Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine May – June 2011

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week
Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press, San Francisco/ CTS, London, 2011), 384pp, £14.99

In Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week Pope Benedict XVI builds upon insights gained from historical-critical studies in order to probe the theological depths of the revealed Word of God. He successfully combines a historical hermeneutic with a faith hermeneutic, imitating the Church Fathers whose exegetical insights, he hopes, will "yield their fruit once more in a new context" (p. xv). The Pope puts into practice the methodological principle found in Dei Verbum, 12: he reads and interprets the Scripture "in the sacred spirit in which it was written". While the Holy Father's study presupposes historical-critical exegesis and makes use of its discoveries, "it seeks to transcend this method and to arrive at a genuinely theological interpretation of the scriptural text" (p. 295).He insists that by attentively listening to the Jesus of the Gospels and through a collective listening with the disciples of every age, that is, through the authentic witness of Scripture and Tradition, one "can indeed attain to sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus" (p. xvii).

The Pope does not trouble his reader by unnecessarily descending into exegetical details pertinent primarily to biblical scholars. He avoids such details especially when, forming "[a] dense undergrowth of mutually contradictory hypotheses" (p. 104), they threaten to impede an encounter with Jesus. The Pope assures his reader, nonetheless, that in communion with the Church's living Tradition and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit "we can serenely examine exegetical hypotheses that all too often make exaggerated claims to certainty, claims that are already undermined by the existence of diametrically opposed positions put forward with an equal claim to scientific certainty" (p. 105). Alternatively, he proposes Jesus Himself as a model for the contemporary exegete and the moderntheologian. For Jesus "acts and lives within the word of God, not according to projects and wishes of His own"     (p. 5). Similarly, we, who study the Gospels, should possess "a readiness not only to form a 'critical' assessment of the New Testament, but also to learn from it and to let ourselves be led by it: not to dismantle the texts according to our preconceived ideas, but to let our own ideas be purified and deepened by His word" (p. 120). Otherwise, our experience risks remaining that of Saint Paul prior to his conversion: a real expert on the Scriptures, yet ignorant of their true meaning. "This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance," the Holy Father observes, "causes us to ponder. It reveals the whole problem of knowledge that remainsself-sufficient and so does not arrive at Truth itself, which ought to transform man" (p. 207).

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week addresses various issues significant for modern theology and the world today. When properly understood in the context of the Mosaic Law, Jesus' cleansing of the Temple provides no justification for religiously motivated violence. To kill others in the God's name is not the way of Jesus. At the same time, the ruthless destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions in AD 70 - "all too typical of countless tragedies throughout history" (p. 31) -confronts us with the mystery of evil which God tolerates to a degree that may indeed dumbfound us. Judas's betrayal of Jesus is fundamentally a breach of friendship which, Pope Benedict sadly observes, "extends into the sacramental community of the Church, where people continue to take 'His bread' and to betrayHim" (p. 68). Peter's insistence at the Last Supper that he would spare Jesus His passion and death reveals a perennial temptation for Christians and the Church, that is, "to seek victory without the Cross" (p. 151) - a common, even if unspoken, theme of the 'Prosperity Gospel' preached today by various Christian communities. In contrast the Pope elaborates in evangelical terms the doctrine of atonement, revealing at once God's serious appraisal of sin and the depths of his mercy. While some modern theologians would prefer to set aside all notions of expiation, he appeals to the mystery of the Cross in the lives of the saints and concludes that" [t]he mystery of atonement is not to be sacrificed on the altar of overweening rationalism" (p. 240). Finally, Pope Benedict states with greatclarity that the Jewish people are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. Rather, his accusers were the first-century Temple authorities and the 'crowd' of Barabbas's supporters. Moreover, the blood of Jesus called down upon the Jewish people in Matthew 27:25 is not the blood of Abel which cries out for vengeance and punishment, but rather the Blood of the New Covenant which heals and brings reconciliation.

Pope Benedict's eagerly awaited volume should be seen not only as the second part of his exegetical-theological study of the figure of Jesus in the Gospels, but also as the necessary complement to his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. It addresses directly the question of the new and true worship which Jesus inaugurated upon the Cross. Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. His death upon the Cross is the saving reality once prefigured by animal sacrifices in the Temple which have been surpassed. For this reason among others, the Holy Father favours the Johannine chronology of the Passion. He was crucified on the 'Day of Preparation' for the Passover at the moment when the lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple for the evening meal. Therefore, the Last Supper,while celebrated in the context of the Jewish Passover festivities, was probably not the Passover meal itself. At the Last Supper Jesus celebrated His own Passover and ushered in a new worship - true spiritual worship which opens for all men and women a pathway to God. This new worship draws mankind into Jesus's vicarious obedience to the Father's will. Jesus's obedience unto death upon the Cross has restored mankind's obedience and made man's spiritual self-offering again possible. True worship is the offering of our own living bodies as a spiritual worship truly pleasing to God. The new Temple of our self-offering is Jesus's Risen Body into which the Christian is incorporated by Baptism and of which he partakes in the Eucharist.

In his previous study The Spirit of the Liturgy, the then Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that the ad orientem position is an essential element of the Church's Eucharistic celebration. That posture opens up the Eucharistic celebration and orientates it toward the Risen Christ who will come again - the Oriens ex alto. "The turning of the priest toward the people," he notes, "turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself" (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80). In this light Pope Benedict's use of the word 'open' in its various grammatical forms throughout Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, especially in reference to the new worship which Jesusinaugurates, is not without significance. He explains, in what are effectively liturgical terms, the interpretation which Jesus Himself gives for His cleansing of the Temple. Jesus understood His act "to remove whatever obstacles there may be to the common recognition and worship of God - and thereby to open up a space for common worship" (p. 18). The Temple veil torn in two at the moment of Jesus's death reveals that "the pathway to God is now open" (p. 209; also see The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 83-84). Prayer, the heart of true worship, is "the self-opening of the human spirit to God" (p. 233). Jesus's incarnate obedience, which is the new sacrifice itself, opens a space "into which we are admitted and through which our lives find a new context" (p. 236). Jesus' Resurrectionfrom the dead is not a matter of mere resuscitation, but rather it is "about breaking out into an entirely new form of life...a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence" (p. 244). The Resurrection bursts open history. While its origins lie within history, it points beyond history (cf. p. 275). The Holy Father describes in similar terms Jesus' Ascension into heaven: "He, who has eternally opened up within God a space for humanity, now calls the whole world into this open space" (p. 287). The ascending Christ's hands raised in blessing "are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become 'present' within it" (p. 293). "In departing," he concludes, "[Jesus] comes to us [especially in His Eucharistic Presence], in order to raise us up aboveourselves and to open up the world to God" (p. 293). In sum, even without making explicit reference to liturgical orientation, Pope Benedict's study of the Holy Week mysteries provides evidence for and confirmation of his insistence upon the essential nature of the ad orientem position during the Eucharistic liturgy.

These and many other insights await the reader in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. The book does not disappoint. It is at once intellectually satisfying and spiritually enriching - a worthy meditation upon the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; a meditation which should bear much fruit in the lives of the faithful for many years to come.

Fr Joseph Carola, SJ
Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome

Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion - Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature
Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S Brown, Templeton Foundation Press, 136pp, £13.99

In a period of ever-advancing knowledge about the workings of the human brain, this book represents a welcome attempt to explain to a lay reader the current state of scientific thought and to discuss the wider implications of recent discoveries in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology

Both authors are neuropsychologists, and describe themselves as "enthusiastic scientists" and "active Christians". Malcolm Jeeves is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at St. Andrews University and a past president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Warren S Brown is a professor of psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary (a multi-denominational evangelical theological college in the US) and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute.

A considerable range of material is presented in this short book. There are a number of useful early chapters on the historical context of the debate between science and religion, where the authors juxtapose and compare the differing positions taken by various prominent psychologists/ neuroscientists during the last century. The authors also briefly outline the historical roots of neuropsychology.

The book explains the basic principles of brain function and the connection between body and mind, with an interesting case study on the effects of frontal lobe damage on moral behaviour. The authors discuss the evolution of the human brain, the importance of language, and compare human intelligence to that found in other animals. The authors also consider the neurological basis for being religious. Finally, drawing mainly from the thinking of contemporary Calvinist and Lutheran theologians, the authors discuss the implications of recent scientific research on theological views about the human being as a creature made in the image of God.

A key strength of this book is the quality of the scientific explanation. The book is informative, accessible, and thought-provoking. In particular, there is an excellent discussion about the merits of taking an emergent and top-down view of brain function as opposed to a reductionist approach.

However, this reviewer was not convinced that the otherwise good discussion of emergence/top-down causation quite hit the nail on the head in addressing determinism. For example, the idea that the brain is a complex non-linear dynamic system is mentioned only fleetingly - leaving me with the feeling that we had missed an opportunity for a useful discussion (such as perhaps making a connection with the ideas advocated by Polkinghorne regarding the possibility of chaotic systems "amplifying" quantum level uncertainties up to the macro-level).

The authors' theological stance on scientific observations was often both sensible and helpful. They share some useful thoughts on a range of issues, in particular regarding human uniqueness in comparison with other animals, and the neuroscience of religiousness. The authors should be applauded for engaging honestly and thoughtfully with the scientific evidence in their search for an understanding of human nature which is consistent with the experimental evidence.

That said, I was uneasy with some of the theological content, especially in relation to the human soul. The authors argue that, as all living creatures have a soul, a soul is not a unique feature of the human being. For example, they do not address the possibility of making a distinction between the human soul as a subsistent form and an animal "soul" as a non-subsistent form (pp. 126-127).

The authors also argue that it is "no longer helpful or reasonable to consider mind a non-material entity that can be decoupled from the body" (pp. 52-53). Much depends on exactly what is meant by "mind", but I daresay at least some readers of Faith magazine might have cause to question this assertion!

Finally, although I was pleased to see the authors elsewhere rejecting the unorthodox notion of the soul as some sort of arbitrary, added-on entity which is "attached to the body", I was concerned that their notions of an "embodied soul" may have been fast heading towards rejecting the doctrine of the immortal soul altogether. Perhaps a little more clarity was needed in the book on this important part of the discussion.

In conclusion, this is a wide-ranging and thoughtful book which provides a good explanation of the scientific material. Much of what the authors say seems both sensible and helpful, and it gave me plenty of food for thought. Despite concerns with some of the authors' theological opinions, this book has a great deal going for it, and at 136 pages the authors have done extraordinarily well to cover so much important material so clearly and thoughtfully.

Peter Johnson

Generations of Priests
Fr Thomas McGovern, Four Courts Press, 496pp, £20.00

Fr Thomas McGovern has reflected deeply on the priesthood and priestly identity. Having already authored two monumental books on the priesthood - Priestly Celibacy Today and Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood, this Irish priest's latest work moves from theory to practice as shown in the lives of ten truly inspiring priests taken from 1,500 years of the Church's history.

To limit this study to just ten priests must have been no easy undertaking. The priests chosen, St. John Chrysostom, St. John Fisher, St. Oliver Plunkett, the Cure of Ars, Bl. John Henry Newman, Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe, St. Pius X, Bl. Clement von Galen, St. Josemaria Escriva, and Pope John Paul II, serve as a microcosm of the many generations of priests that have gone before us.

It is clear that Fr McGovern has spent much time researching their lives, and he beautifully presents their biographies. We learn about their influences, personal stories, struggles and moments of selflessness, and how they responded to the needs of the time.

The book comes with a foreword by George Cardinal Pell, an admirer of Fr McGovern's works on the priesthood. He says: "This book could be read as a handbook for living the priesthood in a difficult time. ...[It is] invaluable to catechists and an inspiration to all Christians living in our age, which is no less exciting or exacting than the times experienced by these outstanding men".

The chapters each describe one priest and are laid out chronologically, though they do not need to be read sequentially.

Generations of Priests has come at the right time, when many have become disillusioned with the Church and her priests - a time when there is a crisis in the Catholic priesthood itself, and when vocations are in serious decline. This book serves as a reminder to priests of the zeal that is essential in their ministry and illustrates to seminarians the great responsibility of their calling. It helps all to remember the countless number of priests who have faithfully responded to their calling and dedicated their lives with passion, love and generosity so that the faith could be passed on from their generation to the next.

John McAleer

Faith Magazine

May - June 2011