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What’s Under My Tree

In this week’s Pittsburgh Catholic, Craig Maier had kind words to say about the new edition of my book The Fathers of the Church. Since the paper doesn’t post reviews, he kindly fulfilled my request for an electronic copy, which follows…

This past May, the film version of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” came and went, but not before grossing $217 million domestically and over $532 million in the rest of the world. In the spirit of community service for those who haven’t had the misfortune of encountering either Brown’s book or the movie knock-off, I’ll spoil the plot: The Christian faith, Brown argues, is all a sham concocted by a “shadow conspiracy” of power-hungry, women-hating quacks.

For those who want to find the truth of the matter, though, the best bet isn’t Brown or the cottage industry of pseudo-intellectuals trying to scratch out a living in his wake. Mike Aquilina’s new edition of The Fathers of the Church, recently released by Our Sunday Visitor, not only introduces readers to the men and women of Brown’s “shadow conspiracy.” He lets them speak for themselves.

After the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church were the most important figures in making the church what it is today. Through Roman persecution and heated debates over everything from the number of books in the Bible to the nature of Christ himself, they formed a far-flung community of believers into a church.

“Many books tell the story of the first Christian centuries as a succession of creeds, councils, persecutions, and heresies,” Aquilina writes. “But it was far more than that, and far more interesting. It was the story of a family, and of how the Fathers of that family strove to keep their household together, to preserve the family’s patrimony, to teach and discipline their children, and to protect the family from danger. Only when we understand them as fathers can we understand the Church Fathers.”

The new edition, which includes more figures and selections than the first one published in 1999, covers six centuries of early Christian history, from St. Clement, the fourth pope and first of the fathers, to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a sixth century Greek about whose life we know little. It also includes a section on women like St. Perpetua whose stories and writings offer an important window into the life of the early church.

Some recent research on early Christianity paints a picture of the early church as a complex and conflict-ridden community. Yet, one of the interesting themes of Aquilina’s research into the first fathers is how consistent they really were and how devoted they were to maintaining the core of teaching that came down to them from the apostles themselves.

“Even today, the communities separated from Catholicism and Orthodoxy must confront the witness of the Fathers, and the apparent unity of the patristic experience with the experience of modern Catholic Christians,” Aquilina writes.

“In order to dismiss the early witness of today’s Catholic doctrines—for example, the Real Presence, the papacy, and the priesthood,” he continues, “Protestant scholars must posit a very early date when, they claim, the life of the Church went radically wrong, and then they must search out a subtle distinction between the witness of the Apostles in the New Testament and the seemingly identical witness of the Apostolic Fathers in the same century.”

After a brief biography and introduction for each father, Aquilina provides short passages that offer glimpses into the ideas of each. As with any book like this, some readers already familiar with the writings of the fathers—which would constitute dozens of volumes if printed in their entirety—may quibble about the inclusion of some portions over others, but the expanded edition is concise, comprehensive and readable, making it a good introduction.

Though nearly all of them are venerated as saints today, the Church Fathers were a diverse bunch. And though they all strove toward orthodoxy and led holy lives, they weren’t perfect. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, had a nasty temper. Eusebius, a bishop and church historian, ended up on the wrong side of the council of Nicea. Origen, whose teachings were so important in the second and third centuries, still got a couple of things wrong. Even so, the church recognized that the truth of their writing far surpassed any personal imperfections.

Of course, some passages may be a little abstract and difficult for contemporary readers because they come from a different place and time. Though there are some exceptions, many don’t offer “theological bullet-points” that can be translated directly into daily life. They require a bit of effort and imagination to find the deeper significance they contain.

Perhaps the best advice for modern readers comes from a father himself. “My son, diligently apply yourself to the reading of sacred Scriptures. Apply yourself, I say,” Origen wrote to a student, St. Gregory of Pontus. “And applying yourself thus to the divine study, seek aright, and with unwavering trust in God, the meaning of the holy Scriptures, which so many have missed.”

Years later, St. Gregory reflected on his former teacher’s influence, paying a compliment that would apply to any of the fathers. “How shall I give account of what he did for us, in instructing us in theology and devout character?” he wrote. “He himself went on with us, preparing the way before us, and leading us by the hand, as if on a journey.”

For readers who persist, Aquilina’s book is worth the effort. The selections reveal what early Christians were worried about, and how the early fathers strove to lead their flocks gently, but firmly. It’s not surprising that the fathers weren’t worried about anything that Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” says. They were no “shadow conspiracy.”

Brown is content to read works about works about rumors. Aquilina gives readers the real deal, and the real deal is plenty interesting.