Book Reviews – January 2021

God with Us: Encountering Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. By Edward Sri. Reviewed by Lawrence Montz. (skip to review)

The Lighthouse. By Michael D. O’Brien. Reviewed by K.E. Colombini. (skip to review)

A Legacy of Preaching, Vol. I: Apostles to the Revivalists & Vol II: Enlightenment to the Present Day. By Benjamin Forrest, with Kevin King Sr., William J. Curtis, Dwayne Milioni, Timothy George. Reviewed by Fr. Benjamin A. Roberts, D.Min. (skip to review)

Apostolic & Diocesan Administrators of a Vacant See: A Canonical Resource. By Aaron Paul Nord. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

The Theologian’s Enterprise: A Very Short Introduction. By Aidan Nichols. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

Western Culture Today and Tomorrow: Addressing Fundamental Issues. By Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Reviewed by Marcus Benedict Peter. (skip to review)

God With Us – Edward Sri

Sri, Edward. God With Us: Encountering Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019. 176 pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence Montz.

Dr. Sri is a noted theologian, speaker, and author who has published numerous books on biblical topics. In God With Us, he puts into context the Old and New Testaments, specifically the relationship professed in the Gospel of Matthew. Insights are offered into the first-century Jews’ understanding of the Old Testament biblical narratives. Matthew also describes just who Christ professed to be, the Messiah-King. Pope St. John Paul II referred to Matthew as “the catechist’s Gospel” because Matthew, more than the other gospels, highlights the primary notion of Jesus’ mission. Dr. Sri provides a pedagogical tool to Christians readers that is aided with questions at the end of each chapter which help provide insights into the meaning of the Gospel and to help the readers build the Kingdom in their own lives.

St. Augustine wrote that the “New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” This book presents numerous instances of those relationships. Further, it addresses the mission of Christ as a teacher, miracle-working true Son of David, troublemaker, King, God, Emmanuel. Jesus came to teach mankind that the understanding of their relationship with God was flawed and by doing this He was seen as a troublemaker. Jesus’s decent from King David was more than a sign of his messiahship. The term “Son of David” was a title for the Messiah, the promised savior and king, God promised David that his posterity would reign forever in 2 Samuel 7:12-13, which states, “I will raise up your offspring after you, sprung from your loins, and I will establish his kingdom. He it is who shall build a house for my name, and I will establish his royal throne forever.” Son of David also alluded to miracles and healings prayed for in the Book of Psalms of King David. Biblical Jews would use the Psalms to pray for God’s mercy. Dr. Sri highlights that Matthew confirms that Jesus was not simply another prophet sent by God, not simply Israel’s savior, but truly God with us, Emmanuel.

Dr. Sri shows that the Gospel of Matthew is about the Kingdom Jesus established thus restoring all people to union with God, not simply the people of Israel. Matthew refers to Old Testament passages in a way that the Jews of his time would readily understand their connections between the past promises and Jesus. His Jewish readers knew the Old Testament like the youth of today know the lyrics of popular songs. Often today we are tempted to skip over the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew, considering it a waste of “lectio divina” prayer time. To the ancient Jews this long list of ancestors was a teaser that invited them to believe that salvation had come in the person of Jesus. The genealogy zeros in on Christ relationship to King David and stakes the claim that he is the “Son of David” and the long-awaited messiah.

Christians believe Christ’s baptism in the Jordan was the true beginning of his public ministry, but there was further deep symbolism portrayed in the Gospel account that the people of Israel would have recognized as prophetic, starting with John the Baptist, who, just like the prophet Elijah, wore a garment of camel’s hair. In Malachi it had been prophesied that Elijah would return before the coming if the Messiah. The Jordan River itself played a major role in the history of Israel and was noted for being a place of healing, where the prophet Elisha cured Naaman the leper. After the Exodus from Egypt, Joshua led his people through the Jordan River into God’s land, and that is when Israel first became a nation. The Jordan became a symbol of new life and reflected Israel’s hopes for the future, hopes for a new Exodus when God would free his people just as at the time of Moses. John the Baptist considered his role to be preparing the way for the anointed one. When Jesus came forth from the Jordan after baptism, Matthew indicated that the Spirit of God descended upon Christ, which was an echo of 1 Sam 10:6 when Samuel anointed King David and the “Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David.” Matthew clearly showed that Jesus was the long-anticipated royal Messiah-King.

God With Us highlighted two major truths concerning Jesus. First, the issue of where Jesus’s teaching authority came from was linked to the numerous biblical references meant to not only catch the attention of the first-century Jews, but also to help convince the Gentiles that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy to all mankind and that he was the promised one from ancient times. The genealogy highlighted Christ’s role as the true King, the long-awaited Son of David. He was the true anointed one, the messiah, with God’s authority as witnessed by the decent of the Spirit at His baptism in the Jordan which was foreshadowed in the Book of Samuel. Proof of his authority was exhibited in the miracles He performed and His control over nature when Christ calmed the sea. His authority to forgive sins was an assertion that the lesser wonders clearly supported to early Jews who were not blinded by hate, mistrust, or self-deception. Jesus’s mission was shown not only to be for Israel but for all mankind as He commissioned the Twelve to makes disciples of all nations. The second central theme of this Gospel was that of Emmanuel. God was and will be always present to His flock. People will never be abandoned when they are in need. This presence is shown in the Scriptures, in His Church, in the poor, and in most especially in the Real Presence of Holy Communion. We are challenged to bring the Kingdom and God’s love to all the world.

Lawrence Montz is a Benedictine Oblate of St. Gregory Abbey, past Serran District Governor of Dallas, and serves as his Knights of Columbus council’s Vocations Program Director. He resides in the Dallas Diocese.

The Lighthouse – Michael D. O’Brien

O’Brien, Michael D. The Lighthouse. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020. 200 pages.

Reviewed by K.E. Colombini.

I often get a modest laugh out of stories of hermits who head off by themselves to a desert cave or mountain hovel, only to find themselves inundated with visitors and followers. Sometimes they must seem like gnats that swarm around a laborer on a hot summer day.

If the hermits are saints, they accept that fate. Some remain hermits; others go off and start monasteries. Michael O’Brien’s latest story is about a hermit of sorts, though not necessarily a religious one. At least, that’s not how the protagonist, Ethan McQuarry, would identify himself.

Those familiar with O’Brien’s novels — he’s written several, along with other works — may find this one a little surprising; a relief, perhaps, in its brevity. As have many, I discovered this Canadian writer and artist through his most popular work, Father Elijah, which provides the thematic backbone of his apocalyptic seven-volume “Children of the Last Days” series of novels. His writing always shows great depth and can be quite verbose — The Father’s Tale stretches over one thousand pages. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, comes in at just under 200. Despite this, it’s a story as deep as the waters that make up the book’s climactic scene. Thus, there are many perspectives one can take when reflecting on what one has read in the one or two sittings it takes to complete the story. I’ve probably spent more time thinking about the book than it took to read it.

McQuarry, the subject of the novel, is a lighthouse keeper on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Over the course of the short book, you learn a little (but enough) about what drew him to the solitude, and how he coped with it. While purposefully enjoying being alone, the lighthouse keeper finds himself embracing relationships with those who come his way, mostly accidentally. One touching encounter, in passing, is with a young female hiker on holiday; a much longer one is with a young man who finds his way to the lighthouse.

As much as we may seek to escape the company of others, we are always brought back to the inexorable realization that man is a social animal. We see the effects, especially for the good, that these and other lives have had on each other. One act of evil on the part of a man, and its consequences, provide the ground for sacrifice and charitable work on the part of others. Likewise, one great sacrifice of a life at the end brought this reader to tears, demonstrating how much our lives can touch others, without our realizing it.

O’Brien articulates a strong Catholic sensibility and sensitivity in all his writing. In this book, Catholicism is a more of a background motif that rises to the surface when needed — especially at the end, when needed the most, in fact. McQuarry, whose real solitude seems to have preceded his time at the lighthouse, is not Catholic, not really part of any community, but open to the mysteries he sees around him and clearly a man who recognizes and appreciates real beauty and goodness, an artist like O’Brien himself.

As an artist, O’Brien paints a beautiful story about how our accidental encounters with others are, each one, a gift from God to us, specifically. They may love us or hate us, take our life or save it, but in each case, they were meant to make us a better person the more we see Christ in them — especially at those times in our lives when we want only the solitary freedom of a burned-out lighthouse keeper.

A former journalist, St. Louis-based writer K.E. Colombini has been published in First Things, National Catholic Register, the American Conservative and elsewhere.

A Legacy of Preaching, Vols. I & II – Benjamin Forrest, Kevin King Sr., William J. Curtis, Dwayne Milioni, Timothy George

Forrest, Benjamin, with Kevin King Sr., William J. Curtis, Dwayne Milioni, Timothy George. A Legacy of Preaching, Vol I: Apostles to the Revivalists & Vol II: Enlightenment to the Present Day. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018. 800 pages.

Reviewed by Fr. Benjamin A. Roberts, D.Min.

The history of preaching lives in the history of preachers. In this two-volume work, various scholars, who are predominantly from the Evangelical Protestant tradition, offer an analysis of sixty preachers. Each volume recounts the lives and homiletical contributions of thirty preachers. The first volume begins with St. Paul and concludes with preachers from the eighteenth century. The second volume examines thirty preachers from the nineteenth century to the recent past. All of the recent preachers included in the second volume are either deceased or retired.

The goal of this work is to provide a history of preaching through the lens of biography. Each preacher is treated in approximately fifteen pages and most of the essays follow a similar format. They present a biographical sketch, an analysis of the preacher’s theology of preaching, an examination of his or her methodology for preaching, and an assessment of the preacher’s contribution to preaching. Each essay concludes with an excerpt from a sermon. The format employed for each preacher serves to situate each of them historically and illuminate each of their contributions.

The analysis provided for each preacher is, in almost every case, a work of sound scholarship with a substantial bibliography. The footnotes and bibliographical references provide the reader with avenues for further research and investigation. The brief essays contained in these two volumes do not claim to be the definitive scholarly assessment of any of the preachers who are included. These volumes present an introduction to each of these sixty preachers and with that goal, it succeeds.

There is, however, a significant limitation in these two volumes. On the cover of the book, though not included on the title page, is the claim: “The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers.” As noted earlier, these volumes do include an examination of the life, theology, and method of many preachers from history; but the preachers selected here are a rather exclusive group. These two volumes present only some of the great preachers from history. Admittedly, part of historical analysis is the difficult selection of sources, issues, movements, and persons to be included. The choice of the editors to present thirty preachers from the first 1800 years of the Christian faith in the first volume and the thirty preachers from the last 200 years in the second volume demonstrates a definite historical preference. Also, among the sixty preachers included there are only two women and only five African American preachers. There are no Catholic preachers included in the second volume.

The limitation of these volumes is in the preachers selected. These volumes provide a thorough presentation of the preachers included. However, the preachers included do not present a complete, or even a completely representative, company of preachers in the history of Christianity. These are good works to have on the shelves but should not be the only works on the history of preaching.

One of the main strengths of these volumes is that those selected for inclusion were primarily preachers, not primarily professors of preaching. The analysis of their homiletical theology and methods flow from an examination of their practice of preaching. Most of those included are preachers and pastors who know the diverse burdens and responsibilities of proclaiming the Word in the midst of the variety of ministerial obligations. By presenting regular practitioners of pastoral preaching as models from our homiletical history, these volumes offer encouragement to contemporary preachers.

This two-volume work offers a relatively brief yet thorough examination of sixty preachers from the Christian tradition. While primarily from the Evangelical Protestant perspective, these books present sound historical research and homiletical analysis that make them suitable additions in the libraries of students and preachers.

Fr. Benjamin A. Roberts is Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Monroe, NC and holds a D.Min. in Preaching from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

Apostolic & Diocesan Administrators of a Vacant See – Aaron Paul Nord

Nord, Aaron Paul. Apostolic & Diocesan Administrators of a Vacant See: A Canonical Resource. Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 2018. 109 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

This work in the field of canon law offers a practical explanation of the inner workings of diocesan administration during a vacant see (“sede vacante”), that is, when a diocesan bishop loses his power of governance (canons 416-430) — be it by death (ipso facto), resignation accepted by the Roman Pontiff (including retirement), upon taking canonical possession of a new diocese to which he has been transferred, or as a privation due to a delict. Although the Latin maxim “sede vacante nihil innovetur” (“While the see is vacant, no innovation is to be made”) may be known well in ecclesiastical circles, the precise parameters of what is permitted or prohibited during an interregnum requires greater explication.

Distilling the insights of his voluminous 392-page doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Reverend Aaron Paul Nord, a presbyter of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, succinctly and pragmatically answers numerous questions that arise when a diocese is experiencing a transition of leadership. For example, “How does the college of consultors elect a diocesan administrator?” “What are the diocesan administrator’s first tasks?” “How does a diocesan administrator participate in the episcopal conference?” “Can a diocesan administrator act in the place of the bishop in canonical or civil trials?” “What can an apostolic administrator do that a diocesan administrator cannot do?” “What are some of the first tasks of the new bishop?” In answering these and many other commonly asked questions, the author convincingly argues that canon 272 of the Code of Canon Law does not prevent the ordination of deacons during a vacant see (28).

The author offers a thorough treatment of governance issues during a vacant see, but related liturgical questions are left unaddressed. It would have been helpful to include a brief chapter on liturgical considerations such as: What is to be done in the Eucharistic Prayer where the name of the diocesan bishop would have been inserted? May an auxiliary bishop, if there is one, be mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer during a vacant see? Is there to be a Mass for the Election of a Bishop? How does a vacant see impact the celebration of the Chrism Mass? Another small improvement would be the correction of an apparent typographical error on page 28, which quizzically refers to the “deaconate” rather than the “diaconate.”

The target audience consists of “diocesan administrators as well as the canonists who guide them” (1). Moreover, each member of the college of consultors would benefit from this step-by-step guidebook. Every diocesan chancery should have a copy of this indispensable reference work. The book also serves as a helpful resource for journalists covering a diocese in a time of transition. All in all, this eminently useful canonical work helps to bring order and clarity to moments of transition that could be disjointed or murky otherwise. It is an instrument that belongs in every canonist’s proverbial toolbox, as well as in the toolkit of other key curial colleagues.

Christopher Siuzdak is a canonist in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Portland.

The Theologian’s Enterprise – Aidan Nichols

Nichols, Aidan. The Theologian’s Enterprise: A Very Short Introduction. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2020. 100 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

The discipline of theology is not merely an exercise in lingo-laced intellectual acrobatics. In this concise introductory work, Dominican Father Aidan Nichols offers a bird’s eye overview of the field and shows that the successful practice of theology properly understood is intimately linked with the earnest pursuit of holiness. This work essentially constitutes an invitation to and itinerary for doing theology.

The first chapter introduces the coordinates for understanding the concept of theology. The author begins by pithily defining theology as “the disciplined exploration of revelation — that is, the self-disclosure of the divine. Such revelation exists in two modes: natural and supernatural” (13). The second chapter considers the connection between theology as a systematically ordered science and theology as scientia sapida (a “tasting science”). The author poignantly writes: “The theologian must be able to testify to the existential reverberation of Christian truth within the soul. Such appropriation of the revealed truth in one’s own existence is why theology is fundamentally connected with holiness — and contemplation” (26). The liturgical altar-table and the workspace desk are mutually nourishing and profoundly conjoined (29).

Chapter three surveys principles of order and methods in theology. “The plurality of particular theologies,” the author explains, “derives from the spectrum of possibilities created by the concept of a theological ordering principle — and this testifies to the abundant richness of revelation in its own right” (45). The four specific methods considered are: the analogy of being (analogia entis), the analogy of faith, totality thinking, and convergence thinking (45-46). There is, however, an underlying unity to all the approaches. “It is a theological imperative,” the author explains, “to show how all the different theses which revelation underpins belong together in a unitary whole” (italics original, 49).

The fourth chapter “investigates the sources of theology which are Scripture and Tradition” (10). Among the “monuments” of tradition enumerated are patristic writings, the liturgy and sacred iconography, creeds and councils, and the lives of the saints along with popular piety. Arguably, it would have been beneficial to include canon law among the “monuments” or “aids to discernment” because canon law is applied ecclesiology. As such, it helps to bridge the gap between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. The author explains that the “development of doctrine” authentically means “the reflective unfolding of depths of truth that are not new to the Church but already tacitly present, since the fullness of saving truth (short of the final Parousia) has been given apostolically” (67). The fifth and final chapter provides an overview of the major branches or specializations of theology.

This concise book is recommended for divinity students and seminarians at the outset of their theological studies. Its brevity lends itself to easy inclusion at the beginning of a course syllabus in fundamental theology. Instructors will find fresh insights in the corpus and the bibliography will prove to be a beneficial resource. Like an introit at the sacred liturgy, this work whets the appetite of aspiring theologians to enter more deeply into the mysteries.

Christopher Siuzdak is a canonist in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Portland.

Western Culture Today and Tomorrow – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). Western Culture Today and Tomorrow: Addressing Fundamental Issues. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019. 180 pages.

Reviewed by Marcus Benedict Peter.

This is yet another monumental work from Pope Benedict XVI. This collection of essays, composed mostly before his reign as Pope, illustrates “Ratzinger’s keen insight into the fundamental challenges confronting the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century West.”

Benedict is undoubtedly one of the most astute theological minds of our generation, but alongside his theological acumen is his shrewd capacity for perceiving global, political, and societal currents and paradigms. That is what this work is about. Western Culture Today and Tomorrow is an explication of the numerous challenges facing the West that, to him, are largely cultural in nature, and, thereby, influential within economic, political, and educational spheres.

While the first essay within the collection seeks to bring illumination to the question of the very identity of Europe as it was and as it should be, the rest then go on to explicate the sociopolitical calls for rectitude in both Europe and the world, should humanity ever regain the right reason that God intended it to function in, as well as the fullness of grace He ordained for it to live in.

The collection ends with a final essay, attached as an epilogue, of Benedict’s recent response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has swept western civilization and the world. As with the aforementioned crisis and every crisis of epistemology and faith that plagues the world, Benedict writes that “if we know the cause of the crisis, it is possible also to show the way to a cure.” To wit, he adds, “We have to reintroduce the religious factor, which comprises . . . the religious heritage of all cultures, but especially ‘what has remained of Western Christianity.’”

The fact remains that everything we behold in the degradation of Western society was foretold by Benedict long before we began to see the symptoms rear their ugly heads. As such, it is no wonder that George Weigel writes, “Joseph Ratzinger understood that danger long before many others. It would be well to attend to his prescription.”

Reading the essays, one cannot help but marvel at the brilliance of the mind behind their composition. With almost angelic perspective, Benedict mentally soars over Europe and the Western world, evaluating all of its crises as a collective symptom with the same fundamental root causes. From there, he prescribes that “the witness of Christian lives nobly lived is the beginning of reconversion (or, in many cases, conversion) of the West — and that return to the truths taught by the God of the Bible is essential if the great Western civilizational project is not to crumble because of its current, postmodern incoherence. . .”

Ratzinger traces the problems in the West all the way back to the initial separation of Church and State in Europe. “For matters concerning eternal life, the Christian emperors needed the priests (pontifices), and the latter, in turn, abided by the imperial ordinances in the course of temporal affairs. In worldly matters, the priests had to follow the laws of the emperor who had been placed in office by a divine decree, whereas he had to submit to the priest in sacred matters. Thereby a separation and distinction of powers was introduced, which became extremely important in the subsequent development of Europe and which laid the foundations, so to speak, for what is distinctively typical of the West.”

He does note, however, that Western civilization was built upon the socio-cultural advancements of some of the greatest civilizations in human history. He highlights Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome as the cornerstones upon which the West as we now know it was founded. It is from that comprehension that Ratzinger seeks to diagnose the thorn of postmodern thought in Western civilization. In effect, he demonstrates how, at the moment that Western man of the last century declared the God of Christianity as the obstacle to the flourishing and progress of society, they identified as atheists and secular humanists and kick-started the crisis that the West now finds itself in.

One key solution Ratzinger posits to this problem is a reclamation of basic respect for the Sacred and the divine, which needs to be re-embraced across the board. “One aspect [is] fundamental to all cultures: respect for what is sacred to someone else and, in particular, respect for the sacred in the more exalted sense, for God, something we are allowed to expect even in a person who is not disposed to believe in God. Where this respect is violated, something essential in a society is lost.” He is also no coward. In sound intellectual candor and audacity, he clearly points out the sheer malevolence and antagonism that the West has engendered against Christianity. “In our society . . . where Christ and what is sacred to Christians are concerned, suddenly freedom of opinion appears to be the highest good, and to limit it would be to endanger tolerance and freedom in general or to destroy them outright.”

The effect of this is manifold. In rejecting divine revelation found only in the Judeo-Christian faith, the rest of society ceases to have a sound base to stand on. Essentially, without an appeal to the divine as logos, precisely as reason who reveals Himself, reason by itself ceases to possess any authority. Without a source of objective truth, man’s rationalism ceases to be rational. What we are left with is what Ratzinger diagnoses as a “dictatorship of Relativism,” a relativistic moral system pushed forth by governments desperate for some form of an intellectual system to cling to, outside of the God of Sacred Scripture. Without God, Ratzinger states, reason itself cannot be reasonable, creating doubt where it would otherwise engender certitude. From there, man loses all potential to ever come to reasonable truth. Without truth, society falls.

It is almost startling that the very faith that brought about the majesty of Europe is now almost loathed in the public sphere, the resultant reaction toward it being an extreme antagonism that seeks to divorce itself from anything inherent to said faith. Ratzinger points out the ludicrousness of this situation as follows: “Here we notice a self-hatred in the Western world that is strange and that can be considered pathological; yes, the West is making a praiseworthy attempt to be completely open to understanding foreign values, but it no longer loves itself; from now on it sees in its own history only what is blameworthy and destructive, whereas it is no longer capable of perceiving what is great and pure.”

From there, he proposes the brilliant solution that the conversion of the entire West needs to begin with Christians living true, noble Christian lives to the utmost of their abilities. This will bring about a societal return to the fundamental truths of right reason and objective morality that can only come about when the Biblical Faith is received in harmonious rapprochement with Hellenic thought. Man needs to rediscover that he was made for freedom in virtuous excellence, and not freedom for hedonism. If society were to continue along the path of the latter, granting liberty and credence to every new arising opinion, it will be with grave cost: “Freedom of opinion, however, discovers its limit in the fact that it cannot destroy the honor and the dignity of someone else; denying or destroying human rights is not freedom.” This is the state of the West as it is right now, and, as George Weigel exhorts us, it would behoove us to heed Ratzinger’s prophetic counsel should we desire to hand down to our children a society restored, grounded once more in its own identity, and, thereby, with hope for a brighter future.

Marcus Peter and his wife Stephanie live in South Lyon, MI. Marcus teaches Theology at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, MI.

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