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Personal/Theological Notebook: History, not Politics

Every once in a while, as with The Da Vinci Code, you run across a book that as a professional historian just makes you cringe with embarrassment at what the American reading public will lap up as "... totally true.  It has to be--it's in print!"  It's an easy slight-of-hand technique, I've learned, to take a passing reference to something that is remembered from a--let's hope!--more responsible high school history class, use that historical touch-point to establish your seriousness in the reader's mind, and then augment that reference with as much made-up-on-the-spot content as you want.  From the credulous nurse asking me about The Da Vinci Code as I was being wheeled out of the surgical recovery room, to the millionaire CEO at that one generous New Year's Eve party I was brought to, I've been made to wish repeatedly that the average person knew more about how to do proper tests for historical research. 

I know I'm being professionally cranky.  Likewise, I have no doubt some IRS auditor will one day wish that my eyes didn't glaze over like a high school freshman every time I'm supposed to do my taxes. 

In the case of the CEO, the text in question was John Carroll's Constantine's Sword.  Unlike the above-mentioned novel, this book actually claimed to be a significant work of history.  When I remarked about it being a fairly wretched book, historically, I was jumped all over as to my authority to make such a judgment.  Names!  He wanted Names! of reputable authorities to back up my position.  I was so thrown by the demand to conjure up names of others on the spot that it took me several minutes to realize that my own name would do, having some historical expertise in areas covered by the book.  That's what wine will get you for swift thinking.  Although it is a commonplace that the basic idea behind the book has merit--that the Catholic Church bears a burden of responsibility for the historical rise of anti-semitism in Europe is something John Paul II himself stressed, following the lead of the Second Vatican Council--the absolutizing and politicizing of that fact can be taken well outside the bound of historical responsibility.  I say that as a man of Jewish blood, among other things.  I can't help but also recall that those who seemed to reach out to Jews in Europe seemed to be particularly those of considerable and articulate Christian conviction.  But that's not where I am going here. 

For a variety of reasons, this text came up again tonight.  I couldn't help but remember the glowing reviews it received in major sources like the New York Times or Publishers Weekly, particularly for its historical persuasiveness.  I also couldn't help but notice that those praising it in this way had no stated historical competence.  When I saw the book examined by those with such expertise in the field, even--like Robert Wilken--as one of the highest authorities in the field, the book reviews were incredibly dim. 

I take historical work as a rather sacred task.  I'm adamantly opposed to this sort of post-modern affirmation of "agenda" in writing.  Yes, I know "total objectivity is impossible," that it's an Enlightenment myth, etc. and so on.  Nevertheless, here more than anywhere else in my life, honesty is a virtue.  I have surprised those in the past who have argued with me as an historian or as a theologian, when I defend the Christian faith's roots or the historical reliability of the various New Testament documents, by actually helping out the other person by showing them where my argument is weakest.  If I think my faith is based on the firm ground of simply being historical in origin, I would be a silly man indeed to try to "doctor" history in my favour. 

So when I started reading Constantine's Sword after my aunt gave it to me as a gift, I was taken aback when I began to see how information was being handled, or how sources were being invoked.  I was trained in ancient history by a grand old historian who pounced on any sloppiness in support of an argument.  (And who, incidentally, thought my Christianity very funny, but acknowledged, after a three-hour debate on the matter as I was heading to grad school, that the evidence could indeed be read that way.)  What I saw in Constantine's Sword was not passing muster.  But now, with tonight's leisure and the internet handy, I'll post a few names for that CEO's perusal, should he ever trip across my LiveJournal.  (I won't hold my breath.)

From the avowedly-liberal Catholic journal Commonweal, I give UVA Professor Robert Louis Wilken's review.  Interestingly, given what a powerhouse Wilken is in Early Christianity, I have also an article written from the Columbia Journalism Review by Commonweal's Book Review Editor, now Executive Editor, Paul Baumann on the process and drama of trying to retain Wilken for his review in the face of the big push by the publisher of Constantine's Sword, Houghton Mifflin.  After this, the moderate Jesuit journal of opinion America had a review by Eugene J. Fisher, a professional in the area of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.  And just for the sake of rounding out the apparent "ideological spectrum," I took the review from First Things, an ecumenical review in the more conservative/neo-conservative range.  That review, however, was not lacking in scholarly competence in being written by Thomas F. X. Noble, Professor of History and Director of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. 

Reading the specific criticisms of these reviews (much less going into purely professional historical journals)--in contrast to the unspecific enthusiasm I've read online in reviews who approved the politics of the book, but didn't claim any historical expertise or display any such credentials--just reinforces my sense of the importance of doing this job well.  I could play the game of trying to make data dance for the political ends of "what I know is right."   But that loss of integrity might be irreversible.  History is identity.  Not just of nations, or races, or even of political parties, but of all humanity.  Making more or less of the data than what it is, is to lie to ourselves and to impede our own capacity for moving into the future with the wisdom that can only come from experience remembered honestly.

Dismantling the Cross. - Review - book review
Robert Louis Wilken
Constantine's Sword
The Church and the Jews:
A History
James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin, $28, 756 pp.

Novelist and National Book Award winner James Carroll claims that Constantine's Sword is a work of history, and he even uses the term in his subtitle. But it is evident from the outset and amply displayed in chapter after chapter that the word "history"is a euphemism. This is a book driven by theological animus and padded with irrelevant, distracting material from Carroll's own obsessively chronicled life. Too many pages of the book are self-absorbed meditations on the author's likes (Bob Dylan, John XXIII) and dislikes (Cardinal Francis Spellman and Pius XII), all delivered with pompous solemnity ("I presume to measure the sweep of history against the scope of my own memory"). The book is filled with information, much of it familiar. Carroll bases his narrative almost wholly on the works of others. If one turns to the notes to check the basis for his comments, the most frequent phrase one finds is "quoted by" whether the passage be from Rosemary Radford Ruether, Salo Baron, Marc Saperstein, Hans Kung, John Cornwell, or others. In a work of such scope it is inevitable that one will have to rely on the scholarship of others, but Carroll displays little understanding of the ambiguities or shortcomings of his sources. Constantine's Sword is a six-hundred-page indictment of the church for its attitudes toward and treatment of the Jews, deploying historical information to support its accusations. It is an effort not to understand but to use history to advance a tendentious agenda.

The central thesis can be stated simply: "Auschwitz is the climax of the story that begins at Golgotha. Just as the climax of Oedipus Rex...reveals that the hubris that drove the play's action was itself the flaw that shaped the king's character, so we can...say that Auschwitz, when seen in the links of causality, reveals that the hatred of Jews has been no incidental anomaly but a central action of Christian history, reaching to the core of Christian character."

Though the author shifts repeatedly from recent events (even Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998, appears) and his own experiences to ancient and medieval times, the material in Constantine's Sword breaks down into three large historical periods: Christian beginnings and the early church; the Middle Ages through the Reformation; and the modern age, beginning with the Enlightenment and ending with Pius XII and Edith Stein. At the end Carroll appends a wordy fifty-page proposal for the future titled "A Call for Vatican III" and an epilogue, "The Faith of a Catholic."

The first section argues that a fatal mistake was made at the very beginning of Christianity. Following the thinking of Ruether, Carroll adopts the view that Christian contempt for the Jews is derived from Christology, in particular the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Because most Jews did not accept Jesus as Messiah, rejection of the Jews became a defining characteristic of orthodox Christianity. This leads Carroll to conclude that the "death camps are causally linked through two millennia to mistakes made by the first generation of Christians." Hence Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic and the only way forward for the church is "a revision of what we believe about Jesus." The church needs to recover the Jesus who lived before Christians imposed an alien creed on his life and teachings, the Jesus who preached a message of love of the God who created not just one group but all human beings.

With this as foundation, Carroll proceeds to Constantine and the church fathers. His aim is to show that Christianity's fatal flaw (its belief in the uniqueness of Christ) now takes social and institutional form. But Carroll's evidence is thin and largely rhetorical (especially sermons), not legal or social. Jewish life went on uninterrupted across the Roman Empire, new synagogues were constructed, and Jewish cultural life flourished. In this period Christians were rivals to the Jews, not oppressors. To be sure, the rhetoric of the church fathers is sometimes extreme (the synagogue is called "a haunt of infidels," "home of the impious," "under the damnation of God"), and when ancient sermons were read in medieval Europe, they had unforeseen consequences. But there is no basis for seeing in early Christian writings on the Jews a portent of the Inquisition or a premonition of the Final Solution. Christianity and Judaism, it must not be forgotten, had a quarrel over the significance of Jesus of Nazareth and the Law. Once Christians embraced Jesus as the Messiah and dispensed with the authority of the Law, it was inevitable that Jews, who continued to live by the Law, would be the object of criticism. It was the spiritual challenge of a vibrant Judaism that spawned sermons and treatises against the Jews. It is perhaps too much to ask that a writer who consciously overheats his language to arouse the emotions of his readers show some sensitivity to the polemical rhetoric of another age.

Carroll makes the novel, but unhistorical, claim that with the conversion of Constantine the Cross of Christ replaced the life of Christ in the Christian imagination, and that this set Christians decisively against the Jews. As evidence he notes that the original Nicene Creed (a.d. 325) did not have the words "was crucified" and "died" under Pontius Pilate. What Carroll overlooks is that these phrases occur in almost all early Christian creeds (and in the New Testament), and it is a historical accident that the creed on which Nicaea was based did not include the words "was crucified." Yet Carroll imposes a wholly wilful interpretation on the additions made at the Council of Constantinople (a.d. 381). The difference, he writes, "marks a turning point in our inquiry," for now the Son of God came "not to be one of us, not to take on the human condition," but "in order to be crucified." The shift set in motion a dynamic that will "keep Jews at the heart of a quickened, and quickly armed [!], Christian hatred."

But this is pure fantasy, and the reckless use of the term "armed" is an example of Carroll's reliance on innuendo to advance his argument. His treatment of the early church shows as little understanding of Christian theology as it does of the social setting of early Christian writings against the Jews. The leitmotif of early Christian thought is precisely that the divine Son took on our condition in order that we might share in God's life. In the words of Saint Athanasius: "He became man that we might become divine."

The second part of the book is taken up with an extensive description of Christian mistreatment of Jews in the Middle Ages, beginning with the Crusades, then tracing the rise of tales of blood libel, and ending with the forced conversion of Jews during the Inquisition, their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in Rome. Especially in sermons preached in the later Middle Ages, one can see how old stereotypes of the Jews had deadly consequences. It is a sordid tale and the violence of Christians against Jews in the Middle Ages is a very dark chapter in the church's history. It can only fill the Christian reader with sorrow and shame and a yearning for repentance.

Carroll does give space to dissenting voices. He notes that Gregory the Great opposed the forced conversion of Jews, that Bernard of Clairvaux spoke out against attacks on the Jews, and that certain bishops valiantly strove to protect the Jews from the passions of the populace. But Carroll seems always to opt for the most malign interpretation and to claim that theological grounds were used to justify whatever Christians did. What I find most puzzling is Carroll's strained attempt to trace everything back to the Cross. In one of the most astonishing sections of the book he singles out Anselm of Canterbury for particular censure. Anselm, an early scholastic theologian (1033-1109), was the author of a famous book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), in which he argued that Christ's death was a sacrifice offered by God's perfect son to satisfy divine justice. Anselm's preoccupation with Christ's death leads Carroll to the unsupported conclusion that the death of Christ became the central saving event in Christianity, thereby making the situation of the Jews even more precarious. The point of Anselm's book was to demonstrate according to philosophical reason, that the Incarnation was necessary (hence "Why did God become man?"), and that the redemption of mankind had to take place as presented in the Gospels. Salvation was possible only through the work of one who was at once true God and true man.

It is apparent in Carroll's discussion of Anselm that there is something much deeper at work here than historical explanation. Any teaching, so the argument goes, that rests on the events in the Gospels, as for example the crucifixion of Christ in Jewish Jerusalem, and claims that in Christ's life, death, and Resurrection God was definitively made known, is incurably anti-Semitic. That is really the message of this book, and in an interlude Carroll illustrates the problem with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me."

It is this belief, according to Carroll, that is the source of the church's anti-Semitism, and also the exclusionary creed adopted at Nicaea (because of its assertion that Christ is God), and the triumphalism of Pope Boniface VIII (and John Paul II). With logic such as this it is pointless to argue over the interpretation of persons or events in the Christian past or present. Christians are guilty for being Christians.

The final section of the book deals with the Enlightenment, the nineteenth-century papacy, especially Pius IX, the Dreyfus case in France, German Catholic intellectuals during the rise of Hitler, the reign of Pius XII and the fate of the Jews during World War II, etc. Carroll tells a familiar and now predictable story (for Pius XII he relies heavily on John Cornwell's discredited Hitler's Pope). But some material is less familiar, as for example the discussion of Abbot Ildefons Herwegen of the famous Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach in Germany.

According to Carroll, Herwegen was host to a meeting of Catholic scholars that took place at the monastery in the spring of 1933, shortly after the concordat between the Third Reich and the Vatican. Franz von Papen, vice-chancellor of the Reich, was in attendance and the gathering became a celebration of the Reichskonkordat. No doubt many of the Catholics who attended were supporters of the Reich, and some were themselves Nazis. The abbot, according to a speech cited by Carroll, gave his blessing to the "new form of the State." Unfortunately, there was no way to verify this report since Carroll bases his account on an unpublished lecture delivered in Poland three years ago.

But granted that the facts are correct, it is not clear what this incident proves except that during the Third Reich Catholics (and other Christians) were complicitous with Nazi authorities. That hardly demonstrates that the "arc" of Christian history "curves from Jesus to the Holocaust." Pusillanimity there certainly was and moral myopia and misguided nationalism, but nothing that gives evidence of theological anti-Semitism. Carroll forces everything through a very particular sieve, or to use his image, all actions that relate to the Jews are seen through the single lens of "religious hatred." "The church's failure to denounce publicly or privately early Nazi violence aimed at rooted in the church's own anti-Semitism." There is no question that Christian teaching helped create an environment in which Nazi ideology could take root. For too many centuries Christians had grown accustomed to depicting the Jews as inferior, as adherents of a decadent religion, as the killers of Christ. In the years leading up to the World War II, resistance of Christian leaders to Nazi ideology was often too little and too late. But Nazism was an anti-Christian ideology and something more will be required to draw a direct line from the Gospels to the Final Solution.

Which brings me to Carroll's conclusion. He proposes the convening of a Vatican Council III. This council, he says, will be "centrally Catholic," but will also include "Jews and Protestants, people of other faiths and of no faith, clergy and laity and, emphatically women." One purpose of the council will be for the church to purge itself of the "anti-Jewish consequences of the New Testament." For the church which "betrayed Jesus in the first generation has been betraying him ever since." Repentance not only requires transforming the church into an egalitarian and democratic institution ("conversation is our hope"), it will mean a thorough revision of Christian belief. In particular the church must dismantle the Cross (and by that Carroll means "removing the horizontal beam"), banishing it as a symbol of Christian faith, and abandon her belief that Christ is the savior of the world.

The question of the Jews is only the first item on the agenda. The council must also address the oppression of women, patriarchal autocracy, dishonesty, clericalism, exclusion of the laity in decision making, denominational narcissism, harmful views on sexuality and clerical celibacy, all of which, Carroll believes, stem from the church's theology of the Jewish people. But clearly this catalogue of vices is driven by something more than the church's relation to the Jews. If Carroll is genuinely interested in the church and the Jews, he knows that for almost half a century Christian thinkers, church leaders, and catechists have made extraordinary efforts to come to terms with the "teaching of contempt." Whether one thinks of the decree Nostra aetate of Vatican II and other Catholic statements over the last two decades, or the various declarations of the World Council of Churches and Protestant denominations, the depth and seriousness of Christian engagement with Judaism and the Jewish people is unprecedented in Christian history.

In 1980 Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to the Jewish synagogue of Rome where he called the Jews "our dearly beloved brothers," and on his visit to Germany in 1980 he said that the covenant with the people of God is "never revoked by God." Last spring the pope led a service of repentance in Rome in which there was a "confession of sins against the people of Israel," and on his journey to Jerusalem last year he made a pilgrimage to the holiest site of the Jews, the Western Wall of the Temple, and deposited this prayer of confession in a crack in the wall.

Of even greater theological significance, Nostra aetate cites Saint Paul's words in Romans 11: "If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you." At Vatican II it would have been easy to transpose Paul's present tense "support" into the past tense, "supported." It is thus of great significance that when Nostra aetate paraphrases Paul's words it retains the present tense. The church received the revelation of the Old Testament from the Jewish people, and she "cannot forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been engrafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles." One might have expected, two thousand years later, to read, "drew sustenance" from the Jewish people. But what the decree says is, "draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree." In these few lines the council laid to rest "supersessionism," the theological idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism.

Constantine's Sword is behind the curve of history. Had this book been written fifty years ago it would have been noteworthy. But its message has been heard, digested, and acted upon. And the new openness of the church to the Jews has led to a dramatic transformation of relations between Jews and Christians. Just this last year a group of Jewish thinkers produced a remarkable document the first ever by Jews on Christianity and one that would have been inconceivable before the developments within Christian thinking a generation ago. Titled "A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity," it speaks directly to Carroll's concerns:

"Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to, Nazi atrocities against Jews. Other Christians did not protest sufficiently against these atrocities. But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity. If the Nazi exterminations of the Jews had been fully successful, it would have turned its murderous rage more directly to Christians. We recognize with gratitude those Christians who risked or sacrificed their lives to save Jews during the Nazi regime. With that in mind, we encourage the continuation of recent efforts in Christian theology to repudiate unequivocally contempt of Judaism and the Jewish people. We applaud those Christians who reject this teaching of contempt, and we do not blame them for the sins committed by their ancestors."

Carroll knows about the church's response over the last generation to its dealings with the Jews in the past, but deems it insufficient. He will not be satisfied until the "foundational assumptions of Christian faith" are challenged. The "entire structure of the Gospel narrative," he says, "is unworthy of the story it wants to tell." The church must free itself from any claim that "salvation, redemption, grace, perfection" have come in Christ. Coincidentally I read these words two days after hearing the epistle from the Mass on Christmas Eve: "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men. . . " (Titus 2:11). For Carroll repentance can only mean renunciation of Christ and of Christian faith, as he puts it, repentance "without Golgotha, redemption or sacrifice."

At the end of the day, in spite of the enormous effort to lay bare the sins of the church over two millennia, Constantine's Sword is not really a book about Christian theology of the Jews. Its subject is Christian theology tout court and its polemic springs from the currently fashionable "ideology of religious pluralism," what might be termed horror at strong opinions. Carroll wants a Christianity that celebrates a "Jesus whose saving act is only disclosure of the divine love available to all," and calls for a pluralism of "belief and worship, of religion and no religion, that honors God by defining God as beyond every human effort to express God." What we have then is a rather conventional cultural critique of Christianity. The Jews are the victims par excellence of the excesses of revealed religion. But what Carroll forgets is that the Jews too believe in revelation. If Christians, on the basis of the Scriptures and Christian tradition, cannot confess Jesus as Lord, can the Jews, on the basis of the Scriptures and Jewish tradition, claim that they are the elect people of God? In Carroll's brave new world there will be neither Jews nor Christians.

Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, is the author of The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (Yale University Press), and Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans).

COPYRIGHT 2001 Commonweal Foundation
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

Columbia Journalism Review

Confessions of a Book Review Editor


Sigmund Freud thought that every sexual act involved more than two people (think Oedipus). The same can be said of every book review. There is, of course, the primal couple, the author and reviewer. But hidden behind the scenes -- and sometimes not so hidden: think of The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier -- is the book review editor. Bringing books and reviewers together is not glamorous work, but from time to time, an element of (literally bookish) drama and even excitement can be part of the job.

I've been the book review editor at Commonweal magazine for eleven years. I love book reviews. I confess to having read far more reviews than books, although in my line of work such philistinism is almost inevitable. I am sent thousands of free books every year, and more than a few (to my wife's exasperation) end up adorning our walls at home. I like the smell of books, the feel and heft of them, and especially the promise that reading, which should first be a pleasure, can also broaden our experience and deepen our lives. Book reviews, then, are invitations to reading, and to something more.

Like any arranged marriage, the pairing of book and reviewer involves matching pedigrees, personalities, and that indefinable attraction that promises a measure of passion on the page. Ultimately, of course, this sort of marriage is all about progeny. Editors are matchmakers willing to put both author and reviewer through interminable agony in order to produce a bright-eyed offspring that will catch and hold the reader's eye.

It took me a few years to get the hang of putting together a book and the right reviewer, and like all matchmakers I'm responsible for my share of sour or merely dutiful marriages. There have been memorable disasters: friends -- some of them now former friends -- who take every editing suggestion as a personal affront; the well-known author who turns in illiterate gibberish; the writer whose review is so dull that it gets lost on my desk for three months and I can't remember it when he calls.

The most treacherous challenge an editor faces is reviewing the books of friends or contributors. In these situations, one is always torn between professional integrity and personal loyalty. Publishing a negative review of a friend's book is, as Don Corleone would say, only business, but everyone (understandably) takes it personally.

All editors tell stories about how a bad -- or even an insufficiently enthusiastic -- review ended a relationship. I've gotten an earful from more than one unhappy author, but surprisingly not much more than that. Jack Miles, who won the Pulitzer Prize for God: A Biography, is a good example. We ran an excerpt from Miles's book in Commonweal and I also reviewed it glowingly for New York Newsday. I was confident that no one who knew the Bible, enjoyed literary criticism, and who possessed a little imagination could dislike the book. With no apprehension, I assigned it to Luke Timothy Johnson, a scripture scholar who taught me in graduate school. (Editing one's old professors is great fun!) I was sure Johnson would appreciate both Miles's immense learning and literary skill. Well, Johnson did appreciate those things, but he also hated the book. His arguments were persuasive enough. I was distressed, but Miles was unfazed, and he continues to write for us. So does Johnson.

One reason for Miles's equanimity might have been that he was an editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review for many years, and knows how the game is played. When things go right, editing the book review section can be like throwing a good party: just the right mix of new faces, old loyalties (and antagonisms), and the tantalizing possibility of something unexpected. I threw a pretty good party in January. The center of it was an important review of the current bestseller, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History, by the Catholic novelist and National Book Award winner James Carroll. How that came about may be of interest to inveterate book review readers.

Commonweal is a journal of opinion with a special interest in religion, politics, literature, and culture. Though we have no official connection to the church, we're known as the "liberal Catholic" magazine. The magazine has existed since 1924, and has published such luminaries as W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. For us, Constantine's Sword was a must-do book. Carroll, a former priest, is an outspokenly liberal Catholic who as a columnist for The Boston Globe often advocates for church reform. I knew he had been working on Constantine's Sword for several years, and that Houghton Mifflin was likely to push the book hard. Carroll had caused heartburn among some Catholics (including me) with a 1997 New Yorker essay about the papacy and anti-Semitism. It was my understanding that the essay, which attributed the Holocaust to "absolutist" Christian claims about Christ's divinity, was the germ of the new book. Carroll's thesis is superficially plausible, but ultimately in my view is a much too simplistic reading of the relationship between ideas and history. Still, he can write, and if Constantine's Sword was in fact an extension of the article, I knew it would attract a torrent of praise from reviewers who would rightly appreciate a Catholic's condemnation of church anti-Semitism but were unlikely to grasp the contradictory nature of Carroll's theological agenda. That agenda, I suspected, ultimately was as subversive of Judaism's claims about God as Catholic ones.

So I had my eye out for news of Carroll's 700-page opus, and last September I requested a bound galley from Houghton Mifflin. The publication date was in January, and I would have to get the mammoth text into the hands of a reviewer immediately if we were to publish a review contemporaneously with major magazines and newspapers. At Commonweal we can't always time a review perfectly to a book's publication, but doing so -- especially with a high-profile book -- is a plus.

Houghton Mifflin was prompt. A sheaf of publicity material, including an interview with Carroll, came with the galley. The interview did not assuage my worries about the book's thesis. Who could I get to review this tome, and quickly? I browsed the book's lengthy bibliography to see what scholarship Carroll was relying on, and came upon a reference to Robert Louis Wilken. Wilken, a historian at the University of Virginia, had written a few things for me over the years. He is conservative, a convert to Catholicism who always seemed to be rushing off on monastic retreat when I called him. His reputation as a scholar is formidable, and his writing accessible to the general reader. He also had an interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue. I knew Wilken was likely to be tough on Carroll, but honest.

Whether to go with a "writer" or a more knowledgeable scholar as reviewer can be a difficult choice, but it's not a choice I often have the luxury of worrying about. When your standard fee is $100 and your circulation is less than the number of persons working in the average Manhattan skyscraper, people are not exactly beating down the door to write for you.

How much sway to give my own take on an author or book in selecting a reviewer is a frequent consideration. I work for a journal of opinion, and I have lots of them. But it would be deadly if I chose reviewers on the basis of ideological conformity. As the late Lars-Erik Nelson said: "The enemy isn't liberalism. The enemy isn't conservatism. The enemy is bullshit." That, I think, is the best rule. Whether a reviewer comes from the left, the right, or the middle, a low tolerance for cant and obfuscation is the skill to be prized.

I put down the galley and called Wilken. Getting to him fast was crucial (well, I'm not pretending this was life-or-death crucial, just journalistically crucial). Wilken's reputation made him a likely candidate to review the book for a number of publications.

On the phone Wilken was cool to the idea. He was busy. It was a long book. He didn't know who Carroll was. I told him that Carroll had won the National Book Award for his memoir about his Catholic upbringing (An American Requiem), that I was sure the new book was going to get a lot of attention, and that someone like him should examine it. He wanted to take a look at the galley and then decide. I said there wasn't enough time to do that. I didn't want The New York Times, Time, and the rest to exclusively set the terms of the book's initial reception. Reluctantly he accepted the assignment.

I was pleased -- actually, more than pleased. I had wooed a hesitant writer and won him over. I grew even more pleased that we had snared Wilken when, in a subsequent phone call, he told me that the Los Angeles Times had asked him -- after I did -- to do the book. Snatching a reviewer from the grasp of bigger and far wealthier competitors is a bit like going dateless to the prom and coming home with the prom queen.

Now there was nothing left to do but wait.

As anticipated, the positive reviews started piling up early. In November, Publishers Weekly gave Constantine's Sword a starred review. In December, The Atlantic hit the newsstands with a rave.

I called Wilken to make sure he was forging ahead and would meet the January 2 deadline. He said he was almost finished reading the book and that he didn't like it much. Actually, he said, it was a "terrible" book.

That remark made me somewhat apprehensive. The last thing I wanted was a diatribe. If Wilken met the deadline, we would barely have time to get the piece into our second issue in January. I'd be in a bind if he sent me a choleric rant or a condescendingly dismissive piece. The subject was too serious and explosive and the broader reception of the book too positive for us to publish a vituperative response. I trusted Wilken's judgment, but when you send out a book for review, you never really know what you'll get back. That's supposed to be the fun part of the job.

Wilken didn't disappoint. On January second, he sent me the review. I read it with growing excitement. Wilken's conclusion addressed exactly the point the mainstream reviews would miss: "What we have then is a rather conventional cultural critique of Christianity," he wrote. "The Jews are the victims par excellence of the excesses of revealed religion. But what Carroll forgets is that the Jews too believe in revelation. If Christians, on the basis of the Scriptures and Christian tradition, cannot confess Jesus as Lord, can the Jews, on the basis of Scriptures and Jewish tradition, claim that they are the elect people of God? In Carroll's brave new world there will be neither Jews nor Christians."


Length was a problem. I had asked for 2,000 words; Wilken sent me 3,500. We decided to make room. I did a little editing and some cutting, mostly of the piece's harsh opening. I wanted readers sympathetic to Carroll to get to the substantive objections raised in the body of the review and not be put off by Wilken's sometimes indignant tone.

While we waited to go to press, a review appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe by Paul Wilkes, a progressive Catholic writer, who endorsed Carroll's book unequivocally. A few days later, on January 10, I joined a crowd at New York's Interfaith Center to hear Carroll, along with the novelists Mary Gordon and Cynthia Ozick, talk about the book. Listening was agonizing. I felt like shouting, Wait, you have to read our review! You're all missing the point!

Then, on January 14, The New York Times Book Review published a front-page review of Constantine's Sword by Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of The New Republic. A dextrous writer with a polemical edge, Sullivan noted the strengths of Carroll's book, while shrewdly detecting some of its flaws. Still, Sullivan's demurrals were but a brief aside in an otherwise positive notice.

It may seem presumptuous for an editor at an obscure journal with a circulation of 21,000 to put himself in the company of newspapers and magazines with millions of readers. But editors at small journals like Commonweal like to think that, despite modest circulation numbers, what they print can have an impact on the larger conversation. And it does happen. With Carroll about to start a nationwide publicity tour, we'd sent around advance copies of Wilken's piece. As a result, Christopher Lydon, then host of the NPR show, "The Connection," seemed to press Carroll with some of the questions raised by Wilken. The review also entered into the conversation when Carroll spoke at Harvard Divinity School, where he had worked on the book while on a fellowship.

By January 16 -- at last -- the Wilken review was on its way to the printer. Will all this sturm und drang make a difference in how Carroll's book is received and his arguments understood? A little, I hope. For me, the press of getting the review out had some of the excitement of breaking a news story, which is what I did (every so often) on a daily paper before taking up the job of book review editor. And, when it was all done, there remained the satisfaction of knowing that I'd helped midwife an honest and challenging review, and that a perspective that otherwise might not have made its way into print was now out there in the world.

In the meantime, have I had a chance to read Constantine's Sword? I'm afraid I've read only parts of it. Will I read the whole thing? That depends. But I have read the reviews.

Paul Baumann is the executive editor of Commonweal magazine.

Tags: books, ethical, historical, personal, theological notebook, writing

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