Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 88 (December 1998): 61–64.
Staring into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization. By B. G. Brander. Spence. 418 pp. $29.95.
This fin–de–siècle has seen much less talk about "decline" and "degeneration" than the last time around, probably because the idea of "organic" cultural decline is alien to the postmodern worldview. B. G. Brander, a former writer for National Geographic and sometime reporter for the World Vision global relief agency, has performed a useful service of recollection by providing this handy summary of the major "pessimist" philosophies of history of the last century or so. The intuition that the Western world had entered a new "Hellenistic" age was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Staring into Chaos is chiefly concerned with Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Pitirim Sorokin, each of whom turned the analogy with classical times into a metahistorical grand opera. Mention of Spengler’s Decline of the West still gives some people fits, but Brander notes it has been in print since the first volume appeared in 1918. Toynbee’s Study of History was a major cultural phenomenon in its 1950s heyday, though it has not aged well. Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics is today the most obscure of the three. Maybe he broke the rules of metahistory by doing too much empirical research. All three predict some sort of spiritual revival for the next century. (In its later volumes, Toynbee’s Study became in effect a theodicy of history.) Still, there are differences. For Toynbee and Sorokin, the religious revival can be the occasion of a new springtime, whereas for Spengler this "Second Religiousness" will be just another sign of senility. All three expect some sort of universal government, but Toynbee and Sorokin speak of the possibility of international cooperation, while Spengler will hear of nothing but the arbitrament of force. They all predicted an end to chaos; they differed on whether it will end by free will or compulsion.
— John J. Reilly
The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. By Vaclav Havel. Knopf. 273 pp. $24.
In an age of spin it is refreshing to read the words of a national leader who in spite of numerous political difficulties and temptations remains a man of integrity. This is one reason why this collection of thirty–five speeches and essays written by Czech President Vaclav Havel between 1990 and 1996 is so welcome. In one typically forthright speech given in late 1991 Havel points an audience in Los Angeles to the environmental destruction wrought by the former Eastern Bloc’s command economists and warns them "against all those who despise the mystery of Being, whether they be cynical businessmen with only the interests of their corporations at heart, or left–wing saviors high on cheap ideological utopias." To recognize and appreciate Havel’s frankness is not to say that his thinking is always clear. On numerous occasions Havel claims that if the world’s peoples wish to live in relative peace with one another they must look to that which transcends them. "The Declaration of Independence . . . states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty," he said in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994. "It seems that man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it." What "the One" is in Havel’s view—what he variously refers to as "the transcendent," the "Anthropic Cosmological Principle," the "Gaia Hypothesis," "a God," "the Creator," "Heaven above us," "Him who is omniscient," "the order of the Omniscient," and "the mystery of the world"—is obscure. Yet that he speaks about such things openly, and not merely for political reasons, sets him apart from the great majority of the industrialized world’s public officials. And for that he can be respected.
On Being Catholic. By Thomas Howard. Ignatius. 263 pp. $12.95 paper.
With his customary vivid style and striking images, Thomas Howard insightfully expounds the faith, doctrine, and piety of the Roman Catholic Church. His understanding of what it means to be Catholic is orthodox and traditional. There is no explaining away the mystery; no ameliorating the effects of sin; no downplaying the cost of daily taking up the cross. Whether in his magnificent commentary on the Eucharistic liturgy or when arguing a point of morality, Howard stresses the biblical foundation, as interpreted and expanded by tradition. Howard is able to present both sides of differing positions with clarity and sympathy. An example is his sensitive discussion of the varying attitudes toward salvation. Protestants tend to stress the fact of "being saved," whether Calvinism’s perseverance of the saints or the evangelical’s altar call. In contrast, Catholics emphasize "the blessed hope," laboring in hopeful expectation of receiving the promised reward—a perspective, he maintains, much more in keeping with that of the New Testament writers. But is being Roman Catholic essential to being Catholic? Howard might well have made many of the same points while an Episcopalian, as he was before converting over a decade ago. Here he discusses being Catholic in contrast principally to evangelical Protestantism, the tradition in which he was raised; his book would have been strengthened by also addressing why he found inadequate the claim to Catholic tradition of the church in which he spent most of his adult life. However, this one quibble should not detract from a truly fine exposition of the faith.
— Michael J. Godderz
Philip of Spain. By Henry Kamen. Yale University Press. 448 pp. $35.
Professor Kamen continues his rectification of history, called by some revisionism, with an assiduously researched biography of the much vilified Philip II (1527–1598), who ruled what was viewed as the largest empire in history for almost fifty years. Closely associated with the Spanish Inquisition, another subject on which the author has made invaluable contributions, and responsible for, among other disasters, the Spanish Armada, Philip has over the centuries been a key figure in the promulgation of the "Black Legend" of Spain so successfully disseminated by Protestant, especially English Protestant, propagandists. In part, Kamen tells "the other side" of the story, but in more important part he helps the reader to understand the frailties of a largely delusory empire of hodgepodge sovereignties that likely could not have been ruled effectively even by a man of much greater vision and competence than Philip. Ever loyal to Catholicism, if in frequent conflict with Popes, Philip, like most sovereigns of the time—Catholic or Protestant—could not conceive of religious tolerance as anything other than a formula for sedition and anarchy, and thus helped prepare the way for the wars of religion that in his century and the next established the secularist dogma, also among devout Christians, that civil peace requires the exclusion of religion from public life. Philip of Spain should be welcomed by history buffs and, in particular, by those sensitive to the mistreatment of Spain in the usual tellings of the European story.
The Swiss, the Gold, and the Dead. By Jean Ziegler. Harcourt Brace. 306 pp. $27.
A Swiss sociologist writes a searing indictment of Switzerland’s role in World War II and the alleged cover–up ever since, especially by Swiss banks resisting the demands of Jewish organizations for reparations to Holocaust victims. Ziegler makes little effort to be even–handed, and ideological biases are but slightly under the surface, but the book forcefully presents the case for the prosecution.
Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East. By Donald J. Wold. Baker. 288 pp. $19.99.
The late John Boswell of Yale established an orthodoxy among gay advocates that the historic teaching of Christianity with respect to homosexuality was based on a massive misunderstanding of the Bible and the cultures of that time. Donald Wold, who earned his doctorate in biblical and Judaic studies from the University of California, makes a valuable contribution with his careful reexamination of the evidence. In a manner that is both scholarly and accessible, he vindicates the Christian tradition while, at the same time, suggesting ways of effectively engaging the homosexual revisionists. Wold is an evangelical Protestant who convincingly protests his love for the sinner while also making no secret of his belief that unrepentant sinners, including those who engage in homosexual acts, face a very grim future both here and hereafter.
The Adoremus Hymnal (Choir Edition). Ignatius. ca. 600 pp. $17.95.
Produced by Adoremus, an organization devoted to liturgical renewal, in cooperation with the Church Music Association of America, The Adoremus Hymnal is a gift to be welcomed. Included are the texts for the Mass, a fine selection of chants, a guide to common (and should be more common!) Catholic devotions, plus a discriminating collection of approximately three hundred hymns drawn from both Catholic and other sources. Pastors and parishes weary of the we–are–high–on–Jesus–and–one–another pap that passes for liturgy and hymnody in many places today should take a careful look at the alternative that is The Adoremus Hymnal.
International Society: Diverse Ethical Perspectives. Edited by David R. Mapel and Terry Nardin. Princeton University Press. 288 pp. $35.
In the face of a looming "clash of civilizations," scholars examine the various moral traditions undergirding a hope for a common global discourse. Among the essayists are Robert P. George, David Novak, and Max Stackhouse, all regular contributors to these pages. Stackhouse’s argument for a Christian warrant for a new international order is particularly suggestive.
The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness. Edited by David Mills. Eerdmans. 297 pp. $23.
Of the making of books about C. S. Lewis it seems there is no end, especially in this centenary year of his birth. The Pilgrim’s Guide is a most welcome addition to the crowd, however. These nineteen essays, all appreciative of Lewis of course, are thoroughly ecumenical in terms religious, literary, and philosophical. Lewis devotees, who are legion, will not want to bypass this collection, which serves also as a fine introduction for those who still have the pleasure and excitement of reading Lewis ahead of them.
Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring. By Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner. Cornerstone. 233 pp. $10.95.
A revised edition of a much–used introduction to Flannery O’Connor’s writing. Baumgaertner resists the English lit penchant for over–interpretation and exhibits a very nice sensibility to the Christian, and specifically Catholic, character of O’Connor’s genius.
Deepening Communion: International Ecumenical Documents with Roman Catholic Participation. Edited by William G. Rusch and Jeffrey Gros. Paulist. 627 pp. $29.95 paper.
A helpful collection of documents from international dialogues between Rome and most of the major communions (except Orthodox). Ecumenists will want to have it near at hand.
Mary and the Fundamentalist Challenge. By Peter M. Stravinskas. Our Sunday Visitor. 279 pp. $12.95 paper.
Concerned about proselytizing (as distinct from evangelizing) by Protestant fundamentalists, Father Stravinskas has undertaken a study of Protestant polemics against Catholic "Mariolatry" (an old subject) as well as the ways in which proselytizers employ a positive appreciation of Mary (something new). The result is a little book that may portend a curious convergence that advances Christian unity in the name of Mary.
Souls, Bodies, Spirits: The Drive to Abolish Abortion Since 1973. By Kerry N. Jacoby. Praeger. 230 pp. $59.95.
There has been a distinct rise in the number of books chronicling the abortion wars, to which the present volume makes a distinct contribution with its sympathetic treatment of anti–abortion activists and its theoretical setting of the wars within the context of American "civil religion." Jacoby is especially perceptive in her analysis of the ways in which evangelical Protestants entered into a cause that was in its beginning almost totally Catholic in inspiration and leadership. This strategic convergence has, as she recognizes, far–reaching implications for the reconfiguration of moral argument in American public life.