Saturday, March 27, 2010

Epaphras: Paul's Educator at Colossae

By Michael Trainor, 121 pages, Liturgical Press, $12.95.

Trainor gives a fascinating look at the earliest Christian communities in a part of Asia Minor called Phrygia during the life and just after the death of St. Paul. The saint had preached to these people and helped them form into Christian communities.

At this time, this society as a whole knew nothing of individualism, as people were deeply attached economically, socially, and in kinship to their household and extended family units. In order for Paul and his apparent successor Ephrasas to spread the gospel, they had to somehow fit into this social arrangement. A person's conversion to Jesus would have deep repercussions on the community, as Paul and Epaphras would have known.

Paul's letters do not indicate that he or Epaphras ever tried to change society itself. They never tried to end slavery, and didn't seem to criticize its existence. What Paul's writings show, however, is a deep concern to refashion basic social structures to reflect Christian love.

Paul and Epaphras did, therefore, have revolutionary things to say about these social structures. In Paul's Letter to Philemon, he writes on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus, a Christian like Philemon. Paul urges Philemon to accept Onesimus back into the household not in the normally brutal way, but with Christian love.

Paul accepted the hierarchical nature of his society, including the master-client system, by which a more powerful person aided a lower-ranked person in exchange for loyalty and some form of return. Epaphras: Paul's Educator at Colossae gives us insights into the basic husband-wife and other basic relationships that existed at the time. He worked to transform them by Christian love. Paul and Epaphras were not themselves going to reshape society. Christ was.

Trainor notes: “Without urging explicit social reform concerning slavery, Paul realized that a new way of being and acting has come about through Christ.” This meant that the Christian community itself, as envisioned by Paul and his followers, would reflect the revolutionary change:

“[I]n Jesus-group gatherings there is to be a kind of equality that transcends all social distinctions, though it does not remove or destroy them.”

Paul and Epaphras actually envision a new slavery, but this one to Jesus. This new relationship will affect all the other ones, such as Philemon's reaction to Onesimus' return. Paul and Epaphras also use penal and militaristic language in their preaching to show that Christians do have an underlying revolutionary spirit. This is the spiritual revolution that Jesus himself pointed to when he said that his kingdom was not of this world. Paul and Epaphras oppose not the masters and the powerful, but those with a conflicting spiritual vision:

“They are involved in a conflict with those who would thwart their divinely appointed mission to fellow Israelites ... who reject the Gospel of God. What directs this conflict can be seen in the battle of cosmic and apocalyptic proportions waged by the forces opposed to Christ's cosmic rule as Lord.”

Paul and his successors use the current social structure to bring about their spiritual mission, because the spiritual is more important than the material. Everything that is done is done through Jesus Christ. This is the true revolution of Paul and Epaphras.

The Story of the Church

By Alfred McBride, 310 pages, St. Anthony's Messenger Press.

Theologian and historian McBride links history to the present in The Story of the Church, showing that the truth of the Church and its mission has remained the same throughout the ages.

He refers to controversial house church style worship after Vatican II when discussing the major shift in the fourth century from house churches to the big government-style buildings known then as basilicas. Just as much anxiety accompanied the 4th-century shift to worship in big edifices as the 1970s attempt at worship away from big fixtures. The 313 legalization of Christianity, which led to mass conversions in the Roman Empire, occasioned this shift. McBride shows that many feared that the move would bring about the loss of communal intimacy and closeness to the Eucharist. The priests took over and the Eucharistic prayers occurred at the altar, removed from the laity. Basilica-based worship also greatly reduced the use of spontaneous prayers.

Through a mixture of fiction and historical narrative, McBride brings the reader close to the emotional, spiritual concerns of the people of the day. He has one concerned Christian say,

“Basilica worship will make the 'sacred' central. And 'sacred' will mean whatever is unworldly. There is a growing feeling that an ordained man will be expected to withdraw as much as possible from worldly concerns.” The reader gets a sense of how one event, such as the move away from church houses, brought about another change, in this case the move towards priestly celibacy.

McBride follows the normal church historian practice nowadays of sprinkling the narrative with a certain amount of gnashing of teeth about the Church's behavior over the centuries. Yet he does so with respect, as he shows the reader, for instance, why the medieval Church was so corrupt and had become such a great landholder and ruler in Italy's papal territories. After the fall of Rome, which officially happened in 476, no other power or administrator existed to take care of people and to operate the basic infrastructure of civilization in the West.

The bishops of Rome administered their city, collecting taxes and keeping Germanic chieftains away. In some cases, popes such as Gregory the Great (590-604) managed to dissuade warriors from inflicting damage on Rome or a surrounding area. The Church looked after “schools, farms, unsafe streets, food distribution and price controls.” The Greek churches to the East never had this problem, and were able to develop elaborate liturgy and theology, with the West unable to catch up until the thirteenth century. The Western Church's own great mission even up to the fourteenth century's Black Death included serving the physical needs of the people.

McBride explains interesting and theologically-important aspects of Church history, such the changes in church design. Gothic architecture, which began at St. Denis, near Paris, around 1137-44, emphasized the new accent on the interior life, and more: “Geometric exactness and proportion resulted in harmony, which exemplified the unity of the universe as created by God. The light flooding the interior represented the divine light, the Spirit of God.”

The Story of the Church brings the reader back to an appreciation of the common people. This history attempts to tell the story of all Western Christians, and not just the theologians and popes. Gothic architecture, reflecting the medieval devotion to Our Lady, was rooted in the spirituality of the common people: “Medieval people loved legends about our Lady, and they were delighted to see these stories depicted in stone and glass.”

Again, rather than outlining the bureaucratic or theological history of the Franciscans, McBride notes their impact on lay piety. This order gave Catholics “Christmas cribs, the Stations of the Cross and other dramatizations of Gospel stories.”

McBride places events in their historical context, something that writers with anti-Catholic agendas fail to do. He shows how the Crusades came not from an anti-Islamic sentiment so much as from the internal, warrior violence of early medieval Europe itself. Coupled with a new eleventh-century penitential movement, the Crusades brought together the energies of various elements of medieval Europe. Even though McBride regrets this violence, he sees great wealth in the medieval Church as a whole, exemplified by the development of the universities and disputatious reasoning.

While The Story of the Church contains less material on recent history, McBride does discuss important events such as the Modernist controversy. The late nineteenth-century Church, battered by the French Revolution, German cultural hostility, and Italian unification, did not see democracy as a good thing. However, the popes and the Church always stayed on the side of the people, as reflected in the 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, which addressed the terrible working and living conditions of Europe and America's factory laborors.

The Story of the Church ends with thoughts on the strong papal leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the hope this brings to the Church.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Isaac Newton

By Mitch Stokes, 181 pages, Thomas Nelson.

Mitch Stokes builds a personal picture of Newton, showing how the great scientist went about formulating his discoveries. He emphasizes how this scientific outlook served Newton's deeply religious outlook.

While Newton spent far more of his energy on theology and biblical studies than on anything else, his mathematical discoveries changed the course of European and world history, influencing the Enlightenment's faith in reason and progress. Newton's calculus, among other of his advances, gave scientists the tools to develop their understanding of the basic laws of nature, such as the orbits of planets and the force of gravity.

Despite his tenure at Cambridge, his deep faith, and his love for solitude and study, Newton did not back down from the challenges. He defended his claims to first discovery against rival or jealous claimants, and took up the occasional scientific competition, though such controversies rankled him.

Stokes covers his career as Master of the Mint and other duties, and how he contributed to the coinage system, as well as to the development of the Royal Society, which under his leadership became better organized and more productive.

Stoke's own training in mechanical engineering and philosophy gives him the skill to explain clearly some of the scientific and mathematical intricacies found in the Principia and other writings of Newton.
The author also discusses clearly how science was developing out of its alchemical basis into something more focused on direct observation and measurement, and no longer on grand metaphysical discussions of why these things happened.

Even with this, Stokes carefully reminds the reader that Newton did forever remain deeply committed to Scripture and to God.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Brooklyn Existentialism: Voices from the Stoop

By Arthur DiClementi and Nino Langiulli, 220 pages, Fidelity Press.

Brooklyn Existentialism offers an alternative, traditional outlook on life that opposes the current Culture of Death. DiClementi and Langiulli examine the background philosophy to much current practice in education and psychology that we hear on a daily basis, such as role playing in counseling. They see this as opposing the notion of the truth and the formation of a solid individual identity.

While the social sciences have offered many insights about humans and society, DiClementi and Langiulli argue that traditional wisdom, based on religion, family, and simple hard work, offers a much more humane, workable, and straightforward path.

The authors examine the post-World War II Frankfurt School of social scientists, who led the culture wars against the Church in Europe. One member, Wilhelm Reich, advocated the use of sex to pry people away from the Church and traditional Western wisdom. Sex was “the best instrument to use for social control and revolution,” Reich wrote. DiClementi and Langiulli conclude: “Feed their vices and control their lives. This is the deepest meaning of pornography.”

American social scientists, such as Alfred Kinsey, also used sexuality. He tried to make normal the sex lives of prostitutes, pedophiles, prisoners, and other sexually-confused people. He used research on these groups to make judgments about the sexuality of wider society.

Many of the common anti-Catholic “gotchas” come from these thinkers. One Frankfurter, Theodore Adorno, believed that fascism was the result of Catholicism, which has become a persistent belief in Western countries. Yet another persistent belief propagated by social scientists was that the Church opposes science, as supposedly proved by the trial of Galileo. Yet DiClementi and Langiulli argue:

“The circumstances of the trial are more often exaggerated than retold accurately in order to create the popular belief that science stands for truth and knowledge whereas faith stands for superstition and credulity.”

Brooklyn Existentialism challenges educational theory, calling it ideological manipulation: “The cultural battle lines are drawn at the school house door. Bad ideas assault the pursuit of the common good in the guise of innovative reform.” They note that much of the rhetoric surrounding liberty is really nonsense.

DiClementi and Langiulli are unapologetically pro tradition because of the West's historic search for the truth. The results of multiculturalism, which leaves students ignorant of this Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian heritage, results in moral chaos:

“Cut off from this tradition, students are set adrift – on a sea of cultural relativism – a worldview that encourages them to satisfy their immediate desires and explore their narrow interests while dismissing the development of character, responsibility, and intelligence. Propaganda and indoctrination replace education.”

Instead of spending the book examining the high-falutin' philosophy of these theorists, the authors make practical connections to their Brooklyn neighborhood and therefore to everyday living. They condemn the current vulgarity and lack of manners, and see its roots in the philosophy of individualism and the need to accomplish great things in life. The result, when people don't know their limitations, is bitterness and a sense of victimhood. DiClementi and Langiulli offer a sense of tradition, family, and community instead.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Pontificate of Benedict XVI: Its Premises and Promises

Edited by William G. Rusch, Eerdmans, 173 pages.

One of Pope Benedict XVI's hallmark teachings, Dale Irvin rightly points out, is his belief in the importance of the fusion of Greek philosophy with the Hebrew tradition from which Jesus of Nazareth comes. This synthesis, according to the pontiff, is the most perfect version of Christianity we have. Since it came from Europe, for the pontiff, this means that European Christian culture is very important to the nature of the religion.

The authors of The Pontificate of Benedict XVI, who come from a wide spectrum of churches, spend a lot of ink analyzing and critiquing such thinking. One writer challenges this place of Europe, noting the ancient, Middle Eastern Syriac Christians, who spoke a Semitic language very close to Jesus' Aramaic and who were minimally influenced by Greek philosophy. They built thriving Christian communities which lasted for centuries.

Most of the writers from this book call for a global, less Eurocentric, Christianity, even if many agree with Benedict that reason plays an important role in Christianity and its evangelization.

Irving notes that, in the case of European Christianity, the synthesis of faith and reason "was threatened, in Benedict's view, in the modern era by the program of 'dehellenization.'" Dehellenization refers to the reduction of Greek philosophy and culture's influence on Christianity. The Protestant Reformation, with its rejection of tradition and call for "scripture only," was the first stage, followed by liberal developments in the nineteenth and then twentieth century, which challenged dogmatic and biblical truths.

Many writers in The Pontificate of Benedict XVI wrestle with Benedict's signature rejection of pluralism. First, though, they correct media misperceptions. Benedict does not oppose diversity. He believes that the Church itself promotes much diversity, such as the richness found in the Thomistic and Augustinian traditions, which often offer different theological perspectives.

The diversity he opposes, they note, is one that judges everything as an opinion and nothing as truth. Secular pluralism rejects the notion that the truth is knowable or even exists. The various authors agree closely with Benedict on this, showing how Catholics and conservative Protestants can work together to promote an alternative viewpoint to secularism.

The Orthodox contributor, Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, offers interesting thoughts on Benedict's ecumenism, noting that the pope believes that unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches should happen according to the unity they had in the first millennium. Here again we see what diversity means for Ratzinger - the respect for each other's tradition, and the sense that the fullness of the other's tradition does not impede on ours.

This applies to the Protestant churches as well. Much is made in The Pontificate of Benedict XVI of the 2000 Vatican document for which the then Cardinal Prefect Ratzinger was responsible, Dominus Iesus, which stated that the Protestant churches had major deficiencies. The various writers are keen to point out that throughout his career Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI has never believed that reconciliation with Protestants should come through a mass return of the Protestants to Rome, re-Catholicizing them. Instead, true reconciliation would lead to a fuller understanding of the various Protestant traditions, such as regarding the Eucharist. Rather than taking something away from these various traditions, through full communion with Rome, these churches would come to their fullness.

The Pontificate of Benedict XVI offers much for the new kind of ecumenism in which Christians should engage. This is a rugged ecumenism that looks at the hard facts of disunity rather than papering them over.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America

By James O'Toole, 376 pages, Caravan Books.

After a slow start in the first 150 years of English settlement in what became the U.S., the American Catholic church took off in the mid-nineteenth-century, fueled by Catholic immigration from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Poland. These waves of Catholics were greeted by a skeptical, anti-Catholic Protestant society who accused them of being unpatriotic, as serving Rome and the pope first, and America only second.

French support of the American Revolution was 1 of the earliest events that showed Americans that their country and Catholicism were compatible. Yet the biggest obstacle to the Church in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came, surprisingly, from Catholics themselves. Ethnic rivalry caused problems on occasion, as when the priest had a different nationality than the congregation he was pastoring. In fact, O' Toole notes, “priests from one county in Ireland might be equally unacceptable to people from another county.”

American Catholics had been influenced by the Protestant practices they saw all around, and often claimed the right to run the parishes themselves, rather than the bishops, and even to hire and fire their priests. As the hierarchy grew during the nineteenth century, bishops and trustees of parishes often battled for control, though by the end of the 1800s the hierarchy had firmly established itself throughout the country.

While American Catholics of the 1700s rarely saw a priest, by the 1890s parishes often had several, and could offer Mass several times on Sunday and weekdays as well. The Faithful profiles the spiritual practices of the laity, showing that until Vatican II the most important sacrament seemed to be Confession rather than the Eucharist. This was in part due to fasting rules, which required no food or drink from midnight until after Mass the next day, which in the 1950s was relaxed considerably, though with minimal effect on the reception of the Eucharist.

Though mostly made up of poor first and second generation immigrants, American Catholicism of the 80 years before Vatican II was sure of itself. The laity knew what it was to believe; priests and bishops firmly controlled the parishes, with sisters performing the charity work in the community; devotions such as Eucharistic adoration and Benediction, the praying of the Stations of the Cross, and the praying of novenas, united the laity with the clergy.

O'Toole does a good job of explaining many of these practices, and the underlying theology, which is important because the post-Vatican II years has seen much less of these practices.

The author does not avoid the controversies of Vatican II and its aftermath, but neither does he use the topic as a launchpad for his own formula; he does not bemoan that post-Vatican II reforms didn't go far enough; nor does he condemn liberal Catholics. He does note that “Call to Action” and other such groups have seemed to become rather hollow (and aging) as the years passed.

While O'Toole does examine the sex-abuse scandals, he ends by citing, with hope, the challenges facing the American Church in the twenty-first century.