Book Reviews - Autumn 2019

Spirits in the Material World

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Two new books consider the past and present of Christendom

By B. D. McClay | September 3, 2019
Egans intellectual interlocutor, Saint Augustine, as portrayed by the Flemish artist Philippe de Champaigne in 1650. (Wikimedia Commons)
Egans intellectual interlocutor, Saint Augustine, as portrayed by the Flemish artist Philippe de Champaigne in 1650. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan; Viking, 384 pp., $28

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland; Basic Books, 624 pp., $32

Timothy Egan sets out on a pilgrimage—following the Via Francigena, an ancient route that takes him from Canterbury to Rome—in part, as he tells us, “to find God in Europe before God is gone,” and perhaps also in himself, caught as he is in “the squishy middle” between belief and atheism. Raised Catholic, Egan has seen betrayals of the unfortunately usual sort: the stickler priest who treated his devout mother condescendingly, succeeded by the laid-back priest who molested his brother. His sister-in-law is dying. What else is there to do with these things but to walk them out?

If Egan’s book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity, is an experiment in seeing the “layers of time on consecrated ground,” Tom Holland’s Dominion is the sort of book he might have carried along with him. Dominion takes on the rather stupendous task of tracing the history of Christendom from its very beginnings to the modern day. Both writers are interested in pulling the past into the present, even if they have different ideas of what that might mean. Neither of them quite succeeds, but together they raise a question: what is it that we’re chasing when we’re chasing Christendom?

For Egan, a National Book Award winner for The Worst Hard Time (2006) and a New York Times columnist, the stakes are clear enough: to try to bring some internal resolution to his own religious issues. Like many American Catholics, Egan views Pope Francis as a much-needed liberalizing force but frets that he hasn’t gone far enough, particularly when it comes to Church teachings about sex. His mother, who had seven children and gave up her career, is not precisely the central figure of his book, but her memory hangs over it. She comes to stand for many faithful Catholics who did what the Church told them at great personal cost and found their trust misplaced. Although Egan’s mother stayed with the Church, when she died, she told her son, “I don’t know what to believe or what’s ahead. I don’t … know.”

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