Thursday, July 28, 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien

By Mark Horne. Thomas Nelson Publishers. 145 pages.

The author takes readers on a trip back in time to the culture that formed the great fantasy writer JRR Tolkien. Born in South Africa and raised in England, his difficult childhood didn't prevent him from developing a deep love for the rural, medieval, most poetic parts of England.

Preferring Germanic and northern European medieval culture, including the Nordic Sagas, to the Greek and Latin classics, he majored in English. The author shows how his time at Oxford and in the Great War had a lasting impression on him.

Mark Horne is particularly keen to show how Tolkien's cultural, intellectual, and religious roots deeply impacted his writing. Through various trials and even self-doubt, Tolkien never lost his artistic genius. Readers get a sense of how the great author needed to share this genius with others through his teaching and socializing with students, literary circles, and of course writing, both academic and fiction.

Tolkien was a writer at heart, starting with both poetry and his love for the northern Germanic languages, which he often taught himself. Rather than becoming a reclusive eccentric, he shared his poetry and other fiction, and his love for medieval Germania, with his friends and associates, even collaborating on books about literature.

Tolkien's genius enabled him to fuse his academic and fictional writing and interests, something that Mark Horne gets across to readers quite consistently.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why God Won't Go Away

By Alister McGrath. Thomas Nelson Publishers. 191 pages.

Christian theologian Alister McGrath spends as much time highlighting New Atheism's weaknesses as he does examining how the human hunger for God does not seem to be dissipating. The anti-theists' anger seems strange, given their supposed adherence to rationalism. If they are so rational, why do they work themselves up so much over religion?

New Atheists have become known more for their anger and disrespect than for their elegant arguments. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitches tend to use rhetoric, based largely on their anger and hatred of organized religion, more than logic in trying to undermine a basis in belief.

Yet McGrath argues that this has actually helped religion, as it proves that even atheists promoting a "rational" worldview have trouble with their emotions and with reasoned argument. McGrath argues quite convincingly that this reflects a fear that they are losing the war, and that people are not giving up church in droves.

These writers also "cherry pick" bad episodes in Christian history, and minimize atheist guilt in the crimes of Stalin and Hitler. "Those weren't real atheists," Hitchens and the others argue, without admitting that Christians can claim that crusaders weren't "real Christians."

This inconsistency is the real irrational component in our culture wars. McGrath also discusses the rational elements of faith, and how belief can nourish reason.

Christians will feel they have won the battle after reading Why God Won't Go Away.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Horses of St. Marks: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice

By Charles Freeman, Overlook, 298 pages.

Freeman follows the journey of 4 bronze horses, an ancient quadriga, as they went from empire to empire, from Rome to Constantinople, Venice, Paris, then back to Venice. Readers get a sense of the unity of European culture, as the ancient Greco-Roman world dissolved into the Greek Byzantine empire in the east and into Venice and other bits and pieces in the Latin West.

Europe's Christianization did not alter the ancient pagan heritage, as that achievement was Christianized yet appreciated for its own worth. This demonstrates that Christianity is itself the great humanist movement of history. Truly great human achievements are celebrated by Christian society.

The quadriga was a group of 4 horses that pulled a chariot, though if the horses were 4 across, the 2 outer animals were for show, as they had no pulling power.

The 4 horses, set in Constantinople by Emperor Constantine, saw the slow Christianization of the empire even as the Byzantines clung tenaciously to the old Roman ceremonies, such as the vision of the emperor as closer to God than anyone else.

The horses witnessed the rise and slow decay of the Byzantine empire, including one of the lowest points, the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when the Latin Crusaders sacked Constantinople, led by a Doge (leader of Venice) who had manipulated the Crusade for his own revenge on the Byzantines for a past wrong.

The horses, along with much other booty, were brought to Venice and eventually placed by St. Mark's in the central Piazza, where they more or less stayed for centuries. This was the high-water of Venice and its adventurism and trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

Before the rounding of the Cape of Good Horn in 1496, this trade route was the way for eastern spices and other goods to make their way to Europe. Venice had gotten rich off this trade, as the Byzantines had turned their backs on commercialism.

The author links the horses, in their vitality, with the optimistic energy of medieval-renaissance Venice, one of the most powerful European states until the end of the sixteenth-century. Venice's success represented the first expansion of Europe, this one to the east.

Freeman details the growth of cities, trade, and culture, showing how they are all intertwined with religion. Latin Christianity never hindered progress, whether scientific or economic, and was often at the forefront of new and improved things. The religion's vitality can be seen in the Renaissance, in which Venice played a vital role, as with the artist Titian.

Trade, ancient culture, Roman Christianity, and hope in the future: Venice and its quadriga symbolize the assertiveness of the West before Western culture lost its masculinity and optimism. Throughout this book one has the sense that Western Europe, unlike Byzantine and further east, was always onwards and upwards.

The 4 horses represent the deeper spirit of Western civilization, of which Christianity has been the center for more than 15 centuries. Indirectly, then, the ancient, pagan horses symbolize the faith of the West.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Ratzinger Reader

By Lieven Boeve and Gerard Mannion, 286 pages, Continuu Books.

The current pontiff writes with unparalleled precision and elegance on theology and all of life. Rather than backing down from a theological fight, his polemics find the weak points in secularism's reasoning, as many selection in this Reader bear out.

Writing without the strong emotional-anecdotal style common in the media and universities today, he backs his positions with facts and argument from tradition. His polemics therefore do not sound like those of an angry reactionary.

Rather, readers get a sense of the deeper, timeless reasoning behind Catholic thinking. Regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, Ratzinger is a must-read because he has become the reference point for Catholic dogma and the tradition.

His thinking, so deeply-rooted, helps readers understand why the Church is so at odds with secular thinking, and why it refuses to give in. Deeper, timeless truths are the reference point, rather than soon-to-be-refuted sociological or social science studies and findings. One gets a sense of the great yet silent confidence of someone who has spent his life searching the truth rather than seeking good feelings or simple political solutions.

His criticism of liberation theology is in turn the most opposed part of his own teachings. Yet his reasoning here remains more solid than the often sentimental-anecdotal theology of many liberation theologians.

Ratzinger has for long opposed the belief whereby the kingdom of God can be brought about on earth. Jesus brought God, not a political solution, to humanity. The current attempt to use politics to solve all our social problems is a cop out, he claims, because it relieves the individual of responsibility.

In this erroneous thinking, sin becomes social, located in structures and institutions rather than in the human heart. Every utopia, he warns, masks a rejection of ethics and thereby undermines the moral value of the thinking, acting person. All ethic comes to reside in the institution. The Christian idea of the infinite greatness of the individual soul no longer holds any meaning.

Such political views reduce all of life, especially politics, to power. Politics in a secular world no longer has the restraints of Christianity, and becomes capable of anything. The twentieth-century thus saw Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and other atheists who hated the Church and were capable of unspeakable crimes. The century saw abortion move from crime to a "right".

Much of Ratzinger's writings thus focus on the need for a changed relationship between theology and politics, and between theology and philosophy. Both politics and philosophy have secularized, which has left both without a higher reference. They are each the poorer, and have no real inspiration.

Regarding philosophy, Ratzinger observes: "questioning founders when there is no hope of finding an answer. Faith hears the answer because it keeps the question alive."

The current pope has been at the forefront of resistance to the culture of death for over 4 decades, and as The Ratzinger Reader's editors note, he has been consistent in his theology during that time, despite how many people have represented him. This consistency revolves around his concern for the truth and support for a centralized Church where the Magisterium has the final say on doctrinal matters.