Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to diminish, with palpable meanness, a heart-felt narrative: Jamie Smith's "review" of Return to Rome

If you want to read how someone from Calvin College can diminish, belittle, and caricature another Christian's heart-felt narrative of his own spiritual journey, read James K. A. Smith's review of Return to Rome. The meanness is palpable. I do not recognize the person Professor Smith describes as me. He is not reviewing the book I wrote. He is, apparently, reviewing the book he wishes I wrote so that it would fit his own philosophical project.  In other words, as my New York relatives would say,  "Oy vey, does that guy have issues or what?"



Professor Smith says that there is no
"love" in this book: "Indeed, anyone familiar with the wider panoply of Roman Catholicism will be surprised (or not) by what’s missing from Beckwith’s Rome: where’s Pope Leo XIII? Rerum Novarum? [Ironically, I blogged a portion of it at 12:01 am this morning, but a part that I am sure is not congenial to Professor Smith's understanding of that encyclical] The Catholic Worker? Oscar Romero and liberation theology? Hans Urs von Balthasar? Flannery O’Connor? Sacramentality? Indeed, where is love?"


Apparently, Professor Smith was, to quote the country singer Johnny Lee, "looking for love in all the wrong places." In my life, the love I encountered was not found in the persons and practices that Professor Smith finds philosophically and liturgically interesting. (God knows it was not in the "practices" of Oscar Wilde, the death-bed Catholic who Professor Smith admires). Intellectual and cultural celebrity--usually bestowed on talented strangers who write inspiring tomes and/or live inspiring and/or edgy lives--may be all the spiritual water that Professor Smith requires to make his boat float.  But I'm, happily, content with the Christ I find in those closest to me. Call me simple, but I prefer the ordinary folks, the sort with which Christ hung out that attracted the ire of the Pharisees. So, the love I found was not only in the Sacraments (as I share in the last paragraph in the quoted portion below), but in my family, my parents, my grandmother, my wife, my father-in-law, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, the real flesh and blood persons who, in their different ways, live out the incarnational life. That is, they actualize the very graces the Sacraments impart to the believer. Apparently, I'm just not as sophisticated or enlightened as Professor Smith. I actually prefer the company of my father, who played Santa Claus at an inner city elementary school for several years, than the company of pointy-headed intellectuals sipping espresso with Jean-Paul Sartre and Oscar Wilde wannabes discussing the esoteric homoerotic meaning of A Christmas Carol and decrying "Cartesian Dualism" as a social construction of hegemonic masculinity. 


Here are a number of excerpts from Return to Rome that give you an idea of the love that shaped my life and how incredibly uncharitable Professor Smith is in his review:
We lived pretty standard American Catholic lives for the era, with Vegas and its culture being incidental to our home life and our relationship with our parents.  However, my parents were, and are, instinctively charitable people, revealing something from the Church and its teachings that had been placed deeply in their hearts.   For example, whenever one of the Casellas needed a place to stay, my parents took them in, oftentimes for a few days, sometimes for months and even years! My parents treated my cousins as if they were their own sons, and none of us ever felt deprived for that. In fact, I’m confident that my parents’ spirit of generosity enhanced, rather than diminished, the love we had for one another.  For this reason, some in the family would on occasion jokingly refer to our home as “Boys’ Town.”   
We always seemed to have guests over for Sunday dinner, which consisted of my Sicilian mother’s pasta and meatballs. These dinner guests ranged from friends and relatives to the friends and acquaintances of friends and relatives. Guests were entertained by (or forced to hear, depending on one’s sense of humor) my father and his many jokes and stories. A Korean War Veteran, my father had done some emceeing and stand-up comedy while serving in the U. S. Army.  Whatever comedic skills he acquired while working for Uncle Sam, they were not missing in action when he returned to the states. It made our home a wonderful place in which to grow up. 
My parents exposed me to the importance of politics and citizenship at an early age. In the mid-1960s, they encouraged my brother James and me to watch important political events and speeches. In 1968, when I was seven years old, I distinctly remember watching and listening to Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the evening he was assassinated in Los Angeles, and seeing my parents cry when his death was announced on our television hours later. Only months earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered in Memphis. My parents supported the Civil Rights Movement and were diligent in making sure that my brother and I knew of Dr. King and the tragedy of his death. Although I was too young to remember the presidency of John F. Kennedy, my father made sure we listened to the late president’s 1961 inaugural address, one of the great political speeches in American history. On several occasions, my father played the recording of Kennedy’s speech on our old family turntable. As in other matters, my father also had a sense of humor about politics. When I was eight years old I asked him to explain to me the difference between communism and capitalism. He answered, “Well, son, in America, a capitalist country, some people own Cadillacs and some people don’t. But in communist countries like the Soviet Union, everyone is treated equally, and no one owns a Cadillac.” 
During several months in my middle school years I would return home every afternoon to see my mother watching the Watergate Hearings, chaired by one of her heroes, Senator Sam Ervin. She always invited me to join her, which I usually did. I was fascinated by the hearings, the issues surrounding them, and the historical importance of all the figures that were participating. As I grew older and began to develop my own political opinions, my parents exhibited a level of tolerance and openness that was exemplary. While my father and I became more conservative in our views over the years, my mother remained a moderate Democrat (as she is today). However, my conservatism, ironically, developed out of my liberalism. I was taught by my parents that one of the roles of government was to protect the “little guy” and to make sure that those not well off should be given a chance to succeed and make a decent living. But in my early twenties I began to notice that self-described liberals had no interest in protecting the littlest guy of all, the unborn, and that they often advanced policies that inhibited economic growth, and thus harmed those who most needed the wealth produced by free markets, the poor and the underprivileged. So, for me, true liberalism is conservative, for it strives to protect and nurture, indeed conserve, those people, institutions, and practices that advance the common good and thus provide a framework for human flourishing. 
I have so many fond memories of growing up. One in particular left an indelible mark. In the summer of 1972 I played the position of catcher on a Little League baseball team.  Although I was a pretty good defensive player, I was a terrible hitter.  My parents knew this, since they attended my games and heard me complain about my numerous strikeouts.  In order to remedy this, my parents went into action. My mother—a vivacious reader—bought me a book on hitting authored by the great Boston Red Sox player, Ted Williams.  My father sat me down and told me that we would both read the book and then after completing it, spend two hours every night for a week at the local batting cages, putting Williams’ lessons into action.  We read the book and went to the cages. My father meticulously went over Williams’ lessons, and he did so with great patience, for I was given to emotional outbursts if I did not succeed the first time I faced the mechanical pitcher.  In the face of such tantrums, my father employed his disarming sense of humor while he remained encouraging and yet determined.  By the end of the week, I was easily hitting 60-mile per hour fastballs. I was ready.   
At the next Little League game, I had my chance. The bases were loaded. We were down by two runs, and it was the bottom of the last inning. At my turn to bat, I swung and hit a line drive that was bounding over the third baseman’s head. He jumped as high as he could, and with perfect timing caught the ball at the tip of his glove. The game ended, and we lost. Although I was disappointed in losing, for the first time that season I actually hit the ball hard and with confidence, and, in this case, nearly won the game for my team.  For the rest of the season my batting average hovered around .400, and I had become a legitimate offensive threat.  The next season I had the second highest batting average on the team. What I learned from my parents was the importance of doing things well and to do so patiently and carefully with deliberate determination.... 
Danny and I are still very close friends, even though I know he is not entirely comfortable with my return to Catholicism.  Nevertheless, he has been for Frankie and me such a wonderful exemplar of Christ’s love and compassion.  In 2005 he lost both his wife and his
mother, and showed enormous courage and fortitude through it all.  His wife, Debbie, died unexpectedly in February 2005 due to complications arising from her rheumatoid arthritis.  Only seven months later, in September 2005, Danny was informed by relatives that his mother had drowned in a flood that resulted from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Danny’s native New Orleans. The care and love that Danny showed to his wife during her many years of suffering, as well as the strength he exhibited after his mother’s passing, were for many of us such a powerful witness of his devotion to Christ and His Gospel....
 
So in late August 1984 I moved to New York City to attend Fordham, located in the Bronx. I lived in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn with my maternal grandmother, Frances Guido, an Italian-American and devout Catholic whose parents emigrated from Sicily at the turn of the century. Born in 1913 (d. 2002), my grandmother was an amazing woman. She lost her husband (my grandfather) to stomach cancer in 1952. Widowed at the age of 38 with four young children, she worked as a seamstress and putt all of them through twelve years of Catholic school education.
I once asked my grandmother why she never remarried. Her answer initially seemed stunning to me, though given her beliefs and convictions, it made perfect sense. She said, “How can I bring a strange man into a home with two young daughters?” What an amazing (and politically incorrect) answer. Her first thought was not of herself and what she should have wanted. It was about what advanced the common good, and in this case, the good of her family and her young children. What my grandmother’s understanding manifested was the incarnational faith of which Jesus spoke when he told his disciples that “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34b-35) 
Living with my grandmother was an incredible experience. She exhibited the love of Christ in everything she did, even when she was angry with me for having a messy bedroom. One time, for instance, while cleaning the house, she said, “You know, Lincoln freed the slaves.” I answered, “But not the Italian ones,” at which she laughed and said that just because I was funny didn’t mean she wasn’t mad. 
My grandmother’s charity seemed boundless. For example, in 1974, while my younger brother James and I were spending a month of that summer at my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn, our mother called and told us that one of my 8th grade classmates was in a hospital in Manhattan receiving treatment for a cancerous tumor that was found in his upper leg. We had tickets to a New York Mets game for the next day. My grandmother suggested that after the game we go visit him in the hospital and bring a baseball to him as a gift. So, we did. During the visit my grandmother met his mother, Louise. They quickly became friends. Within weeks my grandmother had convinced Louise that she should stay at my grandmother’s apartment whenever her son had to be in New York for treatments. For the next several years, my grandmother opened her home and her heart to my classmate’s family, which suffered through the cancer his death as well as those of his two sisters and father.. My grandmother, who had been widowed in 1952, knew the heartache of an untimely death and the trials that accompany it. Her compassion, her willingness to “suffer with” others, truly revealed the spirit of Christ that worked in her heart. I must confess, however, that it is only in retrospect that I have come to appreciate how her example left an indelible mark on so many of those with whom she came in contact, including me, her eldest grandchild.  
She went to Mass every morning and was involved with many works of mercy at her parish. Whenever there was sickness, death, or heartache among her friends or family, she was there, prepared to cook, clean, say the rosary, or just listen. We were always hosting dinners or lunches with family and friends, or else traveling via subway, bus, or automobile to visit aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives whose genetic connection to me I’m still not sure about.... 
Six weeks after I was denied tenure, my wife’s father died. She adored him. And she pretty much was his main caregiver during his last months. I make mention of this because of how the death of my father-in-law, Joseph Alexander Dickerson, Jr. intersected with our communion with the Catholic Church. 
In the weeks following Joe’s death, we discovered, among his personal items, a St. Christopher medal, inscribed “Bishop Choi to JD.” It is our understanding that the bishop gave St. Christopher medals to pilots in the Pacific during World War II.  Soon after the war, Joe, a pilot, joined the ROTC faculty at Fordham University. Impressed by the Jesuits there including the seriousness of their faith, Joe wanted to become Catholic, but my mother-in-law discouraged him. For she told Joe that his parents would be devastated if he were to join the Catholic Church. So, Joe acquiesced to his wife and, and as far as we know, never made a Christian commitment of any sort, though, ironically, he lived the Christian virtues better than most Christians. This is why when Frankie was received into the Catholic Church on August 18, 2007, she took the name "Joseph" as her Confirmation name, in honor of her father and his unfulfilled desire to become Catholic.   For her confirmation gift I bought Frankie a St. Christopher medal with this inscription on the back, “From JAD to FRD.” 
In June 2006 while Frankie and I were attending an academic conference at a Hilton Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, we noticed that my Baptist colleague Ralph C. Wood and his wife Suzanne were there as well. They greeted us at one of the elevators and we exchanged pleasantries. Ralph immediately noticed that something was wrong with Frankie. So, he inquired about her state of mind and soul. She took him aside and told him about the doubts she was experiencing about her father’s posthumous fate. Ralph offered to Frankie a theological case for why he believed that her father would not be condemned to eternal separation from God. He told Frankie that her father’s initial desire for full communion with the Catholic Church was an act of faith that God would honor. The Church calls such an act “the baptism of desire.”And given the Christian manner in which Joe had conducted his life since that time, as someone seemingly touched by God’s grace, Ralph had no doubt that Joe is destined for an eternity with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This gave Frankie much comfort. 
After I had been received back into the Catholic Church and Frankie had become a catechumen, Ralph wrote the following to us in a May 7, 2007 email:
Dear Frankie & Frank:

I wanted to add my own strong affirmation of your decision to be received into (and, in Frank’s case returned to) the Roman Catholic Church.

I’m sure you won’t remember it, but at our very first meeting at a reception in President Sloan’s home, I asked about Frank’s upbringing. When you told me that you had been raised a Catholic, I immediately asked why you would leave a tradition so rich and deep? You replied that it had meant little to you as a youth and that your Christianity had come alive only through evangelical churches. I thus see your move, not as repudiating your evangelicalism but rather as returning to its Catholic form….

And as for you, dear Frankie, you were special to me from the beginning of our friendship, and you have remained so ever since. Our conversations last summer about your father’s death remain quite vivid to me, as I there learned that your Christian faith runs very deep indeed. As with Frank, I see this move as a further deepening of your witness….
Several months after receiving this email from Ralph, something unusual happened to Frankie and me while we were over 700 miles apart. On Saturday September 22, 2007, Frankie attended 6pm Mass at St. Jerome’s Catholic Church in Waco. As the people began receiving communion, she closed her eyes and saw Jesus at the table with His disciples at the Last Supper. But it was not the famous Leonardo DiVinci painting, for the characters were not still. In Frankie’s vision, Jesus was in motion. She saw Him talking and moving. Then all of a sudden, His beard and features became bright and expanded over the image in her mind’s eye until everything was a bright white light. Communion occurred around 6:40-6:45pm.
Then after communion, during the time where everyone is all quiet and still, Frankie had an image-type-thought of her Dad as a man in his 50’s or 60’s, in a full swing, teeing off at a golf course. And then she was flooded with a series of rapid thoughts, the realization, the clear impression, that the reason her Dad never went to church with her Mom (and their four little girls) was because if he was going to go to church, it was going to be the Catholic Church or no place at all.
On September 22, 2007 I was in Alabama at a Catholic Charismatic conference at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in the city of Homewood. I was there to give two invited talks, one of which was on my return to the Catholic Church. After my final talk, I sat alone in the church library working on some papers for my Baylor classes. Around 6:40 pm, a woman I had met earlier in the day came into the library and asked if I would like to have a piece of “blessed bread.” I asked her, “What’s that?” She replied, “Well, my husband and I attend an Eastern rite Catholic Church, where he is a deacon. In our church, during the consecration of the bread, the priest leaves a portion of the loaf unconsecrated and then blesses the left over portion later. This is `blessed bread.’” I had not heard of this practice. Nevertheless, I took a piece of the bread and ate it. We talked for a few minutes about a few theological matters. And then I told her about my wife’s concern for her father’s soul. I told this woman that he had wanted to become Catholic in the late 1940s and that my mother-in-law had strongly discouraged him from doing so. At this point, the woman’s eyes began to well up with tears and told me that she believed that because God is good and merciful that He would honor my father-in-law’s desire.
About an hour later, my wife and I talked on the cell phone. She told me about the vision that she had at St. Jerome’s that evening. She told me that the images were vivid and the message clear. Seeing the deacon’s wife in the church parking lot heading for her car, I stopped her and shared with her what my wife had just told me over the phone. She, again, began to well up with tears and told me that above the altar where the bread was blessed at her church is a huge mural of the Last Supper, the same image seen in my wife’s vision. So, while my wife had a vision of the Last Supper followed by vivid images of her father that conveyed to her a clear message of his desire to become Catholic, I had partaken of the bread that had been blessed under that mural of the Last Supper, which was followed by the assurance of a deacon’s wife that God would honor my father-in-law’s desire. I cannot help but believe that this provides us with hope that there is truly a communion of saints that includes my father-in-law.... 
At the end of the day, I am an Evangelical Catholic because I believe in the Evangel, the Gospel, the Good News, and that it is a gift of God that ought to embraced and lived by everyone.  As an Evangelical, indeed as a Christian, I have an obligation to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. I am also Catholic, because I believe the Church is universal and that its continuity is maintained through history by the whole of its membership, the Body of Christ, and not merely as a collection of isolated individuals in personal relationship with Jesus. I also believe that this Catholic Church is under the direction of the Holy Spirit working through the Church’s Magisterium, the Apostles’ successors. 
Although it may be difficult to detect from much of what I have written in this book, my return to the Catholic Church had as much to do with a yearning for a deeper spiritual life as it did with theological reasoning. Since becoming Catholic, I have become much more prayerful, I read the Bible far more often, and I am increasingly more aware and appreciative of the grace God has given me to live a virtuous life.  I sometimes find myself silently praying a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father” while driving or working out.  I am not averse to asking particular saints to pray for me, or to recite the prayers of some of my favorite saints, such as St. Thomas Aquinas.  When doing this I gain a greater sense of that which I am a part, the wonderful Body of Christ that transcends time, space, and death itself.  Since becoming Catholic I have participated in such practices as praying the rosary and praying the Stations of the Cross once.  These practices are rich and good, but the sacrament of reconciliation (or confession) has been the most liberating aspect of my Catholic experience so far. Although many Catholics acquire a deeper walk with God through the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I have found confession to be the place in which I experience the gratuitous charity of our Lord at its fullest.
It's as if Professor Smith did not even read the book.  He brutally caricatures it in a way that is worse than misleading; it's practically literary malpractice. As if to add irony to insult, he nowhere explains how I felt boxed in by my understanding of Christian orthodoxy and the Catholic narrative of the development of doctrine. In that sense, if he had read me carefully, he would have seen in my decision the sort of Jamesian Will to Believe that every Calvin philosophy professor can recite in his sleep (see, e.g., Kelly James Clark, Return to Reason [Eerdmans, 1990]). 


At one point in his review he seems to suggest that I am (or someone is) comparing my own journey to Cardinal Newman's: "A chronicle and defense of his conversion (or better, return), Beckwith’s little book, Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic has been hailed as—you guessed it—his own apologia pro vita sua, alluding to Cardinal Newman’s theological memoir first published in 1864." Oh my. I never suggest that, ever.  In fact, none of those who wrote blurbs for the book--including Archbishop Chaput and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus--claim such a thing! So, whoever is doing the "haling," it's certainly not me or my posse. It may be in that book that Professor Smith wishes I had written. 


Newman was a giant. I am nothing, I assure you. 


Perhaps, given my own journey and academic life, I should by now have grown accustomed to the scores of insults that have been hurled at me since my return to the Church. But the insults do not usually come from those, like Professor Smith, who pretend to be the lone virtuous custodians of Christianity's lost liturgical kernel.  Since becoming a Catholic, I have a better sense of my own smallness.  I know that if I died tomorrow, the Church would go on just fine without me. I would not, and should not, be missed.