instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, November 18, 2005

A dispassionate reaction

I was excited to receive a review copy of David Scott's The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faith. I think celebrating the Faith is, generally speaking, a much better way to evangelize than is defending the Faith. In the preface, Scott writes, "The early Christians spoke of mystagogy, a kind of life-long immersion in the mysteries of the faith. This book is a small exercise in twenty-first-century mystagogy."

A passionate immersion in the mysteries of the faith. What's not to love?


For one thing, there are niggling little mistakes (all Twelve were at Jesus' ascension?) and unclear writing (the Father was crucified?) that should have been caught before publication. It's hard for me to get caught up in passionate writing when I keep having to say, "Er, what?", or, "Not quite."

What really turned me off to the book, though -- and by turned off, I mean, set aside for a couple of months after reading forty pages, then returning to it just in case it gets better, and finding it about how I remembered -- is what I expected to love about it. As the publisher's blurb says:
Scott illuminates the Catholic mysteries with the insights of great Catholic figures of modern times—the American writer Andre Dubus, the French composer Olivier Messiaen, the Chinese human rights activist Henry Wu, the French martyr Charles de Foucauld, the American reformer Dorothy Day, and others.
Doesn't that sound great? It's not just some guy (well, Scott is a journalist and the editorial director for Scott Hahn's St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology) writing about what he thinks is wonderful about the Faith. It's a whole tapestry, a mosaic, a symphony of voices, from across the lands -- and across the centuries, too.

The problem is that a tapestry, a mosaic, and a symphony are all unintelligible without order, and to me, all the quotations -- and there are a lot of quotations -- were just a jumble. In one two-page stretch, we move from St. Gregory of Nazianzus to Franz Joseph Haydn to Gerard Manley Hopkins to St. Augustine to St. Paul. Yes, it's all on the same theme (how creation calls man to adore the Trinity), but it comes in such relentless succession that the effect -- for me -- is of a debater trying to win a point by sheer number of authorities referenced.

As I read, I try to situate St. Gregory, for example, in some context; one of the great Eastern Fathers, way back when. A paragraph later, I'm in Eighteenth Century Europe, then two paragraphs in Nineteenth Century England, then a skip off late Patristic Age Hippo and back to the First Century Mediterranean. If it's the first time someone is quoted, the quotation is prefaced by a sentence or less of biographical introduction. It's necessary (not everyone has heard of Julian Green), but disorienting.

I would much prefer a book that featured perhaps a quarter or a fifth of the quotations Scott uses, to give their specific wisdom time to soak in, to draw out some of the insights and implications of, say, St. Gregory's poem:
The Trinity is one God
Who created and filled all things:
the heavens with heavenly beings,
the earth with creatures of earth,
the sea, the rivers and springs,
with creatures of the waters,
giving life to all things by His Spirit,
that all creatures
might sing the praises of their wise Creator,
Who alone gives life and sustains
all life in being.
Above all others, let the creature who reasons
celebrate Him always
as the great King and good Father.
Couldn't more be said about this than:
In this poem, he dwells on the Trinity's artistry... We are the creatures who reason, made to stand in adoration and worship before the creation of this great King and Father.
On the whole, I think I would have preferred reading the quotations by themselves, an edited Commonplace Book of Catholic Passion, to the whirlwind "If It's Page 58 This Must Be G. K. Chesterton" style Scott adopts.

That said:

Let me emphasize that my reaction is a matter of personal taste and temperament, even more than usual for opinions about books. The way my mind works and the way the book works are just not quite compatible, and from comments I've read elsewhere the book works terrifically well for some.

I think the concept of the book is great, and the content (niggling mistakes aside) fine, but it's just not my style at all.