Book Review: Life of Christ by Fulton J. Sheen
Life of Christ
By Fulton J. Sheen
Publisher: Cluny Media
Price: Hardcover $34.95
Reviewed by Joseph Tuttle
Life of Christ is the summation of Sheen's philosophy, theology, scholarship, and literary genius. It is considered by many to be his magnum opus. Originally written in 1958 during Sheen's persecution by Cardinal Spellman. A large number of funds were given to Sheen for the purpose of the missions. Cardinal Spellman insisted that Sheen give him the funds. When Sheen refused, saying that the money was intended for the missions, the matter was brought to the attention of Pope Pius XII. The Holy Father was on the side of Sheen and told the two prelates to leave in peace. Spellman voiced his anger and told Sheen he would get even. Sheen had to leave most of the ministries he loved serving. He had to resign from his TV show Life is Worth Living. His time as head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith was terminated.
In the documentary Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Servant of All (2011), Timothy Cardinal Dolan reflects on his time at Catholic University of America. He was going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and asked numerous Ph.D. professors which “Life of Christ book” he should bring with him. They unanimously responded that Sheen's was the best.
Oftentimes, however, many good things come from suffering. Life of Christ is the fruit of Sheen's unjust condemnation and suffering. In his preface Sheen notes this writing “But the deeper meaning of the unity of Christ and His Cross came when Christ kept the author very close to His Cross in dark and painful hours. Learning comes from books; penetration of a mystery from suffering” (Preface, iv)
Fulton Sheen's life of Christ is on par with Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth series. Sheen walks one through the Gospels detailing the life of Jesus, offering insights into Christ's words and actions. It is written in a style that can be read and enjoyed by the layman and the scholar alike. Sheen also makes many connections between the New and Old Testaments, especially when something Christ says is the fulfillment of something one of the prophets said about Him many years before.
Life of Christ is also particularly valuable for Johannine scholars. Sheen spends the majority of his book discussing Christ's life as seen in St. John's Gospel. He gives particular attention to the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 and the Passion of Christ seen through the eyes of St. John and Mary.
Sheen's thesis for the entirety of the book is simply this: one cannot have an Easter Sunday without first having a Good Friday. This means that one must not divorce suffering from salvation. Very often, suffering leads us to salvation. At the beginning of his book, Sheen says that every person comes into this world for the purpose of living – all except one. Jesus came into this world to die, specifically to die for our redemption and salvation.
For Sheen, Jesus' entire ministry is centered around His redemptive Death. Sheen notes that throughout the Gospels, Jesus is always talking about His Death but never fails to directly mention His Resurrection. There is the old Catholic saying “Both, And.” In a certain sense, this is exactly what Christ preaches throughout the Gospels – both suffering; pain; death and joy; life; resurrection. The shadow of the Cross constantly rests on the entirety of Jesus' mission: “The Cross was everywhere in His life.” (Sheen, 105) Indeed, a large portion of the book is spent on the Passion and Resurrection narratives in the Gospels.
After Peter's confession that He is the Son of God, Christ mentions His Cross and Resurrection as a must. Peter rebukes Him and Christ calls him Satan. Sheen writes, “An intrinsic connection existed between the affirmation of Christ's Divinity and His death and Resurrection. At the moment that Christ received the loftiest of all titles, and the confession was made of His exalted dignity, He prophesied His greatest humiliation.” (Sheen, 182)
Overall, Life of Christ is a joy to read. It highlights the many key teachings of Sheen's wisdom and brilliance. Cluny Media has done the world a great service by publishing this beautiful edition of Sheen's masterpiece. Life of Christ is an excellent primer for anyone who wants to study the Bible, the Gospels, Christ, and the Church.
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I appreciate this article because I've been intending to read Sheen's Life of Christ for years, and have read portions of it; but mainly my copy has collected more dust than reading time. The book was a favourite of my grandmother's, a woman who was my spiritual mentor and who I now consider a saint (she would have turned 95 yesterday). Now I feel inspired to do a bit of dusting and start reading!
Sheen's book can be my summer "beach read." What a better way to enjoy God's world than to sit on the beach with a book that's actually worthwhile (to say the least)!
I pulled the book off of my shelf, and I am revisiting it. This book has always helped me go deeper into my faith.