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Books Across My Desk: College Kids, Nuns, Doctors and Angels

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 12, 2011

Several books have come across my desk in the past year which I’ve decided not to review thoroughly, but from which others might benefit significantly, or which otherwise merit brief notice. Tastes in reading—and the uses to which we put it—vary widely.

Sex & the Soul: This is Donna Freitas’ remarkable study of attitudes toward sexuality on America’s college campuses. First published in hardcover in 2008, the book confirmed knowledgeable Catholics in their reluctant understanding that commitment to Christian sexual morality could be found consistently only on strongly Protestant Evangelical campuses. Of course the same is true of the Mormon schools and, thankfully, of the newer high-identity Catholic colleges, but these last are still a drop in the bucket of allegedly Catholic higher education. Freitas’ fascinating and moving book is now out in paperback, and it is must-reading for anyone who wants deeper insight into how American college students juggle (as the cover puts it) “sexuality, spirituality, romance, and religion”. The author is Professor of Religion at Hofstra; she has a thorough grasp of the issues, arguments and trends; she both appreciates and approves the Christian vision of human sexuality; and she conducted dozens of interviews with representative students across the country in order to deliver not only a broad understanding but a highly personal account—always poignant, and sometimes frightening.

Habits of Change: Carole Garibaldi Rogers is far, far less successful in her oral history of American nuns, as she gives little evidence of understanding the full range of issues involved in her topic. This is part of the Oxford Oral History Series, and it too is based on dozens of interviews, this time with nuns across the United States, conducted between 1991 and 2010. But the book is heavily weighted toward the experience of sisters in communities that have lost their original charism and do not know the difference between deep religious commitment and the quest for secularized versions of feminism, fashionable ideas, and social justice. One can open at random to almost any page and find something comparable to this remark of Sister Fran Tobin on page 74: “My feeling about the institutional Church today is that it always looks behind.” Whereas Sister Fran, of course, is a true prophet and always looks ahead. As a matter of historical record, this study does have some value: Although it is utterly lacking in analytical context, it provides an account of what went wrong in the words of leading women religious who, in the main, are now incapable of recognizing that it really did go wrong.

Heart Sounds: For anyone wishing to understand how medical practice correlates with deep faith, this collection of the stories of twelve Catholic doctors can provide both enlightenment and inspiration. The doctors tell their own tales, explaining how their Catholic faith and commitment deepened and became the center of their personal and professional lives. The editors, Janice Steinhagen and John Howland, MD, would like to place the book in the hands of every Catholic doctor, and it is in fact being widely distributed through the Catholic Medical Association. Profiled are Lori Warzecki (Pediatrician), Timothy Flanigan (Infectious Disease Specialist), Richard Shoup (Pulmonologist), Paul Carpentier (Family Physician), E. Joanne Angelo (Psychiatrist), Allan Ramey (Rheumatologist), Harvey Clermont (General Surgeon), John Donovan (Pediatrician), Mark Rollo (Family Physician), Scot Bateman (Pediatric Intensivist), Rebecca Ackroyd (Medical Student), and James Walsh (General Internist). Taken as a whole, these personal testimonies also instruct us in what the word “Catholic” ought to mean in the phrase “Catholic health care”.

Angels: At first glance this is a cute but strange little offering, nicely bound and looking like a pint-sized coffee table book. Yet its text is surprisingly mature and informative, providing, exactly as author David Albert Jones claims, a history of angels. The book consists of eight chapters covering a brief history; how angels have been pictured; what an angel is; considerations of angels as divine messengers, ministering spirits, and heavenly hosts; fallen angels; and wrestling with angels. Jones draws from all major religious traditions which mention angels, as well as from art and popular conceptions, but the vast majority of the information and appreciation of angels comes from the most voluminous and authoritative source, the Bible. There are also recommendations for further reading. The author is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Theology, Philosophy and History at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, and had a former life as a Dominican friar. This is not spiritual reading, and I cannot vouch for Jones as a spiritual guide, but the book is a fast and fascinating read, capable of transforming our contemporary warm fuzzies into something more substantial. Jones concludes with these words:

The contemporary preoccupation with angels is an embarrassment to many religious believers and an affront to many atheists. Yet this is the time of the angels. The visitors who once sat at Abraham’s table are still here: They show no sign of taking flight from modern culture. They prefer to remain, whether to inspire us, to console us, or to wrestle against us.

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