As the writer of the Bookshelf column for Catholic Digest, I find the most difficult part of the job isn’t the actual writing, but the selection process. Anywhere from 12 to 20 new titles come through my mailbox each month. After weeding out those that are simply not a good fit for our readers, there are still usually eight or more that I like. But each issue of Catholic Digest only has room for four of these. So it’s with great relief that I begin this new monthly feature. It will enable me to share more worthwhile books with readers, and also to describe them with more depth than space allows in the print magazine.
So here we go!
The Catholic Hipster Handbook
Rediscovering Cool Saints, Forgotten Prayers, and Other Weird but Sacred Stuff
by Tommy Tighe (Ave Maria Press)
OK, it must be a generational thing, but at first the title turned me off. I mean, hipsters are people who sport beards (the guys anyway), skinny jeans (possibly OK for young women but when men wear them — yuck!), and oversized plastic eyeglasses (something I haven’t worn since the early ’90s and would never willingly choose again).
What would any of these affectations have to do with the Catholic faith? But then I flipped open the cover, noted the funny foreword by Jeannie Gaffigan, and quickly gathered from the opening pages that a Catholic hipster is more or less what I would call a Catholic nerd. A Catholic geek. A Catholic who is really into it. That I can identify with.
The dozen or so contributors to this book each share Catholic practices, saints, forgotten prayers, and devotions that are just a little off the beaten path. Scapulars, Ember days, Trappist ale, insider Catholic slang, saints with names like Epaphras and Irenaeus, the Liturgy of the Hours, and some truly bizarre ideas for Catholic baby names — all these and more will pique your interest and renew your enthusiasm for our very cool religion. (And yes, there’s even a chapter on the spiritual significance of beards.)
From Islam to Christ
One Woman’s Path Through the Riddles of God
by Derya Little (Ignatius Press)
There’s nothing like a good conversion story to shore up the faith of this cradle Catholic, but this story of Derya Little was especially fascinating. It combines an exotic setting (the author grew up in Turkey and was raised Muslim) with familiar problems (her parents divorced when she was a child and she became an atheist as a teen). This added up to a gripping account that I stayed up late to finish.
Little’s story explains how life in a fairly secularized Middle Eastern nation is still profoundly anti-Christian in its culture, whether one is a devout Muslim, or (like the author) a convinced atheist.
Encounters with under-the-radar Protestant missionaries gradually brought her to a belief in Christ, and to a heart-wrenching reconciliation with the parents who had neglected her. Later on, a Christian friend’s conversion to Catholicism set her on a further journey that eventually brought her all the way home to Rome. What’s more, the serious nature of the author’s spiritual odyssey is frequently lightened up with humor. Her youthful impressions of American life — gained from watching reruns of Knight Rider and the Back to the Future movies — will leave the reader chuckling.
Heroes & Heretics of the Reformation
by Phillip Campbell (TAN Books)
Suppose a story broke on the evening news that a random priest-theologian and his followers officially challenged some teaching of Catholicism, and then broke away to begin a new type of church. That story might be a weeklong wonder on the news, and cause another month of frantic argument among Catholics on Twitter. Then most of us would get on with our lives and forget about it.
Oct. 31 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. If you want to understand what happened then, realize that it was nothing like the hypothetical event described above. Instead, it was a pivotal moment in history that started a civilization-shattering chain of events — both political and religious. It set off more than a century of wars in Europe and Britain as opportunistic rulers took advantage of religious disputes to increase their power. And it left Christianity permanently crippled by disunity.
Catholics would do well to observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by resolving to learn more about it. Reading Heroes & Heretics is a great way to start. Each chapter examines a different pivotal figure: Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Albert of Brandenburg (the corrupt German archbishop who “sold” indulgences to pay his personal debts), Henry VIII, St. Thomas More, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Charles V, Popes Paul III and Pius V, St. Peter Canisius, and more. Author and history teacher Phillip Campbell vividly describes how each of these men and women influenced history, for better and for worse. He also proves that history does not have to be dull.