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The Greatest Shift in Human Thought


THE LAST JUDGMENT: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance
VANITY FAITH: Searching for Spirituality Among the Stars
Many Styles of Religious Life

THE CHRISTIAN FUTURE AND THE FATE OF EARTH, by Thomas Berry. Edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. Orbis Books. 130 pp. $22.

Reviewed by SISTER PAULA GONZALEZ, S.C., Ph.D., an environmentalist and futurist. This Sister of Charity has given over 1,800 programs that link energy, environment and ecospirituality.

FROM WITHIN the Christian community, the late Thomas Berry was a prophetic voice in awakening people to "the environmental crisis." In his preface, John Cobb states: "No other writer in the ecological movement has had an analogous effectiveness" in clarifying "the radical uniqueness of the crisis."

Distilled from Berry's thinking, this book includes 10 essays that masterfully synthesize his leading ideas. In inspiring—often lyrical—language, he offers a comprehensive look at the emerging worldview which provides what he calls a "functional cosmology" for humans as we address the challenges of our planet's future.

A cultural historian, Berry knew well the history of humans' religious pathways. A deep study of Asian religions and indigenous spiritual practices helped him appreciate the great spiritual unity that underlies the relationship of humans to Divine Mystery. The essay entitled "The Catholic Church and the Religions of the World" can provide the reader with the broadening of perspective so needed in our multicultural global society.

Perhaps the most captivating of Berry's ideas emerged in 1978 when he wrote New Story. He described the Western world as being "between stories"—the biblical account of creation and the scientific description of the evolutionary development of the universe. For many Christians this has produced an alienation from Earth and an exclusive focus on an "other-worldly" future.

In this volume, "The Third Mediation" describes how Christians are called to "return home" to Earth: "Now we need a greater sense of humans, not as transcending the Earth community, but as members of the Earth community."

The genius of Berry's approach is that he moved from a look at the societal transformations, which we call "world history," to a consideration of how this fits into the "universe story." He suggests that wonder and awe should be our response to our ever-increasing understanding of the human role: "For the first time we can tell the universe story, the Earth story, the human story, the religion story, the Christian story and the Church story as a single, comprehensive narrative."

We can celebrate the insight of Teilhard de Chardin that "the human is a cosmic phenomenon, not primarily an aesthetic, moral or religious one."

Berry reminds us that "this New Story of the universe represents the greatest change in human thought and consciousness since the rise of the Neolithic Period."

Such a profound paradigm shift will not occur easily. This may be particularly difficult for Christians, whose concentration on salvation and redemption has distanced them from seeing that everything in the created universe is part of the "sacred Earth community." We are "kin" to all of God's creatures in what we call "Nature."

Among the most recent of Earth's creatures, we humans are unique in our ability to choose. The present disturbed state of our planet's ecosystems suggests that we have not been choosing wisely.

Because we humans are the only beings that can "know that we know," we are the "reflexive consciousness" of the universe, especially of Planet Earth. This unique endowment increases our responsibility to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the enormous task of restoration.

For over two centuries, industrial processes have been ravaging the planet, but Christian response to this has been rather late in coming. This is due largely to concentration on human-divine and human-human relations. In recent years human-Earth concerns are beginning to awaken the various spiritual traditions to see the appropriate role of humans to be "cocreators" of a sustainable future.

In his essay "Christianity and Ecology," Berry clearly indicates the scope of the changes in perspective that our times demand: "We need to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to a spirituality of intimacy with it, from a spirituality of the divine as revealed in verbal revelation to a spirituality of the divine as revealed in the visible world around us, from a spirituality concerned with justice simply to humans to a justice that includes the larger Earth community."

You can order THE CHRISTIAN FUTURE AND THE FATE OF EARTH from St. Francis Bookstore.


THE GLORY OF ANGELS, by Edward Lucie-Smith. Collins Design. 192 pp. $35.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a native Cincinnatian and retired public librarian.

SURELY YOU HAVE noticed that angels have become wildly popular in the last few years. Interestingly, since no authentic photographs exist, myriad artistic images in painting, sculpture, ceramics and even jewelry depict their supposed images.

In early December The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a popular comic strip about a policeman searching for "angels" who gave him a medallion that saved his life, and then published an advertisement for a workshop to "help you connect with your angels."

But angels have long been objects of interest and conjecture. In the eighth century B.C., a limestone sculpture entitled "Winged Genie" was produced, and St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century compiled a list of nine choirs of angels, based on the teachings of Plato and Pseudo-Dionysius.

Author Lucie-Smith, the compiler of this gorgeous, oversized picture book of angels, would say interest intensifies in precarious times.

Angels exist to help humankind and portray the loving concern of God. They serve as messengers, guardians, guides and agents of consolation. They play prominent roles in the Easter and Christmas stories in the Gospels. When the world is in chaos, people are drawn to the circumscribed order of the angelic hierarchy where God reigns supreme with powers and duties assigned by rank.

Artists determine the angels' appearance by their function, but also put them in contemporary costume and use the physical characteristics of their own society or, if an angel is to operate incognito, the ordinary dress of the upper echelon.

Many artists portray angelic choruses and orchestras, as these performances demand perfect unanimity of action, as do armed forces in battle. Other than the familiar archangels we know, the orders appear to have no individual personalities.

Jacob de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa (c. 1230-1298), taught that on the Day of Judgment the elect will be incorporated into an order of angels depending on their worthiness. Being absorbed into one of the choirs rather deflates the image of heaven as providing perfect fulfillment for each saved soul, but then Voragine's idea is not a tenet of our Catholic faith!

The devil, who after all is a fallen angel, can adopt any form, animal or human, as the case may merit. He is often portrayed as the Greek god Pan, or as a dragon or the serpent in Eden. The devils have the same hierarchy as the angels but perform deeds to the detriment of humankind.

Hinduism and Buddhism have a sort of equivalent to angels in Christian, Jewish and Muslim belief. The Hindus have devas (shining ones) and asuras (evil spirits). Interestingly, if the asuras reform themselves and do good, they can be reincarnated as devas. Buddhists also believe in devas who are emanations of energy and light but do not usually interact in human affairs.

The existence of Islamic angels is a part of their faith, and they have names and ranks. Senegalese, Jamaican and Ethiopian religious movements honor angels and lovingly depict them.

With only 29 pages of text, the remaining 163 pages are pictures highlighted with germane quotations from wide-ranging sources. The book format is a work of art in itself, with the cover cut so as to open out as a church door does. Some of the pictures fold out to the width of four pages. The reproductions are stunning, with vibrant backgrounds and figures so brightly illuminated that seeing the pictures here has to be more detailed than seeing them in person!

Scala Group, headquartered in Florence, Italy, provided the majority of the illustrations and should be highly commended for their expertise in reproducing these masterworks. Even the 15-page Picture Resource that provides relevant information on each picture contains exquisite small illustrations. There is also an excellent index.

Edward Lucie-Smith resides in London and has appeared regularly as a broadcaster on BBC art discussion programs, as well as writing for British newspapers and periodicals. He has had over one hundred books published, more than 60 about art. Three of his works have become standard texts on art. The Glory of Angels may well become the book on illustration of angels.

I highly recommend this volume for art libraries, religious libraries and home libraries. It would make a treasured gift item.

You can order THE GLORY OF ANGELS from St. Francis Bookstore.


THE LAST JUDGMENT: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance, by James A. Connor. Palgrave Macmillan. 231 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by JEANNE HUNT, editorial adviser for catechesis and evangelization at St. Anthony Messenger Press. She is the author of Choir Prayers and More Choir Prayers (Oregon Catholic Press) and Holy Bells and Wonderful Smells and When You Are a Single Parent (St. Anthony Messenger Press). She has a bachelor's degree in art history from the University of Cincinnati.

INTRIGUE, MYSTERY and hidden meanings do not sound like the stuff of which Michelangelo was made. The visitor to the Sistine Chapel envisions the great Renaissance painter to be a saintly artist sequestered on a lofty scaffold, painting holy scenes with devout fervor. In The Last Judgment: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance, James A. Connor gives us a whiff of something quite different.

This well-researched volume offers a hindsight version of the judgment scene that graces the back wall of the Sistine Chapel. This book challenges long-held beliefs. Connor places Michelangelo squarely in the midst of the late Renaissance theological controversy.

Michelangelo was painting the vaulted ceiling during the "last sultry days" of the Renaissance. He painted the altar wall with The Last Judgment during the "first freeze" of the Counter-Reformation. Michelangelo was a man of his times, and the times were full of theological crisis and uncertainty.

The waning days of the Renaissance brought a new time for the Church. Therein lies the intrigue. The images of The Last Judgment are more than they seem. Hidden beneath the sacred story, Michelangelo declares a message of discontent and condemnation. Girolamo Savonarola and the Spirituali, a group of Catholic intellectuals who wanted Church reform, stirred up a new spirituality based on an emotional and personal relationship with God rather than an institutional relationship.

By 1536 the "Document of the Mending of the Church" underscored the common consensus that reform was needed in the papacy and hierarchy. Martin Luther was already very active. Michelangelo put away the gentle tones and light pastels of an ideal creation scene for the darker, foreboding colors of a Church in torment as he painted The Last Judgment.

It was his friendship with Vittoria Colonna, a gentlewoman of the Catholic aristocracy, that brought Michelangelo to a reawakening of religious fervor and passion for reform in the Church. He came to understand that his painting was a vehicle to engender spiritual conversion. He began to paint with a deeper cause, not only to inspire but also to bring the viewer to an encounter with God.

As we look beneath the classic Renaissance figures, we see a Christ in the center of the judgment scene who is the "unmoved mover." Christ is beyond time, a cosmic Christ. There is nothing sweet or sacred about him. Christ is powerful and full of emotion: "He reaches for the sublime through the mystery that terrifies and fascinates."

This is a radical theological shift as Christ is no longer a historical figure but a presence beyond time. Then, as we look to the damned tumbling into hell, there is the face of the papal master of ceremonies. The figures are nude because Michelangelo portrayed the physical body as defeating the soul.

Each detail of the great work reveals another nuance of Michelangelo's beliefs. He was not painting to please the Church; he was painting to bring the beholder to a deeper faith.

Connor engages the reader into a provocative account of a time when the need for Church reform brought the glory of the Renaissance to an end. Michelangelo painted much more than we knew; James A. Connor gives us eyes to see it.

You can order THE LAST JUDGMENT: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance from St. Francis Bookstore.


VANITY FAITH: Searching for Spirituality Among the Stars, by Terrance W. Klein. Liturgical Press. 118 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, who teaches religion at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati.

TWEAKING THE FAMOUS QUOTE by the Church Father Tertullian, I offer the question: "What hath Hollywood to do with Jerusalem?" Is preoccupation with the goings-on of Tinseltown a sure road map to perdition? Put more directly, what should the Church's and a Christian's relationship with culture be?

In his book, Vanity Faith: Searching for Spirituality Among the Stars, Terrance Klein, a former seminary director of spiritual formation and now associate professor of theology at Fordham University, gives us the answer: engagement and connection.

The book itself centers around six topics—the soul, grace, love, suffering, Christ and prayer. All of the chapters are a mix of pop culture teamed with serious theological and spiritual reflection: The Rockettes and the Prophet Isaiah, Princess Diana and Pope Benedict, Lucille Ball and Jesus, Captain Kangaroo and the Gospels—and still others.

Though one may be inclined to "canonize" some of the celebrities named in the book, Klein urges caution: "Am I making saints out of stars? No, I know that many of them made moral mistakes that shouldn't be envied or emulated, but the thought behind these pages is that we can learn from the lives of others. God tends to reveal God's self in the web of relationships that we call lovers, family and friends. Reading the life-scripts of others may help us to recognize our own cues. And maybe pondering life among the stars can set your gaze even a bit higher than Alpha Centauri."

Take, for example, the A-list actress Jennifer Aniston. After confessing to occasionally reading Vanity Fair, an American magazine of culture, fashion and politics, Klein admits he was hooked by the headline "Jen Finally Talks and Talks and Talks. And Cries. And Talks." Far from a salacious celebrity exposé, Klein saw in the article a woman struggling with intense suffering from the breakup of her marriage with Brad Pitt.

In what may surprise many, he likens it to the suffering the Prophet Jeremiah experienced after being released from imprisonment for proclaiming God's word.

Klein says, "A Christian reads both stories with the conviction that God's power is revealed in suffering because God's solidarity with us is made manifest in the Son who took his stance by our side and freely chose to suffer." In one of the book's more telling stories, Klein shares how he learned to be a priest from the movies. A young man had been injured in a farming accident. What seemed like a set for a TV show was an actual hospital room. As he relates, "Eight years of seminary education, and I froze. The only way I could move was by telling myself: 'You've seen the movies. What would a priest do? You've got to act like a priest.'" Bing Crosby gave him the strength to comfort the young man and his family in this tragic situation.

Don't be misled by the previous examples, however. Amidst the seriousness and pain of life that the book explores, there is much laughter and humor. I had to smile when he referred to the show I Dream of Jeannie, saying of himself: "Can a 40-something celibate withstand Barbara Eden and her midriff exposed?" You'll get more of the same when he talks about his weekend in New York with the Rockettes.

Taking a cue from the book's title, Klein's attempt to connect what we're reading at home and at the supermarket, seeing at the movies, and watching on TV with what we're hearing proclaimed on Sundays is a relevant, appealing and, at times, humorous read.

Though at times his cultural references may appeal more to Baby Boomers and Generation X, his engaging writing style will bring in even Generations Y and Z. Readers will enjoy this book and find Vanity Faith more substantive than they first realized. The stars of Hollywood and saints of faith aren't that far apart after all.

You can order VANITY FAITH: Searching for Spirituality Among the Stars from St. Francis Bookstore.


Many Styles of Religious Life

Religious life is always being reinvented—alone or in community.

A COMMUNITY CALLED TAIZÉ: A Story of Prayer, Worship and Reconciliation, by Jason Brian Santos (Formatio/InterVarsity Press, 203 pp., $15). This Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary first landed at Taizé in 2005 on the very day its founder, Brother Roger Schutz, was murdered (at prayer) by a disturbed Romanian woman. Santos experienced the community's loving response to the tragedy. This Protestant, ecumenical monastic order has become a focal point for young people the world over.

CONSIDER THE RAVENS: On Contemporary Hermit Life, by Paul A. Fredette and Karen Karper Fredette, foreword by Richard Rohr, O.F.M. (, 254 pp., $20.95), comes from a married couple from Asheville, North Carolina, who minister to contemporary religious who have chosen solitude, via a newsletter they call Raven's Bread. This book explores all aspects of the eremetic life.

THE LIFE OF ST. BENEDICT BY GREGORY THE GREAT: Translation and Commentary, by Terrence G. Kardong (Liturgical Press, 160 pp., $16.95). This monk of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, is a scholar on the Rule of St. Benedict. He has taken a new look at Gregory's Dialogues and discovered that "the Father of Western monasticism" was more than a miracle-worker: He was a great community organizer and spiritual father.—B.B.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookstore, 135 W. 31st Street, New York, NY 10001, phone 212-736-8500, ext. 324, fax 212-594-6025.


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