Book Review: Holy Days

In Holy Days: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church, editor Jean-Michel Coulet has compiled a useful selection of excerpts from the homilies of Pope Benedict XVI related to various holy days throughout the Church’s liturgical year.

The book is divided by liturgical season, beginning with Advent and progressing through the entire Church year. Each selection is related to a holy day that falls in that season. Readers should be aware that depending on the dates of certain feasts the holy days may appear out of order. For instance, the book places the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle (February 22) after the Second Sunday of Lent; in 2013, the feast will precede the Sunday. This is a minor inconvenience, however.

The text of the book comes directly from the homilies and addresses of Benedict XVI and reflects his pastoral and catechetical concerns. While the content of the book may be available online, this collection makes it easy to journey through the Church year with the Holy Father. Holy Days would make a worthy addition to any spiritual library.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Book Review: Quiet

Shy. Weak. Unmotivated.

These are some of the words that might come to mind when the average person thinks about introverts. Most of us think of them as immersed in their own worlds, unable to cope with social situations, and less likely to contribute ideas and innovation compared to their extroverted counterparts.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking seeks to explode these myths about introverts by examining the overlooked gifts that they bring to the office, the classroom, and society at large while understanding the underlying science behind introversion.

The book is composed of four parts. In the first, Cain begins, not with neuroscience or psychology, but culture. Specifically, she explores how modern western society came to embrace the “extrovert ideal.” This ideal embraces the outspoken, the fearless, and the gregarious over and above the quiet, the timid, and the intimate. Yet, as studies have shown, it is the gifts of introverts that actually lead to greater creativity and productivity in the workplace.

In the second part Cain explores the biology of introversion, highlighting research demonstrating that introverts actually process sensory input differently from extroverts. She also talks with experts researching the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and environmental factors that may influence their  temperament.

The third part explores extroversion and  introversion  in other cultures, while the fourth gives concrete strategies for introverts and extroverts for dealing with the differences between the two. This includes a very interesting chapter on how parents can help their introverted children.

Cain includes an impressive amount of  interviews and anecdotes which serve to illustrate the research and studies she discusses. Cain talks with Harvard business students, an evangelical pastor, children, a beloved psychology professor, and others. These help to flesh out some of the drier academic content and put real human faces to the struggles introverts overcome.

If you have an introvert in your life you want to understand better — or if you are an introvert and want some strategies for living in an extrovert’s world — Quiet is the book for you.

Disclaimer: I recieved a free advance reader’s copy of this book from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

Book Review: Raised Right

Alisa Harris’ Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the Gospel is an interesting look into the evolving beliefs of young evangelicals raised by the now-aging members of the Religious Right and Moral Majority. The book charts Harris’ conversions from the fundamentalist Protestant religion of her youth to the triumphalist Republican politics of her adolescence to the more uncertain, searching faith of her early adulthood.

The book flits back and forth between different periods in Harris’ life, making it hard to construct a chronological narrative of how her outlook has evolved over time. It’s not until mid-way through the book that a real sense of that conversion emerges, after she enters a conservative christian college and encounters the hypocrisy of her peers and the emptiness of political maneuvering.

Harris is good at constructing a compelling narrative — each chapter includes clever anecdotes from her early life in religion and politics — but I would have liked a more nuanced look at the belief systems Harris has encountered during her life. Everything in the book is from her perspective, and the various systems of thought encountered are explained only in the most superficial way. While I recognize that this is a memoir and not a more systematic treatment of American politics and religion, a little more depth would have added context to her story.

I would also have been interested to hear if and how her parents’ outlooks have changed. In the beginning of the book they sound rigid and inflexible in their beliefs, yet by the end of the book Harris seems to indicate that their stances have softened, if not as radically as hers.

Raised Right is a quick, easy read for anyone interested in learning more about the outlook of young evangelicals seeking to move beyond the easy answers of partisan politics towards a more Gospel-based means of living in the world.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Book Review: Catholicism

It is very difficult for me to review a book like Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. Years in the making and heralded by a healthy dose of promotion across the Catholic corner of the internet, it can be hard to separate the hype from the thing itself. I also have the nagging feeling that I’m not Fr. Barron’s primary audience for this work. I say that less as someone who works full-time for the Church, and more as someone who prefers systematic theology to philosophy. (Fr. Barron’s masters degree is in philosophy and he is an unabashed admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose life and writings are frequently cited in the book.)

With those provisos, what can you expect from Catholicism?

In the introduction Fr. Barron promises to take us on “a guided exploration of the Catholic world… I want to function as a mystagogue, conducting you ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation in the hopes that you might be transformed by its power.” He intends a celebration of the faith, rather than an academic overview, and he keeps his word.

Fr. Barron covers the major topics of the faith in ten chapters that mirror the ten episodes of his DVD series. These include the person of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, the saints, and prayer, among others.  Each chapter includes highlights from the Church’s historical and theological heritage, from Bl. Theresa of Calcutta to St. Augustine, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to Bl. Pope John Paul II.  The book also boasts an impressive amount of photography and artwork, much of it from Europe’s great cathedrals and basilicas.

As anyone who has seen his YouTube videos knows, Fr. Barron has a gift for explaining the faith in simple, understandable terms, and this gift is on full display in Catholicism. Even notoriously complex issues such as theodicy (the problem of evil) are dealt with in clear terms, with non-Christian alternatives laid out in contrast with the person of Christ:

For the Christian faith, the only adequate “resolution” of this dilemma is the one effected by God himself on the cross of Jesus Christ. On that cross, the darkness of the human condition met the fullness of the divine love and found itself transfigured into life. On that cross, God went to the limits of godforsakenness and made even death itself a place of hope. God, in his love, becomes the answer to the problem of evil.

One thing you should not  expect is a systematic walk through the Church’s teachings. This is actually one of the little things that bugged me about the book: it’s incomplete treatment of certain subjects. For instance, in the chapter on prayer, Fr. Barron spends most of his time on Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila — important figures, to be sure, and ones who have much to teach on prayer! But Fr. Barron then offers a few pages on petitionary prayer before wrapping up the chapter — neglecting the other four forms of prayer laid out in the Catechism.  Similarly, his chapter on the “last things” includes very good reflections on heaven, purgatory, and hell — but no mention of judgement, the traditional first “last thing.” Again, Fr. Barron’s approach isn’t wrong or even unhelpful. But for someone acquainted with the Catechism  and the traditions of the Church, the omissions are curious.

Another troubling aspect of the book is it’s solid Euro-centrism. Almost no attention is paid to Catholicism as it is lived in the global south, either in the stories Fr. Barron tells or in the artwork used throughout the book. At a time when Christianity is seeing unprecedented growth in Africa and South America, this makes Catholicism  look rooted in the Church’s past, rather than its future.

But those are minor quibbles about an otherwise impressive accomplishment. Fr. Barron has crafted what may prove to be the defining introductory text to the faith for the coming decades; I predict that Catholicism  will be added to many personal and parish libraries and will become a classic text for inquirers and RCIA candidates. Anyone interested in learning more about the Catholic faith could hardly do better than picking up this book.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Book Review: Saints Preserved

Thomas J. Craughwell has written a very interesting book: Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics. It consists of entries on various saints with a little history of their relics: the saints’ possessions or body parts that have been preserved.

In the early Church, the mortal remains of martyrs were taken for burial, and Masses were celebrated at their tombs on the anniversaries of their deaths. Over time great churches were built on these spots (St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a good example) and soon even non-martyrs recognized for their virtue and holiness were honored in this way.

Not all the relics mentioned in the book are body parts; they also includes various church’s claims to possess the nails that held Christ to the cross (along with other objects connected to the Crucifixion); the Shroud of Turin; and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (which, according to legend, was painted by St. Luke on the Holy Family’s kitchen table).

The stories behind the relics demonstrate the remarkable connection the faithful have with the saints. Many relics survived times of persecution only through the heroic efforts to smuggle them out of threatened churches to safety.

One of the book’s aims is to “de-mystify” relics. To non-Catholics relics can seem macabre, silly, or even superstitious. In his introduction Mr. Craughwell does a good job of laying out the Church’s understanding of relics and the proper veneration due to them; this would be a useful section for those not familiar with relics to read.

If I have one complaint it is that most of the entries have less to do about specific relics and consist mainly of biographical information about the saint in question. I would have appreciated more in-depth information about the relics themselves, especially if any miracles are connected to them. I also would have liked more pictures, although I understand the economics of publishing enough to know that too many pictures can be cost-prohibitive.

One other caveat I’d like to add: in the introduction Mr. Craughwell mentions that there is a busy online market in relics. While this may be true, it is against Church law and a sin to sell sacred objects and relics — so please don’t try to buy them online!

Despite these drawbacks Saints Preserved offers a unique insight into this rarely-discussed aspect of the Church’s veneration of saints — and an interesting read, too.

Disclosure: I received my copy of this book for free through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer Program.