- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

As I was one of several thousand reporters in Rome a year ago covering the papal transi-

tion, I wanted to read about the behind-the-scenes tidbits we all missed. Robert Kaiser, who covered Vatican II for Time magazine and moved to Rome in 1999 to research A Church in Search of Itself (Knopf, $25.95, 250 pages), had the kind of contacts most reporters can only dream of.

The author nails his colors to the mast early on. Calling the Holy Spirit a “she” on page seven, taking offense that the pope could claim to know absolute truth, and claiming (without backing it up with evidence) “many women left the church” during John Paul II’s papacy makes one realize Mr. Kaiser has an ax to grind.

The book profiles several men who were front-runners for the chair of Peter, ending with the victor: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Some of the profiles, such as those of Cardinals Ratzinger and Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras, were well-done. Others, such as the chapter on Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, were especially incomplete and flat.

It is obvious Mr. Kaiser hadn’t gotten an interview with the Nigerian and could not make head nor tail out of such a theologically orthodox primate. He left out huge swatches of Cardinal Arinze’s portfolio as well, such as his 2003 speech at Georgetown University that sparked a faculty protest, not to mention the cardinal’s numerous connections with conservative American Catholics.

And then there is the occasional inane quote, such as the author’s repeating (non-critically) a remark by one bishop that, “Christopher Columbus didn’t bring God to America in his three little boats. God was already here.” So Aztec human sacrifice was OK?

Interesting tidbits that keep the narrative going: Before the conclave, cardinals “obsessively” surfed the Internet trying to get a gauge of the leading candidates. Other factoids: John Paul II funnelled “millions” in Vatican funds toward the Polish trade union Solidarity; 80 percent of Rome’s street peddlers are Jewish; the current pope is a cat lover and the details behind John Paul’s dismissive treatment of Cardinal Evaristo Arns of Brazil in the late 1980s.

A few good morsels were left out; we’re told that, moments after Benedict XVI’s election, that Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels and nine other prelates left before the celebratory dinner. Who were these nine?

If this book hadn’t had so many anti-Catholic diatribes and instead had stuck closer to being a journalistic work, I would have enjoyed it much more.

Without planning it, the Rev. Barbara Taylor hit upon a new phenomenon of the past few years: There are decent Christians who simply cannot take what’s served up in church. Her problem was compunded by this fact: She was the minister.

After five years at a country parish in idyllic northeastern Georgia, simple burn-out can explain why this Episcopal priest could take no more. In Leaving Church HarperSanFrancisco, $23.95, 235 pages), she explores how the endless daily suffering of her flock wore on her after awhile.

“God was the boundless lover,” she wrote, “but for many people, God was the parent who had left … They still believed in his reality, which made it even harder to accept his apparent lack of interest in them.”

She apparently wasn’t hearing from God, either. Finally, when the questions in her mind became too loud to ignore and spiritual exhaustion beckoned, she bolted for a teaching position at a local college. Some clergy don’t bother themselves with the tough questions; Mrs. Taylor did, and discovered she didn’t have the answers. So she left.

Her ensuing book, written nearly a decade after the fact, has become unexpectedly popular, due to many peoples’ dissatisfaction with organized religion. Here’s a member of the clergy class to tell us that even from their side of the pulpit, something’s rotten in Denmark.

“Leaving Church” presents no answers, other than a vague summation of Christianity as “You have everything you need to be human,” which isn’t at all what true Christianity is. You’re not going to hear the Gospel in this book.

You are going to learn the depressing news that mainline Protestant clergy are as muddled as anyone as to what their message should be. There must be a way to keep one’s prophetic edge as a minister, but Barbara Brown couldn’t discover it no matter how hard she tried. And, judging by the numbers of people who leave the ministry each year, few other people know the answer as well.

There’s been a lot of hype about Bart Ehrman and his book Misquoting Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95, 242 pages), as though his revelations of differences among the early biblical texts may set Christianity back a few light years. Once a born-again Christian, this professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is an agnostic because of textual variations in what Jesus actually said.

None of these variations, however, contradicts major New Testament teachings. One wonders how he could have lost his faith over whether God the Father said to Jesus during his baptism “in you I am well pleased” (according to one batch of manuscripts) or quoted Psalm 2 by saying “today I have begotten you.” Yes, it’s annoying to not get an exact quote from God, but to lose one’s faith over it?

It’s a big deal to him that the four Gospels have different takes on the life of Jesus. One need only attend a press conference and then read accounts of it afterward by four journalists to learn that it’s normal for different writers to select out varying quotes and emphases. But that doesn’t falsify the event they covered.

There’s a galaxy of things to pick apart here. Where does Mr. Ehrman get the idea that none of the Gospels were written before 69 AD? Wouldn’t a later Gospel have mentioned the brutal take-over of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD?

The professor does us a favor by explaining textual criticism step-by-step to us lay folks and in that sense, his book is unusual. But to lose faith because Luke added material to his Gospel that was not in Mark? The answer is obvious to journalists: Luke got to interview the Virgin Mary and Mark did not. Mark’s gospel is Peter’s version of the story. Luke thought Mary was the better source. End of story.

Julia Duin is The Washington Times’ religion writer.

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