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.