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
They argue that this legacy works
subtly and unconsciously, affording
motivation for acts of gross inhumanity
such as terrorist attacks and ethnic
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
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
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
the devout Chinese
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
You can order THE SECRET CARDINAL: A Novel of
Suspense from St.
HUMAN SEXUALITY IN THE
CATHOLIC TRADITION, edited
by Kieran Scott and Harold Daly
Horell. Rowman & Littlefield. 240
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
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
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
You can order HUMAN SEXUALITY IN THE
CATHOLIC TRADITION from St.
HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide
to Scripture, Then and Now, by James
L. Kugel. Free Press. 819 pp. $35,
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
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
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
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
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
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
You can order HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide
to Scripture, Then and Now from St. Francis Bookshop.