A Good Exhortation without Enough Focus

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian NationThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Generally speaking, I liked this book. But in full disclosure, I liked the book at the beginning a lot more than I did at the end.

The opening of this book is an examination of the current state of Christian life, especially in the United States, but also throughout the world. Mr. Dreher talks about the culture war and the sharp division between politics and religion, not because of a “wall of separation,” but because those two spheres are rapidly growing incompatible. This part of the book almost perfectly encapsulates my impression and understanding of the current political climate for morally conservative Christians.

From there, though, the rest of the book is a little scattershot. Don’t get me wrong; it’s full of very good advice. Almost everything he says about taking the Benedict option is on point. It both convicts and encourages us to do what we can–or what we must–to remain faithfully Christian in a nation that separates itself from us. But in many ways, the book came across lacking a driving focus.

First, a minor grammatical issue: almost as soon as Mr. Dreher promises to use little-O “orthodox” to refer to morally conservative Christians, he uses capital-O “Orthodox” to do so (e.g., pages 78 and 82). By context, it’s clear he does not mean Eastern Orthodox Christians, but simply orthodox Christians. Little things like this are distracting for me, but probably will go unnoticed for most.

Throughout the book, Mr. Dreher refers to his contemporaries by name; to be honest, I don’t follow politics, religious news, blogs, or commentary closely enough to know who any of them were. But for Mr. Dreher, a quick name-drop will do, leaving me to wonder who this person is (or was, in some cases) and why their opinion is relevant on this subject. Even when he introduces people well, he may refer to them again several chapters later with no introduction at all. It can be difficult to follow.

Mr. Dreher’s sense of ecumenism is appreciated, but ultimately a little stilted and awkward. He encourages camaraderie among Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians, as well as Jewish and Mormon faithful, for the sake of opposing an anti-religious political sphere–but he simultaneously points out the philosophical progression from nominalism to Protestantism to modernism to postmodernism and the nihilistic philosophies that drive a wedge between political and religious life in the US. He also glosses over his own conversion, first to Roman Catholicism and later to Eastern Orthodoxy. I’m not complaining that he seeks the truth while recognizing the need for working together, but as I mentioned above, in the book, his ecumenism seems stilted, like he was about to say more, but cut himself off.

Late in the book, there’s a chapter on sexual mores that seems completely out of left field. I think the point was to encourage us to teach our children about traditional marriage, but it seems completely out of context for the Benedict Option (who is reading this book with an eye toward cooperating in its plan but thinks they don’t need to raise their children in the faith?). It’s also an opportunity for Mr. Dreher to make some curious claims that he doesn’t justify (e.g., that the Church, or part of it, has been cruel and unjust in the way it opposes sexual sins).

There’s also a chapter on technology. In many ways, I agree with it–Mr. Dreher rightly calls out the problems in the (post-)modern approach to science and technology, i.e., that our society often pursues something because we can without ever stopping to ask whether we should. But Mr. Dreher conflates this with all technology, leading to an encouragement of a lifestyle that seems almost Amish in its denial of modernity. It’s true that technology poses significant risks to the devout Christian life, especially when it is abused–but much of technology is also useful for the faith.

I think this is a good book, but it misses a few marks that might have made it a great book. I think we should heed some of Mr. Dreher’s advice, and strengthen our communities of faith as the storm approaches–once it’s here in force, it may be too late to batten down the hatches.

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Good Theology, Weak Conclusion

A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in ScriptureA Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture by Scott Hahn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another solid addition to Scott Hahn’s repertoire of theological works. The subject of the book is covenantal theology, that is, that God’s relationship with humanity is based in a series of covenants, beginning first with Adam and Eve and culminating in the new covenant through Jesus Christ. The book covers this full range, starting in Genesis and wrapping up in Revelation.

I like this, first of all, because it has a lot of useful information packed in here. It’s even better when you read the accompanying Scripture references; that can really ground what Dr. Hahn is saying and help you keep the right frame of mind. (It’s tempting with works of theology to get lost in the details or high-mindedness; more than some of Dr. Hahn’s other works, this book is prone to that temptation, but refocusing on the Bible passages, taking notes, and keeping a dictionary handy can solve that problem for the average reader.)

It also presents the cohesive story of Scripture in a way that reconciles easily with the traditional view of the Church, but isn’t something you hear in every pulpit. (It’s hard to tell the entire history of the world in this single book, much less in a single homily or sermon.)

Some things to watch out for:
(1) Puns. As with all of Dr. Hahn’s non-academic works, there are puns throughout (mostly in section and chapter titles). If you are deeply unnerved by dad jokes, steel yourself before reading.

(2) A small number of minor typos (I think I can count on one hand the number of books that did not have at least this, though, and my books are not on that list).

(3) The final chapter and especially the final few pages. In my opinion, a book is made or broken by its conclusion, and this book fell pretty hard at the end. It’s almost as if Dr. Hahn had a prescribed limit, and when he reached it, he ended the book, even though he wasn’t finished. The conclusion here is rushed at best and sorely lacking at worst.

Let me explain what I mean: the final chapter takes for granted that the Book of Revelation is about the Mass. There is a lot of evidence for this (not the least of which is in the Mass itself, where liturgy aims to resemble John’s vision of heaven), but Dr. Hahn glosses over it quickly. In part, he’s not aiming to answer that question right now (he has at least one other book about that, and this chapter is supposed to be about the Church), but I think it’s a shortcoming that he doesn’t address the elephant in the room for any Protestant that worships without the liturgy: Revelation as a prognosis for the end of the world. Even a brief amount of detail here would put more minds at ease, I think.

The final few pages in particular are where the real let-down happens for me. Up to this point, Dr. Hahn has been describing a powerful image of the eternal Church, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem. In the last couple of pages, he turns to the question that I think should be the climax of a theological work (rather than the afterthought): how then should we live?

He writes, “It may seem that the Church John envisions is a far cry from the Church that we have experienced. We see scandal and hypocrisy, bland liturgies, false teaching, broken families, sin and sinners everywhere. Down the street a new ‘nondenominational’ fellowship may be serving up the Bible hot and spicy; its members are more rigorously observing God’s law and more devoutly praying to him. Millions of Catholic have joined so-called Bible-believing churches because in them they see greater fervor. What do we do?” (260-261)

At this point, I thought, “Alright, let’s do it! Let’s talk about the beauty of the Church, the power and transforming grace of the sacraments, the wonder of embracing the divine, the authority of Christ and the Church, the richness of our traditions, the truth of our teaching, the healing of our fellowship, and the depth of God’s mercy (even if only for a moment, since we’re almost on the last page)!”

Instead, the last page and a half can, I think, be summarized like this: “Well, the Church is the True Church, so you’ll just have to set aside your reservations and stay Catholic. Sometimes we see bad things, but we need to ignore those and focus on becoming saints.”

As a conclusion, I think it gets it about half-right: We definitely need to become holy in our whole lives, and that is a critical element in the Church. But even before we’re saints, we can work at the local, diocesan, national, and Church-wide levels, wherever we are, to continually transform hearts and conform ourselves to God’s desire, to renew a right spirit within each of us, to convert the sinner, forgive the sin, and save people.

“Don’t focus so much on sin and become a saint” sounds like very private advice, given to a private person intending to stay private, but the Catholic Church needs to embrace again her deep and abiding community. We are all united in the Mass, which is celebrated continually, every hour of every day, somewhere in the world; we should embrace that community, and as we join together with the saints and angels in heaven, we should strive always to be counted in that number–and not just ourselves, but the person next to us in the pew, in the parking lot, in class or at work, and on the street. Yes, absolutely, become a saint–but do whatever you can to make your brother a saint, too.

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A War’s Beginning

Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines #1)Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this, which I think is the point. But I also spent a lot of time not sure how to feel about it.

First, the most jarring thing for the average reader: present-tense storytelling. Mr. Kloos uses the method effectively, I think, because the story keeps you engaged, even when it’s not an action sequence, and you aren’t dragged in and out of the story’s pacing when we do enter an action sequence. But when you flip open the book and start reading, it’s initially disconcerting to find everything in the present tense (excepting a couple of minor typos, anyway).

The biggest downside of this book, probably, is the last sentence (“This one’s just begun.”) or the title of the final chapter (“The End of the Beginning”). This book is the first of a series, and it’s pretty obvious. As a standalone book, it’s never quite clear where the story is going, where you’re being taken as you follow the narrator’s life from “welfare rat” to soldier and beyond. Sometimes, you gloss over weeks or even months at a time. In other places, you’re in the trenches, and two or three chapters cover one afternoon. You meet a lot of characters, about most of whom the narrator sadly comments, “I’ll probably never see them again”–and in an average book, you would see them again, so it’s confusing when you don’t. We keep dropping old characters and picking up new ones without returning to the old. (Probably, we will see at least a few of those characters again in future installments.)

There are a few other challenge points. Plot-wise, I never really understood why the narrator, who takes a different position in the last third of the book, never really takes up the mantle of soldier again (in most of the book, he is a capable soldier who even shows above-average tactical awareness, albeit still inexperienced and making mistakes along the way, but at the end of the book, when he has ample opportunity to step up and fight hard, he almost seems to have forgotten that whole part of his life). Perhaps Mr. Kloos is simply trying to make the character feel limited and realistic, but in a book that otherwise reads like an action/war story, the hero behaves notably unheroically.

And this may just be a me-problem, but I know a character used “Sarissas” to do something cool a couple chapters ago, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to remember what one is without at least one boring noun nearby. (There were a couple instances of this, where a piece of technology was introduced at one point, then referenced later, without quite enough info for the reference to be completely meaningful.)

But almost all of my objections are on the grounds that I (generally) understand the format and flow of stories, and this one threw me for a loop a couple times. I did enjoy reading it, which, again, I think is the point. It’s science fiction/war, perhaps with a little more emphasis on the war, but that’s because, for the majority of the book, the sci-fi parts are all in the world-building, rather than the main plot. The politics, society, technology are all backdrop, not front-and-center.

It’s a good book. I will likely get to reading more of Mr. Kloos’ work eventually, but I have a long list of things I should probably read (and write) first. For now, I’m glad I read it.

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Learning to Read as a Layman

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the LinesHow to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a good book. In a lot of ways, I think it’s very important for people looking to study more about literature, to read it more in-depth, to understand some of those “hidden gems” authors slip into their works.

But it didn’t really work for me personally. As an author myself, part of my purpose was to examine just how people read books (especially those who read books for a living). In my own writing, I often hide inside jokes and subtle references–frequently in ways that I think would never, ever be noticed. After reading this book, I am reminded: (1) the average person probably won’t notice them, because even if they’ve read this book, there’s no guarantee they’ve studied the same academic fields I have and have the background I have, but also (2) I’m probably not nearly as subtle as I think I am. But for my purposes, this book didn’t do quite as much as I hoped it would.

The merits of this book, in large part, stand on their own. Mr. Foster covers a wide range of topics (by no means all of them, which he readily admits), and his approach is accessible for nearly everyone. He does not take a critical, deconstructionist method, which I appreciate (as an author), nor does he force texts to stand in a modern context that isn’t appropriate, which I also appreciate (as a classicist).

So if you’ve never done much reading of literature and you want to get into it, this book will definitely help you do that. On the other hand, if you have read a lot of literature, this may seem a bit old hat. At the very least, though, reading this can help you enumerate and describe the details that you’re catching; it takes your subconscious understanding of a work’s complexity and makes it conscious, so that you can talk (or write) about it more readily. And that’s good, too.

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Four Fast Fomentations to a Fuller Faith

Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Catholic Discipleship - Becoming a Disciple of ChristPick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Catholic Discipleship – Becoming a Disciple of Christ by Dcn Ralph Poyo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a quick one-shot book to remind you of what’s important in your Christian life and–hopefully–to light a fire under you that will make you pursue God all the more.

Deacon Ralph Poyo very quickly (25 pages!) runs through the four pillars of Catholic life: (1) community, (2) prayer, (3) Scripture, and (4) sacraments. Developing yourself in these areas, says Dcn. Ralph, will lead you down a path to stronger faith and a closer relationship with God.

The brevity of the book is one of its strongest points. You don’t need a lot of words to remind people about what’s important in their lives, about what they should be making time for. Even a slow reader can get through this book in under an hour. But it’s pithy. It strikes at the heart of the conversation and challenges the reader to take it seriously. Then there’s a little practical advice, and the last page of the book is reserved for a mark-off sheet for each of the four pillars, to help you get started (and, hopefully, keep going).

Personally, I like a little more meat to my theological reading. There are also more than a few grammatical errors, which is painful in a book so short. I also think that Dcn. Ralph is likely a better presenter than writer; this book reads a little bit like the notes for a fantastic presentation, but we don’t get the presentation, just the notes.

On the whole, I think it works, but that conclusion may be colored by its effectiveness in the men’s group where I read it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good little book.

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