Dale Vree begins his book by recounting the experiences in the radical 60’s that led him to leave Berkeley and sample life in the “worker’s paradise” of East Berlin. Such a decision makes Vree seem admirable: at least he did not begin by demanding radical changes in American society and end by indulging in radical decadence and selfishness, as many other Berkeley revolutionaries did. Vree rejected the hypocrisy of American leftist movements, but when he tried life behind the Iron Curtain he found it wanting, too. He expected people living under a Communist regime to be morally superior, but he discovered that average East Berliners were no better than average Americans. He discovered that Marx and Pelagius were wrong. He also discovered, in a drab church in East Berlin, with “no majestic choirs or fancy vestments,” that Christ is right.
Vree focuses his considerable analytical powers upon modern movements in Christianity by contrasting the inadequacies of American Christianity with East German Catholicism, in which faith is strong and theology is orthodox because “people in East Germany can get nothing from church; they can only give.” From his visit to East Berlin and his subsequent reflections, Vree draws three conclusions:
(1) Theological modernism is a journey away from Christ, not toward Him. This was certainly the case with me, and I’ve never seen any evidence that it has been otherwise with others. (2) As important as it is to transform social structures on behalf of the less fortunate, to reduce Christianity to social reform alone is to sap it of its unique power, the power to change lives, without which social reform is a superficial undertaking. (3) One of the most insidious threats to the church today is our own militant anti-Communism.
In defense of his surprising third conclusion, Vree argues that anti-Communism is simply an “unwillingness to be tested by persecution” and that people use anti-Communism to justify consumerism. When Vree’s arguments are put together, however, they do not substantiate his conclusion.
Also problematic are the relationships Vree posits between capitalism, socialism, and the values of the cultural revolution of the 60’s. His initial insights are good: he sees that capitalism, once antithetical to the counterculture and its values, has now absorbed those values. Whereas it once encouraged the virtues of hard work and self-sacrifice, “capitalism now requires an ethos of self-indulgence.” Having discovered that mass hedonism can be profitable, capitalists have presided over the “institutionalization of the cultural revolution” in American society. Vree’s diagnosis of this shift in values is acute, but his assumption that a new socialism would prove superior to the new capitalism is not convincing.
This same puzzling assumption about the desirability of socialism also mars an otherwise strong final chapter, “A Christian Response,” in which Vree reminds American Christians of their need to discover a true humility, that Original Sin makes people equal, and that the real enemy in life is not “another nation, race, or class,” but “one’s own sin.” The final lesson of his experiences and reflections is that the real “solution to decadence” is “authentic Christian faith.” But Vree assumes a connection between socialism and Christianity, as though Christianity alone were incomplete. Vree’s assumption damages his analysis.
[From Berkeley to East Berlin and Back, by Dale Vree; Thomas Nelson, Inc.; Nashville, TN; $9.95]