With summer upon us, the Register offers reviews of books by frequent contributors to our newspaper. Jennifer Fulwiler, Randy Hain, Father Dwight Longenecker and Christopher White’s writing has all appeared in these pages and online. Now, we consider their latest books. Happy summer reading!
SOMETHING OTHER THAN GOD
How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It
By Jennifer Fulwiler
Ignatius Press, 2014
256 pages, $22.95
To order: ignatius.com
BY JEANETTE De MELO
AND RACHEL ZAMARRON
"The longest distance in the world is from the head to the heart," so the saying goes. It’s just such a journey that Jennifer Fulwiler chronicles in her memoir, Something Other Than God. The story begins with Jennifer rejecting Jesus at an east Texas summer camp. With camp counselors and her peers waiting eagerly for her to be "saved," the young camper responds: "Can I think about it?" Little did she know then that she would spend many years thinking about it, until she finally found herself in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jennifer grew up in a home that valued thinking. Her father was an atheist; her mother was agnostic, and they encouraged their only daughter to explore the world through reason. After her awkward experience with Christians at camp, 11-year-old Jennifer admitted, "For the first time, I assigned to myself a label, a single word that defined me: atheist."
Yet it wasn’t long after that moment that a heavy thought set in: that this life was all there is, and one day we’ll all die and be nothing more than cold, lifeless fossils.
Soon, to squash the "awful feelings" brought on by her deep existential questions, Jennifer begins avoiding Christians and chasing "moments of happiness."
Then Jennifer meets Joe, a brilliant Ivy League lawyer and a Christian (though he hadn’t been to church in years). The two are a perfect match. While Jennifer can’t wrap her head around Joe’s belief in Jesus, she falls for Joe; and, soon, matters of the heart push her into asking existential questions again.
After the birth of her first child, she finds her atheism challenged, and her journey toward Christianity and Catholicism begin.
Something Other Than God is a captivating read. As the wide audience on her well-read blog at ConversionDiary.com attests, Fulwiler is an engaging and vivid storyteller. Her book — which was five years in the making — tells, with humor and depth, her quest for truth and her effort to find meaning in her life experiences — which include giving up a successful career as a programmer, supporting her husband in starting his own business, converting to Catholicism, birthing six kids in 10 years and suffering through complicated health issues.
One striking part of the Fulwilers’ story is how the Divine was pursuing them, especially through their encounters with Christians who were placed in their lives at critical moments.
Something Other Than God brings to mind what Madeleine L’Engle once wrote: "We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."
Jennifer found this light in the Bible, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine and even her blog readers.
The Fulwilers eventually found answers to their questions about life’s meaning in the Catholic Church. It was not a sudden whim, but took years of investigation.
Jennifer’s faith journey isn’t simply an intellectual assent to the truth of Catholicism; it is an encounter with persons who are Christians and then with Christ himself. In a moment of grace and forgiveness, at her first confession, we see Jennifer circle back all the way to summer camp, as she weeps tears of remorse for her rejection of Jesus as a young girl.
Ultimately, her story makes the words of C.S. Lewis come to life: "All that we call human history … [is] the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy." Thus, the book’s title.
This memoir brings both laughter and tears to readers. It is for those who question and for those who think they already know. Most of all, it’s for those who seek true happiness — and don’t we all?
Jeanette De Melo is the editor in chief of the Register.
Rachel Zamarron is the Register’s customer-service representative.
JOURNEY TO HEAVEN
A Road Map for Catholic Men
By Randy Hain
Emmaus Road, 2014
270 pages, $13.95
To order: emmausroad.org
Being a True Man
BY MATTHEW A. RAREY
Manhood is in critical condition, under attack from without and often misunderstood from within.
Media depictions of men tend to be unmanly. Even when many men think they are being manly, are they really? Often, men are seen making a sacrament of sports and cheap beer, acquiring ever-wider TV screens and leaving religious practice and instruction of children to women.
And even in the Church, many an altar-server guild has become a girls’ club, dissuading young boys from serving at the altar themselves, the common first step to realizing a priestly vocation.
Even devout Catholic men can find it hard knowing what exactly is required of them as men who profess the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.
"The popes have written extensively to women in recent times. Perhaps they’re compensating for the fact that women can’t become priests, so it’s important for the Church amidst accusations of sexism to highlight what St. John Paul II called ‘the feminine genius.’ And that’s wonderful. But I think they’re forgetting that 99.9 percent (more or less) of us Catholic men aren’t priests either. Which leads me to the question: Where’s our apostolic letter?"
So asks Chris Stefanick, who is described by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia as "one of the most engaging young defenders of the Christian faith on the scene today." Stefanick is one of many men whom Randy Hain interviews in his readable exposition of what it means not only to be men, but specifically Catholic men: Journey to Heaven: A Road Map for Catholic Men.
As Hain writes, "As Catholic men, we know our vocation is to help our families get to heaven. … In our heavenly Father, in St. Joseph, in countless other saints and in a few courageous men of today, we have excellent role models to follow. The Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church offer us well-defined teaching, and the Church gives us access to the sacramental life. We know what we are supposed to do and have all the resources we need, yet many of us are still struggling."
Hain, an Atlanta businessman, father of two boys and Catholic convert who related his conversion in last year’s Along the Way, provides a clear road map for Catholic men to be the spiritual fathers they are called to be in imitation of God the Father — he addresses all men, but especially husbands and fathers and those who aspire to that vocation, this reviewer included. He does so in concisely organized chapters addressing different facets of this journey, grouped under the subjects of faith, family and work, as well as life in the public square.
Specific challenges to being true Catholic men are addressed, from the scourge of pornography to the tendency of some men to focus so much on being good providers that they neglect to be good husbands and fathers.
Hain writes a new book every year or so, and this is my favorite so far. It is a keeper. Copies already have been given to friends striving to be good Catholic men, whatever their walk in this passing world.
Matthew A. Rarey
writes from Chicago.
THE ROMANCE OF RELIGION
Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty
By Dwight Longenecker
Thomas Nelson, 2014
240 pages, $15.99
To order: amazon.com
The Story of Faith
BY CLARE WALKER
The modern world is post-Christian and, in many ways, post-rational. Appeals to reason and morality convince almost nobody these days, and of the Big Three — Goodness, Truth and Beauty — Beauty is the only thing left with which to convince modern cynical men and women about the Truth and Goodness of the Christian faith.
Father Dwight Longenecker argues that Beauty in the form of great romantic stories can awaken a person’s receptivity to Truth and Goodness.
The "romance" Father Longenecker refers to in The Romance of Religion is not the trashy-novel kind published by Harlequin and sold in the grocery store. He uses the word "romance" in the literary sense: a narrative depicting heroic deeds, fanciful exploits, fantastic characters and settings and a lofty goal or quest.
"A fine romance," he writes, "is a good story — a story, like all good stories everywhere and at every time, that reveals eternal truth within a gripping tale. We are entranced by a good story because the plot is slick and the storyteller skilled. We are captivated by a good story because it incarnates the truth. A good storyteller locks the truth so tightly into the story that you cannot get at the truth without telling the story."
Christianity, he argues, is that kind of story — the beauty of it embodies and teaches truth and goodness.
In defending the truth of the Christian story, Father provides a refreshing and entertaining rebuttal to the slew of "debunking Jesus" theories out there and the inevitable lineup of Easter-time television documentaries that claim to dig up the "real historical Jesus," thereby supposedly exposing Christianity as a hoax.
Putting the scholarly debunkers in the same camp as alien-abduction believers, Father Longenecker writes, "Faced with the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, like any conspiracy theorist, the scholar believes that the ‘evidence’ is faked. Then he comes up with a theory for ‘what really happened’ and makes all the facts fit — even if real evidence has to be ignored, dates twisted, witnesses discredited, documents ignored, facts forced into fiction and extravagant theories of government cover-ups fabricated out of thin air."
As an example, "[Some] theorists say that Jesus Christ was only a spirit being anyway, and it was only his body that died on the cross, and so his body was just an illusion. It was not real. Therefore, his death was not death; it was only him throwing away a bit of trashy material stuff so that he could emerge as the spirit being he always was. And this from people who find the supernatural answer that he rose from the dead too hard to believe."
Father Longenecker also addresses the fact that elements of the Christian story seem to echo the myths of other cultures and how Christians can respond to this apparently damning indictment against the truth of the Christian story. A note for future editions, if any are planned: The book’s usefulness as an apologetics resource would have been improved by the inclusion of a more thorough bibliography of the source material for the various theories put forward to "disprove" Christianity.
Father Longenecker’s book is essentially a long reflection on C.S. Lewis’ famous assertion that Christianity is "a myth that really happened," a great story that came true. Written with exuberance and love of metaphor, reading his book is a bit like riding a roller coaster in the dark: You’re never quite sure where he’s going next, and it’s a bit disjointed, but it’s still enjoyable.
Clare Walker writes from
How the New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops Is Revitalizing the Catholic Church
By Anne Hendershott and Christopher White
Encounter Books, 2013
248 pages, $25.99
To order: encounterbooks.com
A Church ‘Renewal’
BY FATHER C. JOHN MCCLOSKEY
Anne Hendershott and Christopher White’s new book, Renewal: How the New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops Is Revitalizing the Catholic Church, delivers much more than even its title promises.
It may in fact deliver too much, in that excessive space is devoted to acquainting or reacquainting the reader with the names and stories of a multitude of bishops, priests, religious and academics — stories that include accounts of failings that I do not doubt are true but are not necessary.
Much more to the point is the book’s quotation from St. John Paul II on "the problem of democratization and the blurring of the distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained" from way back in 1987, when he was speaking on American soil: Discussing "… the danger of confusing the role of the clergy with that of the laity, the pope spoke supportively of the lay participation in parish life but warned [that by] ‘empowering the laity in ministry, we run the risk of clericalizing the laity and laicizing the clergy.’"
Here, I think the authors "get it," by using the pope’s words to convey that clericalism, whether exhibited by bishops, priests or laity, "must be changed so that the New Evangelization can be actualized, so the promise of the Council and the extraordinary run of holy and learned popes’ wishes are finally fulfilled."
As for that good news, as the authors do a nice job of documenting, vocations of priests and faithful religious are booming, and their average age is lowering.
In addition, we should remember the crucial importance of the laity to the vocation crisis: The good example of faithful Catholic families is the most effective way to ensure a growing number of such vocations to the priesthood and religious life, not to mention raising up a new generation of laypeople living faithfully in the middle of the modern world.
Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and research fellow
of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.