The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos By Sohrab Ahmari Hodder & Stoughton, £20
Sohrab Ahmari may well be familiar to Catholic Herald readers – he is a contributing editor – but I came across him in the United Arab Emirates where we had been invited to witness the pope’s visit to the Arabian peninsula and were lodged for the purpose in a fabulously luxurious hotel. I was struck then by his indefatigable capacity for work – he is comment editor for the New York Post – but also by his independence of mind. He became a Catholic, he told me, after making his way to the Brompton Oratory to get instruction from the fathers there. He was raised in a secular Islamic family in Iran and came to the US as an adolescent. And having become a Catholic, he became a vociferous, committed and enthusiastic Catholic. Honestly, if there were another hundred Sohrab Ahmaris, or even just a dozen, the Church in the US would be transformed.
Fortunately, though there is only one Sohrab, he does have a son, Max, at present a little too young to participate in stirring up the Church, being, at the time of writing, only two, but he is already fortunate in having this book dedicated to him. This is a book by a father to his son, about the most problematic aspects of the world he is growing up in and how insights from the past, especially Christian insights, can help resolve them. Sohrab worries that his son will grow up in a society burdened by too much choice, too little of it meaningful, in a world without the old obligations but also without the old sense of shared moral assumptions. He discusses each subject in reference to a single authority from the past, from the familiar (Aquinas) to the unexpected (Andrea Dworkin, the feminist known for wearing dungarees and for her critique of sexual intercourse).
The subjects he takes on are all weighty, presented as questions to which there is an answer. He looks at the concept of filial obligation through the life of Confucius (Sohrab’s wife is Chinese), at the compatibility of faith and reason through Aquinas, conscience – that chapter is headed, “Should you think for yourself?” – from the perspective of John Henry Newman, and the idea of the Sabbath through the experience of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, civil rights campaigner and Nazi survivor. Here he contrasts Heschel’s anxious return home early on a Friday with the world of “upscale professionals, nonstop barrages of emails to be answered and sleepless nights spent by the ghostly blue light of the smartphone”. His wide-ranging take on the world is grounded in good journalistic detail.
Some of the authorities here are unfamiliar: in discussing whether we need ritual in a chapter on “Can You be Spiritual Without Being Religious?” – no; don’t be silly – he uses the experience of the anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, who found the worth of ritual in their encounters with the Ndembu tribe in Zambia. On returning home, they became Catholics; Victor was later annoyed when the Second Vatican Council did away with much of what he considered useful ritual.
Naturally in a book that ranges over so many authorities on so many subjects with journalistic brio, there are minor quibbles. Newman was not an enthusiast for the proclamation of papal infallibility, for instance. To talk about Aquinas as “deeply, fanatically Catholic” doesn’t make sense in terms of the 13th century. And when he tells us that “even before disclosing himself in revelation, God had dropped clues in his creation, like breadcrumbs sown in a dark forest”, it’s impossible not to think of Hansel and Gretel, where the problem of dropping breadcrumbs in the forest was that the birds ate them up.
But these don’t matter. The ultimate intention of this humane and combative book is to explain to little Max that the self-sacrifice of the saint for whom he is named, Maximilian Kolbe, makes sense. And it does.
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.