Samuel Johnson once famously quipped, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Thankfully, Archbishop Charles Chaput is not the subject of such a drastic sentence; but he is that rarest of people—the man who is acutely aware of his own mortality and, now in his mid-seventies, sensitive to the fact that his days are numbered. In a year when COVID revealed how few of us are willing to accept the reality that death comes for us all at some point, his new book, Things Worth Dying For, is both refreshing and sobering. And his basic point is simple: For life to be worthwhile, we must believe that there are indeed things for which it is worth dying.
The evidence for this is all around. Why is it that so many people from affluent, comfortable backgrounds have been attracted by groups like ISIS? Why does material prosperity prove so unsatisfying? Why is it that the more things we seem to possess, the less significance we seem to have? The answer, according to the archbishop, is that we are made to be more than consumers. We are spiritual beings, and only when we acknowledge that and live in its light can we truly find meaning in life. It also means a humble acknowledgment that the world does not revolve around us, that our ultimate meaning is to be found in God and his truth alone, and that there are therefore greater things, things indeed worth dying for, that need to shape our lives.
This book is a collection of discrete essays with a cumulative force. Each addresses a different topic. Not all are “spiritual” in the conventional sense of the word. The archbishop is a good son of Augustine and understands well that the Christian is a member of two cities, and that there are earthly loves that are important. Thus, he includes a chapter on patriotism, a term which was a virtue when I arrived in the USA two decades ago and is now regarded by our cultural elites as a euphemism for nationalism. But as the archbishop points out, patriotism, properly understood, is one example of how we acknowledge something bigger than us as individuals; something for which we might sacrifice ourselves for the greater good.
The same is true of the family, upon which the archbishop writes in moving terms. And, of course, he also points to the Church, the place where human beings acknowledge the ultimate truth: that we are finite creatures made in the image of a transcendent God. In placing these three at the center of his vision of what it means to be human, the archbishop touches on a deep truth. He also identifies the three institutions most under assault in our current cultural moment. The triumph of selfish individualism requires their destruction or at least profound revision—with, as this book makes clear, devastating costs. We still want to believe life is worth living, and yet we have torn down the three things that would make it so. No wonder we now have the chaos of identity politics, surely a desperate search for significance in a world we have rendered fragmented and trivial.
This book is vintage Chaput: firm but never less than gracious and kind. It is not polemic by anger, but polemic by beauty: The archbishop argues for nation, family, and Church by pointing to the riches that each represent, not by bad-tempered excoriation of those who seek to dismantle them. The reader sees an archbishop who is truly a pastor and not merely a pen-pushing administrator.
Of course, as a Protestant, I disagree with plenty here. The usual suspects, one might say: the Mass, purgatory, Mary, the papacy. But that should not stop Protestants from reading this book. There is wisdom, sweetly and gently expressed, on every page, touched with that power that only comes from the pen of a man aware that he is approaching the end of his pilgrimage. From reflections on mortality rooted in the psalms, to thoughts on friendship framed by insights from the Lutheran Gilbert Meilaender and the Anglican C. S. Lewis, this book will help us all to think about the important things in life—the things worth dying for—from a deeply Christian perspective, even at the points where we Protestants need to put our thoughts in very different terms.
As I read this book, I recalled my own favorite “Chaput moment.” Some years ago I heard him lecture on the decline of Christianity. In the discussion afterward, someone in the audience suggested that the Church needed to change to attract young people. The archbishop’s response was blunt: the reason young people are leaving the Church, he declared, is because their parents had taught them church attendance was not important. “Every time you take your children to a ball game rather than church on a Sunday,” he said, “you teach your children that church is less important than sport.” In the terms of this book, one might say that such parents are teaching their children that Christianity is not worth dying for. And that is surely one of the great tragedies of our age, as this book makes clear.
Reviewing a book by a friend who is also someone one respects is always a daunting task. But in this case, it was easy. Archbishop Chaput writes as he is—a faithful pastor and a gracious Christian. He and I share many loves in common, from the theology of the ecumenical creeds to the movie Casablanca and the poetry of Dylan Thomas. And just as surely, we disagree on many important issues. But I have never read him or heard him without pleasure and profit, and this book is no exception. If, as Chaput says, true friendship involves reinforcing each other in virtue, the archbishop is a friend indeed.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
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