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Issue Date:  April 8, 2005

By John W. O’Malley
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 261 pages, $24.95
The clash of cultures

How four subcultures shaped Christianity


Activists and academicians often have little patience with each other. Both, in turn, sometimes fail to value the person who uses rhetoric. And all three may disdain the visual arts and music. Yet all four of these cultural expressions have been integral aspects of the growth and development of Christianity.

In his latest work, and the one most accessible to the general reader, Jesuit Fr. John W. O’Malley examines these four aspects of Western culture and how they have related to one another since the earliest surviving works of Greek civilization. The Distinguished Professor of Church History at Weston Jesuit School of Theology uses the epideictic style of Culture Three -- the art of praise and blame -- to examine all four.

Each culture has made its mark throughout church history and continues to do so today. The prophetic culture (Culture One) proclaims, “Thus says the Lord” and isn’t concerned with niceties. The academic culture (Culture Two) deals in definitions and abstractions in an attempt to explore the world without necessarily influencing it. The rhetorical culture (Culture Three) uses verbal communication to promote ethical living, both on an individual and collective level. The culture of the arts (Culture Four), which includes music, uses nonverbal expressions to create works of beauty. As Fr. O’Malley shows how each culture has waxed and waned during different eras, the reader can gain an appreciation of how they interact with each other and affect the church today.

Fr. O’Malley describes Erasmus as coming as close as humanly possible to being a “pure type” of the culture of rhetoric; the German humanist leader appears in each section of the book as the cultures clash with one another. Luther, one of the great examples of the prophet as activist, decried Erasmus’ moderation and search for compromise in the theological battles of the 16th century. Yet both men found themselves opposing the Scholastics (academic culture) for different reasons: Erasmus, for being unemotional, and Luther, for being ungodly.

Erasmus campaigned against what he considered the salacious aspects of religious art of his time, but when the Protestant iconoclasts took his ideas to a destructive extreme, he defended himself, insisting that he had “never condemned either the saints or their images but only superstition.” Some of his greatest venom was reserved for theologians, of whom he declared that “[their] brains are the most addled, tongues the most uncultivated, wits the dullest, teachings the thorniest, characters the least attractive, lives the most hypocritical, and hearts the blackest on earth.” His battles with activists, academicians and artists -- Cultures One, Two and Four --made him “a scandal for partisans on both sides of the religious divide” by the time of his death in 1536, Fr. O’Malley says.

In his survey of Western civilization, Fr. O’Malley finds that seemingly similar forms of expression may represent sharply contrasting examples of the cultures. The Council of Trent took such a studied approach to defining doctrine (Culture Two) that it failed to match the punchy expressions of Luther (Culture One), such as “justification by faith alone.” Yet in Trent’s decree on the veneration of relics and images, academicians found themselves defending art (Culture Four). And a much later church council, Vatican II, found itself using a rhetorical (Culture Three) style, advocating dialogue rather than definition, to seek common ground with other believers and even nonbelievers.

“A greater contrast with the style of discourse of the Council of Trent would be difficult to find,” Fr. O’Malley writes. “Vatican II, like Luther, was a ‘language event.’ ”

At the opening of Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Vatican II paraphrased the statement of the Roman playwright Terence: “I am a man and therefore indifferent to nothing that is human.” In so doing, the council followed a rich tradition of church leaders using the rhetorical style of pre-Christian writers for their own purposes. Fr. O’Malley also finds just as striking the manner in which bishops of the first millennium praised the simple style of Jesus’ disciples and teachers such as St. Anthony: “The bishops conveyed this praise of the power of ignorance and crude speech with all the erudition and eloquence their education had put at their disposal.”

Tertullian’s famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” is the basis for Fr. O’Malley’s cultural exploration, in which he uses his engaging style to explore the contributions of people as different, and similar, as Gregory the Great and William Lloyd Garrison. The works of such individuals, as well as collective enterprises such as the church councils, show how each culture has its contemplative and active aspects. Their most radical forms are in opposition, but at other points they meet and embrace.

Four Cultures of the West would make an excellent text for an interdisciplinary seminar on Western civilization, but the non-academic reader can enjoy and profit from it as well. At a time when the four cultures still find themselves at odds, perhaps this book will prompt people planted firmly in one to appreciate aspects of each of the others -- including those they may find within themselves.

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2005

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