OK, well, I recently had a chance to review a pre-publication copy of her soon-to-be-released e-book, The Sinner's Guide to NFP. (I am told there will also be an audiobook. When I find out the publication date, I'll update with a link.)
Let's start with two lines I considered including in my review of this book, and then thought better of.
Line number one: "I recommend The Sinner's Guide to NFP wholeheartedly. Why? Because it reinforces all my personal preconceptions about the exact attitude everyone should have towards NFP."
Line number two: "Simcha Fisher's attitude in The Sinner's Guide to NFP is a welcome addition to the many writings about marital chastity we've all been subjected to. If it helps your faith and practice, you should take their advice to heart. If it doesn't, you can freely ignore it. Kind of like an approved Marian apparition! Except not likely to get quite as much attention."
Now that I have those out of the way, here's a more helpful review.
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I am not Fisher's target audience. Here's a quote that explains why:
[This book is] for couples who are completely dedicated to the idea; couples who, as long as they have a good reason to postpone pregnancy, will be using NFP to do so. But so far, they have found the fabulous side effects to be elusive; and by “elusive,” I mean “horrible, horrible lies.”
I am the first person to admit that my husband and I have drunk the NFP kool-aid. Not from the very beginning of our marriage have either of us even considered artificial contraception to be an option that remains on the table. We enthusiastically recommend it to everyone we can, using Catholic arguments when we think those will work, and usingsecular arguments when we think those might work better. We "get" the concept of bearing the inevitable annoyances as a cross -- a cross that ultimately strengthens our marriage. We are temperamentally incapable of relying too much on "providence" and not enough on "prudence." We are rule-following engineer types for whom charting and data analysis practically count as a form of foreplay. By all evidence we even appear to be good at NFP.
But even if I am not the target audience, I am maybe the target reviewer, because I wholeheartedly endorse the attitude in this book. The truth is that even when you're both totally on board, NFP has features which, well, you might as well laugh at them so you don't
(a) cry or
(b) throw things at each other.
As for the state of NFP discourse, even (especially?) among faithful Catholics? Well, it can be even worse.
And that is why we need Fisher's book. It's frank, it's conversational, and it's funny. What's possibly most important: it firmly rejects the nosy judgmentalism that pervades the conversation today, choosing instead to emphasize the great variety of good paths that a couple may find as they discern together the right decisions for their family.
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Although the title of the book is The Sinner's Guide to NFP, it's really more of a loosely organized collection of essays, some of them reprinted from Fisher's popular columns in the National Catholic Register and other publications. This isn't the sort of book that takes you from "beginner" through "intermediate" to "advanced" stages of natural family planning expertise. It's more of a corrective to some of the less-helpful attitudes that often prevail. It's an attempt to help couples avoid common pitfalls -- mental, spiritual, and sexual ones.
Here are some of the topics that Fisher covers:
- Why the Church doesn't "make a list" of specific situations when it would be good to postpone a pregnancy and another list of specific situations when it's bad.
- That there are many ways to live according to God's will.
- That a cross is a cross even when you aren't the one carrying it.
- That you can follow a good path that works for you now without committing to doing it always. You get to change your plan, and you can do it without thinking that you used to be wrong.
- That if you can't laugh about sex, you're doing it wrong.
- Why we shouldn't judge others' hearts based on the appearance of their families or even on their stated reasons for their decisions.
- Some principles to keep in mind when talking to kids about sex and baby-making.
- Positive ways to think about sexual differences and disparities between husband and wife, and how to use them to grow together in chastity and complementarity.
- Why NFP is the worst family planning system in the world, except for all the others.
I have a few quibbles with the way the book is presented.
First, the title is a little misleading, because it's not really organized as a guidebook. But that's not actually a problem with the content; since each chapter is a stand-alone essay, the reader can take them in any order, and skip whatever doesn't address her concerns. I could easily see individual chapters being reprinted for group discussions -- maybe even for marriage prep, if the leader is exceptionally bold.
Second, in one chapter Fisher contrasts couples "who space pregnancies using NFP" with "providentialists" who don't. An "ism" implies a belief, not a practice; I prefer not to classify couples as "providentialist" based on something they do, rather than something they think. Using that guideline, a "providentialist" (with respect to child spacing) is a person who believes one should generally not try to postpone pregnancies, and that's not the same as couple who discerns a personal calling to that path. This is a rare departure for Fisher, who generally makes a sensible distinction between what general principles advise and what particular circumstances dictate.
Third, the book doesn't quite manage to find a voice that consistently speaks to couples rather than to women. This is almost certainly a consequence of its organization as a collection of separate essays, which quite naturally were not all aimed at precisely the same audience. To Fisher's credit, it's also a natural consequence of the ease which which she can address both men and women. She clearly and sensitively articulates the concerns that seem to come up repeatedly among Catholic women; but at the same time she refuses to even dip a toe into sentimentality, let alone wallow in it.
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These three, however, are minor concerns. The Sinner's Guide can be a quick read or a lengthy immersion, depending on what you need from it. The informed Catholic reader will be glad to know that Fisher takes for granted that her reader understands basic Catholic teachings about marital chastity and family planning -- so it won't waste your time going over the fundamentals. Instead it dives right away into the lessons that can be learned from the daily putting of these principles into practice. It's a funny book, and it can be digested in small pieces. It contains a wealth of conversation starters for couples -- whether they are starting out or burning out, or just in the mood for a chat.
NFP may be the worst system in the world, but -- as Fisher writes -- it's the worst except for all the other ones. Maybe it's more accurate to say that NFP is actually a myriad of individualized systems, one for each couple striving to live out their faith through day-to-day expressions of marital sexuality -- naturally, a system that's intimate and personally tailored to circumstances, and also slightly ridiculous, because so is marital sexuality. Fisher's voice is a refreshing addition to the conversation.