Ross Douthat has a job that is, I would guess, either enviable or unpleasant, depending on the day—that of being the only regular conservative contributor to the New York Times. A frequent focus of Douthat’s is that most counter-cultural of doctrines, orthodox Roman Catholicism. If you want to suffer, you need only visit the comments section in the Times for any Douthat column, especially one on Catholicism. Exposing yourself to the firehose of bile and stupidity there will show you what Purgatory will be like, although perhaps Purgatory will be an improvement. Undaunted, Douthat now offers a full-length book on the changes being brought about by Pope Francis.
As I so often complain, the quality of modern discourse is atrocious. Probably this is due to everyone being told for decades that his opinion always matters, along with a belief that democracy means all opinions are equally valid regardless of reasoning, capped off by modern avenues of communication that allow easy, free broadcasting of stupidity, when in the past dumb people had very limited ability to force the rest of us listen. Worthless discourse exists across the political spectrum, of course, although that the Left dominates popular media means the average person probably has to suffer more from being bathed in drivel from that side of the spectrum. A subset of this general problem is that religious discourse is of equally low level, though rather (in most cases) being vicious irrationality, it is vacuous irrationality. It is this vacuous irrationality, at its core the idea that God is “nice,” that Roman Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner is here to dismantle, in this brief and accessible book.
I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read. It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way. It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters. The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia. On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia. And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.
From its title, Theology for a Troubled Believer seems directed at people having a crisis of faith. That’s not precisely true; this is not a work of apologetics. The author, the late Diogenes Allen, did not intend to convert in this work, rather he “intended [it] to increase a critical but pious person’s understanding of the Christian religion.” True, the spur for his writing the book was receiving a letter from a man troubled by the particular problem of theodicy. The book itself, however, is a sophisticated philosophical overview of Christianity in which troubles, as such, play little part. Thus, it might be more accurate if the book’s subtitle, “An Introduction to the Christian Faith,” were the title, and the actual title the subtitle. Either way, the book is substantively excellent, if not an easy read.
Most of us, or so I like to think in order to feel better about myself, steer away from actually reading St. Augustine. We know that he is an intellectual giant and one of the handful of core, key thinkers of Christianity, but everything he has to say seem so dense, and wasn’t he the mean proto-Calvinist who thought unbaptized infants go straight to Hell? Not to mention that, after all, it was all so long ago and far away. Like a lot of people, I own several works by Augustine, but mostly to show my erudition, not for, you know, actual reading. But after completing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, I think I’m inspired, or at least impelled, to sit down, concentrate, and read some of Augustine’s works. Assuming the feeling doesn’t pass, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.
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.
Sarah Ruden may be my favorite author. It’s not that I’ve read everything she’s written—her main oeuvre is translation of classics such as the Aeneid, and I find all the classics hard going. (The Aeneid is something that you know you should read—in college, I read the Cliffs Notes instead, and have felt guilty ever since). It’s not that I agree with Ruden on politics (she’s a liberal, though a thinking, nuanced one, as far as I can tell) or very closely on religion (she’s a devout Quaker, and there is only some overlap there with my Crusader-oriented theology, though we’re both Christian). I think that, ultimately, it’s two things. First, her work is original and fascinating, which in itself is a great deal. But, combined with the second element, the charm and humor that shines through her work, the reader of her books feels like he’s sitting down for a few hours of conversation in a nerdy version of the Dos Equis commercial—the Most Interesting Woman in the World (or second most interesting, after …
Already before I began writing this review, I was worn out reading books with a similar theme, that of Christian renewal, including Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. I was already going to retire and turn to reading biographies for a while. It is not, of course, Reno’s fault that this is the final book I read in the chain. I have tried to ensure that my being worn out does not color my perception of the book. Nonetheless, I was disappointed in this book. While what it says has value, and Reno’s heart is in the right place, his book is largely derivative and superficial, and it omits, for all practical purposes, any real plan for achieving the goal of its title.
This is not the sort of book I normally read. It is spiritual fluff from a Singaporean megachurch “grace preacher,” Joseph Prince. But a friend of mine sent me a copy and suggested I read it, since he obtained a lot of spiritual benefit from it. I warned him that I would likely abuse the book and the preacher. I am here to execute on my warning.
The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book. Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society. This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.