Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 76-79.
Journal of a Soul: The Autobiography of Pope John XXIII. Translated by Dorothy White. Image/Doubleday. 453 pp. $14.95.
A new edition of John XXIII’s journals (originally printed in Italy in 1964 and in the United States in 1980) arrives just in time to help mediate the latest round in the perpetual struggle between competing views of his papacy, and of the great Council that he summoned. Mislabeled an "autobiography"—it is rather a compilation of journals kept by the Holy Father in the seminary and during retreats in the decades that followed his ordination—this volume is what the modern Christian might call a prayer journal. Indeed, the final pages include a wide variety of prayers written by John for particular intentions and devotions. In the seminary, young Angelo Roncalli made notations weekly, sometimes daily, while later his entries came only during annual retreats. The book is thus weighted toward the years long before he became Pope (or even bishop). Further, it contains nothing about his governance of the Church, or about his work before or during the Council for which he will always be remembered. And much of what was written takes the form of self–rebuke, often repeated almost verbatim. Year after year, he is inattentive at prayer. His mind wanders during the rosary. He talks too much. Lacks humility. Today’s reader must fight the urge to skim, rather than read, the many pages on which these reflections recur. Yet there are rewards for those who keep watch with him through these many nights. Perhaps in his dogged struggle to pray well, John will someday be the patron of those who try, fail, and try again. John XXIII never had a parish. He was a bishop’s secretary, a seminary professor, and then spent most of his life as a Vatican emissary to faraway places. He spent a decade in Bulgaria, where he says (with ad mirable care and charity) that nothing ever happened during ten long and boring years. Then it was off to Turkey, Greece, and France. He was a kindly presence in those venues, but there is no sense that he "accomplished" anything at all. John was named a bishop in early life (to give him the necessary diplomatic rank), but didn’t get a diocese until he was in his seventies. In his book Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy calls Roncalli "a genial Vatican diplomat who had been made Patriarch [of Venice] as a retirement job." John was evidently a strong backer of schools and of charity to the poor, but he never writes anything to suggest any grand design or plan for his administration of Venice. Then he was a Pope who carefully explained that the first order of business was to write his will, because "it is quite wrong for any ecclesiastic to die without leaving his will in good order" and "the Pope’s example [should] be an encouragement and an admonition to all the cardinals." Speaking again of John, Duffy says that "his own theology and piety were utterly traditional." Nothing in this 450–page work suggests other than that God chose this humble man to live out eighty–some years of prayerful obedience (1881–1963), much of it in the silent, dusty corners of the church bureaucracy, so that he would be in the right place and the right frame of mind to say, on a quiet afternoon walk one day early in his papacy, the few sentences that the Holy Spirit needed to have spoken. On that day John XXIII turned to his secretary of state and "was the first to be surprised" to hear himself speak of an ecumenical council, these words "being quite contrary to any previous supposition or idea of my own on this subject." John and his Council are, and will remain, the object of argument between rival groups seeking approval for their view of his legacy and the Council’s work. The modernists who are quick to invoke the name of John and the "spirit of the Council" do so only by ignoring the life’s work of this man. Prayer. Obedience. Peaceful submission to the will of God, even if it took the form of foreign assignments that appeared to serve no purpose. For many who call themselves Christian, nothing can be the will of God if it does not make sense to them. For John XXIII, nothing but the will of God ever made sense.
— Mike Murray
The Coming Anarchy. By Robert D. Kaplan. Random House. 197 pp. $21.95.
Call it bracing or call it alarmist, Robert Kaplan has written a contrarian tract that is a necessary antidote to several brands of optimistic moonshine about the post–Cold War world. He calls himself a "realist" in the tradition of Hobbes, Gibbon, Metternich, Kissinger—and Reinhold Niebuhr. (He appears not to be familiar with Herbert Butterfield’s jibe that realism is not a philosophy but a boast.) An inveterate traveler to the world’s less salubrious places (his Balkan Ghosts was chillingly prescient), Kaplan has had it up to here with "moralists," "idealists," and those who trumpet the global triumph of democratic capitalism. Capitalism is not working for the vast majority of the world’s people, he contends, and democracy requires social circumstances—mainly a stable middle class—enjoyed by relatively few. "We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’ First Man, condemned to a life that is ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’" The Last Man may be able to master the threat of the future, but not the First Man. Yet neither is Kaplan sanguine about the privileged; the U.S., for instance, is far from immune to the fragmentation and polarization that are making the nation–state a thing of the past. The UN, the Vietnam War, the strength of Chinese authoritarianism, and Islam as a fighting faith—almost everything is at least touched on here, sometimes with piercing insight and sometimes with swashbuckling, tough guy obiter dicta. There is no shortage of things to argue with. In the earlier essays in the book, Kaplan’s treatment of population problems is reminiscent of the hysteria of Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) back in the sixties, taking note only of the multiplication of lives of misery while ignoring the challenge and possibilities of including the poor in "the circle of productivity and exchange" (John Paul II). All that being said, The Coming Anarchy is an important book and necessary reading for those who would be attentive to unedifying aspects of the world as it is.
Charter Schools in Action. By Chester E. Finn, Bruno V. Manno, and Gregg Vanourek. Princeton University Press. 290 pp. $27.95.
There are public (i.e., government) schools, private schools (religious and secular), voucher schools, and home schooling. Then there are more than 1,700 charter schools, and the number is rapidly growing. Charter schools are "public" in that they receive government funding (although at a lower rate per student than the regular public schools) and are chartered by the state, but they are typically controlled by parents and teachers who want something different from what is offered in the public school system. The system, especially the teachers unions, usually fights charter schools, but in some states they are now recognized as a source of competition necessary to improving the system. Chester Finn and his colleagues are excellent guides through the maze of complexities surrounding educational reform today. Of particular interest is the examination of the possibility that, over time, charter schools could displace existing private schools, thus eliminating the largest sector of truly independent education and making all schools vulnerable to the inconstancy of government edicts. This is an important book.
Homosexuality, Science, and the "Plain Sense" of Scripture. Edited by David L. Balch. Eerdmans. 310 pp. $20 paper.
Twelve essays by eleven Protestant and one Catholic scholar touch on almost every aspect of the current disputes regarding homosexuality and Christian morality, with the writers advocating quite disparate viewpoints. This is a notably intelligent contribution to a set of questions that will continue to agitate Christian communities for the foreseeable future. Of special interest is the editor’s comparison of Christian and Jewish readings of pertinent biblical texts.
Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate. By Michael Henderson. BookPartners. 187 pp. $14.95 paper.
Taking his cue from Philip Yancey’s observation that the only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative, the author draws on stories from South Africa, Northern Ireland, and other troubled places—including his own life and that of others—to demonstrate the liberating power of "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." An altogether engaging and persuasive reflection.
The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. By Kenneth Woodward. Simon & Schuster. 419 pp. $28.
Woodward has long been the religion editor at Newsweek and is the author of Making Saints, an informative and controversial book on the process of beatification and canonization in the Catholic Church. In the present work, he offers miracle stories from various religious traditions and concludes that the "meaning" of the stories in a culture given to vague "spirituality" rather than normative tradition is that they give us permission to believe in ourselves.
Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. By Mary Todd. Eerdmans. 336 pp. $20 paper.
This is in part "a story of identity and change in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod" and, in larger part, a brief against that church body’s refusal to ordain women to the pastoral ministry. The author, who teaches history at Concordia University in Illinois, is clearly an advocate but raises in a fair–minded way questions of ecclesial authority in a body that claims to be ruled only by explicit biblical warrant. Foreword by Martin E. Marty, formerly of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Sharing the Book: Religious Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism. Edited by John Witte and Richard C. Martin. Orbis. 423 pp. $25 paper.
One person’s evangelization is another’s proselytizing, the assumption being that the first is a good thing and the second very bad. There will probably never be complete agreement on the definition of either, but this book makes a valuable contribution in advancing our thinking about both. Essays by Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Church of Latter–day Saints contributors, with those by Rabbi David Novak and Jozef Cardinal Tomko, prefect of the Vatican’s congregation for evangelization, being of most particular interest.
The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. By Myron Magnet. Encounter. 269 pp. $15.95 paper.
Now available in paperback, this withering critique of the responsibility of the liberal Haves for the plight of the Have–nots helps us understand why America has, for the first time, what appears to be a permanent urban underclass. George W. Bush says the book transformed his thinking about what needs to be done to assure "a decent and hopeful tomorrow for every single American." A tract for the times that is even more timely now than when it was first published in 1993.
The Divided Church: Moving Liberals and Conservatives from Diatribe to Dialogue. By Richard G. Hutcheson and Peggy Shriver. InterVarsity. 240 pp. $12.99 paper.
Members and leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA), both Hutcheson and Shriver are clearly concerned about the prospect of their denomination being torn apart by impassioned disagreements. It seems unlikely that their somewhat wan hope for reconciliation will convince more belligerent liberals and conservatives, but their intention and intelligence in trying are deserving of honor.
Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order. By Joseph Varacalli. Lexington. 131 pp. $45.
Sociologist Varacalli addresses the Neuhaus thesis regarding "the Catholic moment" and concludes that the "promise" has not been realized and will not be realized, at least in the near future, because of the personal, communal, and institutional weaknesses of Catholicism in America. The book is valuable both for its description of those weaknesses and the abundant documentation supplied by the author. Between those who believe that the American liberal order is inherently and fatally flawed and those who believe it can be restored (whom he identifies as the neoconservatives), Varacalli stands with the first party. At the same time, he suggests that pressing the neoconservative agenda—especially with respect to the role of "mediating institutions" in society—may be the best way of determining which view is historically vindicated. The book should be welcomed by all students of the Catholic situation in America.