Book review from The Movie Snob
From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, by Sohrab Ahmari (2019). The subtitle tells you most of what you need to know about this book. It’s an autobiographical conversion story. That may not be your cup of tea. But if you give it a chance, I think you’ll find it interesting, because Ahmari is a good writer and has an interesting background. He was born in Iran, and his childhood years there coincided with the early years of the Khomeini regime. Then his mother moved to America (Utah!) and took young Sohrab with her. His stories about growing up in America and trying out various left-wing ideologies are interesting. At 207 pages, it’s a quick read. I would have liked to learn more about Ahmari’s wife and what she thought of his becoming Catholic less than three years after they got hitched.
Book review from The Movie Snob.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (1996). How about a science-fiction novel about first contact with an alien species that is chock full of religious talk? That’s what The Sparrow is. In the near future, a radio telescope discovers unmistakable signs of intelligent alien life on a planet in the (relatively) nearby Alpha Centauri solar system. Remarkably, the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are the first to mobilize after this discovery, putting together a team of priests and lay people to pilot an asteroid-turned-starship to this alien world. The author’s style didn’t really grab me, especially the many scenes that I guess were supposed to be humorous. Also, the story takes a long time to get going because Russell starts out telling it on two tracks: the story of the discovery and mission preparation, and, some 50 years later, the story of the Jesuits’ attempt to figure out what went wrong by interviewing the mission’s sole survivor and returnee. But after bouncing between these two narratives for a while we eventually get to the first-contact adventure, and I must admit that part of the story held my attention. Although I can’t say I loved the book–there’s some fairly gruesome/lurid stuff in the first-contact-adventure part of the story–I sort of want to read the sequel to find out what happened next….
New from The Movie Snob.
The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty, by Steven D. Smith (2014). In this slim volume (171 pages, excluding endnotes), Smith sets out to correct what he views as the misleading conventional wisdom about the meaning of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment. (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”) He argues that the Framers did not intend the Clause to usher in a strictly secular state but rather to establish that the national government had no jurisdiction to mess with state establishments of religion or to infringe on people’s rights to worship as they chose. And he argues that the Supreme Court’s current incoherent religion jurisprudence is a result of straying from those original (limited) purposes. I thought it was an interesting, if dense, book, but it seems to underplay the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment and especially the Equal Protection Clause. Before the Civil War, yes, the states could have an established church or show favoritism to a religion (or religion in general). But once states had to give everyone the “equal protection of laws,” what did that mean for religious favoritism?
A new book review by The Movie Snob.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014). This beautiful novel is the story of a character who appeared around the edges of Robinson’s last two novels, Gilead and Home. Lila was born into impoverished and probably dire circumstances back in the early twentieth century. We don’t know much about those circumstances because when she was very young (but just old enough to remember) she was stolen (rescued?) by a vagabond woman called Doll. She grows up on the road with Doll, wandering around with other migrants and suffering through the lean years of the Depression. We follow Lila’s story until she’s a grown woman, and we leave off shortly before the events of Gilead pick up. Hers is a lonely and precarious existence, and Robinson convincingly portrays how someone raised in such conditions would think about the world. It is a really sad book, but I loved it.
A new book review from The Movie Snob.
Caesar’s Druids, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (2010). This densely written and highly academic book surprised me right off the bat in a couple of ways. First, I had no idea that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were “our richest textual source for ancient Druids.” I read the Gallic Wars not too long ago, and I barely remember a reference to the Druids. Second, I didn’t know that “there exists not one vestige of archaeological evidence that can be linked unequivocally to the Druids.” Thus, aside from Caesar and few scattered references in other ancient writers, we apparently know almost nothing about the Druids. As a result, this book is full of discussions of ancient tombs and treasures and places and human sacrifices that we do know some things about, plus a bunch of speculation that maybe these things had something to do with Druids. Or if not, maybe Druids did similar things anyway. So, it was kind of interesting to learn about some of these ancient stories and archaeological finds, but I don’t guess I learned a lot about the Druids. And no, contrary to Spinal Tap’s memorable song, the Druids didn’t have anything to do with Stonehenge.
Well, The Movie Snob set out to see Black Panther today, but the movie theater had some technical difficulties and it just wasn’t to be. So here’s a book review instead…
From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, by Kyle Harper (2013). How’s that for a grabby title–subtitle combination? Harper is associate professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, and he puts his knowledge of ancient Roman literature to good use as he explores—well, the Christian transformation of sexual morality in late antiquity. He starts with the state of affairs in the pagan Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D., and it is a pretty squalid state (by Christian standards). As he repeatedly emphasizes, it was a world built on slavery and the exploitation of slaves. Christianity had a revolutionary effect on many aspects of life, in sexual morality of course, but also in recognizing that every person, regardless of social status, has the ability and the duty to choose between good and evil. I thought it was a very interesting book.
A book review by The Movie Snob.
Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, by Anthony Esolen (Sophia Institute 2014). I found this book a let-down. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I think I was hoping for something like a legal brief. Something that would say, “Here are the principles of Catholic social teaching, and here is how we derive them from the more fundamental principles of the Faith and from the Bible.” But that’s not what this is. It’s largely a survey of the social writings of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). Esolen’s style isn’t logical and precise; it’s literary and emotional and reminds me a little of G.K. Chesterton. In sum, I didn’t find it particularly helpful.
The Movie Snob submits a book review.
A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Royal (Ignatius 2015). I don’t know exactly what Robert Royal’s background is, but he is amazingly knowledgeable about the Catholic Church and Catholic theology. This big old chunk of a book (588 pages) proves it. The first part of the book focuses on the trends and trendsetters in Catholic theology in the twentieth century, with special emphasis on Vatican II and the Church’s gradual embrace of modern techniques of Scripture study. That’s a lot of ground to cover in 357 pages, but it didn’t feel too superficial to me, and I found the discussion of Vatican II particularly interesting. The second part of the book is about Catholic writers of the twentieth century, mainly British and French. Most of the British folks were at least somewhat familiar to me—G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Graham Greene—but the French fellows were mostly unknown to me. Anyway, the book is not light reading, but if you have an interest in the topic, I think you will find it an excellent and well-written resource.
Book review from The Movie Snob.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (originally published 1927). I had never read any of Willa Cather’s work before, but I found this novel very moving and very beautiful. In the mid-1800s, the United States is consolidating its control over the area that would eventually become the State of New Mexico. The Catholic Church responds to these developments by sending a new missionary bishop to take charge of the area—a Frenchman named Jean Marie Latour. His life-long friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, accompanies him, and together the two clerics (who had previously been toiling in the mission fields of Ohio) experience the beauty and the mystery of the southwestern desert and its Mexican and Indian inhabitants. Michael Dirda sums it up well: “The most serenely beautiful of [Cather’s] books, it seems scarcely a novel at all, more a kind of New World pastoral, evoking the beauty of the desert Southwest, lamenting the passing of traditional Native culture, and glorifying the lives of two saintly Catholic missionaries as they spread their faith in a harsh land.” (Classics for Pleasure 255.) For my part, I add this book to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as my favorite “Catholic” novels.
The Movie Snob hasn’t been getting out to the movies, so here’s another book review:
Voyage to Alpha Centauri, by Michael D. O’Brien (Ignatius Press 2013). So what is Ignatius Press, reliable publisher of orthodox Catholic books, doing publishing this great big doorstop of a sci-fi novel? Well, because it has a lot of religion in it (of course). In the fairly near future, man has figured a way to build a spaceship capable of going more than half the speed of light. That puts Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to us, within striking distance—if you’re up for a voyage that will take nine years going out and nine years coming back. Anyhoo, the story is told from the perspective of one passenger on the giant spaceship that is built to make the voyage. There are lots of religious and philosophical asides, and there is also a lot of commentary on the surveillance state. It reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength a little bit. It’s a weird book, but interesting and definitely different.
A book review from The Movie Snob.
Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, by Holly Ordway (Ignatius 2010). Ignatius is a leading publisher of dependably orthodox Catholic books. That, together with the title of this book, tells you most of what you need to know about it. Ordway, an English professor, was a reflexive atheist for many years. But her curiosity and desire to know the truth of things led her into a series of conversations with her Christian fencing coach (of all people). Those conversations led to her conversion to Christianity and, ultimately, Catholicism. I thought it was an interesting and well-written story.
The Gospel of the Family: Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate of Marriage, Civil Re-Marriage, and Communion in the Church, by Juan Jose Perez-Soba and Stephan Kampowski (Ignatius 2014). This is no secret: The Catholic Church is struggling to propose its teachings about sex and marriage in a way that the modern world can even comprehend, let alone appreciate. According to the authors of this book, German Cardinal Walter Kasper has proposed that the Church should modify its long-standing practice and allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion after a penitential period. Cardinal Kasper cites the modern practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church and certain very old Christian texts in support. The authors of this book argue that Cardinal Kasper does not treat the evidence of ancient Christian practice fairly, and that an objective reading of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the Church’s present and long-standing practice goes back to the beginning of Christianity. They also argue that the Catholic teaching of the indissolubility of marriage is firmly rooted in good Christian theology. Finally, they argue that the Church has been terribly slow to build on Pope St. John Paul II’s extensive writings on the family. The crisis of the family in the modern world, they argue, is much deeper and broader than the narrow problem of the divorced-and-remarried. In their view, the Church is failing in its mission to teach the truth about love and marriage, to prepare engaged couples adequately for marriage, and to help newly married couples negotiate the crucial first several years of their marriage. They offer this book in the hope of influencing the upcoming Synod on the Family that is coming up later this year—next month, in fact.
Book review by The Movie Snob
Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography, by James Burge (Harper San Francisco 2003). In the immortal words of 70’s rock band Nazareth, love hurts, and nobody knew it better than the star-crossed couple of Peter Abelard and Heloise. I was familiar with the only bare outline of their story, which has survived through the centuries thanks to their preserved love letters, and I enjoyed learning more of the details in this well-written book. Abelard was the leading philosopher, professor, and rhetorician in early 12th century France, which apparently made him quite a celebrity in medieval terms. He became the tutor to the intelligent and attractive Heloise when he was about 36 and she about 20. The two fell madly in love, and she became pregnant. Despite their efforts to save her family’s honor, her uncle and guardian Fulbert eventually took action. He sent his henchman to attack Abelard in the middle of the night, and . . . well, if you want to know the rest, you’ll have to buy this book, or come ask me, or look it up on Wikipedia, or something.
A book review from The Movie Snob
Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger, by Michael S. Rose (Spence Publishing 2005). This slim volume (155 pages or so) is a short survey of Pope Benedict XVI’s career as a cleric with an eye to predicting the direction of his papacy. In so small a space, obviously only a few issues can be covered, but Rose’s coverage of those issues is interesting nonetheless. For example, he discusses Cardinal Ratzinger’s disagreement with Pope John Paul II over the mechanics of the 1986 interfaith meeting in Assisi, Italy, at which many Catholic churches were turned over to non-Christian religions for their own religious ceremonies, and perhaps broader disagreement over ecumenism generally. Rose also debunks the popular myth that, as a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI vigorously and unfairly persecuted dissenting Catholic theologians; the portrait that emerges is one of restraint, patience, and concern that due process be afforded anyone accused of teaching non-Catholic views under the guise of Catholicism. The Pope’s take on the sex-abuse scandals in America and the rise of radical Islam are briefly noted. On the whole, Rose leaves no doubt that Pope Benedict is not likely to introduce the innovations most agitated for by progressive quasi-Catholics in this country or abroad. A good, quick introduction to the thought of the new Pope.