Books Catholics Should Read: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire

January 16, 2012

If you’re looking for a provocative read, look no further than H.W. Crocker III’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.  Here, Crocker takes on the sacred cows of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism and defends (as an American and a Catholic) the legacy of the British Empire.

Our modern world, and America in particular, seems to be extremely hostile towards the idea of empire.  America’s story begins with revolution against empire.  We love anti-imperial nationalist movies like Braveheart and Gandhi.  Our country gets caught in military quagmires when we “meddle” in international affairs (look at Afghanistan and Vietnam).  Aren’t FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and current presidential candidates like Ron Paul right  for trying to keep America isolationist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonialist?

Wrong, declares Crocker.  For as he makes clear, the world would not be as humane and just today if not for the British Empire (and her if somewhat unwilling heir, the American Empire).  It was the British Empire that spearheaded the death of slavery across the world.  It was the British who promoted free markets in the New World and Hong Kong.  It was the British Empire that kept Hindus and Muslims from killing each other in India and tribes from warring with each other in Africa.  The British abolished widow-burning and child-abandonment.   The British brought infrastructure, hospitals, and schools to India while comprising less than 1% of the population. The British stood alone (at one point) against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and Imperial Japan.  It was the British Empire that introduced ideas of democracy, limited government, and rights to America, Ireland, India, Africa, and Australia.

Sure, the British (almost arrogantly) believed in their own superiority, and they therefore sought to spread their civilization and culture to soften the harsh realities of the rest of the world.  But for an imperialist power, Britain was remarkably open-minded and lenient:  Her colonies could retain their social structures, governments, customs, and language, while gaining all the benefits of British progress and values.  It’s little wonder everyday citizens in Africa and India pined for the British to come back after they left.

The British were an inspired people.  And that, ultimately, is Crocker’s goal: to inspire his readers with the British example.  That is why at its heart, Crocker’s Guide is less of a history than a collection of mini-biographies of some of Britain’s most prominent figures.  These great men were extraordinarily diverse:  Crocker presents conservatives and liberals, Anglicans and atheists, pure-blood Brits and colonial-bred Aussies and Irish.  What ties them all together is their discipline, taste for adventure, brilliance, commitment to empire, and faith in British ideals and values that should be spread to the rest of the world.

H.W. Crocker III is quickly becoming my favorite historian for his swashbuckling, page-turning, and occasionally (and unabashedly) politically incorrect narratives of some of the world’s greatest stories.  (Check out his histories/biography of the Catholic Church, of the American military, of the Civil war, and of Confederate general Robert E Lee; you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out his comic novel The Old Limey while you’re at it).  You won’t be disappointed by his latest installment, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire, either.

In short…
: Survey of the history of the British Empire.
Style:  Section for each major region of the Empire (India, Africa, Middle East, Australia, Ireland), each with a short introductory chapter and three illustrious British men representing a region.  Readable yet elevated writing style.
Catholic?:  One might wonder how Crocker, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, could praise the British Empire, which persecuted famously Catholic countries like Ireland, but he meets these concerns head-on.  Moreover, he points out how English ideals are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Overall: 4/5


Books Catholics Should Read: The Pope and the CEO

January 3, 2012

The Pope & The CEO: John Paul II's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, by Andreas Widmer

In a society that increasingly sees business — and in particular, business for profit — as dirty, Andreas Widmer, a Swiss guard turned CEO entrepreneur, delivers an essential message:  For-profit business can be a force for good in the world, especially if its leaders live out a “person-centered ethic.”

Widmer offers a seemingly unlikely model for business leaders today – Blessed John Paul II, namely because of the great pope’s emphasis on the humanity of each individual.  Business, even in a for-profit context, exists to serve man.  It serves employees, who strive to earn a living; it serves customers, who gain a service or product; and it serves investors, who earn returns on financial investment.  The leader who loses sight of the fact that business exists to serve people sets himself and his company up for long-term failure (even if there is material profit in the short-term).

This is not to say that profit is bad, of course; according to Widmer, profit is the incentive that helps us serve employees, customers, and investors even better.  But profit for its own sake, without any concern for man, is dangerous.  That’s why Widmer so strongly advocates for a “person-centered ethic,” so distinctively embodied in John Paul II.

Widmer offers 9 lessons — drawn from John Paul II’s teachings and from anecdotes of personal encounters with the pope — to help the business leader cultivate his ethic, virtue, and humanity.  What makes this book so outstanding, however, is that while it is directed towards business leaders, anyone can apply John Paul II’s teachings to their lives.  Virtue, after all, is to be lived out no matter what your situation in life — whether you are a layman, a CEO, or a pope.

in short…
Content:  9 chapters dedicated to 9 leadership lessons, based on Andreas Widmer’s encounters with the pope while he was a Swiss guard.
Style:  Very colloquial, which makes for an easy and light read.  (Read through it on your next long plane flight!)  Alternates fluidly between (auto)biographical sketches, encyclical quotes, and abstract lessons.
Catholic?:  It’s refreshing to find a businessman and author like Widmer who sincerely tries to live out his Catholic faith in all aspects of his life, instead of compartmentalizing faith, work, and play like so many of us are wont to do.  It is Widmer’s attitude that will leave the reader convinced that business for profit, too, can be a vocation.

Overall:  4/5

Movies Catholics Should Watch: Tokyo Godfathers

January 2, 2012

Tokyo Godfathers, directed by Satoshi Kon

Now this isn’t your typical Christmas movie.  (At least, insofar as the “typical” Christmas movie takes you into the lives of the homeless in Japan.)  Three Tokyo “bums” — Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic; Hana, a born-again Christian and a former drag queen; and Miyuki, a teenage runaway — find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and set out to find the baby’s parents.  As they witness kidnappings, double-crossings, and attempted suicides, each of the protagonists’ histories is revealed.

There is a realistic roughness to each one of the protagonists; it seems as if there is always something for which we can condemn them.  Indeed, the film soon makes clear that no one is blameless (except perhaps the abandoned baby).  Yet Gin, Hana, and Miyuki each have their moment to redeem themselves, and it is at these moments that they become most beloved to the audience.

Three essential themes emerge to the discriminating Catholic viewer.  First, each one of us is a person with a story;  no one can ever be considered “trash” or less than human.  Even though the protagonists are homeless and “useless” to society, they all have a back-story to why they are in their current state of life.

Second, everyone has a family, and family is essential to who we are.  Though Gin, Hana, Miyuki abandoned their families, some seemingly supernatural force brought them back together.  Moreover, the three protagonists form a sort of surrogate family of their own, and despite the fact they despise each other at times, they care deeply for each other.  The bonds of family — whether biological or not — are near-impossible to sever.

The third and final theme of Tokyo Godfathers is the little miracles in our lives that we call coincidences.  Coincidence follows coincidence after Gin, Hana, and Miyuki discover the baby — they are led back to their families, gain flashes of insight about themselves, and even have their lives saved.  Indeed, one might say that “coincidences” are proof that a higher plan is guiding us; nothing ever happens without reason.

This isn’t your typical Christmas movie, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it.  Add it to your to-watch list for next Christmas season…or as early as now, for that matter.

In short…

Content:  Narrative that relies heavily on flashbacks.  There are plenty of twists that keep you on your toes, and the flashbacks progressively humanize the protagonists throughout the film.
Style:  True to form, Satoshi Kon (director of the anime films
Millennium Actress and Paprika) makes you scratch your head as you wonder if you’ve missed something.  However, Tokyo Godfathers wraps up much more cleanly than Millennium Actress and Paprika.
Catholic:  A subtle analysis of the human condition that places emphasis on the dignity of every person and on the family.  Very Catholic indeed, if not outwardly so.

Overall:  3 out of 4 stars

Books Catholics Should Read: The Modern Gentleman

December 9, 2011

Now here’s a smart little book for any man worthy of the name.  Dashing and delightful, sizzling and spicy, and altogether useful and inspiring, The Modern Gentleman is an essential bookshelf addition to the aspiring gent.

A miscellany of tips on manners abound, including:

  • when to clap at an opera or symphony
  • how to shop at thrift stores to fashion a distinctive style
  • where to take a lady on the first date (and how to know whether to continue to the romance, after)
  • alcohols to try before you die
  • how to work with a hangover
  • how to recover from conversational gaffes
  • how to rekindle flagging friendships (and how to know it’s time to allow bad friendships to flame out)
  • how to host a guest, and how to be one.
  • as well as “etiquette” for other odd situations, including skinny dipping and using the bathroom

The modern gentleman demonstrates restraint and respect, excellence and well-roundedness of character and intellect, and a joy and curiosity for life which he shares with others.  Rather than throwing tradition away, he educates himself in the classics so that he can become a true pilot of the new.  At all times he aims at self-improvement — at becoming the “dashing demiurge” instead of just “taking up space.”

Being a gentleman is not about following rules, or having certain skills or natural disposition.  The important lesson to take away from MG is that being a gentleman is all about attitude.  And attitude can be cultivated. Rules on manners can change, but it is the attitude — that of self-refinement — that remains constant regardless of the era or area.

I encourage you to pick up this book, and, in the concluding words of Mollod and Tesauro:

Best of luck to you, noble Cavalier of Life.  Go forward with strength, grace, mindfulness, and an occasional glass of Chartreuse.  The world will follow behind you.

in short…

Content:  Tips in topic-specific chapters written so you can start reading at any point in the book, but don’t forget to check out the introduction and conclusion!
Style:  Written with wit.  Punchy and poetic.  Memorable and delightful.  Mollod and Tesauro meticulously pen each word with pointed purpose and literary flair.  Textbook example of fine writing.
Catholic?:  While restraint is one of the cardinal virtues of a gentleman, clearly the authors buy into the aphorism that “moderation taken to an extreme is bad for you.”  Once in a rare while (or in a whole chapter…),
MG encourages indulgence in unsavory behaviors.  I’ll leave you to read and find out.  On the other hand, MG also demonstrates flashes of insights into the human condition which can be very, if inadvertently, Catholic indeed.

Overall:  3/5

Movies Catholics Should Watch: The Tree of Life

September 10, 2011

There are two types of people who watch Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life:  Those who love it and those who hate it.  It’s at once surreal, philosophical, deeply feeling, and confusing — very confusing.  In fact, when I watched it last night, more than a few people left the theater before the halfway point, and after the credits had started rolling, there emerged from the audience a big collective, “What?”

The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick

At its heart The Tree of Life is an existentialist film.  It follows the emotionally and spiritually arduous journey of a religious Texan family, one of whose young children has died.  Throughout the movie, a plethora of questions abound regarding the meaning of life:  What’s the point of life?  Why does God allow people to suffer?  Is life worth living if you are a failure and a sinner?  Why do we allow ourselves to get attached when we lose everything eventually?  How can God exist if life is so painful?

Indeed, one of my friends last night wondered if the movie was suggesting that God does not exist.  But I don’t think that was the movie’s message.  I think that The Tree of Life is a celebration of all that is life–with all its ups and downs–which only God could have given us.

While the film throughout is indeed a struggle of faith and an intense questioning of life, by the film’s end, we are called to accept life as life and be thankful for it.  Two scenes come to mind illustrating this point:  1) When Jack learns that his family is moving from his old home, he feels sad:  His childhood there may have been rough and confusing, but he knows that his time has been a worthwhile and meaningful growing experience; life, with all its sad and happy moments, is something for which to be thankful.  And 2) Jessica Chastain’s character, at the very end of the film, thanks God for the life of the son she has lost.  Life has its high points, and it’ll have its lowest points too.  But whatever happens, it’s life.  And we have only God to thank for it.

Acting was solid.  I thought Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain excellently portrayed deeply human characters–and by human, I mean imperfect.  Pitt in particularly turned in a noteworthy performance as a troubled father who can be overly strict and demanding yet is profoundly affectionate and loyal to his family. 

In terms of narrative style, potential viewers be warned:  This is a very trippy film.  There are several symbolic scenes of a lone character walking through deserts or riding up an elevator.  Wailing opera music abounds.  There is a 30 minute segment of nature scenes (in my opinion, this segment is another celebration of all that is life, as I mentioned above).  And even the more normal narrative scenes can be choppy, jarring, and disturbing.  To be sure, all the images are loosely woven into a powerful message, but during the film one can’t help but wonder what’s going on.

To some extent, one can joke that The Tree of Life was made by a guy who lost someone close in his life and got high to get over it.  To another extent, one can surmise that all the confusion in the film effectively portrays the confusion we actually feel in life.  In the end though, the message is clear and powerful especially in our own modern:  Life is about questioning, but in the words of Christopher Hollis in Death of a Gentleman

if we are to save ourselves, we need to close our minds, to take honour’s worth for granted, and to escape back into certainty from the atmosphere of eternal questioning.

Content:  An initially confusing yet an ultimately powerful narrative on how a family copes with life and all its joy and suffering.  It’s a compelling premise because it’s so human and so common.
  Very artsy and at times postmodern.  Nonlinear and confusing with several cuts to documentary-like nature scenes.  The message is coherent and powerful, though.

Catholic?:  Very.  Catholicism deals precisely with the meaning of life.  The Church acknowledges the struggles and questioning of life, but at the same time She also calls us towards certainty and peace in Christ.

Overall:  4 out of 4 stars

P.S. Huzzah for catholicmatters’ first movie review!

Books Catholics Should Read: The Art of Being a Good Friend

August 15, 2011

I actually read this book a couple of weeks ago but with college move-in and family stuff, I’m only posting on it now.

by Hugh Black

This is a useful and meaningful book for anyone to read.  Friendship is life.  It is the journey towards a greater relationship with God.  Hugh Black teaches that friendship is an exercise in love.   As such we should learn to be as good a friend as possible and to choose the best friends possible — the type of friends who will teach us how to grow in love.

Much advice and reflections abound in this book.  The most important lessons, I think, are as follows:

  • Friendship is based in sympathy — learn to put yourself in your friends’ shoes and to sacrifice without expecting reward.
  • Friendship is your safe haven, and as such, you can’t open yourself up to everyone.  It’s naivety to believe everyone is your friend; you can be friendly with others, but ultimately, you need to choose your closest friends who will help you grow.
  • At the same time, you need to risk your trust.  Because if you don’t risk it, it can’t grow.  And if you don’t trust man, you can’t trust God.
  • Loyalty in friendship is built through little favors, which will then turn into the greatest trust and supremest sacrifice and service.
  • Human friendship is limited.  Some betray us, some of us drift apart, and some of us even move on to a life after death.  But when friendship is successful, it gives us even more hope and trust in the unlimited, perfect friendship with Christ.

This book was quite helpful, insightful, and beautifully written.  It’s the perfect book to read as I begin the new semester as I look to renew friendships with those around me.

Content:  An elaborate yet readable reflection on the nature of friendship and how to exercise it.
Style:  Hugh Black shows a masterful understanding of literature, history, and nature — and he uses images, examples, and metaphors from each of these to demonstrate his point.  This  book is much more of a reflection than a guidebook.
Catholic?:  Hugh Black was not Catholic, but his perspective is compatible with Catholic sentiment.

Overall:  3/5

Books Catholics Should Read: Sanshiro

August 2, 2011

Not all who wander are lost. –JRR Tolkien

Ours is a society that praises dedicated drive and aimed ambition.  To “succeed,” young people need to know where they want to go, know how to get there, and do whatever it takes to arrive at their desired destination.

Sanshiro rejects that.  Indeed, it is filled with nostalgia for the naive wandering of youth.  Set at the turn of the 20th century, the novel follows the oft-bewildered experiences of Sanshiro, a university student who leaves his remote agricultural hometown to study in the newly industrializing and Westernizing Tokyo.  It’s a coming-of-age novel of “growth without maturity”: Sanshiro reminisces and almost pines for the days when we could gaze up at the clouds and dream, unburdened as yet by the harsh concerns of reality.  It examines Sanshiro with an almost jealous sentimentality as he excitedly and clumsily wanders every path available to him–never committing himself to any one of them.  He is allowed to fall in love with someone he can never have because that is the glory of youth.

by Natsume Soseki

Sanshiro is Natsume Soseki’s cry to the ever-modernizing world.  There’s a certain sentimental beauty in being lost, because by being lost, we are able to stop the world and make sense of it–and in the course of things, we are able to appreciate it.  We should allow ourselves to fall in love with things we can’t have.  We should allow ourselves to wander and wonder.  Because these are the things that give life meaning.  We don’t necessarily need to learn from experience; we should be able to simply experience, and be grateful for it.

Sanshiro is not a call for us all to wander around in our own fantasy worlds forever.  But it is a reminder of the dreams and freedom we lose when we grow up.  Wandering, after all, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re lost.

Content: Episodic adventures loosely connected by Sanshiro’s pursuit of a beautiful woman miles out of his league.
Style: Easy prose loosely divided into short 1.5-3 page episodes. 
The episodes flow smoothly together, though, so you hardly notice they are separate.
Again not necessarily so.  Still, I find that an appreciation for life as it is very Catholic in nature.  And the idea of wandering around till you find the direction towards which God is leading you is indeed very Catholic.

Overall: 3.5/5