Why the Church Is Right, Then and Now
In our summer reading special, the Register recommends three books for your leisure-time reading: the centennial edition of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, with a new introduction by Newman scholar Sheridan Gilley, reviewed by Gerald Russello; Justin Fatica’s Hard as Nails: A Mission to Awaken Youth to the Power of God’s Love, reviewed by Judy Roberts; and The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser, reviewed by John Grondelski.
There's plenty to choose from when it comes to summer reading. But to help Register readers be more discerning, we offer three recently published books that are both entertaining and thoughtful.
One is a reprint of a classic: G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, originally published in 1908. Register reviewer Gerald Russello takes a look at the centenary edition, with its new introduction by Newman scholar Sheridan Gilley.
Justin Fatica has been making waves around the country with his unorthodox approach to youth ministry. Judy Roberts takes a look at his new book, Hard as Nails: A Mission to Awaken Youth to the Power of God's Love.
And, as summer vacation is inevitably followed by going back to school, John Grondelski recommends that parents of teenagers heading to college — and students themselves — consider a book by Edward Feser, The Last Superstition, that helps set the record straight on what philosophy really is.
A Different Path
Orthodoxy: A Centenary Edition
by G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton Institute Press, 2008
376 pages, $140
To order: (973) 275-2431
BY GERALD RUSSELLO
G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy is one of the most important works of Christian apologetics of the 20th century. What makes the book even more remarkable is that Chesterton (1874-1936) was not even a Catholic when he wrote it.
Orthodoxy, published in 1908, remains in a class by itself, conveying the romance and joy of faith in a way that has captured generations of readers. There Chesterton's style — a mix of wit and paradox girded by an underlying logical consistency — is perhaps at its best. This handsome centenary edition, with a substantial new introduction by Sheridan Gilley, reminds us of the abiding importance of Chesterton's work.
Gilley, a biographer of Cardinal John Henry Newman, reminds us that this book is a complement to Heretics, a book Chesterton had written in 1905, which was directed at current controversies. As an active journalist and critic, Chesterton engaged throughout his career with thinkers such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and others who espoused alternatives to Christianity. Heretics covered these figures head on. The problem with the modern heretic for Chesterton is that the heretic did not care whether what he believed was true. In the early days of Christianity, in contrast, both the heretic and the orthodox both believed they had the truth — they were simply convinced the other did not. This shift had taken the grounding out of the modern world; Orthodoxy was meant to show the way back.
The refusal to acknowledge the existence of truth was for Chesterton a core problem of the modern era. In his famous metaphor, modern man is like the lunatic in an asylum — so captured by his own small conception of reality that he cannot see the truth waiting beyond its gates. Orthodoxy presents the positive case for truth — not yet a specifically denominational truth, but one that is recognizably Christian and at odds with the fashionable thinking of the day.
And so it remains in our own day. Chesterton confronted advocates of new paganism, who wished to dismiss Christianity as outdated, irremediably gloomy or not "natural"; scientific materialism, who could see in transcendence only the hazy mists of an old fairy tale, to be dispersed with the light of reason; and political utopianism, who, in denying human imperfectibility and the reality of sin, sought to create heaven on earth through projects as varied as economic socialism or eugenics. The substitution of "nature" for moral truth is especially wrongheaded, for nature has no value that we do not put upon it."
Chesterton's overarching argument is that the modern liberal, in rebelling against everything, subverts his own premises: "The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a skeptic and will not trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist.... By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything." Chesterton addresses these arguments head on, rooted in defenses of traditional Christian doctrine.
Because it has a center, a set of truths that can be revealed through the proper use of reason and through revelation, Christianity can be truly revolutionary. Indeed, it has been one of the most revolutionary forces in world history. In contrast, for all its worth, the Roman and Greek intellectual and religious worlds out of which Christianity arose were stagnant; Chesterton has no patience for the argument made by historians such as Gibbon that Christianity caused the ancient world's fall.
In a way that the ancient pagan world could not, Christianity balances opposing emotions, establishing order "to give room for good things to run wild." Thus orthodoxy balances charity and justice, mercy and severity, pride and humility, celibacy and family. Indeed, Christianity must be balanced, for a slight shift in any direction must have dramatic consequences.
Chesterton therefore rewrites the sometimes abstract and seemingly irrelevant doctrinal disputes of the early Church as a grand adventure: "If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statutes in Europe. ... The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless."
Chesterton's arguments in this great work still provide a framework for addressing contemporary attacks on, and misunderstandings of, Christian faith. The current intellectual climate is filled with those who would replace Christianity with something else. Chesterton, through wit and brilliant prose, shows us a different path.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow
of the Chesterton Institute.
Reaching the Youth
Hard as Nails: A Mission to Awaken Youth to the Power of God's Love
by Justin Fatica
208 pages, $14
To order: (800) 726-0600
By JUDY ROBERTS
Justin Fatica gives fresh meaning — and muscle — to the term "Catholic youth ministry" in Hard as Nails, an autobiographical look at Hard as Nails, an unconventional outreach to young people.
Fatica's approach will astound and even unsettle Catholics accustomed to thinking of youth ministry in terms of pizza and volleyball.
His ideas, many of which he borrowed from successful evangelical Protestant ministries, get to the heart of the deep wounds afflicting many young people today.
"These kids face divorce, suicide, cutting, rape, anger, violence, prejudice and depression," he writes. "They are facing this pain every day, and someone needs to take an intense stand in defense of them."
In a book that combines his personal story and history of the ministry with letters and testimonies from those whom Hard as Nails has touched, Fatica tells how he preaches a plain, straightforward message to reconnect young people with Christ and the Church: "to love each other and to build each other up in the name of God and Jesus Christ." Although this may seem overly simple, when combined with Fatica's controversial methods, it gets results.
These methods include the "Cross Walk," in which youths relive the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary while listening to gospel rap and sound effects that simulate Christ's passion and death.
Hard as Nails, featured in the 2007 HBO film of the same name, grew out of Fatica's own struggles as a rebellious high school student. He tells in the book how he would steal and throw boulders off bridges onto cars, mostly out of boredom and lack of purpose.
During his junior year at a Catholic boys' school, he met his match in a 6-foot-tall priest whose "thick eyebrows met above his nose, creating a unibrow." After throwing Fatica out of class, the priest, Father Larry Richards, author of the book's afterword, told him, "Don't come back into my classroom until you realize your potential."
Meanwhile, Father Richards started praying for Fatica and later invited him to a Teens Encounter Christ retreat. There, Fatica had a dramatic conversion and soon after got involved with a youth ministry program. Later, as a college student, he began doing campus ministry work at Catholic high schools.
Upon graduating from college, he became a retreat coordinator and a ninth-grade religion teacher. In 2004, Hard as Nails Ministries was incorporated, drawing its name from Romans 5:8: "But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." Fatica chose the verse and the name Hard as Nails, because, he writes, "I was confident that the hardest thing to do in your life was to love those who had sinned against you."
Although both youths and adults often bristle at Fatica's aggressive style — he is described in the book as "loud, arrogant, obtrusive, raw and otherworldly engaging" — those touched by his ministry testify to its ability to help change lives ravaged by addiction, promiscuity and other behaviors. As a young woman named Marisa writes in the book, "I am so much more into prayer than I would have expected. God listens to me, and so do the people at Hard as Nails. ... I have stopped cutting myself, and I am focusing on God's love and helping others now."
Fatica won't win any writing awards for this book, but his uncomplicated style is highly engaging and likely best suited for those who most need to hear what he has to say.
Judy Roberts writes
from Graytown, Ohio.
The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism
by Edward Feser
St. Augustine's Press, 2008
299 pages, $27
To order: (800) 621-2736; in Illinois (773) 702-7000
BY JOHN M. GRONDESLKI
Edward Feser's thesis in The Last Superstition is both simple and bold: "Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought. More than any other intellectual factor ... this abandonment has contributed to the civilizational crisis through which the West has been living for several centuries, and which has accelerated massively in the last century or so."
What was lost in the turn against Aristotle? In technical terms: formal and final causality, the tension between act and potency, and natural law. Feser doesn't flee from using technical terms, but he makes these forgotten albeit commonsensical concepts completely understandable to the average reader. As he puts it: "Say of him what you will, [Aristotle] doesn't oversimplify things. But neither does he make them needlessly complicated. The structure of the world just happens to be as complex as he describes it, no more ... but no less either."
If you understand Aristotle, and Feser shows you just how commonsensical Aristotle really is, then you will necessarily understand why belief in God, an immortal soul, and natural law morality are all rational.
You will also comprehend why atheism, a purely materialistic evolution, and contemporary ethics do not make sense because they are, at root, irrational.
Far from being the redoubt of benighted fools, Feser shows that religion and natural morality are de-manded by rationality. It is modern atheism that is the last superstition, the final holdout of an irrational illusion clung to by those who will not let their minds lead them to what is right in front of their noses. "For secularism is, necessarily and inherently, a deeply irrational and immoral view of the world, and the more thoroughly it is assimilated by its adherents, the more thoroughly do they cut themselves off from the very possibility of rational and moral understanding."
In six exciting chapters, Feser demonstrates how and why Aristotelianism became the cornerstone of Occidental thought and why so many contemporary builders reject it. Far from fighting a rearguard action against the onslaught of modern barbarism, Feser argues that the best defense is a solid offense. For him, why that offense should succeed is clear: "In the hands of medieval Christians, Jews and Muslims, the work of Plato and Aristotle was used to demolish the intellectual foundations of the pagan culture that produced them. If resurrected today, it would do the same to the simultaneously newer and shabbier paganism that has supplanted the religious heritage of the West."
Though the book is academic, it is something for people of goodwill who want to understand why our culture is in the sorry shape it's in — and how to fix it.
It's for Catholics who have been robbed of their intellectual heritage, which includes the "spoils of Egypt" (and Greece).
Do you have a child or grandchild bound for college? Buy him this book and immunize him against the errors now hawked as "philosophy." More than anything else, Feser deserves praise for showing, in a comprehensible way, that philosophy makes sense and remains terribly relevant to how to live well in the world today.
John M. Grondelski writes
from Bern, Switzerland.
- May 31-June 6, 2009