Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 74-79.
Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris. By Ian Kershaw. Norton. 845 pp. $35.
Adolf Hitler is arguably the most important political figure of the twentieth century. His significance rests entirely on what he destroyed or what was destroyed in his name. But who was he? Hitler’s background and family were ordinary, his education unremarkable. As a young adult, he lived a largely aimless life, dreaming of artistic accomplishment. Even after he became a public figure most of his days were spent sleeping late in the morning, spending the afternoon in idle conversation, and watching movies at night. By all accounts, Hitler was detached from the details of managing government as head of state. Despite his bluster and his own heroic reconstruction of his life in Mein Kampf, Hitler seemed to know, at least at some level, how empty his personal existence was. In March of 1936 he said of himself: "I go with the certainty of a sleepwalker along a path laid out for me by Providence." In their classic biographies, Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest had sought the key to Hitler in his will to power and his mastery of forces. In their view, Hitler was a figure of appalling, satanic greatness. With Kershaw, the reader finds himself contemplating, as Hannah Arendt did a generation ago, "the banality of evil." Hitler was a great speechmaker and an opportunist to be sure. But the key to his success was that things happened to him, people turned to him, those who had power sought to use him. There was about this "nobody from Vienna" a certain blankness upon which people projected what they wanted to be there. The result was the creation of Der Fuehrer. Kershaw uses as his organizing motif Max Weber’s famous notion of "charismatic leadership." A figure who exercises charismatic authority requires not only native ability, but a receptive social and psychological context on the part of his constituency. Charismatic leadership has often less to do with the will to lead than with the desire to be led. This is the first of a two–volume biography that gives all indications of being, if that is possible with this subject, the definitive account for our time.
— Walter Sundberg
The Religious Thought of Hasidism. By Norman Lamm. Ktav. 624 pp. $49.50.
Since Hasidism presents such a spiritually appealing form of Jewish life, and since its practitioners ("Hasidim") are a growing segment of contemporary Jewry, an English source book of excerpts of the major hasidic thinkers, along with informative and scholarly comments, is a desideratum. This is especially so since too much romantic nonsense has been invented about this major religious movement in Jewish history. Norman Lamm, the president of Yeshiva University, the most important Orthodox Jewish institution in America, has performed a most valuable service for both Jewish and non–Jewish readers in assembling a vast amount of primary source material and presenting it in a highly readable and attractive format. Unlike apologetic works about Hasidism, the book lets the hasidic thinkers speak for themselves and speak directly to us like few other classical Jewish modes of discourse can do. The translations are accurate and felicitous, while the comments are not overly technical. English readers now have the most comprehensive presentation of the hasidic sources known to this reviewer, which should enable readers to much better evaluate the treatment of Hasidism by modern Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Norman Lamm, along with his collaborators Allan Brill and Shalom Carmy, has produced a lasting anthology. This book is highly recommended.
— David Novak
More I Could Not Ask: Finding Christ in the Margins. By James Peterson. Crossroad. 191 pp. $12.95.
Some of the deepest insights into the grace of God and the mission of the Church have come from those who have either experienced suffering, destitution, and imprisonment, or have worked with those who have. In the depths of life, as I discovered in prison (and in the six hundred prisons I’ve visited since), we experience the most powerful encounters with God. And this is the reality that fills the pages of Father Jim Peterson’s poignant memoirs. His is a story of a young man from a solid Catholic background who found his way to a personal knowledge of Christ and an ever–deepening life of faith through his work with needy people in diverse settings: parishes in blue–collar Pennsylvania towns, a Catholic college, prisons, skid row, and the poor of Mexico. This humble priest has led countless broken men, college students, murderers, and couples on the verge of broken marriages to the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. As an evangelical I had understandable difficulties working through some of the practices of Fr. Peterson’s Catholic faith, yet at the same time I became almost envious of the depth and purity of his devotion. He writes with such humility and intimacy that as I read I felt myself strangely drawn to him, not just in fraternal bonds, but personally, as if he were an old friend; and more important, I found myself drawn ever closer to the One we both serve.
— Charles Colson
Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Mono theism. By Jan Assmann. Harvard University Press. 276 pp. $27.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.
Egypt seems always to have been part of the historical memory of the West: in the biblical narrative of Pharaoh and Moses, in the Histories of Herodotus, in the liaison between the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and the Roman general Mark Antony, and in the tales of St. Antony, the first Christian to seek God in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. But there is another Egypt, the Egypt before Moses, and in particular the Egypt of Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, who abolished the idols of Egyptian polytheism and established a monotheistic worship of the god of light, Aton. One will find in this fascinating book an investigation of "the history of Europe’s remembering Egypt." Assmann’s term for this is "mnemohistory," a way of studying the past that is concerned "not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered." Assmann serves as a penetrating critic who shows that before the Enlightenment the books on Egypt spoke the language of the Enlightenment. What the scholars and philosophers presented when they described ancient Egyptian religion looked very much like Spinozism, Deism, pantheism, or "natural religion," the kinds of religious sensibilities they favored. This is a feature of historical scholarship on religion that is no less apparent today than it was two hundred years ago.
— Robert Louis Wilken
Dubious Mandate: A Memoir of the UN in Bosnia. By Phillip Corwin. Duke University Press. 268 pp. $27.95.
Corwin was United Nations chief political officer for Bosnia as that terrible conflict was leading up to the Dayton accords. Subsequent events in the Balkans make his candid, even chilling, book timely reading. Sharply critical of the willy–nilly way in which the "mandate" of both NATO and the UN has been transformed, Corwin’s account is also a bracing antidote to the media’s sensationalist good guy/bad guy scripts for a part of the world that conspires against easy moral judgments.
The Secular Mind. By Robert Coles. Princeton University Press. 189 pp. $19.95.
A prolific research psychiatrist at Harvard, Coles offers a personal and frequently moving reflection on nothing less than "the fate of the soul." The secular mind is sometimes understood to be at war with the very idea of soul, but perhaps, the author suggests in a hopeful vein, that war will eventually end in a peace treaty recognizing the sacredness of the secular. The mode is more meditational than argumentative, providing many evocative moments even if substantive truth claims remain unclear.
Philemon’s Problem: A Theology of Grace. Jubilee Edition. By James Tunstead Burtchaell. Eerdmans. 334 pp. $18.
The jubilee edition of this remarkable book, now substantially revised, reminds us again of the scope and sensitivity of James Burtchaell’s mind. Paul’s letter to Philemon provides the inspiration for this "theology of grace": What, Burtchaell asks, must Philemon have thought of Paul’s appeal to him to take back his runaway slave Onesimus, not as a slave but as a new brother in Christ? After all, Paul does not call for the abolition of slavery, but for the institution of fellowship within that difficult social order. "If [Philemon] considers himself not so much plagued by impossibly competing duties, but haunted by a God whose love comes at him with relentless and incredible energy, then he will burst out of the muddle." And there’s the rub, says Burtchaell: "There is nothing very astonishing about a God who loves us relentlessly, except that we generally do not believe in one." All too often Christians have been suspicious of the claim that God could love them without their deserving it, and have avoided believing it by positing Jesus as one who saves us from the wrath of the Father, reconciling us to a God who has quite a different view of our sinfulness than his Son does. But Burtchaell demonstrates, on the contrary, that "it is the Father who initiated the entire rescue." Jesus comes precisely to reveal the Father’s everlasting love; his mission is not to reconcile a wrathful God to sinful humanity, but to return sinful humanity to its loving Father. "The alienation is on our part: it is not God who must be transformed, but ourselves." From this standpoint Burtchaell reconsiders a host of issues from situation ethics to armed force to the sacrament of penance. In each case we are tempted to avoid the "radical regeneration" to which the Father’s love calls us, looking instead for easy answers or pious procedures to pull us through (or help us avoid facing) the dilemmas of the Christian life. Jesus, though, challenges us to do more, precisely by providing no simple solutions. As Paul challenges Philemon to find a way to respond to Jesus’ revelation of brotherly love, so Jesus asks each of us to let our moral imaginations be animated by the love of the Father. With this book Burtchaell offers scholars and general readers alike a decidedly robust response to the problems of Christian brotherhood.
The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Edited by Peter L. Berger. Eerdmans. 144 pp. $17 paper.
Few scholars in this century have contributed so much to our understanding of religion and modernity as Peter Berger. Beginning in the 1960s, he advanced the argument that the collapse of "the sacred canopy" provided by religion creates a crisis for faith, which is forced into a position of "cognitive bargaining" and ends up bargaining away religious substance in order to survive in a relentlessly secular and secularizing modern world. In more recent years, however, Berger has changed his mind and tells why in the lead essay in the present book. The thing that needs explaining, he says, is not the vitality of religion, a phenomenon that puzzles so many secular intellectuals, but why so many secular intellectuals are puzzled by it. The present collection emerges from a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and includes essays on the theme by Jonathan Sacks, David Martin, and George Weigel, as well as a reflection on China by Tu Weiming and on Islam by Abdullahi A. An–Na’im.
The Density of the Present: Selected Writings. By Gustavo Gutierrez. Orbis. 207 pp. $22 paper.
In the 1960s Gutierrez was acclaimed as the godfather of "liberation theology" with the publication of his book by that title. In fact, there were and are several liberation theologies, and the dominant variety that was tied to Marxist class struggle has been rudely treated by history. Unlike many of those who claimed to be inspired by him, Gutierrez gives clear priority to the narrative of the Church and its gospel. That allegiance is also evident in this collection of occasional writings, especially his reflections on major teaching documents of John Paul II.
Sacramental Realism: A General Theory of the Sacraments. By Colman E. O’Neill, O.P. Scepter. 224 pp. $12.95 paper.
Grounded in the theology of Vatican Council II, the late Father O’Neill offers a "personalist" account of what he views as the three central sacraments (Eucharist, Baptism, Holy Orders), as well as a sacramental understanding of marriage that underscores the humanist and universal horizon of his "general theory." A valuable contribution to sacramental theology, enhanced by keen ecumenical sensibilities.
The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. Edited by Kermit L. Hall. Oxford University Press. 428 pp. $35.
An extremely useful compilation and indexing of the major decisions, reflecting the wisdom and follies of the unelected lawyers who assume (arrogate?) the heavy responsibility of governing us.
Priestly Celibacy Today. By Thomas McGovern. Scepter. 248 pp. $14.95 paper.
About as thorough and thoroughly persuasive a treatment of this controverted subject as has appeared in a long time. McGovern deals with the historical, theological, spiritual, canonical, and pastoral aspects of priestly celibacy in a way that is attuned to current anxieties and misrepresentations. The result is a powerful case for a renewed understanding and affirmation of priestly celibacy.
The Fire of Invention: Civil Society and the Future of the Corporation. By Michael Novak. Rowman & Littlefield. 177 pp. $12.95 paper.
The most welcome paperback edition of a book that has been widely and justly lauded for its moral evaluation of the contemporary corporation. Max Stackhouse of Princeton Theological Seminary says it "is sure to delight every advocate of the chief organizational instrument of today’s global economy, and sure to enrage every lingering socialist." It will also challenge and inform those who are uncritically enthusiastic about the corporation.
Torture and Eucharist. By William T. Cavanaugh. Blackwell. 286 pp. $64.95 cloth, $26.95 paper.
The author, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, offers an elegantly written reflection on Church, Eucharist, and politics within the context of the Pinochet regime following the overthrow of Allende in Chile. Those who, while acknowledging the brutalities involved, credit Pinochet with restoring freedom and prosperity will have a hard time overcoming Cavanaugh’s opposing politics, but for the theologically minded it is well worth the effort. The antithesis between state and Church, and between Eucharist and the "anti–liturgy" of torture is sometimes metaphorically overdrawn, but Torture and Eucharist is an imaginative exercise of sacramental realism tested in a moment of moral and political crisis.
Forgiving and Not Forgiving. By Jeanne Safer. Avon. 210 pp. $23.
A psychotherapist takes on a perennially important set of questions, engaging also religious teaching with respect to forgiveness. While the book is eminently readable and in many ways suggestive, Dr. Safer’s understanding of forgiveness in psychological terms fails to appreciate a biblical view of forgiveness premised upon God’s initiative and our response of willing good for those who have offended, quite apart from whether we feel good about them.
An Exorcist Tells His Story. By Gabriele Amorth. Ignatius. 203 pp. $14.95 paper.
The author is the chief exorcist of Rome and the book has reportedly caused quite a sensation in Europe. It is not untouched by an element of sensationalism and some questionable theology regarding the interaction of the natural and supernatural. In what is surely one of the most cautious recommendations of a book, Father Benedict Groeschel, who is also a psychologist, writes in the foreword for the American edition, "This book needs to be read with care but with an open mind."
Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought. Edited by Luigi Gambero. Ignatius. 438 pp. $18.95 paper.
A splendid collection of judiciously chosen texts from the apostolic age to the eighth century on the role of Mary in the economy of salvation. Also among Protestants today, there is something of a revival of interest in the church fathers, and this book powerfully underscores that taking them seriously requires taking seriously what they thought about Mary. These texts illustrate the ways in which orthodox Mariology is derived from and required by orthodox Christology. Highly recommended.
Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions. By Craig L. Blom berg. Eerdmans. 288 pp. $20 paper.
A professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary begins by reporting that he has suffered some physical disabilities in his life and therefore knows a little about being powerless. "Nevertheless, it is important for me at the outset of this book to admit frankly that I am not poor economically and that I realize this does limit my ability to understand the topic of this book to a certain extent." His problem, apparently, is that he has not sold all he has and given it to the poor. The author’s unseemly sense of guilt, combined with his apparent unfamiliarity with both modern economic theory and practice and a large Christian literature pertinent to his topic, limits his ability more than he realizes. It is a shame, for the subject is of permanent importance.