Religion Booknotes

About forty miles east of where I live is a very large Amish settlement. I always feel sorry for its quiet inhabitants when I see tourists stick cameras in their faces as they come into town to do their shopping. The Amish culture is an exotic one that still attracts a good deal of voyeurism. Of course, it also inspires a great deal of admiration: the response of the Amish to the massacre at one of their schools last year was met with nearly universal praise and awe.
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Plain Secrets

An Outsider among the Amish

Joe Mackall

Beacon, $24.95, 256 pp.
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The term “Amish” is in fact a generic title for a large number of different communities that vary from one another over the question of how to keep themselves “plain” and separate from the world. Joe Mackall’s sympathetic but critical new book focuses on the most conservative branch of the Amish, the Swartzentrubers of Ohio, who live without electricity, indoor plumbing, cushioned furniture, or household decoration-apart from feed-store calendars and some thirty-day wind-up clocks.

The author is a longtime friend of a Swartzentruber family, whose life and work he describes in careful detail: the ways they negotiate with the outside world (the “English”), their farming methods, the structure of their church and the character of their religious worship (all church services are held on a rotating basis in Amish homes), their festivals, their weddings and funerals, and the Ordung-a set of carefully calibrated standards that govern the details of daily life, including the width of the band on men’s hats and the color of women’s bonnets.

Mackall also tells the story of a young man who leaves his family and church to live in the non-Amish world. It is a difficult transition. The young man’s schooling ended in the eighth grade, he possesses no Social Security card, and he is unfamiliar with the consumer technologies the rest of us take for granted-for example, the microwave. Some Amish communities allow their young people a brief period of license before they decide whether to accept baptism and irrevocable membership in the church, but not the Swartzentrubers. Mackall sensitively explores the pain and ambivalence the young man feels after he leaves the community. He misses his family terribly. They do not shun him, because he was not yet baptized, but they do treat him with increasing aloofness. Still, he is drawn by the allure of a larger world-drawn to cars, country music, and the freedom to choose where he’ll live and what he’ll do with his life.

Mackall doesn’t idealize the Amish, but he doesn’t demonize them either. He acknowledges that they are contrarian by choice, and that some of them seem rather pleased to be contrary. But he also believes there is something admirable about their willingness to help each other with everything; he notes that they eschew all insurance in favor of mutual aid. Finally, Mackall’s book shows how the deep faith of the Amish humanizes their apparent stoicism in the face of disappointment and disaster.

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The Book of Psalms

A Translation with Commentary

Robert Alter

W. W. Norton, $35, 352 pp.
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The well-known scholar Robert Alter has published several books of literary criticism but is perhaps better known to the general reader for his studies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Not long ago, he published a translation of the Torah (The Five Books of Moses). Now he has turned his attention to the Psalms. After a longish introduction in which he discusses Hebrew prosody, the difficulties of translation, and recent scholarship on the Psalms, Alter presents all 150 Psalms with a running commentary that explains references, sorts through obscurities in the text, and provides variant readings.

Alter points out that English translations tend to expand the quite compressed language of the original Hebrew. In his own translation, he has done his best to resist this tendency. The beautiful phrase “Though I walk in the shadow of the valley of death” of the King James version becomes, in Alter’s version, “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow”-a construction that better reproduces the compactness of the Hebrew. Since most readers will be familiar with the more expansive English of earlier translations, Alter’s work may at first seem jarring and abrupt, but its very strangeness forces us to look more closely at both the text and the psalmist’s intention.

Alter uses the commentary to weigh in on various scholarly controversies. For example, he rejects the notion that some of the so-called enthronement Psalms point to an annual rite in which the Jews enthroned God as monarch (Alter insists there is no external evidence for such a rite). The commentary doesn’t often address the reception of the Psalms in Christianity, except to note how a particular Psalm became part of the so-called seven penitential Psalms or to outline very briefly the messianic-fulfillment understanding of the Psalms in Christian theology.

My advance copy of the book is crisply laid out, and, according to the publishers, the final hardcover edition will come with a ribbon marker. For the acrostic Psalms, Alter has the Hebrew alphabet running down the margin. I do wish he had separated the superscriptions that stand at the head of many of the Psalms from the Psalms themselves-or at least set them off in italics. Early Christian commentators-using either the Septuagint (original Greek translation from the Hebrew) or the Vetus Latina (pre-Vulgate Latin text)- regarded those superscriptions as inspired, but some of them are extremely obscure, and it is fun to see how someone like St. Augustine tried to make sense of them in his sermons.

Scholars familiar with Hebrew will have to judge how well Alter reads the original and renders it in English. While I’ve learned a good deal from reading his translation, I’m more likely to use it for study than for devotion-for that purpose, I prefer the more familiar versions. But the Psalter is so central to the piety of the church that whatever refines or corrects our understanding of it is welcome.

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Electing Our Bishops

Joseph F. O’Callagham

Sheed & Ward, $21.95, 210 pp.
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Joseph F. O’Callaghan’s Electing Our Bishops is part history and part argument. Its argument gives the book its title. Anyone acquainted with church history knows that the episcopal office is the result of a long historical evolution. The monarchical episcopate did not emerge until the early second century and even then was not uniform for the entire Christian world. The way bishops were chosen varied from one place to another for centuries. Some, like Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, were appointed by acclamation of the people. Others were elected by both the laity and the clergy. Still others were nominated by the local monarch and seconded by Rome. John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States, was elected by the clergy of the infant republic, but that experiment in democracy was short-lived.

The present system by which Rome chooses and appoints bishops from a list of three names forwarded by the local papal nuncio is the result of a long historical process. But it is worth remarking that Rome is not limited to the names on this list, called the terna. O’Callaghan offers a well-written history of how this process of episcopal appointment developed over the past two millennia.

The concentration of the power to name bishops is the result of what Brian Tierney has called the “imperial papacy.” What O’Callaghan and many others want is a return to a principle first enunciated in the fifth century by Pope Celestine I: The one who is to be the head over all should be elected by all. Celestine went on to add: “No one should be made a bishop over the unwilling; the consent and desire of the clergy, the people, and the order is required.” After all, that was the way the bishop of Rome had been elected for two hundred years before Celestine.

O’Callaghan develops Celestine’s principle. He argues not only that the local bishop should be elected by the local church (in accordance with the ancient canons) but that he should remain with that church until retirement or death-no more moving up the ecclesiastical ladder to bigger and more powerful dioceses. Until as recently as 1999, this was also Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s opinion, though he admitted that he had not always adhered to the principle. I would add that we ought to abolish the custom of making curial functionaries archbishops of fictive dioceses as rewards for service. There is no reason why a papal master of ceremonies or a papal secretary needs to be made an archbishop.

At the end of Electing Our Bishops, the author, borrowing from ideas developed by, among others, the Canon Law Society of America, offers two possible models of episcopal election. Both would require a lot of consultation, discussion, and paperwork, and so they are susceptible to the same objection Oscar Wilde had against socialism-it takes up too many of one’s evenings. Nonetheless, it seems clear, especially in the wake of the sex-abuse cover-up, that the present way of doing things is dysfunctional. Is it really in the interests of the church for the Vatican to select bishops according to a secret process that rewards docility, clerical decorum, and, more often than not, Roman experience-or for the Vatican to depend on a nuncio who has no close knowledge of the pastoral needs of the local church? Too often during the papacy of John Paul II, a bishop was parachuted into a diocese from afar, sometimes against the will of the local church. It is not clear to me that the models of selection offered in this book would solve the problem, but it is clear that the present system is terribly flawed. If there had been some process of consultation in the recent past, it is likely that many of today’s bishops would not hold their offices. O’Callaghan’s provocative study encourages us to think hard about ways to change the system.

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Quantum Physics and Theology

An Unexpected Kinship

John Polkinghorne

Yale University Press, $26, 128 pp.
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John Polkinghorne has had a distinguished career as a theoretical physicist and theologian (he is also an ordained Anglican priest). His many books have addressed the relationship between science and religious belief. Quantum Physics and Theology, his newest book, is a model of conceptual clarity, which makes it accessible to those like myself who know little about contemporary debates in physics. Polkinghorne’s thesis is simple and straightforward: There are certain analogies between the work of contemporary theoretical physicists who attempt to understand the nature of the material universe and the labors of Christian theologians who attempt to understand the meaning of God’s revelation in Christ. Polkinghorne insists that both physicists and theologians look for truth. Although “in both kinds of inquiry this truth will never be grasped totally and exhaustively, it can be approximated to in an intellectually satisfying manner that deserves the adjective ‘verisimilitudinous.’”

Polkinghorne is less concerned with proving Christian faith “right” or “true” than with showing that the thought processes of theologians bear a certain “cousinly” similarity to those of physicists. Polkinghorne recalls how Albert Einstein’s theories brought about a radical revision of the classical Newtonian picture of reality; they also led to the emergence of quantum theory. Polkinghorne explains that the quantum world is profoundly counterintuitive: it’s a world in which X is simultaneously “here” and “there.” The challenge for scientists is to take seemingly disparate elements of quantum theory and account for them all in a grand unified theory. Einstein spent the final decades of his life searching for such a theory because he could not accept the indeterminacy of quantum theory. Today, the search for a unified theory is being led by physicists who take quantum theory for granted.

According to Polkinghorne, these developments parallel the slow process by which the Christian community attempted to understand the nature and mission of Jesus. The data indicated that he was a human being (“here”) but also divine (“there”). How to account for the apparent contradiction? Without pressing his analogy too far, Polkinghorne shows how incomplete descriptions and mistakes of emphasis led to unacceptable consequences. If there was ever anything like a grand unified theory in Christian theology it was the Christological formulation of Chalcedon-though of course that unified theory did not end the search for a more profound grasp of the mystery of Christ.

Of course every analogy limps, and Polkinghorne is intellectually keen enough to know that theology does not operate exactly like physics. Contemporary students of physics don’t need to master the outdated elements of the Newtonian construct in the way modern theologians need to reflect on the work of earlier theologians. We now study the physics of Aristotle and Ptolemy only because of its historical interest. We study Athanasius, Anselm, and Aquinas because, in addition to their historical interest, these theologians still have important things to teach contemporary theologians.

In the physicists’ search for a grand unified theory, there is a tacit “metaphysical” (Polkinghorne’s word) conviction about the integrity of the cosmic process. As Polkinghorne notes, theologians may well feel this is a “reflection of a trust, doubtlessly often unconsciously entertained, in the consistency of the one God whose will is the origin of the order of the created universe.”

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Basil Moreau

Founder of Holy Cross

Gary MacEoin

Ave Maria Press, $15.95, 256 pp.
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The late Gary MacEoin’s biography of Basil Moreau (1799-1873) has just been reissued with some new material for Moreau’s upcoming beatification, which will take place in late 2007. Moreau was the founder of the Holy Cross Order, whose brothers, sisters, and priests have had a prominent place in North American Catholic education. Moreau stepped down as superior general of the order in 1866 after a long series of financial, jurisdictional, and ideological struggles. Some of these struggles involved the fiercely independent Edward Sorin, who, with six Holy Cross brothers, founded what would become the University of Notre Dame. This wasn’t the first time in Catholic history that the founder of an order had to give up leadership (St. Francis of Assisi suffered the same fate).

Still, Moreau might have been pleased with the report on his new congregation given to Pius IX the year after Moreau stepped down. As MacEoin puts it, just thirty years after it began, the Holy Cross Order “numbered around five hundred members distributed in nearly a hundred houses in France, Algeria, Canada, the United States, and Bengal [now Bangladesh]. Their colleges and schools were educating no less than eleven thousand children and youth.”

MacEoin does a good job of setting Moreau within the context of postrevolutionary France, where the church was in severe decline as a result of the government’s repressive policies. He is also good at describing the kind of spiritual education and intellectual formation Moreau received (he was a professor of dogmatics at the seminary in LeMans after his theological education at the Grand Sulpice in Paris). While MacEoin offers an adequate treatment of Moreau’s spiritual life-and of his links with the Benedictines of Solesmes, the Trappists, and the Sulpicians-the time has probably come for a new book about Moreau’s spirituality, one that draws on the new studies prepared for his beatification. Until then, we have this fair and thorough account of the great figure who represents the last flowering of the French school of spirituality.

Published in the 2007-09-28 issue: 
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Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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