Books for Christmas – 2020

George Weigel

How bad a year has it been? Let me not count the ways. Good books can hearten us in 2021 and beyond, though. Herewith, then, some suggestions for Christmastide book-giving: 

Prison Journal, Volume 1, by Cardinal George Pell (Ignatius Press): The remarkable spiritual diaries of an innocent man who would not be broken, who refused to be embittered, and who finally bested a corrupt media/legal complex hellbent on ruining him.  

American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Joshua Mitchell (Encounter Books): A highly original analysis of what ails America and an intriguing proposal for a biblically informed Great Awakening that can redeem us from the scapegoating now destroying the Republic’s cultural fabric.   

What It Means To Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, by O. Carter Snead (Harvard University Press): A dissection of the false ideas of the human person that warp public policy today and the outline of a truly humanistic alternative. Professor Snead’s book should inspire everyone who believes there is more to freedom than doing things “my way” – and it might persuade some who haven’t understood that yet. Brilliant and entirely accessible.   

Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council, by Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Ignatius Press): Exceptionally timely, given the torrent of nonsensical, conspiracy-mongering commentary now impeding Catholic efforts to live Vatican II’s teachings through the New Evangelization. Father Nichols’s book should be required reading in every seminary and every parish’s Christian Initiation program.   

Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, by Russell Shaw (Ignatius Press): The online and social media “debates” about the Catholic future are too often rebarbative because the combatants are woefully ignorant of the recent Catholic past that helps account for the Catholic present. I tried to do something about this in my 2019 book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History; Russell Shaw covers similar historical territory much more succinctly in this useful primer on How Catholics Got Where We Are Today.

Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, by Scott Hahn with Emily Stimpson Chapman (Emmaus Road Publishing): It’s a sad fact of pastoral life that the Church’s pastors have largely ceased to talk about death: what death is for the Christian; what the “resurrection of the body” means for the future and for now; why the burial of the dead is, from a Christian point of view, preferable to cremation. Biblical scholar Hahn and co-author Chapman discuss these crucial topics with sensitivity to the traditions of Christian orthodoxy and the confusions of the present. Lots of apt Lenten homiletic material here; good spiritual reading, too.   

A Most English Princess, by Clare McHugh (William Morrow): An impressive first novel about “Vicky,” daughter of Queen Victoria, and her marriage to the ill-starred “Fritz” Hohenzollern (the future German Emperor Frederick III), whose premature death was one of the factors leading to that civilizational catastrophe known as World War I.   

Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, by Ashley Rogers Berner (Palgrave Macmillan): The next few years are going to be tough for the advocates of school choice. They should take comfort, and intellectual firepower, from this carefully reasoned argument that the virtual monopoly of state funds by government-run elementary and secondary schools is ill-serving future citizens, their families, and the American Republic. Without shirking difficult issues, Hopkins professor Berner makes a powerful plea for achieving serious educational reform by making a wider range of educational options more available to parents, especially poor parents.  

100 Ways John Paul II Changed the World, by Patrick Novecosky (Our Sunday Visitor): A concise introduction to the extraordinary achievement of John Paul II and an invitation to dig deeper into his life and teaching; especially helpful for young adults who have no memory of the great Polish pontiff.  

Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Review, Bits, by Joseph Epstein (Axios): A cornucopia of insight and wit from one of America’s most engaging authors (and the best lunch companion imaginable). 

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh (Back Bay Books): Why not mark the end of a hallucinatory year with a hilarious tale about a victim of hallucinations?  

And then there is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (Ignatius Press), which is also about every Catholic’s responsibility for the New Evangelization. I wrote it as a hopeful pointer into the Catholic future, and I’ve been pleased by those who’ve told me that’s what they found in it: hope for the future, amidst great challenges. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!