Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2014

The Church and New Media – Blogging converts, online activists, and Bishops who tweet
By Brandon Vogt. Our Sunday Visitor, 2011, 224pp paperback. Available from Amazon at £8.95

Despite the image of a professor pope who would prefer a quiet library, Pope Benedict enthusiastically promoted the use of the new media in the task of evangelisation in his messages for World Communications Day over several years. Brandon Vogt, a young married man, is an upbeat apostle who has enthusiastically used the new media himself and made great efforts to encourage others to do so. The Church and New Media is a part of this apostolate.

Vogt has gathered a collection of articles from some of the best-known bloggers and users of other new media to give guidance on the effectiveness of evangelisation using social media and to offer sound advice to those starting out in the field. In the rough labelling used today, the contributors might be described as “neo-orthodox”: they are some of the people who have used the social media in a positive and effective way in complete loyalty to the magisterium of the Church. There is a local bias in that several of the contributors come from Texas A&M College. Having come to know the contributions and style of many of the writers, I was impressed that they seem to have networked so effectively – and astonished that one college should have produced so many great apostles.

Priests occasionally say in a mildly superior and accusatory manner: “I don’t know how you find the time to blog.” My stock reply is to answer immediately: “I don’t have a television.”

Fr Robert Barron, whose Catholicism series of DVDs has proved so popular a means of building up the faith of uncatechised Catholics, writes of his engagement with those who comment on his YouTube videos. Open comment boxes on the internet provide an outlet for prejudice, abuse and the publication of opinions that do not merit serious consideration. Patience in responding to such commenters is admirable.

The internet apostolate plays a major part in the conversion story of blogger Jennifer Fulwiler. She repeatedly saw how “someone would toss out a half-baked argument against Christianity that might have sounded impressive offline, but it would be quickly demolished in the flood of facts provided by the internet”. She noticed that Catholics had the best answers in a ruthless intellectual environment and were not afraid to get involved in online debate on the most difficult questions.

The prolific blogger Mark Shea points to one of the attractions of the new media for writers: there is nobody who will change your headline “Exploring the Mysteries of the Rosary” to “My Friend the Rosary”. Writers do indeed need to edit themselves, but mistakes are quickly punished in an environment where anyone can comment, and there is a direct link between the quality of writing and the number of readers. Blogging can become a tyranny, though: Fr Dwight Longenecker speaks of how people visit his blog every day looking for the three “E’s”: education, entertainment and enlightenment. I have some sympathy with him. One time, when things were very busy in the parish I did not blog for a week. My sister rang up to check whether I was ill.

As well as direct evangelisation, Catholics are using the internet in imaginative ways to help people within the Church. Matthew Warner’s “Flocknote” project enables parishes to contact people from one source, sending the same material to a person’s email inbox, Facebook or Twitter account, or to their mobile phone by text message; the important thing is that it is the end user that chooses which of these means is the one by which they prefer to receive information. There is also a chapter on “innovative shepherding” looking at examples from the Archdiocese of Boston and giving recommendations for dioceses and bishops. In England, the dioceses of Lancaster and Shrewsbury have made particularly effective use of the internet in pushing out good news and keeping up with the way in whichpeople choose to receive information, but in some dioceses there is often still an attitude in which people see the internet as irrelevant, looking down on what they see as technically advanced enthusiasts who spend too much time “playing on their computers”.

Priests occasionally say in a mildly superior and accusatory manner: “I don’t know how you find the time to blog.” My stock reply is to answer immediately: “I don’t have a television.” I confess that I find it amusing when this is met with the protest: “Well, I only watch documentaries and the history channel.” As long as we are not nuked back to the stone age or sent offline by a massive solar electromagnetic pulse, the internet is here to stay and is an indispensable part of communication. In the Church we are obliged to communicate in order to spread the gospel of Christ. The Church and New Media is an easily readable introduction and demonstration of some of the ways in which this apostolate can flourish.

Within the Church there is much ground to be made up. The priest-blogger Fr John Zuhlsdorf once said that in the Vatican it is “yesterday’s technology tomorrow”, and this is true of many local churches. On the day that the encyclical Lumen Fidei was issued, Brandon Vogt set to work to make versions of the encyclical available for Kindle and other e-book formats. Fr Zuhlsdorf immediately read out the entire encyclical and published an audio file. (Lest there be any doubt, the downloads were given away free of charge, as is customary.) In both cases, letters followed from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana complaining about copyright infringement. Brandon Vogt was even accused of “stealing from the Pope”. Pope Benedict’s message on the importance of using the new media for evangelisationhas not penetrated everywhere, even at the Holy See. The Church and New Media would be a good primer for anyone who wants to understand why some of us devote some of our time trying to use the new media for the good.

Fr Timothy Finigan


The Pope’s Last Crusade
By Peter Eisner. William Morrow, 292pp, $27.99, £18.99

The successor of St Peter has probably from the very beginning had to contend with conflict from afar and intrigue nearer at home. This was certainly the experience of Pope Benedict XVI, and it was also true of Pius XI, as this book shows.

Pius XI wrote an average of two encyclicals a year. He condemned communism in Divini Redemptoris. But he came to realise that the more immediate menace was from the Nazis. His outspoken denunciation in Mit  Brennender Sorge (1937) was an unparalleled attack on the racism of Nazi policies. In 1938 Pius XI was considering a second encyclical which would enlarge on the point in an even more forthright way.

This book recounts how the Pope turned to Fr John LaFarge, an American Jesuit on the board of America, the Jesuit magazine which had already published his analysis on racism, which Pius had read and appreciated. LaFarge, who was on a fact-finding mission to Europe for his editor, was summoned to Castel Gandolfo by personal letter and asked to draft the new encyclical in the deepest secrecy as soon as possible.

LaFarge enlisted the help of two fellow Jesuits and completed the task in four months. He then left for America, because of the worsening health of his brother, and entrusted the draft of the new encyclical to the Jesuit General, Wlodimir Ledochowski. His superior had other thoughts in mind. He shared the opinion of Pius’s Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, who considered that communism was by far the greatest danger and that criticism of Germany should therefore be muted. The draft encyclical was filed away until Pius died in February 1939 when it was shelved. The softly-softly policy was in fact pursued by Pacelli when he became Pius XII. Personally he sheltered Jews in Vatican territory, but he drew back from denouncing the Nazis’ racist policies except in carefully worded terms.

It is perhaps vain to speculate whether a new encyclical would have aroused such a wave of revulsion around the world that Kristallnacht and the Final Solution might have been avoided. Pius XII made a tactical decision because he thought Pius XI’s approach was too brutal – and because his fondness for Germany led him to consider that Hitler might eventually become more democratic. That was despite outbursts like the speech at the Sportpalast in 1938, in which Hitler raved: “In this hour the whole German people will be united to me: my will they shall feel as their will, just as I regard their future and fate as director of my actions.”

This does not take away from the undoubted holiness of Pius XII, who gave us such magisterial documents as Mystici Corporis and Mediator Dei and the revised paschal triduum. But it brings home that it takes a great pope to see the broader picture and to rise above the inner circle which surrounds him, advising, prompting and sometimes undermining him. Popes always need our prayers.

James Tolhurst


The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins
By Peter Enns. Brazos Press, 161pp, £10.99

The Bible speaks about the creation of the universe and of man. The language and images it uses to describe such beginnings have their roots in a particular time and culture. One cannot read these passages of the Bible as if they intend to give an accurate description of physical, historical reality. This is neither the way nor the reason they were composed.

Furthermore, in view of the state of scientific knowledge today, unless one is prepared simply to reject scientific evidence, adjustments to the interpretation of the scriptural accounts are always necessary. Without such development of doctrine, those of us who hold the Bible dear can be forced into closing down all dialogue with modern thought. In this book Peter Enns seeks to give Christians, who value Scripture as the Word of God, parameters by which they can understand the Bible and its message while accepting evolution as a valid description of the origin of humans.

Enns has a gift for expressing in an accessible way modern developments in biblical scholarship. The way he describes the setting, culture and language of the biblical authors is engaging. And his outline of current thought on the formation of Genesis and the other books of the Bible is clear and comprehensible. His approach takes seriously the “human dimension” of Scripture and sees it not as an unhappy condescension but as a mark of God’s love and of how far He will stoop to commune with His people.

In this respect Enns, an evangelical, is close to Catholic theology, expressed by Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu: “Just as the substantial Word of God became like men in every respect except sin, so too the words of God, expressed in human languages, became like human language in every respect except error.” This book describes well many of the facets of the “human languages” used by the Holy Spirit to communicate the Word of God to us.

However, in order to be successful in giving parameters for an authentic and modern interpretation of the Bible, one needs a clear understanding of biblical inspiration and a sound theology of biblical interpretation. Enns does not demonstrate that he has either in a Catholic sense. A Catholic exegete seeks to be faithful to the Church, which means resolutely seeking one’s place in the mainstream of the great Tradition of the Church. Assured of the assistance of the Holy Spirit this Tradition, under the guidance of the Magisterium, in former times recognised the canonical writings of the Word of God and has never ceased to meditate on them and search their meaning. Furthermore, since the Holy Spirit is the divine author of the Scriptures, speaking the One Word of God, the Church has avision of the unity of the Bible. In this context a development of doctrine can be positively identified and adjustments to the interpretation of Scripture, which Enns argues for, can be confidently and authentically made.

Enns does not know this Tradition and, although he recognises a kind of “development of doctrine” within the Bible itself, he does not have the theological tools to set his own thinking in dialogue with the living theology of the Church. It is inevitable that such an individualistic approach to the study of the Scriptures, which does not know how to “listen to the Church”, will wander from authentic interpretation.

We see this especially when Enns describes St Paul’s use of the figure of Adam simply as a “biblical idiom” available to him as he seeks to express what God has achieved in the death and resurrection of Christ. While Enns recognises that Paul uses the language and symbolism of Adam, he is unable to see that Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, brings to fruit the doctrine sown “in seed” in the book of Genesis. Paul is not only using the vocabulary, language and idioms of the Old Testament in a new context, but developing the content of Revelation itself.

The early writers of the Church expressed it thus: The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New. The Holy Spirit gradually unveils the nature of God and His plan for mankind. This “unveiling” is expressed through the Scriptures, the human authors of which are inspired to write what God wishes while employing their own faculties and doing so in the language and culture of their time. In the Old Testament it was piecemeal and incomplete. In the New Testament it was perfected in the fullness of revelation in Christ. Not having such a theology of inspiration and interpretation, when Enns is wrestling with the concept of a historical Adam he strays from the doctrine of original sin, which teaches that original sin is passed on by generation, and allowsfor an interpretation that “all have sinned” through imitation or accident or, worse still, because we were created that way.

Enns does not fail in his intention to describe what the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins. What is more, he conveys in a simple way the cultural background which gave rise to the vocabulary, expressions, images and idioms of the words of Scripture. But the Catholic reader cannot place complete trust in Enns’ conclusions. Ultimately, he does not speak from the heart of the Church.

Luiz Ruscillo


Love is his Meaning – The Impact of Julian of Norwich
By John Skinner. Gracewing, 145p, £7.99

Julian of Norwich is the best known of the 14th-century English mystics. Her famous book Revelations of Divine Love, with its account of the “showing” of her “courteous Lord”, is loved by modern readers more than ever. If her English is quaint, her message is refreshingly contemporary with its stress on God’s love for us, prefiguring devotions to the Sacred Heart and, more recently, the Divine Mercy. Julian’s influence reaches beyond the Catholic world, and there are many interfaith Julian prayer groups around the country.

This being the case, a new introduction to Julian for beginners is always welcome. John Skinner, a journalist and former Jesuit, has already translated the entire text for Gracewing into modern inclusive language. In this book he presents excerpts from his own translation with a commentary punctuating the text. These comments are most helpful when they refer to the original Middle English to resolve a textual ambiguity or bring out a fuller meaning, and when they set Julian in the context of her time. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to re-state Julian’s words in a kind of summing-up, and a subjectivism that some may find off-putting. Extraneous information, such as comparing one of Julian’s images with an Orthodox icon, show the author’s breadth of knowledge but doesn’t really helpwith understanding Julian. There is very little about medieval anchoritic life, for example.

When she was 34, Julian (we don’t know her real name) fell seriously ill and was prepared for death. On her sickbed she received a number of visions, or “shewings”, several of which concerned the Passion. The rest of her life was spent meditating on these visions and writing about her experiences. For many years she lived as an anchoress in a cell attached to St Julia’s church in Norwich. It might have been helpful to describe the world of Julian, in many ways so different from our own.

The use of the word “impact” in the title is misleading; the book does not address Julian’s influence on Christian thinking – a fascinating subject in itself. Anyone buying the book expecting to read about this will be disappointed.

However, as an introduction to the thought of Julian, John Skinner’s book is good. The 16 revelations are each quoted in brief and discussed. To begin, a longer vision taken from the latter part of Julian’s book is presented as an overview of her thought. The book’s format, excerpts from a modern translation divided into short sections by commentary, would lend itself well to group study. If the editorial habit of paraphrasing Julian may seem at times patronising to the reader, it does serve to drive home her message.

Gracewing’s edition has large, clear type with a slightly different font for the commentary. It would perhaps have made it easier to determine at a glance which is Julian and which is commentary to have the latter in italics. As they stand, the fonts are similar enough at first glance to confuse the eye.

A book like this runs the risk of being too personal, both in the selection of text and in the commentary. Some readers may find the interruptions in Julian’s text annoying and prefer to let her speak for herself. However, as an introduction for complete beginners, the book will no doubt prove useful and may help to encourage a new generation of Julia’s followers.

Clare Anderson


The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
By Alister McGrath. Rider, 320pp, £8.99

In the past few years the “New Atheism” of Richard Dawkins and his associates has sought to make atheism seem credible and current. However, as this fascinating, educational and highly readable book indicates, atheism is an ideology past its sell-by date. How does McGrath argue this? Is he convincing, and what are the weaknesses in his account?

The narrative of this book’s subtitle, The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, runs as follows: the corruption of the Church was so horrendous that it made belief in its God cease to be credible; atheism thus arose as a credible alternative proposing that a new, freer and happier world would arise when belief in God was rejected. However, the horror of atheist regimes in the 20th century made this claim incredible (in the original sense). In addition, at a philosophical level, postmodernity rejected the claims that atheistic modernity had made about reason’s capacity to know with certainty that there was no God. Thus at both an existential and a theoretical level atheism has lost its appeal. He further argues that the worldwide rise of Pentecostalism fulfils a need for a faithin God that is not linked to the discredited institutions of historical Christianity (ie the mainline churches) and that likewise shares the postmodern rejection of reason.

The argument that McGrath uses to trace and explain this rise and fall is both historical and philosophical. It is historical in that his account progresses through the eras of the Western world to describe the way in which various cultural changes made certain key philosophers seem more credible in one era than they would have been in another. It is historical in that it provides useful thumbnail sketches of the pivotal thinkers involved, describing the different ways in which Feuerbach, Marx and Freud explain away religion as a delusion.

Interestingly, linked with McGrath’s description of the historically conditioned attractiveness of various thought systems is an account of their capacity to engender in the human imagination a vision of a possible society that can appeal and attract intellectual assent as well as seeming to argue for its conclusions. A less sophisticated illustration of this can be seen in the way that science fiction has envisioned various atheistic scientific futures: over the course of the past century such visions of the future have shifted from being utopias to being dystopias. Such a shift parallels the cultural sense that a future without God is no longer felt to be a happy future, and with this cultural shift atheism has lost its appeal.

The general account provided by the book is convincing in many respects, not least in the manner in which it largely fits the facts of history. That said, the fundamentally Protestant thinking of its author deeply colours the work and leads to some significant weaknesses. While the book gives an interesting summary of various authors who have argued that it was the Protestant Reformation that gave rise to atheism, the author fails to note any connection between the rejection (traceable from nominalism) of reason’s capacity to know reality, the Protestant Reformation’s appeal to faith against reason, intellectual scepticism and current postmodernism. Similarly, given that the book attributes the rise of atheism to the moral corruption of the Catholic Church, it might be noted that thisaccount fails to argue why atheism became prominent when it did. Why didn’t 12th-century corruption give rise to atheism rather than giving rise to great reformers like St Francis of Assisi? The book’s account of Christian history fails to address such questions. Might the influence of nominalism in the subsequent century be relevant? The book does not say.

To look at the same point from a slightly different angle, McGrath seems too uncritical in his acceptance of postmodernism’s rejection of reason’s capacity to know the truth. Thus he asserts that “nothing can be proven at all” (p98) about God by reason – a point that he doesn’t really prove (perhaps because postmodernism denies that reason can prove such things). With reason deemed powerless, all that is left is “faith”. An account that, in contrast, truly acknowledged the capacity of reason to grasp truth would have shown how authentic reason can not only demonstrate that God exists but even show many of His attributes. Another point that could have been usefully articulated is that, despite the scandal and doubt caused by corruption in the Church, the goodness of many Christians and theholiness that is inherent within the Church has led many people to believe in God. The book is thus limited by the postmodernism that it rather uncritically reflects.
This said, while McGrath doesn’t address the problems within postmodernism, the book stands as a fascinating and illuminating postmodern critique of atheism. Such a critique might provide a good morale booster to those weighed down by the triumphalism of the New Atheism, a triumphalism McGrath shows to be misplaced.

Dylan James

Faith Magazine