"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, July 24, 2014

How Many Ways and for How Many Purposes Can We Divide Abraham?

Following as I do Stephen Prothero's approach in his book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, I have long avoided many of the tendentious stock phrases of our time, among which "Abrahamic religions," which became so popular after 9/11, ranks high. I'm not seeking polemically to promote division or triumphalistically to exalt Christianity. But equally I refuse to paper over differences that are profound and cannot be syncretistically conjured away by charlatans. In my course on Eastern Christianity and Islam, e.g., I challenge students to reconcile Islam and Christianity on the question of the Trinity and the Incarnation. I do not think it can be done: these are incommensurate truth-claims, and we must honestly face them squarely.

A new book helps us think further along these lines: Carol Bakhos, The Family of Abraham: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Interpretations (Harvard UP, 2014), 296pp.

About this book we are told:
The term "Abrahamic religions" has gained considerable currency in both scholarly and ecumenical circles as a way of referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In The Family of Abraham, Carol Bakhos steps back from this convention to ask a frequently overlooked question: What, in fact, is Abrahamic about these three faiths? Exploring diverse stories and interpretations relating to the portrayal of Abraham, she reveals how he is venerated in these different scriptural traditions and how scriptural narratives have been pressed into service for nonreligious purposes.

Grounding her study in a close examination of ancient Jewish textual practices, primarily midrash, as well as medieval Muslim Stories of the Prophets and the writings of the early Church Fathers, Bakhos demonstrates that ancient and early-medieval readers often embellished the image of Abraham and his family--Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. Her analysis dismantles pernicious misrepresentations of Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael, and provocatively challenges contemporary references to Judaism and Islam as sibling religions.

As Bakhos points out, an uncritical adoption of the term "Abrahamic religions" not only blinds us to the diverse interpretations and traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also artificially separates these faiths from their historical contexts. In correcting mistaken assumptions about the narrative and theological significance of Abraham, The Family of Abraham sheds new light on key figures of three world religions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Historical Atlas of the Middle East

With renewed fighting in, and thus attention on, Israel and Gaza, a book set for release this fall may help those new to the age-old conflicts of the region's Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims better appreciate their geography: Ian Barnes, Crossroads of War: A Historical Atlas of the Middle East (Harvard UP, October 2014), 288pp. + 130 colour maps + 40 images.

About this book we are told:
From the Bronze Age to the twenty-first century, vying armies have clashed over the territory stretching from the Upper Nile to modern-day Iraq and Iran. Crossroads of War captures five millennia of conflict and conquest in detailed full-color maps, accompanied by incisive, accessible commentary.
The lands of the Middle East were home to a succession of empires—Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian—that rose and declined with the fortunes of battle. Kings and generals renowned in history bestrode the region: Nebuchadnezzar, David, Alexander the Great, Saladin, Napoleon. The religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were born here and from the beginning became embroiled in conflicts ranging from the Maccabean Revolt to Muhammad’s Arabian conquests to the Christian Crusades. In the twentieth century, the Middle East witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and played a role in the grim dramas of two world wars, as T. E. Lawrence helped spark the Arab Revolt and General Bernard Montgomery defeated Hitler’s Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel, at El Alamein.

From the Yom Kippur War and Operation Desert Storm to a Global War on Terror that still looms over the twenty-first century, the Middle East continues to be shaped by the vagaries and vicissitudes of military conflict. Crossroads of War offers valuable insights into the part of the world that first cradled civilization and then imagined its demise in a final clash of armies at Armageddon.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Theology in History, Theology of History, or History of Theology?

It has been said that too much of what passes for theology today, especially among those dealing in patristics, is in fact just history or intellectual geneology: God is an afterthought or, in some cases, an embarrassment to be set aside while we look for the "hidden" world of Christians, or what they "really" believed, only to be found in the "gnostic gospels," etc. What is really sought is to show how, say, Gregory of Nyssa influenced Aquinas and Palamas, and how those two, through a convoluted development, ultimately played a role in shaping the intellectual worldview of, say, a Florovsky or a Bulgakov or a Barth.

A recently released book appears to buck this trend, trying to keep history and theology together: Frances Young, God's Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge UP, 2013), 472pp. 

About this book we are told:
In 2011, Frances Young delivered the Bampton Lectures in Oxford to great acclaim. She offered a systematic theology with contemporary coherence, by engaging in conversation with the fathers of the church - those who laid down the parameters of Christian theology and enshrined key concepts in the creeds - and exploring how their teachings can be applied today, despite the differences in our intellectual and ecclesial environments. This book results from a thorough rewriting of those lectures in which Young explores the key topics of Christian doctrine in a way that is neither simply dogmatic nor simply historical. She addresses the congruence of head and heart, through academic and spiritual engagement with God's gracious accommodation to human limitations. Christianity and biblical interpretation are discussed in depth, and the book covers key topics including Creation, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, spirituality, ecclesiology and Mariology, making it invaluable to those studying historical and constructive theology.
Young, as you may recall, is the author of the recently updated and acclaimed handbook From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and Its Background, which helps put much of the conciliar and patristic literature in the fourth and fifth centuries into a helpful and wide-ranging context.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Icons in the Modern World

The publisher just sent me a handsome and lovely new book that all fans of iconography will want to add to their collections: Aidan Hart, Icons in the Modern World: Sprint, Matter and Beauty (Gracewing, 2014), 288 pages + 32 colour plates.

I interviewed Aidan a few years ago about his other book on icons. About this current book the publisher tells us: 
Sacred Icons, images of God made man and man made God, have never ceased to be an integral part of Orthodox Christian cultures, but it is only now, after centuries of absence, that they are becoming understood again in the west.  The attraction of their strange beauty and mystery is ultimately rooted in the fact that icons resonate with our innermost being as creatures of both spirit and matter. As there are numerous excellent books about the theology and the liturgical use of icons, this volume concentrates on the broader implications of the icon’s theology for our lives in the twenty-first century; exploring the insight that icons give to such contemporary issues as ecology, the relationship between sacred art and culture or that between scientific knowledge and spiritual knowledge, the role of our bodies in the spiritual life and the nature of beauty.
‘In this astonishing book Aidan Hart takes us through the icon to the very heart and mind of God and thus ourselves.  Read this and the world will never appear the same again - thank God!’ (Martin Palmer, Secretary General of Alliance of Religion and Conservation).
Others who have written blurbs in praise of this book include the Orthodox theologian and priest Andrew Louth, the Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott, and the Dominican priest Timothy Radcliffe. 

If you go click the Amazon link above, it claims the book is out of print, but that is just a communications glitch between the publisher in Britain and Amazon here in the US. The book has just emerged so it's not yet in stock over here.

In the coming weeks I'm hoping to arrange a second interview with the author. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cyril of Alexandria's Christology

The Catholic University of America Press continues their invaluable tradition of publishing translations of ancient patristic texts. In their fall catalogue, they tell me of one such volume set for release around Christmas: St. Cyril of Alexandria, Three Christological Treatises, trans. Daniel King (CUA Press, 2014), 200pp.


About this book we are told:
Cyril, bishop of Alexandria from 412 to 444, is renowned both as one of the most authoritative of all the fathers of the church, and at the same time as one of the most controversial of all church politicians. He oversaw the final extinguishing of pagan religion from Alexandria, and also spent the height of his career as a statesman and an author fighting the doctrines of Nestorius, whose excommunication he brought about at the Council of Ephesus (431). Having spent the first fifteen years of his episcopate writing extensive commentaries on Scripture, from 429 onwards Cyril turned his enormous learning and talent for penning and distributing polemic tracts to the development of doctrinal orthodoxy after he sensed that the new ideas coming out of Constantinople threatened the very core of the Christian doctrines of Incarnation and salvation. The three treatises here translated into English for the first time all belong to the period around the ecumenical council. On Orthodoxy to Theodosius was written for the emperor, a year before the council met, with the aim of persuading him that Nestorius's sermons were heretical and that his task as leader of both church and state was to ensure right religious observance. The Defense against the Bishops of Oriens and the Defense against Theodoret were written in the months leading up to the council when Cyril found himself required to defend his notorious "Twelve Chapters (or Anathemas)," which many bishops in other parts of the empire felt had gone too far in an anti-Nestorian direction. All three works were key parts of Cyril's battle for orthodoxy and mark key moments in the church's progress towards the definition of Christological orthodoxy that was made at Chalcedon.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen on John Moschos and his Meadow

Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen has been doing some very interesting research and writing in the past few years. When I last interviewed her at the very beginning of 2013, it was about her then-new publication, They Who Give from Evil: The Response of the Eastern Church to Moneylending in the Early Christian Era. It is a fascinating and welcome contribution to the field of patristic moral and socio-political theology. Now this year she has come out with a study of an early and important monastic figure: John Moschos' Spiritual Meadow: Authority and Autonomy at the End of the Antique World (Ashgate, 2014), 181pp. I recently had a chance to interview her about this latest publication. Here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us how you’ve moved from a recent book on money-lending to a book on John Moschos.

BLI: It is hard to believe that they are related, but there is a link! I had always wanted to write on Moschos’ Meadow, and in the Preface of the book I write of how I first encountered the text as a graduate student. For whatever reason, it just kept getting sidetracked as a scholarship project. But one of the tales in the collection always stuck with me, and that is the account of a woman who, when her pagan husband suggests that they loan their money and live off the interest, convinces him to loan fifty coins to the “God of the Christians” because that God will return the money and double it. To make a short story even shorter, the couple ends up profiting at an interest rate of five hundred percent, and this, Moschos writes, persuades the man to immediately become a Christian. It is easy to dismiss this as a fable, but there is so much to learn from this beneficial tale about Byzantine social history: Christians are engaged in lending with interest, a practice forbidden by the Councils; women are financial managers in some households; there is a prevailing belief that those who invest in God will be rewarded, with interest; and, finally, sometimes people are converted when they profit, and this highlights for us the occasional financial advantages of a particular religion and the way in which economic advantage can encourage conversion. So as I was finishing my monograph on moneylending, I decided that it might be a good time to start exploring accounts of “miraculous wealth” in Byzantine Beneficial Tales. The study of those texts led me to discover that I had perhaps more than just an article here, that there were some interesting themes worth exploring in the collection as a whole, even those not addressing money!

AD: Your subtitle speaks of “Authority and Autonomy at the End of the Antique World.” There seems to have been a number of books on authority, power, and social roles in the Christian East of late. What are we learning today about those issues in this time-period?

BLI: Patristic and other scholars of eastern Christianity and antiquity have done a great deal of magnificent work in the last decades of unpacking types of critical expression—one might even suggest subversion—present in the texts of the Christian East. Popularity of theorists like Foucault and Butler has also changed how we read now, and they assist us in understanding how language and ritual contributes to the subjugation of people, or specific groups, genders or castes. I believe that this is particularly important work, too, because I think that what we are finding—or, at least, what I am finding—is a variety of creative approaches to oppressive systems. I am heartened by little expressions, quiet moments of self-sufficiency that are demonstrated in the texts, and most especially when there is next to no comment because that speaks to the importance of the subversive method.

AD: You begin your preface with a winsome story about how you first encountered Moschos’ Spiritual Meadow, and the amusing story of the dead monk. Do we too often miss the humour in the literature of the desert and of the monastery? Are there others writing about the lighter side of monastic pursuits?

Yes, I think that we are so eager to ascribe serious, spiritual meaning to texts within religious history that we fail to see moments of levity. The The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are replete with humorous moments, such as the two monks who attempt but are unable to argue over a brick, or John the Dwarf being shut out of his cell without his cloak. Anyone who has spent time in a monastery knows that there are often subtle—or even not so subtle—glances, phrases or movements that carry with them deep significance, and that significance can be hilarious easily as well as spiritually transcendent. And if, in a monastery, that glance occurs when the observation of something funny is not appropriate, or when noise is not allowed, that can quickly reduce everyone at the table to silent tears of laughter. Such laughter is important, if for no other reason than the slightly naughty feeling one enjoys when one is laughing when one is supposed to be silent or serious. The British anthropologist Mary Douglas writes about precisely this in Implicit Meanings, in which she notes that the essence of a joke is the undermining of something formal by something informal, which affirms that tense and shifting relationship between authority figures and those over whom they claim authority. 

AD: You begin your introduction by admitting how little we know of John Moschos. Give us a quick sketch of what we do know about him with some certainty. 

Well, we do not know where or when he was born and there are scholarly arguments about when he died, but in between we do have a few details of which we can be fairly certain! He was a sixth-century, Chalcedonian Christian, possibly from Damascus. He began his monastic career at the large, well-organized monastery of St. Theodosius. Located about five miles from Bethlehem, this monastery housed hundreds of monks and was known as a site of hospitality for the physically and mentally ill, the elderly and the poor. At some point in his early monastic life he was joined by his companion—and future Patriarch of Jerusalem—Sophronios, who with John practiced two types of ascetic activity: a voluntary, rootless existence in which the monastic figure would be dependent entirely on the hospitality of others, and the collecting and writing of spiritually beneficial tales. For approximately forty years these two wandered through Palestine, Syria, Mount Sinai, Egypt and Rome. The debate about the time and place of John’s death is lively; what is more interesting to me is that after John’s death Sophronios, during a time of great unrest and instability in Palestine, endeavored to return his companion’s body to the monastery where they met; quite a poignant detail, in my opinion.

AD: You speak (pp. 10-11) of some difficulty in classifying Moschos’ writing, which has been seen as a series of “beneficial tales.” How should 21st-century readers approach him, and what should we expect in reading him?

I think that a twenty-first century reader might want to think of Moschos as a sixth-century “John Jacob Niles.” He was an American composer who believed that it was his duty and task to preserve early American music, in addition to writing and recording it. While many people recognize the popular Christmas folk hymn “I Wonder as I Wander,” we might not have had that hymn had Niles not heard strains of that Appalachian tune sung by a rag-tag girl with a beautiful voice. And while many people recognize the important account of St. Mary of Egypt attributed to Sophronios, we might not have had that vita had Moschos’ not heard strains of it and included it in his Meadow. In this way, I think that Moschos collected for spiritual posterity the snippets of beneficial tales of monks who found their way to one monastery or another, just as John Jacob Niles collected for cultural posterity the snippets of the music of British, Irish, Welsh and Scots who—in the nineteenth century—found their way from one country to another.

I make this comparison also because of your question about what to expect; I believe that because Moschos is a collector as much as a composer, and that because he is collecting tales of which only portions existed, that we should expect that much of what we are reading might be lost on us. That is not to say that we cannot derive either pleasure or joy from reading “spiritually beneficial tales,” for the name alone suggests several good things, but the casual reader must know going in that there are layers and elements of social, cultural or political history that are not obvious parts of the tale.


AD: Tell us about the influence of Moschos on monasticism in his own day, and does he remain influential today on monastic life in any way?
 
I am hesitant to suggest that Moschos was influential for monasticism in his day, much less for ours. This is not usually the claim that a scholar wants to make, really, for part of our job is to point out ways in which previously unexamined—or ‘under-examined’—people, ideas, events or artifacts are ‘oh so important.’ Sophronios’ was certainly influential for several reasons, but Moschos was, in many ways, more of a silent partner, even if the Spiritual Meadow is credited to him. As I reflect on the question, I think that the ways in which Moschos ‘matters’ is that aside from the text itself, his activity in the world affirms the variety of ascetic practices of the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Byzantine and patristic scholarship has demonstrated so well the ways in which monastic and ascetic figures interacted with lay persons in the Eastern Empire, a good reminder that not all monks are living behind walls or dying unseen in caves. Moschos also matters because his ascetic practices—walking around and writing—do not fit the traditional model of monastic discipline, and so this is an affirmation of the creativity of eastern monastic practices. Derek Krueger has written some important and insightful articles on this topic, and his work has been helpful for me in understanding the possibilities that exist beyond standard ascetic practices.

AD: Your third and fourth chapters treat medical issues and those of mortality. Are there spiritual or practical insights here that have perhaps been lost but should be recovered?

I was astounded to uncover so many accounts in the Meadow about medical issues, healing, suffering, dying, infertility, and so forth. It should not have surprised me, but it did, how many of the tales dealt with the frailty of our existence and an acute awareness of this. I was writing these two chapters on curing, enduring, death and dying while a friend of mine was dying of cancer. Naturally this had an impact on the way I read and the way I wrote, and that—as much as the texts—has refined my thinking on this theme. My reading of monastic texts, martyr accounts and theoretical approaches to suffering and pain has led me to conclude that an individual in pain forms a relationship with that pain. We cannot just treat pain as something independent of the body and mind of one in pain: we must also treat the relationship with that pain, and, further, we must consider why one forms that relationship to begin with. This manifests itself in monastic texts as “spiritual sickness” or the “ascetic sick role.” This relationship might have at its core a physical reason, or it might be emotional, cultural or spiritual. Either way, illness is used in monastic and ascetic environments for a purpose, and we can assume that this is true of laity as well. We would be wise to think about how illness is used and what it means to people as we seek treatment for their bodies or seek to force treatment upon them. We should also consider if treatment is even what is needed. I suppose if there is a spiritual or practical insight that has been lost but should be recovered, as you ask, it might be to remember that death is also a form of treatment, and illness might also be a cure.

AD: Sum up the book for us and who should read it.
This book is an attempt to uncover some of the social history of late sixth-century life among monastics, desert ascetics, and the laity they encountered and lived among. I make no claims that we can know this period perfectly, but I think that these spiritually beneficial tales can provide us with glimpses of how individuals on the fringes lived and how they might have thought about basic life issues such as Christian discipline, getting, giving or losing money, ill or good health and dying. As for who should read it? I think that it is appropriate for those studying asceticism, Palestinian monasticism, early Byzantine or late Antique social history.

AD: What projects are you at work on now?

It seems that each of these chapters had prompted thinking for me, and each has—in its own way—pushed me towards some future project. The chapter on interaction between laity and ascetics has challenged me to think more about the development of Christian asceticism independent of organized communities; the chapter on death has challenged me to think about how soteriology is understood and defined among monks and the chapter on healthcare has challenged me to think about the use of suffering and pain. As for the chapter on economics? I think I am done thinking about that for some time! My most current work is on the martyr Stephen the Younger. I was invited to think the use of pain imagery in Byzantine martyr vitae at a conference last year with Dr. Vasiliki Limberis and Dr. James Skedros, and this has led me—quite possibly—to my next large project.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New Studies in Byzantine History

Peter Lang informs me of two recent publications in Byzantine history. The first is an academic collection edited by Maximilian Lau, Caterina Franchi, and Morgan Di Rodi, Landscapes of Power: Selected Papers from the XV Oxford University Byzantine Society International Graduate Conference (Lang, 2014), 307pp.

About this volume we are told:
This volume contains selected papers from the XV International Graduate Conference, highlighting the latest scholarship from a new generation of Late Antique and Byzantine scholars from around the world. The theme of the conference explored the interaction between power and the natural and human environments of Byzantium, an interaction that is an essential part of the empire’s legacy. This legacy has come down to us through buildings, literature, history and more, and has proved enduring enough to intrigue and fascinate scholars centuries after the fall of Constantinople. From religion and trade at the end of Antiquity, imperial propaganda and diplomacy at the end of the first millennium, to culture and conquest under the Komnenian and Palaeologan dynasties - this volume demonstrates the length and breadth of the forays being made by young academics into the still often undiscovered country of the Late Antique and Byzantine world.
A second title treats ecclesial realities more directly: Bernard Mulholland, ed., The Early Byzantine Christian Church: An Archaeological Re-assessment of Forty-Seven Early Byzantine Basilical Church Excavations Primarily in Israel and Jordan, and their Historical and Liturgical Context (Lang, 2014), 229pp.

About this book we are told: 
The observation that domestic artefacts are often recovered during church excavations led to an archaeological re-assessment of forty-seven Early Byzantine basilical church excavations and their historical, gender and liturgical context. The excavations were restricted to the three most common basilical church plans to allow for like-for-like analysis between sites that share the same plan: monoapsidal, inscribed and triapsidal. These sites were later found to have two distinct sanctuary configurations, namely a Π-shaped sanctuary in front of the apse, or else a sanctuary that extended across both side aisles that often formed a characteristic T-shaped layout. Further analysis indicated that Π-shaped sanctuaries are found in two church plans: firstly a protruding monoapsidal plan that characteristically has a major entrance located to either side of the apse, which is also referred to as a ‘Constantinopolitan’ church plan; and secondly in the inscribed plan, which is also referred to as a ‘Syrian’ church plan. The T-shaped layout is characteristic of the triapsidal plan, but can also occur in a monoapsidal plan, and this is referred to as a ‘Roman’ church plan. Detailed analysis of inscriptions and patterns of artefactual deposition also revealed the probable location of the diakonikon where the rite of prothesis took place.
The publisher also provides details of the contents:
Contents: Domestic artefacts in Early Christian churches – Methodology – What can church sites reveal about liturgy? – A second focus of liturgical activity – Other activities in Early Byzantine basilical churches – Gender analysis: is there evidence for segregation of the sexes in Early Byzantine basilical churches?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

New Books on Ukraine and Crimea

Paul Robert Magocsi is widely recognized as one of the leading scholars of East Slavdom. His previously published book Ukraine: An Illustrated History was just published in May of this year in an affordable paperback edition. And just before that, in March, a new study, especially timely given the events in Crimea this year and all the attention being paid to Russian antics there, was published: P.R. Magocsi, This Blessed Land: Crimea and the Crimean Tatars (University of Toronto Press, 2014), 160pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
A virtual island in the Black Sea, Crimea is connected to the European continent by only a narrow sliver of land. For centuries it was part of the Ottoman and Russian empires, then the Soviet Union, and today independent Ukraine. But its history goes back even farther, as is evident from a landscape filled with the remnants of cultures and peoples: classical Greeks, Goths, Byzantines, Mongols, imperial Russians, and, most importantly, Crimean Tatars.
An authoritative introduction to this fascinating region, This Blessed Land is the first book in English to trace the vast history of Crimea from pre-historic times to the present. Written by Paul Robert Magocsi, author of History of Ukraine - 2nd, Revised Edition: The Land and Its Peoples and the Historical Atlas of Central Europe, This Blessed Land will captivate general readers and serious scholars alike.
Two other studies will be emerging later this year analyzing Ukrainian realities in different contexts: in Canada, and then in the Soviet period. The first is Thomas M. Prymak, Gathering a Heritage: Ukrainian, Slavonic, and Ethnic Canada and the USA (U Toronto Press, September 2014), c. 352pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Since the 1970s and 1980s, the study of immigration and ethnicity has grown to become an essential aspect of North American history. In Gathering a Heritage, Thomas M. Prymak uses the essays and articles he has written over the past thirty years as a historian of Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian history to reflect on the evolution of ethnic studies in Canada and the United States.
The essays included in this book explore the history of Ukrainian and Slavonic immigration to North America and the literature through which these communities and their historians have sought to recapture their past. Each previously published essay is revised and expanded and several more appear here for the first time – including the fascinating story of French Canadian writer Gabrielle Roy’s connections with Ukrainian Canadians and her tumultuous affair with a Ukrainian Canadian nationalist in pre-war London.
Finally, coming out in October (according to the publisher's catalogue, but not until January 2015 on Amazon) is Matthew D. Pauly, Breaking the Tongue: Language, Education, and Power in Soviet Ukraine, 1923-1934 (U Toronto Press, 2014), c. 432pp.

About this book we are told:
In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Communist Party embraced a policy to promote national consciousness among the Soviet Union’s many national minorities as a means of Sovietizing them. In Ukraine, Ukrainian-language schooling, coupled with pedagogical innovation, was expected to serve as the lynchpin of this social transformation for the republic’s children.
The first detailed archival study of the local implications of Soviet nationalities policy, Breaking the Tongue examines the implementation of the Ukrainization of schools and children’s organizations. Matthew D. Pauly demonstrates that Ukrainization faltered because of local resistance, a lack of resources, and Communist Party anxieties about nationalism and a weakening of Soviet power – a process that culminated in mass arrests, repression, and a fundamental adjustment in policy.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Early Syriac Theology

After a lovely sojourn through New England, I returned to find many catalogues of fall publications lying on my desk. The first to catch my interest was by Chorbishop Seeley Joseph Beggiani, Early Syriac Theology: With Special Reference to the Maronite Tradition (Catholic U of America Press, October 2014), 192pp. I have long had a devotion to St. Ephraim/Ephrem/Efrem (etc.) and given several talks on him over the years as a wonderful figure celebrated in all the apostolic Christian traditions (Roman and Eastern Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East). He provides, as Sebastian Brock and others have reminded us over the years, a wonderful introduction to the "third lung" of Christianity as well as to a more "Semitic" and pre-Hellenized form of Christianity.

About this impending book the publisher tells us:
For St. Ephrem of Syria (d. 373) and Jacob of Serugh (d. 521), God is utterly mysterious, yet He is present in all that He has created. The kenosis (self-emptying) of the Word of God is found not only in the human nature of Christ, but in the finite words of Sacred Scripture. In this action, the Divine makes itself accessible to human beings. The triple descent of the Son of God into the womb of Mary, the Jordan River at his baptism, and into sheol at his death, were actions directed both to redemption and divinization. Ephrem and Jacob employed a system of types and antitypes used in Sacred Scripture to demonstrate the sacraments as extensions of Christ's actions through history. St. Ephrem, who was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XV, and Jacob of Serugh were two of the earliest and most important representatives of the theological world-view of the Syriac church. Much of their work was in the form of hymns and metrical homilies, using poetry to express theology. In Early Syriac Theology, Chorbishop Seely Joseph Beggiani strives to present their insights in a systematic form according to headings used in western treatises, while not undermining the originality and cohesiveness of their thought. The material is organized under the themes of the hiddenness of God, creation and sin, revelation, incarnation, redemption, divinization and the Holy Spirit, the Church, Mary, the mysteries of initiation, eschatology and faith. Additionally, the book highlights the fact that the liturgical tradition of the Maronite church, one of the Syriac churches, is consistently and pervasively a living expression of the theology of these two Syriac church fathers.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Greek Orthodoxy and the Nazis

Though, as I have noted recently, the focus this year is on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, next year represents the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second. In December, a new book will shed light on what happened in and to the Greek Orthodox Church during the Nazi occupation of that country for most of the war: Panteleymon Anastasakis, The Church of Greece under Axis Occupation(Fordham UP, 2014), 320pp.

About this book we are told:
Axis forces (Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria) occupied Greece from 1941 to 1944. The unimaginable hardships caused by foreign occupation were compounded by the flight of the government days before enemy forces reached Athens. This national crisis forced the Church of Greece, an institution accustomed to playing a central political and social role during times of crisis, to fill the political vacuum. Led by Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, the clergy sought to maintain the cultural, spiritual, and territorial integrity of the nation during this harrowing period. Circumstances forced the clergy to create a working relationship with the major political actors, including the Axis authorities, their Greek allies, and the growing armed resistance movements, especially the communist-led National Liberation Front. In so doing the church straddled a fine line between collaboration and resistance individual clerics, for instance, negotiated with Axis authorities to gain small concessions, while simultaneously resisting policies deemed detrimental to the nation.
Drawing on official archives of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the British Foreign Office, the U.S. State Department, and the Greek Holy Synod alongside an impressive breadth of published literature, this book provides a refreshingly nuanced account of the Greek clergy's complex response to the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II. The author's comprehensive portrait of the reaction of Damaskinos and his colleagues, including tensions and divisions within the clergy, provides a uniquely balanced exploration of the critical role they played during the occupation. It helps readers understand how and why traditional institutions such as the Church played a central social and political role in moments of social upheaval and distress. Indeed, as this book convincingly shows, the Church was the only institution capable of holding Greek society together during World War II.
While The Church of Greece under Axis Occupation elucidates the significant differences between the Greek case and those of other territories in Axis-occupied Europe, it also offers fresh insight into the similarities. Greek clerics dealt with many of the same challenges clerics faced in other parts of Hitler's empire, including exceptionally brutal reprisal policies, deprivation and hunger, and the complete collapse of the social and political order caused by years of enemy occupation. By examining these challenges, this illuminating new book is an important contribution not only to Greek historiography but also to the broader literatures on the Holocaust, collaboration and resistance during World War II, and church state relations during times of crisis.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Christian Iraq

For more than a decade now, Christians in Iraq have continued to be killed or be forced to flee lands they have inhabited in some cases for the better part of two millennia. This has only gotten worse in the last many week thanks to a fresh outbreak of barbarism at the hands of ISIS. It is heartbreaking to watch, and of course the US, whose invasion in 2003 set this off, has done damn all to fix the problem--an entirely typical pattern for a country that wants all the benefits of being an "empire" but none of the responsibilities. What a disgrace.

This Christian history of Iraq remains little understood even today. A recent study takes us back to its earliest centuries, showing just how venerable a community this is--or, rather, was: Philip Wood, The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq (Oxford UP),320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This monograph uses a medieval Arabic chronicle, The Chronicle of Seert, as a window into the Christian history of Iraq. The Chronicle describes events that are unknown from other sources, but it is most useful for what it tells us about the changes agendas of those who wrote history and their audiences in the period c.400-800.

By splitting the Chronicle into its constituent layers, Philip Wood presents a rich cultural history of Iraq. He examines the Christians' self-presentation as a church of the martyrs and the uncomfortable reality of close engagement with the Sasanian state. The history of the past was used as a source of solidarity in the present, to draw together disparate Christian communities. But it also represented a means of criticising figures in the present, whether these be secular rulers or over-mighty bishops and abbots.

The Chronicle gives us an insight into the development of an international awareness within the church in Iraq. Christians increasingly raised their horizons to the Roman Empire in the West, which offered a model of Christian statehood, while also being the source of resented theological innovation or heresy. It also shows us the competing strands of patronage within the church: between laymen and clergy; church and state; centre and periphery. Building on earlier scholarship rooted in the contemporary Syriac sources, Wood complements that picture with the testimony of this later witness.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hobby Lobby and the So-Called Religious Exemption

I am not a jurist obviously, but this week's US Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case is alternately being praised as the beginning of the restoration of "religious freedom" or condemned as the recommencement of "Christendom," of turning Margaret Atwood's ghastly apocalyptic tract The Handmaid's Tale into reality. But in any case, all the commentary has casually and carelessly and indeed thoughtlessly been using "religion" and its cognates as though there were some coherent meaning to that term and universal consensus about it. There is not. John Milbank's celebrated 1990 book Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason famously opens with the ringing declaration "Once, there was no secular" and thus severely puts to the question our casual assumptions about what is "secular" and what "religious" or "spiritual," showing the recent political invention of these terms, their invariably tendentious political usage today, and their rise in our consciousness--something later done in Charles Taylor's massive tome, A Secular Age

The person who, to my mind, has been the most helpful, building on Taylor and Milbank (and others) in showing just what incoherent, inconsistent, and often highly tendentious meanings we ascribe to "religious" and "secular" or "Church" and "state" is William Cavanaugh, as I discussed here in detail when reviewing his book Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. Equally valuable, though in a somewhat different direction, is his 2009 book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, which really shows what a mess the term "religion" is and how little consensus there is about its meaning even among scholars.

All this is preface to a new book that continues and deepens the discussion: Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale UP), 288pp. Perhaps journalists and other lazy commentators might bestir themselves to read one or more of these books before continuing their ignorant usage of these terms.

About this book the publisher tells us:
For much of the past two centuries, religion has been understood as a universal phenomenon, a part of the “natural” human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history. Individual religions may vary through time and geographically, but there is an element, religion, that is to be found in all cultures during all time periods. Taking apart this assumption, Brent Nongbri shows that the idea of religion as a sphere of life distinct from politics, economics, or science is a recent development in European history—a development that has been projected outward in space and backward in time with the result that religion now appears to be a natural and necessary part of our world.
Examining a wide array of ancient writings, Nongbri demonstrates that in antiquity, there was no conceptual arena that could be designated as “religious” as opposed to “secular.” Surveying representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period, while constantly attending to the concrete social, political, and colonial contexts that shaped relevant works of philosophers, legal theorists, missionaries, and others, Nongbri offers a concise and readable account of the emergence of the concept of religion.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

100 Years Ago Today....

As you've no doubt heard by now, today is the centenary of the assassination of the Austrian archduke and his consort in Sarajevo, the event that, through twists and turns, led to the greatest catastrophe of the last century, World War I. I write only to draw your interest to the many books I discussed nearly a year ago now, in anticipation of this sad centenary. I've had a chance to read many of the new ones mentioned last year, and commend them to your interest, especially McMeekin's book, which really turns on its head a lot of the received mythology about the causes of the outbreak of the war. In addition, as you would expect from so fine an historian, Philip Jenkins new book, noted here, is an outstanding and near-singular work, wholly welcome to Eastern Christians especially.

I'm working my way through another book right now, from the Cambridge historian David Reynolds: The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (Norton, 2014), 544pp.

This is a fascinating study of the differing perceptions of the war in different countries. Reynolds notes that the Anglo-American view differs considerably from, of course, the Austrian, German, and Russian views, inter alia, to say nothing of the French. It is a finely detailed study offering a wide survey of views from around the world.

Reynolds, of course, is the author of numerous other studies, including his immensely interesting and enjoyable book In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War which was a study of how Churchill wrote his six-volume history-cum-memoir-cum-political-manifesto about the Second World War. In lesser hands a book about the writing of another book (six of them actually) could be a leaden and deadly thing to read, but this is a wonderfully written tale and, surprisingly (given the vast and endless stream of books about Churchill) one of the few studies (until recently) of The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor--as well, of course, as Noble-prize winning historian manqué 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Orthodox Paradoxes

The Russian Orthodox Church, by virtue of being the largest Orthodox church in the world (as they ceaselessly remind everyone, especially in Constantinople...), already commands considerable attention both popular and scholarly, but the events in Russia and Ukraine under Putin have only magnified the attention. A book just released explores the nature of Orthodoxy in Russia, at once "traditional" and yet (pace certain fatuous apologists) capable of adapting to new situations:  Katya Tolstaya, Orthodox Paradoxes: Heterogeneities and Complexities in Contemporary Russian Orthodoxy (Brill, 2014), 406pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nationalism in the 19th Century

Nobody who has any interest in or understanding of Christianity in the East can avoid for very long the sorry task of contending with ethno-nationalism in its various forms. I have a paper coming out later this year in Pro Ecclesia on the ecclesiological problems created by nationalism as it emerges in post-revolutionary France and then spreads to various places under French influence (the Levant, Syria), to Russia (through Joseph de Maistre's long ambassadorship there), and then especially to newly created nation-states emerging in the sunset of the Ottoman Empire in southern Europe and the Balkans. I am keen therefore to read this newly published book under Lucian Leustean's editorship, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe (Fordham UP, 2014), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Nation-building processes in the Orthodox commonwealth brought together political institutions and religious communities in their shared aims of achieving national sovereignty. Chronicling how the churches of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia acquired independence from the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the wake of the Ottoman Empire's decline, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe examines the role of Orthodox churches in the construction of national identities. Drawing on archival material available after the fall of communism in southeastern Europe and Russia, as well as material published in Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Russian,Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe analyzes the challenges posed by nationalism to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the ways in which Orthodox churches engaged in the nationalist ideology.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Short History of the Byzantine Empire

As I have often noted on here, interest in all things "Byzantine" (whatever the problems with that term) remains high, and new books are constantly appearing in English especially. Just released at the end of May is another book by Dionysios Stathakopoulos, A Short History of the Byzantine Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2014), 192pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

The Byzantine Empire was one of the most impressive imperial adventures in history. It ruled much of Europe and Anatolia for a remarkable eleven hundred years. From Constantine I's establishment of Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) as his capital in 324 CE, until the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453, the Byzantine domain became a powerhouse of literature, art, theology, law and learning. Dionysios Stathakopoulos here tells a compelling story of military conquest, alliance and reversal, including the terrifying secret of Greek fire: of a state constantly at war, but not warlike, resorting wherever possible to a sophisticated diplomacy with its neighbours and enemies. Breaking with outdated notions of Byzantium as an unchanging, theocratic state, Stathakopoulos uses the most recent research to explore its political, economic, social and cultural history. He evokes the dynamism of a people whose story is one of astonishing resilience and adaptability; and whose legacy, whether it be the bronze horses of the Hippodrome, or the very term 'Byzantine', everywhere endures.
His new short history embraces individuals like Justinian I, the powerful ruler who defeated the Ostrogoths in Italy and oversaw construction of Hagia Sofia (completed in 537); his notorious queen Theodora, a courtesan who rose improbably to the highest office of imperial first lady; the charismatic but cuckolded general Belisarios; and the religious leaders Arius and Athanasios, whose conflicting ideas about Christ and doctrine shook the Empire to its core.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Taking the Fathers Back

Whenever I heard self-appointed Orthodox apologists bashing people over the head with references to "the Fathers" or "the Holy Fathers said....X" I long for someone to write a bracing polemic subjecting such claims to the same treatment as Stanley Hauerwas did more than twenty years ago now in challenging people who make the same claims, substituting only "the Bible" or "the Holy Bible says....X." In his Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Hauerwas begins by arguing thus:
Most North American Christians assume they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to every child when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked….Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.

.....North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their ‘common sense’ is sufficient for ‘understanding’ the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead, they assume they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about. As a result the Bible inherently becomes the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church.
Could not every word of that be applied to self-styled "traditionalists" quoting from Maximus the Confessor here, Gregory Palamas there, and Athonite elders everywhere? These types fail to realize that not anybody can pick up and read patristic literature, and read it intelligently and profitably. Their readings almost always do hermeneutic violence to the texts, and fail to realize that their own readings reflect not these ancient texts so much as their own late-modern "democratic" belief in their abilities to read and understand, seemingly above ideology and politics when, of course, they are steeped in it. (Come to think of it, someone has written an attack on these abuses--Christos Yannaras.)

Over the past half-century, intelligent people have offered some wise reflections on how to read the Fathers, and how to avoid the pitfalls in doing so. Georges Florovsky, in an article over fifty years old but still very much worth paying attention to, offered such wisdom.  So did Alexander Schmemann. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the lovely and elegant introduction to his Presence and Thought: Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa also offered perceptive reflections on what we can, and cannot, take from the Fathers, and how they can, and cannot, be used today--something he also wrote about in an important article from 1939, "Patristik, Scholastik und wir."

Now Augustine Casiday has come along to help us with these issues in his splendid new book, Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage. This is a very accessible, wonderfully useful book for those who want to learn more about the nature of reading and interpreting, about Christian historiography, and the place of the Fathers in the Church and in Christian history generally. It is cogently written and its crisp, clear prose makes difficult issues accessible, so this would be an ideal book for a parish study or for use in an undergraduate classroom. It should also be on reading lists for catecheumens coming in to the Orthodox Church so that they do not fall into the traps, and commit the errors, of too many zealots and apologists one finds online.

Casiday, whom I interviewed earlier this week about his book on Evagrius, has here written a short book of four chapters, beginning with the question "What is the Patristic Heritage?" Almost immediately he offers important cautions about what could be called the problem of "genre" in patristic literature. We have to watch out for certain aspects--e.g., technical vocabulary, say, or caustic personal attacks or vindictive rhetoric--that  mark certain texts, and we have to be aware, moreover, of the context in which these texts were written. Perhaps their disputatious context is too far removed from our own day to be entirely profitable for contemporary readers. It is not enough to blindly yank a fourth-century Cappadocian father into 21st-century North America and expect that everything will "fit" and the meaning and application will become clear. Here Casiday rightly avers to one of the classic treatments of hermeneutics, H.G. Gadamer's Truth and Method. Here I would also note an apt comment by another landmark work in hermeneutics, Bernard Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Human Understanding,where Lonergan pours scorn on the idea that knowing and understanding consist simply in "taking a good look." It involves time and effort, and the patience for both. Merely picking up a collection of patristic sayings, or a volume of The Philokalia and flinging a paragraph around in a Facebook debate does very little, and may in fact be little more than obscurantism in a high-tech medium and thus totally counter-productive. As Casiday nicely puts it:
the reputation that we as Orthodox enjoy (and sometimes cultivate) [is] for unrivalled continuity with the Christian past. On the basis of that reputation, one could assert that being Orthodox leads to a privileged understanding of the ancient church and that this understanding is preferable to the results of academic study. This option has the satisfying outcome of securing the theological study of patristic sources. But it does so at a cost. The security it provides is the security of a ghetto. It also increases the likelihood of confusing prejudices with insights. Above all, it betrays our responsibility to bear witness to Christ (35).
Much of the rest of this chapter is spent dealing with the not entirely satisfactory ways others in the past century tried to deal with the patristic heritage. Casiday singles out Florovsky and Paul Valliere for extended discussion. He ends the chapter with a reminder of the limitations of human knowing, and the importance of being mindful of those limitations.

Chapter 2 asks the question "How is it Transmitted?" How do we transmit the heritage of the Fathers of the Church? How is it received? Again, those who have attended to the processes of hermeneutics will recognize that these are deceptively simple questions hiding a rather involved process of transmission and reception, of translation, interpretation, and application. This chapter makes use of a tried and true scholarly method, which I often profitably use with undergraduates, namely case-studies. He begins with Vincent of Lerins and his treatment of Origen and Augustine, showing how one father grappled with other fathers before moving on to St. Maximus the Confessor, particularly his Ambigua

Casiday's final case study concerns the filioque,which is treated with great sensitivity and intelligence as the author notes, rightly, that "it is a fact of history that the theological literature of antiquity provides evidence which can be taken to support either the dual procession of the Holy Spirit (called 'filioquism') or the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone (called 'patrimonism'). The origins of this difference are obscure" (81). In the debates, within East and West and between them, over this issue, there was sometimes the tendency to regard "the Fathers" as having infallible authority here as elsewhere. But as Casiday repeatedly notes, one can be held up and respected as a father while having made errors and been wrong about one or more matters. This is an important point to underscore to some who seem to act as though the Fathers were immune to error and we must unquestioningly accept everything they wrote.

His next chapter focuses on symbols and creeds, and later in the chapter Casiday returns to the filioque again, asking why it is some focus on this as a sign of apparently insurmountable East-West difference while we ignore other discrepancies in other versions of the creeds. Drawing on the classical and pioneering anthropology of Mary Douglas in her Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, he notes that "something odd is going on in this particular case" because "there survive not only the Latin and Greek received texts, but also Armenian and Syriac texts. No two are completely identical, even allowing for the exigencies of translation. The Syriac and Armenian versions are not without interest--we have already noted that a Syriac version of the creed says that the Spirit is 'from the Father and the Son'" (129).

Casiday sharpens the point by referring to Tia Kolbaba's recent and important historical works Inventing Latin Heretics: Byzantines and the Filioque in the Ninth Century and The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins. Why is it, both ask, that of all the controversies the Byzantines generated and of all the charges they threw at the West, the filioque is about the only one anybody still talks about today? (Can we not, as I asked yesterday, finally declare this discussion over and move on?)

The last chapter is appropriately titled "Forward with the Fathers," and spends no little time on the work of John Zizioulas, particularly his landmark work Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. Zizioulas claims that book is based on patristic, and especially Cappadocian, theology, and it is, but it is also in dialogue with modern philosophy and theology. Sharp critical responses (notably from Lucian Turcescu) have suggested that Zizioulas tends to read back into his patristic sources distinctions and conceptions that are not found there, but only found in modern philosophy. And yet, this in itself is not objectionable if one is clear about it. (The problem is that Zizioulas rather flatly and not very convincingly asserts he is merely allowing the Fathers to speak through his work, without adding anything to that process.) It is, indeed, the same method the Fathers themselves used, as Casiday demonstrated earlier in the book. Casiday does not adjudicate these disputes, but once again uses them as a sort of case-study on the process of reading and reception of the Fathers, arguing that they--and we--have "the Christian freedom...in the business of articulating their good news in the idiom of their contemporaries" (149). Thus we must resist those who would insist that the Fathers and only the Fathers are entirely and absolutely normative for Eastern theology and nothing and nobody can challenge or go beyond them--something that Aristotle Papanikolaou has called "patristic fundamentalism."

How then to proceed? Clearly Orthodox theology cannot jettison the Fathers, but neither must it treat them as adamantine objects to be imposed on an unruly and wicked age. Instead, turning once again to the Fathers themselves--especially Origen and Augustine--Casiday uses their own tried and true method of "despoiling the Egyptians." We take what is good and useful for the glory of God, and use that, regardless of its provenance--a form, to use another old expression, of "baptizing paganism" if you will. This is precisely what the Fathers themselves did, and would tell us to do today. So scorning all of modern "Western" culture, philosophy, literature, and, yes, theology, is a deeply un-patristic thing to do. We cannot all sit around snorting incense and endlessly quoting from John of Damascus or Augustine of Hippo as though that would--as von Balthasar put it--absolve us of our responsibilities to and for our own age. As Casiday nicely puts it, "If we want to join the early fathers in 'despoiling the Egyptians' and imitate them in making the best of the world in which we find ourselves as Christians, we will find fairly quickly that there is more to living patristically than carefully articulating theological doctrines to rejoice the angels and refute the heretics" (172). Casiday then concludes by offering several suggestions for what the Fathers would say to us today, not least in challenging us to a greater service of the poor as seen, e.g., in St. Basil the Great.

In sum, Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage is an extremely useful and deeply compelling book, written with great clarity, insight, and restraint, and it very much deserves a wide audience, not merely among other academics, but especially in parish study groups, catechetical classes, and similar venues. The Fathers would applaud.
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