Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 87 (November 1998): 63-67.
Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus. By Susannah Heschel. University of Chicago Press. 317 pp. $48 cloth, $19 paper.
One of the founding fathers of the modern Western study of Judaism, Abraham Geiger (1810- 74) continues to fascinate. In this learned and lucid investigation of his bold reconception of the relationship between ancient Judaism and Christianity, Susannah Heschel shows this German- Jewish historian to have been a richer and more complex thinker than most have thought. Whereas his advocacy of Reform Judaism and a historical- critical approach to the sources has often been taken as a sign of "an apologetic and assimilationist agenda," Professor Heschel demonstrates that his studies actually reconfigured the relationship of Judaism and Christianity in the former’s favor. "His argument that Jesus was a Pharisee who sought nothing more than the liberalization of Jewish religious practice became Judaism’s favorite tale of Christian origins and the answer to charges that the modernization of Judaism was in fact a Christianization of it." Geiger’s goal was thus twofold, to counter the neglect or disparagement of Judaism among Christians and to reclaim the Pharisees as a "liberal, democratic, progressive force within rabbinic Judaism [and] the basis for his justification of modern- day Reform Judaism." By recovering the crucial fact, troubling to Christian theologians, that Jesus "lived and taught Judaism," not Christianity, Geiger effected "nothing less than a radical inversion of Christian claims" and produced a novel but durable "counterhistory of Western civilization that placed Judaism, not Christianity, at its center." Heschel skillfully shows that although the study of Christian origins has never been the same after Geiger, the impulse to separate Jesus from Judaism remains potent in New Testament scholarship into our own time and has influenced recent portraits of Jesus as a cynic sage, an opponent of the Jewish purity system, a marginalized Jew, and the like. Regrettably, Heschel’s brief conclusion places her discussion within the framework of trendy gender studies, seeing Jesus functioning "as a kind of literary theological transvestite, through which each religion inscribes the other." As if this is not strange enough, she then tells us that "the Christian gazer saves his unpleasure at the realization that the historical Jesus was not a Christian but a Jew by fantasizing Judaism’s presumed lack of the phallus, Jesus." Heschel’s bizarre conclusion is unworthy of the serious and valuable contribution that her book otherwise represents.
—Jon D. Levenson
The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives. Edited by Terry Nardin. Princeton University Press. 286 pp. $39.50.
This book originated in a conference held in Jerusalem in early 1993 and is published as the first in a series from the Ethikon Institute, with Nardin as Series Editor. It is divided into four major parts: "The Classic Debate: Natural Law and Political Realism"; "Expanding the Dialogue: Judaism and Islam"; "Critical Perspectives: Christian Pacifism and Feminism"; and a concluding "Comparative Overview." The authors are a mix of people at the top of their fields and others less well established. Throughout, the quality of the essays is good, and the idea of the project is to be applauded. Less happy, though, is the choice of topics. Despite the presence of both Joseph Boyle and John Finnis, two- thirds of a team that wrote a book dealing in contemporary terms with just war tradition, and despite the vigor of recent just war debate, there is no explicit treatment of just war tradition as a frame of reference. The section on "Christian Pacifism and Feminism" has no internal consistency. Nardin’s essay in the concluding section, which narrows the ethics of war and peace to a dialogue between natural law and realism, hardly honors the diversity of thought of contributors such as Michael Walzer, Jean Bethke Elshtain, or the Mennonite Theo-dore Koontz. Indeed, if this dialogue is what fundamentally matters, then why the sections on Judaism and Islam and on Christian pacifism and feminism, which march to very different drummers? Taken one at a time and in pairs of dialogue partners, the essays are useful contributions; the book as a whole, though, lacks comprehensiveness and unity of focus.
—James Turner Johnson
The Confession of St. Patrick and Letter to Coroticus. Translated and with notes by John Skinner. Prologue by John O’Donohue. Image/Doubleday. 81 pp. $4.95.
A renaissance of interest in things Irish has been much in evidence in the past few years: a plethora of Celtic music CDs, the Riverdance craze, and bestselling books by Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization) and Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) come immediately to mind. Perhaps inevitably, the authentic writings of Ireland’s patron saint have now found their way into an inexpensive paperbound edition. This attractive new translation reintroduces to a contemporary audience the genuine Patrick, not the snake- chaser of legend, but the flesh- and- blood bishop of British birth who, having been kidnapped by Irish pirates as a youth, returns as an adult to bring the Christian Gospel to the brutish tribes to whom he had been enslaved. John Skinner’s translation captures the poetic quality of this humble rustic, providing notes and documenting all scriptural references, while John O’Donohue’s prologue pays stirring tribute to Patrick’s spiritual discipline. "In him," O’Donohue notes, "the pre- Christian and Christian dimensions of the Irish sensibility find an acute and balanced tension." The volume includes as an epilogue the Lorica or Breastplate, traditionally attributed to Patrick but actually dating more than two centuries after his death, a hymn that nonetheless "breathes his spirit."
The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History. By A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Petersen. Revell/Baker. 208 pp. $11.99.
The temptation in reviewing this useful little book is to highlight the events that are not included. And there are some—the reign of Justinian in the sixth century, the Investiture Controversy in the eleventh, the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth, the French Revolution in the eighteenth—but on balance this is a thoughtful and intelligent list accompanied by informative commentary covering the whole of Christian history. Looking over the "events" one realizes that many of the most significant moments in Christian history are not events in the conventional sense, as for example, Origen begins writing, Francis of Assisi renounces wealth, Thomas Aquinas completes work on the Summa Theologiae, Dante completes the Divine Comedy, Cranmer produces the Book of Common Prayer, Rembrandt completes Return of the Prodigal Son, publication of Isaac Watt’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs, David Livingstone publishes Missionary Travels, and others. Yet the authors are right to include "events" of this sort, for writers, thinkers, artists, hymnwriters, musicians (Bach and Handel are mentioned), not simply the bishops and popes and kings, have given the Christian past its distinctive character. In the modern period the choice tilts in an evangelical direction, but the spirit is ecumenical. The commentary is clear and free of jargon and well suited for the classroom or Bible class.
—Robert Louis Wilken
Sexual Wisdom: A Guide for Parents, Young Adults, Educators, and Physicians. By Richard Wetzel, M.D. Proctor. 338 pp. $12.95 paper.
"Sexual Wisdom" is something of an overstatement. This book is a comprehensive and useful compilation of startling facts and anecdotes exposing the destructive errors of our sexually obsessed society, and in that respect it can be recommended. The problem is Wetzel’s guiding principle that most of our sexual ills stem from the misconception that people "need" to have sex. He is technically right that any given person at any given moment doesn’t "need" to have sex, but as a vehicle for explaining all sexual behavior, healthy and unhealthy, this thesis leaves a great deal to be desired. Wetzel is forced by his own logic to conclude that most sexual interest outside of marriage (and frequently even within it) is the result of some level of psychosexual dysfunction, a rather extreme claim that most readers will find hard to accept. By the end of the book, one is left wondering why anyone remains remotely interested in sex, given the long list of risks involved. Obviously interest persists, yet when Wetzel tries to explain it in his single chapter on "Good Sex," he concedes that he feels inadequate to the task, and on that score he is quite right. This book may be a practical tool for parents, educators, and physicians, but young adults are unlikely to be moved by its clinical view of a notoriously unclinical matter.
—Sarah E. Hinlicky
Story of a Storm: The Ecumenical Student Movement in the Turmoil of Revolution. By Risto Lehtonen. Eerdmans. 360 pp. $20 paper.
WSCF. What’s that? Today it is all but forgotten, but thirty years ago the World Student Christian Federation was a major force in the worlds of ecumenical Protestantism. Closely associated with the World Council of Churches, it was a vital link in the network of vibrant church youth organizations in this country and around the world. Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and others all depended for decades upon these youth movements to replenish denominational and ecumenical leaderships. Now almost all of them are moribund or dead. This important book tells the story of their self- destructing in the pursuit of "radicalization" and "secularization." "The world sets the agenda for the Church," said trendy ecumenical leaders in the 1960s, and the inevitable question was raised: If the world is so far in advance of the Church, what’s the point of the Church? Risto Lehtonen, a Finn who was for years at the heart of WSCF and other ecumenical activities, tells this sad story for the first time, and his telling is made all the more powerfully sad by his detailed account of the meetings, documents, and personalities that destroyed WSCF and brought the high promise of the Protestant ecumenical movement into disrepute. It is too easy today to dismiss "oldline" ecumenical Protestantism as a pitiable relic. Story of a Storm reminds us of the astonishing faith and vitality that was once there, and how it was recklessly thrown away. For anybody who wants to understand the history of Christianity in the twentieth century, this book is must reading.
When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City. By Robert J. Hutchinson. Doubleday. 286 pp. $11.95 paper.
A reporter who aptly describes himself as something of a smart- aleck muses on a year spent in Rome with his family. The Vatican is very secretive, mainly about secrets that don’t matter; it has a magnificent collection of art; the Renaissance Popes were far from being moral exemplars; Rome has superb restaurants; and it is very annoying that Italians don’t speak English. That’s not much to justify almost three hundred pages, but the tone is light and frequently amusing. While Mr. Hutchinson has no use for inveterate Vatican- bashers, his own Catholicism appears to be a mix of ironic distance and affectionate attachment to Rome as the center of "the Catholic thing." The book is a pleasant read, and may be informative for those not familiar with Rome and the Vatican.
Dying with Dignity. By Hans Küng and Walter Jens. Continuum. 144 pp. $14.95 paper.
In discussion with Jens, a colleague at Tübingen, Hans Küng offers some moving reflections on death and dying, and then launches into a slashing attack on the "Polish messianism" of Pope John Paul II and the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Agreeing with the National Catholic Reporter, which he calls "the leading organ of American Catholics," that the Pope has put "church credibility on the line," Küng resumes his well- known criticism of the Church’s teaching authority in general, and infallibility in particular. Moreover, in their approval of suicide and medical assistance in doing it, the authors are wondrously insouciant about its possible, indeed near inevitable, abuses. In fact, they hold up the practice of the Netherlands, with its notorious record of involuntary killing, as a model.
Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America. Edited by E. J. Dionne, Jr. Brookings. 161 pp. $24.95.
E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post notes in his introduction that the idea of civil society was in its current phase launched by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus in a monograph called To Empower People, but has since then taken many and sometimes contradictory directions. It is both a strength and weakness of this collection that it reflects that diversity, from Jean Bethke Elshtain’s trenchant cautions about the inability of "communitarianism" to resolve our deepest cultural problems to former Senator Bill Bradley’s effusions about "revitalizing our national community"—the idea of a "national community" being about as far as one can get from the Berger- Neuhaus argument for mediating institutions. In sum, the book is a mixed bag but much of it will be of interest to those who are following the discussion.
With Liberty for All: Freedom of Religion in the United States. By Phillip E. Hammond. Westminster/John Knox. 128 pp. $16 paper.
A professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that there is no "naked public square" if we understand that the effective civil religion of the country is not in but "behind" the Constitution, and it is voiced in public by individual conscience as well as conventional religion. Religion is free to pursue its objectives, so long as it is recognized that "the ground rules are secular" and that the language employed is "inappropriate unless it is translatable into terms understandable by all." Such formulations, unfortunately, beg some of the most important questions, resulting in an argument that will not be understandable, never mind persuasive, to most participants in the debate about religion and public life.
Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family. By Stephen J. Dubner. William Morrow. 288 pp. $24.
The author is an editor at the New York Times Magazine and a couple of years ago wrote a much discussed article which he has expanded into the present book. It is an affecting story of Jewish parents who became Catholic and a son’s trying to make peace with his father on a troubled trajectory that finally led him, as he puts it, to follow his blood in returning to Judaism. It is in most respects a singular story from which no great lessons are to be drawn, but the author writes with love and insight about his efforts to cope with the peculiar conflicts of one species of religious pluralism that is to be found, as they say, only in America.
Equal Treatment of Religion in a Pluralistic Society. Edited by Stephen V. Monsma and J. Christopher Soper. Eerdmans. 211 pp. $18 paper.
The connecting argument is that the metaphor of the "wall of separation" is giving way to that of equal treatment or equal regard. Essayists include Robert Destro, Charles Glenn, and Michael McConnell, making this volume a very valuable guide to the continuing evolution of church- state legal doctrine. There is good reason to believe that the directions pointed by this book are an accurate indication of where the Supreme Court is moving, which may mean that in the years ahead Mr. Jefferson’s "wall" and the incoherent jurisprudence of multi- pronged "tests" to which it gave rise face retirement at long last. Warmly recommended.