In Brief: November 01, 1995
"Another Turn of the Crank"
By Wendell Berry
122 pp.; $18
The publication of a new series of essays by Wendell Berry is always good news. In this slim, well-titled volume, Berry returns to the theme that has gained him a growing audience: the goodness of the small agricultural way of life and the destruction of it caused by America's commitment to large-scale political economy. Throughout these essays, Berry writes as a self-confessed Luddite, one who favors community health over technological innovation. This presumption informs his thoughts on how best to conserve farming, communities, forests, nature and human life, and health. He writes burdened by "that difficult hope" that there still exists in the scattered rural communities of America a different way of understanding life than the standard account served up by our major institutions. Berry points to this other way of life as possessing "better economy, better faith, better knowledge and affection." He even sees signs that a "party of local community" might be forming to challenge "the party of the global economy." These essays reflect a vast knowledge not only of the literary traditions of the West but of contemporary ecological issues as well. "To save the land and the people," a phrase he uses in several essays, nicely captures the goal of his life's work.
Reading Berry is both tonic and challenge. This collection may be too brief to count as his best; for the faithful, however, this turn of the crank is another gift of good sense, a cup of cold water in the dry and barren land of contemporary American cultural life.
"Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel"
By Lee Palmer Wandel
Cambridge University Press
205 pp.; $39.95
"Luther's Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers, 1525-1556"
By Carl R. Trueman
Oxford University Press
306 pp.; $55
"The Scandinavian Reformation: From Evangelical Movement to Institutionalisation of Reform"
Edited by Ole Peter Grell
Cambridge University Press
218 pp.; $54.95
Studies of the Protestant Reformation have moved rapidly in the last two decades as the pendulum in historical scholarship has shifted massively away from theology and toward the study of local situations, practical problems, life on the ground, and the dense interconnections between spiritual and other aspects of life. (Notable practitioners of the new social and cultural history include Bob Scribner, Euan Cameron, and William Bouwsma.) Once it was assumed that the Protestant protagonists of the period provided the most reliable account of why a Reformation was needed, but more recently a strong revisionist school has arisen to challenge the charge that late-medieval Catholicism was hopelessly corrupt. (Major advocates of such revisions include Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy.)
The trio of books noticed here takes advantage of these new emphases, but also shows that the older focus on theological and ecclesiastical affairs can still yield sound as well as innovative results. Lee Wandel, who teaches at Yale University, writes learnedly on how the iconoclasts (those who destroyed images, stained glass, and statues) were moving concepts of God and Christian holiness beyond original Protestant formulations in Luther and Calvin toward a more spiritual, less bodily, ideal of the Christian life. Carl Trueman, who lectures in historical theology at the University of Nottingham, offers a particularly sensitive study of the older theological type where the writings of five early English Protestants are probed for their commonality (the longing for a God-centered faith leading to a life of piety) as well as their serious differences (on the meaning of the Lord's Supper and of predestination).
The solid essays collected in "The Scandinavian Reformation" show how the northern countries that would become the most solidly Lutheran of any in Europe transformed the Reformation faith from a loosely organized movement of evangelical preaching into a state-run enterprise of church and social reform. The book provides full coverage for events in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as topical coverage of subjects like the lingering influence of the Catholic church, the varied regional responses to witchcraft, and religious and political influences from outside the region.
"The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict"
By Russell Kirk
497 pp.; $34.99
Russell Kirk finished these memoirs shortly before he died at age 75. The publication of this volume, a festschrift, and a tribute issue of "Intercollegiate Review," along with a conference in his honor, properly caps one of the truly influential lives of our time. It is remarkable that this influence emanated from a tiny backwoods Michigan village.
The premier disciple of Edmund Burke, Kirk helped establish modern American conservatism with "The Conservative Mind" in 1953, and he lived to see its current flourishing. His vast erudition yielded many books, as well as articles in prominent journals and declasse conservative periodicals, two of which, "Modern Age" and "University Bookman," he founded. Friend of presidents (Nixon, Reagan) and authors (T. S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Roy Campbell, Malcolm Muggeridge), Kirk spent much time in the company of the young, who trooped to his ancestral home in Mecosta for seminars, and he remains the intellectual godfather to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative campus organization. Eking out a meager subsistence as a man of letters, he and his family took in waifs and rejects, from a robber of church poorboxes to Ethiopian refugees and scholars fleeing communist homelands. Reared in a Swedenborgian/ Spiritualist household, he became an adult convert to Roman Catholicism.
This telling of the outer, rather than the inner, life is a curious mixture of reticence and self-revelation, and the self-styled "lone wolf" is alternately gentle and contentious. The highly mannered prose is, for those who know their Kirk, virtually a personal signature. The third-person narrative, designed to convey an air of objectivity, fails, happily, to camouflage a man of wholesome prejudices and deep sentiment.
--Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
"X Y: On Masculine Identity"
By Elisabeth Badinter
Columbia University Press
274 pp.; $24.95
This translation of a best-selling 1992 book by a French philosopher and historian reflects the more relational style of European, as opposed to mainstream American, feminism: a concern for gender justice within an analysis of gender differences, rather than a concentration on abstract, androgynous ideals and rights. In a thoughtful and nonpatronizing attempt to understand the male experience, Badinter explores the possible psychological significance of the fact that males depend on women for birth and (in most cases) for their primary nurturance. She argues that this, plus the fact that girls have a natural entry into womanhood in the coming of menstruation, for which there is no strict male analogue, results in a more fragile and defensive male gender identity that is traditionally shored up by demanding tests and/or rites of passage. Thus masculine identity--to a much greater extent than feminine--must be socially constructed and constantly reproven, resulting in an intergenerational cycle of males fearing, fleeing, or oppressing women, a cycle whose interruption depends in large part on the more equal involvement of both parents in child rearing.
In this analysis, Badinter shares the theoretical stance of American feminist object-relations theorists, but she also does an excellent job of covering the best of the accumulating men's studies literature, with its examination of changing models of masculinity and its concern to affirm the legitimacy of male vulnerability without losing the best aspects of traditional male virtues and positive (i.e., nonmisogynist, nonauthoritarian) male bonding activities. The argument is thoughtfully nuanced and thoroughly interdisciplinary, and the translation is elegantly readable.
--Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
"Narrative and the Natural Law: An Interpretation of Thomistic Ethics"
By Pamela M. Hall
University of Notre Dame Press
192 pp.; $25.95
In evangelical circles, the Bible is often referred to as "God's owner's manual" for living life to its fullest. Thomistic ethics, as Pamela Hall develops it, is a detailed and dialectical exposition of the implications of this metaphor. In so interpreting Thomistic ethics, Hall addresses two standard academic criticisms of natural law. First, Aquinas's understanding of natural law is anything but natural since it ultimately presupposes supernatural revelation if it is to be understood. Second, the exceptionless dictates of natural law falsify the "tangled" nature of the competing claims of this world. Both these criticisms, according to Hall, stem from reading Aquinas's ethics in isolation from the whole of the Summa theologiae.
By wisely reflecting on the narrative of history and individual lives, one comes to see that the real point and function of the prohibitions of natural law--don't murder, steal, lie, and so on--is to help secure the goods of human life by properly ordering the conflicting wants and desires with which humans are born. Thus, natural law is not so much a deduction from Scripture as it is a reflection upon our own and others' desires and choices and the corresponding mistakes and successes to which they have led. With sufficient practical wisdom, Aquinas believed, all humans are capable of coming to understand natural law thus far. Yet, for Aquinas, as for Saint Paul, the moral law also serves a pedagogical function, leading individuals to Christ by making clear to them their sin and their need for a savior.
As Hall makes clear, the gospel is not a new "list of precepts and prohibitions" but rather "the gift of right desire." The goal of the New Law is the peaceful unity of human communities brought about through the transformation of lives, not by the legislation of deeds. And while philosophers like Martha Nussbaum argue that the world is too tangled with competing claims for such peace ever to be realized, on Hall's reading it is not the world but "our desires and loves which can become tangled and at war with one another in sin. The world itself embodies a natural hierarchy of goods which should be, for Aquinas, mirrored in our desires."
Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review