In Brief: November 01, 1998
The East German Church and the End of Communism
by John P. Burgess
Oxford Univ. Press
185 pp.; $35
The Turned Card: Christianity Before and After the Fall
by Desmond O'Grady
Loyola Press, rev.
and expanded ed.
231 pp.; $22.95
Apart from Serbs smashing another ethnic neighbor in the former Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe is long gone from the newspapers, evening news, and consciousness of most Americans. The doughty, but struggling economies of the region hardly factor in the rush of goods and services that so captivates American perceptions of the wider world. With the breaking of the Marxist-steroid affinity, even sports in Eastern Europe have gone to pot. Croatia's surprising run in the World Cup is only the exception that proves that rule. This lack of concern by Americans for the regions of the former Soviet empire is a shame for generally human reasons, but also for specifically Christian concerns. In almost all of the former Communist countries, some form of Christian faith survived (often heroically) through the years of oppression, and in almost all of the countries today several forms of Christian faith are active in struggling for the souls of the people.
Yet books have not yet caught up to the Christian significance of what went on and has been going on in Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the former East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the former Yugoslavia. These two books, while a help, are at best propaedeutic for fuller studies yet to come. John Burgess spent a year and several shorter excursions in East Germany before 1989, and he has returned several times since the Wende of that year. His account is helpful on how theological discussions before 1989 prepared the way for Lutheran East Germans to handle difficult questions of political democratization after reunification. But the book is limited by its preoccupation with political process. Certainly the church's contribution to democratization is a valid theme, but it can hardly be as important as what the churches may have contributed under communism and may yet contribute in current circumstances as churches, that is, as purveyors of Word and sacrament pointing to the knowledge of God.
Desmond O'Grady's general account is broader, with its attention to Poland, Czech and Slovak lands, and some parts of the former Soviet regime. Although the activities of John Paul II enjoy a major place in the book, much space is also helpfully devoted to other, mostly Catholic, Orthodox, and Eastern Rite Catholic Christians who suffered one way under communism, and now in another way through struggles over the return of land, the exercise of political power, the election of former Communists, and the search for credible forms of piety. Yet O'Grady, who covers Catholic and European matters from Rome, writes self-consciously as a journalist and so does not dwell on longer-term forces and consequences. The spectacular events of 1989 woke up the whole world; it is a shame so many of us are so eager to fall back to sleep once the fireworks give way to the quotidian affairs in which enduring Christian life consists.
Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X
By Tom Beaudoin
198 pp.; $22
I was halfway through Tom Beaudoin's Virtual Faith when I stumbled across a pair of intriguing news items concerning forthcoming films with a religious bent. In one, Clerks director Kevin Smith dodged rumors that Alanis Morissette had been cast in the role of God in his next film, Dogma. In another, it was reported that Hal Hartley, director of such strangely spiritual films as Amateur and Henry Fool, had just finished—for French TV!--The Book of Life, in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene (the latter also played by an alternative rock musician, in this case P. J. Harvey) confront the Devil in present-day New York.
All of which tends to support the twin theses of Beaudoin's book: that the so-called Generation X is profoundly, if ambiguously, concerned with religious questions and symbols, and that the chief medium through which this generation engages with these questions and symbols is not the church but popular culture. In true postmodern fashion, Beaudoin—a 29-year-old graduate of Harvard Divinity School—argues that theology is both something to talk about and something to be lived, and must therefore be understood within its cultural context. Since Generation X was defined in its infancy, more than any previous generation, by the "amniotic fluid" of popular culture and the leisurely use of technology, it is in these avenues of personal (and therefore spiritual) expression that Xer theology is to be found.
Beaudoin focuses his attention on music videos, clothing fashions, and cyberspace communities to explore four key themes: disregard for institutions, emphasis on experience, the religious dimension of suffering, and the importance of ambiguity to faith. The earlier chapters read like an apologetic for popular culture in general. Beaudoin is, in effect, asking theologians to come down from the ivory tower and enter the mosh pit of day-to-day life. The fluidity and inconstancy of popular culture may not bode well for those who encourage more rigid and systematic theological constructs, but the fact that religious words and symbols persist so strongly within that fluidity is all the more proof that popular culture is profoundly engaged in some sort of theological quest. That quest is often critical of religious norms, but then, so is much of Christianity.
In the later chapters, Beaudoin turns things around; having defended his generation, he now defends his religious tradition (namely, Christianity, particularly of the Catholic variety) and encourages Xers to root their doubts and critiques within such a tradition. Beaudoin finds his "GenX theological credo" in Mark 9:24: "I believe; help my unbelief!" Such ambiguity is central to faith, Beaudoin argues, and it is through it that Xers and religious communities can rediscover and learn from one another.
How one is to resolve the tension between reverence and irreverence is left a little vague, and some of Beaudoin's suggestions go a bit too far. For example, drawing a link between Madonna's "Like a Prayer" and the eroticism with which Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila described their relationship with God, Beaudoin suggests that churches combine the music videos of one with the texts of the others, and thus help to bring about "the unabashed reintegration of sexuality and spirituality." No doubt some sort of reconciliation between sexuality and spirituality is needed in modern churches, but should someone as proudly promiscuous as Madonna be leading the way?
Nevertheless, Beaudoin drafts a generally compelling argument, and he draws on a wide, eclectic range of sources to make his point: Tori Amos, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Joan Osborne, Thomas Merton, Pearl Jam, and Rabbi Burton Visotzky all jostle for space in the bibliography. Apart from the above concerns, the book is marred only by a weakness for puns (a discourse on navel piercing gets particuarly out of control) and a lack of attention to non-Christian elements in Xer culture (the band name Nirvana didn't exactly come from the Bible).
And oddly, Beaudoin pays little attention to movies. Perhaps, compared to the easy availability of Web sites and music videos, independent films—the ones most likely to reflect Xer sensibilities and to tap into the religious substream that so concerns Beaudoin—are less "popular" than other aspects of "popular culture." Still, it would be interesting to see what he'd make of, say, Whit Stillman's use of hymns in The Last Days of Disco.
—Peter T. Chattaway
Elysium—A Gathering of Souls: New Orleans Cemeteries
Photographs by Sandra Russell Clark
Foreword by Andrei Codrescu
Introduction by Patricia Brady
Louisana State Univ. Press
144 pp.; $39.95
This collection of photographs taken in New Orleans cemeteries is cunningly packaged, with a wry foreword by the well-known writer and National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu and the word souls prominently featured on its dust jacket, calculated to sell, sell, sell. The photographs themselves are austerely formal, in a visual idiom often employed to evoke the spirit world. The darkness of their shadows suggests evil lurking in the afterworld, while the light peeking out between cracks and around objects offers the hope that good will finally triumph.
Despite all that, I am bored by these pictures. I live in New Orleans, and I'm not invulnerable to the seductive romance of the city's unique cemeteries. But neither the actual world of the cemeteries nor the reality of death itself is revealed in these photographs. Guidebooks rightly warn visitors never to go into the cemeteries alone, due to the high rate of violent crime. Group cemetery tours are available from many different organizations, but these are not peaceful walks in remembrance of loved ones; rather, they are based on themes ranging from the spooky to the downright evil.
New Orleans is a city in which joie de vivre and violent death go hand in hand. Death is more visible in daily life here than anywhere else in North America. If Americans in general prefer to keep death out of sight, out of mind, New Orleans stylizes death and keeps it in the foreground. The living dead have been made fashionable by novelist Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire) and her many devotees; traffic patterns are often interrupted by jazz funeral processions; and the daily news almost always starts with murder. The structural beauty, sordid history, and crime-ridden present of the cemeteries of New Orleans could serve as a point of departure for a serious meditation on our ambiguous traffic with the dead, but this handsomely produced book is content to settle for the interplay of light and shadow in a graveyard.
Can a Good Christian Be a Good Lawyer?
Edited by Thomas F. Baker
and Timothy W. Floyd
Univ. of Notre Dame Press
218 pp.; $35, hardcover; $20, paper
How many lawyers does it take to answer the question, "Can a Good Christian Be a Good Lawyer?" Answer: How many can you afford? According to two law professors at Texas Tech, it will take at least 21 lawyers, law professors, judges, and a certain independent counsel thrown in for good measure. Arguing that "the practice of law for too many lawyers presents either a Faustian bargain or a Godfather's offer," the editors present an alternative by way of meditations, case histories, and exhortations on the integration of one's faith and legal practice. While the primary intended audience is clearly lawyers, the lessons taught, experiences shared, and questions raised offer much insight to all those seeking to make their occupation a bona fide calling of the Lord.
Divided into "homilies," "witnesses," and "reflections," the book answers the title question in the affirmative. But the predominant theme is the lawyer's struggle to reconcile the sometimes opposing expectations of one's Maker and the world. Although the chapters are fairly brief, they offer plenty to ponder and so are probably better read as part of one's devotional time rather than straight through in a weekend sitting.
Abraham Lincoln, our most famous self-taught lawyer, once noted that a person who wants to practice law should "resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer." Baker and Floyd prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the temptations of the legal profession can be resisted by men and women who do not see money and power as the summum bonum of human existence. The tension between the law's highest aims and its meanest possibilities can be resolved by the Christian lawyer, if only by the grace of God.
The Mennonite Experience in America
General editor, Theron F. Schlabach
Vol. 1: Land, Piety, Peoplehood:
The Establishment of Mennonite
Communities in America, 1683-1790
By Richard K. MacMaster
1985, 343 pp.
Vol. 2: Peace, Faith, Nation:
Mennonites and Amish in
By Theron F. Schlabach
1988, 415 pp.
Vol. 3: Vision, Doctrine, War:
Mennonite Identity and
Organization in America,
By James C. Juhnke
1989, 394 pp.
Vol. 4: Mennonites in American Society,
1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence
of Religious Community
By Paul Toews
1996, 441 pp.
Herald Press, each $19.99
It is not quite true of the Mennonites, what Edmund Morgan once claimed was true about the American Puritans—that historical fixation had reached the point where there now existed approximately one good book for every single Puritan who had ever lived. But it is close. Among the most successful users of, and contributors to, the riches of Mennonite historiography are the authors of the recently completed series, The Mennonite Experience in America.
Several of these books have been available for some time, but the publication of the fourth and final volume, as well as the availability of the whole series in a reasonably priced paperback set from Herald Press, is an occasion for both congratulation and reflection. The books as a whole are distinguished by clear, accessible writing. Well-chosen illustrations enhance the narratives. Their broad coverage takes in the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren, several varieties of Amish, and several other Old Order groups as well.
Especially useful are accounts of Mennonites during America's many wars, when the peace testimony of the tradition produced heroism, self-doubt, and confusion, often in just about equal measure. Equally valuable is the story of how consistent preoccupation with Scripture and steadily growing missionary efforts eventually brought Mennonites into closer contact with American evangelicals. That engagement, as well as broader contacts gained through education, wealth, and mobility, pose questions about the maintenance of identity that the later volumes treat sensitively. Mennonites who read these volumes may chuckle ruefully at the many foibles they honestly reveal; non-Mennonite readers should give thanks for a people who have faithfully maintained, along with lots of simple ethical insularity, a living vision of Christian faithfulness itself.
By Kim Stanley Robinson
516 pp.; $24.95
Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica, published in the United Kingdom last year, came out in the United States this summer. Robinson, a prolific and much honored science-fiction writer, spent six weeks in Antarctica on a grant from the National Science Foundation, and this novel mirrors his own experience, living in survival conditions at Antarctica's McMurdo base camp.
In most hard sci-fi, the nuts and bolts of technology and scientific innovation provide the real show. Any enlightenment achieved by the characters in such books is the product of sheer intellectual muscle. Antarctica adheres to this principle. "Scientists are smart people," one character tells Wade, a politico on a fact-finding trip. "They know that knowledge can become power, and with the power that science wields in this world, they control things." So far, this is standard sci-fi fare.
But Robinson introduces an innovation. In Antarctica, the scientist continues, there are "no distractions. … You can see what really is true, naked out here." This is the central thesis of Antarctica: truth is found in the physical landscape, and although this is the case everywhere on earth, elsewhere the trappings of society interfere with our comprehension of the earth itself. "[Antarctica's] people are full of passion," writes Russell Letson in the June 1998 issue of Locus, the bible of the sci-fi and fantasy community. "And they are operating in an environment whose raw sensory impact runs right off the scale." That sensory impact, undiluted by smog, pavement, or skyscraper, serves as Robinson's revealed truth.
Each of the characters in Antarctica searches for meaning in the utopia of Antarctic cold: Wade, the political adviser checking out Antarctica so that his senatorial boss will know how to deal with various treaty proposals, is looking for a place where reality and policy intersect; Val, the tour guide, is searching for a reason to make the best of things, an attitude taught to her by her dead mother and grandmother. "Making the best of things," Val thinks, "was what courage meant … right action in the face of life." X, Val's ex-lover, is wandering directionless through his duties as General Field Assistant for an exploration company. "Alienated, anonymous," he thinks as he drives a SPOT train through the white landscape, " … the Good for Anything, The Man with No Name." (Robinson's symbolism is hardly subtle.) And then there is Ta Shu, a practitioner of feng shui, who is relaying his Antarctic journey back to millions of viewers in East Asia via fibervideo. In the David Carradine/Kung Fu tradition, he periodically interrupts the narrative with metaphysical musings. "We live an hour," he intones, "and it is always the same. No distractions to the spirit. A white plain to infinity."
Eventually, the characters discover a set of "ferals," back-to-the-land settlers living in the ice, consuming only what they need to survive, and demanding that Antarctica be respected as the last unspoiled place. The respectful posture of these ferals toward the earth provides each character with an answer of sorts. Val joins the ferals, Wade manages to negotiate a protective treaty that will protect their attempts to live off the land, X stops drifting and takes charge of an ecologically sound exploration company, and Ta Shu drones the moral of the tale: "Ice like white paper before the first brush stroke. The original emptiness from which all begins."
Robinson suggests that the feral relationship to the land provides answers for us as well: All mankind should "go feral" to some extent, matching production exactly to the consumption each person needs to live. Keeping human populations small, living off the land at subsistence level without doing it damage; this, Robinson writes, is enlightenment, "sacred inhabitation … joyful or worshipful living in a land—to be the land's human expression and part of its consciousness, along with the rest of its animal and plant consciousnesses." Robinson denies that he takes a utopian point of view, but anyone who writes, "The whole world must be treated as a wilderness . …Even Manhattan can be made a wilderness of a certain kind" certainly qualifies.
Like much hard sci-fi, Antarctica is tough going for nonaddicts. But Robinson is a standout (his Mars trilogy turned him into a guru, with Newsweek, the New York Times, and PBS all asking for his opinion on man's relationship to Mars), and Antarctica may have a visible effect on the genre. Recent cover stories in the newsmagazines have suggested that science itself is beginning to incorporate spirituality into its world-view (albeit a vague and nondemanding type of spirituality). Perhaps Antarctica is the first of a new type of hard sci-fi novel, one that acknowledges the unseen dimensions of life. But there's no reason to think that this unseen dimension will resemble the one in which Christians live.
—Susan Wise Bauer
Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of political science and history at John Brown University. Heidi Neff is a painter living in New Orleans.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.