Between Heaven and Mirth, by James Martin, SJ (A Book Review)

Folks who have been visiting this space know that I have a soft spot in my heart for the writings of Fr. James Martin. You see, the very first post written here, by Webster Bull, he mentioned his book “My Life With The Saints.” I also read that book and enjoyed it immensely. Fr. Jim, see, has what I like to think of as a unique, folksy style, that appeals to many. Stephen Colbert has noticed, [Read more…]

The Church And New Media by Brandon Vogt (A Book Review)

About ten years ago, (Hmm…let me check my archives), no scratch that, about a year and a half ago (sheesh, it seems like ten years!) I was hosting the YIMCatholic Bookclub selection The Great Heresies by Hilaire Belloc. Looking for ways to get readers involved (a “new media” hallmark, no?) I asked for volunteers to cover several of “Old Thunders” chapters for me.

You know, like my wife does with her bookclub in our neighborhood. For the most part, folks were lined up none deep. But in the case of chapter 5, an earnest volunteer surfaced by the name of Brandon Vogt. He was a great helper, once I let him get a word in edgewise.

You know? This guy
needs to grow a beard!

Who knew what he was up too then? I reckon Our Sunday Visitor and God knew, but not me. Maybe it was 4 or 6 weeks later when I saw on Brandon’s blog that he had signed a book contract with OSV. I thought to myself “Huh? Wow…this guy is on a mission!” And he surely was, and still is. A mission to spread the Word by any means possible. And to not be shy about using new forms of information technology to get that done.

Before going any further I’m going to say that this book belongs in every parish as a reference book. Period! If your parish office doesn’t have this book sitting right next to the computer, they are (as aviators would say) flying upside down without instruments and don’t even know it. That’s serious!

Brandon has teased awesome essays from all sorts of knowledgeable folks while putting together this gem. A veritable Who’s Who of Catholic bloggers (Jennifer Fulwiler, Mark Shea, Marcel LeJuene, Taylor Marshall, I think I got all the Aggies in there, etc.) and other creators of new media (Fr. Robert Barron, Matthew Warner, Tom Peters) share their insights on new media channels while also offering best practices in how to use these technologies to not only evangelize better, but to help people experience our Church better. And Brandon ties the whole thing together with interesting tidbits as diverse as relevant Conciliar documents to reviews of Catholic websites that are on the web currently.

But lest you get the idea that this is some dry, boring, reference book destined to only gather dust in the parish offices of the world, let me assure you that it is not. You need to read the book too, see, whether you are a creator of new media for the Church, or just Joe and Jane Six-Pack, “average pewsitter.” Why? Because Catholics are called to do more than just show up at Mass on Sundays and this book will give you ideas on how to more effectively engage in the calling you are destined for: to spread the Good News to the world by any means necessary. This book is chock full of actionable ideas for accomplishing the mission of the Church. This may even be your ticket to figuring out your own calling too.

But don’t just take my word on how solid a resource this book is. I’m a lilliputian compared to the folks weighing in on the value of this book. And I reckon I’m the last guy to review the book too. Just have a gander at the number of reviews over at The Church and New Media’s Facebook page. Or check out it’s Twitter feed. Did I mention the book’s website? Oh, you want to see the trailer?

Survey says: It’s a Go!

Seriously, Brandon has practiced what he is preaching by getting the word out about this book via every known channel of the “new media” that is available. Heck, he’s an engineer too so he’s probably developing some new channel in his off time as we speak. Did I mention all of the royalties from the sale of this book go towards establishing computer labs for the Archdiocese of Mombasa, Kenya?

Bravo Zulu Brandon! Thanks for writing and editing this helpful, important, nay, necessary book and for convincing all these great folks on the importance of sharing their ideas with the rest of us on how to bring the Good News to the many.

A View from the Back Pew (A Book Review)

As long-time readers of this blog know, we like books around here. It all started when Webster Bull kicked off the YIMC Book Club with 9 weeks of posts for the 9 chapters in G.K. Chesterton’s classic, Orthodoxy.

Then I followed up with 9 weeks of posts on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, as well as a later series of weekly posts on Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies. Those books were all worthy of selections by a blog that makes attempting to answer the statement Why I Am Catholic as it’s raison d’être.

Then a funny thing happened. I wrote a post on how I realized reading The Rule of St. Benedict was helping me be a better father. Next thing I know, Fr. Dwight Longenecker makes me an offer I couldn’t refuse by sending me a free copy of his book, Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers in return for reviewing it in this space. Since the Rule itself is so good, I figured Fr. Dwight could only make it better. So I happily agreed.

Some time passed and Eric Sammons, who blogs at The Divine Life asked me to do the same thing for him, and on the same terms. One free book (Who Is Jesus Christ?) in return for a review. I was happy for the opportunity to read his book, having read of his progress on his blog. Did you see his interview with Fr. Groeschel? It’s “must-see TV.” By the way, Eric? Get a haircut!

Right about now, the opportunist (or the skeptic) in you is thinking “free book = great review with Frank Weathers over at YIMCatholic. Let’s send him something!”

Well that might not be a bad idea, as long as your work is faithful to the Magisterium. For the non-Catholics who may stumble upon this review today, that is a neat word that means “the teaching authority of the Church.” If you would like a more in-depth discussion of this authority, head on over to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Anyway, the folks over at TLC Book Tours made me the same offer that Fr. Dwight and Eric Sammons made me. They sent me a free copy of A View from the Back Pew: God, Religion, & Our Personal Quest for Truth in return for a review.

For all of the books I mentioned above, this was more than a fair trade. That’s because I gained far more from reading all of those books than I paid for in the labor on writing the posts following their chapters, or on writing the reviews. Unfortunately, I can’t say that in the case this time around.

The author, Tim O’Donnell, according to the back cover of the copy I was sent,

takes us on a powerful search for balance—between faith and personal experience, between the roots of Christianity and later layers of doctrine, and between systems of belief and a direct connection to the spiritual presence we call God.

And so my labor began. The first 103 pages (out of a total of 280) drew me through Mr. O’Donnell’s experiences growing up in Catholic schools, where it seems he had more interest in being a cut-up and class appointed pain in the rear (we have that in common, at least) than in actually learning about the faith. There were also some sophomoric school hi-jinks shared, an episode of running away from home, and Tim’s year abroad to Rome while in college, all jammed into these first 100 pages.

Now, I’m not a product of Catholic schools, so his experience reads like another stereotype of mean nuns who wouldn’t answer all of his questions about the faith to his satisfaction. No big deal though, because when you become an adult, and start questioning your faith, you’ll be able to mine the vast resources available to you and answer these questions more to your satisfaction. Except that is not how it turns out for Mr. O’Donnell.

No. Instead, while in Rome, he has an experience that leads him to believe that organized religion is a waste of time. It doesn’t happen all at once, but that is where it eventually leads. After all, God is so much bigger than the Church. And though I agree with that statement, the fact that Jesus started the Church and entrusted St. Peter and his successors with spreading the Gospel and building His Church up is relegated to not much more than being “perhaps the most powerful and wealthy private institution the world has ever known.” Huh? Not much more than a country club for the elite? Sheesh!

On page 103 (Chapter 7) we learn of “the Deal.” This is where Mr. O’Donnell describes the sure knowledge that he will be taken care of by God, made wealthy by Him, in exchange for him bringing the knowledge he has discovered about the true nature of God to the good folks like us. It goes something like this: “I will make you rich, while you’re young, so you can retire early and spread this good news.” Neat, huh? Sometimes while laboring through this book, I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t reading something written by the self-help guru Anthony Robbins.

To be charitable, Mr. O’Donnell has hit upon the importance of people needing to ask questions about their faith. But unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to me that he went very much farther than his own opinion to find many of the answers. By page 113 of the book, I knew where this was heading. Throughout the book, the author makes a few references to the Catechism, and to a few passages from the Gospels. But not many. And not near enough to buttress his arguments.

Besides, by page 129 he is already “questioning” how the Trinity can be true. The Holy Spirit? Redundant. Later he questions why certain books were left out of the New Testament, like the Gnostic gospels that he quotes liberally later. The Kingdom of Heaven? Mr. O’Donnell has his own idea about that. The Our Father? Mr. O’Donnell show us the way we should really pray that prayer. And then the usual bromides about how the Church won’t let women be priests, and how badly the Church treats women, how celibacy is a pretty bad idea, the difficulty in believing Mary was a virgin, or stayed a virgin, etc. It’s pretty much the run-of-the mill list of “silly Catholic stuff” you’ve already read elsewhere. As for the Church being the “bulwark of Truth?” Fegettaboutit!

It took me but a short while to realize that I was reading the work of someone who, sadly, had dropped deeply into the pit of self-made ideas that are best described by one strong word: heresy. At this point, I was just glad I had read Belloc’s The Great Heresies before being asked to review this book. Because although Mr. O’Donnell states that he “did not become a modern-day Gnostic, or anything like that,” I can only say that it appears to me that he is exactly that. Read about the Albigensian Attack and you will understand what I encountered in Mr. O’Donnell’s book.

And so ends my first book review in which I state flatly that this book should be avoided. And that isn’t because Mr. O’Donnell questioned doctrines and found them wanting. It’s because he questioned the doctrines and then failed to find the answers explaining them. As I was reading this book I kept thinking,  where are the Church Fathers? Where are the writings of the Doctors of the Church? Wither the Saints? When he states that women are second-class citizens in the Catholic Church I wonder, where is St. Catherine of Siena,  or St. Teresa of Avila, and The Little Flower?

One of Mr. O’Donnell’s main arguments against the Church here is that she just doesn’t change, or evolve. Which is ridiculous on it’s face because of course she does! That is why Catholicism can’t be “taken up in a tea cup,” as the saint who wrote at length about her development stated so wisely.

The sad fact about this book is that by looking only inward, Mr. O’Donnell has missed so very much. The good news is, he still has a chance to find the rest of the forest if he applies himself to the task. My hope for him is that he climbs down from his own tree to do just that.

Who Is Jesus Christ? by Eric Sammons (A Book Review)

Yesterday I wrote about classic books in the packs and pockets of the saints and how reading them can help us too. For example, St. Francis de Sales (whose feast day is tomorrow) and his worn copy of Dom. Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat. St. Teresa of Avila turned from reading trashy romance novels to reading books like Francisco de Osuna’s The Third Spiritual Alphabet.

Francisco himself constantly references the works of Jean Gerson, which were over 100 years old by the time he read them. I recommend Gerson to you as well.

When the saints above were picking up these volumes, however, they were written by their contemporaries. So just like them, I’m going to recommend a new book to you today: Who Is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew by Eric Sammons.

Who is Eric Sammons? Eric is the director of evangelization at his parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland and is working towards his Masters degree in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also a husband and father of five children. Did I mention he co-founded the non-profit Little Flowers Foundation that helps Catholic families adopt special-needs children? He also blogs at The Divine Life. I like Eric because he is a baseball fan too, and a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, which was my favorite team from childhood. That and he’s obviously a disciple of Our Lord.

But enough about Eric, and on to why should you buy this book. It’s quite simple really. As I mentioned yesterday, you are in Christ the King’s Army, or are thinking about joining it. As such, you are willing to put your life on the line for His Majesty. Therefore it makes a lot of sense for you personally to get to know Him better. This slim, accessible volume, will help you do just that.

There is even a strategic and tactical reason for you to learn as much as you can about Jesus. In the Marines, leadership responsibilities are pushed down to the lowest levels from the highest. Any break in the chain of command, due to death, injury, or absence of one’s superior, does not absolve the subordinate from responsibility to act, in any situation, the way his commander would.

The mission is shared with all and known by all. In the Marines, we call this Commanders Intent. By knowing the commander better, we know how he would act if he was here. Therefore the subordinate knows how to act in his absence. We act as the commanders proxy in any situation. This means we need to have a personal understanding of the commander and that is where Eric’s book comes in. Eric has taken the Gospel of Matthew, and all of the titles of Our Lord and Savior given therein, and has addressed each one in a way that gives us a fuller understanding of who Jesus Christ is.

Reading this book is a wonderful way to get to know Our Lord better. Eric guides us by the hand by exploring our incomplete perceptions of Him first, (Man, Rabbi, Ghost(!), Carpenter’s Son) and even those of His contemporaries and of the Apostle’s (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah). After all, He did ask the question “who do the people say that I am” followed up with “and who do you say that I am?” Eric goes on to explore the roles of Jesus, the prophecies and types of Christ, and his role as a son and as the Son.

Eric takes us through each of these names, or roles, or types, in a way that is easily understandable. I have read aloud portions of this book to my children before family prayer time. I’ve had my children read chapters during “quiet time” too. I’ve read it during breaks at work when my batteries need a recharge as well.

The chapters are short, but dripping with scripture references, the works of the Church fathers, and Eric ends them with reflections and points to ponder. Eric too is a convert to Catholicism, and reflections on his conversion, and examples from his walk on the Way, are helpful to all of us as we too walk this path.

Getting to know Our King better is one of the reasons why I am Catholic. This rich book, published by the good folks at Our Sunday Visitor, will help you (and your family) do the same. Buy a copy and keep it in your, back-pack, briefcase, lunch box, or purse. You’ll be glad you did.

Listen My Son, St. Benedict for Fathers (A Book Review)

This is a first for me, as I’ve never been asked to write a book review before. But a few months back, I wrote a post about how a particular section in the Rule of St. Benedict resonated with me as a father. It turns out, that I wasn’t alone.

Full disclosure time: Father Dwight Longenecker offered to send me a copy of his book at no cost if I would do a review of it. I accepted his kind offer, even though I had no idea how to write a proper review. I still don’t. But since Father D. does such a good job with this, it isn’t difficult for me to recommend this book to fathers, or anyone in a leadership position.

I’ll confess that I was skeptical of applying the entire rule to fatherhood and family life. It helps a lot to know that when Father D. wrote this, he was a novice oblate, and a former Anglican priest. Married and a father of four, he has some real-world experience in being a dad. Nowadays, he is still a husband, a dad, and a Roman Catholic priest. He is a parish priest at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Greenville, South Carolina. He also blogs at Standing On My Head.

What Father D. has done with this book is break the entire Rule of St. Benedict up into daily reflections.  He has devised a scheme whereby you can read the rule three times over the course of a one-year period. For example, Chapter VII of the Rule, Humility, would be read on January 25th, March 26th, and September 25th. In this way, the Rule is divided into bite-sized morsels, and so are Father D.’s reflections. Let’s take a look. First, St. Benedict:

Brothers, Holy Scripture cries aloud to us saying, ‘Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ When it says this it is teaching that all exaltation is a kind of pride. And the Prophet shows that he himself was on his guard against it when he said, ‘Lord, my heart has no lofty ambitions, my eyes do not look too high; I am not concerned with great affairs or marvels beyond my scope.’ Why thus? ‘If I did not think humbly, but exalted my soul, as a child on the mothers breast is weaned, so did you treat my soul.’

Father D. then provides a short reflection on the virtue of humility, usually no more than four paragraphs. Here is an excerpt.

For Benedict, humility is linked with self-knowledge. The truly humble person is the prodigal son, who gets to the very bottom of his resources, where, as the Authorized Version puts it, he ‘comes to himself'(Luke 15.17) and realizes his need of the father’s love. This kind of self-knowledge does not grovel before others. Nor does it indulge in maudlin self-pity or overblown guilt. Instead, it is a clear, hard, and realistic self-appraisal.

Father D., then expands a bit more, freely helping explain Benedict’s thoughts on humility as it relates to pride and further explaining, and referencing, the quotes from Scripture that Benedict used in the section of the Rule that is being read on this particular day. He also dips into other resources in his reflections, from the works of other saints as well as from other Scriptures that help bring clarity to applying the rule to the role of fatherhood.

I would go further and say that his reflections also help anyone, be they a father, or simply someone who fills a leadership role, apply the Rule of St. Benedict in their daily life. After all, that is what the rule was intended to do; to take Christianity and apply it practically to life within a community.

Father D.’s reflections help to keep the Rule relevant for those of us who are shepherding flocks inside our homes, or at work, rather than inside the confines of the cloister.