Advent, Christmas, and Your Child’s Vocation

It’s time for the Advent Wars to flare up again here at the Fitz castle.  I think I’ve found my solution, and it’s related to my latest at the Register and a new book out by Suzan & Eric Sammons.

Let’s start over at NCR: 11 Ways to Prepare Your Boy to Be a Great Priest.  I’m pretty sure that post is now officially the most popular thing I’ve ever written.*  To clarify and provide related links, at the blorg I put together a compendium: Evangelization and Discipleship for the Boys & Girls Who Live At Your House. With that as a preface, here’s how my solution to the Advent Wars fits into my approach to fostering vocations in my kids.

There are 12 Days of Christmas, and They Don’t Start Until December 25th

The annual battle concerns when to put up the Christmas tree and how to decorate it.  The mother resides in the Advent Austerity camp.  The more closely we imitate the lodgings of St. John the Baptist the better, right?  The children, led by the Eldest Daughter, would be perfectly happy to have Rudolph on the Roof beginning November 1.  In years past children have literally sneaked the fake Christmas tree out of the attic while I was sleeping and set it up in the living room in total silence.  This might be the one thing they manage to accomplish without any bickering whatsoever, so I count my blessings and offer it up.

But this year things will be different.

This year, Suzan Sammons put into my hands a review copy of her new book The Jesse Tree: An Advent Devotion.  I like it.  There’s a chart that shows you how to get all your ornaments up during Advent, no matter how weird of a liturgical year we’re having.  The sample ornaments in the book are crazy simple.  The daily suggested reflection and prayer hits the spot without overwhelming.  It’s like this book was written by a couple Christian parents with a pile of kids.   I recommend this book.

The Jesse Tree

Also you longtime readers know me: I’m not doing no Jesse Tree.  Sheesh.  Who are we kidding?

But you know who can do a Jesse Tree?  My crafty Christmas-crazy kids, that’s who.  So the new deal is this:

  • IF children want to do the Jesse Tree . . .
  • AND the teenagers who now have drivers licenses agree to do all the craft supply shopping . . .
  • AND the teenager who tends to hog craft projects solemnly promises to let her little sisters have a fair share of the ornament-making work . . .
  • AND the 11-year-old who best succeeds at daily routines and pestering us all into responsible family behavior and who happens to be a great Junior Lector agrees to host the Jesse Tree prayer time each evening . . .

THEN parents will fund the ornament budget and let children put the tree up before Advent begins, FOR ADVENT ORNAMENTS ONLY.

That’s my solution.

How does this fit in with my vocations post at the Register?  I’m so glad you asked.

Kids need to own their faith.

There are a bazillion ways to be Catholic, and kids need to figure out for themselves which devotions and prayers and disciplines are made for the type of people that they are.  If God fills you with a passion for Pinterest projects, you should run with it.  My eldest daughter has long been certain she has a vocation to marriage, and I don’t disagree.  The homemaking side of holy day observances is part of such a vocation.  So why shouldn’t she practice it?

If I do everything for my kids, they’ll never learn how to do things themselves. That’s true of laundry, cooking, homework — and it’s true of their faith.  You have to give kids chances to practice being Catholic, all on their own.  Now that two of my kids can drive?  I totally let the kids go to whatever Sunday Mass they want, regardless of when the parents are attending.

It is really important that kids know down to their bones that the faith is something they do, not something they only do with their parents.  They have to practice showing up at church alone so that it feels normal and natural for them to wake up on a Sunday and get in the car and drive to Mass someplace.   I don’t mean you’re a bad parent if your whole family gets in the car and goes to Mass together every week.  I mean that we parents need to look for ways — and this Jesse Tree thing is an example — that happen to be good ways, given your own family life, for your kids to practice taking charge of their faith.

You’re still the parent.  They aren’t totally spun off on their own yet.  But if you see some good opportunity for a kid in your family to do a thing he or she naturally wants to do and that provides that chance to take the lead on the faith, let the kid have at it.

Related Links, Starting with Crafts:

  1. My friend Sandra pointed me towards Ginger Snap Crafts, where you can find instructions for wood slice ornaments and for snowflake ornaments among many others.  You could switch out the snowflakes for Jesse Tree symbols. The wood grain nativity set was what originally caught her eye – don’t use treated lumber if you want your preschooler to be able to build Bethlelem with it.
  2. You do know about Catholic Icing, right?

From Advents Past:

5 Ways to Give Your Family a Peaceful Advent

Well Hello, Advent.  We Meet Again.

5 Reasons Slacker Catholics Do Advent Best – #2 Will Shock You

5 Ways We Keep Christ in Christmas at Our House

I don’t know why all the lists come in fives.

Two New Holiday Movies & a Grammar Lesson:

Dickens, Scrooge, and the Road to Redemption: A Review of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” – Reviewed by Tony Rossi

“The Star”: Hijinks and Holiness Make a Fun Christmas Story for the Family.  The handful of Catholic writers I’ve talked to who’ve seen the preview have loved it — and some of them are quite prickly about Hollywood getting hold of Bible stories.  So scout around for reviews if you’re not certain.

How to Make Your Last Name Plural This Holiday Season Because you love America and Tiny Tim and don’t want a reindeer to have to die each time you abuse an apostrophe.

Who is that Eric Sammons Guy?

It turns out he writes good books.

And did you notice how beautifully edited those two books were? I did.  It was Suzan Sammons we have to thank for that, in case you’re ever looking for a good copy-editor.

And finish to the round up . . .

The Top Three Things I’m Most Glad I Added to My Holiday Season

These have stood the test of time.  They are my go-to holiday things.  Now you look around and find your holiday things.  Happy Advent Wars!

 

File:XRF 12days.jpg

Image by Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

*Correction: As of mid-morning, How to Avoid Becoming a Bitter Catholic still had the lead in total shares.  Look at them both and vote with your sharing buttons!

Evangelization and the Case for Catholic Fiction

Convergence of two happy things: The Catholic Writers Conference is coming around again, and I’m putting together an index of my writing on discipleship and evangelization.  In trolling my posts at New Evangelizers, I came across this one that is apropos of the conference season.  And yes, if you’re a Catholic who likes to write (fiction or otherwise), you should give the Catholic Writers Guild a good looking over.  More on that soon.

Evangelization and the Case for Catholic Fiction

Why bother with Catholic fiction?  As I write this, I’ve just returned from the Catholic Writers Guild’s annual live conference (our online conference is held in early spring), and once again I’ve met dozens of great Catholic authors eager to reach a Catholic audience.

I’ve also had a few discouraging conversations with publishers.  “We’re really only able to sell retellings of saints stories. We’d like to do other fiction, but we can’t.”  “We love that children’s fiction series, but we can’t break even on it, so we had to cancel further installments.”   “We want to do fiction, but . . .”

It’s a hard market. Over the past 50 years, Catholics in the pew have taken the notion that anything true, good, and beautiful is indeed “Catholic”, and run with it . . . right out of the Catholic market, and into the secular bookshelves.

And there’s something to that.  After all, we Catholics don’t need to decorate every story we read with a crucifix and a Hail Mary in order to be edified.  Reviewers like Julie Davis at Happy Catholic mine the treasures to be found in all kinds of strange corners.  The Catholic faith truly is universal, and so it’s no surprise that all good literature evangelizes, regardless of the label that goes with it.

Still, there’s a place for explicitly Catholic stories of every genre.  Why?

Catholic identity

Our faith is not just a cultural identity, but yes, we’re human, so it does matter to us that we aren’t the only Catholics out there.  My daughter is a big fan of the Anna Mei series from Pauline Books & Media.  These stories are your basic middle school coming-of-age stuff, and the Catholic faith is part of the fabric, but not the crux of the plot.  Still, I love that my daughter can see a Catholic character turn out for Mass on Sundays, or say grace with her family.  We all need to know we aren’t the only ones doing this religion thing.

Solid answers to hard questions

John McNichol is a house favorite at our place, since we have that middle school boy sci-fi / alien-attack demographic sewn up tight.  McNichol gets criticized for putting  religious conversations in his dialog.

Well, guess what?  That’s what teens really talk about.  McNichol is a veteran middle school teacher and father of 10 bazillion teens, so he knows that, and he puts real questions teens ponder into the mouths of his teen characters.

But here’s the rub: unless it’s Catholic fiction, those questions aren’t going to get a Catholic answer.

Catholicism is not generic

You know what irritates me on Facebook?  Vague “spiritual” feel-good platitudes being spouted by people who should know better.

Oh, I know, I need to lighten up a little.  And I’m the first in line to be ecumenical when ecumenical is possible.  But sooner or later we need for Catholics to claim their faith as the one and only.

Catholic fiction lays down the gauntlet: our faith is not one choice among many.  It’s not just a “flavor” or a “style” of religion.  A sincere faith means we’re going to have an awful lot of explicitly Catholic stories to tell, because our faith offers something you can’t find anywhere else.

Are you with me on this?  If so, here’s what I propose we do next:

1. Talk about it.  

There are lots of folks in the pews for whom this idea is absolutely radical.  It’s just not on their brain.  At all.  So mention it.  Drop a line in conversation like, “I love being able to find good Catholic novels for my kids.”  Or, “It’s so refreshing to read something that isn’t trashy for a change.”

2. Start buying Catholic fiction.

If you have a local Catholic bookstore, ask them to stock it. Print out the book info for the title that interests you, and ask them to order it.  If you have a parish library, donate good Catholic fiction to their collection.

3. When you read a good Catholic book, leave a review . . .

. . . at Goodreads, Amazon, and the publisher’s website. Then mention it to your friends – online and in real life.

People want to be able to practice their faith.  Reading good Catholic fiction is a way that many people can be encouraged,  inspired, and yes, even catechized at times, in a way that comes so naturally to story-loving humans.

***

Read any good books lately?

What titles would you recommend for the Catholic reader looking for a good story to curl up with on a lazy Sunday afternoon?

(Psst!  FYI for new readers – the blog discussion forum is here.)

 

Catholic Writers Conference Live! Logo.

 

Lent Day 18: Catholic Childhood Memories

From St. Patrick’s Day:

Child climbs in car, we’re driving to the Catholic homeschooling co-op for drama class.  Late and having rushed out the door, as per usual. “Mom, are you wearing green today?”

“Yes I am.  I have my green sweater on.”

“Shoot.  I’d better find something green.”

Mother, feeling resourceful: “Want to borrow my green scapular?”

“Um.  No thanks.  I’ll clip this green hand-sanitizer holder to my belt loop.  That’ll work.”

 

More St. Patrick’s Day:

Same child, having solved the green problem and moving on: “St. Patrick was supposed to come last night and leave us candy.”

Skeptical mother: “Oh was he, now?”

“Or green toys or something.  Or a leprechaun comes.”

Mother, still skeptical: “Oh I see.”

“It’s okay.  He can come tonight instead.”

 

Then, Saturday morning . . .

“Mom. St. Patrick forgot to come last night.”

Mother: “St. Patrick doesn’t come to our house.”

“Or a leprechaun.  All my friends get candy from the leprechaun on St. Patrick’s day.”

“All your friends, eh?  What are the names of those friends?”

Hems and haws for a moment, then clarifies that it’s actually her sister’s friends.  “All of A’s friends at St. Urban’s get candy.”

“Oh do they?  What are the names of those friends?”

“Um. Well there’s Benedicta.”

Mother is not surprised.  Benedicta’s mother is like that.  “Anyone else?”

“And Assumptua.”

“Isn’t she Benedicta’s sister?”

“Well, yes.  But they both got candy. The leprechaun comes to their house.”

“The leprechaun doesn’t come to our house. Good try.”

 

Good problems, Catholic School edition:  When your child is sobbing and begging to be allowed to go to school, and swears she really isn’t that sick.

 

Weird problems, Saint Books edition:  

Bored child: “Mom, do we have any of those little saint books but that aren’t about  someone who becomes a monk or a nun and all they do is pray?”

Mother chooses not to argue, though there may have been a slight eye roll.  “Um.  Let’s go look.”  Thumbing through the shelf that contains middle-grades saint books, Mother pounces on St. Isaac Jogues, who was neither a monk nor a nun.  “How about this one?”

Child frowns and shakes head.  “No.  I want one of these saint books.”

Ah.  Well.  In that case . . . “How about this one?”

“Is it boring? What did he do?”

“He got tortured by Indians.”

“Okay.”

Saint Isaac and the IndiansSaint Isaac Jogues -- With Burning Heart

For all your tortured-by-Indians needs, book covers courtesy of Ignatius Press and Pauline Media.

Lent Day 8: Can’t Go Wrong Saint Books

PSA because the question came up today: If you want a good readable saint book, you won’t go wrong with Pauline Media’s “Encounter the Saints” series.  They are written for about 5th – 6th grade, but I thoroughly enjoy them and find them edifying for myself.  It takes about an hour for an adult left alone to read one book in silence. There’s usually a glossary at the back for any Catholic vocabulary words that you might not know.

I am unclear on why I only own about a dozen of these.  Need to rectify that.

 

Saint Teresa of KolkataSaint Catherine Labouré and Our LadySaint Gianna Beretta Molla: The Gift of Life

Saint Damien of Molokai -- Hero of HawaiiSaint Maximilian Kolbe -- Marys KnightSaint Isaac Jogues -- With Burning Heart

Artwork courtesy of Pauline Media.

 

The Chinese Chest by Theresa Jenner Garrido

My review of Theresa Jenner Garrido’s The Chinese Chest is posted at the blorg.  Summary: Highly recommended.  (I don’t review stuff that isn’t, why would I waste my time that way? I have other, more interesting ways to waste time, thank you.)

The usual warning applies, this is genre fiction, as you’ve come to expect.  Much more Hardy Boys than Thomas Hardy.  Also, since I’m really liking this as an example of clean YA, let me just clarify: It is dark, creepy clean YA.  Anne of Green Gables not so much. Sure, Nancy Drew knows what to do with a roll of duct tape, but she never had to leave someone a bleeding lump of near-death in order to get the duct tape on.  Legitimate self-defense is a last resort for a reason.

Monday Thoughts: The Good Life

1. Study Shows Catechesis Helps, But Not Quite Enough

Here’s a nice article from the National Catholic Register about the differences of opinion on Church doctrine and social issues among Catholic who attend Mass, and those who don’t. That’s not how they describe the article, but it is one thing the study demonstrates. The good news:  Catholics who say they go to Mass every Sunday are also much more likely to say they agree with the Church on counter-cultural issues.  The bad news: Depending on the hot-button topic, between 1/3 and 1/2 of Catholics attending Mass weekly dissent from Church teaching.

(In contrast, this isn’t, say, the good-natured non-Catholic spouse who comes to Mass as a kindness to the Catholic spouse.  These adults who both claim to be Catholic, AND claim to attend Mass every Sunday.)

So.  In the pews next to you on Sunday, think of the three people you shake hands with during the Sign of Peace.  If yours is a typical parish described by this study, you can assume you’ve shaken hands with at least one person who does not in fact believe and accept the Catholic faith.

Thinking of traveling to the far corners of the earth to evangelize?  Your parish pews are mission territory.

2.

In choosing best friends, if you can find one whose besetting sins are utterly different from your own . . . golden.  Just golden.

3.

A Sunday well-spent is truly a foretaste of Heaven.  More coming later. Partly in response to this post.

4.

I read and thoroughly enjoyed The King’s Gambit by John McNichol.  My Amazon review is up, and when I get around to it, I’ll post something longer here at the blog. As always on my Catholic-genre youth fiction reviews, let us remember to ask ourselves: Do my tastes run to Thomas Hardy, or Hardy Boys?  I’m firmly in the latter camp.  I like my adult beverages some combination of bitter, dry, and rarefied; I like my fiction just the opposite.

5.

I can’t remember what else.  Have a great week.  Happy Conclave-Watching!

Book Review: Anna Mei, Blessing in Disguise

I knew I had to pick Anna Mei, Blessing in Disguise for my latest Catholic Company review title, because otherwise my daughter would disown me.  I’d picked up the first Anna Mei title last winter, shopping at the Pauline Media table between breaks at a catechist training session.  My 10-year-old enjoyed the book, and I’d meant to read it, but never gotten around to it.  I’ve now fixed that problem, and of course created a new one: I need to buy Escape Artist to round out our collection.

About the series: Anna Mei, the title character, is the adopted Chinese daughter, and only child, of the Anderson family.  In the first book, Cartoon Girl, the family has just moved from Boston to a small town in Michigan. It’s Anna Mei’s first time being the new kid; she has to figure out how to make new friends and fit in, as well as come to terms with questions about her identity that had never been a problem before.  In Blessing in Disguise, Anna Mei is in 7th grade, and plagued by the visiting Chinese ex-pats her parents think should be her new best friends, but with whom Anna Mei feels she has nothing in common.

Who’s it for:  Older elementary and middle school girls. (Though I enjoyed reading them — I think they’re good mom books, too.)  The action is largely emotional — loads of inner turmoil, self-examination, and the occasional eye roll or shouting match; zero crime scenes, zombies, or ninjas.  It’s about the quintessential junior-high girl topics, identity and relationships.  Reading level is similar to the American Girl History Mystery Series.

Catholic Reality Index: High.  The setting is a good-but-normal public school.  The Andersons are practicing Catholics; they say grace before meals, they go to Mass on Sunday, and two or three times during the book we catch Anna Mei saying a quick prayer of desperation. But the action is set in everyday, universally-experienced life. Problems aren’t solved by rosary marathons or visions of saints, but through normal problem-solving techniques like talking-it-out, or working-really-hard.  For Catholic kids, the faith aspect will be an affirmation of their religious identity, but for non-Catholic readers, it’s just a normal story about a kid who happens to be Catholic.  Basic model, average-American 21st century suburban Catholic, no rad-trad crazes, no apologetics ax to grind, just normal everyday Catholics.

Parent Approval Index:  High.  Anna Mei’s a good kid.  When she does something wrong, her conscience bugs her.  She knows she shouldn’t lie, and usually doesn’t; when she does, she immediately regrets it. The Anderson parents are good-but-normal parents.  Not the enemy, not the idiot, not the clueless bumbler who has no idea what’s going on in the child’s life.  We see them consciously trying to make good parenting decisions; when Anna Mei’s at odds with her parents, it bothers her.

Hokiness Index: None.  With adoptive-child-turmoil as one of the themes, there was a real risk of handling the situation in a superficial, contrived, or melodramatic way.  You know all the stupid things bystanders say to adoptive parents.  None of that.  This is a well-adjusted, happy family, and Anna Mei’s problems fit into normal tweenage questions about friendship and family.  Very nicely done.

Verdict:  These are great books.  If you’re looking for clean, enjoyable fiction for your girls, these are fun, readable, and possibly even helpful as discussion-starters. Blessing in Disguise also has an extensive set of discussion questions at the end of the book, for use in book clubs or for school.

***

10-year-old reviewer says:

This book is a really great book.  It’s well-written.  And it’s just an awesome book.  I like how they’re set in modern times, but they’re not weirdly written and strange and boring.

On who would like the book:

I’d say people who like to read books about problems and finding out if there’s something behind the problem that they just didn’t expect, and the problem gets worked out at the end.  And everything turns out well.

***

As always, thanks to The Catholic Company for their spoiling-Catholic-bloggers program, in which people like me (and perhaps you, too) get free books in exchange for goofing off on the internet telling the world what we honestly think.  They remind me to tell you they are also a great online store for all your Catholic gift needs, such as baby baptism and christening gifts. You can also find a wide selection of Catholic Bible Studies for both parish groups and individuals, as well as a variety of other Catholic Bible study resources.

The Kolbe Reviews: Religion

Freedom’s just another word for “knowing what to do.” And then doing it.

I’ve been using the Faith and Life textbook series for homeschool religion since the boy was in first grade.  I loved it then, and still love it now.

 

What you get: Each book in the series has approximately 30 chapters, designed to be read one a week throughout the school year.  (Some years there are more chapters, some years less).  The reading is on grade-level, but the first grade book is designed to be a read-aloud, and the second grade book will be a read-aloud for some students.  Each chapter might be ten minutes worth of reading?  One day’s assignment. At the end of the chapter there are usually some vocabulary words, a scripture or prayer, and some catechism questions and answers.

All except the 2nd grade book feature gorgeous traditional artwork for the illustrations.  The second grade book uses contemporary-school-book genre stuff, but you’ll get over that insult when you get back to 3rd grade and the serious art resumes for the remainder of the series.

Each book has a theme — first grade covers Salvation 101, 2nd grade prepares students for the sacraments of reconciliation and communion, fourth grade is a survey of the Bible, sixth grade is heavy on the moral life.  Along the way you spiral through the essentials of the faith at an age-appropriate level, so it’s possible to jump right in at grade-level even if you haven’t used the texts before, or even ever studied the faith before.

The accompanying Activity Book is a consumable workbook with a combination of study questions and fun activities like coloring pages and crossword puzzles.  Together the two make a complete package for home use — the student does the reading, completes the study questions, and does any of the extra workbook pages as desired.  I let my kids write in the book, but if you did only the study questions on a separate paper, and no fun-and-games, you could pass the book down.

I have looked through the expansive (and expensive) teacher’s manuals, and they do contain a lot of helpful information for the catechist.  But for home use, I think these are not needed.  My advice for a parent who is not very knowledgeable of the faith would be to do the student reading along with the child, and then to learn more about the faith in general by picking out other good Catholic books on topics of interest.

UPDATED: Tara in the combox observes, and I would take her advice over mine:

I find them really really useful because I am not a catechist and I cannot make this stuff up. They have the answers for the activity book pages and have a test / quiz for each chapter and each section (again, answers supplied too). Unless you’re very confident and very experienced, I think they’re well worth the money.

FYI the teachers manuals are huge.  So priced comparably (even favorably) to other works offering similar amounts of info.

I’ve never used Faith and Life in the classroom.  My parish has always used some-other-brand.  I have talked to several catechists from other parishes who didn’t care for F&L, because of the strongly academic focus (a selling point for me — I love it), and because the style of the lessons didn’t call for crafts and activities and so forth.  We did do one test section of F&L for 8th grade last year, and the feedback I received at mid-year from the catechist teaching that class was very good.  Feedback from a 2nd-grade catechist at another parish was that course material was good, but the lessons worked best if the teacher had free reign to present the topics the way she thought the students would learn them best.   I think a lot depends on whether the parish in fact wants students to learn the faith with the rigor expected in other academic subjects, and whether the teacher has the experience and confidence to teach the material effectively.

What you don’t get in F&L:  There’s very little in the way of multicultural imagery, church geography, or even much for lives of saints.  This is a theology course, and you need to plan to fill out your students’ religious education with all the other stuff that makes up our faith and heritage.  If you are going to Mass, observing the feast days, living out in the wider world, praying as a family, and reading lives of saints as part of your literature curriculum, you’re in good shape.  Otherwise, plan to pick up some supplemental materials that will fill in your gaps.

About the Three Editions:  There’s original, revised, and 3rd edition to match the new mass translation.  Don’t worry about it.  If someone gives you an older edition, it’ll work fine. Every now and then one of the assignments won’t line up, but it’s not a big deal.  On the other hand, the books are fairly affordable new.  My personal approach is if I’m going to buy, I buy new, but I’m not upgrading my older stock.

Kolbe also uses the St. Jospeh Baltimore Catechism series.  These are retro-style catechisms, complete with an English translation of the mass that sounds almost like our new mass translation, because, get this: it’s translated straight from the Latin.  Because the books are that old.  The language is frank, the drawings are 1950’s-chic, and yes, I love this one too.  Great discovery.  If you want to justify mowing the lawn on Sundays, don’t let your kids read this book.  No toe left un-stomped.

The course plans.  For me as a catechist who happens to be a parent, the course plans primarily save me the work of writing up my own.  But I think they’d be one of the sets of plans worth purchasing if you aren’t registered with Kolbe, because each day’s and week’s assignments include a summary of the lesson topic, and points to clarify as you teach your student.  Lots of material in the plans.

The planned assignments do call for a lot of memorization and recitation.  Recall that as the teaching parent, you’re free to decide just how much of that memory work your student needs to do.

FYI: The Kolbe plans run on a four-day schedule, and are built around a tutoring-type environment, so they can’t be peeled off the page and inserted into a parish religious education program as-written.   That said, if I were Queen of Religious Ed (I’m not) and had the budget to match my imperial fantasy life, I’d want something like this to give to new and struggling catechists, because the plans to do a good job distilling the faith into the essentials.

***

Questions?  Comments?

My vote for Most Important Book of 2012

I just spent 3 days in the largest Catholic bookstore in the world.  I bought one book.  This is it:

Then I was stuck in an airport for five hours.  Perfect timing.

What it is:  Tiến Dương is a real guy about your age (born 1963) who is now a priest in the diocese of Charlotte, NC.  Deanna Klingel persuaded him to let her tell his story, and she worked with him over I-don’t-know-how-long to get it right.  Fr. Tien is a bit embarrassed to be singled out this way, because his story is no different from that of thousands upon thousands of his countryman.  But as Deanna pointed out, if you write, “X,000 people endured blah blah blah . . .” it’s boring.  Tell one story well, and you see by extension the story of 10,000 others.

The book is told like historical fiction, except that it’s non-fiction verified by the subject — unlike posthumous saints’ biographies, there’s no conjecture here.  It’s what happened.  The reading level is middle-grades and up, though some of the topics may be too mature for your middle-schooler.  (Among others, there is a passing reference to a rape/suicide.)  The drama is riveting, but the violence is told with just enough distance that you won’t have nightmares, but you will understand what happened — Deanna has a real talent for telling a bigger story by honing in on powerful but less-disturbing details.  Like, say, nearly drowning, twice; or crawling out of a refugee camp, and up the hill to the medical clinic.

–>  I’m going to talk about the writing style once, right now: There are about seven to ten paragraphs interspersed through the book that I think are not the strongest style the author could have chosen.  If I were the editor, I would have used a different expository method for those few.  Otherwise, the writing gets my 100% stamp of approval — clear, solid prose, page-turning action sequences, deft handling of a zillion difficult or personal topics.

Why “Most Important Book?”

This is a story that needs to be known.  It is the story of people in your town and in your parish, living with you, today.  And of course I’m an easy sell, because the books touches on some of my favorite topics, including but not limited to:

  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Diplomacy
  • Poverty
  • Immigration
  • Freedom of Religion
  • Freedom, Period
  • Refugee Camps
  • Cultural Clashes
  • Corruption
  • Goodness and Virtue
  • Faith
  • Priestly Vocations
  • Religious Vocations
  • Marriage and Family Life as a Vocation
  • Lying
  • Rape
  • Suicide
  • Generosity
  • Orphans
  • Welfare
  • Stinky Mud
  • Used Cars
  • Huggy vs. Not-Huggy

You get the idea.  There’s more.  Without a single moment of preaching.  Just an action-packed, readable story, well told.

Buy Bread Upon the Water by Deanna K. Klingel, published by St. Rafka press.

Book Review: Christian LeBlanc’s The Bible Tells Me So

Christian LeBlanc gave me a review copy of his new book, The Bible Tells Me So: A Year of Catechizing Directly from Scripture, and I’ve already mentioned that it’s a good book and you probably want to buy it.  Today’s my day to tell you why normal, non-catechist people will like it, and then later I’ll post a catechist-type review over at AmazingCatechists.com.

What it is:  Christian put together a survey of the Bible course for his 6th grade religious ed class.  He uses the socratic method, and goes through the whole Bible in a year, explaining to the kids what’s in there, and how the Bible fits into our Catholic faith.  (Quite nicely, thank you.)  In addition to Bible history, he works in bits about the Theology of the Body, the sanctity of marriage, and loads of apologetics.  One of the key themes is how we find the Mass and the sacraments in the Bible.

The Format:  Each chapter is one class.  He starts at the beginning of the school year in Genesis, and walks you through each class as-presented.  (“Hey y’all, welcome to 6th grade . . .you are going to be miserable this year.”) The weird thing: This works.  I’ve been reading Christian’s blog for a long time, but mostly only sort-of reading it, because although the topics are good for me, the truth is that when I’m goofing on the internet, my brain wants to goof off.  And the class-dialog format requires paying attention, thinking, that kind of stuff.

In a book though, the narrative style comes into its own.  The book is large format (8.5″ x 11″), so there’s enough page there to hold some serious thought without overwhelming.  And books are meant for sit-a-spell reading.  You can settle in, dig into a chapter, and enjoy.

The other reason these lectures work better in a book than on a blog is that you get the whole year in a continuous flow.  I never felt like I was reading a blog-warmed over.  Just the opposite.  Even though I had read some (not all) of the ideas on the blog, when they are put together in a single work, and fully fleshed-out, the whole is far more than sum of the snippets.

Reading Level: Very comfortable.  The conversational style, and the fact that this is a class for sixth graders, makes this a great book for someone just digging into the Bible for the first time.  You don’t need to be a Catholic know-it-all before you start.  This would work as a textbook for a middle-school or older student who wanted to study the Bible at home, but the material is substantial enough that any adult would enjoy it.  Great option for a family Bible study.

What good for the non-Catechist?  Well, here’s what:  As it happens, this year our boy is starting the Bible History class that Kolbe does in 7th and 8th Grade.  And it’s been a while since the SuperHusband has done a full read through the Bible (and me? <cough cough> we’re not talking about that), and Jon’s never studied the Bible as a Catholic before.

[Though admittedly Jon has a feel for the Catholic view, since his reversion was due in part to all the unmistakeably Catholic things God stuck in His book.]

So the timing for us was perfect.  As we work through the Bible as a family, Jon & I can consult The Bible Tells Me So for ideas about discussion topics with the kids, things to point out, Mass-appreciation, all that.

Verdict: Pretty much an unqualified ‘buy’ recommend.  I mean, I guess if you didn’t really want to understand the Bible, or find out how Catholics read it, or something like that, you might want to avoid it.  Also if you hate humor.  Don’t read this book if you have broken ribs or nasty cough, and your doctor told you No Laughing.

FYI: Christian haunts this combox, so you can ask him any questions you have.