Let Me Refer You ...

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone. (Oxford University Press, 1997, 1,786 pages, $125)

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, edited by Howard Clark Kee et al. (Cambridge University Press, 1997, 616 pages, $45)

The Heart of Catholicism: Essential Writings of the Church from St. Paul to John Paul II, edited by Theodore James. (Our Sunday Visitor Books, 1997, 751 pages, $39.95)

The excess of information available today means that recourse to reliable sources is necessary in order to check facts or to understand the wider context. Happily, it is becoming easier for the interested layman or parish office to create a small yet wide-ranging reference library without incurring prohibitive expense. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and perhaps the new Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine (Our Sunday Visitor) would belong in such a collection. The three reference works reviewed here are of the kind that might be considered by interested laymen, parish librarians, catechists, university students, or seminarians.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church first appeared in 1957, edited by the late F.L. Cross, and a second edition came out in 1974. This third edition is the best of the lot, and is as fine a reference work as is available anywhere.

As a dictionary it will not furnish enough material for a term paper on Christianity in Indonesia or for a homily on the Fall of man, but it provides a pithy summary. Extensive bibliographical notes also make it a good place to start a deeper inquiry — it tells you what to read on Indonesia, and that belief in the Fall was defined de fide by the Council of Trent. Want to know what de fide means? Look it up: It gives the definition in one careful sentence.

The economical prose conveys the relevant information in a few words. The nearly 1,800 pages therefore provide enough space to cover everything that ought to be covered. I keep it on my desk at the seminary, regularly looking up material that arises in class, and not once have I been stymied.

It is a dictionary of the Church, understood as including all of Christianity, but the dictionary focuses on those communities that consider themselves in the catholic tradition, principally Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans, Calvinists, and Lutherans. While the dictionary is largely an Anglican project, it is scrupulously fair to others. For example, the entry on contraception makes it clear that patristic teaching was against it, and that it was the 1930 Lambeth Council (Anglican) that changed the ancient Christian consensus.

The Dictionary cannot be taken as a doctrinal reference though, as its format does not allow for the technical precision required to explicate doctrine. Rather it richly mines the Church's history and introduces thousands of saints and sinners who have influenced the history of the Church.

It is sturdy but not cumbersome, even at its great size, and has a beautiful dust jacket with a detail from the Lady Chapel windows at Ely, the magnificent 11th century monastery seized during the reign of Henry VIII. You will want it on your bookshelf whenever you next wonder what a baldachino is, or what St. Elmo's fire really means.

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible is not a standard biblical dictionary, and is comprised not of thousands of alphabetical entries, but a series of chapter-length essays on the theological, historical, cultural, and literary context of the biblical books. It is not a quick reference book as much as a useful introductory textbook to biblical scholarship. The essays provide insight and color, but are probably beyond the needs of most parishes and interested laymen, and do not always align with the Church's interpretation of the Bible. The frequent sidebars are a good feature, explaining in a few paragraphs varied topics such as the climate of Palestine, the Tetragrammaton, the Son of Man, and the tradition of stoning.

The Companion is afflicted with the usual posture of modern biblical scholarship that annoys most pious readers. It indulges in the silliness of using B.C.E. and C.E. (“before the common era” and “in the common era”) instead of B.C. and A.D., even as it explains that it is the birth of Christ that divides the two. In its attempt to maintain its critical academic approach, it uses expressions such as “the Jesus tradition” and refers to the Gospels as “not objective reports but propaganda.” Of course they are that in a certain sense, but they are also much more than that, otherwise nobody would be interested in reading the Bible today, or buying companions thereto.

Theodore James' compilation of key Catholic writings, The Heart of Catholicism, is an odd reference book. It lacks a sufficiently detailed subject index, and so there needs be a lot of flipping around to lay hold of an answer to a specific inquiry. And of course one volume alone does not pretend to be comprehensive. Yet this book, apparently a novel idea, might be just the right thing for someone who wants to know some of best things said by the best Catholic writers down through the centuries.

James has excerpted a few pages from classic texts from the early Church, through the patristic and medieval periods up to our own day, including writers such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Whether it is the Didache recording apostolic practice, Boethius on the Trinity, Dante's Paradiso, St. John of the Cross on the spiritual life, or Paul VI on sexual morality, the book testifies that the heart of Catholicism has been beating a long time, and still beats strong.

The excerpts are short, but long enough to give a sense of the main point being made. A book such as this can do no better than leaving readers wanting more. But even on its own, it does well to introduce Catholics to the majesty of their own tradition — the living tradition against which all new information must be measured against.

Raymond de Souza, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, writes from Rome.