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Book Review : Spiritual Hunger . . . for the New Right

October 08, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

A World Without Heroes: The Modern Tragedy by George Roche (Hillsdale College Press, Hillsdale, Mich. 49242: $12.95, paperback; 368 pages)

As one who believes in God--and in God's mandate that humankind participate in "the perfection of the world"--I was prepared to accept the premise of George Roche's "A World Without Heroes." We suffer from a profound spiritual hunger, he suggests, an ominous moral disintegration of the individual, the family, the community, the world; we must seek and embrace the faith that instructs us to act as the "moral agent" of the Almighty. But I was mightily disappointed to find that Roche's thundering jeremiad does not call us back to God; rather, it is a political tract that uses the author's profession of Christian faith as a cudgel of contemporary neo-conservatism.

"World Without Heroes" is a spirited attack on abortion, drugs, rock 'n' roll, modern art, lawyers, taxes, welfare, public education, secular humanism, the New Deal and just about everything else on the hit list of the New Right.

A Diabolical Taint

About the only topic he neglects is the one mentioned so prominently in the title of his book: heroism, and the lack of it in our troubled times. Roche is far more interested in "anti-heroism"--his insistent euphemism for the Western intellectual traditions of liberalism and secularism, which he regards as a diabolical taint that has already given us "Belsen and the Gulag" and promises us only moral and material cataclysm.

As Roche uses the term, heroism appears to refer to any selfless act of man which reveals the inspiration of the Almighty. So far, so good. But he doesn't have much to say on heroism or heroes. In fact, he mentions only two: Mother Teresa and Lenny Skutnik, the man who dived into the icy Potomac to save the survivors of an airline crash. Nor does he ponder the psychological and political dangers of hero-worship. Rather, he rails against the bogymen of anti-heroism, starting with William of Occam, running through Darwin, Marx and Freud, and reaching the miscellaneous benighted politicians, scientists, psychologists, educators and artists of our age.

'Malignant Ascendance'

"We have been deceived and cheated by man-made philosophies that see human purpose as far too small," Roche writes. "These anti-heroic philosophies . . . have been woven of scientific errors and prideful cravings, in rebellion against God. In sum, they constitute a denial of value and purpose to human life, setting us adrift in an existence without meaning or hope. Over six centuries they have gained force, reaching a malignant ascendance in modern times, our times, that is destroying civilized life."

Roche is a historian and a college president, but he would have made a mesmerizing preacher--or, for that matter, a politician. He invokes the most respectable Christian apologists--G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge--but then he finds Whittaker Chambers to be eminently quotable, too. And Roche engages in every imaginable rhetorical excess, comparing "abortion mills" to "witchcraft and Devil worship" and "the Soviet practice of dropping booby-trapped toys to maim children in Afghanistan," and explicitly linking Darwin to "militarism, Bolshevism and Nazism."

"With the spurious blessings of science," Roche declares, "the Darwinist assaults the heart of Western tradition, morality, order and belief."

For the New Right

But, I kept wondering, what is really going on here? Not much more than a stump speech for the New Right, I'm afraid. Roche does not explain the positive social obligations of a committed Christian; indeed, he does not even acknowledge such a concept, and he has much more to say about the outrages of the Internal Revenue Service than the teachings of Jesus. (He uses Mother Teresa only as a kind of verbal talisman, and he flatly ignores the profound social and political implications of her calling to minister to poorest of the poor.) Indeed, he dismisses social activism as "idiotic" and seems to suggest that progressivism in politics is not only ineffective but actually unnecessary.

"Every source of discontent and injustice has been reformed to a fare-thee-well, and at no niggardly expense," he whines. "Our politicians openly long for any new or original misfortune to overcome, and can hardly sleep nights for fear there are not disadvantaged groups left to aid or tax loopholes to plug." Let him talk to Mother Teresa!

"World Without Heroes" is not without its curious appeal. Roche is capable of crafting a convincing argument in classical prose; he displays a rare command of the subjunctive mood, and he may be the only author in recent memory to actually use the word dratted. His extended discussion of the theological grounds for reconciling the illusory conflict between creationism and evolution is especially illuminating--and uncharacteristically temperate. But I can't help but wish he would pick up his pen and quill once more, and write the book that his title promises.

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