Over the past few years I've reviewed a number of books, including several Ignatius Press titles (all before working for Ignatius, I should note). Here are reviews of three of my favorite Ignatius Press titles.
The Belief of Catholics by Ronald Knox
Ignatius Press, 2000. 242 pages.
Originally published by Sheed & Ward, 1927.
Review for This Rock magazine, July/August 2001.
Several years ago, as an Evangelical Protestant investigating the claims of the Catholic Church, I had the good fortune of coming across a tattered copy of The Belief of Catholics in a used book store. It didnt take long, once I began reading, to recognize that the author of this classic work had much in common with another Catholic apologist, G.K. Chesterton. Both were former Anglicans who had crossed the Tiber in rather dramatic fashion, and both were writers of immense talent. In fact, Knox, who was fourteen years Chestertons junior, was an admirer of the famed journalist, calling him "my earliest master and model."
Knox was a priest and a superb spiritual director who wrote several books about the spiritual life for both religious and laity. As I recently reread The Belief of Catholics, I was even more deeply impressed by Knoxs insight into human nature and the various blindnesses that afflict mankind. It is this penetration into the human soul, combined with a dry (and occasionally cutting) wit and a vibrant style that makes Knox such a compelling read. These qualities are in abundance within this book, his best-known work of apologetics, first published in 1927 and now attractively republished by Ignatius Press.
Recognizing that the Catholic apologist can easily fall into the trap of being a defensive reactionary, Knox states that his book "is an attempt to write constructive apologetic, to assert a claim . . ." One way Knox accomplishes this is by starting with what the observant Catholic notices about modern man and society, not with what people say about the Catholic faith. In the opening chapter, "The Modern Distaste for Religion," a number of problems unique to modernity are observed, including the influence of modern media, the dumbing down of education, the mindless use of cliches, and the rise of materialism. "A rush age," Knox observes, "cannot be a reflective age." In many ways this book, nearly eighty years old and written in England, could just as easily have been written about modern-day America and the problems faced by Catholics in our country: apathy, relativism, feel-goodism, the shunning of dogma, and sexual amorality. For example, writing about the latter, Knox observes that "A steady, ceaseless flow of literary propaganda has shaken the faith of our generation in the indissolubility of marriage, hitherto conceived as a principle of natural morality."
Having started with a critique of the modern situation, Knox notes the intriguing fact that many people are both repulsed by what they falsely believe Catholicism teaches, while being attracted to many elements of the Catholic faith. Many intelligent people admire (often secretly) something about Catholicism, but find issues sufficient to keep them outside the doors. Whether they know it or not, people, "especially the young people of our time, want authority." And so one of the tasks of the apologist is to demonstrate that the authority of the Catholic Church in faith and morals is not arbitrary or dictatorial, but based in truth and love, established by God for the good of man.
The book logically progresses to belief in God, rooted first in natural observation and philosophical consideration, and then fully realized in Catholic teaching, based on divine revelation. Two chapters are then devoted to the person of Jesus Christ ("Our Lords Claim Stated" and "Our Lords Claim Justified"), before moving on to the question of "Where Protestantism Goes Wrong." Here Knox demonstrates that how one views the Church will either make or break the basis of their view of Christ, the Bible, and authority since "it is from that living Church that we take our guidance. Protestantism claims to take its guidance immediately from the living Christ. But what is the guidance he gives us, and where are we to find it?" Later he points out the faulty logic by which Protestants discarded the belief in transubstantiation but maintained the inspiration of the Bible, even though both are squarely based on the authority of the Church. "Did they," he wryly inquires, "suppose that Biblical inspiration was a self-evident fact, like the axioms of Euclid?"
The final chapters are devoted to the positive vision of the Catholic faith, showing how Catholic doctrine meets reality and addresses every aspect of human existence. Man is made for God, and the place to meet God and have communion with him is within the divine institution founded by Jesus Christ. "In a word," Knox writes, "we do not think of our Church as the best religious body to belong to; we believe that those who do not belong to it, provided that they believe in our Lord and desire to do his will, may just as well belong to no religious body at all." Imagine my good fortune in reading this classic work of apologetics once again.
Related Links: Monsignor Ronald Knox's author's page.
Literary Converts by Joseph Pearce
Ignatius Press, 1999. 452 pp.
Reviewed for This Rock, July 2000.
Joseph Pearce, English author of critically acclaimed biographies of G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, has written a book certain to please those who enjoy conversion stories, appreciate contemporary English literature or have an interest in the modern struggle between Christianity and secular humanism. As the inside cover explains, Literary Converts is a "biographical exploration into the spiritual lives" of several 20th century converts, including many whose literary efforts remain as influential today as when they were first written.
Literary Converts opens with Oscar Wildes dramatic deathbed baptism in 1900 and winds its way through a century of spiritual conversion, cultural upheaval and literary greatness, concluding with the death of Scottish poet George Mackay Brown in 1996. In between these two deaths, separated by nearly a century, Pearce masterfully weaves together sketches and biographical snapshots of luminaries such as Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers, Malcolm Muggeridge and, surprisingly, the actor Alec Guinness. In addition to these more famous names, Pearce introduces readers to a number of less familiar converts, such as Maurice Baring, journalist and close friend of Chesterton and Belloc; Siegfried Sassoon, poet and hero of the first world war; and Alfred Lunn, long-time anti-Catholic and eventual Catholic apologist.
While the men and women in Literary Converts range from Anglican clergy to Welsh poets to German born economists, their respective journeys to the Catholic Church were marked by common features and influences. Perhaps most important was the realization that the theories and schemes of secularism were not only flawed, but inherently opposed to life and truth. As Evelyn Waugh noted in 1930, reflecting upon the growth of secularism and the loss of basic morality in European society, the issue was no longer between Catholicism and Protestantism, "but between Christianity and Chaos." Pearce explains that converts such as Waugh recognized that political utopia, social order and personal fulfillment could never be founded upon the fads and fashions of their timesthese spiritual seekers were dissatisfied with empty cliches:
"Above all, there was a deep disillusionment with the world and what it had to offer, a longing for depth in a world of shallows, permanence in a world of change, and certainty in a world of doubt. To many of these twentieth-century literary converts an acceptance of God went hand in hand with a rejection of the world and its materialism."
Acknowledging the profound influence of Newman and his Development of Christian Doctrine, Pearce shows that the phenomenon of high profile Catholic converts in the British Isles during the 1900s was largely influenced by the writings of Chesterton, Belloc and Knox. The impact of their workespecially that of Chestertonis traced throughout Literary Converts, demonstrating the lasting genius and insight of these great Catholic apologists. Orthodoxy, Chestertons brilliant defense of Christianity against secular "progress" and atheism, and The Everlasting Man, his examination of the Incarnation, are referenced often by a variety of other converts, including C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. Pearce also traces the effect of distributism, the political/economic theory which Chesterton and Belloc articulated and championed as an alternative to capitalism and communism. Few embraced distributism during Chesterton and Bellocs lifetimes and it appeared to have gone to the grave with them. But its premises were revived and newly articulated by renowned economist (and recent convert) E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 bestseller Small Is Beautiful, making distributism "for a time at least, the most fashionable economic and political creed in the world."
Pearce offers balanced and thoughtful ideas about the motives and thinking of the coverts, always backed up by selections from their writings, including many illuminating quotes from letters, journals and other unpublished works. However, Pearce does not sugarcoat his subject matter, documenting various flaws and failings, such as Bellocs harshness, Waughs bitterness, Eliots cold detachment, and C.S. Lewiss anti-Catholic sentiments.
The drama of conversion and the mystery of faith is especially poignant in the chapters dealing with journalist Malcom Muggeridge and novelist Graham Greene. Their lives, Pearce notes, "serve almost as parallel parables of the century itself." Muggeridge was a skeptic who had been involved with Communist causes as a young man and did not enter the Catholic Church until very late in life. Greene became Catholic as a young man, but increasingly doubted the Catholic Faith as he grew older. Muggeridge was a hedonist for much of his life, but died revered as a mystic. Greene wrote powerful novels of faith early in his career, but later succumbed to adultery and the lure of Communism. These and many other remarkable contrasts and stories fill this wonderful book, providing both an entertaining read and a compelling look at those who have gone before us in the Faith.
Related Links: Joseph Pearce's author's page.
Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking The Myths by Régine Pernoud
Ignatius Press, 2000. 179 pp
Reviewed for This Rock, September 2000.
"The Middle Ages lasted for a thousand years and were filled with bloodshed, slavery, superstition and ignorance!"
Anyone who has attended a history class, conversed with an "enlightened" secularist, or debated with an anti-Catholic is familiar with this sort of remark. The "Middle Ages", that period from about 500 to 1500 AD commonly called the "Dark Ages" is in the minds of most people characterized by dim thinking and dull livingnot to mention bloodshed, disease and hypocrisy.
Not so, insists the famed French historian and archivist Régine Pernoud (1909-1999). The author of numerous books about the Middle Ages, most notably Joan of Arc: By Herself and Witnesses, Pernoud has an axe to grind and isnt afraid to let the sparks fly when it comes to expressing her frustration with the lack of accurate teaching about the Middle Ages, sarcastically writing that the "Middle Ages is privileged material: one can say what one wants about it with the quasi-certitude of never being contradicted." Originally published in 1977 and intended for a French audience, Those Terrible Middle Ages! is both a helpful introduction to the real Middle Ages and a pithy commentary on the importance of a sound education in history, something many Americans have never been exposed to.
Pernoud notes Chestertons statement "that a man is truly a man only when he has looked at the world while standing on his head with his feet in the air", an observation that captures Pernouds ability to right the record by turning stereotypes and fallacies upside down. Her concern is that what passes for an education in history within public schools is often little more than a string of stereotypes held together by the glue of gullibility: "The Middle Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance, mindlessness, or generalized underdevelopment, even if this was the only period of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!" She laments that the strides made in scholarship in this area have yet to reach the general public, a situation which hasnt changed much since the 1970s, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
The heart of Pernouds argument is that the revival of Roman law and the infatuation with Greek and Roman culture which occurred in France and much of western Europe during the sixteenth century resulted in an eclipse of all that had existed between the "two periods of light: antiquity and the Renaissance. . ." The intermediate period (the "middle" age) quickly became viewed as "crude" and "obscure", failing to measure up to the eternal standards of ancient Greece and Rome. In the realm of art the result was "an anathema on the Middle Ages. All that was not in conformity with Greek or Latin modeling was mercilessly rejected" and even purposefully targeted for destruction. Ironically, the great cathedrals were all built during the Middle Ages; in addition, the literary forms of the epic and the novel were both products of the same era, as well as the bound book (codex), which replaced the use of scrolls.
Far from ignorant or dim-witted, the Middle Ages produced scholars of incredible learning such as Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable, Gregory of Tours and Hildegarde of Bingen. The latter is not, as Pernoud demonstrates, an exception. Many women religious were outstanding scholars and theologians, and one, Petronilla of Chemillé, was an abbess who presided over convents of both women and menat the ripe age of twenty-two! Far from being a time when women were "oppressed", the Middle Ages witnessed an amazing flowering of the feminine in the Church, society and home. It was in the seventeenth century that women began to lose privileges and authority, essentially reverting to the status of property under the revived Roman Law. A similar situation occurred with slavery, which died out during the Middle Ages but emerged again with the "colonial expansion that characterized the classical period." As Pernoud takes pains to show, the feudal system was a far cry from slaverydespite modern misconceptionsand was a way of life built upon honor, specific rights and a deep commitment to the agrarian life.
Pernoud also addresses the two issues most commonly mentioned in ordinary conversation about the Middle Ages: the Crusades and the Inquisition. The former she touches on too briefly; her examination of the latter emphasizes and provides a general overview of the historical context, but one wishes she would have spent more time on both subjects, especially since they are so misunderstood and such a significant part of the faulty perspectives people have about the Middle Ages. The last two chapters are my favorite, focused on the necessity of studying and appreciating history because "History does not furnish any solutions, but it permitsand it alone permitsus to pose the problems correctly. . . There is no true knowledge without recourse to history."
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com .
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