Books for Christmas

The most intellectually exciting book I read this past year was Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” (Eerdmans). Unfolding his research like a detective story and deploying the most contemporary scholarship on what actually counted as “history” in the ancient world, Professor Bauckham makes a powerful case that the Gospels may in fact put us in touch with those who knew the Lord, and certainly put us in touch with those who knew those who knew the Lord. Give it to any priest or deacon you know who preaches out of the “that didn’t really happen”/historical-critical playbook; but get yourself a copy, too.

Roman dissertations rarely become important books; even less frequently do they become readable books. A happy exception is Ralph Martin’s “Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization”(Eerdmans). Martin, a longtime proponent of Catholic evangelism, decided to look closely during his doctoral studies at what the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church really taught about God’s universal salvific will, and how that teaching had been interpreted (or more frequently, misinterpreted) as proposing a soggy and evangelically-sterile universalism. What Martin found is of prime importance for the new evangelization, which, like the council, puts the Gospel and its urgent demands at the center of Catholic faith.

Typically inspired by John Paul, the new Catholic feminism is flowering in the United States, another sign of the distinctive vitality of the American Church compared to the withered vineyard of Old Europe. Two recent books display this Catholic feminist counterculture at its most compelling. “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves”(Our Sunday Visitor), a collection of essays edited by legal scholar and pro-life activist Helen Alvaré, addresses a host of issues in the American culture war from the perspective of highly competent women committed to the truths the Church teaches about the moral life. In a different genre, but just as compelling, is Colleen Carroll Campbell’s beautifully crafted “spiritual memoir,” “My Sisters the Saints” (Image). A deeply personal reflection, it still, as Cardinal Francis George notes in his endorsement, “teaches a universal lesson: living free is different from being in control.”

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War continues, I’ve found myself dipping frequently into the never-ending torrent of books on what is called, south of the Potomac, the “recent unpleasantness.” Those who have never feasted on the American “Iliad,” Shelby Foote’s three-volume masterpiece, “The Civil War: A Narrative” (Random House), might treat themselves to a very large stocking-stuffer this year. The sesquicentennial also got me reading Jean Edward Smith’s “Grant” (Simon & Schuster), arguably the best biography of a now-ignored figure who for decades was considered by many Americans the equal of Washington and Lincoln. Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic” (Anchor Books) is not about the war, but rather about an entirely admirable Civil War veteran, James Garfield, who, much against his will, was elected president in 1880, only to fall to an assassin’s bullet a few months after his inauguration. Or did he? Millard makes a powerful (and chilling) case that Garfield was killed by his doctors, not by the lunatic Charles Guiteau. Emphatically not to be read in the hospital, but a great read in other circumstances.

Anne Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe1944-1956” (Doubleday) is a sobering and richly detailed look at how a hard totalitarianism was imposed east of the Elbe River in the aftermath of World War II, and a fitting complement to Applebaum’s highly-acclaimed study, “Gulag.” How the world Stalin tried to erase was created in the first millennium is the subject of Robert Louis Wilken’s new book, “The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity” (Yale): a masterwork from a master teacher.

And finally, let me mention Ronald Knox’s “Pastoral and Occasional Sermons” (Ignatius Press), a cornucopia of the pellucid, deeply insightful homilies of perhaps the greatest English-language preacher of the 20th century. Knox is unhappily forgotten in much of today’s Catholic Anglosphere; rediscovering him would do a world of good for homiletics, as it does for spiritual reading.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.