Holy Sword, Holy Fire
This is a review by John McMahon, done for the magazine called First Hour which we did in the 1990s, of the anthology, ed. Roberts and Shukman, "Christianity for the twenty-first century." John was a classics master at the Harvey School and a man of letters indeed though not a writer, above all he was a man of great spiritual depth and insight and some phrases in this review seem to me to be as fine as any evaluation I have seen of Fr Mens writing. At his sudden death he was gathering material for a book on Tomasao Campanella. In any case this review seems to me an excellent introduction to reading Father Men at the same time as it makes one wish, if one knew him, again for Johm McMahon's company, or if not for more of his writing, which we shall not now have.
On the ninth of September 1990, an assassin or a group of assassins, members of a closed and dark world, brutally extinguished the earthly flame of a troublesome priest, Father Alexander Men. They were determined that their world would remain theirs, lit only by black Miltonic fire. We don't know their names or who sent them. We could call them by the names of a few Norman barons, or guess at the intermediaries of this world's prince, but it doesn't matter. We know their goal, their all too familiar methodology, and their ultimate folly. The witnesses to the Sword that Messiah has wieldded and to the Fire that he has cast upon the earth sow their seed with their blood. Father Alexander's light now blazes in this world and we must reassess our lives and our comfortable shadows in that light. It calls us to a metanoia, a change from our narrow parochial thinking, and a new pistis, a trust in the ecumenical love of the insatiable Shepherd. Inappropriate rhetoric? No. The wonder is that Father Alexander wasn't martyred before. He was too great a stumbling block for the godless and too great a scandal for the triumphalists. Until two years ago I had never heard of Alexander Men, or paid attention if I had. Now I am among those who wait with impatience for the next English translations of his corpus. This new book, subtitled "prophetic writings" is no disappointment. It provides us with several complete articles and interviews, and excerpts from longer works. It is divided into two sections, "The Christian Life Today", and "The Russain Experience," and an epilogue which contains a Christmas homily and the address delivered the night before he died "Christianity for the Twenty-First Century."
Father Alexander's writings are astonishing. We are amazed not only by the depth and breadth of his learning but by the directed nature of his thinking. He approaches other thinkers with empathy and insight, evaluates them with respect and enthusiasm,mines them for their gold and silver, and yet remains honest,critical and sensible. Above all he never forgets the Christocentric nature of his work. His own writing is clear and simple. In a number of ways his style reminds me of C.S.Lewis or Dorothy Sayers. He respects his readers and never tries to be clever or to dazzle with effects. He avoids what Lewis called "the vulgarity of novelty." (He is also free however from the annoying teapot coziness of early twentieth century Anglicans).
Father Alexander's simplicity, though is a challenge. It is like the simplicity of a Socrates. It will produce the understanding of either a Xenophon or a Plato. The ears of the hearer play a major role. It demands that the reader approach his work with attention, discrimination and humanity. The writing is a provocation (in the root sense of that word) it asks "And what say you?"
A standard criticism of Father Alexander's work is that it shows the limitations of a scholar shut off by a closed society from the work of his contemporaries. That only piece that seems to show that limitation is the selection "Religion, the knowledge of God, and the problem of evil", an extract from his book "The Sources of Religion", the brief first volume of his seven volume study of world religions. This brief selection seems somewhat banal, a rehash of all we learned at mother's knee about the anthropology and the history of man's religions (or to be most unfair, a rerun of Bill Moyers on PBS) One must consider however that this is a relatively early work and intended for an audience with a limited background. In any event,this and the third selection "Faith and its enemies" lack the fire of the rest.
The fourth however, "a Credo for today's Christian" is filled with the flames of Pentecost. It is important reading for anyone with questions about Father Alexander's Orthodoxy or his orthodoxy. But, like his Master, Father Alexander answers challenges with callenge. (There is a major editorial annoyance about this selection though. It is a collection of his sayings from various worksi and we are informed neither of the collector nor of the sources) The remaining selectiosn are all first rate and wothy of careful and meditative attention. The main problem is their brevity and isolated condition. The book ,of course, is just a stopgap or if you will an antipasto. At twenty dollars for a two hundred page paperback its a pricy item. But it's the only thing on the menu.