Saturday, January 9, 2016

Best Books Read in 2015, Part One

On-line journals and blogs are posting their books of the year for 2015, like this column from The Catholic World Report. So here's part one of my list of the best books I read in 2015:

Near the end of the year, I re-read long snippets of Brideshead Revisited, picking up the book to find the passages on Rex Mottram's attempted conversion for this submission to the Eighth Day Institute blog. Once you pick up that book, it's always hard to put it down, so I ended up breezing through it again.

Earlier in the year, I explored some aspects of the American Civil War dealing with death and theology, and enjoyed Mark A. Noll's explanation of the position of Catholics in the USA during Antebellum and after:

The lecture/chapter introducing Continental and American Catholic theologians commenting on slavery in America introduces some difficulties too. Catholics were in no position (see 5) above) to influence American culture, but they still had a problem when they did side with the American Evangelical Abolitionists, because that group was also very much in favor of the Italian antipapal forces working to take away the temporal kingdom of Pope Pius IX: "For American Catholics to show loyalty to the pope in his contemporary political turmoil was to invite the suspicion of those Americans who were most vocal in supporting the pope's opponents." When Catholics spoke against slavery, their arguments were rejected because the abolitionists believe that Catholics themselves were slaves, "abject slaves to their priests, bishops, and popes" and could not experience political liberty! Noll comments that the "Know-Nothings of the American Party were extreme, but they nonetheless represented a great swath of American opinion in their views . . ."

But on the Continent, Noll finds a "richer commentary", from what he terms "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics, both of whom argued that only the Catholic method of scriptural interpretation could guide Christians when facing new moral issues. Noll offers several examples from two major Catholic periodicals, the "Historical and Political Newspaper for Catholic Germany" and La Civilta cattolica (the Italian Jesuits' "Catholic Civilization") of their critiques of both the industrial North and the slave-holding South. These journals stated the opposite of what the abolitionists believed: only with Catholicism can one truly be free!

After talking about the "Whig interpretation of history" for years, I finally read Herbert Butterfield's famous analysis of The Whig Interpretation of History:

Butterfield uses the example of Reformation History under the whig theory throughout his essay: Protestantism defeated Catholicism and so now we have a better world. If Catholicism had won, we would be stuck in the Middle Ages, because of course the Catholic Church would always have prevented progress! It would have always been against science, freedom, development of peoples, etc. One might almost think that Butterfield was a Catholic from the way he defends the Catholic Church from this view of history, but no, he was a Methodist.

What Butterfield proposes for the historian to do is find out and tell--like a travel guide for people who will never travel to the places she describes--what life was like in the past. He wants the historian to describe the past, not judge it for its influence on the present.

Since I made two presentations on St. Thomas More in 2015, I read more both about and by More, including some of his apologetic works, including The Supplication for Souls, his defense of the practice of prayer for the dead in purgatory, which was

More's answer to Simon Fish's
Supplication of Beggars, in which Fish told Henry VIII that he was not in control of his country which is filled with poor beggars because of the priests whose demand for alms to pray and say Masses for the dead--a classic zero-sum view of salvation economy. According to Fish, if people are giving alms for prayers they aren't giving alms for the poor. More writes his answer representing the Poor Souls in Purgatory, who beg for prayers and penance from the living as they suffer for the effects of their sins on earth after death. . . .

Fish wants all the priests in England to be tied to carts, dragged through the streets, beaten, forced to marry, and get jobs. More asks, on behalf of the Poor Souls, how is this to be enforced, even if Henry would issue such commands. Are women to be forced to marry former priests? What jobs will they do? How will Fish prevent this sudden influx of unemployed priests from increasing the number of the poor? Has Fish really figured out the financial situation? What about all the poor the clergy and the Church assist everyday? What about the people the clergy employ--the builders, carpenters, laborers, etc? Where will they find employment? . . .

More takes each point of Fish's argument and counters it, several times revealing More's experience of legislation and his knowledge of the courts and the law to expose Fish's errors. There is none of the personal invective so often highlighted in discussions of More's apologetic or polemic works. More does employ exaggeration, mockery of Fish's ignorance, irony, and sarcasm. He offers scriptural examples and arguments from the Fathers, appealing to the authority of the Church through the centuries against these new views of Christian doctrine from Luther and Tyndale.

He ends the Supplication with pleas from the Poor Souls for prayers. They also advise the living on how to prepare for death by recounting their own regrets. They warn against preparing more for the funeral arrangements and less for death and judgment. They regret that they relied so much on comforts and luxuries in this life and did not do penance for their sins to expiate the temporal punishments that remained even after they repented and confessed their sins. They beg for our prayers and promise theirs for us once they are in heaven.

I found More's great final dialogue, written in the Tower of London, to be most insightful, faithful, and humane: A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation. I had two reasons for recommending this book. First: because we all face tribulation at some point in our lives and More offers good advice for how to deal with it. And:

Second, because reading this dialogue, which Gerard Wegemer calls one of More's greatest works in the introduction, helps the reader appreciate the wit and wisdom of Thomas More. Throughout the text, he demonstrates his knowledge of Scripture and the teaching of the Church. He also displays great experience both in secular life and in the spiritual life, understanding the realities of public life and the depths of private life. More knows the weaknesses of humanity: one example is his description of sinners kept awake by the thought of their sins and the need to amend their lives. Finally, they turn over their pillows, plump them up a little, get comfortable, and go back to sleep! More is also aware of the pitfalls of power and influence; no matter how much power and control a statesman may achieve, unless he is the monarch, there will be someone else who tells him what to do and how. Even as he fulfills his ambition to achieve higher and higher rank, he still encounters setbacks and tribulations.

By using the dialogue form, writing a fictional conversation between two characters, More thoroughly explores the themes of suffering and comfort. He also displays his humor through funny stories about people, like the nun who talks so much that her visiting brother can't get a word in; or the doctor who can cure others but not himself; or the prisoner who notes the incongruity of a visitor who locks herself in every night in her own house being upset that he is locked in his cell every night, or the man who plans to please him self during his life, planning to say words of repentance at the last moment to safe himself: his last words are "Well, I'll be damned", etc.

If we read this dialogue for its autobiographical insight, it shows us that Thomas More--just as he did in
The Sadness of Christ and just as he told Cromwell and his daughter Meg--was distancing himself from worldly cares and preparing for death. He was thinking about Jesus in His Passion and how he should imitate his Savior. Many of the anecdotes are about his family, including his wife Alice and adopted ward, Meg Giggs, so he was thinking about them too.

Finally for this post, I must mention how valuable I found the essays in The Cambridge Companion to Sir Thomas More, which I did not review on my blog, but referenced often in developing my two presentations this year. From the publisher:

This Companion offers a comprehensive introduction to the life and work of a major figure of the modern world. Combining breadth of coverage with depth, the book opens with essays on More's family, early life and education, his literary humanism, virtuoso rhetoric, illustrious public career and ferocious opposition to emergent Protestantism, and his fall from power, incarceration, trial and execution. These chapters are followed by in-depth studies of five of More's major works – Utopia, The History of King Richard the Third, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation and De Tristitia Christi – and a final essay on the varied responses to the man and his writings in his own and subsequent centuries. The volume provides an accessible overview of this fascinating figure to students and other interested readers, whilst also presenting, and in many areas extending, the most important modern scholarship on him.

More books (but no more More) tomorrow.

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