Saturday, February 25, 2012

Johan Sebastian Bach

By Rick Marschall,, 192 pages.

Marschall shows how deep Christian belief builds culture. In Bach's day (died 1750) northern Germany around Berlin was deeply Lutheran, which meant that it was deeply musical. The liturgy was much more intense than it is now. This meant much music and a lengthy, even hour-long sermon.

Bach came from a long line of musicians who served the church and Christianity. The author shows how Bach's deep faith made him a great evangelist. Bach took this evangelism through music seriously. He believed that his musical gifts, obvious at a young age, were from God and were to be used in the proclamation of the gospel.

We can only understand Bach when we're aware of his Christian spirituality, Marschall observes: "He sought to praise God by making his church music to be sermons in song."

Yet Marschall goes a bit far when he argues, "what Newton was to science and physics, Bach was to music." Most people today would be unable to identify a song by Bach, and the author himself admits that the Baroque genius lived at the very end of that age, when Italian operas were sweeping Europe and Baroque was rapidly becoming outmoded.

Importantly, this book parallels the observations of Pope John Paul II on the importance of culture. Bach's genius was amplified and set free by his faith. Unlike countless artists today who claim that God would trap their talents, Bach's greatest freedom came at the service of God. The musician saw himself in his various church music roles as a minister.

Marschall reminds the readers repeatedly that Bach never felt constrained. He personified the Baroque Christian culture of the day. Through him also came the highest expression of Lutheran piety and adherence to tradition.

Bach's Christianity was broader than simply Lutheran, the author shows. Bach's Mass in B Minor, perhaps a strange composition for a Lutheran, took many years, which was uncharacteristic for him. Marschall observes that it includes many medieval and renaissance elements. In other words, though a Protestant, Bach appreciated and respected the Catholic and medieval artistic achievements, and made them part of his own work.

Readers get a good sense of the historical and cultural surroundings in which Bach lived. Marschall notes for instance that the Mass in B Minor was something of an oddity because Calvinism, with its rejection of the flowery and the artistic, was making quick inroads into the northern Germany of Bach. This was completely at odds with the great composer's style. Yet, just as opera hardly influenced Bach, neither did this new religious direction.

Readers also get a good sense of the Lutheran liturgical and church culture of the day. Such notes as the following give readers a sense of Bach as an individual, of what his daily life and ministry were like: "Bach played the organ during the Communion with plenty of spontaneity for improvisation, suggested by his many chorale preludes upon Communion hymns."

Marschall makes a good case that Bach the artist was so free and wonderfully creative because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and faithful to his Christian tradition, even respectful of the older Roman Catholic roots.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Book of Man

By William J. Bennett,

The Book of Man is a great book insofar as the collator and commenter keeps out the way and lets Plato, Milton, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and other great men speak. Essentially a selection from the western canon, The Book of Man shows that the canon is the work of male genius.

That should be the main scope of the book: To show men that they have something to be proud of - themselves. Men are great achievers, and have philosophized about the great mysteries of life. Musings selected from the original wordsmiths deal with war, work, sports, and politics. They call men to the excellence that for eons defined male actions and male-female behavior.

Nowadays, these virtues are laughed at by feminists and their matriarchy, which encourages men to act boorishly, then complains when men act boorishly. Behind Bennett's selections is his call to men to act in the old way, to be responsible family leaders and members. Yet he is doing a disservice to males because the culture has clearly rejected men, masculinity, and fatherhood. Marriage is dangerous for men, as a taste in family court will show any sucker. Bennett, as with his other writings, is behind the times and woefully indifferent to the lot of men today, who are blamed for all the world's ills even while they are accused of taking advantage of women.

What would truly benefit readers would be authors who understood that men are in deep trouble today because of the mass neurosis, feminism.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Fight of Our Lives

By William Bennet.

The Fight of Our Lives is one of those books that makes a lot of useful observations, but never hits the bullseye. Bennett is guilty of the same shortcoming he accuses Americans and their leaders of having. They cannot say the full truth, either out of shame or out of blind ignorance.

The author details the enemy, radical Islam, with enough facts and background as to offer a convincing case. While he doesn't tar all of Islam with the terrorist brush, he rightly notes that Muslims confessing a moderate religious path need to do more to oppose terrorists.

It is also the work of the American government and the citizenry to fight. Here is where the argument is both best and worst. He correctly and convincingly identifies the biggest problem in the war on terror as the cultural battles being fought in America. Americans don't study their history or love their country. They have bought into the multi-culti deconstructionist habit of cutting down a nation's history and highlighting the negatives rather than the accomplishments. Thus America and the West have little self-confidence in fighting the terrorists, whom they could easily defeat if they were in the right mind.

This is all good, but what is missing is the real root of this, which is the feminization of society, the emasculation of men, and the destruction of marriage and the family largely because of feminism. The feminist takeover of Western society has left us adrift, lacking confidence, and fearful of people we could easily defeat. Like most Christian writers, Bennett is blind to this feminization, perhaps because of the feminizing tendencies of Christianity itself.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Man in the Field of Responsibility

By Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), 84 pages,

Wojtyla argues for adopting a strong sense of right and wrong. He uncompromisingly sets forth the idea that good and evil, knowable to all and determined by God, cannot be altered. Regardless of the ever-changing values of society, some acts are always wrong or always good. Humans must make the right choice.

Man in the Field of Responsibility gives us a sense of the more academic side to the late pontiff, and his role as university professor of ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland from 1954-78. This short book, actually a preliminary proposal for a longer, collaborative work in the subject, had to be left undone when the author was elected pope in 1978.

The book contains many of the themes John Paul II emphasized repeatedly while leader of the Church. Through the philosophical streams of phenomenology and personalism, he highlights "lived experience" and the need to respect the individual person. This includes a focus on human dignity. A human can never be the means to something, but only the end.

Following Catholic tradition going back to St. Thomas Aquinas and earlier, Wojtyla argues that ethics forms a part of creation itself because it comes from the Father. This natural law is knowable through reason because, written on the human heart, it is part of human nature. All humans are given the gift of the natural law independently of the gift of revelation. Each person can therefore judge certain acts as intrinsically evil - they are evil by their very nature. Likewise, we know that some acts are intrinsically good.

"The natural law assumes," the author notes, "that being and values are in some way connected to one another and mutually dependent." As well, these norms form a hierarchy of sorts, and some norms depend on other norms.

Because this book is only a rough sketch of a proposed much larger work, these arguments are often left without concrete examples, making this discussion largely theoretical.

The moral good, a duty, calls us to do the right thing. The strength of this teaching, in addition to its consistency, is the lack of sentimentalism. While Wojtyla obviously respects the person, his ethics does not allow any space for emotional justification for committing an evil such as abortion.

The conscience plays an important role because of the interplay between the universal aspect of the unchanging natural law and the particular aspect of the individual person, which Wojtyla's personalist philosophy emphasizes. Unfortunately, in this unfinished manuscript the author gives little space to the conscience.

Man in the Field of Responsibility demonstrates the ability of the late pontiff to bring competing viewpoints together. In much of his thinking, he taught how faith and reason can complement rather than limit each other. Bringing natural law and the personal dignity of the individual together into one vision creates a very human, yet non-sentimental moral view of the person.

It is easy to see that in this book Wojtyla maintains such a demanding view of ethics precisely because of his deep respect for the individual. Each person deserves only the highest of ethical values by which to live his life. This is perhaps the greatest theme of this book.

Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice

David Teems, Thomas Nelson.

More hagiography than biography, the constant stream of pro-Tyndale soundbites tends to confuse the reader. The author offers pieces of the life of Tyndale, but his constant unsubstantiated rambling into the Bible translator's greatness - as a writer, translator, Christian - overwhelm the reader.

Teems' sweeping comments about Tyndale, the Reformation, the medieval era, and religious history - usually without corresponding footnotes, examples, or details - likewise tend to lose the reader. He speaks of the personality of Tyndale as if he knows him first hand, but with reference to only a minimal of letters, government documents, observations of contemporaries, and so forth. Readers have no reason to believe him. Teems tends to skip over proving any of his musings, turning his book into the mushy sentimentalism so characteristic of evangelicals.

Particularly annoying are Teems' simplistic viewpoints. The Middle Ages: bad, full of scary monsters such as bishops and priests, and all sorts of witch-burnings (feminists have greatly exaggerated the number of these, but Teems is content to avoid modern historical research). The Reformation: good, full of light and truth and democracy. The Catholic Church: Teems' biggest monster of all. Readers get a sense that the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church were synonymous with totalitarianism, violence, intellectual and spiritual failure. Protestants, the great liberators of Europe according to this view, represent the opposite.

We get a Manichean - cowboys and Indians, light versus dark - version of history that just confuses and loses the readers.