Sunday, September 27, 2009

Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires. The Respect He Desperately Needs

By Emerson Eggerichs, 324 pages, Thomas Nelson.

Love and Respect, though seemingly just another self-help, pop-psychology book, offers a potentially ground-breaking view of marriage. Rather than calling for the typical sissification of the man by getting him to talk about his feelings and in general see things through a woman's eyes, Dr. Eggerichs asks women to see men differently as well. For once, an author does not assume that women's ways of doing things are normative and morally superior, and that men must conform.

Central to the argument, Eggerich asserts that men and women are not the same, and that the Bible's teachings on marriage are as valid as ever because it shows how men and women have different needs. While women are verbal beings in need of assurance that they are loved and safe, men are action-oriented, and would rather silently share an experience than talk about feelings. Men communicate through words, but more than that, through their actions.

Feminists have indoctrinated women to look down on men and not to understand men. They no longer meet their husband's deepest need, which is to feel respected. When they cut down their husband, he shuts off, and she feels unloved. In order to get that love, she becomes more rude and cutting so that he will be able to see just how desperately unloved she feels. This leads the husband to distance himself even more. Thus the couple has entered a vicious cycle.

For this cycle to be broken, wives need to respect their husbands unconditionally, even when they don't feel respect for their man. The husband must unconditionally love his wife, even when he doesn't feel it. This love and respect is actually not about feelings, but about responding to God's call.

The Language of Symbolism: Biblical Theology, Semantics, and Exegesis

By Pierre Grelot, 238 pages, Hendrickson.

This excellent book combines a scholarly and intuitive understanding of the Bible and its place in Western religious symbolism. The author is a priest who, it is clear from the book, lives this symbolism through his faith. Most scholars critique and analyze ad nauseam, but here we have the best and most powerful in the Catholic tradition.

While criticism, including personal self-awareness, plays a key role in Catholic spirituality, the ability to bring together every aspect of religion, philosophy, and poetry into an all-encompassing whole takes the final word. This whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

The author believes in sensitivity to cultures at the receiving end of evangelical work, but without giving up one's core principles:

“[W]hen we seek to share the gospel with those immersed in religious systems such as Buddhism and Islam, what new languages will we have to invent, and what symbols can we draw upon, to help them understand and, even better, to help them sense the 'Truth' of the Christian faith?”

Grelot takes symbols so seriously because of their source: “The symbols used in Scripture to 'speak the faith' were not chosen at random; they are deeply rooted in the experience of this world and of the history that divine providence had in store for the 'people of God.' Thus they are closely connected with that people's experience of a relationship with God himself, the experience of a living faith.”

The Language of Symbolism gives us a glimpse of how the Catholic Church remains at the heart of Western culture, to the extent that such a culture still exists.

John the Baptist: Prophet and Disciple

By Alexander J. Burke, Jr., St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Secular society calls the contemporary academic to thrash all the bits and pieces of the Christian tradition into nothingness. English literature professor Burke does the opposite. He develops the Catholic artistic, spiritual, intellectual, and liturgical understanding of John the Baptist in all of its diversity and puts together a biblically-faithful image of the prophet. He takes most of his cues from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, yet uses technical, academic scriptural analysis.

Fearlessly counter-cultural, he states on page one a most Catholic of positions, not only by declaring his intention of pursuing a unified portrait of John but by celebrating rather than critiquing mystery. He cites Gabriel Marcel on the difference between a problem and a mystery: “One relates personally to a mystery--it is a subjective experience--but a problem is an objective intellectual exercise. One becomes involved intellectually and emotionally in a mystery.”

Burke’s whole approach to John the Baptist is therefore highly refreshing: “John the Baptist is not a problem to be solved. He is a mystery to be plumbed and appreciated.” The author appreciates the poetic side of the mystery, something that contemporary theologians have been failing to do. He offers us a refreshing way to do theology.

Burke borrows from diverse areas of the tradition rather than bogging the reader down in specialization and fancy vocabulary, which makes John the Baptist highly readable and approachable. The parallels Burke makes between the lives of Jesus and John are especially effective, yet readers also see how John fits into some Old Testament molds for the prophet.

Burke puts his excellent knowledge of the Bible to good use, then, laying the theological foundations for the Baptist’s work from the poetry and spirituality of the Hebrews, and offering the reader interesting tidbits: “We know from 1 Kings 17:6 that when Elijah was famished at Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan, the Lord sent ravens that fed him bread and meat, and when he escaped to the wilderness, an angel provided a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.”

In fact, the integration of the mostly-neglected traditions of the ancient Israelites is the best part of the book, as we learn, for instance, of the importance of the desert for the Hebrews. This was both a place to meet God and grow in spiritual strength, and a place where demons, bandits, and jackals roamed.

John and Jesus’ places in the wider history of Israel also feature in the book, as do parallels between John and later Christian figures such as Saints Bruno and Anthony, who, like the Baptist, felt attracted to solitude. Black and white photos of Christian art and an appendix on John in the liturgy add a nice touch.

Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love

By Ilia Delio, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 129 pages.

Mystery surrounds Clare of Assisi probably for the simple fact that her close spiritual friend, St Francis of Assisi, so deeply touches and energizes Christianity to this day. Professor Delio has made the case that St Clare has a religious depth and charm all to herself, though the book does make many connections to St Francis and his movement.

Clare of Assisi situates Clare in the complicated religious and political environment of medieval Italy. Thus while Clare and her sisters wanted to share the suffering and poverty of the world, and were blessed in this vocation by Francis, the ecclesiastical authorities disallowed the plan, though a thirteenth-century traveler indicates that at first Clare and her sisters might have gotten their wish: “According to this account, these brothers and sisters 'went into the cities and villages during the day to preach the Gospel and give themselves to the active world, but they returned to their hermitages or solitary places at night, employing themselves in contemplation.'”

This book combines Franciscan history with general Church history and modern spiritual and psychological teaching. For example, Delio discusses the importance of the mirror to thirteenth-century society, and how Clare used it to teach theologically: “Clare calls us to a similar level of self-knowledge through the mirror of the cross. The mirror calls us to accountability as we begin to contemplate the image we see. It impels us to consider our behaviors as we place our mind, soul and heart in the mirror and embrace the image reflected there in a new way.”

Clare of Assisi outlines a demanding Franciscan theology of sacrifice, sacramental thinking, and, above all, a life of love and service to others. It is therefore not necessarily a nice or easy book to read, as it goes to the heart of human sinfulness.

It preaches the Franciscan attitude of thankfulness and grace but only by first plowing through some heavy, even depressing, stuff on human brokenness: “Many people know they are finite. Few, however, will admit they are poor. To say that I am poor is not to confess that I am without money or material things, but that I am dependent on another, first, for the source of my own existence and then for every breath of air I breathe at every moment of time. My poverty says to me that I do not have to exist at all.”

This tendency among current Catholic spirituality writers to emphasize brokenness in the vein of Herni Nouwen's Wounded Healer can seem a bit tiresome after a while, as it turns the reader away from a more heroic view of the faith, one held by people as diverse as JRR Tolkien and Pope John Paul II. Conversely, this dense book does have its inspiring gems that make it a worthwhile read: “Poverty is not so much about want or need; it is about relationship.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities

By Darrell L. Bock, Nelson Books, 230 pages.

Darrell Bock examines the evidence for alternative Christianities as found in writings from the first Christian centuries that didn't make it into the Bible and that scholars are now using to build alternative theologies for Jesus.

One hobby of post-Christian culture is refuting Christianity from every angle. An ivory tower industry has developed around this, including from scholars who construct romantic histories of para-Christian groups such as the Gnostics. These people adopted some Christian beliefs and practices, but tended to refute the goodness of creation and materiality.

Gnosticism and other old theories are reappearing in New Age dress. Darrell Bock's The Missing Gospels questions these old ways: “New theories are fun. They have the feel of a new product, a new way of looking at things, and a way of grabbing attention. Sometimes that attention is fleeting; sometimes it lasts. New historical theories usually do not make headlines, but they can have an impact like a successful sales campaign. This is especially the case when the new way fits the spirit of the age.”

Bock intertwines his refutation of Gnosticm with a strong and wide-ranging discussion of current biblical and historical theories. He questions the inconsistent methods of modern scholars sympathetic to Gnosticicm in their handling of the relevant ancient sources.

This is of utmost significance to Christians because, as Bock points out, scholars use their theories, based on shaky academic scholarship, to attack the religion's foundations: “The debate about the Gospel of Thomas's date leads to the...subtle claim of what Thomas as a whole represents—a potential early source whose roots coincide with the appearance of the four Gospels. It reflects an alternative Jesus, who only gave wise sayings and was not worshipped.”

Bock does a good job of showing how modern academia works in its war on Christianity. One scholar, Walter Bauer, erred in his two major anti-Christian pillars—that ancient Roman ecclesiastical authorities had forced its orthodoxy on everyone else and that orthodoxy was not very widespread among ancient Christian communities. Yet rather than discount Bauer's work, scholars continue to accept his conclusions.

Bock thus asks the reader, “If the two central Bauerian positions are flawed, why does his overall thesis stand? When does this schizophrenic handling of historical evidence lead to a conclusion that Bauer had it wrong?”

Bock spends the next section of the book examining ancient Christian writings, both those accepted as orthodox and including the New Testament writings, and Gnostic and other para-Christian writings used by scholars to undermine the religion. Each of these chapters has a theme, such as “Jesus: Divine and / or Human?”

Bock concludes that anti-Christian bias and sloppy scholarship account for alternative visions of Christianity. Conversely, the orthodox Christian belief about Jesus “comes very early in the movement, a point that cannot be doubted...Evidence that Jesus taught such things is found especially in the community's earliest innovative worship practices.”

The Missing Gospels comes with handy appendices that highlight the writings of Church fathers as well as the extra-Christian writings that survived the centuries.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II

By Gian Franco Svidercoschi, Liguori, 150 pages.

[O]ne could say that Karol Wojtyla summed up in himself, in his person, in his life, the collective destiny of twentieth-century humanity,” writes Svidercoschi.

The continuing fascination with the early life of the late pontiff probably has to do with just this: That his difficult and sometimes very sad life (he lost his mother at the age of nine) contained so much of the suffering of humanity. The mystery of his life is how he kept his faith and turned it into such an inspiration for millions of people.

How did this early suffering make him mature beyond his years at such a young age and push him into becoming such an effective witness to the gospel? Though journalists can speak to countless of his early friends, this inner life remains beyond our understanding.

The author thus uses his imagination to give the reader a sense of Father Karol's early life, such as his first experience as a parish priest: “That day, July 28, 1948, Karol had set out early in the morning, full of curiosity and, above all, intensely excited. Niegowic is fifteen miles from Cracow, located a little way past the salt mines of Wieliczka; but the trip would have lasted an eternity. The bus took quite a while to get to Gdow. And at Gdow the bus line ended, and one had to continue on foot.”

These above words express the lost world into which the late pontiff was born and grew up. At Karol's high school, for instance, there were two Greek professors. Greek, Latin, Polish, and history would have been the core curriculum, and “natural science” would have been of secondary importance.

Svidercoschi intertwines the evil geopolitics of the Nazis and Communists with this small-town personal life. At the time of the Nazis, and around the time of his father's death, Karol Wojtyla the university student made the acquaintance of a genuine mystic, Jan Tyranowski, who had a profound impact on many pious young men, including Karol: “The God that Jan showed them—bearing witness with his words and his conduct—was not the God of theological discourses or books by priests, Instead, he was a God with whom a person could live day by day, but he happened to be the God of which they were not yet aware.”

The chapter on Tyranowski exemplifies the importance the author gives to the people Karol Wojtyla had met. Wojtyla became a priest because of certain pious people: his father, Tyranowski, a favorite priest to whom he monthly went for confession, and the archbishop of Krakow, Adam Sapieha.

The young Wojtyla was also bookish, and “began to devour the books that Jan had given him, especially in the factory, sitting by the boiler, in the breaks at work.”

Stories of Karol does not offer any new information about the late pontiff, but is a small and charming book nonetheless. It is an easy read and its characters display the warmth and humanity of a bygone, pre-technocratic era. In this sense it is important for understanding the romantic view of Poland Pope John Paul II had.

Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advcate

By Jon M. Sweeny, Novalis, 220 pages.

Strange Heaven focuses as much on the history of Christianity as it does on the Mother of God. This is appropriate because the place of the Virgin Mary in the Church, as the author points out, took many centuries to develop and become clear. Practice often began slowly but would eventually lead to theology and official Rome-sponsored doctrine being established.

A study of Mary is the study of Christianity's history because of the incredible amount of poetry, architecture, art, sculpture, and writing that has centered on her. Sweeny cites saint after saint, and even many Protestant reformers who opposed her centrality in the practice of the faith.

The author cites the Qur'an, claiming that it discusses Mary more often than it does any other woman (though Mohammed's daughter Fatima may be mentioned and discussed as often): “The angels cast lots with arrows (like cupids), as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary.” (Qur'an, 3:44)

Sweeny also relies on non-canonical writings (texts from early Christianity that never made it into the Bible) about Mary that were source material for many medieval legends about her. One of these stories goes like this according to Strange Heaven: “Mary was given by her parents to the temple priests as a young girl. She lived with the virgins of the temple until such time as a proper husband would later be found for her. But Mary later resisted these attempts to wed her, and in so doing, created the first movement of nuns.”

Sweeny courts controversy by diving deeply into every facet of the Western tradition about Mary, rather than simply keeping things at a Catholic-Orthodox level. By addressing all theological, cultural, and poetic sides to Mary's place in Christianity and Western culture, Sweeny does Catholics a service by analyzing the mentality of unfriendly interpretations.

For instance, Strange Heaven examines the feminist denunciation of Catholicism's beliefs about Mary, referring to one thought that “the concept of Mary, as developed in the New Testament texts, is a 'pale derivative symbol disguising the conquered Goddess.' Where the ancient goddess had power, Mary gives up her power. Where the goddess was all-knowing, Mary looks to her son.”

The author rounds off the debate with a good chapter on the Catholic rosary (and parallel Orthodox and Anglican practices), and its practice and theology, starting in the thirteenth century, when, legend has it, St Dominic received from Mary instructions on “how and why to use it.”

Sweeny's confidence in the face of feminist and Protestant accusations is at its best in this chapter, and explains why he so clearly examines non-Catholic—even anti-Catholic—viewpoints: Because he clearly and strongly believes in Mary and Marian devotion. He writes, “The rosary is a meditative prayer. It doesn't seek answers or quick guidance. It is a way of listening for God in the heart, with Mary's sweetness, attentiveness, and intelligence.”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Book of Hours

By Thomas Merton, edited by Kathleen Deignan, 224 pages, Sorin Books Hardcover.

“Let this be my only consolation—that, wherever I am,/ You my Lord are loved and praised.” Thomas Merton's love and devotion to the Lord was central to his theology and spiritual teachings, and continues to touch countless readers.

Merton plays an important role in contemporary Catholic evangelization, even though he died in 1968. His writings, through their poetic and spiritual qualities, attract the New Age and Protestant crowds. His skill as a writer and spiritual thinker allowed him to have great theological insights that remained faithful to the Catholic tradition. Catholics too beetry: “Now, in the middle of the limpid evening/ The moon speaks clearly to the hill./ The wheatfields make their simple music,/ Praise the quiet sky.”

He spoke theologically through these writings on nature: “Up with the revolution of tulips. Tulips are not important, they are essential. Yes, sing. Love and Peace, silence, movto the fullest when he joined the Cistercians in Kentucky at the age of 26.

He is valuable as a prophet who opposed individualism, materialism, and the cheapening of culture. His following words fully reflect Vatican II's prophetic engagement with the world: “Christian holiness can no longer be considered a matter purely of individual and isolated acts of virtue. It must also be seen as part of a great collaborative effort for spiritual and cultural renewal in society, to produce conditions in which all can work and enjoy the just fruits of their labor in peace.”

He didn't become a monk in order to escape from the world, but to enter into it more deeply. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian of the twelfth century, did the same, and corresponded with anybody who was anybody. Merton took up this tradition of the monk-of-the-world, though with less correspondence and more poetry.

Merton's fans love his intimacy with nature, which shines throughout his poetry: “Now, in the middle of the limpid evening/ The moon speaks clearly to the hill./ The wheatfields make their simple music,/ Praise the quiet sky.”

He spoke theologically through these writings on nature: “Up with the revolution of tulips. Tulips are not important, they are essential. Yes, sing. Love and Peace, silence, movement of planets.” As these words reflect, Merton could also be witty. At least in his published writings, especially his poetry, he didn't take himself too seriously.

Merton seemed at times to be more accepting of nature and her ways than of humans. His frustration at the direction of American pulp culture was only one dimension of his difficult, even judgmental way of viewing humans. “Man/ Crowding all around/ Why are you/ So cold, so proud/ Why is your tongue so mean/ Why is your hand/ So quick to harm/ Why are you like a rattlesnake/ So quick to strike?” We are all judgmental like Merton here, but it's reassuring to see that a great monk and spiritual seeker also suffered from this affliction.

Islam and the West

By Bernard Lewis, 217 pages, Oxford University Press, Oxford University Press, USD 16.95.

“Yet despite this perception of non-Byzantine Europe as an outer wilderness of barbarism and unbelief, there was at the time an awareness that the Europeans, even the western Europeans, were not simple barbarians like the other neighbors of Islam in the east and in the south. They were, after all, followers of a real religion, superseded but resting on an authentic revelation and thus vastly superior to the polytheists and idolaters whom the Muslims encountered in other regions.”

The West and Islam are more closely intertwined than either side would care to admit, and as Lewis' above words indicate, the two civilizations have had a unique relationship with each other. The West, formerly the Christian West or Christendom, feared and fought Islam (as in the medieval Reconquista of Islamic Spain and Portugal) in a way that it never did Buddhist lands or the New World.

The opening essay of the collection of writings by the famous American scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, makes this its central heint. Though an academic, Lewis manages in the forty pages of this chapter to describe in simple terms the panorama of European-Islamic history.

Lewis writes as historian, sociologist, economist, and political theorist, as in the following words: “It is not uncommon for an economy to be stimulated by the commercial impact of another, more active and technologically more advanced society. What is special in the European impact on the lands of Islam, especially in the Middle East, is that on both sides the agents and beneficiaries of the resulting economic change were aliens. The outsiders were of course Europeans.”

Another essay, “Translation from Arabic,” gives us a sense of Arabic's importance, which until the Renaissance, he notes, had been the most translated language in the world. In addition to being a scriptural language, it was the medium for law, philosophy, literature, commerce, and science for millions of people: “It was thus the equivalent in the medieval Islamic world of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in the West, as well as of the literary vernaculars until until the beginnings of the modern period.”

Islam and the West helps us Westerners look critically at ourselves and at how we have thought about and treated others: In one medieval story, “the Christian poet endeavors to give his readers ... some idea of the Saracen religion. According to this vision, the Saracens [Muslims] worshiped a trinity consisting of three persons: Muhammad, the founder of their religion, and two others, both of them devils, Apollin and Tervagant. To us this seems comic, and we are amused by medieval man unable to conceive of religion or indeed of anything else except in his own image. Since Christendom worshiped its founder in association with two other entities, the Saracens also had to worship their founder, and he too had to be one of a trinity, with two demons co-opted to make up the number.”

Lewis makes the important point in this essay and throughout the book that we Westerners are still looking at the Islamic world this way—still seeing in them some image of ourselves.

Stewards of the Poor: The Man of God, Rabbula, and Hiba in Fifth-Century Edessa

Translated by Robert Doran, 204 pages, Cistercian Publications.

These fifth-century Christian saints are striking by their very strangeness and remoteness in relation to modern Catholicism, even in relation to so-called traditionalists or old-fashioned believers. They went to extreme lengths to express their love for Christ.

In one story, “The Man of God,” the son of wealthy Romans left his wife on his wedding day without consummating the relationship, and trekked eastwards to eventually end up in Edessa, Syria. There he lived and begged among the poor, spending most of his time in prayer. He later returned secretly to his parents' household in Rome and lived there, unknown to his loved ones, until his death.

In another story, “The Heroic Deeds of Mar Rabbula,” we read “Then, because the desire for martyrdom was glowing like a fire in his heart, he rose up and led the blessed Eusebius, and the two of them journeyed to Baalbak, a city of pagans. In their divine zeal they entered the city's temple of idols to throw the idols down and be counted worthy for martyrdom...the pagans smote them mercilessly until they thought Rabbula and Eusebius were dead.”

Thomas Merton: Prophet of Renewal

By John Eudes Bamberger, 132 pages Cistercian Publications.

The Cistercian John Eudes Bamberger worked closely with Thomas Merton at the monastery in Kentucky in looking after the novice monks. He therefore has an insider's account of the spiritual master.

Bamberger does us a service by setting the record straight: Thomas Merton was not a theological rebel, though Mertonists—usually post-Christian spiritualists with a need to ground their thinking in something substantial—usually are. The author sums up Merton quite nicely:

“In considering Merton's contribution to the Cistercian heritage in light of the signs of our modern times we find once again that his role was to disclose the relevance of its essential values for contemporary monks and Christians in general. Exposure to Oriental meditation and assimilation of much that he found pertinent in that tradition did not result in displacing the fundamental importance that had so much influenced St. Bernard, William of St. Thierry, and the early generation of Cistercians.”

Pre-Benedictine Monasticism: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 2

By Thomas Merton, 391 pages, USD 24.95, Cistercian Publications.

This book really gets to the heart of the genius of Thomas Merton, the Kentucky-based Cistercian monk who was killed by electrocution in Bangkok in 1968. This book publishes Merton's notes that he made as novice master for his classes on the history of monasticism.

The reading is therefore not always a pleasure, as the editors have added a lot of words in parentheses to make complete sentences and thoughts from the sometimes sparse notes. Pre-Benedictine Monasticism is not for a Merton beginner, but is definitely worth the money for someone with a serious or scholarly interest in the writer, whose brilliance perhaps comes out in these rough notes more easily than from his polished, published style:

“It must be said that the value of the Rule lies primarily in the fact that it is an eminently practical digest of a body of traditional material, a compilation rather than an original creation....[I]t is a resumé of the most practical points in the other rules, giving them a new form and orientation”

Aelred of Rievaulx: The Historical Works

Translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, 306 pages, Cistercian Publications, USD .

After an interesting Introduction to the violent, unpredictable politics of Aelred's England by scholar Marsha Dutton, the book offers three of the churchman's writings, beginning with “The Genealogy of the Kings of the English.”

“The Genealogy” is a great primary source of history. Far from dry political reading, Aelred writes on various topics relating to the kingdom's rulers: King Edwin, for example, “gave himself to the adulterous embraces of a Herodias, a woman highly irreverent against God, against the laws, and against the laws of nature itself, and he followed very wicked counsels.”

This relationship did not go unnoticed in the court or country: “But the spirit of John [the Baptist] was not absent, and in the holy man Dunstan he condemned the adulterous king and berated the woman with well-deserved invective. Roused by a spirit of Jezebel, she plotted the destruction of our Elijah, and she would have accomplished her wish had not the saint, warned by the spirit, preferred exile from his country.”

These words reflect the way history was told in the Middle Ages: As a continuation of the biblical history of the Israelites. Christians were the new Israelites, the new Chosen People. This gave medieval Europe, then known as Christendom, its entire identity and reason of existence (something that continent, according to the current pope, now longer possesses).

Aelred's other writings in this book are “The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor,” and “The Battle of the Standard,” which recounts the 1138 battle between Queen Matilda and King Stephen, who both claimed the English throne.

Aelred of Rievaulx: The Lives of the Northern Saints

Translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, 144 pages, Cistercian Publications, USD 24.95.

With an interesting Introduction by Marsha Dutton, this book offers insights into the medieval mind through three translations of Aelred of Rievaulx' works.

First, “The Life of Ninian, Apostle of the Southern Picts,” tells of this priest's heroic evangelization of parts of the British Isles in late antiquity. According to Aelred, Ninian had the passion and sense of adventure of a soldier for this evangelical work.

For example, before beginning his evangelical work, Ninian “made a pilgrimage to Rome where, after shedding tears in token of his devotion before the sacred relics of the apostles and commending his desire to their patronage with many prayers, the ever-blessed young man approached the see of the supreme bishop. When he had explained to him the reason for his journey, the pontiff embraced his devotion and with great affection received him as a son. He soon gave him over to the teachers of truth to be imbued with the discipline of faith and the sound meaning of Scripture.”

Once back in Britain, the people received him like a prophet, with lepers being cured by his sanctity.

Second, in “The Saints of the Church of Hexham and their Miracles,” we get some interesting medieval religious scenes, as when a violent king threatens the town's inhabitants: “Some appealed with groans and outcries to Wilfrid, some to Cuthbert, some to Acca, and not a few to Alchmund.”

To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Compostella

By Kevin A. Codd, 271 pages, Eerdmans.

Faithful to the Church and very mindful of tradition, Father Kevin Dodd brings doctrine alive. He focuses on the physical and metaphysical, the individual and the social side of Catholicism. On the famous medieval pilgrim trail through southern France to Spain's Santiago de Compostella, he fully lives the spirituality of the journey.

The author's romantic, poetic grasp of God and theology underscore To the Field of Stars's success. In fact, the pilgrim trail attracts religious romantics, people who do not think like most people do in our money- and success-oriented society:

“[I]f you are satisfied being a very contemporary person living in a world formed by the likes of Descartes, Freud, and Henry Ford, if you have no interest in adventures of the spirit, or if you have no desire to ramble on foot across a fair piece of this earth's lovely skin, then the story I am about to tell you will not matter to you.”

Dodd's excellent character sketches of the personalities he meets along the way enhance his theology. He uses his personal struggle with people's rudeness or selfishness to teach something about humility. He reflects on the community spirit and openness to cultures of people from different countries. He appreciates the loving care which religious sisters, brothers, priests, and laity offer to the pilgrims.

To the Field of Stars brings alive Christianity's basic fact as a materialist religion. The Incarnation sanctifies the physical world and reflects God's loving interest in it, and specifically in the lives of humans.

The author lives with blisters, painful tendons, a sore back, and occasionally tasteless food, relying on his hope and faith, both of which pull him towards Santiago.

The depth of this book, additionally, comes from the frequent lack of romanticism. While he is a dreamer, he also lets his angry feelings and sufferings come out on the book's pages. He doesn't spiritually float towards his destination. Like any spiritually mature pilgrim, his romanticism is deeper than childish feelings. He describes how his thoughts and feelings – including petty thoughts and immature feelings – roam all over, but how never loses sight of the big spiritual picture.

This includes a special reverence for tradition's religious wisdom: “It may seem ridiculous to us altogether modern, practical, well-educated people of the third millennium, but there was a time, not so long ago, especially in Europe, when popular religious belief often included an unshakable sense that the space between God and us in certain places on the face of this earth was especially thin.”

Irritating to the reader, Dodd frequently criticizes the comportment of priests' speed, lack of holiness, and apparent inhospitality towards pilgrims at the Mass. It is surprising that the author, himself a priest, would attend Mass as he would a movie or a baseball game. He seems to commit the error of asking himself whether he and others had “gotten anything out of Mass.” He erroneously regards the Church and the Eucharist as therapeutic rather than sacramental.

One Hundred Great Catholic Books: From the Early Centuries to the Present

By Don Brophy, 240 pages, Novalis.

Throughout One Hundred Great Catholic Books, the reader can enjoy the author's precise and to-the-point explanations about the complicated intellectual twists and turns of Catholicism:

“Bonaventure, the eminent Franciscan of the thirteenth century, was both a philosopher and a theologian. He was one of the great figures of the High Middle Ages, ranking alongside Aquinas in influence. But while Aquinas was a follower of Aristotle whose world consisted of real objects and perceptions. Bonaventure was influenced by Plato who believed that the world is a reflection of a greater, preexisting principle, which in Bonaventure's terms meant God. It bore God's fingerprints and shone with God's being.”

The author gives us the circumstances in which Bonaventure composed his central book, The Soul's Journey Into God. While Franciscan Minister-General, “he had gone to pray on Mount La Verna in Tuscany – the place where Francis of Assisi's hands and feet were pierced by an angel....It occurred to him that the angel's six wings symbolized the six steps of a soul's ascent to God. Struck by the elegance of the idea,” the saint began on The Soul's Journey Into God.

The strength of One Hundred Great Catholic Books is that the author does not only include the obvious ones. He picks a medieval Arthurian tale by the German knight Wolfram von Eschenbach and points out that this book contains a good deal of pre-Christian symbolism that Christian writers later adapted to the gospel.

Though a weakness of the book is the author's preference for modern writers, this long list of modern books means that even the well-read audience can come across a few surprises. For instance, he includes A Guide For the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher, who reflected a popular Catholic view of economics by stating that the best economic system is based on small-scale capitalism and a belief that we should revere things. Brophy cites interesting words by Schumacher:

“'Anything that we can destroy but are unable to make is, in a sense, sacred, and all our 'explanations' of it do not explain anything.'”

One Hundred Great Catholic Books emphasizes the inclusiveness of the Church by claiming that Hans Kung and Anthony de Mello, two writers at varying degrees of odds with the Vatican (but who have never been officially defrocked), should also have books on this list. She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist call to arms, is also included.

These interesting inclusions reflect the need to avoid whitewashing the troublesome, quarrelsome past few decades of the Church. The Church has faithfully preached the gospel and remained true to itself, but numerous theologians ran far ahead and away from Catholic theology. It will be important in the coming decades to reevaluate these writers and discover what went awry -- why so many well-educated, seemingly well-intentioned theologians ended up in such conflicts with the magisterium.

While orthodox books are always more interesting and balanced than rebellious ones, Brophy's book succeeds by giving the beginning student of theology a simple overview of the Good, the Bad, and the Heretical.

Life Beyond Death

By Ramon Martinez de Pison, 267 pages, Novalis.

This sweeping introduction to an often-ignored topic takes us through thousands of years of theological reflection on life and death in the Judeo-Christian landscape. This includes interesting discussions on the important Greek contribution, especially in its dualistic, body-soul mindset.

De Pison shows how Catholic theologians can borrow not only from many eras of our tradition, but also from Protestants. He notes the important Protestant contribution to a more experience-based theology, something that happened in fits-and-starts in Catholicism until finally embraced in a more complete way in the 1950s and '60s.

The author also takes us through the agonizing of the biblical Job, who couldn't accept his friends' explanations for his terrible experiences. He finally had to let go of his attachment to health, wealth, and planning, and more deeply relate to God.

Life Beyond Death follows the path of Pope John Paul II's New Evangelization, for which we “need to develop a more imaginative interpretation of the Christian faith as well as traditional Church teaching regarding our ultimate destiny. We have to use our imagination, as our sisters and brothers of the past did, in order to present in a creative manner the essence of the biblical message along with the dogmatic pronouncements of the Church on what lies beyond death.”

This statement, by honouring the imagination of the past, reflects how this book follows Vatican II's embrace of certain aspects of modernity, such as a more historically-sensitive view, but only within the confines of a robustly developed tradition. Again, de Pisan's following words mirror John Paul II's mindset:

“However, to be creative does not mean to be unfaithful to our credo. It involves, rather, interpreting creatively our Christian heritage in such a way that we may continue to present its deepest meaning to the faithful.”

De Pisan offers a forceful theology while warning against dogmatism and moral or biblical rigidity. He spends a lot of time on hermeneutics, which is the science of interpretation. This is one of the greatest issues facing Christians right now – how to revere and follow the Bible without falling into the literalist trap?

De Pisan makes the interesting remark that the Bible itself is a series of interpretations, or hermeneutics, of what people were living. They were continuously interpreting and analyzing their journey with each other and with God.

Thus when the author discusses life after death in the biblical tradition, he says that the Book of Revelation spoke more to the ancients than it does for us today, because it was written in a kind of code for certain believers. In order for us to continue a Christian belief in the afterlife, we have to re-adapt these symbolic teachings, bringing their spirit into the post-modern world.

St. Monica: The Power of a Mother's Love

By Giovanni Falbo, Pauline, 142 pages.

Father Falbo combines the best, most interesting aspects of Catholic scholarship with traditional hagiography (writings on the lives of saiwas a frequent visitor and someone whose piety the bishop well regarded.

At points, such as with the discussion of St. Ambrose, the book becomes very good literature, helping to fill in the gaps of the historical record. Giovanni Falbo makes a theological point by emphasizing the human aspect of conversion and religious life. Theology is life, love, family, and struggle, rather than the dry academic musings of the ivory tower. This literary-theological book shows how Sts. Monica, Augustine, and Ambrose related to one another:

Ambrose “was greatly impressed by Monica's fervor at the services and by her deeply religious behavior. So gradually, when he saw Augustine as he was going from place to place, Ambrose would stop for a moment to sing her praises and congratulate him on the good fortune of having such a mother. Augustine would respond courteously to the compliments, almost tempted to take advantage of these brief moments to bare his soul to the holy bishop.”

Falbo shows that doubt, moral confusion, lust, and pettiness held these saints down as much as shis mother's resolve to pray for his conversion, something she never really doubted.

The author brings Sts. Monica and Augustine's world alive. Church father St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, played a famous role in St. Augustine's life, and St. Monica was a frequent visitor and someone whose piety the bishop well regarded.

At points, such as with the discussion of St. Ambrose, the book becomes very good literature, helping to fill in the gaps of the historical record. Giovanni Falbo makes a theological point by emphasizing the human aspect of conversion and religious life. Theology is life, love, family, and struggle, rather than the dry academic musings of the ivory tower. This literary-theological book shows how Sts. Monica, Augustine, and Ambrose related to one another:

Ambrose “was greatly impressed by Monica's fervor at the services and by her deeply religious behavior. So gradually, when he saw Augustine as he was going from place to place, Ambrose would stop for a moment to sing her praises and congratulate him on the good fortune of having such a mother. Augustine would respond courteously to the compliments, almost tempted to take advantage of these brief moments to bare his soul to the holy bishop.”

Falbo shows that doubt, moral confusion, lust, and pettiness held these saints down as much as such things do now to people.

St. Monica shows how the struggle of these very human people foreshadowed our struggle today. The Church is the same as then because humans and the major issues of following Christ have not changed at all:

“Monica, a wife and mother leading a fully active life and immersed in the realities of her world, teaches us that the highest form of prayer, which is contemplation, is the prerogative of all Christians.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine

By Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, 118 pages, IVPress.

Scientist-theologians Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath turn the tables on British scientist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has written a series of increasingly poisonous anti-religion books where he accuses religion and religious people of being backward simpletons who refuse to catch on to the inevitable post-religious direction of humanity.

The McGraths in turn accuse Dawkins of not catching on to certain things:

“Dawkins is clearly entrenched in his own peculiar version of a fundamentalist dualism. Yet many will feel that a reality check is appropriate, if not long overdue, here. Dawkins seems to view things from within a highly polarized worldview that is no less apocalyptic and warped than that of the religious fundamentalisms he wishes to eradicate....We are offered an atheist fundamentalism that is as deeply flawed and skewed as its religious counterparts.”

The McGraths offer the example of Dawkins' response to Pope John Paul II declaring that the Catholic Church sees nothing fundamentally wrong with a belief in evolution. Dawkins denounced the pope as a hypocrite and placed him below “honest” fundamentalists who oppose any belief in evolution.

Dawkins' intellectual inconsistency is the central argument of The Dawkins Delusion?.

The scientist fails to apply scientific rigor and consistency to his own beliefs about religion. The McGraths also point out that his statements on religion are actually creedal rather than scientific. Even other atheistic scientists, the authors point out, are embarrassed by him.

This angry atheism is setting back science-Christian dialogue a few notches. “One of the greatest disservices that Dawkins has done to the natural sciences is to portray them as relentlessly and inexorably atheistic. They are nothing of the sort.” This has led, the McGraths assert, to an upsurge in the belief in intelligent design.

Dawkins has added to the fundamentalist Christian unease and defensiveness over science, when today we need to show people that the idea that science and religion are competing against each other is incorrect. The authors make no bones in equating Dawkins' erroneous bigotry with that of the anti-Darwinian religious fundies.

“Until recently, Western atheism had waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out. But now a whiff of panic is evident. Far from dying out, belief in God has rebounded and seems set to exercise still greater influence in both the public and private spheres. The God Delusion expresses this deep anxiety, partly reflecting an intense distaste for religion. Yet there is something deeper here, often overlooked in the heat of the debate. The anxiety is that the coherence of atheism itself is at stake. Might the unexpected resurgence of religion persuade many that atheism itself is fatally flawed as a worldview?”

But The Dawkins Delusion? is meant to put neither science nor even atheists on the defensive. Rather, it goes after aggressive atheists, who are setting things back just as effectively as religious fundamentalists are. In fact, a secondary but equally important achievement of the McGraths in The Dawkins Delusion? is to show how religion and science are complementary rather than antagonistic. “Scientific theories cannot be said to 'explain the world'--they only explain the phenomena that are observed within the world.”

Science will never be able to go beyond its basic framework, which is to understand and explain how the universe operates. This reality should be cause for mutual strengthening and complementarity between religion and science.

Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam

By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger / Benedict XVI and Marcello Pera, 159 pages, Basic Books, trasnlated by Michael F. Moore.

“The world is filled with concern but also with hypocrisy. Hypocrisy on the part of people who see no evil and speak no evil to avoid becoming involved; who see no evil and speak no evil to avoid appearing rude; who proclaim half-truths and imply the rest, to avoid assuming responsibility. These are the paralyzing consequences of the 'political' correctness ... that I reject.”

Italian philosopher and secularist Marcello Pera spoke the above words at a speech in 2004 at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University. The next day then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed the Italian Senate over similar issues. The coincidence led to an exchange of letters and the publication of Without Roots, originally in Italian.

Both men directly confront the origins of Western civilization's present spiritual crisis. Though they come from different angles, secular and Catholic, they arrive at strikingly similar diagnoses and answers.

Ratzinger takes a historical-centred approach, while Pera offers a brilliant analysis of the philosophical basis of Europe's (and to a lesser extent America's) rejection of its Judeo-Christian beginnings. Pera sees this religious genealogy as the core to Europe's culture, past and present, and worries about a civilization that has turned away from itself.

Specifically, he worries about Islam, and the fact that in the face of a repeated call to jihad against the West, Europe impotently stands still, frozen in fear much as it did at Munich against Hitler. “I affirm the principles of tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and respect that are characteristic of the West today,” he writes. “However, if someone refuses to reciprocate these principles and declares hostility or a jihad against us, I believe that we must acknowledge that this person is our adversary. In short, I reject the self-censorship of the West.”

Pera investigates the logic to this self-censorship. He analyzes “relativism,” a syndrome of intellectual and academic dispositions that includes “postmodernism,” “deconstruction,” “post-enlightenment,” and “weak thought.”

Relativism asserts the equality of the world's cultures but, in the great tradition of Orwell, claims that some cultures are more equal than others. European elites scorn their own heritage, especially as it pertains to Christianity, and reverence anything from other cultures. This has led to the impotence described above concerning Islamic threats of violence. It has also resulted in the lack of Europe's demographic vitality.

Pera admits to the logic of relativism's beginnings -- “the existence of a plurality of values” in a globalized, multicultural world – and then carefully lays out subsequent errors committed by relativism's practitioners, “in particular, the conclusion that sets of values, such as cultures and civilizations, cannot be judged by comparison to one another.”

Such comparisons are healthy, Pera states, since they only need dialogue and the willingness to listen to another's criticism. Contrary to relativism's claims, such comparisons do not require a “meta-criteria” to which both cultures adhere (a meta-criteria is an overarching criteria or set of values to which everyone can agree).

Pera's sense of urgency makes his short analysis all the more penetrating and relevant to the current cultural standoff among Western feminists, Western conservatives, and Muslims. He believes that the roots to this relativism-inspired standoff “is grounded not so much in tolerance as in acquiescence, more focused on decline than on the force of conviction, progress, and mission,” which were, he continues, “once typical of Christianity, Europe, and the West.”

Pera suggests a “non-denominational Christian religion,” for Europe, justified by Europe's Christian heritage. It “would have more monasteries than central churches, more monks that articulate and communicate than church officials, more practitioners than preachers.”

Ratzinger for his part suggests that the success or even existence of this civil religion “presupposes the existence of convinced minorities that have 'discovered the pearl' and live it in a manner that is also convincing to others.”

He offers us hope with this idea of “creative minorities” living in a sea of secularism. He avoids divisive language and denies that the gulf between the two groups is impossibly wide. “Secular people are not a rigid block,” he claims.

With the following words, we get a sense of Ratzinger's belief in the human dignity of such secularists, who themselves are worth the effort of evangelization and witness to the truth by Christians: “Very often they are people who passionately seek the truth, who are pained by the lack of truth in humankind.”

Pera and Ratzinger in Without Roots make a good pair when analyzing relativism and the spiritual decline of the West, because their words not only analyze the causes of the current malaise, but offer hope and vigor for present and future action. Commitment to Christianity is dignified and can make a difference.

Le pari personnaliste

By E-Martin Meunier, 369 pages, Editions Fides.

Le pari personnaliste is an excellent and deep-running introduction to the theological and especially philosophical events leading up to Vatican II. For those of us used to the left-wing versus right-wing scorecard account of the Council, this book is a welcome analysis.

The author is an academic so the reading is demanding and presupposes some familiarity with philosophical terms and modern intellectual history. The book details things from the perspective of personalism, which we often associate with phenomenology.

The latter philosophy, begun by Edmund Husserl and continued by Saint Edith Stein among others, represented a reaction against the grandiose and increasingly atmospheric philosophies of post-Kantian Germany. Husserl called philosophy back “to the things themselves.” Personalism grew out of this, and advocated among other things the dignity of the person. It attracted many Catholic thinkers including Jacques Maritain and Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II.

The book's strongpoint is that it concentrates on one or up to a few significant thinkers at a time, including Emmanuel Mounier and Maritain. The author's scholarly bent makes each chapter an excellent, in-depth introduction to each of these writers, all of whom had significant impacts, direct or indirect, on the thought of Vatican II itself.

The author also situates these thinkers in the anti-Catholic, secular and scientist thought of the nineteenth century: “Of course, the office of the pope had already begun, at the end of the century [au mitan du siecle], a critique of the principles of liberalism and socialist doctrines, but for various reasons having as much to do with institutional structures as with political problems that occupied papal diplomacy, the magisterium had not yet taken the time to develop the outlines of a philosophy that could guide its positions when faced with the era's tendencies.” [my translation] (53)

Le pari personaliste ends with an analysis of the aftereffects of the liberal Catholic deconstruction of theology and tradition in the post-conciliar decades. In dealing with the counter-conversation to this deconstruction, Meunier defines Cardinal Ratzinger, as a “pessimist when it comes to the human condition, [who] sees the truth as something to receive as a whole, and not as something to create.” The Cardinal accused a renegade personalism of wrecking havoc to “the internal order of the church,” and to sexuality and marriage. (332)

The importance of Le pari personaliste comes from the fact that Catholics cannot understand a given theologian or theological stream without understanding the underlying philosophy. No one will understand Pope John Paul II or Vatican II without understanding not only neo-Thomism but also personalism.

Professor Meunier arrives at some negative conclusions about the Catholic future because of the baby-boom generation's failure to create true community and refusal to see employment in the federal government, for example, as service to the country rather than as a self-oriented career. His point is that this way of thinking has also infected the Church.

He concludes, however, by remarking on the hope that Catholics have in the clear-thinking of Pope Benedict XVI: “If post-Vatican II Catholicism focused on the primacy of the person, on the incarnation, and on engagement, the Ratzinger way [le style Ratzinger] focuses above all 'on the ancient mystery: creation, original sin, redemption.'”

The Resilient Church: the glory, the shame, & the hope for tomorrow

By Mike Aquilina

Mike Aquilina counters the common feminist and liberal stereotypes of Christian history being a story of misogyny and power-lust. He does so in a gentle, patient, and factual manner that does not whitewash negative episodes.

He shows the positive balance of Christianity to world history, most boldly and helpfully to women:

“The way Christians esteemed virgins was revolutionary in its time, and it spoke volumes about the greater rights women would win through Christianity's triumph. The Church viewed these women as prophets, teachers, role models, and leaders. In the fourth century, St. Jerome wrote, in his letter of praise for the Roman virgin Asella, that priests and bishops 'should look up to her.' In the liturgy in the third century, consecrated virgins were given a place of honor, receiving Communion before the rest of the laity.”

Aquilina's depiction of the crusades is balanced, as he outlines the warriors' mixed bag of virtues: Their spiritual passion tempered by ignorance of what they were really getting themselves into; their love for Christ contradicted by their hatred of the Muslims; the terrible Muslim treatment of Christians in the Holy Land paralleled by the brutality of the red cross knights whenever they took a city, especially Jerusalem.

“It's impossible to describe the emotional effect on the crusaders at the sight of Jerusalem. All the events of Christ's passion came vividly to their minds. Yet here were the historic churches, desecrated and turned into mosques. They were outraged.”

The author has the courage to offer a counter-cultural rendering of Christian history that, unafraid to admit past sins and failures, nonetheless looks to the Christian and prophetic values even in controversial scenarios: “By the middle 1100s, the crusader states had turned into something unique in the world. The Franks were still just as passionately attached to the Latin Church, but they nevertheless allowed Muslims and Eastern Christians complete equality. They had learned the lesson the rest of the world is still struggling with today: how to practice tolerance and be friendly with other faiths without lapsing into indifference.”

The Resilient Church also details the Reformation with a fair amount of punch. Rather than succumbing to the nice guy treatment of Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, and others, he instead highlights the violence of the era, due to every side, and to the faulty doctrines or divisiveness of the non-Catholic personalities. Refreshingly, he portrays Luther less as a great theologian than as an ill-tempered, perpetually-protesting figure who became increasingly intolerant of all sorts of people, from the pope to the German peasants.

This viewpoint is important if we are ever to graduate from shallow ecumenism, where we avoid expressing our true feelings and gloss over our very real differences. The following encapsulates Aquilina's nerve: “By the 1600s, the Protestants were putting as much effort into condemning each other as they were into condemning Rome.” This kind of pro-Catholic truth-telling can only strengthen ecumenism because rather than being triumphalistic, it is plain-spoken and forceful.

The weakness of a short beginner book on church history such as this is that it breezes through the centuries and skips over many important events and figures. The Resilient Church aims to educate those with a basic knowledge of church history and theology and who want to tie some things together—that St. Thomas Aquinas came after Saint Francis of Assisi, and just who Pope Gregory the Great was, and the like. Knowledgeable students of history will need something more detailed or specialized.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cirque du Soleil's Corteo and Symmetrical Beauty

By Brian Welter

Cirque du Soleil's Corteo is a nostalgic timepiece for a long-passed though not-forgotten part of us when our energy went into creating family- and community-oriented culture rather than into engaging in the completely unnecessary battle of the sexes and the faulty idea of rights-as-entitlements.

Corteo is beautiful because male and female balancing each other is instinctively beautiful to humans. Compare this harmony to much of what passes as modern art – blasphemy, excrement, urinals or other ugly things arranged in anti-aesthetic ways. Corteo, conversely, demonstrates true aestheticism. It indicates that true equality between the sexes requires complementarity.

A man bravely climbs to the top of a ladder, which is leaning against nothing. He uses his own poise to keep both himself and thelity. The stunning energy of the entire show – again, whether the creators realize it or not – flows from the balanced equality of the sexes. As Cirque du soleil demonstrates, true equality of the sexes only comes about when the perfect symmetry of maleness – femaleness, masculinity – femininity is played upon.

Corteo is a nostalgic timepiece for a long-passed though not-forgotten part of us when our energy went into creating family- and community-oriented culture rather than into engaging in the completely unnecessary battle of the sexes and the faulty idea of rights-as-entitlements.

Corteo is beautiful because male and female balancing each other is instinctively beautiful to humans. Compare this harmony to much of what passes as modern art – blasphemy, excrement, urinals or other ugly things arranged in anti-aesthetic ways. Corteo, conversely, demonstrates true aestheticism. It indicates that true equality between the sexes requires complementarity.

A man bravely climbs to the top of a ladder, which is leaning against nothing. He uses his own poise to keep both himself and the ladder standing. He climbs to the heavens, towards a beautiful female angel dressed in white: “Ascension toward the heavens to play with the angels,” according to Cirque du soleil's program. This quest contrasts with our confused society, where men, kicked out of the family by feminist-inspired family law and judges, are treated as mere wallets and drift and roam the streets rather than climb ladders to angels.

The sexuality of Corteo is a masculine – feminine, erotic one that is not pornographic (the whole family can watch). The sexuality is playful and naïve, paralleling the innocent early days of true romantic love.

At the beginning, the star of the show, the clown, lies in his bed dreaming of former lovers. These women float down, dancing and doing gymnastics in the air. Morally speaking, the clown cannot let go of these women because he has given each of them too much of himself.

Corteo, then, appeals to Catholic sensibilities. Beautiful, high art investigates the serious drama of human nature in its good and bad, male and female elements, as the program notes:

“Corteo is a grand procession, a festive parade imagined by a clown. Juxtaposing the large with the small, the ridiculous with the tragic and the magic of perfection with the charm of imperfection, the show highlights the strength and fragility of the clown, as well as his wisdom and kindness, to illustrate the portion of humanity that is in each of us.”

Professor Bernardo Estrada and St. Paul's Shock

By Brian Welter

St. Paul's original zeal for his religion and its law “changed towards Jesus Christ Himself,” Father Bernardo Estrada said on Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at St. Peter's and Paul's parish. St. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus shocked the apostle's worldview and entire life.

Estrada, professor of New Testament at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, noted that before this experience St. Paul had been “a very good observer of the law,” and “a genuine pharisee with a very strong zeal for the law of God. The salvation of Israel depended on law” according to this outlook. For this pre-Damascus St. Paul, the “Messiah would be the vindication of Israel at the end of the times. The glorification of Israel would be through the accomplishment of the law,” the scholar said.

Concerning the Christians, Estrada added that pre-Damascg, sometimes troubled relationship with the other Christian leaders of the time. On the one hand, because of the impact of his Damascus experience, St. Paul “didn't ask for advice from human beings,” but claimed toe Christians.”

After his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, according to Estrada, St. Paul no longer believed that Israel would be vindicated in a violent, this-worldly power-oriented transformation. He “realized that the Messiah was the very vindication of Israel. Israel did not need a glorification of God to repair the sufferings of the people. Christ's Passion, Death, and Resurrection were the real glorification of Israel. All of Paul's love for Israel was put forward in the love for Jesus.”

Calling St. Paul's life “the plenitude of the calling,” the professor emphasized the basic points of the saint's message, and the definition of the Good News for St. Paul, which was “the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.”

This wan fulfill the commandments.” As Estrada pointed out, there are not 10 commandments, but 613 when we count up all the dietary, cooking, and other laws. Estrada notes that while St. Paul was inconsistent in his treatment of the Jewish law, “Paul knows that that accomplishment [the establishment of the law] has some problems, such as the pride that comes from being a perfect Jew.”

St. Paul's shock not only came from his experience on the way to Damascus, but from the very theology that he was led to pr have gotten “his knowledge about Christ from a revelation,” Estrada said. The scholar noted that the saint wrote in Galatians of having “received the Gospel directly from God, not from men.” The saint also adopted the stance of the Old Testament's Jeremiah, who claimed to have received God's call while still in his mother's womb.

On the other hand, Estrada noted, “St. Paul was a good apostle, so also prudent [regarding the contents of the faith]. He had the fear that his revelation would not be authentic, so he checked with the e, theology,

Kathleen Norris and the "Noonday Demon"

By Brian Welter

“Acedia is a spiritual affliction, which includes indifference and hopelessness. You can't care that you don't care anymore,” well-known American spiritual author and Christian Kathleen Norris said in an interview with The BC Catholic.

While acedia is normally associated with medieval spirituality, Norris sees it all around now: “Not caring is a big problem today.”

Her new book, Acedia and Me, for which she was in Vancouver on November 10, 2008, took more than 6 years to write. “I've been collecting stories for 20 years,” she noted. She found the term “acedia while in a dusty old monastery library. When I came across the term, I said 'My God, I k were developing technology but knew that the human race is capable of these things from World War II. So there was this u monk, in The Eight Bad Thoughts. He was highly educated, unlike other monks. He was the first to codify the sins. Acedia, pride, and anger were the 3 worst. Two centuries later, Gregory the Great codified the 7 deadly sins. Acedia was associated with sloth, which became associated with physical laziness. So acedia is lost for centuries.”

“Ennui, boredom, lassitude: these terms were used more in the seventeenth century, but acedia is what people are writing about,” Norris noted, stating her dissatisfaction with these 3 terms in explaining acedia. “Acedia comes in and out of English. It appears in the fourteenth century, but not again until the seventeenth. In 1933, in the Oxford English Dictionary, acedia was declared obsolete. After World War II it was put back in. Why did we need that word again?” Norris asked.

That question was the “impetus to write the book.”

She offered some thoughts on why the word was dug up again in the second half of the twentieth century: “In the twentieth century with World War II there was terrible devastation worldwide. After World War II there was consumer culture but there was still also a level of anxiety about reality. We were developing technology but knew that the human race is capable of these things from World War II. So there was this underlying anxiety.”

“The 1950s were also a time when tranquilizers were being used and Eisenhower spoke of the military-industrial complex,” Norris continued. More than all this background, the author found a simpler explanation: “It's just human psychology.”

Norris acknowledged that it is difficult to write about a negative topic such as acedia, but that many others have already written about it, “so it was fun to find these writers.”

She added, “Acedia is a monastic thing.” When she asked American Zen monks about it, they called it torpor, one of the 5 hindrances to enlightenment. “The Buddhist monks knew instantly what it meant.”

“Any monastic person will have to deal with acedia, because their lives are regimented and boring, even if they entered with roht, the prayer life is very dry, but the person can envision something better. With acedia [which Mother Teresa didn't have], you don't care to envision anything better. It's more about hopelessness. Acedia is a nasty critter.”

Concerning Mother Teresa, Norris asked,” Why are people so surprised by this? The dark night of the soul is nothing to be ashamed of. It is one way how people work through their belief.” Norris contrasted that wa share the fact that they both afflict common people.

Whereas depression has roots in life events such as the death of a loved one, “acedia comes out of nowhere,” Norris warned. Unlike depression, “acedia is a temptation. You can resist it. Clinical depression can't be resisted. If I have acedia, I need to identify it and ask 'what is going on here?' Evagrius also wrote about the 8 good thoughts. Christianity doesn't leave us there, without help for acedia. Zeal is the opposite, because acedia says none of it matters, so just give up. To have zeal is to be devoted and to look at my gifts. It means that we work past the hopelessness.”

Acedia and the dark night of the soul are not the same thing. Norris said, “Mother Teresa is a classic case of the dark night. She was aiming for a more intense relationship with God. In the dark night, the prayer life is very dry, but the person can envision something better. With acedia [which Mother Teresa didn't have], you don't care to envision anything better. It's more about hopelessness. Acedia is a nasty critter.”

Concerning Mother Teresa, Norris asked,” Why are people so surprised by this? The dark night of the soul is nothing to be ashamed of. It is one way how people work through their belief.” Norris contrasted that with acedia, and again mentioned its modern face: “With acedia, we don't care. It can happen with marriage, your job. Complacency could be a part of that.”

“Everyone suffers from acedia,” Norris concluded, noting that the monastic literature refers to it as “the noonday demon.” She also warned that with acedia, inertia is often the outward manifestation, but hyperactivity can also mask it, where someone is “too busy so they can't care about anything.”

Psychiatrist, Theologian Dr. Paul Ungar Challenges Chaotic Society

By Brian Welter

People in modern societies are usually “accepting of Christian civilization, including rights, freedom and progress, which reflect Jesus' teachings. They need a tangible experience of God, and can have such in the Roman Catholic Church through the sacraments. This is not a hyper-emotional or ecstatic or irrational experience. There is no self-reduction.”

Vancouver resident Dr. Paul Ungar sounded optimistic in his analysis of postmodern culture in a recent interview. “The Catholic Church,” he explained, “is ascending, trying to grow spiritually. It's about not giving up freedom and responsibility and sinking into a crowd. It's not about giving up my personality.”

He asks the reader in his Preface to The Mystery of Christian Faith, “What may be the reason behind widespread agnosticism, religious indifference, apathy, and loss of interest in God, which prevail in our time like never before in history?”

The book had a long germinating time. After saving a patient left comatose following a suicide attempt, Dr. Ungar “expected him [the patient] to say, 'Thank you for saving my life.' Instead, the patient asked: 'Why must I live?'”

The doctor had no satisfactory answer, and the patient, after his discharge, successfully killed himself. Dr. Ungar wrote that he “was left haunted by the thought: 'If I only knew how to respond.'”
Following this experience, Dr. Ungar specialized in psychiatry, earned a Master’s degree in psychodynamic therapy and a Ph.D. in existential psychotherapy. He found that medicine, psychology and philosophy failed to provide a satisfactory answer to the question ”Why must we live?” Only trust in God could provide a solid answer. Dr. Ungar then resolved to study theology, and earned a graduate degree in this discipline.

Dr. Ungar brought his family to Vancouver in 1991 and taught at Trinity Western University for many years. Currently in private practice, he encounters the spiritual and psychological results of secularism.

He agrees with his teacher Viktor Frankl: “'Everyone is as strong as his or her ideals.' Abandoning ideals, especially turning away from the ultimate ideal – God - is what theology refers to as sin. Psychologically, it leads to a sense of guilt, which is often the cause of depression and the loss of inner peace, self-regard, optimism and joy.”

Rather than a loss of the sense of sin resulting from post-Christian values, people often come to Dr. Ungar's practice grappling with too much guilt.

Many psychological problems, in other words, arise from spiritual problems. Depression, for instance, arises with the gap between “how I am and how I ought to be.” The doctor remarked that, “Tormented by suppressed guilt, modern religiously apathetic people turn to the flourishing ‘confessor industry’ of counsellors, psychologists, or psychiatrists.”

Dr. Ungar urged people to adopt the religious solution, whereby “I have to accept myself even if I am depressed because I am a temple of the Holy Spirit. If I am not religious, I may hate myself because of my depression.”

Dr. Ungar concluded: “psychology and theology are often interconnected. As Frankl noted, the goal of psychology is to achieve mental health. However, as its by-product, psychotherapy often facilitates one’s way towards the ultimate truth - God. Conversely, the purpose of the clergy is to promote the salvation of souls, but as 'side-effect' of doing so, they also foster mental health.”

Stanley Hauerwas seeks authentic Christians

By Brian Welter

“'I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord, but that's just my opinion.' What produces that grammar?” asked noted Duke University Stanley Hauerwas on March 8, 2009 at Vancouver's First Baptist Church, where he gave the first of his 2 talks for the annual Grenz Lectures hosted by Carey Theological College. He said that Christians who follow this relativistic way of thinking actually believe in something higher than Christ.

The American Protestant challenged his audience to put Christ first and risk everything. Life is worth nothing unless we are willing to die for our ideals.

At both lectures (the second took part the next day at St. Mark's, UBC), Hauerwas used bold, provocative, humorous language to illustrate the bold, provocative nature of the gospel. A noted pacifist, he questioned America's military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Why do we continue to call it war? It's just slaughter.” In his critique of the modern university and the secular values it teaches, he added that the prime movers for the wars were Ivy League graduates.

Hauerwas tried to upset people's comfort with the world of the university and its values of progress and economic growth by noting the sheer radical nature of God's revelation. The Tower of Babel story tells us that humans became proud when they discovered brickmaking, thinking that this new technology could take them to heaven in a sort of human-inspired and -led unity. God knocked that plan to pieces, and at the same time affirmed the diversity of creation through the diversity of language.

Modern globalism, Hauerwas said, likewise tries to unite humanity through its worship of technology, particularly medical advances: “Modern humanism is built on the presumption that human suffering must be eliminated.” Humanists will, ironically, eliminate all those who disagree with that outlook, he said, adding: “Medicine has replaced the Church in modern life. You care more about who your doctor is than who your minister is.” The ethics that doctors learn in med school is taken more seriously by society than the ethics preached by the churches.

The churches offer a radically different path. God's answer to the sin of the Tower of Babel was “the experience of Pentecost, a continuing resource God has given the church to respond to those suffering.” “We [Christians] cannot help but be revolutionary. The Christian moral position will always seem unreasonable,” Hauerwas continued. It is based on hope, he added, as well as freedom, but not “bourgeois freedom.”

Christianity to a large degree cannot make its peace with the world and the current move towards technical, economic globalization, because the world is profoundly warlike. Rather than being “liberal cosmopolitians,” “we must be what we are – the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Hauerwas called Christians to build their own kind of cosmopolitanism, a worldwide Christian diaspora of people “in service to one another.” This ideal of service requires our suffering. The theologian rejected all utopianism: “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world.” “The church is God's new language,” God's new way of communicating. This is a challenge to the conflictual nature of the world, but Christians must be Christians, and avoid compromising with global liberalism.

Catholic theologian Karl Rahner believed that Vatican II represented the first step towards a worldwide church, when the Catholic Church began to move away from being a European institution, according to Hauerwas. Bishops from the entire world attended Vatican II, and the vernacular replaced Latin.

Without the diaspora of this worldwide church, the world will suffer because it doesn't know the unique justice brought about by agape love, the love of the New Testament. Hauerwas noted, “Economic growth is always seen as a necessity in advanced societies because it is impossible to think that justice is impossible in limited situations.” This kind of society needs the “truthful judgments” of Christianity.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Historical Genesis: From Adam to Abraham

By Richard James Fischer, 227 pages, $16.04, Univ Press, ISBN 0-7618-3807-4.

Historical Genesis is one of the most ambitious books in theology in a long time. Richard Fischer tries to do the nearly-impossible – wed the biblical account of our origins to the science of secular universities. He does so without deconstructing the Bible or cutting corners on scientific research.

In fact, the erudite Fischer, trained in both science and theology, links science, theology, and current archeological research about Mesopotamia. While a lot of the reading, necessarily detailed, can bog the reader down, the book reads like a mystery novel, with Fischer as our chief detective who takes us on a geographical and historical odyssey.

Fischer did his homework, as he shows how how ancient Sumerian king lists which claim that their kings lived for 30,000 years were actually using the sexagesimal decimal system or some form of counting that we no longer use or understand.

Fischer contends – politely though firmly - that previous generations of Christians have misinterpreted Genesis. Adam did not father all of humanity, but entered the “stream of humanity” at about the time that Biblical fundamentalists themselves reckon he started things up. Adam, a kind of Abraham, fathered an enormous group of peoples, which the author calls Adamites.

Historical Genesis helps the reader see how Genesis reflects the culture of the surrounding, non-Adamite peoples. Canals from surrounding rivers watered the Garden of Eden, as they did everywhere at this time in Mesopotamia. People in this region had to pollinate date palm trees by hand, and many settlements had their own sacred date palm tree. Eden's forbidden tree reflected these significant trees, found on countless cylinders of the time.

The author accepts the common scientific assertion of the impossibility of a world-wide flood. Where did all the water go, if it were to have covered up even the highest mountains? How could an olive tree start to grow so quickly that the dove from Noah's Ark could find a branch?

Fischer sticks zealously to his idea that Genesis is an historical document. He investigates the Tower of Babel from the bountiful archeological remains of ziggurats, which were ancient Mesopotamian towers originally built, ostensibly, for people to escape from the floods that occurred so frequently in the low-lying plain. In some cases, these ziggurats eventually gained religious significance.

Fischer's knowledge extends to Hebrew, which he shares step-by-step with the reader:

“If we take into consideration allowable interpretations of the Old Testament, and understand 'land' when it often says 'earth,' and 'hills' in many instances where we read 'mountains,' coupled with thinking in terms of 'much' and 'many' when we read 'all' and 'every,' and with an awareness of the Hebrew penchant for perfect or prophetic numbers, we should understand how a Mesopotamian regional flood has been misunderstood as a global cataclysm.”

Fischer genuinely respects Christians and their traditions of Bible interpretation. He also respects the Bible and its writers. In fact, that esteem for the original intentions of the biblical writer seems to have driven him to start his scientific-biblical-archeological-theological investigations in the first place.

Genuinely fascinated by the Bible story, Fischer offers interesting theological musings:

“The biblical, archeological, and anthropological evidence corroborates spared human populations who were outside the Mesopotamian valley and outside of God's covenant. God 'winked at' their ignorance (Acts 17:30), but targeted the Adamite population in particular, obliterating those who were answerable and willfully obedient.”

Although Historical Genesis notes the frequent nature of flooding in Mesopotamia, these words reflect a theological understanding of The Flood. Fischer aims to dig up the scientific, archeological, and biblical truths – because for him these will buttress the traditional theological truths of Christianity, which he serves.

By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign

By Ann Famer, hardback $74.95, ISBN 978-0-8132-1530-3,, 421 pages.

“Hitler warred openly with people and their fertility, while in democracies population controllers have moved incrementally and employed stealth.”

Ann Farmer's above words reflect her successful argument that abortion “rights” originated not in feminism but in eugenics.

By Their Fruits powerfully testifies to the uncomfortably close relationship – philosophically, spiritually, and ideologically – between the Nazis and American and British eugenics supporters. Feminists had little-to-nothing to do with the decades-long fight that eugenics-supporters raged against society from the 1930s onwards to incrementally increase population control and to put final control of family life in the hands of the state.

Eugenics, as seen with the Nazis, reverses the Judeo-Christian view of things. Rather than protecting the poor, the Culture of Death eugenics society kills them off, whether at life's beginning or near the end. By Their Fruits shows abortion as just one arm of the eugenics movement. Not surprisingly, eugenics supporters in Britain began to talk about euthanasia soon after abortion's legalization.

Farmer understands well modern philosophy's contribution to this spiritual and ethical debacle, especially espoused by utilitarianism. Utilitarians focus on the usefulness, especially economic, of a person or thing. Eugenics, hiding behind abortion “rights,” focus on the potentially enormous financial costs to society over the lifetime of a disabled person. The Nazis had the same concern, wondering why the old and the disabled were allowed to eat the bread that should have been going to the soldiers and mothers of Germany.

Farmer also points out that, in addition to the changed values from Judeo-Christian to utilitarian, the meaning of compassion has also changed for the worse. Abortion of the disabled saves society money and the disabled person decades of suffering. The person is “compassionately” put out of misery. Yet who decides whether someone should be aborted for these reasons? Who says that a person who will suffer should necessarily be put out of their suffering? Why is suffering not a dignified part of human life?

The abortion and eugenics campaigns were built on lies, lies, and more lies. First, as mentioned, abortion hid the greater and real agenda of eugenics; second, pro-abortion campaigners grossly inflated the number of 'backstreet abortions' before the legalization of the late sixties; third, campaigners asserted that poor, lower-class women wanted (and already often sought) abortions, when in reality upper class women were the greatest abortion users; forth, campaigners equaled abortion to compassion for poor, lower-class women, when in fact the main abortion campaigners were mostly upper-class men and women who sneered at the poor and were hoping to use abortion to limit the number of the uneducated masses being born.

Campaigners also lied by portraying backstreet abortionists as warm-hearted grandmothers-next-door who were simply trying to help out their sisters. The police and others had experienced backstreet abortionists as being “not the heroines of our area, they were the pariahs; the bloodsuckers who bled our people dry physically and metaphorically.”

The evil nature and anti-Christian values of the eugenics supporters pushed them to use questionable logic such as the following, discussed in By Their Fruits: “Like early campaigners, [Nafis] Sadik assumed that because poor people do not use birth control, and thus have not consciously 'chosen' to have children, any children they do have must be unwanted. Despite her emphasis on women's rights, Sadik has lauded China's population program, with its overt compulsion, claiming that women were dying worldwide because of 'lack of access' to abortion.”

By Their Fruits concludes that “Abuse of language has run parallel to the abuse of women under such programs... In the feminized language of population control, 'elevating the status of women' means increasing their workload in order to get them to have fewer children, by making children a burden instead of a blessing.”