Scrutinizing “Resisting Happiness”

Matthew Kelly sent me a copy of his new book Resisting Happiness, and I recently read it.

New Words, Old Meanings

This book is about the perennial human struggle to grow in faith, hope, and love while overcoming sin.

resistbookHence, we “resist happiness” because we have concupiscence–the tendency toward sin–and so we are tempted to be lazy, gluttonous, prideful, and selfish.

Kelly avoids these traditional words in order to make the book accessible to non-Catholics, secular people, and Catholics who don’t know their Faith well. This is Kelly’s target audience and his mission, and that must be kept in mind when reading the book as a Catholic strong in your faith.

Self-Help Catholicism?

Kelly tells many anecdotes in this book–one of his hallmarks–and even admits to recycling several stories from previous books into this one. Reading Kelly’s books the same themes emerge under slightly different window dressing: become the best version of yourself (e.g. holiness, becoming a saint in traditional lingo); discover that Catholicism is true, grow in virtue.

kelly1Many people criticize Kelly because he can come across as promoting “self-help” Catholicism or that his writing is too surface-level.

My response is that Kelly is targeting the huge masses of people who don’t go to church, who fell away from Catholicism, who are nominal in their Faith.

Recently in fact, a reader messaged me describing three people he is talking with–all secular to a large degree, with lots of problems, far from God in most ways–and he asked me what books I’d recommend.

I told him something by Fr. (Bishop) Barron or Matthew Kelly. Quite frankly they are the kinds of authors that reach people who are on the outside of the Church. I respect them for that and don’t expect to read an Imitation of Christ when I pick up one of their books.

Plus, even for a Catholic apologist like me, I need reminders of the basics: in reading Resisting Happiness many times it made me reflect on my own life and how I let laziness steer me off course in my spiritual life. So there is something for everyone in it.

Dan Lord on Choosing Joy

Dan Lord
Dan Lord

I was reluctant to begin reading Dan Lord’s book, Choosing Joy. Something about the title, I’m not sure what exactly, made me think that the book was going to be dreary. While “joy” is certainly a good thing, I couldn’t help but fear that the book would really be something more like “Choosing a Root Canal”–something I know I should do but don’t really want to.

Instead, I was treated to a personable, light-hearted, yet penetrating romp through joy, the solution to our common human ailment of sin and evil.

Dan and I are friends, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. I first met him years ago and learned he was a fellow convert like me. But while I came into the Church from the relatively tame and lame weeds of vague agnosticism, Dan was the frontman of a rock band aptly named “Pain.” Dan told me this himself sometime after we met, and he likewise introduces his readers to his crazy life before conversion to Christ. He does seem an unlikely candidate to write a book on Christian joy, but in fact his experiences, and especially his suffering, have given him bluntly keen insight into humanity and what causes us to reject joy.

Dan weaves in personal stories of his own upbringing, lives of the saints, pop culture examples, and the wisdom of the Church’s two thousand years of teachings to survey what joy is, how we can receive it, what blocks us from doing so, and what effects it has on us and the world. If angels can fly because they take themselves lightly, this book likewise adopts a light touch that lifts our spirits so that we can appreciate and experience joy.

That said, I was uncomfortably surprised mid-way in to find one of my own spiritual malaises diagnosed. In chapter seven Dan answers some common objections to what he has written so far. The second one sounds like something I have been tempted to believe:

“I’m just realistic about what God is. He’s all-powerful, and he’s changeless. Prayer isn’t going to change his mind. He’s going to do exactly what he wants to do exactly when he wants to do it…”

I remember in particular thinking this after a tragedy where a father, trying to catch a baseball at a Texas Rangers game, fell to his death when he stretched too far, right in front of his young son.

I won’t give away Dan’s answer, but it is quite good. And he nailed on the head the lack of trust in my thinking. It caused me to pray and recommit myself to trusting in God’s love and providence, knowing that what He wills is truly best, even when I cannot see how that could be so.

He ends the book with a chapter on Heaven, quoting the most poignant passage from the Lord of the Rings trilogy (“a far green country…”). The epilogue describes the powerful story of how his father passed away, a living testament to joy.

Overall, I recommend the book highly to anyone. It is entertaining, enjoyable to read, and informative. It is actually so good that I think it could have been given a better title, something that would have captured the essence of the book more. But, like Heaven, it is hard to describe joy, let alone summarize it in a catchy phrase. So in the end I have no better suggestion. Well done, Dan!

Journeys of Faith, a Review in Four Parts

Due to my elite status as the 359th most popular Catholic blog*, I was given a review copy** of the book Journeys of Faith, where four different intra-Christian conversions are explained and then responded to. I plan to review the book in four parts, chronicling each story and response.

What’s the Point of the Book?

The book seeks to help Evangelicals understand why so many in their number are converting to liturgical traditions: Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. Three of the stories are of Evangelicals joining one of those three traditions. The other is of a Catholic becoming an Evangelical and serves to help Catholics understand why so many people have left and are leaving the Catholic Church for Protestantism. (I am acquainted via the blogosphere with Francis Beckwith, the Catholic convert, and Chris Castaldo, the Evangelical convert.)

Part I: An Evangelical Becomes Eastern Orthodox

Wilbur Ellsworth recounts his journey from Evangelicalism as a Baptist pastor to Eastern Orthodoxy. His story is irenic and demonstrates great respect for Evangelical Protestantism.

He grew skeptical of the “seeker-sensitive” church model that sought to draw in non-believers through the Sunday service. The innovations seemed to have no limits or constraints, so long as people justified it by trying to “bring people to Christ.” In May of 2000, he left his pastor role in the church and was soon asked to lead a group of other uncertain Protestants, which he did.

While pastoring this church, he began to question his Calvinist formation and chose to dig deeper into the worship and beliefs of the early Church. In particular he was disturbed by a lack of reverence in the Evangelical Protestant service and wondered if there were a deeper way to worship God. Around this time he discovered some old friends of his had become Eastern Orthodox, much to his surprise and curiosity. This was a precedent of sorts for him and led him to start exploring these Churches himself.

In his study, he became convinced that the Catholic and Orthodox beliefs on baptism and the Lord’s Supper were true, while the symbolic-only beliefs of Evangelical Protestantism fell short of the reality. He sought to help his congregation see these truths as well. While they largely came to believe in the real presence, baptismal regeneration threatened to split the congregation in twain, and it was at this time that Ellsworth had a key insight of humility:

No one knew more than I that I was not an appropriate final word on how people should worship….A reality began to dawn on us that created great sadness. For all our exploration of the foundations of the worship life of the Church, we were just one more group trying to “do it right” on our own, according to what we thought was good and appropriate.

Though I was never a pastor, I also realized this during my time as a Baptist. By what authority does a pastor get up there and assert that this is what divine revelation is, that this is what these Bible passages mean, that this is how we should worship?

Ellsworth began to study Eastern Orthodoxy in earnest, doing distance courses and eventually visiting an EO church. Some time later, he and a portion of his congregation became Orthodox, while the rest remained Protestant.

One thing not included in his story was whether he considered the Catholic Church. He does mention that anti-Catholic prejudices were strong with those in his congregation, so it is possible that it was not ever thought of as a viable option, while Eastern Orthodoxy was.

A Sharp Response

Dr. Craig Blaising, representing Evangelical Protestantism, provided the response to Ellsworth conversion. Blaising’s response was sharp, much sharper than Ellsworth’s conversion account, and for this I was glad. Take the gloves off, come at the arguments with whatever you’ve got.

Blaising makes a good attempt at countering Ellsworth’s points, focusing on what he sees as the wrong elevation of Tradition over the Scriptures and of the (Eastern Orthodox) Church over both of them. His critique could just as well be against Catholicism in this regard.

Blaising offers a different interpretation of the historical data–the Fathers and early Christian writings, as well as the Councils–attempting to show that the early Church held the Scriptures above Tradition and the Church and refuted heretics through Scripture alone. If I were an Evangelical unfamiliar with the data, I would probably find his interpretation convincing, but it amounts to reading Protestant principles back onto the early Church. It doesn’t work. He carefully downplays the role of ecumenical councils and sacred Tradition, as well as Apostolic Succession, in the refutation of the heretics (and the determination of what was orthodox vs. heterodox), but this picture doesn’t fit the historical reality as well as Orthodoxy and Catholicism do.

Blaising then argues that the veneration of icons done in EO churches is contrary to the Bible and leads people into idolatry. This is well-trodden ground so I won’t say more on it. Next he moves to the Eucharist and baptism and claims that the early Church became corrupted on these doctrines as well, heresies that unfortunately were not corrected until the (Zwinglian and Anabaptist) movements of the Protestant Reformation.

Ellsworth’s Rejoinder

Ellsworth makes a brief response and generally does well at it, clarifying the EO understanding of Scripture and Tradition in the Church, responding about veneration of icons, etc.

The rest of the conversion stories follow the same pattern: author’s story, response from a critic, author’s rejoinder. It’s a great structure, and this first section demonstrates the quality and depth of the interlocutors. No straw-men or fundamentalist shallowness on any side, but calm, thoughtful, studied arguments.

In Ellsworth story, he could just as well have been describing how he became Catholic, and Blaising could just as well have been trying to rebut the reasons. But this book isn’t why one should become Catholic vs. EO or vice-versa, but why Protestants are becoming Catholic or Orthodox, so I didn’t expect a detailed account of why someone became EO vs. Catholic in this story.

This book is a brave one to publish for Zondervan, a Protestant press. The Catholic and EO arguments are really strong (I would say, of course, compelling). But the phenomenon of Protestants becoming one or the other is widespread and well-known enough now, especially due to the internet, that it cannot be ignored. So this is a timely book where Evangelicals can at least see an intelligent response to these conversions.

Look forward to the rest of my reviews in the coming weeks!

* I have no idea if this number is accurate
** Actually I begged for a review copy and the book’s team was gracious enough to send me one.