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What Are the Best Christian Books?

DANTE TO DEAD MAN WALKING: One Reader’s Journey Through the Christian Classics,, by Raymond A. Schroth, S.J. Loyola Press. 242 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a retired public librarian who currently serves on the advisory board of St. Anthony Messenger Press.

FATHER RAYMOND SCHROTH, careful professor that he is, opens his work with a definition of terms: Spiritual classics “speak to the human spirit, to that divine gift by which we transcend the limitations imposed by our self-absorption, our narrow-mindedness and our moral cowardice.”

He continues by explaining that approaching a book fully open to the human experience it provides, as well as the influence of God’s grace, “can transform us in much the same way that a friend, a teacher or a coach can help us become something we have not been before.”

Do not be frightened by the above description, since the essays about the 50 titles Father Schroth selected provide enjoyable reading, along with provocative treatment of moral issues. While Father Schroth was aided in his selections by faculty members at colleges and universities in which he served as professor or academic dean, he provides very personalized introductions to each title. Some are his own travel experiences or personal encounters with the authors, but many connect history or current events to the text.

Titles such as The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Inferno, The Imitation of Christ, The Idea of a University and The Seven Storey Mountain are included in similar compilations, but would one expect the Book of Job, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Walden, Kristin Lavransdatter, The Family of Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X or even Dead Man Walking in such august company?

The author freely admits to not relishing some of the titles. For instance, he continues to resist reading The Imitation of Christ but realizes the ways in which it was on target in the 15th century and could well apply to our current age, and declares Silence, by Shusaku Endo, one of the most depressing novels ever—although he’s read it three times!

Schroth weighs Newman’s concept of the liberal arts as studied not for what you will do with them but for what they will make of you, and opts for the stronger statement that sound formation of the mind will last a lifetime.

Schroth frequently enlivens his commentaries with germane quotes. For instance, in discussing James Joyce, Edna O’Brien says: “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do. It is a paradox that, while wrestling with language to capture the human condition, they become more callous and cut off from the very human traits they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions, only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity.”

Cynthia Ozick’s critique of the Book of Job: “[T]he poet, through the whirlwind’s answer, stills Job. But can the poet still the Job who lives in us? God’s majesty is eternal, manifest in cell and star; yet Job’s questions toil on, manifest in death camp and hatred, in tyranny and anthrax, in bomb and bloodshed. Why do the wicked thrive? Why do the innocent suffer?”

Father Schroth compares Thomas Merton to Henry David Thoreau, and states that in their solitude they seem to personify so much of what Americans fear. But Merton’s asceticism and hard-won peace of soul also represent what we most need.

Edward Steichen, the renowned photojournalist, produced The Family of Man to prove that “the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and explaining man to man.” The Fate of the Earth, by Jonathan Schell, is characterized as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the antinuclear movement.

While the essays average only five pages in length, they are so well-thought-out that each provides a succinct characterization of the work discussed as to the author, historical setting, plot, theme, characters and moral relevance.

This is an excellent guide to Christian literature and, with its nine pages of selected sources, would aid interested, intelligent adults in broadening their familiarity with these classics. Professionals who were not exposed to the liberal arts and book discussion-group members of all ages would also find it a most readable guidebook.

You can order DANTE TO DEAD MAN WALKING: One Reader’s Journey Through the Christian Classics from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE SEEKER’S GUIDE TO MARY, by María Ruiz Scaperlanda. Loyola Press. 248 pp. $11.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

I SHOULD BEGIN by admitting I was asked to write an endorsement for this book by Loyola Press’s marketing coordinator. And I did it because I am a friend and professional colleague of the author. María Ruiz Scaperlanda and I met over 12 years ago through the Catholic Press Association (CPA); we’ve even traveled together on fact-finding trips organized by the CPA, one of which was a trip to Israel that included Nazareth, mentioned in these pages. And she’s written articles for St. Anthony Messenger.

But I think, even without that personal relationship, I would like this book. It is a balanced, bold and brave take on a subject I care about and have written on myself: Mary.

Scaperlanda bears Mary’s name (officially, her first name is María de Lourdes, and her mother’s is María de Jesús). The book is dedicated to her mother, “who taught me to recognize Mary as my mother in heaven.” Born in Cuba, Scaperlanda spent some elementary years in Puerto Rico and has lived in Texas and Oklahoma. Her husband, Michael, is a law professor, and she has done award-winning reporting for Catholic newspapers and magazines, while raising their “awesome foursome,” children Christopher, Anamaría, Rebekah and Michelle.

Scaperlanda brings all this family and professional experience to The Seeker’s Guide to Mary. This is a notable entry in the Loyola Press series, which presents current, solid Catholic thinking on a variety of topics. (Some other topics in the series are saints, Christian marriage, the rosary and Jesus in the Gospels.)

“It was to Mary I cried for comfort when I was a new kid in a strange school....It just seemed natural to talk to Mary, a mother, when it appeared that no one else could possibly understand how I felt. Years later, when I became a mother myself, I instinctively turned to Mary with my fears, hopes and dreams for my own children.”

Scaperlanda’s words about the Mary of the Pietà, the grieving mother at the foot of the cross who did not understand God’s plan, touched me deeply because I read them on the very day another editor on our staff lost her adult son to cystic fibrosis, and I understood Mary’s pain anew.

The book ranges through scriptural references to Mary and reflections on Mary as Jesus’ first disciple, through the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on Mary and the teachings of other Christian traditions, to reporting on famous Marian apparitions and discussing Marian prayers and popular devotions. It ends with Mary as the patron of our country (among others) and the place of Mary in today’s Church, as evidenced by placing the major text about her within Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The book is balanced in its thorough research into current theology; it is bold in daring to tackle controversial issues like Medjugorge, which Scaperlanda presents as a good example of the Church’s careful investigation process for apparitions; it is brave in letting personal experiences like meeting the mother of an Oklahoma City victim and the mother of a convicted murderer on Texas’s Death Row lead her to an evolving understanding of Mary.

My own criticism of the book is that it is brief, perhaps too brief. Whole books have been written on chapter topics; the treatment of Marian prayers, for example, seems extremely sketchy. But the whole “Seeker” series is intended only to provide accessible introductions to complex Catholic topics.

The book includes a reader’s guide that presents discussion questions for use with adult study groups, high school faith-formation groups and individuals.

Those uses are well and good, but I believe this is a book for any Catholic struggling to respond to God’s call, to live with fear, confusion and anxiety, to stay on our faith journey. This is our lifelong challenge and pilgrimage; Mary has shown us the way. Scaperlanda’s book is a good introduction to Mary, her (and our) guide, friend and mother.

You can order THE SEEKER’S GUIDE TO MARY from St. Francis Bookshop.

WHY GOD WON’T GO AWAY: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D’Aquili, M.D., Ph.D., and Vince Rause. Ballantine Books. 172 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.Min., Ph.D., a Catholic priest and licensed psychotherapist in Michigan. A longtime religion columnist for The Detroit News, his latest book is A Pearl a Day: Wise Sayings for Living Well, edited notes of his boyhood pastor, the late Father Edward D. Popielarz (Jeremiah Press).

WE’RE WIRED for spirituality. The growing field of science (specifically, neurobiology), religion and their relationship is dubbed neurotheology. For Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Drs. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania and the late Eugene D’Aquili, with Vince Rause, gathered brain-imaging data from Franciscan nuns in prayer and meditating Tibetan Buddhists.

This nine-chapter text is another among numerous books published in the last decade by the American Psychological Association (APA). A remarkable assessment of how the brain responds when God is experienced, Why God Won’t Go Away has academicians and pastors enthused about the renewed and serious dialogue between psychiatry, spirituality and science.

Caught up in a lot of scientific lingo, charts and unfamiliar terms, the writers of this book search for the neurological underpinnings of meditation’s mystical encounters and how the brain responds to such an experience of the holy. The authors explain the place of rite in inspiring practitioners of the faith—and also unbelievers.

These authors were acclaimed for their earlier work, The Mystical Mind. But secular humanists scoff at this one, suggesting that mystical experience is subjective and a trick the brain plays on one, rather than any real experience. They don’t want to see religious experience explained, but explained away.

Not so quick. What we may be dealing with here is what one mind said centuries ago—that we’re spiritual beings with a physical existence, not the other way around. And the emerging body of literature, surprisingly published by the APA, is testifying to its validity in an age when more and more baby boomers, for example, long for deeper spiritual offerings than what secularism suggests.

At a Spirituality on Tap session at St. Dennis Church, Royal Oak, Michigan, I used a nine-minute meditation that had the participants exuberantly telling how relaxed, “stilled” and recreated they felt following the guided encounter. It is clear in these sessions that something changes. And I think these authors of Why God Won’t Go Away help to explain that phenomenon.

With entries on myth and metaphor, along with near-death experiences, religious ecstasy and sexual orgasm, ritual and brain machinery, Why God Won’t Go Away concludes “that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine.”

You can order WHY GOD WON’T GO AWAY: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief from St. Francis Bookshop.

PSYCHOLOGY AND AMERICAN CATHOLICISM: From Confession to Therapy?, by C. Kevin Gillespie, S.J. Crossroad. 232 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, who teaches at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a B.A. in theology from Xavier University (Ohio) and an M.A. in religious studies from Villanova University (Pennsylvania).

SPEAKING TO THE CHURCH’S supposed conflict between reason and faith, the third-century Christian apologist Tertullian rhetorically asked: “What has Athens to do with Rome?” Today a new spin easily could be put to that now classic question: “What has psychology to do with religion?” In other words, what do Carl Jung and Jesus, Sigmund Freud and St. Francis, Abraham Maslow and Moses have in common?

As Father C. Kevin Gillespie, assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola College in Maryland, explores in Psychology and American Catholicism: From Confession to Therapy?, they have more to do with each other than we thought.

Catholicism had long been open to the insights of a psychology understood as “the study of the soul” that was Thomistic and philosophical in nature. As psychology began to move more in experimental and behavioral directions during the 19th century, however, the Church became fearful and suspicious of it. This shift prompted the quip: “First psychology lost its soul and then it lost its mind.”

One of the more interesting stories in the relationship between psychology and Catholicism that Gillespie relates took place on March 9, 1947, in New York City at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was there that Msgr. (later Bishop) Fulton J. Sheen, American Catholicism’s chief apologist, took to the pulpit and attacked psychoanalysis. His chief target was “Freudianism” which, in his view, was based on four foundations: “materialism, hedonism, infantilism and eroticism.”

Gillespie sees Sheen’s response as indicative of many within the Church who viewed psychoanalysis as usurping the spiritual prerogatives of the Christian tradition, especially as manifested in the sacraments. This sentiment was perhaps best captured by the famous British apologist, G. K. Chesterton, when he said: “Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.”

One of the first to build bridges between Catholicism and psychology was Father Edward Pace, who in 1905 established The Catholic University of America’s psychology department. There he was succeeded by Father Thomas Verner Moore whose greatest influence was on future generations. His former students became leaders in the field of psychology and established departments at many other Catholic universities.

Gillespie praises the bridge-builders who “inspired others to see psychology as a conduit for one to enter the contemporary confluence of Catholicism and culture where the perennial questions of faith and reason meet and where one learns how grace continues to build on nature.”

Over time it was increasingly argued that, though they need not be psychologists, priests who deal with pastoral situations would be well served by familiarizing themselves with general psychological principles. Two places where this was done with success were at the St. John’s Summer Institute (Collegeville, Minnesota) and the Menninger Clinic (Topeka, Kansas).

Further testifying to psychology’s and Catholicism’s increasingly cordial relationship was a reference in one of Vatican II’s major documents, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church (Gaudium et Spes). In it the Council Fathers stated that “[a]ppropriate use must be made not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology. Thus the faithful can be brought to live the faith in a more thorough and mature way.”

This desire soon found expression in the renewal of religious life and priestly formation that followed the Council.

Lay Catholics entered the picture after the publication in 1968 of Humanae Vitae, the Church’s encyclical on marriage which reaffirmed the ban on artificial contraception. They were struggling to remain faithful to the Church.

Perhaps a new question is being raised now. Rather than Tertullian’s dismissive inquiry, we’re asking ourselves a harder, more complex question: “Where do we go from here?” How does Catholicism continue to appreciate psychology’s insights without becoming too accommodating to it?

Psychology and American Catholicism is a book well worth reading. Also, for those interested in American Catholic history this book provides a new chapter. Finally, for those who struggle to balance their faith in the midst of the wider culture—persons who are caught in the gap between “confession and therapy”—this book provides an opportunity to ask and grapple with that question.

You can order PSYCHOLOGY AND AMERICAN CATHOLICISM: From Confession to Therapy? from St. Francis Bookshop.

JEWISH SPIRITUALITY: A Brief Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. Jewish Lights Publishing. 103 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by MARK M. WILKINS, in his 26th year of teaching in the Religious Education Department at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

WHEN MY YOUNGEST SISTER made friends with a college classmate who was Jewish, a real ecumenical movement began in my life. Through her I learned about things like kosher, Shabbat and other traditions that are part and parcel of Jewish life. When my sister began dating (and then married) her friend’s brother, the reality of observing Jewish traditions and customs was another step forward.

There was something missing, however, for me. I had read novels by Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok, as well as works by Elie Wiesel, Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel. I had an idea of what it meant to be Jewish, but I realize now that it was almost strictly an intellectual understanding. And it was fairly superficial.

Numerous books have been written recently about understanding the rituals and practices of other religions. Jewish Lights Publishing, in fact, has published one of the most notable titles, How to Be a Perfect Stranger, which is geared to helping people feel at ease and to facilitate participation when attending the religious ceremonies of other religions and traditions. This book, however, is not about the “what” of Judaism as much as the “why.”

As the author notes in the Introduction, Christians might fall into the trap of thinking that Judaism is simply an earlier form of Christianity but without acknowledging that Jesus is the Messiah. Kushner says this view distorts Jewish teaching.

In this book the author explores some of the key aspects of the Jewish spiritual imagination that are meant to challenge Christian readers to see themselves and their world through another lens.

One of the first points that Kushner makes is that spirituality for most implies a split between the material world and the world of the spirit. To be a spiritual searcher seems to invite the seeker to exit this everyday, physical world in order to attain some higher, spiritual or holy domain.

Classical Hebrew lacks such a distinction. For Jewish spirituality, there is only one world that is simultaneously material and spiritual. In the chapters on Creation, Kushner points out that Jewish spirituality invites us to open our eyes and pay attention to the wonders of the everyday. He notes that when we do so attentively we find God’s presence everywhere. Because God is hidden in everything, all things are connected to one another.

In the following section he begins to sketch that the Torah is then the blueprint for creation. In one Midrash text the Torah represents the overall plan that God had in mind when he created.

Through a play on the Hebrew word for orchard, he writes that the Torah, as the sourcebook for Judaism, conceals wonderful and delicious surprises. More than that, it teaches us everything one needs to know and to do.

Another way to know about God is to do what we believe God wants us to do. Kushner indicates that some actions simply cannot be understood (or even heard) until they are performed or done. His intriguing distinction between legislation and commandments makes the latter a call addressed to us personally.

Each commandment (mitzvot) challenges us to find the broken in the world and repair it. Through this we might come to recognize the awesome power that God has put into our hands. As we give ourselves more and more completely to the sacred deed, we begin to lose ourselves and realize that we are present within the divine. All is God!

Kushner notes that talking about God can lead to confusion and contradiction. An insight of Jewish spirituality is that this is due to the fact that we are part of what we are talking about. We cannot be totally objective. But the ways of God are beyond full human understanding. From the Book of Job, Jewish spirituality draws the lesson that God is present in everything, even things humans do not understand or like.

In this regard prayer then is understood as already existing within us. By giving prayer a voice we come closer to God. Sabbath observances then become a way to refuse to live in the past or the future where tasks might be unfinished and, therefore, a distraction.

The final chapter is one of the most intriguing and the most thought-provoking. Kushner attempts to bridge the gap between Judaism and Christianity by linking believing in Jesus Christ with the Jewish theme of teshuva (repentance or returning home). The author says that accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is more than doing teshuva and doing teshuva is doing more than accepting Jesus.

He concludes in an Afterword with some of the teachings that might confound our attempts to understand Jewish spirituality. Key among these are understanding the Torah as teaching and how to interpret it, a lack of dogma and lack of emphasis on the afterlife.

This book made wonderful reading and left me wanting more. It is a slim volume, but rich in lessons.

You can order JEWISH SPIRITUALITY: A Brief Introduction for Christians from St. Francis Bookshop. .


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop at or 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45210, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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