Father Joe is a religious book with a very human side, a biography of sorts whose main character comes in late and only dots the printed landscape intermittently but is the one person who makes the story worth reading slowly and more than once.
If you are denominationally minded but disenchanted by sectarianism you will love this book. If you are on the outside religiously but maintain a distant interest, you’ll find Father Joe compelling. He gives new hope to those still looking. He clarifies the issues, brightens the image of religion and puts a human, yet truthful face on truth.
He’s universal. Whatever your background you will relate to Father Joe.
This book illustrates the difficulties of combining divine and human realities. In true satirical manner the technicalities of Christian theology is juxtaposed with human frailty demonstrating the discord between the two but without the insult.
Lots of humor and very entertaining – at times Monty Python-ish – but mostly an honest, sometimes humble look at the struggle to mesh bare truth with experience. Although written from a Catholic perspective, verities embraced by all Christians are featured: selfishness is sinful, forgiveness is needed, penance has many forms, sex is a healthy reality and so on.
There is no one better suited to tell the story than Tony Hendra. Not only does Tony have the intellectual precision to ferret out the fault in any argument: political, religious or otherwise, he was broadly exposed to Catholic, Protestant and secular educational perspectives, has lived in the political environments of both Britain and the USA and has his own share of personal faults to mend which he openly shares throughout the book.
He isn’t poking at other religions or people. He’s Catholic and it is his own religious struggles he uses to make a point. Its honest, its genuine, its real.
Tony, better known for his writing in the lampoon series and his association with Monty Python greats, would not be thought of as a religious writer. As the book demonstrates, very little, if any of the faith lodged in his heart during his earliest years. God and truth only began to make sense through the influence of a particularly wise, kind and gracious Benedictine Monk, Father Joseph Warrilow, the real hero of the book.
Tony’s story is true and his characters are real but he cleverly uses them to symbolize both the good and bad in religion. His first mentor, Ben Bootle, is intellectually well informed on the history and detail of traditional religious teachings but has little ability to personalize it. He seems more intent on excising his humanity than accepting it as divinely ordained.
Father Joe, on the other hand, is equally informed about God but also appreciates the inability of humans to reach up and therefore the necessity for God to reach down. In true Benedictine manner he enjoys his humanity, a little wine here and a bit of laughter there. He is comfortable with his humanity and his theological mindset is well mixed with understanding and forgiveness both of which are necessary for any human to connect with God personally.
Father Joe helps us understand that being committed to a religious system does not mean you must be defined by it. Religion is a by-product of a human attempt to demonstrate personal commitment to God. Its forms may or may not accurately represent God and Father Joe was clearly more a man of God than of the cloth.
Observations from the book:
- Through Tony’s experience with Catholic doctrine we learn what is true of most religions: God is often lost in semantic jungles and endless rituals. We learn from Father Joe that it is possible to be true to the words and the real meaning about God they convey as long as you don’t worship the format. It also helps if you don’t minimize goodness, gentleness, grace and mercy all of which are necessary to be truly forgiving.
- Hard truth is made palatable only when seasoned by grace. Truth alone is by nature ideal, absolute and impossible to live with. The people who channel it can be brutish. Grace is a doctrine all its own, mingles with all other doctrines and must characterize the one who speaks truth.
- Truth is truth no matter where you find it. Any person in any religion can find and know God personally. Truth is not denominationally bound or barricaded.
- Religious systems are managed and maintained by humans and are to some degree tainted by that influence. God is always right and humans often get it wrong even the ones dedicated to His service. Father Joe’s life was committed to the system but his mind was keenly aware of the faults and his heart was devoted to God. Because of that he made truth accessible. He was an open doorway to God.
- People more than theology or cleverly worded philosophies or impressive buildings are God’s tools of deliverance. Father Joe was a person not a dissertation. Without him and others like him the monastery was nothing more than a cold dark uninviting building. He was well trained in theology but in his case that training only enhanced his ability to connect with and care for people. We identify with Tony’s waywardness and we are drawn to Father Joe’s generosity. We become confident that he won’t use truth against us, that God is still there. After talking to Father Joe we don’t find God, we see Him. At that point the buildings and even the system to some extent become interesting and ready targets for humorous quips.
So, is Tony a believer? Well, in chapter 6, beginning on page 73, he describes what could easily be interpreted as a salvation experience. It was preceded by that most important biblical ingredient, repentance and later, in chapter 7, he describes as well as anyone can, those fearful doubts that plague only the truest of believers.
Of course, you really need to answer the question for yourself and remember, you can’t really THINK!AboutIt if you don’t first read it. Get the book inexpensively here.
By the way, Tony does come across as a little socialistic politically but that is easy to understand since he was raised in a post WW2 England where class differences were identified more with capitalism and socialism was thought of, superficially, as a leveling of the playing field. For a review that focuses more on Tony’s life and philosophies visit The Mad Tea Party.