Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review: "Jesus the Priest"

When I see a book with back cover endorsements from N.T. Wright and Brant Pitre, I experience an almost reflexive need to acquire it. Jesus the Priest (Baker Academic, 2018) is the second of a proposed trilogy from Dr. Nicholas Perrin of Wheaton College. I must admit that I had yet to run across his first volume, Jesus the Temple, but would like to read it and his future Jesus the Sacrifice. Dr. Perrin has an incredible grasp of the primary and secondary literature and is a skilled writer. That said, I did not feel that he achieved his goal in this volume - showing, via the words and actions recorded in the gospels, that the historical Jesus primarily thought of Himself as the eschatological high priest. Dr. Perrin offers a great deal of speculation on the background behind specific words and actions of Jesus, but in my mind his arguments never rose above the level of speculation.

As a Christian, I obviously agree with Dr. Perrin that Jesus understood Himself to be the high priest of the new and eternal covenant. Unlike the good doctor, however, I find very little in the gospels - apart Jesus' statements that He would give his life in sacrifice - from which to illustrate my claim. (It is the Church's great Tradition, with pride of place given to the Epistle to the Hebrews, that communicates this truth to us.) Dr. Perrin has a very Catholic vision, proposing that Jesus meant to share His priesthood with His disciples and that the disciples suffering, united to Christ's, is given a redemptive value. He was speaking my language. I simply wasn't convinced by the evidence he offered that:

  • the traditional reading of the Our Father "has a debilitating weakness," and that "with each petition Jesus is [actually] alluding to a different aspect of a single eschatological reality, all centered around a newly consecrated priesthood and sacred space" (p.52).
  • Jesus' baptism was not so much his anointing as Messiah as it was a priestly anointing.
  • The beatitudes were offered by Jesus as a priestly blessing
  • The disciples eating of the grain on the Sabbath was Jesus recreating the priests' eating of the shewbread.
  • The Danielic Son of Man as a priestly figure

Even though I was not persuaded on these large points, I still found the book to be filled with exegetical gems:

  • Parallels between the Aqedah and Christ's transfiguration
  • Parallels between the Exodus and Gethsemane
  • "Perhaps it is our unconscious prioritization of certain formulations of atonement theology over and against the biblical data that has caused us to understate the communal nature of Jesus' suffering" (p.237).
  • The historicity of Mark's account of Jesus' trial before Caiaphas.

Such gems have me looking forward to reading Dr. Perrin's other works.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Exposing the Anti-Mary: Author Interview with Carrie Gress

In his first epistle, the Apostle John wrote, “as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (1 Jn. 2:19). St. Paul wrote of a final antichrist, “the man of lawlessness…the son of perdition” who will arise prior to Christ’s return (2 Thess. 2:3).The spirit of antichrist has been sowing its seeds in the world from the first century until now. In her fascinating new book, The Anti-Mary Exposed (TAN Books, 2019), Dr. Carrie Gress takes aim at a specific aspect of this anti-Christian spirit, one that, since the 1960s, has distorted the vision of authentic femininity found in Christian Revelation and enfleshed in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dr. Gress marshals a mass of scholarship, presented in easily-accessible language, to detail the cultural shift brought about by a small group of elite American women. They convinced an entire generation of women that they could not be “equal” to men, could not lead “fulfilling” lives until the relationship between mother and child was disrupted. In 2019, we live with the deadly fruits of this revolution: sixty million abortions, skyrocketing divorce rates, an increase in female depression, anxiety, STDs, and substance abuse.  Gress also boldly proclaims the answer to the culture of death: Christ, Truth incarnate, and Mary, his mother and partner in redemption. It is an incredibly book, and I was honored to interview Dr. Gress:

Shane Kapler: Dr. Gress, you pull back the curtain on the ideological roots of the modern feminist movement as well as the personal lives of many of its leaders. As I was reading these revelations - Marxism, childhood abuse, diagnosed mental illness, substance abuse, the occult and pagan liturgy - I remember thinking, "I have friends that I want to share this information with, but they are never going to believe me." What did you, personally, find most shocking?

Dr. Gress: I did this research over two years, so I can imagine the experience of reading all of this over a couple of days. I think what was most shocking to me was our ignorance of the brokenness of second wave feminists. Women like Betty Friedan, Kate Millet and Gloria Steinem are held up for us as role models. Why don’t know about the depth of their brokenness and what it was they were responding to? The reality of who they were has been shielded from us. They considered themselves “Lost Girls.” Almost to a one, they had deep issues with their mothers. They all had major emotional trauma that they struggled with; and yet, these are the women who have led us to what we understand femininity to be in our culture. The fact that this hasn’t been scrutinized, talked about, and even rejected – that was what was most surprising to me.

Kapler: In your book, you point out how, when an ideology fails to deliver on its promises, and people begin to point out its faults, its adherents claim that we simply haven’t gone far enough. They place the blame on the fact that the ideology hasn’t been embraced by everyone. Do you think this it part of our rejection of God, that rather than turning back to him in him in humility and repentance, we keep soldiering further down this road?

Carrie Gress, Ph.D.
Dr. Gress: I think it is part and parcel of an ideology. We saw this very clearly among the Soviets, “Things will just start working once there is more Marxism,” or “once we are more egalitarian.” There is this push, and it becomes so strong that people are almost spellbound by it. One of the things I’ve come to see, and around feminism in particular, is a realization that women approach the world with a certain set of presuppositions: “I need to be more assertive. I need to assert my individuality. I need to compete with men.” What happens actually is that women begin taking on certain vices – rage, aggression – and it ends up making things worse. People don’t want to be around a woman who is really angry.

This pattern is striking to me; and I hear it among Catholic women, too. “When I’m dealing with men I try to be more assertive and not let them think they have the upper hand.” We’ve bought into the ideology enough that we think we need to compete with men. These are not the things that make people want to have deeper relationships with us. What has happened with feminism is that we have created this shell around ourselves, and people don’t want to engage because it’s not kind, it’s not compassionate, it’s not other-centered. All of these great virtues that women have; we’ve kind of been told, “Put those away. You don’t need those.” Women are embracing these broken pieces of feminism and womanhood that they are being offered, without realizing how it has this effect of cutting their feet out from underneath them.

Kapler: What is authentic feminism today? What ways are women being authentically discriminated against today?

Dr. Gress: That’s a difficult question to answer, because victimhood has become such a popular status to have in our culture. It’s hard to see what authentic injustice is and what is a manipulation of people. But I think that, if we can step aside from those realities, the biggest injustice is how women have been convinced that the only way they can get ahead is by making their children and families the enemy, making anything that gets in the way of their career the enemy. If we are going to talk about an actual injustice to women, it is that lie. That lie – that our children are obstacles to our success -- has permeated our culture without anyone pointing out how radical an idea it is, and how it had never been introduced into human culture before.  We have embraced slogans like “Shout Your Abortion” wholeheartedly, and treat it like it is some sort of native human right, because without abortion a woman cannot have her career and be successful.

Kapler: How do you see the Christian acceptance of contraception paving the way for today’s “brave new world”?

Dr. Gress: The biggest problem with contraception is the fact that it sterilizes women. It denies our motherhood, denies our fertility; and as a result, it ends up opening the doors for us to only be thinking about sex as something that is physical pleasure. It is something between consenting adults; and it doesn’t have anything to do with children anymore. This of course also led to the opening of the door to the acceptance of homosexuality. Charles Rice, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, used to talk in his classes about the way contraception was going to lead to the normalization of homosexuality; and everyone used to think he was ridiculous. And yet, we are seeing it in spades. It’s one of those things where any kind of deviancy can be enmeshed into the ethos, because people think, “How is their sex life different from ours? We’re just trying to get sexual gratification, and so are they. There’s nothing else to consider.” I think that, at root, contraception lies behind all of the gender confusion that we are currently dealing with. Of course, Pope Paul VI was right about all of these things, which he predicted would happen with the onset of contraception. Among them is the relationship between men and women and their unifying force as a couple. Divorce rates have certainly spiked because of it, and it has not led to the emotional closeness it was supposed to usher in. All of these things happened because we tinkered with God’s design at a biological level and really disrupted the family.

Kapler: Following Vatican II, there seemed to be a lessening of Mary’s role in the devotional lives of many Catholics. We, of course, also saw this among our Protestant brothers and sisters over the past five centuries. Do you think this great cultural shift could have occurred if Mary's place in the Christian life had not first been diminished?

Dr. Gress: No, this would never have happened if Our Lady had been held at the center of culture. I think you are absolutely right to talk about the Protestant break first, and I have seen Protestants write about this: Protestantism hasn’t carved out any place for women to be women. Obviously, religious orders were eradicated, as was Mary as a role model, so there wasn’t any place for women to understand their role. As a result, men were put on a pedestal; and women are responding to this. The traditional avenues women had to have this close relationship to Christ were walled off from them. That’s one of the biggest issues to begin with.

If we look at what the Catholic Church has actually said about women – not that every Catholic has responding rightly toward women – but in terms of the way the Church upheld femininity, much of that was developed because of who our Lady was. The Church is way ahead on this. We hear this ridiculous line that “Well-behaved women never make history.” That’s not true at all. Historically, if we think about different women who made history, they were saints. They understood that they had to connect their will with God’s will, and then through that they were able to do things they could never do – things they could only do through God. I am thinking of women like St. Helen, St. Lucy, St. Monica, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Joan of Arc. All of these remarkable women had very different vocations. None of these women could be referred to as a doormat. This is what the Catholic Church has had going for it – this understanding of what happens with women when we become holy. Sadly, that was washed from our collective memory, as was Mary. So many women wanted to follow, culturally, what was happening with the trends of the culture: contraception, leaving home to build their own careers, and whatever else was happening culturally at the time. If so many women did not find it absurd to suggest Our Lady as a role model of womanhood, we would not be in this place where we are.

Kapler: Dr. Gress, thank you for your time. I know my readers have thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse into TheAnti-Mary Exposed: Rescuing the Culture from Toxic Femininity.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Book Review: "The Manly Art of Raising a Daughter"

When I received Sophia Institute's email blast about this book on my daughter's 14th birthday, it seemed like more than coincidence. Over the past six months, I had been sensing a distance developing between the two of us. I understand that it is natural and good for children to begin expressing more independence; but I worry about the distorted vision our culture works so hard to perpetuate and whether I am doing enough - or even the right things - to prepare my daughter to face the world with the mind of Christ. 

Like all good reality checks, I found Alan Migliorato's The Manly Art of Raising a Daughter comforting in many respects and challenging in others. Migliorato is a straight shooter. I wasn't shocked by any of his advice; it is common-sense. (But that's in woefully short supply these days; and I found over 120 straight pages of it refreshing.) His tone is blunt, but offset with plenty of humor.

Chapters can be read in less than ten minutes, and each stands alone quite well. Migliorato's choice of topics is spot-on, too: 

1) Introducing your daughter to God via the sacramental life and prayer
2) Getting to know your daughter's friends and guiding her to be a good judge of character

3) Teaching her when and how to fight: physically, for justice, and spiritually

4) Dressing modestly

5) A father's need to practice active listening

6) Boyfriends

7) The importance of distraction-free family meals

8) Overcoming smartphone addiction and navigating social media
 As a father of three dauthers, Migliorato shares a great deal of wisdom, born of his successes as well as mistakes. I'll give you an example, which I thought was brilliant, from his chapter on modesty: While clothes shopping with his daughter, a high school freshman, she asked to buy a pair of short shorts. When he asked what type of reaction someone waring those shorts might receive, she explained how the shorts were "stylish" and that "if people looked at someone wearing clothes like this and treated her any differently, it was not the problem of the person wearing the clothes; it was the problem of the person looking at the girl wearing the clothes....[I]t should not matter what someone is wearing, only who they are inside." Migliorato's response is one every dad should commit to memory:
     I asked her how she would feel if I went into the dressing room and tried on a pair of those shorts. She stared at me for a second, not able to tell whether I was being serious. Fearing I was serious, she said, "Dad, please don't." I said, "Why not?" She said that people would stare at me and think I was a sicko or a pervert or something like that.     I said, "I'm confused. I thought you said it was not the problem of the person wearing the clothes, I thought you said it was the problem of the person wearing certain clothes who had the problem?" I added, "I know who I am on the inside, and that is all that should matter, right?"     She said, "Okay, let's go to another store. I get the point." Then she laughed at the image in her head of me wearing those tiny shorts.     We sat on the bench, in the middle of the mall, just outside of the store we were just in, and talked. I knew what she was trying to say; I just wanted her to know what she was actually saying. I have found that allowing my daughters to come to their own conclusion through self-realization is better than trying to tell them something. It's a sweet science that takes time to get right. (p.50-1)
And that's only one example from the chapter on modesty. Each chapter is filled with such real life examples, and each ends with bullet-point summaries and a specific challenge calling dads to begin work on that aspect of their parenting. (His chapter on the importance of eating meals together as a family, really called me out.) There are also overarching points that we need to constantly remind ourselves of: "Remember, building a relationship with your daughter is not a sprint; it's a marathon" (121); "Reach out to your daughter but don't expect her to be where you are mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. It will happen in time, so be patient. And of course, lead by example!" (122). God is a good Father, and He wants to make us good fathers. We must ask for the grace, and then get to work.  The Manly Art of Raising a Daughter is solid advice, from one God-fearing workman to another.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Who Does God Use?

“It takes no great military expert to predict the results of a war in which large numbers of the solders do not fight, do not even know there is a war on. The officers are essential, and obedience to them is essential. But an army in which only the officers fights is likely to have no spectacular success in any war, least of all that which the Church is fighting for the souls of men.” 
  – Frank Sheed, 2nd World Congress for the Lay Apostolate, 1957

My greatest joy has always been to speak, and more recently to write, about the Faith. I am not however, a professional theologian nor a philosopher — heck, I don’t even play one on TV. I don’t feel particularly dismayed by that though — my favorite religious works were written by a couple of fisherman, an accountant, and a physician. Whatever our educational and occupational backgrounds, if we will just slow down enough to “sit at Jesus’ feet” and listen to Him for awhile each day (speaking in Scripture, through His Church in the Catechism, during our Rosary meditations) then we’re bound to learn some incredible things, things we will be dying to share with others.

Almost a decade ago, I had the great pleasure of listening to Dr. Scott Hahn speak. The most vivid memory I have of that day was hearing him talk about when Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin, and quoting this verse: “Observing the self-assurance of Peter and John, and realizing that the speakers were uneducated men of no standing, they were amazed. Then they recognized these men as having been with Jesus ” (Acts 4:13). That is the key to being instruments of God. A shepherd boy from Bethlehem, an unassuming young woman in Nazareth, three poor Portugese children — it is those who place their hearts before God, very simply, that He uses to communicate with the world.

I praise God for priests who challenge their flocks, for RCIA and adult ed. programs, for youth ministers and programs like LifeTeen — but it just isn’t cutting it my friends. It’s you and I who have to be raised up and empowered to share the Truth if this cultural battle is to be won, if the deterioration that surrounds us is to be reversed. The Church in the West may still reveal itself as a sleeping giant. If it awakes, we could see a manifestation of Christ come to “full stature.” “It was He Who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in roles of service for the faithful to build up the body of Christ, till we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, and form that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

You know, I often get the impression that we are hesitant to share our enthusiasm for the Faith with youth. “Oh, kids can’t get into the Bible; it’s a completely different world.” “The Trinity? The hypostatic union or the intricacies of moral theology? That’s over kids’ heads!” Really? Are we talking about the same teens whose high schools offer chemistry, physics, and even calculus? The same kids who read and take tests over works of Shakespeare? To hear an eight year-old boy describe The Lord of the Rings ‘ Middle-Earth, or a fifteen year-old girl elaborate on the subculture of Twilight ’s vampires and werewolves, convinces me that they wouldn’t have a problem getting inside the customs of biblical times.

We must live who we are, share what we are excited about with our coworkers and friends. When someone asks if we are reading anything good, we can let them know, “I’ve been going to this study on the Gospel of Luke; I never realized how fascinating the Bible could be…” When someone asks you to pray for them, take a chance: “I will; but is it alright if I pray with you, right now, too?” And if they are willing, take their hands in yours and speak the simple, heartfelt words that enter your mind. Let your loved one experience the Spirit loving and praying for them through you. We don’t need to manufacture opportunities to share our Faith, if we’re just honest about who we are and what animates us, every conversation can become an open door for God to enter others’ lives. Reebok will have nothing on us (Isaiah 52:7)!

But it all comes back to spending time with Jesus — gazing upon Him in the Eucharist, in Scripture, in His Church. It is only by being fused to Him that we “uneducated men [and women] of no standing,” become powerhouses. Only by sitting at His feet will we be able to simultaneously tear down what is false, and establish the Kingdom in its place – “conducting ourselves with innocence, knowledge, and patience, in the Holy Spirit, in sincere love as men with the message of truth and the power of God; wielding the weapons of righteousness with right hand and left, whether honored or dishonored, spoken of well or ill” (2 Cor.6:6-8).

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Book Review: "The Lord's Prayer" by TJ Burdick

Part of OSV's new Companion in Faith series, T.J. Burdick's The Lord's Prayer is a solid work of spirituality, helping readers pray the Our Father in a deeper way. As a young husband and father, as well as a high school educator and lay Dominican, Burdick has wonderful insights into the way spirituality informs every aspect of our lives. 

The Our Father issues from the heart of Christ; its depths have yet to be plumbed. Burdick sees the seven petitions of the Our Father as not simply the perfect prayer, but a means for prioritizing our lives:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Priority #1 - Honoring God and Neighbor

Thy kingdom come.
Priority #2 - Advancing God's Kingdom

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Priority #3 - Submitting to God's Will

Give us this day our daily bread...
Priority #4 - Balancing Your Life

...and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us...
Priority #5 - Forgiveness

...and lead us not into temptation...
Priority #6 - Discipline

...but deliver us from evil.
Priority #7 - Fighting Sin and Evil

Burdick has crafted wonderful meditations on each of these points, deftly woven of everyday experience, Scripture, the Catechism, and the Summa Theologica.  It is theologically meaty but eminently readable. One of the things I really appreciated about the book was its size: 4" x 6" and 54 pages. It was easy for me to slip into my coat pocket and read during breaks in my work day. A book that causes me to be more attentive during prayer is an exquisite gift; The Lord's Prayer is certainly one of those books.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book Review: "Teaching with Authority" by Jimmy Akin

To say that we Catholics are living through confusing times will strike many as understatement. Over the past fifty years we have grown used to hearing the Church's faith, especially her moral teachings, disputed by her lay members; but today we encounter such statements from bishops conferences and cardinals. Pope Francis's habit of offering off-the-cuff remarks during homilies and interviews - remarks sometimes wanting in theological precision - have also led to confusion. Further, questions regarding his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, have gone unanswered for more than two years.  

The majority of serious Catholics are familiar with Vatican I's criteria for recognizing ex cathedra pronouncments; but what about the Council's further teaching that Catholics are bound to believe "all those things" taught through the Church's "ordinary and universal magisterium," since they, too, are proposed infallibly (De Filius, 3)? When is the pope exercising his "ordinary magisterium," and what level of authority is attached to it? Many of today's arguments are heightened by disputes regarding what level of authority must be accorded to various papal and ecclesial statements.

In Teaching with Authority: How to Cut Through Doctrinal Confusion and Understand What the Church Really Says, Jimmy Akin goes to great lengths to bring clarity to these murky waters. I have other books on this topic (H.G. Hughes' What Catholics are Free to Believe or Not, Sullivan's Creative Fidelity, and Gaillardetz's By What Authority?), but I did not find any to be as helpful as Akin's. At 400 pages, his book is double, if not triple, the size of other treatments. (This shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with his work at Catholic Answers.)

My overall impressions: I finished the book with the almost paradoxical sense that (1) Catholic faith and morals are exactly what I have always understood them to be; and (2) I need to devote a great deal of time and research to ascertain what exactly has been taught infallibly and what has not. Jimmy Akin is careful in coming to conclusions. As much as we, the faithful, may wish the Church's pronouncements on a given matter to be more definitive, Akin has the integrity to refuse to go beyond what has been definitively stated. 

Teaching with Authority is divided into four sections: (I) The Church as Teacher; (II) Where Church Teaching is Found; (III) Understanding Church Teaching; and (IV) How Doctrine Can Develop - and How It Can't. The first section lays the theological foundation for the Church's teaching magisterium, showing how Christ made it intrinsic to her very nature and the various ways it is expressed through the bishops' individual teaching ministries, bishops conferences, ecumenical councils, and the papacy. It is informative, and I came away with a better knowledge of the Roman Curia.The second section begins with Scripture and Tradition as sources of divine revelation, before turning to the various documents in which the Church offers instruction to the faithful. A few examples of the type of information you'll find:

  • The only time documents written by national bishops' conferences "constitute authentic magisterium" is when they are doctrinal in nature and either (a) unanimously approved by the full body of bishops, or (b) approved by 2/3 of the bishops and granted the recognitio of the Holy See.
  • At Vatican II, the "constitutions are the most authoritative documents, and the dogmatic constitutions - Dei Verbum (on revelation) and Lumen Gentium (on the Church) - are the most authoritative of all" (p.110-11).
  • The names and nature of papal documents have changed over time and are not always consistent.
  • Apostolic constitutions are considered the most authoritative papal documents (examples: Ineffablis Deus infallibly defining the Immaculate Conception and Muntificientissimus Deus, defining the Assumption of Mary).
  • Pope have used papal encyclicals to reaffirm infallible teachings but no propose new ones.
  • Curial documents, even those issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, must carry express papal approval to be considered acts of the Magisterium.
  • Simply because a teaching is included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), does not mean it is infallible. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted, the Catechism's teachings "receive no other weight than that which they already possess," meaning that one must look at earlier and later documents of the Magisterium to determine a teachings level of authority.

Akin's third and fourth sections, which constitute the majority of the book, were of greatest interest to me. Akin goes into great depth, exploring the skills needed to correctly interpret magisterial documents: checking the original Latin, a knowledge of technical vocabulary and what it meant in a given century versus today, the need to respect intentional ambiguity in Church teaching and not going further in drawing conclusions than an author intends, etc. They are much-needed reminders for the armchair theologian. He also unpacks the technical meanings of "heresy" and "schism," showing how they are frequently misused. theologian. 

Chapter 12, "The Spectrum of Authority,"and its analysis of Cardinals Ratinger and Bertone's CDF document, Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, clarified the three levels of authority attached to Church teaching better than anything else I have read. Akin spells out what the Church means by "theological" (or "divine and catholic faith"), "firm and definitive assent," and "religious submission of the mind and will" and the distinctions between them.

Akin's Teaching with Authority is not an "easy" read. He is a gifted communicator, and he writes very clearly; but this is a complicated topic. For anyone, however, who wants to enter into this crucial area of study; I have not seen a more thorough or even-handed introduction to the topic. I call it an introduction, though, since I can't imagine a reader finishing the book without coming to the humbling realization that, however much he has already studied the Faith, a lifetime of work still lies before him. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book Review: "The Radiance of Her Face" by Dom Xavier Perrin, O.S.B.

You wouldn't think that a book 93-pages in length would take me four weeks to finish, but The Radiance of Her Face: A Triptych in Honor of Mary Immaculate is a book of such beauty and depth that I was forced to proceed slowly. It was my companion during Adoration. Since finishing the book, I have allowed another eight weeks to elapse, in the futile hope that I would be able to say something meaningful about this book. I am announcing my surrender.

This is theology done on one's knees. With sincere, palpable love, Dom Perrin engages in the exegesis of Scripture, Tradition, papal encyclicals, and the lives of saints, to carry us to new heights in our contemplation of Christ's work in the Immaculate...and the work He wishes to accomplish in each of us. An example from Dom Perrin's contemplation of the Annunciation:
The angel, who habitually contemplates the face of God, immediately recognizes in Mary an outstanding resemblance to the One Who created them both. Is he, perhaps, taken aback, astonished to encounter among men a person so divine? Yet the most astonished one is Mary herself. She is troubled, greatly troubled, and, says the text: "she considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be." 
     On the one hand, thoroughly immersed in God, she is unaware of herself...she is hidden from her own eyes....She is entirely at the service of her neighbor, incapable of comparing herself with others, for she is totally incapable of turning in upon herself. She is completely humble, for she is perfectly placed, with regard to God, in free, glad and total dependence on Him. She is so humble that people do not notice her, do not offer her any compliments, do not think anything of her or look at her. She possesses something of God's own invisibility, which is the invisibility of Love in its pure state, inaccessible to the creature unless God lifts it up and transforms it in order to make it capable of loving as God loves, of knowing as He knows, of participating in His transcendent purity. (pp. 9-10)
This thought - that Mary's immaculate conception drew her gaze outward, transfixed upon the Beloved - will stay with me for the rest of my life.

In one section of the work, I recall Dom Perrin quoting from St. Maximilian Kolbe. He recognizes that the saint's theology, his "strong expressions," can prove "shocking" to some readers. I admit to feelings of apprehension when reading portions of St. Maximilian's theology, but it did nothing to diminish my awe of Dom Perrin's work. The Radiance of Her Face (Angelico Press, 2017) is a treasure, a book that deserves to be read for generations to come. It can be read profitably at any time of year, but it would make a perfect companion during Advent, and especially in the days leading up to the December 8th solemnity.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Enter the Octagon

Do you remember this theatrical masterpiece? I was six years-old when it came out and remember my next door neighbor bragging how his dad had taken him to see it. I refer to it now because my friend Kathi Strunk (the person crazy enough to suggest I start a blog) threw down the gauntlet: "When will Chuck Norris appear in one of your posts?" 

I admit; I was stymied. How could I bring Chuck to bear on my contemplation of the Faith? Sure, there's the spiritual warfare aspect - but that's so played. Some other aspect of Chuck's mystique was needed. So I asked the Holy Spirit, and as I continued to think about Chuck, the phrase "Enter The Octagon" and this old movie popped into my head.

I realized that Chuck responded, in a highly metaphorical way...involving Ninjas, to the same call as each of the baptized. What, I've lost you?

Well, when you were baptized, chances are that the baptismal font was shaped like an octagon. You will see exceptions but, throughout history, that has been the traditional shape. The reason goes back to a passage in the First Epistle of Peter: 

"God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you." (1 Peter 3:20-21)
Amazing - which of us attending a baptism ever stops to think about the significance of the font having eight sides - that it is a physical representation of the biblical word? Our Catholic Faith is filled with these kind of things, though.

If you want to know more about the way our sacramental liturgies bring Scripture to life, spend a few evenings in Jean Danielou's classic, The Bible and the Liturgy. Oh, and take a moment to reflect upon your own Baptism (when you "entered the octagon) by viewing this profound 1980, theatrical trailer. Just as the announcer says of Chuck, we too "find freedom only one way."

(Note: this trailer has no value other than the ultra-manly pics of Chuck Norris. It should not actually be used for mature theological reflection and is unsuitable for viewing by children.)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Book Review: "Just Whatever" by Matt Nelson

I have been a great admirer of Matt Nelson's online articles and Reasonable Catholic blog, so I cracked the cover of his first book with incredibly high expectations - and yet, Nelson exceeded them. Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs that Really Matter is a master's seminar, bringing philosophy, history, and finally, theology, to bear on the most pressing - albeit most neglected - questions in our lives.

For those new to Matt Nelson's work, they will quickly recognize his skill as a writer. His appreciation of great English writers such as Newman, Chesterton, and Lewis is evident, not just in quotations but in the character of Nelson's work. His prose is something special. Like Lewis, the profundity of his thought is often made clear by everyday examples, and he is honest about his own past struggles with questions of faith.

Just Whatever is divided into three parts, based upon three levels of religious indifference: 1) Indifference to the existence of a personal God; 2) Indifference to the claims of Jesus; 3) Indifference to the Church. In each section Nelson draws together the thought of the best minds - past (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Newman, Chesterton, Lewis, Sheed, Sheen) and present (Ratzinger, Kreeft, Craig, Wright, Hahn, Pitre, Barron) - to overcome the indifference  and objections that keep far too many at a distance from God and the fullness of His Revelation to mankind.

Part One is an unflinching look at the objections to God's existence raised by atheism. Materialism, evolution, the problem of evil, and more - Nelson's responses are expertly reasoned and convincing. Those lulled into the intellectual and spiritual slumber of life without God will find themselves shocked awake by the philosophical arguments for His existence. They will also be forced to face atheism's logical end:
With no purpose to life except what we invent for ourselves, with no hope of life after death, and with all our greatest achievements ultimately without meaning or effect, one is left with little else than the "nausea" of existence that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about. If God does not exist, then this meaningless existence we call our life is as good as it gets.     From this follows the questions of whether life is worth living. Sartre's existentialist ally Albert Camus reflected deeply on the consequences of life without God and came to the staggering conclusion in his literary essay The Myth of Sisyphus that "there is only one really serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not one's life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that." Camus understood that if God does not exist and our existence is a random accident headed for nowhere, then whether life is worth living is a question for which there is no true answer. (p. 47-48)
If that thought doesn't shock a man out of his spiritual indifference, then I doubt anything, short of a brush with death, can.

Parts Two and Three are equally as insightful. Nelson brings a host of ancient sources to bear on the question of Jesus' existence and his chapter on the historical reliability of the gospels is chocked full of the most up-to-date research. And his chapters specifically on Catholicism? After reading them this weekend, I was more spiritually alert when receiving Reconciliation and the Eucharist - I can't give higher praise than that.

Matt Nelson is an incredibly talented writer, gifted well beyond his years. (And honestly, well beyond mine, too.) Just Whatever is sure to be the first of many important works. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book Review: "Made This Way" by Leila Miller & Trent Horn

Amidst our shifting cultural landscape, a plot of solid ground is valuable real estate. Made This Way: How to Prepare Kids to Face Today's Tough Moral Issues provides the terra firma that parents are seeking. And while this book brings an abundance of Scripture and Church teaching to bear on issues, its keenest strength is grounding its moral arguments in the natural law - the universal moral truths discerned by reason and known to consciences (Christian, theist, and atheist) the world over.

Trent Horn and Leila Miller are the perfect duo to craft such a book. Trent is one of the most gifted thinkers and apologists on the scene, and Leila is an outspoken mother of eight whose blog and last two books address the most pressing needs of today's children.

Miller and Horn tackle ten issues: Sex outside of marriage, same-sex "marriage," divorce, contraception, abortion, reproductive technologies, modesty, pornography, transgender identity, and homosexuality. Each is addressed via the three-pronged approach of: 1) what the Church teaches; 2) how to address the topic with young children; 3) addressing it with older children. The book is written  in Leila's melodic voice, but the brilliance of both minds is on display.

As I said, readers are given a crash course in Scriptural passages and Church documents pertinent to these issues, but most helpful for parents will be the rubber-meets-the-road examples and faultless reasoning they can bring into conversations with their children, especially their teens. An example from the chapter on transgenderism:
When a person has a body dysphoria unrelated to sex or "gender," everyone understands that the person needs help. When an anorexic looks in the mirror, she might see someone who is obese, even if she weighs much less than everyone else her age. We don't tell that girl, "That's right, you are overweight, and we will help you reach the weight that's right for you." Instead we say, "What you perceive yourself to be, well, that isn't you. In reality, you are dangerously underweight, and because we love you, we aren't going to help you harm yourself." That is the loving response.... 
....[I]f we are rightly disgusted that a doctor would amputate the healthy limbs of a person who suffers from Body Integrity Identity Disorder [or trans-ableism], then why aren't we equally disgusted by doctors amputating the healthy genitals of persons who identify as transgender? This mental gymnastics of holding both positions at once (trans-able = bad; transgender = good) is not tenable, unless we completely obliterate in our own minds that man and woman mean something objectively, as we know that healthy and disabled do. (p. 210-12)
That is powerful reasoning, one that any teen should be able to grasp and bring with her into conversations with peers of different religious and philosophical backgrounds. My favorite part of their argument on this subject, however, was when they raised the example of Rachel Dolazel, the former head of the Spokane NAACP, a caucasian woman who claims to be "trans-black":

...[I]f Dolazel had claimed she was a black man, then her "progressive" critics would have said she was half right. Yet, how can we tell a person she's wrong about her sincere sense of her racial identity, but right about her sense of gender identity - when both exist only in the imagination? There is no logic to saying we affirm your "sense" of being a man but we condemn your "sense" of being black. Your teens will see the contradiction here. (p. 211)
Yes, I dare say they will - as should anyone sincerely committed to logic and common sense.

Miller and Horn have created a resource that will be cherished by every parent looking to raise their children on tried and true, solid moral ground. Made This Way (Catholic Answers Press, 2018) has my wholehearted endorsement.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Why I'm "No" on the Rapture, But "Yes" on Mary's Assumption

In my last post I shared my reasons for giving up belief in the Rapture.  Introduced to it by author Hal Lindsey, and confirmed in it during my time in a non-denominational church, study brought me to the conclusion that it was not a legitimate element of Christian Faith. Despite its popularity among Christians in the U.S., not only did it have no basis in Scripture, but it directly contradicted what Christianity has always taught - that in the last days, the Church will share Christ's Passion in an intense way, and then at His return, His Resurrection.

The wild thing is, at the same time that I believed so whole-heartedly in the Rapture, I also argued against the Catholic belief that Mary was assumed into heaven.  Do you see the irony?  I was absolutely convinced that Jesus was going to raise the entire Church up into heaven, but totally opposed to the Catholic dogma that Jesus had already done so for His Mother!

My change of heart occurred long before I came to have a positive view of the Catholic Tradition regarding Mary's assumption.  My thought process went something like this:  

  • The Bible does not say that Mary wasn't assumed into heaven.
  • The Old Testament does speak of two other people having been assumed, Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12).If it was true for them, then couldn't it be true of Mary?
  • Matthew's Gospel states that at the moment of Jesus' death, "The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Mt. 27:52-53).  Wasn't it reasonable to believe that after these appearances they too were assumed into heaven?  Again, if it was true for them, then why not for Mary?
  • If the assumption occurred at the end of her life, then wouldn’t portions of the New Testament already have been written? Did the Bible have to explicitly say it for the event to have occurred?
  • There are tons of things not explicitly recorded in the Bible; the Holy Spirit moved John to end his Gospel with that very thought, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (Jn. 21:25)
  • The Assumption coincides with, dovetails into, Scripture; whereas a pre-Tribulation Rapture is in contradiction to the overall picture of the last days painted by the New Testament.
  • Belief in Mary's assumption is witnessed to in writing prior to 400 A.D. (although it claims to go back to the apostles), while the Rapture does not make an appearance until 1850.  
  • The Assumption squares with the Christian reality that glory follows suffering (Mary's share in Jesus' Resurrection came only after she shared in His suffering upon the Cross [Lk.2:35; Jn.19:25-37].)  The Rapture on the other hand, holds out a false expectation regarding freedom from suffering and persecution.
Catholics and Orthodox Christians have of course always said that the Christian Faith was not be limited to those things explicitly stated in Scripture.  (No legitimate point of belief could ever contradict Scripture, but there is not a requirement that it be explicitly stated in Scripture either.)   

If you, however, object to Mary's assumption because you are a "Bible-only" Christian, then you really ought to take a second look at John's vision in the Book of Revelation.  And as you read, please keep in mind how the Gospel of Luke's identified Mary with the Ark of the Covenant (compare Luke 1:39-45,56 with 2 Samuel 6:2-3,6-12,16) and how in the Gospel of John, Jesus always addressed His Mother as "Woman" (Jn.2:1-5; 19:25-27):
"Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake and heavy hail. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold a great red dragon…the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne ... " (Revelation 11:19-12:5)
Something to consider. Catholics do not appeal to any particular verse of Scripture as a proof text for the dogma of the Assumption; but the above verses certainly do not hurt their case! As I looked more into the foundations of Catholic belief in the Assumption, I discovered that it had a much more ancient pedigree than whatone could find for the Rapture.Once Constantine became Emperor and Christianity was no longer a persecuted sect, Christians were able to erect churches over the sites sacred to them (such as the Holy Sepulchre in 336 A.D.). These sites had been preserved in the local church's memory throughout the centuries. One of the sites, close to Mount Zion where the first Christian community had lived, had always been reverenced as place of Mary's Dormition ("falling asleep). It was not the place where Mary's body resided however - only the place where it had temporarily rested before Mary was raised body and soul into heaven.   

Although different local churches could point to the tombs of the Apostles and martyrs and boast of having their relics (bodies), there was never any such claim made in regard to Mary.  Had their been a body, the early Church would have cherished it.  But instead of a body we have this memory, this witness, from the time of the apostles, ingrained within Christians in and around JerusalemJust a little research on the web can provide early witnesses:
"If therefore it might come to pass before the power of your grace, it has appeared right to us your servants that, as you, having overcome death does reign in glory, so you should raise up the body of your mother and take her with you, rejoicing into heaven. Then said the Savior [Jesus]: 'Be it done according to your will" (Pseudo-Melito The Passing of the Virgin 16:2-17; 300 AD). 

"Therefore the Virgin is immortal to this day, seeing that he who had dwelt in her transported her to the regions of her assumption" (Timothy of Jerusalem Homily on Simeon and Anna; 400 AD).

"And from that time forth all knew that the spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise" (John the Theologian, The Falling Asleep of Mary; 400 AD) 

"The Apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where now, rejoined to the soul, [Mary] rejoices with the Lord's chosen ones..." (Gregory of Tours, Eight Books of Miracles, 1:4; 575-593 A.D.)
 St. John Damascene, living in the desert outside Jerusalem in the early 700's, gave the same testimony:
"In the Holy and divinely-inspired Scriptures no mention is made of anything concerning the end of Mary the Holy Mother of God; but we have received from ancient and most truthful tradition ... the Apostles ... opened the coffin.  And they were unable anywhere to find her most lauded body ... Struck by the wonder of the mystery they could only think that He who had been pleased to become incarnate from her in His own Person and to become Man and to be born in the flesh, God the Word, the Lord of Glory ... was pleased even after her departure from life to honor her immaculate and undefiled body with incorruption and with translation prior to the common and universal resurrection." (Second Homily on the Dormition of Mary, c.715 A.D.)
The celebration of Mary's Dormition in the liturgy was first recorded in Palestine in the late 400's and was taken up throughout the Eastern Church and then the West throughout the 500's.  

In the end, I see the Assumption's credibility as standing head-and-shoulders above the Rapture's:

And thus, I was forced to change my tune.  Which is good because on top of everything I have already shared, in 1950 Pope Pius XII used the power of the keys to definitively state that Mary's assumption is a legitimate point of the Faith that has come to us from the Apostles.  To neglect it is forego knowledge of one of the "many other things" that Jesus did that were not written down in Scripture (Jn. 21:25), but have been preserved within the living memory of His Church.  And that Church is, in the words of Scripture, "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: "Reform Yourself!" by Shaun McAfee

This past October marked the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. A number of solid Catholic books, introducing readers to the key figures of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, were released to mark the occasion; but Shaun McAfee's Reform Yourself!, is an utterly original offering. His subtitle explains why: How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation

In the space of 197 pages, McAfee not only introduces us to ten saints of that tumultuous period, but zeroes in on the key virtues exhibited by each and provides practical suggestions for cultivating these habits today. You will be inspired and challenged by Saints Francis de Sales (practical apologist), Ignatius of Loyola (educator), Teresa of Avila (mystic), Robert Bellarmine (scholarly apologist), Aloysius Gonzaga (youth), Pius V, Philip Neri (humorist), John of the Cross (contemplative), Jane Frances de Chantal (humble servant), and Charles Borromeo (pastor). 

Each of us is called to sainthood. To that end, McAfee wisely directs us to look to both the saints we hope to imitate and those with whom we already share a vocation. The book flows well, with biographical sketches proceeding at a brisk pace. (Chapters are capped off with suggestions of full-length biographies for those who want to go deeper.) The heart of each chapter, though, is how to join a particular saint in his or her imitation of Christ; and I was impressed with McAfee's analysis and plans for action. He had me in the first chapter where he points out that, if we want to imitate Francis de Sales' skill as a writer, then we must first become effective readers, which entails: 

  1. Reading at a pace sufficient for our level of study
  2. Keeping notes
  3. Making use of reference guides, compendiums, and commentaries
  4. Trying to enjoy what we read (since that aids memory)

The importance of each is explained and expanded upon. McAfee then proceeds to scrutinize de Sales' success as writer and speaker, and what steps we should take to do the same.

As I said, Reform Yourself!, is a thoroughly original treatment of the Counter-Reformation. Hats off to Mr. McAfee.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Christopher West's "Eclipse of the Body"

I have read several of Christopher West's books, heard him speak, and even had the pleasure of interviewing him once upon a time. His new release couldn't be more timely: first, our already-sex-obsessed culture is sinking, faster every month, into a swamp of confusion and lust; and second, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae's release. (These two subjects are not unrelated.)

West's Eclipse of the Body makes a powerful case that  it was Christianity's embrace of contraception that unleashed the present darkness. I loved that it was a quick read, chock-full of pithy, memorable formulations of the truth. He reminds us of the meaning, the purpose of gender, and traces, step-by-step, how the sterilization of the sexual act has led to the progressive breakdown of family and society. Don't believe me? Please, by all means, pick up a copy of the book and show me where West goes astray. (I've have to warn you, though, you will also find yourself arguing with Blessed Pope Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II.)

Even more important than showing us where we went wrong, however, is West's ability to articulate the answer: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. West deftly explains John Paul II's Theology of the Body, the most thorough exposition (to date) of God's purpose for the human body. This new book is a gift to the Church. (Speaking of gifts - I already passed my copy on to my 17 year old.)

The link above will allow you to order the paperback directly from the Cor Project ($7.95, or buy in bulk, 40 or more/$3 each), but you can also grab it on Kindle for $3.95. I don't usually put prices in my reviews, but this is a steal.  Happy reading!