Books in Review

Briefly Noted
(October 1997)

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997): 69-74.

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible. By Howard Clark Kee, Eric M. Meyers, John Rogerson, and Anthony J. Saldari. Cambridge University Press. 616 pp. $45.

To paraphrase the very book to which this is the companion: of the making of books on the Bible there is no end, and the reading thereof is a weariness to the flesh. But this companion has several features that make it stand out from the flood of others. Avoiding the usual dictionary format of alphabetized listings—a layout that is useful only for specific queries or haphazard reading—the Cambridge Companion is really a quasi-chronological narrative of the various theological worlds inhabited by the biblical authors. Throughout such narrative chapters as "The World of Israel’s Historians" or "Christianity Responds to Formative Judaism" (to name only two of the best), there are scattered short sidebars on such important topics as "Son of Man" and "Israelite Law in its Ancient Near Eastern Context," for consulting by the casual reader. Not set out alphabetically but placed in their most fitting chapter, these sidebars and boxed explanations can be found by the reader with a specific query through an extensive index in the back. This is the only such work I know that would be equally serviceable in a reference library and a classroom: a perfect textbook for a basic one-semester course on the Bible. One might observe, however, that undergraduates on a budget would no doubt prefer a paperback edition.

— Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

Celtic Christianity and Nature: Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions. By Mary Low. Edinburgh University Press. 232 pp. $23.

Mary Low has written a clear and convincing account of the place of nature in early Irish Christianity. Refreshingly free of the New Age cant of pop Celticism, Low argues against the Romantic view of the "poet-seer" contemplating nature with "supernatural vision," suggesting that Celtic Christian poetry approaches nature instead through "the everyday faculties of memory and imagination." Low presents this relation to nature as the common ground that enabled the fusion of pagan and Christian traditions in Celtic Christianity. Writing from a "disaffection with the modern Western mind-set," Low nonetheless counters the contemporary "rejection of Christianity" with a recovery of "a traditional but neglected Christian cosmology" that emphasizes intimacy "between God, nature, and human beings." Low suggests this view of nature might serve Christianity today in its encounter with native religions in Asia and Africa. The weakness of the book lies in the analytic framework of "comparative religion." The missionaries and monks of early medieval Ireland sought common ground with native Celtic traditions, but they did not link Christianity and paganism through such anthropological concepts as "primal religion." Syncretism incorporates local traditions and stories into Christianity; the sociology of religion interprets Christianity as one among many manifestations of "the religious." The former offers a model for contemporary Christian evangelism in the Third World; the latter leads to the nihilism of multiculturalism.

— Christopher Shannon

Imagined Worlds. By Freeman Dyson. Harvard University Press. 216 pp. $22.

Freeman Dyson made major contributions to particle physics in the 1940s and ’50s, and became well-known in later years for futuristic speculations. Now modestly calling himself "an old man pretending to be a sage," Dyson believes the next century will bring humanity almost complete genetic control over itself. His attitude toward this is curious and contradictory. He regards as greatly prophetic J. B. S. Haldane’s Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1923), with its message that "the progress of science is destined to bring enormous confusion and misery to mankind unless it is accompanied by progress in ethics." And yet, though he claims to make this "unwelcome" message his own, he declares in his final chapter (entitled "Ethics"), "The idea of improving the human race by artificial means conjures up visions of Nazi doctors sterilizing Jews and killing defective children. . . . But [it] will come . . . whether we like it or not. . . . When people are offered technical means to improve themselves and their children, . . . the offer will be accepted." One of William Blake’s drawings, with the title "Aged Ignorance," shows a winged child running naked in the sun and an old man holding a large pair of scissors to clip the child’s wings. The drawing, Dyson declares, is an image for our times. "The winged child is human life. . . . The old man is our existing human society, shaped by ages of past ignorance. . . . Caution is justified . . . [but] in the long run social constraints must bend to new realities. Humanity cannot live forever with clipped wings." Dyson is a humane man and a humanist, but his humanism, like that of many scientists, has a weakness. For if our loyalties—like our fears and hatreds and injustices—are merely atavisms from which with science’s help we can free ourselves, then on what basis can we defend our loyalty to what is human?

— Stephen M. Barr

The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600. By Alfred W. Crosby. Cambridge University Press. 245 pp. $24.95.

It’s hard to decide which is the greater achievement of this author: his success at showing the importance of medieval science, or his success at making it interesting. Whether tracing the history of the numeral 6 or untangling the politics of calendar-making, Crosby has produced a fine historical work that attempts to explain the peculiar rise of Western civilization to world importance in the late Middle Ages. His answer—a new, more quantitative approach to reality, fostered by the medieval university system and the rise of urban commerce—is quite traditional. His innovation lies in the details, arguing that the decisive cause of this new approach to reality was the advance in visualizing space and time as impersonal units of only utilitarian significance, capable of being organized on charts and graphs. No longer did historians and cartographers, for example, have to think of the number three as possessing any supernatural, qualitative meaning: it was just the number three, no more, no less. Crosby—a geography and history professor at the University of Texas, Austin—shows both how these new mathematical practices influenced other disciplines and how the commerce in merchandise influenced the commerce in ideas. His argument for the importance of medieval science might have been even more persuasive had he shown the intersection of this new mathematics and commerce with the particular events and broad movements of medieval political history. But of that science itself, this is an engaging and important account.

— Gregory M. Eirich

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford University Press. 1,786 pp. $125.

Break out the bubbly and raise a toast to the late F. L. Cross, and another to his successors in continuing this monumental publishing achievement. Great reference works do not always fare well at the hands of those who get to revise them. Witness, for instance, the betrayers of Fowler and Bartlett, and of the editors of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Not so with Dr. Livingstone and his many coworkers. One has no doubt that Dr. Cross would be immensely pleased with this third edition of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and would likely think it, as we do, an improvement over his first effort. The first edition appeared in 1957 and immediately became an indispensable reference. The second edition of 1974, although updating many entries and adding new ones, seemed not quite up to the first, so many readers no doubt kept both on hand, just in case. But this third edition is simply splendid. It is considerably larger, and more ecumenical in the best sense of that term. Notably more attention is paid developments in the U.S. and other countries outside the Anglican orbit in which this dictionary was born. Without losing its careful attention to history (especially the patristic sources), it includes exquisitely judicious treatments of such contemporary topics as feminism and liberation theology, treating everything within the context of the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy. The expanded bibliographies on subjects ranging from Aaron to Zwingli are among the features that make this new edition a priceless resource. We cannot praise it enough. Yes, the price is hefty, but this is no ordinary purchase. Along with a few classic commentaries, a good Bible dictionary, and a collection or two of doctrinal formularies (such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church is essential to any basic library of Christian learning. It is an investment for a lifetime, or at least for the next twenty years, when we may hope that a fourth edition will be as faithful to the genius of the original, and of this, its worthy successor.

Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities. By Ann Carey. Our Sunday Visitor (Huntington, IN). 367 pp. $19.95 (+$3.95 postage).

In 1965, more than 100,000 sisters taught in Catholic schools. Today there are fewer than 13,000. Much the same holds in hospitals, social services, and innumerable other apostolates that once made women’s religious communities a force to be reckoned with in both Church and society. Today, the remnants of those communities are chiefly factions of cantankerous dissidents to be put up with. Ann Carey is a veteran journalist and she recounts in a generally restrained and non-polemical way the astonishing story of the self-destruction of community after community. She details the embrace of the sundry madnesses of radical feminism and other liberationisms that induced thousands of sisters to abandon personal vows and betray institutional trusts. She carefully surveys the literature that tries to explain what happened, but ends up on a note of sad puzzlement. She acknowledges the problems with many communities prior to the Second Vatican Council, but is at a loss to understand why the post-conciliar "renewal" turned so viciously on the very institutions that were presumably being renewed. There is great sadness and puzzlement in the story, and she names the names of those who have much to answer for, especially the progressive priests and theo logians whom the sisters followed so uncritically. Yet it should not come as a surprise that when the virtue of obedience is declared a vice, when self-surrendering service is pitted against self-fulfillment, and when prayer is denigrated as an escape from reality, the very raison d’être of the religious vocation quickly evaporates. As the author notes, some religious communities have drawn the appropriate lessons and are again flourishing. But they are decidedly in the minority. Sisters in Crisis is a sobering account of what happened when the criteria of renewal were derived not from the life of the Church but from the enthusiasms of the cultural locust years of the 1960s. Highly recommended.

James Dobson’s War on America. By Gil Alexander-Moegerle. Prometheus. 306 pp. $25.95.

A disgruntled former employee of Focus on the Family tries to get even. Dobson, he charges, is guilty of "sexism, racism, and homophobia," and he also criticizes "employees who [try] to spend time with their families." Oh, dear. To judge by this labored indictment, the worst to be said about James Dobson is that he might make uncomfortable those who are less squeaky clean than he apparently is.

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. By Jasper Becker. Free Press. 352 pp. $25.

A story that both grips and chills. To this day, the great famine of 1958 to 1962, in which more than thirty million Chinese were killed by Maoist madness, is overshadowed by the Cultural Revolution that followed. Some Western "experts" on China were ignorant of the famine; many others knew about it and, fearful they would be denied access to China, publicly denied it. In this connection, John K. Fairbank of Harvard, the dean of American sinologists, brought particular shame upon himself and those he influenced. The truth was told then by maverick scholars such as Ivan and Miriam London, who paid a steep price in the academy for their impertinence. Becker’s very readable account of mass suffering, including widespread cannibalism, underscores the frightening fragility of social orders. Far from being giants on the stage of history, Mao and his ilk come across as adolescent egomaniacs, puffed up with fantasies about forcing the transition to the Communist utopia within a few months, and totally indifferent to the millions of lives sacrificed on the altar of their make-believe. Highly recommended to readers with strong stomachs.

Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith. By William F. Buckley, Jr. Doubleday. 302 pp. $24.95.

Admirers of William Buckley, political and social critic, may be inclined to view his Catholicism as a tolerable idiosyncrasy. Admirers of William Buckley, unapologetic Catholic, are sometimes distressed by what they view as his idiosyncratic Catholicism. To say that Mr. Buckley is unapologetic does not mean that he is above trying to explain what he believes, but the present work is more a testimonial than an exercise in apologetics. In conversation with theologian friends, including the editor in chief of this journal, Buckley joins exploration to testimony, elegantly moving around questions of spiritual moment and then zeroing in on his rock-like convictions. He ranges widely, from boyhood formation and what has happened to religion and morals in the prep school, to papal infallibility and what it surely cannot mean, to a poignant reflection on the faith-filled dignity of his mother as she condescended to the inevitability of aging and death. This is, at once, an intensely personal and intensely cerebral book, a revelation of the deepest self without a touch of the shameless exhibitionism that has come to mark contemporary autobiography. Fans of Mr. Buckley will be confirmed in their devotion to him, and, much more important, may be renewed in the encounter with the One who is the object of his deepest devotion.