I was given the chance to receive a complimentary copy of Brandon Vogt's new book "Why I am Catholic (and you should be too)" in exchange for an honest review. So, thank you, Ave Maria Press for that opportunity.
Brandon Vogt has written a great summary of the basic arguments for Catholicism, and that in itself comprises an exhaustive list. His work, while concise, covers so much ground. It truly is impressive and would stand out among other introductory apologetic works for that reason alone. This is clearly a well-planned, and deliberately executed book. I get the sense no detail was left to chance.
I know Brandon has done extensive research into the 'none' phenomena and has written about and developed evangelical tools to that end previously. Brandon is an expert apologist and evangelist, no doubt. However, the rigidity of the structure kind of got to me: Twice in the book he states something akin to wishing he had more space to elaborate. Personally, that irks me. "It's YOUR book!" I feel like shouting at the page, "Who's stopping you from writing what you want to write if it's that important to you?" At points like that I feel like I can see a bit too much of the behind-the-scenes, planning and that is a bit off-putting, but really, this is the only criticism I have of this entire book.
But, since it's so well-structured, let's look at that, because really, I think it was brilliant and was what really made this such a great book, that exceeded my expectations. The book begins and ends with a provocative appeal to the 'nones' to seriously consider Catholicism as the last true rebellion. Sandwiched between the introduction and conclusion, Brandon categorizes his arguments. Each chapter is entitled with a direct and concise answer to the question "Why I Am Catholic". These chapters are organized under what he calls the three Transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty, and herein the book soars. More about that in a minute.
As someone who is already Catholic, I think this book, thanks in large part to its clear and thoughtful organization, makes for a great reference book to have on hand for me to "always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (1 Peter 3:15).
I was baptized as a ten-day old and raised by my Catholic mom and my 'none' dad. I went to Catholic school, was quite involved in my parish, and considered Catholicism to be an important part of my identity. However, as a sinful young person, my desire to justify my appetite for sinful behaviour led me down the road of twisting the truth, picking and choosing Church teachings, embracing subjective truth, and basically fabricating a set of beliefs that I wrongly felt suited my (stunted) self. Before long, and without noticing, the deity I worshiped was replaced by the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I no longer knew or believed in God the Creator; God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. Having married a 'none' myself, being only nominally concerned with my faith at that time, I slowly began to tire of coming up with convoluted, wishy-washy answers to my husband's questions about Catholic teaching that allowed me to have my cake and eat it too. Finally, I rejected this god I had constructed as weak, distant, and unconcerned with life on Earth, and I embraced the 'none' label myself. Looking back I see this as a very good thing, as I wasn't rejecting God, but an idol, and He would use that void to draw me back to Himself. But at that time, I would have none of it and I sought to reconstruct my understanding of the world and actively undo all the silly, quaint, beliefs of my youth.
Now back to the Transcendentals.
Brandon has organized his arguments into three categories: evidence that speaks to truth; evidence that speaks to goodness; and evidence that speaks to beauty. Each of these three transcendentals have the ability to lead us to that point where all of our natural, empirical explanations hit a wall, but with enough force, these transcendentals carry us through that wall, as though it were the back side of the Narnian wardrobe, and we find ourselves bewildered, lost in wonderment, and often falling to our knees in the sudden, staggering awareness that life and has just exploded out of the tidy, natural confines of the physical box we believed to contain the totality of the universe. In a moment you believe there is something so much more than this paltry, earthly, physical existence. You can sense the supernatural layer that infuses every aspect of reality, coating the world as with a blanket of love. For the first time in your life, you have truly tasted reality and you can never go back.
This transcendence isn't analogous to anything material I can think of to use as a worthwhile example. Suffice to say, if you aren't sure you've experienced it, you probably haven't.
It is the Holy Spirit, God Himself, who alone is capable of converting people. But I believe that the witnesses of the faithful, mounting piles of evidence, thoughtful reasoning, heroic demonstrations of goodness and charity, and breathtaking beauty are all tools He uses; His cooperation with His creation, to rouse and prompt the soul to conversion.
I think that what Brandon rightly intuits is that when faced with an avalanche of truth, goodness, or beauty, we will ultimately be carried on a wave through that back wardrobe wall. For myself, it was the truth that first got me. One evening I started googling for evidence to either support or reject a claim that a Christian friend had presented me with. By the end of that night, the truth I found had surmounted to slay all my resistance in a single moment. In a heartbeat I knew. God was real. More real to me than my own hand. He was the Creator of all things. And He was the Trinitarian God of the Bible. As Brandon says in his book, citing Socrates, just because something is true, doesn't make it comfortable, but we need to follow it wherever it leads, despite the discomfort or unpopularity. In that instant I knew I was a lost sinner, I knew I needed to repent, and I knew I needed to cling to God.
Sure, I had a lot to learn and a long way to go, but something had changed, my path was set, there could be no turning back.
For others, I know that it has been goodness or beauty that caused them to recognize God and upend their lives for love of Him. In Les Misérables, it is an incredible encounter with a merciful priest that radically transformed the escaped, hardened convict Jean Valjean into a heroic, model of charity. In a word, he was confronted and overwhelmed by goodness. For Dorothy Day, I would say it was beauty that caught her: in her memoir The Long Loneliness, Day writes of the indescribable gratitude for her newborn daughter and the longing to give thanks, and the realization that there must be something greater, beyond the simply natural world, to whom she owes this thanks. The beauty of new life turned her mind to thoughts beyond this plain.
For most armchair theologian-Catholics, many of the arguments that Brandon presents will be familiar ones, but he still manages to give them an air of freshness and he is always very clear. But some of the arguments were ones I don't remember explicitly coming across previously and I was truly impressed. His chapters, "Because it Offers Forgiveness" and "Because of Heroic Charity" both made my heart surge with love. "Because it Lifts us Up" is a remarkable discussion of the teleology of life in Christ that you don't often encounter in the Western Church. Finally, "Because We Need Religion" is a convincing response to the spiritual-but-not-religious mantra of the current age.
Brandon has commendably provided ample materials for the avalanche. But will the 'nones' respond to this book?
Here is the really exciting part that all you Catholics reading this, thinking about your lost loved ones really want to hear: is there any chance this book will actually touch the heart and mind of your beloved unbeliever? This is where I am thrilled to offer up the following test case: my husband. My husband was never baptized, never raised in any kind of faith tradition. Although we've known each other for over nineteen years, God, Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular are still foreign and weird to him. And this is a guy who goes to Mass every Sunday for love of his family. Still, to him, Mass might as well be a standing date with any club. To this day, he has always claimed unbelief.
So, knowing I had to write this review I asked if he would at least read the introduction to give me his thoughts. As I said above, the introduction really provokes the 'none' to stick with the rest of the book. My husband is not a man who reads for fun. But he obliged me. And here is what he said of the introduction:
"It's intriguing. I definitely felt compelled to read more. It's better than any of the other books like this that you've given me. It's smarter." That was promising!
So today he made some time to read the first chapter: "Because God Exists". His thoughts:
"I'm really impressed with the Kalam argument; I had never heard that."
"Hey," I interjected, my pride bruised, "I've said that to you before and all those other books did too!"
"Well, how it's written is really clear and makes a lot of sense."
He came back to me a bit later and said, "That book! It's really good. It's really making me think. It's poking holes in all my arguments." And he's only on the first chapter!
I can't give a better testimony to the quality of the book than that!