Posts tagged with: book review

jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

Fresco of Lazarus and the rich man.

Fresco of Lazarus and the rich man.

In the editor’s notes of the new issue of Religion & Liberty, I mentioned Time magazine’s iconic 1964 photo spread “War on Poverty: Portraits From an Appalachian Battleground.” Appalachia was a major target of America’s war on poverty. Today many of those same problems persist despite the steady stream of federal dollars. Unfortunately, unintended consequences from government spending, has expanded many of the problems, as Kevin D. Williamson covered so well in the piece “The White Ghetto” for National Review. Fr. James Schall notes in this interview, “Governments are often the one agency most responsible for poverty in the name of getting rid of it.”

What I appreciate about the interview, is Schall gives us a unique perspective and new ways to think about poverty. Schall, a Catholic priest, is a prolific author who taught at Georgetown University for over 35 years.

The feature piece of the issue, written by Eric James Russell and Rodger E. Broomé is titled, “The Tipped Scales Against our Youth.” The authors cover the challenges facing many young people today and offer solutions toward fixing them.

Rev. Johannes Jacobse offers an excellent review of George Gilder’s new book, Knowledge and Power. Joseph Sunde posted an interview with Gilder on the new book on the PowerBlog. Timothy J. Barnett reviews Reckoning with Markets: Moral Reflection in Economics by James Halteman and Edd Noell.

The “In the Liberal Tradition Figure” for this issue is Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). In reading some of her writings, I noticed a strong affinity for work, especially affirming the work of lay people within the Church. Unfortunately, a lot of her teachings have been hijacked by crackpots and various new age movements. R&L believes it’s important to recover the truth and holiness she championed. Hildegard is a saint in the Anglican and Catholic churches, and Pope Benedict named her a Doctor of the Church.

Rev. Robert Sirico contributes a piece titled “Breaking Bread at Acton University.” If you are considering attending Acton University and have never been, this is definitely a must read.

There is more content in the latest issue of R&L, including our executive director’s explanation of why the Acton Institute is accepting Bitcoin donations. The decision by itself has garnered considerable media coverage.

the-global-vatican-cover-art-07-31-13In Francis Rooney’s book, The Global Vatican, Rooney quotes Pope Benedict XVI regarding diplomacy, that it is, “in a certain sense, an act of hope.” This is an apt description of the work of diplomats, especially those associated with the Vatican. As Rooney points out,

The pope comes to the table with no threats, no bullets, no drones; he has no stick and no carrots. He comes simply as a man of faith, armed with words and beliefs. His is the ultimate soft power.

The Global Vatican is a rich and pleasantly-detailed look at the history of U.S.-Vatican relations, as well as Rooney’s recollections of his time as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2005-2008. While one can imagine that the job of a diplomat varies from place to place, much of it is the same: to represent the interest of one’s own country while serving in a foreign land. In the case of the Holy See, it’s even more complex: the Holy See is the home of a religion, not simply a nation of people under one flag. As Rooney points out, to understand Vatican diplomacy, one must understand the Catholic Church. (more…)

Coolidge cover copyToday, career politicians are out of fashion. In light of Washington’s dysfunction and a hyper partisan culture, the words of politicians offer little reassurances. Their deeds even less. One career public servant is finding his popularity on an upswing exactly eighty years after his death. I asked my grandfather, who turns 97 in July, to rank America’s great presidents? He immediately answered Ronald Reagan, almost reflexively. And then paused for a few moments and declared, “That Calvin Coolidge fellow was good too.”

To remember Coolidge is to remember an altogether different America. One that was rapidly modernizing but still deeply connected to rural life and its foundations. But even for his era, John Calvin Coolidge was a throw back, a man who emerged deep from within Vermont’s rugged hills. The symbols of his humble origins were magnified after the unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. Coolidge, awakened in Vermont, was immediately sworn in to the greatest office in the world by kerosene lamp by his father, a public notary.

Oft forgotten or lampooned as a “simpleton,” there are no grand monuments for America’s 30th president. He certainly wouldn’t have sought such recognition. But in Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, she offers a kind of monument not just to Coolidge’s economic heroism, but his character.

Coolidge governed and taught from the deep well of America’s Founding and eschewed the material for the spiritual, declaring, “The things of the Spirit come first.” He was leery of progressive schemes saying, “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them.” He added, “If we wish to erect new structures, we must have a definite knowledge of the old foundations.”
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I frequently noted in the field, how chaplains – to a man – sought out front line action. And I assume that was because, as one put it, at the time: ‘There is where the fighting man needs God most – and that’s where some of them know him for the first time. – U.S.M.C. Commandant A.A. Vandegrift, 1945

The last two decades has seen a surge in interest in popular historical study of America’s role in the Pacific and Europe during World War II in films and books but little to no individual attention has been given to the role of military chaplains. There were never enough chaplains to serve American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, but as Dorsett points out those that served found innovative and courageous ways to reach the men. “They can’t say that the church forgot them, when they were called into service and henceforth in their lives they will forget the church,” declared Lutheran Chaplain Edward K. Rogers. “They may forget the church and God, but the church and God’s pastors or priests did not forget them.” Chaplains were integral to America’s victory in Europe and the Pacific. This is the argument put forward in Serving God and Country: US Military Chaplains in World War II by Lyle Dorsett.

Outside of the famous four U.S. Army chaplains who sacrificed their lives to save fellow military and civilian men when the transport Dorchester sank in 1943, there is very little popular historical assessment of the enduring role of chaplains in the war and how they helped shape a post-war society. Chaplains broke new ground when it came to racial desegregation in training classes and contributed to greater ecumenical understanding between churches, denominations, and synagogues. “The clergy integrated well and became pioneers in the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces before President Harry S. Truman’s executive order 9981 of July 1948,” declared Dorsett.

Integration of ideas and practical ecumenicsm also flourished. For example, some Protestant pastors, while well educated, previously may have had limited interpersonal contact with other traditions and faiths like Judaism or Catholicism. As one chaplain pointed out, “It was harder to speak ill of one’s faith when that person was a friend.” Chaplains also had to be trained in the basic rudiments of other faiths in order to offer proper religious counsel for servicemen.

Undeniably, the United States on the eve of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was remarkably less secular than today. Chaplains or “chappies” were, with very few exceptions, Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Jewish. Parents, especially mothers, were comforted by the fact that their sons had professional shepherds to guide them in the field and throughout their military service. World War II was the first American conflict where published images, especially from the Pacific at bloody battles like Tarawa, would relay disturbing images to Americans at home. Chaplains were pressed to the limit on both fronts of the war, but the savage fighting of the Pacific island hopping campaign tested military chaplains to minister in what many combatants called “the depths of hell.” “By their patient, sympathetic labors with the men, day in and day out and through many a night, every chaplain I know contributed immeasurably to the moral courage of our fighting men,” added Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. (more…)

Update: Rev. Jensen has posted part 2 of his review. You can read it here.

Rev. Gregory Jensen, who writes at the Koinonia blog, recently reviewed Rev. Robert Sirico and Jeff Sandefer’s new book A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey.

This is what he had to say about it:

Prudence along with justice, temperance and courage, is a cardinal virtue. Unfortunately as contemporary Western culture has become more secularized it has formed generations of men and women who are deaf to the music of human virtue.  Many of us embrace a vision of human life that counsel spontaneity not habit as the mark of a life well and fully lived.  And since any discussion of virtue necessarily brings with it a discussion of tradition such a conversation is an affront to the atomistic individualism that is at the center of contemporary culture.

And as I read [Hero's Journey] something unexpected and wonderful happened—I began to see myself in a new light. (more…)

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Alan Wallace, editorial writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune, reviewed Sam Gregg’s new book Becoming Europe.

In his article, “Where America is, where it’s going,” Wallace notes that:

Americans increasingly say their nation‘s becoming more like Europe; the Acton Institute‘s research director, [Sam Gregg] tackles that trend and its dangers, which he thinks are greater than many of them realize. He explores the “Europeanization” of the United States via the welfare state, debt, government‘s share of GDP, crony capitalism, taxation, labor regulations, public-sector unionization, an aging population and what the publisher calls “the emergence of an ossifying political class” more concerned with self-preservation than with economic reform. Gregg also examines the role played by the values and institutions that inform our economic culture and priorities. He says America isn‘t Europe yet and sees a path to recovery in what distinguishes our economic culture, but warns that the more European the U.S. becomes, the harder that trend will be to reverse.

Read the entire article here. Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future will be available on Tuesday, January 8. You can pre-order the hardcover or Kindle version here.

A review of Rev. Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market is featured in the National Catholic Register, written by Fr. C. J. McCloskey. The National Catholic Register is reviewing a number of books, in an effort to help readers discern issues pertinent to the upcoming election.

In Fr. McCloskey’s review of Defending the Free Market, he notes:

Father Robert Sirico could not have written a timelier book than his latest, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy….Why do I say his book is timely? Because we are mired in the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, one that is all the worse for being global and that shows indications of worsening in the years ahead. All of this follows by a mere couple of decades the almost total collapse of Marxism throughout the world, with the fall of the Soviet Empire and its dependents.

Fr. McCloskey cites the warm anecdotes and biographical aspects of the book, drawing the reader into Fr. Sirico’s own journey to understanding the free market and the hope it presents to the world’s struggling economies. He goes on to say that, while the book certainly has global application, it is deeply rooted in American values.

Father Sirico quotes Alexis de Tocqueville — perhaps the greatest observer of the unique character of America — who observed, “Freedom is, in truth, a sacred thing; there is only one thing else that better deserves the name,” and that is virtue. And then he asks, “What is virtue if not the free choice of what is good?” Both Father Sirico’s masterful endeavors at the Acton Institute and this book contribute needed guidance to help our country reclaim its status as “exceptional and virtuous.”

Read the entire review of Defending the Free Market and the Register‘s other reviews here.

Blog author: rnothstine
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
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Below is my review of A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness. A final version of this book review will appear in the Fall 2012 Journal of Markets & Morality (15.2). You can subscribe here.

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A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. By Os Guinness (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012). 205 pages

Review: A Free People’s Suicide

That our republic suffers from disorder and decay is no secret. The moral and economic order appears increasingly chaotic and lacks a deeper meaning. The country, bitterly divided politically, cannot agree on the purpose of freedom. Frustration has turned into increased political activism and fragmentation, and perhaps the only national agreed-upon principle is that people feel increasingly separated from their own government.

The current year (2012) has seen some like-minded books published to address the magnanimity of the crisis we face. Sound thinkers such as Arthur Brooks and Rev. Robert Sirico have offered up, respectively, The Road to Freedom and Defending the Free Market. They are, without a doubt, worthwhile examinations of economics and our moral order. While there is no dearth of books to address our problems and its root causes, perhaps none is better than Os Guinness’s A Free People Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.

Guinness trumpets a stirring defense of ordered liberty, examining the deep meanings of freedom and its ability to survive and perhaps flourish again. An assessment of freedom beyond the surface is truly central to our republic. Americans, as they have in the past, must once again ask, “How can a free Republic maintain its freedom?
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After 50-plus years of social unraveling, many reformers still see the “therapeutic model” as a cure for what ails American society. Or would a return to the classical virtues, as a means of healing first the person and then the culture, be the way of renewal? Rev. Gregory Jensen offers some thoughts in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 22), spurred by the reading of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Overcoming the Merely Therapeutic: Human Excellence and the Moral Life

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that for many young adults in America, the spiritual life is understood in moralistic terms. But where orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity focus on the necessity of “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers …” — many teenagers don’t see it that way. They, Smith and Lundquist say, worship “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

My pastoral experience suggests that adherence to this model of the spiritual life is common not just among teenagers but also their parents and even their grandparents. Given Philip Rieff’s observations about the triumph of the therapeutic in Western culture, this should come as no surprise. Therapeutic and medicinal imagery are dominant in our culture. That Christians have uncritically, and in my view unwisely, adopted this language is unfortunate but again not a surprise.

This is not to reject the use of medicinal or therapeutic imagery in conversations about either the spiritual or cultural lives. These metaphors have deep biblical and even pre-Christian roots. No, the problem occurs when such imagery comes to dominate at the expense of other, equally valid, ways of speaking about human experience (as for example the juridical model of salvation).

This brings me to Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012). Murray’s work offers a response to the increasingly unbalanced use of therapeutic imagery. His book is provocative but this is not a bad thing; it is a call to the reader to re-examine the cultural and personal foundations of human thriving and to see them as fundamentally moral undertakings.

Looking at the American scene, he singles out four virtues as essential both personally and socially for “the feasibility of the American project”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Until very recently (Murray not wholly arbitrarily indentified Nov. 21, 1963, as the “single day” that demarcates “the transition between eras”) these four virtues were the common cultural inheritance and personal project of the vast majority of Americans. Whatever were their differences in religion, education, wealth or geography, most Americans lived lives built on a respect for hard work, honesty, marriage and family life and religious faith.  Both social institutions (public schools being chief among them) and popular culture – Murray draws examples from movies and television — likewise supported the virtues that made American “civic culture” not only possible but “exceptional.”

Since November, 1963, however, American civil society has been “unraveling.” As a culture Murray says we are “coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” More and more the historically key virtues of American civil society are only those of the new upper class. These same virtues are no longer forming the daily lives of the lower class, that is of working class or blue collar Americans. As a result we see two increasingly different Americas. But again, the difference is not racial or ethnic or even economic but social, a difference in the values by which members of both group live their lives.

The social problems facing Americans now are the fruit of this “cultural inequality.” Switching from descriptive social scientist to advocate, Murray says that we must do something about it:   “That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.”

Instead of more “government assistance” we need a widespread cultural “validation of the values and standards” that once made American civil society so exceptional. How? Well, Murray says the “best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

Murray’s book is about virtue and we know that the virtuous life requires balance. I can’t cultivate one virtue at the expense of the others. Temperance cannot matter to me more than Fortitude or Justice more than Prudence. St. John Chrysostom said that more priests have fallen from compassion than lust. This, or so it seems to me, is the pastoral analogy to Murray’s social critique. We have fallen because we have given ourselves over to an unwise compassion. True compassion suffers with others and so helps us understand how we can alleviate their pain. Unwise compassion is about sentiment; it is about feeling good about myself. True compassion comforts and ennobles the other person; false compassion is merely one more expression of my addiction to pleasure and my willingness to take my pleasure no matter what the cost to self or others.

When as Americans we talk about poverty, its cause and its consequences, we do so primarily not in moral terms — save insofar as some would advocate for the government to “do something to help the poor,” or to “win the war” on drugs or poverty or whatever — but medically, therapeutically.  But a medical model divorced from morality is not only ineffective but destructive. It is so because it is anthropologically unsound and so a gentle cruelty.

The traditional model of salvation assumes a personal commitment to the ascetical life. As classically understood in both the Christian Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West (and even I would suggest among many of the heirs of the Reformation), the healing I am promised in Jesus Christ requires from me ascetical struggle. This is why today Roman Catholics and many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are celebrating Ash Wednesday and why next week Orthodox Christians will begin the season of the Great Fast. Asceticism does not add to the work of Christ. Rather it prepares me to receive again Jesus Christ and to deepen my relationship with Him.

Physical discipline does not exhaust the content of the ascetical life. In addition to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, asceticism has an intellectual aim; it teaches me to understand my desires in light of the Gospel. I need to repent of, and struggle against, those that are sinful. Important though repentance is, it is more important still that I come to see more clearly even my legitimate desires in light of what God wants from me.

Seen in this way, asceticism is an essential component of a life open in love to our neighbor. This is how we understand that our actions, if thoughtless, may impose a cost to our neighbor. This is how we will heal the human heart scarred by sin and so in turn the broken social ties that Murray identifies. In short, I cannot love you unless I am willing to lay aside even my otherwise legitimate plans and projects.  Whether in the physical, moral or cultural realms, real healing requires an understanding of both the ends of human life and the means appropriate to those ends.