Friday, February 12, 2010

Book Review: Believing in Jesus - A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith

When answering faith questions, I rely heavily on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which together with the Bible is an indispensible resource in concisely and accurately presenting Church teaching. The Catechism sets the record straight on what Catholics officially believe, and does so with the full authority of the Church’s Magisterium. There is no substitute for reading the Catechism on these matters…that is of course, when one actually takes the time to read the Catechism. But to a non-Catholic (the people most often asking the questions I try to answer) reading the Catechism can be a rather intimidating prospect.

At nearly 800 pages, the average lay person is not likely to read the Catechism cover-to-cover, as they would a good novel. For non-Catholic Christians this task is further hampered by their misconceptions about the Church and the hierarchical institution that produced the Catechism in the first place. Unfortunately years of misinformation and misconceptions about the Church have kept these persons from seriously considering Catholicism as a spiritual home. Untruths about Catholic belief, about the role of popes and bishops, about saints and the Eucharist, have all clouded their perception of what true Catholic teaching is. They naturally mistrust official pronouncements from Rome, or at least are unsure how to approach 800 pages worth of such official text.

Whenever I am asked probing questions about the faith, I attempt to clarify the Church’s position in a simple, plain-spoken way that clears up former misunderstandings and hopefully makes the Catholic Church more approachable. In bits and pieces I try to distill the wisdom found in the Catechism into a form that reaches non-Catholics where they are.

Believing in Jesus - A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith offers Catholics and non-Catholics alike a very readable alternative to digesting the entire text of the Catechism. When contrasted with the text of the Catechism, the author of Believing in Jesus, Fr. Leonard Foley, O.F.M., opens up a different perspective on how the pieces of our faith fit into one seamless whole. Whereas the Catechism of the Catholic Church is organized primarily around the words of the Creed (using this statement of faith as an outline from which the body of the text grows), Believing in Jesus begins with the life and preaching of Jesus at its heart and lays out Catholic doctrine within this framework of Jesus’ own life and ministry.

This Jesus-centered approach for presenting Catholic teaching, while certainly beneficial for Catholics, is perhaps doubly so for non-Catholic Christians. Most evangelical or fundamentalist Christians stress that Jesus is at the center of their lives – they often say that they have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” - and they often believe that Catholic doctrine hampers, if not altogether contradicts, true Christian faith, because it gets between “me and Jesus.” They many times operate under the misconception that Catholics are not Christ-centered people; that our doctrine adds layer upon layer of “extra stuff” that has nothing to do with Christ or His preaching or the whole Gospel message.

Fr. Foley’s book ought to put that idea to rest. Just as the Catechism shows how Catholic doctrine is intertwined with the ancient Creed, so too does Believing in Jesus demonstrate that Catholic doctrine is the natural outgrowth of everything Jesus came to do and teach. Far from driving a wedge between “me and Jesus,” Catholic doctrine draws us into a deeper relationship with Christ through the Sacraments and through incorporation into His Mystical Body, the Church.

Believing in Jesus opens with an overview of Scripture. If Jesus is the Word of God Incarnate, then we must first understand the Word of God in Scripture to recognize the Divine Word that is the person Jesus. The books of the Old Testament form the Scripture of Judaism which shaped Jesus’ spiritual life as a Jew. To understand Jesus we must understand the context of His Jewish roots. From there we move to the New Testament which grew out of the early Christian experience of the Resurrected Jesus. These early Christian writings add clarity to Jesus’ life. So both the Old and New Testaments point to Jesus as their focus and this sets the stage for the rest of Rev. Foley’s book. Drawing on the life of Jesus in the Gospels the author lays out Catholic teaching within the historical framework of the Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Believing in Jesus offers a Jesus-centered, Bible-based approach to Catholic teaching, introducing those unfamiliar with the faith to doctrines that might otherwise seem unrelated to their non-Catholic Christian experience. The book offers a primer in the basic tenets of the Catholicism in a readable and personal style that draws upon the evangelical/fundamentalist “personal relationship with Jesus” but gives it a decidedly Catholic spin. When Catholics say that we “believe in Jesus,” we mean that we are literally in Jesus – that is, in His Body, the Catholic Church – and it is in Jesus that we find our faith. The Church is the fulfillment of this “relationship” that all Christians seek with their Lord and Savior.

The only criticism that I might offer of this book is that it occasionally comes across as lightweight in its treatment of certain topics. For instance it does not flesh out the details of liturgical worship. So the Mass for example is presented as a loose gathering of coreligionists sharing prayer and a common meal, rather than a rich tapestry of worship woven in Tradition and handed down to us through the centuries. Also certain doctrinal matters are passed over rather quickly without presenting a solid defense of their truth.

The reason for these problems is, I think two-fold. First, this book is targeted to those who are already enrolled in an RCIA program or who are seriously considering conversion. Indeed the author is best known for his work in producing RCIA tracts for the Catholic Updates publication. Thus Believing in Jesus is not meant to be a point-by-point defense of every Catholic teaching, but it is designed to give the reader a general overview of the faith from a unique perspective and ground the student in the fundamentals of the faith. Further reading would be necessary to delve deeper into any particular subject.

Secondly, the first edition of Believing in Jesus, which is now in its sixth edition and is widely used in RCIA programs, was published in 1981 and so was born out of a time when Catholic religious education was less rigorous (one might say even in shambles). When looking at books coming out of the turbulence of the 1970s and 80s liturgical experimentation, it is (in my humble opinion) difficult to find a text from this era that is not at least slightly influenced by the “soft” approach to catecheses (take that as you may). Admittedly some of this is a matter of style and personal taste. There is nothing about Believing in Jesus that is heretical – the book bears an Imprimi Potest and Nihil Obstat – but there is a certain style to the text that (to me at least) has a flavor of early 1980’s Catholicism, with home-made felt banners and guitar-strumming folk bands.

Having said that, I would still recommend the book to inquiring souls who wish to learn about the Catholic Church but who already understand Christianity as a personal relationship with Jesus. These Christians may have always seen Catholicism as a sort of mystery; something foreign and far removed from their own experience of Christianity. But they long to be a part of the mystery. They see something in Catholicism that they wish they had. They cannot describe what “it” is but they are missing “it,” and they know that Catholics seem to have “it.” Believing in Jesus opens up that Mystery from a perspective they can understand.

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