Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews


FAITH Magazine May-June 2007

Catholic Christianity Today by Victor E Watton & Michael Elson, Hodder Murray, 166pp, 1997, £11.99

Why does a person believe in God? There are many reasons available, St. Thomas Aquinas answers that there are five ways in which the existence of God can be proved. Writing over seven hundred years ago we might be tempted to think his ideas have been improved upon and are now outdated and redundant. We would be tempted to think wrong.

Catholic Christianity describes itself as “an invaluable resource for all Catholic Schools”, produced by “experienced senior examiners, teachers and best selling authors”. It is considered by many to be the best textbook available for teaching Religious Education in Catholic Schools. The authors Victor W Watton and Michael Elson begin the ever-important task of passing on the faith to our children with a chapter entitled “Believing in God”. The reasons offered skip St. Thomas and two thousand years of Catholic tradition. The first reason they suggest that a person might believe in God is that if someone is brought up a Catholic then:

“to keep the promises they made at the baptism, the parents would probably teach them prayers ... they would say prayers to God thanking him for looking after them and so it would seem natural for them to believe in God ... at church, they would hear people talking about God and assume that God exists.”

You may assume I am disappointed. If a science textbook began to explain the reasons scientists believe in the electron with a phrase like “at School, they would hear people talking about the electron and assume that it exists” we would describe that textbook as weak. Why have they not mentioned Faraday or Ampere?, we might ask. Why do they not describe some experiments or show some mathematics? It is fair to say that some people believe in the electron because they have heard it mentioned on the TV, but this is not a fair explanation for belief in electrons. Real scientists have proper reasons for drawing conclusions, as do real theologians.

Catholic Christianity offers further explanation of belief in God. Miracles: “for example, if a Catholic prays for her mother to be cured of cancer and she is, she will believe that her prayers have been answered and that God has caused a miracle to happen”

This is simply not true. If a Catholic prays for her mother to be cured of cancer and she is, she may choose to believe all kinds of things. She may believe that the doctor did a good job. She may believe that her mother somehow fought it off. She could draw the conclusion that it was not God that caused a miracle to happen but some other kind of mystical life force. The assertion that “she will” believe that God has caused a miracle is false. It is ludicrous to imply that all Catholics, after praying, will view all positive results as miracles.

Having described reasons for believing in God, Catholic Christianity moves on to possible objections. Catholic Christianity is excellent when it describes what CS Lewis calls “the problem of pain”. A clear-cut bullet point list explains that a good God must want to eliminate suffering, if God is all-knowing He must have known what suffering would result from creating the world and if God is omnipotent He must be able to prevent or eliminate suffering. It is a pity then, that after such a clear explanation of the problem of suffering, we do not find an equally clear explanation of the Christian response. Once more, I am disappointed: “the main response of Christians to suffering is a practical one – they help those who are suffering”. This is true, but it does little torespond to the conundrum presented: How could a benevolent God allow evil and suffering to exist? The students are left to work that one out on their own.

Although the book continues with a couple of responses, none are convincing. Perhaps it would have been over-optimistic to expect the authors to introduce our youngsters to the ideas of St. Augustine. He wrote: “since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil”. St. Thomas Aquinas also weighs in “this is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good”.

So now we come to the classic controversial issues: contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. Each “issue” is dealt with in three parts. What the issue is, What Catholics believe about it and What other Christians believe. In other words: A: The action in question is described in such a way as to make it sound lovely and fluffy. Secondly, B: We are informed that the Catholics forbid it. C: Then we hear that other Christians don’t. Let’s work through the ABCs of these classic controversies:

Contraception: A. “The use of contraception in the West has led to a stabilising of the population ... However, in less developed countries, the population is rising by as much as 3\% a year ... This is placing great pressures on food supplies, health services and education”. B. “The Catholic Church has always taught that using artificial methods of contraception is wrong ... Some Catholics, following their conscience, disagree with the Church’s teaching and use contraception”. C. “The Methodist Church believes that responsible contraception is a welcome means towards fulfillment in marriage”.

In order to have a concept of “disorder” we need to have a concept of “order” and since this book completely fails to explain the Catholic view of sexuality and vocation to family life, the ban on artificial contraception can only be described as some kind of pointless arbitrary rule.

Abortion: A. “Until 1967, all abortions in Great Britain were illegal which lead to ‘back street abortions’. These often resulted in injury to the mother and sometimes death.” B. “The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is wrong and should never be allowed”. C. “Jesus told Christians to love their neighbour as themselves, and abortion may be the most loving thing to do”.

It’s been fifty years since 1967 and apparently there is still no better argument in favour of abortion than: “we need to legalise things if people could get injured doing them illegally”. A person could get injured robbing a bank, yet we would not dream of applying that logic here. There is no attempt to explain the Catholic belief in the dignity of the unborn child (who suffers injury and death both in the backstreet or in the hospital). The teachings of John Paul II about the culture of death don’t get a look in. Perhaps they could fit them in by removing the sentence that reads “Catholics believe that abortion is wrong because:” …(drum roll)… “a foetus is a potential person”. Potential person? I don’t remember that page of the Catechism.

Euthanasia: A. “the situation where someone dying in pain asks a doctor to end his/her life painlessly” B. “The Catholic Church teaches that all forms of euthanasia are wrong.” C. “if people are in so much pain that they do not know how to cope, God will not regard suicide as a sin”.

The subtext which, it seems to me, will be picked up by teenagers is that avoiding pregnancy, having abortions and killing granny can all be positive things to do. The Catholic Church forbids them but then they forbid everything, and, hey, other Christians don’t forbid them so don’t worry yourself. Okay, so a book like this is here to educate according to a syllabus rather than convince, but the presentation of the Catholic view is positively unconvincing.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and as such the choice of photos for the book is interesting. The photography seems feminist in sympathy; three photos of women priests seems a little more than is strictly required to illustrate the point that some denominations have women priests. There are only female first communion children, only a woman Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (falsely called Eucharistic Minister) and the only single parent shown is a woman.

Speaking of which, the choice of smiling people gives a clear message. These people are happy. Smiles sell anything from toothpaste to holidays. In Catholic Christianity they sell trouble. Ulrika Jonsson (whose name is misspelled in the book) smiles as a happy divorced single parent. Victoria and David Beckham smile as happy people who lived together before marriage. Elton John is a happy homosexual while Hayley from Coronation Street is a happy transsexual. Even the women priests are smiling. Dissent from the Church has never looked so much fun.

Biblical teachings on men and women are divided into “Teachings which show women as inferior to men” and “Teachings which show men and women as equal”. As a man I find this highly sexist. Where is the section for teachings that show men as inferior such as when the first people to visit the tomb of Jesus are women and the men fail to believe them because they are sexist? It’s enough to make me feel inferior! But seriously, it’s surely giving into a caricature of Christianity to suggest that the author of Genesis 1-2 and St Paul taught that women are inferior to men and certainly far, far away from the Catholic interpretation of those texts.

How does it tackle the matter of the Celibacy of the Clergy?

“the first Christian Ministers were not required to be celibate ... Over the centuries the Church saw that there were advantages if those who were leaders did not have the responsibilities of family life. Eventually the Church required all its bishops and priests to be celibate”

This seems uncomfortable close to: ‘Sorry Father, but you can’t have kids because we want our advantages’. It’s funny how this has never happened anywhere else. Celibate politicians should have advantages, as should celibate managers of the England football team. What about celibate postmen? Without wives and families they could get up earlier and deliver more mail. So why are these people not celibate? Because they wouldn’t stand for it? Maybe being a priest is significantly different from having some other job. Actually being a priest is not like a job at all.

Throughout Catholic Christianity there are columns of “Key Words” dedicated to helping the reader understand, well, the key words. Here are some of the worse ones:

“Moral Evil – actions done by humans which cause suffering”

It is a classic error of modern thinking simply to equate immorality with causing suffering. It is the kind of thinking that can lead to ideas like “what they don’t know won’t hurt them”. Youngsters might be left thinking that actions carried out in private have no moral value good or bad. In fact nothing is neutral to God.

“Prayer – an attempt to communicate with God, usually through words”

This seems like a one way street, with the main effort on our side. God seems very far away and we attempt to reach him. The reality is very different; it is more often we who fail to hear him. He is always there, listening and ready to hear our prayers.

“Abortion – the removal of a foetus from the womb before it can survive”

Except in the case of late term abortions where many of the babies could survive if they were not killed. It is also interesting to note that the word ‘foetus’ is not considered a key word and is left (scandalously) undefined.

 “Euthanasia – an easy and gentle death”

Etymology aside an easy and gentle death is when you die in the night while you dream of bunnies. Euthanasia, if it is easy and gentle (and it may not be) should properly be described as directly ending a life, that is: killing.

“Faith – our attitude in the presence of someone, or some event, whose goodness and greatness and wonder is greater than we can fully grasp, describe or explain”

Someone’s attitude to such a “someone” or “event” could easily be something other than that which Catholicism terms faith. It could even be distrust or suspicion? When it comes to the presence of something I cannot fully “grasp, describe or explain” faith is one of numerous options. This leaves faith entirely undefined.

“Judgment – the act of judging people and their actions”

In my opinion this definition is the worst of them all. It tells the reader nothing. The fact that a definition such as this made it in to a school textbook defies belief.

I have some minor moans about errors, which just aren’t quite forgiveable in what is not a first edition of the book. The authors state that Mary was assumed into heaven “without dying”. Pius XII left the question open. A priest anoints a sick person with the “oil of Chrism” (rather than the “oil of the Infirm”). Also, given that the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ is the very centre of history, it is a little disheartening to come across consistent use of the abbreviations BCE and CE, for ‘Before the Common Era’ and ‘the Common Era’ rather than BC and AD.

When I look at Catholic Christianity I have feelings of dismay. It’s a question of truth.

The writers of this book don’t seem to believe in it (it’s certainly not in the index which is a fairly big omission considering the index of the Catechism lists twenty-eight references). I’m not suggesting the authors are deceitful, just that they have a different idea of what truth is. In other subjects, things have to be true. No science textbook could get away with speed equals distance multiplied by beans. No history textbook could say that the Romans landed on the moon, yet an RE textbook can write “Followers of all religions have religious experiences which lead them to believe that God exists”. All of them? Even those religions that don’t actually believe in a God at all?

While writing this review I have ran it by a few people. Some priests, some teachers and some parents. The universal response has been: “Does it really say that?” I can only say yes. Yes it does. The fact that such a book is in the hands of our children is beyond belief. Let us please have an RE textbook that respects truth. I’m not asking for a one-sided advertisement for the Church that neglects to mention common objections to what the Church says. I simply ask for one that reports the facts about the Catholic faith and treats it more like a spiritual reality and less like a fairy story gone wrong. Let us please start to provide the children in our schools with the truth; the truth, that will set them free.

James Preece

Talks on the Song of Songs by St Bernard of Clairvaux, Paraclete Press, 154pp, $14.95

Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts. Selections Annotated and Explained Skylight Paths, 221pp, $16.99

If you wanted to purchase the complete Song of Songs or the complete Philokalia, you would need to buy eight volumes (four of each). Obviously, you won’t get all the nuances in these selections, but what a find they are.

St Bernard has received a bad press because he preached the Second Crusade. People seem to have forgotten that he founded sixtyeight monasteries during his lifetime and that Dante chose him as his guide into Paradise: Mary’s “faithful servant, Bernard.” He is revealed in his commentary on the Song of Songs as touchingly humble: “Entire clusters of good works were spoiled by anger, torn away by bragging, and rotted by vanity! I ate too much; let my mind sit idle, had a timid faith, and let my emotions rule me.” He was also full of affection and when Brother Gerard died said “You have my thanks, dear brother, for any good that may come from my own studies of divine subjects. If I have accomplished anything, the credit is yours. You made it possible… I was called abbot, and he did thework.”

Bernard took eighteen years on his commentary on the Song of Songs – unfinished at his death. It abounds in the use of allegory. He would say that St Paul was “dark and beautiful” (Song of Songs 1:5) because “his letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive”, and that “the conversion of the sinner sweetly perfumes the Church.” The house is “filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). His use of scripture is incomparable and his range is breathtaking. He can say that the “Church is ordinary, yet extraordinary. It is both the “tents of Kedar” (Song 1:5) and God’s sanctuary. It is a tented camp on earth and a heavenly palace… It is a target of criticism and the bride of Christ.” He chides his monks, “I think there are the angels who listen as we pray. This iswhat bothers me when I see a few of us dozing during the night office. The angels must think you are dead!”

There is plenty of practical spiritual advice, as you would expect from talks given by an abbot. He says that “we who give in to temptation erect a series of walls around ourselves: lust, acquiescence, action, habit, disregard. Do your best to stop the chain at the very beginning.” He is not blind to the power of heresy: “Being a heretic is not enough for them. They not only turn away from the Church, they leave it in ruins.” Bernard Bangley who has modernized the text (and abridged it) has his little colloquialisms but he has done a great service in making this work accessible.

It is interesting to compare St Bernard’s talks to monks to a compendium of sayings largely from monks which is the Philokalia. The Faber edition (in four volumes) demands stamina. Here we are given seven chapters: repentance, the heart, prayer, the Jesus Prayer, the Passions, Stillness, and In the End: Theosis.

St Bernard comments on solitude: “Physical solitude is not required. It is a matter of the mind and spirit. This solitude is yours, if you decline to participate in gossip, hourly struggles, and disputes… if losses and injuries do not upset you.” The Philokalia says “The desert is in fact superfluous, since we can enter the kingdom simply through repentance and the strict keeping of God’s commandments.” (Nicholas Stilthatos) Both put charity above personal devotion: “We in the Church must often suspend our personal devotional life in order to nourish the hungry souls of others” (St Bernard) and “When we receive visits from our brethren, we should not consider this an irksome interruption of our stillness, lest we cut ourselves off from the law of love” (St Theodorus). The role ofhumility is at the heart of both books, “Now he [= the Bridegroom] tells her twice she is beautiful. It is not only his love for her that makes her beautiful, but also her humility” (St Bernard) and “where humility is combined with the remembrance of God that is established through watchfulness and attention, and also with recurrent prayer inflexible in its resistance to the enemy, there is the place of God, the haven of the heart.” (St Philotheos of Sinai)

Both books are available on Amazon in case you cannot locate them locally. St Bernard makes an important point for readers of Faith, “The beams (of the building – cf. Song 1:4) are the supporting structure of doctrine and regulations that prevent weakening of the structure by individuals. The rafters are educated, dedicated clergy” – from one who knew.

Fr James Tolhurst
Chislehurst, Kent

Gospel Chivalry: Franciscan Romanticism by Mark of Whitstable,  Gracewing,192pp, £9.99

The concept of a study of St Francis as the ‘knight of Christ’ is a highly attractive one, combining as it does two of the most loved (and problematic) images of the high Middle Ages – chivalric culture and the wandering friar of Assisi. Mark of Whitstable’s book provides glimpses of what such a study might yield, but it is unfortunately only an introduction to that study and serves more to whet the appetite than to satisfy it.

The author’s central claim is that a crucial impulse for St Francis’ conversion, and the inspiration for his way of life, was a re-interpretation or inversion of the code of chivalry that was both a product and the regulating force of the feudal system within which he was born. It is obvious that Whitstable is convinced of this reading, and indeed some of his chapters contain fascinating and compelling interpretations of Francis’ life and teaching in this light, but there is a lack of focus and rigour which leaves one with the impression that more could be said in far fewer pages with more convincing results. The thesis is at times illuminating both of St Francis and of his world; for example, the chapters on courtly love provide insights into Francis’ relationship with Lady Poverty andthe Blessed Mother, at the same time setting the secular cult of knightly trysts in a critical light, stripping away something of the 19th-century Romantic veneer from its surface. However, the author does not often enough distinguish between later reception of the period and contemporary readings – in one of these same chapters he propounds a wonderful exegesis of the Annunciation as representing Mary’s chivalric courtesy but without making it clear whether this is his own reading or one specific to the period he is studying. This exegesis follows on from a brief reference to Langland, but it is by no means clear that it proceeds from that source. It is then followed by a passing reference to Gawain but then a substantial quotation from Hilaire Belloc. The impression one receives is of apot-pourri of contemporaneous and non-contemporaneous sources brought together to support or embellish the point being made, but without the historical filter necessary to distinguish between their various degrees of usefulness in understanding the period on its own terms. Similar uncritical (if interesting) use of later readings of the period include GK Chesterton and Francis Thompson.

Further, a fuzzy definition of Romanticism itself is employed throughout the book – in the very chapter with the subtitle, ‘Franciscan Romanticism’ (somewhat oddly slight and situated near the end of the book), a promising opening discussing the origins of medieval ‘roman‑tic’ literature collapses into a watery (modern) use of the word relative to Francis’ and Clare’s “youthful mutual attraction [that] grew into a shared understanding of God’s love for them”(p.151). In this case, as with much of the book, the author betrays a wish to leave no aspect of Francis’ life untouched by his chivalric reading – even if this means ‘shoe‑horning’ episodes into unsuitable or undeveloped concepts or vice versa.

Much of the book is frustrating because in service of this urge to comprehensiveness the author often passes from assertion to assertion without fully arguing a point, creating a sense of episodic arbitrariness rather than argument. Gospel Chivalry is less than convincing because it is difficult to know what kind of a book it is: is it a historical dissertation, an informed narrative, a meditation or a collection of short essays of various types? The notes, relatively extensive bibliography and the tone of the introduction lead one to expect a work of scholarship, but this is belied by the lack of any rigorous interrogation of sources, too many unsupported claims and lack of any real sense of argument. The grouping of the chapters into four Parts seems to me to be entirely arbitrary, as Ifind no sense of progression (either narrative or argumentative) nor of thematic similarity within each Part, save that chapters on the beginning of Francis’ life and ministry are towards the beginning and those on his death towards the end. To call the last chapter ‘Denouement’ is to imply a non-existent narrative. Another factor which both fragments the book and is frankly rather irritating is the almost verbatim repetition of passages from one chapter in others and the constant circling around a few central tropes without necessarily adding to their significance (or without having established them securely in the first place).

Gospel Chivalry does provide seeds for what would be no doubt very interesting scholarship indeed – the influence of the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers upon Francis is posited, for example. But it is then assumed without further investigation and passed over without any further enquiry and no provision of solid evidence to support the suggestion. It seems to me that this is a serious oversight because by overlooking the influences on or precursors to Francis’ ‘Gospel chivalry’ the author misses a chance for further historical grounding that would take the edges off his rather idealised view of Francis as the original genius of the concept. The book could seriously benefit from this widened and tempered view.

In spite (or perhaps because) of this somewhat idealistic stance, however, Gospel Chivalry does inspire the reader anew with Franciscan zeal – despite its faults it is written with an enthusiasm for both the period under discussion and the Franciscan vision. Anyone with an admiration for St Francis and a love of the legend of the chivalric Middle Ages should find here plenty of food for thought and fuel for those twin fires, though the book is at times a very frustrating read.

Matthew Ward
St John’s

Faith Magazine