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THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions
THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO MARY OF NAZARETH: A Reverent Exploration of the Life and World of the Mother of Jesus and Her Ongoing Impact in the Modern World
THE LOIS WILSON STORY: When Love Is Not Enough
Peacemaking Starts With Us

THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong. Knopf. 469 pp. $30.

Reviewed by MARK WILKINS, a teacher of religion at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

BEGINNING in the ninth century B.C.E., the people of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day. The period from 900 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. is referred to as the Axial Age because this period was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity.

China produces Confucianism and Daoism. India brings forth Hinduism and Buddhism. Western culture’s greatest influences arise in Israel (monotheism) and in Greece (philosophical rationalism). All started at about the same time. All took similar perspectives on the human condition. It was an extraordinary time in our common history.

As this book so eloquently states, later generations further developed these insights, but we have never grown beyond them. For example, the author explains how rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all secondary flowerings of the original Israelite experience.

In one of her most compelling works, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this Axial Age can still speak to the violence and desperation we experience in the world today. Readers of her works will recognize that Armstrong has given full development here to ideas that she first presented in both Buddha and The History of God.

A brief review such as this cannot give due justice to the depth and intricacy of the analysis that Armstrong presents. She begins by showing how the significance of ritual went from being a way to order the cosmos and the society to being a way to transform the participant. The religious traditions of the Axial Age were rooted in fear and pain. Essential to personal insight and growth was acknowledgment of this reality rather than flight from it.

Across the cultures, leaders realized that challenging people to play a role in ritual forced them to stand outside themselves and lose themselves in another event for a short while. The proper response changes from being in control and manipulating the gods to developing a sense of awe and wonder about what lies beyond this world while developing a sense of compassion and justice. There is a change from an emphasis on the externals to the internal self. This represents a major shift in human consciousness.

The spirituality of the Axial Age was often iconoclastic as well. The purpose of questioning traditions was not to change the structures, but to get people to evaluate their behavior. Ethical behavior was stressed over orthodox beliefs. Actions speak louder than words.

Out of this comes an increased sense of empathy and understanding of the other person. The increasing introspection of individuals and groups led to a deeper sense of compassion and sympathy. From this (in major leaps) comes a growing concern for everybody and the insight that all is one.

Our truncated sense of history often leads us to believe that we live in the “modern” era and that we are the ones responsible for the greatest changes in human history. A growing number of works look at history through the portal of one development, invention or item to show us the deep, deep roots of the “modern” age. Armstrong does the same thing here with not just one religion, but the major ones that are still thriving today.

Someone curious about religions other than Christianity might find this book a challenging but rewarding experience.

The author does not try to oversimplify or suggest that there was this great network of visionaries with a shared vision. She makes the point that these insights and ideals came to different people at different times, but in much the same way. There is no mention of what is going on in Africa or the Americas at this time, but that may be due to the lack of written records.

It is Armstrong’s weaving together of all the elements that makes this book such a pleasure to read. She continues to be one of the best writers around. If it is not her very best, it is at least the most thorough analysis.

You can order THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions from St. Francis Bookshop.


AN INTELLIGENT PERSON’S GUIDE TO CHRISTIAN ETHICS, by Alban McCoy, O.F.M.Conv. Continuum. 166 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by DAN KROGER, O.F.M., publisher/CEO-designate of St. Anthony Messenger. He earned his Ph.D. in Christian ethics from the University of Notre Dame. He was a full professor at De La Salle University in Manila, the Philippines, and has taught at the Franciscan seminary there.

ALBAN McCOY, the Catholic chaplain at Cambridge University, writes for people interested in ethics yet allergic to academic writing.

McCoy begins by describing the moral morass that led him to write this book: “Clear and unconfused thinking is urgently needed in a time like ours of accelerating change. Inevitably, new moral questions emerge to which there seems to be not only no agreed solution but not even a clear way of proceeding in the pursuit of answers.”

Contemporary issues like stem-cell research, genetic engineering and changing sexual mores are provoking ethical questions—if not outright disagreement and conflict—within our families and communities.

Faced with irreconcilable differences of opinion, some accept the popular misconception that ethics and morality are beyond debate. They choose the insipid cultural dictum of “political correctness,” presuming that only natural science can attain both objectivity and certainty.

McCoy notes that the contemporary climate is a “curious combination of positivism, on the one hand, and subjectivism and relativism on the other.” While the common question of whether religion matters in morality is important, McCoy begins with human experience and common moral questions shared by all people, be they religious or not. Anthropological studies show that learning what to be and what to do—how to live well—is part of every person’s life, regardless of culture and time.

McCoy develops his book in three parts. Part One looks at fundamental issues such as freedom, moral judgments and authentic growth of persons in community. This section provides a fresh, creative critique of radical skepticism, determinism and cultural relativism.

McCoy maintains that moral skepticism results from the misconception that ethics means rules imposed by others, which is not the case. In fact, ethics involves reasonable consideration about moral values, what we are and what we can become. McCoy guides readers through a survey of fundamental questions. How does one recognize what is good? What is human freedom and what are its limits? What should I become? What is the path to happiness? What should I do?

Part Two, titled “Absolutism, Consequentialism or Virtue?,” examines three influential philosophical views. McCoy discusses the limitations of Kantian ethics and the utilitarian approach often employed in political discussions about public affairs. McCoy argues for an approach based on character and virtue—like the philosophical systems of Aristotle and Aquinas.

To explain several technical terms, McCoy employs down-to-earth examples and plain language. One senses how McCoy, as a university chaplain, must have dialogued fruitfully with many a Cambridge student seeking his assistance.

In Part Three, “Ethics in a Christian Context,” McCoy enters into a discussion of what ethics means in the context of Western Christianity. He observes—accurately in this reviewer’s opinion—how poor approaches to Christian morality started in the late Middle Ages. During the Reformation and Enlightenment, theologians could not articulate the Christian moral tradition adequately.

By the 18th century, theologians were stuck in a narrow, legalistic rut—a decadent form of medieval theology. Moral theologians focused on sin and saving souls rather than on living grace-filled lives.

McCoy disagrees with those who claim that the Judeo-Christian moral tradition has collapsed. Instead, he argues that Christian theology must return to its roots—in Judaism, in the Gospels and in early Christianity. The Gospels indicate that Jesus saw through the narrow legalism of many of his contemporaries by returning to Judaism’s prophetic call for a radical response to God’s love. Faith in Jesus should open the doors of graced freedom and responsible love to those who believe.

Unfortunately, says McCoy, “Authoritarian elitism has often been allowed to hijack moral discussion.” Why? Because a law-centered ethic was “so often taken to be at the heart of the Christian moral outlook.”

Instead of Christian morality being trivialized as carrot-and-stick and employing “the frankly presumptuous threat of divine sanction applied to merely human legislation,” it should focus on the possibilities of who and what we should become as human beings.

Standing in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of Catholic ethics, McCoy retrieves the best of our Catholic moral tradition, while correcting its distortions and cutting through contemporary polarization. For a world confused about conscience, freedom and morality, this book provides a concise guide to Christian ethics for intelligent people. This neat little book lives up to its title.



THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO MARY OF NAZARETH: A Reverent Exploration of the Life and World of the Mother of Jesus and Her Ongoing Impact in the Modern World, by María Ruiz Scaperlanda. Alpha/Penguin Group. 345 pp. $18.95.

Reviewed by ANN TASSONE, an intern at St. Anthony Messenger during summer 2006. Ann is a senior at Xavier University in Cincinnati with a double major in English and communication arts.

THIS THOROUGH AND TOUCHING examination of Mary of Nazareth delves deep into Mary’s personal life, teaching readers about her connections to Jesus as well as how she can relate to people today. Some well-known stories, such as the nativity story and the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle, are explored further. In addition, a lot of not-so-well-known information, such as the identity of Mary’s parents, is presented.

Author María Ruiz Scaperlanda does a great job of organizing the information into six parts: Presenting Mary, Encountering Mary—As Mother, Encountering Mary—As Disciple, Knowing Mary, Naming Mary and Praying with Mary. Each part is then separated into three to five chapters, which develop that theme.

Throughout the book, there are small boxes every few pages. The boxes labeled “Lord Knows” are tips that explain people, places and stories related to Mary, but not necessarily obvious to her story. The boxes labeled “Sunday School” are words in the book that are most likely unfamiliar to readers, or concepts to which readers should pay attention. The boxes labeled “Holy Mother” are quotes and prayers about Mary.

Throughout the book, the history of Mary, such as her genealogy, her role as a virgin, and her assumption into heaven, is explained.

A lot of emphasis is placed on Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth and death. Mary’s openness to having a child, despite her youth and virginity, is easy to admire. The Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the son of God, is explained in detail. Her response to Gabriel’s proclamation, “I am the Lord’s servant,” proves to be typical of Mary’s attitude throughout her life. This leads into exploration of the Incarnation, the belief that Mary’s child was both fully human and fully divine.

Readers learn that the only time Mary’s presence is directly acknowledged in the passion narratives in the Gospels is standing at the foot of her son’s cross. The stories told of this agonizing time allow readers to feel compassion for Mary and admiration of her strength.

Countless prayers are dedicated to Mary. Origins of many of these prayers are investigated in this book. For example, readers learn that the Hail Mary, the oldest and best-known Marian prayer, comes from pieces of the Gospel of Luke.

Scaperlanda does an amazing job of making all readers feel they can relate to Mary on some level. She writes, “We seek peace, that sense that tells us that all is well with the world, and that we are exactly where we are supposed to be. Mary not only asks us to pray for peace, she joins us in our quest to find it.” Scaperlanda also parallels Mary’s suffering with adversity we may face today: being single and pregnant, fleeing your country as a refugee, losing your child and/or having a child run away from home, being told terrible news, watching someone you love suffer and enduring the death of a loved one.

After reading this book, I felt a stronger connection to Mary than ever before. I admired her willingness to surrender to God and to continue to put her trust and confidence in her creator. It is no wonder that Mary the mother of Jesus has made the cover of Time magazine 11 times—more than any other woman in history, and more frequently than any other image.

This book is helpful for anyone interested in learning more about Mary the mother of God and deepening his or her personal relationship with her. It is a reminder that, no matter what suffering we may go through, Mary is with us, and, by reading her story, we can better understand how to follow in her footsteps.

You can order THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO MARY OF NAZARETH: A Reverent Exploration of the Life and World of the Mother of Jesus and Her Ongoing Impact in the Modern World from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE LOIS WILSON STORY: When Love Is Not Enough, by William G. Borchert. Hazelden. 364 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by RACHELLE LINNER, a librarian and writer who lives in Boston.

WILLIAM BORCHERT’S clear, workmanlike prose in The Lois Wilson Story is perfectly suited to its subject: the wife of Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In style and substance this biography is characterized by modesty, honesty and empathy, qualities Lois Burnham Wilson possessed to a remarkable degree. Her legacy, as cofounder of Al-Anon in 1951, is the sustained health of those who have used the medicine of the Twelve Steps to recover from the “spiritual illness” that ensnares families of alcoholics.

A “need to nurture” was instilled in Lois from her privileged childhood in Brooklyn and Vermont. Her early life, so rich in opportunity and stability, was in marked contrast to the formative years of her husband’s childhood.

Bill Wilson was nine when his parents divorced. His alcoholic father deserted the family, and the following year his mother left Bill and his sister with her parents and moved from Vermont to Boston. Bill’s childhood and young adulthood were spent battling depression, resentment, low self-esteem and guilt—feelings that would exacerbate the anger, bitterness and grandiose ambitions that fueled his alcoholism.

Bill and Lois married in January 1918, less than a month before Bill was sent to Europe as a second lieutenant. Bill’s drinking began in the Army. By the time he returned to civilian life, it was serious enough to derail what should have been a promising career as a financial research analyst.

The early years of their marriage were shadowed by a series of miscarriages; surgery following an ectopic pregnancy ended Lois’s hopes for a family. In her grief and guilt, she believed that her inability to bear a child was the cause of Bill’s drinking.

The description of Bill Wilson’s descent into the torment of alcoholism is a blunt, humiliating narrative of degradation, capturing both Bill’s physical/ mental decline and Lois’s anguished and futile attempts to love her husband into sobriety. By 1929 he had crossed the “invisible line,” “the point at which,” writes Borchert, “a heavy drinker becomes an alcoholic, when his desire for a drink turns into a craving or an addiction.”

His recovery began in 1934 through an introduction to the Oxford Group, a nondenominational spiritual movement that “focused on the need for people to change.” Although Bill initially resisted its religious focus, his life changed on December 11, 1934. Lying in a hospital bed, in “the deepest, darkest depression he had ever known,” Bill Wilson threw out a challenge: “If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”

The response caused a profound conversion. He was “seized with an ecstasy beyond description. I became acutely conscious of a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit. I lay on the shores of a new world.”

On a business trip to Akron after five months of shaky sobriety, Bill Wilson met Dr. Bob Smith, “another failed Oxford Group drunkard.” Together they articulated what would be the central insight of Alcoholics Anonymous, that they “needed the fellowship of other alcoholics to stay sober.”

Borchert’s vivid description of the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous evokes the exhilaration of new ideas coalescing into a quintessentially American movement: democratic, nonprofessional, self-supporting and optimistic.

Lois began her own journey through informal meetings with the wives of alcoholics, a seed that would one day flourish into the organization known as Al-Anon. “When she began to share her innermost thoughts and feelings with others, she came to understand how much she had really believed she could control her husband’s life....She was totally convinced that her love and inspiration was all that was required to fulfill his every need, that her own willpower and steadfast guidance was all that was needed to quench Bill’s thirst for alcohol.

“As Bill often said, alcoholic behavior is ‘self-will run riot,’ and ‘self-centeredness is the root of our problem.’ And the answer? ‘Only through utter defeat,’ he wrote, ‘are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.’”

Bill (who died in 1971 on their 53rd wedding anniversary) and Lois (who lived to be 97 and died in 1988) came to know the contentment such “happy and purposeful” lives bring. Their achievements, justly celebrated in this book, are all the more compelling because of the stark portrayal of the suffering they endured first. It is a story of fidelity and intelligent love, told with skill and suffused with gratitude.

You can order THE LOIS WILSON STORY: When Love Is Not Enough from St. Francis Bookshop.


Peacemaking Starts With Us

January 1 is the 40th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace. These books focus our attention on peace, sorely lacking in today’s world.

THE TENT OF ABRAHAM: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, foreword by Karen Armstrong (Beacon Press, 218 pp., $24.95). All three religions which trace their lineage to Abraham contain in their literature (Torah, Bible and Quran) teachings about reconciliation that could reenergize them and form a basis for peace.

PERSONAL NONVIOLENCE: A Practical Spirituality for Peacemakers, by Dr. Gerard Vanderhaar (Pax Christi, www.pax, 145 pp., $12, plus shipping and handling), explains how a spirituality of nonviolence provides guidance for our speech, leadership, and dealing with difficult people or even those who might be seen as enemies.

TRANSFIGURATION: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World, by John Dear, foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Image/Doubleday, 238 pp., $11.95, U.S./$14.95, Canada, available February 20). Father Dear uses the Gospel account of the Transfiguration to invite readers to continue Jesus’ mission of love and peace in our world.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling, $2 more for each additional book. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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