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!