A year ago, the formidable Dorothy Rabinowitz asked me for a Christmastide Wall Street Journal column, to be dubbed the “Five Best Books on Christianity.” I suggested Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts; Dorothy demurred. So I simmered down and gave her a list that included the late Dorothy Sayers’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I still love my Sayers, but I now wish I had listed Anthony Esolen’s Divine Comedy (Modern Library). The translation makes Dante sing; and the notes, which are nothing short of brilliant, are a splendid introduction to the Christian worldview. In his introduction to the Inferno, Professor Esolen writes that “there are three principles regarding created things that I find fundamental to Dante’s view of the world and its beauty; they are also the principles that underlie the beauty of Dante’s poems and that, for our purposes in the Inferno, will help us see the justice that inspired his zeal. They are these: Things have an end. Things have meaning. Things are connected.” I don’t know a more succinct riposte to the confusions that underlie the new atheism. If you’re looking for a Christmas gift that offers a poetic and theological vaccination against the rants of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, give all three volumes of Esolen’s Divine Comedy. Then buy yourself a set.
Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, OP, has long been a significant intellectual player in a related set of arguments having to do with creation and evolution. One of Catholicism’s most learned and wise men, Schoenborn is no pre-modern; his rejection of evolution-as-ideology in Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith (Ignatius Press) has nothing to do with biblical literalism and everything to do with the canons of reason. If a mutually enriching conversation between science and religion is to unfold in the 21st century, the rubbish strewn over the field by the new atheists (and especially by Dawkins) will have to be cleared away. Cardinal Schoenborn’s book does that deftly, while staking out a position ahead of the usual battle-lines and demonstrating how evolution construed as an ideology of purposelessness is demeaning to genuine humanism. A great gift for that young person who’s beginning to ask the Big Questions.
Earlier this year I mentioned Volker Schloendorff’s gripping film on the priests’ barracks at Dachau, The Ninth Day. Zaccheus Press, a fledgling Catholic publisher in Bethesda, Maryland, now gives us Father Jean Bernard’s Priestblock 25487, the memoir on which The Ninth Day was based. In marked (but unstated) contrast to the critiques of the Catholic Church during the Nazi period, Priestblock 25487 tells the largely-unknown story of priestly resistance to the brutality of German National Socialism under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and explores the moral and spiritual challenge of remaining human and humane amidst sadism and inhumanity. It’s a good book for those who think everything has been said about the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, in its Nazi form.
One of the major surprises of the pontificate of John Paul II was its enthusiastic reception by evangelical Protestants, especially in North America. The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment, edited by Tim Perry and published by InterVarsity Press, sheds the light of evangelical theological scholarship on John Paul’s efforts to remind the world that human beings can indeed grasp the truth of things, including the moral truths of things. Put aside your dubieties about the John Paul II book industry and get a taste of the ecumenism of the future, made possible by the man Baptist theologian Timothy George calls “our common teacher.”
Finally, let me confess to a new airplane reading addiction: the spy novels of Daniel Silva. Start at the beginning of his Gabriel Allon series (The Kill Artist) and proceed on from there, skipping The Confessor, but making sure not to miss the next one set in the Vatican, The Messenger. Silva is a great read who provides a healthy dose of moral realism about the passions of the Middle East and how they affect all concerned.