Book titles to add to one’s fall reading list
by Deacon Rick Bauer
Sometimes, we Catholics get our heads stuck on a particular challenge in the church and don’t realize how it may be affecting other faith traditions. So it is with “The Great Dechurching” (Jim Davis and Michael Graham, Zondervan Press, 2023), a thoughtful and accurate depiction of the largest and fastest religious shift in U.S. history.
While as a deacon and a writer I tend to pray about the challenges that the Catholic Church faces (scandals, politics, programs, recovery from COVID, etc.), I completely missed the broader trends affecting virtually all Christian churches in America.
We are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in US history. It is greater than the First and Second Great Awakening in America — but in the opposite direction. Tens of millions of formerly Christian worshipers nationwide — 16 percent of American adults — have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all. These are what we now call the dechurched. Most of the dechurching has already happened and is accelerating. This is not a gradual decline; it is a jolting crash. The size and scope of this shift is unprecedented in our country.
“The Great Dechurching” is one of the first-ever careful and sensitive research efforts into the dechurched phenomenon. It is a detailed sketch of demographics, size, core concerns, church off-ramps, historical roots, and the gravity of what is at stake. The writers explore what can be done to slow the bleed, engage the pertinent issues winsomely and wisely, and hopefully re-church some of the dechurched. The awareness of this cultural phenomenon is woefully unacknowledged in our general population. Most Catholic churches in America are “not equipped to engage with those who have left the church or in many cases even retain the people we have” (p.34).
A side note: Usually with a book like this, there is some religious axe to grind — a personal issue with Rome or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — that causes me to stop reading. Goodness knows, I have enough on my religious plate in these matters. But I kept reading this book, since the research was based as much on declining Protestant membership as it was on current (and highly accurate) data from the Catholic Church. What struck me was the fact that most churches are experiencing decline, and it is a very common trend in the past decade. As the introduction relates, “no theological tradition, age group, ethnicity, political affiliation, educational level, geographic location, or income bracket escaped the dechurching of America. We were able to create models for dechurched mainline Protestant Christians and dechurched Roman Catholic Christians . . . all groups and classes of people are experiencing dechurching at historical levels.”
I found this book helpful and would recommend it to my brother deacons, priests, and those lay Catholics looking for good ideas about growing the church, reclaiming those who may have wandered away, and what other Catholics are doing to bring the dechurched back. It might not be as encouraging as most of the books I review, but this one might be more helpful than we think.
Without doubt, the book of Psalms is a blessed gift for both Christians and the Jewish people. In his book “Treasuring the Psalms” (InterVarsity Press, 2023), author Ian Vaillancourt helps the reader go deeper into their history and meaning. As described by the publisher, “These one hundred and fifty inspired poems have shaped the worship, prayers, and theology of God’s people for thousands of years. The words of the book of Psalms are the most oft-cited texts in the New Testament, and give us a sense of how vital they have been to God’s people for millennia. A deeper look into the nature and purposes of the book reveals further layers of meaning with abundant implications for the Christian life.
Vaillancourt, associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario, orients readers to the Psalms and lays out a pattern for deeper study and application. From the composition of individual psalms through the shaping of the entire book, he argues, the Holy Spirit guided the creation of a work that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. In particular, Vaillancourt shows how the Psalms point to Christ and provide practical insights for the church community and individual Christians. Readers will gain new viewpoints into the flow, context, and message of the Psalms, as well as gospel-centered applications for a living faith.”
The work is a rich interaction with current scholarship on the textual history and interpretative views over the centuries, but there is rich application for the thoughtful lay reader. We particularly were struck by the way the author substitutes the traditional format of many psalms — what is called the lament — into his own description, more true to the expression in the psalm. Vaillancourt calls them — brilliantly — “the psalms of Desperation.”
We have always found thematically-based study bibles to be helpful, especially if the particular focus or theme is something the reader shares an interest. In this case, “The Liturgy and Life Study Bible” (Liturgical Press, 2023)answers the questions that all Christians often ask — how does the Bible inform our worship practices? How does liturgy incorporate the Bible?
With the help of hundreds of liturgical and scripture scholars, Father Paul Turner (pastor of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri, and director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph) and John Martens (professor of theology and director of the Centre for Christian Engagement at St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada) have created a master work for those wanting to understand the connection between text and liturgical word or action.
“Liturgy and Life” is the perfect interpreter between the scriptures (both Old and New Testaments), the Lectionary of Readings, and the Mass. Turner and Martens give us a helpful process to wring meaning from any text, especially as it may have use in some part of the Catholic liturgy. Here are some suggestions:
To prepare for the Scripture readings at Mass this week, look up one or more of the passages in this Bible.
• As you see the reading in its broader biblical context, what do you notice?
• Read the liturgical introduction to this book of the Bible. How does it help you reflect on the passage?
• Are there comments within boxed text that apply to this passage? If so, how does worship appear in this passage?
• Look at the references to the liturgies of the Catholic Church in the apparatus near the bottom of the page. You should find the Mass listed there. For what other celebrations does the church use this reading? What do they tell you about the interpretation of this passage?
• Reread the passage. How does it apply to your life as a believer? When would it be most appropriate for you to pray with this reading? Have you been surprised by the Holy Spirit?
• What more would you like to know about this passage? Look at the essays listed in the table of contents; what would be helpful to read? (from the Introduction)
The “Liturgy and Life Study Bible” explores these questions (with expert additional commentary) and provides answers for today’s church. It will help clergy preaching and explicating a passage to help the congregation apply the text to the Eucharist and other liturgies in the Mass. This indispensable guide includes essays from the world’s top liturgical and biblical scholars on a variety of subjects, including Jewish liturgical traditions, psalms as liturgical prayer, early church worship, social justice, sacraments, the Last Supper, and more.
This one-of-a-kind tool will serve researchers, catechists, preachers, and anyone studying the Bible for the purposes of prayer and meditation. We welcome this treasured resource for those seek to understand why these texts can be a flame of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our churches.
(For comments, reactions, or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholics, please write Deacon Rick at email@example.com.)