Books for Christmas

They’re not all new, the books that follow, but they’re all well worth reading, and giving.

David Bentley Hart, “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies” (Yale University Press). You’ll need the dental records to identify what’s left of the “new atheists”—Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens—after David Hart turns his lucid mind and brilliant pen on them. “Atheist Delusions” is not only a devastating critique of the intellectually vacuous, however; it’s an important reminder of how much the civilization of the West owes to Christianity. Any college student on your gift list would be well served by reading this exceptional book.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., “Church and Society: The Lawrence J. McGinley Lectures,” 1988-2007 (Fordham University Press). In a year replete with the deaths of irreplaceable Catholic intellectuals, the loss of Cardinal Dulles, a model of theological precision and fairness, was especially grievous. In this collection, the late, great theologian takes up important social and political questions (including the death penalty and the nature of human rights), explicates the thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and treats sacramental, ecumenical, and interreligious issues with deep insight. Especially useful for students attending colleges and universities “in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition.”

Andrzej Paczkowski, “The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom” (Pennsylvania State University Press). On this 20th anniversary of the Revolution of 1989, in which Poland and the Poles played the pivotal role, this six-year-old book remains the gold standard for understanding the experience that produced John Paul II, the revolution of conscience he ignited in 1979, and the difficulties Poles encountered on the hard road to freedom. Historian Paczkowski has a sharp eye for the telling detail, and, in a serious work of the historian’s art, nonetheless offers several side-splitting examples of the mordant humor that was one tool of Poland’s cultural resistance to communism. Paczkowski is judicious, fair, and thorough in his assessment of the Church’s complex role under Polish communism; those who are only familiar with that part of the story will find their appreciation of the Catholic human rights resistance enhanced by Paczkowski’s account of the rest of the tale.

Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” (Oxford University Press). In a season of widespread historical ignorance, this splendid volume, the sixth in the “Oxford History of the United States,” takes up a period of our national story that even the historically literate often miss—the time between the War of 1812 and the conclusion of the Mexican War (which, as Howe shows, made the Civil War virtually inevitable). It was a time of technological innovation; mass migration; genocidal abuse of Native Americans; culture-shaping spiritual convulsions; the beginnings of a national literature; the annexation of Texas; the ongoing debate over America’s original sin, slavery—a political moment defined by such large-scale figures as Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Quincy Adams, to whose memory the book is dedicated. Daniel Walker Howe is especially effective at cutting Jackson down to size, thus reversing the hagiography that began when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., tried to turn Old Hickory into a proto-Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Charles McCarry, “The Tears of Autumn” (Overlook Duckworth). Once an underground cult novelist, McCarry, a former intelligence operative, has now been mainstreamed. And rightly so, for “The Tears of Autumn,” which explores the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, is arguably the greatest espionage novel ever written—and a powerful meditation on unintended consequences in history.

Richard John Neuhaus, “American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile” (Basic Books). He didn’t write it as a valedictory, but that’s what “American Babylon” turned out to be—RJN’s last literary testament. The year he didn’t live to see, 2009, has made many of us miss his insight and his witness (not to mention his company) more than we could have imagined. It’s also made “American Babylon” even more important: not simply as a farewell, but as a penetrating analysis of our current public discontents and the ways in which Christians should address them.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.