March 2008: Books Read

March was a very busy reading month, but I didn’t have much to show for it in terms of books actually completed. Most of the time I was doing research for papers, and it’s not typical for me to read whole books for that. But here is the list of books:

1. Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II, by Gian Franco Svidercoschi. I’ve been doing research for a paper I’m writing for my “Christian Pastor in Historical Perspective” class on John Paul II (or Karol Wojtyla, as he was known before he became pope). I picked up this little book because, although I had already read a couple of biographies of him (Witness to Hope by George Weigel and Man of the Century by Jonathan Kwitny), the back of this book promised that it would contain stories that were not found in other biographies. This was not true. There were a few stories about Karol Wojtyla’s life as a young man, and a few stories about the history of Poland during World War II, but nothing I had not already read elsewhere. This is a good, short book for people who have read nothing about the early life of John Paul II, but if you have already read full-length biographies, it’s not very helpful.

2. Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination by John Paul II. This book was written in 1996 to commemorate, as it says, the fiftieth anniversary of John Paul II’s ordination. The first part of the book is autobiographical, as he talks about how he came to sense a call to the priesthood, and his early days as a parish priest. The last part of the book (shorter than the first) is a reflection on what it means to be a priest. Overall, I found it to be quite good. Though, as I’ve said above, I have read biographies of John Paul II, it was interesting to hear about the events of his early life in his own words. And although I am not Catholic, I am grateful to hear his thoughts about what it means to be a priest. I was struck especially by this quote, on holiness:

Today’s world demands holy priests! Only a holy priest can become, in an increasingly secularized world, a resounding witness to Christ and his Gospel. And only thus can a priest become a guide for men and women and a teacher of holiness. People, especially the young, are looking for such guides. A priest can be a guide and teacher only to the extent that he becomes an authentic witness! – 89

3. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L. Holmes. I wrote a paper last month on the role of religion in the founding of the United States, and I consulted this book. I actually was not writing about the faiths of the individual founding fathers, but I nevertheless found this book such an easy and compelling read that I finished the whole thing in a very short time. I think that Holmes is very fair in his assessment; he doesn’t seem to have a whole lot invested in the idea either that all of the Founding Fathers were orthodox Christians, or that none of them were. Rather, he places them on a spectrum from orthodox Christian (e.g., John Jay), to Christian with Deist tendencies (e.g. George Washington), to full-blown Deists (Jefferson and Franklin). And he is willing to admit when there is not enough information to determine conclusively what a person believed. This is a very refreshing thing in this heated debate when it seems that most people, when it comes to the faiths of the Founding Fathers, believe it’s all or nothing.

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