Book Review: Not Less Than Everything

Whenever I agree to review a book on my blog I try my best to keep an open mind about it. This seems to be only fair, both to the author and to those who might read the review. Going in with preconceived notions about the author or the topic can keep one from gleaning valuable insights and enjoyment based on interior disposition rather than the merit of the work.

Admittedly this can be difficult, as was the case with Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero. On page two editor Catherine Wolff had already turned me off with her list of “grave concerns about the state of our Church.” While I can agree that increased financial transparency and accountability would benefit the Church, claiming bishops are “intervening in politics and public policy” ignores the reality that it was changes in public policy that put the Church in a position necessitating a response, while calling 2000 years of teaching on sexuality and marriage “retrograde, even ignorant” is unbecoming anyone who has made it out of their teens.

Not Less Than EverthingUnfortunately some of the essays didn’t make a more favorable impression. While I enjoyed Tom Beaudoin’s writings 10 years ago, I have to question his assertion that St. Ignatius of Loyola would approve of his move away from the Catholic Church. (Beaudoin describes himself as post-Catholic, which makes him a curious choice for a book of essays from Catholic writers.) Sr. Joan Chittister’s essay on Hildegard von Bingen is standard fare for anyone familiar with her writing, while Martha E. Stortz offers a dizzyingly incomprehensible portrait of Martin Luther.

That having been said, I’m glad that I persevered on, for there are some delightful gems to be found in the book. Patrick Jordan’s reflection on Servant of God Dorothy Day (aided by his own recollections of her during his time working at a Catholic Worker house) paints a beautiful portrait of this saint-in-the-making; Cathleen Kaveny’s biography of Mother Mary Mackillop (St. Mary of the Cross, Australia’s first saint) challenges anyone who naively believes in the impeccability of Church officials; and Paul Elie offers a striking picture of fidelity through the artwork of Caravaggio.

These essays belie the emptiness of their lesser neighbors, which tend to leave the impression that acting on behalf of one’s beliefs is a noble pursuit in and of itself. This makes an idol of the will, which is a gift meant to be used in pursuit of greater goods. Mother Mary Mackillop’s excommunication is not a vindication of her principles; it is the grace and holiness with which she accepts that excommunication that demonstrates her virtue and shames those who persecuted her. Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom is inseparable from his commitment to Christ and his Church, from whom he learned to love the persecuted.

I can’t help but think that Not Less Than Everything could have benefited from a greater inclusion of the diversity of Catholic thought. Certainly writers such as Ross Douthat, Amy Welborn, and John C. Wright would have added additional perspective and insight. As it is, the book is a mixed bag; readers would do well to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.

Book Review: The Good Pope

With the 50th anniversary of Vatican Council II just around the corner, now seems an appropriate time to re-examine the council and the figures who led it. (Indeed, with the Year of Faith, the Holy Father has invited us to do just that.) So it was with great interest that I read  The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church — The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II by Greg Tobin.

Unfortunately, anyone looking for a  thorough  treatment of either Bl. John XXIII or Vatican Council II will be  disappointed in  The Good Pope. Mr. Tobin has an almost myopic interest in the political, eschewing the theological or spiritual significance of either John XXIII or the council, and his book is the poorer for it.

Anyone unfamiliar with the “Good Pope” will find some interesting information and anecdotes. Tobin does a good job of portraying Angelo’s humble beginnings and steady rise through the Church’s ranks, focusing on his diplomatic appointments in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and France. Yet of all these instances in the pope’s life it was the account of John XXIII’s passing that I found especially moving. Surrounded by family and staff, the pope endured great pain in his final days, the result of the stomach cancer which took his life. Speaking to those present before receiving the Last Rites he was heard to say

The secret of my ministry is that crucifix you see opposite my bed. It’s there so that I can see it in my first waking moments and before going to sleep. It’s there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it, see it as I see it. Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness…

Unfortunately this probing of John’s spirituality comes only at the end of his life. While providing a good overview of some of the pope’s encyclicals, Mr. Tobin picks and chooses only those with a focus on political or social issues. I would have enjoyed seeing a treatment of Paenitentiam Agere (John XXIII’s encyclical on penance) or Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (on St. Jean Vianny and the priesthood). Looking at these lesser-known encyclicals would have helped fill in some of the gaps of John’s faith.

This focus on the political extends to the chapters on Vatican Council II; Mr. Tobin seems less interested with the results of the council than with the maneuverings of the various personalities and factions at the council. (I don’t recall any direct quotes from the council documents, but plenty from diaries and interviews of those in attendance.) This leaves the impression that the council was less about the end results than about the feelings and intrigues of its participants. This does little to help readers understand the council’s impact on the life of the Church and subsequent reforms.

Another major shortcoming is the lack of direct reference to Mr. Tobin’s sources. While a list of sources is provided at the end of the book, no inline citations or footnotes are provided. An especially egregious example is on page 236, in which an unidentified source claims that progressive forces at the council “correctly deduced that John wanted a wholesale reform.” This unattributed assertion is not backed with any evidence and serves only to bolster Mr. Tobin’s own conclusions.

The Good Pope is, ultimately, less than the sum of its parts, failing as both biography and history. While it contains some interesting tidbits, in the end I can’t say that I understand either John XXIII or Vatican Council II any better. Given the wide selection of books about the council and the Good Pope, I cannot recommend this title to anyone wanting more than a political view of either.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from TLC Book Tours.

Original image by Pivari / WikiCommons

Book Review: Between Heaven and Mirth

The nicest compliment I ever  received  came from a Catholic deacon at a parish in Iowa. My family and I were getting ready to move out of the area (my one-year fellowship at the local Catholic hospital was ending) and he was explaining why our family would be missed: “It’s been so nice having you here. You and your family live the faith joyfully.”

This compliment came back to me while reading Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,  which hits shelves today.  Fr. Martin has crafted a wonderful book highlighting the rich tradition of faithful humor and joyful spirituality. He takes dead aim on the gloomy, pessimistic side of Christianity, arguing that it is not only antithetical to the teachings of Christ, but hurtful to the Church’s mission of evangelization.

If you’re looking for a quick summary of Fr. Martin’s insights, skip to chapter four (helpfully entitled “Happiness Attracts: 11 1/2 Serious Reasons for Good Humor”). This is a similar list to the keynote talk I heard Fr. Martin give at the 2011 NCCL conference. At the top of the list is the fact that happiness and humor are ways to witness to our faith:

Joy, humor, and laughter show one’s faith in God. For Christians, an essentially hopeful outlook shows people that you believe in the Resurrection, in the power of life over death, and in the power of love over hatred. Don’t you think that after the Resurrection Jesus’s disciples were joyful? “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” as the fourteenth-century mystic Blessed Julian of Norwich said. For believers in general, humor shows your trust in God, who will ultimately make all things well. Joy reveals faith.

This may seem self-evident, but the number of dour and humorless Christians would seem to indicate that it bears repeating. Fr. Martin goes to on  extol  humor’s virtues in the area of health, spirituality, hospitality, play, and interpersonal relations.

What’s more, the book is funny. Fr. Martin sprinkles jokes and humor from the saints liberally throughout the text, including stories about Pope John XXIII; Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ; Dorothy Day; various Jesuit saints; and, of course, Jesus!

In fact, I think his look at humor in Sacred Scripture (both Old and New Testament) will be especially eye-opening for many people. As Fr. Martin points outs, it is easy to overlook the humor in the Bible:

We’ve simply heard the stories too many times, and they become stale, like overly repeated jokes. “The words seem to us like old coins,” [Elton Trueblood] writes, “in which the edges have been worn smooth and the engravings have become almost indistinguishable.” Trueblood recounts the tale of his four-year-old son, who, upon hearing the Gospel story about seeing the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye and ignoring the log in your own,laughed uproariously. The young boy readily saw the humor missed by those who have heard the story dozens of times.

Besides the Bible Fr. Martin recommends numerous books on humor and spirituality (he admits up front that his book is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject) and even gives a list of his favorite funny movies. I may be showing my hand, but I have to agree on his choice for the #1 spot:

A quick note about the book’s intended audience: some Catholics may wonder why a book about spirituality by a Catholic priest includes insights from other Christian traditions as well as Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. Fr. Martin writes for a broad audience, and I hope that his Protestant and non-Christian fans from the Huffington Post and the Colbert Report will pick up the book; I think many would be surprised at the  relevance  of its subject.

I heartily recommend Between Heaven and Mirth  for anyone interested in furthering their own spiritual journey — or just looking for a few new jokes from their repertoire. The Church’s rich tradition of faithful joy is a treasure that deserves to be shared, for humor is a gift from God.

Or, as Hilaire Belloc so succinctly put it:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

Disclosure: I  received  a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.

Book Review: Will There Be Faith?

Whenever I engage in conversation with my catechetical colleagues, certain questions and themes arise again and again:

  • What would catechesis look like if it followed the pedagogical model used by Jesus?
  • What if we sought to not just teach about the faith, but help the faithful (both young and old) learn from and be transformed by our rich Catholic tradition?
  • How can parents be more intentional about passing on the faith?

Thomas Groome’s new book, Will There Be Faith? A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples, seeks to answer these questions by proposing a life to Faith to life  model for catechesis and Christian religious education.

By life to Faith to life Groome means a  methodology  that begins with the life experience of the faithful, invites them to consider that experience in light of the wisdom and practices of the Church, and then to bring those new insights back to their lived experience. This intuitive, praxis-based approach builds off of Groome’s earlier body of work in the field of Christian religious education.

Groome’s aim is to take catechesis away from the strict classroom-based model that has became  prevalent  in many places in the Church. This model, although popular, has led to the compartmentalization of catechesis. As Groome writes:

The emergence of denominational schools, Sunday schools,’ and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) all greatly enhanced the effectiveness of religious education. The disadvantage, however, was that they removed the family from its central position as educator in faith and gave the impression that the school — of whatever kind — could educate better than and instead of parents. Even the Church helped to convince parents of this schooling paradigm. As a result, most parents still assume that if they simply take their children to a parish program, say one hour a week for about thirty weeks a year, it will make them Christians.

Groome’s life to Faith to life approach seeks to re-integrate faith formation into the lives of the faithful by beginning not with the dogmas and doctrines of Christianity, but with the lived faith experience of the people to be catechized.

Groome quotes liberally from the General Directory for Catechesis  (GDC) in making his case, pointing out that catechesis “bridges the gap between belief and life, between the Christian message and the cultural context” (n. 205) and “one must start with praxis to be able to arrive at praxis” (n. 245), to give but two examples. He also utilizes the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35) to demonstrate Jesus’ use of this approach. By beginning with life experience as a tool to draw people into conversation about the faith, Groome honors the GDC’s commitment to catechize as Jesus did. (Cf n. 143)

At the same time Groome affirms the need for good doctrinal content to the proper formation of the faithful, including catechisms and curriculum guidelines.  By starting with life experience Groome is not proposing a radical “I’m OK–you’re OK” relativism; rather, he proposes using life experience as the starting point for introducing how our Catholic faith provides a framework for living as a disciple of Christ in our particular historical, social, and cultural contexts.

All this would be well and good as a theoretical discussion. Fortunately  Will There Be Faith?  shines in its outline for implementing the  life to Faith to life  model in a variety of settings. Groome lays out strategies for parishes, schools, and families  for putting the life to Faith to life  approach in to action.  Groome even has positive things to say about devotional practices for families:

After Vatican II, such popular practices fell off, and for so good reasons. Many had become exaggerated devotions, sometimes with a dash of superstition, there being a fine line between faith and magic. Vatican II made a successful effort to recenter what should be at the core of Catholic faith: Jesus, the Bible, Mass, the sacraments, and discipleship. Now, however, almost fifty years later, we might return to some of those old devotions, informed by better theology and without exaggerating their importance to the Faith. We need some such personal and family-centered practices. They are powerful ways to nurture and sustain people in faith. They educate. The key is for families to choose ones that will be meaningful for them, so that they are likely to practice them regularly.

My only correction to this passage would be to add that such a revitalization of devotional practices — in light of the Second Vatican Council — is already  occurring, spearheaded by young Catholics who are rediscovering them with joy.

Unfortunately Groome’s approach will be overshadowed for some people by his  use of inclusive language and praise of liberation theology — which is a shame, because these issues are not intrinsic to the life to Faith to life approach he outlines. Groome goes out of his way to avoid gender-based pronouns for God, including such phrases as “God calls us to Godself,” a phrase I can’t imagine being written by anyone except an academic theologian. His uncritical praise of liberation theology is especially disappointing since Groome points out that all metaphors for Christ’s work, if taken too literally, end in error — yet he never points out such boundaries on his metaphor of “liberating salvation.”

That having been said, I would encourage readers to look beyond these secondary issues to the heart of Groome’s approach, which offers a promising vision for Christian religious education. Will There Be Faith?  merits multiple readings — especially the last two chapters in which he lays out his total vision for the life to Faith to life  approach. I look forward to reaping the fruit of this book for years to come.

Disclosure: I  received  a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.