Going back to go forward?

by John E. Phelan Jr.

Why Priests

Garry Wills

New York, Viking Press, 2013

Through the Eye of a Needle

Peter Brown

Princeton, N. J., Princeton University Press.

A Place in Time

Wendell Berry

Berkeley, Counterpoint.

At first glance this may seem an odd combination of books for a review. Peter Brown is a magisterial scholar of late antiquity, Garry Wills, one of America’s most important “public intellectuals,” and Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, poet and storyteller. Brown’s book is a dense but rewarding exploration of changing views of wealth and poverty in late antique Christianity (AD 350-550). Wills’s is a jeremiad against the Roman Catholic views of the Eucharist and the priesthood. Berry offers another collection of his wonderful short stories. Brown and Wills at least have St. Augustine in common — he figures prominently in both books. But Brown is focused on Augustine’s views of poverty and wealth and church and state, while Wills is more concerned with his Christology. Berry makes no reference to the great North African.

All three writers, however, are concerned with change. Brown traces the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the consequent startling and painful challenges for the still emerging Christian Church. Wills explores the theological changes that produced the sacerdotal priesthood and quasi-magical Eucharist out of the simple and egalitarian practices of the primitive church. Berry recalls the simpler past as well. He remembers a community of mutual support, nurture, hard work and thrift. He also recalls racism, violence, greed and a growing indifference to the land and its ultimate health. Wills and Berry will suggest that recalling some of the virtues and convictions of the past may offer a way forward, for the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand and our crumbling American culture on the other. Neither can be said to be optimistic about such a renewal.

Wills is a Roman Catholic who thinks the priesthood as it developed was a mistake of major proportions! He rightly argues that the New Testament has no notion of a priesthood and never uses the word to refer to those selected as ministers of the word. As the priesthood emerged it located more than simple authority in the priest. Increasingly priests were elevated over the people. Ordination rendered them “other.” How did this happen? Wills argues that the elevation of the priesthood was linked to the elevation of the Eucharist. As theologians argued for the real presence of Christ in the bread and the cup, the sanctifying hands of the priest became the means by which Jesus himself was present in the bread and the wine. If the priest worked miracles, or some would say magic, at the table, it stood to reason that there was something profoundly different about him. Wills argues that this departure from the simplicity of the early church produced a great deal of evil and confusion. He suggests Catholics should not worry too much about the declining number of priests. The answer is not married priest, women priests or gay priests, but no priests.

Wills spends an inordinate amount of time in the book fussing over the book of Hebrews. He seems to blame a good deal of the developing language about the priesthood and the Eucharist on this letter. Wills chides the writer of Hebrews for not using contemporary hermeneutical methods. He is particularly annoyed with the writer’s use of the mysterious figure of Melchizedek as a model for Jesus’s priesthood. Ironically, as he acknowledges at one point, Hebrews actually makes his point for him. Not only does it never refer to any follower of Jesus as a priest, it insists that Jesus is the last priest ever needed and his sacrifice the last sacrifice ever required. Hebrews strikes a blow against the development of a priesthood in the Church and clearly opposes any notion of the Mass as a continuing sacrifice. The most interesting and compelling part of the book is Wills’s discussion of atonement theory. He seems to suggest that Augustine is much closer to Covenant hero P. P. Waldenström than to Anselm of Canterbury, or for that matter, Martin Luther or John Calvin.

Peter Brown is a scholars’ scholar. He is renowned for his work on Augustine. Through the Eye of a Needle is a richly complex work of top-notch historical scholarship. The main topic of the book is the changing view of wealth and poverty as the church grew in confidence and power during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The Roman emperors since the death of Constantine had all been Christians, excepting the brief rule of Julian the Apostate. Bishops had over the decades seen their power, influence and reputation grow. These were the years of towering figures like Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo. And yet this is a church that is obscure to many of us. It is not the primitive church of Peter and Paul. And it is not yet the Roman Church of the medieval period. Much is still unsettled. Much is still in flux. How will the church now relate to the ancient Roman state? How will it respond to the challenges of a culture of wealth, influence, and power located in a tiny elite? As the church grows in wealth, what will it do with its money?

I am writing on the day after the election of Francis I to the papacy. He is known, according to news reports, for his concern for the poor. This is, of course, a profound concern for the prophets of Israel, the ministry of Jesus and the early church. Brown shows how this concern developed in the post Constantinian era. The wealthy in the Roman world were expected to contribute to the good of their cities and regions. In fact, Roman aristocrats who failed to be sufficiently generous could face riots by the citizenry! But their generosity was not directed to the poor per se. It was rather directed to their clients and fellow citizens, to those who could help them and support them. Ambrose began to insist that the generosity of the wealthy should go to the actual poor. He blistered the wealthy for their lack of concern. As time went on, the money directed to the poor became the responsibility not of the autonomous rich but of the church. Increasingly that money was used to support the “poor” in monasteries, those who had voluntarily given up everything.

Brown is not in the business of making prescriptions. He is describing a Christian past, not looking to a Christian future. But it is clear that some things were lost and some things were gained during those heady years of political and economic development for the church. The great value of this book for me was not simply the exemplary and fascinating scholarship, but the sober reminder of how alien that antique church can seem. Many Christians, particularly Protestants, know something (or think they know something) about the primitive church of Peter and Paul. They have vague conceptions of the Medieval church with its Papal pomp and power. They know about Luther and the reformation. But of this church, the church of late antiquity, its fierce intellectuals and violent conflicts, they know little. And yet those conflicts made us: the Donatist controversy, the conflicts over Arianism, the growth of monasticism, and, perhaps especially, the battles between Augustine and Pelagius and his followers. Fair warning, this is a well written and engaging book, but if you have not waded into the waters of early Christianity you will find yourself over your head in a hurry. Some prior, general reading is recommended.

Wendell Berry is known for his many novels and short stories, his essays and poems. All of his novels and stories concern the land and people of Port William, an imaginary eastern Kentucky hamlet. This is a country of hills and bottomland, small farms and small towns. Berry’s previous collection of short stories, That Distant Land, is a wonderful collection of both comic and tragic tales of a lost era. A Place in Time revisits some of the most memorable of Berry’s characters: The irascible Burley Coulter, his tragic brother Jarrat, Berry’s driven, model farmer Elton Penn, and his frequent narrator and alter-ego, Andy Catlett. These are stories of loss, love, and hope. Like Wills and Brown, Berry recalls a simpler time that was rich and complex, before the power and mystique of money and technology changed farming and farm communities forever. Although Berry is not optimistic, he is hopeful. The values of community, thrift, generosity and simplicity that formed the less-than-perfect people of Port William are still available and still being practiced. Technology, money and power have not defeated them.

One story I found particularly poignant is the tale of Laura and Williams Milby. Williams becomes the pastor of the small clapboard church in Sycamore, Kentucky, and enters his ministry with skill and enthusiasm. Laura is a desirable woman, a loving and faithful wife to Williams. “Desire, her own and his, was one of the subjects of her thoughts. She saw the danger of it. She saw the beauty and the preciousness of it. She saw the necessity of it, for it imparted beauty and motion, life itself to the whole world.” And yet she is frustrated by people in her church that distrust, and even disdain, desire: “‘They think desire is no different from lust,’ she said to her husband. ‘Think of the loneliness of that. Think of the terrible loneliness of it.’” Berry has long been concerned that Christianity, particularly as he knew it growing up, was too “heavenly,” not sufficiently in tune with the passions and desires of ordinary people and places; too eager by half to escape this life for heaven and too dismissive of the health and productivity of the land. Berry insists this is a good earth, a good creation, richly to be enjoyed.

In their own ways both Wills and Brown describe the process by which the church in its theology and leadership disengaged from this good earth. The sins of the “flesh,” the ordinary desires for food, comfort, companionship and shelter were scorned for poverty, celibacy and confinement. Desire was relegated to “lust” and the ordinary comforts and joys of life were looked at askance. Those who married and bore children, who worked the land and loved their families, were deemed inferior to the magical power of the priesthood and the mystical ecstasies of the spiritual elite. Both church and wider culture are still suffering from this division of heaven and earth, priest and people, secular and religious. In their very different ways, each of these books raises questions about these divisions. How the church answers them will determine its future and ours.