Two “Old” Books: “Resurrection” by Leo Tolstoy and “The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America” by Richard John Neuhaus

C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”  And if you’re looking for an old book, I just finished reading two that I’m happy to recommend.  I hasten to add that neither of them would make my all-time favorites list, and indeed while both are of interest to Christians neither is within this blogsite’s usual ambit, but as discussed below there are good reasons for reading each anyhow.

The first one is Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy.  It had occurred to me that, since many people think that Tolstoy is the greatest writer there ever was, I really should read a book by him, and I learned somewhat to my surprise that he wrote only three novels.  Now, you can probably name two of them:  War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

But the third, last, and lesser known novel Resurrection was more appealing to me.  For one thing, it was shorter (War and Peace is of course now the humorous shorthand for any interminable narrative, and indeed it is over 1400 pages; Anna Karenina comes in at close to 900; Resurrection is “only” 500 pages).  It also has plenty of politics, religion, and economics, all appealing to me, as well as a warts-and-all-especially-warts portrait of Russia, making it topical (I also focused a lot on Russian studies as an undergraduate back in the Cold War 1970s).  Finally, the plot sounded less depressing than, especially, Anna Karenina.  I can watch a disturbing movie and shake it off, but if I’m reading a dark and sad book for a week, that week will be clouded for me.

The book did not disappoint:  It’s not a laugh riot, and — spoiler alert — the male and female protagonists do not live together happily ever after, but it is decidedly Christian, there is the title, the last chapter mostly just cuts and pastes passages from the Gospel according to Matthew, and one of the most sympathetic characters is an English evangelist.  (The politics and economics in the book are outlandishly radical, but Tolstoy briefly paints a sympathetic picture of the decidedly reasonable character Nabatov — sic, not Nabakov — at 250-51.)

I likewise chose this blogpost’s second old book, The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus, largely out of duty — and not, as the reader might uncharitably assume, because I mistakenly thought it was a dirty book.  Published in 1984, it is not really that old of a book, and is considered an influential critique of the left/liberal insistence that religion be divorced from all public and, especially, political decisionmaking.  George Will’s blurb is quoted on the cover:  “The book from which further debate about church-state relations should begin.”

The publication came in the wake of the Moral Majority’s important role in the 1980 elections.  Neuhaus is not uncritical of the evangelical right, but he agrees with it on one big thing, namely that it makes no sense to banish God from the public square when so many Americans follow Him in deciding how to live their lives and what is right and wrong (for the pithiest statements of this thesis, see especially pages 111-13, 123-24, 152, and 258-59).  He is particularly critical of mainline Protestantism for acquiescing in this banishment, and notes its general alliance with left/liberalism (“Among the leadership of mainline Protestantism — not necessarily the membership — the prayer is for the second coming of a George McGovern, assuming FDR is no longer available” — 231, and see also 234).

There’s much of value in this book regarding the intersection of politics and faith.  I will conclude, however, by noting with some amusement that the author has much to criticize about the evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and militant atheists — but he largely exempts from criticism two denominations, namely Lutherans (which he was when he wrote the book) and Catholics (which he joined afterwards). See, e.g., 262-63.