Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: "Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too)" by Brandon Vogt

Chances are that you have heard Brandon Vogt's name - talented blogger and author, founder of the StrangeNotions website, and content director of Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire. His latest book, Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too), is an intellectually solid, well-written, apologetic that I think is particulary well-suited to millennials.

Brandon divides his apologetic into three sections, corresponding to the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. I found that to be very wise since most people, although drawn to all, seem hardwired more towards one than the others. ("Truth" has always been the strongest draw for me.) Each section is very well researched but written in a down-to-earth style. Brandon doesn't shy away from any of the difficult issues either: the all-male clergy, Church teaching on contraception and same-sex "marriage," the scandal of priests who sexually abuse children, etc. I think Brandon handled these with a great deal of realism, sensitivity, and charity while simultaneously setting forth the Church's authentic teaching.

Something that stood out to me about the book was the great use of analogy. Let me give you a few quick examples:

  • " G.K. Chesterton observed, 'Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.' We can and should be open-minded about religious questions. We should put all the options on the table and consider them fairly. But such open-mindedness is the beginning, not the end, of the search." (p.60)
  • "A wise friend noted that the right way to judge the Catholic Church is by its best members, not its worst....Just as we wouldn't judge a doctor by the people who refused to take his medicine, and should instead consider the people who actually took his medicine to see if they were cured, so with the Catholic Church." (p.87)
  • "Many people see [the Church's] rigidity as an obvious defect....But change is not a universal virtue. It's not good in all spheres of life. For example, we would never criticize mathematicians for being so rigid about the laws of geometry or the rules of multiplication. These teachings are emphatically rigid." (p.100)

Those are the kind of insights that force readers to reevaluate their preconceptions.

At 175 pages the book isn't intimidating, but it is a nice treatment of all of the big issues: God's existence, the positive value of religion, the divinity of Christ, why Catholicism instead of another form of Christianity, morality, the compatibility of faith and science, the Church's role in building and preserving Western Civilization, the heroic virtue of the saints, the Church's work for social justice, etc., etc. You'll also find suggestions for further study and helpful information  regarding the RCIA process.

Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too) from Ave Maria Press - a great resource.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Review: "Catholic Puzzles, Word Games, and Brainteasers" by Matt Swaim

I have always known that Matt Swaim was a sharp guy. He has a lightning fast wit able to weave the best of pop culture with timeless Catholic truths. He always leaves me thinking, "Man, I wish I was cool enough to have said that."

Matt's intelligence and wit are front and center in his newest book, Catholic Puzzles, Words Games, and Brain Teasers. He has crafted an array of mental challenges: anagrams, code scrambles, crossword puzzles, cryptograms, word searches, and a whole host of other puzzles whose proper names I couldn't begin to guess. And in the process of completing these intellectual challenges we're stretched in our knowledge of: Bible verses, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, papal encyclicals, cities with biblical names, quotations from saints, Catholic scientists, and so, so much more. (Now I'm left thinking, "Man, I wish I was smart enough to have created this.")

This book would be a lot of fun at a Catholic dinner party, college and high school ministry events, or simply for the guy or gal looking to stay as mentally sharp as a tack. And once you've finished Volume 1, you still have Volume 2 to look forward to! Kudos to Matt Swaim on such a cool use of his talents.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: "The Apostles and Their Times" by Mike Aquilina

Even before I was halfway through this book, I was already recommending it to others. Mike Aquilina's The Apostles and Their Times is a stellar example of the way that fine prose, extensive knowledge, and an evangelistic spirit combine to make religious study a joy.

To rediscover the Apostles and the life of the early Church, Mr. Aquilina employs a a simple technique that yields wonderfully surprising results: He asks us to forget, at least momentarily, the history attached to religious vocabulary like apostle, ministerliturgy, martyr, and heresy and rediscover what those words originally meant on the lips of Peter and Paul. Take for example the word "minister." The Greek word is leitourgos, and it refers to someone paid to perform a public work. The leitourgos' work was a leitourgia, or "liturgy." It was a common word applied to any public work (road work, sewage, etc.). The realization is powerful: Christian ministers were those who led the Church in her public work - her Eucharistic worship! Or consider Aquilina's elucidation of the term apostle: "The Greek apostolos means 'one who is sent.' It describes an agent or vicar, an emissary or ambassador. More than a messenger, an apostolos is a representative. Scholars believe the word is a direct translation of the Hebrew shaliah; and the ancient rabbis pronounced that 'a man's shaliah is as himself'" (p.34). 

Such insights abound as Aquilina leads us through the period recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. His thorough knowledge of first century Judaism and the early Church bring the biblical text to life and help readers penetrate it at a deeper level. His chapter on Pentecost - and I do not say this lightly - is perhaps the best treatment of the subject that I have read. Here are few quick insights to whet your appetite: 

Some years before Jesus had said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful" (Luke 10:2). The great harvest began, appropriately enough, at Pentecost, the feast of the harvest - the day dedicated to the gathering and offering of firstfruits (p. 51). 
Over the centuries, Pentecost had grown in importance and had gathered layers of spiritual and historical significance. By the lifetime of Jesus and the Apostles, it had become primarily a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses (p.42). 
The cosmic phenomena, the wind and fire, would have been familiar because of the context of the feast day. They had been prefigured when God gave the law to Moses. In those days, "there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast....And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke" (Exod. 19:16, 18). Now, on the anniversary, came fire from heaven and a sound like the rush of a mighty wind (p.46).
I have quoted what amounts to a third of one of Mr. Aquilina's pages; this chapter has thirteen pages worth of equally brilliant insights.

I have a confession to make. As much as I enjoyed The Apostles and Their Times, I almost missed out on it. In 2015, NBC ran the miniseries, A.D. The Bible Continues. This book was originally published under the title A.D. Ministers and Martyrs and was advertised as being "Based on the NBC Television Event." I had no interest in NBC's take on Acts of the Apostles so, as much as I admire Mike Aquilina, I never picked up the book.  After reading it, however, I can tell you that Aquilina's work stands completely on its own. Were it not for a little research, I would never have known of its connection to the miniseries. I am grateful that Sophia Institute Press saw fit to re-title and re-release this exquisite work. You’ll definitely want this on your shelf. I can easily see it becoming a classic.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: Timothy Moore's Edition of "The Imitation of Christ"

Besides Scripture, perhaps no other work has been as widely read among Christians as Thomas a' Kempis' The Imitation of Christ. It is a spiritual masterpiece that obviously needs no endorsement from me. What I would like to draw your attention to, however, is this sleek new edition crafted by Timothy Moore. (If you have yet to check out his blog, Imitating Christ in Daily Life, all I can say is, "What are you waiting for?!")

Mr. Moore has really done his homework, working hard to place himself in the shoes of Thomas a' Kempis. To that end, he introduces Thomas' text with a fictional account of how Thomas came to be novice master of Mount Saint Agnes Monastery in Germany and set about writing the First Book of his Imitation. It perfectly sets the mood. 

When Moore comes to the text of The Imitation, he begins each chapter with a Comment (brief background knowledge to help in digesting the chapter), a brief outline, and then a Question to ponder while reading the chapter text. Moore updates Thomas' language in places, but he seems to do so very conservatively - only enough to be of help to the modern reader. 

Moore's volume ends with a treasury of Catholic prayers and an
appendix, the Key Questions and Key Quotes from each chapter. From start to finish, this volume is a well planned, beautifully presented spiritual tool. I will be on the lookout for Book Two! For now, though, you will have to content ourselves with Book One.