"Like a Hammer Shattering Rock: Hearing the Gospels Today" by Megan McKenna. Image Books (New York, 2013). 174 pp. $14.
Megan McKenna is convinced that "the word of God in the Gospels" encounters strong resistance in the faith community. Over time, we have become "adept at using the Gospels to subvert Jesus' revelation of God among us and what is demanded of those who follow in Jesus' footsteps," she writes.
McKenna is a widely known Catholic author, lecturer, theologian and storyteller. With this, her 50th book, she encourages believers not to "short-circuit the power of Jesus' words." A quotation she includes from Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton helps to illustrate her purpose.
Fr. Merton once wrote: "Let us not be too sure we know the Bible … just because we have learned not to have problems with it. Have we perhaps learned … not to really pay attention to it?"
McKenna thinks that "whole pieces of the Gospel" are ignored "because they are too difficult and too demanding." In this she appears to let few off the hook. "We have betrayed the Gospels as individual persons, as communities, as groups, as institutions and as leaders — even as church," she says.
To hear the Gospels anew, McKenna suggests that people read aloud from them and even memorize parts of them. She tells of learning, perhaps "by chance," that when we read aloud, we "hear meaning drastically differently and more deeply."
The words borrowed for the intriguing title of McKenna's book, "Like a Hammer Shattering Rock," are taken from the biblical book of Jeremiah, where God asks, "Is not my word like fire" and "like a hammer shattering rock?" (23:29).
McKenna explains that the book of Jeremiah is railing at that point "against false prophets" who ignore and contradict "the word of God that calls the people to faithfulness, to the covenant and to justice, to care of the poor and to true worship of God and lasting peace upon the earth."
No one familiar with McKenna's earlier work will be surprised that in focusing attention on the proclamation in the Gospels of a "shocking new way of being human beings in the world," she underscores the centrality of peacemaking, love and closeness to the poor.
"Nothing we do in church, worship or liturgy is worship in spirit and truth unless it mirrors the larger universal reality of love for all, beginning with our enemies and the poorest among us, the outcast and condemned, those we judge brutally and exclude," she states.
In a chapter on the Gospel of Matthew, McKenna insists that, "in a nutshell" Christians are called to "confront every form of violence, injustice and rage with good, with peace, with justice and with compassion."
Given this analysis, it is not surprising that in 2012, the Paulist Center of Boston presented its annual Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice to McKenna.
The center, affiliated with the Paulist Fathers, honored her efforts "to communicate the meaning of the word of God for today's world and to help deepen our understanding and enhance the nuances of 'social justice' in our time."
In an observation offered as "perhaps a last word" of her book, McKenna comments that "the church exists primarily for the world, not for itself, and it is commanded to 'love one another as I have loved you.'"
McKenna's storytelling talents emerge at numerous points in "Like a Hammer Shattering Rock." Her stories draw out the connections between Scripture and daily life, and heighten the book's readability.
There are stories about biblical and contemporary figures alike –– the Samaritan woman at the well who meets Jesus in the Gospel of John, for example, or Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered in 1980 while celebrating Mass.
"Like a Hammer Shattering Rock" includes two chapters on each of the four Gospels, one accenting the Gospel as it was heard in early church communities and one accenting the Gospel now.
With her chapters on the Gospels "now," McKenna calls attention to their relevance to "the struggles we are confronted with today not only as individuals, but primarily as communities of believers."
There are issues in the world now that "need to be highlighted and new ones that Jesus and his contemporaries just did not experience or know," McKenna writes. She adds, "The seeds are in the Gospels, but they need to be studied, nurtured and brought to harvest."
The word "gospel" means "good news." McKenna wants Christians to hear — really hear — the good news of the Gospels.
An equally strong desire of hers, however, is that Christian individuals and communities in turn become good news to others, "especially to the poor, the outcast, the fringe, the excluded, the 'other.'"
Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service's documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.