Books in Review
Copyright (c) 2005 First Things 150 (February 2005): 52-57.
Political Visions & Illusions:
A Survey and ChristianCritique of Contemporary Ideologies.
By David T. Koyzis. InterVarsity. 281 pp. $18 paper.
Koyzis’ book sounds two basic themes—that “ideologies” are necessarily idolatrous and that “Christian democracy” offers a nonidolatrous political “vision.” Ideology “flows out of the (idolatrous) religious commitment of a person or community,” says Koyzis, and he discusses the ostensibly idolatrous religious commitments inherent in five ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism. This part of the book ultimately does not persuade. These ideologies are not unified systems of thought, and given alternative, even mutually exclusive, ways of construing these “ideologies,” Koyzis chooses the one most convenient for his argument. A person can, no doubt, make an idol out of an ideology, but the mere possibility does not establish, as Koyzis seems to think, that Christian liberals, Christian conservatives, etc., have committed themselves to an essentially idolatrous project. The “Christian” adjective is not without its own power. Consider, for example, Koyzis’ treatment of liberalism. In it, he lumps together the several philosophies that have fallen under that label. The idolatrous “soteriology of freedom” that he identifies in the works of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard is therefore, for Koyzis, an essential component of liberalism itself. Thus he finds Christian liberals such as Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus to be, at best, inconsistent liberals in that they refuse to embrace the “fundamentally secular worldview” inherent in their ideology. (Koyzis adds that “we can be grateful to God” for the logical inconsistencies of Novak’s and Neuhaus’ liberalism, “since it testifies to His common grace.”) After all this, the reader is surprised to find that Koyzis’ own argument for Christian democracy has so little Christ in it. Drawing on Dutch thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, Koyzis runs his politics through the “cultural mandate” commanded at the creation (Genesis 1:28). Quoting Albert Wolters, Koyzis affirms that “redemption is nothing less than ‘creation regained,’” and dismisses the idea that political ethics should be understood Christologically. That the structure of creation points to and typifies redemption (and therefore is understood only as transformed in Christ) seems to play no distinctive role in how he understands the “cultural mandate.” Finally, Koyzis refuses on principle to sketch the policy implications of Christian democracy (aside from school choice). It is problematic to promote a “Christian democratic movement” without identifying how its policies would look compared to the idolatrous policies of the ideologies it proposes to replace.
—James R. Rogers
The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.
By Luke Timothy Johnson.
Image. 324 pp. $12.95 paper.
Many contemporary religionists, Christians among them, fail to see the relevance of a written and spoken creed to their faith and life. The theological tendencies of such people run the gamut, from the likes of retired Episcopal Bishop John Spong, who rejects Christian orthodoxy root and branch, to certain types of conservative Protestants, who claim “no creed but the Bible.” Creeds are often seen as superfluous and confining, or as relics of a bygone age when religion was frequently shoved down unwilling throats. Luke Timothy Johnson begs to differ with such ideas. A lay Catholic theologian, Johnson offers an exegesis of the Nicene Creed (or more precisely, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed), phrase by phrase, demonstrating its intellectual depth and its potential to be a life-giving, freedom-enhancing mechanism in the contemporary Church. The implications of the Creed for Christians in the postmodern era are staggering. In reciting it they affirm a life of community in a world marked by extreme individualism. Says Johnson: “In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. . . . In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.” Johnson sees the Nicene Creed as a definition of what it means to be a Christian. It is a rule of faith, setting boundaries without erecting unnecessary barriers. A healthy appropriation of the Creed, Johnson believes, will help avoid the extremes of both modernism and sectarian fundamentalism. This is a thoughtful contribution to the literature of Christian apologetics.
The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions.
By Hans-Josef Klauck.
Translated by Brian McNeil.
Fortress. 516 pp. $30 paper.
It is perhaps self-evident that a knowledge of the religious complexion of the Mediterranean world in the early centuries of the Roman Empire is essential for understanding the early history of Christianity. Yet the sources are so disparate and the forms of religion so varied that most students have difficulty knowing what to study and where to find what needs to be known. In a single dense volume this fine survey offers an account of the whole by close consideration of the various parts: sacrifices, religious associations, domestic religion, the cult of the dead, mystery religions, magic, the cult of the rulers, and philosophical religion (e.g., Stoicism), with a concluding chapter on Gnosticism. Klauck, professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago, has ideas about what to make of all this, but the value of the book is to be found in his brief summaries of the various topics, the judicious citation of primary sources, and the up-to-date bibliographies.
—Robert Louis Wilken
The Cambridge Companionto Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Edited by Edward T. Oakesand David Moss.
Cambridge University Press.
284 pp. $25.99 paper.
You could spend a lifetime, or so it seems, reading Hans Urs von Balthasar. At least three or four years would be given just to reading through the long shelf of books, and then comes the rereading and pondering without end. I suppose that Father Edward T. Oakes has read Balthasar as closely as anyone alive. His book The Pattern of Redemption is the best introduction to the great man’s thought. Now Oakes has joined up with David Moss of Exeter University in editing The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, which contains seventeen essays by mostly notable theologians, plus editorial commentary. Balthasar, who died at age eighty-three in 1988, is among Catholics probably the most discussed theologian today. But Protestant and Orthodox thinkers have also been brought under his spell, as witness The Beauty of the Infinite by Orthodox theologian David B. Hart, a tour de force justly acclaimed as one of the most suggestive theological contributions of recent years (see the FT review, March 2004). In the afterword to the Cambridge Companion, Oakes allows himself to speculate on “the future of Balthasarian theology.” He notes that Balthasar set himself against the mainstream of modern thought from Descartes to Kant to Hegel with its “epistemological obsession” and “turn to the subject”—a belief that truth can only be found, and indeed is founded, in the subject. But Oakes may underestimate the extent to which Balthasar anticipated much of postmodernism, especially in its continental and French modes, both incorporating and trumping its insights with a Christian understanding of reality and how it can be known. This is an argument very effectively made by David Hart. For the interested but uninitiated, the place to enter the conversation is Oakes’ The Pattern of Redemption, followed by a substantial investment of time in the Balthasar writings highlighted by Oakes, then the Cambridge Companion to see what others make of it all, leading into Hart’s The Beauty to get an idea of what might be “the future of Balthasarian theology.”
Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life.
By Lawrence S. Cunningham.
Eerdmans. 160 pp. $14 paper.
An engaging and informative contribution to the vast literature on the man commonly described as, next to the Virgin Mother, the most popular of saints. Among the merits of this little book is Cunningham’s guide to that literature and his description of the frequently conflicting reasons through history for the celebration of Francis. His own conclusion is that Francis “was simply a little Umbrian touched by the mysterious power of grace who had a revolutionary idea: to live the life of the Christ of the Gospels as closely and as literally as he could. In that sense, Francis was a radical fundamentalist.” In sum, Francis “performed the gospel.” An appendix indicates that the much loved “Prayer of Saint Francis” (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace / Where there is hatred, let me sow love. . . .) was written in the early twentieth century and, by a circuitous route, ended up being attributed to the saint. Pulpit and Politics.
Edited by Corwin Smidt.
Baylor University Press.
352 pp. $34.95 paper.
A survey of clergy dispositions on matters theological, social, and political, drawing on data over a twelve-year period. The chapter on Catholic priests is based on so small a sampling as to be of slight use. The overall finding, however, is that Protestant clergy, both evangelical and oldline, are notably less overtly political and somewhat more theologically orthodox than was the case in 1989. At the same time, partisan divides are more deeply entrenched.
State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century.
By Francis Fukuyama.
Cornell University Press.
160 pp. $21.
Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University, best known for The End of Historyand the Last Man, brings his considerable talents to bear on the question of nation-building. Failing and failed states become the playthings of terrorists, gangsters, and bloody tyrants. There is no real-world alternative to sovereign states in maintaining a modicum of decency and order. Therefore, those with the power to do so, mainly the U.S., have to become more adept at building and rebuilding states. This, Fukuyama insists, is neither imperialism nor altruism, but a condition for a livable world in the decades ahead. The argument is crisp and frequently persuasive, although it needs a great deal of fleshing out, and its reception will depend in large part on what happens in Afghanistan and Iraq in the next few years. Dream Catchers.
By Philip Jenkins.
Oxford University Press.
306 pp. $28.
The subtitle is “How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality.” The author of The Next Christendom and numerous other books on religion and culture does a superb job of demonstrating how Native American spiritualities have been both invented and exploited by promoters of “New Age” religion. At the same time, he contends that some Native Americans have benefited from that misrepresentation. Their claims to sovereign rights have been enhanced, and they enjoy a respect unprecedented in American history. This is history and cultural analysis of a high order.
The Cost of “Choice”: Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion.
Edited by Erika Bachiochi.
180 pp. $17.95 paper.
These are essays by “imminent women,” says the back-cover blurb. It is a suggestive phrase. Some of the writers are undoubtedly eminent, such as Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory. From various perspectives—medical, psychological, legal, and autobiographical—the twelve essays explain why the unlimited abortion license and the feminist ideology supporting the license have turned out to be very bad for women, and most especially for women in disadvantaged circumstances. The book should help hasten the day when both children and women are more fully protected from a deadly choice—a day that one trusts is coming, if not imminent.
The Jewish Century.
By Yuri Slezkine.
Princeton University Press.
436 pp. $29.95.
“Jealousy of the Jews may remain both a fact of life and an ineradicable Jewish expectation,” writes this professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. Jews are the “Mercurians,” fabulously successful entrepreneurial hustlers, who serve the establishment “Apollonians,” whom, along the way, they turn into Jews. To be modern is to be Jewish, but to be a Jewish modern is best of all. The book is crammed with statistics on how Jews, less than three percent of the American population, are disproportionately successful, especially in the university, media, and entertainment elites. “In the competitive world of American ethnic communities, there are two paths to success: upward mobility defined according to wealth, education, and political power, and downward mobility measured by degrees of victimhood.” By upward or downward measures, Jews got everyone else beat by a mile. Their power and affluence are obvious, while their claim to victimhood is acknowledged as “a common sign of virtue.” This book will be relished by anti-Semites and by Jews who need to be reassured that it is really, really great to be a Jew in America.
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