Brenda E. NOVACK, A Double-Edged Sword. Jehanne d’Arc and Claims to Divine Sanction in Acts of War (Eugene, OR: Pickwick | Wipf and Stock, 2014), xvi + 358 pp., ISBN 13:978-1-62564-238-7, paperback, $41.00. Reviewed by Guy C. CARTER, Saint Peter’s University, Jersey City, NJ
“He who works along the road has many masters,” according to an old proverb quoted by Martin Luther in one of his Deuteronomy commentaries. Brenda E. Novack has mustered the courage and done the spadework to work along a road taken by but few in her biography of Saint Joan of Arc, ‘Jehanne’ as the Saint said she was called once she left Lorraine to enter France at heaven’s bidding. Much more than biography of a now remote and always enigmatic figure from the Late Middle Ages, this book is a work of Catholic historical, mystical and moral theology. It is a study that will be appreciated by serious students of the Hundred Years War and Joan’s role in it, but it is also accessible to those who find themselves now living in a world of seemingly interminable war which may reach its own century mark before we even notice. A Double-Edged Sword is full of many surprises, not the least of which is Novack’s enlistment of the poems and lyrics of Leonard Cohen from his collection, Stranger Songs, to introduce and frame two of the book’s chapters and several chapter subsections.
The wonder of any serious study of Saint Joan is that the author has the nerve to make the attempt at all. Novack opens the first chapter of the first of two parts of the book by raising the question of how to approach this saint at all, Co-Patroness of France, the most improbable leader of her country’s armies and kingmaker in an age when a single peasant girl, no matter how pious, was regarded as less than nothing. The novice reader may be surprised to learn how abundant, and not how meagre, source material on Joan is. Novack cites extensive passages from Joan’s validation trial before the Dauphin at Poitiers and her later condemnation trial under the English and Burgundians at Rouen to provide evidence of the accused’s credibility, humility and sincerity, and orthodoxy, but this is only in order enable the reader to locate Joan within the crosshairs of her life’s dilemma. Her divine inner locutions and her repeated visions of Saint Michael the Archangel, attended by myriad angels, and of Saints Margaret and Catherine, as well as Joan’s divinely sanctioned call to lead men into battle are accepted by the author as vindicated by Joan’s victories, by the coronation of the Dauphin as King Charles VII and by the confounding of her persecutors to condemned themselves by acting against conscience and law in having her burned at the stake. Joan’s ultimate vindication came 500 years later with her solemn addition to the Roman Catholic Church’s canon of Saints, a fact the author takes quite seriously. Post-modernist readers will find A Double-Edged Sword rough going, but the book invites believers to enter the mystery of this dramatic instance of the Christian witness unto death. Brenda Novack is convinced that the life and death of this warrior-martyr can and ought to find application today, the focus of the entire second part of the book.
Another surprising and perhaps off-putting element of Novack’s book would have delighted the medieval mind as much as it may irritate moderns. That is her extrapolation from the life of Saint Joan a ‘model’ for determining the validity of claims to divinely sanctioned acts of war, but moreover her formulation of this model into a grid of some 100 ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential criteria.’ In principle, this system can be used with painstaking study and discernment to test the validity of any claim to prophetic calling and to engagement in divinely sanctioned warfare. Joan’s passionate commitment to offering the enemy peace as an alternative to wanton slaughter, to the spiritual welfare of soldiers under her command and her love of enemy expressed in her own concrete acts of love on the field of battle toward the fallen English and Burgundians goes far beyond the traditional criteria of the Augustinian ‘just war theory.’ Such an approach is seen by Novack as essential to a dispassionate evaluation of historical and perhaps also contemporary figures involved in acts of war toward whom one would otherwise inevitably have emotional feelings of admiration or revulsion.
Looking for a pair of contrasting test cases to validate her model, Novack offers up another surprise in subjecting Adolf Hitler and Dietrich Bonhoeffer respectively to this analysis which the author applies systematically and, one might say, relentlessly. Not surprisingly, the lapsed Catholic Hitler fails miserably to measure up to Saint Joan’s standard of national leadership and personal commitment to the good, whereas the profile of Lutheran theologian and pastor Bonhoeffer, opposed to the Nazi regime from the time of Hitler’s accession to power, conforms with an uncanny Catholicity to that of Saint Joan, Brenda Novack being by no means the first to notice the seemingly Roman contours of Bonhoeffer’s spirituality, so like Saint Joan in his essential modesty, humility, in the love of life they both expressed in the face of a death they could have escaped, and in their final surrender to the ultimate cost of their following of Christ in a world riven by evil.
Though the ‘distinctions,’ as Peter Abelard would have called Novack’s criteria, and her merciless grid may demand more that most readers are prepared to give, A Double-Edged Sword is a delight because of the great souls that are allowed to contribute to a kind of spiritual symposium which forms what Bonhoeffer might call the cantus firmus, and not just the background noise of this highly unusual book. In addition to Leonard Cohen, Søren Kierkegaard, Abraham Heschel, Simone Weil, Dorothee Soelle, Alan Watts, Hannah Arendt and very many other voices of light from the present and the past, both near and distant, are heard. It may occur to the reader, as it has perhaps occurred to the author, that either this book, or perhaps her next, might just as well be organized around this community of wisdom with martyrs of love from Antigone to Saint Joan to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alfred Delp pondering the same problematic of goodness, faith and mercy in a world at war.
Brenda Novack warns her readers, those bright and patient enough to take up her model and apply it to other figures from history or the contemporary scene, that applying the criteria of authentic prophetic faith involved in acts of war is a discerning search for truth, and no parlor game. Every reader may have a private list of obvious candidates to whom the standard of Saint Joan might be applied, e.g., the Prophet Muhammad, Muhammad’s lieutenant and successor in Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, the Prophet and Revelator Joseph Smith and his lieutenant and successor, Brigham Young, Jim Jones, etc., etc. More disturbing perhaps are those most would consider terrorists in our post-9/11 world, in particular those who appeal to the theology and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to kill those in the abortion industry they consider to be mass murderers, the independent Lutheran pastor, Michael Bray, imprisoned for his bombing of abortion clinics, or his friend, the Presbyterian pastor, Paul Hill, who, in at least this one respect like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was executed by the state for his ‘act of war’ on abortion providers. Have others, perhaps as members of the French Gaullist resistance to the German occupation in WWII, also committed acts not only of war but of terror in the name of the Maid of Orleans?