Friday, September 30, 2011

Jungle Warfare: A Basic Field Manual for Christians in Sales

By Christopher A. Cunningham,, 209 pages.

Jungle Warfare, which can be read by everyone and not only salespeople, evokes the ancient Christian belief that the spiritual life is a life of warfare. Good and evil have opposed each other since the beginning, and Christ has already won the battle. As his followers, we have chosen the winning side, but the battle in this world, mysteriously, continues.

Every day is a battle. Cunningham warns that, like the soldiers fighting WWII in the jungle, we must be prepared and vigilant at all times. The enemy can spring up at any time, and if we are out of shape or unfocused he can easily defeat us. We are as strong as we think. Our strength comes from being prepared ahead of time through Christ.

The author warns, "you also battle a deadly spiritual enemy who prowls around like a jungle cat wishing he could devour your soul. He and his commandos lie in wait, scheming and plotting about how they can throw anything in your path that will not only destroy your career but also your reputation, relationships, and rewards."

Just as Christ battled evil in the world, so we must do spiritual battle with the Lord on our side. But the biggest war is within, just as it is for the soldier in the jungle, where he confronts dehydration, terrible insects, cramps from insufficient salt intake, dirty water, and his own self-doubt and disorganization. Staying fit and focused are the most important ingredients to success.

Wisely, the author closely links the fear of God with the sense of sin. The world, even the Christian world, has lost this sense, while simultaneously losing the awe, reverence, and worship of God that we can call the fear of God. God has become a big fluffy plaything who makes us feel better and justifies our actions and politics, whereas each human has become the sum total of her emotions. When we talk about God, we tend to discuss how God makes us feel better and gives in to our wishes.

Jungle Warfare offers no such God, largely because the Bible offers no such God. Instead, Scripture teaches us a much more militia Christi, spiritual warfare-type of Christian living that places us in the midst of something much more important than our ever-changing sentiments. Cunningham offers readers a Biblical spirituality.

The following words on the spiritual life, then, do not get overly wrapped up in emotions, and instead point us towards a Christ-centered rather than me-and-my-feelings-centered life: "I feel the presence of God's Holy Spirit as He leads me through the jungle in the presence of my enemies. When I go at it alone, I get lost. I start battling man, nature, and spirit -- and I usually get into trouble."

In other words, the feelings-centered approach is exactly what not to cultivate in the spiritual life, because we cannot really trust ourselves. Our sinfulness, which can act through our emotions, can easily lead us astray.

The Bible, Cunningham argues, has a battle plan for us to use in our spiritual battle. We must be ever ready to confront the enemy within and the enemy in the world.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography

By Amy Frykholm, 147 pages, Paraclete Press.

Julian of Norwich, (1342 – 1416), dissatisfied with an ordinary spiritual life, desired something deeper. Like many saints and theological reformers, she loved Jesus so deeply that she wanted to share in his suffering.

Perhaps this zeal, the author notes, came from her inability to reconcile the sense of God as loving and forgiving with the popular teachings of the medieval church on hell and purgatory. The outbreak of the pestilence, which caused tremendous suffering in Norwich, also contrasted with this merciful image.

Medieval Christians valued suffering as a path to Christ's passion. Julian, like many, wished to share in the Lord's pain physically as well as spiritually.

Wracked with illness in the heat of her spiritual search, she finally had her breakthrough: "in an instant, everything changed. The pain that had preoccupied her for days went away, like the lifting of a curtain. Then the cross that the priest held in front of her face started to bleed...A voice spoke in her vision and said, 'With this the Fiend is overcome.'" She realized that she was
"watching Christ die," and had received her request of suffering along with Jesus on the cross.

This countered the heavy sense of sin with which she, as a member of medieval society, had been burdened.

Julian's Franciscan spiritual advisor played a vital role in her spiritual development from this time on, showing her how to pray through the Bible (lectio divina), encouraging her to write her visions and thoughts down, and supporting her decision to become an anchoress, a female hermit tied to a parish church under the protection of the local bishop.

As the years passed, rather than forgetting about the visions, her memory of them was enriched through her prayer and study, and she found deeper and deeper meanings to them. Yet their essential message, about God's mercy, remained the same.

Readers get a sense that Julian's work, including her spiritual counseling to visitors, was not without its dangers. Her writing was accomplished entirely outside of ecclesiastical structures, even if it was done with the advice of her counselor.

The religious unrest that would eventually explode into the Reformation and the resulting bloody religious wars was already deeply felt. Authorities, civil and religious, regarded women leaders and thinkers as a threat, so Julian must have been scared. Frykholm reminds the reader of the great new direction that Julian's theology was taking.

Led by the Franciscans and their ministry to the growing urban areas of Europe, the church was focusing more and more on the inner state. While the sacraments retained their central role in church life, the friars encouraged reflection on one's personal relationship with Jesus.

Frykholm shows how this change included women, who were taking religious matters into their own hands more and more, though with a trusted spiritual advisor. The friars often allowed such people to speak freely and to develop a critical self-awareness.

As Frykholm shows, Julian of Norwich was only one of many, women and men, who were challenging the medieval Church's institutional structures. This springtime of mysticism included The Cloud of Unknowing, Thomas a Kempis' Imitatio Christi, and a host of fourteenth-century mystics who, though obedient to the Church and its sacramental system, practiced a more interior spirituality.

Julian of Norwich played a central role in this revolution.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Infinitive Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media

By Eugene Gan,, 148 pages.

"[I]t often seems as if the most surefire way to win an Academy Award is to make a film devoid of hope, devoid of light," Franciscan University of Steubenville professor Gan notes. He offers a remedy based on the consistent, balanced teaching of the magisterium, which since the 1930s has been outlining its vision of the underlying principles and basic functions of the media.

Gan grounds his argument in basic theology. God is good, humanity is fallen, and media can inspire us to do good or evil. Beware, in the age of relativism, because money, political correctness, and high production standards are the greatest virtues of movie, video, or website production. That leaves prudence, charity, hope, faith and the other cardinal virtues out of sight and out of mind. Gan, conversely, uses these virtues as the key to understanding Catholic teaching on media and its uses.

He weaves psychological insights throughout the book, demonstrating the powerful psychology behind the media. Sitcom viewers, for instance, can become quite attached to their favorite character, and when they find out that he is gay, their perception of homosexuality can be jarred. Media works at the sensory level, so induces emotional rather than intellectual responses. People begin to have different feelings about certain issues, such as gay marriage, and then begin to reason differently. The Church, then, appears distant and preachy when it calls homosexuality sinful and disordered. How can the Church be so judgmental about gay guys like the lovable one on TV?

Yet the media's emotive power can also work for the good, as demonstrated with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Not only movies possess such power: "truth can be woven into a ... song, a video game, even a Facebook page. It can be made part of a story. And the story can do what we can't. It can connect with people on the level of emotion.... It catches people off their guard, shining a light on truths they didn't know existed," Gan notes.

The media, in other words, offers Christians an infinite number of possibilities for presenting their case to the world. The Church encourages us to use such technologies to their full potential. Gan argues convincingly that Catholics, especially parishes, should update their websites and use more interactive media technology. He stays close to practicalities, listing ways that they can do this.

Be interactive. Avoid leading internet users towards long-winded pdf files, and offer lots of video, hyperlinks, and opportunity for comments. Gan notes that most parish websites offer no way for members to sign up for activities online, and few offer blogs. A lack of blogging gives the impression that parishes are cold, indifferent, and unable to connect. The daily lives and insights of parish leaders and priests are not online, plugging in to the lives of others online.

Blogs are fantastic ways to get in touch with people, and Gan offers the example of two Catholics who have talked about their faith and families in their blogs, making them popular and effective online evangelists. Their highs and lows, interspersed with Catholic-centered wisdom, relates with people encountering the same problems.

Readers of Infinite Bandwidth get the strong sense that online evangelism is not the buzzword in Catholic circles that it should be. It has not been incorporated into the New Evangelism in the way that, perhaps, the theology of the body has. No sense of urgency pushes Catholic leaders to give more power and dynamism to their online message. Unfortunately, without these interactive possibilities, parishes are not connecting, whereas websites promoting easy sex, meaningless violence, and narcissistic attitudes are flourishing, reaching out as never before.

Gan's theological and ethical discussions, which form the foundation of his attitude towards media, are effective and to-the-point. When explaining the evils of pornography, he sounds like the university professor he is who has had to explain tirelessly the evils of pornography to questioning, skeptical young adults: "Pornography reduces human beings to the level of animals, controlled by appetites and motivated by little more than a selfish desire for pleasure."

Sexting is the other terrible online evil destroying young people's sense of self as well as their ability to relate with others in a healthy way. Sexting reveals the lack of a fundamental orientation towards the world, oneself, and good and evil. Devoid of this moral faculty, teens fall prey to peer pressure and their own, still-maturing, emotions. Gun concludes, "Only in a world made up solely of other fifteen-year-olds does a teenage girl think it's a good idea to send pornographic pictures of herself to a teenage boy's cell phone." In other words, where the hell are the parents? The teachers? Older brothers or sisters? The Church? Why is even the most fundamental moral guidance not given today? Why aren't teens developing even the most basic notions of right and wrong?

The answer is that they, like all of us, are becoming increasingly disconnected from the world, from reality, even as we twitter and friend and blog away, viewing the world through youtube and skyping free of charge around the world. Gan makes the point repeatedly that these kids are connected digitally and globally like never before, yet disconnected from the reality right in front of their nose like never before. They have Facebook friends from all over but are too easily distracted to read deeply or engage in frank discussions with their parents. They text at the dinner table rather than talk to parents and siblings.

The same reverence for our bodies that is missing in sexting and pornography is also missing in "slasher films" such as Saw and the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Gan notes. Such movies offer an anti-Christian image of humans, refuting the notion that we are made in God's image and therefore should cultivate "a willingness to give and sacrifice for others, and the ability to control, restrain, and properly direct one's desires." These Catholic ideals are hardly mainstream in our age of nihilism, and the media often reflects the precise opposite.

The Church counters nihilism, a form of hopelessness, by calling for respecting the dignity of the human being. Even Catholic teens and young adults, Gan notes, follow this nihilistic tendency, and have little clue as to how they can stop being passive consumers of media and start to shape it more actively and to consume it more critically. They have never thought that they could take more control over the media.

Harshly, he cites studies showing that today's American teens, because of social media which put the individual at the center of their own digital world, are the most narcissistic individuals in the world. He notes the consequence: "many teens don't recognize the potential of media to do anything other than improve their social standing. They don't see it as a tool to spread the Faith or educate themselves about the Napoleonic Wars. They see it as a tool to talk to their friends, listen to music, and simply be entertained." Superficial, they grasp at nothing deeper than the moment and their place in it, satisfied with a digital universe.

Like most of us, they are unaware of the tremendous possibilities for evangelization on offer from today's media. The Internet is a blessing from God if we use it correctly. Their indifference or ignorance of this is a big loss, since today's youth, the author points out, are at the vanguard of the New (Digital) Evangelization. Unlike middle-aged adults, they have been using computers and the Internet all their lives, and are therefore digital natives. The Internet and social media is their realm.

Only they can fully utilize this technology to reach the un- and under-churched, since they speak the language of today's world better than anyone: "We can't make disciples of all men unless we go where those men are -- unless we speak their language, understand how they think, and know how to respond to their unmet needs," Gan cautions.

The power of Infinite Bandwidth, as reflected in the above words, comes from the author's experience as the instructor of these young people at his university. He struggles to mold into evangelical Catholics students who have been raised more by the digital culture, which is largely inspired by money and the Culture of Death.

Christians have allowed the media to shape ourselves, our young people, and society at large for too long. As a first step, we must assert ourselves by being more thoughtful in how we use technology. Next, we can start to shape those very technologies. Our faith should inform our presence in chat rooms, blogs, and social media. Third, we must judge the attitudes behind media, especially with pornography, from a Christian moral standpoint. "[A]ll media and all media technology," Gan notes, "should respect the dignity of the human person; be truth-filled; inspire people towards the good, the true, and the beautiful; be skillfully developed; and be motivated by and rooted in human experience."

Following this, we would be more faithful to the New Evangelization.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fyodor Dostoevsky

By Peter Leithart. 208 pages. Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2011.

Biographer Peter Leithart uses a fictionalized account, mostly through Fyodor Dostoevsky's reminiscences with an old friend, to portray the life and times of the author of Crime and Punishment.

Leithart does a terrific job fitting Dostoevsky into the intellectual and political currents of his day. He participated in intellectual circles, which occasioned his Siberian imprisonment. Rather than letting this ruin him, Dostoevsky found Christ in Siberia, by reading the New Testament and by observing the humanity of his fellow prisoners.

As one serious limitation, the author fails to portray adequately the Orthodox church, its theology, spiritual practices, and central place in Russian society. He does show how faithful Dostoevsky was to Christ, but fails to show how the great author's spirituality was Orthodox. The Russian soul was indeed Christian, as Leithart observes again and again, but it is a specifically Orthodox soul, which differs substantially from a Calvinist spirituality.

The biography succeeds at showing the everyday character of Dostoevsky, including his irritability, stubbornness, gambling and money problems, and fights with wives and mistresses. Yet he was generous to a fault, especially with relatives who took advantage of him, and held many great ideals.

For the famous writer, it all came down to Christ, and how the Lord, having redeemed Russia, would use his country to save the world.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer

By Juliet Benner,, 181 pages.

According to Benner, we can develop in contemplative prayer through our practice of enjoying artwork. Contemplation is the prayerful attentiveness to God that leads to ever-deepening conversion. Christian mystics have taught the Church this way of prayer throughout the centuries.

Benner's book fills a void, as we seem to have forgotten the central place art has played in Christianity's history. Western art's vocation was primarily to educate the faithful. Contemplative Vision shows just how much spiritual teaching Western art contains. Such paintings as Caravaggio's The Call of St. Matthew can play a similar role as icons.

Some artists such as Jean Francois Millet saw their painting as a vocation to inspire belief in others. His The Angelus depicting poor French peasants praying in their potato field with a church in the far distance invites onlookers to the childlike simple faith of these two.

Readers get a clear sense of how these paintings testified to the artist's personal religious practice: "Millet himself observed how his own father never failed to respond to the bells, stopping his work wherever he was, to pray the Angelus every day, 'piously cap in hand.'"

Benner explains the meaning of the art from a Christian viewpoint, which is how such works should be presented, rather than solely through a secular, technique-obsessed stance. Regarding The Angelus, she notes the "moment of deep and quiet reverence," which unites the praying husband and wife "in a holy alliance where God is present."

Such prayerful observation of a painting, discussed throughout Contemplative Vision, invites us to something akin to lectio divina, or "sacred reading." In this Benedictine-style of perusal, we are to go over a small passage slowly and prayerfully, learning the spiritual truth behind it rather than grasping for intellectual insight. We are to use our imagination prayerfully, as in placing ourselves into a healing scene from the New Testament.

Benner challenges us to use our imagination when we look at these paintings. She shows how artists such as Caravaggio used light and darkness to emphasize the light and dark aspects of the world or the good and sinful parts of the human soul. Where Jesus stood and called someone to follow him, we see a bright yet mysterious light, beckoning the receiver out of the dark cave of sin. The other people in the painting are ugly or engrossed in the matters of the world, as with Caravaggio's The Call of St. Matthew.

Benner also shows through her analysis of this painting the timeless, personal quality of such artwork: "That hand [of Jesus depicted in the painting] seemed to be pointing at me and inviting me to turn and follow Jesus."

These paintings can give modern Christians new insights into biblical stories heard a thousand times. We often turn off and stop hearing their real spiritual depth and insight. A painting can reawaken us. Such artwork is as valuable as the writings of the saints and theologians of the Church.