"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Thursday, February 26, 2015

What Happens After Death?

This weekend, as noted earlier, I am in Waco, Texas giving a lecture as part of the Wilken Colloquium named in honor of Robert Louis Wilken. The theme this year is eschatology. I am giving a lecture alongside Brian Daley, some of whose earlier works I noted here. He and I, I gather, are the Catholic representatives while our evangelical colloquists (the Colloquium being run under the auspices of the Paradosis Centre for evangelical-Catholic dialogue) include Todd Billings and Jerry Walls.

Walls, whose earlier collection on eschatology was noted here, has a book published just this month: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most (Brazos, 2015), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Will heaven be boring? How can a good and loving God send people to hell? Is there such a place as purgatory? If so, why is it necessary, if we're saved by grace?

Questions about the afterlife abound. Given what is at stake, they are the most important questions we will ever consider. Recent years have seen a surge of Christian books written by people claiming to have received a glimpse of the afterlife, and numerous books, films, and TV shows have apocalyptic or postapocalyptic themes. Jerry Walls, a dynamic writer and expert on the afterlife, distills his academic writing on heaven, hell, and purgatory to offer clear biblical, theological, and philosophical grounding for thinking about these issues. He provides an ecumenical account of purgatory that is compatible with Protestant theology and defends the doctrine of eternal hell. Walls shows that the Christian vision of the afterlife illumines the deepest and most important issues of our lives, changing the way we think about happiness, personal identity, morality, and the very meaning of life.
My own lecture, for those who are interested, is entitled "Eschatology and Funerary Practices Today: Byzance après Byzance?" It surveys a good deal of recent Western scholarship critical of reformed funeral rites in the West today as being, inter alia, inadequate expressions of orthodox eschatology and often tools of very shoddy pastoral psychology also. I then critically review the Byzantine funeral rites to see how they fare before making some practical suggestions at the end.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What's More Than Communion?

As I've mentioned before, I'm going at month's end to Baylor University in Texas to give a lecture at the Wilken Colloquium, this year devoted to the theme of eschatology. Later this summer a new book will emerge that also treats this theme in the context of the work of two major theologians, Western and Eastern, of our time, viz., John Milbank and John Zizioulas: Scott MacDougall, More Than Communion: Imagining an Eschatological Ecclesiology (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 288pp.

About this book we are told:
Scott MacDougall offers a proposal for recovering the 'more' to communion and ecclesiology to aid in imagining a church not beyond the world (as in Zizioulas) or over against the world (as in Milbank), but in and for the world in love and service. This concept is worked out in conversation with systematic theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Johannes Baptist Metz, and by engaging with a theology of Christian practices currently being developed by such as Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra. The potential for the church to become a vehicle for love and service can be realised when it anticipate God's promised perfection in the communions between God, humanity, and the rest of creation.
Zizioulas' and Milbank's theologies of the church are both marked by an overly realised sense of the impending end of the world (eschatology). As a result, their theology fails to acknowledge the potential for good the time-frame a theology of eschatology can have on influencing how people act. This focus on the impact of the ending of the world is further connected to both theologians' devaluation of material creation and history, privileging of institutions, the restrictive and closed concept of the church, and reduction of ecclesial practice essential to eucharist. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cyril of Alexandria's Commentary on John

Whatever his failings in the realm of inter-personal relations (if the Church in Alexandria had an HR department as bothered by busybodies as most organizations today, you can bet Cyril would have been written up during his annual evaluation as "divisive" and "extremist," which things could well be said of most if not all Church Fathers!), there is no denying his significance to the development of early Christian doctrine. Set for release in May is another translation of one of Cyril's works: Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, vol. 2, David R. Maxwell, trans. and Joel C. Elowsky, ed.,  (IVP Academic, 2015), 400pp. 

About this book we are told:
Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 378-444), one of the most brilliant representatives of the Alexandrian theological tradition, is best known for championing the term Theotokos (God-bearer) in opposition to Nestorius of Constantinople. Cyril's great Commentary on John, offered here in the Ancient Christian Texts series in two volumes, predates the Nestorian controversy and focuses its theological firepower against Arianism. The commentary, addressed to catechists, displays Cyril's breathtaking mastery of the full content of the Bible and his painstaking attention to detail as he offers practical teaching for the faithful on the cosmic story of God's salvation. David R. Maxwell provides readers with the first completely fresh English translation of the text since the nineteenth century. It rests on Pusey's critical edition of the Greek text and displays Cyril's profound theological interpretation of Scripture and his appeal to the patristic tradition that preceded him. Today's readers will find the commentary an indispensable tool for understanding Cyril's approach to Scripture.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pity Origen

As the incomparable Sir Humphrey Appleby says to Prime Minister Jim Hacker in one of the most brilliant British comedies of the 1980s, "half of them are your enemies, and the other half the sort of 'friends' who make you prefer your enemies." How often I have thought of that line when thinking of besotted figures such as Origen or Evagrius, as I have noted several times on here. Their so-called friends and followers did them no favors in many ways, and may in fact in some cases have been worse than outright enemies.

Forthcoming this spring is another book that examines the condemnations attached to Origen, and the role that others played in getting Origen into trouble: Krastu Banev, Theophilus of Alexandria and the First Origenist Controversy: Rhetoric and Power (Oxford UP, 2015), 256pp.

The publisher tells us that some of the virtues of this forthcoming book are that it:
  • Presents a contextualized literary-historical approach and offers new insights into the life and reputation of Theophilus of Alexandria (385-412)
  • Examines the Festal Letters of Theophilus and identifies the importance of classical rhetorical theory as a methodological tool for the interpretation of relevant historical data
  • Focuses on the so-called First Origenist Controversy, the condemnation of Origen in AD 400 in Alexandria, and the punishment and expulsion of his monastic followers from the Egyptian desert
The publisher further blurbs the book thus: 
In the age of the Theodosian dynasty and the establishment of Christianity as the only legitimate religion of the Roman Empire, few figures are more pivotal in the power politics of the Christian church than archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria (385-412). This work examines the involvement of archbishop Theophilus in the so-called First Origenist Controversy when the famed third-century Greek theologian Origen received, a century and a half after his death, a formal condemnation for heresy. Modern scholars have been successful in removing the majority of the charges which Theophilus laid on Origen as not giving a fair representation of his thought. Yet no sufficient explanation has been offered as to why what to us appears as an obvious miscarriage of justice came to be accepted, or why it was needed in the first place. Kratsu Banev offers a sustained argument for the value of a rhetorically informed methodology with which to analyse Theophilus' anti-Origenist Festal Letters. He highlights that the wide circulation and overt rhetorical composition of these letters allow for a new reading of these key documents as a form of 'mass-media' unique for its time. The discussion is built on a detailed examination of two key ingredients in the pastoral polemic of the archbishop - masterly use of late-antique rhetorical conventions, and in-depth knowledge of monastic spirituality - both of which were vital for securing the eventual acceptance of Origen's condemnation. Dr Banev's fresh approach reveals that Theophilus' campaign formed part of a consistent policy aimed at harnessing the intellectual energy of the ascetic movement to serve the wider needs of the church.
 
The Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments
Introduction
Part 1. Theophilus of Alexandria and the Origenist Controversy
1: Historical Background
(a) Distant Prehistory
(b) Immediate Prehistory
2: Theological Issues
(a) Theophilus' Origenism and the Evagrian Heritage
(b) The 'Elusive Anthropomorphites' at the time of Theophilus
3: The Anti-Origenist Councils of AD 400
(a) Violence in the Desert
(b) The Condemnation of Orige
Part II. Background for the Analysis of Theophilus' Rhetoric
4: Classical Rhetoric and Christian Paideia
(a) Rhetoric and the Early Church
(b) Mass Persuasion in the Fifth Century: The Case of Theophilus' Festal Letters
(c) Jerome and Synesius on Theophilus' Letters
5: Classical Rhetoric: Theoretical Foundations
(a) Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric
(b) The Progymnasmata Tradition
(c) The Hermogenic Corpus
Part III. Analysis of Theophilus' Rhetoric
6: Rhetorical Proofs from Pathos, Ethos and Logos
(a) Emotional Appeal
(b) Ethical Appeal
(c) Logical Appeal
(d) Theophilus' Teachers
7: Rhetorical Proofs from Liturgy and Scripture
Part IV. Monastic Reception of Theophilus' Rhetoric
8: The Value of Monastic Sources
(a) Rhetorically Important Themes in the Apophthegmata
(b) The Ambiguous Place of Heresy
9: The Image of Theophilus in the Apophthegmata
Review of the Argument and Epilogue
Bibliography

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Early Christian Listening

We have been seeing more attention paid in the scholarly world to the role of the senses in particular, and the body in general, in Eastern and early Christianity. Moreover, we have been discovering, especially in Evagrian and other early monastic literature, certain practices of spiritual insight and guidance that would not again be "discovered" and popularized until the advent of Sigmund Freud and the birth of modern psychology. One example of this from nearly a decade ago now is the work of the Orthodox historian and theologian Susan Ashbrook Harvey in her fascinating book, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination.

Then in 2013 Carol Harrison published a book whose paperback edition is forthcoming later this spring: The Art of Listening in the Early Church (Oxford UP, 2015), 320pp. Christianity, of course, places great emphasis on message, good news, teaching, and preaching: but to whom? What of those who hear this message? How do they listen? What is involved in the process of listening?

The virtues of this book, according to the publisher, include:
  • The first book to consider hearing in the early Church: Rhetoric, or the art of speaking, in the ancient world, has received a great deal of attention; the art of listening has been almost totally ignored.
  • Demonstrates how the art of listening influenced early Christian practice (catechesis, preaching, prayer) as well as theological reflection.
  • Uses cognitive science, contemporary philosophy, cultural anthropology, and musicology, in addition to theological reflection, to demonstrate that listening is best understood as an art rather than a matter of the rational capture of information.
  • Opens up a new approach to early Christian thought and practice which gives a place to the role of the silent listener (human and divine) and examines their role in influencing what is said/written.
About this book the publisher says:
How did people think about listening in the ancient world, and what evidence do we have of it in practice? The Christian faith came to the illiterate majority in the early Church through their ears. This proved problematic: the senses and the body had long been held in suspicion as all too temporal, mutable and distracting. Carol Harrison argues that despite profound ambivalence on these matters, in practice, the senses, and in particular the sense of hearing, were ultimately regarded as necessary - indeed salvific -constraints for fallen human beings. By examining early catechesis, preaching and prayer, she demonstrates that what illiterate early Christians heard both formed their minds and souls and, above all, enabled them to become 'literate' listeners; able not only to grasp the rule of faith but also tacitly to follow the infinite variations on it which were played out in early Christian teaching, exegesis and worship. It becomes clear that listening to the faith was less a matter of rationally appropriating facts and more an art which needed to be constantly practiced: for what was heard could not be definitively fixed and pinned down, but was ultimately the Word of the unknowable, transcendent God. This word demanded of early Christian listeners a response - to attend to its echoes, recollect and represent it, stretch out towards it source, and in the process, be transformed by it.
The Table of Contents:
Preface
Introduction: Voices of the Page
First Impromptu: The Other Side of Language or listening to the voice of Being
I: An Auditory Culture
1: Listening in Cultural Context
2: Rhetoric and the Art of Listening
3: Images and Echoes
II: Theme and Variations
4: Catechesis: Sounding the Theme
Second Impromptu : Playing ball: the art of reception
5: Preaching: Variations on the Theme
Third Impromptu: Singing the blues
III: From Listening to Hearing
6: The Polyphony of Prayer
7: From the bottom to the bottomless
Bibliography

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Eastern Biblical Scholarship

2015 marks the bicentenary of the birth of one of the leading biblical scholars of the nineteenth century, Constantin von Tischendorf. In preparation for this event, a new book has just been published discussing his life and legacy: Stanley E. Porter, Constantine Tischendorf: The Life and Work of a 19th Century Bible Hunter (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 176pp.

About this book and its central figure the publisher tells us:
Constantin von Tischendorf was a pioneer. He existed in an age when biblical studies as we know it was being formed, when the quest for forgotten manuscripts and lost treasures was being undertaken with no less zeal and intrigue than it is today. It was Tischendorf who found, and preserved, the oldest extant version of the complete bible that we know of, the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which he discovered in poor condition at St Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, in 1846.

With the discovery of the Codex Tischendorf, and others, was to take the study of biblical texts further than ever before, through linguistic methods, and attention to the most ancient sources available. In many ways Tischendorf was a father figure of the modern Historical Critical Method.

In this short biography, Stanley E. Porter, himself one of the most respected scholars of the New Testament and Koine Greek currently writing, gives a portrait of Tischendorf's life and work, together with an annotated republication of Tischendorf's influential work on the Gospels.

Published to celebrate Tischendorf's bicentenary, in 2015, this volume will be a must for those seeking to understand how the study of biblical manuscripts began, and to understand the man who discovered the oldest version of the bible as we know it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Maximus in Your Handbag

As I have noted before, we live in a happy time when studies continue to pour forth on Eastern figures and topics, especially the Fathers. Thus we have seen a long parade of books about Maximus the Confessor over the last decade and more, as I have noted several times on here.

Now in May we will be treated to a rich collection, in the ongoing series of Oxford Handbooks: Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor (Oxford, 2015),624pp.

The merits of this book, according to the publisher, include:

  • Integration for the first time Maximus' of works and thought into the history of his life in the politically troubled times of seventh-century Byzantium.
  • Contributions from thirty of the foremost scholars in the field.
  • An interdisciplinary work covering one of the most discussed figures in contemporary studies of Byzantine theology, philosophy, and the history of the seventh century.
  • Includes updated date list of Maximus' works, allowing the reader to see his full oeuvre at a glance and in chronological order.
The publisher further describes the book for us thus:
Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) has become one of the most discussed figures in contemporary patristic studies. This is partly due to the relatively recent discovery and critical edition of his works in various genres, including On the Ascetic Life, Four Centuries on Charity, Two Centuries on Theology and the Incarnation, On the 'Our Father', two separate Books of Difficulties, addressed to John and to Thomas, Questions and Doubts, Questions to Thalassius, Mystagogy and the Short Theological and Polemical Works.
The impact of these works reached far beyond the Greek East, with his involvement in the western resistance to imperial heresy, notably at the Lateran Synod in 649. Together with Pope Martin I (649-53 CE), Maximus the Confessor and his circle were the most vocal opponents of Constantinople's introduction of the doctrine of monothelitism. This dispute over the number of wills in Christ became a contest between the imperial government and church of Constantinople on the one hand, and the bishop of Rome in concert with eastern monks such as Maximus, John Moschus, and Sophronius, on the other, over the right to define orthodoxy. An understanding of the difficult relations between church and state in this troubled period at the close of Late Antiquity is necessary for a full appreciation of Maximus' contribution to this controversy.
The editors of this volume provide the political and historical background to Maximus' activities, as well as a summary of his achievements in the spheres of theology and philosophy, especially neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism.
The table of contents:

Part One. Historical Setting
1. Life and Times of Maximus the Confessor, Pauline Allen
2. An Updated Date-List of the Works of Maximus the Confessor, Marek Jankowiak and Phil Booth
3. Byzantium in the Seventh Century, Walter E. Kaegi
4. Maximus, a Cautious Chalcedonian, Cyril Hovorun
Part Two. Theological and Philosophical Influences
5. Classical Philosophical Influences: Aristotle and Platonism, Marius Portaru
6. The Foundation of Origenist Metaphysics, Pascal Mueller-Jourdan
7. Theological and Philosophical Influences: The Ascetic Tradition, Marcus Plested
8. Dionysius Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor, Ysabel De Andia
9. Mindset (γνώμη) in John Chrysostom, Raymond J. Laird
10. Augustine on the Will, Johannes Borjesson
11. Divine Providence and the Gnomic Will before Maximus, Bronwen Neil
Part Three. Works and Thought
12. Exegesis of Scripture, Paul M. Blowers
13. Maximus the Confessor's Use of Literary Genres, Peter Van Deun
14. Passions, Ascesis, and the Virtues, Demetrios Bathrellos
15. Christocentric Cosmology, Torstein T. Tollefsen
16. Eschatology in Maximus the Confessor, Andreas Andreopoulos
17. The Mode of Deification, Jean-Claude Larchet
18. Spiritual Anthropology in Ambiguum 7, Adam Cooper
19. Mapping Reality within the Experience of Holiness, Doru Costache
20. Christian Life and Praxis: The Centuries on Love, George Berthold
21. Liturgy as Cosmic Transformation, Thomas Cattoi
Part Four. Reception
22. The Georgian Tradition on Maximus the Confessor, Lela Khoperia
23. Maximus' Heritage in Russia and Ukraine, Grigory Benevich
24. The Impact of Maximus the Confessor on John Scottus Eriugena, Catherine Kavanagh
25. Maximus the Confessor's Influence and Reception in Byzantine and Modern Orthodoxy, Andrew Louth
26. The Theology of the Will, Ian A. McFarland
27. Maximus and Modern Psychology, Michael Bakker
28. Maximus the Confessor and Ecumenism, Edward Siecienski
29. Reception of Maximian Thought in the Modern Era, Joshua Lollar

Friday, February 13, 2015

Orthodox Readings of Aquinas

Oxford University Press yesterday sent me a flyer in the mail alerting me to the fact that they have just released a paperback version of Marcus Plested's Orthodox Readings of Aquinas

When this superlative and wholly welcome study first emerged two years ago in hardback, I reviewed it here, and interviewed Plested here.This is precisely the sort of careful, discerning scholarship that we need, and all the reviews I have seen have been extremely laudatory, and rightly so. Never again should anyone from the East be allowed to slag Aquinas or "the scholastics" until and unless they have read this book from an important Orthodox scholar.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Primary Texts on Christian-Muslim Relations

Presidents, popes, and other "celebrities" seem to think that, ex officio, they are authorized and even magically qualified to unburden themselves of incoherent and illiterate eructations about the Crusades (the same tiresome, fourth-hand, fifth-rate comic-opera presentations one has been hearing forever) and the messiness of Christian-Muslim relations down through the centuries. Perhaps in their retirement or spare time they might allow themselves to be schooled in some of this history on which I have remarked frequently. Perhaps too they might bestir themselves to pick up one of these forthcoming publications, about each of which I shall have more to say in the weeks ahead. It is always, always recommended that one read primary texts rather than the versions that make their way too often into historical accounts, which, especially in the hands of apologists, are too-often tendentious and twisted. Treat yourself, therefore, to one or all of these new volumes:

Jarbel Rodriguez, Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2015), 456pp. 
About this book we are told:
This collection of over 80 primary source readings explores the complex history of Muslim and Christian relations from the seventh to the fifteenth century. With particular focus on the Mediterranean world, and incorporating the works of Byzantine, Jewish, Muslim, and Latin Christian authors, the documents help readers to understand the nature of conflict and contact between medieval Muslims and Christians. They reveal a history of warfare, piracy, and raiding, typically along religious lines, but also a history of commerce, intellectual exchanges, and personal relationships that transcended religious differences.
Many well-known sources are included, as well as lesser-known sources that have never before been translated into English. In collected form, the sources provide a holistic overview of the complex historical relationship between Muslims and Christians.
The second volume, from Michael Phillip Penn, is of especial interest to Eastern Christians: When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (University of California Press, 2015), 280pp. 

About this book we are told:
The first Christians to meet Muslims were not Latin-speaking Christians from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople but rather Christians from northern Mesopotamia who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Living in what constitutes modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, and eastern Turkey, these Syriac Christians were under Muslim rule from the seventh century to the present. They wrote the earliest and most extensive accounts of Islam and described a complicated set of religious and cultural exchanges not reducible to the solely antagonistic. Through its critical introductions and new translations of this invaluable historical material, When Christians First Met Muslims allows scholars, students, and the general public to explore the earliest interactions of what eventually became the world’s two largest religions, shedding new light on Islamic history and Christian-Muslim relations.
Finally we come to a book set for release later this spring: Charles Tieszen, A Textual History of Christian-Muslim Relations: Seventh-Fifteenth Centuries (Fortress, May 2015), 224pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The question of Christian-Muslim relations is one of enduring importance in the twenty-first century. While there exists a broad range of helpful overviews on the question, these introductory texts often fail to provide readers with the depth that a thorough treatment of the primary sources and their authors would provide.
In this important new project, Charles Tieszen provides a collection of primary theological sources devoted to the formational period of Christian-Muslim relations. It provides brief introductions to authors and their texts along with representative selections in English translation. The collection is arranged according to the key theological themes that emerge as Christians and Muslims encounter one another in this era.
The result is a resource that offers students a far better grasp of the texts early Christians and Muslims wrote about each other and a better understanding of the important theological themes that are pertinent to Christian-Muslim dialogue today.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Medieval Christianity

Covering as it does the period of acute crisis ("great schism") between East and West, and all the messy history immediately before 1054 and for centuries afterwards, this new collection promises to be of great interest to historians and ecumenists alike (if they win the lottery to afford it): R.N. Swanson, ed., The Routledge History of Medieval Christianity: 1050-1500 (Routledge, 2015), 408pp.
 

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Routledge History of Medieval Christianity explores the role of Christianity in European society from the middle of the eleventh-century until the dawning of the Reformation. Arranged in four thematic sections and comprising 23 originally commissioned chapters plus introductory overviews to each section by the editor, this book provides an authoritative survey of a vital element of medieval history.
Comprehensive and cohesive, this volume provides a holistic view of Christianity in medieval Europe, examining not only the church itself but also its role in, influence on, and tensions with, contemporary society. Chapters therefore range from examinations of structures, theology and devotional practices within the church to topics such as gender, violence and holy warfare, the economy, morality, culture, and many more besides, demonstrating the pervasiveness and importance of the church and Christianity in the medieval world.
Despite the transition into an increasingly post-Christian age, the historic role of Christianity in the development of Europe remains essential to the understanding of European history – particularly in the medieval period. This collection will be essential reading for students and scholars of medieval studies across a broad range of disciplines.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ISIS, the Crusades, and the Modern Middle East

If you were able yesterday to watch that gruesome video of ISIS burning alive the captured Jordanian pilot, and you watched it through to the end, he was in the fine print at the conclusion, after the immolation of his body, described as deserving his fate because he was a "crusader pilot." I am teaching a course on the Crusades this semester and so was especially struck by this use of the phrase to describe a pilot who was Jordanian and therefore presumably (a) Arab-speaking; and (b)  himself Muslim. But the fact he was flying raids over ISIS territories in conjunction with the Jordanian, American and other governments was enough to disqualify him apparently from membership in the umma and presumably to enroll him instead in the "crusading" enemies of Islam in the dar al-harb, thus making him fit for an exceptionally nasty execution.

ISIS of course is a uniquely demonic mixture of ancient barbarisms and modern technologies. But their invocation of the Crusades is especially modern, more than they or others likely realize. As Jonathan Riley-Smith, the doyen of Crusades scholars today, demonstrated in his short but illuminating book The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, the Crusades were not a prominent or common feature in Muslim political imagination until the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth when they were re-discovered not so much as evidence of Muslim suffering and Western wickedness--for most Muslims were entirely ignorant of the history of the Crusades, or to the extent they knew of them at all they regarded them as generally glorious victories for Islam in the main--but instead as tools by which to browbeat an increasingly guilt-ridden and self-loathing West into ever lower levels of auto-debasement, a process that has only accelerated since then. 

To understand the connections between the events of 2015 and the invocations of Crusades from a thousand years ago, a recent book is especially helpful, coming from the pen of North America's leading scholar of them, Thomas Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 264pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
What is the relationship between the medieval crusades and the problems of the modern Middle East? Were the crusades the Christian equivalent of Muslim jihad? In this sweeping yet crisp history, Thomas F. Madden offers a brilliant and compelling narrative of the crusades and their contemporary relevance. Placing all of the major crusades within their social, economic, religious, and intellectual environments, Madden explores the uniquely medieval world that led untold thousands to leave their homes, families, and friends to march in Christ’s name to distant lands. From Palestine and Europe's farthest reaches, each crusade is recounted in a clear, concise narrative. The author gives special attention as well to the crusades’ effects on the Islamic world and the Christian Byzantine East.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Wanted: Christian Burial Societies

Ask the average person (sadder still: the average Catholic) to name one of the corporal works of mercy, and you'll very likely get a blank stare. Ask him what the pope said recently about the reproductive habits of rabbits and Catholics, and you'll get some fulsome burbling about how Francis is just the coolest pope ever.

But burying the dead is one of those practices of charity and mercy enjoined upon all Christians. And burial practices today, as I recently noted, are very much in a state of flux and change. This creates problems for Christians insofar as many of these new practices (and a goodly number of the older ones also) subtly, and sometimes overtly, undermine the Church's faith in the resurrection in particular and her teaching on eschatology more generally.

Such, at any rate, is my thesis for a lecture I am giving next month at Baylor University's Wilken Colloquium (part of the Paradosis Centre). The colloquium is named after the historian and patrologist Robert Louis Wilken, author of numerous important works, including The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, John Chrysostom and the Jews : Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century, and The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom; and translator of others, including Maximus the Confessor, On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ.

As I am thinking about this problem, and how to bolster a proper eschatology, my mind returns to two books previously discussed on here: Juliet du Boulay, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village; and then Mark and Elizabeth Barna, A Christian Ending. I interviewed the Barnas here.

Du Boulay's book, which I discussed briefly here, has made me realize that restoring Christian funerary practices in a robust and undiluted way will not come about merely by getting the liturgy correct--much as I love the Byzantine liturgical tradition and think it alone today has some of the crucial elements in her funeral rites missing in Western traditions. Absent an entire local community (such as the villages in the Greek islands du Boulay surveyed), it will not be possible to pull off what I am proposing. Too many recent commentators (e.g., Thomas Rausch) have noted that you can have wonderful liturgy with all the correct theology and yet get nowhere with preaching the resurrection of the flesh to people surrounded by contrary cultural customs and beliefs. Liturgy, thus, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to recovering healthy Christian practices and a solid eschatology.

What is further needed, I am coming to see, is the establishment of something with an old history: Christian burial societies to handle the work--washing and dressing the body, building coffins, digging graves, planning funerals and memorials and meals. These societies existed at one point in England, and still exist in Jewish form in Israel and elsewhere today. But for all intents and purposes Christians today in the West have handed over their dead to funeral "professionals." I'm not denying that many such professionals do a fine job with the best of intentions (though there are, of course, shady operators).

But as Thomas G. Long's recent and excellent book, Accompany Them with Singing--The Christian Funeral notes, the professionalization of funerals has also resulted, however inadvertently, in their paganization also in significant ways. If Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection (as St. Paul put it), then this is not something we can afford to get wrong, or to hand over to others who do not share the same fundamental theology. Hence I should be delighted to see the work the Barnas are doing, training volunteers in how to handle death, spread very widely until it becomes the norm, at least for Christians. This would be a good in itself, but it would also be a tool of evangelical outreach to a world one can characterize as increasingly rébarbatif.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ukrainian and Russian Realities Past and Present

The University of Toronto Press recently sent me their catalogue, and there are a number of new books (or newly reprinted in paperback) in there of interest especially to Eastern Christians in Eastern Europe. A particular focus is on Ukraine, which, given the ongoing and Russian-instigated conflict there, is not surprising.

Two of the new publications come from the well-known and prolific historian Serhii Plokhy whose fascinating book Yalta: the Price of Peace captures a crucial moment in World War II history and the development of the early Cold War. He has also authored two more recent studies, including Ukraine and Russia: Representations of the Past (U Toronto Press, 2014, 412pp).

About this book we are told:
The question of where Russian history ends and Ukrainian history begins has not yet received a satisfactory answer. Generations of historians referred to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, as the starting point of the Muscovite dynasty, the Russian state, and, ultimately, the Russian nation. However, the history of Kyiv and that of the Scythians of the Northern Black Sea region have also been claimed by Ukrainian historians, and are now regarded as integral parts of the history of Ukraine. If these are actually the beginnings of Ukrainian history, when does Russian history start?
In Ukraine and Russia, Serhii Plokhy discusses many questions fundamental to the formation of modern Russian and Ukrainian historical identity. He investigates the critical role of history in the development of modern national identities and offers historical and cultural insight into the current state of relations between the two nations. Plokhy shows how history has been constructed, used, and misused in order to justify the existence of imperial and modern national projects, and how those projects have influenced the interpretation of history in Russia and Ukraine. This book makes important assertions not only about the conflicts and negotiations inherent to opposing historiographic traditions, but about ways of overcoming the limitations imposed by those traditions.
Plokhy also authored Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History (Toronto, 2015, 630pp).

About this book the publisher says:
From the eighteenth century until its collapse in 1917, Imperial Russia – as distinct from Muscovite Russia before it and Soviet Russia after it – officially held that the Russian nation consisted of three branches: Great Russian, Little Russian (Ukrainian), and White Russian (Belarusian). After the 1917 revolution, this view was discredited by many leading scholars, politicians, and cultural figures, but none were more intimately involved in the dismantling of the old imperial identity and its historical narrative than the eminent Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866–1934).
Hrushevsky took an active part in the work of Ukrainian scholarly, cultural, and political organizations and became the first head of the independent Ukrainian state in 1918. Serhii Plokhy's Unmaking Imperial Russia examines Hrushevsky's construction of a new historical paradigm that brought about the nationalization of the Ukrainian past and established Ukrainian history as a separate field of study. By showing how the ‘all-Russian’ historical paradigm was challenged by the Ukrainian national project, Plokhy provides the indispensable background for understanding the current state of relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Two other books treat Ukrainian-Russian relations during the Soviet period, including Serhy Yekelchyk, Stalin's Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination (U Toronto Press, 2014), 252pp.

About this book we are told:
Based on declassified materials from eight Ukrainian and Russian archives, Stalin's Empire of Memory, offers a complex and vivid analysis of the politics of memory under Stalinism. Using the Ukrainian republic as a case study, Serhy Yekelchyk elucidates the intricate interaction between the Kremlin, non-Russian intellectuals, and their audiences. Yekelchyk posits that contemporary representations of the past reflected the USSR's evolution into an empire with a complex hierarchy among its nations. In reality, he argues, the authorities never quite managed to control popular historical imagination or fully reconcile Russia's 'glorious past' with national mythologies of the non-Russian nationalities. Combining archival research with an innovative methodology that links scholarly and political texts with the literary works and artistic images, Stalin's Empire of Memory presents a lucid, readable text that will become a must-have for students, academics, and anyone interested in Russian history.
Stephen Velychenko, Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925 (2015), 288pp.

About this last study, the Press tells us:
In Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red, Stephen Velychenko traces the first expressions of national, anti-colonial Marxism to 1918 and the Russian Bolshevik occupation of Ukraine. Velychenko reviews the work of early twentieth-century Ukrainians who regarded Russian rule over their country as colonialism. He then discusses the rise of “national communism” in Russia and Ukraine and the Ukrainian Marxist critique of Russian imperialism and colonialism. The first extended analysis of Russian communist rule in Ukraine to focus on the Ukrainian communists, their attempted anti-Bolshevik uprising in 1919, and their exclusion from the Comintern, Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red re-opens a long forgotten chapter of the early years of the Soviet Union and the relationship between nationalism and communism. An appendix provides a valuable selection of Ukrainian Marxist texts, all translated into English for the first time.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Gay Bathhouses on Mt. Athos?

Live long enough in the academy and you'll see the most improbable pairings and the most unlikely couplings. But even by that semi-cynical standard, I confess that I did not expect to see a new work coming out this spring from Eerdmans: Sergey S. Jorujy, Practices of the Self and Spiritual Practices: Michel Foucault and the Eastern Christian Discourse, ed. Kristina Stoeckl, trans. Boris Jakim (Eerdmans, 2015), 232pp.

About this book we are told:
In this book Sergey Horujy undertakes a novel comparative analysis of Foucault’s theory of practices of the self and the Eastern Orthodox ascetical tradition of Hesychasm, revealing great affinity between these two radical “subject-less” approaches to anthropology. As he facilitates the dialogue between the two, he offers both an original treatment of ascetical and mystical practices and an up-to-date interpretation of Foucault that goes against the grain of mainstream scholarship.

In the second half of the book Horujy transitions from the dialogue with Foucault to his own work of Christian philosophy, rooted in -- but not limited to -- the Eastern Christian philosophical and theological tradition. Horujy’s thinking exemplifies the postsecular nature of our contemporary period and serves as a powerful invitation to think beyond religious-secular divides in philosophy and Eastern-Western divides in intellectual history.
My surprise at this volume comes from knowing something of the rather scabrous life and having read some of the works of Michel Foucault, who died in 1984 at the age of 57 after having contracted AIDS at a sadomasochistic gay bathhouse in San Francisco. When I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, Foucault was all the rage in my English and psychology courses, inter alia, and so we heard all about him along with the other "post-structuralists" and their colleagues, especially Lacan and Derrida. Some of Foucault's works actually had valuable insights (e.g., Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison or parts of The History of Sexuality) but reading any of this unholy trinity and their too-frequent propensity for leaden, jargon-beggared, neologism-ridden prose put me in mind of Clive James' acid aphorism about another ghastly French philosopher we were also forced to read, viz., Sartre: "In Sartre’s style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas."

Such is not the kind of commendation you would expect for someone brought into dialogue with one of the central spiritual practices of Eastern Christianity, viz., hesychasm. But as I've noted repeatedly on here over the years, hesychasm today seems to be a topic coming in for more frequent academic analysis, and to the extent such a development may encourage new audiences to take up prayer, that cannot necessarily be a bad thing. The distance, then, between a monastery on Mt. Athos committed to hesychastic prayer, and a gay bathhouse in San Francisco (which the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once memorably called "that sceptered isle of swinging silliness") committed to sexual practices no orthodox Christian could countenance, is not so great, and increasingly traverses the quad in front of your local college. If this isn't a case of "despoiling the Egyptians" or "baptizing the pagans," then I don't know what is.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

50 Years Ago Today...

My esteem for Winston Churchill has bee noted already. Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of his death, precisely 70 years to the day (as he had earlier predicted) of his own father's death. His final years are narrated by the Cambridge historian David Reynolds in this documentary. And these clips give a few insights into his state funeral.

He was a complex man, of course, and there is perhaps as much to praise as to criticize in him, as many have recognized for decades now. But--if I may be forgiven for intruding an autobiographical note here--I would defend him for personal reasons insofar as his stout defense of Britain helped my grandparents and mother to survive and thus made my life possible.

From the beginning he saw the threat of Bolshevism that was to destroy scores of millions of Eastern Christians and was never shy about calling for a fight against that menace, not only during the immediate post-WWI years, but through the inter-war years and even as late as 1945 when he had plans drafted ("Operation Unthinkable") for the soon-to-be subdued Germans to come over to the side of the Western powers to resume the fight against the Soviet Union, which was already swallowing up Eastern Europe and reneging on its commitments with regards to Polish elections and much else beside.

There continues to be a flood of books written about Churchill, and I noted in the link above some of the ones I have found most enjoyable and edifying. I would also note the charming documentary put together by his granddaughter Celia Sandys, Chasing Churchill. It is a very winsome and revealing portrait, and I have re-watched it this day in the great man's honour. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Disordered and Demonic Thoughts

Though I think, after Augustine Casiday's recent work, that any suspicion of Evagrius should be set aside, I would argue that even those who are still a bit uneasy about him can and should benefit from his original and path-breaking insights into the role of the mind and the destructive power of thoughts--1500 years before Freud and modern psychology. I thought of Evagrius and his insights into the logismoi or disordered thoughts when listening last weekend to a fascinating and moving interview on NPR with Martin Pistorius and his harrowing descent into massive disability whereby he was unable to move or communicate, but still had an active mind--a mind that began malevolently to work against him, assaulting him with dark and despairing thoughts of his hopelessness and worthlessness. How cruel those thoughts can be! It is little short of miraculous that he has made the dramatic recovery he has, as recounted in his recent memoir, Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body.

There are many recent studies on Evagrius, but three in particular address the thoughts and the temptation of despair: George Tsakiridis, Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts. (I interviewed George here.) In addition, there is David Brakke's Evagrius Of Pontus: Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons and then Gabriel Bunge's Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Greek and a Turk Walk into a Bar...

Discussions of the First World War have, as I've noted before, focused on Christian suffering, especially in Armenia in 1915. Far less attention has been paid to the slaughter, at that same time, of Assyrian Christians and Pontic Greeks. Still less attention is given to the postwar massacres of Greek Christians in the forced exchanges of population after the war, events which came with the razing of Smyrna, inter alia, and the expulsion of Greeks from Anatolia. But the more we learn of Christian-Muslim relations in the antebellum period, the more we realize that it was not all bloodshed and violence. A new book continues to help us see the messiness of history in this period and place: Vally Lytra, ed., When Greeks and Turks Meet: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Relationship Since 1923 (Ashgate, 2014), 319pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The relationship between the history, culture and peoples of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus is often reduced to an equation which defines one side in opposition to the other. The reality is much more complex and while there have been and remain significant divisions there are many, and arguably more, areas of overlap, commonality and common interest. This book addresses a gap in the scholarly literature by bringing together specialists from different disciplinary traditions - history, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, literature, ethnomusicology and international relations, so as to examine the relationship between Greeks and Turks, as well as between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. When Greeks and Turks Meet aims to contribute to current critical and comparative approaches to the study of this complex relationship in order to question essentialist representations, stereotypes and dominant myths and understand the context and ideology of events, processes and experience. Starting from this interdisciplinary perspective and taking both diachronic and synchronic approaches, the book offers a fresh coverage of key themes including memory, history and loss; the politics of identity, language and culture; discourses of inclusion and exclusion. Contributors focus on the geographical areas of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and on the modern historical period (since 1923) up to the present day, offering in some cases an informed perspective that looks towards the future. When Greeks and Turks Meet will be essential reading for students and researchers working on the cross-roads of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, on South-East Europe and the Middle East more generally. It will also be a valuable resource for students and researchers in inter-cultural communication, cultural and media studies, language and education, international relations and politics, refugee and migration studies, conflict and post-conflict studies.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Christianity and Ecological Responsibility

With rumors flying that the next papal utterance to which we are to be treated in encyclical form will cover the controverted and tiresome topic of global warming, it is interesting to note that Eastern Christianity has been addressing ecological concerns for quite some time now. Indeed, the Ecumenical Patriarch has sometimes been nick-named the "green patriarch" for his frequent discussions of ecological issues. At the same time, however, Orthodox theology has not developed as far as Catholic theology has when it comes to other social and economic issues. Catholic social teaching goes back well over a century while comparable Orthodox teaching is somewhat more recent on some questions. 

A new collection looks like it will go some way towards helping Orthodox theology further engage with some of the socio-economic and ecological questions of our time: John Chryssavgis and Michele Goldsmith, eds., Sacred Commerce: A Conversation on Environment, Ethics, and Innovation (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2014), 152pp.

About this collection we are told:
In Sacred Commerce distinguished religious leaders, environmentalists, and businessmen share together their respective understandings and assessments concerning the present and future conditions of our planet. Well-known anthropologist Jane Goodall discusses biodiversity. Bill McKibben offers sobering statistics and a call for restraint. James Hansen addresses the present and future effects of climate change. Gary Hirshberg relates by example how a business can be successful and environmentally responsible. Amory Lovins reveals how the energy demand that fuels our businesses can be environmentally responsible. Richard Chartres discusses how we must exchange our economic calling, grow first and clean up later, for a new religious calling, one human race and one whole world. Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon offers insight on where we must go in the future. Sacred Commerce presents the creativity of business, the evidence of science, and the understanding of religion in a united effort for the welfare of not only industrialized countries, but for all human communities and living things now present on earth.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Religion and Democracy in the South Caucasus

Living as so many countries in the region do in the shadow of the Russian behemoth, smaller countries in Eastern Europe as well as the Caucasus do not often garner nearly the same attention as Russia. In the quarter-century since the collapse of the evil empire, former Soviet states have developed in a variety of ways--as have, not incidentally, their Christian, especially Orthodox, populations. A recent collection examines three Caucasian countries: Alexander Agadjanian, Anscar, Jödicke and Evert van der Zweerde, eds., Religion, Nation and Democracy in the South Caucasus (Routledge, 2014), 296pp.

About this book we are told:
This book explores developments in the three major societies of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – focusing especially on religion, historical traditions, national consciousness, and political culture, and on how these factors interact. It outlines how, despite close geographical interlacement, common historical memories and inherited structures, the three countries have deep differences; and it discusses how development in all three nations has differed significantly from the countries’ declared commitments to democratic orientation and European norms and values. The book also considers how external factors and international relations continue to impact on the three countries.

Monday, January 19, 2015

New Voices in Greek Orthodoxy

The Greek Church today, like most Christian bodies, seems to be riven between a reactionary and retrograde crowd (led by bishops who wrote that silly letter last spring to the pope, which I discussed here) on the one hand, and, on the other, led also by those willing to recognize that the world today has changed and the Church has to figure out how to respond to that without retreating into a patristic fundamentalism and other pathologies. In witness of this changed situation, I recently reviewed elsewhere a fascinating collection, Innovation in the Orthodox Christian Tradition?: The Question of Change in Greek Orthodox Thought and Practice, which looks at Greek Orthodox Christians in Greece itself but also in North America and Australia and how, at various points in their history, they have negotiated very significant changes.

Now another book looks at change of that longstanding problem to afflict all Eastern Christians, viz., nationalism: Trine Stauning Wilert, New Voices in Greek Orthodox Thought: Untying the Bond between Nation and Religion: Difference Is Everything (Ashgate, 2014), 197pp.

About this book we are told:
New Voices in Greek Orthodox Thought brings to the light and discusses a strand in contemporary Greek public debate that is often overlooked, namely progressive religious actors of a western orientation. International - and Greek - media tend to focus on the extreme views and to categorise positions in the public debate along well known dichotomies such as traditionalists vs. modernsers. Demonstrating that in late modernity, parallel to rising nationalisms, there is a shift towards religious communities becoming the central axis for cultural organization and progressive thinking, the book presents Greece as a case study based on empirical field data from contemporary theology and religious education, and makes a unique contribution to ongoing debates about the public role of religion in contemporary Europe.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Orthodox Family in Eastern Europe and Elsewhere

North American Christians have been obsessing over "family values" for a long time, and often making rather a hash of them, not realizing--as Stanley Hauerwas pointed out more than twenty years ago--that the gospel is rather hard on "family values," calling sons and daughters to be prepared to sacrifice even parents and children in order to follow Christ. But the state of the family in the Orthodox world, especially post-communist Eastern Europe, has not been nearly as well studied until now. Nicu Dumitrascu has edited an impressive new collection, Christian Family and Contemporary Society (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 304pp.
About this book we are told that it: 
...integrates a broad spectrum of geographical, denominational, and interdisciplinary perspectives, and analyses the relationship between family and religion in its various contexts, both historical and contemporary.

Divided into four key parts, the contributors address first the biblical and patristic background of the family construct, while the second part reveals denominational and ecumenical perspectives on marriage and the family. The third part sketches a sociological profile of the family in some European countries and addresses pastoral and sacramental issues connected with it. The final part places the Christian family in the context of contemporary society.
There is an introduction from the Orthodox scholar John McGuckin, who writes:
The book represents cutting edge theological scholarship in a pastoral dimension of great urgency for Eastern Europe and the Orthodox world in general. It will have a wide zone of interest for theologians, pastors, sociologists and all interested in the state of family life, especially considered in a religious environment. Mostly, it will serve to be of importance and interest in theological schools, churches, pastoral care programs, and seminary environments.
The publisher gives us the following detailed table of contents:

PART I

1. The Synoptic Gospels and Family
Daniel Ayuch, University of Balamand, Lebanon
2. Pauline guidelines on Christian families in Greco-Roman social environment
Mato Zovkic, Sarajevo Theological Seminary, Bosnia-Herzegovina
3. The Christian family according to the Sacred Canons of the Orthodox Church
Elena Giannakopoulou, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece
4. Glimpses into the Cappadocian Fourth-Century Family by Gregory the theologian
Pablo Argarate, University of Graz, Austria
5. The Christian Family and its problems in the light of St Basil's canons - a pastoral approach, Viorel Sava, Al.Ioan Cuza University of Iasi , Romania

PART II

6. The Plan of God for Marriage and the Family. A Roman-Catholic Perspective, Jose R. Villar, Universidad de Navarra, Spain
7. Marriage in the Catholic Church and the problems of interdenominational families, Przemyslaw Kantyka, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
8. Marriage and the Family between Tradition/traditions and contemporary life in Orthodox Spirituality
Nicu Dumitrascu, University of Oradea, Romania
9. Catholic and Lutheran Theology of Marriage. Differences and Resemblances
Piotr Kopiec, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
10. Mixed Marriages in the Antiochian Orthodox Church: An Educational Approach to a Pastoral Challenge
Bassam Nassif, University of Balamand, Lebanon

PART III

11. The French Family in All Conditions: From the Best to the Worst
Michel Cozic, Centre Lenain de Tillemont, France
12. Families for Objects of Pastoral Care to Builders of Ecclesial Community?
Thomas Knieps - Port le Roi , KU Leuven, The Netherlands
13. Families in Finland between Idealism and Practice
Gunnar af Hällström, Abo Akademi University, Finland
14. The Theology of the Sacrament of Wedding in the Orthodox Church
Marian Vîlciu, Valahia University of Targoviste, Romania

PART IV

15. Discipline and Love - Biblical Roots of Modern Christian Parenting
María Ágústsdóttir, University of Iceland, Iceland
16. This is Our Family - Protestant Perspective
Margriet Gosker, The Netherlands
17. Orthodox Christian Family in the Present Day - Day Society
Stefan Florea, Valahia University of Targoviste, Romania
18. New Challenges in Religious Education of Generation Z (the youngest children)
Dana Hanesová, Matej Bel University, Slovakia
Conclusions
Bibliography
Index -
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