Theology and Sanity: Book Recommendation

As I write this, I’m in the final chapters of reading Frank Sheed’s 1947 book Theology and Sanity. With all of the books out there that I could be reading, I went out of my way to get a copy of this one… and I’m extremely glad that I did.

I got it thanks to Dr. Peter Kreeft’s recommendation that he made during his talk entitled “Seven Reasons to be Catholic” (available through Lighthouse Catholic Media). Kreeft is a Catholic philosopher who has written over 50 books. He’s a super smart guy. He said, “Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity is probably the best single work of Catholic apologetics in the 20th century. It contains, for instance, the clearest explanation of the Trinity that I’ve ever read. He writes with clarity, and power…” So yeah with a description like that I knew I needed to add it to the list. I made the mistake, however, of ordering a recent edition from Catholic Way Publishing which turned out to be rife with typos. Bummer. I’ve gone through my copy with a pencil making basic corrections as I read. Hopefully future editions from that publisher will have corrected the errors, but I recommend the reliable Ignatius Press edition.

Many of my fellow Christians are familiar with the excitement one gets from reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity for the first time. It’s the experience of seeing your own faith articulated in such a way that you want to share it with everyone. This book is like that, but for Catholics it not only explores the faith in a general way, it also dives into some extremely deep subjects with the sort of clarity that we laymen require. Sheed writes to the average person, making use of accumulated knowledge that has taken theologians centuries to carefully unpack.

As I tend to like orderly ways of doing things, I appreciate how Sheed starts with the necessary basics (such as the importance of theology and the proper mindset with which to approach it), and builds upon each subject as he progresses. We often struggle in understanding God simply because we haven’t been taught certain understandable truths about Him. Sheed explains how God transcends time and space, and how He is essential to the existence of everything. This book confidently tackles difficult questions about God that I would have assumed were best avoided. The Trinity is explained very carefully yet understandably. This alone is worth the price of the book, as it is very easy to stumble into heresy when not properly educated on the subject. The Trinity is an essential aspect of Christian beliefs that is not easy to explain, so make sure you’re getting it right. But Sheed goes further, explaining creation, angels, the fall of man, the story of salvation history, Jesus’ teachings and sacrifice, and His establishment of the Church and what that means for us. The more we understand these things, the better sense we can make of our existence. The better we understand real theology, the saner we are as human beings.

By the way, Sheed isn’t just relying on logic and tradition; he also bases his statements on Scripture and the writings of great men from Church history like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He writes about life as part of the Body of Christ, and life after death; the end of the world, and what a life of grace looks like. Although this book was written decades ago, his insight into modern society may as well have been written yesterday. We see the hopelessness of atheism (nisi Dominus frustra: without God there is only frustration), and we see the slide toward sin (even among Christians) apart from well-established expectations, and we see the general unhappiness and spiritual sloth that develop apart from the Church.

What’s very satisfying about this book is how Sheed manages to tie these various subjects together in such a way that they build upon each other, so he can keep his explanations brief and flowing logically. It’s all basically intertwined, but it takes someone with an overall understanding to explain it properly.

Disclaimer: as easy as this book is to understand compared to many others like it, I still had to digest it in small doses (sometimes reading out loud while pacing with coffee) because it’s deep stuff. Our minds today are not conditioned to delve deeply… we lack the mental muscle so to speak. However, having said that, if you want to understand the Christian faith in a way that can weather storms, I highly recommend this book. Many people have their faith established in their hearts, but I encourage you to also have it established in your head. It’s worth your time.

-Ben 6/14/15

“This book contains theology, not the great mass of it that theologians need, but the indispensable minimum that every man needs…” –Frank Sheed

Brideshead Revisited Book Review

I would like to share my thoughts on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. I only recently discovered it and was privileged to listen to Jeremy Irons’ audiobook narration. Admittedly, it was my curiosity regarding Mr. Waugh’s Catholicism that led me to read it, but soon I was able to see why it is widely regarded as a classic. I found myself drawing comparisons at times between Evelyn Waugh’s style and that of Jane Austen or even Mark Twain. He has a way of helping you to picture stuffy old English culture while you’re chuckling at it, as well as helping you see the most cheerful side of life through his character development and dialog, which can easily be the boring part of novels. Also, I would dare say his ability to describe so much in so few words could give Jack London a run for his money.

First published in 1945, Brideshead Revisited is regarded as Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus. He was able to draw from his experiences in the military and in college to paint such a bemused picture of those environments that he had me laughing out loud. Although the story begins during World War II, we are soon accompanying the main character Charles Ryder in his memories of his younger days growing up in 1920’s England. He describes meeting his good friend Sebastian and his encounters with Sebastian’s family, with the story centered around the family estate: Brideshead. The character development and dialog make for great discussion with other readers, and the subtle thematic depth makes me want to read it again. As the story progressed, I found myself being amused less often but appreciating Waugh’s descriptive abilities all the more. He had apparently intended a graceful transition from a humorous story into a more poignant one as the years of the story progressed into the 1930’s toward the war. By the time the end of the book comes along, the reader is emotionally and curiously prepared for the meaningful ending.

I should probably say a few words regarding the relationship between Charles and Sebastian toward the beginning of the book. In our modern American cultural context it is easy to draw conclusions, and at the very least the author does not seem to fear the possibility of our imaginations roaming a bit. However, before allowing speculation to ruin a great novel (or watching any Hollywood versions of it), it’s important to remember the Catholic stance on homosexuality that Waugh undoubtedly agreed with. Of course we are talking about characters who are not exactly on their best behavior, but if nothing is specified there’s hardly any sense in forcing the issue. I’ve decided to take a neutral stance on this debated aspect of the book, and allow Waugh’s bemused approach to writing become my approach to reading his work.

I am tempted to venture into the theological undertones (or overt messages, depending on who you are), but I will leave that alone for now and let the readers explore for themselves what Waugh might have been up to. Suffice it to say, as it is no secret, the overall theological message of the book is one of God’s grace and His pursuit of us all.

The story has a feel somewhat resembling Gone with the Wind or Legends of the Fall in its memory of an idyllic time and place followed by a slow but steady march into decay. Personally, I much prefer to learn the lessons of bad decisions through fiction rather than real life, so I don’t mind too much, as long as the story has quality and impact.

Although there are no characters that directly resemble myself or people I know, there are enough similarities on various levels to make the book particularly interesting to me at this season of my life. I think this is worth mentioning, just in case it might influence whether someone wants to read the book more or less because of it.

Catholic characters in the story are quite flawed (as Catholics tend to be), and Waugh’s treatment of many Catholic beliefs seems to amount to a literary shrugging of his shoulders… which makes me laugh. I can relate. But the aloof skepticism of agnostics can all-too-often give way to belief in the end.

I appreciate the author’s ability to share his theology through literature. Something that really struck me was Waugh’s ability to describe cares and temptations that people face every day in a way that would impress any secular literary critic, but then turn around and give an equally moving examination of the moral perspective. There was an interesting balance in this book between a seemingly casual writing style and substantive subjects. I was delighted one moment, and contemplative the next. To me, the book served as an illustration that Catholics are not ignorant of worldly concerns and desires, but aware of higher considerations. There is depth to this novel that will continue to maintain its relevance, and I look forward to re-reading it and recommending it to others in the years to come.

-Ben 9/2/14

The Guns of August, a Century After the Battles

“There was an aura about 1914 that caused those who sensed it to shiver for mankind.” –Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August, ch. 15

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In remembrance of this, I took the opportunity to re-read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. The “Great War” has been overshadowed in our collective memory by World War II, but for the people of 1914, it was truly a massive conflict, and people hoped it would be the “war to end all wars.”

When we hear about World War I, we often picture the trench warfare that became a symbol of the dug-in, brutal fighting in which thousands and ultimately millions of lives were traded to gain small advances in the deadlock of Europe’s Western Front. However, in the opening weeks of the war, daring maneuvers and grand strategies were tested while armies struggled to gain the upper hand. Winston Churchill later said that it was “a drama never surpassed,” and this drama is the essence of what Tuchman was able to present through her narrative. In the foreword of the edition I read, Robert K. Massie points out that “Mrs. Tuchman’s triumph is that she makes the events of August, 1914, as suspenseful on the page as they were to the people living through them.”

When the book was published in 1962, many people still remembered World War I quite well, but even to them, Tuchman was able to make it exciting. Now more than ever, readers have all the more reason to be on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens. By the way, President John F. Kennedy read this book shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It greatly affected how he viewed the possibility of world war looming before him, and he could see with even more clarity the consequences of bad decisions made on the brink of conflict.

What Tuchman was able to do in this book is show very effectively how men can proudly bumble their way into war. We don’t often see the full extent of our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions, but especially world leaders must remember that sometimes the cat cannot be put back into the bag, and new wars bring new terrors.

World War I was a shocking example of old ways meeting new technologies. The brave bayonet charge by gallant men in red pants can be mown down quite efficiently by a well-placed machine gun. A mighty fortress can be destroyed in mere hours if you only have a gun that is big enough. A good example of old meeting new is an account quoted by Tuchman in chapter 11 of a German siege mortar entering a Belgian town:

“…a piece of artillery so colossal that we could not believe our eyes… The monster advanced in two parts, pulled by 36 horses. The pavement trembled. The crowd remained mute with consternation at the appearance of this phenomenal apparatus. Slowly it…[moved]… along the Boulevards de la Sauveniere and d’Avroy attracting crowds of curious onlookers along its slow and heavy passage. Hannibal’s elephants could not have astonished the Romans more! The soldiers who accompanied it marched stiffly with an almost religious solemnity. It was the Belial of cannons! …In the Parc d’Avroy it was carefully mounted and scrupulously aimed. Then came the frightful explosion; the crowd was flung back, the earth shook like an earthquake and all the window panes in the vicinity were shattered…”

French General Gallieni noted, “with the Germans one must always expect the gigantic.” Sadly, despite their grand history, impressive abilities, and grim determination, the Germans were greatly lacking in morals in the way they chose to fight the war. Their invasion of neutral Belgium was inexcusable and heartbreaking to read about, yet it was a fundamental aspect of their strategy to win the war quickly. The French were determined to win back territories they lost to Germany in the War of 1870, but they trusted too much in their élan, or “will to win,” which although helpful and even crucial at certain moments, could not decisively overpower German steel. Thankfully for the French, the British were brought in against Germany by Belgium’s invaded neutrality, but they were a relatively small expeditionary force with less-than-enthusiastic leadership. Russia’s involvement aiding the Allies against Germany was interesting, with their sheer strength in manpower greatly hindered by their sheer size of territory… not to mention their corrupt and somewhat backwards ways. They did manage to be helpful, albeit sometimes humorous: “At sight of an airplane, the first they had ever seen, Russian soldiers, regardless of its identity, blazed away with their rifles, convinced that such a clever invention as a flying machine could only be German.” –Tuchman, Guns of August ch. 15.

Tuchman’s research was exhaustive, and it shows in the way she was able to relate battle plans, the drama of deliberating governments, the reasoning and decision-making of field commanders, and the effect of war’s collateral damage on civilians. She was very good with her descriptions of the characters involved.

I think it’s important for people to remember how World War I started, because in many ways it was typical human pettiness and greed played out on an epic scale on a massive stage. War can be avoided in most cases, with a little extra foresight and (dare I say) Christian perspective. It may be a brilliantly discreet feminine touch on the part of the author, but I cannot walk away from reading this book in the belief that there was any good excuse for World War I. Pope Benedict XV called it “the suicide of Europe.” German general Moltke, who was largely responsible for carrying out the aggressive German war plans, seemed contemplative enough in 1914 to see the coming war as “the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years.”

And in many ways it has. I recommend picking up a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s book. A hundred years later, we should remember the guns of August.

-Ben 6/29/14

How Francis Chan Helped Me Become Catholic

Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love was basically a life-changing book for me. He challenged me in a powerful way to really live out the Christian life as though it is true (because we believe that it is, right?). Jesus really died for us, and this should be life-changing knowledge. If we are to truly follow Jesus, then eternity really matters more than enjoying this life. The all-powerful Creator loves us so much, and our love for Him and others should reflect this knowledge. But I read Crazy Love at a crazy time in my spiritual life, and as excited as I was to live the life that Francis described, he left me with more questions than answers. Eventually, further down the road, I found the answers in the Catholic Church.

Francis Chan motivated me in 3 overall ways that ultimately helped lead me to the Catholic Church (for which I am honestly grateful to him). I will briefly cover them in this post.

Christianity Takes Courage

“Jesus’s call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing. The thought of a person calling himself a ‘Christian’ without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.”-Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 85

Courage is an essential aspect of Christianity. Sacrificing, loving, and living with a reckless reliance upon God should be a normal aspect of life as a Christian. If you’re in your comfort zone, then you might not be on the right track. Obeying Christ in everything is not optional for Christians, even if it involves being poor so that others might have enough, or being ridiculed by people who don’t understand, or even giving your life for the faith.

Thanks in part to Francis Chan (and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), I really began to see how a true pursuit of the Christian life will naturally meet with opposition and hardship.

Jesus said,

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” -Matthew 10:37-39

I wanted to take my motivation to live a real Christian life and use it to serve God with all my heart. But what would that look like? What sort of things should I be doing to live courageously for God every day? I had it in my mind that no cost was too great, but I wanted my service to be God’s will, and not just my own ideas… so I needed direction.

“Should you put your house on the market today and downsize? Maybe. Should you quit your job? Maybe. Or perhaps God wants you to work harder at your job and be His witness there. Does He want you to move to another city or another country? Maybe. Perhaps He wants you to stay put and open your eyes to the needs of your neighbors. Honestly, it’s hard enough for me to discern how to live my own life!” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 166

I began to get frustrated. How are Christians supposed to be living? Does anyone know?

“…I cannot say in this book, ‘Everyone is supposed to be a missionary’ or ‘You need to sell your car and start taking public transportation.’ What I can say is that you must learn to listen to and obey God, especially in a society where it’s easy and expected to do what is most comfortable.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 168

I must learn to listen to God …how? Partially thanks to this book, I began to ponder what this really means. It didn’t help when I stepped back and began to see that there are thousands of denominations of Protestant churches with different ideas of what God is saying to us. I believe I did indeed learn how to listen to God enough for him to guide me to the Catholic Church, where people are not figuring out from scratch what it means to live a Christian life.

Take the Bible Seriously

Francis Chan had a great way of explaining how real Christians must study the Scriptures in a direct and painfully honest way, not allowing our preferences to explain the meaning. This means not skimming over verses that we don’t understand or don’t like. Courage must be applied when reading the Bible. I began to realize, however, that direction can not only be obtained from reading the Bible, but must also be obtained for reading the Bible.

Understanding and obeying instructions from the Bible is essential, but for the Protestant, this is subject to personal interpretation. Chan’s conclusion seems to be that the more extreme you are in your interpretation, the more likely you are to be correct.

Reading the Bible honestly is not enough. You must have it explained (Acts 8:30-31), or you will end up extremely frustrated (if you’re honest). The question is: who do you trust to explain it, especially when there are thousands of differing opinions? If you’re going out onto the mission field, you need to have concrete answers to people’s theological questions, not just your opinions about what you think the Bible means. I don’t assume that Francis Chan’s book was intended for deep theological instruction, but it would be nice to know that someone has straight answers.

“Pray. Then read the Bible for yourself. Put this book down and pick up your Bible. My prayer for you is that you’ll understand the Scriptures not as I see them, but as God intends them. I do not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book. In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace covers us.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 87

How do we know we’re true believers? What does that mean?

One of Francis Chan’s motivating verses became the biggest example of my frustration:

“So then, none of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” –Luke 14:33 (NASB)

I have long believed that truth is not relative. I knew that it was up to me to discover what Jesus meant, and that I did not have the liberty to decide for myself what He meant. I wanted to be a real disciple even if everyone else was making excuses not to be, but what did Jesus mean when He said things like He did in that verse? How was I to understand it? Did anyone have definitive explanations?

I found that we don’t need a fresh look at the Bible. We need an infallible interpretation of the Bible. Otherwise we’re all walking around following our hearts like Disney princesses… or going crazy trying to find the actual truth and never being sure if we’ve found it.

I came to the conclusion at the end of it all that the only thing that really makes sense is if God placed something exactly like the Catholic Church on the earth to be the infallible interpreter of Scripture for the whole world. Otherwise it’s basically just relativism, and I didn’t want to live a life of courage and sacrifice for a Christianity of my own making. If God fits into a box of my assumptions and preferences, then chances are I’m not serving the real God.

“Not being able to understand God is frustrating, but it is ridiculous for us to think we have the right to limit God to something we are capable of comprehending.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 33

We Have Work to Do

We’re here to love God and love other people. This means serving God on His terms, not our own, and serving others even at the expense of our own preferences and prosperity.

“So we can follow our own course while still calling ourselves followers of Christ? So we can join the Marines, so to speak, without having to do all the work?” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 85

“Lukewarm people say they love Jesus, and He is, indeed, a part of their lives. But only a part. They give Him a section of their time, their money, and their thoughts, but He isn’t allowed to control their lives.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg 72

I knew that I wanted to offer my God-given strengths and abilities as part of the Body of Christ, His Church. I wanted to do whatever I could to help. But I was running into a similar problem that Francis Chan did…

“But I think we all feel deeply, even if we haven’t voiced it, that the church in many ways is not doing well.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 22

“…I quickly found that the American church is a difficult place to fit in if you want to live out New Testament Christianity.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 68

Thanks in part to Francis Chan, I could see that an Americanized Christianity was not original or likely to be correct, and fitting in too much can be an indicator that I wasn’t living the faith authentically. Yet I wanted to be giving my all as part of the Church. This was a quandary. All of the acceptable Protestant options that I tried seemed so inadequate if I wanted to be part of a biblical culture and a more ancient mindset.

I knew from experience that being on fire to make the necessary changes to a flawed system does not turn out well. Ideally, it would be better to find the system that isn’t flawed. And I was even open to the possibility that what might appear as flaws to me might actually be my own flawed criteria. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church (Matt. 16:18), so I knew the Church still exists, but I also knew that it could not simply be a general unity of agreement between Christians about basic doctrines, because I could see so many disagreements even on fundamental issues. I also was not content to sit back and announce that my preferred interpretation of Scripture and Christian beliefs is right while everyone else’s is wrong, thereby insisting that my location is the location of the Church, like many people seem willing to do.

Biblically, Christians must be part of the Body of Christ, His Church. But what does His Church look like? Around the time I read this book, I had a couple of experiences where I could see plainly that the Evangelical Protestant concept of Church authority is hollow. Without universal authority in spiritual matters, how can you be the Church in possession of the Truth? The instruction we see in Matthew 18:17 to “…tell it to the Church…” seems to require a singular, authoritative Church, but where could this Church be found? Jesus prayed earnestly for His followers as recorded in John 17: 20-23: “…that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know…”

Francis Chan was onto something, but he was only scratching the surface of a much bigger picture. Christians must be part of a globally united Church that possesses the authority and unity of Truth. Then they can effectively reach the world with the message of God’s crazy love.

The Catholic (“universal”) Church has been there all this time (going on 2,000 years). Many of us have just preferred to ignore it so that we can do our own thing. But what if Christians really had courage and a commitment to truth like Francis Chan is encouraging us to have? Then it’s no longer about doing our own thing, is it?

-Ben 6/6/14

The Council of Trent and the Reformation of the Church

Having just recently finished reading The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, translated by Rev. H.J. Schroeder, I wanted to share some of what I learned. First, a brief description is probably necessary, and it’s most efficiently stated from the back cover of the TAN Books edition that I read: “The Council of Trent (1545-1563), spanned the pontificates of five popes and shone as a beacon to all the world, condemning errors of the Protestant Reformation and making pronouncements on a vast number of Church doctrines and disciplines… The Council of Trent is universally regarded as the greatest of the twenty-one Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church.”

Although this centuries-old set of canons and decrees was at times tedious reading to say the least, I gained an invaluable understanding of Catholic theology, and insight into the Church’s zealous guarding of historic doctrine.

One of the first things that struck me as I began reading through the book was the desire for Church unity. Pope Paul III stated in his Bull of the Convocation, “Whilst we deemed it necessary for the integrity of the Christian religion and for the confirmation within us of the hope of heavenly things, that there be one fold and one shepherd [John 10:16] for the Lord’s flock, the unity of the Christian name was well-nigh rent and torn asunder by schisms, dissentions and heresies” (pg. 1). Secondly, as seen in the quote I just used, I saw a constant use of Scriptures to reinforce what was being said. Thirdly, I noted an apparently sincere and humble approach to the solemn task set before the leadership, “…that the purity of the Gospel may be preserved in the Church after the errors have been removed” (pg. 17). Along with the touchingly sincere acknowledgment of the need for God’s guidance and mercy, I was impressed to see two themes running throughout the Council: 1. a sincere desire for reforming the problems within the Church, and 2. a sincere desire to have Protestants attend the council, including guarantees of safe passage and delays of proceedings while awaiting their arrival.

There were reforms needed. In the area of indulgences, the Church was determined to ensure that misuse was dealt with, “…so that all may understand that these heavenly treasures of the Church are administered not for gain but for piety” (pg. 144). Discipline in the Church needed more consistent enforcement. Leadership was to be held to the proper high standards: “It is to be desired that those who assume the episcopal office know what are their duties, and understand that they have been called not for their own convenience, not for riches or luxury, but to labors and cares for the glory of God” (pgs. 235-236). Monasteries were reformed by the council: “Since most monasteries, also abbeys, priories, and provostries, have suffered no little loss both in spiritual and temporal things through the maladministration of those to whom they have been entrusted, the holy council desires to restore them entirely to a discipline becoming the monastic life” (pg.233). This is barely a glimpse of the reformation that happened in the Church through the council of Trent. “The distress of the times and the malice of increasing heresies make it necessary that nothing be left undone which may appear to be for the edification of the faithful and for the defense of the Catholic faith” (pg. 237).

I have long understood the Catholic Church to be tyrannical and corrupt, so I was taken aback to see a completely different picture of Catholic Church leadership. If they were indeed tyrannical and corrupt, with the Protestants being justified in breaking away, then the Council of Trent probably would have appeared more like a pamphlet stating, “We are the bosses of YOU, and you will do what we say without question!” Instead, the Church took great pains to make their case for the preservation of unity and the clarity of doctrine through the use of lengthy explanations and scripture references. At risk of allowing the fires of Protestantism to spread farther in Europe, constant delays to await plague, war, the arrival of needed people and the cooperation of governments were implemented in order to ensure the absolute legitimacy of the council. It took 18 years, and ended 17 years after Martin Luther’s death, but the Council of Trent turned out to be one of the most important events in Church history, and was arguably the true reformation of the Church.

Although the history of the council is indeed fascinating, and it lends a crucial appreciation for the accomplishments that resulted, the primary reason that I decided to read this book was in order to more clearly and fully understand Catholic theology. If I might someday join the Catholic Church, I want to have seen for myself the Catholic doctrines that have so alarmed Protestants over the years. And Protestants have much to be concerned about. Not only does the Catholic Church assume authority in the lives of Christians around the world, but this authority was used very decidedly in the canons and decrees that came out of this council. The word “anathema” to describe the condition of dissenters was used numerous times. In reading the descriptions of the false doctrines that were springing up in the 16th century, I was reminded of teachings I have often heard in Protestant sermons and Bible studies.

One of the most essential subjects discussed at the council was the doctrine of justification in session six, 1547. An understanding of justification/salvation doctrine is essential for Christians, and if someone were to read one section in search of theological understanding I would recommend reading session six. I do more fully recommend reading the writings of the entire council, however, because I think too many Protestants can be reinforced in their anti-Catholic thinking by taking parts that they disagree with at face value and running with them, losing the overall context and intention of the council as a whole.

Along with justification, I learned about baptism, the Eucharist, indulgences, saints and relics, confession and penance, purgatory, etc. Much of the accomplishment of this council was that easily-misunderstood doctrines ended up being better explained, pronounced, and enforced across Christendom soon afterward and in the centuries following. With doctrines being better understood, the risk of misinterpretations of sacred Scripture could be reduced, and therefore the spread of heresies could be lessened in the future, at least among those desiring to remain in the Church.

“Let them read with humility, as becomes a Christian, what we have defined concerning our faith, and if some light should come upon them, let them not turn away the face; if they should hear the voice of the Lord, let them not harden their hearts, and if they should wish to return to the common embrace of mother Church from which they severed themselves, they may rest assured that every indulgence and sympathy will be extended to them.”

-Cardinal Ragazonus in his oration in the last session, 1563 (pg. 268)

-Ben 2/22/14

A Case for the Sign of the Cross: St. Francis de Sales and his Defense of a Christian Practice

On January 24th, Christians around the world honor the memory of St. Francis de Sales, who is remembered for his bold yet graceful defense of the Faith in the 16th century area of Switzerland. Before January 24th came along this year, I had the opportunity to read a copy of St. Francis’ book, The Sign of the Cross, in which he defends the practice of making the Sign of the Cross by referring not only to the historic traditions of Christianity, but also relating powerful stories of its use, and the biblical roots of its importance.

The Sign of the Cross can be made over the forehead or mouth, but the most familiar method is touching the fingers of the right hand to the forehead, followed by the lower/center chest, left shoulder and then right shoulder. This is done while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, which some consider to be “the fifteen most powerful words in the English language”. St. Francis is decidedly Catholic, as are his apologetics, but non-Catholics should not be too quick to dismiss the Sign of the Cross simply because Catholics have gotten the most use out of it. My question is whether all Christians should be using it, and I’ll cut to the chase for a moment: if the Sign of the Cross is inherently (and historically) Christian, and does indeed stand against both evil and false doctrine, then it seems to me that all followers of Christ should be identifying themselves with the Sign of the Cross. Because I prefer to examine Christianity in its full historical context, I am willing to think outside the box on this, even though I’m still technically classified as an “Evangelical Protestant”.

St. Francis’ chapter titles offer some insight into his approach to the subject: “A Public Profession of Faith”, “The Use of the Sign of the Cross in the Church of the Fathers”, “A Reproof to the Antichrist”, “A Defense against Demons”, etc.

Along with scripture references to explain to people why they should not assail such a wonderful Christian practice, St. Francis also quoted many important people from Christian history, such as St. Athanasius: “Every magical art is rebuffed by the Sign of the Cross, and by it every spell is broken”. Or St. Antony: “The demons come in the night pretending to be angels of God. Seeing them, arm yourselves and your homes with the Sign of the Cross, and immediately they will be reduced to nothing, for they fear this victory sign by which the Savior despoiled the powers of the air and made them laughable.” And St. John Chrysostom: “St. Paul calls the Cross a prize, and it should not only be made with the hand on the body, but, in truth, first in the soul. For if in this way you impress it upon your face, not one of the demons will dare attack you, seeing the lance by which they received the mortal blow.”

St. Francis de Sales himself was a very interesting guy. Particularly interesting to me, he is the patron saint of writers, and known for his stand against the harmful ideas of his time that posed a real threat to him personally and caused great spiritual damage to the region in which he lived. According to the biographical note at the end of the book, “…St. Francis’ unflagging poise and kindness in [his] mission led to its eventual success. By the turn of the century, the majority of the area’s inhabitants had returned to the Catholic faith.”

In closing, the description on the back cover of the book is worth quoting at length:

Embodying the zeal of youth and the wisdom of age, this gentle jewel of Catholic apologetics traces the origins of the Sign of the Cross back to the Fathers of the Church, to the Apostles before them, and finally to our Lord Himself…

Outside the Creed itself, there are few topics to which the Fathers testify as universally and unanimously as the pious practice of making, frequently and well, the Sign of the Cross…”

I would be curious to hear the thoughts of my fellow Christians on this matter. Why are so many of us not making the Sign of the Cross? As a Christian, I have been longing for a way to identify myself boldly with Christ, express spiritual feelings outwardly, bless and be blessed, and separate myself from heretical versions of the faith. History and Christian tradition may have provided the answer. What do you think?

-Ben 1/23/14

If this sign were not applied to the forehead of believers, or to the water with which they are regenerated, or to the chrism oil with which they are anointed, or to the sacrifice by which they are nourished, none of these would be as perfect as they should be.”
–St. Augustine

Five Outstanding Combat Memoirs

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell was written before the recent slew of Navy SEAL books that have come out since bin Laden was killed. This book is the real thing. Luttrell gives fascinating insight into the training that SEALs endure and what it takes to fight and win modern wars. This book is practically guaranteed to bring you to tears, and keep you on the edge of your seat as Luttrell and his fellow warriors face vicious combat in the mountains of Afghanistan. He describes how fighting the Taliban is made more difficult by politicians, malicious media, and fickle public opinion, but he also describes the priceless value of close family, friends, and brother warriors. The combat is intense, the losses are heartbreaking, the determination is inspiring, and the lessons are invaluable. This is the best memoir of 21st century warfare that I have yet read.

To Fly and Fight: Memoirs of a Triple Ace by Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson tells the thrilling experiences of a man who flew a P-51 Mustang over Europe in WWII, and went on to become a test pilot and even fly missions over Vietnam. We get to feel the thrill and terror of a young pilot taking part in legendary air battles. Chuck Yeager, his fellow pilot, called Anderson a “mongoose” in an airplane, and “vicious” even though he was such a nice guy on the ground. The life of a fighter pilot with the experiences that Anderson had would be interesting either way, but he puts energy to his writing that makes the book all the more enjoyable. Because his career spanned such a broad timeframe, we also get insight into decades-worth of American military aviation development and tactics. As a person who is very interested in the role of airpower in war, I can say that this is the best all-around combat pilot’s memoir that I have read.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge gives us a glimpse of the fighting conditions experienced by the Marines in the Pacific theater of WWII. He started out learning from the “old breed” of Marines, but gradually became a battle-hardened veteran in an environment where sanity was difficult to maintain. The Japanese were a savage adversary, and often fought to the bitter end from their island entrenchments. From a critical lack of water in the sweltering heat, to staring at the same grinning corpse day after day, Sledge’s experiences were effectively and hauntingly put on paper to help us remember what our veterans went through. The less-serious moments balance this powerful account well, and help to make it one of the undisputed classics of war. As far as I’m concerned, Sledge describes the most difficult and horrific fighting conditions of any combat memoir I’ve read.

Seven Roads to Hell: A Screaming Eagle at Bastogne by Donald R. Burgett is nearly unbelievable because there are so many stories in the book that are simply incredible. The 101st Airborne, more specifically Burgett and the guys he fought with, were among America’s premier fighting men in WWII. They were the best, and they knew it. At times I was almost feeling sorry for the Germans, because the “screaming eagles” were such aggressive warriors. Burgett described intense warfare, where audacity and training made up for many disadvantages. These young guys were cold killers, and they took the fight to the enemy. All four of Burgett’s memoirs from WWII are classics, but this one about Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne held out and fought hard despite being surrounded and freezing, is to-date the overall best combat memoir I have ever read.

I Rode with Stonewall: the War Experiences of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff by Henry Kyd Douglas is not only a first-hand account of the entire length of the American Civil War by a soldier from the South, and insight into one of the greatest American generals to ever live, it is also an action-packed account of combat from that era (which can be extremely rare to find). In this case, truth is indeed more interesting than fiction. We get a unique perspective of “Stonewall” Jackson, from him sleeping in church to his amazing battlefield accomplishments, along with a fresh perspective of many Southern generals who together made up the most formidable group of tacticians in that war. We see a human side to these guys when normally accounts of these men and their battles can seem quite dry to us 150 years later. Douglas is an interesting character in his own right with plenty of experiences and a Southern perspective that has helped to balance my own impressions of the conflict. Of all of the combat memoirs I’ve read, this one is perhaps the most fascinating, and is sure to be a pleasant surprise to most any person interested in the Civil War.

What combat memoirs would you recommend?

-Ben 8/25/13

The Lord of the Rings Book Review

It is rare that I get the distinct impression while reading a book that my opinion of it really does not matter. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is larger in scope than my ability to comprehend, and far deeper than I would ever explore. An attempt to “review” such a work of literature would be like attempting to review Homer’s Iliad, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, or the works of Shakespeare. When in the presence of genius, the most you can do is attempt to share your experience of it.

This was my second time through The Lord of the Rings. Since it has been almost 5 years now since my last reading, I figured it was time. I am no fantasy fan. As a military history buff, I typically get plenty of excitement out of the real world without studying the history and various problems of a pretend world. I make an exception for The Lord of the Rings. I think it must be the characters in the story that draw me in. Gandalf, Aragorn, and the great warriors have such command and wisdom that I feel like a Hobbit in their presence. I admire the crafty courage and unique cultures represented by Gimli and Legolas. The Hobbits can be the most frustrating to deal with, being evidently simple and out-of-touch, spending their time with things that seem to be such trifles in the large scope of things. And yet don’t they most represent us, and our tendency to speak out-of-turn and constantly think about our stomachs? The fact that Hobbits are the ones who end up saving the world is a reminder that even those who lack impressive skills and knowledge can still muster up enough courage to do the right thing when it counts.

When reading The Lord of the Rings, you find yourself in a world that just feels ancient. Tolkien took such loving care of his idea, and worked with it until it became something truly great. He created languages, and legends; histories of peoples and geography. Even the way that characters refer to each other and the names of various places reveals an understanding that Tolkien had for linguistics and the history of cultures. At times I can sense echoes of Beowulf or King Arthur. Through this story I gain a greater appreciation for old things and ages past. Even swords have history and stories behind them. The venerable towers and crumbling statues of kings leave the reader feeling young and inexperienced, and yet through reliance upon the wisdom of the old ones we can better understand what came before us and why it matters. We acquire an appreciation for natural things as well while reading Tolkien’s story. Forests are magical places that have moods all their own. The imagination can picture wide open spaces with majestic mountains, or cavernous passageways that lead deep into the earth, or a small forest clearing with friends gathered around a crackling fire. We follow our heroes running long distances hunting Orcs, while others gallop along on magnificent steeds bearing crucial messages, while still others trudge slowly along with their packs and the help of good walking sticks. Reading this story gives me a desire to be outdoors, and maybe even throw a few things in a backpack and wander down a trail or jog to a friend’s house.

The battles in this story are impressive to say the least.

Tolkien illustrates the timeless struggle between good and evil. Another reason I think many of us find satisfaction in reading these books is that if we must have enemies, we desire them to be obviously evil. If only bad guys were all as repulsive as Orcs! If only the presence of evil always brought a shadow or a chill, then we could more easily avoid it. How many important battles do we lose in our lives simply because we do not recognize what is at stake and fail to fight with all our strength against the Enemy?

Another appealing concept that is found in this story is genuine friendship and camaraderie. Someone could spend a large amount of time simply discussing the bond between Frodo and Sam. How is it that Sam (Frodo’s gardener) could be so sacrificial and subservient to his “master” Frodo? Why is it that as independent-minded as I tend to be, I find that I have a deep desire to serve someone with similar dedication? A life with that sort of clarity of purpose would be worth trading my independence for. Perhaps Christ has programmed me at a deep level to serve Him, and Tolkien is somehow able to draw out this feeling.

As the Ents might say, I must not be hasty in reading this story if I hope to get the most out of it. We need to look for opportunities nowadays to fight actively against our impatience. Reading The Lord of the Rings is a delightfully rewarding way to do it. It requires extra effort on my part to get through the “slow” sections of these books. But is that not healthy? By the end of the story I am thinking fondly of the entire saga. I think that the reason why it is difficult to restrain tears when Sam and Frodo wake up in their beds with their mission accomplished is because I have taken that long laborious journey with them, and therefore I can feel their inexpressible joy. Regardless of my personal struggles with impatience, I cannot help but be in awe of the quality of Tolkien’s writing. Even as I sigh my way through another lengthy elvish poem, I remember that the poems and songs reflect people, places, and history that are essential parts of the overall masterpiece. Cutting corners would lessen the reward. I am grateful that Tolkien took the time to give this great literary gift to the world.

If you have never read The Lord of the Rings, I encourage you to do it. I can assure you that by the time you have finished the trilogy, you will be glad that you did. Take your time. Find a comfortable chair in the peace and quiet, and journey to a distant place that will broaden your mind, stir your imagination, and give you a truly wonderful adventure.

-Ben 4/17/13