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The Melody of a Musician's Ministry

SIGNATURES: The Story of John Michael Talbot, by Dan O'Neill. Revised edition. Troubadour for the Lord (350 CR 248, Berryville, AR 72631, phone 479-253-0256). 268 pp. $15.95.

Reviewed by MARIA KEMPER, a theology and literature undergraduate at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She interned with the magazine the last two summers.

AN EX-ROCK STAR, a contemplative, a husband and father, a Franciscan, a musician, a poet and a prophet: All these characteristics combine harmoniously in the life and ministry of John Michael Talbot.

In this updated biography, Signatures: The Story of John Michael Talbot, Dan O’Neill carefully notes contrasting details that compose the melody of Talbot’s life. O’Neill describes how Talbot spurned riches, yet fame followed him home; how he sought solitude, but was led to give concerts in front of thousands; how he asked only to be a hermit in the wilderness and became known as the “holy man in the woods.”

It seemed to be a familiar tale from the 1960s: Boy joins band. Boy marries young. Band becomes famous. Many such stories ended tragically in a fast life and early death, drowning in drug-induced dreams, but there was a twist here. Boy gets saved.

John Michael Talbot, the long-haired, banjo-plucking band member, became the long-haired, banjo-plucking Bible-thumper. He had “a quote from Scripture for every conceivable problem.” Unfortunately, his fanatical spirituality and legalism led his wife to file for divorce.

The pain of his broken marriage brought Talbot to his knees, honestly questioning his faith. The questions brought him to a local Catholic church. After counseling and healing, he started reading his way into Catholicism—beginning with St. Francis and the Church Fathers.

He says, “There were three things that really drew me into the Catholic Church: the rich contemplative and mystical tradition, the balance of Scripture, tradition and magisterium (or the Church’s teaching authority), and the monastic heritage of radical gospel movements and communities....These things spoke volumes to me about a time-tested spiritual home in which to follow Jesus Christ more radically, without falling back into religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.”

His love for music didn’t end at the baptismal font; his next album centered on the Mass and Eucharist. Surprisingly, the mostly Protestant, contemporary Christian audience welcomed this new addition to their collections. Soon notoriety, and money, began rolling in again.

Yet Talbot’s heart was captured by something greater than fame and wealth: Lady Poverty. He shunned the limelight and joined the Secular Franciscan Order, taking time away from the recording industry to pray in the solitude of his hand-built hermitage.

This wasn’t the only time music took a back seat to his spiritual life. In 1979-1980 he founded a society where religious and laity live a communal life, fostering silence and prayer, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience according to their state in life. An offshoot of both Franciscan and charismatic spiritualities, the Little Portion Hermitage houses the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, as well as lay associates.

Witnessing almost a decade of struggle with few accomplishments, he pruned the lifestyle of the community. He even curtailed his concert schedule to provide time for intense prayer. After a year of this reform, he again picked up his guitar to praise the most high and glorious God, and has not stopped since.

In Signatures, some of Talbot’s own writing is arranged to emphasize the themes recorded by O’Neill. (O’Neill is a longtime friend of John’s and founder of Mercy Corps, an international relief and development corporation.) Extracts from journals, letters and meditations, inserted like grace notes in a melody, add Talbot’s distinct touch to the text and give this book the feel of an autobiography.

The work mirrors the style of its subject: measured and meditative. It tells of a man at peace, but with a heart on fire with love for Christ and his Church. The serenity he found in a life of monastic contemplation comes through clearly in O’Neill’s words.

Fans of John Michael Talbot’s music or followers of a contemplative lifestyle will find this biography inspiring. Those hungry for a good “conversion story” can be satisfied here in this account of the life and spirituality of a modern troubadour of the Great King.

You can order SIGNATURES: The Story of John Michael Talbot from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE GREAT MYSTERIES: Experiencing Catholic Faith From the Inside Out, by Andrew Greeley. Rowman and Littlefield. 158 pp. $18.95.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. He holds master’s degrees in theology (University of Dayton) and Franciscan studies (St. Bonaventure University).

IN HIS FOREWORD to this revised edition, the Rev. Robert Barron begins by citing the opinion of Hans Urs von Balthasar that the greatest tragedy in the history of Christianity was the split between theology and spirituality at the end of the Middle Ages.

In this volume, which has been in print off and on for 20 years, Greeley seeks to change the thinking and actions of his readers. He notes that after Jesus’ resurrection the apostles preached not so much to win converts as to help listeners “experience the risen Jesus the way they had” and, therefore, change their lives.

“Religion is practical,” writes Greeley, “because it tells us how to live. It tells us how to live by explaining what our life means.” Greeley presents here “a catechism of interpretation,” which seeks “to explain how the central truths of the Christian tradition purport to explain the human condition for those who permit them to do so.”

“My approach may be useful to some and not useful to others. Those who do not find it useful would save great strain on their blood pressure if they simply discarded it now.”

In separate chapters, Greeley grapples with the mysteries of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Spirit, the Cross and Resurrection, Salvation, Grace, the Holy Eucharist, the Church, Baptism, Mary, Heaven and the Return of Jesus. Each chapter ends with a section entitled “Theological Notes” and the volume concludes with several reflection questions for each chapter.

Catechisms usually do not encourage their readers to stop and meditate, but you cannot speed-read past Greeley sentences like, “The Spirit did not transform Peter and James and John and the rest into totally new human beings. He liberated that which was best in each of them.”

“We become more human and society becomes more just only through death and resurrection.”

“If you can find a Church that is perfect, by all means join it; but realize that, when you do, it has ceased to be perfect.”

“Transforming the world’s social structures so that they reflect [God’s] loving graciousness is not for the simple, the impatient, the neurotically enthusiastic, or the naïve; but it is the work of everyone who is an adult and mature follower of Jesus.”

“Christianity demands more than intellectual acceptance of certain propositions. It demands that the total person embrace a theory that gives a complete description of the meaning of human life, and then that the person live that theory in his daily existence.”

Assuming that this book will have at least one more edition, I suggest that Greeley add a chapter about the mystery of conversion or modify an existing chapter. Two other changes: A “not” is omitted in the Cardinal Emmanual Célestine Suhard quote on page 141 and the term “Catholic Christian theory” (twice on page 148) is not particularly helpful.

Greeley offers here a fine text to help readers become “adult and mature followers of Jesus.”

You can order THE GREAT MYSTERIES: Experiencing Catholic Faith From the Inside Out from St. Francis Bookshop.


LORD, HAVE MERCY: The Healing Power of Confession, by Scott Hahn. Doubleday. 214 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST, a writer who has taught at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

THE SACRAMENT of Reconciliation, traditionally known as confession, penance or forgiveness, has fallen into disuse in many Western nations such as the United States and Canada. Yet never, according to author Scott Hahn, has the world so much required this sacrament.

“We need confession,” he says in this new book. “We can’t live without it, though we continually try looking for substitutes.”

Those who know the true benefits of confessing their sins tend to cling to it tenaciously. For example, Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, dispensed with all but two (Baptism and the Eucharist) of the seven classic sacraments. He did not see the others as endorsed by Scripture. Yet Luther valued forgiveness in human experience. He added penance to his sacramental teachings—if not to the number of sacraments themselves.

Interestingly, at a time when many American Christians, including most Catholics, seem reticent to engage in the practice, the Lutheran Book of Worship used by congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes a rite for private confession.

What happened to confession? During the mid-70s, in many parts of the Catholic Church, it seems that the perfunctory nature of the inherited confessional and changing notions about sin on the part of the laity contributed to the demise of this long-established rite.

But neglecting classic Christian themes like sin, guilt, forgiveness and penance does not make them insignificant or irrelevant. While confession seems currently out of fashion, the human condition addressed by this sacrament does not change.

Confession reconnects people with God. It is necessary for good mental health and revitalized relationships. It has healing effects, not only for individuals but also for communities. Many see counselors and therapists today when what they may really need is a trusted and understanding spiritual confessor.

The author, well versed in biblical and other classical writings, traces the history of confession, beginning with the atonement ceremonies of the Hebrew Bible. He guides the reader through appropriate New Testament passages as well as selections from the Church Fathers.

The entire Tradition of the Church, according to Hahn, has much to say to moderns. Key ingredients of confession have always been adaptable to the circumstances of the time.

As in his previous books (The Lamb’s Supper, First Comes Love and Hail, Holy Queen), Hahn takes a conservatively orthodox approach to his subject. In that, he is not only refreshing, but also, to this reviewer, somewhat unrealistic and inadequate.

In places Hahn seems caught in a nostalgic time warp. While much of what he says might have been possible in an era when priests were in greater supply, Hahn does not adequately address that large pool of Catholics who today do not have regular access to those priestly confessors of whom he so eloquently speaks.

Given the importance of confession to the life of the Church, it would have been helpful had the author proposed some complementary but alternative practices for our time. This would build on his claim that confession has taken different forms at different times.

Confession addresses a universal problem—when “something is not right with the world.” This book is a helpful beginning, but not a totally satisfying response, as the contemporary Church considers ways of responding pastorally to the basic human craving for forgiveness.

You can order LORD, HAVE MERCY: The Healing Power of Confession from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

Lent is a time for conversion and deepening our prayer life. These books mine our Catholic tradition for new/old ways to pray.

EASTERTIDE: Prayer for Lent Through Easter From The Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle (Galilee/Doubleday, 256 pp., $9.95, U.S./$14.95, Canada). Like her previous volume for Advent/Christmas, Tickle provides an introduction to the Christian tradition of fixed-hour prayer, this time for Lent. Tickle is contributing editor in religion for Publishers Weekly.

THE CATHOLIC HOME: Celebrations and Traditions for Holidays, Feast Days and Every Day, by Meredith Gould (Doubleday, 160 pp., $16.95, U.S./$25.95, Canada), tries to rekindle traditional home-based rituals that have fallen by the wayside in recent times, like Easter bread-making. With enthusiasm, realism and humor, this sociologist tries to be inclusive of practices in different parts of the country and from different ethnic traditions.

EMBRACE YOUR RENEWAL: A Thought a Day for Lent, by Harold A. Buetow (Alba House/St. Pauls, 169 pp., $12.95). Father Buetow, an editor for The New Catholic Encyclopedia, uses the Gospel readings for the weekday Masses of Lent as a prod to personal renewal. Buetow begins by reminding us that Lent should be the “springtime of the spirit,” in opportunities for growth and flowering.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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