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Book reviews

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Del Rey, 1968)

Read this sci-fi classic as a fulfilled prophecy of how abortionists and others degrade human life.

Since we’re not at the point yet of debating the legal status of android life as we are unborn human life, reading this sci-fi classic will help us understand how human life became devalued since the time of its first publication (1968).

Most critics focus on the plight of the androids being killed by the protagonist bounty hunter.  I would encourage students to consider the plight of those human beings, like the character John Isidore, who are degraded by being labelled “chickenheads” or those humans who have schizophrenia whose lives are not as equally valued as those without that mental illness.

Moreover, in true deconstructionist fashion, much can be made of this passage, describing a “humanoid robot […] which possessed no ability to feel empathic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat” (32).

While the quote ostensibly concerns “The Killers” (never identified clearly), the description applies to today’s abortionists, who have no empathy either for the mothers who are harmed by abortion, the unborn babies who are killed in abortion, or the fathers who are alienated by abortion.

That the novel is set in a futuristic 2021 makes reading Dick’s novel now as enjoyable as reading Orwell’s 1984 was in that year—enjoyable but also frightening, since human life has become more degraded now than it was in 1968.  After all, besides abortion wrongs, we now have infanticide (the killing of the handicapped newborn) and euthanasia (the killing or the denial of food and water rights of the elderly and the medically vulnerable).

Thank God we humans still have empathy.  Well, correction: thank God pro-lifers still have empathy for their fellow human beings.  That’s something the fraud Joe Biden and others in his administration (dictatorship?) need.

It would be an ad hominem logical fallacy to conjecture that the Big Tech billionaires who own the leftist and pro-abortion companies like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, etc. support abortion wrongs because they’re androids and not humans capable of empathy.

Hmmm…odd, now that I think of it, why one of those billionaires in particular looks like an an—  Well, we’ll let that go…for now.  Some other book review….

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Book reviews

Bella Dodd’s School of Darkness (Devin-Adair, 1963; originally published 1954)

Communists in 1954, Democratic Socialists in 2020: Dodd still relevant

Bella Dodd’s autobiography is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1954.  The Communists she writes about in 1954 are the Democratic Socialists of 2020.

A foremost Communist activist in the 1930s and early 1940s, Dodd was expelled by the Communist Party when she opposed its callous treatment of ordinary members and Party leaders.

However, Dodd’s autobiography is not just about politics.  Her reversion to Catholicism saved not only her life from an inhuman and intolerant political movement, but, as she hoped, her own soul.  As a narrative of a spiritual journey, therefore, Dodd’s 250-page work is a stunning work of twentieth-century Catholic feminism.

The twenty-first century reader would find several ideas expressed in 1954 familiar in 2020 politics.  For example, conservative intellectuals can understand that the agnosticism and pragmatism that Dodd found in the Communist Party of yesteryear is just as rampant in the Democratic Party of today (27-8).  Also, contemporary conservatives would understand her claim that “the radicals of today are the conservatives of tomorrow” (40)—anecdotal proof that today’s violent Antifa youth will one day become, to their disgust, Republican.

Teachers and faculty can learn the most from Dodd.  Her style of teaching in the 1920s was what we would now call facilitative (38).  Her disgust over the meaninglessness of degrees and dissertation research (45) echoes the opinions of today’s students (and faculty) who wonder why most courses in certain subjects function like sociological attacks on Western civilization instead of, for example, courses in English where grammar and research paper writing should be taught.

Of course, Dodd’s return to Catholicism was gradual, and the steps of her return to the Faith can help today’s New Evangelizers understand how millennials can rediscover the faith of their parents and grandparents.  To support those who think sacramentals are important in the life of any religious person, Dodd notes that Benediction had a lasting impression on her (23).  Seeing how corrupt the Communist Party was and how it considered human beings expendable (much like how the Democratic Party of today devalues human life, whether unborn or elderly), Dodd asserts the simple yet obvious idea that “God is the cure for godlessness” (136).  Even when she was most active in the Communist Party, Dodd says that she always read the New Testament (223), anecdotal evidence of the importance of scripture in the conversion process.

Most important, however, are Dodd’s soul-wrenching statements that, after experiencing the hatred and dehumanization of the Communist Party, she “had to learn to love.  I had to drain the hate and frenzy from my system” (224).  Finally, the solidarity that she thought she could find in socialist and Communist activity she later found at the Mass (236).  These ancient elements were enough to persuade Dodd to renounce Communism and return to Catholic Christianity.

The same steps can be followed by anyone who wants to leave the equally dehumanizing and atheistic Democratic Party of today.

Certainly, her conclusion chapter is naïve.  She claims that “our civilization [is] a life-giving force” (247), but it would be an inappropriate and anachronistic counterargument to suggest that she could see into the future where abortion would be legalized throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever as it was in 1973, four years after her death.  How proud she would be, though, to see a vibrant pro-life movement in 2020, fulfilling her claim.

Similarly, while she was too optimistic about youth in her time (248-9), Dodd would have had no idea that the juvenile delinquents of the fifties would be matched by the Woodstock libertines of the sixties.  She would have rejoiced to see today’s young people who affirm human life by rejecting abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia forced on the nation by the Democratic Party.

Overall, Dodd’s is a remarkable autobiography of a twentieth-century woman who lived genuine feminist ideals.

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Book reviews

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (originally published 1879-1880; translated by Constance Garnett)

A crime novel, with tedious romances yet interesting commentary about Socialism and Christianity.

Essentially a mystery and crime plot, the romances in Dostoyevsky’s novel don’t appeal to me, but the political commentary does.  Knowing that Tsarist Russia fell to Communism tempers the reading with great sorrow.

Despite this sorrow, several characters generate visceral reactions.  Alyosha is just too flat in his piety.  Fyodor, the Karamazov patriarch, lacks self-control over his sexual passion and his greed and is a warning to all fathers to live their faith and to love their children.  Grushenka and Katerina are both obnoxiously overemotional women, screaming and crying and sobbing and falling to the floor for love—enough to make both men and women puke.  Ivan is a horribly sad example of a man who abandoned his faith.  Kolya is utterly naive in his thinking about socialism.  Smerdyakov is an exception, being well-depicted as a man who commits murder and thinks he can get away with it.

All the male characters are warnings that men should reserve their genitals for their spouses.  Likewise, all the female characters are warnings that women should reserve their sexual abilities for their husbands.  What else does this novel concern except the effects of overblown passions and the lack of self-control, whether one is aristocratic or a common peasant?

And to think that the novel communicates these ideas without the vapid and stupid sex scenes of twentieth-century fiction.  Amazing!

Professors and critics consider “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter (Book V, chapter V) as a significant discussion of freedom and Jesus’ liberation of mankind from the slavery of sin.  I argue that the “hallucination” which Ivan experiences of a devil manifesting itself to him (Book XI, chapter IX) is much more meaningful in this twenty-first century, especially for those who have not abandoned their Jewish and Christian faith.

Many items in the plot which leave the reader hanging (does Mitya escape from Siberia and go to America with Grushenka? does Alyosha return to the monastery?) may be unresolved because the novel replicates Imperial Russia at a crucial point in its history.  Late in the nineteenth century, after the serfs were freed, the empire was struggling to adopt Western European values, yet it was being torn apart from within by Socialist and later Communist zealots who would rather kill people instead of enact legislative reforms.

Sounds like what Antifa domestic terrorists and the useless and lawless Democratic Party are doing to the United States today.

An educated reader knows that the Russian empire which Dostoyevsky philosophized in this novel would eventually become one of the sources of mass murder throughout the world in the twentieth century as the Soviet empire.  He probably surmised such an anti-life trend, which is why the novel contains much discussion about Russian Orthodoxy in opposition to Socialist attacks on Christianity and its tenets (especially belief in eternal life).

Is reading this 822-page masterpiece of world literature worth it when time may be better spent tweeting, for example, to help reelect President Trump?  Yes, if only because doing so not only spites leftist professors who would censor or cancel this novel as just a piece of “dead white male Eurocentric heteropatriarchal blah blah blah” literature,  but also because its ideas and images are enduring.  Thus, unlike most contemporary fiction, this is a novel which may require a second reading later in life, or a third….

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Book reviews

Joseph Conrad’s Victory (Modern Library, 1921; originally published 1915)

Ape-like South American Indians, Chinamen, Dagos: terms cancel culture Democrats want to ban!  But…

If cancel culture zealots succeed in banning this book, they’ll miss an important feminist narrative: a woman who overcomes the hate of vicious men.  Why would anybody reject women’s literature like that—all for the sake of a ridiculous political correctivity?

Biblical imagery abounds in Conrad’s 1915 novel, so it is imperative for the twenty-first reader deprived of the literary foundation of the Western world by secular humanists to read the Book of Genesis first (you know, the beginning of the Jewish and Christian Bible).  Other religious imagery, like the “wood of the Cross” scenes on pages 285 and 380, will be obvious to any practicing Christian.

Of course, contemporary readers will find certain Conrad maxims (even the deceptively simple ones) not only delightfully worded, but also worth a prolonged conversation with intelligent friends (Republicans and Democrats who vote Republican, i.e. people who don’t fear intellectual activity).  I recommend the following for your conversation and enjoyment:

“An island is but the top of a mountain” (3)

“Consummate politeness is not the right tonic for an emotional collapse” (17)

“Liking is not sufficient to keep going the interest one takes in a human being.  With hatred, apparently, it is otherwise” (24)

“It is failure that makes a man enter into himself and reckon up his resources” (64)

“There is an unholy fascination in systematic noise” (66)

“The use of reason is to justify the obscure desires that move our conduct, impulses, passions, prejudices and follies, and also our fears” (79)

“Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog” (89)

“Every age is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end” (91)

“A meditation is always—in a white man, at least—more or less an interrogative exercise” (163)

“Man on this earth is an unforeseen accident which does not stand close investigation” (185-6)

“There is a quality in events which is apprehended differently by different minds or even by the same mind at different times.  Any man living at all consciously knows that embarrassing truth” (234)

“Womanlike, she felt the effect she had produced, the effect of knowing much and of keeping all her knowledge in reserve [….]  Thus encouraged, directed in the way of duplicity, the refuge of the weak [….]  Duplicity—the refuge of the weak and the cowardly, but of the disarmed, too!” (278)

“Diplomacy without force in the background is but a rotten reed to lean upon” (298)

“Diplomacy doesn’t go well with consistent contempt” (305)

“Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love—and to put its trust in life!” (383)

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Book reviews

Perry J. Cahall’s The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and the Sacrament (Mundelein, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2016)

Thoroughly researched and eminently readable, Perry J. Cahall’s The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and the Sacrament is an impressive scholarly work, whose writing style reads as mellifluously as a contemporary whodunit.  Applying St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body as the best philosophical foundation supporting the sacrament, Cahall reviews major steps in the millennia-long progression of marriage from the Hebrew Scriptures to our understanding of marriage as the primordial sacrament.

The result of years of teaching and research, Cahall’s catalog of theological concepts pertaining to marriage consists of six major subdivisions, most of the twenty-one chapters generally progressing in chronological order.  Chapter 1 defines the first major concept of the book, mystery, and how it relates to marriage.  Chapter 2 discusses the importance of the ancient understanding of humanity being created imago Dei, gifted with a body and a soul.  As Cahall indicates, these ideas from the first two chapters that constitute Part I are not new teaching; however, contemporary Catholics, bereft of orthodox theological training over the past few decades, may find these ideas, necessary to appreciating arguments on behalf of the Catholic view of marriage, novel.

The four chapters constituting Part II concern marriage “in the Order of Creation.”  Chapter 3 discusses the uniqueness of human beings as male and female beings, the contemporary distortion of gender, and some commentary on what constitutes true freedom.  Chapter 4 elaborates the categories of love from C. S. Lewis’ Four Loves from a Catholic perspective, most notably emphasizing that Christianity empowers us as being “purified by a higher love” (49).  This chapter also demonstrates how marriage is not a private agreement, but one with a social context.  Chapter 5 affirms the nature of marriage in natural law, which ineluctably leads into the explanation of the telos of marriage.  Chapter 6 introduces the idea of marriage as the primordial sacrament, based not only on its natural law foundation explicated by scholars, but also on the common knowledge derived from the experience of ordinary lay people.

The two chapters of Part III consider marriage in the Old and New Testaments.  Chapter 7 reviews the Old Testament foundations of marriage, where married love was likened to a covenant love with God.  Chapter 8 then analyzes marriage as a sacrament of the New Testament, emphasizing the importance of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Part IV, the bulkiest portion of Cahall’s work, covers six intense chapters of Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) discussion of marriage, culminating in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  Chapter 9 summarizes the theology of marriage in the Patristic period.  Cahall’s etymological discussion of “sacrament” and “divorce” are especially beneficial at this point to understand not only the chronology of the development of sacramental marriage, but also of later Protestant secularization of the sacrament.  Chapter 10 is devoted to St. Augustine’s three goods of marriage.  Chapter 11 reviews Orthodox Christianity’s view of marriage, the medieval period’s generally negative view toward marriage, marriage as the “remedy for concupiscence” (a concept as misunderstood then as it is now), and a detailed analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical speculations on marriage (expressed in language surprisingly close to St. John Paul II’s ideas).  Chapter 12 evaluates Martin Luther’s hermeneutic of sola scriptura as it relates to marriage, an idea which setback the theological understanding of the sacrament by centuries.

Closer to our own times, chapter 13 considers why the Catholic Church has written so much on marriage in the twentieth century and reviews the treatment of marriage in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.  This chapter reinforces contemporary concepts in the understanding of marriage (such as that love is the meaning of the sacrament and how personalism helps to reorient the sacrament) and ends with brief commentary, expanded later, on St. Paul VI’s Humanae vitae.  Chapter 14 expands on the notion of marriage as the primordial sacrament, based on St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (especially 5:32, the mega mysterion passage).  Cahall then discusses two terms long discussed but not well known to contemporary Catholics, the form and matter of a sacrament.  In marriage, the words of the sacrament are the form, and the man and the woman are themselves the matter of the sacrament; the implications of this centuries-long philosophical formulation obviously conflict with those who argue, for example, for same-sex marriage or any other distortion of heterosexual normativity.  Cahall ends the chapter with a discussion of how the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1993 Catechism emphasize the newer appreciation of marriage.

The two chapters of Part V review some specific aspects of the sacrament.  Chapter 15 comments on the “‘smells and bells’ of Catholic liturgical life” (295) and begins to turn the entire work towards the practical experience of married couples, what Cahall calls their living “in the thick of the world” (296).  Chapter 16 reviews several defects of matter and form regarding contemporary marriages, affirms that civilly-divorced persons cannot receive the Eucharist (a position much debated over recent statements by Pope Francis), and ends the chapter with a discussion of sex as prayer.

The remaining five chapters which constitute Part VI involve marriage in practice.  To help persons who wish to determine if marriage is appropriate for them, chapter 17 defines “spirituality” as the basis for their discernment and offers two lists of questions to help them in their exploration of marital commitment.  Presuming the couple is nearly decided on marriage, the chapter ends by reviewing the remote, proximate, and immediate stages of preparation for marriage.  Chapter 18 begins with commentary on tenderness and conjugal relations, considers the notions of gift and suffering in marriage, addresses emotional aridity in marriage, and argues for the irrevocable commitment that married persons express to each other in marriage.  Chapter 19 identifies four principles of sexual morality and three objective features of human sexuality.  Chapter 20 addresses responsible parenthood, counters erroneous claims about what the Church does not say about family size, and reviews the “many just reasons” why married persons would use Natural Family Planning to avoid pregnancy (423).  Chapter 21 discusses consecrated celibacy, viewing it as another expression of how some persons address the “ache” of conjugal love (451), and elaborates on the marriage of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.

The concluding chapter of the work contains Cahall’s recommendation that “our modern culture needs to recover its roots and return to an outlook that will allow us to see the glorious mystery of marriage once again” (470).

The above highlights are, admittedly, eclectic and idiosyncratic; the electronic notes made from scribbled markings on note paper and the markings that this reviewer made on the book itself may differ from other readers.  However, it is virtually certain that every reader will find something in Cahall’s work which is a new insight (if not new theological knowledge), interesting, or pertinent to contemporary discussions of marriage, especially since most Catholics have, consistent with the rest of the culture, lost their common knowledge database of things Catholic.

For example, understanding the historical development of the sacrament may shock readers when they realize that marriage was formally listed as one of the standard seven sacraments of the Church only in the twelfth century.  Cahall’s discourse on the formal recognition of that historical development is illuminating.  Similarly, contemporary Catholics may think that Cahall’s commentary on form and matter as constituent elements of a sacrament is new when those theological concepts have existed for millennia.  Whether contemporary Catholics are intelligent enough to apply this theological development to the aggressive demands for same-sex marriage or the ordination of women remains to be seen.

While the work is not meant to be a marriage or (what would most obviously sell in today’s publishing market) a sex manual, Cahall’s work is surprisingly relevant for married couples situated in a culture where sex is deemed the essential and apparently only reason for marriage.  Orthodox Catholics know better, but what Cahall provides is an intellectual frame and vocabulary which contemporary married Catholics can use to counter several cultural notions which distort marriage, such as the idea that marriage is “living-happily-ever after” when it really means being “committed-ever-after” (360) or the notion that every act of lovemaking must be “great sex”, obviously erroneous, especially when the years of marriage advance beyond the initial honeymoon stage (389).

Cahall’s conclusion could be expanded with an explicit recognition of a key element from the praxis of modern marriage: generations of Catholic men and women have lived by and followed the Church’s support and respect for marriage as a unique bond between husband and wife.  The living witness of Catholic married couples, remaining faithful to Church teaching on marriage, may be the best witnesses in the New Evangelization for the sacredness of marriage in a thoroughly secular world.

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Book reviews

Marie Carré’s AA-1025: The Memoirs of an Anti-Apostle (TAN Books, 1991; originally published 1972)

Read Marie Carré’s novel as you would George Orwell’s 1984.

The primary similarity between Carré’s novel and the more famous 1984 by Orwell is that both works are prophetic, the one a dystopia of a secular world, and the other a dystopia affecting the Catholic Church.

While Carré’s novel was published in 1972 when reaction to the misguided “reforms” of some people after Vatican Council II would have justified her conservative critique, the scandals affecting the Catholic Church since then and much more obvious now in 2019, nearly a half century later, qualify Carré to be as much a prophet as her more famous British counterpart.

Plot details are simple and can be read quickly on any other Internet site.  What I found important are the following.

The scene where the “man without a name”, the ostensible author of the memoirs which the narrator “found”, learns that he was adopted is pivotal as a psychological study for his eventual hatred of the Catholic Church and promotion within Communist circles (4).  His love-turned-hate baffles the reader throughout the rest of the novel.  Why should he necessarily hate his loving adoptive parents, even to the point of promoting a political philosophy hostile to his parents’ well-meaning faith?  Contemporary parents who have children who have fallen away from the Faith can find this part of the fictional study most compelling.

While the author focuses on the consequences of a new Mass devoid of sacred components, much more interesting is the anonymous priest’s/Communist agent’s effort to argue for contraception and abortion (60).  Every Catholic, whether he or she supports Church teaching on the dual purposes of sex or not, knows how effective secular (demonic?) forces have been in leading people to think that sex is merely for pleasure.  These forces have succeeded in having people think that the Church’s support for sex within marriage as a means by which the couple can engage in pleasure and be open to the possibility of children is false.  From the early twentieth century to now, we are still grappling with the consequences of the distortion of sexuality that the contraception and abortion business Planned Parenthood has forced on the culture.

All is not lost, though, as the publishing fact of Carré’s novel indicates.  Written in 1972, the Catholic Church still exists in 2019 and will so in 2020, 2030, 2100, etc.  How could the Church survive if it were infiltrated by Communist agents as the novel’s plot suggests?

Simple.  As many Catholics today have argued, especially when faced with yet another demeaning message from Pope Francis about the “rigidity” of faithful, orthodox priests and lay people, Carré points to one means by which such demonic forces in the Church can be overcome: the rosary.  I would add, also, that we who are ordinary Catholic lay people must never leave the Church—headed by bishops, cardinals, and a pope who just don’t seem to have our interests at heart.  Moreover, we must have the courage that St. John Paul II wrote about when he asked us to defend our faith in the public square. As Carré’s prophetic novel indicates, sometimes such courage needs to be in the religious square as well.

George Orwell, thank you for the dire prophecy of a dystopian secular world which helped readers understand how to counter totalitarianism in the twentieth century.  From your spot in whatever literary Heaven there may be, please help spread the religious dystopia that Marie Carré has depicted, if only to help us in the fight to lead an orthodox Catholic Church in this new century.

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Book reviews

Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon (Arbor House/William Morrow, 1987)

Those studying Post-Abortion Syndrome will find this fantasy novel delightful reading.  (The narrator’s gay friend suggests that this is the purpose of the novel when he claims that the existence of the bizarre dreams of the aborted mother, the main character, is a way to resolve her PAS guilt; cf. page 116.)  Moreover, while the religious elements are subsumed (for obvious reasons; the characters are typical moderns who must think religion has an inferior place in their lives), a contemporary reader would understand that “Rondua” is a vague dream space that sounds like Purgatory and that “Ophir Zik” approximates the theological idea of Limbo.  The novel ends satisfactorily; the main character’s quest for reconciliation leads her back home.  However, anti-life feminists would not appreciate this novel since the aborted child is not only personified, but also the aborted mother’s “savior” (he rescues his mother at novel’s end from an ax killer).  This novel is yet another instance of the genre that those who write about abortion use to delve into the horrifyingly sad, fantasy-driven, and lifelong experiences surrounding abortion.

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Book reviews

Clemens Cavallin’s Art and Sacrificial Love: A Conversation with Michael D. O’Brien. (Ottawa: Justin Press, 2018)

Clemens Cavallin’s brief book lives up to its implied purpose.  Early on, Cavallin states that “I hope to show [Michael D. O’Brien’s] understanding and ideas more effectively than disjointed fragments would do, or which the analytical distance of a systematic work could achieve” (21).  Thus, the scholarly reader who wants a detailed analysis of O’Brien’s works and writing style should enter appropriate search terms in a database like Academic Search Premier for the relatively few scholarly articles discussing his oeuvre.

The merit of Cavallin’s work, however, rests in the conversational tone which clarifies his explicit purpose.  “In this volume, I would like to give particular attention to [O’Brien’s] art, and try to convey something of the same inspiration and healing that I myself experienced from it” (20).  Lest this stated purpose be reduced to the genres of autobiography and biography (the latter bordering on the hagiographic), Cavallin is aware of his audience, and thus the explicit purpose of the work should be expanded to include its persuasive function.  “While writing this book, I had in mind especially those of you who are now in their late teens or early twenties and feel drawn to art as an expression of a strong Christian vocation” (21).  St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999) may provide a better systematic philosophy justifying the Christian’s role in contemporary art, but Cavallin’s work illustrates the anxieties, frustrations, and joys of two artists (in both the visual and literary arts) who attempt to implement the saint’s ideas in their respective creative professions.

Although the book is ostensibly organized around a weekend that Cavallin spent with O’Brien at his home in Canada (the chapters are titled simply “Prologue”, “Friday”, “Saturday”, “Sunday”, and “Epilogue”), the two philosophical divisions of the book are suggested in the title.  The first two-thirds of the book dominantly discuss O’Brien’s pertinent biographical details and his philosophy of art.  It is only in the remaining thirty pages that the reader may become aware that Cavallin has shifted the conversation to the second division suggested by the title: the importance of sacrifice for the purification of artists so that they can create works in cooperation with their divine calling.  Scattered throughout these two main divisions are didactic statements which encapsulate O’Brien’s artistic philosophy, inseparable from his Catholic faith.

Autobiographic and biographic details about Cavallin and O’Brien are indeed interesting and would not necessarily be found in scholarly analyses of the latter’s work.  Cavallin’s inclusion of two specific details, therefore, serves an important function in the study of O’Brien’s novels.  First, O’Brien’s poverty throughout his career is mentioned numerous times.  O’Brien quit his secure job in 1976 to pursue his art, and he claims that since then “my wife and I, and our children, have lived on the bottom of the economic structure of Canada” and that the “sacrifice was a constant testing” (59).  Cavallin elaborates how severe that poverty was and cautions that “one should not romanticize the lack of resources” (15).

The second important biographical detail from O’Brien’s life has had such a major influence on him that it is necessary to mention the circumstances in some detail, as Cavallin does over the span of three pages (which, in a volume of only 93 pages, is a significant quantity of attention).  When he was twenty-one, O’Brien

sensed the presence of radical evil.  I was confronted by a spirit which was powerful, extremely malevolent, and wished to devour my soul.  It was a being that suddenly appeared to me.  I was not hallucinating: I was sane.  But I—I who had completely rejected any notion of the transcendent or the spiritual—was suddenly confronted by a spiritual being who wanted to destroy me—or at least to devour me.  (29)

If it were not for “something deep in my soul [crying] out: ‘God save me!’”, he would have succumbed.  This crucial event in O’Brien’s life led to his spiritual transformation, encapsulated in the statement that “I realized in that instant that there was a great war in the heavens” (30).  The event is perhaps the moment in which O’Brien understood further that “the darkness that afflicts the modern era is dismantling Western Civilization, Christian civilization, into something far more sinister than the pagan age—into an apostate age” (30-1).

Cavallin offers his own autobiographical detail throughout his conversation with O’Brien, suggesting that the two men have many things in common: “My own story was so different, but at the same time so similar” (17).  While it is obvious that O’Brien enjoyed his interaction with the younger Swedish scholar, Cavallin (who is a faithful Catholic in a Sweden which lost not only its Catholic, but also its Protestant Christian roots on the altar of secularism) discloses much more the therapeutic effect of his collaboration with O’Brien in the composition of this book and in their communications throughout the years.  “Being in Canada and listening to Michael O’Brien was, then, part of a healing process: a quest for personal and professional wholeness” (19).

Sometimes, Cavallin’s descriptions of his interactions with O’Brien border on the awkwardly poetic and hagiographic as when he writes, “I sensed a cloud of grace surrounding Michael, something of which, I think, he was quite unaware” (13) or when he recalls “that first day of our meeting in 2011, when after lighting the candle, he walked by the portraits of Jesus and Mary.  It was as if he had sunk into water, was submerged for a moment, and then came back to normal life, with something of that luminous water still clinging to him” (16).

Despite these flaws in language, Cavallin’s work includes numerous statements summarizing O’Brien’s ideas about art which can assist the researcher and avid literary fan in trying to appreciate his ideas, if not understand why most of his fictional works are massive and often, as some critics have pointed out, verbose tomes.  For example, an image of a sapling growing out of rocks manifests for O’Brien not only his love of nature, but also God “speaking through nature” (33).  O’Brien’s analysis of the major fault of contemporary philosophy and art aesthetics—deconstruction, whereby art is viewed as a social construction and that “True Art” is “not God-given but made by us; and therefore unstable”—leads to his ineluctable conclusion that “As their creations could not partake of what they signified, they became signs of the only thing their creators were sure of, that is, themselves.  The anxiety that then naturally crept up on the wannabe artists, like a malicious black shadow hiding in a remote corner of the studio, biding its time, was precisely this impossibility to stretch out and establish a link with the real, with the pulsating nature of life” (35, 37).  The “black shadow”, of course, refers to the signal episode of the “spirit which was powerful, extremely malevolent, and wished to devour my soul”; thus, including this vocabulary (the simile could have easily been edited out) reinforces that crucial spiritual event which frames O’Brien’s world.

Besides recording O’Brien’s negative comments on modern art, Cavallin’s work is notable for containing the positive tenets of O’Brien’s philosophy of art, whether visual or literary, and the affirming statements span the range of assertion to grander hope.  For example, although the secular world wishes to obliterate its Christian roots and silence faithful persons, O’Brien recognizes in a simple assertion that “We are marginalized, and not allowed to enter the mainstream of culture—to speak the word.  But we are speaking.  We are speaking” (52, italics in original).  In contrast, O’Brien expresses a grander hope when he argues that, in order to accomplish the desire “to make true, beautiful, and good work, we must be willing to sacrifice.  We must risk losing everything” (63).

O’Brien’s novels are reportedly popular; ranging from 500 to 1,000 pages per volume, they are lugubrious works as well.  Evaluating the literary merit of O’Brien’s work, as Cavallin himself noted, is not the intention of his brief book and thus must be relegated to someone who has the interest and time to plow through O’Brien’s thick novels.  However, the busy person of faith may want to postpone reading O’Brien’s novels and read Cavallin’s much briefer (by 400 pages) summary of key tenets of the novelist’s beliefs.  Doing so may intrigue the reader to investigate at least one of O’Brien’s novels to determine whether the philosophical statements offered in Cavallin’s weekend conversation matches the literary artifact.

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Book reviews

Aaron D. Cobb’s Loving Samuel: Suffering, Dependence, and the Calling of Love (Cascade Books, 2014)

Those who advocate infanticide (the killing of the handicapped newborn) would despise Cobb’s account of the brief life and death of his son.  The rest of us normal people, however, recognize the beauty of the child’s life as seen through the memoirs of parents and a sibling who loved him.

Cobb’s biography of his son Samuel, who lived for five hours after birth, is not only a moving account, but also a deeply philosophical investigation of the value of suffering.  For the emotional impact of the book, I highly recommend reading these 118 pages.  I guarantee that readers will find some questions addressed and answered.  For the philosophical power of the book, I offer these quotes and some commentary.

Making the most of their time with Samuel, Cobb recounts “the weekly visit in which we took Micah [the couple’s first child] with us so that he could hear his brother’s heartbeat and see the ultrasound” (17).  Anti-lifers would recoil at these words, knowing that technological advances continue to make the pro-life case more effectively than mere words in argumentation.

The “We can avoid suffering by refusing to love well” paragraph (beginning on page 23) reads as a testament for those who assist the dying and fight for the value of all human life, especially the handicapped.  Of course, Cobb’s point is that “Choosing to suffer in these times is a sign, an indication of something deeper, something good, something worth pursuing, something worth upholding, someone worth valuing” (24).  Cobb’s affirmation of the value of love is repeated throughout the book.

I applaud Cobb for bold statements such as “There are in fact great goods in our dependence, in the recognition of our limitations, and in our burdening of others with our lives” (54; emphasis added).  When did society abandon the idea that the so-called “burdens” we supposedly hoist on each other are bad things instead of, as Cobb points out, opportunities for us to manifest our love for each other?

A final powerful quote is written by Samuel’s mother: “I’m supposed to be the mother of three children, but only one lives with me” (86).  (She had miscarried a child before Samuel.)  Every parent who has lost a child by miscarriage knows the pro-life truth that the miscarried child should be counted just as the born children are.

Finally, it is admirable that Cobb and his wife affirmed life when certain medical professionals recommended abortion (which, as Cobb notes, was euphemistically termed “interrupting the pregnancy”).  Some doctors, who should be intelligent, simply cannot understand that abortion is not a cure for any child with Trisomy 18.

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Book reviews

Patrick Coffin’s Sex au Naturel: What It Is and Why It’s Good for Your Marriage (Emmaus Road, 2010)

Coffin neatly summarizes the growing opposition to artificial birth control in this 130 page book that can be easily read in about three hours; notetaking would extend the reading to four.

Some memorable items and ideas include the following.  A list of twelve items in a quiz (xviii) and their answers [77ff] will shock contemporary readers who think that contraception was wanted by everybody in all places at all times.  Coffin makes the case that sex which is not burdened by contraception is as “organic” and “green” (xxi) as the social movements that these terms signify.  He cogently argues that contemporary society suffers from “sexual schizophrenia” (48).

Some trenchant quotes include the following.  “Despite sincere protestations, those who accept contraception implicitly accept every other sexual coupling that is shorn from conception” (49).  Natural law, the basis for sex au naturel, is simple and can be defined as “that which rational beings must do in order to perfect their natures” [63].  “The Church has never commanded families to propagate into poverty” (84).  Sex on infertile days is not the same as birth control because God designed the “natural rhythm of fertility and infertility” (114).  The Church never forbade sex on infertile days (115).  Finally, “Rich is the irony that an over-sexualized, anti-baby culture should excel at producing technologies aimed at making babies without sex!” (122).

Couples who sterilized themselves may especially want to reach chapter nine [99ff] for a discussion of how that serious abuse of their sexuality can be overcome.

I recommend this book for young people seeking the sacrament of matrimony, those who have contracepted themselves surgically, and those husbands and wives who think that contraception is necessary when they have sex with their spouses.  Protestant Christians will be especially encouraged to know that many are not only rediscovering what the Reformers said about contraception, but also abandoning the sexual distortions of late twentieth-century theologians on the matter.