Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 97 (November 1999): 74-76.
The Pilgrim's Progress: a Morality in a Prologue, Four Acts and an Epilogue. Composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Performed by the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus (Richard Hickox, conductor; Gerald Finley as the Pilgrim). 2 CD set: Chandos CHAN 9625. $32.97.
No sex. Little violence. And the soprano doesn't die. Ralph Vaughan Williams didn't think that the critics would like his opera very much. And he was right. Their reviews of the 1951 premiere of The Pilgrim's Progress at London's Covent Garden were at best cool. And although a second production three years later in Cambridge received more positive responses, the work has been poo-pooed by critics and ignored by opera companies to this day. It's a shame. Vaughan Williams thought it was his greatest work. The great British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham agreed, and in 1972 conducted a magnificent recording of the work for the Angel label (SCL-3785). That LP set has long been unavailable, but Chandos has issued a new recording under the direction of Richard Hickox that almost achieves Beecham's standards in some areas while surpassing them in others. In writing the libretto, Vaughan Williams combined both parts of Bunyan's allegory into a single story into which he incorporated biblical passages and a crowd chorus written by his wife Ursula Wood. And although the action is streamlined and several of Bunyan's characters are either omitted or conflated (for instance, Pilgrim is a conflation of Bunyan's Christian and Faithful), the composer was careful not to change the character or tone of Bunyan's work. We meet Pilgrim and Evangelist, Pilgrim's friends Pliable, Timorous, and Obstinate, the demon Apollyon, Mr. By-Ends of Fair Speech, angels and servants of light, and the various folks who inhabit Vanity Fair where Pilgrim is tried and sentenced in the court of Lord Hate-Good. For these characters Vaughan Williams invents some of his most beautiful and deeply moving music. There are artfully constructed choruses and melodies so pristine that it's hard to believe that they are not true folk songs. And throughout the work Vaughan Williams shows a genius in setting English text-certainly in that area at least the work is unsurpassed. All of this combines into a powerful piece of theater and an insightful portrayal of the religious journey. It's a must-have CD set.
- Michael Linton
Not By Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right. By Sara Diamond. Guilford. 280 pp. $23.95.
In her fourth book-the culmination of a fifteen-year study of the "Christian Right"-Sara Diamond presents the movement with many of its quirks. But despite her knee-jerk leftism, Diamond displays a surprising admiration for an electoral bloc that, in spite of setbacks-even at the hands of a Congress largely in its debt, made up of many of its own-continues to endure. The magic, she finds, lies not necessarily in the political and institutional acumen of the movement's supporters, but in their relative independence from politics. Not By Politics Alone is not without flaws. Diamond's reliance on secondary sources makes the book read, at times, like a synopsis of back issues of the Christian American, the Christian Coalition's main periodical. She never really defines what she means by the "Christian Right," and does a disservice by lumping everyone on the right side of the political spectrum who purports to believe in Christ (from evangelicals and Catholics to Christian Reconstructionists), rarely even mentioning outreach and alliances with like-minded Jews. Her disproportionate treatment of such fringe voices as Randall Terry, and even murderers like Paul Hill, is downright unfair. Still, this is a mostly accurate, almost objective (ignoring her use of the description "simple-minded" once or twice) mini-history of a group whose electoral future is yet to be determined. And about that future, she warns her progressive friends: the Christian Right promises not only to endure, but to be strengthened by the efforts of grassroots social groups like the Promise Keepers toward, in particular, "racial reconciliation" efforts. The Christian Coalition may come and go, but so long as there is "an eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil" to be fought, Christian soldiers will march onward, and will be heard.
- Kathryn Jean Lopez
Basil in Blunderland. By Basil Cardinal Hume. Paraclete. 62 pp. $12.95 paper.
A little book issuing from the late cardinal's regular discussions with children about the spiritual life. As the title indicates, for him, and for most of us, our experience of following Christ is more Blunderland than Wonderland. A winsome exercise that should engage not only the young in years.
Walking Since Daybreak. By Modris Eksteins. Houghton Mifflin. 258 pp. $27.50.
This extraordinary book, subtitled "A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century," is by the author of the justly acclaimed Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. The present work is an elegantly written narrative with a powerful point. The point is that 1945 is rightly understood as the "zero hour" (Stunde Null) of Western Civilization, the very nadir that left no nation or people with clean hands. The narrative is the author's own story of his childhood in Latvia during World War II as the Baltics were once again, as had happened so often before, caught between Russia and Germany, attacked by two unspeakably bloody powers while the West, once again, was callously indifferent. Eksteins' father was a Baptist minister in Riga who had earlier traveled in the West, and the family escaped as displaced persons to Canada, where Eksteins now teaches at the University of Toronto. The story of the escape, of the vast migrations throughout Europe following the war, and of the experience of Germans under the Allied obliteration bombing of their cities makes for gripping reading. After reading Walking Since Daybreak, one may never think about World War II, the last so-called good war, or about Western Civilization in quite the same way. Highly recommended.
The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200-1350. By Bernard McGinn. Crossroad. 526 pp. $59.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
The third volume in an ambitious five-volume project, the first two being The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century and The Growth of Mys ticism: Gregory the Great through the Twelfth Century. The "new mysticism" of the thirteenth century is closely related to the "democratizing" of adventuresome Christian piety, which is especially evident in the leadership of women, who are the chief subjects of the present book. An additional factor was the beginnings of the Franciscan and Dominican charisms, and the widespread influence of the "beguine mystics," notably in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Exhaustively documented with almost two hundred pages of notes, this volume, like its predecessors, is chary of commentary and narrative, but it reinforces the reputation of the author, who teaches at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, as the premier guide to Western mysticism.
Xanthippic Dialogues. "Edited" by Roger Scruton. St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, Indiana). 277 pp. $29.95.
Scruton, an academic philosopher and editor of the Salisbury Review, has "discovered" the long-lost dialogues of Xanthippe, wife of Socrates, in which, among other things, she explains to an embarrassingly inept Plato how he got her husband's thought, such as it was, quite totally wrong. First published in England, this wondrously learned and wickedly mischievous send-up caused a stir among the philosophically literate. Admittedly, it is a very British sort of thing, but those who have acquired the taste will not want to deny themselves the pleasure.
Between Church and State: Religion and Education in Multicultural America. By James W. Fraser. St. Martin's Press. 267 pp. $24.95 paper.
A professor of education at Northeastern University urges fellow liberals to a modest rethinking of public schools that does not leave concern for religion entirely to the enemy, meaning conservatives who believe in parental choice.
Voices from the City. By John Nunes. Concordia. 141 pp. $12.99 paper.
A vigorous reaffirmation of preaching and ministry in the urban context. Nunes is a Lutheran with a keen ear and responsive heart for the voices of the city in both their exultant and wailing modes. His lucid statement of the good news of Christ will give encouragement to others who are called to bear witness, and not only in the city.
Capital Punishment: A Reader. Edited by Glen H. Stassen. Pilgrim. 229 pp. $20.95 paper.
The tilt-all right, so it is more than a tilt-is against capital punishment. But this collection also includes some effective argumentation that capital punishment is both morally legitimate and practically necessary. The editor helpfully divides the debate over justice into the categories of justice as retribution, justice as deterrence, and justice as fairness. The book is a helpful contribution to a debate that always has a bullish future.