A Year of Faith Must Read

Book Review: The Faith Understood: an Introduction to Catholic Theology

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It seems like ages ago that Pope Benedict XVI launched the Year of Faith and yet, invigorated by a new pontificate, it is still going strong. We were all asked to do something to know our faith better. If you still need to fulfill that resolution, Benedictine College theologian Dr. Mark Zia has done us all a favor. His The Faith Understood: an Introduction to Catholic Theology is a complete, concise (under 150 pages) and extremely readable presentation of the Faith.

Organized in ten chapters, in a logical and traditional outline, Zia’s book begins with explaining what theology is and what its sources are, before proceeding to Revelation and God’s work in creation, our shabby response to Him in sin, and his unfailing love for us in the Incarnation and Redemption. The final chapters discuss Mary’s role in God’s plan, and the truly Last Things (Mariology and Eschatology.)

Each chapter is bookended with a pithy overview and conclusion, which highlights one of the books true strengths: it is eminently pedagogical. Written as a short volume to accompany Introduction to Theology courses -a mainstay of Benedictine College’s core requirements- the book is full of excellent examples which make the concepts easier to understand and remember. I will never again study the Bible without thinking of a birthday cake…

He discusses three principles of authentic Biblical interpretation, and the first of these is the canonical approach. “To apply the canonical approach to interpretation, we need to be mindful of three things: the passage’s remote context, its proximate context, and its immediate context.” (p. 45)  Zia goes on to elucidate this using the example of God’s test of Abraham in Genesis 22:1-14, reading in light the larger context of Hebrews 11:17-19, but then goes on to speak about a birthday cake, where the candles are the remote context, the icing the proximate context, whereas the immediate context is the cake itself. “All three are needed for a clear understanding of the event –a birthday celebration– since a cake without icing may be a good treat, but it is not particularly indicative of a festive event; and a cake without icing but without candles would not bear the fullest meaning of this particular festive event as a birthday.” (p.46)  The fact that he does all this in a page and a half is remarkable.

Another noteworthy pedagogical gem is his discussion of Revelation, Scripture, Tradition and the role of the Magisterium. The example is a treasure chest (Revelation) containing pearls (Scripture) and gold coins (Tradition) but needing a key (the Magisterium) to unlock it. “The Magisterium did not add anything to the treasure that was not already there, but its function was to make accessible the treasure, to distribute the treasure to you as its beneficiary, and also to protect the treasure from efforts by others to replace it with counterfeit items.” (p. 63)

The different theological concepts are explained using Scripture and texts from the Fathers and the Magisterium, but these are well chosen so as not to overburden the explanation. The tone is academic yet conversational. By not dumbing down the content, he smartens up his readers without losing them in unnecessarily technical language. When he uses such terms, he explains them.

Finally, one cannot avoid encountering in every chapter the towering figure of Pope Benedict XVI. He is quoted often, and his influence on the author as a theologian and a teacher of theology is evident, and seen clearly in the rare but welcome combination of depth and simplicity.

I highly recommend this excellent book for anyone who wishes to know more about the Catholic Faith, who wants to dust off and renew their knowledge, and even for theologians who would like to see a concrete example of the old adage bonum et brevis, bis bonum. Good and short, doubly good!

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Edward Mulholland

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