The Story of John Michael Talbot, by Dan O'Neill.
Revised edition. Troubadour for the Lord (350 CR 248, Berryville,
AR 72631, phone 479-253-0256). 268 pp. $15.95.
Reviewed by MARIA KEMPER, a theology and literature
undergraduate at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She
interned with the magazine the last two summers.
AN EX-ROCK STAR, a contemplative, a husband
and father, a Franciscan, a musician, a poet and a prophet:
All these characteristics combine harmoniously in the life
and ministry of John Michael Talbot.
In this updated biography, Signatures: The
Story of John Michael Talbot, Dan O’Neill carefully notes
contrasting details that compose the melody of Talbot’s life.
O’Neill describes how Talbot spurned riches, yet fame followed
him home; how he sought solitude, but was led to give concerts
in front of thousands; how he asked only to be a hermit in
the wilderness and became known as the “holy man in the woods.”
It seemed to be a familiar tale from the 1960s:
Boy joins band. Boy marries young. Band becomes famous. Many
such stories ended tragically in a fast life and early death,
drowning in drug-induced dreams, but there was a twist here.
Boy gets saved.
John Michael Talbot, the long-haired, banjo-plucking
band member, became the long-haired, banjo-plucking Bible-thumper.
He had “a quote from Scripture for every conceivable problem.”
Unfortunately, his fanatical spirituality and legalism led
his wife to file for divorce.
The pain of his broken marriage brought Talbot to his knees,
honestly questioning his faith. The questions brought him
to a local Catholic church. After counseling and healing,
he started reading his way into Catholicism—beginning with
St. Francis and the Church Fathers.
He says, “There were three things that really
drew me into the Catholic Church: the rich contemplative and
mystical tradition, the balance of Scripture, tradition and
magisterium (or the Church’s teaching authority), and the
monastic heritage of radical gospel movements and communities....These
things spoke volumes to me about a time-tested spiritual home
in which to follow Jesus Christ more radically, without falling
back into religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.”
His love for music didn’t end at the baptismal
font; his next album centered on the Mass and Eucharist. Surprisingly,
the mostly Protestant, contemporary Christian audience welcomed
this new addition to their collections. Soon notoriety, and
money, began rolling in again.
Yet Talbot’s heart was captured by something greater
than fame and wealth: Lady Poverty. He shunned the limelight
and joined the Secular Franciscan Order, taking time away
from the recording industry to pray in the solitude of his
This wasn’t the only time music took a back seat
to his spiritual life. In 1979-1980 he founded a society where
religious and laity live a communal life, fostering silence
and prayer, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience
according to their state in life. An offshoot of both Franciscan
and charismatic spiritualities, the Little Portion Hermitage
houses the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, as well as lay
Witnessing almost a decade of struggle with few
accomplishments, he pruned the lifestyle of the community.
He even curtailed his concert schedule to provide time for
intense prayer. After a year of this reform, he again picked
up his guitar to praise the most high and glorious God, and
has not stopped since.
In Signatures, some of Talbot’s own writing
is arranged to emphasize the themes recorded by O’Neill. (O’Neill
is a longtime friend of John’s and founder of Mercy Corps,
an international relief and development corporation.) Extracts
from journals, letters and meditations, inserted like grace
notes in a melody, add Talbot’s distinct touch to the text
and give this book the feel of an autobiography.
The work mirrors the style of its subject: measured
and meditative. It tells of a man at peace, but with a heart
on fire with love for Christ and his Church. The serenity
he found in a life of monastic contemplation comes through
clearly in O’Neill’s words.
Fans of John Michael Talbot’s music or followers
of a contemplative lifestyle will find this biography inspiring.
Those hungry for a good “conversion story” can be satisfied
here in this account of the life and spirituality of a modern
troubadour of the Great King.
You can order SIGNATURES: The Story of John Michael
St. Francis Bookshop.
GREAT MYSTERIES: Experiencing Catholic Faith From the Inside
Out, by Andrew Greeley. Rowman and Littlefield.
158 pp. $18.95.
Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication.
He holds master’s degrees in theology (University of Dayton)
and Franciscan studies (St. Bonaventure University).
IN HIS FOREWORD to this revised edition,
the Rev. Robert Barron begins by citing the opinion of Hans
Urs von Balthasar that the greatest tragedy in the history
of Christianity was the split between theology and spirituality
at the end of the Middle Ages.
In this volume, which has been in print off and
on for 20 years, Greeley seeks to change the thinking and
actions of his readers. He notes that after Jesus’ resurrection
the apostles preached not so much to win converts as to help
listeners “experience the risen Jesus the way they had” and,
therefore, change their lives.
“Religion is practical,” writes Greeley, “because
it tells us how to live. It tells us how to live by explaining
what our life means.” Greeley presents here “a catechism of
interpretation,” which seeks “to explain how the central truths
of the Christian tradition purport to explain the human condition
for those who permit them to do so.”
“My approach may be useful to some and not useful
to others. Those who do not find it useful would save great
strain on their blood pressure if they simply discarded it
In separate chapters, Greeley grapples with the
mysteries of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Spirit, the Cross
and Resurrection, Salvation, Grace, the Holy Eucharist, the
Church, Baptism, Mary, Heaven and the Return of Jesus. Each
chapter ends with a section entitled “Theological Notes” and
the volume concludes with several reflection questions for
Catechisms usually do not encourage their readers
to stop and meditate, but you cannot speed-read past Greeley
sentences like, “The Spirit did not transform Peter and James
and John and the rest into totally new human beings. He liberated
that which was best in each of them.”
“We become more human and society becomes more
just only through death and resurrection.”
“If you can find a Church that is perfect, by
all means join it; but realize that, when you do, it has ceased
to be perfect.”
“Transforming the world’s social structures so
that they reflect [God’s] loving graciousness is not for the
simple, the impatient, the neurotically enthusiastic, or the
naïve; but it is the work of everyone who is an adult and
mature follower of Jesus.”
“Christianity demands more than intellectual acceptance of
certain propositions. It demands that the total person embrace
a theory that gives a complete description of the meaning
of human life, and then that the person live that theory in
his daily existence.”
Assuming that this book will have at least one
more edition, I suggest that Greeley add a chapter about the
mystery of conversion or modify an existing chapter. Two other
changes: A “not” is omitted in the Cardinal Emmanual Célestine
Suhard quote on page 141 and the term “Catholic Christian
theory” (twice on page 148) is not particularly helpful.
Greeley offers here a fine text to help readers
become “adult and mature followers of Jesus.”
You can order THE GREAT MYSTERIES: Experiencing Catholic
Faith From the Inside Out from St.
HAVE MERCY: The Healing Power of Confession, by
Scott Hahn. Doubleday. 214 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST, a writer who has taught at
the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
THE SACRAMENT of Reconciliation, traditionally
known as confession, penance or forgiveness, has fallen into
disuse in many Western nations such as the United States and
Canada. Yet never, according to author Scott Hahn, has the
world so much required this sacrament.
“We need confession,” he says in this new book.
“We can’t live without it, though we continually try looking
Those who know the true benefits of confessing
their sins tend to cling to it tenaciously. For example, Martin
Luther, the Protestant reformer, dispensed with all but two
(Baptism and the Eucharist) of the seven classic sacraments.
He did not see the others as endorsed by Scripture. Yet Luther
valued forgiveness in human experience. He added penance to
his sacramental teachings—if not to the number of sacraments
Interestingly, at a time when many American Christians,
including most Catholics, seem reticent to engage in the practice,
the Lutheran Book of Worship used by congregations
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes a rite
for private confession.
What happened to confession? During the mid-70s,
in many parts of the Catholic Church, it seems that the perfunctory
nature of the inherited confessional and changing notions
about sin on the part of the laity contributed to the demise
of this long-established rite.
But neglecting classic Christian themes like sin,
guilt, forgiveness and penance does not make them insignificant
or irrelevant. While confession seems currently out of fashion,
the human condition addressed by this sacrament does not change.
Confession reconnects people with God. It is necessary
for good mental health and revitalized relationships. It has
healing effects, not only for individuals but also for communities.
Many see counselors and therapists today when what they may
really need is a trusted and understanding spiritual confessor.
The author, well versed in biblical and other
classical writings, traces the history of confession, beginning
with the atonement ceremonies of the Hebrew Bible. He guides
the reader through appropriate New Testament passages as well
as selections from the Church Fathers.
The entire Tradition of the Church, according
to Hahn, has much to say to moderns. Key ingredients of confession
have always been adaptable to the circumstances of the time.
As in his previous books (The Lamb’s Supper,
First Comes Love and Hail, Holy Queen), Hahn takes
a conservatively orthodox approach to his subject. In that,
he is not only refreshing, but also, to this reviewer, somewhat
unrealistic and inadequate.
In places Hahn seems caught in a nostalgic time
warp. While much of what he says might have been possible
in an era when priests were in greater supply, Hahn does not
adequately address that large pool of Catholics who today
do not have regular access to those priestly confessors of
whom he so eloquently speaks.
Given the importance of confession to the life
of the Church, it would have been helpful had the author proposed
some complementary but alternative practices for our time.
This would build on his claim that confession has taken different
forms at different times.
Confession addresses a universal problem—when
“something is not right with the world.” This book is a helpful
beginning, but not a totally satisfying response, as the contemporary
Church considers ways of responding pastorally to the basic
human craving for forgiveness.
You can order LORD, HAVE MERCY: The Healing Power of
Confession from St.