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Stark Nepotism

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m a fan of the sociologist Rodney Stark. His book The Rise of Christianity has influenced me probably more than any other book on the patristic era. His Cities of God is a worthy follow-up.

Dr. Stark has now marched on to the Middle Ages with his new book God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. Mark Sullivan interviewed him recently on a wide range of matters, and has now posted the interview on his blog. (Mark is, by the way, my nephew, flesh of my sister Susie’s flesh and bone of her bones.)

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I’ve been so long in the Cave of Deadlines that my friend Scott Hahn has managed to publish two books since my last blog post! Both will interest readers of this blog.

First up is Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots. Scott’s using the patristic methods of mystagogy to see beyond the Church’s signs and rituals, to the things signified — to see beyond the symbols and glimpse the divine mysteries. He covers not only the sacraments, but also the sacramentals and other customs: holy water, scapulars, medals, icons, the Sign of the Cross, relics, incense, votive candles, feast days and holy seasons, reverence for the tabernacle, devotion to the angels, making a morning offering, saying a rosary, care for the dying, and prayers for the dead. The Fathers come in handy, of course, since they preached and practiced the devotions we love so well. So you’ll hear Sarapion of Egypt and Eusebius on Holy Water, for example, and St. John Chrysostom on almsgiving, and St. Augustine on prayers of aspiration. Though this book is advertised as “Catholic,” I can think of many non-Catholic bloggers who will dig it. Order yours today:  Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots.

Scott’s other recent publication is Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. It’s out this month from Brazos Press/Baker Books (one of the leading Evangelical publishing houses in the United States). I’m heartened to see it recommended and reviewed effusively by Protestant and Catholic scholars alike (see the Amazon page). Benedict is intensely patristic because he is so profoundly biblical. The Fathers are among his favorite biblical scholars, as you already know if you’ve been following his audience talks or if you’ve read his book Jesus of Nazareth. Here’s the publisher’s summary of this great scholarly offering from my favorite scholar:
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI brought a world-class biblical theologian to the papacy. There is an intensely biblical quality to his pastoral teaching and he has demonstrated a keen concern for the authentic interpretation of sacred Scripture. Here a foremost interpreter of Catholic thought and life offers a probing look at Benedict’s biblical theology and provides a clear and concise introduction to his life and work. Bestselling author and theologian Scott Hahn argues that the heart of Benedict’s theology is salvation history and the Bible and shows how Benedict accepts historical criticism but recognizes its limits. The author also explains how Benedict reads the overall narrative of Scripture and how he puts it to work in theology, liturgy, and Christian discipleship.
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Marian Feast

David Mills has a new book out, Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God, and I reviewed it for the Pittsburgh Catholic. Thusly:

In ordinary family life, no one is so near to us as our mothers. We emerge from their very bodies. As babies we feed in their arms and feed from their substance. No voice is so familiar to us as Mom’s. If there’s one person we know on this earth, it’s Mom.

Yet many of us — maybe most of us — would be hard pressed to state her basic biographical facts. Quizzed on them, we might fail outright.

We Catholics can be that way with the Blessed Virgin Mary. We’re effusive in our devotion to her, emotive in our prayer, constant in the upkeep of her icons and shrines and backyard statues. Yet sometimes we’re sketchy on the scriptural and historical foundations, the bottom-line doctrines spelled out in the simple and ancient formulas of the Church.

We’re lost, then, when we find ourselves having to explain ourselves, and our rosaries and scapulars, to non-Catholics who dismiss our practices as superstitious or idolatrous.

Author David Mills knows that the best thing to do when lost is to ask directions. That’s why he cast his new book, Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant, $12.99) in a helpful question-and-answer format. He anticipates the most commonly asked questions, both curious and hostile, and in response he provides basic answers: just the facts, no embellishment, no speculation, no diversions, no raptures of purple prose or poetic flight. Mills sticks as close as possible to the official documents, from Scripture and the Church Fathers to the Catechism and the popes.

The questions range from “When was Mary born?” and “Did Mary die?” to “Does the Church teach anything about Mary that can’t be found in the Bible?” Sometimes the queries can be dispatched with a single sentence. Sometimes the answers require several pages. I am a cradle Catholic whose non-Catholic wife for years found Marian doctrine to be an insuperable obstacle to conversion. So I am quite familiar with the territory, and I can say with confidence that Mills anticipated all the major and minor objections I faced, faced them squarely, and answered them honestly and persuasively.

Along the way, he also explains the many mysterious titles of Mary as well as her feast days in the Church’s calendar.

Mills begins the book with his own testimony, the story of his personal migration from a nonreligious upbringing to evangelical Christianity, then to Anglicanism, and finally to Roman Catholicism. (Mills lives in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and was received into full communion at St. James in Sewickley.) For Mills as for many would-be convert, Marian devotions was a major stumbling-block on his road to Rome. Even when it was no longer an intellectual obstacle, he at first dismissed the traditions as “the sort of thing that some people liked and others didn’t but that no one had to practice” – especially not a “preppy” New Englander,” as he calls himself. “Some of it embarrassed me. It seemed a little too … Italian … It just wasn’t me.”

Even after his conversion to Catholicism, he scored himself “a C- in knowledge of Mary and a D- in devotion.”

Then a co-worker’s simple, natural affection for the Blessed Virgin inspired him to go deeper in his study and practice – and that eventually inspired him to write a beautiful book. It’s a useful book, too. It would be a perfect gift for RCIA candidates, new Catholics, middle-aged Catholics who don’t remember their CCD lessons, and Protestants who are puzzled by what the Catholic Church teaches.

God created Mary and called her for a unique place in the history of our salvation. The Scriptures testify to that fact. Mills shows us plainly that she is not, as some would have it, a woman whose “womb was merely the delivery system by which the Father brought His Son into the world.” Mary herself prophesied that “all generations” would call her “blessed” – and would have very good reasons for doing so. We fulfill that prophecy in our generation, by the traditional devotions. It is good, though, that we have David Mills to explain those very good reasons why we do what we do.

It would be good to have him address all life’s questions. His answers are simple and clear, brief when possible, but never cut short. He sticks to the facts and spares us his opinions. Such habits make this book the most valuable resource for discussions of a subject that is far more contentious than it should be. Civil conversations can proceed from these pages. Mother will surely be pleased.

Also check out David’s Discovering the Real MaryMarian Diversity, and The Greater Blessings.