From Pope Francis and World War I to biblical interpretation and the Vatican, here are my picks for the best new books this year.
This coming July, the world will mark the centenary of the First World War, the seismic calamity that began the 20th century as an epoch and that, in another hundred years, may well be regarded as the sanguinary first act in the end of Europe as “Europe” had been known for over a millennium. Three new books try to explain how this civilizational disaster happened. Sean McMeekin’s “July 1914: Countdown to War” (Basic Books) lays primary blame on Austria-Hungary; Christopher Clarke’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” (Harper) and Max Hastings’ “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” (Knopf) spread the responsibility around, with both Clarke and Hastings assigning Wilhelmine Germany the decisive role amidst a desperately inept performance by the Great Powers. All three books are helpful antidotes to the confusions created by Barbara Tuchman’s eminently readable, but dubiously argued, 1960s bestseller “The Guns of August.”
Evelyn Waugh was one of the supreme English prose stylists of the 20th century. Many of his novels are profoundly Catholic without being pious, cloying, or sentimental – literary gems shaped by a Catholic sacramental imagination that is both unyielding and redemptive. Waugh fans have long indulged friendly arguments about the master’s greatest work; a recent re-reading of “The Sword of Honour Trilogy” (Everyman’s Library) persuaded me (again) that these three books easily stand with “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” at the summit of Waugh’s achievement, even as they brilliantly lay bare the European cultural crisis that was vastly accelerated by World War I.
The finest piece of biblical exposition I’ve read recently is C. Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age” (Oxford University Press). This is theological exegesis at its finest: informed by historical-critical scholarship, but going far beyond the biblical dissecting room to show how the experience of the Risen Christ both formed the Church and impelled it into mission. Rowe, a Duke Divinity School professor of New Testament who is not a Catholic, thus makes an important contribution to the evangelical Catholicism of the future by reinforcing the biblical foundations of the new evangelization.
On several previous occasions I’ve noted that my friend Rémi Brague, who teaches at the Sorbonne and at the University of Munich, is one of the smartest (and funniest) Catholics in the world – his brilliance being recently recognized by the award of the Ratzinger Prize. In his most recently translated book, “On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others),” published by St. Augustine Press, Brague explores the God who is Father but not male, the God whose way of being One is to be Trinity, the God who doesn’t bestow goodness but who is the Good, the God who respects human freedom while inviting humanity into the tangled journey of a salvation history in which God himself is an actor.
Francis Rooney’s “The Global Vatican” (Rowman & Littlefield) is a timely reminder of the Holy See’s important roles in world politics
And perhaps I may be permitted to note two recent books of my own: “Roman Pilgrimage: The Stations Churches” (Basic Books), co-authored with Elizabeth Lev and my son Stephen, and “Practicing Catholic: Essays Historical, Literary, Sporting, and Elegiac”(Crossroad). I’ve never recommended an eBook before, but I’ll happily note that the glorious color in the eBook edition of “Roman Pilgrimage” may yet convert me to reading-(at-least-some-books)-on-a-tablet, a confession this veteran paper guy never expected to make.
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