Tuesday, November 23, 2004

What I'm reading.

Yesterday I completed Jonathan Wright's God's Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power - A History of the Jesuits. Well-written and full of interesting anecdotes, God's Soldiers nonetheless fails to deliver on its promise of offering a "History of the Jesuits": readers who come to the book without at least a passing knowledge of Jesuit history aren't likely to learn much about the Society from the book. On the contrary, you'll learn a lot about the author and his interests. Wright focuses strongly on the Society's involvement in European politics and on the more swashbuckling aspects of the Jesuits' early missionary endeavors, but says precious little about the Society's charism or of the unique gifts of Ignatian spirituality which animate the work of the order. Wright's strongest chapters focus on the cultural trends and political circumstances that led to the suppression of the Society in 1773. Developments since the Society's restoration in 1814 are treated in brief and breezy fashion; tellingly, Pedro Arrupe - regarded by many as the "second founder" of the Jesuits - is mentioned but twice, and then merely in passing. Worse, the Society's 31st and 32nd General Congregations - the key gatherings at which the order began the work of renewing itself in response to Vatican II - aren't mentioned at all. Shifting my critical eye from the book's author to its publishers, I'm rather amused that Doubleday decided to release a book simply titled The Jesuits in the UK under the more arresting title God's Soldiers. I expect most American publishing houses would be hard-pressed to resist such an opportunity to make their product more saleable by giving it a more provocative label.

My recommendation on the book amounts to a split decision. If you already know a bit about the Society's history and are in the mood for a quirky and impressionistic piece of Jesuitica, by all means read God's Soldiers. If, on the contrary, you're a general reader looking for an introductory tome on the Jesuits' 500 year journey, skip Wright's book and pick up worthier titles by John O'Malley, William Bangert and Jean Lacouture instead. AMDG.


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