Friday, October 13, 2006

Book Review: Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints

A few weeks back, I received from Doubleday a galley copy of Thomas Craughwell's book, Saints Behaving Badly. Up front, I am tough critic when it comes to saints' biographies because I have such a strong sense of their importance for a Catholic life lived well. The Saints, in a certain sense, incarnate the Faith in each age and in a proper to that age. Hence, the inspiration of being devoted to a particular saint is the same inspiration which leads us to bring Christ to full maturity in us.

Happily, I can recommend Mr. Craughwell's book as most profitable reading. Mr. Craughwell fills the pages of this slim work with saints from various times and cultural situations. He is able to convey the pathos and the power of grace ably in just a few pages. There were moments when I was worried that the commentary was becoming a bit salacious merely for salaciousness's sake, but for the large part, this was not an issue. What I most appreciated about this book was the emphasis upon conversion, especially on going conversion. Whether we like it or not, conversion is a both/and -- it starts at baptism and continues until the day you die. In so many of the stories of these saints, that is exactly what you encounter. Particularly, I was touched by the story of St. Genesius the actor turned Christian martyr who didn't get a lot of time between initial conversion and ultimate reward in martyrdom.

However, with all that said, there were a couple of flaws that deserve comment. First, like many of these books that are aimed at a large audience, the unique place of the saints in the Church is not spelled out. Based on the introductory comments, one might get the impression that the saints are just nice people whom the Church sets up as role models. Mr. Craughwell fails to mention the punchline about the saints, that the saints are already in heaven, sharing eternal glory with the Most Holy Trinity. They can be role models because they are at the finish line. If they are just popular figures, then the doctrine of the communion of the saints becomes little more that the Vatican's version of American Idol. Second, while the general tenor and tone of the book is good, I found several of the chapters abrupt, often concluding without a clear sense of where the point of the discussion is going.

All in all, an excellent text worth checking out.

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