Sunday, July 25, 2010

Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education

By Stratford Caldecott, 156 pages, Brazos Press.

Caldecott critiques modern society from a Catholic perspective. He opposes the materialist, secular society that doesn't believe in God and limits life to the material world. Such a critique is nothing new in itself, but the author takes an interesting slant.

He shows how science, built on materialism (the belief that the material world is all there is) and atheism, aims to control nature. Buildings were once made of local materials such as rock and wood. Now we build with concrete and steal, both technological innovations that take material, pulverize it, then reshape it into something new. This kind of architecture is not soul-enriching like traditional architecture, which uses natural materials.

Education has been deeply affected by this fragmented, brute-force worldview, as science, the humanities, and art have broken off from each other. They no longer understand each other. The 4 basic quadrivium subjects from the medieval education system, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy, formed a basis on which theology and philosophy stood. In other words, not only did the medieval view see philosophy and theology as strengthening each other, but it believed neither subject was possible without a great degree of numeracy.

Traditional Catholic education aims for integration and harmony. Coldecott argues that such an educational program today would provide an alternative to the "battle of the sexes" and politically correct movements that have ripped the modern educational system – and our wider society – apart. Instead of having to act as if equality of the sexes demanded a bland sameness, we could identify how men and women complement each other. Feminist entitlement and male-bashing would be replaced by a search for harmony between the sexes.

Beauty for Truth's Sake is an effective, prophetic voice in today's landscape because Coldecott's vision is so out of tune with secularism and consumerism: "[E]ven more important than flexibility is a virtuous character and set of guiding principles that will enable us to keep track of goodness amid the moral and social chaos that surrounds us."

Beauty for Truth's Sake becomes somewhat eccentric in its discussion of the spirituality of numbers, such as the beauty of the Fibonacci sequence. Coldecott's point through these somewhat detailed chapters is that numbers, physics, and all of creation have a mystical significance. They are God's creations and have spiritual value, a value that reaches far beyond any economic potential. A Catholic sense of beauty can bring out the beauty of creation, and this could give science a spiritual vision.

Rather than becoming a pantheist (uniting God and nature and therefore potentially worshiping nature) Coldecott never loses sight of the basic truth of Christianity. Nature is good and beautiful because it is infused with the Logos, who is Christ. As many Catholic visionaries, including Saints Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas knew, nature is one way that we can come to know God more deeply. God's fingerprint is on nature.

Education needs to become holistic, integrative, and harmonious again, so that science can be inspired by something much greater than money and brute force.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend

Edited by Ravi Zacharias, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 360 pages.

The various contributors to Beyond Opinion, including the well-known Ravi Zavharias, the book's editor, share their wealth of experience and knowledge in Christian apologetics. Their wisdom and humility impress the reader.

Beyond Opinion shows that apologetics has become an intellectually sophisticated area of Christian thinking. The writers understand that there are no easy shortcuts, no trendy or pre-packaged ways of "selling" Christ, so force themselves to delve deeper.

The learned, sophisticated nature of these essays counters the pop-image of evangelicals as overly-enthusiastic hill-billies shouting the gospel from the mountain-tops. Whether the topic is evil, post-modernism, or Cartesian philosophy, the depth of knowledge and argumentation is clear.

The writers put to rest the various common arguments offered by opponents of religion and Christianity. John Lennox notes, regarding the Church's fight with Galilieo, that the Italian scientist accepted Scripture, and shows how the conflict between science and religion is a myth. Lennox also skillfully deconstructs atheist Richard Dawkins' attacks on religion, clearly demonstrating the almost childishly-weak argumentation of the Oxford scientist.

Impressively, the writers do not fear the world, as secular as it is. Post-modernism is regarded as a possible ally in its acceptance of spirituality and rejection of modernism and blind faith in progress and secularism. The discussion here reflects that atheists, not evangelicals, are scared of the world - namely, scared of the continued relevance of God and religion. Atheists, not evangelicals, are behind the times.

Readers cannot help but come away optimistic and energized from these optimistic and energizing readings.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fr. McBride's Guide to the Bible

By Alfred McBride, 303 pages, Our Sunday Visitor.

McBride tries to tell salvation history, the entire story of the Bible, in 1 book. He condenses the stories, picking out the highlights, then presents the theological thought of the time. He applies this thinking to today, and finishes with a personal reflection for the reader. He does not include any lengthy biblical passages.

As an introductory Bible study for non-theologians, this book offers a lot, though McBride assumes that readers are already quite familiar with the Bible. A weakness of the book is the necessary demand that he move quickly through salvation history. A strength of the book is McBride's tendency to address common questions and concerns, such as why Old Testament books such as Joshua and Judges are so violent. They tell of God ordering the deaths of entire populations.

McBride makes the point that the Israelites at that time saw God in this light, as a warrior God. They grew into a deeper knowledge of God as their history progressed, and this is reflected in the stories, histories, and changing theology of the Bible.

The basic theology of the Bible found in Genesis – that God created the universe and we are made in His image – is found throughout the Bible, McBride notes. He also spends much time defining the nature of covenants for ancient people, including the Israelites, so that we can better understand the nature of the new covenant God made with us through Jesus.

Friday, July 9, 2010

African Saints African Stories: 40 Holy Men and Women

By Camille Lewis Brown, 145 pages,St Anthony Messenger Press.

Africans have contributed richly to Christian history and theology, but because the ancient world was not as preoccupied with color as contemporary Western culture is, the ancient documents don't indicate which saints were from what race of people.

North Africa played a central role in early Church history as home to many Church Fathers and Councils, though many of the Christians would have been Roman or Greek colonizers. But many others would have been black, "So the participation of black people in salvation history and early church history is definite and impressive. Blacks were there from the beginning."

North Africa, most notably Alexandria, Egypt, was the site of countless martyrdoms as well, prompting the controversial Church Father from North Africa to write that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of evangelization. A plague in Alexandria occasioned 1 of the saddest, most heroic Christian purges, as many Christians came out of hiding during a persecution so that they could nurse the plague victims back to health. Because of this charity, Roman authorities easily picked them out and martyred them.

In addition to general history, African Saints African Stories examines the lives of individuals, thereby showing the essential role of Africans in building the foundations of Christian practice, theology, and culture. St. Anthony, the "Solitary Saint," sold everything and lived in a tomb. He "further defined what is expected in the monastic life." Christians trusted him for his insights into the spiritual life.

Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case against God

By Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, 151 pages.

The authors use reason, not the Bible, to counter British atheist Richard Dawkins' anti-Christian, pro-atheist diatribes. They show that Dawkins builds his argument on rhetoric, and the logic is an embarrassment to other atheists. With wit and confidence, they pick apart his lousy arguments, including gross mathematical miscalculations that, when corrected, add tens of zeros to calculations of probability for happenstance evolution over a divinely-directed creation.

The book shows Dawkins' poor philosophical thinking, as he confuses "the highly improbable" with "the downright impossible." Dawkins uses this to undermine the belief in miracles: "Dawkins believes that anything but a miracle is possible, and that leads him to believe that the impossible, no matter how absurd, is possible."

Answering the New Atheism points out that science and religion only clash because certain thinkers, such as Dawkins, want this. In reality, science and religion are as compatible as the scientists and theologians doing the thinking. The rhetoric-driven Dawkins, Hahn and Wiker argue, uses scientific smoke and mirrors to attack age-old belief and to build a new atheism.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Christ Within Me: Prayers and Meditations from the Anglo-Saxon Tradition

By Benedicta Ward, 101 pages, $9.95, Cistercian Publications.

Through her translations of writings from the Anglo-Saxon era, Ward introduces us to the individual believers of the time. She humanizes the era, and therefore draws it closer to our times. These people struggled with their faith in a time of unrest and sin just as much as we do in our time of unrest and sin.

Included in this volume are Benedict Biscop, the Venerable Bede, Saint Boniface, who re-evangelized Germany, and the monk Wilfrid, as well as women of simple devotion:

"All who knew Hilda, the handmaid of Christ and abbess of Whitby, used to call her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace.... [H]er life was an example of the works of light, a blessing not only for herself but to many. Not only ordinary people but also kings and princes sometimes sought and received her counsel when they were in difficulties."

More focused on the spiritual lives of these people than on their theological teachings, Christ Within Me is a book of prayer itself appropriate to prayerful reading though it also offers insights for history buffs.

Conversing with God in Scripture: A Contemporary Approach to Lectio Divina

By Stephen J. Binz, 150 pages, Word Among Us.

Lectio divina is a prayerful way of reading the Bible that has been practiced for centuries by Christians. Rather than intellectually approaching the Bible, the reader approaches with an open and humble heart.

The Bible is not a finished product, but something that has life. As it is inspired, it can inspire us today. When we see it as simply a collection of ancient stories, the sayings of Jesus, and the theology of Paul, we forget that we can meet God in Scripture.

Binz reminds us that "St Jerome (fourth century) wrote that the Bible must be read and interpreted YYin the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.YY Because of this ever-present divine Spirit, the sacred text is transformed from simple paper and ink to the illuminated page."

Lectio divina opens us up to being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, according to Binz.

Lectio divina is quite a different approach to the Bible than the one practiced in universities and many seminaries, where scholars and students objectify rather than revere and listen to God's word. They do so, as just one example, by refusing to see the whole story that the Bible is telling us.

The whole story, Binz reminds us, can be easily summed up as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like the ancient Christians and Church Fathers, lectio divina invites us to view the Old Testament as being fulfilled in the New Testament. The Old witnesses to Christ, though in a hidden way. We can only understand the Old Testament when we realize that it speaks of Christ by prophesying and setting the ground for the Messiah.

The Bible, Binze reminds us, in therefore "not a book of information," nor a way to communicate doctrine and ethics. "Rather, the text itself is a gateway to God. Through the inspired Scripture, we meet the God who loves us and desires our response."