Book Reviews – April 2024

The Apostle Paul and His Letters: An Introduction. By James B. Prothro. Reviewed by Fr. Vien V. Nguyen, SCJ. (skip to review)

An Immovable Feast: How I Gave Up Spirituality for a Life of Religious Abundance. By Tyler Blanski. Reviewed by Aaron Martin. (skip to review)

Ways of Confucius and of Christ: From Prime Minister of China to Benedictine Monk. By Dom Pierre-Célestin Lu, O.S.B. Reviewed by Clara Sarrocco. (skip to review)

A Bride Adorned: Mary-Church Perichoresis in Modern Catholic Theology. By Fr. John L. Nepil. Reviewed by Dillon Vita. (skip to review)

The Apostle Paul and His Letters – James B. Prothro

Prothro, James B. The Apostle Paul and His Letters: An Introduction. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021. 317 pages.

Reviewed by Fr. Vien V. Nguyen, SCJ.

The apostle Paul was instrumental in the spreading of the Gospel after his personal encounter with the risen Christ, a life-changing encounter that caused a reorientation of his attitude toward his Pharisaic understanding of the Torah and his commitment and determination to preaching the gospel to non-Jews. In preaching the Gospel and sharing his newfound convictions, he traveled to different cities and endured immense physical hardship, including being imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, deprived of sleep, and hungry and thirsty (2 Cor 11:23–28). When he could not visit the individuals that he had met and the communities that he and his co-workers had founded, the apostle Paul sent co-workers on his behalf (e.g., Timothy and Phoebe). He utilized the means of communication of his day — letter writing — as “a form of long-distance communication, a replacement for face-to-face interaction” to strengthen churches and encourage individual leaders (27). Moreover, as seen in Romans, he used his letter to introduce himself and his Gospel to the church that neither he nor any of his mission team founded, prepare people of this church for his arrival, and seek their support for his mission to Spain.

Paul was unquestionably a prolific contributor to and a prominent character in the development of Christianity. Thirteen of the 27 books of the New Testament are traditionally attributed to him, although the authenticity of the Pauline authorship of some is disputed. His letters are not philosophical or doctrinal treaties but rather situational or circumstantial responses. He answered specific theological issues, such as Christ’s second coming and the resurrection of the dead as in 1 Thessalonians. He addressed specific social and ethical issues facing the community, including eating food offered to idols, sexual immorality, and division at the Lord’s Supper as in 1 Corinthians. He encouraged believers to imitate Christ’s example of obedience, humility, and selflessness in order to bring others to Christ as in Philippians.

In The Apostle Paul and His Letters: An Introduction, James B. Prothro provides readers with a concise introduction to the letters of Paul. Given the breadth of possibilities and diverse perspectives in Pauline studies, Prothro focuses on the essentials, including historical and religious contexts and Paul’s theological perspectives, to give readers the foundation upon which to study and appreciate Paul’s life and letters and to understand and reason with Paul through them (5).

The book consists of fifteen chapters and can be divided into two parts. The first part (chaps. 1–5) introduces readers to Paul’s background and the socio-religious world in which he lived and ministered to enable readers to study the letters theologically and historically. Also helpful is the description of Paul’s letters in light of the ancient letter writing and Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions, as well as attention to who was responsible for writing the letters and how these letters were sent, received, and collected. The primary sources of Paul’s life, mission, and theology are the letters themselves.

In the second half of the book (chaps. 6–13), Prothro delves into Paul’s thirteen letters in canonical order, beginning with Romans and ending with Philemon. He treats 1 and 2 Thessalonians as a unit, as well as the pastoral letters (i.e., 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), because they address similar issues (6). In each letter or chapter, Prothro focuses on four areas: “Background,” “Overview,” “Key Features,” and “Further Reading.” In the “Background,” Prothro analyzes the letter in its historical and theological contexts, such as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community, his reason for writing to them, and the probable location where Paul wrote the letter. The “Overview” helps readers visualize the letter’s structure and content. Of most interest and importance to readers is the “Key Features.” It focuses on some of Paul’s major theological themes. The “Further Reading” at the end of each chapter provides readers with suggested sources to help them engage with scholarship to broaden their understanding of the letter. The recommended readings represent different perspectives (47).

The book contributes to the growing collection of introductory studies on Paul and his letters. Prothro has managed to provide an articulate and reliable resource in a relatively short space for undergraduate students and readers seeking to immerse themselves in Paul’s letters and, through them, understand Paul’s life, mission, and theology, as well as the worlds in which he lived. The book provides a solid and critical introduction to Paul but will be competing with a plethora of introductory works to Pauline letters and the New Testament.

Prothro writes this introductory book “to lead readers into (Latin, intro + duco, “I lead into”) studying and appreciating the letters of Paul” (5). Readers will benefit from the reading guide for understanding every Pauline letter contextually and theologically. Prothro suggests readers approach the letters with key questions pertaining to author, audience, argument, and assumptions and traditions: “What is Paul’s situation?”; “Who is Paul talking to?”; “What is Paul saying?”; “What does Paul believe?” Readers could add questions about the relevance of Paul’s letters in today’s ministry. Prothro succeeds in his aim of guiding readers to read and appreciate, understand and reason with Paul through his letters.

Readers will appreciate Prothro’s balanced perspective. For example, in his discussion on authorship, Prothro notes the consensus views on Pauline authorship and authenticity but gives a nuanced reading on the authorship-authenticity debate. For him, Paul’s distinctive theological insights, writing style, and vocabulary in the disputed letter do not necessarily mean that the letters are not historically Pauline. He points readers to the influence of Paul’s coauthors and the role of scribes in ancient letter writing and different audiences, resulting in theological and stylistic differences across Pauline letters. Moreover, Prothro notes that it is possible for Paul to undergo changes over time due to his experiences: “Paul’s core convictions and ways of thinking can develop over time as he preaches, teaches, prays, and has new religious experiences of Christ (2 Cor 12:1–10)” (51). Prothro gives much attention to authorship, particularly in the first part of the book. However, regardless of who wrote the Pauline letters, they are still regarded as inspired Scripture.

Fr. Vien V. Nguyen, SCJ, is a priest and provincial superior of the Priests of the Sacred Heart (Dehonians or SCJs) in the United States. Holding a doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, Fr. Vien was an assistant professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, before his election to provincial leadership.

An Immovable Feast – Tyler Blanski

Blanski, Tyler. An Immovable Feast: How I Gave Up Spirituality for a Life of Religious Abundance. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018. 288 pages.

Reviewed by Aaron Martin.

In the history of the Church, there are many good conversion stories: Augustine’s Confessions, Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain come to mind. One common thread in these autobiographies is that they are thoroughly modern. And I mean “modern” in two senses, which at first seem to be opposed. First, the experience for each of these men was significantly shaped by the time and place in which they lived. Augustine, Newman, and Merton grew up in different times and places, and the issues they confronted were similarly varied. But each was “modern” in the sense that they were addressing the issues of their own day. They converted into a faith lived at a particular time and in a particular place.

Because they were the product of a time and place, their conversion stories may sound a bit sui generis. Some people may not take easily to Newman’s Victorian prose, for example, and they may not understand the minute details of the Oxford Movement. Others may not understand the political and educational milieu of Augustine’s time. But these things should not be roadblocks. Once someone sees past the particular issues of a time and place, they will see that these conversion stories are “modern” in a second sense — they discuss perennial truths that are just as valid in our day as they were centuries ago.

We experience the same internal struggles as did Augustine. Newman’s decision to convert despite the prospect of losing friends and stature is something that people still face today. And Merton’s discussion of modern culture in the United States is something we can relate to, even though our culture has gone far beyond what Merton may have imagined. In short, we experience the particularly “modern” nature of our own time and place and the “modern” — that is, happening-now — nature of the emotional, psychological, intellectual, and other stages of conversion that these men experienced. We understand how the interplay of the particular and universal creates a deep and abiding relationship with Christ, which is the beginning and end of all conversions.

Tyler Blanski’s book is thoroughly modern in both of these senses, and is a worthy addition to this great line of spiritual autobiographies. He is a product of our current culture. Blanski was pulled in different directions by the culture and became a stereotypical “seeker” without a religion. We have read a lot about the “nones” — people who claim no religious affiliation, but some of whom claim to be “spiritual.” Blanski’s subtitle, “How I Gave Up Spirituality for a Life of Religious Abundance,” foreshadows how his search ended. He was “spiritual, but not religious” and yet that existence was never enough.

Living a life of undefined “spirituality,” however, was not enough. Blanski realized that he was searching for something, so moving from one spiritual experience to another left him unsatisfied. He sought something — someone — that was worthy of his time and attention. “In the absence of real cult, a fake one is always propped up to take its place, such is the human need for ritual worship.” (50) For a while, Blanski tried to satisfy his need for worship through festival-like parties. That experience also left him wanting, because he realized that there was no soul in the parties. God was absent. “Things were out of joint. We wanted to party like medieval peasants, but we did not have the key ingredient that made the old festivals possible.” (43) The simple medieval peasants realized, in a way Blanski would later come to see, that the festivals were celebrations with a purpose. They were not Friday-night escapes from a long week of work or study. Rather, “the beating heart of the festival is the praise of God in public worship, the corporate amen, alleluia, and eucharistia.” (44)

But the “festivals” Blanski and his friends held were not without any value. They revealed some of the truth he was seeking, and spurred him on to search more. That search led to a more emotional kind of conversion. Blanski realized that “[g]ood intentions are almost never good enough, but it is difficult to imagine where sainthood would begin if it didn’t begin with the heart. Before anything else, it has to be about falling in love. And love is something that you need to live. Maybe this is why for the saints there is no spirituality apart from religion. Perhaps to say that you are ‘spiritual but not religious’ is like saying that you love soccer but never play, or that you love music but never sing. It’s great to be a fan or to have a nice record collection, but it’s not enough. If you want to be a saint, you have to sing. You have to do the work.” (34)

And after Blanski started “doing the work,” things started falling into place. He discovered the falsity of what he thought before: “In the popular phrase ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’ the word ‘spiritual’ was not true spirituality. My spirituality was an easy assurance.” (90) Blanski’s vague and searching spirituality was gradually pushed aside in favor of religious observance. At first, religious exercises and “spiritual obligations and definable expectations [were] unbearably stifling.” (116) But over time, “liturgy made daily life feel like a nonstop prayer. It felt like we had somehow entered God’s time zone. I began to feel the passage of time as something sacred, an arrow pointing to God.” (119)

Once Blanski’s aim was ordered toward God through his religious observance, he began seeking in a different way. This time, it was intellectual seeking: “I detected that sola scriptura does not get us credal Christianity.” (125) After that realization, Blanski started studying scripture more intently, which led to questions about the sacraments, apostolic succession, and various doctrinal issues. At the same time, Blanski was studying to be an Anglican priest and “was finding that it was very difficult to get Anglicans to be Anglican” because of internal divisions. (213) Blanski was not satisfied with a belief structure that neglected the fullness of truth: “The truth really does set you free. Some things really are black and white.” (211)

As one mentor told him, the truth hurts, but it never harms. (213–14) And Blanski not only sought to find the truth, but to follow it. “I prayed that God would help me to be open to the truth, no matter the cost.” (246) From that openness, Blanski discovered “that there were only two answers: either Amen, or Non serviam.” (220)

Blanski’s experience of coming to the faith was largely shaped by his early attempts to find an undefined “spirituality,” his experience of Anglicanism and formal studies for the priesthood, and his experience of marriage and the insights gained from that relationship. It’s unique, like every conversion story is unique. But Blanski’s story is one that resonates with early 21st-century sensibilities. “The fact of the matter was that I had wanted Christianity, but I had wanted Christianity on my terms.” (262) How many of us haven’t lived that reality? “The decision to trust God with fertility might have been easy and inconsequential for someone else. For me, it was an arduous and invaluable form of obedience, of love. Wrestling through it forced me to reevaluate my priorities and learn to surrender, which I would need to practice again and again in the coming years.” (234) Many couples struggle with the same issue. In short, it’s relatable.

An Immovable Feast takes readers through emotional, psychological, and intellectual phases of an overall conversion of heart. And as Blanski gets deeper in the weeds of the faith and the Church, one can see the overarching work of a God who calls us into deeper relationship with Him. As Blanski realized, it takes work, and sacrifice, but it is worth it: “Religion, like salvation itself, will cost you everything. But in return, God will give you nothing less than himself.” (276)

Aaron Martin, JD, PhL, and his wife live in Phoenix, AZ with their four children. Aaron owns his own law practice and serves in various ways in the Diocese of Phoenix. He also is a member of the USCCB’s National Review Board. He writes at

Ways of Confucius and of Christ – Dom Pierre-Célestin Lu, O.S.B

Lu, Dom Pierre-Célestin, O.S.B. Ways of Confucius and of Christ: From Prime Minister of China to Benedictine Monk. Trans. by Michael Derrick; introduction and notes by Joshua R. Brown. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2023. 205 pp.

Reviewed by Clara Sarrocco.

Recently China and the Vatican have been in the news when Pope Francis created a new diocese in China. The Diocese of Weifang is home to about six thousand Catholics out of a total population of 9.39 million people. The Catholic Church in China traces its roots to the early seventeenth century when Matteo Ricci and his brother Jesuit missionaries befriended the Ming Dynasty and were able to establish the first exchange of Eastern and Western ideas. St. Joseph has been venerated as a patron of China since that time.

In his book Dom Pierre-Célestine Lu’s tells his story which rests on the shoulders of the missionaries who early on recognized that the Chinese “way of heaven” was a path to the acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. Dom Pierre Célestin firmly believed that Confucius’s teaching was a path to Catholicism. This book, which is a compilation of talks he gave to his brother Benedictine monks, was originally published in 1948 but without notes and commentary. It has been republished by Ignatius Press in 2023.

Lu Zhengxiang, born in 1871 in Shanghai, was the only child of a Baptist couple. He began studying French in a foreign language school and this led to his career as an interpreter. He was posted to St. Petersburg as interpreter to the Chinese embassy. He lived through the Qing Dynasty, the Sino Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Republic of China under Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and finally, in his last days, the Communist takeover of China under Mao ZeDong. Lu had an amazing diplomatic career serving under both the Qing regime and the Chinese Republic. He became the Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs of China. He had a life-changing experience when Xu Jingcheng, his beloved mentor and friend, was beheaded in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion.

Lu Zhengxiang met and married Berthe Bovy, a Belgian citizen and devout Roman Catholic, in 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia where he worked as an interpreter. Lu and Berthe had no children but were very devoted to each other. Although she was a devout Catholic, she never tried to influence his conversion. Through her quiet example he converted to the Catholic Church in 1911. Berthe’s death in 1926 left Lu bereft and he retired from public life.

Lu entered the Benedictine monastery of Sint-Andries in Bruges, Belgium in 1927. He was ordained a priest in 1935 and took the name of Dom Pierre-Célestin, O.S.B. In 1946 Pope Pius XII appointed him titular abbot of the Abbey of Saint Peter of Ghent. He died in Belgium in 1949, never able to realize his dream of returning to China to establish a Benedictine monastery there.

We are indebted to Michael Derrick for his translation and to Joshua Brown for his explanatory notes. Dom Pierre-Célestin acceded to the wishes of his brother monks, and gave his life story as a series of talks to them. They were eventually written down and thus the book was formed. The book gives us a window into Chinese history, as well as Dom Pierre-Célestin’s personal pilgrimage to the Catholic Church and becoming a Benedictine monk. He speaks of the perfidy with which China was treated by western powers with the heart of a true Christian.

The book suffers from some stilted language both because it came from the speech of a native Chinese speaker and from a translation into English from the French. His autobiography was published in 1945 as Souvenirs et pensées. His other writings have not yet been translated. Dom Pierre-Célestin offers a unique perspective in that he believed that Christianity is the completion of the Confucian tradition. He wrote: “Christianity in China today is like a humble shoot from a mustard seed. Year by year it grows and develops. It will become a great tree . . . I cannot prevent myself from hoping and believing that China in the course of the centuries ahead, will live, under the sign of Christianity, through a history blessed by God, simple, great and happy.” (163–164)

It is a fitting fulfillment of the dream of Father Matteo Ricci, S.J.

Clara Sarrocco is the longtime secretary of The New York C.S. Lewis Society. ( Her articles and reviews have appeared in Touchstone, New Oxford Review, Crisis on Line, Gilbert, The Chesterton Review, CSL: The Bulletin of The New York C.S. Lewis Society, St. Austin’s Review, The Review of Metaphysics, The International Philosophical Quarterly, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Homiletic and Pastoral Review and the Catholic Historical Encyclopedia. She has taught classes on C.S. Lewis at the Institute for Religious Studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, NY and is the president of the Long Island Chapter of The University Faculty for life. In 2018 she was honored by the Catholic Teacher Association. Her doctoral dissertation was on: “Phenomenological Influences in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.” She was the editor of Book Digest and director of the Council on National Literatures and The Bagehot Council/Griffon House Publishers. She is also a Trustee of Christ the King Regional High School in Middle Village, New York.

A Bride Adorned – Fr. John L. Nepil

Nepil, Fr. John L. A Bride Adorned: Mary-Church Perichoresis in Modern Catholic Theology. Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2023. 288 pages.

Reviewed by Dillon Vita.

The simplest thing I can say about Fr. John Nepil’s A Bride Adorned is that it is clear that he has something to say, which is not something you can presume about contemporary theologians. Having only recently eclipsed a year since the death of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, one might be tempted to proclaim an end to the great theological renaissance of the twentieth century since he appeared to have been the last theological giant from the Conciliar period. However, what made Ratzinger, Balthasar, Bouyer, de Lubac, etc. great was that they had something to say. Theology was not mere regurgitation of memorized formulae — as helpful and necessary as it is to collect these formulae in theological manuals — but a vision of reality.

In the wake of the death of Benedict XVI, a man looking out at the state of Catholic theology to see who might carry forward this Catholic vision, which Benedict so faithfully served, may have been met with a stray question in the back of his mind: Has the Catholic vision been buried under St. Peter’s? Fr. Nepil’s book helps make abundantly clear that the vision of an existential Christianity lives on, a vision of Christianity rooted in a personal encounter with Christ, the Trinity, and — most directly in A Bride Adorned — Mary.

Fr. Nepil offers a splendid study of the development of the perichoresis, or interrelation/interpenetration, between Mary and the Church in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic theology. The study is not comprehensive, as it consciously chooses to study only a handful of twentieth-century theologians,1 but it certainly is substantial. The twentieth-century theologians chosen — namely, Charles Journet, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Louis Bouyer, and Leo Scheffczyk — were not chosen randomly and represent a significant portion of twentieth-century Mariology. They represent a variety of theological approaches, speak from differing contexts, occupy varying positions regarding the Mary-Church relationship,2 and, perhaps most importantly, spanned periods on either side of the Second Vatican Council, which made such a significant contribution to this very topic when it chose to end Lumen Gentium with Mary. Moreover, their ideas are amenable to one another, along with those of Matthias Scheeben.

Though Fr. Nepil rightfully credits Matthias Scheeben with introducing the term perichoresis to Mariology by using it to describe the Mary-Church relationship, he convincingly argues that it progresses rather naturally from Maximus’ application of the trinitarian term to the incarnate Christ, even though this progression took a thousand years to transpire.3 Fr. Nepil quite adeptly navigates the waters of development, though not always explicitly, by carefully demonstrating how the contributions of the chosen theologians build upon one another and the Catholic tradition, which they each cherish. The concern for development becomes more explicit in the book’s conclusion when he judges that “these four twentieth-century forms . . . are all in fact development of the Scheebenian formulation.”4 He does not consider these developments linear evolutions because, in his words, development is “an instance when the inherent content of Scheeben’s formulation is first assumed and then in some way recast according to the tradition.”5 Though not always center-stage, development is a significant concern of the book because it is concerned with how Marian theology is relevant for the Church today, and thus, it tracks the development of Marian theology from the original revelation to where it stands now. So, Fr. Nepil reveals its foundation in Trinitarian theology and traces its latest expressions, which speak to the contemporary world, and he does so by allowing his theologians to speak with one another before examining how they might speak to the world.

As one proceeds further into A Bride Adorned, one realizes that the book’s protagonist is not Matthias Scheeben but Hans Urs von Balthasar. One might attribute this to Fr. Nepil’s allowing his theological preferences to shape his writing or Balthasar’s rather massive influence upon twentieth-century Catholic theology, however, I contend that it is instead a strength of the writing because it allows Fr. Nepil’s vision of Catholic theology to shine through. Of course, he does maintain the unity of the four theologians through Matthias Scheeben, and he makes a compelling argument for why this is the case, yet it remains clear that these theologians are united through their resonance with the genius of the great, Swiss theologian. Balthasar’s underlying presence throughout the book, but especially in the latter portion, makes clear that Fr. Nepil sees Balthasar as the way forward for understanding the Mary-Church perichoresis. It would not have sufficed for Fr. Nepil to merely present the linear progression from Scheeben to Scheffczyk, for then it would have remained rather stale, but by allowing Balthasar’s vision to permeate the entire book, he enables the reader to encounter the contributions of Scheeben and the twentieth-century theologians within the Balthasarian, existential symphony of theology. Mary is not merely like the Church or integrated within her in some abstract way. For Nepil, as for Balthasar, Mary remains a living part of the Church’s constellation today. She is a person whom we may still encounter because she is still alive.

The fact that Mary remains active in the Church and the world today leads to the book’s noteworthy concluding remarks. Fr. Nepil is convinced that Mary and the Church, but more strikingly Mary, are relevant after nearly 2,000 years, yet still more profoundly, they are the very antidote to the problems with which modernity is grappling, including modernity itself. However, Mary and the Church are not simply academic solutions. “The world needs a mother, and the Christian has the task of presenting her as Mary as the Church.”6 With this sentence, Fr. Nepil summarizes his book and its raison d’etre and, in doing so, exemplifies how he carries forward Balthasar’s vision. Mary is still relevant because she still lives; that is to say, she is still relevant because she is still our mother and the mother of the entire world.

Dillon Vita is a seminarian for the Diocese of Rockville Centre at Saint Joseph’s Seminary and College (Dunwoodie), New York.

  1. John L. Nepil, A Bride Adorned: Mary-Church Perichoresis in Modern Catholic Theology, Renewal within Tradition (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Academic, 2023), xxii.
  2. Nepil, xxiii.
  3. Nepil, 58.
  4. Nepil, 243.
  5. Nepil, 243.
  6. Nepil, 265.
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  1. The Apostle Paul and His Letters – James B. Prothro looks very interesting. This review is wonderful and gives me the following insights. The author, keeping balanced, unlike some moderns who seem to want to strip letters of Paul from him because of a narrow view of authorship, reminds the reader that in the end, Paul’s letters, no matter who wrote them, are Scripture. He also gives the alternative view (from the moderns) that stylistic and word-usage differences between the letters can be easily explained without having to resort to an un-Traditional stripping of these letters from the Pauline corpus.

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