- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

David Gibson has it over most of us scribes who cover the Vatican by bits and pieces. Having worked at Vatican Radio five years, he’s got the insider experience it takes to write a book, The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95, 390 pages), on the first year of Pope Benedict XVI’s reign.

His account of the events of April 19, 2005, the day Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became the present pope, square with what I experienced as one of 6,000 journalists covering the event, only Mr. Gibson had far better quotes and sources. Based on my more humble observations, his account is accurate as we were at many of the same press conferences that amazing week.

Mr. Gibson does not have an ax to grind. I looked in vain for the inevitable trashing of the new pope for his conservatism but found a sympathetic background on why Joseph Ratzinger, one of the most promising characters to emerge out of Vatican II, grew disgusted with the liberalism he was encountering as a professor at the University of Tubingen in 1969, fleeing for a much smaller college in Regensburg. This is the same institution at which he delivered his bombshell speech a few weeks ago that aroused so much fury among Muslims.

The author also doesn’t hold it against the young Joseph Ratzinger for not having joined the resistance movement as a teenager against the Nazis in the mid-1940s. Other chroniclers have not been as gracious.

This is not a totally admiring look; Mr. Gibson points out the places where the future pope was inconsistent in his decisions and where he made some misjudgments. He points out how Cardinal Ratzinger’s decision to move from avant-garde reformer to rear guard defender stood him in good stead during the reign of Pope John Paul II, who promoted him to the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981.

This powerful position established Cardinal Ratzinger as the pope’s right-hand man for the rest of John Paul’s 26-year reign, which in turn helped usher him into the papacy a year ago.

Mr. Gibson tells the story of this and other events in the new pope’s life, including the story behind the ouster of the Rev. Tom Reese from the editorship of the Jesuit magazine “America” within a few weeks of the papal enclave. There’s a lot of original reporting here and for that I recommend putting aside the necessary time to get through this narrative.

With the installation of a 16th pope bearing the name of Benedict, naturally there’s lots of interest in the primary bearer of that name; a humble fifth-century Italian monk who founded the Benedictine religious order. Within 20 to 30 years after his death on March 21, 547, popes were starting to name themselves after this man.

In Man of Blessing: A Life of St. Benedict (Paraclete Press, $21.95, 176 pages), Carmen Acevedo Butcher has to put together a biography from church tradition and the scant material written down by biographers of that era — mainly Pope Gregory the Great — who in 593 wrote down what little was known about this saint. The author assembles what she can from that and other traditions to arrange a novelette of the monk’s life, including all the miracles he was said to perform.

What lasted through the ages, however, was Benedict’s simple “Rule,” his book of 73 pithy chapters that set the standard for how religious life should be conducted. Benedict is particularly known for stressing the dignity of working with one’s hands, a revolutionary idea for many of the Roman nobility of the day who ended up at these Dark Age monasteries.

What is particularly educational about this book is its emphasis on the destruction across Italy at the time as marauding armies — Goths, Huns and Vandals — ravaged the peninsula, filling the gap left by a collapsing Roman empire. Rule was tribal and there were as many pagans abroad as there were Christians. This was way before Charlemagne brought some order to Europe in A.D. 800, so the fact a saint could flourish in such a tumultuous time says a lot about the kind of man the first Benedict was.

At least 30 years ago, Josh McDowell came out with “Evidence that demands a Verdict,” the seminal book of the 1970s that made Christian apologetics understandable for the average evangelical Christian. Since then, other apologists, such as Ravi Zacharias and Lee Strobel, have presented their works defending the faith.

Paul Meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection (Baker Books, $13.99, 176 pages), by Michael R. Licona, the director of apologetics evangelism for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, takes the genre a step further by aiming it specifically toward Muslims. He employs a literary device that produces a live debate between the Apostle Paul and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, on this question: Did Jesus rise from the dead?

The first thing Muhammad does in the debate is posit the Islamic argument: Jesus didn’t die at all but was translated supernaturally to heaven, leaving someone else to die in his place. Jesus had to die, Paul explains, because he prophesied his own death. If he didn’t in fact die, then he was a liar and the Koran is wrong in calling him a prophet. If Jesus did die, then Muslims — like the Romans and Jews before them — must explain what happened to his body.

The author does a better job of imitating the inflections and arguments of Muhammad than that of Paul — who I think would have been far smarter and argumentative. The speech patterns ascribed to Muhammad fit well enough with how a Muslim would argue against the divinity of Jesus, although Muhammad in this narrative reverts to simply quoting the Koran a bit too much for my taste. Still, the New Testament discrepancies he points out are those Muslims commonly use to show why they do not believe Christianity’s claims.

The other intriguing device this volume employs is to portray Paul as a man who knows his way around the Koran. Paul implies Muhammad received his revelations from a demon, not an angel, a thought that Muslims would naturally never accept.

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion writer.

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