Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 85 (August/September 1998): 69-74.
Jews and the American Slave Trade. By Saul S. Friedman. Transaction. 326 pp. $34.95.
After being been purged from American Christianity since the end of World War II, the practice of demonizing Jews is now more or less confined to fringe elements of the black community. Unfortunately, these include "Afrocentric" academics whose influence on the campus is way out of proportion to their numbers and their scholarship. These are the people who have taken the old myth of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world and revamped it to blame Jews for the slave trade, slavery, and whatever has ailed the black community since. The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, published by the Nation of Islam in 1992, is the best-known example of this genre. On the naive assumption that bigots can be reformed by factual evidence, Professor Friedman attempts to refute the demonizers on the basis of archival records and previously published accounts. According to him, Jews as a group were never rich or powerful enough to control anything, and their record on the slavery issue was no different from that of any other group. Unfortunately, Friedman’s prose is clumsy, his details numbing, his application of present-day moral sensibilities back into history simplistic, and his factual errors alarming. If anyone is interested in the names of all the slave traders, slave holders, and slave-state politicians who were not Jewish, this book is for them. As for an effective refutation of The Secret Relationship, it has already been done—in three pages—by the distinguished historian David Brion Davis (New York Review of Books, December 22, 1994).
— Lawrence Grossman
Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition. By Roald Hoffmann and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. W. H. Freeman. 362 pp. $28.95.
Books on religion and science have become something of a cottage industry in the publishing world. Most of the best of these works have been written by distinguished scientists themselves, such as John Polkinghorne or Stanley Jaki. But noted more for their absence have been the reflections of Jewish scientists on this same theme, leaving one with the impression that the topic of religion and science is almost exclusively a concern of Christians. But now come Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, an Israeli engineer and essayist, to show what we can all learn from a Jewish contribution to this theme—especially when these two authors argue with each other, as they often do. (This is by no means a jointly authored book but is antiphonal in its composition, and in its occasional cacophony reminded me of the old joke that any room with two Jews will have three opinions.) Theirs is also a very layered text, reminding this gentile reader of the Talmud, perhaps the most layered text in all of human history. For example, it devotes one chapter to a case that went to the Israeli Supreme Court revolving around a misaligned "No Parking" icon. Besides being a hilarious account of one driver’s relentless "guardhouse lawyering" using both Talmud and semiotics to avoid a parking ticket, the chapter uses this case to make fascinating points about signs, meaning, and scientific truth. And not to be missed—worth the price of the book, really—are the remarks on Jeremiah 6:27 ("I have made you an assayer of my people. Their lead is consumed in fire.") by Herbert Hoover, the American President who had been a mining engineer before he took up politics. One could wallow in this book for hours, not least because it has what most books on this theme lack, a whimsical sense of humor, which, like so much Jewish humor, is highly charged with a sense of the tragedy of life.
— Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship. By Bernhard Lang. Yale University Press. 527 pp. $40.
Writing on the tacit assumption that liturgy is too important to be left to liturgiologists or even to theologians, an historian of religions surveys Christian worship across a broad range of Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostalist communities, and touches on Christian Science and Steinerism as well. The book is structured according to six phenomenologically and theologically justifiable categories: praise, prayer, sermon, sacrifice, sacrament, and spiritual ecstasy. The author draws some interesting parallels from beyond Christianity, and includes many apt quotations and illustrations. Irritating features of the work include some idiosyncratic hypotheses (the Our Father as a prayer of John the Baptist’s; "This is my body" and "This is my blood" as derived from conjectural words spoken at private sacrifices in the Temple), an attempted rehabilitation of magic, a strangely selective familiarity with English-language liturgical texts, an underestimation of the reader’s culture (Michelangelo’s "rightly famous frescoes" in the Sistine Chapel; "Corinth, Greece"), a deficient sense of bathos ("Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Norman Pittenger"; "from Cyprian to Olier and [Kenneth] Stevenson,"), and a frightening athleticism (Riverside Church "within walking distance of Manhattan’s bank and business area"). The author has read widely but not always wisely; his book does both too much and too little to merit the publisher’s wild claim that it is "the first full-scale history and interpretation of a collective spiritual act fraught with meaning."
— Geoffrey Wainwright
Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought. By James W. Ceaser. Yale University Press. 292 pp. $30.
A spirited defense of "the real America" and a devastating polemic against those who have "deconstructed" it, beginning with eighteenth-century European thinkers long before deconstructionism was in vogue. Ceaser, who is professor of government at the University of Virginia, rightly takes to task American intellectuals, especially literary critics, who wallow in the denigration of their country by their presumed European betters. Along the way, he effectively champions political science as a necessary guide to evaluating the relative worth of regimes. A bracing argument that deserves to be engaged as intelligently as it is advanced.
The Soul of Development: Biblical Christianity and Economic Transformation in Guatemala. By Amy L. Sherman. Oxford University Press. 213 pp. $45.
Picking up on David Martin’s pioneering work (Tongues of Fire) on the economic and social impact of the Protestant "explosion" in Latin America, Ms. Sherman examines the particular case of Guatemala. Converts from what she calls the "Christo-paganism" of folk Catholicism do indeed, she concludes, form communities of support for economic responsibility and enterprise. This is in part a study of the nontheological factors in the spread of Protestantism, but it is also a study in the social consequences of the theological.
The Pursuit of Happiness: Living the Beatitudes. By Servais Pinckaers. Alba House. 204 pp. $5.95 paper.
The author of the influential and very scholarly The Sources of Christian Ethics here offers a popular and deceptively simple exposition of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes, he insists, are not an "interim ethic," as some theologians claim, nor a set of impossible commands, but the promise of the new life in the Spirit of God. They are the way to happiness (i.e., beatitude), which is God’s purpose for his children. For those times when you know you must go back to the sources to drink again from the well of spiritual wisdom, The Pursuit of Happiness is warmly recommended.
A Priest Forever. By Benedict Groeschel. Our Sunday Visitor. 208 pp. $9.95 paper.
A beautifully affecting story of a young man, Eugene Hamilton, who by extraordinary permission of the Pope was in 1997 ordained a priest only hours before he died of cancer. Father Groeschel’s telling of the story is moving but not maudlin, and he employs the occasion to offer insightful commentary on the "ontological," as distinct from purely "functional," character of priesthood.
Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion. By Michael Marissen. Oxford University Press. 109 pp. $16.95.
The author, who teaches music at Swarthmore, argues that Bach interpreted the fourth Gospel to assign responsibility for the crucifixion to all mankind. A useful point to make, although falling somewhat short of one rabbi’s blurb claiming that "Dr. Marissen addresses the question of the hour: is even Bach anti-Semitic, and does he belong among the exterminationists, along with Lutheran theologians from 1517 to nearly our own day?" One wonders for whom it might be the case that Bach’s attitude toward Jews is "the question of the hour." There were very few "Lutheran theologians" in 1517, and since then there have been none of note who were "exterminationists." The book is more sensible than the blurb.
Natural Law and Moral Inquiry. Edited by Robert P. George. Georgetown University Press. 281 pp. $55 cloth, $24.95 paper.
Ten essays exploring aspects of the "ethics, metaphysics, and politics in the work of Germain Grisez." Grisez, who is commonly associated with John Finnis and Joseph Boyle, is a foremost proponent of an ethics of obligation grounded in natural law and Catholic moral theology. This book is, for specialists in moral theory, an invaluable guide to his work and to the responses of his critics, both friendly and otherwise.
Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of the Saints. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. Continuum. 320 pp. $24.50 cloth.
The author writes: "An ecological sense of peace and wholeness pervades Rosemary Radford Reuther’s proposal that death be accepted as a natural part of the life cycle, a moment that reveals our deep connectedness to the universe. Profoundly committed to healing relationships between women and men, nations and classes, humans and the earth, and the world and the divine so that they nurture rather than destroy the living planet, her basic move is to cast eschatology on a horizontal, historical plane rather than allow it to point vertically to what comes ‘beyond’ or ‘after’ history." In 319 other pages of such prose the author of the dissident feminist classic She Who Is argues for a feminist theological reading of the communion of saints that is neither theological nor a reading nor about saints. For her, the communion of saints is a "symbol" provoking "memories" of the dead. She complains that her position has been overlooked.
Why I Am Still a Catholic. Edited by Kevin and Marilyn Ryan. Riverhead. 322 pp. $13 paper.
Why I am still a Catholic. It is hard to imagine a more arrogant implication, as though one is doing the Church a favor by hanging around, as though most sensible people have left and one has to explain why he is staying. Actually, some of the essays in this grab-bag are compelling statements of gratitude for the grace of being a Catholic, but others reflect everything that is wrong with the title. Somewhat amusing is the inclusion of former abortionist Bernard Nathanson, who only became a Catholic the day before yesterday. You’re still a Catholic?
John Cassian: The Conferences. Translated and Annotated by Boniface Ramsey, O.P. Paulist Press. 886 pp. $39.95.
The desert has always promised mystery and spiritual battle, even before John the Baptist ate locusts and Jesus went there to fight the devil. St. Antony heard the word of God and left for the desert, starting a tradition of ascetics and hermits who left the world to find a pure relationship with God. Sometime between 380 and 405, the Romanian monk John Cassian and his fellow monk Germanus made two extensive journeys into the deserts around Alexandria, where they sought out several abbas, respected elder monks, seeking conversation and wisdom. Between 426 and 429, Cassian, by then an ordained priest and founder of two monasteries in Marseilles, wrote The Conferences, an account of twenty-four of their day-long conversations with fifteen of the most respected abbas. These conversations touched on every element of the ascetic and spiritual life, and they include a spirited attack on St. Augustine’s notion of predestination, no light matter during the heyday of Pelagianism. Father Ramsey, a pastor in the somewhat different desert of Manhattan, has provided us with the first complete translation of this important Latin treatise, including brief, thorough introductions to each conference as well as to the life and thought of Cassian as a whole. Ramsey sees The Conferences as a reminder that the spiritual life requires authoritative teachers and guides; such holy men as Benedict, Cassiodorus, Gregory the Great, Alcuin, and Aquinas all turned to John Cassian when seeking such authoritative spiritual guides. This book helps us to understand why.
Yours Is a Precious Witness: Memoirs of Jews and Catholics in Wartime Italy. By Margherita Marchione. Paulist Press. 257 pp. $14.95.
Most people who complain about the "silence" of Pope Pius XII regarding the Holocaust imply that some measure of anti-Semitism or acquiesence to anti-Semitism was behind his alleged inaction. This well-researched if woodenly written book demolishes any such claim. One interview after another with contemporaries details how, on the Pope’s orders, Jews were hidden in monasteries, churches, and convents to escape being deported to Auschwitz or Dauchau by the Nazis or Mussolini’s Fascists. As a result, 85 percent of Italy’s Jews survived the persecutions. The Pope dispensed the religious orders from having cloistered areas in their convents and monasteries, allowing the superiors in Italy to hide refugees from Nazi persecution—at great risk to themselves. With papal encouragement, an underground network was established among the religious congregations to supply the Jewish refugees with false documents allowing them to walk about and even escape to freedom. Despite often being threatened with deportation himself, Pope Pius remained in Rome while the Italian king and prime minister fled the German occupiers. After negotiating to get Vatican City declared an extra-territorial zone during the Nazi occupation of Rome, for ten months he sheltered in the basilica of St. John Lateran many Jewish orphans of the war. Italian Jews who lost their jobs because of discrimination often found work in the Vatican, Jewish law students were accepted into its law school, and those who sought to emigrate were given diplomatic and logistical support. Sister Marchione also finds documentation of papal protests against the persecutions of the Jews in Italy, Vichy France, and elsewhere, citing both Vatican documents and European news accounts. It is true that Pope Pius held his tongue in part in order not to attract hostile Nazi attention, but he did so mostly because any such attention would have uncovered the thousands of Jews hidden in nooks and crannies of Church property, many of whom were willingly interviewed for this useful, if less than scintillating, apologia.
The Incoherence of the Philosophers. By Al-Ghazali. Translated by Michael E. Mamura. Brigham Young University Press. 580 pp. $29.95.
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was an Iranian Sufi mystic whose The Incoherence of the Philosophers was an antirationalistic broadside against two of the greatest philosophical lights of the medieval Islamic world, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). This edition includes the Arabic text alongside the annotated translation by Mamura, professor emeritus of the University of Toronto. Of note to medievalists, Islamic specialists, and those interested in Islam’s engagement with the tradition of Greek philosophy and Western thought.
Receiving Søren Kierkegaard: The Early Impact and Transmission of His Thought. By Habib Malik. Catholic University of America Press. 437 pp. $59.95.
By the 1920s, the thought of the Danish existentialist Christian philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was at the center of European intellectual life. But during his life and in the decades immediately after his death his work was often ignored or misunderstood. In this well-researched and scholarly book, Professor Malik of the Lebanese American University in Beruit tells the story of how Kierkegaard’s ideas were at first rejected and later rediscovered, tracing his influence on Hans Christian Andersen, Henrik Ibsen, Miguel de Unamuno, and other important European thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.