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Religious Novel Tackles Big Questions


THE FAITHFUL: A History of Catholics in America
AUGUSTINE AND THE JEWS: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism
THE FOUR CONVERSIONS: A Spirituality of Transformation
A JESUIT OFF-BROADWAY: Center Stage With Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions
FAILING AMERICA’S FAITHFUL: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way
St. Thérèse’s Rose Petals

THE SHACK, by Wm. Paul Young. Windblown Media. 248 pp. $14.99.

Reviewed by the REV. MICHAEL P. ORSI, chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor.

A FRIEND OF MINE recently e-mailed me asking for prayers. He told me that his 16-year-old nephew was killed by a drunk driver while walking home, and that “the family is devastated.”

Often such traumas elicit a crisis of faith, raising fundamental questions about the purpose of life. Human beings in these circumstances ask, “Why does God allow such horrible things to happen?” Indeed, the very nature of God is challenged.

For many weeks, a novel titled The Shack has been on The New York Times Paperback Best Sellers List. This book attempts to answer the above question in a way that is accessible to the average person. Those trained in theology will profit from it, too.

It applies sound biblical teaching, theological reflection, pastoral application and psychological insight for all of us who, in one way or other, must confront the tragedies that life inflicts.

The Shack takes its title from the place where a little girl was murdered. It is also where God invites her father, Mack, to meet with him and heal his pain. In a surprising weekend encounter brought on by Mack’s near-death experience, God reveals himself, explaining his way with humans and his final plans for us.

Author William Paul Young gives every indication of having meditated deeply on the revealed mysteries of the Bible regarding the operation of the Trinity, God’s will, human freedom, suffering and forgiveness. His insights encapsulate the theology of Augustine’s On the Trinity, the spiritual maturity of Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence and the pastoral touch of Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

God’s revelation to Mack comes through his Trinitarian nature. As Christianity teaches, the mystery of one God in three Divine Persons is vital to knowing the true God, how God operates within himself and how God relates to people. In the novel God accommodates Mack’s limited human understanding by presenting himself anthropomorphically in the persons of an African-American woman (named Papa), a carpenter (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit (Sarayu, an Asian woman).

All three impress Mack with their love, their attentiveness and their service to each other. The Trinity informs him of how he is called to live with others.

Often people wonder, “Where is God in the sufferings that humans endure?” In one poignant scene Mack looks at the wrists of Papa and sees the marks of crucifixion. The answer is that God is present and suffers with us. This is a meditation on the Incarnation. God has truly become one with his people. This insight goes to the heart of Circumincession, the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity, a deep theological point that Young makes accessible to every reader.

Young is sensitive to the confusion and sloppiness of life. Mack comes to see that God’s ways are inscrutable, since we do not have the “big picture” (God’s perspective). Yet the ultimate will of God is that each life be a completed masterpiece, that someday the sum of its parts will fall into place beautifully.

This is reaffirmation that God can bring about good even from evil, and that all of earthly life prepares us for eternal life. Mack’s seeing his daughter, Missy, in heaven is touching, and borders on profound mystical theology. It alleviates his pain, freeing him to leave her and go back to his family to share his vision and relieve the pain they feel.

Forgiveness for one who has hurt us or a loved one is often most difficult. God—this time, in the person of Sophia (Wisdom)—shows Mack how love means forgiveness, even for his little girl’s murderer. Forgiveness is one of life’s most liberating experiences, but it is possible only if we first realize God’s love for everyone, the good and the bad. Not only is this theologically correct, but it is also spiritually and psychologically healthy.

The Shack has touched the lives of many. It has the power to inform, to heal and to liberate its readers. It makes the God of Christianity accessible to those who have not had the opportunity to study theology or be counseled in Christian spirituality. It reminds us that God is with us, and has mysterious ways.

My friend who lost his nephew to the drunk driver wrote to me after the funeral, observing that the boy “was a [great] kid—wrong place, wrong time, wrong everything—nobody should die for staying out too late. Faith is the only consolation. I never realized how true....”

This book can help our faith to grow. I sent my friend a copy.

You can order THE SHACK from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE FAITHFUL: A History of Catholics in America, by James M. O’Toole. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 376 pp. $27.95.

Reviewed by JOHN F. FINK, veteran Catholic press editor and author of 12 books.

THERE ARE NUMEROUS histories of the Catholic Church in America, but the unique thing about this book is that it’s a history of the American Catholic laity. Only a handful of bishops are mentioned because this is the story from the perspective of lay believers, the men and women in the pews—the faithful.

James O’Toole, professor of history at Boston College, says that it’s appropriate to call the American laity “the faithful” because they literally remained faithful to the Church in which they claimed membership, even in the face of challenges—challenges that included persecution from without and, most recently, clergy abuse from within.

In telling their story, O’Toole divides our history into six eras, or ages: the priestless Church, the Church in the democratic republic, the immigrant Church, the Church of Catholic Action, the Church of Vatican II and the Church in the 21st century. (It’s a bit disconcerting for this reviewer to realize that I’ve experienced more than half of the book as current events rather than as history.)

In our time, when the number of priests is declining, we might recall our earliest history when Catholics seldom saw a priest. Nevertheless, they still wanted to be part of their Church and held onto their religious identity as best they could, guided only in the most general way by a distant clergyman. That clergyman was almost always a circuit rider who spent most of his time in the saddle, traveling to where the Catholics were.

The Catholics usually gathered in someone’s home and conducted their services with prayer books. It was before the days of Communion services with pre-consecrated hosts. Besides, it was well before Catholics began to receive Communion frequently; that didn’t happen until the first part of the 20th century.

The era of the priestless Church was also a time of great suspicion toward Catholics. They were disenfranchised, and it took a long time for them to be accepted by those with a deeply ingrained hostility toward the Roman Church. Catholics were determining just what it meant for them to be Americans.

As the Church became more established, there were occasional conflicts between clergy and lay trustees. Who should run the parish, the lay trustees or the pastor? Trusteeism began to dwindle after a council of U.S. bishops in 1829 determined that bishops and priests were “the recognized authority” and laypeople had a subordinate role.

The number of Catholics exploded during the 19th century as immigrants flooded in from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland and other Catholic countries. All of these nationalities wanted their own parishes—and they usually got them. But the rising number of Catholics brought persecution again, from anti-Catholic nativists.

The 20th century brought Catholic Action—“the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” In this chapter, O’Toole is particularly thorough. He seems to cover every Catholic Action group, perhaps with the most emphasis on the Christian Family Movement, founded by Pat and Patty Crowley, and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement.

The 20th century was also the time when Catholics became part of the mainstream of American society, and O’Toole covers that, too. Vatican II, of course, changed a lot. The laity now were told that they have their own apostolate, not just a participation in the bishops’ apostolate. In this chapter O’Toole devotes considerable space to the changes in the liturgy and the new roles of the laity in the official prayers of the Church.

The Church in the 21st century has brought new challenges, and O’Toole covers the clergy sex-abuse scandal evenhandedly. Since he was writing from Boston, he writes about Voice of the Faithful, which began there, and its demands for “structural changes” in the Church.

Of course, the 21st century has also returned us to the immigrant Church, with the growing numbers of Latinos. They are facing most of the same problems as the earlier Catholic immigrants did.

This well-researched book has 60 pages of notes.

You can order THE FAITHFUL: A History of Catholics in America from St. Francis Bookshop.


AUGUSTINE AND THE JEWS: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, by Paula Fredriksen. Doubleday. 488 pp. $35.

Reviewed by EUGENE J. FISHER, retired associate director, Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

MANY PEOPLE, including many Jews, are unaware of the crucial role played by St. Augustine in the survival of the Jews in Christian Europe in the centuries after the Church gained political power at the time of the Emperor Constantine. Of all of the non-Christian religions that existed in the fourth century A.D., Judaism alone was allowed to maintain its ancient status as religio licita, a legally recognized religion.

It was Augustine’s brilliant theology that established the theological base on which the popes over the centuries drew to defend the rights of Jews to freedom of worship and freedom to practice their religion. Much of his theology was developed in opposition to the anti-Judaism theologies of virtually all other Christian thinkers of the period.

Even many of those who are aware of the revolutionary nature of Augustine’s thought and its positive influence on papal policy over the centuries are not aware of how he reached his unprecedented (save for St. Paul) conclusions about the Jews. His thinking about the Jews surprisingly had a role in his overall defense of orthodox Catholic Christianity against the chief heresies of his time.

Fredriksen, of Boston University, is a Jewish scholar. She carefully, respectfully and, above all, very clearly narrates the progression of thought which Augustine so brilliantly developed.

Briefly, Augustine was a convert to Catholicism from Manicheanism. This popular Christian heresy taught, among other things, that the body (and everything physical or “carnal”) was evil, and only the soul (and spiritual realities) was good.

One extreme of this thought was found in that of Marcion, a Gnostic “dualist” who taught that there were two distinct gods. The Old Testament God of justice and vengeance demanded of the Jews blood sacrifices and carnal practices such as circumcision and resting on the Sabbath; the New Testament God was concerned with love, mercy and the spirit.

The coming of Jesus represented the defeat of the evil god of the Old Testament, so Marcion concluded that the Church should destroy all of its books, and even New Testament books Marcion and the later Manichees felt to be “too fleshly, too Jewish,” and thus evil.

Augustine the convert preserved for the Church much of its Sacred Scripture by defending the Catholic faith in these matters. To him, at stake were the very nature of Christ as Incarnate Son of God and the very nature of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as a physical sign in which Christ is fully present, not only spiritually but also physically.

Fredriksen narrates the development and presentation of Augustine’s arguments, particularly against their greatest proponent of Augustine’s time, Faustus. Throughout, she makes Augustine’s fourth-century rhetoric and reasoning clear to the modern reader. At one point, as she herself notes, she takes 1,600 words to explain a particularly dense Augustinian passage of only 480 words!

In Part One, Fredriksen narrates the social and intellectual history of the Hellenistic world into which Augustine was born.

The second part is a biography of Augustine, drawing on sources such as his own Confessions, which enabled him to become a biblical theologian of great insight. He could correct the (mis)interpretations not only by his mentor, St. Ambrose of Milan, but also by his contemporary, St. Jerome, on, for example, the writings of St. Paul.

This section, entitled “The Prodigal Son,” reads as a powerful narrative of the journey of a great soul and a great mind, one of the greatest in Christian history.

The third section, “God and Israel,” draws out just how Augustine’s understanding of “the redemption of the flesh” in the Incarnate Christ also led him to his startling (for the time) defense of the Jews and of their continuing right to worship as God told them to do in their Scripture. God, for Augustine, did not lie to the Jews. What he told them to do must forever be acknowledged as God’s will, which Jews must faithfully observe until the end of time.

But unlike many Christian thinkers—then and now—Augustine did not see the observance of God’s will for Israel and the Christian observance of God’s will for humanity in Christ as an either/or proposition. The Jewish Way, God’s Way for the Jews, did not, could not, given the nature of God as Truth, become an evil or wrong way with the revelation of the New Way.

While the Jews killed Jesus as their ancestors killed the prophets, Augustine does not proceed to accuse them of “deicide.” Rather, he states that they have on them the mark of Cain, which of course is God’s mark, setting the Jews aside, for all time, as God’s to deal with. No humans can attempt to do violence to the Jews or try to force the Jews to convert without risking the wrath of God himself.

This book requires close reading, but will richly reward readers not only in their understanding of the teachings of Augustine, but with a better understanding of contemporary theological issues as well.

You can order AUGUSTINE AND THE JEWS: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE FOUR CONVERSIONS: A Spirituality of Transformation, by David B. Couturier. Victoria Press. 241 pp. $25.95.

Reviewed by PATRICIA M. BERLINER, C.S.J., Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author of Touching Your Lifethread and Revaluing the Feminine: A Process of Psychospiritual Change (Cloverdale Press, 2007). She is the founder of Women for a New World, offering holistic, psychospiritual programs and workshops throughout the United States.

CAPUCHIN FRANCISCAN David B. Couturier, practiced in both psychology and theology, has set out to capture the movements of conversion of heart and change of life. These are experienced by those who, drawn by the urgings of the Divine, open themselves to the God who dwells within each of us and walks with us each step of our journey.

The “stepping stones” along our way, the guideposts and stages are referred to as “the four conversions,” experienced and lived out as the personal, interpersonal, ecclesial and structural components of our lives.

Each of the four “conversions” is explored in a way that explicates the interconnectedness of personal and structural transformation.

From various vantage points, we explore the kaleidoscopic diversity of Catholic worship and search for God, meaning and self within the community of others who meet to worship. The goal for all, together and in God, is to come home to the fullness and truth of our being.

Through the lens of his roles as teacher, counselor and minister, Couturier sees that “modern freedom seems to manufacture or abandon God.” He concludes that conversion is a relational process, in which we must reach beyond ourselves in order to find ourselves. He underscores the necessity and the risk of having to walk through darkness to find the light within and around us, confronting our own feelings, fears, weaknesses and strengths.

Unfortunately, by focusing almost totally on the writings of Luigi Rulla, who seems to set existential awareness against Christianity, Couturier diminishes the power of the alliance he posits as existing between psychology and spirituality.

Couturier’s proclamation that “the Word is preached but filtered through our hang-ups” is misleading, although perhaps justified by his personal experience. The search for truth leads us to look not only beyond, but also at and through our “hang-ups,” bringing our whole being to every aspect of our personal and communal experiences. As we seek our place in the family of God, we are invited by that same God to stretch beyond where we would choose to go.

One positive model Couturier introduces is Father Joe, a parish priest struggling to pursue faithfully a ministry becoming increasingly complex, challenging and, too often, less and less fulfilling.

The final chapter, “Discernment and the Four Conversions,” is the highlight of the book. With community-building growing more complex amidst dwindling resources, Father Joe’s community of compassion, faith and action is an island of hope and promise.

One weakness of this work is that it does not adhere to the accepted norms of publication, thus affecting a reader’s ability to navigate the contents and bibliographic references. No sources are referenced either within the text or as footnotes/endnotes. The Reference List (Bibliography) is presented, not in the universally accepted form of last name first, but with first name first.

The basic message, though, comes through clearly. Our greatest task in life is to come home to ourselves and to one another. This book provides a good road map, especially now.

You can order THE FOUR CONVERSIONS: A Spirituality of Transformation from St. Francis Bookshop.


“OURS”: JESUIT PORTRAITS, by M.C. Durkin. Éditions Du Signe. 120 pp. $16.95.

A JESUIT OFF-BROADWAY: Center Stage With Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions, by James Martin, S.J. Loyola Press. 252 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, managing editor of this publication. She is a graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism, a Jesuit school.

SINCE THEIR FOUNDING in 1540 by Basque nobleman Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits have had more than their share of strong personalities and unique missions. Formally called the Society of Jesus, they pledge to undertake whatever ministries the pope thinks to be “for the greater glory of God [ad majorem Dei gloriam] and the good of souls.”

That mission has made them educators and theologians, explorers and astronomers, scientists and poets, political activists and martyrs. Starting with the schoolmates of Ignatius at the University of Paris, the Society now has 24,400 members in 112 countries.

Durkin pithily describes the era of their founding: “Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier and Peter Faber entered adulthood as the discoveries of Columbus and other navigators were challenging long-held ideas....Humanism rediscovered ancient ‘pagan’ culture. Science was opening unimagined frontiers, understanding the world in new terms.

“Festering problems within the Church cried out for reform....Some reformers, like Luther and Calvin, formed new faith communities with their protesting followers. Others sought to make the needed changes within the Church.”

Such challenges called for “strong foundations” and “keen forward vision,” hallmarks of the Society to this day.

Forty-seven Jesuits are profiled individually, plus some groups like the martyrs of the French Revolution, the Boxer Rebellion and the Central American University in San Salvador. In fact, their martyrs are numerous, including Edmund Campion (hanged, drawn and quartered for opposing the Church of England), Miguel Augustin Pro (killed by a Mexican firing squad for resisting nationalization of the churches) and Rupert Mayer (who squared off against the Nazis, was sent to a concentration camp and died six months after his release).

Their recent visionaries include Karl Rahner, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, and Superior General Pedro Arrupe, a champion of renewal in the Church.

Jesuits of the 21st century still see themselves as “men on a mission.” This oversized book is stuffed with photos (some of very rare paintings), illustrations, drawings and maps.

[For more about what Jesuits are up to in India, see the DVD Jesuits on...India (series 3), which is available from A former intern for St. Anthony Messenger, Father Vinayak Jadov, S.J., is among those interviewed.]

Among the more peculiar missions ever accepted by a Jesuit was that of Father James Martin, who became a theological advisor to an off-Broadway theater troupe. He felt he was carrying out Ignatius’s goal to “help souls.”

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, was produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company and performed over five weeks at the Public Theater in Manhattan in 2005. “His play,” says Martin, “put Judas on trial in a courtroom in purgatory with a host of witnesses (including Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, Simon the Zealot, Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas), [and] considered whether or not the betrayer of Christ deserved eternal damnation.”

Guirgis, who was raised Catholic, writes dialogue that is slangy and, at times, foul-mouthed. But he had turned other religious topics into plays (Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the “A” Train) before taking up the controversial figure of Judas. As a consultant, Martin had to advise him, the director and actors about Catholic theology. He became a chaplain to the theater group as well.

One of the key puzzles in the Gospels is that Judas seems to lack motivation for betraying Jesus, and actors have to know what drives their character. Using solid scriptural commentary from Fathers Raymond Brown and John Meier, Martin led actor Sam Rockwell (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) to see his character of Judas as supportive of Jesus’ ministry, but losing faith in the end.

The cast included a few practicing and lapsed Catholics, a Zen Buddhist, a Baptist and a former cult member. (Satan was played by Eric Bogosian, who was raised in the Armenian Apostolic Church and had even gone to Egypt on an archaeological dig.) All talked with Martin about their spiritual journeys and doubts. At the closing night party, he “danced with Saint Monica and Mary Magdalene and Mother Teresa into the wee hours.”

Each night the play was performed, it reached a new audience with the story of Jesus and his circle of friends, Martin says. This play affirmed for him the value of narrative theology, theology that tells stories. And it reminded this culture editor of America magazine how much drama Mass contains.

Both books are fascinating, enlightening and fun reads! 

You can order “OURS”: JESUIT PORTRAITS and A JESUIT OFF-BROADWAY: Center Stage With Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions from St. Francis Bookshop.


FAILING AMERICA’S FAITHFUL: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way, by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Warner Books. 197 pp. $24.99.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.Min., a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit for three decades.

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND bemoans a loss of focus on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. She longs for churches that model the heart and compassion of Jesus Christ.

The former two-term lieutenant governor of Maryland and Robert Kennedy’s daughter addresses eight topics in as many chapters, including the tradition of social justice in the Catholic Church, the progressive Protestant tradition, the meaning of a Christian nation and the vision of Jesus.

This is a head-turner of a book, enveloped in a vision of heartfelt compassion. The writer is convinced that, if Jesus walked the streets today, “he would comfort the drug addicts, the homeless, people living with disease, children living unhealthy or unsafe lives. And he would challenge all of us who failed to come to their aid in the course of our individual lives or in the formulation of our collective policies.”

Faith and politics should come together easily for the Christian, Kennedy Townsend concludes. “How can we find our way back? The answer, I believe, is for religious progressives, clergy and laity alike, to return to the political sphere so that their words can have an impact on the shaping of our nation’s future.”

Another shift the author notices is “evangelical Christianity and its shift of focus from earthly justice to individual spirituality.”

Kennedy Townsend quotes the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, which represents 2,500 Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical and African-American churches that aim to end global hunger. Citing the story of Moses, Beckmann says, “God did not send Moses to Pharaoh to take up a collection for canned goods. He went with a political message to let the slaves free.”

Three decades after Cardinal John F. Dearden of Detroit hosted the national Call to Action in 1976, I notice a weakened effort from the Church on behalf of the excluded, the poor, uninsured children and adults, the vulnerable elderly, prisoners and the mentally ill, innocent women and children and soldiers dying in Iraq.

Kennedy Townsend’s heart has mine aching for Churches that stand up to speak truth in love once more when others sit in silence. “We are all children of the same God. Once we start acting like it, there will be no challenge beyond our reach,” Kennedy Townsend writes in this soul-stirring call. 

You can order FAILING AMERICA’S FAITHFUL: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way from St. Francis Bookshop.


St. Thérèse’s Rose Petals

Calling herself “the Little Flower of Jesus,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux promised to “let fall from heaven...a shower of roses.” May the roses of May and the rest of summer remind us of her!

SPIRITUAL TREASURES FROM ST. THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX: A Book of Reflections and Prayers, edited by Cynthia Cavnar (The Word Among Us Press, 191 pp., $10.95). This revised edition of a 1992 book presents the saint’s own words in reflections and prayers as she describes her “Little Way” of doing everything with great love. It shows why she now is considered the greatest saint of modern times and a Doctor of the Church. Cavnar is now an editor for Servant Books, part of St. Anthony Messenger Press.

THE ST. THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX PRAYER BOOK, by Vinita Hampton Wright (Paraclete Press, 176 pp., $15.95) also focuses on Thérèse’s words from her autobiography, letters and poems, augmented by Gospel passages and psalms that inspired her. The format here invites the reader on a seven-day journey of faith with her.

THE CONTEXT OF HOLINESS: Psychological and Spiritual Reflections on the Life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, by Marc Foley, O.C.D. (ICS Publications, 159 pp., $11.95), deals with some of Thérèse’s hardships in her short 24 years, such as her struggles with scruples, loneliness, depression, physical pain and doubts of faith.


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 $4.50 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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