Year of 100 Books

Y100B: Yes

Daniel Bryan and Craig Tello, Yes: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania (St. Martin’s Griffen 2015, 320pgs.)

When Daniel Bryan (real name Brian Danielson) retired from professional wrestling last year, I was devastated. At 5’8″ and barely 200lbs. for most of his career, Bryan went from being a darling of the American independent wrestling scene to one of the most astonishing success stories in the history of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Fired twice by WWE and initially looked upon as a “good hand” in the ring with limited star potential, the unassuming — and, by his own admission, unambitious — Bryan developed a cult following among hardcore fans that steadily spread to all corners of WWE’s audience, many of whom had grown numb to the uninspired, formulaic main-event wrestling the promotion became known for after the early 00s. Unfortunately, Bryan’s ring style — a blend of classic British catch wrestling, Japanese strong and junior heavyweight style, and a bit too much of American indie recklessness — had caught up with him by 2014, the year he headlined WrestleMania, working two hard-hitting and excellent matches before capturing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Not long after this career-defining moment, Bryan was forced to relinquish the belt as he dealt off-air with neck and concussion issues. A brief return in 2015 was cut short by similar injuries, prompting Bryan to make one of the hardest decisions of his life: retire at 35, in the prime of his career.

These sad events are not the main focus of Bryan’s autobiography. Rather, a bulk of the text focuses on Bryan’s life as a working-class kid in Washington state; the ups and downs of his family life, including his father’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism (Bryan himself has never drank); the sacrifices he made to break into the wrestling business, along with the experience of being trained under the legendary Shawn Michaels; and his rapid rise on the American independent scene, quickly going from a “nobody” wrestling under a mask as The American Dragon to being regarded as one of the best all-around wrestlers in the world. Bryan was an integral part of the early years of Ring of Honor (ROH), an independent promotion which helped change the landscape of American graps with stars such as CM Punk, Samoa Joe, and Bryan. Without those early years of ROH, it’s unlikely there would be an NXT today, nor a vibrant U.S. indie scene.

Having come to Bryan’s book with a fairly deep knowledge of his professional history, I was most interested in those parts which focused not on Daniel Bryan the wrestler but Brian Danielson the man. Bryan never shies away from the fact that he is a laid back hippie of sorts who was once awarded PETA’s Animal Friendly Athlete of the Year Award after becoming vegan. (Bryan was eventually forced to abandon veganism after developing a soy allergy.) He also chronicles, in small doses, his relationship with Brie Bella, a former WWE wrestler who is now Bryan’s wife. Despite facing a number of trials during his WWE tenure, not the least of which being the front office’s perception that Bryan could not be a genuine main-event talent, there is no immediate trace of bitterness in the book. Sure, like many wrestlers, Bryan had his share of frustrating moments and ill treatment at the hands of some promoters, but what shines through in this book most of all is Bryan’s genuine love of professional wrestling, not as a low-brow spectacle surrounded by cheap comedy and sex, but as a sport.

There have been a lot of good-to-excellent wrestling autobiographies penned over the years, but Bryan’s stands out for both its genuineness and humor. Bryan has no qualms about poking fun at himself, particularly his youthful naiveté on just about everything. Moreover, Bryan’s account of his career presents pro-wrestling as neither a hobby nor a pathway to fame and fortune; it is, rather, a vocation which, when done right, demands the same level of training, discipline, and desire as any genuine athletic endeavor. Hopefully Bryan’s example rubs off on the next generation of wrestlers.

Y100B: Reformations

Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale University Press 2016, 920pgs.)

What can I say about Reformations that Eamon Duffy didn’t cover in his outstanding review, “The End of Christendom“?  Despite its considerable heft, one thought ran through my head after I finished each chapter: I have to read this again. Eire’s prose is neither dense nor intentionally complicated; but the sheer array of material he draws effortlessly together cannot be digested in a single run through a book which, I pray, every thoughtful Catholic sits down with in this, the 500th sorrowful anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolt against the Church. Why these reform movements broke out across Europe and what they left in their wake are at the heart of Eire’s analysis, as his sobering account of the decrepit state of the Church in the 16th Century. Catholics, particularly traditional Catholics, are unlikely to be comfortable with much of what Eire has to say about that. Good. Romanticizing the past cannot help anyone prepare for the future or, for that matter, deal with the present.

Y100B: Political Theology

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (University of Chicago Press 2005 (1922), 116pgs.)

It has been a decade since I last sat down with Political Theology, one of Carl Schmitt’s most cited and misunderstood works. Or, maybe I should say, contentious works to the extent that hundreds of readers (most of whom are academics) have put forward interpretations of mixed plausibility concerning what Schmitt is “really saying” in the text. Most infamously, Heinrich Meier — a German “Straussian” — argued that the text is the launching point for a literal political theology which privileges revelation over reason in the ordering of human affairs. All of life, according to Meier’s reading of Schmitt, comes down to a decision: “Am I with God or am I with Satan?” Granted, you won’t find this question formulated anywhere in the text; Meier has to draw it out from not only a selective reading of Political Theology, but an even more selective reading of the Schmittian corpus, including the jurist’s private reflections. Not surprisingly, Meier’s interpretation has drawn a great deal of criticism, particularly from the cabal of Left-leaning theorists who, for reasons which remain more than a bit obscure, find Schmitt’s theories of the state, legality, and the political congenial to their own pet ideological projects.

To be frank, most of Political Theology is a bore. Originally published in 1922, Schmitt’s immediate concern was to attack certain liberal theories of law in vogue during that time by highlighting the importance of the “state of exception” (or “emergency”). Moreover, Schmitt also introduces, or rather reminds his audience, of the secularization of theological concepts in modern jurisprudence. It is a sociological insight made long before Schmitt walked the earth, though largely forgotten about in the “post-theological” environment of early 20th C. legal thought. Where Political Theology turns interesting is in the last chapter, which confronts the counter-revolutionary thinking of Bonald, Maistre, and Cortes. Here, in the midst of interpreting these three men, Schmitt comes the closest to making an absolute theological claim on the necessity of deciding between man’s goodness or wickedness before proceeding with any theory of the state. Such a decision cannot be informed by a legal theory, and perhaps the defective state of human reason eliminates the possibility of answering the question philosophically. Only theology, rooted in a concrete revelation from Above, can provide a sure answer.

How much Schmitt believed this himself will likely remain an irresolvable question for as long as people bother to read him. Although it is doubtful that Schmitt shared Cortes’s radically pessimistic view of human nature, a good case can be made that he often doubted man’s intentions and certainly had no time for the liberal presumption of man’s goodness. Regardless, Political Theology — for better or worse — remains the most influential text Schmitt ever produced and has inadvertently given legs to “political theology” as a distinct intellectual and moral endeavor. Given how many Christians today, including Christian readers of Schmitt, embrace the liberal presumptions that Schmitt abhorred is no small irony. In fact, by Schmittian lights, it’s a catastrophe.

Y100B: Kierkegaard

Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan 2016, 301pgs.)

As 2016 draws to a close, I found myself doing something I once thought impossible: reading a book published by Zondervan.

Backhouse’s biography of the great Dane purports to be “a fresh look” at the man and his times, but really it’s just Kierkegaard’s life and thought watered-down for generalists. Not that there is anything wrong with that. As Backhouse makes clear from the start, the extant Kierkegaard biographies available either amount to hagiography (e.g., Walter Lowrie’s classic treatment) or dense academic exercises. Backhouse delivers something slightly different, a treatment of Kierkegaard that is not entirely devoid of intellectual seriousness and yet gossipy enough for semi-popular consumption. In the end, however, the Kierkegaard of Backhouse’s biography is not all that different from the Kierkegaard of pious or academic study; he is still the tortured soul who broke a young girl’s heart on his way to attacking “Christendom,” that is, the official iteration of Lutheran Christianity that reigned supreme in 19th C. Denmark.

Mindful of his intended audience’s short attention span, Backhouse divorces his discussion of Kierkegaard’s life from his summary of the latter’s literary output, which constitutes a 50-page appendix to the book. That’s unfortunate since the summaries, rather than inspiring readers to explore Kierkegaard for themselves, are ripe for plagiarizing. Why spend a week with Either/Or or Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments when you can spend 5 minutes with Backhouse? By weaving his thoughts on Kierkegaard’s oeuvre into the text, Backhouse may have been able to entice his audience to explore Kierkegaard for themselves. An opportunity has been missed, methinks.

Overall, I can’t say too many bad words about Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Backhouse’s prose is fluid, his narrative well-paced, and his subject matter fascinating. Even so, Backhouse unintentionally stumbles into banality in a chapter assessing Kierkegaard’s legacy and influence. When he writes on Søren’s reception in European intellectual circles, I am intrigued; when he notes how pop bands and comedians reference Kierkegaard today, I am nauseated. But I suppose everyone has access to Wikipedia these days. It shouldn’t surprise me at all that the lowest elements of our disposable culture can so easily, and thoughtlessly, reference the most interesting man . . . in (1813-1855) Copenhagen.

Y100B: Confessor Between East and West

Jaroslav Pelikan, Confessor Between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj (Eeerdmans 1990, 249pgs.)

Maybe there isn’t much more for me to say about this book beyond what I noted earlier this year when I compared it to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar’s recollections. It is, however, a work I return to often, not because of its thoroughness (which is debatable) but because the sad reality is that so little exists in English on Patriarch Josyf and his writings. More than that, however, Peilkan’s portrait (and it is just that: a portrait, not an exhaustive treatment) is personally important to the extent that it helped turn my back to my Greek-Catholic childhood roots after spending more than a decade running away from them, first as an atheist; then as an Eastern Orthodox Christian; and finally as an Easterner in a decidedly Latin environment. Now is not the place to get into all of that; but I wanted to make mention of it if only to offer some explanation as to why I return regularly to a text that is sadly out of print and in some ways incomplete.

Y100B: A Life of Blessed Gennaro Maria Sarnelli

Franceso Chiovara, C.SS.R., A Life of Blessed Gennaro Maria Sarnelli: Redemptorist (Liguori Publications 2003 (1996), 113pgs.)

It struck me as prudent to start my “Year of 100 Books” endeavor with a short work, and one that should spiritually edifying. Having had very little direct knowledge of Blessed Gennaro Sarnelli, I stumbled across this brief work quite by accident while perusing the shelves of a local Catholic bookstore some months ago. The book, which was written initially in 1996 for Sarnelli’s beatification by Pope John Paul II (Sarnelli had been declared venerable 90 years earlier by Pope Pius X), is not a classic work of hagiography, nor is it a detailed critical biography. Rather, it is a brief recounting of Sarnelli’s life, work, and writings filled with equal parts uplifting details and needless polemical potshots at Tridentine ecclesiastical life, traditional piety, and, somewhat ironically, classic Redemptorist spirituality. Such is the way of things in the era after the Second Vatican Council.

Sarnelli, for those unaware, came from a prestigious Neapolitan family, had a brief career as a successful lawyer, and then, like his friend St. Alphonsus Liguori, answered God’s call to the priesthood and eventually joined the nascent Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). During his 41-year stay on earth, Sarnelli was perhaps best known for his work among the poor and sick, particularly his work with prostitutes and his desire to remove prostitution altogether from the city of Naples. As the author notes, Sarnelli (like Liguori) was out-of-step with his times for both refusing to see prostitution as a “necessary evil” to be tolerated and linking prostitution to poverty. Although Chiovara chides Sarnelli for not being a “social reformer” dedicated to some modern sense of “equality,” he does recognize that Sarnelli wanted to rid prostitution by finding other alternatives for the young women whose circumstances had forced them to sell their bodies.

Beyond his work with prostitutes, Sarnelli, like the other Redemptorists of his time, preached missions among the most poor and abandoned in society while also offering spiritual instruction to any who would listen. Sarnelli’s tireless work, coupled with long hours spent ministering to the sick and dying, took a terrible toll on his health, leading him to question God’s favor and making him fearful of death. By the close of his life, however, Sarnelli was given spiritual consolation and died a peaceful death on June 30, 1744. Although he was given only 12 years to serve as a priest of Jesus Christ, he made a lasting impact on Naples and the surrounding areas and the cause for his canonization was taken up a century later.

While I appreciate the knowledge gained of Blessed Genarro’s holy life, I find books like this to be distasteful to the extent that they seem intended to denigrate Catholic piety and holiness from Trent up to Vatican II. The author never misses a chance to remind readers about the “bad old days” and to make the Church appear to have been a harsh, thoughtless, and insensitive institution that “miraculously” produced a handful of “progressive” priests who placed the social above the spiritual. The end result is a rather uneven work which should be read with caution.

A Year of 100 Books

Almost a decade ago I ripped-off an idea from another blogger to read 100 nonfiction books in a year. It is a feat I consciously attempted thrice, and accomplished once. By 2009, I was too immersed with my work in legal academia to spend as much time as I wanted with books; needlessly long law review articles and, to a lesser extent, court opinions occupied far too much of my time. Since then, I my yearly reading has steadily decreased to the point where 2016 may be the first time in a long while I cleared less than 40 nonfiction books (though my fiction reading jumped up a tad). While several forces have been conspiring against me as of late, the primary one is too much time spent reading articles, blogs, and pop pieces on the Internet. At the same time, I have simply fallen out of the habit of dedicated reading, preferring instead to skim certain books or set many aside before completion.

To (hopefully) remedy this unfortunate situation, I am committing myself to another “Year of 100 Books,” only with slightly less demanding criteria than I used before. So here are the rules.

  1. The year will runs from December 18, 2016 until December 18, 2017.
  2. Both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible, though fiction can represent no more than 25 of the books read.
  3. Books I  have already read — fully or partially — are eligible, though partially read books must be started from the beginning.
  4. Books I am editing for work don’t count.
  5. And while nonfiction books can include spiritual and devotional titles, liturgical books and Sacred Scripture don’t count.

In order to help keep myself disciplined, I will be posting regular updates on Opus Publicum on what I have been reading. I am cautiously optimistic that I will be able to complete this task. Even if I’m unsuccessful, I know the venture will be worth it.