Religion Booknotes

God’s Gift Giving
In Christ and through the Spirit
Kevin Seasoltz
Continuum, $24.95, 246 pp.

As Kevin Seasoltz points out in the opening pages of God’s Gift Giving, the idea of “gift” has engaged the attention of scholars across a wide range of disciplines, from cultural anthropology to ethics and economics. Seasoltz provides the reader with a quick survey of the work being done in these various fields, but his main purpose is to use the idea of gift to unpack some fundamental themes in theology. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see how fruitful the theme of gift is for Christian thought. After all, creation itself is a gift, as is the new creation that is rooted in the Incarnation. Indeed, it is possible to place the whole theology of grace under the rubric of gift.

God’s Gift Giving unfolds in six large sections, after an opening chapter on the nature of gift itself. In these sections, the author addresses the concept of sacrifice, the sacrificial character of Christ’s self-giving in the Eucharist, God’s gift in Word and sacrament, the Holy Spirit as gift, and, finally, some pastoral implications of the notion of gift. Seasoltz, the longtime editor of Worship, is finely attuned to the problems the idea of sacrifice can present; in particular, he is familiar with the critique of certain crude understandings of the “sacrifice of the Mass.” His book includes a wonderful chapter on the gift of the Holy Spirit, a subject now seriously considered in Catholic theology after a long period of Christomonism in the Western church, when the Third Person of the Trinity often seemed to figure only as an afterthought. This growing interest in the role of the Holy Spirit is part of a larger renewal in Trinitarian theology in contemporary theological discourse. Finally, Seasoltz provides a rich account of sacramental and liturgical theology.

The book’s footnotes are the product of a careful and exhaustive scholarship (though I wish the volume included a final bibliography as well), and Seasoltz’s exemplary exposition is clear and free of jargon. In just a few pages he crisply outlines recent thinking on the sacrifice of Christ in writers as diverse as Sebastian Moore and René Girard. The author’s success in bringing the concept of gift to bear on so many theological topics will make this book useful to any educated Catholic, but especially to those who preach, teach, or conduct spiritual exercises. 

 

The Voice, the Word, the Books
The Sacred Scriptures of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims
F. E. Peters
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 320 pp. 

F. E. Peters’s new study compares the canonical evolution, transmission, production, and language of the sacred books of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Readers who have some knowledge of biblical history and scholarship will already be familiar with much of the territory Peters surveys. But here that familiar territory borders on a detailed discussion of the Qur’an, and the frontier between these two traditions makes for an illuminating and often surprising adventure of ideas. The book has neither footnotes nor bibliography, but the depth of the author’s scholarship is nevertheless evident on every page.

For the Muslim believer, the Qur’an is literally the Word of God “sent down” in the Arabic language to the Prophet Muhammad, first in Mecca and later in Medina. The text of the Qur’an has little in the way of a narrative thread and is organized according to the length of its individual suras. The final organization of the Qur’an and the headnotes that appear before the suras are both the result of a long editorial process, which Peters explains in some detail. Later Muslim theoreticians conceived of the Qur’an as God’s eternal Word, which at a certain moment in history was slowly revealed to the Prophet. If for Christians the Word became flesh, for Muslims, the Word became a book.

The word “book,” though, has many meanings. There is a vast difference between a Torah scroll held in a synagogue ark and a paperback copy of a novel, yet both are called books. Although we call the Qur’an a book, it did not begin as a written text: Peters explains that originally the Prophet “heard” the revelation and then recited it for others to hear. Behind the book, then, stands an oral tradition that solidified into a text within a culture that was largely illiterate. The very fact that Qur’an means “recitation” helps us understand why even today the Qur’an is most commonly recited aloud, as both prayer and proclamation. Since the text is believed to record the very words of God—in Arabic—it is not translatable in the way the Bible is. That means it is largely inaccessible to those, including perhaps most Muslims, who have not mastered Arabic. “Outside the Middle East and North Africa,” Peters writes, “Arabic is going the way of Hebrew in the Second Temple period or Latin in the post-Renaissance world.” Nevertheless, the core of the faith is still tied to what Peters calls “the transcendental Arabic.”

In a time when it has become intellectually irresponsible to be ignorant of Islam—or to mischaracterize it—any reliably informed book that teaches us more about that religion is welcome. Peters has written such a book, and he has done more: He has put the Qur’an in dialogue with our own sacred Scripture. 

 

Nuns
A History of Convent Life
Silvia Evangelisti
Oxford University Press, $34.95, 304 pp.

Drawing on mountains of primary sources, books, anthologies, and scholarly essays, Silvia Evangelisti has written a lively account of the place of nuns in the early modern period. Her primary focus has been on the women religious who were totally cloistered as a result of the Council of Trent’s legislation demanding full enclosure of all nuns. She points out that many women sought this life as an alternative to an arranged marriage, but others were put in convents against their will by families that could not afford to have them married (convent dowries were less expensive than marriage dowries). This part of the story has been told many times, and here Evangelisti simply rehearses the standard scholarship on the subject.

What is far more interesting about her book is its description of the culture of these monasteries. She has excellent reflections on the writing of nuns. Many nuns were ordered by their confessors to write autobiographies. The work of some, such as Teresa of Ávila and Juana Inés de la Cruz, has achieved classic status. Evangelisti also describes the music, plays, paintings, and works of scholarship and spiritual direction these women produced. It is easy to forget that women religious were also a part of the Catholic Reformation. When the Carmelites, reformed by the redoubtable Teresa of Ávila, went to France, their discipline and dynamism became an inspiration for the French school of spirituality.

In the closing chapters of Nuns, Evangelisti writes about the women who struggled with the full-enclosure rule as they sought to serve and succor those outside the monastery walls. Angela Merici’s Ursulines were an important part of this movement. The Ursulines had an advantage over other communities from the start because Angela herself intended to found not a religious order but simply a band of women who would see to most the exigent needs of the church. Mary Ward attempted to found a community for women based on the model of the Jesuits, but her “English Ladies” went through some terrible trials and Ward herself ended up condemned and imprisoned. Similarly, the community that St. Francis de Sales and St. Jeanne de Chantal dreamed of could not get around the demands of enclosure, so the Visitandines ended up as a semicloistered order. It was the collaboration of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac that finally changed things in the seventeenth century: the Daughters of Charity not only took to the streets to find and help the poor, but also broke down class distinctions by accepting women from every level of society.

I can mention only a few of the women whose stories come alive in these pages—women like Fiammetta Frescobaldi (d. 1586), the Florentine nun who wrote a five-volume history of the world, or Blaise Pascal’s sister Euphemie (d. 1661), who produced poems, memoirs, letters, and a spiritual rule in the convent of Port Royal, that famous bastion of Jansenism. I was intrigued to read of the many cloistered women who were not only performers but composers and publishers of music. In the convent of Santa Margarita in Bologna, the sisters had a spinet, a guitar, and a lute, as well as several clavichords, violins, and trombones. Since the sisters could not perform in public, an audience would have had to gather outside the grates to hear them play.

 

Ambition and Arrogance
Cardinal William O’Connell of Boston and the American Catholic Church
Douglas J. Slawson
Cobalt, $17.95, 248 pp. 

Much has been written about Cardinal William O’Connell (1859–1944), who ruled the Archdiocese of Boston from 1906 until his death. Despite his prodigious labors as a builder of churches and other institutions and his overwhelming political power, he was, by all accounts, a most unlikable man—and hardly a model bishop. At least two popes toyed with the idea of removing him from his see and giving him a safe sinecure in Rome. The charges against him were grave. He was accused of maladministration (fiddling with the books, demanding “Christmas wishes” in the form of blank checks from those who wanted clerical honors or promotions to better parishes); of allowing two of his priests, one of them his nephew, to marry (his nephew commuted from New York City, where he lived with his wife, to Boston, where he had a position in the diocesan chancery); of saying Mass too rarely and neglecting the breviary; of not attending retreats; of having little or no real faith.

O’Connell responded to the campaign against him by sending huge amounts of money to his staunchest supporters in the Vatican and by pointing to his reputation as a builder of churches. He also put on a great show of piety by making a well-publicized pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which lasted for all of three days. The pilgrim had his own car shipped by sea for the event.

Slawson outlines the history behind these charges, but what most intrigued me about his book is its account of O’Connell’s role in church politics. O’Connell was a perfervid ultramontane who attached himself without reservation to the Vatican. He energetically resisted the “Americanizers” and was not only antagonistic to the national bishop’s association (then the National Catholic Welfare Conference) but refused to pay his share of its costs and actively militated against its work. He had a special loathing for the Sulpicians, from whose college seminary he had made a hasty retreat. He felt that their French origins made them susceptible to Gallican pretensions. O’Connell took unholy glee in driving them out of the seminary in Boston, and he lost no opportunity to criticize them.

Ambition and Arrogance highlights the competing ecclesiologies within the American church during the early twentieth century. One is reminded of the similar struggles that were played out in nineteenth-century England, where the ultramontane Cardinal Henry Edward Manning was pitted against John Henry Newman, among others. Slawson’s book is, above all, a biography of ideas and ideological struggles. It is a story about how, a century ago, the power of the church could be used to quash critics and dissidents at home, and about how ferocious the infighting was within the American church itself. But what goes around comes around. In the mid 1920s, O’Connell built a pretentious Italianate residence to be used by him and his successors. Just a few years ago it was sold to raise money as part of a settlement with the victims of sexual abuse, after a scandal that could not be covered up or smoothed over by heavy-handed episcopal power. The property was purchased by Boston College—the school from which O’Connell graduated in 1881.

 

The Law of God
The Philosophical History of an Idea
Rémi Brague
Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
University of Chicago Press, $35, 336 pp. 

Rémi Brague’s The Law of God is a brilliant piece of intellectual history concerned with the connection between God (or the gods) and law. Brague starts with the first literate civilizations in the West, moves on to the Middle Ages (where he demonstrates an impressive command of Islamic materials), and finally addresses the gradual detachment of divinity from law in the modern period. According to Brague, the crucial moment came when the ancient Greeks first situated law within the realm of nature, and religious tradition within the realm of revelation.

“Law” has meant more than one thing over the course of this history. In the medieval period, for instance, the word “law” could mean what we would call “religion.” (Brague cites examples of this usage in Aquinas, Llull, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and The Song of Roland.) Brague takes up Nietzsche’s suggestion that the Platonizing element in Islamic legal commentary was so strong that the commentators came to conceive of the Prophet as the Philosopher King described by Plato in The Republic: to paraphrase Nietzsche, the Prophet is a Plato who succeeded. Brague also suggests, in passing, that Pope Boniface VIII’s conception of the place of the papacy in Unam sanctam may have been influenced by Avicenna’s theories about the place of the caliph in Islam. But Islam’s ancient yearning for a Kingdom of Law (a “nomocracy,” to use a word Brague borrows from Louis Gardet) also helps explain why its conception of politics is so different from ours.

In the Christian West, the idea that all law was revealed by God (already a potential problem in St. Paul) would give way to the idea of laws revealed only by nature. Determining the boundaries and interconnections of natural and revealed law still keeps Christians busy. I applaud the way Brague clarifies what is so often muddled in our own less-than-expert understandings of the history of law. Current discussions about the “separation of church and state” often assume, incorrectly, that church and state were once joined in a straightforward way. This book amply demonstrates that the relationship between church and state was never straightforward and always disputed.

Published in the 2008-01-18 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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