In a post below Grant introduces the new issue of Commonweal. As usual there are many fine pieces available to all (including the Editorial). But one outstanding piece is only available to subscribers, Tom Baker’s review of James Carroll’s new book. But from the tenor of Tom’s review and a presentation piece by Carroll in a recent Boston Globe, it’s pretty much a re-cycling of past Carroll performances: the sort of stuff that Carroll tosses out from his cathedra at the Globe with impunity and no acountability.
Here’s a piece of Baker’s review:
Carroll the polemical historian can be undisciplined in organization and argument. A long chapter starting with Vatican II’s approval of Mass in the vernacular takes us into not just the evils of Latin (just a power trip for those who understand it), but Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, the destructive force of biblical literalism, the unjust suppression of gospels, and more than fifteen pages on the misinterpretation of Mary Magdalene. It’s clearly meant to make its case through sheer historical sweep, and of course a few of the shots fired do hit their target. But given its relentlessly accusatory tone, I felt not the weighty judgment of history but the presence of that finger-jabbing stranger who corners you in a bar with an explanation of how everything bad all fits together. (“Don’t you see? It all goes back to Constantine.”)
When our past needs to be cleaned out so thoroughly, what are we left with? It is sometimes hard to tell. “Ideological violence begins in intolerance,” Carroll writes, “which begins in dogma.” So much for dogma, then! (Even the dogma of tolerance?) Jesus is God, he professes, but claims for the primacy or necessity of Jesus are mostly impossible by definition. Our canon of Scripture is manipulated and incomplete. Our survival as individuals after death is iffy. Favorite traditions also have to go: Lourdes miracles are “hysterias,” the Confiteor’s stylized breast-beating is “an act of self-hating violence.” As educated, modern Catholics, we need to see through all this by coming to our own insights through-what exactly?
Our road to enlightenment, it turns out, is writing. The final chapter, “A Writer’s Faith,” suggests that Carroll’s own evolution from priest to writer can illuminate a path we all need to follow. “A basic understanding of the faith as imagination and expression can brace every Catholic’s identity.” Who could argue with that? Yet Carroll goes further, and his love of the writer’s “thirst for meaning” and the creative process lead him to some lofty theologizing that seems to divinize words themselves. Vaulting well beyond the image of God as the Word in John’s Gospel, Carroll tells us that “language is God,” and later, “God is language.” I finished the book impressed with Carroll’s burning passion for his writerly vocation, but also, unusual for me, with a nagging appetite for some dogma.