Tim Cawkwell has a new book out, Film Past, Film Future: an enquiry into cinema & the imagination. Go here for the Amazon link. Tim has been a gracious correspondent over the past year or so, engaging in conversation & encouragement. I sent him an email with a link to this site, & he wrote back, & I now look forward to a semi-regular correspondance. His site contains lots of stuff to keep you busy for a while, including some fine reflections on the films of Robert Bresson. His first book, The Filmgoer’s Guide to God, is a fine consideration of how cinema has portrayed religious themes & stories. His new book is available as a Kindle edition. I posted a brief review on Amazon; here it is.
Tim Cawkwell, author of The Filmgoer’s Guide to God, considers in his latest work what makes cinema unique as an art form, “as good as written fiction, as painting, as opera.” Against critics who claim that cinema is the ugly half-sister to these fairer maidens, incapable of engaging the imagination as fruitfully as they, Cawkwell explores the different ways film enables us to experience the world in new ways. I’ve enjoyed Cawkwell’s previous work, both on his website (which contains essays & shorter pieces; he’s especially good on the French director Robert Bresson), & in Filmgoer’s Guide, where he reveals himself to be a perceptive writer who has obviously spent considerable time & effort thinking about film. In Film Past, Film Future there are illuminating discussions of several topics, & most readers conversant with the history of cinema will find something to interest them. I found especially profitable Cawkwell’s contrast between Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc” & Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” & his consideration of Bresson’s famously minimalistic approach to acting when compared with the equally famous, & powerfully emotional, performance of Maria Falconetti as Joan in Dreyer’s silent film. Cawkwell suggests a middle course between Bresson & a more theatrical approach, “with director & actor collaborating on finding the nuances appropriate to a particular character or narrative in which the inexpressive may play a crucial role.” And because the book is concerned with future directions for film, he looks at how what some might consider an impasse between differing directorial styles might be successfully navigated.
Other highlights in this book include Cawkwell’s chapter on how Holocaust films, whose critics insist that film is an inappropriate medium for a tragedy of such proportions, can in fact educate & move the viewer in ways impossible for other media. He surveys the history of Holocaust films, documentaries & dramas, discusses their virtues & weaknesses, & concludes with the claim that, for all that film can accomplish, the troubling metaphysical dimensions of the Holocaust “is not something that film has been able to capture at all, & may never do so, since it may only take a verbal argument, not a visual depiction, to elaborate and explore what is at stake.” This is not to give up on the cinema, however, as Cawkwell cites the Passions of J.S. Bach as artistic examples that both dramatize & reflect upon a story of great suffering in fruitful ways. The final chapter includes a discussion of which director we might consider the cinematic Shakespeare, a talent so obvious as set him above the rest. Cawkwell briefly surveys the work of the usual suspects in this type of conversation—Tarkovsky, Ford, Renoir, Dreyer, & the figure many might consider the strongest candidate, Hitchcock—before wisely acknowledging the prematurity of such a judgment. Historical distance & perspective are necessary, & cinema’s short history makes both difficult. “Will there be a book in the twenty-fifth century entitled ‘John Ford Our Contemporary’?” he asks, noting the obstacles to making sweeping judgments across cultures & eras.
“Of what is cinema capable?” is an open-ended question that, for some, can get tangled in commercial realities. It is easy to ignore or dismiss the contributions of the directors & films Cawkwell discusses when confronted by summer blockbuster propaganda & endless sequels. Film Past, Film Future raises for me the question of how the novelty & innovation within not only cinema, but all art forms, can be judged in light of the past. How many examples are there of dismissal by experts of artistic innovations on the grounds that they are abominations of form, unnecessary attempts by unskilled practitioners to advance the possibilities of an art form? Cinema seems to be in a unique position, not only given its recent vintage, but also because of how quickly it has advanced technically & how easily it can be manipulated for commercial purposes. Cawkwell is right to proceed cautiously with regard to cinema’s creative prospects, & also to praise the many accomplishments we’ve already beheld. I plan on seeing Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” for the third time tonight with friends who have been discussing the film for weeks, & I am curious as to what I will see during this viewing. Whether or not you liked this film, it is hard to deny that it engages you in multiple ways; I can’t imagine someone watching this film attentively without engaging in discussion afterward. What is the precise impact of a film like this? What effect does the cinematography, music score, & voiceovers have? I’m not sure. There are metaphysical pursuits here, & like films about the Holocaust, the film maker, critic, & viewer, like the theologian & philosopher, will have to consider howe it is we humans seek to articulate our deepest concerns. Many film goers, & critics, prescind from such challenges, content to escape into two hours of forgetfulness & entertainment. But surely the presence of films like “The Tree of Life,” along with the many films Cawkwell discusses throughout his book, alerts us to possibilities inherent in this new medium. Why is it we think so highly of Bach, whom Cawkwell references in his discussion of the limits of film in dealing with thorny metaphysical questions like the problem of evil & suffering? How can we explain how we are moved beyond the merely visceral level? What exactly is it that art does to us, &, following Cawkwell’s lead in Film Past, Film Future, what might it be capable of doing to us in the future? Art keeps moving, transformed by new visions, technical achievements, & commercial interests. Cinema, in just over a century’s time, has given us numerous reasons to doubt those who see the medium as incapable of engaging our imaginations in deep & meaningful ways. If the French Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson is correct, that art is a means of creating forms for interpreting the world, & that the human being as artist is constantly seeking new & improved forms to render his comprehension, we have good reason to look back at the short history of cinema & expect a rich future, especially with directors like Terrence Malick experimenting with visual narrative in such interesting ways. I agree with Cawkwell that it is far too early to know what the impact of cinema has been, much less what it will be in the future, but books like his are helpful points of departure for those of us who have been captivated by movies & wonder why.
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“The novelist is required to create the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it, & the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian & the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.
Whatever the novelist sees in the way of truth must first take on the form of his art & must become embodied in the concrete & the human. If you shy away from sense experience, you will not be able to read fiction; but you will not be able to apprehend anything else in the world either, because every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses. Christ didn’t redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, & he speaks to us now through the mediation of a visible Church. All this may seem a long way from the subject of fiction, but it is not, for the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.”
Flannery O’Connor wrote this in her essay “Catholic Novelists & Their Readers,” found in Mystery & Manners, a collection of essays & addresses that complements her stories, novels, & letters. O’Connor is one of God’s gifts to not only the Church, but to what is sometimes still called “letters,” meaning literature or, more broadly, erudition. Why she is not better known by Catholics is a good question. I’ve heard people lament how modern culture has gone pagan & is attacking the faith of the Church & leading our youth astray, all the while never bothering to check out O’Connor & other authors who are serious Christian artists. At times lunacy follows, as when a Bishop (!) actually forbids O’Connor’s use in high school courses (check out this story for the gruesome details).
In her essays on fiction O’Connor highlights her conviction, dramatized in her fiction, that one of the principal ways God speaks to us is through our encounters with the world around us, including the at times odd & unsavory characters that populate our surroundings. As Pope John Paul II emphasize so often in his lectures on the Theology of the Body, the natural world we inhabit is not insignificant for our “spiritual” lives, but is in fact the means by which have spiritual lives at all. Grace does not bypass nature, but works through and perfects it. This is the incarnational logic of Christianity, which compels us, in O’Connor’s view, to portray the natural world more clearly. The Catholic novelist is thus concerned “with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.” This view explains why O’Connor could express such impatience with Catholic authors of little ability writing in hope of edifying their readers. Their works often “leave out half or three-fourths of the facts of human existence & are therefore not true either to the mysteries we know by faith or those we perceive simply by observation.” The Catholic novelist, &, by extension, the artist who is a Christian seeking to be faithful to God, has an obligation to the natural, not just the spiritual. The two are not opposed, as John Paul II emphasized in his critiques of the dualism that still haunts Catholic thought & life. While O’Connor is talking about a different set of topics, she shares John Paul’s concerns to preserve the sacramentality of the world that, though fallen, is “charged with the grandeur of God,” in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yes, things are bad. As Hopkins writes,
“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
Yet “nature is never spent”, for reasons Hopkins goes on to describe. Again, grace doesn’t work outside of or against nature, but in & through it, perfecting it, in part through helping us to see it more clearly. Thus, the Catholic novelist, poet, dramatist, filmmaker, painter, etc. has a greater obligation than the materialist to portray the natural, since he understands the universe to be a far more expansive reality than something that can be simplistically reduced to natural laws working on mere physical matter. The materialist does a disservice to physical matter by so reducing it, as the hedonist fails to understand physical pleasures by limiting their scope. “We are far too easily pleased,” CS Lewis preached in “The Weight of Glory.” We fail to acknowledge the fuller significance of the earthly pleasure we enjoy in drink, sex, whatever. Sensible delights urge us beyond themselves, & in what appears as a mysterious act of vengeance turn sour on us when we refuse their deeper call.
What makes art “Catholic” or “Christian”? This is a broad question, one O’Connor wrestled with in several of her essays & letters. One important feature of all Christian art, however, is its honesty in engaging with life as lived in its quotidian routines. In O’Connor’s fiction, this brings the reader into the company of some strange folk & situations. She felt it necessary to write the way she did because her stories dramatize the ability of grace to blast through the barriers we, & her characters, erect against it. If her stories shock us, so much the better. Hers is not the only way, of course, to portray our world or God’s actions within it. But in her avoidance of the pretty & what she saw as the over-pious in too much that was classified as Catholic fiction, she provided an example for all aspiring Catholic artists.
Where to go for her writings? Here are some links:
1. The Library of America has a one-volume edition that contains the stories, the 2 novels, & a selection of essays & letters. For $35, less on Amazon, you have a good place to begin.
2. Or, you can go piece by piece. The Complete Stories contain just that, & for $18 give you everything youd pay almost twice as much for if you buy separately the 2 volumes of stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find & Everything That Rises Must Converge.
3. Mystery & Manners is a must. Essays on fiction, along with a masterful piece on the redemptive significance of suffering.
4. The Habit of Being is the title of her collected letters. As Anna Freud said about her father, if you want to know the man, read the letters. In O’Connor’s case, swap out man for woman, & the idea fits.
5. A recent volume highlights thematically issues O’Connor addressed in her letters & essays, with brief excerpts from the novels & stories. Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings also includes the full text of “Revelation,” one of her most celebrated stories. This volume is a nice addition to one’s library, & contains a helpful introduction, but is probably best used by those who already know O’Connor’s work.
Check out Plough Publishing for a nice selection of free ebooks, including The Gospel in Dostoyevsky, which contains choice extracts from the novels, Provocations, an introduction to the spiritual writings of Soren Kierkegaard, & The Violence of Love, a selection of excerpts from the writings, speeches, & sermons of Oscar Romero.
Plough is an organization & publisher in the Anabaptist tradition, though their books include a wide variety from outside that tradition.
This is from MercatorNet, an excellent news & education resource. Looks very promising for parents with young readers.
“We are launching a new blog this week, Reading Matters. We all know that kids need to read more — but what? Where can you find titles that are interesting, age-appropriate and uplifting? Here at MercatorNet, that’s where. Check it out and subscribe to the regular updates. Jennifer Minicus, the coordinator, would love to hear from you if you want to contribute reviews (jennifer.minicus@MercatorNet.com).”
Go here for the site: http://www.mercatornet.com/bookreviews/
Nice article by Ralph C. Wood of Baylor University on 2 recent books on Dostoevsky. Title: “Fyodor Dostoevsky on Living the Iconic Life.” This link is for a PDF.
I have next to me Jacques’ copy of the Rowan Williams book discussed by Wood in the article. Whatever else you can say about the Archbishop of Canterbury, he is a perceptive theologian & critic (here’s a link to his site). This is a book that seems like it will take considerable time & effort to digest. It also includes a “Series Introduction.” On the back cover you’ll find “The Making of the Christian Imagination” right above the imprint for Baylor University Press. Here’s what the press website says about this series (go here for the page):
“The Making of the Christian Imagination (MCI) series aims to highlight figures of that great tradition of post-biblical writers and artists who, in very different ages and cultures, have continued the dialogue begun within the pages of the New Testament. Philosophy and theology alike are vital to Christianity – but the greatest of such works rarely transcend their time. What lives from the past is more often imagination than argument, and more often than we sometimes suppose, argument has been shaped by imagination rather than vice versa. The books in this series are written in a jargon-free style and seek to examine the figures in question and their imaginative creations, sympathetically, but not uncritically.”
Wood himself has a book on GKC due out in December titled Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God. Great subject, great title; Wood is an interesting guy, with books on Tolkien & Flannery O’Connor that are well-reviewed. Here’s a link to his page on Amazon.
Servais Pinckaers is a name known by students of Catholic moral theology, & one that should be known by anyone seeking to better understand the Christian life & how to grow closer to God. The following are all worthy of close reading & rereading:
1. The Sources of Christian Ethics. This is his best-known work, & for good reason. Nearly 500 pages long, this is something of a classic on the history of Christian moral reflection & the need for a return to the approach taken by writers like St. Augustine & St. Thomas, an approach that begins with the longing for happiness or beatitude that marks each human heart. Closely argued, persuasive, & balanced, its reputation is well-deserved. You’ll learn a lot about a lot by reading this carefully.
2. Morality: The Catholic View. A handy precis of the above book. Provides a brief overview of the history of moral reflection, along with Pinckaers’ attempt to recall us to a genuine understanding of happiness as the starting point for that reflection. A good place to start if you want to see what he is up to. Maybe the cover is a bit much (fall foliage? really?), but what can you do?
3. The Pursuit of Happiness—God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes. This focuses on the Sermon on the Mount as the “charter of the Christian life” & the Beatitudes as the promises & challenges that draw us into the happiness that God desires for us. Some great stuff on the virtues, as well. This is material Pinckaers covers in varying lengths in his other works, though here it is presented in longer form. The book is a good devotional read, in the best sense of the word. Which means it is neither sappy nor sentimental, but learned, bracing, & directed at the heart, all at the same time.
Pinckaers is a rigorous scholar, which will lead some to avoid his work, especially the longer book. He is also deeply interested in helping believers grow in faith, hope, & love, & writes accordingly. This will lead some to avoid all but the longer work. That’s too bad, as both his scholarly & popular works are well-informed, articulate works written in the service of Christ & his Church. He is what Richard John Neuhaus would call an ecclesial theologian, which is a high compliment indeed.
In all these works Pinckaers carefully distinguishes between the different understandings of happiness, rejecting the selfish versions & endorsing the broader, biblical one. Along the way he treats us to helpful discussions of pleasure & joy, the origins & development of “moralities of obligation,” the wisdom of the biblical teaching on blessedness, & how any authentically Christian morality will be rooted in God’s transforming work through the Holy Spirit. A biblically-rooted & historically-informed moral theology that is inspiring & edifying: what more could the reader ask for?
The Annotated Pride & Prejudice, annotated & edited by David M. Shapard, is a helpful guide to many of the manners, customs, & idiosyncracies of the Age of Austen. The book has over 700 pages, with Austen’s text on one page & Shapard’s notes on the facing page. Some of the notes are rather obvious, as when Shapard informs us that the term “easy,” referring to Elizabeth’s manners, means “relaxed, easy-going.” No kidding. This is a fairly frequent occurrence, & may bother some readers. Yet I think the book is, on the whole, an excellent addition to the library of anyone who enjoys the work of Jane Austen, especially this work, her most celebrated. I came to Austen late, & have devoured her works & searched for valuable reference books that can open up Austen’s world & writings. Chick-lit my eye; her novels are masterpieces of English prose. Shapard’s book, which includes a very helpful chronology of the events of the novel, contains many nice touches & some very helpful discussions of the language & ethos of the period.
There is now another annotated edition of Pride & Prejudice, this one by Patricia Meyer Spacks. Spacks is the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Persuasion; interestingly, Shapard has an annotated edition of Persuasion out this fall (Sense & Sensibility, too, in Spring 2011!). A happy coincidence for avid readers of Austen.
Just a few notes on reference works for those interested in getting further into the world of Jane Austen & her characters. Joan Klingel Ray has written a first-rate guide to Austen as part of the Dummies series. Jane Austen for Dummies is much better than than the title, & series, implies. Ray served as President of the Jane Austen Society of North America from 2000-2006 & knows a thing or two about Austen. Another helpful guide is All Things Austen: A Concise Encyclopedia of Austen’s World by Kirsten Olsen, an abridgement of the larger, 2-volume work by the same author. Entries are alphabetized, & cover everything from behavior, education & intellectual life, people & places, to food, drink, the household, clothing, & finances. You can purchase the larger work new for $158, or the abridged edition for $30. And finally, a nice collection of essays on the novels & major topics is found in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. These books have helped me out, & are accessible, authoritative, & affordable additions to the library of the non-specialist who wants to better understand Jane Austen & her work. Cheers.
Hans Urs von Balthasar is a name that increasingly evokes curiosity from people interested in Catholic theology & culture. A problem one encounters is that the guy is both difficult to read, & difficult to start reading. With all those books, where does one begin? He has his famous trilogy, consisting of the 7-volume theological aesthetics (The Glory of the Lord), the 5-volume Theodrama, & the 3-volume Theologic. Then there are the studies of individual theologians & authors, such as George Bernanos, Romano Guardini, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus Confessor, Karl Barth, Thérèse of Lisieux & Elizabeth of the Trinity, & Adrienne von Speyer. From there. . .; well, there’s a lot to sort through, & it’s diverse & terribly interesting. Some say it’s also some of the most important work by a Catholic theologian in the 20th century.
It’s often said thatLove Alone is Credible is a good entry point for those interested in discovering Balthasar. Good luck with that. It’s a great little book, filled with insights about a great many things historical & theological, but hardly the place to begin for the uninitiated. It’s a bit too dense, & assumes more information about Christian theology than most readers are likely to have. A better place to start is perhaps Engagement with God, which is more accessible in that it presupposes less & is written in a more inviting style. In Balthasar’s case it also makes some sense to read a helpful secondary source, ideally one that doesn’t either oversimplify or lose the beginner in a sea of theological jargon. Is such a guide out there? According to several leading Balthasar scholars, Rodney Howsare’s Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed is precisely that book. Howsare is one of several young scholars writing on Balthasar & his significance for Catholic theology & beyond. His first book was a study of the implications of Balthasar’s thought for ecumenism, and he edited, with another young, though more crotchety, Balthasar guy, Larry Chapp , a collection of essays titled How Balthasar Changed My Mind: 15 Scholars Reflect on the Meaning of Balthasar for Their Own Work. (Both these guys teach theology at St. Francis de Sales University just outside Allentown, PA., &, truth be told, they ain’t all that young; though I’ve heard somewhere they can knock down a few & get crazy with chiminea fires.) Yours truly contributed an essay to that volume, making it a must-buy. Scholars must still be pondering & wrestling with the meaning & implications of my essay, as I have yet to see any responses in print.
At any rate, Howsare’s guide is a first-rate introduction that nicely situates Balthasar in 20th-century thought, & takes the reader through the significant texts & topics. There’s also a nice section at the end of the book suggesting further reading. Not an easy thing to do, writing a readable guide to such a voluminous writer. Those interested in Balthasar, & there is a growing number of people with such an interest, would be well served by reading this fine book. The cover is butt-ugly, but since you don’t judge books by their cover, just look away. Here’s a couple comments that appear on the back of the book that illustrate how the book is being received:
‘This down to earth introduction achieves the remarkable feat of being illuminating both for the cognoscenti and for beginners. It is the best book on von Balthasar that’s out there. Guiding us through deep theological waters with a light touch, Howsare makes von Balthasar’s ideas accessible without distorting them. His method is to connect von Balthasar’s questions with ours, and it works. I strongly recommend this clear and unpretentious book for students and for anyone who wants to converse with von Balthasar’s thought. It should be on the reading list for any course on 20th century Christian theology.’
– Francesca Aran Murphy, Department of Divinity and Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
‘Rodney Howsare’s ‘Guide’ is an exceptionally lucid introduction to Balthasar’s main themes and the crucial issues for theology and philosophy raised by his work. The way Howsare relates Balthasarian thought to other theological schools is truly masterly. An enviable achievement.’
– Aidan Nichols, University of Oxford, UK
An additional note: Balthasar’s study of Thérèse of Lisieux begins with a lucid discussion of the call to holiness & how it is realized in the Church. As a former Protestant, I found the opening section of this book especially valuable for its treatment of life in the Church. And as an outsider to Balthasar, I’ve always been deeply impressed not only by his range of interests, but of the long list of topics he wrote authoritatively on. He is well-known for, & often badly misunderstood on, his emphasis on “kneeling theology,” & the disconnect in the Church’s modern history between the academic study of theology & the pursuit of sanctity. One of his aims in his study of Thérése is to offer a theological phenomenology which will rejuvenate theology through a “blood transfusion from hagiography.” Those who insist on separating theology from spirituality will find Balthasar unhelpful, too “old-fashioned.” Those who believe the theologian’s first & most important task is to think with the mind of the Church, made possible only through a life of prayer & charity, will be more favorably disposed. Good for them; they’re in the right. There’s every need for academic theology, but there’s no difficulty finding dozens upon dozens of such works that deserve the irrelevancy they are fated to, in part because they treat theology like any other discipline of study. This isn’t to say that more “spiritual” works are more valuable or better written; there are plenty of cloying, unreadable books written by sincere believers trying to work faithfully within the Church’s heart. The discipline of prayer & study is required to make contributions to theology, & Balthasar was one of those writers whose encounter with the Good, the True, & the Beautiful was articulated with style, fidelity to the Church, & the perceptiveness that only comes from careful study. I’ll finish here with a quote from Fr. Raymond Gawronski’s fine essay in How Balthasar Changed My Mind that, for me at least, draws one to the center of his concerns:
“Balthasar changed my mind by showing me that the mind is marvelous, & yet that the mind is not the last word: to be fruitful (& faithful), the mind must be grounded in the heart. For him, always averse to psychology, it was not a sentimental heart but rather the heart of Christ. He wrote that although there is a devotion to the Sacred Heart, there is no devotion to the Sacred Head in Catholicism, unless it is a head bloodied & crowned with thorns.”
David Bentley Hart’s recent book is not only another demonstration of the author’s mastery of the English language (at times I do covet his style; he reminds me a bit of Peter Brown, the scholar of early Christianity/late antiquity, in dropping sentences I wish I had written), but an insightful & occasionally profound consideration of a number of hot-button issues. One of the things I love about Hart is his refusal to suffer fools gladly. If someone says something ridiculously uninformed about God, faith, suffering, history, etc., Hart will happily ignore the misguided notion that academic protocol requires a tepid, even banal rebuttal. I find Hart a more generous critic than some might think, insofar as he reserves his heat for those who say things that result from laziness or ignorance. If the matter up for debate is contested for good reason, Hart is less severe in his replies. And, as his readers have probably noticed, he has tempered his tendency, annoying at times, to use abstruse vocabulary every other sentence. Prodding from editors? A response to friendly critics? I don’t know, but even if his prose still requires close attention, its elegance isn’t too often compromised by the reader’s need to consult a dictionary.
His latest book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Reviewers have noted that the title doesn’t quite speak to the book’s actual contents. Perhaps Yale University Press was trying to capitalize on the notoriety & success of the Dawkins book. A better use of The God Delusion, I suggest, is for the lining of a cat litter box or a bird cage. People
actually do read things like this & think they are wise, profound, or “important,” which is more troubling than the frequency with which Dawkins discusses matters beyond his ability to understand, much less elucidate. Which is one reason, though not the most important one, why Hart’s book is so helpful. One gets the impression that Hart has little interest in trying to “refute” Dawkins & his gang (“Ditchkins,” so christened by Terry Eagleton in his treatment of Dawkins, Christophers Hitchens, & similar felons), since there is little actual substance in their rantings. But they do touch a raw nerve, as they try to capitalize on stereotypes & misinformation that one often encounters. “Christianity is responsible for most everything that is bad in the world today” is repeated in numerous ways by all sorts of folks; my own high school students will sometimes offer comments to the effect that the Catholic Church hates women, Jews, science, progress, whatever, & has caused only grief wherever it has had any influence. Hart effectively bludgeons such nonsense with a relentless accounting of actual historical fact, & provides a more thorough & plausible account than other authors who, in their attempt to answer the “new” atheists, have written on how Christianity invented science, progress, civilization, & almost everything worth praising in Western societies.
There are numerous gems scattered throughout the pages of this book. The howlers in the work of Daniel Dennett on the “natural” origins of religion (as when he assumes that “natural” must always be opposed to “supernatural,” seemingly unaware of the notion of secondary causality) are brought to the surface for a well-deserved thrashing, & the oversights & misreadings of the well-respected Ramsey MacMullen on the early development of Christianity are carefully assessed. So, too, is the Galileo affair, which should no longer require the type of attention Hart gives it, even if it does still provide fodder for the uninformed. But what most impressed me about this book is Hart’s sensitivity to the ethos of the world of late antiquity in which Christianity first appeared. Read the paragraphs on Peter’s tears & you’ll be treated to a perceptive recognition of the quotidian realities that too many intellectual historians miss in their attempts to recount our past & reshape our present. Hart recognizes how the gospel changes everything, & is able to detect in the literary & cultural monuments of the past signs of a seismic shift of sensibilities that often took centuries to register, & that lesser minds today still can not discern, much less write intelligently about. As in his previous The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, a response to the outcry following the tsunami in 2004, Hart is able here to read between the lines of the popular editorializing we are forced to endure & help us to think more clearly about what Christianity says, how it has been interpreted, & why it is important. Likewise, his recognition that Christianity is hardly to blame for the failures of Christians to understand & live perfectly the full implications of the gospel makes better sense of the tensions inherent in a life being redeemed by Christ than does the petulant braying of critics too distracted by their animus to recognize what St. Paul meant when he exhorted us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The salutary cautions of C.S. Lewis in “Nice People or New Men?” from Mere Christianity are nicely echoed by Hart, & bear constant repeating, especially in the face of adolescent complaints regarding Christian failures.
This is a book that invites careful rereading & I look forward to giving it another go. If you have not read Hart before, in addition to this book try the book on the tsunami, along with his essay in First Things, “Christ and Nothing,” some of which is worked into Atheist Delusions. Reading Hart is a treat, as well as a challenge. Do keep a dictionary at hand, though.