Religion Booknotes

Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church
Pope Benedict XVI
Ignatius Press, $14.95, 163 pp.

While Pope Benedict was in the United States this past April, he spoke to Catholic educators in Washington, D.C. As I listened to the speech, it became clear that I would also need to read it. There was simply too much there for a listener to take in. At the time I was reading Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church, a collection of catecheses the pope gave at the Vatican during his regular audiences in late 2006 and early 2007. Those talks were much shorter, more accessible, but still rich enough to deserve a close reading. Ignatius Press deserves credit for making them available in such inexpensive and convenient little volumes. 

As the title indicates, the topics of these audiences range from short instructions on the twelve apostles to reflections on figures of the early church, which are organized around the common theme of St. Paul and his circle. The pope lets the Bible speak. He describes where each apostle appears in the gospel narrative, and what these appearances say to us today. Benedict fully understands the textual problems and ambiguities but does not tarry over them; as he says more than once, that is the task of the exegetes. In places he draws on the patristic commentators, his favorites being St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine. Yet he tells the stories of these dramatis personae of the New Testament with Jesus always at the center.

One of the most illuminating talks is on Judas. Benedict reminds us that the Gospels are emphatic in insisting that Judas was one of the Twelve. Why was he chosen by Jesus? And how does one explain that he repents of his betrayal but still kills himself in despair? Finally, Benedict reflects on the fate of Judas by pointing to the oceanic mercy of God.

In the last catechesis in this volume, Benedict addresses the women who were part of the early church community, and the special role of Mary of Magdala, who St. Thomas Aquinas said was the “apostle to the apostles”—the first to announce the risen Christ to the Twelve. I hope the pope will one day expand on this discussion of what he calls the “charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God.”


Dietrich Bonhoeffer
An Introduction to His Thought
Sabine Dramm
Hendrickson, $19.95, 275 pp.

The iconic Dietrich Bonhoeffer is counted by many as one of the most important Christian martyrs of the twentieth century. His letters from prison were very popular in the 1960s, when many readers found the idea of a “religionless” Christianity appealing. We now have a far more balanced view of Bonhoeffer’s importance as a theologian, and that is partly thanks to the indefatigable labors of his editor and biographer, the late Eberhard Bethge.

Sabine Dramm’s addition to the literature on this great figure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to His Thought, comes well recommended. Before his death in 2000, Bethge encouraged Dramm’s project. Dietrich Bonhoeffer does not attempt to provide a full biography, nor does it provide a book-by-book analysis of the evolution of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Instead, it surveys some major themes in Bonhoeffer’s thought under a series of headings that roughly corresponds to the order of his publications. Those unfamiliar with his work will get a serviceable overview of his thinking on everything from ethics and ecclesiology to Christology.

Dramm successfully argues that Bonhoeffer’s prison writings on the decline of religion in Western culture did not mark a significant departure for him. As early as 1928, she shows, Bonhoeffer was an open critic of “religion,” understood as the comfortable cultural Protestantism then regnant in Germany. In that sense, his thinking was in line with that of critics like Albert Schweitzer and Karl Barth, who had been reacting against liberal Protestantism for at least a generation.

While Dramm’s work adds little new insight to the discussion of Bonhoeffer, it does serve a number of useful purposes. First, she reminds us that Bonhoeffer was an original theological thinker who anticipated a number of themes that were later to come to the fore in theology. For instance, Johann Baptist Metz’s political theology would be unthinkable without Bonhoeffer. Second, the many quotations from Bonhoeffer’s own work give the reader a sense of the aphoristic quality of his writing. The accessibility of Dramm’s work may spur readers to go back and read some of Bonhoeffer’s own books, which remain as vivid and relevant today as when they first appeared. And that is exactly what a good introduction ought to do.


Praise Seeking Understanding
Reading the Psalms with Augustine
Jason Byassee
Eerdmans, $32, 304 pp.

For decades, theologians have been trying to wrest the interpretation of Scripture away from historical-critical exegetes. The less pugnacious of these theologians have not denied the usefulness of that kind of biblical scholarship, but they have suggested that there is more to Scripture than mere historical analysis. Jason Byassee’s Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine, which began as a dissertation at Duke University, offers a readable overview of attempts by many of these theologians to rehabilitate the tradition of reading Scripture allegorically. This, after all, is the way the church has read the Bible for centuries. For readers unfamiliar with this literature, Byassee begins with a succinct and accurate summation in the opening chapter.

At the heart of the book are St. Augustine’s collected sermons on the Psalms, Enarrationes in Psalmos, which is now available in a splendid five-volume translation by Maria Boulding published by New City Press. These sermons are studied as models of the allegorical reading of Scripture. Augustine argues that the psalter’s anchoring motif is the praise of “the Whole Christ” (Totus Christus). Augustine reads each psalm as either assuming the voice of Christ, or expressing the praise of the psalmist or that of the whole church. This interpretation produces readings that are sometimes subtle and sometimes full of twists and turns. Byassee understands that Augustine’s approach calls upon all of Scripture in order to highlight the figure of Christ in each psalm.

How can Augustine make such an understanding plausible? First, he reads Scripture as a whole whose telos is the revelation of Christ. Second, Byassee argues, for Augustine, the boundary between the literal and the figurative is extremely fluid, which leaves the reader to puzzle over the more compelling problem of how to control allegory so that it does not (as it often has) simply degenerate into extravagant flights of fancy. Here the fundamental criterion should be the “Rule of Faith”: An interpretation is out of bounds if it leads to a conclusion at odds with the faith.

Though clearly written, Byassee’s book is probably not for the beginner, since it is so closely tied to the very long texts of Augustine’s sermons. But the intellectual framework it offers in support of the legitimacy of allegorical exegesis is compelling in its own right. The book may also have the effect of encouraging biblical exegetes to take some cues from Augustine himself. For those who do, Byassee’s study will surely prove to be a companionable guide.


A Life with Karol
My Forty-Year Friendship with the Man Who Became Pope
Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz
Doubleday, $22.95, 272 pp.

Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz served as Pope John Paul II’s secretary for forty years. As one might expect, his memoir, A Life with Karol, is more than affectionate; it is reverential. I cannot say that I learned much about the life of the late pope—for the facts one still needs to consult George Weigel’s Witness to Hope—but I did pick up a few intimate details. I learned, for example, that the pope traveled incognito a few times early in his papacy to go skiing; I learned the names of the Polish nuns who served as his household staff; the pope’s daily routine is minutely described; and the last days of the pope are recounted in moving detail.

There are some judgments in Dziwisz’s book that Weigel and others won’t like. Dziwisz tells us that the pope was not a cheerleader for neoliberalism, despite the courteous nods in that direction in Centesimus annus. Likewise, he was adamantly opposed to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and very critical of its execution. But these are relatively well-known points. What I found most charming about the book were those homely facts about the pope’s personal life: what his daily round was like; how his workday was arranged; that sometimes, when in his chapel, he would sing sotto voce. Dziwisz is somewhat perfunctory in his account of the pope’s many travels—except for the papal visits to Poland.

This slight contribution to the literature on John Paul is marked throughout by the author’s abiding love for his subject. The only negative judgment he utters in the book is that the late pope was “no whiz” when it came to his personal finances, but even that critique is mitigated by the description of how austerely he lived and how indifferent he was to personal comforts, even within the palatial walls of the Vatican. This memoir, in short, is a work of pietas and must be read as such.


An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies
Edited by Orlando Espín and James Nickoloff
Liturgical Press, $49.95, 1,600 pp.

An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies is part of a series of one-volume dictionaries published under the Michael Glazier imprint at Liturgical Press. The first three dictionaries in the series covered theology, spirituality, and sacramental worship. They were of varying quality—the one about spirituality was easily the best. The latest installment is meant to be of use to those hybrid academic departments found in Catholic schools that wed the study of theology to the broader area of what is called “religious studies.” The new dictionary leans heavily toward topics in the Roman Catholic tradition, but it also attempts to give fair (if far from comprehensive) accounts of all the major historical religions of the world, focusing particular attention on Central and Latin American religions. Like the academic departments it aims to serve, it is a hybrid.

This volume is not as comprehensive as the Dictionary of Religion, written under the aegis of the American Academy of Religion. Nor, in its attention to theology, is it more capacious than Richard McBrien’s Encyclopedia of Catholicism. It falls somewhere between those two standard reference works. I have looked at a fair number of the entries and have followed the threads cited there. They seem crisply written, informative, and devoid of any parti pris. Some are written by well-published and vetted scholars, others by lesser lights. None of the entries has a bibliography. The dictionary is dotted with biographies of living and active theologians chosen on a very selective and idiosyncratic basis. Such entries are not, in my opinion, a good idea generally, and here they seem more than a bit clubby.

In sum this is a reliable if somewhat peculiar reference book that will be of use to a very narrow readership interested in religious and theological studies as they are taught at many North American Catholic universities.


To the Field of Stars
Kevin A. Codd
Eerdmans, $18, 287 pp. 

The title of Fr. Kevin Codd’s To the Field of Stars refers to Compostella, the site of the pilgrim church where the remains of Saint James were thought to be entombed. Along with Rome and Jerusalem, Compostella completes the trio of most famous traditional pilgrimage destinations. Starting at the border between France and Spain, pilgrims have trekked the five-hundred-plus miles as an act of devotion, to fulfill a vow, as a penance imposed for sin, or, in the medieval period, as a penalty for serious crimes. Today, more than a hundred thousand pilgrims walk the route every year, stopping along the way at special hostels in small towns and large cities.

Codd, an American priest who was the rector of the American College in Louvain, decided to follow in the footsteps of some the famous characters who have made this journey, including Francis of Assisi and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. He set out on his own thirty-five-day trek to mark both his fiftieth birthday and his twenty-fifth year of priesthood. The resulting book is both a pilgrimage journal and a priest’s wonderfully unsentimental meditation on faith.

I have read many books about pilgrimage over the years, but this is one of the better participant accounts because it is not simply a “guide”—even though it does contain a lot of travel information. Codd is sympathetic to those he meets en route, and inspired by some who started walking from their homes as far away as Germany and the Netherlands. He praises the community that develops as walkers aid each other and share their stories and motives for this arduous undertaking. Fortunately, Codd is also able to weave the history of the route into his personal narrative. He writes about the not-always-happy relationship between the pilgrimage tradition and Muslims, who once controlled much of Spain. One particular image remains in my mind thanks to this book. Toward the end of his pilgrimage, Codd meets a German woman who is walking in the opposite direction. She had already made it to Compostella and was now on her way to Rome; from there, she would head to Jerusalem. It makes me glad to know such people are alive.

Published in the 2009-01-16 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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