I have never (to my knowledge) met a member of Opus Dei; I had no previous knowledge beyond the most superficial about this group. Allen's book starts off strongly and finishes in the same eager spirit, as he addresses Opus Dei with his own suggestions about how they could dispel the myths and be more straightforward with the rest of us about their mission, their indocrination, and their allegiances. Friends of mine knowing my own religious interests had been asking me what I knew about Opus Dei in the light of the Da Vinci Code hoopla, so I sat down with Allen's book to find out. Having no bias myself one way or the other, I think that Allen tries as best as any outsider could to offer an objective book. You who read this may differ in your opinion, but my wish here is not to take sides, merely to point out features in his book itself. (Kindly remember this if you rate my review!)
After perhaps too brisk a part one, the essentials, and a balanced view in part two "from the inside," part three drags down the fluidity of the book. More assemblages of facts than reporting, part three necessarily compiles what needs to be discussed in public about Opus Dei, but the pace at which this information is given becomes too pedestrian. Allen does acknowledge that Ch. 10 on Money was basically researched by a number-cruncher, Joseph Harris. The facts and figures and analyses are all, I suppose, part of Allen's diligent effort to penetrate the aura that surrounds Opus Dei seemingly from both the inside and the outside. As a researcher myself, I know how difficult it can be to transmit arcane data and divergent interpretations through readable prose to a general audience. Allen makes the best effort he could, although I sense that even the year or so of investigation and the three hundred hours of interviews still did not get to the mystery itself, of why Opus Dei casts upon our credulous times the same dread and mystique that the Jesuits once did, for example.
What diminishes the effectiveness of Allen's report about the debates surrounding Opus Dei is the author's lack of notes and the lack of works cited for his research. For instance, to check some details that Allen did not provide--such as what exactly Escrivá's book "The Way" contains, who sells it, who buys it, why it's numerically and pithily organized, and what its effect is on its audience beyond a general account--I had to go to a Catalan sociologist's critical study, Joan Estruch's 1995 "Saints and Sinners."
The vexed question of the roots of Opus Dei in the Spanish Civil War era has been answered in Estruch quite differently than in Allen. Estruch insists Opus Dei did not start until the victory of Franco over the Republic in 1939; Allen accepts without question the common 1928 date. Allen may have perfectly fine reasons to accept 1928, but why does he not mention 1939 and the difference in opinion from a noted scholar who wrote a decade before Allen in great detail about the group? Estruch's book is readable, widely distributed having been printed by Oxford UP, and fluently translated into English. Its absence as a documented source for Allen, who does claim he read Opus Dei literature 'til his eyes practically fell out, remains odd.
Why Allen does not at least cite explicitly Estruch and/or respond given Estruch's scholarly but quite readable printed predecessor to Allen's book puzzles me. It makes me also wonder about the many other printed sources, especially in Spanish, that may not have been investigated by Allen in his year-long preparation of this book. While Allen obviously knows Italian, I was not sure if or how much he was fluent in what he calls the lingua franca of Opus Dei, Spanish.
Allen does want to ask people about Opus Dei more than he wants to dissect the primary and secondary sources on the group, admittedly. But questions such as Escrivá's support of Franco, or the group's genesis within very divisive times in Spain, need more thought than what Allen has condensed too compactly here. The nuances, whether one supports or attacks Opus Dei, seem crucial; Estruch notes the 'iceberg effect' he felt when seeking to enter the realm of the group and keep his own sympathies separate from his own scholarship. That is, Estruch felt like he only glimpsed the tip of what was submerged deep within Opus Dei. If Opus Dei seeks to lift the rest of us up by its presence among us, why the prevarication and ambiguity?
The group, as Allen chides in his conclusion, wishes too covertly to work the Work of God, to be a leaven in the world to make holiness rise, but while trying to disguise itself as of the world itself, not of the group. Ingenuous or disingenuous, this perception of secrecy cloaking Opus Dei needed to be exposed more fully by Allen in this book, so whether one supports or criticizes Opus Dei, the group itself can more readily share its archives, its raison détre, and its message with the world it claims to wish to inspire. As it is, the veil is parted a bit but the shadow still looms, and this seems not to satisfy neither foes nor friends of Opus Dei who wish to engage the world with dialogue with the group.
Unlike Estruch, Allen may have wanted as a journalist and not a professor to write a more accessible account, but the paucity of printed sources given even in the text beyond more recent ones (often on the Net), produced by supporters and detractors both, leaves me disappointed. But at least Allen has opened up a conversation with Opus Dei that others can continue. Whether or not you agree with Allen, he does strive to listen to both sides in a controversial debate.
Ever since Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code came into print and was then later brought to the big screen by Ron Howard, misconceptions immediately arose around Opus Dei and its beloved founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva. Sometimes deemed a cult with manipulative and unorthodox recruiting tactics, others see the lay Catholic organization as a divinely inspired miracle whose purpose it is is to evangelize a secularized and wounded society and culture, the latter being something closer to the truth. … more
It's a cliché by now to say that someone has "wrestled" with a difficult question, but to the extent it can ever be applied appropriately, I believe this book merits it. John L. Allen has tacked a large and complex topic -- one that is surrounded in myth and mystery, brings out strong feelings from critics and defenders alike, and involves questions of deep, even eternal, importance. He has done it remarkably well. I've read, I believe, all of John … more
For readers ofThe Da Vinci Code, John Allen's book on Opus Dei may be something of a revelation. One opens it expecting to find at the very least GPS coordinates pinpointing albino monk training camps. Or perhaps full disclosure of untold wealth flowing through offshore bank accounts. Instead one finds exhaustive research, interviews and careful analysis that reveal a group alive with ideas and purpose, but a bit short on sinister plans. Removing the sense of mystery surrounding Opus Dei may not serve future thriller writers well, but the journey is fascinating in its own right. Allen's biography of Opus Dei is also necessarily a brief biography of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, born in Spain in 1902, whose vision of the sanctification of work gave birth to Opus Dei, or "The Work" as its members call it. The idea of finding sanctification through work was not original to Escrivá, but the power of his vision certainly brought it to a fuller realization within the Catholic church. Allen explores this central idea that "one can find God through the practice of law, engineering or medicine, by picking up the garbage or by delivering the mail, if one brings to that work the proper Christian spirit." For Escrivá sanctification flowed in equal measure both in and outside the walls of the church. Much of Allen's own work getting to know Opus Dei is done with numerous, wide-ranging personal interviews, from the halls of the Vatican, to Africa, to U.S. suburbs. Allen is ...