator remains one of the best single works on Maximus, guiding the reader through the saint's life and his complicated analyses of free will, the soul's relation to body, and the "cosmic vocation of humanity."

    Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today. By James F. White. Paulist Press. 174 pp. $11.95.

    With absolutely no regard for the mess they make of the liturgical calendar, inconsiderate new saints keep popping up in each new generation of believers. You'd think, Professor White grumbles in this thin book aimed at a popular audience, that any self-respecting church could manage to ensure that it never had any more saints-but then what else can you expect from a Roman Catholic Church that wages "war on women," believes in prayerful contemplation, declines to make interpretive dance a permanent part of the liturgy, and, in general, refuses to behave like a well-mannered maiden aunt of liberal sensibilities gracefully living out her dotage? Professor White is a distinguished scholar of the history of Christian liturgy, but he belongs to that generation of academics who mistook the reforms of Vatican II for a general endorsement of radicalism. And as the boat of Christian history sails away from him, all he can find to do is cast curses at its wake and grouse about how things should have turned out.

    Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Prophetic Writings of Alexander Men. Edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman. Continuum. 226 pp. $19.95 paper.

    The Russian priest Alexander Men, born in 1935, was viciously murdered by unknown ax-wielding assailants in 1990; but in the fifty-five years between he seemed to live a dozen lives: as a witness to the Cross, a stumbling block to his Soviet overlords, a mystic, a preacher, and a major intellectual figure in the tradition of Orthodox theological thought that the Communists struggled for seventy years to destroy. Gathering only a handful of his many essays, lectures, spiritual reflections, and philosophical musings, this collection is more a sampler than an anthology of Father Men's work. But-with an introductory note by the Anglican Bishop of Oxford and an afterword by the Catholic Archbishop of Paris-it should serve to put American readers on notice that a major Christian figure managed to blossom even in the man-made desert of the Soviet Union.

    Saint Thomas Aquinas. Volume 1: The Person and His Work. By Jean-Pierre Torrell. Catholic University Press. 407 pp. $39.95 cloth, $25.95 paper.

    When the first volume of Father Torrell's promised two-volume work on St. Thomas Aquinas was published in France in 1993, it was greeted with ecstatic reviews-and, for once, the reason was that the book was so extraordinarily good. Now translated into English by Robert Royal, this is the introduction to Thomas: presenting all the known facts of his life and work, tracing the themes of his writing out of his juvenilia, and following the influence of his thought in the years immediately after his death. When the second volume appears (promising to examine in greater detail Thomas' spirituality) the standard study of the Angelic Doctor for our times will be complete.

    Brooklyn! An Illustrated History. By Ellen M. Snyder- Grenier. Temple University Press. 292 pp. $54.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.

    Commissioned by the Brooklyn Historical Society, this lavish book will interest the millions of Americans who trace their roots to the fabled borough, and the three million who live there now. It is perhaps a sign of the times, however, that churches, and religion in general, are largely ignored in an account of the place popularly known for more than a century as "The Borough of Churches." Nor is there mention of the Brooklyn Sunday School Parade, once said to be the largest annual celebration in the nation. Pictures and text leave the reader with the sad impression that the best days of Brooklyn are very much in the past. But then, it's the business of historical societies to celebrate the past.