Book Review: Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious. Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood

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Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious, Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, by Pat Gohn is a hymn to woman’s essential femaleness.

Femaleness, or true femininity that is based on the reality of who we are as women, has been dissed and put down since time immemorial. Ms Gohn’s book incorporates the teachings of the Popes, especially John Paul II, and the saints, in particular St Edith Stein, to illustrate the beauty of the unique gifts of womanhood.

Reading Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious was like opening a series of chocolates, all wrapped in shiny paper, and finding that the treat inside was prettier than the wrapping. Ms Gohn is unafraid to acknowledge the maternal instinct that is part of every woman. We may deny it or ugly it up by twisting it into shapes it was never meant to take, but the desire to hold your own child in your arms is real and powerful.

Pat takes the reader by the hand and leads her (the book is clearly written for the “hers” of the world) through the many reasons why God made us blessed, beautiful and bodacious. She encourages women to joy in their feminine maternal natures instead of thwarting and denying them.

At the same time, the book is informed on every page by her deep faith in Christ. As a breast cancer survivor who had young children at the time she was diagnosed, Pat is able to communicate what it means to trust God in the extremities of life. Her description of the prayer discussion she had with God about what would happen to her children if she died from the cancer is itself blessed, beautiful and bodacious, as well as profoundly moving.

Every mother has walked a good bit of this road in one way or the other. We’ve all been through the ailments of pregnancy and the all nighters caring for a sick child. I agree with Pat completely that these times bring women close to God in a profound and absolute way.

My own faith grew deep in those years I was a mother of small children. Bringing new life into the world and then raising those babies to be healthy and productive adults is the greatest challenge and gift any human being can know.

Women are, as Pat says, blessed, beautiful and bodacious. God made us that way.

Book Review: Our Place in the Order of Creation

To join in the conversation about The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good, or to find a link to buy a copy, go here. 


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We are the clay. God is the potter.

We are the created. God is the creator.

Our dominion over this Earth is ours by designation, not because we made it or because we can keep it. We have dominion over the Earth because God assigned it to us as a trust.  It is the same with our lives. We did not earn them. We do not merit through our own actions either life or love. We are here because God breathed the breathe of life into us and we became living souls. When that days comes that our souls are required of us, these bodies we inhabit will die and return to the dust from which they came. 

We exist as a thought in the mind of the God Who made us.

That is our place in the order of creation. We are free because God made us free. We have life because God gave us life. We are able to choose and decide and act out of our will because God gave us minds and hearts and the freedom to use them as we wish. 

But this world, this sinful fallen world with all its prevarications and cruelties can not be saved by our actions. There is nothing we can do to redeem humanity from its own willful sinfulness. Nothing we can offer that will turn back the tide of original sin that blights each of us and the whole of creation. 

What this means is that we can not play God. When we try, we fail. When we try continuously, we become weary with a Sisyphean weariness that leaves us defeated and bitter if we do not face the reality of who we are in the order of creation. 

Christians, in particular, are easy prey to the peculiar hubris of trying to save the world from itself. In my work as an elected official, I encounter people on a daily basis who profess Christ but behave as if He doesn’t exist. They battle for what they think is His cause with an angry fanaticism. But they do not have the faith to trust Him with the outcome. The less they trust, the angrier they become.

They work and worry and experience each defeat as a personal failure, until they are ready to fall over from emotional, physical and moral exhaustion. They take on the whole problem themselves. They forget that their might is nothing against the evil of a fallen world, and, more importantly, they forget that it is not, never was, never will be, up to them. 

All any of us has to do is our part. In the final analysis, all any of us has to do is what God tells us to do. In my experience, God doesn’t share His plans in detail. He just tells you what you are to do. Then, He tells someone else what they are to do. But He doesn’t tell either of you about the other. You part is to do what God wants and let Him unfold the plan.

Which He will. 

In His time and in His way, He will bring all the disparate parts of His plan together. You are a thread in the fabric He is weaving, nothing more. You may have to wait a long time to see it. You may not see it in this life. But the whole pattern will come together and when it does, it will be glorious beyond anything you could have thought of. It is not your job to see the whole of it. Your job is to trust and obey. 

You are free to enjoy the wonderful life He has given you, safe in the knowledge that He makes all things work to the good and whether or not you can see it doesn’t change that. 

As Tyler Wigg-Stevenson put it in the title of his book, The World is Not Ours to Save.

The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good is basically a meditation on Micah 4. Micah 4 is a prophecy of Christ and the conversion of the Gentiles, as well as the coming Kingdom of God. It contains the beautiful verses They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has obviously thought a great deal about these prophecies. He shares his interpretation of their meaning and applies them to the work of every person who feels called to engage in the social justice battlefield on the side of the Gospels. 

The World is Not Ours to Save is a wise book with excellent advice for those who are worn slick from trying to do God’s job of saving the world rather than focusing on simply doing their part. I recommend it. 

Book Review: Joining the Present Day Abolitionists

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Join the discussion on Refuse To Do Nothing or find a link to buy a copy here

I serve on the board of directors of All Things New. All Things New is dedicated to helping women come out of sex slavery, which ranges from trafficking to prostitution.

That position brings me face to face with the reality of what we are doing to our women and children in the name of “victimless crimes.” It has made me aware of how our culture glorifies pimps, excuses johns and victimizes the women and children these predators use and degrade.

Refuse To Do Nothing was written by two women, Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim, who had heard similar stories and found that they had to “refuse to do nothing” about the suffering present-day slavery wreaks on both the victims and the victimizers.

I recommend this well-researched book. Instead of just telling us how horrible the problem of present-day slavery is, the book gives simple, do-able ideas for actions that ordinary people can take to help in the fight to end it. There is nothing over the top in any of the ideas these women provide. Each of them is simple, easy to do and, if enough of us do them, effective.

Slavery ended in Great Britain and America largely as a result of Christians, particularly Christian women, who understood the Gospel claim that every human being is beloved of God. They could not abide the contradiction of Christian people owning and using other human beings as chattel.

That understanding is just as true today as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then as now, slavery was big business. Avarice and sloth fueled slavery just as avarice, sloth and lust fuel it today.

The idea that prostituted women and children are somehow less than fully human is the basic philosophical underpinning of sex trafficking and prostitution in our world today. The authors of this book rightly identify that sex slavery would go away if men stopped buying women and children. I think that most men would stop buying women and children if they saw what they were really doing.

It is so easy for any one of us to become someone else’s nightmare. All we need to do is subscribe to the world’s opinion that there are human beings who are less than human and we may do to them what we please with no moral harm to ourselves.

However, this idea of the disposable human is entirely opposed to the message of the Gospels. It refutes the meaning of Calvary, when Our Lord died for each one of us. There can be no worthless people to anyone who truly believes the Gospels of Christ.

We have an obligation to the God Who made us to treat one another as fully human. When we do less than this, we separate ourselves from Him in a profound and deeply sinful manner.

I recommend Refuse To Do Nothing to everyone who has a heart for the Gospel value of human life.

Book Review: The World Needs Quiet People, Too

To join the discussion about Quiet, or to buy a copy, go here.

I am an introvert.

I am also an elected official.

Many people assume that this makes me a walking, breathing contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, a rarest of the rare. However, they are wrong about this. Most of the politicians I know — and I know a lot of them — are introverts.

I’ve only known a few true extroverts who actually managed to make it into office, and they usually drive the rest of us crazy with their other-the-top, always-on, go-go-going. While extreme shyness would certainly be a problem for a politician, introversion, with its ability to focus, reflect and think things through, is, in fact, a huge advantage.

Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet, describes introverts quite well. It talks about the need introverts have to spend time alone, the powers of reflection, concentration and self-direction that are such a part of the introverted personality. In an earlier time, this was called “reserve;” as in “She’s not shy. She’s reserved.”

That’s what the school principal told my mother about me when I was in first grade. Mama commented that I was shy, and the principal corrected her with the astute assessment, “She’s not shy. She’s reserved.”

Personally, I like the word “reserved” better than introvert for the simple reasons that it’s both less clinical and more accurate. As Ms Cain describes, reserved people tend to think things through before they leap. They are prone to analyze and consider a move before they make it.

While the world needs people who will jump right in there when the occasion calls for it, it also needs more reflective and deliberate thinkers working alongside them. The excesses of either personality type can be destructive if they are allowed to run unchecked. They need the balance of association with the other personality type.

As with so much of what works with people, our personalities perform best in tandem with one another. The hard-charging extrovert will drive you right over a cliff if there isn’t someone sitting beside them with a map to find the way.

Unfortunately, as Ms Cain notes, American society is wired for extroverts. This can be downright punishing for young children in our schools. I suffered with it a bit when I was little, but I grew up in a much less chaotic time. One of my own children — who had inherited a good dose of his mother’s reserve — experienced public school as an isolating and utterly miserable box. I remember at the time thinking that our schools were designed for only a certain type of child and that all other children were judged defective to the extent that they failed to be that one type of child.

I took my child out of this environment. My only regret is that I ever put him there in the first place.

According to Ms Cain, many reserved people are forced to struggle to imitate their extroverted colleagues, even after they become adults. Her descriptions of life inside certain corporate environments explains at least in part why I knew instinctively that the corporate world was not the place for me.

Quiet is a good read and a needed book. The author makes the point that many of the tragedies of American life, including the economic debacle of 2008, are at least in part a result of the unbalanced emphasis we place on extroversion. Human beings were made from our beginning to work together in community. Our various parts fit together to create a whole that is civilization.

The author implies, and I agree, that our society would benefit from acknowledging the value that introverted people bring to any endeavor.

I highly recommend Quiet. It raises important points. It also is a necessary read for teachers, parents, and administrators who must learn to bring the best out in their children, students and employees who are “reserved.”

Book Review: Polemic Trying to be a Satire

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To be honest, I stopped reading Operation Screwtape about 20 pages or so before the end because I just found it too tedious to go on. That action (or in-action) highlights one of my two major criticisms of the book. It’s not interesting.

I’ll get to the other criticism in a minute, but I want to focus first on the not very interesting part. 

Operation Screwtape, by best-selling author Andrew Farley, is a frank imitation of the fictional technique C.S. Lewis used in his classic, The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters is a work of fiction in which a veteran demon named Screwtape attempts to instruct his protégée, Wormwood, in the methods needed to lead a new Christian away from the faith. It is illustrative satire at its best.

I wouldn’t compare Lewis’ book to this one except that the author invites such comparison by his choice of names and that one of the reviewers who made it to the book jacket says, “Operation Screwtape channels the creativity and wit of C. S. Lewis.”

That, in my humble opinion, is not true. Operation Screwtape has none of the creativity and wit of The Screwtape Letters. For starters, it does not have a story line. It does not have characters, unless you assume that anything that is written in the first person has a “character.” 

The Screwtape Letters is satire. Operation Screwtape, on the other hand, is polemic that claims to be satire. The target of this polemic is, as nearly as I can tell, organized Christianity. That’s fine, if you want to write it. There’s plenty of meat there. But it takes more than ironic expressions to make a good satire. 

The other problem I have with the book is what I think is it’s viewpoint. The viewpoint is clothed in the ironic way it’s expressed, so I have to more or less derive it. But it appears to me that the author is pushing his own brand of Christianity, which is divorced from the 2,000 year tradition of the institutional church. Again, I have no problems with him holding this viewpoint. I just don’t share it. 

My feeling is that Operation Screwtape has some good and valid points mixed in with an individualistic Christian teaching that, in at least some ways, flies in the face of what has been constant Christian teaching for 2,000 years. I am aware that many sincere Christians share the author’s beliefs. However, I can not recommend the book for anyone who doesn’t.

If you are not one of the “I love Jesus but hate the Church” crowd, there’s little here that would make it worthwhile to plow through this book. If the book was an interesting read, I could recommend it on that basis. For instance, Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth uses the same device to attack Christianity. But it’s such a good read, that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it on its literary merits. If, on the other hand, Operation Screwtape advanced new ideas, or even old ideas with a new twist, it would be easy to recommend the book based on that. 

But I found it tedious to read and basically more of the same old stuff I’ve seen on many blogs and in essays and magazine columns. 

My advice is to get a copy of The Screwtape Letters and read it if you want satire of this sort. Or you might read Letters from the Earth and The Screwtape Letters back to back and compare them with one another. That would be fun. 

This book is not. 

Less of Me: Feeding the Deeper Hungers

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Cravings, by Catholic author Mary De Turris Poust, provides ideas for combining Catholic spirituality with the fight to control overeating.

It’s a book written from the outside, so to speak. Ms Poust has never suffered from a weight problem, and, aside from a brief adolescent foray into extreme dieting and overexercise that lasted a short time and was cured by going on a family vacation, she has no personal experience with the demons that drive those of us who are truly addicted to food and use it for our drug of choice.

I’m not trying to pick at either Ms Poust or her very fine book when I say that. But it’s an important caveat to consider when reading the book. What can a woman who writes sentences like “I will actually crave broccoli when I eat too much heavy food … something that has grown out of being a vegetarian, doing yoga, jogging regularly …” have to say to me?

It turns out that if she’s a good writer who does a lot of research and has a well-developed sense of Christian spirituality, she has quite a lot to say to me.

As I said in other posts, I am one of the legions of people in this country who use food as a drug of sorts. I soothe myself with food when frustrations get to me. I also use food was a way out of boredom and as recreation. I have somehow developed the ability to mimic many of the emotions and behaviors that real drug addicts attach to their addiction to things like meth, only I use food as the drug.

It’s not a question of what I eat. The real question is, what’s eating me?

Cravings isn’t another one of those try-it-lose-it-and-regain diet programs overeaters know so well. In fact, it comes close to abjuring diet programs. This book focuses on how to replace food as the go-to drug for what ails you by turning to God. It’s full of very useful ideas and plans in this quest. One of the main foci of the book is on what the author calls “mindful eating.” Mindful eating is the fine art of paying attention to what you’re doing when you eat and not just stuffing things down without even being aware of it.

I know that for a lot of people the idea of eating a meal and not being aware of it sounds far-fetched. But I’ve done it. I do it. Part of the reason that food soothes me is that I’ve learned to turn off when I eat.

Food, or at least the act of eating, has become a sort of stress and thinking off-switch for me. That doesn’t mean that I go into a trance or become a blubbering food drunk. I engage in conversations and actually enjoy myself. Food as a drug is at least part metaphor for the simple reason that food is no drug. It is an essential and highly enjoyable part of our physical survival. It is also an integral part of our social life. We bond to people over food.

What Ms Poust suggests is that we try to resurrect this original purpose of food as a means of survival/bonding/pleasure and make the most of them. She wants us to do this by refocusing our emotional hungers that we try to satisfy with food on the One who can actually assuage them.

The practical side of this book gives what I think are sound and useful suggestions such as eat at the dining room table, enjoy regular family meals, pray before meals, and when you crave food as an answer to pain, turn to God in prayer, instead. She gives lots of specific ideas, most of them worth trying and then hanging onto.

Where the book becomes tedious, at least for me, is the over-emphasis on what I think of as arcane references. Part of this feeling is due to the fact that I read a lot of Catholic books and I’ve noticed that the women authors, in particular, seem to have a strong monastic bent. They quote the desert fathers and talk a lot about their retreats to monasteries and conversations with monks.

Now that’s all fine, but it doesn’t compute with me. In the first place, Ms Poust tries to hold the monastic way of eating, which she says is based on simple food eaten in community with prayer and mindfulness, as an example of what the rest of us should do. This might resonate with me more if I didn’t know so many overweight monks. These guys have the same problems with food that I do.

I’m not saying that simple food, eaten in community with prayer and mindfulness is not a wonderful thing. But I am saying that living life as the monks do is not attainable or attractive for most people and besides, so far as weight control goes, it doesn’t always work, not even for the monks.

So far as overeating is concerned, we’re all down here in the pits together, and the sooner we get over the idea that “our” overeating problem is some terrible curse that hits us alone, the sooner we’ll begin to grow up foodwise. I say that, not as someone who has conquered her food problems, but as someone who has been consistently conquered by them.

Cravings is a thoughtful book with a lot to offer. Its basic premise, that some of us try to feed our emotional and spiritual hungers with food, is spot on. I personally am still trying to figure out how to turn to God instead of food for these things. I’ll write more about that later.

In case you didn’t notice, I’m resurrecting the Less of Me series for this blog. In the meantime, if you are looking for a starting point on how to combine spirituality with your battle with food addiction, give Cravings a read. It has a lot of good advice in it. Despite my picky caveats, I recommend it.

Marry for Life by Marrying Right

To join the discussion about The Sacred Search, or for a link to buy it, go here.

Gary Thomas is a Southern Baptist pastor, a husband and the father of three children. This gives him a tri-fold source of insight into what it takes to make a marriage work. He uses this wisdom well in The Sacred Search. 

The book gives specific parameters about what to look for in a future spouse. It also outlines some of the reasons why and ideas about how to break up a relationship with the wrong person before it goes on too long.

Thomas sees a healthy marriage as a life-long commitment that will provide an environment for raising healthy children and build up the community of faith in which it subsists.

I agree with him about this. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the many divorces, fatherless children and serial marriages that we endure in this country contribute greatly to the increasing social and moral chaos we are experiencing as a nation and a culture.

Seen that way, the advice that Reverend Thomas gives in this book takes on a crucial quality. He believes that the purpose of each human life is to glorify the Lord and that the decision of whether or not to marry, or who to marry should be made in light of this one thing.

However, he does not support the idea that young people should just “wait for the Lord” to bring them the proper spouse and deliver him or her to their front door. He feels that the search for a spouse is an important activity that people should enter into in an intentional and intelligent way. While he acknowledges the power of infatuation, he dismisses it as a reason for marrying.

According to Reverend Thomas, a young Christian should consider a prospective spouse seriously by looking for character, a strong Christian faith and general compatibility in terms of temperament and interests.

I agree with all this. Where I part company with Reverend Thomas somewhat is in the lengthy laundry list of things he suggests that people look for in a prospective spouse. He advises just about everything except hooking them up to a lie detector to check them out. I just don’t think that this level of thinking it through is practical.

I also don’t think it’s necessary. Based on my experience of a long marriage, I think that people can and do change for one another (something that Rev Thomas dismisses out of hand) and that if the marriage is to work, they will have to. It isn’t necessary or even possible to marry someone who shares all your interests or who has the same temperament as you.

It’s more important that you are able to accept these differences and make space for your individuality in the marriage. I think it is also necessary that both of you be willing to change for the other. You can’t marry someone who is going to fit with you in every aspect. Any marriage that requires one person to do all the changing and the other person to do none of it is almost certainly bound to fail.

Sometimes, you have to do things that aren’t your ideal preference just for the simple reason that it makes your spouse happy. Both of you have to do this from time to time. I have no quarrel with what Reverend Thomas says in this book, except that I think he doesn’t give enough emphasis to the need to give to one another. Marriage is a mutual self-giving. You have to love your spouse so much that their happiness makes you happy; and both of you must feel that way about the other.

The Sacred Search is a good book. It’s full of wisdom and good ideas. I plan to give it to my sons to read. However, I also want them to know that, while it’s full of good ideas, it isn’t an iron-clad rule book.

Book Review: A Season of Mystery

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A Season of Mystery is one woman’s approach to the pleasures and challenges of the last decades of life. The author, Paula Huston, is a Catholic convert who has been through a divorce, remarriage, raising a blended family and is now engaged in caring for her failing in-laws and mother.

She takes the reader through 10 times of life and discusses the spiritual dimensions of each of them in terms of the emotions and spiritual needs of the last half of our lives. She illustrates these 10 times of life and the life activitives she engaged in during them with her own spiritual practices.

Paula Huston is deeply attached to the contemplative side of Catholicism. Since she’s a writer, there does seem to be an obvious symmetry there. Her spiritual director, confessors, and most power spiritual friends are a group of monks who she evidently visits quite often.

Their quiet, reflective and indirect approach to thinking things through obviously has a great attraction for her. She relates stories about the monks, quotes the desert fathers and otherwise builds on them and their spirituality to make sense of the end years of life.

Her conclusion, that the goal of these last decades is to prepare us for the next life beyond death is a charming one with a lot of appeal and I think quite a bit of truth. However, I do tend to disagree with her a bit. I think all of life is a preparation for the next one, and at the same time, all of life, including the last years, has value in the here and now.

We are not here by accident and this life is not a way-station. It has meaning and purpose of its own. The last years of life are just as important as any other time we have.

But then, I’m not drawn to monasticism.

Ms Huston builds the book around 10 times in her own life from which she did things that she now sees as a sort of spiritual activity. For instance, when her children grew up and left home, she and her husband entered into what used to be called the “second honeymoon” and which she calls the “delighting.” It’s that easy time when you’re still young enough to enjoy life fully and suddenly free enough to do so. She calls it a “second adolescence.”

She goes through the times when maintaining what sounds like quite a lot of land and a house becomes too burdensome and she and her husband divest themselves of the things they acquired during their earlier years. She calls this “lightening.”

There are 10 such times in her life. Most people go through similar times in their lives, but I doubt if the situations fall into these exact patterns for everyone. Still, life has its seasons for all of us, and each season has its rewards and challenges.

The only way for anyone to meet these challenges is with God at their side. This book is written by a woman who infuses the times of her life with a monastic approach to God and who communicates that beautifully to the reader.

Even if monasticism and the desert fathers are not your way of walking with Christ, the book is still a thoughtful and enjoyable read.

Book Review: In Need of a Re-Write

For a link to buy Ghost Brother Angel, or to join in the discussion about it, go here

Don’t read Ghost Brother Angel if you’re looking for a spine-tingling tale of the supernatural that will keep you up at night. You can read this book just before bed and miss not a wink.

Ghost Brother Angel was written by Grant Schnarr, a Pastor in the Swedenborg tradition of Christianity. It has all the narrative points of a riveting tale. But it is boring. I had trouble making myself finish it. I think the reason why is that the subject matter is too close to the author.

The underlying story is a simple tale of a family so wracked by grief over the death of their first child that they snap the lid shut on their emotions and refuse to talk about him or what happened. This silence locks everyone involved in their separate trauma rooms for decades.

That’s dramatic stuff, but in this book it’s tepid. I think the problem with the writing is that the child that died was Grant Schnarr’s older brother. He himself spent much of his life living with the silent trauma of his grief-stricken parents. He alludes to the fact that his father was an alcoholic, which was certainly another traumatic thing he had to deal with as a child. As a young adult, Schnarr evidently fell into alcoholism himself. Some stories cut too close to the bone to tell.

The book gives the impression that nobody in this family talked about any of this before Pastor Schnarr forced the issue decades later. What led him to do this was a personal breaking point precipitated by two back-to-back brushes with death. 

The first brush with death was a near-crash of a transcontinental airliner Schnarr and his wife were on. They were beginning a flight from America to South Africa when the hydraulic system on the plane began to fail. After a terrifying flight back to the airport and a bumpy landing, they had to spend the night in a hotel then get up the next day and get back on the same plane and fly across the ocean to Africa. 

Schnarr relates all this in a detail-laden narrative that, despite the powerful events he is describing, keeps the reader away from the action. What’s left is a sort of I-see-the-words-but-I don’t-feel-the-pain kind of reading experience. 

After the couple arrives in South Africa, they learn that one of their sons has been hit by a bus. He has a concussion and scrapes and bruises, but is not seriously injured. Schnarr’s wife goes home to the child while he continues his work in Africa. I’ll stop here to say that this is something I don’t understand. Who would not go back to their child under circumstances like these? The action of staying on in Africa seemed as distant as the narrative itself.  

Schnarr relates all this in the same lackadaisical way he does everything else. The whole book is about his thoughts and feelings. The drama of even the most dramatic events gets filtered through his almost clinical fixation on his own reactions. What we read is not what happened, but what he thought about what happened, how he reacted to what happened, and then, his ruminations about his thoughts and reactions. 

The main storyline isn’t focused on ghosts or dead brothers or even a family in need of healing. It’s a numbing recitation of Grant Schnarr’s every little thought and reaction to every little thing. The book is the narrative of the author, taking his own emotional pulse and then reporting his findings to everyone around him, 24/7. After a while, the reading gets about as interesting as watching a cow chew her cud. 

By the end of the book, Schnarr has wandered through the woods of endless mystical explanations of everyday experiences and self-absorbed self-examination to come to the conclusion that his brother is not dead, but probably his guardian angel. He also realizes that the family needs to take the memory of this lost child out of the closet and talk about him. 

I think Ghost Brother Angel needed an editor. I’m not talking about a grammar-checking copy editor. I mean a red-pencil-wielding editor with the ability to cut the story loose from the dead weight. The story in Ghost Brother Angel is hidden behind useless detail and long-winded descriptions of things that do nothing to move the book along. This book needed an editor to hand the manuscript back to the author and say “Write the story.” 

Ghost Brother Angel could have been a fine book. The subject matter is compelling for all of us mortals and the events have enough drama to hold anyone’s attention. But at least for me, what it is instead is one boring read. 

Book Review: One Woman’s Trip to Heaven and Back

For a link to buy To Heaven and Back or to join in the discussion about it, go to Patheos Book Club here.

 

To Heaven and Back is the story of one woman’s life of providential living.

To Heaven and Back tells the story of Dr Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, who drowned in a kayaking accident in the Chilean Andes, went to heaven and was revived by the efforts of her companions. But it isn’t just another I-died-and-went-to-heaven-then-came-back book, although it certainly does tell the story of a woman who did exactly that. Dr Neal tells that story with clarity and in detail. But what sets the book apart is Dr Neal’s life in Christ. That’s what inspired me.

It is the story of God’s interaction with Dr Neal throughout the course of her life. Dr Neal has the charism of discerning Divine Providence in the events of her life and the grace of accepting this Providence for what it is when she encounters it. She is unembarrassed to share these experiences in an age when people who admit they see God at work in their lives are often the butt of jokes.

It’s too bad that Edward Kennedy had already taken the name True Compass. It would have been a perfect fit for this book. Following Jesus and living her life for Him have provided a true compass for Dr Neal throughout her life, not just on that day in Chile when she died.

The accident in Chile wasn’t Dr Neal’s first close call. When she was in college, she and her diving instructor had a narrow brush with disaster on her first free dive. She and the instructor accidentally swam into an underwater cave. They didn’t discover where they were until night was falling and they were both running out of air. Dr Neal says:

I kicked the bottom of the lake with my fins and raised clouds of silt. We were running out of air and the tank alarms were echoing. That’s when I remembered to pray. I called out to God and I was immediately filled with the feeling of God’s presence and the knowledge that He would show us the way out … The silt cleared and we saw several fish … lining up together, swimming in the current. They seemed to beckon us to follow, which we did.

The fish led Dr Neal and her instructor out of the cave. By the time they got to the surface, her instructor’s tank was completely empty of air. Her instructor

believed we had survived by pure luck. He … proceeded to drink himself into oblivion. For my part, I had a profoundly different response to our survival. I did not believe that luck was involved … I believed that we had survived because God intervened, even though we had been such knuckleheads and He had to essentially push us out of the cave.

That is one of the better descriptions of the difference in how providential living and existential living affect people’s responses to life that I have read. Dr Neal viewed the event through the lens of faith. She was willing to give God His due when He helped her. This faithful life view allowed Dr Neal to see meaning and purpose in the near disaster in the underwater cave. Her instructor saw what had happened as a random accident. Faith gave Dr Neal emotional resilience, while her instructor had to drink away the trauma.

This experience is an example of the way Dr Neal’s willingness to see God in her life has allowed her to move through difficulties with courage and face serious obstacles without becoming overwhelmed by them. I believe that is the true theme of the book.

She was severely injured when she drowned in Chile and endured a long recovery afterwards. But the greatest challenge of her life came when her son died. I don’t believe that anyone who’s lost a child is ever the same afterwards. Dr Neal says that she is not and never will be the same as she was before her son’s death. The grief she describes was so acute that she had to hold onto her faith like a lifeline. In her words:

I taped the following daily creed to our refrigerator and grasped onto it for survival.

My Daily Creed

I believe God’s promises are true.

I believe heaven is real.

I believe nothing can separate me from God’s love.

I believe God has work for me to do.

I believe God will see me through and carry me when I cannot walk.

God continued to carry our family month after month, as we struggled to put one foot in front of the other. I do not understand how anyone can make this journey without trusting in God’s plan.

Even though she suffered grievously, Dr Neal’s charism for seeing Providence in the simple things was balm to her wounds during this period. Her willingness to accept God’s love was the saving grace, not only for her, but for her husband and her other children.

To Heaven and Back is an easy read, dealing with one woman’s life in Christ. It deals with life, love, grief, death and authentic living in an honest and unembarrassed Christian manner. These topics are at the core of the human experience, while most of the things we consider more important are far out on the periphery.

I think one reason why books that relate honest human experience in these areas often seem simple is that they are simple, but not in the sense that they are simplistic or shallow. They are simple in the way that elegance is simple; because it is true.

I’m glad I read To Heaven and Back. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own walk with God. I recommend it.

 

 


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