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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A Primer on Virtue

Boys to Men: The Transforming Power of VirtueBoys to Men: The Transforming Power of Virtue by Tim Gray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book as part of a morning men’s group. For that purpose, it definitely had a lot of value, but I probably would not pick this book up to read it again for my own edification. Having said that, I think that my complaints about this book may be unique to me.

So, good things first: it covers the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. It addresses each carefully and in accordance with the tradition of the Catholic Church. It encourages the reader to pursue each virtue in his life, to strive to attain these virtues, not only for his own benefit, but for the benefit of everyone around him. The discussion questions provide both further reading (throughout Scripture) and further thought (on both practical and theoretical levels). Definitely a solid book for anyone new to theology or the virtues.

My problem is that I’m not new to those things. For me personally, much of this book was treading water–covering old ground–reviewing things I already knew. It still had value–it provided the backdrop for discussing issues in the men’s group, and it provided practical reminders on how to move forward in my pursuit of virtue–but I wanted to go deeper, really dig into the details, which is appropriate for my level of education.

Definitely recommend for anyone with little or no foundation in theology or the study of virtues. It’s also just fine for the fully-initiated who are involved in a discussion group–but for such a one reading it on his own, it may not add much to your knowledge.

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