December 2002

Controversies: High Level Catholic Apologetics.  By Karl Keating. Ignatius. 278 pages. $14.95.

In our day the value of truth is unrecognized by many. Sound philosophy and theology are generally ignored. Even gentlemanly disputation has by and large fallen by the wayside. As Keating puts it, “some eras, such as ours, are characterized by flabby intellects, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in religion.” That is, when the subject of religion arises, logical argumentation is somehow considered inappropriate. It is as if the subject of religion is so ephemeral or so touchie-feelie that reason cannot take hold of it. Grim indeed is this state of affairs.

But there have been saner times. In part, they were kept sane by solid Catholics. Among them, the great Catholic apologists of yesteryear deserve special mention. In Controversies, Keating introduces us to the apologetical work of some of the greatest English defenders of the Faith of the early 20th century. He does so to exemplify instances of genuine rational disputation in matters religious, wherein the truth of Catholicism is vindicated and heresies are refuted. Of these apologists, Keating says, “the truth mattered to them, and they thought it worth fighting over, even though their only weapons were words.”

The Catholic apologists whose works Keating focuses on are John Henry Newman, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, and Herbert Thurston, S.J. Keating captures each of these great apologists in a one-on-one disputation with his respective anti-Catholic interlocutor. In addition, each debate is prefaced by historical and biographical contextualization.

Although each of these apologists has his own distinctive style of defending the Faith, it is nonetheless easy to be struck by a common note that runs through their apologetical works. Keating himself refers to it: “Particularly striking in each piece is the clarity of the thought. Belloc notes that ‘clear thinking is always an advantage when one is attempting to discover the nature of things.’ This is the hallmark of each selection, whether it is Newman defending the priesthood, Lunn the rationality of Christianity, or Knox the history of the Church. I find this clarity immensely attractive — and immensely lacking in most modern writing on religion. It is the difference between wading across a crystalline stream and slogging through muck.”

The “clarity of thought” spoken of here goes to the heart of what is best about Keating’s book. He provides the modern Catholic with specific and profound examples of classic apologetics as penned by five of the greatest defenders of the Faith of the early 20th century. By and large, those who would attack the Faith today have not improved upon the arguments employed by their anti-Catholic predecessors of a century ago. Those, however, who would defend the Faith today would do well to imitate not only the arguments but also the manner and style of Newman, Belloc, Knox, Lunn, and Thurston. They not only overcame the arguments of their opponents but served as instruments of conversion.

- David Arias Jr.



In Good Soil: The Founding of Saint Louis Priory and School 1954-1973.  By Timothy Horner, O.S.B. St. Louis Abbey Press (500 So. Mason, St. Louis MO 63141). 517 pages. $$25 + $3 S&H..

Histories of religious institutions are rarely fun to read and almost never rendered in a lively, lucid, and highly original literary style. In Good Soil is an exception. If ever a book by a monk deserved to be turned into a serious but uproarious movie by Stephen Spielberg, this is it.

The author, Timothy Horner, is a British citizen and Oxford graduate who is from the English family of landed gentry which has among its forbears Little Jack Horner, that ruthless confiscator of Romish monasteries. Horner was born in Quetta, Pakistan, where his father was a colonial official and his devoutly Catholic mother, a red-haired beauty, nourished his love of Scripture. Before taking vows at Ampleforth Benedictine monastery in northern England, Horner served in World War II as an officer with the Royal Artillery.

Consider the situation. It is 1954. The pre-Conciliar Church is running at full throttle. A group of Catholic businessmen in St. Louis decide that they want their sons to receive the kind of education that will equip the boys for studies at Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious colleges and universities. The local Catholic community, proud of having produced a first-rate alternative school system, has mixed feelings about this. But the St. Louis dads, whom the book identifies by name, forge ahead.

They approach Ampleforth Abbey about the prospects of transplanting some hardy seedlings from there to the wilds of rural Missouri. Prior Aelred Graham, a monk of Ampleforth, but at the time Prior of the then-Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island, warms to the idea. He sets the wheels in motion. Archbishop Ritter soon comes around. It is planting time in Missouri.

The author of In Good Soil, who modestly writes about himself in the third person, was one of the three highly educated British monks whom the planning group, who are affectionately referred to as Inc in this delightful narrative, transplant near the Mississippi. The trio’s mandate is simple: “Increase and multiply” while building a boys’ school, grades 7-12, from scratch.

“Scratch” included 50 hilly, wooded acres of what is now prime suburban property, complete with a large and sturdy brick farmhouse. The three-man team included Fr. Luke Rigby, who served as business manager and would later become a leader in the Catholic charismatic renewal and much later serve as Abbot of the independent Benedictine community. The author, a Latinist and antiquarian, was slated to be the school’s tall, red-haired, pipe-smoking, deep-voiced headmaster.

Much of the charm of this book rises from the high-spirited culture clash between the veddy British monks and the rambunctious young colonials in their charge. The headmaster and others kept painstaking records of the formation of their curriculum, building and architectural costs, the pre-testing of boys, grading standards, disciplinary policies, spiritual formation, the generous support of parents, the athletic program, and the modifications inspired by Vatican II. The author includes photographs which make the whole grand adventure, which centers on the eucharistic Presence in the uniquely designed church, come wondrously alive.

There is definitely something to this reputed “Greatest Generation.” Few prep school headmasters would have traveled over all the 48 contiguous states of the U.S. by car to introduce a new school to leading college and university administrators, but this one did, sometimes doing his overnights in his car. The personal touch paid off for a school whose planners shrewdly decided not to seek accreditation through the North Central Association, which shapes policy for U.S. public schools, but opted instead for affiliation with the National Association of Independent Schools.

The Inc men got their money’s worth, and then some. Priory-connected St. Louisans now comprise a warm, close community, a monastery-linked “family.” School enrollment is at 388. The band of monks now includes 35 Americans. Prior graduates routinely win slots at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, Georgetown, and similar institutions.

All of which should make this book an invaluable resource to anyone, from President Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy on down, who is desperate to improve American public education. The way to go? Toward the classical curriculum first framed in the monastery schools of the Middle Ages — and still the best in the West.

- Barbara Nauer



Nourishing Faith Through Fiction: Reflections of the Apostles Creed in Literature and Film.  By John R. May. Sheed and Ward. 138 pages. $18.95.

John R. May provides an intriguing discussion of how certain films and works of literature can help us deepen our faith in Christ. He argues that films and books are a good way of nurturing that faith, although he does acknowledge that some films and works of fiction are not conducive to this task and can even be harmful. More specifically, May discusses how the faith expressed by the Apostles’ Creed, the oldest Christian creed, is demonstrated in certain books and films.

May divides his book into three sections: Stories of the Creator, Stories of the Savior, and Stories of the Lifegiver. In Stories of the Creator, May discusses a variety of works of fiction that he believes give people a sense of belonging in the world and causes them to realize that they live in a world created by a benevolent God. In Stories of the Savior, May examines films that he says display the redemptive value of unavoidable suffering, which is expressed in the life of Jesus. Although May mentions that there have been many films that are faithful to the Gospel accounts of Jesus, he focuses on the more popular films that have a “savior” figure. In Stories of the Lifegiver, May presents films and books that he feels demonstrate the ability of the Holy Spirit to change people from within. May gives the name grace to both the action of the Spirit and the effect He has on our lives.

One novel that May recommends as a Story of the Lifegiver is The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor, the story of a backwoods preacher named Mason Tarwater who tries to sow the seed of God’s word in his grandnephew. Mason is intent on having his grandnephew follow him into the ministry. After initially resisting the call to enter the ministry, Mason’s grandnephew eventually answers the call. May points out that O’Connor’s novel nurtures our faith in baptism and Christian burial, both of which are central to the novel’s plot in that they are the most important ritual acts in the religious education that Mason provides to his grandnephew.

Interestingly, May also cites the sci-fi classic Star Wars as a Story of the Lifegiver, as teaching the values that are at the core of genuine human existence. May mentions that when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, “May the Force be with you,” he is telling Luke to unite himself with the transcendent source of life that can allow him to conquer death and destruction in the film’s story. Many commentators have claimed that the Force, a physical power field, is a direct reference to the Spirit.

May does a convincing job of showing that certain films and literature can enlighten us religiously and entertain us at the same time. Suffice it to say, I intend to rent several of the films that May recommends.

- Steven Silva





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