Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 76-79.
Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in PostModern Society. By Glenn T. Stantion. Piñon. 222 pp. $14.
How many times have you heard it said that marriage is less risky if you live together first? That parents who can’t get along should divorce for the good of the kids? That single people are happier than married? Notions like these seem as obvious to postmodern folk as their contraries did to our grandparents. No doubt you have heard them from your friends, your relatives, and your colleagues. Quite possibly you have contended over them with your minister, your representative, or your children’s teacher. You know they are all canards, and have read somewhere that they have been proven such, but can’t put your finger on where. Seek no further. There is no need to enter the maze of the sociological literature; this book is all you need. Author Glenn T. Stanton shows that from every angle—the good of our children, the good of adults, and the good of society—the case for one-time lifelong marriage and against cohabitation is not only strong, but overpowering. Though he does not hide his Christian faith and motivation for writing, his book is not a full-fledged Christian apologetic for matrimony. Stanton hints invitingly at the deeper foundations of the institution but, aiming at the broadest possible audience, he focuses on what can be understood by nonbelievers—especially what theologians of general revelation would classify under the "law of the harvest," the principle that bad individual and communal choices have inescapable bad consequences. Especially noteworthy is the epilogue on "The Future of Marriage," which offers numerous practical suggestions not only for stemming illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce, but also for strengthening marriage itself. More like an unusually thoughtful handbook than a theoretical treatise, this book does not require elaborate analysis, but should be widely read by citizens, policy makers, counselors, ministers, and denominational leaders—and given to those of our cohabiting friends who are open to second thoughts.
— J. Budziszewski
Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart. By Marvin R. O’Connell. Eerdmans. 210. $16.
Although, in my opinion, there can never be too many studies or biographies of the French mathematician and Christian apologist Blaise Pascal, he is not, unfortunately, a pot of gold for publishers in the way, say, C. S. Lewis is. But at least we have Marvin O’Connell’s fine study, a worthy addition to Eerdmans’ new series, The Library of Religious Biography. This biography is particularly suited to those unfamiliar with the arcana of seventeenth-century moral theology and the controversies that swirled around the Jansenists and Jesuits. Many of the specific issues in that debate no longer engage us, but the underlying motivation of the debate still affects the Church across the denominational spectrum, which is why this lucid and edifying biography of perhaps the greatest Christian apologist in modern times is so welcome.
— Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Hannah Arendt: An Introduction. By John McGowen. University of Minnesota Press. 194 pp. $17.95.
McGowan is a professor of English and Comparative Literature and his treatment of Arendt takes on a literary spin. Not overburdened with the arcane vocabulary in which much current literary theory is cast, the text is lively and engagingly written. The author scores some good points along the way, including a reminder that, for Arendt, political equality—that place where citizens meet—"does not apply to them vis-à-vis each other in all their relations." This points us in the direction of civil society; citizens need places to interact "apart from the state—but also apart from the intimacies of private life." McGowan’s defense of Arendt against her detractors over Eichmann in Jerusalem is exactly right: She "was not ‘blaming the victims’ but was chronicling the immensity of the moral collapse precipitated by the Nazis." Where I detected some slippage in McGowan’s account lies in the absence of a discussion of Arendt’s treatment of the epistemological dimension of totalitarianism—its assault upon truth—and in his tendency to overassimilate Arendt’s view of "the self" to current identity politics. Arendt isn’t so much about "politics as identity disclosure" as politics as a space within which much of what we are can appear in public and be seen, heard, and known. For her, politics always preserves the "space between" people, while much of current identity politics aims to meld people into group identities and to diminish other features of the self. The markers of identity are not, as in contemporary politics, matters of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the like but far more particular and individual. That said, this is a welcome addition to the growth industry known as Arendt studies.
— Jean Bethke Elshtain
Covenant and Commitments: Faith, Family, and Economic Life. By Max Stackhouse. Westminster/John Knox. 195 pp. $18 paper.
One of the leading Christian ethicists of our time and a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Max Stackhouse offers a bracing alternative to much current flaccid talk about "family values." The author is a United Church of Christ minister and his views are richly informed by a Reformed theology that views "covenant" as key to our relationships, both with God and with one another. While he is sympathetic to more Catholic and sacramental understandings of marriage, Stackhouse clearly intends to reappropriate in lively ways distinctively Protestant understandings of community. In addition to his finely attuned ecumenical sensibilities, he demonstrates a keen insight into the cultural dynamics that militate against covenantal responsibility, and a rare conscientiousness in presenting alternative views fairly. In Stackhouse’s thoughtful treatment, marriage and family are very great gifts indeed, but they never become idols. They are always part of an emphatically (but by no means exclusively) American tradition of human association made possible and necessary by the covenant with others, and ultimately with the Other.
Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate. Edited by Robert R. Shandley. University of Minnesota Press. 295 pp. $17.95 paper.
Few books in recent years have provoked such a storm as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (see review by Richard John Neuhaus in FT, August/September 1996). This new volume is a valuable collection of essays and reviews, mainly published in the German press, on the book and the controversy surrounding it. As Holocaust scholar Norman G. Finkelstein observes, Goldhagen’s book is "worthless as scholarship," but the attention it received "tells us something, albeit unfortunate, about the current state of intellectual culture." In the present volume, Goldhagen gets ample opportunity to respond, but his defense of his scurrilous tract is manifestly a lost cause.
J. I. Packer: A Biography. By Alister McGrath. Baker. 340 pp. $19.95.
An evangelical Anglican who made his way from Oxford to Canada, where he teaches at Regent College in British Columbia, J. I. Packer is without doubt one of the most respected figures in world evangelicalism. His books of theology, written in a style both engaging and accessible to the general reader, have sold in the millions. Christianity Today goes so far as to say his influence among evangelicals is second only to that of C. S. Lewis, and that may well be right. Alister McGrath, Packer’s student and former colleague, gives a fine evaluative account of Packer’s life and work, and makes judicious comments on Packer’s very prominent role in the ongoing project known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." In this readable biography, Packer comes across both as a man of brassbound convictions and as an easy conversationalist eager to explore alternative renderings of life and faith. The book is also a reliable guide to the currents shaping contemporary evangelical thought.
The C. S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia. Edited by Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. West, Jr. Zondervan. 464 pp. $22.99.
A hundred years after his birth and thirty-five after his death, there is no letup in enthusiasm for the life and work of Lewis. This volume, which is a must for Lewis aficionados, provides a guide to his immense oeuvre and to the societies, web sites, and controversies it continues to generate. Insiders will note that the very controversial Walter Hooper, who has laid dubious claim to much of the Lewis legacy, is firmly but charitably put in his place. On your way to your Lewis recovery group, don’t leave home without this book.
Letters to Gabriel. By Karen Garver Santorum. CCC of America (Campus Circle Drive, Irving, TX 75063). 132 pp. $14.99.
A beautifully poignant little book of daily letters a mother wrote to her unborn child who lived only two hours after birth. Her husband Rick Santorum, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, was at the time leading the fight against partial-birth abortion. Despite a foreword by Mother Teresa, an introduction by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and warm endorsements from the likes of George F. Will, the book was rejected by mainstream trade publishers, which is a shame. But that should not prevent readers from getting a copy, and maybe an extra one to pass on to a friend.
Things in Heaven and Earth: Exploring the Supernatural. Edited by Harold Fickett. Paraclete (Brewster, Mass.). 197 pp. $20.
A remarkable little book that truly is about, if one may be permitted the phrase, first things. Fourteen essays by philosophers, novelists, journalists, and others who address aspects of our living in a reality much more wondrous than is allowed by the cramped and fetid secularisms of our time. Especially noteworthy are psychologist Paul Vitz on the role of the will in believing and not believing, Deal Hudson on why understanding the supernatural is essential to maintaining the integrity of the natural, and novelist Doris Betts on "the four last things." Altogether, a fine exercise in apologetics that you might want to share with friends who are either unthinkingly credulous or unthinkingly cynical about the worlds of which our world is part.
Jesus of Nazareth: How He Understood His Life. By Raymund Schwager. Crossroad. 187 pp. $14.95 paper.
For more than a century New Testament scholars have disputed the "messianic consciousness" of Jesus. A professor of dogmatic and ecumenical theology at Innsbruck suggests we cut through the scholarly disputes by going to the Gospels themselves. A strength of his reconstruction (although he might object to that term) is the placement of Jesus solidly within the Jewish tradition as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Unaddressed are dogmatic questions about the two natures, human and divine, that might have a bearing on what Jesus "understood" and on the meaning of "understanding" in his unique instance. Nonetheless, well worth a read.
The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America’s Assimilation Ethic. By John J. Miller. Free Press. 320 pp. $25.
There is an uncomfortable divide on the right over immigration and its impact on civil society. Miller, the pro-immigration national political reporter for National Review and contributing editor for Reason magazine, suggests that the ideology of multiculturalism is responsible for the obvious failure of recent immigrants to assimilate, documenting how a pervasive multiculturalism in the immigration bureaucracies affects immigration policy and the immigrants themselves. Miller’s opponents on the left are pro-immigration relativists, while those on the right tend to think that multiculturalism exaggerates important cultural differences that are already present among immigrants and which threaten any chance to rebuild a strong national society. Miller wants to propose a third way. The question for all three parties, however, is whether American culture is strong enough and moral enough that it can and should impose itself on other cultures within its borders. Miller unabashedly votes yes. This discussion is occasionally marred by a demonizing of opponents rather than engaging their best arguments, a vice all too common in this important national debate.
Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture. Volume 1. By Henri de Lubac. Eerdmans. 466 pp. $45.
The work of the great French scholar de Lubac was one of the formative influences on the Second Vatican Council. The present volume, first published in 1959 and now appearing in English with a foreword by Robert Louis Wilken, is part of the admirable "Ressourcement" series published by Eerdmans and reflects the direction of renewal in biblical studies affirmed by the Council. The "four senses" of Scripture employed in the patristic and medieval periods are the historic, allegorical, moral, and anagogic (the last referring to the spiritual end to which the Bible directs the reader). In a book of prodigious and frequently repetitious scholarship, de Lubac urges a new appreciation of the "spiritual" exegesis of Scripture against the often reductionist critical methodology of the modern era. The appearance of this important work in English is most welcome and will, one hopes, occasion the writing of other books that will make de Lubac’s scholarship and argument more accessible to the general reader, and especially to preachers of the Word.
William of Ockham: Quodlibital Questions. Volumes 1-2. Translated by Alfred J. Freddoso and Francis E. Kelly. Yale University Press. 702 pp. $140 cloth, $35 paper.
William of Ockham (ca. 1285-1347) is considered one of the most influential philosophers, theologians, and political thinkers of the millenium. But as Alfred Freddoso points out in his introduction, this reputation seems to have been gained almost entirely apart from a close study of his writings, which usually seem radical only if misread. The Yale Library of Medieval Philosophy has decided to reissue this 1991 translation of some of Ockham’s most mature views in an affordable paperback, allowing a wider audience a chance to decide for themselves whether this controversial Franciscan was really the Father of modernity and of the Reformation as he sometimes is made out to be.
Human Dignity and Contemporary Liberalism. By Brad Stetson. Praeger. 200 pp. $55.
Political liberalism has many critics, but relatively few who engage it on its own principles. Brad Stetson has taken a central theme of liberalism—its humanistic promotion of the dignity of the individual—and shown how even against that standard, it is a failure. The second part of the book is an application of his analysis to religion, political correctness, feminism, race, abortion, character, and other hot-button issues. A bold yet fairminded contribution to the cultural debates of our day.
The March of Freedom: Modern Classics in Conservative Thought. By Edwin J. Feulner, Jr. Spence. 375 pp. $29.95.
The founding president of the enormously influential Heritage Foundation addresses himself to major conservative figures and, in most cases, offers substantial excerpts from their works. Included are Russell Kirk, Frank S. Meyer, Midge Decter, Michael Novak, and Whittaker Chambers. A solid introduction to a centrist conservative tradition that holds in tension, for the most part successfully, its fissiparous propensities.
The Enduring Edmund Burke. Edited by Ian Crowe. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 221 pp. $24.95.
Eighteen shorter essays by American and British students of Burke, with a final essay by Mark C. Henrie that relates the Burkean tradition to the sundry schools of contemporary conservatism in this country. An intelligent colloquium on political philosophy to which, were he still writing, one imagines Edmund Burke would gladly have contributed.