Fall Reading for October 2015

Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching. Michael White and Tom Corcoran. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Rebuilt Parish Book, 2015) 224 pages; $15.00. (Reviewed by Jon M. Ericson)

Family and Life: Pastoral Reflections by Pope Francis. Edited by the Pontifical Council for the Family. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015) 178 pages; $14.95. (Reviewed by Matthew B. Rose)

Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms. Holly Ordway. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014) 215 pages; $19.95. (Reviewed by Melinda Selmys)

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Eben Alexander, M.D. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012) 196 pages; $15.99. (Reviewed by Dr. Mark S. Latkovic)


Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching. Michael White and Tom Corcoran. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Rebuilt Parish Book, 2015) 224 pages; $15.00.

White and Corcoran have produced a book that should be of value to any church that is thoughtful and intentional about its communications, with emphasis on its Gospel message. The book is a virtual gold mine of useful advice, often given with an original twist. The “tools” for building success are eminently practical, and the manner of offering them, with Tom and Michael in dialogue, is eminently personal. It seems that the authors are speaking directly to you.

In addressing the many strengths of the book, its consistent focus on the Word is primary. The Preface informs the reader that the book is about communicating the Gospel message, and that focus is maintained throughout as each of the 89 chapters begins with a scriptural text.

The author’s sensitivity to what it means to communicate is apparent throughout the text, which begins with an extensive and thoughtful treatment of the role of the person as communicator and proceeds to acknowledge the importance of nonverbal communication.

While many of the 89 “tools” discussed are praiseworthy, there are four that may be regarded as particularly insightful and inspiring. Each of the four directly relate to the worship service (Items 40, 43-45). The ideas:

  • Dispose them to Celebration.
  • Avoid having the priest as the only voice.
  • The pattern of the Savior’s journey toward Calvary being reflected in the worship pattern toward the Eucharist.
  • The Communion being personal and private, but also corporative.
  • The special care in ending the service.
  • The truth and beauty of simply meeting people where they are and moving them toward the “profound solemnity that is the Mass.”

Great concepts given clear expression.

At the risk of seeming picky, there are a few places that are not so clear, or are misleading. Item five, “First Live It.” is a mixture of the Greek terms, logos and ethos, the appeal to logic or the appeal based on the speaker’s reputation. The title is confusing in relation to logos, and the Last Supper example has nothing to do with logical proof. Some readers might even conclude that we need logical proof to support Scripture. This reader concludes that “I know what they mean, but …”

The statements of the first and last axioms are bothersome: The first axiom states “You are the Message.” The last axiom states “God is the Message.” In its context, each is true, but the oddity could easily have been avoided. Another language clarification might well be made to the title of Part IV, “About the Outcomes.”  Only items 69 and 80 are clearly about outcomes; the rest is about the content of the homily or its preparation. Instead, how about “The Homily and Its Influence.”

Least clear among the tools is item eight, the tricky topic of style, in which the initial statements are confusing. The reader is told that style is all about appearance, then is told that style is about substance. Which is it?

Topic 48, “Presentation Trumps Substance” is clear, but is clearly overstated and appears to contradict itself. The statement “Presentation, not content, determines interest.” is inaccurate.  Both, of course, determine interest. Indeed, the authors go on to describe the kind of content that determines interest: stories, illustrations, concrete details, humor.

This reader can visualize Tom and Michael delightfully coming up with one axiom after another, and as it was with God’s creation, they are all good. Nevertheless, the authors might consider the principle implicit in their supermarket example of 24 jars of jam being “overwhelming”; they did not communicate as well as four. The authors’ observation that “The sheer amount of what is available can actually confuse us” can be applied to the 89 axioms. This book would be even better with clearer, more effective arrangement to minimize the fragmentation, and enhance the coherence. Some fragments might well have been blended into a more comprehensive, coherent whole. For example, the first six items of Part I are all about the ethos of the speaker, then there are four items on preparation, another four on nonverbal communication, five on presentation. If blended, that would be only four to focus on, not 19. Just like the jars of jam.

Throughout the text, the authors exhibit the gift of brevity, the ability to develop a topic clearly and succinctly. There are, however, a few topics that might well have been more fully developed. Most obvious is the scanty discussion of electronic communication and social media. There is enough to be said for another book, but too little is said here. The most important topic to receive inadequate development is the topic of stewardship. The idea of stewardship is mentioned, but developed only superficially. Another topic crying for development is probably the most difficult and sensitive to manage. The idea of keeping one’s personal, political views to oneself, and certainly out of the sermon, is not controversial. But, how can the Church have “a clear voice in the temporal realm” without being clearly involved with political issues? If “the Church must speak out” about such issues as the right to life, immigration, civil rights, and poverty, who is the speaker, and from where is the truth spoken? These questions are implicit in this topic. They need attention. These issues are real for the Church and its communications. There should be no pussyfooting around them.

In sum, the primary criticism of Rebuilding Your Message is that its fragmentation detracts from the coherence of the whole, and putting numerous parts together would add clarity to the particular topics. That said, it must be noted that nearly every one of those fragments is pure gold, and it would be well if every priest and lay leader would dig deeply into that mine.

-Jon M. Ericson
Dean Emeritus, College of Liberal Arts
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo


Family and Life: Pastoral Reflections by Pope Francis. Edited by the Pontifical Council for the Family. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015) 178 pages; $14.95.

Much, perhaps too much, has been made of the differences between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. On the one hand, Francis has been painted as more popular, or more personal, than Benedict. So note various left-leaning media sources (for better or for worse). On the other hand, the clarity of thought found in Benedict XVI’s writings is frequently compared to the spontaneous and occasionally unclear nature of Francis’s thought, as noted in more right-leaning reports. One area in which such discussions crop up has defined the cultural landscape of 2015, namely the issues of family, marriage, and life. As with many issues, the thought of Francis on these topics has been hotly debate, interpreted, and spun to meet specific agendas. More truth is needed in these discussions.

To contribute to such discussions, and perhaps to clarify the thought and message of Pope Francis, the Pontifical Council for the Family has published a collection of talks, letters, and homilies of Pope Francis, or rather of Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires. The book is an English translation of a special 2013 issue of Familia et Vita, a publication of that Council. These pieces cover a wide range of topics and are addressed to an equally wide range of audiences, from politicians to youth groups. Above all, they reflect the love of Francis as a pastor of souls during a troublesome chapter in Church history. Such love is highlighted in council president Archbishop Paglia’s Introduction to the volume, which invites us to incorporate the teachings of the Holy Father into our reflections on the Domestic Church, particularly in this year focused on the family.

The printed talks included in this volume center on three key documents produced by the Church in Latin America, namely, the Aparecida Document, the Puebla Document, and the Santo Domingo Document. From these key texts, Francis draws out various key aspects of the Church’s social teaching, applying them to people from all stages of life, especially the youth and the elderly, as well as the poor, the most vulnerable in society (the unborn), and immigrants. Francis also places great importance on the role of families in parishes and communities, as well as the importance of educating future generations. A recurring theme throughout this collection and throughout Francis’s addresses and writings since his 2013 election is the importance of history and memory in a community. We learn from the past, particularly through the stories told to us by our elders. Therefore, the elderly occupy a place of great importance in a society. Specifically, Francis connects the importance of history and memory in relation to traditional piety. A culture forms from its cultus, and the piety of a people shapes its historical identity. Francis hopes for a world where poverty, while not entirely eliminated—for as Christ said, the poor will always be with us (Matthew 26:11)—is at least not imposed upon the majority of a nation’s citizens because of social debt.

Although the majority of Family and Life consists of these talks, there are several shorter works which complement the lengthier addresses. Though brief, the homilies collected here are filled with the passion seen in Pope Francis’s public addresses. As with his more pointed talks, one can almost hear the voice of the Holy Father shouting from the pulpit, driving home the moral lesson to his flock. One prime example of this is his homily on human trafficking. Francis’s righteous anger in response to rising reports of prostitution and modern slavery, often involving youths, comes across clearly. However, the Holy Father is not content to merely weep for the youths tangled in the poison ivy of human trafficking. He challenges his listeners to reform their own lives, and the system that has produced such grave human rights violations. In another homily, he calls on educators, particularly catechists, to have a personal encounter with their students. In all of the included homilies, Francis calls on the faithful to do their part to reform society, to convert the world through the intercession of Mary. Through her intercession, we can lift all of our hopes and fears for this fallen world to Christ, her Divine Son.

Those searching for the real message of Pope Francis on the family, one not distorted by media reports and edited soundbites, should find much to reflect on in this volume. The real Francis, the pastor behind the pope, shines on every page. These reflections illuminate Francis’s papal statements and teachings. What one finds is not a politically liberal or conservative bishop. One finds, instead, a faithful son of the Church, one whose heart, like the heart of Christ, weeps for our sins and calls us to a real conversion in love.

-Matthew B. Rose
Theology Instructor, Bishop O’Connell High School
Arlington, VA


Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms. Holly Ordway. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014) 215 pages; $19.95.

This book is basically the autobiography of an atheist who became first an Anglican, and then a Catholic. It combines an account of Ordway’s experience of coming to Christ with an outline of the major arguments that helped to persuade her of the truth of the Christian faith.

The arguments themselves are nothing especially groundbreaking. There was a neat twist on the cosmological argument that I hadn’t seen before (I won’t give away the punchline, but it involves a coffee cup); otherwise it’s pretty stock stuff. These are the kinds of arguments that a lot of Christian apologists have tried out in comment boxes thousands of times—with no success.

This brings us, then, to the most important aspect of the book. Ordway is a clever woman, and I’m sure that she would have navigated her way past the arguments that led to her conversion if her goal had been to win an argument with a stranger. But the fact that these arguments were effective has much more to do with the relationship she had with her Christian fencing coach, and with the respectful and pastoral approach he took to introducing her to God.

I would recommend this book to apologists who want to approach atheists, not because it will supply a fresh crop of novel arguments, but because it shows how to build respect, how to hold back, how to know when to broach the subject of God, and how to lead someone towards Christ without forcing him or her to follow too quickly. It shows that a good apologist should be like a good coach or teacher, challenging without pushing too hard.

It’s also helpful in showing something that many Christians miss about today’s atheists: many are intelligent academics, but not familiar with Christianity, except in the most superficial sense. We often assume that people have heard the Gospel and rejected it. But this can lead to a kind of confrontational stance that isn’t always appropriate. Like many people today, Ordway was not catechized as a child. The God that she didn’t believe in really was as one-dimensional and absurd as the invisible, intangible dragon—or any other of the pantheon of atheistic, nonexistent beings.

Finally, Ordway’s training is in English Lit, and her prose is sprinkled with literary references and lovely quotations from the best Christian poetry in the English language. An enjoyable read, even if it’s not the book that will answer the major intellectual challenges of postmodern atheism.

-Melinda Selmys
Convert to Catholicism, mother of seven, author of several books and articles


Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Eben Alexander, M.D. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012) 196 pages; $15.99.

Heaven, I’m in heaven …” (Irving Berlin).

RESPECTED NEUROLOGIST DIES AND GOES TO HEAVEN… AND LIVES TO TELL ABOUT IT! This could either be a New York Post-like headline or a line from an annotated bibliography on books about near-death experiences (NDEs).

For the ancients, the heart was the symbol of the person (The Psalmist’s cry, “A clean heart create for me, God,” 51:12, essentially means “make me a newperson!”). Today, it is the brain that moderns consider to be the heart of the person … Wait a minute, the brain is the heart? Are you confused yet?

Here’s what I mean. Many neuroscientists consider our brains to be the organ that pretty much makes us everything that we are. And with good reason, since most scientists say it’s the body’s organ of central control. It’s why so many people are fascinated by the brain these days, and why popular books about it are quite, well, popular. Books on the brain by psychiatrists, lawyers, neurophilosophers, and neurosurgeons proliferate. And most of them accept the materialist’s dogma of mind equals brain equals person. Of course, there are notable exceptions, dissenters to this dogma.

But also, books about heaven and the afterlife still hold fascination for many moderns, who, we are often told, have outgrown faith of any kind. So, combine a book about the brain with talk—even “proof”—about the afterlife, and you have double the magic! This combo is what neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, dishes up in his New York Times best-seller, Proof of Heaven. When a neurosurgeon has a near-death experience, people listen, to paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton commercials.

But at this point, we might ask, why? Why should we pay more attention to a neurosurgeon on these matters? Does a neuroscientist have any more authority or expertise on out-of-body experiences than anyone else—a theologian or philosopher, a priest or a rabbi, for example? Well, surely he/she knows more about the brain and biological death than the average Joe! Largely because our western, technological culture identifies the brain with personhood—as Alexander once did (see p. 34)—the neuroscientist holds court in our society.

At the time of Alexander’s near-death experience in November 2008, which was brought on by an extremely rare illness (bacterial meningitis), he is a middle-aged neurosurgeon from the South, with a wife and two boys, and an extended loving family. A nominal Episcopalian, he goes through the religious motions, all the while “knowing” that his science has made God, and faith, and heaven simply comforting thoughts with no basis in reality. The picture we get of him is the kindhearted atheist (rare these days!) who, in his case, enjoys his work and loves his family.

For me, however—and I hate to disappoint the reader here—the most moving and interesting part of Alexander’s story is not his vivid description of the afterlife, but the revelation that he is adopted, and the pain and existential angst this causes him later in life when he believes that his birth parents want(ed) nothing to do with him. Only later is his downward spiral of depression and drink reversed when he reunites with them and his siblings in 2007.

His extremely vivid descriptions of what the afterlife is like, and what it looks like, did not hold my attention as much as when he was describing his adoption story. In fact, after a while, the tour of the afterlife began to get a bit tedious, and my interest in it waned when he would return to it. Although there were elements that I could, in fact, accept and found fascinating, I actually found his portrait a shadow of what the New Testament tells us about the feast-like picture of heaven. Of course, the New Testament gives us only images, too: e.g., a wedding feast, a banquet. It doesn’t directly address such questions as whether we’ll have our pets with us “up there,” or how we’ll “see” God.

Much of what Alexander’s portrayal of his NDE was like, if we are to use the traditional terms of Christian belief and theology in an analogous way, could be said to be something resembling Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—though he doesn’t use the terms Purgatory or Hell, and the term Heaven, despite the book’s subtitle, is used only seven times. Rather, he uses self-styled terms such as “Realm of the Earthworm’s Eye View,” the “Gateway,” and the “Core.”

He also uses the term God, but prefers “Om” (“Divine” and “Deity” and “Creator” also make appearances). Throw in the stuff about a woman friend “channeling,” and words like “Orb” and “Spinning Melody,” and for this Catholic theologian, it all began to sound, at times, a bit too “New Agey,” as Sarah Palin might say. I even started to have images in my mind of a Moody Blues album cover!

The single most important discovery he makes in the afterlife? It is, he says several times, “The unconditional love and acceptance” that he experienced (p. 73). In fact, it’s the first message he receives in the afterlife. The second, “You have nothing to fear.” And the third, “There is nothing you can do wrong.” The first two, I’m okay with. They can be squared with classic Christian doctrines of God’s love and mercy. But I’m not so sure about the third one! We’re not infallible! We make mistakes; we sin. He boils this otherworldly three-part message down to, “You are loved.” And even more simply as, “Love” (see pp. 70-71).

Dr. Alexander claims that he had a unique NDE: throughout it, he wasn’t aware of who he was (see pp. 77-79, 162). Moreover, his prognosis was indeed quite grim: by all accounts, he should not have made it. But remarkably, he claims that his brain was not working at all throughout his seven days in a coma (see pp. 9, 129-130). To be more precise: The higher brain functions associated with the neocortex were completely gone; only the “primitive” functions associated with the brainstem were working (see p. 135). If he survived, he would have been a severely brain-damaged “vegetable,” as he puts it.

But survive, he does! And after a couple of months, he made a full recovery. Not easily explained at all. Some might call it, as he does himself, a “medical miracle”—and one that he firmly believes happened “for a reason” (p. 144).

But there are many philosophical and theological mistakes made along the way in the book. For example, Alexander expresses an affinity with anthropological dualism—i.e., separating the person from his/her body—when he writes, “My mind, my spirit—whatever you may choose to call the central, human part of me—was gone” (p. 16). Later in the book (pp. 80-86), he speaks of how “spiritual beings … inhabit mortal brains and bodies” (p. 84, my emphasis).

Christians believe in, and sound philosophy confirms, however, the profound unity of the human person—i.e., body and soul together—and his/her bodily resurrection from the dead. The body is not some external garment we wear, only to shed at death to then reveal the “real” person. The body is an intrinsic aspect of who we are as persons; it shares in our personal dignity. We are through and through, embodied beings in this life (St. Thomas Aquinas even goes so far as to state that, with death, the “separated soul” is not the human person—until reunited with the body). But even in the next life, we will be spiritual bodies, as St. Paul informs the Corinthians in his letter to them (see 1 Cor 15:44).

Theologically, while Alexander affirms the omnipotent and personal nature of God, he also says that “Om is ‘human’ as well—even more human than you and I are” (p. 86). This is puzzling. That would be true if he were speaking of Jesus Christ—true God and true man—but he’s not. Indeed, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit aren’t mentioned once. In fairness, he does mention seeing a painting of Jesus in church (p. 147) and receiving Communion after his journey into the afterlife (p. 148).

Later in the book, in a chapter on the “enigma of consciousness,” there are many more philosophical and theological problems—some of the same and some new—such as his assertion, calling into question the doctrine of creation, that “The universe has no beginning or end, and God is entirely within every particle of it” (p. 156).

After the dramatic life-changing experience of his NDE, he becomes an “evangelical” (my term) brain scientist who wants to spread the good news (see pp. 124-128)—only to find an audience of skeptical doctors, as he had been before his afterlife adventure. Just as he had once believed himself, doctors and scientists consider NDEs as pure fantasies: “products of a brain struggling to hold on to life, and nothing more” (p. 141). He even reviews various scientific hypotheses to explain his NDE (see pp. 141-143), refuting all of them (see also Appendix B, pp. 185-188). Of course, he never deals with the biggest possible objection: One could argue that he’s just making all of this up, i.e., lying.

In sum: To have the kind of complex thoughts he said he had, he had to have a functioning neocortex, and he states he didn’t have one! Indeed, lacking higher brain functions, he shouldn’t have had any experience whatsoever! (See p. 170). Recent stories (e.g., esquire.com/features/the-prophet), however, have attacked Alexander’s claim that he lost all consciousness, saying that the drugs that placed him into a medically-induced coma had something to do with his heavenly hallucinations. These stories also seriously—and in my opinion, persuasively—attack his overall credibility.

The Catholic Church has no official position on NDEs, so Catholics are at some liberty here. The Church would call Alexander’s experience of the afterlife, a “private revelation.” As believers, Christians may take comfort in these NDEs, provided however, they’re not put on the same level as God’s original revelation of himself in his son, Jesus Christ. Only when they contradict Christian teaching or lead the faithful astray should they be rejected.

Now, there’s no reason to think that God could not place us directly in his presence, i.e., heaven, in order for us to experience his love and mercy—especially if we need to know that truth in a particularly difficult time during our earthly lives. Many of the saints, although fully alive, were granted visions of Heaven (and Hell!) in their lifetime. We need reminding of their existence, especially in our secular world.

I was glad to see that Dr. Alexander included the angels—even Guardian Angels—in his story. Today, it’s safe, of course, to believe in angels. Even Hollywood has no problem with them! But, theologically, the angels do play a significant role in God’s plan. And so, the author was right to note their central role in guiding the universe.

I had thought of titling this review, “Neurons in Nirvana” or “Neurons in the Next Life.” But I didn’t want to sound flippant. Nor did I want to appear as if I was mocking Dr. Alexander’s experience, or sound as if I was “not buying any of it.” Moreover, he himself never uses the term Nirvana, nor for that matter is he saying that it’s our neurons that undergo the afterlife experience; it’s our souls or spirits that do.

Although I find many parts of Proof of Heaven compelling, I also find many parts of it farfetched or, at least, expressed in ways that bring with it some “New Age” baggage, as I noted before. Along these same lines, another idea that rubbed me the wrong way, with its overtones of gnoticism and its claim of having secret knowledge, was Alexander’s grandiose claim to have learned the deepest secrets of the universe while in the spiritual realm.

Much of this is related to his notion of the oneness between our consciousness and God’s—what the New Age movement calls “Cosmic Consciousness” or “God consciousness.” According to Alexander, consciousness is the basis of all existence, as well as the greatest thing in existence (pp. 153-154, 162). In his words, it is “the great and central mystery of the universe” (p. 171).

But don’t get the wrong idea at this point. It’s not that I’m totally skeptical of what he says in the book. I believe in spiritual realities. I believe in an afterlife. I believe in Heaven. I believe in an immaterial soul that survives death … But as a Catholic Christian, I also believe in a Judgment. I believe in a Hell. I believe in a personal God. I believe in a Lord and Savior who was both fully human and fully divine. It’s those (missing) aspects of the Christian faith (and others) that had my “error detector” beeping as I read Alexander’s account of his NDE.

But read this interesting book for yourself, and see what you think. I, for one, have no reason to disbelieve the phenomenon of NDEs in general. But I do have serious questions about some of the claims and details of Alexander’s NDE.

Theologian Terence Nichols, in a book published two years before Alexander’s, titled Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, argues that NDEs are “on the whole, profoundly supportive of Christian teaching on death and afterlife.” He very well may be right. If they help lead people to genuine faith, or strengthen their already existing faith, then all the more reason to accept them, it seems to me. But before doing so, we first must accept them as nothing but the truth.

P.S. I don’t think Irving Berlin was having an NDE when he wrote the lyrics to “Cheek to Cheek.”

-Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
Professor of Moral Theology
Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, MI

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