Denise Lardner Carmody

Here are three books about Christian faith: each orthodox in content; diverse in approach; and, likely to appeal to different audiences. I read them serially, in under a month’s time. They deserve better. Still, I tried to imagine some ways in which readers might use these books to great advantage.

Daniel Harrington, S.J., tells us that his work "seeks to be both a survey of biblical approaches to suffering and a general introduction to many parts of the Bible." It is thatand much more. Harrington brings to this topic the careful, precise and thorough scholarship that is his trademark. The book’s breadth allows readers to explore both testaments; its brevity makes it ideal for concentrated study. Its artful scholarship demonstrates how the depth of Gospel and epistle can only be clarified by the light of Job, David or Daniel. Its focus on suffering insures its universal appeal; its pastoral tone accents its perennial value.

Throughout, the author’s rigorous scholarship is matched by his sensitivity in probing possible meanings the Bible might offer to all who suffer. The section called "Possibilities and Problems" that ends each chapter is an especially rich gathering of theological insights. After each chapter, Harrington poses questions for "Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer." These questions raise the kinds of issues that demand all three. Those who teach Scripture to undergraduates should consider adopting this text. Students exposed to this kind of biblical criticism will not have grounds for lamenting, "Yeah, but what does it mean?" Similarly, reading groups (focused on Bible study or more widely) could benefit from choosing this book. Primarily though, Why Do We Suffer? is written for the Christian whose circumstances or disposition cause her to seek biblical wisdom in probing the question that either makes or mars maturity.

Reading the Gospel is a deceptively simple title for a deceptively dense book. John Dunne begins his preface by recalling the title of an old college textbook: Reading for Writing. He says that this is what he is doing: He is reading the Gospel for writing this book. Maybe. I suspect that John Dunne knows his goal is both more daring and more profound. He wants to trick us into joining him in reading for holiness, for wholeness. He hopes to teach us to read the Gospel for understanding, rather than certainty; for union, rather than knowledge. Lectio divina is the traditional term: "divine reading." It is an alchemy that, through silent openness to grace, turns the words of Scripture into the presence of Love.

As I read, I felt that I was listening to a Christian sage. Here is a man learned enough to pass over and back among thinkers, mystics and artists: Proust, Hammarskjold, the Buddha, Tolkien, Al-Hallaj. No dilettante, he has pondered the wise words of other eras and traditions sufficiently to appropriate some of the mysteries they hold. These he puts in dialogue with the Gospel. Without lapsing into syncretism or simple-minded equivalents, Dunne plays with wisdom. He is a poet, a troubadour. (He ends his book with "Songlines of the Gospel," a lyrical commentary on the Gospel of John.) The density of this book, I think, flows from his poetic grasp of God’s outpouring of love and humankind’s longing to respond. It is a density that attracts, that rewards the reader with an increasing penetration of truth.

Jesus: The Teacher Within is an intriguing book. It is not a book for the classroom, nor is it retreat reading. Laurence Freeman, O.S.B., (director of the World Community for Christian Meditation) tells us that the book is "an attempt...to reflect on the contemporary importance of the reality of Jesus, his presence in history, in culture, and in personal lives, as a teacher of all humanity." The loom Freeman uses to weave this christological tapestry is the story of his childhood on Bere Island, located in Cork’s Bantry Bay. Each chapter begins with a reflection involving familial memories that illumine the topic at hand: "And Who Do You Say I Am?", "What Are the Gospels?", "The Kingdom of Forgiveness," "Conversion," and so on. Freeman’s expertise in meditation, Eastern and Western, permeates the work. Because the topic is so intrinsically interesting, I regret that the book did not get better editing. Too often I felt lost in the maze of ideas. Still, I think Jesus: The Teacher Within would be profitable reading for intelligent Christians who wish to learn more about how a Christian monk, steeped in the love of contemplative prayer and knowledgeable about the world religions, sees Jesus.

Denise Lardner Carmody, author of An Ideal Church: A Meditation, is the Jesuit Community Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University in California.