Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine January – February 2012

The Loser Letters, A Comic Tale of Life, Death & Atheism
Mary Eberstadt, Ignatius Press, 2010 Gracewing, 150pp, £9.99

Mary Eberstadt's The Loser Letters was described by the National Review Online (where earlier versions of the eponymous letters were originally serialised) as 'a Screwtape for our screwed up time'. And while this book is unlikely to replace Lewis's classic in the canon of Christian apologetics, Eberstadt presents a convincing critique of what is often referred to as the 'New Atheism' and an entertaining and accessible defence of Christianity in particular and religious faith in general.

Eberstadt's narrator is A.F. (A Former) Christian, a young woman, a lapsed Catholic and a convert to this New Atheism. In a series of letters to her atheist heroes (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et al), she attempts to explain where they have been going wrong in encouraging others to abandon God or 'Loser' and embrace atheism. In doing so she gradually reveals the catastrophic events that led to her 'conversion' and present incarceration in a mysterious rehabilitation centre.

The areas Eberstadt explores will come as no surprise to those familiar with the arguments of these near ubiquitous 'spokesmen of the New Atheism'. In Letter One, 'The Trouble with Experience', A.F. Christian looks at the effects of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s where the atheist sexual ethic has its roots. She points out that while an older generation might have been enamoured of sex without consequences, their younger counterparts often associate such an outlook with dysfunctional relationships, broken families and personal unhappiness and by extension see the Christian vision of love as fulfilling and ultimately liberating. In subsequent letters she writes on logic, good works {'the actual evidence for claiming that atheism will do as much good in the world as Christianity andother religions is embarrassingly against us'), the arts, families and women (or rather their conspicuous absence in the ranks of prominent atheists). Eberstadt's satire portrays atheist rhetoric as inconsistent and built on fallacy.

Undoubtedly it is as a resource for young people that this book is most valuable, especially at a time when they are exposed on a near daily basis to the anti-religious tropes of much of the British media. Eberstadt covers many of the questions and accusations that Catholics in particular often face - for example, the Inquisition, the Church and the Holocaust etc - in a clear and comprehensible manner.

Some readers might find it difficult to engage with the chatty, informal tone of the letters which can occasionally come over as slightly forced. Also, The Loser Letters is clearly aimed at younger people and the pages are littered with pop culture references and teenage slang. Unfortunately these will probably date the book and may prove off-putting to older readers or those (perhaps fortunately) unfamiliar with television programmes such as Project Runway and Pimp My Ride.

That being said, Eberstadt does not talk down to her readers. Sitting alongside American Idol are quotations from Christian thinkers ranging from Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas to G.K. Chesterton and G.E.M. Anscombe. The book contains a great deal of useful information and a new edition would benefit from some form of referencing and perhaps study questions or a reading guide. More superficially, a different cover might attract a wider range of readers.

One minor annoyance is the heavy-handed treatment of certain topics. For example, A.F. Christian is given a set of Rosetta Stone discs to assist her in learning German or 'the language of atheism' and later letters are peppered with German phrases, often with Nazi overtones. In drawing - and labouring - an explicit link between atheism and Nazism Eberstadt utilises similarly lazy tactics to the atheist pedagogues she rightly criticises. In the same vein, Eberstadt's capitalisation of pronouns when referring to or addressing atheist thinkers makes it clear that for A.F. Christian and those like her, atheism has effectively become a new religion. While valid, both points could have been made just as effectively in a subtler manner.

Overall, The Loser Letters contains much that is positive and valuable. At just under one hundred and fifty pages it is a quick and easy read and funny enough to interest even reluctant readers. Ultimately Eberstadt achieves her goal of showing that atheism is not beyond satire and in fact contains much that is laughable. In doing so she snatches back much of the intellectual and moral high ground that the new atheists have claimed for themselves.

Amanda Brennan
North Lanarkshire

Pure Attraction: A Guide to Human Sexuality
Fr Peter Murphy, Gracewing, 2009 117pp, £6.99.

This book provides a good summary of important topics related to sexuality. Father Peter Murphy explains that sexuality is not what we do but who we are. This basis, founded on the good habit and the strength and power of purity, points us towards happiness and holiness. He explains that we need chastity in order to avoid sin. The first half of the book provides an examination of the history of purity and the power and pursuit of this gift. Aquinas defined chastity as the virtue which moderates the desire for sexual pleasure in accordance with right reason. Murphy remembers the Early Church Fathers who extolled the state of Virginity. Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Saint Basil, St John Chrysostom and Saint Ambrose all wrote highly of the state as a most worthy vocation. Later, Murphy mentionsthe life of Father Lapide S.J. (1566-1637) who divided the virtue of purity into three categories: puritas corporis (purity of the body); puritas mentis (purity of the mind) and puritas cordis (purity of the heart).

The second half of the book is more of a practical guide for living a pure life, through spiritual preparation, self-knowledge and spiritual combat. A game plan is proposed to challenge the culture of teenage promiscuity, internet pornography and physical and sexual abuse. The plan is based on self-knowledge and avoiding temptations and deception. As our sexuality has a purpose, man and woman complement each other as collaborators with God in the work of creation when sexuality is used in the right context. There is a physical, spiritual, psychological and emotional dimension to our sexual identity as male and female. The author does not deny that being a Christian involves a spiritual and moral combat. He also describes the different type of personalities (sanguine, melancholic, cholericand phlegmatic) and how this relates to self-knowledge and sexuality. This is because the formation of character is closely associated with the psychology of habit formation and the theology of the virtues and vices. Guidelines as to how to stay on track provide a useful summary of how prayer, sacraments and habits can help lead towards purity.

The author also has time to praise Blessed John Paul II's valuable contribution towards this topic with the Theology of the Body. John Paul's catechesis has explored the meaning and purpose of shame and the sexual urge. Sexual shame provides protection from being exploited and used as an object of pleasure. The sexual urge, due to original sin, is prone to exploit pleasure for its own sake. Murphy also explains how love as attraction, desire and goodwill help us appreciate the higher domain of love to which we are called in the communion of persons. All in all the book provides an excellent read with some unique testimonies, anecdotes and insights into a wise and mature approach to human sexuality.

Robert Colquhoun

The Rage Against God
Peter Hitchens, London And New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010, 168pp, £10.99

This is the story of someone who whilst at school was what was sometimes known as a "clever so-and-so," and who whilst there renounced any religious belief in a very public manner. Peter Hitchens is quite upfront about the "braggart sinner" that he became. He clearly found his liberation from the dusty old Anglicanism of his public school to be intoxicating. In the public domain he found that his individual decision was endorsed for him by the failure and dishonesty of public officials. This was the sixties, the era of the Profumo scandal, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies et al.

Hitchens describes the failure of the Christian aspect of his education, and the attractions of a supposedly all-encompassing modern science taken as explaining everything, morality being replaced by utilitarian expediency. What need for God? He then describes a further layer of pseudo-religion built upon this and characterised in Britain by the "cult of Churchill", and culminating in a confusion of patriotism with Christianity.

All of this is followed by a "rediscovery of lost faith", as Hitchens puts it, though this reads more like a loss of faith in secularism. Chronologically it is linked in part with the depressing experience of living in the then Soviet Union. In this process the first substantial intellectual move occurred for him on a visit to Beaune in France and specifically a viewing there of the great painting of the Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden.

"I scoffed. Another religious painting. Couldn't these people think of anything else to depict? Still scoffing, I peered at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of Hell, out of my usual faintly morbid interest in the alleged terrors of damnation. But this time I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions. On the contrary, their hair and, in an odd way, the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and the people I knew. One of them, and I have always wondered how the painter thought of it, is actually vomiting with shock and fear at the sound of the Last Trump."

This dramatic experience (and he describes it very movingly) leads Hitchens to a specific rediscovery of Christianity itself. But what sort of Christianity? He sums it up close to the start of the book:

"I want to explain how I became convinced, by reason and experience, of the necessity and Tightness of a form of Christianity that is modest, accommodating and thoughtful - but ultimately uncompromising about its vital truth."

Hitchens, on exploring his new-found faith, states that he cannot help but be disappointed by its continuing decline since he was last a part of it. How on earth is such an anodyne force to defeat the new atheists against whom he is purporting to write the book?

None of this is explained and analysed. Instead we are taken on a gentle tour of three arguments put forward for atheism: "[T]hat conflicts fought in the name of religion are always about religion; that it is ultimately possible to know with confidence what is right and what is wrong without acknowledging the existence of God; and that atheist states are not actually atheist."

These arguments are duly dispatched in the following three chapters. There is no attempt at a rigorous analysis of the atheist case, which is more extensive than Hitchens puts forward. Also, the perhaps more disturbing anti-religious stance of indifferentism is hardly touched upon at all. It is possible to move an atheist from his or her position.

The final chapter is taken up with the claim of his brother, Christopher Hitchens, that "Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with religion, as seek to replace it". It also takes on Richard Dawkins' claim that religion is child abuse. Peter Hitchens brings out well the totalitarian intolerance of the new atheists of today. In a sense, as he says, they did their work too well.

"In the names of reason, science and liberty they had proved, rather effectively, that good societies need God to survive and that when you have murdered Him, starved Him, silenced Him, denied Him to the children and erased His festivals and His memory, you have a gap which cannot indefinitely be filled by any human, nor anything made by human hands."

The book ends with a quite touching note on the relationship between the two brothers, so far apart in belief, the shadow of Christopher Hitchens being a continuing presence throughout the book.

So, what is one to make of such a book. Well, it does have some worthy objectives and the arguments used are sometimes effective. But, a number of points come to mind, notably that what is needed is a complete and effective rebuttal of the atheist case. And not only that. What is also missing here is any real sense of the beauty and richness of the true religion. The negative needs to be supplemented by the positive.

If the threat posed to religion and outlined by Peter Hitchens is to be contested and bested, this is certainly not going to be done by the Church of England or any other form of Protestantism. They are no longer coherent streams of thought and are divided by splits and hundreds of splinter groups. I recall the reaction of a priest friend to a text setting out the conservative version of Anglicanism, one which espouses fidelity to the monarchy, to the liturgical tradition of the Book of Common Prayer, and to the rural pastoral tradition, of such great comfort to the people. The priest's reaction was to say straight out that the writer seemed to have no idea of what a religion is.

Nowhere was there a hint of God's revelation to man, of God's saving sacraments or of the hierarchy instituted by Christ to save and direct men and to defend the Church against ravenous wolves. In short, there is nothing of the seriousness of a religion that saves men without asking their opinion.

Only the Catholic Church, weakened though she is by many attacks from outside and in, is going to be able to face up to the great challenges of today. This is because her indefectibility is something divine and not dependent on human processes.

It is interesting to note that, well before now, certain notable characters who were part of the rebellion against Christian ethics began to see the downside of what they had set in motion. A good example is John Maynard Keynes. As he told Virginia Woolf in 1934:

"Our generation -yours and mine... owed a great deal to our fathers' religion. And the young...who are brought up without it, will never get so much out of life. They're trivial: like dogs in their lusts. We had the best of both worlds. We destroyed Christianity yet had its benefits."

When the whirlwind of the new atheism strikes, then an institution built on sand, as is the case with Anglicanism, cannot withstand the storm. But when this whirlwind strikes against the Catholic Church, it strikes against a Rock. Hitchens sees nothing of this and therefore fails to appreciate the central issues bearing upon the phenomenon which he is trying to describe. He needs to know that there is even yet an authority that will not let us down. This is the authority of Christ still working through his vicar on earth, the successor of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI. Yet, nowhere is he mentioned here.

John Beaumont
Apperley Bridge

Faith Magazine