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

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Coptic Christianity

Set for release at the end of December is another book introducing Coptic Christianity. We have seen a number of such introductions released over the last decade, but one more will not hurt if it aids even a little bit in continuing to draw attention to one of the oldest aboriginal Christian groups in the Middle East which has suffered so much at the hands of Islam, and continues to do so today: Jill Kamil, Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church (Routledge, 2015), 336pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Copts - the indigenous Christians of Egypt - declared their independence from Byzantine Christianity when they appointed their own patriarchs in the sixth century. Jill Kamil has written an angaging and accessible survey of the history of Christianity on Egypt, through its development under Rome, Byzantium and Islam, to modern times.
Drawing on personal travel to all the Christian sites of Egypt, and conversations with scholars, monks, museum directors, and scores of lay Egyptians both Copt and Muslim, the author tells us about the fundamental importance of Coptic religion and culture in Egypt. Weaving together historical research with absorbing stories, she explores questions as:
* How did Christianity suceed in an Egypt that already had an established religion which had lasted for more than 300 years?
* What part did Egypt play in the evolvement of the early Christian movement?
* Why were there so many Egyptian martyrs?
Lavishly illustrated with more than 120 photographs, drawings and maps, Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs offers a captivating insight into a side if Egypt that will be new to many readers. It is ideal not only for students of Egyptian history and Christianity, as well as those with a more general interst in Egypt's past and present.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Wiley Patristics Companion

I'm looking forward to teaching a course on patristics next year, and this recently published volume will be a strong contender for possible textbooks in my class, not least because of the ample attention it pays to Syriac, Arabic, and Greek traditions alongside the Latin: Ken Parry, ed., Wiley Blackwell Companion to Patristics (2015), 552pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

This comprehensive volume brings together a team of distinguished scholars to create a wide-ranging introduction to patristic authors and their contributions to not only theology and spirituality, but to philosophy, ecclesiology, linguistics, hagiography, liturgics, homiletics, iconology, and other fields.

  • Challenges accepted definitions of patristics and the patristic period - in particular questioning the Western framework in which the field has traditionally been constructed
  • Includes the work of authors who wrote in languages other than Latin and Greek, including those within the Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic Christian traditions
  • Examines the reception history of prominent as well as lesser-known figures, debating the role of each, and exploring why many have undergone periods of revived interest
  • Offers synthetic accounts of a number of topics central to patristic studies, including scripture, scholasticism, and the Reformation
  • Demonstrates the continuing role of these writings in enriching and inspiring our understanding of Christianity
  • Friday, November 27, 2015

    Bill Mills on Following Christ

    I have had the pleasure of interviewing the Orthodox priest and pastoral theologian Fr. Wm. C. Mills over the years on here. He is a prolific writer, author of such scholarly works as Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology; editor of a Festschrift for Michael Plekon, Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon; and author of numerous biblical commentaries, including From Pascha to Pentecost: Reflections on the Gospel of John, and (my favourite), The Prayer of St. Ephrem: A Biblical Commentary.

    Again this past week I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his latest book, Come Follow Me (OCABS Press, 2015), 134pp. It is--as with so many of his books--a lovely, accessible, short book that cuts through a lot of the fog of "spirituality" or even "biblical theology" to allow the divine word to speak to us clearly and freshly.

    AD: Tell us about your background.

    WCM: Long story short, for the past fifteen years I have served as the pastor of an Eastern Orthodox Christian parish in Charlotte, NC. Like many parishes we’ve had our ups and downs and thankfully we’ve experienced more ups recently.

    My Church School curriculum focused on the Divine Liturgy, lives of the saints, and some Church History, but very little about the Bible. Our family had a leather King James Bible on our living room coffee table but I never read it. 

    At St. Vladimir’s Seminary I was blessed to have Fr. John Breck and Fr. Paul Tarazi who instilled in me the love of the Scriptures. While both have different backgrounds and personalities, they taught me the centrality of the Bible for preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. I am extremely grateful to have had them as my teachers and I think of them often, especially as I’m preparing sermons. 

    I am also grateful to Dr. Nicolae Roddy, professor of Old Testament at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska whom I met after my seminary studies. Nicolae opened my horizons to the religious, cultural, and social world of the Bible. In addition to his teaching, Nicolae is also an archaeologist who leads an annual dig at Bethsaida in Galilee.

    AD: What led to the writing of this book, Come Follow Me, in particular?

    WCM: Early on in pastoral ministry I realized that I needed to dig deep into the Bible. My sermons, adult education classes, catechism classes, and teaching involved Scripture and therefore I needed to really study the Bible so I knew what I was talking about! It also dawned on me that all of our prayers, hymns, liturgical seasons and cycles, and Divine Liturgy are rooted in the Scriptures too.

    My earlier books, From Pascha to Pentecost: Reflections on the Gospel of Johnfollowed by Prepare O Bethlehem and my other lectionary commentaries flowed from this deep desire to understand the biblical text. These books were followed by a A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal, Encountering Jesus in the Gospels, as well as Walking with God, among others. Come Follow Me is a result of many years of preaching, teaching, and praying the biblical text, and quite frankly, even after all these years I still have so much more to learn.

    AD: How did you decide on these particular biblical texts as ones to comment on? Is there a theme that links them or a rationale for bringing them all together?

    The collection of reflections in this book are sermons that were delivered during the Divine Liturgy and based on the scriptural texts found in the Orthodox liturgical calendar. There is a slight difference in texts depending on whether you are using the Greek (Byzantine) or Russian (Slavic) lectionary. Because our parish is a part of the Orthodox Church in America we follow the Russian or Slavic lectionary.  So in that sense these chapters were not organized thematically as one would if they were doing a lectionary word study or a chapter-by-chapter commentary.

    AD: A lot of spiritual literature today from the East seems to be concerned with elders on Athos, or collected sayings from the Fathers. But you, refreshingly, went straight back to the Scriptures and let them breathe directly and freely. Was that deliberate?

    The Scriptures are the basis of our faith in God. The Bible is the Word of God which is given to us for life. Everything in our Christian spiritual tradition--our liturgical cycles, rites, and rituals; our prayers, our sacraments; our belief itself--is based on the Word of God. So I thought early on why go back to the Fathers of the fourth or fifth century or even the writings of someone more contemporary like an elder of Mt. Athos. Instead, let's go back to the source that these very elders and Fathers were reading--the Bible!

    I encourage everyone, not just our clergy, but also the laity, to read the Bible regularly. I usually advise folks to start with the gospels or the Psalms. The Psalms are poetry and they are highly accessible and they contain a wide range of human emotions and feelings: anger, love, fear, doubt, despair, joy, and pain. Likewise, the gospels are stories which are very memorable. Almost everyone has heard of the story of the Good Samaritan or the Publican and the Pharisee.

    AD: You've no doubt heard the slogans: "Jesus--yes! Church--no!" or "I'm spiritual but not religious." But can we really heed Christ's call to "Come, Follow Me" on our own, without a community?

    Unfortunately so many people have been turned off to the Church because of other Christians. I’ve talked with many disaffected and disinterested Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians who have been scandalized by various types of sexual and financial abuse among Church hierarchy, the lack of real concern for outreach and service of the poor, as well as the lack of open communication and freedom in the Church, and the abuse of authority and power. So in some ways I don’t blame them for wanting to be in community.

    However when we read the Scriptures we see that God called people to be in community. He called Abraham who later became the father of many nations. He called the Israelites. Jesus called the disciples. God calls us too. The famous writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton said that no man is an island: we are all connected to one another in our baptism or as St. Paul said we are all members of one another in the one body of Christ. God calls us to be community, whether big or small. We are meant to be in communion with one another as we carry our cross together and follow Christ.

    AD: Tell us a bit about your own rather unique parish community there in NC, and the good things that are going on.

    My parish is very different than the one in which I was raised. My home parish was in middle class suburbia. A few folks were blue collar workers but most were not. Almost all were from Slavic or Eastern European roots. While everyone was kind and nice we didn’t have much outreach to the local community and I had little sense about how my faith would and could intersect with the world around me, both locally and globally. 

    My current parish is in an urban centre and is very much a microcosm of the United Nations. We have families from Syria, Lebanon, Russia, the Republic of Georgia, Eritrea, India, and Romania. Our parish family has a mixture of those who consider themselves “cradle Orthodox” and “convert.”  We also have parishioners who have arrived in North Carolina from across the United States: Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Florida, Texas, and other places. We have just a few people who were born and raised in the South.

    I think our social, ethnic, and racial diversity provides a strong foundation for our parish family. We don’t have divisions like many parishes have such as “newcomers” versus “old-timers” or “cradle” versus “convert.” Our wide mixes of ethnicities and backgrounds is a symbol that everyone is welcome and everyone, while having come from some place else, is welcome in this place on Sunday morning.

    Our parish also is involved in a lot of outreach ministries. Each month we purchase food and cook a hot lunch for approximately one hundred men at the local men’s shelter. We also donate canned goods each month to the local Loaves and Fishes ministry as well as baby diapers and baby products to the local Florence Crittendon Center, a home for unwed teen mothers.

    Two years ago we started a construction ministry where a few of our parishioners travel to another parish and help them with small renovation projects. Our first project was to design and build a one-hundred-foot handicap ramp. Last year we helped renovated a large warehouse-type building and installed a drop ceiling and a covered portico which connected the church building with their new fellowship hall.

    Every August we purchase back-packs, fill them with school supplies and after blessing them we then donate them to the local school system for children in need. We also team up with the local Salvation Army and participate in their Angel Tree Program where parish families “adopt” an angel, buy gifts for them, and then bless them on St. Nicholas Day. The gifts are then distributed to needy children at Christmas. At last count we host nine different types of regular outreach ministries. Our parish ministries not only help those in need but provide parishioners with many opportunities to participate in helping those around us in both big and small ways.

    AD: What do you think is the most difficult part of following Christ today for most people in North America? What do we need to give up, or do differently, to hear and heed His call more clearly?

    This is a question that I’ve thought about and wrestled with for a long time. My hunch is that, by and large, we have a very comfortable life here in North America. People work, have some type of housing, go on vacation every year, put money away for college and for their future. With a few clicks on the computer I can buy almost anything I want and that often includes free shipping! If we’re so comfortable we don’t feel like we need God. Sure, we need him when we have the urge, but for the most part if we’re doing okay why do I need a savior? Yet if you look at poor places in South America or countries in Africa, for example you see that the Church is growing by leaps and bounds. Why? Because people are poor, people are hurting, they are sick, there is war, famine, poverty. People want hope, and the Church offers hope in a world full of despair, light in times of darkness. When I have almost everything I need I certainly don’t need God.

    The trick is that we do need God! We have to almost trick ourselves into un-learning or divesting ourselves of our reliance on all these material things that I have: my home, my pension, my savings, my healthcare won’t save me. Only God saves through his Son. But this is a very hard lesson to learn and many people never learn it.

    AD: Having finished Come Follow Me, what are you at work on next?

    I have a few projects that I’m currently working on, including another sermon collection which is similar to Come Follow Me and is tentatively called Bread for the Journey. I’m also working on a book on St. Paul’s vision of pastoral care, especially his use of metaphors for ministry such as planting, sowing, harvesting, and building, among others.  Paul’s writings are a treasure trove for pastors, especially his writings on pastoral care, preaching, and teaching. Very often we go straight to the four gospels, but I encourage pastors to go to Paul. Paul’s writings pack a punch, and you won’t be disappointed!

    Tuesday, November 24, 2015

    Cyril Hovorun on the Church's Consciousness

    I am eagerly looking forward to teaching my ecclesiology class again next year so that I can make use of Cyril Hovorun's splendid new book, Meta-Ecclesiology: Chronicles on Church Awareness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 242pp. It is an excellent survey of ecclesiology from the New Testament through the Fathers and into the modern period, treating the Syriac, Byzantine, Latin, and Protestant traditions. A vast amount of material covering an enormous terrain is handled skillfully and lightly, making this an excellent introductory text for students.

    I first met the author at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Chicago, where I was on a panel about the question of married priests in the Catholic Church. That evening I met up with the incomparable Peter Galadza who introduced me to Fr. Cyril and several of us had a fascinating conversation over drinks and then dinner that night about what Putin was up to in Russia and Ukraine, about relations between Orthodox in Ukraine, and Orthodox-Catholic relations--among other things. Fr. Cyril is a first-rate scholar with a fascinating history, and I asked him about that in the context of an interview about his latest book, which I warmly recommend. Here are his thoughts.

    AD: Tell us about your background. 

    CH: I am an Orthodox priest from Ukraine. I am happy to having had many opportunities to study and work in different contexts, and to encounter many other religious traditions. I began my studies in nuclear physics and then shifted to theology. I did my undergraduate theological studies in Kyiv and Athens, then wrote my PhD thesis at Durham University under the supervision of Andrew Louth.

    While studying at Durham, I began working at the Department of external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate. From 2007 to 2009 I chaired a similar department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. After that, I moved back to Moscow, where my responsibility was to reform the system of theological education of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time, I never abandoned teaching and research. My initial field was patristics, and recently I moved to ecclesiology and public theology. I spent several years at Yale working on my ecclesiological project, which led to publishing this book. Now I teach at Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy in Sweden. I am often invited to lecture and present at other Universities in the US, Canada, and Europe. I do regular teaching tours to China. I have been heavily involved in various dialogues, including the one between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

    AD:What led to this book Meta-Ecclesiology: Chronicles on Church Awareness, particularly its focus on the Church's self-awareness?

    For over 10 years I have been a part of the church bureaucratic machinery, and had plenty of opportunities to observe how the church functions on the level of its administrative apparatus and hierarchy, how its different structures and strata interrelate with each other, and how this affects the way in which the church becomes perceived on its different levels. I realized that the church is often understood in the way it is governed. In other words, church bureaucracy defines what the church is. This is certainly wrong, because the right way should be the other way around: the church should define what is its bureaucracy. 

    To sort out and critically assess my experiences in the church administration, I undertook an ecclesiological inquiry. An opportunity to do this was provided by Yale University, which invited me to its fellowship program. Through the systematic study of the ecclesiological doctrines, I realized that ecclesiology, as the self-awareness of the church, was never a constant. It changed all the time, under the influence of various circumstances, including political and social ones. In other words, the circumstances and structures of the church, including administrative ones, always defined what the church is. And the church, as the body of Christ and the vessel of the Holy Spirit, always resisted the reductionisms implied or incurred by its structures. It is a permanent dialectical struggle, and my personal experience of the church administration reflected this struggle at a tiny spot on the ecclesial timeline.

    AD:You review(p. 10) a number of metaphors used to describe the Church and then note that the list is not closed.Which metaphors today seem especially popular or apt?

    The metaphors of the body and of the ship are still most popular, I believe. They are good, but they continue serving the church divisions. Even the metaphor of the body, which is most often employed by eucharistic ecclesiology, is reductionist, as eucharistic ecclesiology is, even though they certainly try to broaden our perception of the church. I think the metaphor of the Kingdom of God is less reductionist than others, and this is the one which was favored most by the early Church.

    AD: Your discussion of Photius (p.17) notes that since his time the East has been unable to agree on a definition of primacy--except that it doesn't want primacy as Rome exercises it. Are we not closer today to a consensus on this question? Has the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, from the Ravenna statement onwards, not helped the East come closer to consensus on primacy?  

    CH: To be honest, I do not see that now we are closer to the Orthodox consensus on primacy than in the times of Photios. The Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and the process of preparation to the Pan-Orthodox council made more obvious our disagreements and helped us to realize better their nature, but they did not bring us much closer to the solution of the issue of primacy. Nevertheless, even the fact that we are now more aware and better understand our disagreements, is positive. This awareness makes us less mislead and better equipped in solving the quest of primacy from the Orthodox perspective.

    AD:You note the possibility of looking at ecclesiology from the perspectives of phenomenology and analytic philosophy. What do you see as the promises and prospects of such perspectives? Why would they be important to consider?

    Both analytic philosophy and phenomenology are the most advanced modern lines of thought that analyze how we perceive the world and ourselves. I believe that they are relevant to ecclesiology, which is also an epistemological discipline that deals with the ways of perception and self-perception of the Church. If we take classical theology, it has been articulated in the language borrowed from philosophy. In the same vein, when we speak today about new theological reflections on the Church, then modern epistemologies are very appropriate places where to go and borrow their ideas for new ecclesiological syntheses. Such syntheses are not just desirable, they are needed for the renewal of our perception of the Church, to make the church better understood by the people familiar with the modern intellectual culture, and finally to demonstrate that the Church is not an archeological artifact, but an alive reality capable of engaging with, and changing the modern world.

    AD: Several times throughout the book you draw on Syriac sources and note that they differ from Latin and Byzantine sources. What, in your view, does the Syriac tradition give us that the Latin and  Byzantine might not?

    The Syriac tradition is among the greatest in the Church of the first millennium. It was dynamic and open, and reached as far as India and China because of its extraordinary flexibility. Therefore, it would be an unforgivable omission to ignore it when describing ecclesiological doctrines of the past. Its characteristic feature was the language in which it expressed itself. It was the language of poetry and images. The Syrians were particularly fond of the metaphors, and not much fancy about sophisticated and abstract concepts. They could use Greek language, but still their theological language was Syriac, inasmuch as it employed images and metaphors.

    AD: Your treatment of Photius notes his complaints about "ritual" questions--how Latin rituals differed from those of the East. Are these still important or valid complaints today? Or have most Christians generally decided that liturgical diversity is not a seriously Church-dividing issue? 

    I argue that diversity of the Church practices, including liturgical ones, was a norm in the early Christianity. Photios witnessed a shift in the attitude to the diversity, when unity of the Church became understood as uniformity. Photios himself was a man of his time, and emphasized ritual differentiations as a Church dividing issue. I tried to demonstrate in the book that this was a weak point shared not just by Photios, but by many in his time, including his western counterparts. It does not fit the perennial idea of the Church and today, Photios's judgements regarding the role of rite in the Church should be taken with a grain of criticism.

    AD: Your treatment of Vatican I (p.90) notes that nothing in its prior history--not Islam, nor the Reformation, nor the collapse of the Roman Empire--called forth such a radical ecclesial reaction in the Latin West as Vatican I did in confronting modernity. Tell us a bit more about this, for it seems to me a crucial point for "re-interpreting" the council--as Walter Kasper and others have argued. 

    The western Church waged several ecclesiological wars in the past. I call these wars ecclesiological, because they were about redefining what the Church is. In what we now call "culture war", which is a polemic between conservatives and liberals, Vatican I clearly identified the Church with only one side and thus reduced what the Church really is. Instead of engaging with modernity, Vatican I led to building an alternative to it. This alternative, "a perfect Christian society", failed and was to a great extent deconstructed by Vatican II. With much regret I observe similar processes in some Orthodox Churches. They choose to be partisan in the culture wars of our time and instead of engaging in the meaningful dialogue with modernity try to reconstruct primordial models of relations with the society and the state. These models are destined to fail. The Church, however, will suffer and already suffers from their failure.
    AD: This summer I published an article* on Joseph de Maistre's influence on ecclesiology. So I looked for him in your treatment of the First Vatican Council, especially the years leading up to it, but did not find a lot of engagement here with ultramontanist thought, including Joseph de Maistre.Why not? 

    Certainly, Joseph de Maistre was an important figure in the ultramontanist movement, which I explore a bit when I talk about the evolution of ecclesiology during the nineteenth century. He had close connections with the Russian court in the beginning of that century. However, his influence on theology per se was not as noticeable as the one of Johann Adam Möller, for instance. For this reason I pay more attention to Möller and his influence on the father of the Russian ecclesiology, Alexey Khomiakov, even though Khomiakov did not recognize such influence. I give more credit to de Maistre in my second book, where I demonstrate how his political ideas about sovereignty echoed in the renewed concept of Orthodox autocephaly in the same period.  

    AD: Your appendix on the St. Irenaeus Working Group was fascinating. I suspect few people know much about them. Tell us a bit more about the group and your involvement with it. What are their hopes, and projects? 

    We call it an unofficial Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. The group began its work in 2000, when the official dialogue was suspended after the unfortunate meeting in Baltimore. It consists of the theologians from both sides of the dialogue. However, unlike in the official dialogue, they are not appointed by Churches, but invited by their colleagues on the basis of their academic merits. The group therefore is meritocratic. I think this is a productive format, which allows to openly tackle difficult issues. In the official dialogue, such issues are discussed with the official positions of the Churches in mind, which often leads the discussions to deadlock. The group enjoys its academic freedom, which facilitates our search for the solution to the burning issues from the agenda of the official dialogue.

    AD: Having finished Meta-Ecclesiology: Chronicles on Church Awareness, what are you at work on now? What other projects are in the works? 

    I am about to finish a second book, which continues the "Meta-ecclesiology." While the first book from my ecclesiological series deals with the epistemological aspect of the Church, in the second book, whose working title is "The Scaffolds of the Church", I take a structuralist approach. I analyze the evolution of the structures of the Church and argue that they don't belong to its nature. They are rather scaffolding that facilitate building and maintaining the edifice of the church. Like in my first book, I continue applying to the Church the traditional language of the Aristotelian/Porphyrian dialectics, and experiment with new philosophical languages, in this case the language of structuralism/post-structuralism.

    * "Sovereignty, Politics, and the Church: Joseph de Maistre's Legacy for Catholic and Orthodox Ecclesiology," Pro Ecclesia 24 (Summer 2015): 366-389. 

    Monday, November 23, 2015

    Barth Among the Russians

    Perhaps it was the Anglican snobbery of my upbringing, which regarded continental theologians as really lower-class distant cousins of the reformers of the 16th century who failed to maintain sufficient continuity with the Catholic past of the West--as Anglicanism ostensibly did, for a limited time and not without controversy as John Shelton Reid's fascinating book Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism made clear--but I never developed any interest at all in Barth. On the rare occasions where I tried to read him, I found him utterly tedious.

    Happily, however, not all share my ignorance and boredom. At least one Eastern Christian author, in a forthcoming book, has done some of the genealogical and dialogical work of engaging two very distinct theological cultures: A.J. Moyse et al, eds., Correlating Sobornost: Conversations Between Karl Barth and the Russian Orthodox Tradition (Fortress, February 2016),272pp.

    About this book we are told:
    The diaspora of scholars exiled from Russian in 1922 offered something vital for both Russian Orthodoxy and for ecumenical dialogue. Liberated from scholastic academic discourse, and living and writing in new languages, the scholars set out to reinterpret their traditions and to introduce Russian Orthodoxy to the West. Yet, relatively few have considered the works of these exiles, particularly insofar as they act as critical and constructive conversation partners. This project expands upon the relatively limited conversation between such thinkers with the most significant Protestant theologian of the last century, Karl Barth. Through the topic and in the spirit of sobornost, this project charters such conversation. The body of Russian theological scholarship guided by sobornost challenges Barth, helping us to draw out necessary criticism while leading us toward unexpected insight, and vice versa. This collection will not only illuminate but also stimulate interesting and important discussions for those engaged in the study of Karl Barth's corpus, in the Orthodox tradition, and in the ecumenical discourse between East and West.

    Friday, November 20, 2015

    Western Christians Rescuing Eastern Christians

    We live, as oft noted recently, in the centenary year of the Armenian Genocide. Many books have appeared in English over the last two decades about this dolorous and destructive event. Earlier this year another such book, with a unique angle, was published: Lou Ureneck, The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide (Ecco, 2015), 512pp.

    About this book we are told by the publisher:
    The harrowing story of a Methodist Minister and a principled American naval officer who helped rescue more than 250,000 refugees during the genocide of Armenian and Greek Christians—a tale of bravery, morality, and politics, published to coincide with the genocide’s centennial.
    The year was 1922: World War I had just come to a close, the Ottoman Empire was in decline, and Asa Jennings, a YMCA worker from upstate New York, had just arrived in the quiet coastal city of Smyrna to teach sports to boys. Several hundred miles to the east in Turkey’s interior, tensions between Greeks and Turks had boiled over into deadly violence. Mustapha Kemal, now known as Ataturk, and his Muslim army soon advanced into Smyrna, a Christian city, where a half a million terrified Greek and Armenian refugees had fled in a desperate attempt to escape his troops. Turkish soldiers proceeded to burn the city and rape and kill countless Christian refugees. Unwilling to leave with the other American civilians and determined to get Armenians and Greeks out of the doomed city, Jennings worked tirelessly to feed and transport the thousands of people gathered at the city’s Quay.
    With the help of the brilliant naval officer and Kentucky gentleman Halsey Powell, and a handful of others, Jennings commandeered a fleet of unoccupied Greek ships and was able to evacuate a quarter million innocent people—an amazing humanitarian act that has been lost to history, until now. Before the horrible events in Turkey were complete, Jennings had helped rescue a million people.
    By turns harrowing and inspiring, The Great Fire uses eyewitness accounts, documents, and survivor narratives to bring this episode—extraordinary for its brutality as well as its heroism—to life.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2015

    The Rise and Fall of Nikita Krushchev

    Though I've read several studies of the man and his period, including William Taubman's study Khrushchev: The Man and His Era and Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, I still find the rise of Krushchev rather perplexing. Perhaps a forthcoming study of him will shed further light, and just in time, too, for your Ukrainian and Russian friends who celebrate Christmas on the old calendar. This book's release in early January will be early enough that you can give it as a "Christmas" present in January: Geoffrey Swain, Khrushchev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). 

    Swain has published numerous other studies of communist figures and the history of Eastern Europe over the last century. 

    About this book the publisher tells us:
    This concise, approachable introduction to Khrushchev explores the innovative theme of Khrushchev as reformer, arguing that the 'bumbling' nature of those reforms only partly reflected Khrushchev's uncertainty about how to act. Swain provides a cogent account of Khrushchev's political career and of his wider role in Soviet and world politics.

    Monday, November 16, 2015

    Dionysian Mystical Theology

    The identity of the author has haunted many from the beginning, and his thought--whoever he was--has haunted Christian ideas both East and West for just as long. I refer, of course, to the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius, about whom a new book has just been published: Paul Rorem, The Dionysian Mystical Theology (Fortress, 2015), 157pp.

    About this book we are told:
    The Dionysian Mystical Theology introduces the Pseudo-Dionysian "mystical theology," with glimpses at key stages in its interpretation and critical reception through the centuries. In part one, the elusive Areopagite's own miniature essay, The Mystical Theology, is quoted in its entirety, sentence by sentence, with commentary. Its cryptic contents would be almost impenetrable without judicious reference to the rest of the Dionysian corpus: The Divine Names, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and the ten Letters. Of special importance is the Dionysian use of negations in an "apophatic" theology that recognizes the transcendence of God beyond human words and concepts.
    Stages in the reception and critique of this Greek corpus and theme are sketched in part two: first, the initial sixth-century introduction and marginal comments (Scholia) by John of Scythopolis; second, the early Latin translation and commentary by the ninth-century Carolingian Eriugena and the twelfth-century commentary by the Parisian Hugh of St. Victor; and third, the critical reaction and opposition by Martin Luther in the Reformation. In conclusion, the Dionysian apophatic is presented alongside other forms of negative theology in light of modern and postmodern interests in the subject.

    Friday, November 13, 2015

    Those Tricky Corpses

    A graduate student of mine working on the great St. Irenaeus of Lyons has been researching the persecution of Christians in southern Gaul in the late second century when Irenaeus was briefly--Providentially?--out of town and thus escaped being killed. He returned to find much of the Christian community devastated and the persecutors disposing of the bodies in such a way that the relics could never be found and used to pray over.

    Closer to our own day, Scott Kenworthy's magnificent study The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism, and Society after 1825 revealed, inter alia, that the Bolshevik destruction of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra also entailed the destruction of relics and saints' bodies there in the hateful but mistaken belief that in destroying the relics of their faith, the supposedly superstitious and stupid peasants would in fact have that faith itself destroyed.

    Christianity's despisers thus often know of the power of the dead even if Christians themselves have forgotten or refuse to acknowledge that power. A new book brings this phenomenon squarely into focus: Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton UP, 2015),

    The publisher gives a detailed table of contents here, where you will note ample attention paid to the Christian East.

    About this book the publisher tells us:
    From its earliest centuries, one of the most notable features of Christianity has been the veneration of the saints—the holy dead. This ambitious history tells the fascinating story of the cult of the saints from its origins in the second-century days of the Christian martyrs to the Protestant Reformation. Robert Bartlett examines all of the most important aspects of the saints—including miracles, relics, pilgrimages, shrines, and the saints’ role in the calendar, literature, and art.
    The book explores the central role played by the bodies and body parts of saints, and the special treatment these relics received. From the routes, dangers, and rewards of pilgrimage, to the saints’ impact on everyday life, Bartlett’s account is an unmatched examination of an important and intriguing part of the religious life of the past—as well as the present.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2015

    The Oxford Handbook of Christology

    As I've noted on here many times, we are living in a time when "handbooks of" or "companions to" are all the rage: major publishers continue to bring them out on a variety of topics, including sacramental theology. Set for November release is a hefty collection of articles devoted to that most controverted of topics that so riled and divided early Christianity and led to such complex and often maddening debates: Francesca Aran Murphy, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Christology (Oxford UP, 2015), 704pp.

    About this book we are told:
    The Oxford Handbook of Christology brings together 40 authoritative essays considering the theological study of the nature and role of Jesus Christ. This collection offers dynamic perspectives within the study of Christology and provides rigorous discussion of inter-confessional theology, which would not have been possible even 60 years ago. The first of the seven parts considers Jesus Christ in the Bible. Rather than focusing solely on the New Testament, this section begins with discussion of the modes of God's self-communication to us and suggests that Christ's most original incarnation is in the language of the Hebrew Bible. The second section considers Patristics Christology. These essays explore the formation of the doctrines of the person of Christ and the atonement between the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and the eve of the Second Council of Nicaea. The next section looks at Medieval theology and tackles the development of the understanding of who Christ was and of his atoning work. The section on "Reformation and Christology" traces the path of the Reformation from Luther to Bultmann. The fifth section tackles the new developments in thinking about Christ which have emerged in the modern and the postmodern eras, and the sixth section explains how beliefs about Jesus have affected music, poetry, and the arts. The final part concludes by locating Christology within systematic theology, asking how it relates to Christian belief as a whole. This comprehensive volume provides an invaluable resource and reference for scholars, students, and general readers interested in the study of Christology.
    If you peruse the table of contents, you will see such well known and highly respected scholars of the Christian East prominently featured among the contributors as Brian Daley, Khaled Anatolios, Norman Russell, and Andrew Louth.

    Monday, November 9, 2015

    Romanian Orthodox Fascism

    If we were all to be judged by the sins of our misbegotten youth, who would escape unscathed from the avenging tribunal of hindsight and history? And yet there are some forms of youthful "naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins" (Charles Ryder) more worthy of condemnation both at the time and later. A recent book takes a sustained look at the sins of Romania's Orthodox youth: Roland Clark, Holy Legionary Youth: Fascist Activism in Interwar Romania (Cornell UP, 2015), 288pp.

    About this book the publisher tells us:
    Founded in 1927, Romania’s Legion of the Archangel Michael was one of Europe’s largest and longest-lived fascist social movements. In Holy Legionary Youth, Roland Clark draws on oral histories, memoirs, and substantial research in the archives of the Romanian secret police to provide the most comprehensive account of the Legion in English to date. Clark approaches Romanian fascism by asking what membership in the Legion meant to young Romanian men and women. Viewing fascism “from below,” as a social category that had practical consequences for those who embraced it, he shows how the personal significance of fascism emerged out of Legionaries’ interactions with each other, the state, other political parties, families and friends, and fascist groups abroad. Official repression, fascist spectacle, and the frequency and nature of legionary activities changed a person’s everyday activities and relationships in profound ways.
    Clark’s sweeping history traces fascist organizing in interwar Romania to nineteenth-century grassroots nationalist movements that demanded political independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It also shows how closely the movement was associated with the Romanian Orthodox Church and how the uniforms, marches, and rituals were inspired by the muscular, martial aesthetic of fascism elsewhere in Europe. Although antisemitism was a key feature of official fascist ideology, state violence against Legionaries rather than the extensive fascist violence against Jews had a far greater impact on how Romanians viewed the movement and their role in it. Approaching fascism in interwar Romania as an everyday practice, Holy Legionary Youth offers a new perspective on European fascism, highlighting how ordinary people “performed” fascism by working together to promote a unique and totalizing social identity.

    Friday, November 6, 2015

    An Academy at the Court of the Tsars

    The Jesuits' history is certainly a colorful one, and their encounters with the Christian East in the early period cannot be unequivocally accounted good, as I noted recently with regards to what happened in Ethiopia. Jesuit activities in Russia are perhaps even more controverted, and a book forthcoming later this year will shed further light on this period that did so much to rouse and maintain Russian Orthodox suspicions of Roman Catholic activities and orders:

    Nikolaos A. Chrissidis, An Academy at the Court of the Tsars: Greek Scholars and Jesuit Education in Early Modern Russia (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015), 384pp.

    About this book we are told:
    The first formally organized educational institution in Russia was established in 1685 by two Greek hieromonks, Ioannikios and Sophronios Leichoudes. Like many of their Greek contemporaries in the seventeenth century, the brothers acquired part of their schooling in colleges of post-Renaissance Italy under a precise copy of the Jesuit curriculum. When they created a school in Moscow, known as the Slavo-Greco-Latin Academy, they emulated the structural characteristics, pedagogical methods, and program of studies of Jesuit prototypes.
    In this original work, Nikolaos A. Chrissidis analyzes the academy’s impact on Russian educational practice and situates it in the contexts of Russian-Greek cultural relations and increased contact between Russia and Western Europe in the seventeenth century. Chrissidis demonstrates that Greek academic and cultural influences on Russia in the second half of the seventeenth century were Western in character, though Orthodox in doctrinal terms. He also shows that Russian and Greek educational enterprises were part of the larger European pattern of Jesuit academic activities that impacted Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox educational establishments and curricular choices.
    An Academy at the Court of the Tsars is the first study of the Slavo-Greco-Latin Academy in English and the only one based on primary sources in Russian, Church Slavonic, Greek, and Latin. It will interest scholars and students of early modern Russian and Greek history, of early modern European intellectual history and the history of science, of Jesuit education, and of Eastern Orthodox history and culture.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2015

    On the Fate of the Old Believers

    Though I have only read a little of the history of the Old Believers (e.g., Roy Robson's Old Believers in Modern Russia), and have long wanted to read more of that fascinating history, I have not so far been able to. I shall therefore look eagerly towards obtaining a copy of a book coming out later this month by Thomas Marsden, The Crisis of Religious Toleration in Imperial Russia: Bibikov's System for the Old Believers, 1841-1855 (Oxford UP, 2015), 270pp.

    About this book we are told:
    This book is about an unprecedented attempt by the government of Russia's Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) to eradicate what was seen as one of the greatest threats to its political security: the religious dissent of the Old Believers. The Old Believers had long been reviled by the ruling Orthodox Church, for they were the largest group of Russian dissenters and claimed to be the guardians of true Orthodoxy; however, their industrious communities and strict morality meant that the civil authorities often regarded them favourably. This changed in the 1840s and 1850s when a series of remarkable cases demonstrated that the existing restrictions upon the dissenters' religious freedoms could not suppress their capacity for independent organisation. Finding itself at a crossroads between granting full toleration, or returning to the fierce persecution of earlier centuries, the tsarist government increasingly inclined towards the latter course, culminating in a top secret 'system' introduced in 1853 by the Minister of Internal Affairs Dmitrii Bibikov.
    The operation of this system was the high point of religious persecution in the last 150 years of the tsarist regime: it dissolved the Old Believers' religious gatherings, denied them civil rights, and repressed their leading figures as state criminals. It also constituted an extraordinary experiment in government, instituted to deal with a temporary emergency. Paradoxically the architects of this system were not churchmen or reactionaries, but representatives of the most progressive factions of Nicholas's bureaucracy. Their abandonment of religious toleration on grounds of political intolerability reflected their nationalist concerns for the future development of a rapidly changing Russia. The system lasted only until Nicholas's death in 1855; however, the story of its origins, operation, and collapse, told for the first time in this study, throws new light on the religious and political identity of the autocratic regime and on the complexity of the problems it faced.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2015

    European Encounters with Islam

    John Tolan is an important, if not entirely well-known, scholar in France (originally from the US) whose articles on Islam and Christianity in English and French I have read with great profit over the years. He is the lead author of this forthcoming paperback version of an important book published in 2012: Europe and the Islamic World: A History (Princeton UP, 2015), 488pp.

    About this book we are told:
    Europe and the Islamic World sheds much-needed light on the shared roots of Islamic and Western cultures and on the richness of their inextricably intertwined histories, refuting once and for all the misguided notion of a "clash of civilizations" between the Muslim world and Europe. In this landmark book, three eminent historians bring to life the complex and tumultuous relations between Genoans and Tunisians, Alexandrians and the people of Constantinople, Catalans and Maghrebis--the myriad groups and individuals whose stories reflect the common cultural, intellectual, and religious heritage of Europe and Islam.
    Since the seventh century, when the armies of Constantinople and Medina fought for control of Syria and Palestine, there has been ongoing contact between the Muslim world and the West. This sweeping history vividly recounts the wars and the crusades, the alliances and diplomacy, commerce and the slave trade, technology transfers, and the intellectual and artistic exchanges. Here readers are given an unparalleled introduction to key periods and events, including the Muslim conquests, the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, the commercial revolution of the medieval Mediterranean, the intellectual and cultural achievements of Muslim Spain, the crusades and Spanish reconquest, the rise of the Ottomans and their conquest of a third of Europe, European colonization and decolonization, and the challenges and promise of this entwined legacy today.
    As provocative as it is groundbreaking, this book describes this shared history in all its richness and diversity, revealing how ongoing encounters between Europe and Islam have profoundly shaped both.
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