Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 61-67.
Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium. By Donald E. Miller. University of California Press. 253 pp. $27.50.
Writing in the Christian Century in 1955, Henry P. Van Dusen, President of Union Seminary in New York, claimed that a "new reformation" was changing the face of the Christian church. He declared that the Pentecostal churches growing so phenomenally in the Caribbean and elsewhere signaled "a new, third major type and branch of Christendom" that would stand alongside Roman Catholicism and historic Protestantism as a witness to Jesus Christ. Van Dusen challenged the Protestant establishment to come to terms with the Pentacostals and to learn from them as well. What Van Dusen discerned forty years ago is even more apparent today. While Christianity continues to thrive in America, it is the churches of the Third Force, not mainline Protestantism, that have been the primary beneficiary. Mainline leaders have been slow to grasp the significance of this trend for the future of Protestantism. They need to play catch–up, and a good place for them to begin is with this book. Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, has produced a sociological study of three successful non–mainline church movements: Calvary Chapel, Hope Chapel, and the Vineyard. Together these three movements, founded in the late sixties and early seventies, have spawned nearly 1,400 congregations in the United States and abroad. These churches are non–hierarchical and non–liturgical; biblicistic rather than doctrinal; experiential and emotional rather than intellectual. Furthermore, unlike previous sectarian movements which tended to define themselves against the dominant culture, these churches tend toward cultural accommodation. This is not entirely surprising: The majority of their members are baby boomers born after 1945. Miller found that Calvary, Hope, and the Vineyard affirm all the quintessential baby–boomer values, individualism and a therapeutic sense foremost among them. But he also discovered that they are "hostile to the narcissism they see in contemporary therapeutic values." Accommodation thus has its limits. Counseling tends to be "direct" and even "confrontational." There is "an enormous emphasis on personal accountability" and obedience to biblical injunctions. In this regard, Calvary, Hope, and the Vineyard temper their individualism with a strong counter–emphasis on community, lifting up the local congregation as a protection from the anonymity and isolation of secular culture. Miller himself is deeply attracted to this piety and ecclesiology. He concludes that "the style of Christianity dominated by eighteenth–century hymns, routinized liturgy, and bureaucratized layers of social organization is gradually dying." He also believes that Calvary, Hope, and the Vineyard point the way to the future as "new paradigm churches" for American society. John Henry Newman once observed that the essence of Protestantism is the search for a "fabulous, primitive simplicity." Whether this search represents strength or weakness is a matter of debate. What is true, in my view, is that the future of Protestantism belongs to those Protestants who search for that earlier simplicity and believe in their hearts that they can find it.
The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Volume 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity. Edited by John J. Collins. 498 pp. Volume 2: Apocalypticism in Western History and Culture. Edited by Bernard McGinn. 524 pp. Volume 3: Apocalypticism in the Modern Period and the Contemporary Age. Edited by Stephen J. Stein. 498 pp. Continuum. $95 each; $285 the set.
In 1790 the noted English chemist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley wrote a pamphlet to counter Edmund Burke’s recent work bitterly attacking the evils of the French Revolution. On the contrary, Priestley held, the American and French Revolutions were a fulfillment of biblical prophecy: the beheading of the French king was predicted in Revelation 11, and creation is fast approaching the promised millennium. Such an opinion might seem surprising coming from the discoverer of oxygen (and one of the founding lights of Unitarianism as well); but the juxtaposition highlights one of the many delights to be found in this vast compendium of apocalyptic and millennial thinking across Western religions from the dawn of civilization until now. Each of the three volumes begins with an epigraph from Hans Urs von Balthasar, and a careful reading of the whole highlights his distinction between primary and secondary time. Primary time is the time allotted to each individual, while secondary time is merely a retrojected and projected time before and after one’s (real) time on earth. This ontological disjunction makes apocalyptic thinking an anthropological constant: time is always coming to an end for each individual, after which the world will be no more. Apocalyptic thinking funnels secondary time, as it were, into the crucible of each person’s "crisis of finitude." But since time does in fact go on, outsiders can easily mock the pathos behind the imagery, although they too will usually have their own closet millennialism, as this fascinating encyclopedia demonstrates. The essays in this reference work are of uniformly high quality—especially Thomas J. J. Altizer’s fine essay on D. G. Leahy, an American who might have been the Catholic Church’s most apocalyptic thinker since Boethius. Best of all, the purpose of each essay is not to mock, but to understand.
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
The Lure of the Millennium: The Year 2000 and Beyond. By Raymond Bulman. Orbis. 238 pp. $18 paper.
This fascinating survey of millennialism by Raymond Bulman, a professor of theology at St. John’s University, explains why millennial expectation does not end with the year 2000 and may just be warming up. Bulman gives respectful attention to Joachim de Fiore’s vision of a harmonious "Age of the Holy Spirit" and takes a critical, though sympathetic, look at modern dispensationalism. He is greatly impressed by Jürgen Moltmann’s "theology of hope," which, among other things, seeks to outline a future for Judeo–Christian relations in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Bulman’s favored approach to the millennium, however, is that of Paul Tillich. "Christian realism," according to Tillich, excludes the possibility of an absolute defeat of evil within history. Even Revelation 20 speaks of Satan being chained, not destroyed. Nevertheless, sometimes there is an "hour" in history, a kairos, when a large measure of God’s justice is established in this world. This is what millennialism should be about. The Lure of the Millennium has some provocative things to say about the future. Bulman shows that, not only are dates for the parousia already being set well into the twenty–first century, but also that there is something of a consensus among certain secular theoreticians that the world will face a great crisis between now and the year 2030. Some of Bulman’s concerns about the fate of the world may someday seem as quaint as Joachim de Fiore’s eschatological reading of the fortunes of the House of Hohenstaufen. Be that as it may, Bulman makes a good case that a theology that leaves the millennium to doomsday preachers is not doing anyone a favor.
—John J. Reilly
Means to Message: A Treatise on Truth. By Stanley L. Jaki. Eerdmans. 235 pp. $22 paper.
Despite annoyingly inadequate proofreading, this is the most satisfying book I have read in several years. Means to Message is both an indispensable philosophical primer and a work of profound, original, speculative philosophy. A physicist who is a historian and philosopher of science of international repute, Jaki writes in the neo–Thomist tradition of Chesterton (on whom he has written a fine book), Maritain, and Gilson, but for his tight but wide–ranging epistemological argument he brings to bear vast learning in the natural sciences of which these writers were unaware. In clear, idiomatic prose, deployed for both scholars and lay readers in fourteen dense but short and readable chapters, Jaki uses Aristotle’s fundamental doctrine of noncontradiction to give a classic but also contemporary defense of the inescapably metaphysical character of will, mind, cognition, reason, and especially of language itself. Means to Message also provides an excellent introduction to Jaki’s work—one of the most distinguished scholarly enterprises of the last third of the twentieth century, an oeuvre that has not yet received due recognition. This book and the life project to which it is the most recent addition are astonishingly learned, judicious, and orthodox.
—M. D. Aeschliman
One Nation, Two Cultures. By Gertrude Himmelfarb. Knopf. 175 pp. $23.
One of our leading historians, whose studies of Victorian England are acclaimed as definitive, here applies her talents to an exercise in "contemporary history." The subject is our much–discussed "culture war," which, Himmelfarb notes, is to be taken as a metaphor but a painfully appropriate metaphor. The book brings together a stunning array of past and present social commentary and data, making it an invaluable resource for putting "cultural revolution(s)" in context. The author argues that the cultural divide between "loose" and "strict" moralities has been endemic to the modern era, and she draws on sources as various as Adam Smith, The Federalist, and Daniel Bell’s "cultural contradictions of capitalism" to explain why we should not be surprised by a culture war that is but a current manifestation of the perennial "diseases of democracy." Himmelfarb is very much a lower–case democrat who believes the remedy, insofar as there are remedies, is to be found in more vibrant democracy. Her chapters include a critical appreciation of today’s enthusiasms about "civil society," with perceptive warnings about the ways in which those enthusiasms can be turned against the necessary tasks of politics, and can also be hijacked by statists who would bring society’s mediating institutions under government control. The chapter on the family ("a miniature social system") is a treasury of argument and data that will become a necessary reference for those who want to make sense of "pro–family politics." The two cultures, she proposes, are best understood in terms of an "ethics gap," and here she draws upon and reinforces the important work of sociologist James Davison Hunter, whose writings have done so much to give empirical substance to the culture war metaphor. Himmelfarb is especially strong on religion as the first of our political in stitutions (Tocqueville), and be lieves that we are currently witnessing a Great Awakening that, while it may not prevail as a counterrevolution against the elite cultural revolutions of this century, can provide a "modest reformation" that contains and tempers their excesses. The concluding note is cautiously hopeful, and is joined to a warning that the culturally conservative corrective may lose its effectiveness if its moral program is separated from its religious inspiration. Along the way, Himmelfarb discusses this journal’s position on "the judicial usurpation of politics," which she initially rejected in the strongest terms but now says is essentially correct, although "hyperbolic" in its expression. Throughout the book, and this is also reflected in her title, the author is refuting the contention of Alan Wolfe’s One Nation, After All that there is no culture war and Americans are, with few exceptions, happy liberals devoted to the religion of tolerance. She devastatingly critiques the fraudulence of Wolfe’s "research" and documents his long–standing hostility to religion, especially to its role in public life. (She does not mention that the Jesuits at Boston College have recently hired Wolfe to head up a new institute on, of all things, religion and public life.) Gertrude Himmelfarb is deeply patriotic, appreciating the genius and exceptionalism of the American experiment, and is confident that the culture war in its pres ent and future forms will be contained by "a tolerance that does not require, as is sometimes supposed, a diminution of conviction but that is entirely consistent with the strongest convictions." Missing is a recognition that only the strongest convictions—convictions that are finally religious in character—can sustain tolerance. The book also fails to examine adequately why abortion is viewed, from both sides of the cultural divide, as the defining issue in the "ethics gap." Many of the facts and arguments of One Nation, Two Cultures will be familiar to readers of this journal, but the great achievement of the book is to place them into historical and theoretical context and present them in a manner both concise and powerfully persuasive. In view of the author’s standing in the intellectual culture that she criticizes, the book should precipitate a lively and better–informed discussion of the culture war in which, like it or not, we are all embroiled.
A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation. By Thomas More. Sceptre. 318 pp. $24.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.
While awaiting his death in the Tower of London, More wrote this most unusual example of prison literature, a spiritual treatise peppered with comic stories about nagging wives and overscrupulous donkeys. The Dialogue begins with two Hungarians, the rich young Vincent and his wise uncle Anthony who is on his deathbed. Vincent is afraid of the oncoming Turkish army, and asks Anthony to give him advice to sustain him during the coming tribulations. In the ensuing conversation Anthony gives Vincent with much patience and humor what can only be described as spiritual direction, explaining the nature of suffering, the need for detachment, and the importance of outside counsel in understanding and treating one’s spiritual ills. Even after the spiritual basis of fear is removed, Vincent learns, man still needs natural and supernatural comfort to make it through life’s rough periods. This remarkable work demonstrates how More faced death with a serenity and a sense of humor that grew out of his faith in the life eternal and his conviction that suffering was God’s gift to those He loves. Before this edition one could read the Dialogue only in Old English (it is one of the ironies of publishing that Utopia, written in Latin with puns in Greek, has been more widely read than More’s last and greatest English work), but thanks to a translation by Mary Gottschalk this spiritual masterpiece is now accessible to the modern reader.
The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America. By Lee Edwards. Free Press. 394 pp. $27.50.
Edwards, a professor at Catholic University and a Senior Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, has written a spirited history of the nuts–and–bolts political machinations that dragged American politics to the right. Organized around the political careers of Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich, the story opts to explain how conservatives took over the Republican party rather than explain why. It touches only occasionally on the contributions of intellectual and religious conservatives (let alone religious intellectual conservatives), leaving out some of the most important pieces in the creation of the movement. Nonetheless, Edwards has reminded us of the political courage of the men who built conservatism into a political force that, he is convinced, is here to stay.
Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel. By Luke Timothy Johnson. HarperSanFrancisco. 210 pp. $22.
Luke Timothy Johnson’s basic response to scholarly research on the historical Jesus is embarrassment on behalf of the Church: embarrassment that Christ’s own followers would treat him as a dead figure of history who can be understood only through strictly rational methods of inquiry, barring faith and hope from having their say. To take the place of the dull emptiness of strict historical criticism, Johnson creates a vision of knowing and learning Jesus Christ, man and God alike, who is accessible both in the communal life of faith and in the Gospel texts. The final result is a living faith in a living God, informed but not suffocated by the discoveries of historical research.
The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. By Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright. HarperSanFrancisco. 288 pp. $24.
Contained herein is a fascinating conversation, carried out in essay form, between what might be called the two reasonable poles of historical research on the person of Jesus. Wright represents the pole which claims that historical accuracy about Jesus can be grasped only through the premises of faith and theology; Borg, at the other end, is convinced that historical testimony is valid only insofar as it can be cleansed of distorting confessions of post–Easter faith. It is difficult to imagine a book that lays out more carefully, calmly, and rationally the basic disputes in Jesus research today than this thorough and accessible scholarly exchange.
She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. By Misty Bernall. Plough. 160 pp. $17.
An extraordinary book by the mother of the girl who galvanized a nation with one word: "Yes." Here Misty Bernall tells her daughter’s story from her childhood to her last day at Columbine High School. She presents Cassie honestly and fully, and draws us into her own experience as a mother watching the rebellion, the transformation, the murder, and now the worldwide influence of her child. (There have been some recent inconclusive reports questioning the original accounts of the details of Cassie’s death.) Bernall lets Cassie and her friends speak for themselves as well, interspersing her narrative with photographs and quotations from letters and interviews. The power of Cassie’s last moments is undeniable (see J. Bottum, "Awakening at Littleton," August/September 1999), but this is a story about more than her final witness to her Lord. It is about the trials and the strength of a family, the difficulties of being a teenager in a nihilistic culture, the miracle of conversion, and most of all about the power of love that bears, believes, and hopes all things.
Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld. By Thomas S. Hibbs. Spence. 208 pp. $22.95.
The author is a promising young medieval philosopher at Boston College, but in the chapters of this book he comes across as a cranky conservative, more medieval than promising. The premises are fair enough: that nihilism "involves a simplification of human nature, a reduction of its complexity and range, and an abridgment of its aspirations," and that today’s movies and television shows simplify human nature. The burdens of the book are to establish that television and movies are nihilistic; they display the inherent tendency of democratic liberalism towards nihilism; they remove any possibility for classical tragedy or comedy; and they hold up "demonic antiheroes" such as Hannibal Lecter for our emulation. To cover all this in just over two hundred pages, Hibbs leans more on tortured judgments and rhetorical excesses (e.g., a chapter entitled "Seinfeld’s Dark God") than argument, in the end coming across as someone who needs to kick back and pop in a video.
The Human Couple in the Fathers. Pauline Patristics Series, Volume 1. Introduction and notes by Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, Cesare Magazzu, and Concetta Aloe Spada. Translated by Thomas Halton. St. Paul’s/Alba House. 361 pp. $24.95 paper.
A collection of often astonishingly beautiful writings on men and women, marriage, and family, culled from the works of ten great Church Fathers from Tertullian to Chrysostom. Includes a useful four–part introduction that covers all the territory: the coordinates of the man/woman relationship problem; biblical data; women and marriage in the Jewish and Greco–Roman traditions; the "image" of the couple and the tradition of enkrateia (translated as either virginity or matrimonial chastity); and an overview of the thought of each of the writers included. An informative, even inspiring, book that may be a surprise to those who imagine the Fathers as crotchety misogynists.
No Future Without Forgiveness. By Desmond Tutu. Doubleday. 291 pp. $23.95.
When Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop and Nobel laureate, was appointed chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by President Nelson Mandela, there was probably nobody who envied him the dubious honor. The present book offers his candid reflections on the commission’s successes and failures, but the title captures his essential message. In a Western culture that is, on the one hand, insouciantly "nonjudgmental" and, on the other, determined to exact the last ounce of blood from those responsible for real or alleged crimes against humanity, Tutu represents a seasoned sensibility that combines both judgment and mercy as essential components in coping with a far from satisfactory world. This book provides the rare commodity that is moral wisdom.
Religious Freedom and Evangelization in Latin America. Edited by Paul E. Sigmund. Orbis. 358 pp. $25 paper.
Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia. Edited by John Witte and Michael Bourdeaux. Orbis. 353 pp. $25 paper.
Two worthy additions to a worthy series of books under the title of "Religion and Human Rights" and presided over by John Witte of Emory University. The essays in the Sigmund volume address both the challenge of religious pluralism in Latin America and the challenge of Hispanic immigrants coping with a very different religious circumstance in the U.S. Especially noteworthy in the Witte–Bourdeaux volume is an essay by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington on the vitality of Orthodoxy in Russia and what Christianity in the West has to receive from it, notably the witness of the martyrs.
Washington and Rome: Catholicism in American Culture. By Michael Zöller. University of Notre Dame Press. 278 pp. $35 cloth, $20 paper.
The author is a sociologist who directs American studies at Bayreuth University in Germany, and he here succeeds in bringing together an enormous range of data that he joins to astute social analysis. The individualistic and essentially Protestant culture of America, he observes, would seem to be inhospitable to the inescapably hierarchical character of Catholicism in both its self–organization and its understanding of the Christian life. Yet after two hundred years of great achievements and some grave missteps, he thinks it not unreasonable that many people are braced for something like a "Catholic moment" in American life. Zöller is especially strong in his discussion of the period since the Second Vatican Council, which some thought called for revolution in both Church and society. The resulting conflicts and confusions led to disarray and demoralization among Catholic Americans, but Zöller backs up with convincing data his hunch that there is now a renewed vitality in a more "centered" Catholicism. For general readers, academics, and journalists in search of a fair and informative evaluation of the past and current state of American Catholicism from a sociological perspective, there is no better recent book than Washington and Rome.
Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team. By Mark S. Massa. Crossroad. $24.95.
The story of how Catholics have "made it" in America is endlessly fascinating, and pieces of the story are very nicely told by the author, a Jesuit at Fordham University who describes himself as a "historical theologian." The present book, it must be said, is much more history and sociology than theology, and it arrives at the conclusion that Andrew Greeley’s model of ethnic tribes is probably the best way of thinking about Catholicism in America, past, present, and future. Throughout the author utilizes Reinhold Niebuhr’s theme of historical irony, frequently to good effect, as in his observation that Dorothy Day and her following represent a Catholic cooptation of a very Protestant form of protest associated with the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. Regrettably, the narrative ends with 1966 and one cannot help but wonder what the author makes of the gap between then and his rather complaisant conclusion about contemporary Catholicism.