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Bishop Thomas Dowd (Montreal, Quebec Canada)

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No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers
No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers
by Michael Novak
Edition: Hardcover
23 used & new from CDN$ 2.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Sets the Christian bottom line for dialogue with atheists, March 20 2011
The premise of Michael Novak's "No One Sees God" is an interesting one. In his book, he brings out that fact that even Christians acknowledge that there can be an experience of darkness within our knowledge of God. Atheists, of course, are also in the dark about God, and so Christians and atheists therefore are not total opposites, but simply experience that darkness differently, or to different degrees. He introduces this concept using the now-famous example of the spiritual darkness Mother Theresa experienced, when she was not able, for years, to experience the presence of God. Christopher Hitchens, the famous atheist, gloated that this proved Mother Theresa was just another religious fraud, an atheist like everyone else, but who simply lacked the courage to admit it. Of course, while Christians acknowledge the darkness that exists in one's knowledge or experience of God, that darkness is interpreted in a very different manner. In this book, Michael Novak is trying to initiate a dialogue between atheists and believers, but dialogue depends (of course) on some minimum of common ground. Novak is attempting to use this experience of darkness itself as that common starting point. But does he succeed? On many levels, he does.

In order to have a true dialogue, one must first be willing to truly engage one's interlocutor. Novak points out (and I think rightly) that assumptions made by many atheists about the convictions of believers completely miss the mark. For example, many atheists think that believers construct their supposed fantasy religions as happy refuge from reality. Novak points out that Christianity does not really match this caricature, a caricature that does not take into account the central place of the cross -- the cross of Jesus, and the crosses we each must bear. The conscious knowledge of the burden of sin is another no-so-happy reality that Christianity proposes: it is a strange sort of happy fantasyland that takes sin so seriously that it threatens sinners with eternal hellfire. Many atheists believe that religion threatens to take away liberty, but in fact Christianity places liberty at the heart of its doctrine; indeed, it affirms to to the point that it teaches that the choice of one man to sin led to loss for all, while the choice of obedience made by another led to life for all. In short, the debate between atheists and believers is about the true structure of reality and history. By refusing to truly engage the Christian worldview, many atheists show that, even if Christians were to be living in a fantasy world, their own worldview is also incomplete.

According to Novak, the experience of nothingness leads to one of two possible ways to live. One can undertake some form of suicide, whether fast or slow; or one can try to create within the darkness, "reaching down into the darkness to create a new beginning". Many people hover between these two choices, but Novak shares an important epiphany: the greatest nihilists of history, such as Nietzsche and Sartre, wrote books for others to read. Why bother, if nothing truly makes any sense?

In short, for Novak the problem with atheism is that it tends to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Argument after atheist argument is presented in the book, and then countered by Novak's skillful presentation. In the end, though, I was left wondering if dialogue between atheists and believers is really even possible. After all, if the process of correcting the atheist's understanding of the Christian worldview (necessary to initiating dialogue) is itself an argument against atheism, doesn't that by definition mean that dialogue is impossible? I suppose respectful dialogue is possible between people who hold these different positions, as they struggle for truth together within a common experience of darkness, but it seems to me no dialogue is really possible between the worldviews themselves.

As a final point, I was curious that the book did not contain any acknowledgement of contemporary Catholic reflection on atheism. Novak is himself a Catholic, and the Catholic Church reflected on the phenomenon of atheism a great deal during the 20th century. Heck, the Second Vatican Council, in its pastoral constitution "Gaudium et Spes", devoted several paragraphs to the subject. None of this is mentioned in Novak's book, an omission I simply could not figure out. No One Sees God is a book that already stands on its own merits, of course, but this was curious.

To summarize: "No One Sees God" is an excellent believer's book to summarize atheist arguments against Judeo-Christian belief, and to present insights that correct common atheist misconceptions regarding that belief. His presentation of Christian thinking is accurate, but it is impossible for me to judge if the presentation of atheism is as accurate (this is not the fault of the book, but simply due to my own lack of detailed reading of the works of Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.) It would be interesting for a Christian and an atheist to read the book together and discuss its pages -- the discussions would no doubt be quite passionate, and perhaps in that way the book could help contribute to the respectful dialogue Novak would like to see established.

Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
by Anne Rice
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.33
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and faithful, March 8 2011
Anne Rice is an author best known for her series of novels about vampires. A few years ago she came back to her Catholic faith (a process some people call "reversion", to distinguish it from "conversion") and wrote a historical novel about Jesus entitled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I never read that book, but the sequel (published in 2008 in hardcover, 2009 in softcover) was eventually sent to me for review. The original book, I understand, was about the child Jesus, including his stay in Egypt as a refugee. This second novel, named Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, picks up with Jesus as a man, just prior to the start of his public ministry.

Before continuing with this review, I should mention that Ms. Rice has since renounced her Catholic faith in a very public manner, and has been spotted posting comments severely critical of the Church on various well-known web sites (such as Jimmy Akin's blog at the National Catholic Register). Some have even taken to calling this her "unversion". At any rate, I am not in a position to make any comments regarding the current state of Ms. Rice's soul. All I have before me is her book, which will stand or fall on its own merits regardless of its author's personal history.

Now there are many forms of historical fiction. Some simply use the backdrop of a particular historical period as a setting to tell stories that have no historical value in themselves. Others use the events and persons of history as characters and plot devices. Finally, some take actual historical events as the narrative of the story itself, and actual historical persons as the protagonists. In this final category there as actually little suspense, as our knowledge of history informs us what actually happened (and therefore, what will happen in the story in question). Such fiction does not explore *what* happened, but *why* it happened: it is an exploration of what might have been motivating the real figures of history, through an explanation of their psychology and perhaps by adding in a few speculative details that history itself has not recorded. Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana is a piece of historical fiction of this third kind. Simply put, Jesus is the protagonist, and we are given a possible interpretation of what might have been going on in his mind as he was on the verge of beginning his public ministry.

On the level of storytelling, I consider that The Road to Cana is largely solidly written. As much of the drama is taking place in Jesus' mind the story requires a special kind of rhythm that could easily slow down, but Ms. Rice manages to keep it moving forward with just enough external action to keep up the pace. Some parts of the story are definitely stronger than others: I found the feminine characters much more believable than the masculine ones, for example, but I consider that more of a quibble than anything. After all, I suppose it is normal that a woman writer be better able to portray a female character than a male one...

Of course, I am not a novelist, so I would rather refrain from offering too many observations regarding the actual artistic merits of her work. Suffice it to say that, while The Road to Cana will not likely go down in history as one of the "great novels", it is a piece of solid writing that treats its subject with respect and even reverence. I am qualified to comment, however, on the theology. Any novel about a spiritual topic is necessarily going to contain a theological vision. How does The Road to Cana measure up?

Let's start by saying what the novel isn't: it isn't heresy. For example, Jesus has brothers and sisters in this book, but they are Joseph's children by a previous marriage (a particular speculation still found in the broader Christian tradition). Biblical scenes and events, such as the baptism of Jesus by John, are portrayed faithfully, and more abstract realities (such as the divine nature of Jesus) come through clearly and unambiguously. Heck, even demons make an appearance, such as in the chapter on the temptations in the desert (my favourite chapter, by the way), or in the exorcism of Mary Magdalene (who, I should add, is spared a Dan-Brown-esque retooling of her story to suit an agenda).

The most interesting theological element of the novel, in my opinion, is the exploration of the mind of Jesus. This is actually a very interesting (and sometimes controversial) theological topic: just how aware was Jesus, in his human mind, of his divine nature? And how much divine knowledge did the human mind of Jesus have access to? For example, in the Bible Jesus at one point says there is something only his Father in heaven knows, and which he (Jesus) does not. Theologians have had a field day for centuries with that statement, because if Jesus is God how can he *not* know something? Such theological speculations can seem like a sideshow, but in a historical novel such as this one, where the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters are the real drama, they are essential to the story. I found Ms. Rice's treatment of these issues to be both creative and orthodox -- a rare combination. I am not saying she solved the conundrums involved (this is only a novel, after all) but she does demonstrate the issues well and shows the elements of an intelligible solution. Well done.

As a final point, it is clear to me that this novel was written as an act of devotion to Jesus Christ. Ms. Rice's care for her subject is obvious. Also obvious is her devotion, at least at the time, for the Catholic Church, whose doctrines are not always shared by other Christians but which she scrupulously avoids offending in this book. While Ms. Rice has since made a public break with the Catholic Church for reasons I believe are more of the heart than the mind, I do pray she has kept her devotion to Christ the Lord himself, and that she may find her home in the Catholic Church once again.

Holy Ghosts: Or, How a (Not-So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things That Go Bump in the Night
Holy Ghosts: Or, How a (Not-So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things That Go Bump in the Night
by Gary Jansen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 30.00
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not to be taken too seriously, March 4 2011
While it may come as a surprise to some people, the Catholic faith includes a belief in ghosts. Now I know what some of you might be thinking: "Angels and demons I knew about, Father, but ghosts?" Still, if you consider that a ghost supposedly is the disembodied spirit of a dead person -- then sure, Catholics believe in ghosts, because the word ghost, from the German word geist, simply means "spirit".

Of course, the word "ghost" is rarely used in such a context. What we usually mean by the word is a *restless* spirit, i.e. one that somehow has not yet "moved on" to the afterlife, or has somehow been brought back. In this regard the Catholic faith has a lot less to say. The scriptures mention the curious episode of the summoning of the ghost of Samuel by the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28: 3-25), but apart from that the Bible has very little to say on the matter. Of course, there isn't a lot of empirical evidence, either, so the Catholic Church, while not closed to the issue, generally keeps its silence.

Even more nebulous is the question of how ghosts, if they even exist, might influence the external physical world of creation, or the inner psychological world of human beings. In this area the Church is less silent, mainly to warn the faithful about necromantic practices aimed at attempting to contact the dead. Simply put, while we don't know if ghosts exist, we do know demons exist, and they could easily use a seance as an opportunity to try and imitate a deceased person in order to gain influence. The Church says we can pray for the dead, and we can ask the saints to pray for us. Too much curiosity with regards to the rest is not useful.

I give this background to help readers understand Gary Jansen's book Holy Ghosts. The book is essentially a spooky tale of the author's supposed ghostly experiences, both personally and through the guidance of a medium (i.e. a person claiming to be "sensitive" to the presence, activity and even desires of ghosts). It has all the usual ingredients for a good ghost story: strange sounds, strange physical sensations and manifestations, trying to figure out what the ghosts want, and so on. Of course, it also has precious little actual scholarly content, particurly given the tremendous lack of solid material on the subject, and the author's own maddening lack of footnotes permitting additional research by the reader.

Mr. Jansen says he has become a "believer in things that go bump in the night", but I couldn't help but ask myself the question: so what? I realise that for many people in our highly materialistic culture becoming open to the very notion of spirits is already quite a leap, but for those of us who are believers and already accept the whole angels/demons/saints thing, this narrative description doesn't add much. The core message of the book can be summarized as follows: "WHOA! Spirits are *real*!" To which I reply, "Yeah, so?"

How, then, should we evaluate Holy Ghosts? I am unwilling to dismiss Mr. Jansen's description of events, because (a) I don't want to call him a liar, and (b) who am I to say what he experienced didn't happen? I do, however, take his *interpretations* of those events with a massive grain of salt. Beyond this, the simple fact is that the existence (or not) of ghosts is, on the grand scale of God's loving plan of redemption, somewhat of a distracting sideshow. I worry a bit for credulous readers who might want to start investigating the paranormal, leaving behind the principles of a solid spiritual life in the process, but who knows? Perhaps the opposite might happen, with a materialist or two being opened up to the possibility of something preternatural, or even supernatural, out there. For your average person, though, this book will be immediately identifiable as something not to take too seriously.

Joshua's Family: The Long-Awaited Prequel to the Bestselling Joshua
Joshua's Family: The Long-Awaited Prequel to the Bestselling Joshua
by Joseph F. Girzone
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.81
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2.0 out of 5 stars Cute but boring, and doesn't really help you get to know Jesus better, Feb. 28 2011
In 1983, Father Joseph Girzone published a story about a gentle woodcarver and carpenter named Joshua (the name of the carpenter, and the name of the book). The story was a retelling of the story of Jesus, only set in modern times (the name Jesus and the name Joshua are the same in Hebrew). It let to a whole series of books about this particular character, selling more than 5 million copies. Now, with Joshua's family, Girzone introduces a prequel: telling the story of a boy Jesus/Joshua with his parents Miriam and Joseph, living in the town of... Shadybrook, U.S.A.

Joshua is, of course, a perfect child. He is perfectly polite. He is perfectly helpful. He is perfectly friendly, and studious. And, of course, his family life is perfectly loving. And this, quite frankly, is the problem. Joshua, as a character, simply floats from one situation to another, impressing everyone with his kindness. His only real problem is trying to discover who he really is, as things tend to happen around him (such as spontaneously changing his father's water to wine at a family dinner). Even this doesn't add much of a dramatic twist, mind you, as he simply asks his parent's about it and they tell him of his miraculous birth -- which he just accepts, without too many questions.

To put it simply, while the story of Joshua is cute there is far too little plot to make the cute worth it. The real Jesus was a lot of things, but cute was not one of them. So I must confess, I found it frustrating to read a parable about the greatest man in history and to find it... boring. Even distastful, as in sickly sweet. The author does try to throw in a situation with neighbourhood drug dealers getting local kids hooked to add some dramatic tension, but it never really succeeds. Everything just works out in the end.

While it is a relatively minor point with regards to this particular book, I have a theological beef with the story as well. Simply put, while there are apocryphal stories of Jesus doing miracles as a child (such as the tale of him making birds out of clay which then he brought to life), the Bible itself says that his very first sign/miracle was turning water into wine... at the wedding of Cana. As an adult. After his baptism and temptation in the desert, as he awoke to his mission. Jesus' miracles are not accidents or magic tricks, they are prophetic signs of the Kingdom of God. Girzone seems to fall into the trap of turning Jesus into a mere moral teacher and example, who also happened to be a thaumaturge. While I am sure he meant no disrespect, I think he really misreads (and therefore misrepresents) the identity and mission of Jesus as portrayed in his parable here.

Apart from this, I see no harm in reading Joshua's family. It is fairly cute and innocent... and boring. Read it if you likes, but don't beat yourself up if you let it pass you by.

The Third Miracle: An Ordinary Man, a Medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith
The Third Miracle: An Ordinary Man, a Medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith
by Bill Briggs
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 27.00
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2.0 out of 5 stars A good story held back by clumsy writing, Feb. 27 2011
I feared that The Third Miracle was going to be a real groaner when I read the initial sentence of the inside book cover: "Part detective story and part courtroom drama--with a touch of the supernatural--The Third Miracle exposes, for the first time ever, the secret rituals and investigations the Catholic Church today undertakes to determine sainthood".

Secret rituals? Really? You mean the rules published on-line on the Vatican website?

For the first time ever? Really? Don't tell Wikipedia, where a pretty good summary of the process can be found (see the article on "canonisation").

But one should never judge a book by its cover, or even (I suppose) by the promotional text on the inside of that cover. I decided to give the book an honest try. Unfortunately, I found myself not only disappointed, but disappointed that I was disappointed. I was so hoping that the story of the making of a saint would live up to its potential promise.

Let me start with the good points. First of all, the book is an easy and breezy read. One needs no background in theology to enter into its story. Finally, and for me the most important positive point of all, the book does pique one's curiosity regarding a (relatively) modern Catholic saint. I am always happy to come across something that encourages people to get to know examples of holiness such as Mother Théodore Guérin of the Sisters of Providence.

And yet, despite this very positive point, my overall praise for the book can only be, at best, quite faint.

The problem is that far too much of it is simply contrived. The real story, in summary form, starts with a woman coming to North America, who courageously builds a work of charity despite many obstacles. Decades later, her example is followed by hundreds to seek to live that example. After her death, some people who pray to her for her intercession get answered, even with miracles. One of these supposed miracles is investigated, and it turns out to be the real thing. Finally, there is a big party at the end.

Yes, there is quite a bit of history here, full of good news. And yet, this outline lacks something that certain forms of literature require: the drama of conflict. In a sense, the problem with this history is that it is pretty much all good news, with the occasional bits of bad news never really being able to derail the movement of the good. The author, seeking a more explicit dramatic thread, then turns the book into a "part detective story and part courtroom drama" -- and a work of non-fiction suddenly starts to read like fiction, and the whole things comes across as contrived. Indeed, the author even throws in extraneous bits of supposed outside drama that don't really do anything to further the story. John Paul had a friend who was a woman! Pope Benedict XVI asked the congregation responsible for investigating miracles to do so with care! Someone at the Vatican was rude! Rather than heighten the supposed dramatic tension these tidbits just come across as silly additions.

To this criticism I must also add that the author often has a very clumsy usage of adjectives, such that you get the sense he is trying to manipulate your reactions to the various scenes. Of course, every author is trying to evoke some sort of sentiment, but when it is done poorly it tends to draw more attention to the effort than produce the desired effect. From the book: "He walked into a conference room crammed with canon-law books and suffused with tension." Crammed? You mean on shelves like in any other law office? And suffused with tension? I know an actual priest who was an actual judge of an actual miracle tribunal, and while there was a certain seriousness to the work, there was never any tension. Again from the book: "He looked into the somber faces of [those present], and immediately felt the sobriety of the moment, not to mention the silent anxiety of the priests". Silent anxiety? Is there a noisy form? Again, clumsy.

The simple fact is that life does not always have a neat dramatic structure like a novel or a short story, without it being any less interesting. Fiction uses different literary genres than biography, such that if an author wants to write about something in real life he should not mix them up. He should also not feel like he needs to whip his readers with adjectives to drive them forward through the story -- the story alone should have enough interest to do that. For its positive portrayal of a genuine saint I offer this book some praise, but under the weight of these flaws that praise is sadly faint indeed.

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time
Edition: Hardcover
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important book for putting Saint Paul in the cultural context of his day, Feb. 24 2011
Let me begin this book review by giving away the ending: I really enjoyed this book, and got a lot out of it. Now, on to the review...

Paul Among the People is, as the subtitle claims, a reinterpretation of the writing of the apostle Paul according to the usages of his own time. The author, Sarah Ruden, is a scholar of classics, i.e. she is an expert in the culture and literature of Greek and Roman antiquity. While doing her studies, however, she discovered that, while students of classics and students of the New Testament were very often taking courses that were complementary (e.g. koine Greek), there was very little interaction between the two groups. She wondered what it might be like to read Saint Paul, not so much in a theological context, as a classics context. This book is a collection of her insights gained as a result of this process of inquiry.

The bottom line of her conclusions is as follows: while Paul is often portrayed by modern readers as a fuddy-duddy who hated fun, when compared to the actual pagan culture of his day Paul was, in fact, a revolutionary thinker who greatly promoted human dignity. After all, how else could an underground religious movement like Christianity get any real cultural traction? Paul demonstrated how faith in Christ led to ethical conclusions superior to those of pagan cultures -- something that comes out, mind you, only if his works are read in parallel with those of pagan writers.

Take, for example, Paul's admonition against sorcery. Sorcery in a Greco-Roman context was not the so-called wicca we see on TV shows today. The Roman poet Horace describes how a young boy was buried up to his neck, left to starve to death facing a plate of food so that his liver and bone marrow (now filled with his frustrated longing) could be harvested as a love charm.

Or take Paul's statements against "carousing" and "reveling". Taken out of context, it might seem that Paul is against parties. In fact, Paul was criticizing the pagan tradition of komos, a drunken parade that often turned into a drunken riot, including kidnapping and rape.

Paul's comments against homosexuality are also well known and, in modern times, quite controversial. Some modern authors, like John Boswell, claim that Paul was not condemning homosexual acts between homosexual persons, but homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons. Ruden points out that, in a Greco-Roman context, this is nonsense. Engaging in an active homosexual act, such as anal penetration, was a form of domination and violence, while being on the receiving end turned a person into a laughingstock. This brutality was regularly directed against boys, whose innocent appearance was prized. However else one might interpret Paul's writings, he certainly was standing up to a culture that prized sexual dominance, conquest and pederasty.

And then there is Paul's attitude towards women, which Ruden describes as quite modest. Paul, for example, requires that women be veiled in church. However, in the culture of the day, a woman's hair was considered an erotic symbol, and the veil was a sign of dignity. To require the veil was to erase class distinction among women and ask them not to be sexually provocative in church -- imagine the stir it would make if someone came to mass in a bikini, and you get a sense of what this is about. Understood in his context, Paul does not come across as unreasonable at all.

The list goes on, which is why this book is so important. The art of Biblical interpretation lies in the ability of the interpreter to translate, not only the language of the text, but its meaning, thus transporting the message of the Bible from one generation to another. Text, however, cannot be truly read without context. Ruden, as a classics scholar, helps provide the context which Biblical scholars can then use to further their own research.

I can't say that Paul Among the People is a perfect book. Ruden does not always seem to grasp the profoundly Jewish background from which Paul is writing, which is at least as important an element of context as the Greco-Roman culture surrounding him. I would also have liked to get her take on the supposed non-biblical letters of Paul, such as his correspondence with Seneca. This being said, I do believe that Ruden's work is a solid contribution to the ongoing work of making Paul accessible to everyone.

Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World
Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World
by John Dear
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 22.00
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This book is like a fine wine laced with poison: it look, smells, and even tastes great, but drinking it cannot be recommended., Jan. 24 2008
I'm going to skip the usual blah blah at the beginning of a book review and cut straight to the chase: this is a book I really wanted to like, that I really wanted to be able to recommend, but while it has many charming and even uplifting passages it also possesses fatal flaws. It is a bit like a fine wine laced with poison: it look, smells, and even tastes great, but drinking it cannot be recommended. In the end, I have to give it an F, although without those flaws I would give it something in the A-range.

Let me start with describing what is right about the book. John Dear is a peace activist who has engaged in nonviolent protest against war, the arms race, human rights violations, and so on, and has had enough courage with respect to these convictions that he has even gone to prison for his civil disobedience (you've gotta respect that). His book is a modern parable, in which he is trying to draw parallels between Jesus' experience of the Transfiguration and the need today for prophetic witness against oppression and injustice. His exegesis of the Biblical passages is questionable at times, but to be honest that isn't really a problem: there is always an allegorical sense to Scripture, and his text (taken as a sort of extended homily) fits well in that tradition. Personally, I am sympathetic to his call for prophetic witness without compromise within the culture of the day. Indeed, I happen to think that this is precisely what will get the Church into trouble in the End Times -- fearless Christians speaking and acting out against injustice, and earning the enmity of their fellow citizens who just want to "go with the flow". His work is a call to this sort of action.

Or at least, it could have been. Unfortunately, this is where the flaws come in. While John Dear undertakes his causes in the name of the Gospel, and invites us to do the same, the particular causes he espouses seem at time much more motivated by ideology than by theology -- which, sadly, makes some of his protests come across as adolescent rants. He also never takes the time to actually engage the ideas of his adversaries, as though they were motivated purely by either ignorance or bad faith. He believes that no Christian should ever use violence, for example. I understand that perspective -- turning the other cheek, and that sort of thing. But what if a man is defending, not himself, but his family? Or a community? I understand that in practice such things can get fuzzy quickly -- but Dear is writing from a level of principles, and he should engage the opposing principles for the sake of truth.

So on the one hand, Transfiguration contains sublime passages of spiritual insight, such as the following:

To be listeners, we have to prepare ourselves to receive the Word, to let it settle in and take root in our hearts. As we become people of contemplative listening, we eventually notice every word that Jesus says, and we try to build our lives on his message, word by word, until we live and breathe his teachings.

On the other hand, John Dear also spends time slamming his own Church for disagreeing with him and his friends:

One could almost conclude that, since Constantine welcomed Christians into the empire and its wars, churchmen have rejeted Jesus' nonviolent pursuit of justice and peace, the way of the cross, for the last seventeen hundred years. Rather, they were fascinated by imperial power, the just war theory, their growing bank accounts, their real estate, their lawyers, and their control over the Church. In other words, they continue to sleep through the presence and glory of God.

This is only part of one of his rants. As I flipped through the pages of the text, looking for a quote to put in this review, I came across a note I had written in the margin of another such diatribe: `Tis a sick bird that soils its own nest. Add to this calls for common ideological points like the ordination of women and married men, or the awful and clunky use of inclusive language (such as Jesus being called "Son of Humanity" rather than "Son of Man") and you get the impression of a man whose spirituality is sadly mixed in with an ideological stance to such a degree that he doesn't even see it himself.

Now I am not claiming to be picture-perfect in this regard myself. We always bring who we are, complete in our sinful humanity, when we begin to walk the road of the Gospel. But the critical issue of this text -- much like the glass of wine containing a dose of poison -- is that these flaws are dissolved into the work itself, even its good parts. So while this wine is heady and bold, it is also -- sadly -- poisonous with a bitter aftertaste, and I ultimately cannot recommend it.

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
by Pope Benedict XVI
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 29.24
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As I read it, I found myself drifting from the text into prayer and contemplation., Jan. 24 2008
OK, let me start by saying that I am going to rate this one an A+. But let me also state that it is NOT simply because I am a Catholic priest, and this book is written by the Pope. In his introduction, Pope Benedict wrote:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but solely an expression of my personal search "for the face of the Lord"...Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.

"Fair enough," I thought, and I decided then and there that I was going to review this book as critically as I would any other. As a quick survey of my reviews would show, I am tough to please. And so, from the start of my reading this book I took careful margin notes (as I always do), looking for the good, the bad, and the ugly. About a third of the way through, though, I knew this one was going to get a rating somewhere in the A-range, simply from the experience itself of reading the book. For as I read it, I would find myself drifting off from the text into prayer and contemplation. I found myself falling in love with Christ all over again, growing closer to him in a way that seemed almost tangible. Any book that can do that, I figure, deserves an "A".

Please don't misunderstand, this did not happen at every paragraph. There are parts of the book that can be very dry and technical, and to be sure your average reader needs to have a strong background in the Bible and in Christian theology to "get" everything the book has to offer. But in this book, one does not need to sift a lot of textual sand to find literary gems. At times, Pope Benedict amazes with the depth of theological insight, which just makes the story and person of Jesus come alive. At other times, he shares the depth of his faith and devotion to Christ, and the reader finds himself discovering a Person that Benedict clearly not only knows, but loves. To put it simply, this book is one of the clearest examples of *theology* that I have ever found, and "theology" understood in the proper sense as "faith seeking understanding". Pope Benedict is clearly intelligent -- that much we all already knew -- but in his book it becomes clear that his intelligence is clearly at the service of something -- or, more accurately, Someone -- far greater. He is tracing a path for all theologians and persons of faith -- for theologians, that they never forget the faith that drives their quest to understand, and for everyone else, that they might discover how the use of reason does not diminish faith, but can strengthen and deepen it.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is particularly significant for two reasons. First of all, it is going to spark a HUGE debate within the exegetical community about HOW to do Biblical study. Pope Benedict regularly compares modern Biblical scripture scholars with the -- ahem -- the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus' day. Not all, of course, simply those who undertake to study the Bible without considering that it is actually inspired by the Holy Spirit and so has only one true Author. He regularly points out what he considers major flaws and shortcomings in some elements of their method, and is essentially issuing a call for the Church to once again rediscover the field of Biblical theology as distinct from exegesis -- so as to rescue Biblical theology, you might say, from those who sometimes seem they can only see the trees and not the forest. Pope Benedict has thrown down the gauntlet to the exegetes of the world to show how their rational conclusions are genuinely "theological", springing from faith and leading back to it.

The second major impact that this book will have, in my opinion, is within the Protestant community, particularly the Evangelicals. Two things come out crystal clear within Jesus of Nazareth: the Pope knows and loves the Bible, and the Pope knows and loves Jesus. Protestants struggling with the the interpretations of classical liberal Protestant exegesis are going to find this book a safe harbour for their Biblical faith. Of course, a key issue they will face is that this is a Catholic harbour (you don't get much more Catholic than a book written by a Pope!) -- but it will be more than just "any port in a storm". I think the Evangelical Protestant community is going to discover that Pope Benedict is a true brother in Christ, and this will cause a lot of barriers and prejudices to be dropped. I expect great things to happen in Catholic-Protestant relations thanks to this book.

Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality
Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality
by Raymond Arroyo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.27
33 used & new from CDN$ 0.05

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book won't change the world, but it just may change a few hearts., Jan. 24 2008
About 15 years ago I was browsing through a religious bookstore and came across a small book called "Answers, not promises" by a nun called Mother Angelica. I had never heard of her. She was apparently part of some Catholic TV channel called EWTN, that I had never heard of either (and which was not, at that time, available in Canada). But the book seemed interesting, full of little bits of everyday wisdom, so I picked it up. To make a long story short, I found it very unsatisfying. I had just finished reading a similar book of spiritual quotes from another nun, Mother Theresa. Perhaps it was an unfair comparison, but between the two Mother's I knew which one I preferred.

Skip ahead to earlier this year. Doubleday sends me a book of -- you guessed it -- spiritual aphorisms, edited by Raymond Arroyo but originally from the lips and pen of Mother Angelica. My reaction: oh no! But I decided to give the book a chance. And I am glad I did, as I found it to be a delightful little work!

There are plenty of books of spirituality out there, and plenty of people ready to give advice. Sometimes Catholicism is accused of being too "pie in the sky" to be practical in everyday life, but this is simply a perception -- something Mother Angelica shows in the pages of this book. "Life lessons and everyday spirituality" really is what this book is all about, a guide to walking with God in every moment of our day, and in every challenge we face. It is about simple things: how we treat family members, how we deal with anger and live forgiveness, how to confront all the little corruptions that threaten to creep into our lives, how to live with suffering, how to keep our eyes fixed on God and heaven. Simple stuff, but very worthwhile.

I did not agree with everything the book contained, in terms of theological wisdom or practical advice, but I must say that 95% of it was just fine and the other 5% was largely harmless. For example, I found her theology of angels a bit dated, but that is really just a quibble, not a showstopper. When it comes to things that really count, however -- for example, her views on suffering, on God's love, or on heaven and hell --`I found what she had to say both profound and accessible to the ordinary reader.

What I found I liked about the style in the book comes from Mother Angelica's gift of getting to the point in a way that connects the spiritual and the practical. For example, I was really amused by her story of the peanut. Her monastery, to make ends meet, ran a peanut roasting business. At one point, a supplier asked for a kickback. She refused, and he threatened to cut off the monastery, to which she replied "Go ahead, if I'm going to go to hell it isn't going to be over peanuts!" I love it! In one line she connects deep issues of moral theology and our eternal destiny with something practical -- the kind of challenges any ordinary person might encounter in life.

I do not believe that this book will change the world, but it just may change a few hearts, and from my point of view that already makes it immensly valuable.

God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist
God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist
by William Lane Craig
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 31.95
15 used & new from CDN$ 4.38

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book has the virtue of at least contributing the clarification of some of the issues involved., Jan. 24 2008
There has been a lot of discussion in the media (and elsewhere) recently on the question of the "New Atheism". Simply put, a lot of new books have been recently published that make the case that we should *not* believe in God. I find these books depressing, mainly because of the general lack of theological and philosophical sophistication that they contain. Sadly, I also find the Christian responses to these books equally depressing, for much the same reason. It was, therefore, with some interest, that I began to read God? A debate between a Christian and an atheist, because this book represents the results of an actual debate, where each side not only presents its views but has the chance to actively respond to its interlocutor. Imagine, a book co-authored by opponents! In fact, this is where the book's greatest strength can be found: while they arrive at divergent conclusions, both authors are united in at least one thing -- regarding the existence of God, they are seeking the *truth* of the matter, and that is no small thing.

This book has an interesting structure. Each author first wrote a chapter in which he presented his main arguments for or against the existence of God. They then exchanged copies, and each author then wrote a second chapter responding to the other's first chapter. Finally, those copies were then exchanged and each author wrote a final, third chapter, responding to the responses. Of course, they could have continued to another iteration, but they stopped there.

On the level of argument, it is hard to say who "won" the debate. In my opinion, Sinnott-Armstrong (the atheist) presented the strongest opening argument, but Craig (the believer) had the strongest responses. Ultimately, however, the debate itself was problematic, because on some level it was very difficult to establish a reasonable burden of proof. Sinnott-Armstrong can poke holes, for example, in Craig arguments for the existence of God, but when he puts forward his own positive arguments for atheism his case is extraordinarily weak. In each case, there is a problem of burden of proof, and neither meets that standard for the other. This, of course, should not be surprising, but it does render the debate somewhat unsatisfying.

As I read the book, I found myself living the frustration of an informed spectator. I felt rather like the stereotypical sports fan who shouts suggestions at his TV as he watches his favourite team play a game. Sinnott-Armstrong (the atheist) would put forward his rebuttal, for example, of some of Craig's points, and I could tell that he just didn't understand those points in the first place. So I'd sit in my chair, mentally "shouting" into the debate by writing notes in the margins, trying to refine the issues to make them clearer. Of course, neither party could "hear" me -- just like the favourite team cannot hear the sports fan -- but, in this case, it did not take away from the value of the experience. I'm beginning to suspect that maybe, just maybe, the frustration of being an informed spectator is the most important contribution this book has to make. After all, if it spurs others to write better books as a follow-up, then the debate is truly well-served.

There is not much point going into all the arguments each party presents in their text -- at least, not in this book review! What this work has ultimately helped clarify -- at least for me -- is that the debate about the existence (or not) of God, as it is presented today, is fundamentally a cosmological problem. Both the theologian and the atheist philosopher (not to mention scientist) are attempting to understand the world around them. One holds that this being called "God" is a necessary part of a true cosmological model, while another says the opposite. It strikes me, then, that the next book to be written on such a topic could be less a debate and more of a mutual exploration of world-views. I'd be willing to engage in that myself.

In conclusion, suffice it to say that an atheist who reads this book will not likely come away convinced that God exists, but neither will a Christian come away with his faith shaken. Each party just might come away, however, with a little less of his smugness intact -- which is a good thing. While not a watershed work in the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists, this book has the virtue of at least contributing the clarification of some of the issues involved, thanks mainly to the original form of its composition. For this, we can all be grateful.

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