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Book Review: The Life and Prayers of Saint Joan of Arc (Wyatt North)

This book is pure hagiography.  While I suppose hagiography has its uses, mostly to gull and overawe the under-educated, I dislike hagiography.  But at least it can be good hagiography; it can be great literature by towering men of intellect, or if not that, at least it can interest and inform the reader. Not this book, though, which is unrelievedly bad on every level, and whose only virtue is extreme brevity.

I am not even sure who the audience is for this book.  It is written simplistically, as if for children, a common target of hagiography.  But it is also written joylessly, as if for an audience of mental defectives serving prison sentences.  Thus, I was simultaneously infantilized and abused, and the experience was not pleasing.

My wife bought the Audible version to play to our children, as combination education and religious formation.  It fails dismally at both.  The writing is bad; it is a flat recitation of basic facts about St. Joan of Arc, combined with frequent asides hammering the reader didactically in the face about the alleged theological soundness and heroism of one or another of Joan’s actions.  There is no historical background offered; if you come to this book knowing nothing about the basic framework of St. Joan’s times, you’ll also leave knowing nothing.  But you will have gained the feeling of having been flogged.

It’s not even clear who the author is.  The author is listed as “Wyatt North,” and the publisher is “Wyatt North Publishing,” which offers a variety of similar “inspirational” books.  If you read between the lines, Wyatt North appears to be a collective pseudonym for “writers from across the country”—kind of like Victor Appleton for Tom Swift, without the ray guns or the fun.  (I didn’t like the Audible narrator, either, who sounded kind of creepy to me, but that’s more personal taste.)  In addition, at the end are tacked on some prayers to St. Joan (then not yet St. Joan), composed by the French saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, as part of the campaign for Joan’s canonization.  (Thus, the book has no prayers “of” St. Joan, only prayers “to” St. Joan.)  I was not impressed by those either; they were florid, ahistorical, and smacked of French nationalism in the period after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  I do not recommend them as spiritual formation.

I have to admit that if the subject of the book were different I might not be quite so negative.  I have never understood why St. Joan is a canonized Roman Catholic saint.  Of course, she was only canonized in 1920, but devotions to her have been common, at least in localized areas of France, since her death in 1431.  To some extent, I can understand those devotions, since Joan’s devout and pious nature, combined with an unswerving obedience to God as she saw His commands, capped off by her brutal death, seem to make her a charismatic martyr.  But unlike the martyrs of the early Church, the facts of her life are known and undisputed, so she is a type of modern martyr not especially common and therefore valuable as an exemplar (although the 21st Century is giving us plenty of new martyrs in the Middle East).  On the other hand, Joan wasn’t killed by pagans or heathens, but by Catholic compatriots with the active cooperation of the local Church, which tends to erode her martyr status.  I’d give her about an 70% Martyr Quotient, and it seems to me you should have to hit 100% to be canonized.

More seriously, though, what good argument is there that God cared who was to win the Hundred Years’ War?  Two Catholic powers, with intertwined dynastic lines up and down the nobility, fought each other across the brutal decades.  You can make a good argument that the war itself was not in harmony with God’s will.  You can say that heroism was on display, or cruelty, or stupidity, or many other things.  But it’s much harder to claim that God preferred the French.  Didn’t St. Michael the Archangel have better things to do than help the Dauphin, such as put the followers of Mahomet under his mailed boot?  Joan resembled William Wallace, as far as I’m concerned.  At a stretch she resembled El Cid.  Neither of those two is a candidate for sainthood (it doesn’t help that the latter sold his services to the Muslims for much of his career, but I digress).  Thus, I understand why the French admire Joan, but I, at least, don’t identify being French with being higher in the Great Chain of Being.  And if God didn’t care who won the Hundred Years’ War, the argument for Joan’s sainthood seems, to me, to be further substantially undermined, since her deeds were focused solely on that goal.  I am not alone in this opinion—apparently, she was formally rejected for canonization at first by the relevant Church committee, in 1902.

True, there are possible theological counterarguments that favor Joan (as opposed to practical arguments, such as that making Joan a saint curried favor for the papacy with the French).  The main one seems to be essentially “we don’t know God’s purposes—perhaps He was strengthening Catholicism in France so it could do good work later.”  Maybe.  But that evades the question by assuming as the answer an unprovable claim; it is a form of begging the question.  You can’t claim inscrutability as a proof.  An equally valid (i.e., invalid) claim would be “If Joan had not done what she did, Henry VIII would never have removed England from the Church.”  Who knows?  Not me.  (I am unsure, as a theological matter, as to the mainstream Christian position on whether God has foreknowledge of all possible alternate futures—but I’m sure I don’t have it.)

This line of pseudo-argumentation is related to another line of theological thought that has always puzzled me.  Christians ascribe to God a variety of characteristics also found in humans, such as justice and love, but hold they are perfected in God.  As to love, we are often told that God loves us as His children, in the exact same way we love our children, only more so.  But, at the same time, wholly orthodox Christianity does not offer a compatible answer as to why, if God loves us as His children, He would allow some of us to suffer eternally.  No parent would ever do such a thing, regardless of whether it was abstractly just.  The response (by non-universalists) is usually a retreat to some variation of “God is inscrutable and his nature is in no way amenable to human analysis.”  Maybe.  But that, I think, necessarily conflicts with the original premise, which treats God as (in part) understandable as the perfection of certain virtues that we can understand.

The Christian God is not like Allah, capricious, able to contradict and overrule himself (as he does in the Qur’an), delighting in the suffering of sinners, and able to declare what he thought evil one day good the next.  But if the Christian God is the perfect version of certain virtues visible in humans as well, and unable to act otherwise, there is, at least to my relatively untutored mind, a conflict between God’s love and the supposed possible consequences of God’s justice.  There may be a satisfying answer to that that still permits eternal punishment in the framework of paternal love, but I haven’t found it.  Perhaps this is a failure of subtlety on my part—after all, many heresies are appealing, which is why they get traction, from Marcionism to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and that doesn’t mean they’re right.  Nonetheless, I tend to believe, with St. Gregory of Nyssa and, more recently, Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the possibility (if not certainty) of the apocatastasis—the universal reconciliation of all created creatures to God.

But enough about my personal proto-heresies.  Short answer—don’t bother with this book.

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Published in Biography & Autobiography Book Reviews Charles Christian History Christian Theology European History Medieval History Religion

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