- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

It’s not often you get a thoughtful theological book from a businessman and philanthropist but Texan Howard E. Butt, Jr. (Who Can You Trust?: Overcoming Fear and Betrayal, Waterbrook, $13.99, 189 pages), founder of Layman’s Leadership Institutes for Christian business professionals, has produced a solid one. Mr. Butt also founded Laity Lodge, a riverfront retreat center west of San Antonio.

His nearly 200-page paperback, produced by a rising new Christian publisher, tackles a common problem with believer and nonbeliever alike: how do you piece together your life after someone (or several someones) have betrayed you? Worse, how do you go on when it’s God who’s done the betraying?

Most Christian titles come up with platitudes when faced with this dilemma; Mr. Butt goes better than that with some useful suggestions. He warns against falling into the same trap as did Adam and Eve — believing that God is holding out on the believer — and instead affirming interiorly that God is for, not against His followers. “We cannot see it,” he writes, but internally we’re the scene of a constant war over whether God is trustworthy and reliable or not.”

Doubting God, he explains, leads to a downward spiral of despair. But trusting Him — and in the Christian’s ability to hear Him through intuition as well as Scripture — leads to hope. Very few evangelical Christian books deal with using intuitive thinking to discern the will of God, and Mr. Butt should be credited with having the guts to do so.

Finally a book about the plight of religious single women. This book by Ruchama King, Seven Blessings, (St. Martin’s, $23.95, 258 pages), about older singles in Jerusalem and the matchmakers who try to get them to marry each other, was a delight to read. The author really gets it in terms of how hard it is to find a mate past the witching age of 30, when what’s available and what’s desirable both take sharp downward turns.

The author spent a year among Jerusalem matchmakers researching her novel, whose central character, Beth, is the target of many earnest efforts to hook her up with a man, any man, “as if her single status were a blight on the Jewish family landscape,” she thinks, “conveying something profoundly wrong with her.” Finding a man who is religiously passionate, as is she, yet physically desirable, is not easy, plus, her married female friends tend only to pour salt on her wounds. The awful dates she gets matched up with are of little help as well.

Beth’s dilemma, which mirrors that of many Christian women as well, does get resolved in a believable way. What’s bittersweet about this narrative is how, at the announcement of her engagement, she receives a flood of love and acceptance from her married friends that was denied her as a single. The author’s insights into orthodox Jewish life and human nature in general make this novel well worth reading.

The beatified afterlife is not something overly written about in literature, as its delights are supposed to be indescribable. Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (Tyndale House, $22.99, 478 pages), written from a Reformed Protestant perspective, tries to map out heaven’s details: what its inhabitants will eat, think about and use their leisure time for. The author tackles theological questions such as: Will we drink coffee in heaven (yes); will we have sex (no) and will our pets live again (yes).

The book is almost like an encyclopedia on the after life. Mr. Alcorn has some interesting theories, such the layout of heaven’s streets and how heaven is divided into an intermediate heaven, which is where the saved now dwell, and an eternal heaven, which will come into being after the Second Coming.

The intermediate heaven, he says, is like a parallel universe, invisible to earthlings but a true unseen realm that co-exists. So, too, is hell and sometimes humans get glimpses of both. The major point of the book is that heaven will be an exciting, likeable place, not a continuous harp-playing marathon touted on greeting cards or cartoons. Nor will it be like an endless church service, he says, using Bible texts to prove his case that people will lead normal lives there, enjoy laughter, merriment and endless beauty.

The book’s faults lie in the author throwing in long quotes from his own novels about heaven, which gives a self-serving impression. The author also imagines heaven will be somewhat like a continuation of the family lives we’ve known on Earth; a kind of Protestant work ethic kind of heaven. That’s a pleasant thought for people lucky enough to have had families or children, but not so pleasant for those who died young, or who never married or had offspring. There’s no sense in this book that the scales will be balanced; that the first will be last and the last first; that is, the ones who had it all here will take a back seat up there to the rejected, the homeless, the lonely and the sick.

It was inevitable that someone should, in the declining days of John Paul II’s papacy, copy a title from the 1968 movie, “The Lion in Winter,” starring Peter O’Toole, to draw out the suspense of how long the ailing pope will live. In The Pontiff in Winter (Doubleday, $24.95, 307 pages), John Cornwell, a papal historian best known for his expose of Pope Pius XII in the recent book “Hitler’s Pope,” has done part analysis and part mini hatchet job on the current pontiff. He offers an understandable and cogent summation of the first two decades of John Paul’s papacy but his main interest here is the past five years in what has become one of the longest papacies in the past two millennia.

At 26 years and holding, John Paul’s papacy has given him the time to try to change the world with dozens of visits to Catholics around the globe and a torrent of encyclicals, speeches, commentaries and books. But the book is no paean to the pontiff. The author has a dim assessment of John Paul’s ability to understand anything about women, and thereby during his pontificate to make no strides towards ordaining them.

And he berates the pope for failing to reign in the sex abuse crisis among Catholic priests when there were ample warnings of it in the 1980s and 1990s, and portrays the current Vatican as leaderless as the pope’s Parkinson’s disease becomes worse and worse. The book takes an especially cheap shot at the pontiff by running a photo of him fast asleep in his papal robes during a ceremony in Mexico.

Mr. Cornwell has no patience for church conservatives who have become prominent in the church, thanks to the current pope. Nor do conservatives think much of him, as papal biographer George Weigel calls “The Pope in Winter” a “vile” book. Although that is an overstatement, the book’s summation of John Paul as far too “autocratic” for the modern world is an unfair epitaph for a Polish priest who has had many spectacular accomplishments during for the last years of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st.

Julia Duin is an asistant editor at the national desk of The Washington Times.

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