Q&A with Randy Boyagoda
Q. As a writer, you are known for your novels Governor of the Northern Province (2006) and Beggar’s Feast (2011). What made you decide to write a work of non-fiction, and why did you choose Richard John Neuhaus as the subject?
My first novel was about a genocidal African warlord who moves to Canada and becomes a convenience store clerk. My second novel was about a runaway boy Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka who becomes a globe-trotting street hustler. At first glance, in other words, there would seem to be little connection between these stories and the story of a conservative Catholic priest and intellectual. And yet I was drawn to the life story of Richard John Neuhaus because it was filled with unexpected events and encounters, from his boyhood in small-town Canada through to his longtime prominence as a man of God, man of ideas, and man on the march, in New York, Washington, and Rome. I was drawn to the telling of his story by the great storytelling opportunity it offered, to explore, make sense and do justice to the life and times of a controversial and influential person moved by his love of God and driven by his personal ambitions both to play a major role in American public life, across decades of dramatic events in American politics and culture.
Q. This is a long book! It obviously required a great deal of research. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
My wife and I have four children under the age of eight, I have a full-time job as a professor and administrator at a university, I’m constantly writing book reviews and essays for various newspapers and magazines, and my second novel was published around the world during the course of my researching and writing this book, an effort that on its own terms required multiple trips to New York, Washington, rural Canada, rural Texas, and Rome, among other places. So my writing process is basically to write whenever I can, wherever I am! Often enough, this has involved early morning sessions in my home office, in Toronto, and there was one stretch, two summers ago, where my wife and our children went to stay with my wife’s family in Milwaukee for three weeks so I could complete a major section of the book by basically working on it all day, and much of the night. I began procrastinating the morning after they left, by trying to dislodge a wasp nest on our deck, which left me with two dozen wasp bites on my arms and hands. This made for some difficult typing, but I got it done.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
My goal was to write a book that was neither hagiography nor hatchet job. In other words, I hope I’ve told the story a heroic Christian life that was not without its mistakes, and that I’ve done so in a way that’s responsible to the fullness of his life and work, and also fine and fun to read. Neuhaus was, from the earliest possible age, a charismatic and controversial figure. In researching the book and speaking to people who knew him at various points in his life, I appreciated just how influential he was, on their own senses of what it means to bring your faith commitments to bear upon your intellectual life and your work in the world, and vice-versa. With this book, I hope to reveal the complex and rich fullness of the personal relationships and private experiences that informed his well-known public accomplishments and persona. I hope people will read this book and appreciate that whether you agree or disagree with all of the things he said and did in his life, either way you’ll recognize that he made a signal effort to live out his Christian commitments in big ways.
Q. In your opinion, what were some of Richard John Neuhaus’ greatest contributions to American public life?
I think Neuhaus made the best possible case, in his writings and actions both, that religion has a very important role to play and a permanent place in American public life. The question isn’t whether religion should be involved in politics. The question is how should religion be involved in politics. By no means do I think his particular interpretation of what these roles and places are accounts that everyone will agree with! Instead, I’d simply say that his decades-long effort to demonstrate religion’s importance to matters of public import ensured that this conversation was lively and robust, not least because of how much he inspired others to do likewise, whether in agreement with his views or in direct and vehement disagreement with him. I think he also demonstrated to many that you can be a person of serious religious faith and a person of cosmopolitan intellectual interests. Finally, and more specifically, I think he established an influential role for Catholic teaching in late twentieth century American culture unlike what it had ever enjoyed before, and likewise forged ecumenical and interfaith connections between Catholics and Evangelicals, and between Christians and Jews. He did this through the founding of the magazine, First Things, and through his various coalition-building efforts, all of which gave shape and voice once more to a serious and supple religious presence in an American culture and politics whose leading secular-minded figures might otherwise presume there was no need or place or even possibility of this kind of presence.
Q. What do you think were some of his biggest mistakes?
Oy. What a question to ask the biographer. Every word I write here is more rope for his biggest fans and/or his biggest haters. Readers of the biography will know I’ve identified mistakes for sure, mostly concerning the gap between what he believed he was doing at various points in his life, and how his efforts were understood and experienced by others. For more details, please consult the biography!
Q. Why is it important for contemporary Americans, and perhaps Canadians, to know about Richard John Neuhaus?
It’s very important to know about someone who was arguably the most influential man of faith in American life, from the 1960s through to the 2000s, from antiwar left to neoconservative right, from conservative Missouri Synod Lutheranism to conservative Roman Catholicism. Here was someone who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and breakfasted with John Paul II, someone who was roughed up by Chicago police during 1960s street demonstrations and advised presidents on public policy. He also inspired many young people to vocations to religious life, led a thriving inner city black congregation in Brooklyn, and held court most Friday nights at his Manhattan apartment, sipping bourbon, smoking cigars, and talking ideas until the wee hours. Across all of this, he understood himself and his work, foremost, as inspired and ordered to and by his love of God and the Church. That someone could have such a remarkable life, after growing up in small-town Canada and never even finishing high school, seems to me important, even inspiring, for many Americans and Canadians too to know about.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
To request a review copy or to schedule an interview with Randy Boyagoda, please contact Katie Moore, publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org, 719-268-1936.
John Michael Talbot’s life and work have been shaped by the ancient Church Fathers and now he’s showing how we too can benefit from the wisdom of their writings as we look for answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
We invite you to join us for The Ancient Path blog tour (Jan. 19 – 28). This virtual book tour will feature honest reviews from eight first-rate bloggers, an interview with author John Michael Talbot, and a chance to win a copy of The Ancient Path.
We’re grateful to our blogging friends for sharing their thoughts and hosting stops on the tour. We encourage you to visit their sites (links below) and read their reviews.
Blog Tour Schedule
Jan. 19 – Ann Frailey, The Writings of A.K. Frailey
Jan. 20 – Luke Arredondo, Quiet, Dignity and Grace
Jan. 21 – Julie Davis, Happy Catholic
Jan. 22 – Pete Socks, The Catholic Book Blogger
Jan. 23 – Kathy Schiffer, Seasons of Grace
Jan. 26 – Carl McColman, A Contemplative Faith
Jan. 27 – Timothy McCormick, Catholic Bibles
Jan. 28: Stuart Dunn, Stuart’s Study
JOHN MICHAEL TALBOT, the author of 27 books including the best selling Troubadour for the Lord and The Lessons of St. Francis, is one of the pioneering fathers of Contemporary Christian music with multi-platinum sales. He has received, among many other honors, Dove Awards and Grammy nominations. He tours constantly inspiring the faith of Christians of all denominations through inspirational preaching, lectures and sacred music. In 2014, Talbot premiered a new inspirational TV series on The Church Channel (TBN) called “All Things Are Possible” reaching a global audience in the hundreds of millions.
To request a review copy or to schedule an interview with John Michael Talbot, please contact Katie Moore, publicist, email@example.com, 719-268-1936.
In The Catholic Advantage: Why Health, Happiness, and Heaven Await the Faithful (Image, March 3, 2015), the controversial president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, provides proof and explanation for why religion is integrally tied to well-being.
For the purposes of the book, Donohue looks at people of faith through the Catholic prism. His examples include practicing Catholics, saints, nuns, and priests. Alternatively, when examining the behaviors of agnostics and atheists, Donohue focuses primarily on two groups: Hollywood celebrities and intellectuals.
“The greatest joy that Catholicism offers is the prospect of achieving salvation,” writes Donohue. And the good news, according to Donohue, is that the teachings of the Church provide a veritable road map to heaven while also providing benefits such as good health and happiness.
In Part One, Donohue focuses on health. Here he explores the role of beliefs, bonds, and boundaries and the benefits that accrue for Catholics in terms of physical and mental health.
“There is a strong positive correlation between religion and well-being,” according to Donohue, and he has statistics to back him up. The 2012 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (one of the largest studies ever done on well-being) found that “Americans who are the most religious scored the highest on the well-being scale.”
In Part Two, Donohue focuses on happiness. Here, Donohue’s findings show that there is something lacking from the conventional understanding of happiness and how best to achieve it. When surveying happiness, Pew researchers found that “people who attend religious services weekly or more are happier (43%) than those who attend monthly or less (31%); or seldom or never (26%).”
Thus, “the right recipe for human happiness is not found in abandoning our inhibitions,” writes Donohue.
“It is found in abandoning ourselves to God.”
Part Three looks at heaven. “It is always risky to discuss who is the most likely to make it to heaven,” writes Donohue. “Only God knows for sure. But we are not without reasonable benchmarks in making such assessments. Surely it makes sense to believe that those who have given themselves totally, and sincerely, to the Lord have to be at the front of the line.”
In examining heaven and what it takes to get there, Donohue looks at the types of people who are more likely to demonstrate altruistic or charitable behavior. For examples he offers well known saints, those who risked their lives to recue Jews during the Holocaust, and Frederick Ozanam, founder of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
In linking altruism and charitable acts to the path to heaven, Donohue cites Mother Teresa who said: “One thing will always secure heaven for us: the acts of charity and kindness with which we have filled our lives.”
In conclusion, Donohue drives home the thesis that people of faith are likely to be healthier and happier than their non-religious counterparts and that the Catholic Church has the formula (the Three B’s) for achieving health, happiness and ultimately heaven.
“It makes no sense whatsoever to pretend that we do not know what works,” writes Donohue. “Quite frankly, it is in everyone’s interest to make the Catholic advantage more accessible to the public.”
“If the prescription for the Three H’s is widely distributed, then it’s a sure bet that health and happiness will follow,” says Donohue. “More important, it’s likely that the pearly gates will open just as widely.”
About the author
DR. WILLIAM A. DONOHUE is the president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization. The publisher of the Catholic League journal, Catalyst, Donohue is also a former Bradley Resident Scholar at The Heritage Foundation and served for two decades on the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars. A formidable TV presence, Donohue has authored several books on civil liberties, social issues, and Catholicism.
To request a review copy or to schedule an interview with Bill Donohue, please contact Katie Moore, publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org, 719-268-1936.
Every year from the more than 300 books reviewed on the Spirituality & Practice website, 50 are chosen as the “Best Spiritual Books” and 10 as the “Best Spiritual Children’s Books.” We are honored that Sacred Fire has been selected for the 2014 list. Congratulations to Father Ronald Rolheiser for this exceptional contribution to today’s spiritual renaissance.
Read the review here: http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/books.php?id=26158
Spirituality & Practice is a multifaith website (SpiritualityandPractice.com) providing resources for spiritual journeys. The site has more than 170,000 visitors per month who read 5 million pages annually. New book reviews are published weekly to the Books section of the site, where visitors can also search a database of more than 5,000 book reviews.