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Nashville authors explain Catholicism in informative guide

By Michael Sims

APRIL 24, 2000:  Perhaps it isn't surprising that the nation that produced the film Dumb and Dumber also inspired two competing series of books addressed at readers willing to be called idiots and dummies. IDG Books launched the wave with such tomes as Macs for Dummies, and Alpha Books publishes "The Complete Idiot's Guide" series. Nowadays, you can find books on every topic that any idiot or dummy might be curious about, from opera to men's health. If you can tolerate the cute, folksy format and sound bite-length factoids, you will discover some helpful books.

The latest contribution, which sounds like a parody, is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism, by two Nashville authors, Bob O'Gorman and Mary Faulkner. The book has shameless section titles ("Evil Bad to the Bone," "The Poop on Popes"), logoed sidebars ("Saints Preserve Us," "Your Guardian Angel"), and cutesy illustrations. Obviously, this isn't a weighty intellectual tome on theology, but it is a thoughtful guide to understanding the day-to-day beliefs and practices of the oldest Christian denomination. And as such, it is quite informative and entertaining.

The two coauthors are qualified for the job. Bob O'Gorman teaches four days a week at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago; for 11 years, he has flown to Chicago every Tuesday morning and back home to Nashville every Friday evening. Educated at Loyola and Notre Dame, he has taught in a number of divinity schools, including Nashville's Scarritt Graduate School.

Mary Faulkner has a master's in religious education from Scarritt, works as a psychotherapist in private practice, and serves as director of the Institute for Integrated Healing Arts here in Nashville. She leads workshops and retreats at her farm on the Harpeth River. In April of 1999, Faulkner's literary agent called her, looking for somebody to write The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism.

"She said, 'Would you be interested?' " Faulkner recalls. "And I just went, 'No.' I explained that I absolutely don't have the credentials to do such a book. It sounded overwhelming and frightening. But I said, 'I know somebody who might, and I'd love to cowrite it with him.' And she called Bob."

O'Gorman laughs. "And I said I would do it if Mary was on board." The two had known each other for 15 years--O'Gorman was one of Faulkner's teachers at Scarritt. Incidentally, the authors point out that the book was written entirely in Nashville's 37212 zip code. The technical editor, who reviewed the book for historical and theological accuracy, was James K. Mallett, pastor of Christ the King Church.

The publisher wanted the book written in 12 weeks. The authors realized such a schedule was impossible, but they did manage to write quickly, turning the project around in nine months. Incredibly, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism is out now, only a year after Faulkner's agent called her. It was a frantic time; while the pair was writing the book, numerous editors came and went, and part of the company was sold.

The authors' first task was assessing the request itself and determining their own direction for the book. "I was real nervous that all they wanted was sort of a dictionary," O'Gorman remembers. "Even just kind of a rock pile, where we threw a bunch of stuff in and people could pick out whatever rock they wanted to look at, and there'd be no organization or story. I said to Mary, 'Let's go for broke on this,' and she was with me. We sat and just conceptualized. The whole thing was fun."

"We kept producing," Faulkner says, "and because it was floating around for awhile, nobody was yelling at us. And when they saw the quality of what we were producing, they realized that this wasn't some quick study. For them, nine months is a huge increment of time. But we feel like it was a miracle."

O'Gorman surveyed the standard references on Catholicism and decided they were too abstract and academic. "We wanted to tell about Catholicism as we have experienced it," he explains. "In a sense, our book is an autobiography--not of one Catholic, but of Catholicism. I came up with all kinds of schemas and outlines and things, and then Mary said, 'Look, we're not doing research on this book. We have it within ourselves.'"

"We didn't research as such," Faulkner clarifies, "but we did work with a lot of reference materials."

"We'd alternate," O'Gorman adds. "Sometimes I'd get talking, and Mary would start taking notes or go to the computer and start typing. As I was talking, she kept asking questions and kept challenging, which drew more out of me. The next day it would be the reverse. We didn't plan this; it's just how it happened."

The results of this collaborative process then had to be molded into the form established for the series. However, O'Gorman and Faulkner point out that the editors at Alpha Books didn't inhibit the expression of authorial ideas.

"We were never sure who would read this," O'Gorman admits. "But in effect this book is meeting a need inside the Catholic Church. In reviews on Amazon.com, for example, former Catholics point out that this book has really clarified the Catholic experience, in which what they'd been taught had contradicted their experience."

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