September 2010

Fatherless.  By Brian J. Gail. Human Life International (4 Family Life Ln., Front Royal VA 22630; 800-549-LIFE; www.fatherlessbook.com). 542 pages. $14.95.

In the mid-1980s, young Fr. John Sweeney serves a Catholic parish in suburban Philadelphia under old Msgr. Jim Grogan. Sweeney is a post-Vatican II priest with liberal persuasions who, like many of his brethren, believes that contraception has its place and that confessions are anachronistic. He is a servant with many masters: His parishioners are a mixed bag of traditionalists and liberals wrestling with the moral dilemmas that shape the substance of Brian J. Gail's novel Fatherless. Gail notes the Catholic faith's "singular hold on the Irish," and Irish Catholic expressions color much of the text. One parishioner recalls "an old Italian priest once telling him of a recent Pope's observation after meeting with a group of Irish bishops, 'Isn't Irish Catholicism a terrifying thing?'"

Msgr. Grogan instructs Fr. Sweeney on the decline of Mass attendance (and collection-plate dollars) that occurred after the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae was issued: "The immigrant Church of your grandparents was far from perfect, but it did not question." Grogan states that theologians in the 1960s, mindful of the ecclesial embarrassments surrounding Galileo and the Inquisition, embraced oral contraceptives as openness to science. Pope Paul VI formed a commission to study whether the Pill was indeed contraceptive, but instead of answering that question, the commission decided in 1966 that the Church should permit contraception. The Pope's encyclical came two years later — a delay that made Vatican leadership appear uncertain. By 1968 many people believed contraception to be "a settled issue." Significant numbers of priests stressed the primacy of individual conscience in the matter, and they remained active.

Competing interpretations of the Second Vatican Council's directives impact Sweeney's parish — particularly the Delgado, Burns, and Kealey families. The husbands are consumed by high-stress careers with long hours. Both they and their wives are caught up in materialistic, debt-ridden lifestyles. Gail is skilled at conjuring the urban jungles and suburban savannas that provide the rangeland for more and mightier earthly possessions. He also inserts lavish references to the families' country-club memberships and luxury vacations within a relentless focus on upscale homes, furnishings, dining, and Ivy League educations. Theirs is not a world of working-class neighborhoods with kids destined for trade schools or state colleges. More than a few readers will be annoyed by the families' effete "struggles." Career competition is blended with discussions of the high-profile sports backgrounds of the men (including priests) — an ongoing emphasis that becomes somewhat jarring. Gail, however, is a master at launching multiple intrigues and sustaining tension, and the narrative is so cohesively written that many chapters could stand alone as short stories.

The husbands encounter ethical compromises necessary to make the kind of money deemed essential for their families, and these deals form the heart of the book. Joe Delgado stumbles upon some covered-up, damaging data about oral contraceptives during his work at a laboratory. Michael Burns knows that his employer, an advertising company, is pushing pornography through a home cable-television service. Bill Kealey is bent on billing 3,000 hours a year in his law practice. Fr. Sweeney's chummy counsel to all parties consists of go-with-the-flow admonitions to support their families well. Female players are not as well developed — stereotypical, saintly wives and widows, and a bullying, social-climbing, country clubber. Other stock female characters include a few flinty divorcées and single women in the workplace.

Michael Burns moves his family to the New York area. He and his coworkers in the advertising firm hail from "all from the best families, the best schools, and the best country clubs...." The cable service begins to offer ever more salacious material, driving the broadcast networks to compete. The intricacies of this high-pressure, multi-tiered business are rendered by an author who clearly knows the territory.

When the oldest Kealey child degenerates into a nihilistic, suicidal teenager and accuses a former parish priest of abuse, Bill Kealey steps up his workload to avoid home. After psychiatrists fail to help their daughter, Maggie Kealey seeks assistance from a priest knowledgeable in exorcism, while Bill begins an affair with his secretary. Gail provides lurid accounts of demonic possession and demonic oppression that causes "great havoc in families — good families in particular."

Joe Delgado holds evidence that his employer suppressed data showing oral contraceptives as aborti­facients and cancer risks. (Oral contraceptives were "gushing cash.") Their recall would kill Delgado's job and his marriage. He consults Fr. Sweeney, who continues to punt on moral issues, telling Delgado that his family's welfare trumps whistle-blowing.

On a trip to Rome, Fr. Swee­ney encounters the Church's prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who invites him to assist in a private Mass with Pope John Paul II. An unfortunate, cheesy sports analogy trivializes what should be a sublime moment just before Mass with the Vicar of Christ: Sweeney "felt as he often felt before the first pitch or play of an important game. The knot in his stomach felt like an anchor, and his palms began to seep." Fellow priests from Philadelphia gather in Rome to discuss "catechetical illiteracy, the acculturation of the laity, the loss of identity of religious women, the loss of identity in Catholic higher education, the embrace of sexual promiscuity, microscopic attendance of Mass, acute vocational shortages, and impending episcopal and clerical scandal." Blame falls on Vatican II, affluence, and loss of the immigrant Church's "bunker mentality." One priest sums it up: "The richest doctrinal and intellectual tradition in the history of man vanishes in a single generation!" He believes that John Paul saw "the confusion of a Church speaking with two different voices about what the Council really intended — and what its documents actually said."

Multiple surprises unfold as Fr. Sweeney and the families (with their many possessions banging about) sail into moral tempests. Their navigation through a post-Christian, consumption-based, media-driven, amoral technopoly finds safe harbors beaming light into the darkness, but their journeys are mixed, and their destinations myriad.

- Mary McWay Seaman



Between Allah & Jesus: What Christians Can Learn From Muslims.  By Peter Kreeft. InterVarsity Press. 188 pages. $16.

Peter Kreeft's Between Allah & Jesus is a collection of fictional dialogues that diligently meditates on the many differences and similarities between Islam and Christianity. Through the eyes of an inquisitive Islamic protagonist named 'Isa, Kreeft creates an imaginative discourse on the two world religions. From direct dogmatic belief to social issues, the characters in Between Allah & Jesus find many shared truths in their two religions. Though Kreeft, a Catholic, ultimately advocates the theology of Jesus Christ, he shows that Christians must learn from and unite with Islam, advocating that we all submit ourselves to the will of God to fight against the common enemy of sin.

With the exception of the first chapter (an example taken from Kreeft's experiences at Boston College), all the characters in this book are fictitious and are close approximations of popular stereotypes. Kreeft's hypothetical dialogue mostly involves four characters, each representing a different religious ideology and its conceptions and misconceptions of the others. There is 'Isa, the consistent Muslim, whose devotion to his religion causes him to question popular Christianity; Libby, a mouthy relativist-feminist, who calls herself a Christian despite her frequent and unapologetic divergence in doctrine; Evan, a well-intentioned Dutch Calvinist, who often lacks compassion; and Fr. Heerema, a wise Jesuit professor who mediates the debate among his three young friends while upholding his strong belief in Christianity. These four characters partake in many thematic dialogues that progress throughout the book, each addressing different facets of the two religions. Their debates, which are interspersed with occasional interjections from minor characters, cover many difficult and defining issues in the contemporary understanding of the two religions, ultimately arguing that holiness is evident within the Qur'an and that Islam contains some poignant spiritual truths. However, because Islam ultimately denies the most fundamental tenet of Christianity — that Jesus Christ is God — it is concluded that the Qur'an cannot be integrated into the Christian faith, despite the book's holy elements.

Nevertheless, the two characterizations of "the Word of God" share a common struggle against evil. In an abstract sense, Kreeft argues that Christians and Muslims worship the same God — an all-loving, all-just God of truth. Kreeft presents the two religions' shared concern with holiness, their passionate devotion to truth, and their courageous struggle to do God's will personally and socially. Kreeft praises Islam for its subservience to God and incorporates Islamic terminology by suggesting that Christians too practice islam (with a lowercase "i" — islam translates to "surrender") and jihad (here characterized as an internal "holy" war against evil). Kreeft mostly avoids hegemonic favoritism in his characterizations, and ignores petty historical arguments by treating Muslims and Christians alike as sinners struggling in a broken world, sinners who desperately need God.

Notwithstanding the occasionally hokey banter between the four characters, flaws in Kreeft's religious contemplation are few. The work suffers slightly, however, in its thematic treatments of women and violence. Despite the presence of Libby, the ultra-feminist, relatively little time is spent addressing the role of women in Islam. Kreeft briefly addresses their unequal status, yet subverts the multifaceted nature of the debate on gender and religion by zeroing in on abortion. Additionally, although Kreeft differentiates between extremist and peaceful Muslims, his discussion of violence within the Qur'an seems very one-sided. He tends to characterize Islam as a passive religion, depicting its teaching on violence as something akin to Augustine's "just war" theory. Perhaps Kreeft could have better supported this characterization had he explained some of the more troubling verses from the fideistic Qur'an, ones that directly call for gruesome violence against nonbelievers.

That said, Kreeft uses the character of 'Isa not as a symbolic catechism or a call to convert to Islam, but as a beautiful characterization of complete devotion to God. He represents the curiosity, the fervor, and the passion for God and His righteousness that modern Christians tend to lack.

Kreeft uses this dialogue with Islam not only to foster a better understanding between the religions, but to exhort Christians to get our act together. Between Allah & Jesus acknowledges the similar goals in these disparate religions and demands that we all put an end to our selfish, lazy, and indulgent life­styles.

This book is a fascinating and patient reflection on the nature of Islam, but it is ultimately a call to sainthood. It is a call to Christians to learn from Muslims to surrender ourselves wholly to the almighty wisdom and love of God.

- Lillie Beiting





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