Of gifts at Christmas, novelist J.K. Rowling observed that “one can never have enough socks. Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
Not wanting a row with our “cousins ‘cross the pond,” I would simply respond, in my best Dickensian cockney accent, “please sir, more books!” The year 2018 saw some wonderful Catholic books published, and we burned the midnight oil choosing that one book we honor as “2018 Colorado Catholic Herald Book of the Year.” We also cite books to buy at year’s end, so your frantic holiday shopping can be easier for those loved ones who delight in a good book. Drum roll, please!
The “2018 Colorado Catholic Herald Book of the Year” award goes to “A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament” by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre (Ignatius Press). An extraordinary volume that should be a part of the library of every Catholic student of the Bible, the book is comprehensive, current, and Catholic in every sense of the word. Drs. Bergsma and Pitre have given us a textbook, an introduction, a scholarly rejoinder to modernist literary theories that have only confused the faithful, and a serious resource to delight us in our study of the Old Testament. Every clergyman, catechism, teacher and student of the Word should have this wonderful book on the shelf or on their list. Bishop Robert Barron called this work “a remarkable achievement, substantive and systematic, it integrates history, theology, faith, reason, Scripture, and tradition — all in light of the living authority of the Church.”
But we tarry, and there are so many more. By category or theme, we list a Christmas basket for the libraries of the faithful.
“Bring my scrolls, especially the parchments.” The church is quietly but deliberately loosing herself (and some of her leading scholars) from the bonds of so-called “scientific exegesis” of the Scriptures, and the results are not only blessing our lives, but bringing greater strength and historical grounding for clergy homilies. Among notable publications are “Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis” by Craig Carter, and “Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church,” by Hans Boersma (both published by Baker Academic). We are given an opportunity to discover what preaching and teaching through the breadth of the church’s rich history of interpretation of a text, as well as recovering both the literal and spiritual meanings of Scripture. Of additional note is “The Four Last Things: A Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell,” by Father Wade Menezes, a timely reminder for those who might tend to forget these eternal realities.
Feed your head. On subjects that stimulate and stretch our thinking, we had several notable offerings this year. We enjoyed “Mind, Heart and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome,” (Tan Books) by Robert P. George and R.J. Snell, leading Catholic intellectuals who tell the stories of other thinkers drawn to the Catholic Church.
For someone whose brain cells have forgotten college literature and wanted to read The Divine Comedy, we were gratified to find “A Beginners Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy,” by Dr. Jason Baxter (Baker). We found a sure guide to the poet’s journey, and were brought closer to the cultural, historical, and conceptual realities of Dante. We are captivated by the writing of Professor Baxter of Wyoming Catholic College and wish we had him for our university humanities courses. For any church group wanting to (re)discover Dante, this would be a perfect companion volume.
Another pleasant surprise was Kevin Vost’s “How to Think Like Aquinas: The Sure Way to Perfect Your Mental Powers” (Sophia Institute Press). Through Vost, we discover the unique powers of St. Thomas’ intellect and will — and practical ways we can train our memory, understand our mental capabilities (and limits), read a book effectively, commit key truths to memory, and other topics. St. Thomas, the ancient “model for those who want to pursue their studies to the best advantage” (Pius XI), through this work, will help us to “go to Thomas” to learn to think like him, and even live like him.
In the arts, we discovered “How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art” (Sophia Institute Press) by Elizabeth Lev, the noted art and Renaissance historian.
For reflection on faith through the words and works of poetry, we found none better than Christian Wiman’s “He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art” (Farrar Strauss Giroux), which through prose and poetry explores the spirituality of the human response to divine grace.
Faith through difficult times. As each of us tried to make sense of the sexual scandals in the church, we often sought wisdom in the writings this past year. We found Father George Rutler, a parish priest who is also an accomplished linguist, painter, violinist, boxer, and preacher extraordinaire. His “Calm in Chaos: Catholic Wisdom for Anxious Times” (Ignatius) kept our “spiritual powder” dry. His insights on life, sacred and profane history, and the current year’s events brought us to hear — through all the doubt and anger — that treasured question of the master, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” when the disciples’ boat (and ours) was rocked by wind and wave.
Other writers plumbed root causes of the sex abuse crisis. “The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies are Destroying Lives and Why the Church was Right All Along” (Tan Books) by Jennifer Roback Morse is a profound book that we will examine in a future column. The book explores the relationship between birth control, no-fault divorce, sexual and moral confusion, and the resultant destruction of the family over the past 75 years. “The Sexual State” is a smack in the face of Western sensibility.
We took some comfort from church historian Rod Bennet, whose “Bad Shepherds: The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While Bishops Did the Devil’s Work” (Sophia Institute Press) introduced us to some of the bad bishops and popes who have littered the church’s long history. We learned that good Catholics outlasted bad leadership and that they not only survived but thrived. We took greater faith and resolve from this encounter, too.
Additions to the family bookshelf. On a happier note, we received many volumes that would grace and inform the faith of an entire family. No better is Dr. Helen Hoffner’s “Catholic Traditions and Treasures: An Illustrated Encyclopedia” (Sophia Institute Press). Where else would one find answers to such interesting questions as “why do we pray to St. Anthony to find something lost?” or “why bury a St. Joseph statue upside down?” This delightful work (superbly illustrated as well) should be a resource for young and old and endearingly remind us of our heavenly destination.
An honorable mention goes to “The Great Discovery: Our Journey to the Catholic Faith,” by Ulf and Birgitta Ekman (Ignatius Press), former megachurch pastors in Sweden who were led to the Catholic faith. An early acquisition for next year is “Advent with Our Lady of Fatima,” by Donna-Marie O’Boyle (Sophia Institute Press), telling the story of saintly souls who were devoted to her, including St. Teresa of Calcutta, St John Paul II, and Father Andrew Apostoli—truly an Advent journey for the whole family.
Some of the greatest gifts I received this year have been your thoughtful comments and insights. We trust in our God that his Church shall endure—no, prevail overwhelmingly—through all these challenges and more. At this season of the year, we remember Charles Dickens’ prayer at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” and it is my prayer to each of you at this season. Dickens wrote, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” May God bless you (and your reading) richly this Christmas, and bring grace to you and yours in the New Year.
(Comments, reactions, or suggestions about a book or resource that might be helpful can be sent to Deacon Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.)