In Brief: January 01, 1998
C. S. Lewis: Mere Christian
by Kathryn Lindskoog
Cornerstone Press Chicago
292 pp.; $19.99
Journey into Narnia
by Kathryn Lindskoog
Hope Publishing House
P.O. Box 60008,
Pasadena CA, 91116
227 pp.; $15.95, paper
C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in
Vision of C. S. Lewis
edited by Angus J. L. Menuge
399 pp.; $17.99, paper
Simply C. S. Lewis:
A Beginner's Guide to
His Life and Works
by Thomas C. Peters
270 pp.; $11.99, paper
In 1998, Christians all over the world will be celebrating the centennial of the birth of Clive Staples Lewis. This year-long Lewisfest will be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it will yield fresh insights. (Look for David Downing's essay on Lewis and postmodernism in a forthcoming issue of B&C.) And the hubbub will attract new readers, not a few of whom may find their way into the kingdom. On the other hand, the sheer volume of talk about Lewis is bound to grate, even when it is free of the unctuous accents of hagiography.
Four new books give a taste of what we can expect in the coming year. The first is not really a new book but rather a new edition of Kathryn Lindskoog's widely used guide. Lindskoog commands an encyclopedic knowledge of Lewis's life and works, and she writes with contagious passion. She is also highly combative, particularly in her judgments against Walter Hooper, one of Lewis's literary editors and the editor of many of his posthumously published works. Don't miss the six appendices to Lindskoog's book, the last of which is a lovely essay on Lewis and Christmas.
Lindskoog's Journey into Narnia is also a combination of old and new, though here the proportion of new is much higher. This volume combines an early work, The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land, which elicited an appreciative letter from Lewis when it was first published in 1957, with a light-hearted but very well-informed guide to the Narnia books.
In C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands, we have a sample of academic approaches to Lewis. Though most of the 16 contributors to this volume are indeed writing from a college or university setting, they write with clarity and a minimum of jargon. And while the essays range widely, from Wayne Martindale's reflections on the film Shadowlands to Gene Edward Veith's concluding piece, "A Vision, Within a Dream, Within the Truth: C. S. Lewis as Evangelist to the Postmodernists," they are unified by a focus on Lewis's "evangelistic vision." Lewis scholars, both professional and amateur, will want to add this collection to their shelves.
Finally, with Simply C. S. Lewis: A Beginner's Guide to His Life and Works, by Thomas C. Peters, we have a specimen of the superfluous book. The back cover asserts that "Lewis can be terribly intimidating to those who know his reputation as an intellectual but haven't yet sampled his writing." Nonsense. As one might expect, given that sort of packaging, Peters's book is execrably written, full of tediously prolonged summaries of Lewis's sparkling works, potted intellectual history, and odd stylistic mannerisms. (For example, Peters frequently refers to Lewis by his full name when there is no reason to do so. After a few dozen occurrences, the effect is rather like the Chinese water torture.)
So it will go in the year ahead. Those who predict that the centennial will finally kill interest in Lewis are far too pessimistic, but there will be a lot of chaff to separate from the wheat.
Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present
Edited by Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press
450 pp.; $59.50, hardcover; $19.95, paper
When the noted economist Joseph Schumpeter considered writing a book on the meaning of conservatism, he remarked, "I am pretty sure that no conservative I have ever met would recognize himself in the picture I am going to draw." Many conservatives I know will have that very reaction if they read Jerry Muller's anthology.
Muller, a historian at the Catholic University of America, has penned almost 30 percent of the pages of this "anthology with an argument," a large share for an "editor," and his choices of other voices reinforce his own brand of conservatism. So, idiosyncratically, he finds his progenitor in David Hume, not Edmund Burke, though Burke is amply represented. He showcases "the social science cast of conservative thought," another odd choice. Viewing conservatism as "a product of the Enlightenment" rather than a reaction against it, he gives primacy to the pursuit of earthly happiness through preserving legitimate social institutions. Even so, it takes considerable special pleading to include, say, Matthew Arnold, who presciently described himself as "a liberal of the future."
Muller rigorously separates conservatism from orthodoxy. By contrast, Russell Kirk, widely honored as the father of modern American conservatism, lists, as the first of his six key principles, the belief "that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society." Muller's demurral offers instead "historical utilitarianism" as the common conservative denominator, and religious belief figures in only as it is socially useful. Kirk himself put together his own anthology, The Portable Conservative Reader (1982). Of his 44 writers and Muller's 23, only 4 appear in both collections. Thus, we see how protean is conservatism, how difficult to define, being (and here Kirk and Muller agree) less an ideology than a set of dispositions firmly rooted in the exigencies of the times and places of its adherents. It also remains too vital to have attracted the post- prefix that attaches to so many other isms nowadays.
Muller is a highly sophisticated thinker supremely worth reading—and arguing with. His selected authors, several of whom would be surprised to appear in the company of conservatives, offer gems of insight time after time, whether or not read within his imposed framework. And however one defines conservatism, this book makes emphatically clear that America today lives under a liberal hegemony.
—Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
Literary Intellectuals and the Dissolution of the State:
Professionalism and Conformity in the GDR
Edited by Robert von Hallberg
University of Chicago Press
366 pp.; $57, hardcover;
Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany
By Charles S. Maier
Princeton University Press
440 pp.; $29.95
The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany
By Jane Kramer
293 pp.; $27.50
With a whoosh that still leaves the experts breathless, Eastern and Central European statist communism dramatically collapsed during the brief period 1989- 91. This was in reality a multifaceted story, with circumstances at the ideological and imperial center of the Soviet Union quite different from those in the Poland of Solidarity and Pope John Paul II, the Romania of summary justice for the Ceausescus, the Czechoslovakia of a velvet revolution, the Balkan lands of Bulgaria and Albania (which had the furthest to go), and not least the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) as the Soviet bloc's industrially and athletically most developed nation. In quite different ways, these three books offer illuminating accounts of what happened with such suddenness in East Germany during the fall of 1989, but also about what can now be seen to have led up to the crisis and what has fallen out thereafter.
Charles Maier's full-scale history makes good use of interviews, documents published from the archives of the gdr's state security forces (or Stasi), and the literature that burgeons from all parts of German society on what is usually called die Wende (the turn or turning-point) of 1989. Maier is especially helpful on the way in which long-term economic difficulties had compromised East German aspirations to parity with the West, on the inability of the GDR's Communist party to adjust to its citizens' heightened political and material desires, and on the decisive bridge crossed when Gorbachev indicated that he would not mobilize Russian troops to put down demonstrations. Maier also pauses for carefully stated efforts to compare the parlous condition of late-East German communism with what he considers to be the less than ideal moral functioning of Western economies and ideologies. Maier is no knee-jerk anticapitalist, but (along with some of those who took to the streets of Leipzig and East Berlin in the fall of 1989) he is nervous about the costs, as well as the benefits, of unrestrained liberal capitalism. The book's comprehensive scope allows only minimal occasions for hearing the voices of the East Germans themselves, but this is a minor drawback to one of the most satisfying accounts now available on the end of communism in any of the Eastern-bloc countries.
Jane Kramer's Politics of Memory began as reports in the New Yorker. It excels at capturing the personal dimensions of life in and after die Wende, and on both sides of the former border. The book is sometimes flip (e.g., "They discovered [after 44 years of distraction] that it was hard to be ordinary folks—ordinary European folks—when you had a Holocaust in your history"). But its attention to the opinions of underemployed East German workers, Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest laborers, though sometimes in Germany for generations), former Stasi informants, and others conveys a flavor of living through tumultuous times that Maier's more comprehensive study misses.
Robert von Hallberg's book is a series of interviews with leading figures from what had been considered before 1989 the "advanced" East German literati. A handful of these writers, scholars, publishers, and assorted "literary intellectuals" will be familiar to American readers—the novelist and playwright Christoph Hein, for example, and the poet Reiner Kunze—but most would be known, if at all, only by specialists. Many of these were far gone in a now nearly unbelievable combination of romantic socialism, postmodernist amorality, and art-for-art's sake ideology. When the collapse of the GDR was added to this bewildering intellectual melange, the result was further tension, disillusionment, and a not very successful struggle for adjustment. Especially pathetic was the last-minute appeal of writer Christa Wolf for some kind of beneficent postcommunist socialism that would keep the GDR separate from the Federal Republic of West Germany (a possibility that was obliterated in the post-Wende elections). Especially jarring is the profound betrayal felt by many of these artists when they learned that several of their closet comrades had for years been informants for the Stasi. Von Hallberg wants to show the dangers to vital literary life from a self-contained circle of discourse (or professionalism), but his book is more compelling as testimony to varieties of moral bankruptcy promoted by an intelligentsia whose political and aesthetic preoccupations made it largely irrelevant to the momentous changes in which it was engulfed.
Books like these are of interest first as useful chronicles of a key moment in recent Western history. But they also serve as reminders that, in the annals of humankind, stability of social and political conditions is a precarious commodity. In other words, besides considering the uniqueness of what went on in the collapse of communism, it might well be worth thinking about how Eastern European experience reveals what we too would be like if subjected to rapid, traumatic, and systemic change.
The Revolution of the Candles: Christians in the Revolution of the German Democratic Republic
By Jurg Swoboda, translated by Edwin P. Arnold, edited by Richard V. Pierard
Mercer University Press, 1996
203 pp.; $22.95
In the early evening of Monday, October 9, 1989, a service of worship and prayer took place in the historic Saint Nicholas Lutheran church in Leipzig, East Germany. Two and a half centuries earlier, Saint Nicholas had basked in a measure of glory as one of the churches for which J. S. Bach prepared regular Sunday music. Now it would witness another liminal experience. The text for the evening was Isaiah 45:
I will go before you. … I will break down gates of bronze and cut through iron bars. … I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name . …I am the Lord, and there is no other. … Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker. … All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced . …Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.
After the service, a public demonstration spread out from the church into the Leipzig city center. Seventy thousand people took part. They knew that the East German state security (the Stasi) had been mobilized to quash the demonstration, and that authorities at several levels were speaking ominously of a "Chinese solution" (with reference to the massacre in Tiananmen Square the previous June). But on the night of October 9, the Stasi did not shoot. A week later Erich Honecker, the repressive leader of the East German Communists, resigned. On November 9, free travel was allowed between East and West Germany and through the Berlin Wall. Only a few months later a divided Germany was on the road to reunion.
The Revolution of the Candles is a moving, if somewhat disjointed, collection of testimonies from East German believers who lived through these tumultuous days. Most of the personal accounts are from laypeople associated with Baptist or "free churches." Their accounts record the tension leading up to and beyond October 9, the police brutality some experienced firsthand, the inner turmoil felt earlier at the flood of East Germans pouring into the West throughout 1989, and the catharsis experienced from the collapse of the Communist regime. Essays by editor Richard Pierard, who was present in East Germany as a visiting scholar in the fall of 1989, lend welcome structure to the book. But its greatest contribution is the voice it gives to the ordinary German Christians for whom fear, joy, struggle, and, above all, reliance on God became luminously palpable during one of the truly momentous events of this century.
Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa, 1880-1914
By H. L. Wesseling,
trans. by Arnold J. Pomerans
161 pp.; $75, hardback; $29.95, paper
Africa is in danger of falling off the map; falling off the map of the international economy and off the map of our moral concern. Some states are failing, spectacularly—Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo (Zaire)—and the democratic gains made by others in the early 1990s have now been reversed.
Why is this happening to Africa, and what is to be done? Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning writer, has gone so far as to suggest that the only way to prevent future genocidal wars in Africa is for the continent's borders to be redrawn. What has failed is the African state; and who determined the borders of these states? The Europeans when they carved up the continent at the end of the nineteenth century. H. L. Wesseling, in his survey of the partition of Africa, points out that the colonial age in Africa was of short duration, in general less than a century, sometimes barely half that, but its legacy persists: "Contemporary Africa, with all its territorial problems and the crises they bring in their wake," emerged as a result of the partition.
At the time of African independence, African historiography as a discipline barely existed. This book makes full use of the tremendous gains that have been made over the last 30 years. There have been two main interpretations of the partition. The first, most favored by African nationalists in the 1960s, followed the logic of Hobson and Lenin that imperialism was a consequence of capitalism. The second is based on the more recent scholarship of the British historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, who argue in their book Africa and the Victorians that the partition was determined by strategic and political considerations rather than economic ones.
Wesseling shows how it was both changes in the international system and in domestic European politics after 1870 that led to the partition of Africa, so that any attempt to assess the relative importance of economic or political factors is a purely academic debate, albeit a debate that gained ideological importance during the Cold War. We can now see more clearly how these factors have interacted in different ways and in different regions to produce Africa's contemporary political tragedy. This does not mean that only Europeans are to blame—since independence, Africans have made their own history—but Europe is morally culpable, for along with independence, Africans inherited conditions not of their own choosing.
A Stolen Tongue
By Sheri Holman
Atlantic Monthly Press
343 pp.; $23
In the closing pages of Sheri Holman's A Stolen Tongue, the mad translator Ser Niccolo holds up the skull of a dead saint and says, "When a man wants to create … he has at his disposal only the barest tools: a rock, a nail, a mark upon a page. With them, he must construct thriving cities and history and works of great and lasting thought." Holman's remarkable first novel accomplishes just that.
A Stolen Tongue follows the pilgrimage of a fifteenth-century monk who wanders the world seeking consummation with his spiritual bride, Saint Katherine. Friar Felix Fabri travels a trail marked by bits of the saint's body, stolen relics that may or may not be Katherine's remains; he demands a message from Katherine, but how can a stolen tongue speak for a dead saint? They endure trial by water, fire, and earth, but the dry bones do not speak.
Seeking a saint, Fabri instead finds himself face to face with a whole host of sinners. The nave monk is used, abused, and confused by Ser Niccolo and his sister Arsino', neither of them entirely sane. Niccolo the translator wants to translate his sister to sainthood and make the dry bones talk—but first he has to get his hands on those bones, and his attempts to do so are harrowing.
Even more remarkable is Holman's deft use of a historical character. Friar Felix Fabri (1441-1502) wrote long accounts of his pilgrimages to Palestine and Sinai; Holman seamlessly weaves passages from the fifteenth-century work into her very modern novel.
Holman's novel leaves Fabri feeling "disassembled," as if his faith "has been snapped into a hundred little pieces and left like a trail of bread crumbs across this pilgrimage." But just as he had followed bits of Saint Katherine across the desert to Sinai, he follows his crumbs of faith back home, determined to maintain faith even "in the face of indifference." Holman said she wrote the book "in the spirit of putting new flesh on old bones," and her novelization of Friar Felix Fabri's pilgrimage makes the dead monk's dry bones sing.
Edward E. Ericson, Jr., is professor of English at Calvin College. Bev Hogue is a doctoral candidate in American literature at Bowling Green State University. Mark Noll is inaugurating the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professorship of Evangelical Theological Studies this spring at Harvard Divinity School. Scott Thomas teaches in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Bath, England.
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.