by amy andrews and jessica mesman griffith
loyola, 324 pages, $14.95
Over the course of three years, Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith wrote each other what were, for a while, daily letters. This regular exchange began as a Lenten practice: Andrews was preparing to enter the Church; Griffith was her sponsor. Their letters reflect all manner of spiritual concern, thought through and tested against the many works they were reading at the time: authors such as Julian of Norwich, J. M. Coetzee, Pope Benedict XVI, Simone Weil, and Marilynne Robinson.
In the summer of 2006, however, when Andrews’ first child was stillborn, their discourse on conversion and chatter about pregnancy turned into meditations on suffering, death, and the nature of heaven. Love and Salt they would call their collection of letters, salt being the suffering that matures and preserves love.
With each letter, Andrews and Griffith reveal something of what it means to be people of faith, whether confronted by the profound or by the quotidian, or by both at once: “If I could collapse all my experience into an instant, that gradual unfurling of belief that has brought me to this Lent,” writes Andrews, “it would likely be as loud as a thunderclap, bright as a burning bush. But as it is, I squint my eyes and strain my ears and try to discern God.”
Even their wry admissionslike Griffith’s revelation that a Starbucks extra-large latte is her means of getting through a Good Friday fast while pregnantare always already reframed by higher-order concerns. They live very much in, but not of, a contemporary bourgeois world, driven, as Andrews writes, by “a new ethic of purity, the green movement, requiring various forms of dietary and lifestyle asceticism . . . . We are searching for something simple, natural, real, and pure.”
Andrews and Griffith are searching, but their letters reveal a firmer and finer sense of the real and pure, a sense dwelling not in fair-traded coffee and ethically sourced yoga pants, but in family, friendship, and faith.
Anna Boyagoda is a writer and mother living in Toronto.
by al kresta
our sunday visitor, 304 pages, $14.95
Among Catholicism’s opponents in popular apologist and radio personality Al Kresta’s Dangers to the Faith are New Age philosophy, Islam, scientism, consumerism, and relativism. He has no shortage of data to back up his analysis.
Indeed, his chapters contain an average of sixty-five citations each, demonstrating, for example, that the New Age movement continues to affect American culture through the do-it-yourself, narcissistic approach to religion that it left behind even after itself fading from popularity. Or again, that there really are a growing number of people who find themselves believing in Eastern doctrines like reincarnation.
It is precisely these numerous references to outside sources that make Kresta’s arguments compelling; he lets the facts speak for him. But sometimes he lets them speak so strongly that he loses his voice. At these points, the book can seem less like an argument and more like a fact sheet.
Curiously, Kresta does not mention the sexual attitudes of the modern age; there is no mention, for example, of marriage or contraception. And what of life issues such as euthanasia, artificial reproduction, or abortion? Kresta’s silence on these issues seems odd for a book which aims to prepare its readers to deal with the twenty-first-century opponents of Catholicism.
Kresta’s book is valuable as a factual resource, which makes it ideal for those wishing to familiarize themselves with some of the major issues that the twenty-first century Church will face. Furthermore, its extensive collection of citations make for a helpful jumping-off point for further research into these issues. For a fuller appraisal, though, the reader will have to look elsewhere.
Matthew Dugandzic is a Ph.D. student in Christian ethics at the Catholic University of America and web editor of Fare Forward.
by neil gross
harvard, 400 pages, $35
Perhaps your grandmother offered you a warning just before you left for college: “Beware of those professors, they’re liberal!” While we professors are an odd lot who often do more with plaid than is reasonable, are we more liberal than other professional groups?
According to Neil Gross, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, the answer is yes. For example, “in 2004, a remarkable 77 percent of professors voted for John Kerry, whereas he received 48 percent of the popular vote.” Professors are more liberal, but not for the reasons frequently assumed: that the nature of professorial work attracts liberals, or that liberals are simply intellectually superior and thus better suited for academic life.
Gross argues that professors are more liberal because conservatives choose other professional options because they fear their ability to prosper in higher education is limited by virtue of their politics. As a result, they opt for other so-called learned professions (business, law, medicine, ministry) at rates higher than academia.
However, Gross does not stop with simply exploring why professors hold to their politics. He also explores why your grandmother cares. He concludes that the expression of such concerns carves “out a coherent collective identity for conservatism.” As numerical outsiders, conservatives are keenly aware of the disproportionate influence liberals possess in relation to how knowledge is defined and the next generation is shaped.
Gross then concludes his volume by making the argument that the concerns raised by conservatives are not going away anytime soon. As a result, he prompts the academic community to “stand ready to meet them if it wants to assure itself of continued public goodwill and flows of money for research.” In an era of ongoing scarcity of resources, such a level of engagement not only has pragmatic merit but also exemplifies some of academia’s best ideals.
Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University.
edited by katherine a. powers
farrar, straus and giroux,
480 pages, $35
James Farl Powers, author of two novels (both about priests) and three collections of stories (mostly about priests), deserves recognition as one of America’s finest writers. Edited by his eldest daughter, Suitable Accommodations provides those fortunate enough to know his fiction access to the author himself and to the stuff of which his planned novel about family life might have been made.
A pacifist who refused to report for duty when denied conscientious-objector status during World War II, Powers wrote the early letters in jail. Later, those to his wife (“My dear Betty, and heavy on the ‘my’”) and friends reveal a deeply affectionate, sympathetic man who craved camaraderie, though he liked to think of himself as “numb to the world.”
He wrote often to Robert Lowell and Katherine Anne Porter and met, among others, Dorothy Day, Roethke, Merton, and Waugh, but the volume is unabashedly domestic, detailing the concerns of a penurious young writer and father, incapable of being a shameless crowd-pleaser: “The truth is I’m lazy, and after that, a family man, a teacher of creative writing, and finally I don’t care to get a book out just to get a book out; I’d rather make each one count.”
His family did not enjoy an easy life. “Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed,” he felt. He made little money and moved his family frequently. “We are pilgrims only, but since the trip’s quite long, I tend to look around for suitable accommodations.”
Difficult to please but self-aware“the truth about me is that I just don’t qualify as the ideal husband”he apologized to Betty on her deathbed “for having given her such a hard life and no home.” He too was part of “the strange, maimed flock that always attaches itself to Catholic institutions.”
Powers’ daughter (named for Porter) contributes helpful explanatory notes throughout and bookends the collection, affectionately and honestly, with her own thoughts on the man “who held that the world is an obstacle-strewn journey toward one’s proper home (heaven).” She admits that “growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again.”
Powers’ correspondence compensates for the lack of an official biography and a regrettably thin corpus of secondary literature, and contains the same ironic humor abundant in his novels: “I am becoming a has-been without ever having really been.”
Sebastian White, O.P., a former summer intern at First Things, is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph.