Reading Notes From Leithart World Print
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Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 17 September 2009 11:19

In his new book, Michael Behe of Darwin’s Black Box fame sets out to discover The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2007). Building on recent developments in molecular biology and genetics, and employing his notion of “irreducible complexity,” Behe wants to explain the power and the limits of Darwinian theory. He focuses on malaria, which has a fascinating and well-documented history and provides examples of both what Darwin can account for and what he can’t.
He believes the genetic evidence points to a common ancestor, but he denies that the Darwinian processes of natural selection through random mutation can explain how that common ancestor proliferated into different species. In Behe’s opinion, Darwin was right that natural selection happens, but concludes that the effects of natural selection are more modest than Darwin, and especially later Darwinists, believe. Mutations that matter are not random, and the random mutations don’t matter much.


Selection can explain things like “the development of sickle hemoglobin, drug and insecticide resistance, and cold tolerance in fish.” But the range of things that selection explains is comparatively small, and Darwinian evolution cannot explain “the kind of astonishingly complex, coherent systems that fill the cell.” Cilia, flagella, and other cellular structures are inexplicable in a Darwinian system, “far past the edge of evolution.”
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George Weigel’s latest is a typically bracing analysis of the current war against what he calls “jihadist Isalm.” Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism (Doubleday, 2007) offers fifteen lessons the West should learn from 9/11 and its aftermath, organized into chapters on understanding the enemy, realism and its limits, and having the confidence to win.
Few writers combine Weigel’s grasp of policy with a recognition of the theological dimensions of the conflict between Islam and Christianity. Parts of this book read like an evangelistic tract. The notion of three “Abrahamic” faiths should be abandoned, he argues, since “the word ‘Abrahamic’ does not designate mere origin and patrimony; it includes finality and destiny—Abraham points to what God intended for humanity by choosing Abraham, and that is the gift of God’s Son through the People of Israel.”
A few dozen pages later, he’s discussing the dangers of American dependence on Middle East oil.
Weigel still believes the war in Iraq was a good idea, and those who doubt it will find him a formidable opponent.
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For the last decade, Margaret Barker has been publishing intriguing books about the biblical foundations of Christian worship. Her latest, Temple Themes in Christian Worship (T&T Clark, 2007), is her most comprehensive to date. Her thesis is that early Christian worship, as evidenced by the New Testament and patristic writers, derives from the worship of the temple, rather than, say, from Hellenistic mystery religions or the Jewish synagogue.
Barker has some strange ideas. She thinks Jesus passed secret temple traditions to the apostles, who turned them over to the church fathers, and she claims that these secrets shaped early Christian worship. She also misses some opportunities. She doesn’t say nearly enough about the sacrificial system, and even less about 1 Chronicles in her chapter on Christian music.
Still, Barker gets a lot into her book, and a lot is right. Alongside Danielou’s The Bible and the Liturgy and Jeff Meyers’s The Lord’s Service, it’s a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Old Testament roots of Christian worship.
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James Samuel Logan’s Good Punishment? (Eerdmans, 2008) comes highly touted and has been widely advertised. Logan provides a theologically-motivated analysis of what he calls the “Prison-Industrial Complex,” and then develops, in critical dialog with Stanley Hauerwas, a theory of good punishment that focuses on “healing memories” and “ontological intimacy.”
My enthusiasm dampened considerably when I flipped through the book and found virtually no discussion of biblical penology—barely, in fact, any biblical citations at all. One doesn’t have to be a raving theonomist (though it helps) to think that the Bible may have a little something to offer on the question of the methods, purposes, and standards of punishment. Charles Colson isn’t in the index either; but then, if you’re going to ignore God, ignoring Colson is small change.
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In Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin, 2008), Mark Harris recounts the story behind the five Best-Picture nominees of 1967, a watershed year in Hollywood history when old-fashioned stars like Rex Harrison (Doctor Doolittle) and Tracy and Hepburn (in their last movie, Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner) competed with the edgy sex-and-violence of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.
Harris’s book has its gossipy side, detailing the early careers of Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman, and Warren Beatty, but he also penetrates behind the scenes to tell the story of the executives and directors caught in the middle of a sea-change in American culture. The flap says that Harris’s “husband” is the (male) playwright Tony Kushner, information I could have done without, but information that doesn’t (entirely) diminish the interest of his book.
Thomas S. Hibbs takes a more philosophical approach to the movies in his Arts of Darkness (Spence, 2008), a Pascalian study of American film noir. Sort of. His selection of films extends beyond noir strictly defined, and he is particularly interested in films “in which the religious quest figures prominently.”
According to Hibbs, classic noir questions Enlightenment, especially American, optimism. In noir, “the American dream [becomes] a nightmare” and the city is not an image of light but of dark terror. Noir warns us that there are limits, and warns of the dangers of transgressing them. In the films Hibbs examines, however, the bleak iron cage of modernity is the starting point in a quest for meaning and redemption.
Recent American movies, though, have tilted toward a nihilistic form of neo-noir, employing noir conventions to celebrate the very transgression that classic noir shows to be disastrous. Thus, the femme fatale of classic noir becomes the amoral, irresistible, and highly successful psychopathic babes of Body Heat and Basic Instinct.
Hibbs’s is a superb study of some central motifs in American popular culture.
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I didn’t much like Arthur Phillips’s first novel, Prague, so I took a pass on his second, The Egyptologist. After reading his recent Angelica, I’m going to have to correct that oversight, and I may even have to take a second look at Prague. Angelica is enthralling, beautifully written, and psychologically subtle.
Constance Barton nearly died giving birth to Angelica, and this, added to her normal Victorian prudery, leaves her with a mortal fear of sex. Her husband Joseph, a convinced Darwinist who performs obscure animal experiments in a medical lab, finds both her fears and her inordinate attachment to Angelica annoying. The book opens with Joseph demanding that Constance move their four-year-old daughter out of the master bedroom to her own nursery.
When Constance begins seeing blue spectral forms hovering over Angelica in the night, she consults with a spiritist, Anne Montague, who tells Constance how to rid the house of the spirit, which, she believes, embodies Joseph’s frustrated sexual desires that may even be preying on their child.
The book touches on various cultural-political themes, the most interesting of which is the depiction of the Victorian sexual division of labor. Constance finds Joseph’s willingness to bathe Angelica disturbing, a bizarre intrusion into feminine territory, and Constance’s visit to Joseph’s lab undoes her. Science and spirit stand in stark contrast, and can only clash.
Each of the book’s four sections recounts the same events from a different character’s perspective, and as the book fills in the past and progresses forward, we feel tiny misunderstandings stumbling toward inevitable tragedy. Phillips leaves so much unstated, though, that in the end we’re not quite sure what is misunderstanding and what is plot. Angelica bills itself as a “ghost story” on the first page, but the novel is about the far more common, and damaging, phantoms that haunt us.



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Last Updated on Thursday, 17 September 2009 12:03