Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Our First Book Review

A Civilization of Love by Carl Anderson

AWOL Mommy said:

So, our first book choice was A Civilization of Love: What Every Catholic Can Do to Change the World by Carl Anderson. Honestly, I was drawn to the book by its ambitious subtitle, however, it failed to deliver.

Anderson brings an impressive biography to the challenge -- head of the Knights of Columbus, former Reagan advisor, staff of JP II -- however, this tome is too grand in scope and ambitious in what it tries to accomplish in a mere 173 pages. Anderson makes it clear to the reader that he is a well read individual and gives an interesting survey of everyone from Nietzsche to Martin Luther King Jr. to T.S. Eliot, Tuesdays with Morrie, Tolstoy, Elie Wiesel, you get the idea. His bibiliography ran the gamut of history and literature, but left me feeling dizzy as a result.

From what I was able to distill, these historical and philosophical tastings and vignettes from across the world and centuries are all loosely organized around a rallying call to modern Catholics to live as members of a civilization of love. The tenets of a civilization of love were laid out by John Paul II and have been furthered by Pope Benedict XVI; Anderson addresses everything from divorce to birth control to immigration policy in the context of love. Business ethics, Roe v. Wade, globalization, sub- prime mortgage lending practices .. you name the current issue, he tackles it in the pages of A Civilization of Love. Of course these are all very important themes and I appreciate his attempt to take the philosophical tone of papal encyclicals and apply their guidance to our real life challenges. Nonetheless, I think that a couple pages on the importance of staying married is more like an insult to the theme than a genuine illumination of the topic.

A few caveats to my overall negative reaction to this book: 1) every Knight of Columbus should read it. Anderson lends greater understanding to the genesis and role of this international organization . 2) He has hung out with JP II and Mother Theresa, those ancecdotes alone might make it worth a read. 3) it is a nice foray into several of the most influential encyclicals and papal essays of the past centuries and served to whet my appetite to read these directly 4) he writes this, which I find striking: "love is a complete expending of self -- because, even though there are many rewards, love gives without expectation or contingency of reciprocation --- it takes a huge act of faith and courage to act on love." p65

In summary, A Civilization of Love was an ambitious project (173 pages with nearly 20 pages of bibliography) by a first-time author. Perhaps all it needed was a good editor or a narrower scope to more fully do justice to the gems buried within. But, as it is written, this little hardback left my head swimming as if I had been in a Catholic wave pool that got turned up too high.

Mary Alice said:

"The quickest and surest solution would be if everyone were to live and act according to the ethics of the Gospels. This answer may sound either sanctimonious or idealistic, but it is true. It would be impossible to exploit one's neighbor if one truly loved him as oneself...This is precisely the Christian challenge."

This passage answers the question set forth in the subtitle of Carl Anderson's book, A Civilization of Love, What Every Catholic Can do To Transform the World. Over the course of nine chapters, Anderson outlines practical applications of Christ's self sacrificing love to the modern world, quoting extensively the writings of the modern Popes.

As a Catholic under 30, I have a tendency to view the Second Vatican Council only as a liberalizing force that changed the Order of the Mass, but Anderson helped me to understand Vatican 2 in its proper context as a response to a changing world, one in which Communism and Secular Humanism were becoming dominant schools of thought in Europe and spreading around the world. "(Pope Paul VI) said that in the Second Vatican Council the Church declared itself 'entirely on the side of man and in its service.'...The Council sought to offer a renewed focus on the practical implications of human dignity." This includes a call to all Christians, and especially the laity operating in the world, to serve one another with love, most particularly those who are forgotten or pushed aside by our global economy, including the weak, the uneducated, the labouring classes, those who are viewed by others as only valuable as a means to an end.

Though the book was a bit high-brow for a stay at home mother most used to reading novels, I found myself quickly warming up to Anderson's didactic style. I was glad to read the writings of pre- and post-conciliar Popes in digestible portions. The book attempts to be more than a teaching tool, however, and extend to a call to action for all Christians. On this front, I think that Anderson would have been better served by letting the Popes speak for themselves. Anderson
is the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, and while I understand that he would want to sneak in a few plugs for this great organization, too often the practical examples offered came from the work of the Knights, turning the book into a bit too much of a propaganda piece.

I think that this book is well worth reading as a hopeful challenge to each individual to advance the culture of life/love wherever they may be, through business practices, personal relationships and charitable acts. For mothers, I would recommend particularly the chapter on The Domestic Church, which I plan to add to the reading list for my monthly Mother's Group.

If, like me, you sometimes find yourself feeling very small and useless in a world that is going its way in a handbasket, Anderson gives you your marching orders in the conclusion of the book with this quote from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI:

"Our greatest need in the present historical moment is people who make God credible in this world by means of the enlightened faith they live. The negative testimony of Christians who spoke of God but lived in a manner contrary to him has obscured the image of God and has opened the doors to disbelief. We need men who keep their eyes fixed on God, Learning from him what true humanity means."

This review was written as part of The Catholic Company product reviewer program. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on A Civilization of Love.


Elena said...

Great reviews! Above all, thank you for the quote from Ratzinger/Benedict XVI on being credible witnesses to our faith. Such concise "marching orders" certainly put my struggles into context. I'll have to put that one on my fridge.

Right Said Red said...

Great reviews ladies! Thanks for all the work!

Kat said...

Thank you, AWOL Mommy and Mary Alice, for these great reviews! It sounds like the book gave your brains a work-out, something that I could certainly use :) I wonder if you guys have a sense of who might be buying and reading this book...Would college students read it in a philosophy or religion class? Or is it more of a Barnes and Noble-type book? Just curious.

AWOL Mommy said...

Kat, I am going to go with more of a B & N because it is not comprehensive enough for a more academic context. MA, what do you think?

B-Mama said...

This book sounds like it offers some good mental olympics with a backdrop of sound Catholic teaching. Sign me up! I look forward to checking it out eventually...

Jenny said...

Mary Alice,
If you don't mind sharing, what is on your monthly Mother's Group reading list? After my new baby is born (I'm currently at 5cm), I am thinking of starting a mother's group at church and would appreciate any tips for getting started. I will have 3 under 3, so keeping it simple and doable is key. Thanks, JENNY