Monday, December 26, 2005

Best Books of 2005 - History

Wise Man of the West by Vincent Cronin

We read books at table every evening and aside from books on spirituality have found that history books make the best reads. This was one of a string of good books that we heard and enjoyed. It tells the story of Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., who set out as a missionary to India and wound up on the court of the Emperor of China. Combining real holiness, manifested in an almost superhuman patience for learning Chinese language and customs, with a brilliant mind, eager to introduce the Chinese to Western science and mathematics, he slowly climbed the social ladder, hoping to convert China to the Faith.

Cronin's style is superb and the pacing of the story is captivating, never bogged down by the necessary explanations of Chinese mandarin culture or difficult names. This book is a little-known classic in my opinion, a terrific entry into both chinese culture and 16th century Jesuit missionary strategy.

When Cardinal George visited the Monastery a few years ago, he asked especially for prayers for the growing Chinese population of Chicago. This book gave everyone in the cloister a better appreciation for the glories of the great Kingdom under the heavens as well as the very real challenges of inculteration that the Gospel faces in this very un-European setting.

Honorable mention #1: Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto by Peter Dembowski. Full disclosure: Prof. Dembowski, a decorated Polish veteran and survivor of Nazi prison camps, is a friend of ours. This is an important book about a little-known phenomenon, the presence of Christians in the neighborhood sealed off by Nazis at the outset of World War II. The book is potentially controversial (it was only published a few months ago) especially since the Christians were mainly baptized Jews.

Prof. Dembowski's warm personality, storytelling skill and multi-lingual wit make this scholarly book a pleasure to read. Moreover, he insists that reckoning with the presence in the ghetto of Jews who had converted to faith in Christ underscores the radical nature of the Nazi threat which was aimed not at the Jewish religion, but at the Jewish race.

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