Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Century Turns: New Hopes, New Fears

By William J. Bennett, 319 pages,

Conservative writer Bennett covers with a journalistic eye the cultural shift that occurred in America between the end of the Reagan era and the present day. He centers this analysis on the bruising politics of D.C., spending much time looking at the presidential campaigns and what the issues of the day really meant from a larger cultural perspective.

In the past two decades, the record shows, American pop culture (though not necessarily Americans themselves) has become less Christian and more anti-family. Post-modern, in other words.

The rise of China, the fall of the Wall and Soviet Communism, the use of “values” by politicians, violence-oriented entertainment, and a preoccupation with all sorts of reform are detailed, from a staunchly pro-Republican viewpoint.

Bennett covers the personalities and styles of President Clinton and Presidents Bush Father and Son quite well, emphasizing Clinton's political skills and the second Bush's Christian beliefs, and his ability to articulate those beliefs in a way that touched many Americans.

Behind Bennett the journalist is a more philosophical thinker, and through this perspective he shows some of the longer-term changes that occurred, as with the following words from Ted Koppel, which he cites in A Century Turns:

“What we have done in America today is to turn ethics into a commodity. Virtue may still be its own reward, but we lose touch with its meaning when we allow it to be defined by the standards of the market-place or the political arena. The equation really couldn't be much simpler: When people, in large numbers, consistently reward bad behavior, then, inevitably, we perpetuate that sort of behavior.”

Despite these words and the many instances of cultural degradation, Bennett also highlights the good, such as the importance of electing the first black president. The author emphasizes that he remains an optimist.

5 Cities that Ruled the World

By Douglas Wilson, 236 pages,, $14.99.

“Jerusalem has bequeathed to us a legacy of the spirit; Athens, reason and the mind, Rome, law; London, literature; and New York, industry and commerce,” Douglas Wilson notes in 5 Cities that Ruled the World. He roots through the biblical and classical sources to locate the genius in the three ancient cities he includes, and looks to early English literature and contemporary culture for his sketches on London and New York.

Wilson takes an ambiguous view of cities, noting that they are centres of depravity yet places of excellence, including spiritual excellence. He chooses to focus on this goodness, looking at how each has played a unique, central role in constructing the great, dynamic core of Western civilization.

Unlike countless other scholars, Wilson offers no apologies for the direction of Western civilization, though he is no triumphalist either. Through the various, complementary qualities that these five cities have offered, he sees balance and maturity in our culture. This makes the book a refreshing read.

5 Cities that Ruled the World is also refreshing because Wilson avoids another great sin of modern academics – microscopically examining the evidence for his discussion. This method usually serves to deconstruct and fragment the subject at hand, forcing readers to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Wilson relishes and respects Western civilization in its great wholeness, and conveys that attitude to the reader.

Rather than fragmenting and inviting scepticism, Wilson sees richness and depth. Each strand in the tradition of freedom and excellence given by one of the five cities has helped Western culture to develop in a better, more enlightened direction. Each as an individual strand had many shortcomings. Athens was not really a democracy, at least not in the modern sense. Though known for its legal genius, Rome was much too harsh in the law's application.

Athens and Rome needed a greater sense of the human dignity that Jerusalem's spiritual conception of life and humans envisioned. Central to the story of Western civilization is its Christian core. Wilson turns to the Bible to show the unique spiritual insights of Jerusalem and the Israelite-Jewish people.

Jerusalem has rarely had military or economic power. Its spiritual pull, first on the Jewish and then later Christian and Muslim populations, has been unparalleled, exemplified by the Jewish hope, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Throughout the book, Wilson intertwines theology with the cities, showing how history itself possesses religious meaning. Jerusalem plays an obvious role in this divine history, as he notes: “According to Christians, the sacrificial system of the Jews was fulfilled and superseded by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. And if the sacrifices were superseded, what need was there for a temple?... That is why, from the earliest years, the Christians had begun to think in terms of a spiritual Jerusalem, a heavenly Jerusalem.”

As with the other cities, Wilson spends time bringing readers up to date on its entire history, including the more recent Zionist movement and the power of Jerusalem to pull both Muslims and Jews toward her, bringing about conflict.

5 Cities that Ruled the World examines the other cities through a Christian lens as well. Each has played its vital part in Christian history, and Athens is almost as foundational as Jerusalem because of its contribution to the Greek orientation of the New Testament and the apostolic age.

Yet the Greek view, centred in Athens, took Christianity in a different direction from the incipient religion's Jewish moorings: “[W]hen Paul came to Athens, he was preaching in a city with a long tradition of reliance on reason. Paul confronted the philosophers there, but he did not do so by insisting that the Athenians drop their entire heritage – he knew their history well enough to appeal to it in support of his case.”

Athens entered the flow of history before Christianity did, and its contribution to the religion, Wilson shows, was vital to its growth and to Europe's eventual Christianization. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the entire Greek philosophical system aided Christianity. Its preoccupations became Christianity's preoccupations, and an inexhaustible dynamic sprang up between theology and philosophy, something Wilson hints at but unfortunately doesn't develop fully.

Wilson treats Rome and London in the same way, showing for instance how the literature of England was inspired by Christianity. Interestingly, he argues that we have long misunderstood the Puritans. They were not the party-poopers of lore, but were dynamic, restless scholars and adventurers, “swashbuckling” Calvinists who drank, passionately, studied the classics, and enjoyed marital relations. Their genius was also in literature, including writers such as William Tyndale, John Bunyan, and John Milton.

The discussion of New York, as steeped in historical detail and myth as with the other cities, is inadequate. A big fan of American-style economics, Wilson fails to acknowledge capitalism's role in damaging both the environment and human ecology. As capitalism has spread from England and New York outwards, it has forced change and industrial landscapes upon countries from South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Panama, and Mexico, whether those populations wanted it or not.

Nonetheless, with 5 Cities that Ruled the World, Wilson gives readers something to cheer about. As John Paul II and Benedict XVI have stated, history has meaning beyond either material progress or post-modern hopelessness. A theological view of history can be faithful to the historical record because it gives readers a sense of movement towards the truth.

This movement is irresistible for humans and human culture, because people hunger for God and the truth in every historical era, something that the historical experience of these five cities reflects.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Women of Opus Dei: In their own Words

By M.T. Oates and others, editors, 222 pages, $24.95,

"These women embrace their femininity rather than suppress it. They delight in nature's gifts of beauty and grace. And they love to laugh.... Yet the observant witness is equally struck by an air of dignified reserve that speaks to a defining core of moral autonomy and self-respect," writes Barbara Kay, one of the many female authors of this book in the preface.

The unique, powerful personalities of each woman comes out in this book, as each offers a different perspective on why the organization has had such a deep, positive impact on her life. Women of Opus Dei emphasizes the dignity of women and their special, feminine role. The book challenges common secular misconceptions of the Catholic and Opus Dei understanding on female roles by showing a variety of functions.

Doctors, writers, managers, business execs, stay-at-home mums: these women contribute to society and their family in many ways, and Opus Dei provides the focus. Because "the Work" continues the Benedictine and early Christian tradition that emphasizes the holiness of work, including everyday, menial tasks, these women carry out their professional and home lives with extra energy and meaning.

These writings testify to the task of Opus Dei of reflecting the Catholic holistic view of the world. Catholics cannot live their religion only on Sunday, but must carry their beliefs and spiritual practices into the world, something that reflects "the profoundly secular nature of Opus Dei."

Rather than a religious order, the pontifical prelature is mostly comprised of lay people, married or single. One woman writes: "The calling to Opus Dei means for a person to be a member of society, to find and love God where one lives and works." Repeatedly, these women writers emphasize how supported they feel by their fellow members in fulfilling their calling in the world.

One woman, a scientist having a hard time in the ultra-competitive world of academic science, made it through her doctoral studies and early academic career because of the prayers and support of Opus Dei spiritual directors and members. Rather than forcing or brainwashing women into becoming stay-at-home mums, female members are encouraged to think of their career goals as vocation. They are also taught to bring their unique, feminine perspectives into their workplace.

Opus Dei, these women write, teaches and lives the dignity and equality of humans, including of women. This has given them the freedom and the confidence to make career and life decisions boldly and with the support of their community. Equally important, the strong emphasis on a relationship with God, which needs to be carried out into the world, has allowed them to be faithful to the Church and to Christ even while pursuing careers in the secular world. Rather than regarding the world as enemy territory, they see it as fertile ground for their religious mission, the evangelization of the world for Christ.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Transforming or Reforming Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Community Economic Development

Edited by John Loxley, 160 pages, Fernwood Publishing.

Loxley and his fellow writers disparage capitalism as too individualistic and hierarchical, and seek ways of rebuilding the communities that capitalism has ravaged. At times, the judgment is rather harsh: "In an alienated society [such as the one created by capitalism], individual needs are limitless, the possession of things becoming an end in itself."

Transforming or Reforming Capitalism looks to more than economic issues, asserting that community is about more than material goods.

Community economic development focuses on empowering people, rather than on getting people rich. The book offers clear ideas rather than fuzzy theory, calling for community building through using local economic goods and services; "neighborhood stability"; environmentally sustainable economic development; skill development in local people; and the reinvestment of profits in local communities.

Because the capitalist marketplace can be quite aggressive towards communities and families, community economic development cannot afford to be neutral. It must take stands on the relevant issues, as in covering gaps in community development left by capitalism.

Transforming or Reforming Capitalism's strong condemnation of capitalism would be reasonable if the writers also condemned extreme feminism and some forms of liberalism for their roles in the break-up of the family and society. The radical left is as guilty as aggressive capitalism in breaking up society, and until the left writes with more critical self-awareness, books such as these end up limiting the good they can do.

Justice in the Balance: Learning from the Prophets

By John L. McLaughlin, 216 pages.

McLaughlin examines select statements from the Old Testament prophets, reminding the reader that these teachings have meaning for us today since God demands the same justice throughout history.

Justice in the Balance starts with the basics. The prophets based their messages on God's covenant with Israel, a relationship that began with God bringing the slaves of Israel out of Egypt. Because God was not a typical God of hierarchy, as many other divinities of the time were, Yahweh was concerned with the poor and the needy. Because God called the Chosen People out of slavery, the covenant was based on an egalitarian society.

The prophets constantly called Israel back to this justice, because without such a society, the Israelites as a people or as individuals could never have a real relationship with God. Before rituals or prayer to God, they had to make things right between themselves and their neighbours, something, McLaughlin notes, we need to do today: "The challenge for us is to translate ideas like the Sabbath Year into our modern situation."

Since each short chapter focuses on a catchphrase of a given prophetic writing, readers can get to know certain prophets quite well for such a short book. Micah lived in a small village, and judged the people of Jerusalem as oppressing the rural folk, something of which the city people were unaware.

Hosea was the first in the Judeo-Christian tradition to use marriage as a metaphor for our relationship with God. He accused Israel of being unfaithful to God, since the people of the North were worshiping the fertility god Baal rather than the true God. Christianity later borrowed this idea of marriage, calling the Church the Bride of Christ.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Pocket Guide to St. Paul

By Scott Hahn, small 94 pages, Our Sunday Visitor.

Well-known Catholic Biblical scholar and speaker Scott Hahn has written a brief yet interesting introduction to St. Paul. It reads like a history saga, as Hahn traces Paul in his early life and his pre-conversion persecution of Christians, as well as the saint's Christian life and evangelization. Closely following the Bible, including Acts of the Apostles, Hahn also outlines the theological importance of this work.

"He was not merely a thinker. He was a pastor as well, and a missionary," Hahn notes, emphasizing the centrality of Paul's theological thought not only for Christianity but for world history in general. Pauline thought was central for a who's who of Western civilization, including St. Augustine in the fifth century and Martin Luther in the sixteenth.

Hahn sketches out the basics of Paul's theology letter-by-letter, noting that the apostle and his theology changed and matured through the decades and circumstances: XXSt. Paul's letters, after all, served many different purposes, for many different churches, set in many different cultures and experiencing vastly different needs.... His range is remarkable.XX

Hahn addresses some anti-Catholic teachings about Paul, such as regarding the hierarchy and nature of the Church, writing that Paul assumed in some writings an ecclesiastical hierarchy and "a well-developed orthodoxy in doctrinal matters."

Hahn ends with a selection of quotes from the apostle and prayers of intercession.

To Whom Shall We Go? Lessons from the Apostle Peter

By Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, Our Sunday Visitor.

Archbishop Dolan focuses on the spiritual rather than biblical or theological insights of the life and sayings of the Apostle. Peter is so human, and we can readily relate to his failings. He had the greatest faith and the greatest theological insights, yet was sometimes too weak or failed to understand the full meaning of his own words.

His great faith prompted him to be the first to proclaim who Jesus really was, yet his doubt incurred the Savior's wrath a moment later by trying to talk Jesus out of the Cross. His great faith prompted him to try to walk on water to meet Jesus, yet his doubt led him to start to sink into the water.

As the author notes, Peter had trouble whenever he was distracted from the work of the Lord. Jesus was Peter's anchor, Archbishop Dolan notes: "Peter was self-possessed as long as he kept his eyes on Christ."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages

By Chris Wickham, Penguin, £25.

Though The Inheritance of Rome does not specifically focus on Christianity and the Latin Church, it does show how the religion and its institutions fit into the ancient world's military, social and political transformation as the empire broke up into Latin Christendom, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Arab-Muslim world.

The Latin Church was the only western institution that remained more or less intact after the turbulent fifth century saw the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

This ending led to "economic simplification" and a fluid, even multicultural society where the Germanic peoples lived with the older Latin cultures. Perhaps one of the greatest changes was the aristocracy, which ceased to be a highly cultured class with villas and independent wealth. A militarised, largely Germanic land-holding nobility replaced the old Roman senatorial families.

Wickham shows how this social transformation affected the Church: the episcopacy by these centuries (500-1000) was almost exclusively from the aristocratic (that is to say, warrior) class. Bishops themselves warred if need be, and as able medieval administrators would take from the peasantry what they decided was theirs, regardless of Gospel teaching on serving the poor.

The Inheritance of Rome is most interesting in its discussion on Charlemagne and the wider Carolingian reformation of Church, society, and education. This dynasty, beginning with Charles Martel (717-41) and then the first duly crowned Carolingian king (in 751), Pippin, fused the institutional Church with the political administration. The episcopacy was appointed not by the pope but by the emperor or his officials. As literate, educated men, bishops helped administer the empire. In turn, Pippin did the Church a favour by introducing compulsory tithes, "which dramatically increased the wealth of the episcopal hierarchy everywhere in Francia", Wickham notes.

The author paints a realistic picture of the endemic violence of the era. Charlemagne wanted to take over Saxony, and steal the land from the peasantry to build a faithful aristocracy. This went along with one of the few instances of forced Christianisation in the period. Not surprisingly, the Saxons fiercely resisted both the political and religious takeover, but eventually lost.

Such violence notwithstanding, Charlemagne and his dynasty aimed to give moral, religious foundations to the empire with the help of the Church and Old Testament imagery.

This was truly revolutionary, as this moral undertone to society lasted for centuries. Education and morals went together for Charlemagne, so he encouraged a literary culture, which became the Carolingian Renaissance, led by Alcuin, Einhard and Paul the Deacon.

The ambitious, sweeping history contained in The Inheritance of Rome makes the reading sometimes less than fluid, as we jump around between England, Francia, the East and the Arabs.

Religiously inclined readers do get a sense of just how central Christianity and Islam were to the politics and society of the time. The Byzantine emperor, even with a succession of coups, fulfilled a religious duty as imperial leader and quasi-priest. Like his western peers he didn't hesitate to involve himself in theological disputes.

The religious re-ordering of society under the Arab-Muslim conquerors of North Africa, Spain and the Near East as far as the old Persian empire did not go as according to western propaganda.

Arabs did not force conversions by the sword. Except for a religious tax, life went on more or less as it did before the Muslim conquest, not least of all because in the earliest decades embracing the new religion necessitated adoption into an Arab tribe. Conversion was also discouraged because the local Arab military garrisons depended on the higher taxes levied on non-Muslims.

Wickham shows how society did alter: peasants converted to escape the tax, and merchants adopted Islam so that they could more easily deal with the Muslim governments.

Other changes did eventually occur, though they took more than a few decades: "Cities changed in structure. Their Roman monumental centres tended to fall out of use, as the Arabs had a different ceremonial style, with fewer religious or political processions and a focus on the enclosed public space of mosque courtyards."

The Great Mosque of Damascus, constructed between 705 and 716 by the Caliph al-Walid, was intended to show the local Greek-speaking Christian majority who the new city powers were. Yet conversion to Islam only became widespread in the ninth century. This gradual diminishment of Christianity in Muslim-controlled lands should not surprise the reader.

In the former Roman Empire, Christianity could not sustain itself without support from the top, Wickham clearly shows. In the West, the very health of the faith depended on political leadership. Monastic reform in western Europe in the 10th century, centred on Cluny, "was very heavily dependent on royal authority, and enhanced that authority in its turn".

Monasteries throughout this whole period in the West were family affairs, as important to aristocratic power as a castle was. It lent the family a moral status, and allowed it to control the land even after it had been granted to the monastery. The family bought spiritual capital - the prayer of the monks - for perpetuity in exchange.

As in the East, part of the mystique of the nobility was its Christian faith. The peasants, with their poorly educated priests (if the village had one at all) were an afterthought. Christianity and Islam were both highly political religions in this era, as indispensable to good royal government as the land and taxation were.