Sunday, December 26, 2010

Book Review: Herodotus and the Road to History

Having read Jeanne Bendick's previous books, Archimedes and the Door to Science and Galen and the Gateway to Medicine, I have been waiting for this one for a long time. Fortunately, Ms. Bendick does not disappoint. This snappy little overview of the eventful life of Herodotus is the perfect way to introduce your kids to the subject of history. It explains why Herodotus developed an interest in recording history and in doing so, shows why the subject is of such importance.

This book is meant for children ages 9-11 and to that end, it is littered throughout with charming line-art illustrations. It is quite a short book and as a result, it doesn't go into any great detail of the multitude of civilizations discussed in Herodotus's histories. A precocious reader could plow through it in a single day. But it should effectively stimulate an interest in knowing more about the ancient events and cultures mentioned. It certainly did for me, though admittedly, I live for this stuff already.

Highly recommended. This is one that's definitely going on my kids' reading list.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Review - Kateri Tekakwitha: Mohawk Maid

My wife and I went to Auriesville, NY back in September and visited Ossernenon, the site of the Mohawk village where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha spent much of her youth. There is a very nice gift shop on the site and we purchased several little mementos there, including this book, Kateri Tekakwitha: Mohawk Maiden by Evelyn M. Brown. I read it aloud with my two older children and they both enjoyed it.

The book tells the story of Blessed Kateri in prose that will be an easy read for kids 10 and up. From what I know of Kateri's history, the story is very faithful to the actual facts, adding embellishments only as appropriate. I particularly appreciated that the author used many of the actual Indian words in the text, though they caused me severe tongue-twistedness on occasion. Here are some examples: Onsengongo (Kateri's uncle), Ononthio (Great Mountain, the name the Indians used for the French governor in Quebec), Kanawaki (another name for the Mohawk town), Ondessonk (Indian name for St. Isaac Jogues). This gave the text a great deal of authenticity. The author also worked a useful phonetic pronunciation of Kateri's Indian name into the text (Te-ka-kweeta) which is so often mangled by us pale-faces.

I highly recommend this book. It is excellent for reading with your kids and may give them an interest not only in this outstanding example of Christian piety, but also in the history of colonial and native America. For the original life of Blessed Kateri as written by her spiritual director, Fr. Cholenec, see Katherine Tekakwitha: Her Life.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

I am not Irish myself. However, I grew up among Americans of Irish extraction and my wife is part Irish. I therefore have a great respect and admiration for most things Irish. So when I laid hands on a copy of this book, I was anxious to read it.

Unfortunately, this is a classic example of a book with a snappy title that fails to live up to it. It is pure style over substance. Cahill is an author with an ax to grind and he is perfectly willing to cherry-pick historical anecdotes to support his thesis while ignoring those that weaken it. His style of scholarship is that annoying modern tendency to ascribe great importance to vague and contradictory statements from the ancients, while questioning and dismissing solid facts that have been commonly held for centuries.

My biggest problem with this book is simply that it takes forever for Cahill to get to "how the Irish saved civilization" and when he finally does get there, his treatment of the Irish contribution to preserving ancient scholarship is completely cursory. I was expecting chapters on Skellig Michael, Iona, Armagh and other centers of Irish monasticism. Instead, we are treated to Cahill's utterly false division of Irish Christianity from Roman Catholicism. He creates a scenario in which Saint Patrick and Saint Augustine are at opposite poles. He condemns Augustine as an "evil cleric" and the son of a domineering mother (Saint Monica) who is full of hatred and contempt for those who dared oppose him. He continually takes pot-shots at traditional Catholic practices, particularly (gasp!) the celibate male priesthood.

Meanwhile, he claims that Irish Christianity is not concerned with such petty matters as sexual purity. He notes that in all his writing, St. Patrick never came anywhere near the subject of sex except to make note of a "beautiful Irish princess." Based on that, he extrapolates that Saint Patrick--and by extension, Irish Christianity in general--was not beholden to the "rigid rules of chastity" enjoined by the Roman Church. His evidence supporting this contention is gossamer thin and almost entirely unreferenced in the book.

Cahill also hints that the Irish Christians tolerated abortion and had women bishops. In case his central theme isn't crystal clear by now, he even writes: "How different might Catholicism be today if it had been taken over by the easy Irish sympathy between churchmen and laymen and the easy Irish attitude toward diversity, authority, the role of women, and the relative unimportance of sexual mores." The answer to this question is that the Catholic Church would have become what mainline Protestant churches are today--dying, enervated museum pieces that accept everything and stand for nothing.

In the end, Cahill can't even bring himself to say that the Irish saving civilization was a good thing. He writes:
Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of the Irish...Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought. And when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans--just scattered tribes of animists, ready for a new identity. Whether this state of affairs would have been better or worse than what did happen I leave to the reader to ponder.
In sum, I would not recommend this book. It is little more than a meandering anti-Catholic polemic dressed up as a tribute to the Irish. A good antidote to this book is How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Tom Woods.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book Review - Padre Pio: The True Story

Padre Pio is easily the most well-known and beloved mystic saint of the 20th century. Like most people, all I knew about Padre Pio before reading Padre Pio: The True Story were second or third-hand anecdotes. A good friend's mother said she saw Padre Pio on a balcony in San Giovanni Rotondo and experienced the overpowering scent of roses. The brother of the music director in our parish may have been the recipient of a miraculous cure thanks to Padre Pio.

My own granny was from southern Italy and had Padre Pio knick-knacks around her south Philadelphia home when we were kids. So I started out with an affection for Padre Pio and this book certainly did nothing at all do dampen it. Now that I know the "true story", my love for the humble Capuchin is greatly enhanced. I believe he is a powerful intercessor before the throne of Almighty God.

Ruffin, a Lutheran, has done a remarkable job with this book, which is modern, fair, and intriguing throughout. He is open-minded when it comes to the truly credible miracle stories but skeptical when necessary. A bit over 400 pages long, the book is a very easy read, though slightly repetitive in spots. Pio's story is so engrossing, however, that I didn't mind the repetition. In fact, the book reminded me a few times of the great classical biographies of the ancient saints, like The Life of Saint Simeon the Stylite or Possidius's Life of Saint Augustine. It is amazing to me that such a person could have lived in the 20th century--dying a mere three years before I was born!

Clearly, Ruffin did a staggering amount of research for this book. It is full of solid factual material about Pio's life and his sufferings--physical, spiritual, and those brought about by his enemies within the Church. The phenomenon of Pio's stigmata is examined in detail and recent "news" reports that the wounds were self-inflicted are effectively debunked. The book is also crammed with tales about the extraordinary graces that God bestowed, and continues to bestow, on poor souls through Padre Pio's intercession. By the end, the reader is left with an excellent portrait of this good, humble, and holy man.

The version of this book we purchased was clearly a later edition. Though it bears a copyright date of 1991, it includes information at the end about St. Pio's canonization which took place in 2002. I highly recommend this book to anyone with even the slightest interest in Padre Pio. I know it will be well passed-around in our house.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review - The Ghosts of Cannae

Roman history is an interest of mine, though normally I prefer to read it "from the horse's mouth" -- that is, from the primary sources. That said, I also enjoy a good modern retelling of Roman history, so when I saw Robert O'Connell's The Ghosts of Cannae, appear on Amazon Vine, I snapped it up. I'm glad that I did.

The book is an enjoyable read, easily approachable for someone who has never heard of the Punic Wars but still satisfying for someone starting out with a good knowledge base. O'Connell makes excellent use of his ancient sources and marshals his information into a coherent and compelling narrative.

The writing flows well and is easily followed, making the book a fairly quick read. I found some of O'Connell's turns of phrase a bit bizarre, though. At one point, he says that republican Romans followed the "Warholian rubric" when it came to turn-over of their government officials. He also describes Hasdrubal Barca's escape from C. Claudius Nero as "a vanishing act worthy of Bugs Bunny," though he goes on to assure us that Nero was no Elmer Fudd! While I assume many folks reading this book will understand what O'Connell is talking about, I somehow doubt references to Andy Warhol will make much sense to someone reading Ghosts of Cannae fifty years from now. Admittedly, I suspect readers even 100 years from now will be familiar with Bugs and Elmer, though. As 20th century cultural artifacts, Looney Tunes are worlds more potent and long-lived than anything Andy Warhol ever did.

While I am no scholar of republican Rome, I felt that O'Connell's treatment of the history was detailed, well informed, and fair. In only one place did I quibble with one of his claims--that annoying modern assumption that the speeches made by the ancients and recorded in histories were mere whole-cloth fabrications created by ancient historians to make a moral point. Referring specifically to Livy, O'Connell says:
Ancient history is replete with such speechifying, useful in delineating issues, dramatic, and at times elevating rhetorically, but it is not to be taken literally. There were no voice recorders or stenographers. Most speeches were extemporaneous.
While it may be true that most ancient speeches were extemporaneous, the idea that there were no stenographers is debatable. In my studies on Saint Augustine, I was surprised to find out that there were often "reporters" who followed around the great homilists writing down what they said--in shorthand. See this extract from Thirteen Homilies of Saint Augustine on Saint John XIV (1904) by Hugh Fraser Stewart:

I have trouble faulting O'Connell for this overmuch as he is only reflecting the conventional wisdom among scholars. It is certainly conceivable that Livy's speeches were all fabrications. But I think more caution should be used when making this assumption.

In summary, Ghosts of Cannae is a useful popular history of the Punic Wars. If you have a passing interest in this subject, you will do well to read it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Our Visit to Auriesville

The discovery that part of the grounds of Our Lady of the Martyr's shrine had been sold off to become a Buddhist temple certainly put a damper on our visit, but we managed to find spiritual sustenance nonetheless, thanks be to God!

We were able to attend Mass on the grounds--just my wife and I and a devout priest in the Jesuit mortuary chapel. The priest then asked if we wanted to venerate the relics of the Martyrs and Blessed Kateri, and we of course said, "yes!" To do this, he had to retrieve them from the Coliseum Church, so we said we would meet him there. At right is a photo of one of the four altars in the center of the Coliseum.

While we were waiting for him, we heard the most beautiful Latin choral music coming from the church, so we went in. As it turned out, a choir from the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest was practicing for a solemn high Mass which was to take place the next day. Here is a sample of what they sounded like:

Father soon emerged with the relics for us to venerate, and we did so along with a few other pilgrims. This was easily the high point of our trip.

We then toured the other buildings on the site of the shrine--many of which are sadly in need of repair or a fresh coat of paint. We were also eaten alive by mosquitos, but we chose to offer that small torment up for the poor souls, recalling how the early Jesuit missionaries themselves often complained of the horrible swarms of "biting flies."

Afterwards, I spoke with one of the young men in the choir and he told me that the Mass was to be the climax of The Pilgrimage for Restoration, an annual march from Lake George, NY to Auriesville, NY over the course of three days. Just for the record--that's 65 miles through the Adirondacks in three days. Now that is what I call a pilgrimage! The purpose of the pilgrimage, according to their website, is as follows:
What is the Pilgrimage for Restoration?
In its fifteenth year, the annual pilgrimage is a spiritual journey of the faithful to the place where Saints Isaac Jogues, René Goupil and John LaLande were martyred 368 years ago. It is conducted in honor of Christ Our King, for the restoration of new Christendom, and in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Invoking the intercession of America's saints and martyrs, we desire that the Catholic Faith restore every dimension of our lives: our hearts, families, workplaces, parishes, neighborhoods, cities, dioceses, the American nations.

The pilgrimage is an exercise of penance and prayer, of contradiction and restoration, having both a personal and social character. Modeled on the annual Pentecost pilgrimage to Notre-Dame de Chartres, France, we embrace the traditional doctrine & practice of Holy Church, with all its demands.

A special intention of the pilgrimage is the restoration of the Catholic family, civil society and the Latin-Roman litugical tradition. We hope thereby to show our attachment to the Church's Tradition and the riches it contains, not with the intention of reverting to some by-gone era, but rather of drawing benefits from the ancient sources and putting them to work in the world today.
Hmmmm. Compared to this, our own little pilgrimage--driving to the shrine in a comfortable car and staying in a fancy bed-and-breakfast--seems just a bit luxurious. Given the desperate need for Catholic restoration in the United States, I suddenly want to do this. Perhaps next year...

The greatest irony of our experience at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Martyrs is the disturbing confirmation that as the fire of Faith and tradition seems to be going out among the older generation, at the same time that it is flaring to new life among the young. While the younger generation is focused on singing, sacrificing, and restoring, the old guard (that is, those running the Jesuit order and the Albany diocese) seems to be trying to sell off their patrimony to the highest bidder as fast as they possibly can.

Isn't this the opposite of conventional wisdom?

I would like to say a sincere "thank you" to those wonderful young people who made the pilgrimage and sang in the choir. Your sacrifice and the use of your talents to praise and serve our Lord were an inspiration to us.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Buddhist Temple at Auriesville?

I have a long-standing devotion to the Jesuit Martyrs of North America thanks to a study I did of the early history of the French settlement of Canada. So a trip to Auriesville was long overdue.

Auriesville is the nearest town to Our Lady of the Martyrs Shrine which is built on the site of the Mohawk town of Ossernenon. It was here that saints René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, and Jean Lalande were martyred. Ossernenon was also the site of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha's birth.

Because of its association with three saints and a blessed, the shrine is holy ground. Thus, it was with some shock that one of the first things we discovered upon arrival was that one of the most prominent buildings on the grounds, the Jesuit retreat house, was being reconstructed--apparently into a Buddhist temple.

A mere stone's thrown from the Jesuit cemetery at the shrine, where hundreds of Jesuits, including Avery Cardinal Dulles, are laid to rest, the former retreat house still has a statue of Jesus in front of it and crosses on the facade. It is not even 1,000 feet from the mortuary chapel where we heard Mass that morning, and considering its proximity and size, it is an obvious place for pilgrims to want to check out. So naturally we did.

Given the state of relative dilapidation of the rest of the buildings on the grounds of the shrine, I was happy--at first--to see this building being renovated. Then, I noticed the Chinese lion sculptures, still in their packaging. Around the back, was a sign (see below) that identified the place as "Western Supreme Buddha Temple." A the bottom, it said, "Welcome all pilgrims to our Buddhism worship." I couldn't believe my eyes.

There is absolutely no signage at the front of the building marking it as in any way separate from the Jesuit Martyrs shrine. Having blundered back there, we were soon confronted by several friendly but obviously suspicious Chinese women with shaved heads--Buddhist nuns, I assume. They politely asked us what we wanted. We showed them the map of the grounds we had received that showed their building as part of the shrine. They informed us that was no longer the case--that they had purchased the building five years ago. They then pointed us toward the exit with a smile. Apparently not all pilgrims were particularly welcome after all.

What is one to say about this? I am still flabbergasted.

I did some further research into the group of Buddhists who purchased the building. They are called The World Peace and Healing Organization (WPHO). According to their mission statement:
World Peace and Health Organization is a non-profit organization. Its main goal is to serve the societies, help governments and associations to promote plans for the enhancement of their citizens' health quality. At the same time it also promotes world peace and offers advice for the stability of societies.
Let me just say that my beef is not particularly with the Buddhists, though they probably should have exercised better discretion in seeking to purchase Catholic holy sites. As non-Christian religions go, Buddhism is among the most innocuous. In many respects, it is quite similar to Christianity and its moral code is generally laudable.

The fault for this travesty lies solely with whoever approved the sale of this piece of Our Lady of the Martyrs shrine. This is among the holiest sites in North America and to have it parceled off and sold is an absolute disgrace.

Of course, I wanted to know who was responsible for this outrage and how it was allowed to happen and the trail was not difficult to uncover. Apparently, WPHO has been buying up properties all over the region. As recently as July, the Albany diocese sold off two vacant churches to this same group for a grand total of $250,000.

It appears that when the sale of the Jesuit Retreat House was originally made, the World Peace and Healing Association was operating under a different name: The American Sports Committee. There was nothing about Buddhism in the original articles describing the sale, such as this one in the Evangelist, the newspaper of the Albany Diocese. The article says:
Father Murray believes the American Sports Committee will use the building as "a kind of nutrition and wellness center."
Well, given the sign in the back of the building, this claim was either a convenient head-fake on the part of the buyers, or an outright lie on the part of the diocese.

Here's an article from the Times Union of Albany written at the time of the sale. Apparently the ones who vetted potential buyers were....drumroll please...the NY Jesuits and the Diocese of Albany. Not surprising in the least, of course. And the real kick in the knickers comes at the end:
Prospective buyers had to first be cleared by the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese and the New York Province of the Society of Jesuits, Modrys said, adding, "We didn't want anyone to occupy the property who would run an operation that would be contrary to Catholic principles."
OK, so how is it not contrary to Catholic principles to have a Buddhist temple operating on the site of a Catholic holy place?

UPDATE: August 23, 2017: 

Apparently, the new neighbors of the Auriesville shrine—now officially called Holy Mountain Buddha Land—have proved aggressive, intransigent and welched on their obligations, surprising to absolutely no one. Here is an excerpt from the above article from Spectrum News which provides some additional details:
The rift between the faiths began with an amicable agreement in 2006 when the Buddhists purchased an old Jesuit retreat house less than 300 yards from the shrine. As part of a three-way sale agreement, the Catholics had agreed to let the WHPO use a shrine driveway to access the property, for five years or until they could build their own road. The shrine would also provide treated well-water to the temple for five years at $6,000 per year, while it was under construction and until it could develop its own infrastructure.
Caruso, who was not working for the shrine at the time of the agreement, says the WHPO never paid the water bill, and temple pilgrims were still using the shrine’s driveway. By 2013, the priest in charge of the shrine had taken all he could. The shrine shut off water to the temple and blocked the roadway, later tearing it out completely. The white fence was built on shrine property in 2014, along the dividing line between the properties.
This Google screen capture gives a good sense of how the temple is situated with reference to the Jesuit Martyrs shrine:

Click to see the proximity of "Buddha Land" to the Jesuit Martyrs shrine.
It seems that the relationship between this group and the local government hasn't been particularly harmonious either. A 2015 article in the Daily Gazette details how the World Peace and Healing Organization purchased dozens of properties in the area but, being unable to rehabilitate them, found that they were subject to property taxes and code violations. As a result:
A year after WPHO bought the properties, 37 parcels were sold for $1 apiece to Sunlight Recycling Co., an LLC that listed an abandoned Amsterdam building as its address. Shi said he did not have much contact with the owner and said the company is based in China or Vietnam and was looking to rip the pipes and wiring out of the houses to sell as scrap. More than two years later, these homes remain boarded-up eyesores.
It's not unlikely that the Buddhist group got in over its head, and did not appreciate the "intricacies" of dealing with small town big-wigs. Regardless, their aggressive acquisition of property, particularly land that has spiritual significance to Catholics, was clearly a mistake and was made under questionable pretenses.

Here is a snippet from their website announcing the "Advent of Holy Mountain Buddha Land":
"The birth of Holy Mountain Buddha Land will bring luck to all those with good affinity who were born in this complicated era and glory to all the Buddha’s children who are in this cause. Guided by Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi’s philosophy – World Peace, Human Health and Religious Harmony, Holy Mountain Buddha Land designates Guang Huan Mi Zong Mahayana teachings as its religion; it will unite all virtuous religions, facilitate diplomacy and promote Nine Vehicle Great Perfection Esoteric Dharma, for purifying the world."
Remember, when the sale of this land was originally proposed, the new owners were supposed to be a "nutrition and wellness center."

Remind me, again, who thought this was a good idea?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc ~ A deist's homage to a fascinating Catholic saint

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In the year 1889, Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a humorous novel with an undercurrent of vicious, anti-historical slurs at the Catholic Church. A well-known abuser of Christianity, it is perhaps not surprising that Twain would write such a work.

What is surprising is that such a persistent and nasty critic of Christianity would subsequently write Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Published in 1896--just a few years after Connecticut Yankee--Joan of Arc is a beautifully written homage to a uniquely Catholic heroine. Twain handles his subject with a delicacy bordering on reverence. The work is little more than an eloquent retelling of Joan's history, from her humble upbringing in Domrémy, to her glorious exploits on the field of battle, to the grotesque and awful mockery of a trial which condemned her as a heretic. The story is told through the eyes of Joan's page, Louis de Contes. It is alternately profound, humorous, inspiring, and shatteringly sad. Twain called it his best and favorite work and based on my limited knowledge of his other writings, I certainly agree.

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Though he had plenty of opportunities to inflate the schemings of a few odious Catholic prelates into slaps at the greater Church, Twain never does so. His attitude toward the Catholic Church is as fair and sympathetic in Joan of Arc as it is unfair and antagonistic in Connecticut Yankee. His famous vitriol is reserved for the traitors, scoundrels, and hypocrites who surrounded Joan and ultimately condemned her to death at the stake. Though Twain claimed to be a deist during his lifetime and put no faith in divine revelations, he apparently did not consider Joan to be insane or unbalanced though she was one of the most famous and remarkable visionaries of history. Instead, he was fascinated by her. In an essay on the subject, which is included as an appendix in this book, Twain called Joan. "easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced."

It almost seems that Twain wrote Joan of Arc as a penance for his prior scurrilous attacks on the Catholic Church. Having done some further research on Twain's religious feelings, I discovered that he seems to have developed a strange affinity for the Catholic Church later in his life. In one letter to his wife concerning their youngest daughter, he wrote: "I am very, very glad that Jean is in a convent....And away deep down in my heart I feel that if they make a good strong unshakable Catholic of her I shan't be the least little bit sorry....If I ever change my religion I shall change to that."

Though he never became a Catholic, it is obvious that Twain developed a deep respect for the Church in his later life, even if he retained the right to attack those aspects of the institution he found objectionable. I'd say his soul is then fair game for those who wish to pray for it. I imagine he had at least one staunch advocate at the Throne of Almighty God at his judgment. And as advocates go, Joan of Arc, saint of the Roman Catholic Church, certainly isn't to be despised.

Obviously, I highly recommend Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I now count it among my favorite books.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: Judith-Captive to Conqueror, Volume 1

Here is something completely new and interesting. Back in the 1990s, a couple of guys came up with an idea of retelling Bible stories using animated vegetables. The idea was unique. It was clever. And it was a great success--for a while, anyway.

Now, a few young people have decided to take Pope John Paul II at his word and forge a Catholic path into another new medium: manga. For those of you not familiar with this term, it is Japanese shorthand for a "graphic novel" or an extended-length comic-book. But manga is much more than Spider Man or Thor of days gone by. It has a style all its own. The stories tend to be more complex and characters are generally deeper than the stereotypical muscle-bound tragedian in spandex that most older Americans are used to.

I came across Judith: Captive to Conqueror at the Catholic Marketing Network conference and was immediately intrigued. The cover art, in typical manga style, is fantastic and lures you in. Once there, the story picks you up and carries you along. As this is a "graphic novel", it moves very quickly--almost too quickly for someone like me who is accustomed to reading exceedingly long novels. But once you're used to the pacing and the occasional plot elements that are suggested more by the art than by the writing, this book flies by. I read it in under an hour.

What's more, this is a great way to introduce your kids to biblical heroes and heroines. I found my 8-year-old son, who is not the best reader in the world, plowing through this book after I left it on the dining room table. Did I mention that manga and the larger world of anime, is as popular among modern tweens and teens as the old-fashioned comic books were in the 1950s?

Simply, Judith is the story of the Book of Judith from sacred Scripture. More properly, it is the first part of the book. Volume 1 ends just as Judith is leaving the city of Bethulia on her mission to the camp of the Assyrian general, Holofernes. On the whole, the story remains faithful to the biblical account. Additional characters and scenes are added but these in no way detract from the original and are meant to enhance the story and increase the reader's sympathy for the protagonists and odium for the evil-doers.

Works like this one which take liberties with Scripture walk a fine line. The worst of them pervert scripture and make biblical figures into grotesque modern parodies. The best of them offer a new perspective on biblical accounts and make the reader want to re-read the original with fresh eyes. I'm happy to say that Judith: Captive to Conqueror is of the latter variety.

And in case you're curious, the answer is yes--I did go back and re-read the Book of Judith after reading this book. So if that was the authors' intention, mission accomplished!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review - Citadel of God

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The Roman Empire in the West has fallen and Italy is under the government of the Gothic king, Theoderich. Under his generally benevolent rule, Italy has found security and a measure of prosperity it has not known for a century. But the Romans who make up the vast majority of the population are chaffing under the barbarian yoke. The Young Lions in the Roman senate talk quietly of freedom, but the elders among them--men like Albinus, Boethius, and Symmachus--urge caution. Boethius's young wife, Rusticiana, favors the approach of the Young Lions and a rash comment of hers is taken literally by a boy, Peter, who makes a clumsy and unsuccessful assassination attempt against Theoderich. Peter, injured in body and spirit as a result of his failure, nurses a grudge in his heart against the Goths. He is subsequently entrusted to the gifted young teacher, Benedictus, to see to his moral education.

Thus begins Citadel of God, a wonderful old book by Louis de Wohl. Originally written in 1959, the work is a gripping journey through the history of the early 6th century AD, bringing alive many of the celebrated names of that epoch. As someone with a particular interest in that time period, I found the book to be fascinating. It is sub-titled A Novel of Saint Benedict, and indeed it is. Entire passages in the book are based directly on the biography of Saint Benedict as contained in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. De Wohl's portrayal of Saint Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, is close to perfect. He comes across as a humble wonder-worker inspired by God and driven to do great things for His greater honor and glory alone.

But surrounding the Benedict story is the entire panoply of late Roman history--the triumphs and tragedies of the Justinianic era. It is a tale that few people in our current day know at all, though it is very much worth knowing. Citadel of God reads like a 1950s Hollywood epic and the story itself certainly lends itself to that kind of treatment.

One word of warning: there are a few PG-13 rated scenes in this book. They are nothing a young person over the age of 14 or so couldn't handle, but still--this is not a children's novel. That said, Citadel of God is a wonderfully engaging read, and a good history lesson. I can not recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review - The Search for Saint Valeria

There is something terribly wrong in the fictional Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Catholicism is withering, weighed down by worldly priests and an unfaithful laity. Even Cardinal Fulbright seems more concerned with appearing "modern" than in the glorious heritage and teachings of his Church. But there is an oasis--a traditional parish known as St. Philomena's that is run by ex-cop-turned-priest Father John Baptist. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the unctuous Cardinal tolerates Father Baptist and his Latin Mass parish in the middle of this sea of modernity.

This antipathy toward tradition in fictional Los Angeles means stripping Catholic parishes of their beautiful artifacts--monstrances, ciboria, chalices, vestments, altars, and even reliquaries--and these holy items have been showing up for sale in pawn shops and other seedy places. To top it all off, the Cardinal has even moved the miraculously incorrupt body of the city's patroness, Saint Valeria, out of the cathedral and into an unmarked grave.

However, this final outrage seems to have sparked a string of robberies. Catholic holy items have been stolen from all over the city. Even the Cardinal's own personal chalice, an ugly modern monstrosity, has been pilfered. To solve this string of crimes, the Cardinal calls in Father Baptist. Soon, assault and murder are added to the string of crimes connected with Catholic artifacts and it's up to Father Baptist and his gardener/sidekick Martin Feeney to unravel the mystery.

The Search for Saint Valeria is the third Father Baptist mystery, but it happens to be the first one I have read. Admittedly, I'm not a big mystery fan. But this one held my attention and even made me laugh a few times. It is quite cleverly written and for any Catholic who is aware of the goings-on in the non-fictional Archdiocese of Los Angeles, some of the characters and antics in The Search for Saint Valeria will raise eyebrows and elicit the occasional sigh of disgust.

I recommend this book. If you are a traditional-minded Catholic, you will certainly enjoy it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review - Orthodoxy

I have now read four books by the human quote machine known as G. K. Chesterton, and this one, Orthodoxy, is my favorite so far. In a nutshell, Orthodoxy chronicles Chesterton's own rather unorthodox journey to his Christian faith. Written before his eventual conversion to Catholicism, the work is a mile wide, a mile deep, and has a strong current. It is very easy to get tossed along in Chesterton's stream-of-consciousness. I found it much better to just take it nice and slow, hop from one paragraph to the next, and occasionally re-read bits I didn't get on the first pass.

Chesterton's arguments in favor of Christianity are anything but straight-forward. They are filled with metaphor and allusions, both to literature and to the events of the late 19th century. However, the end result is striking. And the number of brilliant aphorisms that may be mined from Orthodoxy is practically infinite. Here are a few of my favorites:
"Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe."

"Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde."

"Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die."

‎"We have almost up to the last instant trusted newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just as recently, some of us have seen that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men....We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press."

"The man of the 19th century did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because liberal Christianity allowed him to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism did not allow him to believe it."

‎"How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them."
There is also a passage in which Chesterton compares Saint Joan of Arc to Tolstoy and Nietzsche which I enjoyed very much. These quotes should give an idea of how much ground Chesterton covers in Orthodoxy. And this is truly just scratching the surface.

Orthodoxy is a highly philosophical book that deals with a great many abstract concepts. However, if you are interested in philosophy, intellectually curious and want to find out how one of the great minds of the 20th century came to embrace Christianity, you will find Orthodoxy to be an enlightening and very rewarding read.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Egredere si potes

In my youth, I remember thinking how romantic it was that a boy in seminary or girl considering the consecrated life would "leave all that" and run off to be with the girl/boy of their dreams. I remember watching The Sound of Music and thinking, how wonderful it was that Maria escaped from the boring monastery and was able to find "true happiness" in the arms of the gallant Captain von Trapp and his wonderful children.

But now that I am older, that scenario has turned completely upside-down for me. Far from romantic, the conclusion of The Sound of Music now seems almost trivial. Why? It is simply for this reason: because I understand that there can't be true happiness in the world, only temporary contentment. And that what goes on in a monastery is not boring but is instead the most important human activity of all.

This was all brought to a head for me recently by a book I am working on entitled, Leave If You Can. Originally written in German by Luise Rinser, it is the story of two young Italian women during World War II. They boldly leave home to join a communist partisan group fighting the Nazi occupiers of Italy. Though idealistic and atheist, Angelina, the main character, finds herself in an internal struggle every bit as dangerous as her physical struggle against the Nazis. She is in love with the dashing partisan leader, Antonio, but she is mystically drawn to the war-shattered monastery of Santa Maria del Monte. When the war ends, Angelina must decide: will she remain in the monastery and become a nun, or leave and marry Antonio?

How this question is answered in Leave If you Can is so beautiful that it moved me to tears. It makes the conclusion of The Sound of Music seem shallow by comparison.

But it has forced me to wonder: Is this change a product of my age? Perhaps. At nearly 39, I am staring middle age in the face, if I'm not there already. My youth is spent, and now that I view it from the other side, it is easy for me to point out all the places where I went wrong, wasted my time and effort, chased ridiculous fantasies, postponed the crucial elements of life. So is this change the result of bitterness over my lost youth, or because I am wiser than I was?

Perhaps if I explain how this view developed, you can tell me...

If this world were all there is, a young person would be completely right, justified, and intelligent for escaping from the meaningless life of a religious, serving a God who doesn't exist. But God does exist, He does call people, and this world is not all there is. In fact, we are only transients here. Our lives flare and then fade. Before we know it, we are facing death and eternity. And where we end up depends completely on the choices we make--do we follow God's call? Or do we distort it, ignore it, run from it, lie to ourselves about it, pretend it doesn't exist or that we can't hear it?

I have spent most of my life in a spiritual fog. Though raised Catholic, I didn't even know enough to listen for God's call. No one ever taught me how. I didn't know how to pray, either. My only example was my grandmother, coincidentally named Angelina. She was a woman who faithfully said several Rosaries and chaplets every morning. I used to watch her and wonder why she did it. Though she never explained, she gave me many holy cards and other religious knick-knacks. I still have a St. Anthony Chaplet she gave me when I was a boy.

By the time I learned how to pray and really listen for God's voice, the die was already cast for me. I am now a husband and father and am most fortunate that God has blessed me with a magnificent woman and many beautiful children. At this point in my life, God's call for me is crystal clear--to serve them my whole life and do my best to raise them, provide for them, defend them, and help them get to Heaven.

But now, I have caught a glimpse of how utterly wonderful and urgently necessary the religious life is. That which was lacking in my past life--examples of saintly priests and nuns--is now before my eyes. And they have added such a new and extraordinary dimension to my life that at last, I get it. I understand. And I see why the Enemy expends so much effort trying to undermine their faith, destroy them, and abort their vocations before they can grow and thrive. It is because these chosen souls have the ability--and indeed, the mission in life--to lead myriad others, like myself, to Christ who is God. How amazing! That is a vocation beside which my own seems insignificant.

And for that reason, when I watch a clear religious calling vanish before my eyes, it now hits me like a punch in the gut. I think of all the poor souls that person could have reached as a religious, all the prayers they could have offered, all the children they could have taught, all the poor and sick they could have assisted, all the dying they could have consoled, all the souls in purgatory who could have benefited from their devotions, all the future vocations they could have fostered in other young people by their example, and I feel almost as if a great disaster has occurred. If only they understood the true worth of the tremendous gift that God has offered to them.

The world is an extremely enticing place--especially so for those who are young, brilliant, and beautiful. I have come to view it as a literal miracle when such as these, who are called by God, can actually run the gauntlet of temptations to arrive at their religious vocation. So very few of those truly called are able to make it.

So which is it? Have I tapped into something wise, deep, and true here? Or have I merely become a senile old curmudgeon?

Either way, we must all remember to pray for those young people whom God is calling. I still say my old St. Anthony chaplet several times per week. Henceforth, I shall add an intention for all those discerning a vocation to the consecrated life, that God will shower abundant graces on them and give them sufficient courage to live up to their vocation. We need them.

Saint Anthony, pray for them.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Chesterton on Joan of Arc, Tolstoy and Nietzsche

No sooner do I finish a book on Joan of Arc than that same magnificent saint appears in another work I am in the process of reading--Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. His passage on the Maid is so wonderful, I have to quote it in full lest I forget it:
Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret.

I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.

Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts.
Brilliantly said, Mr. Chesterton. Wow.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Book Review - Saint Joan: The Girl Soldier

Click here to order a copy.
Written by Catholic novelist Louis de Wohl, Saint Joan: The Girl Soldier tells the tale of one of my all-time favorite saints: Joan of Arc. And how can anyone not love the story of St. Joan? It is one of the great epic tragedy/triumph stories of all time.

In the early 15th century, the English dominated much of France. Reeling from defeat after defeat, the cause of the weak French dauphin, Charles VII, seemed on the verge of collapse. But at the exact moment when final defeat seemed inevitable, a young maid arrived on the scene, claiming to be a messenger from God. Her message was simple but impossible: the besieged city of Orleans must be relieved and the Dauphin must go to Rheims to be crowned king. The French nobles scoffed. Why should they ignore their own better judgment to heed the insane exhortations of an ignorant peasant girl?

But there was something very special about Joan. She really did hear voices--the voices of Saint Margaret the Virgin, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and Saint Michael the Archangel. Those who doubted her voices were soon humbled, for Joan's ability to predict future events was uncanny. What's more, she had a much better grasp of military problems than any of the French commanders and her advice, when followed, always led to victory. But when her advice was ignored, the result was always defeat. The mere name of the Maid was enough to rally the French common soldiers and people and soon, even some of the nobles came to believe in her.

She was put to the test at her first meeting with the Dauphin whom she had never seen. When presented before the court, the Dauphin hid himself in the crowd and had one of his courtiers preside. When Joan entered, she immediately picked the Dauphin out of the crowd, curtseyed to him, and said, "Gentle prince, it is you and no other who are the dauphin."

Following a string of incredible victories, Joan's mission was fulfilled: Orleans was rescued and the Dauphin was brought to Rheims and crowned king of France. Not long afterwards, Joan was captured by the English--her voices had warned her this would happen. Following a humiliating and unjust trial, Saint Joan was condemned to be burned as a witch. She died a martyr for Christ and for France.

Louis de Wohl's biography is a fine telling of Saint Joan's story. Though a little heavy on the political details surrounding her struggle--both in the French court and in the tribunal which condemned her--de Wohl paints a compelling portrait of the Maid and her career. This is a book that may be easily read by a child over the age of 10. I read it with my 7 year old daughter and both she and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Highly recommended!

Update, May 29, 2019:

Since I wrote this review, I also have also read and reviewed Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a book that should be read by anyone with even the slightest interest in Saint Joan. It is a unique and fascinating work of literature.

As she is a saint who is dear to my heart, several articles about or mentioning Saint Joan have appeared on this blog as follows:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book Review - Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts

Steve Turner chose the name "Imagine" for this book. That should have been a tip-off. I suspect his intention was to be ironic--to use the name of John Lennon's anthem of socialist secularism to present his thesis for the exact opposite: a vision of Christianity influencing the arts. But Imagine is a maudlin, syrupy song and Turner's book, while presenting many intriguing ideas, is incomplete and actually gets the question backwards. Instead of asking "Why are many Christians hostile to the arts?" Turner should have asked, "Why are the arts so often hostile to Christians?"

Before I tear into this book, I should say that Turner gets a lot of things right. For example, he gives the Catholic Church the proper credit for having always viewed art as a way of approaching the sacred, while Protestantism--particularly the evangelical brand of modern times--often views art as fundamentally worldly and approaching idolatry.

He also correctly identifies the importance of art in all its forms as a means of communicating ideas to large groups of people. And, he recognizes how vital it is for Christians to engage in the arts in order to influence society. I almost said "evangelize" there, but in truth, that's where Turner's argument begins to fall flat. He seems to understand that Christian moral influence on society is a good thing, but worries that actual evangelization via the arts should only be done sotto voce--if at all.

In fairness, I used to believe exactly the same thing and offered many of the same reasons that Turner gives to rationalize this position. However, after considerable reflection over the years, I have identified the true source of this reticence to incorporate my Catholic beliefs into my writing and indeed into practice in my daily life--fear. Cowardice. The desire to be accepted by the great and the beautiful. The urge to be embraced by the elites and to become one of them.

You can usually get some impression of where a man's heart is by who his heroes are. Steve Turner's heroes are all musicians and beat poets from the 1960s through the 1980s--he repeatedly mentions the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, U2, and many others. The name-dropping got so thick at certain points that it made me think that Imagine was less about creating a vision for Christians in the arts than an attempt to reconcile Turner's personal obsession with his Christian faith.

Not surprisingly, Turner aims most of his criticism at Christian rock musicians--an easy target if ever there was one. The contemporary Christian music scene has traditionally been just as he describes: a musical ghetto that specializes in preaching to the choir. But he misunderstands why that is. Like most actual ghettos, the inhabitants of the contemporary Christian ghetto didn't really want to go there--they went there because otherwise, there was nowhere for them to go.

While dismissing the contemporary Christian rock scene, Turner instead holds up the band U2 as an exemplar of how Christians should influence the arts. It is undeniable that U2 has had a major impact on the music scene over the years. And there are undeniable Christian undertones to their music. However, Turner ignores the fact that for U2, the religious imagery is almost always at the service of a political agenda. For example, in the song Pride (In the Name of Love) the Christian religious imagery is used to canonize Martin Luther King who, for all his merits as a civil rights leader, was certainly no saint in the Christian sense.

In fact, U2 seems to do the opposite of what Turner calls for in his book. Rather than use their music to teach a Christian message, U2 seems to use their religious bona-fides as a promotional tool to preach a "social gospel" to their Christian fans. Worse, U2 have used their status as Christian-influenced rockers to give legitimacy to political agendas which are often antithetical to Christianity. Recently, for example, U2 performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the single biggest supporter of abortion and "gay" lifestyle issues ever to occupy the White House. Is this kind of thing really how Christian artists should be spreading the Gospel?

And that brings us to politics--an issue that Turner hints at but never addresses directly. Unfortunately, it is an issue that must be addressed if we wish to understand why Christian artists seem to be so absent from mainstream culture and indeed, why mainstream art appears to be intrinsically anti-Christian.

The fact is that since the 1960s, overtly Christian artists have been the target of a blacklist which is worlds more all-encompassing and harsh than any of the largely fictive bans that were imposed on Communist artists during the 1950s. Evidence for this is out there for anyone who wishes to look.
Exhibit A:
Cleon Skousen's Current Communist Goals, as read into the Congressional Record in 1963. See especially points 21 through 28, where Communist operatives were encouraged to infiltrate the American media and cultural institutions to influence things for the worse. They were told to promote ugliness, obscenity, and deviance and replace religion with a "social gospel." Given that Skousen's book was written in 1958--well before the onslaught of pop culture spew we experience today, his conclusions can only be seen as frighteningly prophetic.

Exhibit B:
Secular socialists and communists themselves have admitted that they use "art as a weapon" to promote their ideology and attack those opposed to them, such as orthodox Christians. The concept itself was first promoted by V. I. Lenin in a 1905 pamphlet entitled Party Organization and Party Literature. One need only do a Google search on "art as a weapon communism" to immediately discover how much thought and struggle the secular left has put into this campaign over the years.

Exhibit C:
The research is finally catching up with this subject and books like Red Star Over Hollywood are finally revealing the truth about the secular left domination of Hollywood that continues to this day.
So finally we come to the subject that Turner dances around in Imagine but never quite addresses: that the absence of Christian message in American popular culture today is not by accident. Nor is it because Christians are untalented or uninspired. The absence is by design. Most of those with the decision-making power in media are overtly hostile to Christianity and are keen to suppress Christian messages and promote messages disparaging Christianity. Even if they don't do it consciously, being overtly anti-Christian is part of the media culture. As someone who has worked in media for 15 years (academic and professional publishing), I have seen this again and again on every level--but especially among the decision-makers.

If you doubt any of this, you need only recall the lengths to which Mel Gibson was forced to go to get The Passion of the Christ to market. Remember, this is a movie that ended up making billions of dollars worldwide, and yet Gibson struggled to find a distributor for it. And the movie was slurred by many within the entertainment media with the most vituperative epithets available: antisemitic, pornographic, fascist, etc. Is it possible that the normally money-hungry Hollywood elites were such financial nincompoops in this case that they didn't realize the potential for this movie to be a huge cash-generator? Certainly not. This was the normally unspoken media and artistic antipathy toward Christianity revealed for the world to see.

In such an atmosphere, even inspired and copiously talented Christian artists can't be expected to thrive unless they have already made their name as secular stars. But for whatever reason, Turner ignores all of this. Instead, his advice to Christian artists seems to be: Keep a low profile. Engage the audience on their level. Attempt to insinuate Christian messages into your work in ways that won't offend them.

The most damning passage of Imagine comes when Turner envisions himself reading overtly Christian poetry before an audience at a New York poetry slam:
"...if I read a poem about the delights of nature, the awfulness of betrayal or the horrors of war, I would expect to find a resonance in [the audience's] own histories. But what response would I get if I read a poem about the death of Christ? People might snicker. They might feel uncomfortable. In some art circles, religion, especially Christianity, is a matter for laughs. I could get shouted at....Most likely, I'd be faced with bemusement. Is he serious? Is he being ironic?"
God forbid that Christians be the target of derision and ridicule! My only response to this passage comes from Mark 48:38:
For he that shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation: the Son of man also will be ashamed of him, when he shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Interestingly, Turner does not address the one area of contemporary popular culture where Christianity has had--and continues to have--a tremendous impact. Popular country music. I could point to any number of extremely effective popular country songs that have very clear and obvious Christian messages. Here is a short list:

Three Wooden Crosses by Randy Travis
The Little Girl by John Michael Montgomery
What I Love about Sundays by Craig Morgan
Love without End, Amen by George Strait
When I Get Where I'm Going by Brad Paisley
Jesus Take the Wheel by Carrie Underwood
Long Black Train by Josh Turner
The Man I Want to Be by Chris Young

Beyond that, country music is rife with songs that are more subtly infused with Christian, pro-life and positive ideals--exactly what Turner is talking about in his book. Here is a small selection:

The Broken Road by Rascal Flatts
There Goes My Life by Kenny Chesney
Remember When by Alan Jackson
American Honey by Lady Antebellum
I've Been Watching You by Rodney Adkins
Blessed by Martina McBride
The Good Stuff by Kenny Chesney

I would argue that any of these songs, which are devoid of political overtones, are more effective at evangelizing the culture than the entire discography of U2. So why does Turner ignore the country scene? Perhaps he is simply unfamiliar with it. Or perhaps it is because he knows how badly it weakens his thesis. Overt references to Christ and Gospel messages can be done well and achieve popular success without tempering the message.

Turner is very obviously a thoughtful man and a good writer. This book is an easy and interesting read and it makes many good points. However, at the end of the day, I think Turner's key premise is fundamentally flawed. The subtle approach he champions is necessary but not sufficient. What is most needed in this current age are talented artists who are completely unafraid to preach the Gospel overtly through their work. Will the cultural elites criticize and ridicule? Yes, they will. But Scripture gives us a guide on what we are to do during such times:
"Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. (2 Timothy 4:2-4)
Instead, of Turner's strategy, I propose that Christians will better evangelize the arts by doing the following:

1.) Pray! Pray that God will inspire you to create something that helps bring His Truth to all people. Offer yourself to Him, that He will fill you with His Grace and use you as His instrument.
2.) Make your spiritual life as air-tight as possible. That means frequent confession. Frequent Mass attendance. Spiritual reading. Recognition and avoidance of the near-occasion of sin. Association with others who are spiritually solid. Finding a trustworthy spiritual director, etc.
3.) Understand that it's ok to spread the Gospel of Christ through your art in subtle ways. However, make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons--and not simply for fear that your work will be ridiculed and rejected.
4.) Be totally and completely unafraid to include overt references to Christ, the Church, and Gospel truths in your work. If you are afraid of criticism, you shouldn't be in the arts to begin with. Count yourself blessed if people deride you because you dare to speak the name of Jesus in public.
5.) Recognize that art is a dangerous vocation which appeals to the world, can be pathologically introspective, and can lead to personal hubris and self-congratulation in direct proportion to the excellence of your own talent. If you are truly talented, have a plan for humbling yourself whenever the adulation goes to your head. The mad desire of the public for true talent has ruined the souls of many, many artists.

I have come to the point in my own life where I believe that the prayers and writings of a single Carmelite in a convent will ultimately have a greater impact on salvation history than several $100 million Hollywood productions or a career in popular music. We who are on the outside are only capable of half-measures because we're so wrapped up in worldly affairs. We struggle to remain the salt of the earth and our savor is so easily lost. And if it is lost, all our previous good work can become tainted with the stain of hypocrisy.

Thus it seems clear that worldly success as an artist, writer, or musician often carries within it the seeds of temptation and spiritual destruction to a much greater extent than most other fields. As a result, a career in the arts should only be entered upon with the greatest care and trepidation. The sad trajectory of Mel Gibson--who made one of the most beautiful and successful Christian movies of all time--should be a cautionary tale for every Christian artist. For what purpose is it to gain the whole world and lose one's soul in the process?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book Review: A Landscape with Dragons

This book has cropped up so many times in so many different conversations, that I realized I had to read it. Now that I have, I am of the opinion that every Catholic parent, teacher, or serious writer/artist ought to read it as well. Agree with Mr. O'Brien or not, his argument is thought-provoking and requires serious reflection.

Michael O'Brien is an artist. He is also a writer of no mean talent. He is the author of the international best-seller Father Elijah and many, many other books--a fact that I did not appreciate until immediately before I read this book. In fact, if you visit his author page on Amazon, the man has a literary resume that puts most other contemporary Catholic writers to shame. So he can't simply be dismissed as a hack or a fraud who knows not of what he speaks.

In brief, A Landscape with Dragons posits that much of the literature meant for our children today is demythologizing in nature in that it inverts the classical symbols of Christianity so that the scary is made to appear friendly, the dangerous is made to appear misunderstood, and the diabolical is made to appear harmless. Meanwhile, the good is made to appear hypocritical, the holy becomes buffoonish, and the pure becomes boring. The end result of this trend is the creation of de-Christianized, re-paganized children and ultimately, the warping of society's moral sense as a whole.

O’Brien’s initial concern in this book is the representation of serpents or dragons in modern literature as friendly, good, or tame creatures. He posits that this trend turns on its head the scriptural symbolism of the serpent/dragon as a representation of the devil. But his central thesis goes well beyond this. O’Brien points out that much of what the world presents as “the good” or “conventional wisdom” is actually gnosticism, thinly disguised:
“If you watch this, you will know more, be more grown-up, more smart, more cool, more funny, more able to talk about it with your friends.”
And the messages broadcast in much of the media meant for children and young people only appear to be benevolent and wise on the surface:
"Truth is what you believe it to be. Right and wrong are what you feel right and wrong are for you. Question authority. To become what you want to be, you must rebel. You make yourself. You create your own reality."
If these messages sound familiar, it is because you probably read them in the book of Genesis: “If you eat of the fruit, surely you will not die. You will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

It’s hard to deny that these messages saturate children’s books and movies and such sentiments are often found coming out of the mouths of the “heroes” of these works. O’Brien rightly points out that these tantalizing ideas are infinitely more damaging and destructive than overtly evil messages that are easily detected:
"Evils that appear good are far more destructive in the long run than those that appear with horns, fangs, and drooling with green saliva."
So parents need to be vigilant to make sure their children aren't ingesting harmful messages with their tacit approval. O’Brien understands that this can be an arduous task, but provides a helpful scale for parents to rate materials aimed at their children:
1.) Material that is entirely good.
2.) Material that is fundamentally good but disordered in some details.
3.) Material that appears good on the surface, but is fundamentally disordered.
4.) Material that is blatantly evil, rotten to the core.
He then goes through several popular books and films and analyzes them according to this scale. As A Landscape with Dragons is now 12 years old and was written before the Harry Potter phenomenon, the books and movies O'Brien critiques here are a bit dated: A Wrinkle in Time, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, the Goosebumps series, etc. But his thesis is solid, and I think the majority of his points are well made, even if he does carry them a bit too far in spots.

I fully expected O’Brien to make unreasonable exceptions for those works which are traditionally accepted and lauded by Catholic critics, such as those of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. To my surprise, O’Brien even levels a few criticisms at these works, though admittedly, he seemed at pains to do so. But ultimately, I could not with fairness accuse him of holding a double-standard.

O’Brien is not merely a critic, however. At the end of the book, he provides over 100 pages of suggested reading material for children and families, compiled by the good folks at Bethlehem Books. He also offers parents some guidelines for how to determine if a book is good for your child to read. Here he includes one bit of sage advice that is often neglected--pray about it. This section alone is worth the price of the book in my opinion.

My feeling upon completing this book is that Michael O’Brien is on to something. Does he go overboard in spots? Yes. Is he perhaps overly scrupulous? Maybe a little. But his central thesis, buttressed in many places by Aquinas, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and others, is hard to deny.

As I have said on many other occasions, what is really needed to combat these destructive forces attempting to influence children is compelling and authentic literature and media created from a Catholic perspective--and beyond that--media which is utterly unafraid to portray profound truths overtly. How many Catholic saints and heroes from history, unafraid to speak the name of Christ publicly, richly deserve a novel or motion picture portraying their lives and exploits? I can name two dozen of them off the top of my head. If done well by talented artists with excellent production values, such tales would be smash successes along the lines of The Passion of the Christ. All we need are writers and artists with the talent and courage to do it. And we all need to pray that God will send us such individuals.

This is a long review and really, it only scratches the surface of this discussion. In short, if you are a Catholic parent, read this book. If you are a Catholic writer or artist, read this book. If you are a Catholic scholar studying literature, philosophy, or theology, read this book.


Very recently, Mr. O'Brien published a book called Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture. I have not read this book, but as part of my background research for this review, I read the preface online. In it, Mr. O'Brien detailed the spiritual attacks he endured while reading the Harry Potter series. At one point, he says the following:
Throughout the initial dark period of research and writing, however, an amazing array of breakdowns and catastrophes occurred in the external details of our family life. These were more serious and frequent than the usual ups and downs of car problems, financial crises, sickness, and leaking roofs. It was these and much more--and all at once. I might add that I know seven other Christian writers who have publicly critiqued the Potter series, and all but one of them experienced the same phenomenon. Two had dreams like mine, and most of them had struggled to resist the cloud of oppression combined with an uncanny convergence of external trials.

Back in 2007, I read the entirety of the Harry Potter series in about six months with the aim of critiquing it on from a Catholic father's perspective. I published all my reviews on this very blog--the last one, where I blasted JK Rowling with both barrels, may be found here.

When I read Mr. O’Brien’s statement above, I got a funny feeling and remembered my own experience reading Harry Potter. As I was nearing the end of the series, I went through one of the most difficult and spiritually exhausting stretches of my life--our youngest son was born with a complete bowel obstruction that required immediate surgery. He was hospitalized for over two weeks and for a little while, we were concerned he wouldn’t make it. Thanks to excellent medical care and a huge amount of prayers, he is now a thriving two year old.

But I can distinctly remember reading book six of the Potter series while my wife was in labor--and then putting it aside for several weeks to deal with our crisis.

Coincidence? Maybe....

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book Review: Saint Patrick (Christian Encounters Series)

If you are looking for a short, uncomplicated, to-the-point bio of Saint Patrick, this book fits the bill. At 140-odd pages and a small trim-size, the book can be read in a couple hours and will leave the reader with a solid outline of what we know about Patrick's life. The author does seem to read a little too much into Patrick's true motivations and draws some inferences that seem unsupportable. But these instances are infrequent, unobtrusive, and not overly wild.

I must admit that my favorite part of this book was the two appendices, comprising 40 pages of Saint Patrick's own writings in English translation. The selections are Patrick's confession and his letter to Coroticus, the warlord whose men murdered and enslaved some of Patrick's newly baptized converts. In my opinion, this book is worth purchasing just for these two bits alone.

Here are two quotes from Patrick's writings that I particularly liked:

"I know in part why I did not lead a perfect life like other believers, but I confess to my Lord and do not blush in his sight, because I am not lying; from the time when I came to know him in my youth, the love of God and fear of him increased in me, and right up until now, by God's favour, I have kept the faith."

"I pray God that He gives me perseverance, and that He will deign that I should be a faithful witness for His sake right up to the time of my passing."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Review: The Barbary Pirates

Much contemporary historical fiction is either too vulgar, too politicized, or too full of trite historical clap-trap for me to enjoy. So when I got this book, I began reading it with trepidation. Would this book fit into one of those molds? By the time I was finished, I was pleasantly surprised. Simply put, The Barbary Pirates is a light read, a page-turner, and a load of fun.

The Barbary Pirates is the 4th book of the Ethan Gage series by William Dietrich. I haven't read the previous books, but the author does a decent job of explaining things so that the reader doesn't feel lost. As it is, the book stands as its own entity very well. It tells the tale of American adventurer Ethan Gage. Gage teams up with a trio of historical 'savants' -- naturalist Georges Curvier, inventor Robert Fulton, and geologist William Smith -- to find an ancient artifact of incredible power. The four must find it before the nefarious Egyptian Rite, a shadowy neo-pagan cabal which seeks to use the item to achieve their megalomaniacal aims.

If this plot sounds familiar, it's because it's been done before. Lots of times. Gage carries a long-rifle, but he may as well be wearing a hat and bullwhip. He is Indiana Jones 150 years earlier -- a lovable rogue who is constantly getting into scrapes with both his mortal enemies and with the fair sex.

That said, Dietrich has managed to breathe exciting new life into an old trope. While not particularly deep, The Barbary Pirates is action-packed and full of historical curiosities that span the ages from pre-history to Napoleonic times. The book has the virtue of not taking itself too seriously. As such, it is a much more entertaining and satisfying read than similar books like, for example, The Da Vinci Code.

For what it is, The Barbary Pirates is a good read. It may be the perfect book for beach-reading this summer. I will have to seek out some of the previous books in the series to supplement my own summer reading list.

This date in late Roman history ... April 22

On this day, in Anno Domini 525, the city of Edessa, metropolis of Osroene in western Asia minor, was destroyed by a flood of the river Scirtus. Procopius describes this flood as catastrophic in scope, killing more than 1/3 of the population, or nearly 30,000 people.

The Roman Emperor Justin had the city rebuilt at great expense. During the reconstruction, an artifact was discovered in a niche above Edessa's western gate--the famed Mandylion of Edessa. This legendary image of the face of Jesus was purportedly brought to Edessa after the death and resurrection of Christ by His disciple, Thaddaeus.

The historian Evagrius Scholasticus, writing in the late 6th century, mentions the Mandylion as being instrumental in defeating a siege of Edessa by the Persian king Chosroes in AD 540.

In recent years, some scholars have attempted to link the Mandylion to the Shroud of Turin. One of the most compelling of these attempts may be found in Ian Wilson's book, The Blood and the Shroud.