Some books I’ve recently read
March 8, 2016
Here are some book that I have recently read. I have written a mini-review for each.
Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (HarperCollins Publishers)
Richard McBrien (1936-2015) was a longtime professor of theology at Notre Dame and best known for his lengthy, textbook-like tome, Catholicism. McBrien is representative of the “spirit of Vatican II” crowd in Catholic academia, causing some tension with those who preferred to stress continuity between V2 and the magisterial tradition of previous centuries — an emphasis found in the writings and actions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In short, McBrien was a “liberal” in the relative sense of these post-V2 debates.
This book is well-written and engaging. As McBrien writes in the preface, it was written for theology students and seminarians, as a sort of guidebook to Catholic ecclesiology. It does, however, presuppose a fair amount from the reader, even though it is not a difficult book to read. If you have zero knowledge or interest in Catholic ecclesiological debates of the past two centuries, then you will probably snooze after the first few pages.
My major criticism is that McBrien is wholly invested in modern ecclesiology and the discussions surrounding Vatican II. The large majority of citations are from this council and from his favorite contemporary ecclesiologists, such as Yves Congar. Why is this a criticism? Because it is very limited. McBrien doesn’t come close to communicating the breadth and depth of the Catholic doctrine of the church. There is very (very!) little resourcement of theologians, councils, popes, mystics, etc., prior to the 19th century. In this regard, McBrien is not nearly as satisfying as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (3rd edition, WJK Press)
John Leith (1919-2002) was a longtime professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. This 700+ page volume is very helpful. You can see the table of contents at Amazon. I am not aware of a comparable single volume that includes this much material, expertly selected by Leith and including brief introductions. It can serve as an excellent companion to Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church, now in its fourth edition. Leith’s volume is focused on doctrine, including creeds, confessions, conciliar decrees, papal decrees, and the like. In addition to the wealth of Protestant documents, there is also a generous selection of “modern” Roman Catholic documents (Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, Vatican II) and less common documents such as The Confession of Dositheus from the Eastern Orthodox in the late 17th century.
Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press / Baker Publishing Group)
It is hard to evaluate this book. I am sure that there is an audience for this, but I found the shortcomings too significant for me. The book is formatted as a dialog between a Catholic and Protestant, who were in fact once classmates in college. Longenecker is a convert to Catholicism and now a priest in South Carolina. Forewords are provided by Richard John Neuhaus and J. I. Packer. I greatly appreciate the civil tone throughout, and there is a genuine search for truth and clarity. But the dialog format, while perhaps increasing the accessibility of the volume for a larger audience, severely limits the scholarship necessary for arguing the points in dispute. However, for the Protestant who is new to Mariology (i.e., 99% of Protestants), I can see how this volume could be very helpful as an introduction and incentive toward further study.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was a prominent Dutch-American theologian and church leader in the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for his Systematic Theology, which is still widely recommended among Calvinists in America. Full disclosure: I did not read the whole volume, and I am sure that I never will. But I believe that I read enough to evaluate its merits.
There are indeed merits to this volume. It is eminently clear, concise, and sober. If you are seeking a one-stop shop for scholastic Reformed orthodoxy, then this is probably as good as you will find. My criticisms have much to do with my own prejudices. Insofar as the volume attempts to go beyond a mere restatement of received orthodoxy and venture into actual demonstrations and defenses of said orthodoxy, the shortcomings are massive. And when it comes to modern theology, including Barth in his early period, then Berkhof has little to offer and the little can be misleading. Admittedly, Berkhof was writing when the whole “dialectical” movement was nascent and not altogether coherent, eventually fracturing.
St. John of the Cross, John of the Cross: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press)
I had read John of the Cross years ago — his renowned Dark Night of the Soul. But this was my first time reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which is featured alongside other important works in this volume from Kieran Kavanaugh, a disciple of John in the Discalced Carmelite religious order. I greatly benefited from Dark Night when I first read it. It is hard-hitting to say the least, but The Ascent is even more hard-hitting. At least, that was my impression. John of the Cross comes dangerously close to a Manichean obsession with creation’s propensity for evil by way of creaturely attachment. This is not uncommon among the most serious of mystics (not, by the way, your garden-variety Episcopal eco-feminist’s pseudo-mysticism). However, John has an aesthetic sense that is wonderfully expressed in the poetry upon which these writings are but commentaries. On the whole, John is as enigmatic as Simone Weil, with the same tension between the Cross and the Glory.
Maren Morris, “My Church”
I love this song! This is Maren’s debut single, and it has been moving quickly up the Country Airplay chart.