Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
From the book shelf: nonfiction from Peter Steinfels, Philip Yancey

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 26, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Peter Steinfels, former religion editor of the New York Times, carefully explains the state of the question facing the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in his new book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (2003: Simon and Schuster, New York; hardcover; 392 pages; $26).

In a Church of divided viewpoint Steinfels would fall into the moderate-progressive side of the Church. His hero is the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

But classifications don’t entirely fit. For example, Steinfels presents to readers of all points of view a wonderfully poignant and thought-provoking explanation of the issues involving Catholic identity and Catholic institutions, such as colleges, hospitals, and Catholic Charities. Steinfels may well speak so clearly often from personal experience that he will help you to modify your viewpoint on this important issue. You can’t walk away from his chapter on Catholic identity without thinking about the issue more deeply and trying to understand all the issues involved, not just your own issues.

For anyone concerned about how we pass on our Catholic faith tradition through Catholic schools and religious education programs, the chapter on “Passing on the Faith” is fact-filled and challenging.

In his chapters on Liturgy and on “Sex and the Female Church,” Steinfels explains the labyrinthian ways of how our liturgical texts are being translated into English. You almost need a Sherpa guide to follow this convoluted story. You come away knowing that “translation” is a touchstone of the fight for position and power by the various forces in the Church who believe so strongly in the “tightness” of their position.

Of course Steinfels discusses in detail the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests brought to the fore by the Boston scandals under Cardinal Bernard Law. He argues that even if the scandal had never occurred, the Catholic Church in America would be facing a crisis. He believes that the underlying problem was a vacuum of leadership that manifests itself from the Church’s public role to its internal reform.

In the end Steinfels helped me to better understand and be more sympathetic to the strongly held views of those I might easily stereotype or “write off” in my own mind. To me that reality is a great gift to the Church.

A People Adrift brings us up-to-date on the issues facing the Church today. It helps each of us who make up the body of Christ to see ways of building bridges between people of different views. It helps us to seek to continue in hope to meet the tremendous challenges facing our wonderful and wounded Church.

Steinfels will be speaking in Spokane as part of Gonzaga University’s Millennium Speakers Series on Monday, April 19.


Entering a book store back in November I came upon a table of new religious books. One struck my eye. It was Philip Yancey’s new book Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church (2001: Galilee Books, New York; softcover; 330 pages; $12.95). I knew Yancey was an evangelical Christian. It later dawned on me that I had never read an evangelical Christian writing on issues of spirituality.

Well, through this long dark and snowy winter Soul Survivor has been a life-saver. I have read it slowly and tried to use it for prayer and reflection. It is one of the best books I have ever read about the search for the inner soul.

Philip Yancey writes of 13 people, living and dead, who have deeply affected him on his pilgrimage of becoming a more complete Christian.

In each reflection on a famous person he tells the story of his own life, growing up in a very conservative evangelical church in the South. As you journey with his mentors you journey with Yancey.

The first mentor is Martin Luther King, Jr. Intertwined with a review of King’s life we have the story of Yancey growing up in a segregated South. In fact the most famous person in his church was Lester Maddox, who sold pickax handles in defiance of new civil rights laws. The section on how the Ku Klux Klan influenced Yancey as a child is shocking. He remembers watching a funeral procession of a Dragon or Wizard that was five miles long. He remembers with shame a mob attack against African Americans. He was present as he heard the crunch of Klansmen’s bare fists against flesh. He writes that it took years for God to break the stranglehold of blatant racism in himself. If you only read one chapter in this book, the one on Martin Luther King, Jr. is the one to read. It has an extraordinary power.

Yancey writes with fondness of historical figures like G.K. Chesterton, Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, and John Donne. You come away with a new appreciation of these wise men.

The one mentor I was not familiar with was Dr. Paul Brand, the great scientist in the field of leprosy who came out of a missionary family background in India.

The figure whose inclusion surprised me the most was Dr. C. Everett Koop, the Surgeon General from the Reagan administration. The story of Koop’s life is a fascinating one I was never aware of. The chapter on Mahatma Gandhi is memorable.

I have to point out that most all of Yancey’s mentor’s are men. He includes one woman, Annie Dillard, whom he knows. He presents her Christian journey with wisdom and grace. For some the preponderance of men might lessen the value of the book. But my guess is that Yancey would simply say that is just reporting on those figures of history who did affect him the most and in his case most of them happened to be men.

The last three mentors are among my favorites. Yancey personally knew two of the individuals he writes about, Frederick Buechner and Henri Nouwen. Yancey writes about Shusaku Endo, the great Japanese Christian writer of fiction, as though he knew him.

Buechner is the Presbyterian who writes both fiction and non-fiction addressing the human condition. Some of his books, especially Telling Secrets and Telling the Truth, are my own favorites. It is interesting that Buechner never liked the writing of Henri Nouwen.

Yancey, in writing on Nouwen, creates the best short chapter of his life and spiritual journey you will find anywhere. I think he makes a mistake on saying Nouwen had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. My memory was that Nouwen was a priest of a Dutch diocese.

The final mentor, included earlier in the book, was Dr. Robert Coles, the great Harvard writer on the faith of children, among other things.

For me personally, Soul Survivor is like a retreat well remembered. There is so much to savor in Yancey’s beautiful writings. Boy, he sure gives hope again and again. Isn’t that what we need right now, more than ever?

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews frequently appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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