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So great a brightness

Books | Book highlights a controversial conversion

Issue: "Clutching two, dropping four," April 23, 2011

Easter/Passover is when books and articles about Christian-Jewish dialogue emerge, so it's a good time to recommend Jean-Claude Schmitt's The Conversion of Herman the Jew (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), a scholarly examination of whether some Jews voluntarily became Christians in medieval times.

Some background: A 12th-century autobiography known as the Opusculum and written by a German Jew known as "Herman," who later became an ordained priest, has become the subject of academic debate. Israeli professor Avrom Saltman calls it "a work of fiction," but German professor Friedrich Lotter is refuting Saltman's argument and saying Saltman is biased because he refuses to admit that Jews could convert voluntarily.

Jean-Claude Schmitt does not come to a clear conclusion but lets us read for ourselves the whole text. The critical question, as Schmitt notes, is whether some Jews in medieval times "abandoned the faith of their ancestors consciously and without the usual physical threat." My sense is, of course: To say they could not willingly convert defames the Holy Spirit.

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The highlight in the converted Herman's autobiography is when, after pages of intellectual arguments, he notes how "so great a brightness shone suddenly in my heart that it entirely chased away the shadows of all former doubt and ignorance." Yes, that's how it works, then and now, through God's grace to both Greeks and Jews.

Showing, not telling

Richard Sherlock's Nature's End: The Theological Meaning of the New Genetics (ISI, 2010) is solid in its examination of the usual suspects, including cloning and genetic engineering. Its greatest value, though, may lie in its seventh and last chapter, "Faith's Voice," where he lays out the limitations of natural law and rationalistic apologetics: "Appeals to natural law, overlapping consensus, and public reason fail because they assume that the deepest faith commitments can be set aside in the public square."

Sherlock notes that "rational arguments are not sufficient to change hearts and souls about something as contested as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and prenatal genetic diagnosis." He recommends that pro-lifers show people color photographs of an 8-week-old unborn child: "Do they see a small, frail human being? Of course they do. . . . They would see it not because they have been rationally argued to such a position. Rather . . . their way of seeing the unborn is changed. Once the heart has been transformed then we can ask whether the reasons most often given for abortion seem good enough to take a human life."

Sherlock further explains, "This is related to the difference between 'telling' and 'showing.' Most philosophers and theologians, as well as many other writers, offer didactic lessons to make their points by employing discursive reason. . . . Showing is much different. It uses dramatic stories that explicate or illustrate. . . . Christians must show the story of Jesus and must live the Christian life if they are to change the worldview of those around them." Overall, our goal as Christians should not be to convince opponents to accept a particular set of policies: Instead, we seek a "religious conversion born of a true witness to another way."

An AEI Offensive

The Politically Correct University, edited by Robert Maranto, Richard Redding, and Frederick Hess (American Enterprise Institute, 2009), highlights problems in higher education. AEI is now contributing to a partial solution by publishing short paperbacks good for giving to students and new graduates. Wealth and Justice (2010) by Arthur Brooks and Pete Wehner excellently lays out the morality of democratic capitalism, and Alex Pollock's Boom and Bust (2011) provides some basics on financial cycles.

For a concise book on politics, read Matthew Parks and C. David Corbin's Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation (Resource, 2011). They uncover "the root of our political disorder: the progressive abandonment of our republican principles and practices." Their proposals for replanting concepts of responsibility, honor, and other necessities are good.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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