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Physician-author finds God in studies of near-death experiences Print E-mail
Written by Nancy L. Roberts Catholic News Service   
Tuesday, 07 March 2017 14:59

"God and the Afterlife: The Groundbreaking New Evidence for God and Near-Death Experience" by Jeffrey Long, M.D., with Paul Perry. HarperOne (San Francisco, 2016). 213 pp., $25.99.

Since the beginning of time, death has posed the ultimate enigma. Where exactly do we go after our physical demise? Catholic tradition points to heaven or hell (and sometimes, purgatory). While earlier generations seemed to accept these beliefs on faith, in our age medical advances have made near-death experiences comparatively common.

Everyone has heard of near-death survivors, often called NDEers -- those whom modern medicine has brought back from the very brink of death. In fact, a 1992 poll by Gallup -- cited by the Near Death Experience Research Foundation -- found that 13 million Americans, or 5 percent, had a near-death experience.

These survivors of horrendous car accidents, heart attacks and the like have actually flatlined, meeting the clinical definition of death. And when doctors revive them, these patients often tell similar stories of out-of-body experiences that include meeting deceased loved ones, crossing through a tunnel into a brilliant light and feeling cocooned by an overwhelming love, often from a distinct, supernatural personage who many of them conclude is God.

Not surprisingly, the sizable cohort of survivors of a near-death experience has inspired a popular literature that ranges from collections of anecdotes to more "scientific" explorations of the subject.

In 1975, when Raymond Moody, a physician and philosopher, published his book "Life After Life," a collection of interviews with and anecdotes about NDEers, it became a best-seller and sparked much popular interest in the subject. However, some critics dismissed Moody's lack of scientific rigor; for example, he provided no statistical analysis of the data he collected about the experiences of those who seemingly died and then were revived.

Dr. Jeffrey Long's new exploration of NDEers seems to try to address some of the limitations of earlier studies such as Moody's. "God and the Afterlife" reports on more than 4,000 near-death experiences cataloged by the nonprofit Near Death Experience Research Foundation that Long, a radiation oncologist in Houma, Louisiana, founded in 1998. He also established a website -- nderf.org -- to collect near-death accounts for scientific study.

In this book, Long and reveals some of the experiences that near-death survivors "of diverse backgrounds and religious traditions" consistently report, such as feeling out-of-body and encountering a loving, mystical, divine being. Commonly, survivors also note their passage through a tunnel, the presence of a brilliant light and encounters with deceased relatives and friends.

Long presents numerous first-person accounts of near-death experiences, such as this one from a nurse who experienced severe blood loss during a cesarean section: "I looked down at my son's incubator and wondered, 'Am I dead?' But I was also thinking that it was OK if I were dead, because my son was all right. I was later given a photograph of him post-birth that looked exactly the same as what I saw, even though he was on the other side of the curtain."

Long found that many who survive these close calls with death report feelings of extraordinary peace and calm, as did a survivor of two cardiac arrests, who described how, "On the other side, the arms of my loved ones welcomed me home. The intense love just can't be described in words … I felt content and safe, like I was in the care and love of God. And that love of God felt like the first time you see your baby or the first time you fall in love -- multiplied by 10,000."

The book is a follow-up to Long's earlier New York Times best-seller, "Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences" (2010). Intriguingly, it addresses less common aspects of near-death experiences, such as "hellish encounters" (reported by fewer than 4 percent of Long's sample), which may seem "unworldly, frightening and suggestive of classical concepts of hell."

Long concludes that there is no correlation between one's relative "goodness" and the chance of encountering what he calls "a walk through the Valley of Death." All kinds of people have reported such experiences. Long prefers not to characterize them as "negative," because they seem to spur survivors to live transformed, more meaningful lives as much as the more common, pleasant near-death experiences do.

He observes that "there is historical literary evidence that past saints and holy men and women have experienced descent into hell. And, although this brush with evil may be hard on them it also often provides the grist for a deeper spirituality, one that moves them to greater spiritual wholeness."

With many engaging first-person accounts culled from this large near-death study, "God and the Afterlife" is easy to read and will likely interest many. Long's conclusion is unequivocal, that this data set of more than 4,000 near-death experiences offers "overwhelming evidence of God."

Some skeptics might question whether the reported tunnel, the light and the encounters with dead relatives and with a divine being actually occur during the period when the NDEer is judged to be clinically dead. Or could these experiences possibly occur in the seconds as consciousness (and life) is being regained? The latter explanation might cast doubt on the claims of Long (and other researchers).

Ultimately, despite this and other attempts to study what happens after we die, we may just have to take it on faith. At the very least, "God and the Afterlife" leads us to ponder the reality of God, if not to find a definitive answer.

Businessman's take on parish leadership may be required reading Print E-mail
Written by David Gibson Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 22 February 2017 11:30

"Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive" by William E. Simon Jr. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2016). 202 pp. $17.95.

No single thread connects the Catholic parishes that are vibrant and thriving in the 21st century. "There is no 'silver bullet' for doing great parish ministry in the Catholic Church today," writes William E. Simon Jr.

Still, the research that prompted him to write "Great Catholic Parishes" revealed four important characteristics of these parishes, namely that they "(1) share leadership, (2) foster spiritual maturity and plan for discipleship, (3) excel on Sundays, and (4) evangelize in intentional, structured ways."

In 2012 the book's well-known businessman author, who ran for governor of California in 2002, founded an organization called Parish Catalyst, "devoted to supporting the health and development of Catholic parishes." This book demonstrates that Simon's interests stretch well beyond the fields of politics or financial investing.

The book "contains some of the first fruits" of Parish Catalyst's work by sharing "the self-reported best practices, opportunities and challenges of more than 200 excellent parishes."

Ultimately, this is a book of good news about "places in the Catholic Church where creativity, vision and devotion have the traction to move the mission of Jesus Christ forward," Simon writes. He wants it to convey "a message of hope and optimism, grounded in realism" -- a message about American parishes "where important and meaningful work is being done every single day and quantifiable progress is being achieved.

A note of caution is attached to this message, however. Current trends indicate Catholics will leave their parishes "in moderate but consistent numbers in the coming decades" and will remain in them only if "given reason to, only if there is something vibrant and life-giving in their parishes," according to Simon.

He addresses his book to parish priests, deacons, lay and religious order ministers, parish staff and committed volunteers. The book intends to offer "practical ideas and more than a little encouragement" to readers like these.

Parish leadership is among Simon's main topics of interest here. "There are many different leadership styles," he observes. However, "one commonality is that good leaders are skilled communicators -- individuals who are verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to others on a deeper level. They articulate a compelling vision and arouse strong emotional support in those they lead."

There is a shift today toward shared leadership in parishes, and this "represents a marked change from the traditional lone-ranger model of pastoring," Simon writes. Parish Catalyst researchers, he notes, "identified three different styles of leadership sharing: the collaborators, the delegators and the consultors."

Highlighting the importance of lay leadership in the American Catholic parish, Simon points out that "teamwork and communication have become essential to decision-making processes." In fact, he says, "listening to advice from lay leaders means opening up a lane for dialogue -- making communication a two-way street."

Simon is convinced there are "creative, talented and energetic individuals" in our parish pews. "Helping people discover their strengths and how to use them," he says, "can have a resounding effect on parish life overall."

The Parish Catalyst team "conducted a total of 244 interviews with pastors from every state in the United States," Simon explains. The team asked pastors "to reflect on their major challenges and near-term goals, and to share their greatest successes." Pastors were asked, as well, "about their leadership styles, their staffs, what gets them up in the morning and where they look for inspiration."

Not only did the researchers learn what gets pastors up in the morning, however. They also learned what keeps them awake at night -- what worries them most, which issues they find difficult.

"Great Catholic Parishes," while fairly brief and easy to read, covers a wide range of issues involved in the creation of parishes that thrive. Most parish leaders should find something in the book that relates directly to their work.

Parish personnel issues and tensions, the hiring of talented ministers, making hospitality a parish reality, parish websites, the challenges of bilingual and multicultural parishes, young-adult ministries, financial matters and the transition surrounding a new pastor's arrival -- all these and many other challenging factors in contemporary parish life are addressed.

The findings of the Parish Catalyst researchers "fit comfortably into four themes: sharing leadership, growing spiritually, worshipping and reaching out," Simon observes. "To us," he adds, "these four areas neatly encompass the principal aspects of parish life."

I suspect Simon's book soon will appear on reading lists for pastors, parish staffs, parish councils, pastoral planners and, indeed, anyone interested in what it takes to create a great Catholic parish in our times.

Highly readable history of American Catholics brings key figures to life Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 January 2017 11:33

"Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O'Connor" by Russell Shaw. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2016). 141 pp., $15.95.

In this excellent, well-written and highly readable book, Russell Shaw presents the stories of 15 famous Catholics, from American Catholicism's first bishop, John Carroll of Maryland (1735-1815), to the period, roughly, of the Second Vatican Council.

The author, who has published more than 20 books on Catholicism and Catholic history, is well qualified for the task. For almost 20 years, he directed media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; during which time I was on the staff of the conference directing Catholic-Jewish relations and there were a number of public controversies that he and I worked on together.

"Catholics in America" brings to life a number of key figures in American Catholic history and along the way provides a concise history of the church in this country and the controversies it faced both internally and in its relations with Protestant America and with the Holy See. Its underlying theme is how Catholics worked to be accepted in the larger society into which they had immigrated and were assimilating while preserving their faith as part of the larger, universal church. This was not an easy task.

On the one hand the Irish and German, then Italian and East European Catholics wanted and needed to preserve their own cultural traditions yet still be accepted as fully Catholic and fully American. This resulted in ethnic parishes and enclaves. Yet when these largely working-class Catholics left their homes and parishes to work or even to shop, they intermingled with the larger society.

Many in that society, mainly the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, did not want to accept the "newcomers" into their social, academic or professional lives. Clashes were all too frequent and sometimes violent. Because of the shared discrimination against them, Catholics and Jews throughout the United States came together as perhaps nowhere else on earth, creating the foundations for the dialogue between our two communities that has flourished internationally since Vatican II.

Shaw might have mentioned this when dealing with the legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, since the two universities named after her have been significant in pioneering the dialogue, while the Paulist Fathers, the American congregation founded by Father Isaac Hecker has likewise exerted significant energy into Catholic-Jewish and ecumenical endeavors. Jewish support for the presidential campaigns of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy was also significant.

Finally, I would note the importance of Dorothy Day, who was raised by Pope Francis during his visit to this country as an exemplar of American Catholicism at its best. I knew her, too, and helped her organize pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam marches during my years in New York. She deserves to be acknowledged by the church for the saint that she was.

This is a book for all Catholics today, to understand our pilgrim church in a land of hopeful promise.

Fisher is a professor of theology at St. Leo University in Florida.

Book on monks offers some excellent insights but skimpy theology Print E-mail
Written by Brian Welter, Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 11 January 2017 12:41

"Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics" by Christine Valters Paintner; icons by Marcy Hall. Sorin Books (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2016). 224 pp., $17.95.

"Illuminating the Way" excels for those looking for the horizontal church and horizontal spiritual practice, which is to say for a strong me-centered path of therapeutic religion. Such spirituality has close affinities to Carl Jung's psychoanalysis, and unsurprisingly, author Christine Valters Paintner repeatedly turns to Jung to buttress her observations.

As the author would have it, I go to church to deepen my relationship with myself. My feelings and thoughts are the most interesting things around, and God helps me feel and think well. Religion is about subjective, personal experience. This book tends to discard the "militia Christi" aspects of saints for a soft, emotional religion, though the thoughts on Evagrius fighting the demons brings some relief.

The book mixes interesting insights with unclear theology. St. Francis of Assisi conjures up the theologically irrelevant "archetype of the fool." More seriously, the author bases her critique of the sins of Western culture's "false god" of "productivity, striving, consumption and speed" on Franciscan spirituality. "There is a subversive act of truth-telling through the Fool's humor and playfulness," the author notes. These are timely words because the author links the holy fool – or "fool for Christ" -- to humility.

We see more wisdom later in the book with the reference to the holy pause, or "statio," whereby monks take a small break between tasks.

"When we rush from one thing to another, we skim over the surface of life," Valters Paintner notes. The author, a Benedictine Oblate, repeatedly expresses her admiration for the order's spirituality. (Benedictine Oblates, like the author, are laypeople who are associated with the Benedictines but do not make vows; lay Oblates have had a spiritual association with Benedictine monasteries for centuries.)

"Illuminating the Way" excels at emphasizing Christianity's creative side. Yet it does so excessively, which is to say without the discipline and moderation that orthodoxy assures. The end of many chapters exemplify this with, for example, mandala art exercises where the mandala lacks Christian symbolism. How does such random art deepen the reader's faith in Christ?

The skimpy theology is disappointing given what the author shows she knows of Christianity. The informative and accurate overview of the Egyptian desert fathers contrasts with the discussion on Mary, which stretches the bounds of Christian theology. She links the Virgin to pagan goddess spirituality: "My journey has been to the Great Mother, reclaiming the divine feminine in my life in a deeper way, and ultimately reclaiming/recovering/restoring the Mother who dwells within me and offers me everything I need in terms of nourishment, affection and attention."

The chapter on St. Brigid accomplishes this direct fusion of Christian and pagan: "With her connection to the ancient goddess tradition, Brigid extends the lavish generosity of the Mother to us." This leads to fairly Jungian, New Age conclusions: "The Healer is not only present in the traditional practice of medicine or other healing arts such as herbalism, massage, energy work, midwifery, and so forth. The Healer also works through spiritual direction, retreat work, psychotherapy."

The author misses opportunities to speak of grace, such as when, once again, she discusses feelings and how to handle them: "When the undermining thoughts and stories, or the voices of the inner critic and judge, come up, notice them, and then as best you can, don't let them take root. Try not to follow their trail that always leads to discouragement and self-doubt." Instead of relying on grace, this Christ-less Christianity requires self-reliance. She never clearly shows God's role in meditation and contemplation.

The theme of subversion comes up time and again, which shores up the author's description of Dorothy Day: "Her faith was rooted in reaching out to the needs of others, and she was sustained by regular prayer and worship. Yet she often came into conflict with the church over her activities." Both of these mirror themes among the wider American literature on Catholic spirituality, whereby respect for church authority and tradition is no longer valued.

"Illuminating the Way" offers many excellent insights, but is more faithful to contemporary feminist, psychotherapeutic, narcissistic culture than to the deposit of the faith.

One book offers exhaustive study of rosary, another adds mysteries Print E-mail
Written by By Mitch Finley Catholic News Service   
Thursday, 22 December 2016 14:21

"Champions of the Rosary: The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon" by Donald H. Calloway, MIC. Marian Press (Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 2016). 351 pp., $16.95.

"Journey With the Expanded Rosary: Experience the Mysteries for Each Day of the Week" by Rich Melcher. Leonine Publishers (Phoenix, 2016). 116 pp., $12.95.

At 351 pages - not including various appendices and reference sections in the back of the book - "Champions of the Rosary" is easily the most exhaustive study of the devotional prayer known as "the rosary" that this reviewer has ever seen. The book is organized into three major sections: "History of the Rosary," "Champions of the Rosary" and "Praying the Rosary." There is no doubt that anyone who reads this book will be ever after the best informed on the rosary in his or her parish, if not his or her diocese.

The book's subtitle refers to the rosary as "a spiritual weapon." One may wonder if this doesn't narrow the rosary overmuch and even attribute to it a rather grim countenance. The late Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton was likely the 20th century's most prominent "champion of the rosary," his famous rosary slogan being "The family that prays together stays together."

This slogan encourages the rosary not as a spiritual weapon but as a source of family health, strength and loving intimacy. Indeed, one might ask if the rosary, like any good form of prayer, isn't primarily a means of nourishing loving intimacy with God and neighbor. Those who want a "spiritual weapon," of course, are free to understand the rosary thus if they want to.

Part I, "History of the Rosary," attributes the rosary's origin to a commission given to St. Dominic by Mary and concludes that this is an historical event. Father Calloway bases his conclusion on an 1891 secondary source written by an English Third Order Dominican, Augusta Theodosia Drane, who quotes what she claims are the actual words of Mary spoken to St. Dominic. Father Calloway quotes the words reported by Drane, but where Drane got her information is apparently unknown.

One can only conclude that Drane repeated legendary material and gave the impression that it was historical. It is highly likely, then, that the account of the commission to St. Dominic by Mary is legendary rather than historical. This does nothing, of course, to reduce the credit due the countless members of St. Dominic's Order of Preachers who promoted the rosary over the centuries.

Part II of this book narrates the stories of no less that 26 "champions of the rosary," ancient and modern. Beginning with St. Dominic (1170-1221), Father Calloway repeats his belief in the historical nature of the encounter between Mary and Dominic, relying more on hagiography than historical research.

He includes quotations from numerous popes who also accepted the historicity of this event and repeated it. Modern "champions of the rosary" discussed in this part of the book include Pope Pius XII, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, St. John XXIII, Father Peyton, Blessed Paul VI, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Part III, "Praying the Rosary," offers practical instruction based on Father Calloway's apparent liking for apocalyptic theology, the spiritual dangers presented to faithful believers by Satan, etc. In response to the question, "Why pray the rosary," he concludes with words from Blessed James Alberione (1884-1971): Praying the rosary "is the surest way to triumph over spiritual enemies, the most suitable way to progress in virtue and sanctity."

"Champions of the Rosary" summarizes virtually everything ever written about the rosary and presents short biographies of virtually every "champion of the rosary" who ever lived. The author's recommendation of the rosary seems to be based rather heavily on a fear-based devotionalism. Many devotees of the rosary may be more motivated to pray it out of love than fear. Regardless, "Champions of the Rosary" provides a resource on the rosary not to be found anywhere else.

Rich Melcher's "Journey with the Expanded Rosary" offers what he calls "tri-expanded rosary mysteries." These are three biblically based sets of five mysteries, and Melcher's aim is to add to, not replace, the traditional "mysteries" of the rosary. There are various ways to use this book, and the author provides several suggestions for how to do this. A welcome chapter, the final of the book's eight chapters, explains the basics of how to pray the rosary.

Some readers/pray-ers of the rosary will find the material provided by this book to be a significant addition to, and enrichment of, the rosary. Others may find it more confusing than enlightening. It will depend, most likely, on personal inclinations and preferences. Either way, this book is worth considering as a possible alternative to the standard approach to praying the rosary.

Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes including "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers and Those in Between" (Word Among Us Press).



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