Dec 152014

For some book reviews I am almost tempted just to mention that some author has a new book out and that should be sufficient to pique your interest.

Case in point is Peter Kreeft’s new book Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas. This is an author always worth reading. Since he is also a rather prolific author, directing your attention to specific books of his is also worth doing.

Peter Kreeft’s books have had a positive impact on my life. His book Handbook of Christian Apologetics coauthored with Fr. Tacelli really helped me in my limbo from atheism to belief. It was the book’s format like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae with objections and the answering of objections that helped me to get passed some of my doubts. That I didn’t have to jettison my reason for faith and in fact required fuller use of it.

In the intervening years I have found his other books to be helpful also. His latest book Practical Theology has quickly become my favorite book of his. The concept of the book is rather simple. Peter Kreeft uses St. Thomas Aquinas works and organizes them in a way beneficial as spiritual direction. As he reminds us this Doctor of the Church wrote his Summa Theologiae for “beginners” and that the same audience this book is intended for. Still it is rather hard for most people without a solid philosophical background to easily read St. Thomas’ works. I remember once picking up “The Pocket Aquinas” and being totally lost trying to read it. Fortunately that is not a problem here. Besides the saints words Mr. Kreeft provides an abundance of clarifications. Even when quoting passages he briefly interjects information to clear up St. Thomas’ meaning. After these passages he then further illuminates it.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was just how focused it was. For the most part the topics are contained to just one page with few going beyond that. Combined with Peter Kreeft’s playfulness you have a nice touch of humor that doesn’t intrude on the topic. When I first received this book I figured at 366 pages I could read it in a week and then prepare a review. That plan was quickly wrecked as I more slowly read through the book and let it marinate in my mind. This was not a book I wanted to rush through. In fact I think I will shortly read it again. Only this time I will limit myself to reading just one or two chapters a day. With 358 topics this book is a good candidate for a topic a day to read through in a year book. Flannery O’Connor use to spend at least 15 minutes with the Angelic Doctor each night.

One aspect of St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings that really spoke to me was not just the answers he gave to questions, but the questions he asked. This really brought to my mind this comment from G.K. Chesterton.

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. – Orthodoxy, Chapter 9

I have no doubt the saint would have totally agreed to this comment as his theological output was a playing in this playground. There are many who can’t see the forest for the trees and can’t see the playground because of the boundaries. There were questions he asked that I times I had wondered about, but figured nobody would have giving them any serious attention. So the best thing about “Practical Theology” is that it helped me to play in this playground and to remember that spiritual direction and spiritual reading can really fill you with joy.

Dec 072014

John C. Wright’s latest SF short story collection is called The Book of Feasts & Seasons.

Stories are arranged from the Liturgical Calendar starting with “The Solemnity of Mary, The Holy Mother of God.” This provides a thematic presentation of the stories although many of the stories would only generally fit into specific feasts and seasons. All of them are SF stories and include time traveling, contacts with aliens, and even a ghost story. The first story “The Meaning of Life as Told Me by an Inebriated Science Fiction Writer in New Jersey” is really rather fun.

While I enjoyed all the stories, some of them were exceptionally good. Short stories are not my favorite medium, yet I found several stories I want to revisit later. Two of the stories I had read before. “The Ideal Machine” was one I read in volume 1 of the “Sci Phy Journal” not that long ago. Still I enjoyed it even more on the second time around as a unique alien visitation story that takes place in a parish with a priest and two military men. The other one I had read before was “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus” which was posted on his blog. A very powerful story perfect for Christmas or really the Feast of St. Nicholas”. A story that brought tears to my eyes again as did another story in the collection.

The rather unique ghost story “Pale Realms of Shade” was one of these and one that fit with the theme of the book. One of other themes of this book was marriage and sacrifice and surprisingly by the title “Queen of the Tyrant Lizards” fit in there. His explorations of the consequences of time travel as in his other short story collection are really fresh and unique as in this specific story. The one titled “Nativity” is another time travel story going into a territory explored before regarding going back into the time of Christ. In “Nativity” we a presented with a husband’s grief over the death of his wife and his travel into the past seeking answers to his questions. The question of evil and whether anything ultimately matters. I hadn’t found time traveling stories into the time of Christ very worthwhile in the past. Some were much better than others such as Brandon Sanderson’s novella “Legion”, but none of them really made contact with me; much less contact with the premise. “Nativiy” presented in the Advent section of the book is great Advent reading which contains both the wonder of good SF along with the wonder of Christ and was the other story that brought tears to my eyes.

As the theme of this collection suggests these are stories that have a philosophical and theological dimension. Yet this is not pious SF that sacrifices storytelling for piety. These are excellent stories that happen to have a deeper dimension. His description of crucifixion in “Nativiy” was especially vivid to me and strangely I would love a set of reflections on the Rosary from his hands. There was a realism in the movie “The Passion of the Christ” that I liked, yet some sentences in this story brought the horror of crucifixion fuller to my understanding, especially some very unglamorous aspects. Well done Mr. Wright.

Dec 032014

After listening to Tim Staples for many years on Catholic Answers I was always hoping he would finally get around to writing a book. He has produced lots of audio CDs along with one book containing a collection of his excellent columns in This Rock (now renamed) magazine. So I finally got my wish with Behold Your Mother – A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines.

The Marian doctrines and the high place Mary occupies for Catholics was never really a problem with me during my conversion. Once I got over the “Yes there is a God” and accepted the authority of the Catholic Church I was in the wanting to learn more mode. Still Catholic radio has certainly demonstrated that this is very often a stumbling block for Protestants. Whether they are heading towards the Church or just dumbfounded by this it is an obvious problem to address in the area of apologetics.

With Tim Staples bing an ex-Assembly of God Youth Pastor he has experienced this reaction personally. The focus of this book is largely of an apologetics nature in working with Protestants, but can also be useful for Catholics not quite sure what the big deal is about Mary.

As a one volume work in popular apologetics it really packs a punch. As the subtitle suggests it looks at all the Marian Doctrines along with a lot of the titles associated with the Blessed Mother. I really enjoyed the tone of the book which was instructional without being dry. Common and other objections are dealt with during each chapter along with later chapters and appendixes providing deeper information.

Tim really did his homework and there are a wealth of footnotes. These footnotes go beyond just references, but also contain further information along with fuller quotes. For a change instead of just skipping over the footnotes, I actually read many of them. As you would expect there is also plenty of Patristic references matched up to the chapters in the book.

Al Kresta on his radio show when talking about this book said that he wished such a work was available in his Protestant days as he would have returned to the Church much sooner. This illustrates exactly why a book like this is so important since there are so many objections to Catholicism based on our special veneration due to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dec 022014

I’ve read some books on the history of the Crusades and it is a rather fascinating chapter of Church history. It is kind of like the Facebook relationship status “It’s complicated.” Yet as interesting as the history of the Crusades is, it is usually a history that was filtered and altered down to us as a synonym of evil. In a Robert Heinlein book I recently read the Crusades were put on the same par as the Holocaust.

So when I first heard mention of a new book put out by Catholic Answers on the subject I was of course intrigued. Especially since it has the provocative title of The Glory of the Crusades. So I was very happy to get a review copy.

The author Steve Weidenkopf is a lecturer of Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. As with other books on the history of the Crusades I have read there is a robust debunking of the various myths associated with them. I really enjoyed getting a much broader look at the historical context especially all the events that lead up to them. These events make it more understandable to see why Pope Urban II called for what became known as the first Crusade. In the past I had thought that it was the case that pilgrims to the Holy Lands were harassed or killed. I had no idea the scope of this such as when a group of 12,000 pilgrims were massacred by the Seljuk Turks. At the same time there were incursions on the Byzantine Empire as the Seljuk Turks took over Nicea and were in range of Constantinople. This caused Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to send ambassadors to the pope seeking help in a rescue effort. An irony of history considering the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade.

One of the problems with reviewing this book is that I learned so much from it along with the book being chock-full of surprising tidbits. It would be so easy to want to fill the review with all this information. I was totally absorbed in his relating of this history the good and the bad. While called The Glory of the Crusades this book does not shy off from the shame of some of the actions during them such as the despicable Sack of Constantinople. Lots of contrasts between men like Godfrey who rejected the title of king and his brother Baldwin who had no qualms about being named King in Jerusalem. Contrasts between St. Louis IX and Frederick II. The retelling of this history is such that at times I felt frustration over the stupidity of how the Crusades were managed from a logistical point of view and how they seemed to learn no lessons from previous Crusades. Along with anger regarding the evil done during the Crusades. This history became bright in my mind like it was a recent event. In modern times we think of national armies like the wars in the last 100 years and how different this was from the reality concerning the centuries the Crusades occurred in. The picturesque phrase “herding cats” seems to be an apt comparison to the loose associations of the men signed with the cross.

The term Crusades is a modern word as the author notes.

“Crusading contemporaries used the term passagia, among others, meaning an “exceptionally large military expedition declared against unbelievers.” Those who undertook the passagia were known as crucesignati, or “those signed with the cross.”

One final aspect of this book that I enjoyed is it also went into a more detailed history of how the well-known myths became the accepted history for many. It is easy to see how this was done as we have experienced in recent history regarding Pius XII. A history retold through through anti-Catholic bias by first Protestants and then secularists, Communists, and eventually Muslims. There was enough evil in the Crusades that it didn’t need to be embellished, yet still it was recast as if the Crusaders were the invading armies bent only on riches. At least modern Crusades scholarship is now more focused on studying this history through the perspective of the participants instead of simply projecting on them their motives.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read with close to 700 footnotes. Usually a large number of footnotes is inversely proportional to how enjoyable something is to read.

Oct 292014

I have been very impressed with the work of Trent Horn of Catholic Answers. I always enjoy when he is answering calls on Catholic answers and his last book Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity was excellent. So when I had heard he was writing a new book I certainly looked forward to it.

Now having read Persuasive Pro Life: How to Talk about Our Culture’s Toughest Issue which was recently released I can say this book is another winner. Still I had wondered if this book would just be a collection of all the pro-life defenses I have heard. I should have known better.

Since Trent Horn hosts the mostly shows where he answers questions from atheists and considering his last book I thought apologetics regarding this topic was his expertise. I did not know about his years working full-time in the pro-life movement and all that he had learned during those years. He references some of his work during this time and what he had learned from his own mistakes in talking to people.

What I especially found worthwhile is that what he lays out in this book is not just confined to pro-life apologetics. There are many basic principals that apply when talking to people on most subjects that are highly polarized. The basics of actually listening to people and not just waiting to unleash your counter-argument is evident, but so easy to be forgotten. Asking questions and not just making statements also helps.

He provides a wealth of practical advice when dealing with others. A central theme seemed to be staying on point. There are so many side channels that such discussions can diverge on. Rabbit holes crossed with connecting gopher holes. In this case always leading the discussion back to the central question “What are the unborn?” He provides lots of advice on how to do this. The tool _“Trot Out a Toddler (TOAT)” is one of those ideas that can stick in your mind and to help in these discussions. He provides other mental tools and acknowledges their sources.

Much of the book provides tactics in how to stay on track and to be able to answer both common and more uncommon questions. He goes in-depth regarding just how to answer these questions and to drive the question back to the central point. While ad hominem arguments are common among those who defend abortion, he also points out ad hominem arguments that are common among pro-lifers. I think his prudential approach to some common pro-life arguments and while some of them are very good points, they don’t prove the central point. This book is very thorough in answering objections and categorizing these objections for later reference. Appendices at the end of the book goes into How to Talk to Pre- and Post-Abortive Women and Answering Infanticide.

This book is just a treasure-trove in regards to both information and advice. Really this is the best presentation on this topic I have ever seen. I would say it would be highly useful to anybody from someone who might have casual arguments on this topic with co-workers and friends to those on the front lines of defending life.

Oct 272014

When it comes to books regarding J.R.R. Tolkien and his books it has become much like scripture interpretation. Which means in this case is that you learn much more about the philosophy of the author and very little about Tolkien’s works. Famously his books have been taken up by socialists who rather crazily assumed he was a fellow traveler, to environmentalists, and hippies. Anybody with a narrative can read into his books much like scriptural eisegesis.

So I was both intrigued and wary of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot which was recently released by Ignatius Press and authored by the team of Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt.

Regarding Tolkien’s books I am relatively late to the game. For quite a while I ignored Fantasy as being unscientific and embarrassingly held a view much like Richard Dawkins disdain of Fairy stories. Added to that I remember seeing a parody novel as a youth called “Bored of the Rings” which I think unconsciously prejudiced me as an added weight towards any interest in the novels. Seeing the Rankin-Bass animated version certainly did not reduce my prejudice against the novels. It was only on my way into the Catholic Church that I kept running across references to these novels and I finally picked them up. Since then The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy have been close to being an annual revisit. I am no Tolkien scholar by any means, just a Tolkien reader. The only biography I have read on him is Joseph Pearce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life.

Reading these books through a lens of economics and small government could be such a distorted view with all the problems I referenced in the introduction paragraph. Is the Shire to be taken for an idealistic view of economics and government? Can some of Tokien’s views in this regard be seen in the novels. Coming away for this book I do think the authors make a good case for what the novels reveal about Tolkien’s economic and government views. Using the novels, his letters, and the originally unpublished volumes of his works they make a good case while not asserting something when there is ambiguity. Thankfully this book does not just concentrate on this narrative and leaves open where there is some doubt regarding Tolkien’s thoughts. I think I even enjoyed more the discussions regarding freedom, corruption of power, and just war theory. These discussion for me teased out more from the book and provided insights that will help me on my next read.

I remember the first time I read Return of the King and was very surprised that the destruction of the ring at Mt. Doom was in the middle of the novel and the episode of The Scourging of the Shire made little sense to me thematically. I have grown to appreciate that episode much more since and the chapter on this subject helped me even more. The final chapter titled Love and Death in Middle-Earth was also very enlightening. The book goes through the novels showing how much love and death was an integral part thematically. Over and over I was drawn to a deeper understanding of the novels and even such minor things as etymology of words used also brought this out for me.

So I found this book to be worthwhile giving me much to think about, but not being a Tokien scholar or a scholar of any kind I can’t testify to their assertions. Since I am already inclined to the views of the book my own biases could get in the way of a more critical read.

Oct 022014

Cardinal Gerhard Müller who is Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a new book coming out on October 10th during the Synod of Bishops as they discuss ‘The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.’ The Hope of the Family: A Dialogue with Cardinal Gerhard Müller. This book is done in the interview format with questions from Spanish journalist Carlos Granados.

I’ve never read any of Cardinal Müller’s writings so I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed what he had to say. As a rather short book of under a 100 pages, still there is much to reflect on and I copied out a bunch of notes to further reflect on.

Due to all the punditry regarding the upcoming synod you would think it was called “The Divorced Receiving Communion.” You would have no idea of the breadth of the schema to be discussed as specified in Instrumentum Laboris. The actual interview involves a range of issues regarding the family. The hot buttons issue regarding divorced Catholics is addressed in part, and it is obvious the interviewer tried to draw out more on this. This gives just a taste of his reply which is much broader.

Cardinal Müller: Saint Thomas Aquinas said that mercy is precisely the fulfillment of justice, since God thereby justifies and renews his creature man (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 21, a. 3). Therefore, it should never be used as a justification to suspend or invalidate the commandments and the sacraments. To do that would be a crude manipulation of genuine mercy and, therefore, a vain attempt to justify our own indifference toward God and man. — Page 54

If we turn to the Gospel, we observe how Jesus, in his dialogue with the Pharisees concerning divorce, also has recourse to the two terms “divorce” and “mercy” (cf. Mt 19:3–12). Precisely in this passage he accuses the Pharisees of “hardness of heart”, of being unmerciful, since in their tortured interpretation of the Law they have concluded that Moses supposedly granted permission for them to dismiss their wives. Jesus reminds them that God’s mercy is contrary to our human weakness. — Page 55

What struck me the most was what he had to say about the individual in the context of the family and how “our society exalts individual rights.”

The individualistic family is another typically modern category: how many families languish because they are confined to themselves! — Page 38

There is much in that simple statement and category of “individualistic family” that is an accurate diagnosis of the state of the family. Maybe this simple statement hits me because of my own self-absorption.

As for pastoral practices, in my former archdiocese of Regensburg, it is quite common to offer Eucharistic liturgies for families with very young children. This seems to me to be a very good idea. We no longer talk about “a children’s Mass” but, rather, more accurately, about “a family Mass” since the attempt to introduce a child to the faith is useless and even counterproductive if this is done behind the back of his family. — Page 40

Throughout I could see his sense of urgency and his concerns for the family.

As a pastor, I tell myself: This cannot be! Someone will have to present the truth to them! Someone will have to open their eyes and tell them that they have been cruelly deceived by a false anthropology that leads only to disaster! — Page 78

Another unfortunate trend lately has been the “Cardinal vs. Cardinal” narrative. No doubt there has been a very lively debate and at times even name-calling, still there has also been simply discussion and critique without that stain. This book avoids that narrative and while the Cardinal critiques ideas and the manipulation of citations from the Church Fathers, he does not mention specific people.

Sep 172014

The Protestant’s Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism by Devin Rose is a rather interesting read.

Many apologetics books in this area concentrate on a couple of arguments such as the faults of interpretation such as Sola Scriptura. What I found most interesting is that this book uses a variety of arguments taking the consequences of various Protestant theology to their natural conclusion. That often some of these Protestant premises really prove too much in that they are self-defeating.

Devin Rose as a former Protestant worked through these ideas on his way into the Church and so he conveys multiple intellectual exercises regarding “If Protestantism is True”. This is the format used for each specific idea within a topic. To first take seriously an idea as true and to work out where that should lead. This is than offset with a concluding paragraph “Because Catholicism is True” which gives the Sed Contra (on the contrary).

These individual chapters within a topic are fairly short and so there were certainly times where I wanted to see an idea more fleshed-out. Still I enjoyed that I often came across objections I had not thought or heard before.

So overall I found this to be a worthwhile read. This is not a book I would just hand to a Protestant friend since the format and the wording could be rather off-putting to someone not already questioning some of the premises. Rather it would be more useful for Catholics wanting to look at some of the arguments used since there is such a wide variety contained within this book. My only caveat is that there were a very limited number of times where I did not see how the answered objection necessarily flowed from the premise. Possibly I just didn’t fully understand the argument.

Jul 142014

Elizabeth Ficocelli is a talented writer and one of her recent books is no exception. Therese, Faustina and Bernadette: Three Saints Who Challenged My Faith, Gave Me Hope, and Taught Me How to Love

These are three saints I knew a good amount about and so biography-wise I did not expect to learn much from this book. If this was all this book was about then it would have just been an nice introduction to these three saints. Where this book shines is where the author describes how she has incorporated these saints in her daily life. She describes how these saints became important to her during various stages in life as both examples and intercessors.

The book starts off with Elizabeth Ficocelli telling a bit of her conversion story and her entry into the professional world with an advertising firm. The initial excitement and the difficulties and then the series of events leading her to a deeper conversion. Throughout the book the waypoints on the path to holiness is illustrated with the struggles and how specifically these three saints helped her out.

I found the book to be obviously aimed at the women’s market, yet I enjoyed it thoroughly. The examples she gives in the book are nothing abstract, but something we can all find in the struggles in our life regarding how to fully live the faith. Very worthwhile.

Jun 042014

I almost always enjoy reading conversions stories as a full length book. While you usually find certain commonalities there are also aspects that flow from the uniqueness of individuals. Grace shines off the facets that can make such stories familiar and new.

In this case I am referring to Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It by Jennifer Fulwiler.

The broad outline of here conversion story first took a public face when she decided when still an atheist to start a blog. She had questions about religion and wanted to see if there were actually any answers regarding this. To interact with others via the comment section and emails.

I had thought I had known her conversion story and most of the details of it. I remembered reading her posts she she wrote at The Reluctant Atheist and subsequently Et tu, Jen? prior to her entrance into the Catholic Church. She currently blogs at Conversion Diary.

So going in I found that while there was familiar territory in her story there was also much more to the story. From the start of the book I was totally engaged in how she relates her story. She really brings you into her life and some of the events surrounding her atheism and how it expressed itself as a child. How she came to grips with the fact that her non-belief in God was at odds with most of the other children she knew.

What so hooked me in her telling of her story was just how much you are invited in to both her struggles and her joys and consequently into her family. There is a very difficult struggle in going from an established atheistic view to admitting that just possibly there is something to consider on the other side of the divide. That even when there is a reconsideration of atheism and a movement towards faith that there is a fear you are losing your reason and going after something squishy. The problems where when intellectually you are increasingly satisfied there is still the divide between intellectual belief and acting on that belief.

The only thing I found lacking was that really I wanted more details regarding some aspects of her conversion. Although I totally understood why she didn’t go into them. It is a difficult balance to write about conversion while not going into every details regarding family relationships and demands of privacy. When Jennifer Fulwiler participated in a three-part reality show called Minor Revisions I was very intrigued with her relationship with her father who remains an atheists. The book goes partially into her very positive relationship with her father and his encouragement in her seeking the truth wherever it leads. Still she is also very frank about the conversations that came up between her and her husband and the struggles they had. Especially as she was coming to faith and he was starting to take his faith seriously. One of the reasons I so enjoy conversion stories is seeing real people live out the demands of the faith amidst everyday life.

The conversational tone of her writing along with the humor throughout takes on serious subjects while allowing you to think and laugh as you proceed through the book. I certainly found that my reading sessions of this book were prolonged where I was always thinking, “I will just read another page or two before I put it down for the night.” Even if conversion stories are not usually your taste, you will probably find that this one just might be. If you are looking for a book to give an atheist that is a more difficult question. The experience of atheist converts is often disregarded by atheists. Plus each person is different and are on various parts of a journey. So I would suggest reading it yourself and seeing if it would be helpful for a specific individual.

One aspect that I found difficult in writing this review is that I identified with so many points of her experience. As someone who had also from childhood identified as an atheist along with some similar aspects in family life. The difficulty is that I wanted to avoid writing about myself in reviewing this book. So I will let this last-paragraph intrusion of my ego be the extent of it.