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Memories came back soon after I started reading The Beautiful Madness of Martin Bonham by Robert Hudson. The main character of Hudson’s warm and lively novel is Martin Bonham, an English professor at a small Midwest university. Right away Bonham reminded me of a sardonic and highly enjoyable fictional Catholic priest named Don Camillo who appeared in scores of books I read as a teen. A memorable character, the parish priest was funny, wise, opinionated, full of a compelling faith, and always scuffling in one way or another with Peppone, the two-fisted Communist mayor in their small town in the Po Valley of northern Italy. I won’t overdo the point since this review is not about the priest who appeared in stories by Giovannino Guareschi. Rather, the connection for me is how the priest’s open-hearted and genial spirit, which provided many hours of reading pleasure, was resurrected as I stepped into the world of Martin Bonham at the fictional Cupperton University. For me, Bonham is another compelling character. He is also full of good humor and has a generous spirit. To boot, he finds himself at odds, not with a socialist politician, but with the Rev. Cornelius C. Dunwoody, chairman of the Cupperton Seminary and School of Theology. For much of the book, the two go at it, playing tricks and practical jokes on each other.

At the heart of their rivalry is a battle over forming an innovative academic department dedicated to the love of God. The idea for the Department of Theophily is hatched after seminary student Katie Wescott comes to Bonham and confesses, “I don’t love God.” Inspired by Katie’s admission, Bonham suggests creating a department in which faculty members teach spiritual aspects of their disciplines—say theater, astronomy or mathematics—and give students a wider view of God. Bonham strongly suspects that our Creator is much bigger and more mysterious than the One who can get overly exegeted and even explained away in a school of theology. Dunwoody, committed to traditional teaching, fights the formation of a new department. Suffice it to say, Bonham and Katie are wily friends who have an unwavering commitment to seeing their vision become reality. An added pleasure of this novel are quotes and quips Bonham offers along the way. A scholar of old English literature who teaches a course on Christian mystics, Bonham reminds us by quoting Dante, Teresa of Avila, William Blake, John Ruskin, and others that, among other things, we can’t put God in a box. Overall this illuminating novel by author Robert Hudson seems to be saying through his rich cast of characters, especially Bonham, that love will flourish once we can encounter and engage our marvelous and incomprehensible God. (Apocrophyle Press)

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