Okay, I know you’re swamped, and I know you already have a pile of things to read for the summer, but let me add to your load in a most friendly and encouraging way. And, by way of proof, let me also excerpt a bit from each book to give you a soupçon of what awaits you.
First off, two big books that you should read.
The bigger one is A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume Four: Law and Love, by John Meier. Father Meier, a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame, is the dean of “historical Jesus” studies. That quest uses modern-day scholarly tools (literary criticism, recent historical discoveries, even archeology) to help us understand as much as we can about the man called Jesus of Nazareth. In 1991, Meier began what was originally supposed to be a more modest (read: shorter) study that has morphed into, so far, four volumes. (A fifth is planned, he tells us in this book.) When the fourth volume appeared a few weeks back, I ordered a copy and have been eagerly making my way through its 733 pages ever since.
I’ve never understood the reluctance of some devout believers to embark on a study of what we can know about Jesus of Nazareth. Of course the project has its “limitations” as Pope Benedict XVI wrote recently in his own Jesus of Nazareth, and which even Meier admits freely. But it is essential to understand all we can about Jesus’ life and times. One of my Scripture professors used to say that Jesus of Nazareth is "identifiable" with the Risen Christ. So why not learn as much as you can about the former to more fully follow the latter? Father Meier is not afraid to state his thesis up front: Jesus cannot be understood outside the halakah, or the overall behavior or conduct of an observant Jew of the time, as given by the Torah and other rabbinic sources. He states boldly: “I am convinced that although I may not be right in my positions, every other book or article on the historical Jesus and the Law has been to great degree wrong.”
Anyway, it’s not exactly a "beachy" book (balancing it on your chest while tanning may crush your sternum) and in some places it can be tough sledding as he makes his way through all the Jewish traditions and writings to shed light on what Jesus was up to. But it may change the way you look at why Jesus did what he did and said what he said. Next up: a volume on the Passion. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., will soon be reviewing Meier's new book for us, in an extended piece in our Books & Culture section.
By the way, Father Harrington has just published a superb short book on prayer called Jesus and Prayer: What the New Testament Teaches Us. Like all his writings, it is clear, concise and eminently useful. Harrington carefully leads the reader through all the places where Jesus and the New Testament writers say about prayer, as well as how Jesus himself prayed. One of the great things about reading a short book by an expert is that they sum up matters that you might always have found complex in just a few sentences. Here, for example, is Harrington on the Pharisees: "The Pharisees were a member of a prominent and generally well-respected Jewish movement. Many of them were devout and observant...Of all the Jewish groups in Jesus's time, Jesus was closest to them." This new book not only teaches you about prayer, it will help you with your own prayer.
The next big book is by one of my favorite Jesuits and writers, the estimable John W. O’Malley. When was the last time you read a book on Vatican II that could be described as a page-turner? This one surely is. What Happened at Vatican II relates the always fascinating, sometimes absolutely hair-raising story of the progress of the Second Vatican Council. Thanks to classes with Father O’Malley, I had known that the Council was far from a series of dull meetings: rather, it (or “they,” as in the various sessions) was (or were) an often contentious series of confrontations between two camps, which O’Malley calls the “minority” and the “majority” (wisely eschewing the labels “liberal and conservative”). But I didn’t know how contentious. Oh boy. One of my favorite passages comes when the redoubtable Cardinal Ottaviani, prefect of the “Holy Office” takes the floor at one session and thunders:
“I’ll tell you something you may not know: even before this schema [proposed document] was distributed—Listen to me! Listen to me!—even before it was distributed, an alternative schema had already been produced….I have no choice but to say no more because, as Scripture teaches, when nobody is listening words are a waste of time.”
And you thought your parish council meetings were rough.
O’Malley shows how Vatican II inaugurated a new “style” in the Catholic church. As he describes it in the book's conclusion (worth the price of the book itself) the Council moved the church's approach from “from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion….” Through all the controversies and arguments and committees and intrigue, the Holy Spirit was at work. It’s a magnificent book by a world-class scholar, essential to understanding our church today.
Just so you don’t think I’m a Luddite here are some other, more modern, “readings." Loyola Press (full disclosure: published a few of my books) has just launched a new website called “Ignatian Spirituality,” a kind of resource for all things Ignatian. And it’s terrific: a marvelous compendium of material at your fingertips on the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatian prayer and contemplation, the examination of conscience. If you’ve got your Blackberry on the beach why not click on that and pray in the sunshine?
Also, how about some poetry while we're at it? Thomas Flowers, a Jesuit novice of the California province, has published a slim volume of lovely, spare poetry called Walking Humbly, which uses Scripture as its jumping-off point. “I can almost remember / The air full of the desert / And the trudging progress / The wind scattered by indignant shouts / And the cries of merchants, buyers, sellers, / in the town you passed through that day…” It might be a new way to pray for you—using poetry that is. Why not try it?
Finally, just so you don’t think I spent all my time with spiritual matters, I’m rereading The Code of the Woosters, one of the many comic novels by P.G. Wodehouse featuring the characters of Bertram (Bertie) Wooster, the addle-headed British aristo, and his much-smarter manservant, Jeeves. You can’t read about the historical Jesus, Vatican II and the Gospels all day, after all. Undoubtedly not, as Jeeves might say.
The frequent collision between Bertie’s slangy argot and Jeeves’ more proper English is always larky. In the midst of a typically bunged-up affair, as Bertie would say, his butler, in this passage, is serenely attending to Bertie's wardrobe:
Wooster: “You see before you a toad before the harrow.”
Jeeves: “Yes, sir. The trousers perhaps a quarter of an inch higher, sir. One aims at the carelessly graceful break over the instep. It is a matter of the nicest adjustment.”
Wooster: “Like that?”
Jeeves: “Admirable, sir.” I sighed.
Wooster: “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’”
Jeeves: "The mood will pass, sir.”
Had Cardinal Ottaviani retained the services of the placid Jeeves, perhaps Vatican II would have proceeded somewhat more smoothly.