"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).

Friday, December 14, 2018

Russia: from Orthodoxy to Atheism and Back Again?

Self-identified "atheists" are invariably the least self-aware of people. Their massive inability to see that they merely worship other gods, perform other rituals, enforce other orthodoxies, and evangelize in favour of other creeds would be rather touching were it not so tedious.

Along comes a new book to show how this was so on the largest stage on which a politically enforced attempt at atheism was ever attempted: Victoria Smolkin, A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton UP, 2018), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
When the Bolsheviks set out to build a new world in the wake of the Russian Revolution, they expected religion to die off. Soviet power used a variety of tools--from education to propaganda to terror―to turn its vision of a Communist world without religion into reality. Yet even with its monopoly on ideology and power, the Soviet Communist Party never succeeded in overcoming religion and creating an atheist society.
A Sacred Space Is Never Empty presents the first history of Soviet atheism from the 1917 revolution to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Drawing on a wealth of archival material and in-depth interviews with those who were on the front lines of Communist ideological campaigns, Victoria Smolkin argues that to understand the Soviet experiment, we must make sense of Soviet atheism. Smolkin shows how atheism was reimagined as an alternative cosmology with its own set of positive beliefs, practices, and spiritual commitments. Through its engagements with religion, the Soviet leadership realized that removing religion from the "sacred spaces" of Soviet life was not enough. Then, in the final years of the Soviet experiment, Mikhail Gorbachev―in a stunning and unexpected reversal―abandoned atheism and reintroduced religion into Soviet public life. A Sacred Space Is Never Empty explores the meaning of atheism for religious life, for Communist ideology, and for Soviet politics.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Mourning, Melancholia--and Hope Amidst the Ashes

In his last interview, Joseph Ratzinger makes what struck me as an anguished comment that in getting older as a Christian everything gets harder. He did not really elaborate, but I wonder if what he had in mind was the more generally human experience that the longer one lives, the more one has to mourn: the more loss one has endured, and therefore the more space grief occupies in one's life.

That came back to mind in reading this interview, "Anxiety is Our New Religion," with the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster about her new book, Conversion Disorder, where she says that too much of "contemporary life feeds into the expectations that you're not supposed to feel unwell. Whereas I don't see what in this world provides you anything more than uneasiness. I think it's very uneasy to be a human being." (Her book has certain parallels to another new book I noted here.)

It is precisely this awareness that suffering is a semi-permanent feature of life, and "happiness" a fleeting, superficial, inconstant companion, that has long made Freud a deeply attractive and compelling figure for me. I recall reading his Civilization and its Discontents in an undergrad course in the early 1990s. While almost all the other students--as I recall--were appalled by his seemingly dour view of life expressed therein, I found it described the world so exactly that I could scarcely see what they were objecting to. (More recently I had and have the same reaction to all those objecting to Freud's theory of the death drive, which drive I take to be so obvious and powerful a feature of human life that denying it is like denying the law of gravity. The theory is well treated in a new book I am reading now and will come back to later.)

Since then it seems to me--and Webster and others--that the cult of compulsory happiness (a capitalist creation, of course, designed to sell many commodities, not least psychotropics that purport to make you happy again) has only become more insidiously pervasive.

While psychoanalysis sought, as a therapeutic method, to relieve certain neurotic miseries, that was, Freud said, only so that neurotic forms of unhappiness could be replaced by ordinary unhappiness. People who feel entitled to go beyond that as a regular matter of course, or to invent apps or drugs (etc.) purportedly enabling them to do so, are the truly unwell members of our society who should be help up to careful and constant scrutiny. The old Christian discipline of regarding this life as a "valley of tears" is not far off the mark.

Webster in her interview quotes from an "amazing letter by Freud to Princess Marie Bonaparte. He was talking to her about depression and he said, “I think the problem with the depressed is that they simply have too high of an expectation for life. They think life is supposed to have more meaning than it does.”

Some of this, of course, must, I would argue, reflect Freud's own life: having suffered enormous deprivations in war-time Vienna and many senseless losses from the war, including that of his daughter Sophie in the flu epidemic at the end of the Great War, he would also spend the last 16 years of his life in constant agony from many surgeries to keep the cancer in his jaw at bay. And then, of course, he was chased out of Austria and forced to flee to London by the Nazis, dying there eighteen months later in September 1939. (His death is well treated in Mark Edmundson's 2007 book The Death of Sigmund Freud: the Legacy of His Last Days. Before that, Freud's physician in his final years, Max Schur, wrote Freud: Living and Dying, which was published in 1972. I am reading it currently and finding it fascinating.)

I think Madeleine Sprengnether is right--as I said here in my discussion of her new and welcome book Mourning Freud--in seeing that Freud himself perhaps did not always acknowledge as much as he should have, or needed to, the role of grief and loss in his own life. Certainly by the time of his London exile, he had endured many losses, with many more to come: not just of family (all of his sisters, as elderly as he, had to be left behind--neither enough money nor enough time could be raised to bribe the Nazis and placate them with endless paperwork to get the sisters out, and most of them were killed in the Holocaust) but also of his life's work, which was, in Mitteleuropa, virtually wiped out by the war. To the extent psychoanalysis survived at all, it was in Britain and the United States.

Freud was not unaware of grief and loss, of course. His 1917 essay "Mourning and Melancholia" is one I have often gone back to, finding the distinctions he makes there helpful. But on these questions there is more than a touch of the Athenian Stoic about this Austrian analyst. And as someone who described himself as a "Godless Jew," he refused what he took to be the over-easy comforts of "religion," which he neither fully understood nor, as Ana-Maria Rizzuto has convincingly shown, ever fully managed to extricate himself from.

But even here Freud is more ally than many, perhaps most, Christians. Few things are more insufferable than the unwillingness of so-called people of faith to face death, loss, grief, mourning, and the melancholy (and its frequent disguise, anger) that are our lot. Few things are more intolerable than happy-faced insistence on canonizing people at their funerals (if they have one) and banishing mourning with blithe assurances that everyone is even now partying in heaven. If that is what constitutes "Christian hope" today, then I'll gladly take Freudian atheism any day, and twice on Sundays.

Fortunately, of course, mourning and melancholia are all through the Scriptures, not least the Psalter and prophets. Mixed in with them is our hope. We do not, as Saint Paul says, mourn as those who have no hope. But neither is our hope an antidote, a nifty memory drug, that wipes out all traces of grief and mourning. They remain with us forever mixed together.

And that admixture comes out in a new book I am using next semester with some of my students: William Abraham's Among the Ashes: On Death, Grief, and Hope (Eerdmans, 2017), 127pp. About this book the publisher tells us the following:
How can we hold fast to the hope of life eternal when we lose someone we love? In this book William Abraham reflects on the nature of certainty and the logic of hope in the context of an experience of devastating grief.
Abraham opens with a stark account of the effects of grief in his own life after the unexpected death of his oldest son. Drawing on the book of Job, Abraham then looks at the significance of grief in debates about the problem of evil. He probes what Christianity teaches about life after death and ultimately relates our experiences of grief to the death of Christ.
Profound and beautiful, Among the Ashes tackles the philosophical and theological questions surrounding loss even as it honors the experience of grief.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Politically Coerced Orthodoxies

I met Cyril Hovorun in Chicago in 2012 at the AAR, but have only been reading him seriously for about 3 years now--and in that time he's produced a trilogy of very important books (starting with Meta-Ecclesiology) in ecclesiology. Happily, we have a habit of getting to the same conferences, so I saw him in Vienna in 2016, in San Felice del Benaco in 2017, and will see him (D.v.) in January 2019 in Romania.

With his two latest books especially, he has rocketed up to the top of my list of "must-read" Orthodox authors, for he always talks such good sense about controverted issues, calmly and unflappably laying out a compelling case for things that too many Catholic and Orthodox Christians are otherwise emotionally over-invested in and thus incapable of seeing clearly.

Thus, e.g., his Scaffolds of the Church  (about which I interviewed him here) looked at the question of hierarchy in a way that freed it of the self-aggrandizing nonsense sometimes talked about it by popes, patriarchs, and bishops of both East and perhaps especially West.

And now, in his newest book, Political Orthodoxies: the Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced (Fortress, 2018, 210pp.) he has emerged at precisely the right time to shed needed light on some of the underlying issues in the on-going Constantinople-Kyiv-Moscow conflict over Ukrainian Orthodoxy (whose history is so well told in Nick Denysenko's book; interview here).

Part of my interest in Political Orthodoxies comes from its focus (albeit too briefly) on the role of coercion in Christian history. It's a theme I'm addressing in the paper I'm giving in Romania while focusing on the problem of papal primatial powers. (It's also a theme Ashley Purpura has very helpfully addressed in her book for which I interviewed her here.)

Hovorun gets right to his point in the introduction to Political Orthodoxies, picking up where Scaffolds left off by noting how much of Christian understanding and practice of ecclesial offices and authorities, and both with their coercive powers, were "imported to Christianity in late antiquity from the Roman political world" (3). While he thinks in some cases this was an understandable move, he also notes how quickly it developed into problems, not least "hierarchism and stratification" (4). Moreover, the Church continued, under and after Constantine, to suffer more and more from "coercion," which Hovorun calls  "one of the chronic infections the Church contracted from the state" (8).

As Christianity develops, especially in the East, these once-imperial structures and coercive practices get adopted by local churches who seem to think that such practices are some kind of package-deal, little realizing--as Hovorun shows in his second chapter--that civil religion and political religion are quite different from Christian faith. This failure to make necessary distinctions means that too often in Orthodoxy certain political ideologies are adopted "under the guise of Christianity" (75). This chapter surveys such unhealthy and unhelpful transformations in Greece, Romania, and Russia, which are presented as case-studies. There are some staggering details here, and lengthy and damning quotations from various Greek, Romanian, and especially Russian churchmen sucking up to politicians or justifying various immoral activities. Clearly the metropolitan of Odessa does not specialize in subtle sycophancy.

The case-study method is used again towards the end of the book as Hovorun looks at the problems of anti-Semitism in Orthodoxy as well as nationalism. In all these cases--civil religion, political religion, anti-Semitism, and nationalism--Hovorun argues that some or all of them often get bound up with Orthodox theology and church life, to the latter's detriment. Indeed, he goes farther and says that too many Christians are "unable to discern between the norms of the gospel and the simulacra offered by political Orthodoxies" (185), leading, e.g., to their inability or unwillingness to speak out against "wars between Orthodox peoples," not least in Ukraine.

In his conclusion, Hovorun returns briefly and more explicitly to the issue of coercion again, noting once more that a return to "apostolic non-coercive ethos" (199) of the foundations of Christianity remains very much a desideratum today in the Orthodox world. The same, I would add, could be said of the Catholic Church, too, but that is a thought for another day.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Ecumenical Patriarchate's Politics

I have read fascinating studies by the Cypriot political scientist Paschalis Kitromilides on questions of nationalism and other problems, and so I look forward to reading his Religion and Politics in the Orthodox World: The Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Modern Age (Routledge, 2018), 160 pp. This book is very timely with the renewed attention focused on the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its role in liberating Ukrainian Orthodox Christians from Russian imperial and other shackles.

This book explores how the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the leading centre of spiritual authority in the Orthodox Church, based in Istanbul, coped with political developments from Ottoman times until the present. The book outlines how under the Ottomans, despite difficult circumstances, the Patriarchate managed to draw on its huge symbolic and moral power and organization to uphold the unity and catholicity of the Orthodox Church, how it struggled to do this during the subsequent age of nationalism when churches within new nation states unilaterally claimed their autonomy reflecting local national demands, and how the church coped in the twentieth century with the rise of nationalist Turkey, the decline of Orthodoxy in Asia Minor and with the Cold War. The book concludes by assessing the current position and future prospects of the Patriarchate in the region and the world.

We are also given a table of contents:

Foreword by the Metropolitan of Pergamum Ioannis Zizioulas




I. The Orthodox Church and the Enlightenment. Testimonies from the correspondence of Ignatius of Ungrowallachia with G. P. Vieusseux

II. The Orthodox Church in modern state formation in Southeastern Europe

III. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the challenge of nationalism in the 19th century

IV. The end of empire, Greece’s Asia Minor catastrophe and the Ecumenical Patriarchate

V. The Ecumenical Patriarchate during the Cold War (1946-1991)

VI. A religious International in Southeastern Europe?

VII. Orthodoxy, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Ecumenical Patriarchs, 1800 –



Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Orthodox Cyprus Under the Latins

Well do I recall, in October 1993, being jolted out of my ignorance and naivete as a young Canadian unaccustomed to the scars of political violence when I visited Nicosia on Cyprus and saw the militarized border between Cypriot and Turkish claims to the island. I was there for a World Council of Churches conference of which I remember little now except for how hot it was relative to Ottawa, and how I almost didn't make it by developing acute appendicitis six days before I was supposed to leave. Oh, and the food. The food, of course, was wonderful. 

But back to matters at hand: a new book looking at the pivotal role Cyprus plays in the Mediterranean, not least with Crusaders coming from Western Europe to the Middle East and stopping off in various places, and sometimes never leaving, as happened in Cyprus, newly examined by Chrysovalantis Kyriacou, Orthodox Cyprus under the Latins, 1191–1571: Society, Spirituality, and Identities (Lexington Books, 2018), 354pp.
About this book the publisher tells us this:
Medieval and Renaissance Cyprus was a fascinating place of ethnic, cultural, and religious encounters. Following almost nine centuries of Byzantine rule, Cyprus was conquered by the Crusaders in 1191, becoming (until 1571) the most important stronghold of Latin Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean—first under the Frankish dynasty of the Lusignans, and later under the Venetians. Modern historiographical readings of Cypriot identity in medieval and early modern times have been colored by British colonialism, Greek nationalism, and Cyprocentric revisionism. Although these perspectives have offered valuable insights into the historical experience of Latin-ruled Cypriots, they have partially failed to capture the dynamics of noncoercive resistance to domination, and of identity preservation and adaptation. Orthodox Cyprus under the Latins, 1191–1571 readdresses the question of Cypriot identity by focusing on the Greek Cypriots, the island’s largest community during the medieval and early modern period. By bringing together theories from the fields of psychology, social anthropology, and sociology, this study explores continuities and discontinuities in the Byzantine culture and religious tradition of Cyprus, proposing a new methodological framework for a more comprehensive understanding of Cypriot Orthodoxy under Crusader and Venetian rule. A discussion of fresh evidence from hitherto unpublished primary sources enriches this examination, stressing the role of medieval and Renaissance Cyprus as cultural and religious province of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine Orthodox world.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Russian and Other Nationalisms

We live in an era that has suddenly rediscovered the problems of nationalism it seems. For those of us in the Christian East, this has been a problem since at least the beginning of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. It has never gone away, but here too seems to be undergoing an unwelcome and unhelpful revival. As a result, more and more scholarly attention is being paid to it in a variety of contexts, as the following brand new books indicate.

With the ongoing war Russia has launched against Ukraine (and before it Georgia let us not forget) and is recently ratcheting up, it is no wonder that more and more attention is being paid to Russian nationalism, though what we are seeing in Ukraine and elsewhere is more properly a re-emergence of neo-imperialism. Nevertheless, a new book by Marlene Laruelle may help us understand this picture more clearly: Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields (Routledge, 2018), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
This book, by one of the foremost authorities on the subject, explores the complex nature of Russian nationalism. It examines nationalism as a multilayered and multifaceted repertoire displayed by a myriad of actors. It considers nationalism as various concepts and ideas emphasizing Russia’s distinctive national character, based on the country’s geography, history, Orthodoxy, and Soviet technological advances. It analyzes the ideologies of Russia’s ultra-nationalist and far-right groups, explores the use of nationalism in the conflict with Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, and discusses how Putin’s political opponents, including Alexei Navalny, make use of nationalism. Overall the book provides a rich analysis of a key force which is profoundly affecting political and societal developments both inside Russia and beyond.
Nationalism is not just a political phenomenon, of course, but often has deep psychodynamics at play, many if not most of them illusions in the strict Freudian sense, and sometimes pathologically so. Two new books examine some of those fascinating dynamics: first and more broadly is Patrick Colm Hogan, Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Cognitive Science, and Identity (Ohio State University Press, 2018), 408pp.

About this book the publisher gives us the following information:
From the rise of Nazism to the conflict in Kashmir in 2008, nationalism has been one of the most potent forces in modern history. Yet the motivational power of nationalism is still not well understood. In Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Cognitive Science, and Identity, Patrick Colm Hogan begins with empirical research on the cognitive psychology of group relations to isolate varieties of identification, arguing that other treatments of nationalism confuse distinct types of identity formation. Synthesizing different strands of this research, Hogan articulates a motivational groundwork for nationalist thought and action.
Understanding Nationalism goes on to elaborate a cognitive poetics of national imagination, most importantly, narrative structure. Hogan focuses particularly on three complex narrative prototypes that are prominent in human thought and action cross-culturally and trans-historically. He argues that our ideas and feelings about what nations are and what they should be are fundamentally organized and oriented by these prototypes. He develops this hypothesis through detailed analyses of national writings from Whitman to George W. Bush, from Hitler to Gandhi.
Hogan’s book alters and expands our comprehension of nationalism generally—its cognitive structures, its emotional operations. It deepens our understanding of the particular, important works he analyzes. Finally, it extends our conception of the cognitive scope and political consequence of narrative.
The second book takes us into some of the dynamics of the on-going assault by Russia on Ukraine, including a chapter on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the conflict: Neighbourhood Perceptions of the Ukraine Crisis: From the Soviet Union into Eurasia? eds. Gerhard Besier and Katarzyna Stoklosa (Routledge, 2018), 282pp.

About this book we are told the following:
Recent events in Ukraine and Russia and the subsequent incorporation of Crimea into the Russian state, with the support of some circles of inhabitants of the peninsula, have shown that the desire of people to belong to the Western part of Europe should not automatically be assumed. Discussing different perceptions of the Ukrainian-Russian war in neighbouring countries, this book offers an analysis of the conflicts and issues connected with the shifting of the border regions of Russia and Ukraine to show how ’material’ and ’psychological’ borders are never completely stable ideas. The contributors – historians, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists from across Europe – use an interdisciplinary and comparative approach to explore the different national and transnational perceptions of a possible future role for Russia.

As I mentioned at the outset, the role of Christianity within nationalism--whether Russian, Romanian, Greek, Serbian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, or any other--is of course well known. But a new book takes a wider look at the role of Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective by J. Christopher Soper and Joel S. Fetzer (Cambridge UP, 2018), 304pp.

This book contains chapters on countries with substantial Eastern Christian presence, including Israel, India, and Greece. We are further told the following about this book:
It is difficult to imagine forces in the modern world as potent as nationalism and religion. Both provide people with a source of meaning, each has motivated individuals to carry out extraordinary acts of heroism and cruelty, and both serve as the foundation for communal and personal identity. While the subject has received both scholarly and popular attention, this distinctive book is the first comparative study to examine the origins and development of three distinct models: religious nationalism, secular nationalism, and civil-religious nationalism. Using multiple methods, the authors develop a new theoretical framework that can be applied across diverse countries and religious traditions to understand the emergence, development, and stability of different church-state arrangements over time. The work combines public opinion, constitutional, and content analysis of the United States, Israel, India, Greece, Uruguay, and Malaysia, weaving together historical and contemporary illustrations.
Finally, this book caught my interest because of the role of music, not least in two Orthodox-majority countries it covers, viz., Serbia and Bulgaria:  Choral Societies and Nationalism in Europe eds. Krisztina Lajosi and Andreas Stynen (Brill, 2018), 285pp.

About this book we are told this:
This wide-ranging contribution to the study of nationalism and the social history of music examines the relationship between choral societies and national mobilization in the nineteenth century. From Norway to the Basque country and from Wales to Bulgaria, this pioneering study explores and compares the ways choral societies influenced and reflected the development of national awareness under differing political and social circumstances. By the second half of the nineteenth century, organized communal singing became a primary leisure activity that attracted all layers of society. Though strongly patriotic in tone, choral societies borrowed from each other and relied heavily on prominent German or French models. This volume is the first to address both the national and transnational significance.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: Now in Paperback

I have long been fascinated by all aspects of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia--her vibrant and uniquely colourful iconography, her singular liturgical traditions, her close proximity to Judaism in certain disciplinary aspects, and her relations, not always amicable, between her mother-church of Egypt and her daughter (sister?) church of Eritrea.

But good, reliable studies in English of Ethiopian Christianity have been relatively few and far between--until quite recently. Last May, John Binns, a respected scholar and author of the study (which was favourably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christianity), An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Cambridge UP, 2002)  published a hardback edition of The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A History (IB Tauris, 2017), 320pp. At the end of this month, November 2018, it's due to appear in a paperback edition.

About this book the publisher tells us
Surrounded by steep escarpments to the north, south, and east, Ethiopia has always been geographically and culturally set apart. It has the longest archaeological record of any country in the world. Indeed, this precipitous mountain land was where the human race began. It is also home to an ancient church with a remarkable legacy. The Ethiopian Church forms the southern branch of historic Christianity. It is the only pre-colonial church in sub-Saharan Africa, originating in one of the earliest Christian kingdoms-with its king Ezana (supposedly descended from the biblical Solomon) converting around 340 CE. Since then it has maintained its long Christian witness in a region dominated by Islam; today it has a membership of around forty million and is rapidly growing. Yet, despite its importance, there has been no comprehensive study available in English of its theology and history. This is a large gap which this authoritative and engagingly written book seeks to fill.
The Church of Ethiopia (or formally, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) has a recognized place in worldwide Christianity as one of five non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches. As Dr. Binns shows, it has developed a distinctive approach which makes it different from all other churches. His book explains why this happened and how these special features have shaped the life of the Christian people of Ethiopia. He discusses the famous rock-hewn churches; the Ark of the Covenant (claimed by the Church and housed in Aksum); the medieval monastic tradition; relations with the Coptic Church; co-existence with Islam; missionary activity; and the Church's venerable oral traditions, especially the discipline of qene-a kind of theological reflection couched in a unique style of improvised allegorical poetry. There is also a sustained exploration of how the Church has been forced to re-think its identity and mission as a result of political changes and upheaval following the overthrow of Haile Selassie (who ruled as Regent, 1916-1930, and then as Emperor, 1930-74) and beyond.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wiley Companion to Patristics

The (more expensive) hardcover edition was published in 2015, but good things come to those who wait, including an affordable paperback edition of a forthcoming collection set for release in late December: Ken Parry, ed., Wiley Blackwell Companion to Patristics (WB, 2018), 552pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

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. This book:
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 23, 2018

Christmas 2018 Recommendations

Hard though it is to believe, we are staring down the last five weeks of the civil year, and so it is time for our annual look back at some of the books published, noted, and discussed on here in 2018. For last year's recommendations, go here (and follow the links there for previous years).

Once again, the real highlight of this blog is the ability to talk to new authors about their work, as I did with an array of folks this year.

Author Interviews:

For his magisterial book on the complicated and long-standing conflicts in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, see Nicholas Denysenko interviewed here. His The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation should be required reading before anyone comments on the on-going struggles there.

Ines A. Murzaku and Douglas J. Milewski both wrote thoughtful responses to my interview with them about their translation of the life of Neilos of Rossano, which may be found here.

I interviewed Ashley Purpura here about her fascinating and timely book on Byzantine theologies of authority. I'm drawing on this welcome new book of hers for a paper I'm giving in Romania in January at the inaugural gathering of the International Orthodox Theological Association.

David Fagerberg was interviewed here discussing his new book on Alexander Schmemann. Both Fagerberg and Schmemann are always worth reading, and I regularly assign both to students in my liturgy classes, and both authors invariably prove hugely popular.

For some time there has been a burgeoning interest in Bulgakov studies. We began the year with a new one by Walter Sisto on Bulgakov's Mariology. I interviewed Sisto here.

One of the real highlights of my spring semester was meeting the legendary biblical scholar Fr Paul Tarazi, whom I interviewed here. I've heard many stories about him from Orthodox friends over the years, and they did not disappoint when we were able to have a rollicking good time over lunch. I could easily have spent several days listening to him and his wonderfully no-nonsense approach to the Bible, Church, Orthodoxy, and must else. You will get a good flavour of that in his book The Rise of Scripture

Bp. Seraphim Sigrist is really the one to whom I owe the inspiration to interview authors, as I did with him back in this blog's early days. So I was glad to be able to do so again, discussing his new short book on life's tapestries.


Byzantine history always remains a popular category even among general readers. I noted several new studies this year, including one on monastic institutions in Byzantium, for which go here.

The widely respected Byzantinist Averil Cameron this year gave us Byzantine Christianity: A Very Brief History, first noted here.

Byzantine notions of personhood are treated in a new book noted here.

And, in a similar vein, Byzantine bodily perceptions are treated in a book whose details are here.

Patristics/Antique Christian History: 

Is there anyone, at least in the Catholic world today, who finds that bishops are increasingly indistinguishable from gangsters? These issues are not new, and some of the wider ecclesiological problems pertaining to the office of bishop are treated in a new study on St. Cyprian and the episcopal office, noted here.

The Donatist crisis has sometimes been flung about in recent "debates" between a certain votary of a certain Roman ordinary and a certain American blogger. For a new study about that controversy, go here.

For a new translation of a particular work of Cyril of Alexandria, go here.

The first time I attempted the Summa some twenty years ago, it was quickly becaome obvious to me that Thomas owed huge debts to the East, especially the Cappadocian Fathers. I never did a formal or exact count, but even a cursory noting of his references to the Greek fathers quickly added up to a huge list. And now, just this month we have a welcome new collection further fleshing out Thomas's debts to Greek patristics: Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers.

That book should be required reading, alongside Marcus Plested, for any future Orthodox "apologist" tempted to open his mouth to traduce what I call the A-Team: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas are all represented as the font of every Western error by people who've never read any of them in the original languages, much less a critical scholarly edition. Six years ago I interviewed Marcus Plested about his book, Orthodox Readings of Aquinaswhich remains utterly indispensable.

For some modern American Christians Genesis and its interpretation continues to present difficulties. In such circumstances, they turn to see what the Fathers may have said. A new collection devoted to patristic interpretations of Genesis was noted here.

I am greatly looking forward to reading a wholly welcome new collection, Exploring Gregory of Nyssa, first noted here. It won't be out until the end of December, but it will be worth waiting for. Of all the figures in fourth-century patristics, Nyssa seems to be the most intriguing, not least for his controverted and (in some cases) ambiguous ideas about sex, gender, and eschatology.

Since I began this blog, there has always been a steady stream of new books, often several every year, on Maximus the Confessor. This year was no different as we saw the publication of a translation of his work on difficulties in Scripture.

Brian Daley is a part of that generation of great Jesuit historians and scholars who are, alas, beginning to pass from the scene. I've met him several times, and always found him a wonderfully warm and gracious human being. And he's never written a bad book--or at least one that I've read. He has a new one out on patristic Christology reconsidered.

Philo of Alexandria continues to be an intriguing figure. For more on him, see this new biography.

Communism and the Cold War:

On Bulgarian Orthodoxy and the communist regime see the new study briefly noted here.

Here I wrote some longer notes on North American Churches and the Cold War, a fascinating and unusually detailed new collection.


For a new scholarly work on liturgy and the New Testament go here

For liturgy and Byzantine self-formation go here to find the latest work by the widely respected Derek Krueger.

Again, if you missed it earlier, the greatest Orthodox liturgical theologian of the last century, Alexander Schmemann, is seen through David Fagerberg's eyes.

Muslim-Christian Relations/Middle East:

For a collection raising questions of religious freedom and the status of minorities in the Middle East, go here.

Iraq: For a study on Christianity in Iraq in the fifteenth century see this new book. And for a new book on ancient and modern Christian martyrs in Iraq, go here.

Eqypt: I noted a new book on Coptic identity in context here. And I noted a new book on Coptic martyrs of 2015 in light of Catholic theology here. I wrote a review of it for Catholic World Report. It's a useful, accessible, workmanlike book for any Catholic labouring under any difficulty about whether Orthodox martyrs can be recognized as such by Catholics.

Israel: For a new book studying Syriac Christians in Bethlehem, go here.

For a broader study on Syriac Christian life, see this new book. On the death of the Syriacist Robert Murray, see the books noted here.

For those who have followed his scholarship to date, it has been obvious that Jack Tannous will continue to be an impressive figure in the years ahead. For his new book go here.

For a study on Christian martyrs and the formation of Islam, see here. Similarly, on the legal status of Christians in early Islam, go here.

The historiography of early Islamic conquests has long been bedeviled by many problems. A new study, noted here, sheds light on some of them.

World Wars and Genocides: 

This year, of course, and particularly this month, marked the anniversary of the end of the Great War. Centenaries of the beginning and end of the Great War were noted here with lengthy lists of books treating various aspects of this history and its enduring legacy.

During that war, of course, there were multiple mass slaughters of Eastern Christian populations. For some time the Armenian genocide has generated a great deal of interest. Far less known is the Greek genocide of 1915, now treated in a welcome new book noted here.

On-going Turkish denials of the 1915 Armenian genocide were discussed in this book. For discussion of that genocide in light of what modern research into trauma has taught us, see this new book.


Slavoj Žižek and Christianity come together in a fascinating and fun new collection I discussed in some detail here.

Terry Eagleton is always worth reading for his provocative and often droll prose as well as for his pungent explosions of commonly held myths. For a book that does all that and more, see my long discussion of his newest work on misunderstanding sacrifice here.

Sarah Coakley responded to my paper at an international conference last summer and it was a great delight and honour to talk with her. I finally got around this year to reading her on God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity,' which I discussed here. It is a deeply suggestive work containing much wisdom.

Maggie Ross is an absolute gem. This interview, now several years old, will give you great insights into why I think so highly of her. For my two-part discussion of her invaluable book on silence, go here.

Of all the books I read this year, the one by Todd McGowan on ascetical politics (go here for the three-part essay I wrote) ranks in the top three of most insightful and challenging works. I have thought about it more times this year than I can recount.


For a general overview of relations between Ukraine and the other parts of Europe today, go here 

For questions of war and memory in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere, see this new collection.

Again I draw your attention to my interview with Nicholas Denysenko here about his book on the history of Ukrainian Orthodox divisions and various attempts at autocephaly and unity.

Ukrainian Catholics in particular, especially those in North America, will be interested in the new biography of a Ukrainian-American bishop noted here.


Russia, because of its size in the Orthodox world as well as memories of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, continues to command much attention today on all fronts and for many reasons. Among the numerous books published this year, I noted one of Russian church-state relations here.

Discussions of nationalism have been heating up in Western Europe and North America, but among scholars analysis of Russian nationalism has been going on for some time, including in the recent book noted here.

The status of Old Believers in imperial Russia was noted here.

When I teach my course on Orthodox-Muslim relations, Russia is always a fascinating unit generating much discussion. Given the size and complex history of the country, I always tell my students there is no one simple narrative of relations between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Russia. And now a new book further complicates the picture of relations between the two largest traditions. I noted it here.

A new book looks at Marian devotion in Russia from the imperial to the post-Soviet periods. I drew attention to it here.

Among some in North America especially, a narrative of "chosen trauma" (Christianity is declining here) works hand-in-hand with a narrative of "chosen glory" in which "holy Rus'" is held to be the saviour of Christian civilization today. But how holy is Russia? This question was asked and answered in a new book noted here.


A new book by Cyril Hovorun is always worth waiting for, reading, and then re-reading. I haven't yet discussed his new book, noted here, but I hope to in the coming weeks. It is short, accessible, clearly written, and very timely, not least in the on-going Moscow-Kyiv-Constantinople business.

Again, if  you missed my mentioning it earlier, I draw your attention to Nick Denysenko's book here, which contains fascinating vignettes into ecclesiology and ecclesial practices, especially in early-20th-century Ukraine not found elsewhere.

Broader and more general studies on the nature of the Church continue to emerge. And Oxford University press continues to publish most useful handbooks, including on ecclesiology noted here.

A new book by the Jesuit historian John O'Malley is also always worth waiting for and then reading with great profit. For his new book on Vatican I go here. I reviewed it at Catholic World Report.

In my forthcoming book, Crucifying the Church: the Costs of Reform Today, I found myself going back to this new book of Steven Ogden on Foucault and power and authority in the Church. I wrote extensively about that book here.

Intellectual History/Genealogy:

The publisher asked me to read and then write a blurb for Antoine Arjakovsky's What is Orthodoxy: A Genealogy of Christian Understanding, which I noted here. I have long profited from reading Arjakovsky, and this book is no different.

I read another work this year by Todd McGowan on false ideas of eschatology undergirding capitalist theories of desire. My discussion of that may be found here.


A very suggestive new study on Paul's theology of sin in light of Freud's death-drive was noted here. It's among the more serious and systematic studies putting psychoanalytic and biblical scholarship into dialogue.

I tried to suggest some similarities between the psychoanalytic "fundamental rule" of free association and prayer in light of Herbert McCabe and Christopher Bollas here.

Belief After Freud is a stunning new work, first noted here. I have not yet given it any treatment on here because I am still thinking it through. It is an exceedingly brave and necessary book, and never more so than at this moment of crisis in the Catholic Church. This book is apparently already in its fifth edition in Spanish. It deserves a wide anglophone audience. I will return to lengthy discussion of it on here in the weeks ahead.

I discussed two new books on mourning and melancholia here. For a similarly titled new work, see this book of Christopher Bollas.

Adam Phillips continues to be an invaluable dialogue partner. For my thoughts on his book on Darwin and Freud go here.

Psychoanalysis and religion: I have read more books in this area over the past two years than I can count. Most are worth rather little. For some thoughts on some of the better collections see here.


For inter-disciplinary works on iconography and Russian modernism go here; and for iconography and Russian literature see here.

An interesting new work on iconography and iconoclasm in light of Christology was noted here.

The well-known scholarship of John-Paul Himka continues to impress. For a newer and more affordable version of his book on Last Judgment imagery in the Carpathians see here.

The acts of Nicaea II, the council devoted to the defeat of iconoclasm, have not often been available in reliable translation--until now. For details see here.

For a general study on the Bible and images go here.

So-called pre-historic iconoclasm is studied in a new book noted here.

Theodore the Studite, of course, looms large in the campaign against iconoclasm. We have long had translations of his works, but not--until now--a sufficient study setting him and his works in wider intellectual context. For that go here.

Finally, I have long benefited from, and often returned to, the scholarship of C.A. Tsakiridou's 2013 book Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity. So I am greatly looking forward to reading her new book published this year, Tradition and Transformation in Christian Art, first noted here.

Monastic Experiences in Byzantium

The University of Notre Dame Press catalogue for spring 2019 has just been released, and in it we spy such forthcoming gems as Alice-Mary Talbot, Varieties of Monastic Experience in Byzantium, 800-1453 (April, 2019), 292pp. For those who follow the academic study of Byzantium in North America, Talbot's name is very familiar as the director emerita of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and editor of the Byzantine Greek series of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library in which she has published such works as Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Saints' Lives in English Translation as well as Holy Men of Mt. Athos, inter alia.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In this unprecedented introduction to Byzantine monasticism, based on the Conway Lectures she delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2014, Alice-Mary Talbot surveys the various forms of monastic life in the Byzantine Empire between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. It includes chapters on male monastic communities (mostly cenobitic, but some idiorrhythmic in late Byzantium), nuns and nunneries, hermits and holy mountains, and a final chapter on alternative forms of monasticism, including recluses, stylites, wandering monks, holy fools, nuns disguised as monks, and unaffiliated monks and nuns.
This original monograph does not attempt to be a history of Byzantine monasticism but rather emphasizes the multiplicity of ways in which Byzantine men and women could devote their lives to service to God, with an emphasis on the tension between the two basic modes of monastic life, cenobitic and eremitic. It stresses the individual character of each Byzantine monastic community in contrast to the monastic orders of the Western medieval world, and yet at the same time demonstrates that there were more connections between certain groups of monasteries than previously realized. The most original sections include an in-depth analysis of the challenges facing hermits in the wilderness, and special attention to enclosed monks (recluses) and urban monks and nuns who lived independently outside of monastic complexes. Throughout, Talbot highlights some of the distinctions between the monastic life of men and women, and makes comparisons of Byzantine monasticism with its Western medieval counterpart.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

St Cyprian of Carthage and the College of Bishops

Does anyone today like bishops, or see them as anything other than a corrupt bunch of self-serving gangsters and sexual abusers? If your local one is okay, what about his being yoked to his brothers? Can the Church retreat into local structures and communities and ignore the wider corruption? If not, what should we do then?

These are not new questions, as we see in a new book, St. Cyprian of Carthage and the College of Bishops by Benjamin Safranski (Fortress Academic, 2018), 250pp. I am especially gratified to see how much this new book is indebted to Afanasiev, who is no stranger to these parts.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
This book assesses episcopal cooperation as envisioned by the third-century bishop Cyprian of Carthage. It outlines and assesses the interactions between local bishops, provincial groups of bishops, and the worldwide college. Assessing these interactions sheds light on the relationship between Cyprian’s strong sense of local autonomy and the reality that each bishop was responsible to the world-wide college. Episcopal consensus was the sine qua non, for Cyprian, for a major issue of faith or practice to become one that defined membership in the college and, ultimately, the Church.
The book brings this assessment into a modern scholarly debate by concluding with an evaluation of the ecclesiology of the Orthodox scholar Nicolas Afanasiev and his critiques of Cyprian. Afanasiev lamented Cyprian as the father of universal ecclesiology and claimed that Cyprian’s college wielded authority above that of the local bishop. This book argues that Afanasiev fundamentally misconstrued Cyprian’s understanding of collegiality. It is shown that, for Cyprian, collegiality was the framework for the common ministry of the bishops and did not infringe on the sovereignty of the local bishop. Rather, it was the college’s collective duty to define the boundaries of acceptable Christian belief and practice.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Slavoj Žižek and Christianity

Routledge is one of the most important publishers around today, especially in the fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and theology, all of which come together in this newly released volume, Slavoj Žižek and Christianity, edited by Sotiris Mitralexis and Dionysios Skliris (2018), vii+230pp.

And for those who do not know him, Žižek  is also one of the most important figures writing today at the intersection of those three disciplines. His work comes in for scrutiny and dialogue in this volume, which features contributions from several Eastern Christians, and those conversant in recent developments in Eastern Christian theology.

The editors do a nice job in the introduction explaining the relevance of engaging a man who identifies as a Marxist communist atheist, but who nonetheless maintains that there is much of value in Christian theology for both philosophy and psychoanalysis. Moreover, Žižek offers a welcome critique of Christianity which helps it recover its emancipatory power and potential outside of its too-frequent institutionalization and accommodation to imperial and other worldly powers.

In his chapter, "From Psychoanalysis to Metamorphosis," Brian Becker pursues a line very much in keeping with what I have been arguing for several years now: theology and psychoanalysis need each other and have much to offer each other, not least in dealing with questions of finitude and uncertainty stemming from unconscious ideas and desires. When we approach limits, as analysis certainly does in its confrontation with what is not known because not conscious, theology offers a way forward beyond the impasse. Becker makes use of a number of interesting sources in his chapter, including John Zizioulas's Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church.

In his chapter,"Pacifist Pluralism vs. Militant Truth," Haralambos Ventis of the University of Athens also notes, as several other authors do, the similarities of Marxist and Christian critiques of social structures. Here Ventis draws on the fascinating figure of Cornelius Castoriadis  and his landmark book The Imaginary Institution of Society (The MIT Press, 1998), as well as a whole cast of other equally fascinating and influential figures, including Terry Eagleton (The Illusions of Postmodernism). the father of modern hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur (especially in his Oneself as Another), and the widely influential moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who should need no introduction around these parts. Ventis in particular draws on MacIntyre's under-appreciated 1999 book Dependent Rational Animals, which I have sometimes used with undergraduates, who find it an easier introduction than After Virtue

There is much in this chapter that is also connected to very recent and ongoing debates over the supposed terminal decline of liberalism today. Here Ventis draws on a number of contemporary Greek Orthodox theologians, including Pantelis Kalaitzidis, author of Orthodoxy and Political Theology.

The author concludes very succinctly and soberly by noting that "leftist" critics of Christianity are useful in reminding the latter of its duty to work against injustice and to repent of those many times when the Church has sided with those perpetuating injustice against, e.g., the poor. But equally he reminds those critics that they cannot abandon eschatology to create the Kingdom of God on earth for any and all attempts at doing so end up "creating hell."

In Bruce Kajewski's short but really intriguing chapter, "Murder at the Vicarage," he draws out the relationship between Žižek and Chesterton of all people, especially in the latter's fictional character Fr. Brown, the priest who solves murder mysteries and other crimes. (The BBC rendition of some of those stories, available on Netflix, has been a source of delight to my children. It often guts much of the theology, but does not make a total hash of things--although its liturgical scenes are absurdly anachronistic.) The chapter makes some bracing claims, but could have done with further elaboration, especially of what it calls "the linkage among violence, capitalism, and Christianity."

In his chapter, "Žižek and the Dwarf: A Short-Circuit Radical Theology," Mike Grimshaw looks at and situates himself as part of Žižek's idea of a "community of the Holy Spirit," a community that consists in part of atheists who have rejected the idea of God as a Big Other, and who want almost nothing to do with the conservative, reactionary and often self-serving institutions of Christianity like the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Rather, this community wants to be part of the "ethics of revolutionary love." Grimshaw's title and chapter is obviously heavily indebted to The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity as well as to The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?

Both of those books are by Žižek, who provides a brief Afterword to Slavoj Žižek and Christianity.It starts off with a bracing engagement of Pope Francis, moves almost immediately to the moral implications of the murder of Reinhard Heydrich, and then looks at the lessons of the book of Job--all in the context of considering the role of temptation and its relationship to the good. Žižek sees the book of Job as the first systematic critique of ideology and its tendency to rationalize meaningless suffering. This is wonderfully bracing stuff, and it only gets better.

Žižek, far from being bothered by the idiocies in Job and other parts of the Bible, says Christianity must keep them: "they are the very stuff which confers on Christianity the unbearable tensions of a true life" (222).

From here, he concludes on a note that will irk a lot of Eastern Christians (and those in the West increasingly coming to appreciate deification): he denounces theosis/deification/divinization. I won't give away what he says, but it's a definitive declaration made in his fulgurating style before lighting on to another topic and then quickly ending.

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