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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Book review: Opus Dei, by John L. Allen, Jr.

I have reviewed books by John Allen before on this blog, and I have come away with a deep appreciation for his work. It isn't just his style, which is very accessible and down to earth: his research and analysis is consistently thorough and balanced, and he does not draw conclusions without thinking things through. In short, he is the perfect candidate to undertake the investigation of controversial matters — and, since its very beginnings, Opus Dei has certainly fit that particular bill. In fact, the subtitle of Allen's Opus Dei is "An objective look behind the myths and reality of the most controversial force in the Catholic Church".

I must confess that I did not know a lot about Opus Dei before reading Allen's book. I had heard of it, of course, and I was aware of some of the controversy surrounding it. Opus Dei has been accused of many terrible things, some even by brother priests in this diocese, and in a very public way. On the other hand, one of my closest childhood friends had family members in Opus Dei (although she herself never joined), and they were among the more devout and sincere people I had ever met. I therefore found myself in the odd position of knowing and trusting people on both sides of the debate, and having precious few facts to be able to "choose" between them. What was the rule, and what was the exception, to Opus Dei? Were the accusations the rule and my friend's family the exception? Or vice-versa?

Allow me to switch gears a moment and discuss Allen's book itself. First of all, it is long. Sometimes it is also really dry, like when he discussed Opus Dei finances in great detail. But there is no question that it is thorough. After giving some necessary background to the group Allen does not shy away from addressing every major controversy about Opus Dei, probing in great detail all the issues that make Opus Dei such a tempting target for the ink-stained wretches of our world. I mean, how can you resist a book with chapter titles like "secrecy", "mortification", "women", "money", and "blind obedience"? All humour aside, though, there is no question that Allen has written what will be the definitive work on Opus Dei for years to come. This will be the standard by which other books on the subject will be judged — and I suspect most will be judged wanting.

In the end, I have come away with a much greater appreciation for Opus Dei and its place in the Catholic Church. As much as it is accused of being arch-conservative, there is actually a lot within the spirituality of Opus Dei that is very modern and open to the world. For example, did you know that Opus Dei was one of the first Catholic groups in the world to allow non-Catholics (heck, non-Christians!) to become affiliated with it in a formal way? The spirituality of Opus Dei can be summed up as "even the most ordinary stuff of life can be lifted up to God", and the stated purpose of the organization is to teach people how to do exactly that. I was particularly impressed by the figure of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, and I must confess that I probably agree with his outlook on many things (for example, he was opposed to the Church creating "Catholic" political parties, as am I).

Still, while I may appreciate the core spirituality of Opus Dei more, I also know it is, as an organization, not for me. That's ok too. After all, I appreciate the spirituality of St. John of the Cross a great deal, but I'm not a Carmelite and have never felt called to be one. I appreciate the Rule of St. Benedict and the example of St. Francis of Assisi, without having become a monk or a friar. And, of course, I do appreciate that Opus Dei is filled with imperfect people and sinners — but then again, the same can be said for the Catholic Church in general. The only real issue is: is this fundamentally a work of the Holy Spirit, or not? Allen does not answer this question in his book, of course, as that is not his place. But after having read his book, I feel I am closer to my own personal response, and if you want to see what your answer might be, this book is essential for you as well. My rating: B+. It gets a 'B' simply to indicate that, because of the narrow range of the subject, it probably isn't a 'must read' for your spiritual growth, while the '+' is to acknowledge the overall excellent quality of the research and writing. In short, for what it does, is does it extremely well.

Book review: Reasons to Believe, by Scott Hahn

I've heard it said that theological orthodoxy is fundamentally creative, while heterodoxy (i.e. heresy) simply says the same old things over and over. The difference is in their appreciation of mystery. Heresy gets tired quickly of the great Truth, and seeks to replace it with something else. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, tends to stay where it is, but that does not mean it is static: a truly dynamic orthodoxy is always exploring the mystery of Truth more and more. Those are the discoveries worth making.

With regards to Scott Hahn's book Reasons to Believe, I knew ahead of time that it would be orthodox (i.e. faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church). What I did not know was if this book would be dynamically orthodox. In other words, would Hahn simply re-cover material already examined elsewhere? That would already be valuable, assuming he did it in his characteristically palatable way, as good introductions are always useful. But I was really hoping this book push the envelope — and I was not disappointed. In fact, Hahn has managed to accomplish both.

The purpose of Hahn's book is to help the reader to "understand, explain, and defend the Catholic faith". The first two parts, therefore, are really an introduction to certain basic elements of theology and apologetics. Part I covers the philosophical background to the Catholic faith, and this is important, because a conversion of the heart to Christ often first requires a conversion of the mind to the possibility and content of Truth. Part II then tackles some specific Catholic doctrines, like the Church, the Eucharist, the Papal office, etc., and shows how the Catholic teaching is rooted in the Bible. I'll be honest and say that, up until this point, the book had not "wowed" me. Again, it was covering a lot of the "same old" material, and in fact there was a lot of even more "hot-button" material it was not covering. For example, it would have been nice to have a section on explaining the Catholic teaching on human sexuality — a very, *ahem*, touchy subject at the best of times.

But Hahn's book got lifted from "B" to "A" status when I began to read part III, which covers what is called "salvation history". Simply put, Hahn masterfully presents a big-picture outline of God's plan for human history. He weaves together Biblical "threads" to form a narrative "tapestry" that is just brilliant. I have been reflecting on these questions for years now, and I learned something new page after page. For example, did you know that in the early days of the dynasty of David, King Solomon established an exalted place for his mother? The "Queen Mother" was a member of the royal court, with the right to the ear of her son. Given that Jesus is actually the several-generations-later successor of David and Solomon, it certainly puts a new spin on the role of Mary as an intercessor in Heaven. For myself, I know a book is good when it nourishes my prayer life, and I can tell you that I have not prayed the 5th glorious mystery of the Rosary the same way since.

In the end, the interesting thing is this: if you are not too confident of your intellectual grasp of Catholic teaching, this book is actually a really good and simply-written introduction. And, on the other hand, if you *are* blessed with a certain amount of theological culture, this book has the possibility of taking you even further in the exploration of the mystery. So what can I say? Get it and read! My rating: A

Book review: Mother Angelica, The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, by Raymond Arroyo

There is simply no avoiding the truth of the matter: if you are going to be a public figure with strong opinions and a quick tongue, you are going to be controversial. So no one should be surprised that Mother Angelica, the foundress of the Eternal Word Television Network, is controversial: the is a major public figure, she has strong opinions, and a quick tongue — or at least, she used to, until struck by a major stroke a few years ago. Mother Angelica's absence from public life, however, does not mean that her influence doesn't continue to echo the world over. Now that she is out of the spotlight, it is the perfect time for a comprehensive biography to be written about her, something Raymond Arroyo attempts to bring to us in Mother Angelica, The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. But does he succeed?

When I started reading this book, I must admit I was not a huge fan of Mother Angelica. Don't misunderstand me, I had nothing against her; I just have a deep aversion to hero-worship (they don't call them "idols" for nothing), and I found that Mother Angelica had her fair share of "fans" (the root word, I might add, for "fanatic"). Now writing biography is a very tricky business, it is too easy to write a simple, 2-dimensional piece that does not really communicate the life of the person. A lot of traditional hagiography falls short in this way, I'm afraid. It is ok for devotional reading, but poor for real serious study. And so my trepidation was: would Raymond Arroyo really serve the full dish? Or would he limit himself to the sweeter-tasting parts of Mother Angelica's story, so as to present his "idol" in a best-possible (but ultimately unreal) light?

As biographies go, I will say that this is one of the better ones I've read. The research is thorough, and the subject is presented in a thorough way. While Arroyo definitely adores Mother Angelica, I didn't get the impression he sensationalized her life, and the fact that he is himself a man of faith clearly helped him present certain aspects of her life in a way that respects the religious dimension (something a purely secular biographer might not have been able to do). And Mother Angelica has had an interesting life: a troubled family life, a no-nonsense approach to her vocation, a great many accomplishments to her credit (including founding 2 new religious orders, as well as the largest religious satellite network in the world). To be sure, she is a personality worth studying. But is she worth emulating? Is she a saint?

In the end, the dramatic tension of the book turns around this question. Yes, founding a satellite network is impressive — but if it was done on her own initiative, rather than in obedience to the Lord, it won't help her get to heaven. Grace is funny that way — we can't earn it, we can only accept it as a gift. And while this is a dramatic tension in Mother Angelica's life, it is (curiously) a dramatic tension in Arroyo's presentation of that life. As I mentioned before, it is clear that Arroyo adores Mother Angelica, and often enough one gets the impression, even as he is trying to be objective, that he can't help but present things in such a say that he is saying "Look what she did! Isn't she amazing?" Except that, some of those things I didn't find amazing at all. For example, Mother Angelica went ahead and did a lot of things without proper ecclesiastical permission, and when asked about it her response reveals that she didn't actually trust the church to agree with her. She went head-to-head with a Cardinal Archbishop over an element of doctrine, and in the end you don't get the impression that either of them really "won". Yeah, she's hard-headed and hard-working, but so what? In themselves, those are not signs of sanctity. I consider these and other elements to be "crooked lines" in her life. Now it is true that God can "draw straight with crooked lines", and for Mother Angelica it appears he has (the results speak for themselves) — but that doesn't make those lines any less crooked in their origin. What I find interesting about this biography is that Arroyo shows both the "straight" results and the "crooked" origins of Mother Angelica's life, choices and endeavours. At times he doesn't seem to recognize just how crooked those origins were in some cases — all he can see is the straight results, and therefore he concludes she was right all along — but curiously, even that helps guarantee the authenticity of the text. After all, it means that even if Arroyo was trying to write hagiography, in the end up he wound up writing biography — something that he said was his original intention, anyway!

So what should we make of this book? As I mentioned, before reading this book I was not a big fan of Mother Angelica. After reading it, I am still not a fan — she is no more an idol for me than she was before. I must admit, though, that I do feel I've gotten to know her a lot better, such that she has become more than an idol to me — she has become a *person*. After reading what I've read, I do not believe Mother Angelica will ever be canonized by the Church, such that I will likely never pray *to* her. But, as I have come to know her better, and particularly come to know her hard knocks and sufferings, and am more than willing to pray *for* her, as a sister in Christ whom I can truly say I love as such. And I have a feeling that, while others might not understand this distinction, Mother Angelica would. My rating: B

Book review: God? A debate between a Christian and an atheist, by William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

There has been a lot of discussion in the media (and elsewhere) recently on the question of the "New Atheism". Simply put, a lot of new books have been recently published that make the case that we should *not* believe in God. I find these books depressing, mainly because of the general lack of theological and philosophical sophistication that they contain. Sadly, I also find the Christian responses to these books equally depressing, for much the same reason. It was, therefore, with some interest, that I began to read God? A debate between a Christian and an atheist, because this book represents the results of an actual debate, where each side not only presents its views but has the chance to actively respond to its interlocutor. Imagine, a book co-authored by opponents! In fact, this is where the book's greatest strength can be found: while they arrive at divergent conclusions, both authors are united in at least one thing — regarding the existence of God, they are seeking the *truth* of the matter, and that is no small thing.

This book has an interesting structure. Each author first wrote a chapter in which he presented his main arguments for or against the existence of God. They then exchanged copies, and each author then wrote a second chapter responding to the other's first chapter. Finally, those copies were then exchanged and each author wrote a final, third chapter, responding to the responses. Of course, they could have continued to another iteration, but they stopped there.

On the level of argument, it is hard to say who "won" the debate. In my opinion, Sinnott-Armstrong (the atheist) presented the strongest opening argument, but Craig (the believer) had the strongest responses. Ultimately, however, the debate itself was problematic, because on some level it was very difficult to establish a reasonable burden of proof. Sinnott-Armstrong can poke holes, for example, in Craig arguments for the existence of God, but when he puts forward his own positive arguments for atheism his case is extraordinarily weak. In each case, there is a problem of burden of proof, and neither meets that standard for the other. This, of course, should not be surprising, but it does render the debate somewhat unsatisfying.

As I read the book, I found myself living the frustration of an informed spectator. I felt rather like the stereotypical sports fan who shouts suggestions at his TV as he watches his favourite team play a game. Sinnott-Armstrong (the atheist) would put forward his rebuttal, for example, of some of Craig's points, and I could tell that he just didn't understand those points in the first place. So I'd sit in my chair, mentally "shouting" into the debate by writing notes in the margins, trying to refine the issues to make them clearer. Of course, neither party could "hear" me — just like the favourite team cannot hear the sports fan — but, in this case, it did not take away from the value of the experience. I'm beginning to suspect that maybe, just maybe, the frustration of being an informed spectator is the most important contribution this book has to make. After all, if it spurs others to write better books as a follow-up, then the debate is truly well-served.

There is not much point going into all the arguments each party presents in their text — at least, not in this book review! What this work has ultimately helped clarify — at least for me — is that the debate about the existence (or not) of God, as it is presented today, is fundamentally a cosmological problem. Both the theologian and the atheist philosopher (not to mention scientist) are attempting to understand the world around them. One holds that this being called "God" is a necessary part of a true cosmological model, while another says the opposite. It strikes me, then, that the next book to be written on such a topic could be less a debate and more of a mutual exploration of world-views. I'd be willing to engage in that myself.

In conclusion, suffice it to say that an atheist who reads this book will not likely come away convinced that God exists, but neither will a Christian come away with his faith shaken. Each party just might come away, however, with a little less of his smugness intact — which is a good thing. While not a watershed work in the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists, this book has the virtue of at least contributing the clarification of some of the issues involved, thanks mainly to the original form of its composition. For this, we can all be grateful. My rating: B.

Book review: Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality, by Raymond Arroyo

About 15 years ago I was browsing through a religious bookstore and came across a small book called "Answers, not promises" by a nun called Mother Angelica. I had never heard of her. She was apparently part of some Catholic TV channel called EWTN, that I had never heard of either (and which was not, at that time, available in Canada). But the book seemed interesting, full of little bits of everyday wisdom, so I picked it up. To make a long story short, I found it very unsatisfying. I had just finished reading a similar book of spiritual quotes from another nun, Mother Theresa. Perhaps it was an unfair comparison, but between the two Mother's I knew which one I preferred.

Skip ahead to earlier this year. Doubleday sends me a book of — you guessed it — spiritual aphorisms, edited by Raymond Arroyo but originally from the lips and pen of Mother Angelica. My reaction: oh no! But I decided to give the book a chance. And I am glad I did, as I found it to be a delightful little work!

There are plenty of books of spirituality out there, and plenty of people ready to give advice. Sometimes Catholicism is accused of being too "pie in the sky" to be practical in everyday life, but this is simply a perception — something Mother Angelica shows in the pages of this book. "Life lessons and everyday spirituality" really is what this book is all about, a guide to walking with God in every moment of our day, and in every challenge we face. It is about simple things: how we treat family members, how we deal with anger and live forgiveness, how to confront all the little corruptions that threaten to creep into our lives, how to live with suffering, how to keep our eyes fixed on God and heaven. Simple stuff, but very worthwhile.

I did not agree with everything the book contained, in terms of theological wisdom or practical advice, but I must say that 95% of it was just fine and the other 5% was largely harmless. For example, I found her theology of angels a bit dated, but that is really just a quibble, not a showstopper. When it comes to things that really count, however — for example, her views on suffering, on God's love, or on heaven and hell —`I found what she had to say both profound and accessible to the ordinary reader.

What I found I liked about the style in the book comes from Mother Angelica's gift of getting to the point in a way that connects the spiritual and the practical. For example, I was really amused by her story of the peanut. Her monastery, to make ends meet, ran a peanut roasting business. At one point, a supplier asked for a kickback. She refused, and he threatened to cut off the monastery, to which she replied "Go ahead, if I'm going to go to hell it isn't going to be over peanuts!" I love it! In one line she connects deep issues of moral theology and our eternal destiny with something practical — the kind of challenges any ordinary person might encounter in life.

I do not believe that this book will change the world, but it just may change a few hearts, and from my point of view that already makes it immensly valuable. My rating: B+ ('B' for 'good' and the '+' as an indicator of its special qualities)