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Images both literary and visual to inspire, disturb


Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Doubleday, 300 pages, $24.95 hardcover): Here’s a pretty kettle of fishers of men (and women) -- a host of Catholics, living and dead, assembled in literary form by Buckley in the conservative Catholic writer’s examination of the faith he shares with 900 million others. Give or take a million. Dropping words like rosary beads -- each in its place and each with its purpose -- he leads the reader out of his childhood wonderworld into the beliefs he holds. Gone, momentarily, is the combative Firing-liner; see now the evangelist and catechist. For Buckley realizes he has a teaching moment at hand. Conservatives and those who like his elegant writing for its own sake, and who may not be Catholics, are given an introduction to, and a defense of, the Catholic faith. For Catholics, there is more than remediation, there is Firing Line reduced to print as his Catholic (conservative) favorites answer his questions about their faith. Neatly done. Read it and wince, read it and weep, read it and smile, but read it.

All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for our Time by Robert Ellsberg (Crossroad Publishing, 576 pages, $39.95 hardcover/$19.95 paperback): Butler’s Lives of the Saints this is not. Butler, of course, took his cue from the official Vatican rolls of holy men and women, whereas Ellsberg (the publisher of Orbis Books) takes a wider view. The result is an intriguing blend of “official” saints such as Augustine and Brigid of Ireland, yet-to-be-processed candidates for a halo such as Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, prophets from outside the Christian tradition such as Gandhi and Anne Frank, and artists of such note as Flannery O’Connor and Mozart. Obviously, a deeply ecumenical vision is at work here. Moreover, Ellsberg’s roster balances individual piety with concern for social justice, orthodoxy with exploration, and intellectual accomplishment with personal simplicity. The format, which offers a different life story for each day, is an invitation to savoring the book throughout the year. And indeed that is what this wonderfully rich, inspiring book deserves. Savor it, drink it in, and let yourself be transformed. Butler’s tastes in sanctity notwithstanding, Ellsberg reminds us that there are many paths to holiness for those willing to take the trip.

Chronicle of the Popes: The Reign-by-reign of the Papacy from St. Peter to the Present by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart (Thames and Hudson, 240 pages, $29.95): Popes are hardly in need of more chronicling, being, as they are, some of the most-chronicled people in human history already. This book adds little to previously-published synopses of the various papacies, so it’s not something to pick up on the strength of its historical insights (though Maxwell-Stuart is a gifted writer and the text is compelling despite the familiar territory). It would make a handy reference work for those lacking such a volume. Most, however, will be drawn to the book visually -- it is stunningly illustrated, with a grand total of 308 images, 105 of them in color. These are not just papal faces. The book offers maps, etchings, frescoes, sarcophagi -- a true visual feast. The images are drawn from all eras of the church’s past, and indeed, could just as easily have illustrated a book on ecclesiastical history, or Christian art. Most of the illustrations tend toward piety, though there is the occasional grotesque -- Masaccio’s “Martyrdom of St. Peter,” for example, showing in vivid detail the upside-down crucifixion of the premier pope. This is the sort of book to be placed prominently on coffee tables and thumbed through repeatedly. As a reference work, it’s one among many, but as a visual trip through the life of the church, it is -- like the pope himself -- without peer.

The Jews in Christian Art: An Illustrated History by Heinz Schreckenberg (Continuum Books, 400 pages, $120 hardcover): This book of illustrations focuses on one less savory aspect of church history: the Christian depiction of Jews, which tends to reflect -- sometimes in spectacularly crude fashion -- the deeply anti-Semitic impulses of much of Christian theology and biblical exegesis. Here we see, systematically organized and glossed, all the iconographic conventions: Jews with horns, Jews with dunce caps, Jews leering at Christian women, Jews drinking the blood of ritually sacrificed Christian children. It’s enough to make most Christians wince. And that, precisely, is what it should do. The Jews in Christian Art is intended as a contribution to art history, but for Christians concerned at all about the role Christian anti-Semitism has played in the tragedies of our time, the book is deeply sobering. At $120, it’s by no means a casual purchase, but looking at these images, page after disturbing page, could awaken a new resolve to press on in constructing a theological framework free of these ancient prejudices.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 1997