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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Marian Study, Not Marian Apologetics

Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of GodHail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God by Scott Hahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I struggled with my selection of a star rating for this book; I vacillate between liking and disliking it. I liked it because it’s very forthright, very dedicated, very committed; I disliked it because Mr. Hahn allowed that dedication to surpass good judgment and good argumentation.

Before I get started with the major things, let me offer up very minor things. First, some people like puns; others don’t. If you don’t, you may not appreciate Mr. Hahn’s section titles–this is your fair warning. There are also a few typos and poor word choice that affect the flow of the prose, but nothing grammatically offensive.

Let me begin the meatier section with the good points. This is a good book for Catholics who want to know more about the history and basis of Marian devotion and Marian theology. It answers questions that Protestant objectors tend to raise, and it presents information based on Scripture and Tradition to back up those answers. It does all of this with the impassioned voice of someone who truly adheres to the teachings of the Church on these matters, which are often difficult for non-Catholics to consider.

But this is not a good apologetic book, and it should not be given to Protestants.

We (human beings) are emotional creatures. In many ways, and at many times, we allow our emotions to influence our judgment. A book that is poorly worded, or a book that chooses phrasing and imagery that is insulting from an opposing point of view, loses almost all the ground it may gain through good sourcing and effective argumentation. “Hail, Holy Queen” suffers from this problem. One main trouble is not that Mr. Hahn did not know his Bible, or that he did not know his papal documents or council documents or Augustinian writings–the trouble was that he, on more than one occasion, made statements that would be emotionally objectionable for a disagreeing reader. He also made several key errors in argumentation, which I will address as I come to them.

While Mr. Hahn’s knowledge of Scripture and Tradition seems well-established, so far as I can tell, his Roman history is somewhat lacking. It seems a crucial point, for example, that he interpret the beast of the sea (in Revelation) as the Roman dynasty that empowered the Herodian dynasty to oppress the Christians–but he says that there were “10 Caesars” from Julius Caesar to Vespasian. It should be pointed out that the dynastic view of the Roman emperors does not run from Julius to Vespasian, but from Julius to Nero, and from Galba to Domitian, and from Nerva to Commodus, and so on. Furthermore, the name “Caesar” truly belonged to Julius Caesar, but in classic Roman style, it was applied to nearly every emperor until the 4th century (to the point where “Caesar” became synonymous with “emperor,” which is why the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called the Kaiser and the emperor of Russia the Czar). It only stopped in the 4th century because, by then, it was the job title instead of a name. One of the exceptions to this naming custom, of course, was Vitellius–the emperor immediately preceding Vespasian. Nevermind that Octavian (“Caesar Augustus”) was, at best, adopted by Julius Caesar, but still had to win a civil war to become emperor himself.

From time to time, Mr. Hahn also made statements that eroded his own position. He quoted Tertullian, for example, to summarize Catholic Mariology–and immediately pointed out that Tertullian’s Mariology is mostly flawed and erroneous. This almost nullifies the quote, and one must wonder: could there not have been a better quote, from a more reputable source?

Chapter 5 is something of a turning point in the book. In the first four chapters, Mr. Hahn is focused on establishing Mary as the culmination of a number of Old Testament types. In Chapter 5, he finally addresses, in so many words, the Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church (the perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption). Yet it is here that he begins to struggle with clear argumentation. He proposes that Mary (as a person) be the focus of this study, since she is not merely a collection of ideas–yet the ideas are what must be discussed, because there is no serious historian who denies the existence of the person of Mary. More than once, Mr. Hahn makes blanket statements and broad assumptions, declaring as fact things that are not in evidence and have not been established earlier in the book, ostensibly to establish Mary as a “person”–an establishment which no one will controvert, though they will certainly controvert the assumptions.

He first makes bold claims, and asks his reader (who may have doubts about Mary and Marian doctrine) to establish Mary (as taught by the Catholic Church) as the goal of the discussion–not to discuss the doctrines and how she might fit them, but to run towards those doctrines as though towards a finish line. This is counterproductive to the discussion, because the opposing mind will simply refuse, and no ground will be gained. He uses the earlier chapters of the book to justify his assumptions, but those earlier chapters have not yet been proved to the doubtful reader–making these new statements all the more dubious. He even uses emotional arguments from popular belief and popular historical opinion.

None of these arguments are effective, but rather, they are counterproductive to the intended goal of increased understanding of Marian doctrine and greater devotion to Mary as our exemplar.

At one point, Mr. Hahn seems to suggest that the doctrine of perpetual virginity arose, not from fact or historical understanding or theological necessity, but from an oversimplification caused by creedal speech (i.e., that “born of the Virgin Mary” equivocates Mary with Virginity). He uses the more ambiguous term “brethren” to translate adelphoi–probably because it sounds more gender inclusive, but it comes across as intentionally avoiding the “from the [same] womb” literal translation that Mr. Hahn insists upon in later chapters.

Perhaps Mr. Hahn’s most egregious mistake is to use language and arguments that would be emotionally charged for a Protestant reader–especially a reader looking for any reason to discount this book, and all it contains, as hogwash. He uses terms like “unfamiliar,” “non-issue,” and “amateur” to describe anyone who would disagree with the interpretation of Scripture that he posits. He oversimplifies the nature of sin by equating it to an auto mechanic overcharging for services. He says outright in two different places that one’s acceptance of the Gospel can be measured by one’s acceptance of Marian doctrine. He engages in poor word choice, talking about the “union” of Mary’s human will with God’s divine will–clear enough to a theologian that understands the distinctions between that “union” and, say, the hypostatic union of Christ, but unclear to someone who may think Mr. Hahn is again trying to deify Mary. At one point, he seems to say that the Church is only the spouse of Christ and the mother of the faithful (a common point of agreement between Catholics and Protestants) only because Mary was those things first (and so Mr. Hahn removes the common ground he might otherwise have had). He frames Mary and the Church in opposition, saying that Mary is over there with God, and the Church is over here, trying (in vain) to emulate her. This, indeed, seems to be the only case of genuine overreach on Mr. Hahn’s part–going beyond the Mariology that seems acceptable to suggest that Mary is exterior to the Church, rather than an exemplary part of it, and that the Church is merely a type of Mary.

He closes the argumentative portion of the book (prior to the final chapter, which advocates caution and love in the face of opposition, and the appendix, which is, in many ways, a redeeming passage) with the declaration that the Church should not put ecumenism before Mariology; he surely did not mean it as such, but at this point in the book, it almost sounds like justification for his occasionally uncharitable tone.

All that to say, I vacillated between liking and disliking this book. Clearly, I had more negative things to say than positive, but that usually happens when I take notes. This book is very good for Catholics who want to know more about Mary, but I maintain that it is not a good work of Marian apologetics.

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Good Devotional, Albeit Verbose

Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished ChristiansLiving the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians by Scott Hahn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good little devotional. It is, in fact, much smaller than my time to read it suggests. It has 50 passages on the mysteries of the Church, meant to be read each day following Easter, so that the final reading falls on Pentecost. I wish I had read it to succinctly. I also wish I had maintained an attempt to memorize the memorization bits for each day, to make the devotional more effective in my life.

That said, the book was not perfect. The translations were, occasionally, quirky. The content of each passage was not always clear. These two details can be written up to the habits of the Novus Ordo and the designated audience (i.e., Roman Catholics), respectively, so they are not huge losses. I do not think that the passages were nearly long enough to have three “prayer” quotes, one “memorization” quote, and one “application” lesson for each reading. Some of those passages were downright paltry, and takes quotes from them to be reiterated three seconds after you finish reading them is… well, it’s good rote, but it’s bad reading. So your mileage may vary, as that goes.

Overall, it was a good book with some good lessons on the mysteries; definitely a must-read for anyone curious about or questioning the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Its use of ancient writers, rather than Scott Hahn and Mike Aquilina’s own writings (nothing against them personally or professionally, but they are modern, and there’s a certain orthodox delight in relying on the older gents), makes for enlightening reading, although it may – at times – feel disjointed and forced. Also, the introductions to each passage offered by Hahn and Aquilina are often redundant and occasionally excessive; I see little need for their presence, except to tilt the scales toward “original content” in the book.

At any rate – a good read, and done at last.

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