Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 92 (April 1999): 68-70.
Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism. By William J. Abraham. Clarendon. 508 pp. $110.
This book proposes a conceptual revolution, the refurbishing of the patristic understanding of canon as first of all a means of grace rather than a criterion of truth and falsity in faith and morals. On this early view, Scripture is seen along with other canonized instrumentalities of God’s grace and guidance as chiefly soteriological rather than epistemological. It is classified with, for example, holy icons, holy saints, and holy practices ranging from communal worship and sacraments to individual moral and devotional disciplines. Its basic role is to promote sanctity and discipleship. The epistemological use of Scripture as criterion is in this canonical perspective secondary. If this order is reversed and Scripture is treated as a norm of truth and falsity independent of prior immersion in it as means of grace, divisiveness is inescapable. Epistemic criteria are disjoined, and the Bible, tradition, the Magisterium, reason, and experience become competing rather than mutually supportive authorities. Readers sympathetic to this patristic perspective will find the gist of the story convincing, but by no means all of the details. The disastrous role the author attributes to St. Thomas, for example, while not altogether unfair to later Thomism, depends on unbalanced caricatures of what Aquinas himself thought. Abraham is better on the Reformers because of his awareness that their actual theological practice is often superior to their sola scriptura polemical excesses, but even here he at times sounds more like a prosecuting attorney than a well–informed and fair–minded scholar. A similar apparent lack of information and charity infects his accounts of those, such as Newman and Barth, whom he praises for trying (though failing) to correct the disorders of privileging criterion over canon, epistemology over soteriology. His historical narrative, in short, is a mixture of the persuasive and the unpersuasive. Unfortunately this mixture weakens the impact of the book. We can hope that Professor Abraham will produce or inspire others to produce improved versions of the historical narrative of which this is, in effect, a first draft.
— George Lindbeck
The Jews of Modern France. By Paula Hyman. University of California Press. 295 pp. $45 cloth, $16.95 paper.
This is the first volume in what will become the University of California Series on Jewish Communities in the Modern World. In it Paula Hyman, Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, traces the efforts of the Jews of France since the Revolution to enjoy the benefits of emancipation without disappearing through assimilation. She argues that "the French Jewish experience is paradigmatic of Jewish modernity [but] also bears the particular imprint of French history and culture," and she is persuasive on both counts. Certainly, contemporary French Jewish debate about the need to place Jewish religious practice back at the center of Jewish life, and renewed emphasis on the importance of Jewish day schools, will sound familiar to American Jews. Moreover, Hyman rightly stresses the role of immigration in French Jewish life, including the arrival of more religious North African Jews in the post–World War II period. Yet French Jewish history is very different from that of American Jews, and Hyman’s account of modern French anti–Semitism (as a key element in anti–republican nationalism) and her description of the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of France make this very clear. This is less a full history of Jewish life in France than an examination of the struggle to achieve a sustainable Jewish identity in a culture both similar to and different from our own.
— Elliott Abrams
Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. By Vigen Guroian. Oxford University Press. 198 pp. $22.
This book deserves a wide audience and a place on the shelves of parents and non–parents alike. Guroian, professor of ethics and theology and father of two, set out to write a book that would not only indicate some stories worth reading to children, but also explain, in learned but accessible terms, why such stories are worth teaching. Guroian used children’s stories to teach his children, and uses them now in teaching his college students how to think about ethics. The heart of the book is Guroian’s careful, detailed discussion of some classic stories, ten in all (not counting the additional stories discussed in a concluding bibliographical essay). Each story is analyzed with respect to one of the themes indicated by the five organizing chapters: "On Becoming a Real Human Child," "Love and Immortality," "Friends and Mentors," "Evil and Redemption," and "Heroines of Faith and Courage." (At a few points we are also treated to gentle but decisive explanations of just how Disney adaptations have compromised— and in some cases eviscerated—the original moral content of some classic tales: Bambi, The Little Mermaid, and Pinocchio.) A danger of detailed analysis is that it too often becomes dissection, leaving its object dead. Guroian’s loving discussions of these stories do more than respect their integrity; they make the stories, and their variously lovable characters, alive again for adults. Guroian’s hope is that adults can in turn use them to enliven the hearts of children. Yes, as Guroian knows, there are virtues, and yes, they can be taught—so long as the education appeals to the affective as well as the cognitive dimension of man. Guroian reminds us how good fairy tales can make such appeals; in doing so he has written a book that itself appeals to both heart and mind.
— Joshua P. Hochschild
Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single–Child Families. By Bill McKibben. Simon & Schuster. 234 pp. $23.
"The next fifty years will be crucial to our planet’s future," says Bill McKibben, because they "could so devastate the earth’s biology [sic] that it will never again be able to support life as abundantly as it does at present." Given such urgency, what should we do? Should the government crack down on, well, everything? Should the UN develop an environmental army? Should we push our scientists into overdrive and prepare to colonize Mars? Well, McKibben says, nothing so strong as that. The real problem is that there are too many people, especially rich people, and all the people are putting out too much carbon dioxide and using up too many precious resources. China’s "one–child" solution to the populo–environmental crisis is a bit strong—"control of one’s body, the decision to reproduce, is far more sacred than, say, property rights," after all. What we really need is to get over the "psychological prejudice" that an only child is necessarily lonely and unhappy, and work to make single–child families "a cultural norm." McKibben, a former staff writer for the New Yorker, lives in the Adirondack Mountains with one daughter and a vasectomy, so he has done his part. As a result, he reports, he has freed up more family resources for his daughter, prevented the conversation at home from being dominated by kids, and generally found it easier to be a parent, all out of a spirit of generosity for the planet (and not the selfishness of the contraceptive mentality). So much false information, so many bad ideas, in so few pages. With this heartfelt book, environmentalism has replaced socialism as the crusade of choice for idealistic fools.
Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight Each Other. By Spencer R. Weart. Yale University Press. 432 pp. $35.
The "will" in the subtitle is a prediction, and requires Weart to engage in a fair amount of historical distinction–making, over which scholars will probably have no small amount of disagreement. This hybrid of history and political science makes the daring though commonsense argument that democratic forms of government, when animated by a culture that has learned how to accommodate fierce internal disagreements and defuse boiling tensions, will produce leaders who solve problems abroad using the same nonviolent strategies that keep the peace at home.
Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution. By George Sim Johnston. Our Sunday Visitor. 176 pp. $14.95.
This is familiar stuff for many FT readers. Johnston starts with a nice overview of Darwin’s life and times as well as his philosophical commitments. He then identifies the flaws in Darwin’s theory, especially certain gaps in the evidence that remain to this day. He concludes with a reflection on Catholic teaching on evolution. This is the kind of book that you give to skeptics who suppose all Christians are mindless buffoons, and to fundamentalists who believe a total rejection of critical scientific thinking is a faithful response, and to conscientious agnostics who want to believe but think science stands in the way.
The Catholic Tradition. By Thomas Langan. University of Missouri Press. 355 pp. $34.95.
A big book that tries to take on the whole shebang, so to speak, from the very beginning up to this morning’s newspaper. It rambles and seems eccentrically organized at times, but Langan, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Toronto, has a remarkably wide–ranging grasp of the Catholic reality both past and present, and his book is chock–full of quotes and documentation that will be of value to serious students of Catholicism.
Politics of the Lesser Evil. By Anton Pelinka. Transaction. 259 pp. $44.95.
A study in political ethics that pre–sents in a favorable light the role of "dictator and democrat" General Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland’s transition from communism. There are interesting challenges here to the conventional narrative, but confidence in the author’s credibility is severely undermined by his getting through the story with nary a reference to a certain bishop, Karol Wojtyla, who almost everybody else thinks was at the center of it.
Liberal Islam. Edited by Charles Kurzman. Oxford University Press. 340 pp. $49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
The title of this anthology is not an oxymoron, although some may think it comes close. Thirty–two Muslim essayists affirm conventional Western liberal doctrines such as the separation of church and state, the equal rights of women, and freedom of thought and speech. It is important to know that there are such Muslim thinkers, although those concerned about Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" never doubted it. The question is how representative they are and the measure of their influence. The answers provided in this collection are, on that question, cold comfort.
A Wall of Separation? Debating the Public Role of Religion. By Mary C. Segers and Ted G. Jelen. Rowman & Littlefield. 184 pp. $48.50 cloth, $14.95 paper.
The heart of this book is the debate between Jelen, a self–named "religious minimalist" who argues that "we should regard religious faiths and religious beliefs with a good deal of suspicion," and Segers, who contends that "religion promotes and enhances democracy in the United States." Their two reasonable and constructive essays are supplemented by readings from other American thinkers on the nature of church–state relations and a small selection of relevant court cases. All in all, a useful primer on a perennial dispute.
An Instance of the Fingerpost. By Iain Pears. Riverhead. 689 pp. $27.
A historical mystery novel of very considerable philosophical, even theological, interest. The year is 1663 and the monarchy has just been restored under Charles II, but all kinds of radical skullduggery are still afoot. Robert Boyle, John Locke, and other worthies are embroiled in the repercussions of the murder of an Oxford professor that catches up the suspicions and passions of the time. The story is effectively, but misleadingly, told in several versions by different participants, and the surprising denouement, which, of course, cannot be revealed, rewards the reader’s keeping an eye on a gentleman from Venice who turns out to be someone very different indeed. A first rate instance of this genre.
Vouchers for School Choice: Challenge or Opportunity? An American Jewish Reappraisal. Edited by Marshall J. Breger and David M. Gordis. Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies. 197 pp. $12.95.
School vouchers have not been much of an issue for American Jews thus far; it has usually gone without saying that they were opposed. Breger and Gordis issued a challenge to this unexamined assumption with a conference in May 1997 to give school vouchers another look. Most of the essays in this volume are papers or summaries of group discussions, but a few additional papers from other sources fill out the book. The perspectives are both sympathetic and skeptical, examining the impact of school vouchers on American society, church–state separation, and the Jewish community. While no conclusive decision is reached, the kind of intelligent and civil debate represented here is always refreshing.