Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible (Ascension Press)

Do you want to study the Bible, but don't know where to start? Or perhaps the idea of embarking on a journey is daunting because you think it will take you years and you don't know if you have the time to commit to it? Never fear! Ascension Press has thought of you and has a study designed just for you. It is called Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible, and it is a completely revised and updated version of their previous program A Quick Journey Through the Bible! Jeff Cavins is still leading this study, thankfully, as he is a wonderful speaker, and the Starter Pack comes with the DVDs, Leader's Guide, Student Workbook, a Bible Timeline Chart, and a Bookmark. The eight lessons in the program are as follows:

1. Introduction
2. Early World
3. Patriarchs
4. Egypt and Exodus, Desert Wanderings
5. Conquest and Judges, Royal Kingdom
6. Divided Kingdom, Exile, Return
7. Maccabean Revolt, Messianic Fulfillment - Part 1
8. Messianic Fulfillment - Part 1, The Church, Continuing the Journey

The Introduction begins by telling us what we will learn in this study, and introduces us to the color code, which is essential to all the study programs in "The Bible Timeline." There are twelve colors in all, and I know without the helpful bookmark, I would not remember half of them. For example, Egypt and Exodus is the color red, which corresponds with the Red Sea. Desert Wanderings is tan, because that's what color the desert is. The color code is a great tool and one that makes sense with the associations. It's just that my memory isn't as sharp as it used to be. It also introduces us to the fourteen books of the Bible that will be studied in this series. Fourteen books might sound like a lot, but when you consider that there are 73 books in total, you are only getting a concise narrative of the Bible.

The DVD sessions are approximately 30 minutes each and each session is brilliantly outlined in the workbook. Additionally, there are discussion questions for small groups to answer. Thankfully, the Leader's Guide provides suggested answers, because Bible Study leaders (rookies and pros) sometimes need all the help they can get. What I really like about the workbook are the maps, graphs, and charts. Visual aids always help materials stick and seeing maps of Israels progression from north to south and back north really made some things make sense that hadn't before. This study does a wonderful job of explaining how the Old and New Testaments relate as well as the different covenants through salvation history. I particularly enjoyed the session on Egypt and Exodus, but I'm just a fan of that section in the Bible, so what's not to love? At the end of the workbook is a 90 day reading plan for the fourteen narrative books that this study was based on, so I highly recommend you commit to that reading guide either while you're doing the study or afterward.

So why should you get Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible? For starters, it is affordable at only $99.95 for the entire starter pack. Secondly, it is brief at only eight 30 minute lessons. These two aspects make it the perfect program for someone at a beginner's level of Biblical knowledge looking to advance to intermediate level. There's also a great promotion currently going on at Ascension Press, At the parish-level, you can run this study program for free. Yes, you read that right...FREE! Go to this link, and follow the instructions. Participants in the program will have to buy their own workbook, but this is a great way to introduce your parish to the Bible and help them progress from spiritual milk to spiritual meat! Imagine if every parish took advantage of this, we could set the world on fire with the Gospel. Then, after you complete this study, I encourage you to study another and another! If you are looking to go deeper in your Bible study, then I recommend The Bible Timeline for a more in-depth look at what you just studied. But if you are interested in a different topic of similar length to Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible then A Biblical Walk Through the Mass or Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother are also great choices!

This study was provided to me for free by Ascension Press in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to His People Volume 1 (Convivium Press)

Oscar Romero was born in 1917 and died in March of 1980 (three years before I was born). He was the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador and spoke bravely against social injustice, poverty, and other issues affecting people in his city. He died a martyr, being assassinated while offering Mass. Many people proclaim him a proponent of liberation theology (interpreting Scripture and the Christian faith through the experience of the poor), but according to Romero's biographer he was not interested in liberation theology. He was beatified on May 23, 2015 by Pope Francis.  Convivium Press has undertaken an ambitious project of publishing a six volume set of all his homilies, which are entitled A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to His People. Today, I am featuring Volume 1.

Archbishop Oscar Romero is credited with delivering 193 homilies while he was Archbishop. They were broadcast on the radio for everyone to hear and later transcribed and published. Due to the nature of radio broadcasts, there are times that not all the words were intelligible or caught on the tape recording. A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to His People Volume 1 contains 46 homilies, which span from March 14, 1977 to November 25, 1977. Many of the homilies in this book were given on Sunday, but sadly there are a couple of funeral Masses as well, which were given for assassinated priests.

Homily 28 was one of my favorite in this volume, as it discusses characteristics of the Church. Romero tells us that we must protect and defend the dignity of all human beings. He also tells us that our aim is not to turn our back on this world or worse, conform to this world, but instead we are called to transform the world and sanctify it. Romero also describes the Church using two words - missionary and pilgrim. We are called to be missionaries to the whole world by spreading the Gospel of Jesus, and we are on a pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem. He also talks about the eschatological mission of the Church. Yes, we are called to help people and their physical needs down here, but it cannot stop there. We must point people to Heaven and instruct them that this world will one day pass, but there is an eternity one way or the other (Heaven or Hell), and that they will only find eternal happiness in Heaven.

Reading through these homilies, one can sense a great deal of wisdom in Romero's words. However, there is also great sadness in reading his words. It seems like every homily, he is discussing the assassinations and deaths of innocent priests and citizens. As indicated by the title of this series of books, one also sees a prophetic mission in his words. Romero was a lot like John the Baptist in that he had no fear in speaking out against what he knew in his heart was wrong. It ultimately cost them both their lives, and I believe they both knew that it would. The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church, and because of Romero's death, reform eventually came in El Salvador. Three of the six volumes of his homilies have been published so far, and I can't wait to read more of them.

This book was provided to me for free by Convivium Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Choice of the Family (Image Books)

The World Meeting of Families and the Synod on the Family is quickly approaching and we as Catholics are woefully uninformed and misinformed on it. We are also in a constant state of fear about the outcome of this synod. We fear, without merit, that the Church is going to fall, and that same-sex unions will now be performed in Catholic Churches worldwide. Let me assure you that the Church has been the same for 2000 years and will not be doing any such thing! Instead of focusing on the absurd negative outcomes that could come from this synod, we need to focus on the positive of it and what it can teach us about family life. To prepare for these two monumental invents, I recommend a diet of prayer and reading. One such work that I am reading is The Choice of the Family by Bishop Jean Laffitte who is the Head of the Pontifical Council on the Family.

The Choice of the Family is a series of interviews Bishop Laffitte conducted with Pierre and VĂ©ronique Sanchez. Before diving into the subjects of marriage and family, the Sanchezes ask Bishop Laffitte to tell who he is. He begins by telling us that he is from a large family, and that he is the twelfth of twelve children. They were six boys and six girls and his father was a surgeon. He points this out because, there is a history of doctors in the family, which included his mother's father and his mother's brothers. His parents were a great example of love for him, and they were both practicing Catholics who went to Mass at least weekly and frequently more often. Their Christian education was more than just verbally taught. It was lived! He also learned humility from them, and the seriousness of not blindly accepting one's faith but questioning it and nurturing it to grow. He then goes on to talk about the challenges that he and others faced with the changes from Vatican II and the call to his priestly vocation. I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the book, and feel that brief biographies should be included in every Catholic book. It really puts their thoughts into proper context if you know their history.

The book then has five more chapters, which discuss engagement, covenants, marriage, parenthood, single people, divorced people, and many other topics. When discussing marriage as a covenant, he compares it to the covenant that God made with the people of Israel and still maintains with the Church. He also explains that a covenant and contract are not the same, and that love is a gift and not a loan. Laffitte then goes on to discuss the dangers of cohabitation and that divorce is higher among those who cohabitate together. Not focusing on the negative, he then discusses the benefits of marriage preparation and firmly believes that an engaged couple should meet with a priest and a mentoring couple before their marriage. My wife and I participated in both of these as well as a retreat, and we found them all helpful and edifying.

The section on divorce and remarriage particularly caught my interest. I have very strong views on the subject, so I wanted to see what Bishop Laffitte's views were and if our two views aligned. I admit I was surprised at the way he chose to approach the topic. He said, "The question s not first of all a moral one but rather is a matter of taking into account the very nature of the Eucharist, what it is, and what Eucharistic Communion implies." What that means in basic terms is that Christ was present and played a part in the covenant you made with your first marriage, assuming it was a valid marriage. Therefore, it is impossible for him to "uncommit" from the first marriage and commit to a new marriage. He also explains the history of why divorced and re-married people feel slighted in not being allowed to receive Communion. Until the past twenty years, people were more aware of their sin and abstained from receiving Communion, so divorced and re-married people were not the only people who abstained from Communion. Now, it seems that they are the only ones who do not receive Communion. This is not a shift in Church teaching, but a shift in members of the Church who choose to ignore or justify their sins, instead of going to Confession.

This published interview is not your typical yes/no interview. The questions are thought-provoking and open-ended, and the answers are elaborately explained without being overly academic. As I was reading through this book, I found myself nodding my head constantly with what Bishop Laffitte was saying. He didn't speak against or undermine Church teachings, but he explained the truth of the Church's teachings in a voice of authority and a voice of love. He also demonstrated that he has applied the Church's teachings through many years of service as a priest, and that his arguments for the family and traditional marriage are not merely scholarly views of an academic. If you are looking for an approachable book to the subject of marriage and family, then I highly recommend this book. And if you act now, it's a steal on Amazon at less than $10 for a hardcover!

This book was provided to me for free by Image Books in exchange for an honest review.