Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 91 (March 1999): 58-61.
The Prince of Egypt: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Compact Disc from Uni/DreamWorks Records. $17.97.
The Prince of Egypt: Inspirational. Compact Disc from Uni/DreamWorks Records. $16.97.
The Prince of Egypt: Nashville. Compact Disc from Uni/DreamWorks Records. $16.97.
The movie Prince of Egypt, produced by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures, has received a lot of attention in the Christian press. And well it should, for it’s a visually splendid retelling of Moses’ early life that takes only modest liberties with the biblical account (although historians will complain that the writers perpetuate the notion that Ramses II was the pharaoh with whom Moses contended; he most likely wasn’t). The directing is splendidly inventive. The artwork is vivid and the animation nothing less than spectacular (the parting of the Red Sea alone is worth the price of seeing the movie, and seeing it again). Too bad the music isn’t quite up to the standards of the rest of the work. Hans Zimmer has taken songs written for the movie by Stephen Schwartz and composed a serviceable film score of the Lawrence of Arabia meets Vaughan Williams type. There are brief snatches reminiscent of Carl Orff and actually a rather nice bit that features a knock–off of Philip Glass’ signature ostinati. It’s a functional score, and gives one a greater appreciation for John Williams’ work. Stephen Schwartz’s songs are a different matter. The work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (the team that wrote The Little Mermaid, among others) is the standard for such music, and Schwartz rarely rises to their melodic invention or textual wit. Some of the pieces are an embarrassment (as in the "Playing with the Big Boys" in which the priests of Egypt try to intimidate Moses), while others are simply clumsy (as in the opening "Deliver Us"). And when Schwartz really needs to deliver THE BIG TUNE (you know, the "Climb Every Mountain" moment), he gives us the rather flat–footed and formulaic "When You Believe," which all of Zimmer’s orchestral tricks can’t rescue from mediocrity. As part of the spin–off campaign that accompanies the movie, the producers have issued not the usual one CD, but three CDs of Prince–related music, each geared to a different audience. We have the original soundtrack (DreamWorks Records DRMD–50041), a "Nashville" version (DRMD–50045), and an "Inspirational" version (DRMD–50050). The Nashville and Inspirational CDs contain pieces that are not part of the original film score but are thematically related to it by their focus on deliverance and freedom. It’s a good thing for the DreamWorks folks, because both of these spin–offs are better than the original soundtrack. The Nashville CD is a lineup of Country all–stars with Pam Tillis’ "Milk and Honey" and Wynonna’s (like Madonna, Ms. Judd now no longer requires a last name) "Freedom" being genuine finds. The "Inspirational" CD is primarily a collection of black Gospel performances. Here "Destiny" by Take 6 is an intriguingly funky mix of Middle Eastern elements with the ensemble’s signature close harmonies. Both Bebe and Cece Winans have fine cuts, as does Kirk Franklin, while Shirley Caesar again demonstrates her right to the crown of gospel singers with "Moses the Deliverer," which closes the CD. The albums can be bought as a boxed set; I think the DreamWorks folks hope you’ll buy all three.
— Michael Linton
Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths. By Sanford L. Braver with Diane O’Connell. J. P. Tarcher. 288 pp. $24.95.
The gender wars are nowhere more in evidence than over the issue of divorce. Men, at least in popular culture, have often been the losers. The image of the bad divorced dad has become, in its "deadbeat" and other forms, a powerful force in modern culture. This book, which can be considered part of a new "male backlash" genre, sets out to rectify that situation. Divorced dads, it argues, have gotten a bum rap. Bringing much wisdom and scholarship to the task, it finds serious flaws in much of the empirical research that has bolstered the bad dad image. You cannot read the book without gaining an appreciation that divorced dads are much better than they are reputed to be. Yet one leaves the book feeling not totally convinced. Presumptive joint–custody, as the book recommends, may be the best legal outcome of divorce, but let us not forget a fundamental fact of human life—the mother–child bond is stronger than the father–child bond, and fathers do tend to disconnect from their children more than mothers do.
— David Popenoe
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. By Edward O. Wilson. Knopf. 352 pp. $26.
Edward O. Wilson is a great scientist and a marvelous writer whose graceful and lucid prose rivals that of one of his masters, Charles Darwin. His love affair with the world and all its complexity comes through loud and clear in Consilience, in which he stakes out the ground of High Theory. The dream of a unified science or logic of explanation of all that exists dies hard; indeed, it is resurrected, it seems, in each generation, often by our most creative and accomplished thinkers. Now comes Professor Wilson to call it into being again in Consilience, a survey of all branches of human knowledge that is nothing less than a tour de force, though, as is not uncommon in such efforts, it has moments that are problematic and less than satisfying. Wilson’s notion of the connectedness of things and their ultimate unity, as well as the enormous intellectual challenge of formulating consilience, feeds his "religious hunger." But religious hunger directed towards anything other than the transcendent is certain to go awry. Even if one were as enthusiastic about the idea of consilience as Professor Wilson, it would not neatly solve any of the problems he notes, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Provisional "solutions" to these problems—mostly messy compromises—are possible. If what Wilson calls "the transcendent" and "the empirical" can be brought closer together, then those of us who refuse to close the window to transcendence (in Charles Taylor’s phrase) and those who have slammed it shut might find that we have a bit more in common. To hope for more than that—especially in the form of "controlled" lives and futures—is to hope for too much.
— Jean Bethke Elshtain
Ex–Friends. By Norman Podhoretz. Free Press. 244 pp. $25.
The subtitle tells a large part of the story: "Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer." Podhoretz, the long–time editor of Commentary, gives a scintillating insider’s account of what he calls The Family and that others, following Irving Howe, call The New York Intellectuals, a group of mainly Jewish writers and academics who, from the late 1930s through the early 1960s, played a major part in determining what issues and positions were deserving of attention by "serious" thinkers. His depictions of those with whom he "fell out" over the years are crisp, often humorous, and seldom unkind. Some might think Podhoretz was unfortunate in his friends and others might think his friends were unfortunate in him, but he is grateful for the contentious entanglement of friendships and ideas that has brought him to where he is as one who intends to challenge "the regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe, and to do so with all my heart and all my soul and all my might." That paraphrase, perhaps inadvertent, of what the Bible prescribes as the devotion due to God alone suggests an earnestness about ideas that might seem to preclude the intellectual highjinks, pervasive gossip, and boozy fun that, Podhoretz leaves no doubt, was also very much part of the life of The Family. In poignant, sometimes tender, passages, Podhoretz misses his friends and the world they made together. He thinks our culture today is poorer in the absence of a comparable community of intellectual friendship and battle, and maybe he is right about that. But The Family was constructed by circumstances that cannot be replicated: The warfare within the Old Left between Stalinists, Trotskyites, and sundry other Marxists; New York Jews first "making it" (the title of an early and much controverted book by Podhoretz) in the high culture; the crusade against Nazism and coming to terms with the Holocaust; the effort of former Communists and fellow travelers, along with the non–Marxist Left, to articulate an anti–Communist liberalism on freedom’s side of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, Podhoretz was moving Commentary sharply to the left; a decade later he was turning it into the leading voice of what would become the neoconservatism that helped prepare the way for the Reagan Revolution. Ex–Friends, however, is about much more than what is usually meant by politics. It is an utterly engaging chronicle of a half century of the politics of ideas and personalities that have, in large part, shaped our intellectual and moral culture. A strong book strongly recommended.
Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival. By Andrew Sullivan. Knopf. 254 pp. $23.
Three elegantly crafted essays that are perhaps without precedent in gay literature, perhaps because they are not gay literature. Occasioned by the death from AIDS of his friend (not his lover) Patrick, Sullivan reflects on the meaning of friendship as something very different from—and, he suggests, much more rare and elevated than—"being in love," not to mention having sex. Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and the eleventh–century monk St. Aelred figure prominently in these reflections that are unabashedly Christian and Catholic, even, in most respects, orthodox. Sullivan has written elsewhere and at length on his disagreement with the Christian tradition, and Catholic teaching in particular, with respect to the licitness of homosexual acts, and is perhaps today’s foremost proponent of same–sex "marriage." In the present book he will likely jeopardize his credentials as a "gay spokesperson" by offering a not entirely dismissive discussion of reparative therapy for homosexuals.
Gregory the Great and His World. By R. A. Markus. Cambridge University Press. 241 pp. $59.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.
A distinguished patristic scholar evaluates the person and work of Gregory I, who succeeded to the See of Rome in 590. Gregory, who was thoroughly monastic in spirit, was deeply devoted to Augustine, and Markus is especially effective in tracing the differences that two hundred years had made between the "worlds" of Augustine and Gregory. In Augustine’s time, Christians were the "third people," after pagan Romans and Jews, while by the end of the sixth century they were indisputably the "first people," with all that entailed for the development of Christendom. This is a scholarly work and much of the discussion of texts and sources will be chiefly of interest to specialists, but the general reader can also benefit greatly from this careful reading of a personality and period decisive for the subsequent Christian story.
Fidel’s Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures. By Osvaldo and Roberto Salas. Beyond Words Publishing/Thunder’s Mouth Press. 176 pp. $34.95.
The Salases, a father and son team, were the official photojournalists for Fidel Castro from the time of the revolution in 1959 until Osvaldo died in 1992 (his son Roberto still lives and works in Havana). In page after page of gorgeously shot propaganda photos dating to before the revolution, we see two consummate artists capturing Castro as he was seen by those who worshipped him, the fidelistas. Many of the best–known photos of Castro, Ché Guevara, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Cuban "workers" were taken by Osvaldo for the magazine Revolución, and are included in this volume, for which Roberto wrote the running commentary and added some pictures of his own. Though born in New York City, Roberto Salas is a fidelista to the end: "There are things I don’t agree with in Cuba. I’m not a blind bat. But you walk down the street in any city in the world—you’ll find good and bad. New York? The woman who shops at Saks Fifth Avenue thinks it’s great. But the guy in the slum has a different opinion. They’re both right." Not blind, just a useful idiot, who did his best to persuade the Cuban people that freedom is slavery, and evil beautiful.
Objections Sustained: Subversive Essays on Evolution, Law & Culture. By Phillip E. Johnson. InterVarsity Press. 188 pp. $15.99.
Readers will already be familiar with the work of Phillip Johnson, the hard–hitting critic of blind allegiance to Darwinian orthodoxy. This collection of essays, most of them book reviews, lays out the broad outlines of Johnson’s project. The materialist underpinnings of secular science get the most attention, particularly in the first half of the book. Johnson also touches on a wide range of other issues, from the absurdity of postmodern science to the appeal of Eastern Christianity to the abdication of revealed truth in American universities. The succinct explication of his ideas makes this an excellent introduction to Johnson’s countercultural thinking.
Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas. By John I. Jenkins, CSC. Cambridge University Press. 267 pp. $59.95.
Father Jenkins of Notre Dame’s philosophy and theology departments has written a truly revolutionary book. Most who encounter the Summa Theologiae see a maze of questions, articles, objections, responses, and replies; hence the temptation to turn Aquinas into a textbook on philosophy, theology, morals, and even science. He is accused of creating a "system" of philosophy, which can be opposed to other systems of philosophy and found superior (or, by his critics, quite deficient). Jenkins shows that the Summa is not a system that provides categories of thought, but an attempt to ground all our thoughts about God and his creation in our participation in God’s mind. According to Aristotle, for mere knowledge to be called episteme (roughly, "understanding") requires that we understand the causes of things better than we understand their effects. Jenkins argues persuasively from substantial textual evidence that Aquinas was after episteme: he wanted to understand God, the Cause of all things, better than he understood creation. What’s more, he wanted to view creation through his understanding of God. Along the way to proving his thesis, Jenkins rewrites the book on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics (his reading, and his devastating criticisms of Oxford’s influential Jonathan Barnes, set the standard for such scholarship) and he shows how even the most decorated of contemporary "philosophers of religion" (Plantinga, Stump, Penelhaum, et al.) grossly misread Aquinas. Through careful scholarship and tightly argued readings, Jenkins does that rarest of things—he says something truly new about what we thought we long ago understood.
Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever. By Hal Hellman. John Wiley & Sons. 240 pp. $24.95.
Those who promote science in the public square often pretend that, unlike other parts of our life, science is a serene intellectual endeavor entirely removed from the passions and prejudice that characterize, say, political or religious disputes. The author wants to show that "scientists are susceptible to human emotions; that they are influenced by pride, greed, belligerence, jealousy, and ambition, as well as religious and national feelings; . . . that they are in truth fully human." Among the feuds he describes are the high–profile clashes between Galileo and Urban VII over heliocentricism and between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce over evolution, as well as less well known disputes such as that between Hobbes and the mathematician John Wallis over whether algebra was a legitimate development in mathematics or whether it was mere chicken–scratchings (Hobbes’ position). Lively history by a professional science journalist, Great Feuds reminds us that great intellects are often married to strong wills—and not always blissfully!
Political Orphan? The Pro–Life Cause After 25 Years of Roe v. Wade. By Kenneth D. Whitehead. New Hope Publications. 353 pp. $14.95 paper.
The pro–life movement has grown up and grown wiser in the years following the infamous decision. This book is part polemic, part history, part commentary on the trials and triumphs, with particular emphasis on the last five years (1993–1998). Whitehead’s essays, culled from the magazines and journals where they first appeared, range in focus from the hopes of a Republican Congress to papal encyclicals to the appointment of the Surgeon General. Nothing if not thorough, Political Orphan details where the anti–abortion battle is now and where it must go next.
Toward the Renewal of Civilization: Political Order and Culture. Edited by T. William Boxx and Gary M. Quinlivan. Eerdmans. 208 pp. $16 paper.
Hadley Arkes, Hilton Kramer, Elizabeth Fox–Genovese, Claes G. Ryn, Robert P. George, and Ralph McInerny headline the contributors to this collection of essays, based on a conference at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania held to discuss the state of American civilization and what to do about it. Filled with realism about the present and a cautious hopefulness about the future, this volume points the way forward by looking back to—in that apt expression—first things.