William J. O’Malley’s most recent book, The Wow Factor: Bringing The Catholic Faith to Life, aims to rekindle the sense of wonder that he argues has been lost among young Catholics in recent decades. Having taught theology to high school students for nearly fifty years, Fr. O’Malley is in an excellent position to speak to teenagers and young adults about their faith. Yet O’Malley does not seek to talk down to his youthful audience, but rather to encourage them to take up their faith in an adult manner; to think in a deep and challenging way about their relationship with God.
In the first four chapters, O’Malley describes the conditions in which life has come to seem wonder-less, noting both the banality of evil (according to Hannah Arendt) along with the restless search for distractions in iPods, the internet, and casual sex. He counsels the virtues of humility and responsibility, encouraging his readers to recognize the vast complex universe that they are a part of along with their need to use their freedom appropriately within that universe. O’Malley draws heavily on scientific examples of wonder, from the images captured by the Hubble Telescope to the tremendous amount of empty space within a single atom.
The next six chapters encourage the development of this same sense of wonder while considering the truths of the Catholic faith. In particular, O’Malley writes about key tenets of the Nicene Creed: the Trinity, the Church (“The Least Leaky Boat”), the Scriptures, and forgiveness. He notes that no matter how insignificant one might seem against the backdrop of the universe, God nonetheless loves each person unconditionally. This gift of love and forgiveness – the Good News of the Gospel – should be enough to bring everyone to say “wow.”
O’Malley closes his book with a series of short meditations that are intended to engender a sense of wonder and gratitude in the reader. These passages crystallize the efforts of the book as a whole: they draw together diverse facets of life like the complexity of the brain and the gifts of the Holy Spirit and then conclude with a simple “Wow! Thanks!”
The Wow Factor is an impressive attempt to argue for the importance of wonder in the religious imagination. Moreover, since this book is written for the demographic that is finishing high school and moving into college, it strikes at the right time for those individuals who are beginning to take an adult posture towards their faith (or non-faith). Perhaps its greatest strength is that it successfully draws parallels between the scientific and religious senses of wonder. The amazing and complex realities that science has brought to our attention are interpreted in the context of God’s gift of creation, directing the reader towards the recognition that not only is there much to marvel at, but that it all comes from God.
O’Malley’s attempts to speak in language accessible to this age demographic does at times feel strained. Some references are appropriate (Google, Harry Potter), but others are curiously dated (staying up late to watch the Tonight Show, the Jon Benet Ramsey murder). In a youth culture that prizes texting and Facebook status messages, it is understandably difficult to maintain pop cultural fluency throughout the writing and publication of a text. Thus O’Malley’s choices here might be limiting but not damaging.
On the whole, this book would work well for those preparing for confirmation or those questioning what their Catholic faith has to offer in the midst of an atmosphere of sometimes overly rigid doctrinal conformity. The book could certainly be beneficial to any of the faithful who are concerned that their own sense of wonder has more or less slipped away.