Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, by Peter Brown. Princeton: University Press, 2012. 759 pages.
Peter Brown, whose writing spurred the development of Late Antiquity as a study, returns to familiar territory. Through the Eye of a Needle revisits individuals and events he knows well and has written about brilliantly: sexuality, Jerome, Augustine, the Pelagian controversies, and the shifting sense and meanings of authority. This book is practically a sequel to The Body and Society in Late Antiquity: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in early Christianity (1988).
Brown illumines new perspectives, however, in two important ways. First, he has not written before about wealth and how Christians came to exercise the power wealth confers so explicitly. Second, scholarship since the 1980s has revealed with greater clarity and breadth the shifting tensions and textures of Romanness as imperial power receded. Brown consistently and brilliantly invokes findings from archaeology, art, numismatics, geography, and other areas to supplement familiar themes and reveal newly-discovered worlds within worlds. For example, at the very time that large estates were falling fallow in Gaul, trade and agriculture were booming in valleys of the Italian Mezzogiorno (south and east of Rome).
Brown consciously adopts and extends helpful concepts from other historians. For example, his discussion of “local” versus “central” Romanness (he avoids the more traditional term romanitas) is based on work by Paul Halsall and Peter Heather. Brown extends their language when discussing the alternative power structures that were developing in the southern valley of the Rhone and elsewhere as Rome itself became increasingly a stage set for the Senate, an archipelago of islands of settlement in an sea of urban dissolution.
I took a long time reading this book, in part because findings so new and arresting required diving into the end notes. “This has been the most difficult book to write that I have undertaken,” Brown notes (p. xxvi) He hopes that the reader will catch “something of the excitement (this scholarship has) inspired in me, as (it) opened a window through which I saw what I never thought I would see –a vista of Roman society” that is new and unfamiliar, “as thrillingly different from our conventional ideas of what late Roman society and late Roman Christianity were like as are the first images of the surface of a distant planet beamed back to earth by a space probe.” (p. xxvii) Brown vividly conveys his astonishment at the revelations of the very field of study he did so much to found. This is a magisterial and entirely readable book by a historian who will be long remembered as one of the Old Masters of the field.
Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, by Michael S. Roth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 228 pages. Sacred Heart University: LC1011 .R75 2014 (New Book Display, First Floor)
As his title implies, author Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, claims in this book that liberal education does indeed matter – more than ever, and beyond the campus. He asserts:
“In an age of seismic technological change and instantaneous information dissemination, it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the humanistic frameworks of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results. These results are no substitute for the practice of inquiry, critique, and experience that enhances students’ ability to appreciate and understand the world around them – and to innovatively respond to it.” (p.10)
Roth centers his book around a cogent history of liberal education in the United States, within which he makes his argument. In the process, he points out that the current controversy over the worth of liberal education is not a new phenomenon in this country, but goes back to the nation’s founding – noting, for example, a satirical essay by Benjamin Franklin about Harvard and elite colleges. Yet, Roth tells us, Franklin himself was self-taught, and although he “was a critic of the formalized education of his day, he remained a passionate advocate of lifelong learning.” (p.100)
No stranger to new technology, Dr. Roth teaches a humanities class as a MOOC, offering liberal learning to thousands of students of diverse ages and nationalities who signed up for his class. He found a very high level of activity and engagement among his students, and great eagerness to learn: “They had, in sum, an appetite for liberal learning that extended far beyond the college years and the campus boundaries.” (p.15).
A review of Roth’s book in the Washington Post was written by Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD -- which bases its curriculum on study of great books.
My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor. New York: Knopf, 2013. 315p. Sacred Heart University Library: KF8745 .S67 A3 2013 (New Book Display, Library First Floor)
“I was barely awake, and my mother was already screaming. I knew Papi would start yelling in a second. That much was routine…” Thus begins My Beloved World, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s coming-of-age memoir. In it, she deals candidly and intimately with the challenges of her life, and her determination to overcome them.
The argument she records above, for example, followed her diagnosis of juvenile diabetes at age 7, as her parents sparred about who should take the responsibility of giving Sonia the daily insulin shots she would need for the rest of her life. Sonia shortly learned to do her own shots – once she realized that to be sure she got these essential treatments in her unreliable world, she would have to do them herself.
Her challenges, she writes, did not keep her from great achievements, and she wrote her memoir “to make my hopeful example accessible. People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” (p.viii)
The Bible. Varying editions (Collegeville, MN: St. Johns University Press; Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), varying dates. Sacred Heart University Library: REF BS192.A1 1970 .L6. Reviewed April 1, 2014.
A sprawling, disorganized, and digressive anthology, The Bible reflects either too many or not enough editorial hands. Though sweeping in scope and subject matter, it is frequently repetitive, inconsistent, and difficult to understand. It's a challenge to read at every turn. As it is, the editors buried the lead.
Often times the purported values of The Bible's authors are blatantly contradicted by the conduct of some of its leading characters. In Genesis, the opening text, Abraham is persuaded by God's expansive promise of future real estate and redemption, but cheats on his wife and abuses his children and household servants. His grandson Jacob, a charming, fugitive swindler, is haunted by extraordinary dreams (wrestling with an angel; climbing a ladder to heaven) but at length degenerates to a self-pitying old man. Father of 12 sons, Jacob's 11th (Joseph) is a schmoozer worthy of Washington's K Street lobbyists, who fast-talks his way into Pharoah's court and then leads his truant and murderous brothers on a wild-goose chase during a disruptive famine. Moses, a trail-blazing stutterer with a divining rod, leads their descendants out of Egypt.
Later in the anthology we meet Jael, audacious woman with a lethal tent peg, and Hannah who braves the stigma of reproductive difficulties only to give birth to Samuel, king-maker and un-maker extraordinare. Ominously, Samuel also hears voices such as God's. Apparently on impulse he anoints David (a rural teen-ager). As king David unexpectedly proves himself to be a brilliant guerilla commander, dauntless terrorist, and authoritarian ruler with a penchant for beautiful women. As a poet David is oft-quoted elsewhere in The Bible, such as his plaintive "My God, why have you forsaken me?" His son Solomon, an insufferable know-it-all, seeks to globalize Israel's real-estate franchise only to have his spoiled sons blow it all up.
After David and Solomon narrative coherence breaks down, and the editors seem to have lost control of the text. The reader encounters a succession of prophets who offer trenchant social and political critiques served up with generous helpings of self-promotion. The reader encounters tedious volumes of pithy sayings, "I told you so" rants from Jeremiah, and deranged episodes with Ezekiel and Hosea. The themes of terrorism and irregular warfare return with Judas Maccabeus, who in turn paves the way for the tense stories of the New Testament against a backdrop of Roman imperial aggression and local corruption.
Jesus now takes center stage as the primary character, but his career is reported four times with varying and inconsistent emphases. Gifted with storytelling and the common touch, he meets what Scottish author J.K. Rowling once termed a "sticky end" at the hands of a political conspiracy worthy of House of Cards. But his story does not end --his followers proclaim his new and risen life with a resonance peculiar and powerful for those caught on the social margins. This Occupy-like movement begins to attract notice and opponents, one of whom (Saul of Tarsus) suddenly becomes the movements' chief spokesperson. Unquenchably talkative, the probably bi-polar Paul is framed on trumped-up charges that wind their way through the Roman legal system. Far from stopping him, this legal process gives Paul a platform from which he either mesmerizes or alienates his successive hosts.
After series of obscure and short letters, this digressive anthology concludes with Revelation, a bizarre hallucination of the end of all things, and a pastiche of slightly inaccurate quotations from the rest of the anthology. Wiser editors would have deleted it as unhelpful second-guessing that distracts from the book's main emphases.
Only nearly hidden in the middle of the anthology can the reader find the two most startling documents. The wealthy insider Job endures bankruptcy and disease only to argue with his friends and God in some of the anthology's most eloquent and memorable passages: "A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last," or elsewhere, "born to trouble as sparks fly upward." Job's querulous former friends try to talk him down until God forcibly silences him: "who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge" --while simultaneously concealing God's refusal to answer Job's devastating accusations directly. Some pages later a certain preacher (Ecclesiastes) resoundingly and repetitively declares that all is vanity: "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful, but time and chance happen to them all. . . . Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." Try telling that to a University crowd.
Had the editors of this anthology taken his advice to heart, and positioned the Book of Job first and Ecclesiastes last, the focus of the whole thing might have been much clearer. As it stands, this anthology is best read with some assistance either in a self-critical community or from specialist scholars, and the reader is well advised to take The Bible's more exotic passages lightly. Consider Elijah or Mary: who knew that messages from angels could have such far-reaching consequences?
--Gavin Ferriby (N.B. I have disabled comments on this post for reasons that anyone who writes for the web will understand -- the forest of trolls. And thanks for reading!)