Friday, 22 January 2016

VATICAN WALTZ by Roland Merullo

Vatican WaltzVatican Waltz by Roland Merullo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

BOOK DESCRIPTION:The new novel from the award-winning author of Breakfast with Buddha and Revere Beach Boulevard tells the story of a young Catholic woman jolted from a quietly devout life in pursuit of a mysterious calling.

Cynthia Piantedosi lives a quiet, unassuming life outside of Boston, guided by her Catholic faith. When she loses her beloved grandmother, she begins experiencing “spells” of such intense spiritual intimacy that she wonders about her sanity. Devoted to her elderly father and not particularly interested in dating and socializing, she develops a deep friendship with her parish priest. His congregation sees him as provocative and radical, but he encourages Cynthia to explore her faith—however it presents itself.

When he is killed in a mysterious accident, a message begins to emerge from Cynthia’s prayers: God is calling her to be the first female Catholic priest. Her revelation is met with ridicule by certain of the more reactionary officials she reaches out to within the Church. Unable to tune out the divine messages, she lets the power of unswerving faith drive her all the way to the Vatican in pursuit of a destiny she doesn’t fully understand—and a turn of events that will inevitably bring long overdue change to the Catholic Church.

MY REVIEW: VATICAN WALTZ was a gently intriguing read with a fascinating twist at the end that raises questions about the way in which believers accept certain doctrines as factual (I can’t say anymore without giving the ending a way). I imagine the book will be of particular interest to Catholics but there is much in it about the nature of spiritual experience in general — particularly that of mysticism and its connection with the reality of life. The story is written well with a genuinely unpredictable plot. More than that, it explores issues of the nature of spirituality and the way in which organised religion often undermines it. The story is probably not for those who have a rigid view of religion constructed around rules and ritual. But for those who are willing to allow a story to question the way they look at religion and spirituality, it is a rewarding read.

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Saturday, 2 January 2016


The Bad People Stole my GodThe Bad People Stole my God by Doug Philips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

BOOK DESCRIPTION: The true story of how a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a dog lover, a 40-year-Catholic, and a close personal friend of Jesus Christ became a full blown non-believer; but somehow remained a decent person.

MY REVIEW: This was a pleasure to read after the previous book I reviewed (Leaving the Quiet Room). There is nothing new in terms of the arguments offered against Christianity/religion. But Philips writes with great humour making this a fresh read. He takes the perspective a Catholic with a strong relationship with Jesus Christ and the “mistakes” he made in being seduced by the “bad people” atheists. (I kept thinking of C S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters although Philips is not as profound.) It’s short, witty, and well paced and demonstrates empathy and respect for those who disagree with him.

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Leaving the Quiet Room: My Rise from Religious Slavery to AtheismLeaving the Quiet Room: My Rise from Religious Slavery to Atheism by Joe Zamecki
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

BOOK DESCRIPTION: One of "5 Awesome Atheists Under the Radar." (Steven Olsen, Leaving the Quiet Room chronicles the formative years of veteran atheist activist Joe Zamecki at a Catholic primary school. Insightful and often humorous, the memoir is a unique glimpse into the making of a champion for freedom of conscience. Having endured the abuse and absurdity of a religious education, Zamecki evolved from true believer to self-described "loudmouth for the Freethought movement." Joe Zamecki has since dedicated his life to countering the negative consequences of theism, with eight years as a full time employee of American Atheists, Inc and a stint as Texas State Director. His pioneering work includes helping to found Atheist Helping the Homeless, The Atheist Experience television show, and countless hours campaigning for the rights of atheists and the freedom of those shackled by religion.

MY REVIEW: From what the book description says, Joe Zamecki has done some good work campaigning for rights and being involved in humanitarian work. But the book description exaggerates the significance of Zamecki’s story. It reads more like a cathartic rant than a calm and rational telling of his story. There are some good insights. But reading through a detailed description of every single grade in his schooling was laborious and boring. The purpose of the book is to describe what Zanecki calls his “rise from religious slavery” to Atheism (with a capital ‘A’).

His story is from the perspective of a rigid and abusive Catholic education (he was not sexually abused) in the United States — a narrow perspective if there ever was one. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a story shared by many others. And no doubt they will relate to his story. But his capital letter ‘A’ Atheism is about getting rid of all religion claiming that there is nothing of worth in religion and indeed, is detrimental to society.

I became very uncomfortable when I arrived at the parts of the book where he blames his parents for his religious abuse without any sign of compassion or empathy for them. Most parents, I assume, make what they consider to be the best decisions for their children. Perhaps Zamecki’s parents didn’t — we don’t get enough information to make that judgment. But looking back from mature adulthood and blaming your parents for everything you consider to have been wrong with your upbringing, particularly in a culture which itself supported the type of religious upbringing he had, seems harsh and unforgiving.

Zamecki’s atheism seems as ideologically fundamentalist as the religion he grew up in. His understanding of the cultural role of religion in violence is simplistic and he believes that ‘[t]here are few violent conflicts in the world that cannot be traced back to the irrational thinking of theists.’ Really? When someone reduces a problem down to one cause then you can pretty much guarantee they haven’t thought about the issue in much depth.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Zamecki’s perspective is incredibly biased (despite the few nuggets of truth to be found in the book) and ideologically driven. Those features are bad enough but adding them to what is a laborious description of his education (I’m not interested in knowing the name of every teacher he ever had!) and religious rituals in Catholicism throughout his childhood made me glad when I arrived at the final paragraph which, by the way, reads in part: ‘I thank whoever first said these things: “May the last priest be crushed to death by the last falling stone from last crumbling church.”…’ Great sentiments!

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