In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, it is not only political beliefs that are getting a fresh look from a lot of people, but beliefs about all aspects of human life. These include the beliefs of traditional Christians in America, whose options for Christ-centered communal worship within an organized framework narrow every day. The Roman church is both corrupt and led by that man of perdition, Jorge Bergoglio; the degradation of ecclesiastical Protestantism is complete; evangelicals offer only Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or obeisance to Trumpian caesaropapism. This leaves as the last institution standing the Orthodox Church, which shows no signs of trimming its sails to modernism and for whom Saint John Chrysostom might as well as have died yesterday. Hence the recent surge in popularity of this 2001 book, a modern exposition of Orthodox spirituality, written by a man with a foot in both the West and the East.
Exhaustively documented, and in some ways just exhausting, though at the same time exhilarating, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a towering achievement. It synthesizes centuries of history and multiple avenues of thought to analyze how we arrived at certain negative aspects of modernity. Gregory’s claim is that we got here as the result of the unintended consequences of choices made in response to “major, perceived human problems.” Those choices were, initially, the Reformation’s religious choices, which ran counter to the entire worldview of medieval Christianity. But the Reformation did not solve the problems—it made them worse, in a declining spiral, accelerated and exacerbated by subsequent secularization, itself partially the result of the Reformation. The result is a world in which the ability of humans to find meaning in their lives has been crippled, rather than enhanced. We would, implicitly, be better off with something more like the High Medieval synthesis destroyed by Martin Luther.
Ross Douthat has a job that is, I would guess, either enviable or unpleasant, depending on the day—that of being the only regular conservative contributor to the New York Times. A frequent focus of Douthat’s is that most counter-cultural of doctrines, orthodox Roman Catholicism. If you want to suffer, you need only visit the comments section in the Times for any Douthat column, especially one on Catholicism. Exposing yourself to the firehose of bile and stupidity there will show you what Purgatory will be like, although perhaps Purgatory will be an improvement. Undaunted, Douthat now offers a full-length book on the changes being brought about by Pope Francis.
As I so often complain, the quality of modern discourse is atrocious. Probably this is due to everyone being told for decades that his opinion always matters, along with a belief that democracy means all opinions are equally valid regardless of reasoning, capped off by modern avenues of communication that allow easy, free broadcasting of stupidity, when in the past dumb people had very limited ability to force the rest of us listen. Worthless discourse exists across the political spectrum, of course, although that the Left dominates popular media means the average person probably has to suffer more from being bathed in drivel from that side of the spectrum. A subset of this general problem is that religious discourse is of equally low level, though rather (in most cases) being vicious irrationality, it is vacuous irrationality. It is this vacuous irrationality, at its core the idea that God is “nice,” that Roman Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner is here to dismantle, in this brief and accessible book.
I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read. It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way. It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters. The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia. On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia. And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.
It is universally accepted today that the Dark Ages are a myth, roughly as believable as the Australian bunyip. In fact, medieval Europe was far more dynamic and far more intelligent than it was once portrayed. Certainly, post-Roman Europe underwent material decline, and it temporarily lost the high culture, and high thought, of Rome. But soon enough it began to rebound and expand, both geographically and mentally. Johannes Fried’s main theme in this book, which covers A.D. 500—1500, is the rebirth of “mental acuity and of methodically controlled thinking” in the West, and the creation thereby of a new thing, from which the modern world is made.
Wallace Stegner, writer about the American West, is famous mostly for his novel Angle of Repose. This book is not famous, but it is worth reading. Mormon Country is a travelogue centered on the areas settled by the Mormons—basically Utah, of course, but also parts of Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico. It is not a book about Mormons, though they appear prominently; it is about the country, as it was in the 1930s. Stegner did not write this book to make a point. There is no ideological overlay, and Stegner is neither pushing nor denigrating Mormonism. He was not Mormon, but he respects them and their culture. Mormon Country draws a picture of the area and its history, as of the time of writing, and offers intriguing tales (many of which have modern postscripts).
This book is ferociously erudite, but tinged with obsession. True, nearly all modern academic and popular mention of Muslim Spain endorses an easily disproved falsehood—that Muslim Spain was a golden land of tolerance, offering unique scientific and cultural advancement. So I suppose that the opposite falsehood, that Muslim Spain was a nasty land of unbroken intolerance where nothing was accomplished, in a sense merely balances the scales. But a reader of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise still feels like he’s once again only getting part of the picture, and getting berated into the bargain, rather than getting what most readers really want, which is an analysis that is as objective as possible.
Most of us, or so I like to think in order to feel better about myself, steer away from actually reading St. Augustine. We know that he is an intellectual giant and one of the handful of core, key thinkers of Christianity, but everything he has to say seem so dense, and wasn’t he the mean proto-Calvinist who thought unbaptized infants go straight to Hell? Not to mention that, after all, it was all so long ago and far away. Like a lot of people, I own several works by Augustine, but mostly to show my erudition, not for, you know, actual reading. But after completing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, I think I’m inspired, or at least impelled, to sit down, concentrate, and read some of Augustine’s works. Assuming the feeling doesn’t pass, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.
This book is pure hagiography. While I suppose hagiography has its uses, mostly to gull and overawe the under-educated, I dislike hagiography. But at least it can be good hagiography; it can be great literature by towering men of intellect, or if not that, at least it can interest and inform the reader. Not this book, though, which is unrelievedly bad on every level, and whose only virtue is extreme brevity.