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A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY: Christian Origins (Volume 1)
PRACTICAL THEOLOGY: “On Earth as It Is in Heaven"
OBLATION: Meditations on St. Benedict’s Rule
FAITH AND MENTAL HEALTH: Religious Resources for Healing
SKY WALKING: An Astronaut’s Memoir
Poetry to Lift the Spirit

A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY: Christian Origins (Volume 1) , edited by Richard A. Horsley. Fortress Press. 318 pp. $35. Late Ancient Christianity (Volume 2), edited by Virginia Burrus. Fortress Press. 318 pp. $35.

Reviewed by the REV. THOMAS BOKENKOTTER, Ph.D., pastor of Assumption Church in Cincinnati and author of A Concise History of the Catholic Church (Doubleday Image Books).

LOOKING AT THE HISTORY of Christianity “from below” is the praiseworthy objective of this series, A People’s History of Christianity. This series, projected to run seven volumes, is based on the premise that too much Church history has been focused on the elites: mystics, theologians, pastors, priests, bishops and popes. After all, it is said, these elites constitute perhaps five percent of all Christians over two millennia. What about the others, the voiceless, the silent majority, the ordinary faithful?

To answer this question, the two volumes reviewed here offer a large amount of material on the daily life of the ordinary citizen of the Roman Empire, as well as much on the specifically Christian experience.

Volume I covers the New Testament period. Its task is defined as follows: “to explore the ways in which ordinary people whose lives were determined by the Roman imperial order formed communities and movements that spread and expanded into a significant historical force in late antiquity.” The effort yields some interesting insights.

To give one example, the Christian faith could appeal to the oppressed. At Corinth there were many freed slaves—freedmen of low status. In becoming Christian, their yearning for respectable status might have been fulfilled by the high spiritual status they could acquire in Paul’s spirit-filled community. Through the spiritual transcendence enacted at Baptism, they would have experienced the transition from dishonor and humiliation to exalted spiritual status.

Volume 2 covers the late Roman imperial period—the second to the seventh century—and has more material to analyze. It departs from the standard narrative of this period, which sees the Church moving steadily toward clarity of belief and practice. The authors’ approach, on the other hand, prefers to emphasize the diversity of the Christian experience rather than sameness, the local rather than the universal, and practice rather than doctrine. In other words, they focus on how Christianity was actually lived.

Fortress Press is the publishing ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but the general editor of the series, Dennis R. Janz, teaches at a Catholic school, Loyola University in New Orleans. Volume editors and authors are academicians from across the globe and mainstream religions.

The authors cast their net wide: veneration of saints, exclusion of heretics, child-rearing and toys, the cult of relics, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, the role of the martyrs, the ascetic impulse, belief in miracles, pilgrimages, the Sacrament of Penance, class differentiation in the Christian community, anti-Judaism, Christian opposition to slavery.

In an interesting note, the authors argue that the practice of taking the sacrament home was much broader than many liturgists have assumed. Tertullian, Hippolytus and Novatian are cited as sources for the custom of consuming the reserved sacrament as part of the evening meal or during prayer rituals. The average pre-Nicene Christian, in fact, probably took many more communions from his or her own hand in the confines of the home than he or she did from the few Masses during the era of persecutions. This practice seems to have been customary in the North African, Roman and Egyptian Churches, if not universally.

The connection of certain practices with their Christian faith is not always apparent. At Hippo in North Africa, we’re told children made a special friend of a tame dolphin with whom they liked to swim. But the curious spectacle led to such a stream of tourists that the city’s administrators ended up killing the dolphin in secret to restore order.

On the other hand and more apropos, the book relates how St. Jerome advised his beloved Laeta to let her little Paula play with toy block letters carved from ivory to spell out the names of the prophets and the apostles and the list of the patriarchs descended from Adam.

The authors see the “rise of orthodoxy” as a successful effort by teachers and bishops, and eventually of emperors, to impose a unified system of belief and practice on the people. The claim is made, however, that below the surface of the Church’s unity, defined at the great councils, lay a festering “babble of the discordant views and opinions of the ordinary Christian.”

Whatever truth there is in this, many would see it as a remarkable achievement that prepared the Church for the next stage in its heroic task of rebuilding a Christian civilization on the ruins of the Empire.

You can order A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY: Christian Origins (Volume 1) from St. Francis Bookshop.


PRACTICAL THEOLOGY: “On Earth as It Is in Heaven," by Terry A. Veling. Orbis Books. 280 pp. $24.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, a teacher and writer at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He edited (with Bill Madges) Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third Publications).

FOR A LONG TIME, theology has been pictured as an ivory-tower discipline with professors (usually white, old men) sitting around asking the perennial question: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” As Terry Veling, head of the McAuley School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University, demonstrates in Practical Theology, however, our “God talk” must consider the wider social, political, economic and cultural problems of our day.

In the book’s first part, Veling defines what he means by “practical” theology. Admitting that it is difficult to describe, he says that it is a way of thinking about God that is holistic rather than compartmentalized. Grammatically speaking, he thinks practical is more a verb than an adjective.

Attentive to people’s lived experience, Veling suggests that practical theology is “less a thing to be defined than it is an activity to be done.”

An essential aspect to practical theology is interpreting Scripture and tradition in light of the signs of the times. That is, as Veling says, “to bring the life of faith to the life of the world, to discern the ways of God for the sake of the coming of God’s kingdom.”

Poverty, immigration, environmental degradation, ethnic and racial conflicts, and war must be examined in light of the gospel. This begins with the interpretive question: “What are you saying to me?” Thus begins a process of encounter and dialogue which may take us to new and uncomfortable places.

The book’s second part examines practical theology’s insistence that beliefs must show forth in action—what we do, how we live. This is, according to Veling, the “answerable life.” No one else can live our lives. We are unavoidably responsible for them.

This only serves to highlight the uniqueness and sanctity of the human person. Practical theology emphasizes that we, made in the image and likeness of God, cannot speak of God without speaking of humanity, that divinitas and humanitas are inseparably linked.

Since this is the case, justice becomes a primary concern. Oppression, discrimination and slavery of any form must be confronted with the gospel. This requires us to go beyond ourselves, to seek out and encounter the other.

This places before us a call to “hospitality,” or welcoming, with which we may be unfamiliar. Veling states that hospitality remains “a difficulty for us, and often requires us to form bonds with others whose communal commitments are marginal to prevailing understandings of power, status and possessions.”

The book’s last part develops the idea that practical theology is contextual. It is not detached from its historical context. It’s incarnational. Just as Jesus entered into history at a specific time and place, so too we live out our lives as disciples of Jesus. This should “teach us to reflect on situations and to notice their depth, rather than to jump to simplistic conclusions.”

In presenting his understanding of practical theology, Veling draws upon a variety of resources: personal stories, philosophers, Scripture, poetry, theology and spirituality readings. In so doing, as the subtitle suggests, Veling creates a conversation “on earth as it is in heaven.”

For those looking to ground theology with spirituality, Practical Theology provides this opportunity and challenge. It asks us to take the words that we read on the pages and make them real in our lives.

You can order PRACTICAL THEOLOGY: "On Earth as It Is in Heaven" from St. Francis Bookshop.


HOW TO BE A MONASTIC AND NOT LEAVE YOUR DAY JOB: An Invitation to Oblate Life, by Brother Benet Tvedten, O.S.B. Paraclete Press. 119 pp. $14.95.

OBLATION: Meditations on St. Benedict's Rule, by Rachel M. Srubas. Paraclete Press. 82 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by SHARON CROSS, project manager in the electronic media department of St. Anthony Messenger Press and a Benedictine oblate of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana.

IN RECENT YEARS I’ve seen a number of new books on monastic life, prayer and the application of Benedictine spirituality in the workplace. How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job and Oblation, two of seven titles incorporating those principles that are currently available from Paraclete Press, specifically address the oblate vocation.

As expressed in Brother Benet’s title, the road to holiness traveled by vowed religious is open to anyone, and can be found wherever we are, regardless of age, race, sex, occupation (or lack thereof) or even marital status. Benedictine oblates are Christian men and women who affiliate with a specific Benedictine community. Through oblate programs organized by almost every monastery, these mostly laypeople learn from professional monastics (monks and nuns) how to apply the Rule of St. Benedict to their daily lives.

Brother Benet, a monk of Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota and director of its oblate program, combines explanations of what is meant by Benedictine spirituality with practical examples of its implementation, contributed by oblates of various monasteries. “Christ is the chain that binds us,” he says, “and we are all bound to one another.”

Section one on Benedictine spirituality shows how prayer, holy reading, work and relationships figure in the life of every monastic. Prominent among the Benedictine values for daily living in section two are peace and justice, and hospitality.

Two uniquely Benedictine vows—conversion of life and stability of heart—are discussed in section three on being an oblate. Although oblates do not take vows, we promise to practice these concepts. Also found in this section are a helpful history of the oblate movement and five simple guidelines for oblates, prepared over 30 years ago by a group of oblate directors.

The other book is by Rachel Srubas, Presbyterian clergywoman, wife and Benedictine oblate, who embodies the ecumenism common to the Benedictine family. While personal, her prayer reflections also connect the Rule of St. Benedict to familiar experiences to both oblates and other readers. Srubas says that her writing talent has been nurtured and celebrated for years by the Arizona Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration with whom she is affiliated.

Picking up on the Benedictine practice of praying with Scripture known as lectio divina or “divine reading,” Srubas calls her reflections scriptio divina or “divine writing.” Inspired by the Rule that in its time wedded ancient ideals to contemporary practices, Srubas allows both the Holy Spirit and Benedict’s spirit to infuse her words. “Every one of the prayers is an oblation, an offering to God,” she writes.

Accompanying each prayer is an excerpt from the section of the Rule that was its inspiration. Readers unfamiliar with that book still may find themselves intrigued by such engaging prayer titles as “Go Home Hungry,” “Two-footed and Striving,” “I, Too, Belong” and “Each Sacramental Thing.” For those who know the Rule, these reflections permit the familiar words to take on a different and perhaps deeper luster.

“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ,” St. Benedict urges those who would follow him. Both Brother Benet and Ms. Srubas offer just such a warm welcome to everyone who may be curious about this 1,400- year-old tradition.

You can order HOW TO BE A MONASTIC AND NOT LEAVE YOUR DAY JOB: An Invitation to Oblate Life and OBLATION: Meditations on St. Benedict's Rule from St. Francis Bookshop.


FAITH AND MENTAL HEALTH: Religious Resources for Healing, by Harold G. Koenig, M.D. Templeton Foundation Press. 298 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.Min., founding director of Care of the Soul ( A priest for three decades of the Archdiocese of Detroit, he is longtime religion writer for The Detroit News, and recipient of the 1996 Detroit Human Rights Award. On special assignment, he works with Bodymorph Gym and Wellness Center ( in Ferndale, Michigan.

THIS IS A REMARKABLE RESOURCE for caregivers, medical schools and schools of theology. In four parts and 14 chapters, author and physician Harold G. Koenig describes 10 ways that religious faith can contribute to mental health and wellness.

Dr. Koenig is a Duke University Medical Center professor of medicine and psychiatry. He starts by tracing the history of mental-health care and communities of faith. Then he follows with research on religion, positive emotions, ways of coping, persistent mental illness, and the integration of religion and treatment.

A leading specialist on spirituality and health, Koenig explores positive and negative influences of religion on mental health. He challenges what people of faith are (and could be) doing for mentally ill parishioners.

Barriers and obstacles to mental-health services are explored in the final part of the book. Here the writer outlines what stands in the way of scientific research. He also examines the relationship between religion and mental health: funding, attitudes, methodologies and focus/priority. Koenig offers some solutions that will require the help of government and private and faith-based groups.

Multiple sources for networking are provided in an extensive 25-page reference section at the end of the book. The book also lists mission-driven faith-based services and has a helpful index.

In my own work as a pastoral counselor, I have found Koenig’s book helpful for explaining psychotherapy, spiritual direction and coaching of patients with anxiety, depression and even psychotic features.

You can order FAITH AND MENTAL HEALTH: Religious Resources for Healing from St. Francis Bookshop.


SKY WALKING: An Astronaut's Memoir, by Tom Jones. HarperCollins. 357 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by P.J. MURPHY, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to graduating from the College of Mount St. Joseph with a degree in English, he recently completed his M.A. in journalism and communications at The Ohio State University.

NASA AND ITS SPACEFLIGHTS of the last two and a half decades have gotten a raw deal. Most of us know of early space exploration through textbooks and popular movies. The spaceflights and moon walks of the 1960s are well documented, and those astronauts’ names are firmly placed in American history.

The astronauts of the space-shuttle era are often overlooked and overshadowed by the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters. Tom Jones’s Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir is book-ended by those tragedies, but it also shows that astronauts such as Jones and his counterparts carried the flame of space exploration forward with the same passion and dreams of their predecessors.

Jones, a former C.I.A. agent, gives a vivid inside look at the sacrifice, determination and passion an astronaut-hopeful must possess. It is this deeper understanding of what it took for Jones and his fellow astronauts to be assigned to a shuttle mission that gives this book its poignancy. From his initial spaceflight where he was the mission specialist to his experience with the International Space Station, the intricacy of an astronaut’s every move is well chronicled.

The detailed descriptions of astronaut training and the space technology used by NASA will be of interest to those who want to learn more about the process of becoming an astronaut, but it is the people Jones encountered who make this book interesting to a broader audience.

While the stories of his fellow astronauts provoke amazement and amusement, the sacrifice of family time is something that is not lost on Jones. For him to live out his dream and passion, his wife, Liz, and their two children, Annie and Bryce, have to take on the worries and fears that come with spaceflights.

From his daughter’s learning about the Challenger disaster at school prior to one of her father’s missions to the tense moments during shuttle launches and landings, Jones paints a very clear picture of what an astronaut’s family has to endure.

Jones also touches on another important factor of achieving his dream of a spaceflight career—his faith in God. Through all his years of intense training and preparation, the Catholic Jones seems to have maintained an optimistic outlook. Most of this optimism can be attributed to his faith. When he has to move his family across the country, he sees the proximity of a Catholic church as consolation.

As he is preparing for his first mission, he has a collection of saints lined up for prayers. He also takes solace in believing that his father and grandparents are going to relay his prayers directly to God. And on his first mission he and other crew members celebrate the Eucharist on Easter Sunday in space. For all his hard work, Jones recognizes that it is God who enables him to live out his dreams.

Jones, who has authored two children’s books on spaceflight, co-authored Spaceflight for Dummies and wrote a cover story for St. Anthony Messenger, does an excellent job at presenting a very readable account of his time in NASA’s space program. As an accommodating measure, he has included a glossary of spaceflight terms and acronyms he uses throughout the book, and you may find yourself flipping back and forth from time to time.

Anyone interested in modern space exploration and what it takes to become an astronaut will enjoy Jones’s story. Jones describes his experiences with NASA very well and gives some clarity to the latest chapter in space exploration. For more information about this memoir and Tom Jones, visit Jones’s Web site (

You can order SKY WALKING: An Astronaut's Memoir from St. Francis Bookshop.

Poetry to Lift the Spirit

Good poetry can bring sunshine even to November’s gray days, lighten our hearts and set our horizons higher.

FLOWERS OF HEAVEN: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse, revised edition, compiled by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press, 293 pp., $16.95), is an anthology of poetry representing nearly 70 Christian poets, whose work was “penned in the service of spiritual truth.” They range from Francis of Assisi to Gerard Manley Hopkins.

THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE: Poems, by Ethel Pochocki (, 124 pp., $10). Pochocki has written children’s books and poetry for St. Anthony Messenger Press. Her gentle, feminist poems are grounded in real incidents and nature. The title poem praises the women of Lockerbie, Scotland, who gathered clothing remnants, laundered and ironed them to return to the families whose loved ones died in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, because “It’s the least we can do/to give a bit of comfort,/you know how mothers are....”

PSALMS: A Spiritual Commentary, by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., illustrations by Phillip Ratner (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 149 pp., $19.99). Psalms and the Song of Songs (about which the late Father Pennington also wrote) are the most poetic parts of the Bible. Here the Trappist offers original translations and commentary that open up the psalms as the “love songs” of God and his people.

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. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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