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Is Religion Linked to Violence?


ABRAHAM’S CURSE: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
THE SECRET CARDINAL: A Novel of Suspense
HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
Retreat for Harmony

ABRAHAM’S CURSE: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, by Bruce Chilton. Doubleday. 254 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by DAN KROGER, O.F.M., publisher/CEO of St. Anthony Messenger Press. He received a doctorate in Christian ethics from the University of Notre Dame.

AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, an old claim has reemerged: that religion is the root cause of all violence—war, genocide and inhumanity of every sort. Bruce Chilton’s new book tackles that idea critically and argues that religion is not inextricably linked to violence.

One thinks of books by Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Chilton finds their arguments shoddy and based on selective reading of the historical evidence and of the sacred texts. He admits, however, “Recent events make their popularity more than understandable.”

The Enlightenment period of Western history operated on the claim that human reason was the solution to all human problems. The Enlightenment came just after Europe’s wars of religion. Killing or persecuting people of religious persuasions that ran contrary to one’s own had then been considered moral. Thus, one of the Enlightenment’s aims was to constrain religion. But later, purely secular forms of tyranny—Nazism and atheistic Communism in its Soviet and Chinese incarnations—outstripped such constraints.

People belonging to the religions of the Book—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—are familiar with the story of how God tested Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22:1-19).

Today’s anti-religion writers argue that the legacy of human sacrifice— particularly sacrifice of one’s children and of one’s own life in the name of God—is Abraham’s curse passed to monotheists in all three religions that consider Abraham as their father in faith.

They argue that this legacy works subtly and unconsciously, affording motivation for acts of gross inhumanity such as terrorist attacks and ethnic cleansing.

Correcting such a facile Scripture interpretation, Chilton points out that scholars find that the Genesis text originated in a social-historical context where human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of firstborn sons, was practiced. Chilton claims that the text of the “binding of Isaac” actually renounces such human sacrifice and teaches that resisting such notions is essential to the faith.

The persistent tendency to see self-sacrifice, martyrdom and the sacrifice of innocents as virtuous proves that there is something of a curse in the story of the “binding of Isaac,” or the Aqedah, as it is known in Hebrew.

Chilton describes how Judaism invented martyrdom and the willing sacrifice of one’s children in order to save one’s culture and one’s own people. For example, the period recounted in both 1 and 2 Maccabees was a response to the harsh repression of Judaism under the Seleucids during the third and second centuries B.C.

Chilton traces the historical and social contexts in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam all recognized that under extreme circumstances it could indeed be moral to lay down one’s life for one’s faith.

In Chapter Two, Chilton points out how Judaism, under such harsh conditions, “produced a charter for martyrs,” based on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. During the time of the Maccabees, rabbis developed interpretations of Genesis 22, teaching that Isaac, in obedience to God’s demand, became a willing sacrifice ready to be slain by his father.

Indeed, some interpretations claimed that Isaac was actually slain by his father but that God later raised him from the dead in order to fulfill his promises to Abraham.

Chilton points out how late writings in the Maccabean tradition—during the Roman rule over Palestine just before the time of Jesus—really are models for the Christian narratives about how martyrs like Sebastian and Lawrence the Deacon went willingly through inhuman torture and suffering to their deaths.

This book is a serious study with a high level of readability. Like his previous studies—Mary Magdalene (2006), Rabbi Paul (2005) and Rabbi Jesus (2002)—Chilton brings wide-ranging knowledge of theology and the history of religions to a fruitful synthesis in Abraham’s Curse. This volume is a great counter to the claim that atheism is the only proper response, both to violence and to irrational fundamentalism flowing from religious roots.

You can order ABRAHAM’S CURSE: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE SECRET CARDINAL: A Novel of Suspense, by Tom Grace. Vanguard Press. 356 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by MARY JO DANGEL, assistant managing editor of this magazine, who enjoys reading fiction.

THE PLOT of this Catholic thriller focuses on Shanghai’s Bishop Yin Daoming, who has been imprisoned for many years. The fictional Pope Leo XIV, reminiscent of the real Pope John Paul II, has secretly named Yin a cardinal and wants him freed.

When the frail pontiff dies, there’s an urgency to complete the mission to liberate Yin before a new pontiff is elected, in case he doesn’t share his predecessor’s opinion about the devout Chinese churchman. Former Navy SEAL Nolan Kilkenny, who is grieving the recent death of his wife and child, leads the operation.

This fifth adventure in Grace’s Nolan Kilkenny series is set in modern-day China as the country is preparing for this month’s Olympics.

Although I’ve never been to China or the Vatican, Grace’s vivid descriptions seem realistic, and I’m not simply referring to the scenery. There are some graphic descriptions of torture and violence, mixed with politics, history and geography. Much of the action takes place in China and Italy.

When I was a student at Catholic schools many years ago, I remember having to memorize lots of facts about such things as papal elections and excommunications. Without being preachy, Tom Grace succeeds in making how the Vatican operates much more interesting by weaving facts and fiction into an intriguing novel that involves the Mafia, a Church insider who breaks the code of silence and Catholics who are willing to die for their faith. I learned some new things and relearned others I had forgotten.

Tom Grace’s novels have been compared to those of Tom Clancy and Ken Follett. This one is a gripping and realistic story that doesn’t leave any loose ends. Tom Grace explains that this work of fiction was inspired by the real-life story of the late Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei (1901-2000) and “the ongoing religious repression in China.” Kung, bishop of Shanghai, was in prison when he was secretly named a cardinal in 1979. He came to the United States in 1988 and his status as a cardinal was revealed three years later.

In July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a groundbreaking letter to Chinese Catholics, criticizing limits placed by the Chinese government on the Church’s activities, reported Catholic News Service. On several issues, including how bishops are appointed, the pope invited civil authorities to serious dialogue.

You can order THE SECRET CARDINAL: A Novel of Suspense from St. Francis Bookshop.


HUMAN SEXUALITY IN THE CATHOLIC TRADITION, edited by Kieran Scott and Harold Daly Horell. Rowman & Littlefield. 240 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, a teacher and writer at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He edited (with Bill Madges) Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories and The Many Marks of the Church (both Twenty-Third Publications).

BRINGING UP the words sexuality and Catholic together in the company of friends is bound to elicit a variety of responses: roll of the eyes, shrug of the shoulders, lips pursed in anger, dismissive laughter—or dead silence. Sadly, the very thing that editors Scott and Horell, both theology professors at Fordham University, want to have take place—conversation—rarely happens.

Yet this is the very goal of Human Sexuality in the Catholic Tradition: “to repair the rift and bridge the gap between official teaching and the lived reality of Roman Catholics.” To begin this process, dialogue must take place. Otherwise, the crises of integrity, legitimacy and credibility within Catholicism in regard to sexuality will continue.

The book itself is divided into two main parts. Part One deals with foundational issues—spirituality, moral theology, psychology and pastoral ministry—of human sexuality. Part Two responds to specific issues—Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, marriage, celibacy, homosexuality, adolescents and sexuality, and cohabitation.

For far too long, contributors Fran Ferder and John Heagle contend, has the Catholic tradition viewed sex through the frame of a shame-based, fear-inducing, dualistic lens. All too often, biological function has won out at the expense of relationship. One emphasis of the book, then, is the recovery of a more holistic sense of sexuality, more person- than act-centered.

John Cecero writes that sexuality should open us up to reveal the mystery that is God. As a result, the body becomes a powerful medium of God’s presence, something to be embraced rather than avoided. As Pope John Paul II wrote: “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it.”

According to Sidney Callahan, one unfortunate effect of the sexual-abuse crisis has been that many Catholics have simply turned a deaf ear to the topic of sexuality. But, as Callahan states, “Deploring past prejudices and feelings of the Church toward sexuality doesn’t justify ignoring the present pitfalls in a culture that trivializes, markets and exploits sexuality.”

Necessarily and refreshingly, the book speaks of sexuality within marriage. Historically, there has been great hesitancy to speak, even within the bounds of marriage, of sex as good. Often, it was tolerated for procreative reasons, but even married people were discouraged from finding pleasure in it.

In what may strike some Catholic ears as strange, Christine Gudorf argues that “Sex—good, frequent, mutually pleasurable—is as vitally important to the vocation of marriage as reception of the Eucharist is to membership in the Church community. One of the tasks of the Church should be to help make marital sex more pleasurable.” The Church has some ways to go before this understanding is realized.

Whether dealing with foundational issues of sexuality or specific moral ones, the book’s content and tone stress the lived experience of believers’ sexual lives—with all their successes and failures. This, at times, brings it into tension with official Church teaching which can appear abstract, juridical and negative. There is an appreciation on the part of the contributors though for the role the Church can play in communicating a healthy and authentic sexual expression to the broader culture.

As Horrell indicates: “Our real choice is between adding to the trivialization of sexuality in our contemporary culture by failing to address sexual issues adequately, or to contribute to the development of a renewed theology of sexuality that will enable us to assess the positive and negative dimensions of contemporary postmodern culture and in the process give witness to the life-giving potential of Christian faith in the world today.”

From my perspective, the book has achieved its goal of beginning a conversation about sexuality.

You can order HUMAN SEXUALITY IN THE CATHOLIC TRADITION from St. Francis Bookshop.


HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James L. Kugel. Free Press. 819 pp. $35, U.S,/$44, Canada.

Reviewed by HILARION KISTNER, O.F.M., editor of Homily Helps for Sundays for St. Anthony Messenger Press. He studied Scripture at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

THE TITLE might prompt people to think that this book will help them understand the Bible in three easy steps; the subtitle should give them pause. In fact, this is a difficult book, an interesting book and a fascinating book. Anyone who reads it will require time, energy and concentration.

Perhaps the title should be: “What Some Ancients and Some Moderns Have to Say about the Bible.” James L. Kugel quotes the comments of many ancient Jewish and Christian writers and many modern scholars. Their comments tell us exactly how they each approach the Scriptures.

Do they help us understand the Bible? Yes and no. The ancient authors try to explain some difficult passages. For example, what is the meaning of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac? One author has a complicated treatment of the Hebrew text, rescuing God, Abraham and Isaac from a difficult situation. But it hardly helps the reader understand the author’s intent or the divine message.

When Kugel treats modern authors, he gets caught up in their attempts to trace the development of the stories that make up the Bible. Often the question becomes: What really happened? These are interesting points, and can help us understand how the various stories and traditions came to form the Bible as we have it today. But they do not go far enough in satisfying readers who are looking for God’s message.

There are modern authors—Jewish, Catholic and Protestant—however, who do look for God’s message. While they study the history of biblical events and the times in which the various authors wrote, they also try to uncover the mystery of God and God’s dealings with human beings. They recognize that God’s Spirit has been at work throughout the events recorded in the Old and New Testaments, as well as during their formulation in writing.

As an analogy, we might imagine Beethoven jotting down snatches of melodies on scraps of paper. Some he discarded, others he modified, still others he preserved as written. Gradually, he put his material together and finally composed a marvelous symphony. We might say he was “inspired” through the whole process, but it is in the final work that we discover the finished inspired symphony.

The biblical process is somewhat the same. The more we appreciate the bits and pieces, the more we can appreciate the final work. It is in the final work that we find the message. Yet there is good reason to say that the charism of inspiration was at work through the whole process.

Individual commentators can and do help us appreciate the Bible’s message. But Catholics also look to the Church to help us understand what the Bible really says. Thus, we find a great deal of guidance in the creeds, the decrees of popes and councils, the sacraments, the moral teachings, the liturgy and the teachings of the Fathers and other theologians.

These are some of the elements that are not considered by Kugel, who is an Orthodox Jew.

This book, however, does contain a wealth of information and some brilliant insights—sometimes with a dose of humor. Anyone interested in a rather erudite treatment of the Bible and its interpreters will learn a great deal from this book.

You can order HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now from St. Francis Bookshop.


Retreat for Harmony

Retreats provide an opportunity to renew ourselves and learn from nature and the simplicity of a focused life.

RENEWAL IN THE WILDERNESS: A Spiritual Guide to Connecting With God in the Natural World, by John Lionberger (SkyLight Paths, 158 pp., $16.99), is a guide to experiencing God in the natural world—from backpacking in the remote wilderness to lazy afternoons in our own backyards. Lionberger contends that “the wilderness is God’s ‘hull-scraper’; it strips us of the barnacles of civilization that slow us, distract us and divert us from our pursuit of God—and God’s pursuit of us.”

ANOTHER WORLD: A Retreat in the Ozarks, by William Classen (Sheed & Ward/Rowman & Littlefield, 193 pp., $17.95). Here, a social activist from an eclectic Christian background learns from the Trappist monks at Assumption Abbey about community, solitude, silence and leadership.

PORTRAITS OF GRACE: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, by James Stephen Behrens, O.C.S.O. (ACTA Publications, 123 pp., $19.95). Trappist Father Behrens’s lovely color photos of life at his monastery in Conyers, Georgia, invite all of us to see the “something eternal” in the little things of our lives.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling, $2 more for each additional book. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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