The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty (book review)

New from The Movie Snob.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty, by Steven D. Smith (2014).  In this slim volume (171 pages, excluding endnotes), Smith sets out to correct what he views as the misleading conventional wisdom about the meaning of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment.  (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”)  He argues that the Framers did not intend the Clause to usher in a strictly secular state but rather to establish that the national government had no jurisdiction to mess with state establishments of religion or to infringe on people’s rights to worship as they chose.  And he argues that the Supreme Court’s current incoherent religion jurisprudence is a result of straying from those original (limited) purposes.  I thought it was an interesting, if dense, book, but it seems to underplay the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment and especially the Equal Protection Clause.  Before the Civil War, yes, the states could have an established church or show favoritism to a religion (or religion in general).  But once states had to give everyone the “equal protection of laws,” what did that mean for religious favoritism?

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Lila (book review)

A new book review by The Movie Snob.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014).  This beautiful novel is the story of a character who appeared around the edges of Robinson’s last two novels, Gilead and Home.  Lila was born into impoverished and probably dire circumstances back in the early twentieth century.  We don’t know much about those circumstances because when she was very young (but just old enough to remember) she was stolen (rescued?) by a vagabond woman called Doll.  She grows up on the road with Doll, wandering around with other migrants and suffering through the lean years of the Depression.  We follow Lila’s story until she’s a grown woman, and we leave off shortly before the events of Gilead pick up.  Hers is a lonely and precarious existence, and Robinson convincingly portrays how someone raised in such conditions would think about the world.  It is a really sad book, but I loved it.

Caesar’s Druids (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Caesar’s Druids, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (2010).  This densely written and highly academic book surprised me right off the bat in a couple of ways.  First, I had no idea that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were “our richest textual source for ancient Druids.”  I read the Gallic Wars not too long ago, and I barely remember a reference to the Druids.  Second, I didn’t know that “there exists not one vestige of archaeological evidence that can be linked unequivocally to the Druids.”  Thus, aside from Caesar and few scattered references in other ancient writers, we apparently know almost nothing about the Druids.  As a result, this book is full of discussions of ancient tombs and treasures and places and human sacrifices that we do know some things about, plus a bunch of speculation that maybe these things had something to do with Druids.  Or if not, maybe Druids did similar things anyway.  So, it was kind of interesting to learn about some of these ancient stories and archaeological finds, but I don’t guess I learned a lot about the Druids.  And no, contrary to Spinal Tap’s memorable song, the Druids didn’t have anything to do with Stonehenge.

From Shame to Sin (book review)

Well, The Movie Snob set out to see Black Panther today, but the movie theater had some technical difficulties and it just wasn’t to be.  So here’s a book review instead…

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, by Kyle Harper (2013).  How’s that for a grabby title–subtitle combination?  Harper is associate professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, and he puts his knowledge of ancient Roman literature to good use as he explores—well, the Christian transformation of sexual morality in late antiquity.  He starts with the state of affairs in the pagan Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D., and it is a pretty squalid state (by Christian standards).  As he repeatedly emphasizes, it was a world built on slavery and the exploitation of slaves.  Christianity had a revolutionary effect on many aspects of life, in sexual morality of course, but also in recognizing that every person, regardless of social status, has the ability and the duty to choose between good and evil.  I thought it was a very interesting book.

Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (book review)

A book review by The Movie Snob.

Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, by Anthony Esolen  (Sophia Institute 2014).  I found this book a let-down.  I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I think I was hoping for something like a legal brief.  Something that would say, “Here are the principles of Catholic social teaching, and here is how we derive them from the more fundamental principles of the Faith and from the Bible.”  But that’s not what this is.  It’s largely a survey of the social writings of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903).  Esolen’s style isn’t logical and precise; it’s literary and emotional and reminds me a little of G.K. Chesterton.  In sum, I didn’t find it particularly helpful.

A Deeper Vision (book review)

The Movie Snob submits a book review.

A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Royal (Ignatius 2015).  I don’t know exactly what Robert Royal’s background is, but he is amazingly knowledgeable about the Catholic Church and Catholic theology.  This big old chunk of a book (588 pages) proves it.  The first part of the book focuses on the trends and trendsetters in Catholic theology in the twentieth century, with special emphasis on Vatican II and the Church’s gradual embrace of modern techniques of Scripture study.  That’s a lot of ground to cover in 357 pages, but it didn’t feel too superficial to me, and I found the discussion of Vatican II particularly interesting.  The second part of the book is about Catholic writers of the twentieth century, mainly British and French.  Most of the British folks were at least somewhat familiar to me—G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Graham Greene—but the French fellows were mostly unknown to me.  Anyway, the book is not light reading, but if you have an interest in the topic, I think you will find it an excellent and well-written resource.

Death Comes for the Archbishop (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (originally published 1927).  I had never read any of Willa Cather’s work before, but I found this novel very moving and very beautiful.  In the mid-1800s, the United States is consolidating its control over the area that would eventually become the State of New Mexico.  The Catholic Church responds to these developments by sending a new missionary bishop to take charge of the area—a Frenchman named Jean Marie Latour.  His life-long friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, accompanies him, and together the two clerics (who had previously been toiling in the mission fields of Ohio) experience the beauty and the mystery of the southwestern desert and its Mexican and Indian inhabitants.  Michael Dirda sums it up well: “The most serenely beautiful of [Cather’s] books, it seems scarcely a novel at all, more a kind of New World pastoral, evoking the beauty of the desert Southwest, lamenting the passing of traditional Native culture, and glorifying the lives of two saintly Catholic missionaries as they spread their faith in a harsh land.”  (Classics for Pleasure 255.)  For my part, I add this book to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as my favorite “Catholic” novels.