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.
Sarah Ruden may be my favorite author. It’s not that I’ve read everything she’s written—her main oeuvre is translation of classics such as the Aeneid, and I find all the classics hard going. (The Aeneid is something that you know you should read—in college, I read the Cliffs Notes instead, and have felt guilty ever since). It’s not that I agree with Ruden on politics (she’s a liberal, though a thinking, nuanced one, as far as I can tell) or very closely on religion (she’s a devout Quaker, and there is only some overlap there with my Crusader-oriented theology, though we’re both Christian). I think that, ultimately, it’s two things. First, her work is original and fascinating, which in itself is a great deal. But, combined with the second element, the charm and humor that shines through her work, the reader of her books feels like he’s sitting down for a few hours of conversation in a nerdy version of the Dos Equis commercial—the Most Interesting Woman in the World (or second most interesting, after …
The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book. Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society. This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.
We tend to think of Christianity’s global spread as somehow predestined. A little thought, of course, shows this to be far from the truth. In fact, many cultures have strongly resisted the message of the Gospel—most dramatically with violence and the creation of martyrs, but sometimes more successfully with intellectual arguments against the truth of Christianity. For example, Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence shows the torture and martyrdom of Christians—but it also shows vigorous and successful Japanese efforts to combat Christianity intellectually. In the Preface to this 2003 second edition of The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, the author, Robert Louis Wilken, ruefully relates that the Japanese translator of the first (1984) edition ascribed the book’s success in Japan to that it “has given Japanese intellectuals new arguments against Christianity.” This book, therefore, proves three things—that there are internally coherent intellectual arguments against Christianity, that those have been made for thousands of years, and that Christians equally have thousands of years of sound intellectual answers to those arguments.