Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book Review - The Rending of Christendom Primary Document Catholic Study Course

In recent days, the study of history has become less a search for truth and almost exclusively about the creation of a narrative to further a political ideology. Some might argue that this has always been true. In my experience, however, such claims are most often put forward by the most egregious narrative-creators themselves when their lack of objectivity is called into question.

I first noticed this trend while in high school. As an avid student of World War II, it was perplexing to me that the entirety of the war was summed up in my so-called social studies courses in two events: the atom bomb and the Holocaust. Hardly anything else was deemed worthy of discussion. Church history suffered a similar fate in my ostensibly Catholic schooling. We were presented with a narrative that nothing particularly good happened in the Church until the 1960s. As a result, all the events, achievements, miracles, conflicts, saints, heroes, villains, doctrines and teachings up until that point were given very scant coverage indeed. When I later discovered on my own how fascinating, rich and beautiful Church history is, I was astonished and angry. To quote my parish priest, I felt like what I had been told was a diamond was actually a cubic zirconia--and that the real diamond had been purposely buried to keep anyone from finding it.

As a result of this experience, I have come to distrust most modern interpreters of history (particularly those who don't wear their subjectivity on their lapel) and greatly value the study of primary sources when learning or teaching history. And that's where Phillip Campbell's The Rending of Christendom comes in. In an accessible 100 pages, Campbell offers a gold mine of basic primary documents dealing with the root causes, major events and personalities of the Protestant Revolution. The objective is to give the student a sampling of important sources from that era and teach them how to draw inferences from them. The documents run the gamut of the conflict, from well known sources such as Luther's 95 Theses and the Edict of Nantes to less studied but equally fascinating documents such as Luther's "Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants" and the final letter of Mary Queen of Scots prior to her execution.

I feel quite confident that few if any high school and college students in Catholic institutions have ever seen these documents before. Unlike most traditional textbooks, these documents do the opposite of reducing history to a bland sequence of names, dates and capsule summaries. Rather, they add the excitement of the present to the events described and put intellectual faces to the key names: Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas More, Richard Hooker, John Calvin, Francis de Sales, Elizabeth I, Charles Borromeo and many others. As such, the source documents here may be the beginning of innumerable conversations that have immediate relevance to the situation in our world today. Instead of creating their own narrative for credulous students to memorize and regurgitate, these documents allow students to contemplate the big issues of the time from the inside. They also provide fodder for students to draw their own conclusions, aided by Campbell's brief introductory statements and helpful study questions at the end of each document.

Of course, such a slim book as The Rending of Christendom can only provide an appetizer for the main course of historical research into the Protestant Revolt. My suspicion is that many more students will be tempted to dive into the ocean of such scholarship after using this introduction as compared to those using traditional textbooks. Because of this, I highly recommend The Rending of Christendom for use in both traditional Catholic educational settings and homeschooling. I look forward to seeing more such resources from Philip Campbell in this same vein--he is definitely on to something.

Really, resources like this should be a staple in Catholic schools that hope to do more than simply put a thin Catholic varnish on the secular American historical narrative. Other primary source compendia which fulfill much of the same function as The Rending of Christendom include The Christian Roman Empire series and Fontes Mediaevalium series, both by Evolution Publishing. Among these, I particularly recommend The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants which chronicles the history of the much maligned and misunderstood First Crusade through the eyes of those who experienced it first-hand.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Deus le vult! Remembering the forgotten Defenders of Christendom

Quick quiz: You are Catholic, correct? How many of the following can you identify?

Dieudonne de Gozon
Janos Hunyadi
George Castriota (Skanderbeg)
Jean de la Valette
Don Juan of Austria

Can you identify any of them? Do you know when they lived or what they did? Why not? My excuse is that my 12 years of Catholic education was woefully deficient in teaching me much about actual Catholic history. What's yours?

In any event, every one of these men was called by God to play a particularly heroic role in preserving the Christian world. If not for their courage and sacrifice, it's not much of a stretch to say that most of us would not be Catholic today. In fact, it's likely many of us would never have existed at all.

Sadly, we live at a time when American civic leaders at the highest levels speak with profound ignorance about the Crusades and Catholic history in general. They are only able to get away with such statements because American Catholics have largely forgotten their patrimony. Defenders of Christendom by James Fitzhenry aims to remedy this deficit, offering an engrossing and enjoyable journey to the days when men "cared less about death than about shame" and were wiling to sacrifice everything to defend the helpless, particularly from the drawn sword of Islam.

Following on the heels of two outstanding previous efforts in the same vein (see also El Cid: God's Own Champion and Saint Fernando III: A Kingdom for Christ), Fitzhenry has done a remarkable job making the Crusading era approachable for modern youth. Though very much a history book, it is written in a narrative style that is far from boring. Including about a dozen spot illustrations, Defenders of Christendom is probably best suited for young people ages 10 and up, but I found it to be an engaging and educational read as a parent of kids that age. I particularly appreciated the way Fitzhenry cited the historical works he consulted throughout the text, giving me a pathway back to his original sources, one of which was very familiar: Krey's The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants.

What made Defenders of Christendom most compelling, though, is the immediate parallels that jump to life of their own accord between the Crusading era of the Middle Ages and our own time, when militant, barbaric Islam has risen from the crypt to prey upon innocent Christians without pause or pity. For example, in chronicling the bloody reign of the Islamic conqueror Tamerlane, Fitzhenry describes an incident in India when Tamerlane "ruthlessly ordered the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of helpless captives that he thought of as nothing more than 'food for the sword.'" It is hard to read such words and not immediately flash to the massacres inflicted upon men, women and children in Iraq and Syria today for the heinous crime of following Christ. One must pray that God will raise up Hunyadis, Skanderbegs, and La Valettes in our present generation to meet the modern challenge from both barbaric Islam and hedonistic secularism, and revivify the dream of a unified Christendom.

If you or your kids enjoyed Angels in Iron by Nicholas Prata or Crown of the World by Nathan Sadasivan or my own books on Belisarius, you will find this book right in your wheelhouse.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Highly Recommended: The Joyful Beggar by Louis de Wohl

During the late 12th century AD, Italy is a simmering political caldron about to overflow. In the north, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV threatens invasion. In Sicily, a young but ambitious Norman king sets his sights on a much greater office. In between, the Popes attempt to protect the independence of the Papal States while encouraging the crusading movement abroad. It is a time when the temporal leaders are only nominal Catholics and when Church leaders are often too concerned with worldly affairs.

Into this setting author Louis de Wohl introduces two characters: Roger of Vandria, a knight-errant whose only goal in life is to regain his lost patrimony, and Francesco Bernadone, the light-hearted young scion of a rich merchant family from Assisi. Their paths cross when Assisi attempts to raid the rival city of Perugia. Both march with the Assisian forces, and both are imprisoned in Perugia after the raid ends in failure and defeat. But where their lives go afterwards is a study in contrasts, brilliantly told by the great story-teller de Wohl.

The Joyful Beggar is subtitled A Novel about Saint Francis of Assisi, but it is much more than that. It is a history lesson in the religious and political turmoil into which the great saint was born and which he, in a very significant and unexpected way, influenced and turned to the good. With great flair, de Wohl brings the historical figures to life: the put-upon yet good-hearted Pope Innocent III, the tyrannical excommunicant Otto IV, the intelligent but worldly Frederick II and his Islamic reflection, Sultan Al-Kamil. 

The novel highlights the great moments in St. Francis's life--his call from God to "rebuild the Church which is falling down"; his trek to Rome to have his Friars Minor officially approved; the miraculous growth of the order; his famous meeting with Sultan Al-Kamil. There is also plenty of action supplied by the parallel tale of the dashing Roger of Vandria which frequently intersects with the life of Francis. In the hope of regaining his castle in Sicily, Roger follows the Sicilian king, Frederick II, becoming his henchman. He falls in love with the beautiful Clare Offreduccio and goes on crusade. But ultimately, he comes to respect and admire the incredible courage and drive of the little man from Assisi who he had previously disdained as a coward.

The Joyful Beggar is a great little book. De Wohl's writing moves elegantly back and forth between the parallel story lines, keeping the reader's attention and making for a very enjoyable reading experience. I blew through the book in a couple days and I suspect that it would hold the attention of most young readers aged 14 and older. With deep themes such as the vanity of worldly desires, the ultimate futility of political machinations, and the beauty of following God's call, no matter how difficult, The Joyful Beggar teaches some valuable lessons and helps put the fascinating life of St. Francis into its historical context.

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Friday, October 03, 2014

St. Francis's Letter to All the Faithful

In our day, Saint Francis of Assisi is commonly portrayed as a gentle, happy-go-lucky friar who travelled around Italy preaching about being nice and blessing animals. The real Saint Francis was very far from this distorted caricature. He was a loyal follower of even the hardest teachings of Jesus Christ and a true son and soldier of the Catholic Church. He was not averse to preaching directly to the faithful in terms that would grate the soft sensibilities of many modern religious leaders. As we near the beginning of the extraordinary synod on the family, it is well to consider the words written by St. Francis in his Letter to All the Faithful:
“All those who refuse to do penance and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are blind, because they cannot see the light, our Lord Jesus Christ. They indulge their vices and sins and follow their evil longings and desires, without a thought for the promises they made. In body they are slaves of the world and of the desires of their lower nature, with all the cares and anxieties of this life; in spirit they are slaves of the devil. They have been led astray by him and have made themselves his children, dedicated to doing his work. They lack spiritual insight because the Son of God does not dwell in them, and it is he who is the true wisdom of the Father. It is of such men as these that Scripture says, their skill was swallowed up (Ps. 106: 27). They can see clearly and are well aware what they are doing; they are fully conscious of the fact that they are doing evil, and knowingly lose their souls.” Read the entire letter
Amazingly, despite his occasionally stringent tone, Francis succeeded in converting many and rebuilding the Church in his day. May our own Pope Francis follow in the footsteps of his illustrious namesake, Francis of Assisi, and not fear to preach the authentic truths of the Church loudly and with courage. For mercy is not imparted by redefining sin away, but by helping the sinner reject sin, despise the desire to sin, and aspire to be virtuous as Christ was virtuous.

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

A first-hand account of the Plague of Justinian

With all the articles cropping up in the media this past week about new data connecting the Black Death of the 14th century with the lesser-known Plague of Justinian of the mid-6th century, I thought I would post an excerpt from Evagrius Scholasticus, a late-Roman Church historian who witnessed the Justinianic plague first hand. And not only did he witness the plague, he survived it himself and lost members of his immediate family to it. Here are Evagrius's own words:
“I will also describe the circumstances of the pestilence which commenced at that period, and has now prevailed and extended over the whole world for fifty-two years; a circumstance such as has never before been recorded. Two years after the capture of Antioch by the Persians, a pestilence broke out, in some respects similar to that described by Thucydides, in others widely different....Some cities were so severely afflicted as to be altogether depopulated, though in other places the visitation was less violent....Thus it happened in my own case—for I deem it fitting, in due adaptation of circumstances, to insert also in this history matters relating to myself—that at the commencement of this calamity I was seized with what are termed buboes, while still a school-boy, and lost by its recurrence at different times several of my children, my wife, and many of my kin, as well as of my domestic and country servants....Thus, not quite two years before my writing this, being now in the fifty-eighth year of my age, on its fourth visit to Antioch, at the expiration of the fourth indiction from its commencement, I lost a daughter and her son, besides those who had died previously.”
Evagrius goes on at length to describe the duration, recurrences and symptoms of the plague. The full account may be found here: The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, Book IV, Chapter XXIX, page 161.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: Saint Felix and the Spider

Throughout Christian history, an unusually friendly relationship between a person and an animal--especially a wild animal--is often considered a sign of sanctity. The affinity of St. Francis of Assisi for all of God's creatures is well known, but he is far from the only saint to have developed such friendships. Saint John Bosco had a mysterious large gray dog named "Grigio" that came to his aid. Saint Hugh of Lincoln tamed squirrels, sparrows, and even a wild swan who favored him alone and would not let anyone else approach.

Saint Felix and the Spider is the second children's book by Dessi Jackson about an obscure ancient saint who had a special friendship with faithful arthropods. Her first book, The Saint and His Bees, tells the charming story of Saint Modomnoc and the swarm of honey bees that followed him around.

In Saint Felix and the Spider, Dessi Jackson and illustrator Lydia Grace Kadar-Kallen relate the tale of Felix of Nola, a third century Italian saint who lived during the Decian persecutions. To escape from the Roman soldiers pursuing him, Felix hid in a cave. The soldiers failed to find him because a spider quickly wove a web over the entrance to the cave, making the soldiers think that no one had been in the cave for a long time.

This is a very engaging story for children (ages 4-9)  told in charmingly simple prose accompanied by vividly detailed illustrations. A brief biography of Saint Felix is helpfully included at the end. As solid Catholic books for children are often hard to come by, I recommend this one as dealing with a unusual subject in a particularly attractive way. My own children thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Sunday, December 01, 2013

Book Review: Bilbo's Journey by Joseph Pearce

Another Hobbit blockbuster is headed to theaters in a few days, so what better time to review Professor Joseph Pearce's excellent book, Bilbo's Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of the Hobbit.

Most folks know that J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, so it is perhaps to be expected that his works, such as The Hobbit, include Catholic undertones. These undertones were explained brilliantly by Prof. Pearce in a lecture I had the pleasure of attending earlier this year at the IHM National Catholic Homeschool Conference in Fredericksburg, VA. In this talk, Prof. Pearce touched upon a multitude of themes in the Hobbit which resonate strongly with the Catholic faith. Bilbo's Journey is an expanded version of that talk which elaborates on these themes, among them:
  • Bilbo's development from a self-centered creature focused on his own comforts, to an adventurer who puts his comrades' welfare ahead of his own safety.
  • The idea of "luck" as a stand-in for Providence.
  • Greed as the "dragon sickness" which destroys those who are enslaved by it.
  • Humility as a virtue that allows the accomplishment of great deeds whereas pride truly goeth before a fall.
  • The ultimate message that happiness is not gained by acquiring goods or treasure, but in putting the needs of others ahead of ones own needs, even if it leads to suffering.
If you are reading (or re-reading) The Hobbit in anticipation of seeing the movie, Bilbo's Journey makes an exceptionally compelling and insightful companion. It adds a layer of depth to the tale and elucidates themes that will not be apparent to the average reader. Though an academic, Prof. Pearce writes in clear and enticing prose which does not intimidate nonspecialists.

In short, Bilbo's Journey is a concise and enlightening read that fans of Tolkien will most certainly enjoy and appreciate.

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