Friday, August 1, 2008

Be careful what you wish for...

For months now I've been waiting with unbridled anticipation for the day when Catholic News Service (the wire service that feeds stories to every Catholic newspaper in the country) would run a review of my book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism. Well, today was the day when it finally came across the wire, and, to be honest, all of my waiting and longing has turned into ranting and gnashing of teeth. The alleged "review" wasn't a review at all. It was a short but nasty diatribe by an Ivory Tower theologian who made clear his disdain for the Idiot's Guide genre and anyone who relies on such "simplistic" approaches to serious subjects.

It's funny (in a sad and ironic sort of way), but when I first asked CNS to review my book, I told Dennis that the only way I saw it backfiring was if they gave the book to someone who didn't like the Idiot's Guide approach. And wouldn't you know -- Bingo! -- my prediction came true.

Patrick Hayes, an assistant professor of theology at St. John's University, railed against the title, the series, the mere suggestion that perhaps rank-and-file Catholics don't find theological texts easy to read. It was a dismissive and mean-spirited little review and certainly not what I expected from Catholic News Service.

Nowhere did the review mention that my book has in imprimatur from the Bishop of Metuchen, or that I worked with a theological advisor from St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, or that it was glowingly endorsed by the Archbishop of Denver, all things that seem rather pertinent to me and I'm sure to other Catholics who might be interested in the book.

Here's the review so you can read it for yourself. It was part of double review, but I'll spare you the monotony and just give you the part about my book. He doesn't get into full swing until the second paragraph:

"...One such offering is Mary DeTurris Poust's contribution to the "Idiot's Guide" series, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism." The guide offers an accurate, if simplistic, overview of the catechism. It contains a number of short synopses of topics such as the resurrection of the body, the benefits of baptism and the exercise of free will, among others -- all with user-friendly language. Coupled with these treatments are little boxed "teachable moments" or quick definitions under the heading "church speak" that explain the why and the what of the church's belief and practice.
"It is unfortunate the book is presented under such a deplorable title, as if people have to admit their ignorance to be guided to truths detailed in the catechism. In fact, I would say that all who search out those truths have brains that are fully switched on, even though they may not have facility in the technical points of doctrine.
"As a working theologian I am chagrined by the author's approach to the catechism, which deliberately avoids "that long-winded, lingo-laden academic writing that can make anyone's eyes glaze over." I daresay that some of that can actually be useful, as the pope himself demonstrates. Memo to the publishing world: Catholics aren't that callow. "

So what do you think of that? I've never considered myself a callow Catholic, but I do know that reading some parts of the full Catechism made my brain ache. Penguin/Alpha Books knew what they were doing when they specifically requested that a NON-theologian write the book on the Catechism, otherwise large portions would have been in Latin and Greek or its English equivalent and 1,000 pages long. Oh, wait, that's the real Catechism, which is why I wrote a simplified guide to it! No matter what Mr. Hayes thinks, many people like to read about religion -- or science, or finance, or nutrition -- in informative, entertaining and, above all, understandable prose, and the success of the Idiot's Guide series is proof of that.

I do take some small satisfaction in all of this knowing that, as a professor, Mr. Hayes will have to publish and publish some more. And, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around. I hope they give his next theological missive to a comic book author for review.

2 comments:

WB said...

Try not to overestimate the influence of tepid review -- especially one that doesn't say much about the book but a lot about the reviewer. Remember your own words -- that there are plenty of people who are interested in reading about religion in language they can understand. They will see your book in bookstores or online and judge for themselves. I NEVER make a decision about a book simply on the word of a reviewer; I want to see something of the book for myself. Finally, there is nothing in that review to discourage anyone looking for a GUIDE to the Cathechism for the very reason that they want to read about it in plain language.

Michele B. said...

When my children don't understand what I'm trying to convey, I break it down in more simple language so that they can comprehend. It wouldn't make sense to keep repeating what I said over and over again. I can see their glazed over faces now....Thank you for writing something that makes the truths of our church real and understandable. Your ability to 'break open' the scriptures and our church's teachings is a much needed gift.