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Richard’s New House

With so many others, I’m mourning the passing of Father Richard Neuhaus. He was a brilliant man, a kind man, a good priest — and a prolific author and stunning stylist. I think I’m fairly typical of a certain sort of Christian when I say that I thrilled to see his magazine, First Things, come in the mail each month — and I turned immediately to the back pages, his long, ranging monthly ramble titled “The Public Square.” I’ve been addicted to my monthly Neuhaus since he wrote the same rambles for Religion and Society Report, back in the 1980s. Even when I disagreed with him, I had to marvel at the loveliness of his prose.

I had only a few contacts with him. We corresponded a bit, and he invited me to his ordination to the Catholic priesthood (I couldn’t make it). He gave me, when I was hardly more than a child, one of my first major publications, a satirical poem titled “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Vicar P’rochial.” He published a short, generous review of a book I co-edited with David Scott, Weapons of the Spirit: Selected Writings of Father John Hugo. And he used my interview with Cardinal Christoph Schonborn to launch an extended and profound reflection on liturgy and beauty. Once I visited his New York offices with David Scott, and we delighted in Father Neuhaus’s hospitality and long conversation.

When I was doing newspaper work, he was a prized source. I could count on him to deliver — as soon as his phone rang — something brief, to the point, and stunningly quotable. We reporters recognized him as the kind of source who made us seem intelligent.

He, of course, did much to promote the study of the Fathers. Among his magazine’s contributors were Robert Louis Wilken, Thomas Weinandy, and so many others I celebrate on this blog.

Down the years, he showed many kindnesses to many of my friends, and for those I am especially grateful. I ask you to join me in prayer for his rest. And read him, please. The First Things blog is posting some of his best work, plus great audio.

(I stole the title of this post from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of Neuhaus’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, almost twenty years ago. I remember it vividly because he announced his intention at the same time as my then-Lutheran wife. Another headline I clipped, “Notable Lutheran Converts,” still hangs in our bedroom.)

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Pop Go the Fathers

Kevin at Biblicalia has posted a very helpful overview of the Popular Patristics Series published by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. I like the series — and I love the price — though some (very few) volumes’ introductions are marred by an anti-Roman edge that’s unnecessary and counter-productive. (This problem does not affect much of the series, which includes the work of outstanding Catholic scholars, including Robert Louis Wilken and Father Brian Daley, S.J.) Kevin gives us a list of the works included in each volume and other useful details.

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Now That’s Rich

Rich Leonardi reviews my Companion Guide to Pope Benedict’s ‘The Fathers’. He calls it…

a valuable resource that should help popularize the Holy Father’s recent cycle of catecheses on the Fathers of the Church. Mike Aquilina is an expert on this subject, and in the book’s introduction he explains who and what the Fathers are and why we ought to study them. He groups Pope Benedict’s addresses (or “audiences” as they are properly called) into six sessions, with one Father serving as the session “representative.” Within the sessions, which are linked to an era in Church history, each Father is given one or two pages, with a synopsis of the papal address, a list of its main points, and a series of questions for discussion and reflection. All in all, it is a pleasing, well-organized format. This companion guide should prove to be an excellent aid for group or individual study, and my men’s fellowship group will be using it later this year. Also worth noting is the beautiful cover design by Lindsey Luken — the book is more attractive than Our Sunday Visitor’s edition of Pope Benedict’s The Fathers! Highly recommended.

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Resolve: Learn Greek in 2009

I’m sorry to say I didn’t take my first stab at learning Greek till I was almost forty. Luckily, I’d had some pretty good schooling in the other dialect, Latin, so it was a relatively painless transition. Rod Whitacre made it so by leading me to some pretty good resources.

But I must say that I longed for a text that would treat Greek the way Sister Herberta treated Latin. She made it unforgettable, ineradicable in our memory. The trend these days, though, is away from form and drilling and toward immersion, which may work for many kids, but not so well for me.

How grateful I am, now, to lay hands on Ann F. Castro’s brand-new Greek For All Ages: An Introduction to New Testament Greek. It’s a clear, concisely written book that actually lays out the rules so that they’re easily committed to memory.

Greek For All Ages reminds me so much of Sister Herberta’s teaching — spare, essential, memorable, no gimmicks, no nonsense. This book will work well for teens or adult learners. I plan to use it with my pre-teen Latin scholar next year.

This is a great gateway drug to reading the Fathers in their original Koine. Next step, of course, is Rod Whitacre’s A Patristic Greek Reader. Make your resolution now, while the year is young!

If you need still more reasons, visit a good Greek teacher, my other brother Darrell, and view this video.

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Driven a Ford Lately?

You scoundrels! How could you?

Through all my whining about the need for good fiction set in the patristic era, not one of you raised a voice to tell me about the novels of Michael Curtis Ford.

Maybe I can be excused because I live in a cave. But can you? These works are out from a major press, and they bear jacket blurbs from the likes of Victor Davis Hanson, James Brady, and even Newt Gingrich.

Just yesterday I finished Gods and Legions: A Novel of the Roman Empire. It’s a fictional treatment of the rise and fall of Julian the Apostate. And — get this — it’s narrated by St. Caesarius of Nazianzus, the brother of St. Gregory (whose feast we celebrate today). Gregory plays a starring role himself, launching the book with a letter to Pope Siricius.

Maybe patristics nerds miss Michael Ford’s works because they’re marketed as military fiction — and this one at least is an excellent example of the genre. I’m sure you’ve often wondered what it was like for Roman cavalry, on horses, to face off against their Persian counterpart, on elephants. Wonder no more. Read Gods and Legions. You’ll feel the fear of riding a panicked mount as it faces a bull elephant in full rush, topped by a tower of archers. I’m relatively ignorant of military terms and tactics, but Ford’s descriptions carried me along without ever bogging down in explanation. That’s no easy feat when a fourth-century narrator is describing siege machines that were quite familiar to terrorized cities back then, but are largely unknown to you and me.

Gods and Legions is military fiction, but theologically well informed. No, that’s an understatement. The theology is so important to the drama of this book that it can hardly be called a subplot. It’s the plot (which I won’t spoil by telling you why), every bit as essential as the battles. The main characters verbally spar over Trinitarian theology and employ eucharistic analogies at least as often as I do, and they invoke all your faves, from Irenaeus through Athanasius.

This book is an excellent companion to Adrian Murdoch‘s biography The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World, which I reviewed here.

I’m ordering Ford’s The Sword of Attila: A Novel of the Last Years of Rome, looking forward to a glimpse of Leo the Great. I’ll report to you afterward. You order his other novels, and let me know what you think.