Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too): A Book Review

There are lots of books that outline all the reasons one should give up atheism or other religions and become Catholic and with good reason: Because the path to the Catholic faith has its origins in many places and wends its way through a myriad of obstacles, challenges, and objections.

Brandon Vogt—one of the smartest, engaging, and energetic young Catholics out there—has written a new book, “Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too),” that offers his own take on why one should consider the Catholic faith, a take that is aimed directly at the “nones”, the large and growing percentage of mostly young Americans today who tell pollsters that they have no religious preference, and does so in a way that should appeal to a younger audience, characterizing becoming Catholic as a way of “joining the Rebellion”, rather than giving into a massive institution.

I’ll admit it’s a weird decision. It goes against the grain. It’s radical. It is, in a word, rebellious.

In this concise, yet compelling book, Brandon outlines the reasons why anyone seeking the truth should become Catholic, using arguments both old and new. Brandon is an engineer by training and a philosopher by avocation so it’s no surprise that the book and its arguments are laid out in a logical progression, from whether God exists, to the necessity of religion vs. pure spirituality, to the supremacy of Christianity over other religions, to the Catholic Church. Read More and Comment

Prince of Outcasts

This is a book review for those who have read the previous 12 books of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series of apocalyptic fiction, but haven’t read the 13th book in the series, The Prince of Outcasts. If you have not read the series, stop right now and go buy the first novel Dies the Fire or better yet, go buy the 11-volume bundle and get the discount now. You’ll end up reading the whole thing anyway.

As for the current book, we pick up where The Desert and the Blade left off, on the coast of southern California, a great storm suddenly sweeping one of our protagonists off to the West, leaving our other protagonist on shore, trying to figure out what she’s going to tell their Mother.

Like the fourth through 12th novels of the series, this 13th installment isn’t a single contained story. The first three books of the Emberverse were a trilogy, telling a complete story about the first generation of those who survived the Change. The next three told a classic “beginning/middle/end” quest story of the next generation, but they’re not the whole of that story.

The next four after that continue the tale of the second generation, but the pacing and plot shift. No longer are we moving forward in quest-style story, but we’re jumping around in time and place, back and forth across the continent. The pace of the action slows to a crawl. And that’s the sticking point for some fans. They’re so used to a different pace that this feels too slow. In fact, one of the books feels like it’s all about just a single battle!

Finally in the 10th book, the enemy that has been the focus of the previous six is confronted. What’s next?
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The Danger of Animal Rights

I just finished reading the science fiction novella, “The Vital Abyss”, by James S.A. Corey, which takes place in their “Expanse” milieu1. The story revolves around the fate of some scientists who engaged in the most horrific act of scientific malpractice in history, sacrificing millions of men, women, and children to an experiment.

At one point in the story, we see the main character, a scientists, as he undergoes intake processing for the project and through some kind of biological manipulation has his sense of morality removed. Essentially he and all the scientists are turned into psychopaths. The recruiter tries to explain to the protagonist through the lens of whether animal testing is okay:

“The idea that animal suffering is less important that human suffering is a religious one. It assumes a special creation, and that we—you and I—are different in kind than other animals. We are morally separate from rats or horses or chimps, not based on any particular physical difference between us, but just because we claim that we’re sacred by our nature and have dominion over them. It’s a story we tell that lets us do what we do. Consider the question without that filter, and it looks very different.

“You said there’s an ethical obligation to avoid unnecessary suffering. I agree. That’s why getting good data is our primary responsibility. Good experimental design, deep datasets, parallel studies whenever they don’t interfere. Bad data is just another way of saying needless suffering. And torturing rats to see how humans would respond? It’s terrible data because rats aren’t humans any more than pigeons are horses.”

“Wait, so you’re… are you saying that skipping animal testing entirely and going straight to human trials is… is more ethical?” “We are the animal we’re trying to build a protocol for. It’s where we’d get the best data. And better data means less suffering in the long run. More human suffering, maybe, but less suffering overall. And we wouldn’t have to labor under the hypocrisy of understanding evolution and also pretending there’s some kind of firewall between us and other mammals. That sounds restful, don’t you think?”

I realized as I read this that here is what’s fundamentally wrong with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and all the other animal rights groups out there.

What they all miss is that when you erase the distinction between humans and animals, you aren’t elevating animals so they can be treated like humans.

What would inevitably happen if the distinction between human and animal was erased is that humans would be treated like animals. Again. Like too often in history.

  1. Which has been made into a hit TV series on SyFy.

Disciplining Children, the Little House Way

No matter how much times change, human nature remains the same. Thus the lessons of child rearing we see in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, as explicated in this Crisis article, remain applicable today:

  1. Children need clear boundaries.
  2. They need consequences for transgressing those boundaries.
  3. They need to know trust is earned and can be lost and must be earned back.
  4. They need to be able to trust their parents not to be cruel or capricious, to love and respect them, not to ridicule them or hold them up for public mockery.
  5. They need to know that discipline is not just an anger response, but can be accompanied by love, caring, comforting, and even shared laughter. But it still must be discipline.

Although the Ingalls family lived in the nineteenth century, they still set an example for the twenty-first-century families who are faced with the knowledge of one thing that does not change: Children make mistakes. Knowing this, adults in positions of authority who want to discipline children with dignity can do what Pa and Ma did.

We can set clear boundaries. We can listen. We can talk privately and confidentially with the child. We can ask questions to help us better understand what happened. We can calmly determine sensible and just consequences—without forgetting to smile. We can believe the child can and will do better.

I don’t always live up to these ideals.

As I’ve heard snippets of the Little House books in recent years–in audiobooks during car rides, as Melanie reads aloud to the kids, and as Isabella has read them aloud to me–I’ve been impressed by the life lessons found there, whether about the dangers of the world, the way to be a family, or fair dealings in a market-based society.

Wanted: Literary Director to Pick My Next Book

literary director

There are life coaches for helping you get your life in order and to plan out your career path. There are personal trainers to help you get physically fit or in shape for a fitness challenge. There are spiritual directors who help you to pray and improve your relationship with God.

I want a literary director.

I want someone to help me choose what books to read based on my personal interests, what I’ve already read, what I have sitting unread on my bookshelves and in my Kindle, and what will best serve me in the future.

Right now, I choose my books to read haphazardly. Of course, Melanie has her suggestions; she’s a former English professor and book nerd, after all. And she’s made some good suggestions, including the works of one her favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay. But I’m not sure she can be completely objective. Don’t get me wrong; I know she loves me, but as a book nerd I think it may be tempting to recommend what she likes rather than what I should read right now.

I also get book suggestions from Goodreads, seeing what my friends there are reading and have read. I listen to a lot of podcasts and many of them will suggest books occasionally. Some of my favorite recent books have been found that way, including books about winemaking in France and a new science fiction series. Sometimes they come from an Amazon recommendation or a newspaper article.

What I want is a disinterested, objective third party who will assess the corpus of books I have read, my current reading interests and hobbies, and my personal objectives in life to help me create a reading list. There are the books I read for fun, including a number of ongoing series: the Tom Clancy novels being written under his name posthumously, Star Wars and Star Trek novels; as well as books by favored authors like Naomi Novik. There are the books I read for fun and edification on topics like the history of the Crusades or on the Guinness family or the maple syrup industry. There are books for spiritual and personal growth, including papal documents and philosophical and theological texts. And books that help me in my job that cover communications and social media and writing.

But there are only so many hours in the day! And so many good books that I keep adding to the list! Just this morning I was listening to the Word on Fire podcast where Bishop Robert Barron gives a list of good books to read on philosophy and I was thinking how I’d like to read some of them.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I often hear from friends about their massive piles of unread books and wondering how to make it through them all.

So if you’re someone who loves books, but can set aside your own preferences in order to help others reach their goals, I think there may be a career waiting for you as a literary director. And I may be your first client.

Now, literary director, should I read this new Star Wars novelization about General Leia or St. Augustine’s Confessions next?

Update: I find I need to clarify. I’m not looking for book recommendations. I have no dearth of books I want to read. I have piles and piles of books I want to read. There are dozens of podcasts, blogs, and articles recommending books to read. What I need is someone who can help me sort through it all to develop a plan to read the books I already have or want to read.

Perhaps an analogy will help. There are all kinds of newsletter and blogs and podcasts to recommend hot stocks and mutual funds. But what I need is a financial planner to help me create a retirement investment plan that will leave me with enough income to live on when I retire. What I need is not a financial planner, but a literary planner.

The One Ring of What Power?

The One Ring

I’ve been thinking about The Lord of the Rings lately because Melanie is reading it to the kids aloud each day. I’ve read it myself a couple dozen times, but something occurred to me recently that I hadn’t thought of before:

Tolkien never actually says what the One Ring does. Besides make its wearer invisible, that is. In much of fantasy fiction, magic and magical items have specific powers. They throw lightning or fireballs, they make things levitate, they transport the user somewhere, they transform people into creatures or vice versa. But Tolkien only tells us that the Ring is used to “dominate” others. That is was also what kept the fortress of Barad-dur standing and the Nazgul corporeal is somehow connected to this, but it’s apparently incidental or at least not made explicit how.

This idea that evil is the domination of the will of others is, of course, a perfectly Catholic one. It is the nature of evil to dominate. Evil does not create. It only warps and mutates. Evil is cancerous. This is why Gandalf rejects the use of the Ring as a weapon. The Ring isn’t like a rifle that one soldier can drop and a soldier from the other side can pick up and use. Instead, it is malevolence personified. It was a will of its own to warp and to dominate apart from Sauron’s. In a sense, it’s Sauron’s child or semi-clone, a mini-me.

The One Ring could not safely be taken up by any being, whether an elf or a man or a wizard because its power was said to be proportionate to the stature of the wielder. And so it was left to those of little power and no stature, but who were nevertheless strong in ways no Dark Lord could understand, to carry the Ring to its Doom. Even then it wasn’t the power of the Hobbits that destroyed, but the Ring’s own warping power. It had so warped Gollum, so bent his will that in the Ring’s triumphant moment of return to Sauron, it was undone, literally, by Gollum’s mad lust for it. More than a little ironic.

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The Harrowing of the Barrow Downs

Melanie has some great insights into the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the barrow-wight:

It struck me as I read that the whole scene is a type of the harrowing of hell, the moment that according to ancient tradition we recall on Holy Saturday when Jesus goes to the realm of the dead and smashes open the gates to release Adam and Eve and the patriarchs and prophets, all the holy men and women who have died since the beginning of time. He leads them out of the realm of the dead and into the kingdom of paradise. Not only that, but it’s also full of baptismal imagery, appropriate because baptism is also a type of resurrection.

Beneath New York Public Library, Shelving Its Past for High-Tech Research Stacks

Beneath New York Public Library, Shelving Its Past for High-Tech Research Stacks:

“Since March, after abandoning a much-criticized plan to move the bulk of its research collection to New Jersey, the library has been working instead to create a high-tech space underground for the 2.5 million research works long held in its original stacks.

The books will begin arriving in April, and by the end of spring library officials expect to be using a new retrieval system to ferry the volumes and other materials from their 84 miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts — a bit like miniaturized minecars carrying nuggets of research gold.”

I remember the uproar last March when the plan to move the books to New Jersey was announced because it meant that researchers would have to wait hours at best, if not days, to get their books. From reading this, it doesn’t sound like this is a completely automated, robotic system, which is a shame, but still involves people pulling from stacks and restocking. But it’s at least an improvement.

The Sorting Hat into Religious Orders

The Sorting Hat Chats • “The Basics”

This Harry Potter fan site puts forward a theory for what the four different houses of Hogwarts signify about the people in them and their motivations, which is interesting.

Gryffindor Primaries trust their moral intuitions and have a need and a drive to live by them. They feel what’s right in their gut, and that matters and guides them. If they don’t listen to and act on that, it feels immoral….

Ravenclaw Primaries have a constructed system that they test their decisions against before they feel comfortable calling something right….

Hufflepuff Primaries value people–all people. They value community, they bond to groups (rather than solely individuals), and they make their decisions off of who is in the most need and who is the most vulnerable and who they can help….

Slytherin Primaries are fiercely loyal to the people they care for most. Slytherin is the place where “you’ll make your real friends”– they prioritize individual loyalties and find their moral core in protecting and caring for the people they are closest to….

As Melanie and I were discussing this and whether it’s justified from the text, I speculated on which Catholic religious orders aligned with each house and it was a surprisingly quick decision:

  • Gryffindor is Carmelite
  • Ravenclaw is Dominican
  • Hufflepuff is Franciscan

And Slytherin? Oh, that’s easy: Slytherin is Jesuit.

A Penny for Your Books

A Penny for Your Books – The New York Times:

“But Thriftbooks’s Ward and Discover Books’s Hincy are quick to paint themselves as book lovers, and savers. ‘We feel we give books the best and maximum opportunity to be sold or redistributed or recycled,’ Hincy says. ‘When I started with this company, it was all about keeping books from landfill demise.’ Or, as Ward puts it, ‘10 years ago, before companies like mine existed, those books were seen as having no value at all.’ And even Moss concedes that his store’s used-book sales have been fairly steady over the past 10 to 15 years.”

Ever wonder how anyone makes money selling used books for a penny on Amazon?

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