Not Just Good, but Beautiful
Edited by Helen Alvaré and Steven Lopes
Sometimes those of us in the Catholic Church can feel alone in defending man-woman marriage or the proper dual purpose of the sexual act, but this compilation of essays highlights that we have friends in other religions and around the world who likewise uphold the truth of the family. Not Just Good, but Beautiful is made up of reflections that were given in Rome in 2014 for an international, interreligious colloquium on the complementarity of man and woman. The collection includes entries from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, as well as Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and Mormon perspectives. Thus it is rich and varied, offering “something for everyone.”
For the purposes of this review, I will highlight only a sample of the work, beginning with the presentation by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks of Great Britain. Sacks’s entry is entitled, “Seven Key Moments in History.” He writes, “I want to begin our conversation by telling the story of the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world” (p. 20). Beginning with the very first instance of sexual reproduction (approximately 385 million years ago), Sacks sketches out a sort of history of the development of the family through its various formulations leading to a final reflection of how the family is central to the Jewish people. Sacks observes that the practice of Shabbat, among other things, brings the Jewish family together in an intentional way every week and surely contributes to its survival. The religious family, he writes, brings together many aspects of the person and of human life, while the culture surrounding it seeks to divide them (e.g., sex and love, love and commitment, marriage and children). He believes that the family is the “crucible” of the future of society and that all are called to defend it (p. 30).
The next perspective in the book is that of the Anabaptist Johann Christoph Arnold (whose books we’ve reviewed before: Why Forgive? and Why Children Matter). This short essay concentrates on the communities that are necessary to support and strengthen marriages, noting that marriage is “vulnerable” without such fellowship (p. 36). He encourages the conference participants to stand firm in the midst of persecution for beliefs about marriage. “Children and young people need to see God’s love and truth in action,” he writes, and gave the example of his parents’ marriage and his own. This essay is an encouraging and brief read.
A Muslim perspective is offered by Wael Farouq, who is originally from Egypt but now teaches in Milan. He begins by calling the family “the manifestation of God’s presence and love for us” (p. 43). The complementarity of man and woman, he says, is “an encounter that generates life and meaning” (p. 43). The central point of the essay focuses on a unique linguistic reality: in Arabic, the words “husband,” “wife,” and “married couple” are one and the same (zawj). This word means, “Two persons, different from one another, bound together, who cannot manage without each other” (p. 46). Thus the very language used in the Middle East recognizes the mutual dependence and relationality of the human being in marriage. Farouq notes as well that in the Arabic culture, expulsion from the community is a fate worse than death. He writes, in summary, that everyone who is “possessed by the truth” (quoting Pope Benedict XVI) must make daily choices to live in accordance with who they are and bear witness to the truths of the heart.
I will end with the Catholic reflection given to the conference by Bishop Jean Lafitte, the Secretary for the Pontifical Council on the Family, who is French. Lafitte focused his reflection on the profound contributions of Pope St. John Paul II, the “Pope of the Family,” to the theology of marriage and the family. He focuses on the “sacrament of human love” (p. 70) and how it images Christ and the Church and is a “great mystery.” Lafitte uses the reflections on the theology of the body to examine Scripture and the highlight John Paul II’s work. The essay was an excellent summary of the theology of the body, which was called by George Weigel the “time bomb” of the saint’s pontificate.
Not Just Good but Beautiful offers a range of perspectives for the reader, in terms not only of length and depth, but even religious background and national origin. A number of the essays I did not highlight here were written by people who are well known in America, such as Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Texas; Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and Jacqueline Rivers, director of the Seymour Institute for the Black Church and Policy Studies. And of course, there’s a section from Pope Francis himself that is certainly worth a read!
About the Reviewer
Sara Perla is the Program Specialist for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She attended the Catholic University of America and received her Masters degree in Theological Studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. She is also a baker, a ballet dancer, and an avid listener of NPR podcasts.
Disclaimer: Book reviews do not imply and are not to be used as official endorsement by the USCCB of the work or those associated with the work. Book reviews are solely intended as a resource regarding publications that might be of interest to For Your Marriage visitors.