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


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Divinization through Icons and Liturgy

The literal and utterly infuriating iconoclasm recently going on in a Roman Catholic church in New York at the behest of its "pastor" and seemingly with the approval of its bishop is a vile and wicked act of anti-incarnational (and therefore at least quasi-heretical) philistines. It is also as perfect an illustration as one could hope for of the fact, as Joseph Ratzinger argued fifteen years ago, that Nicaea II's teaching on iconography has never been received at all adequately in the Latin Church, and in Western Christianity more generally. (I analyzed Ratzinger's thought on this issue here.)

This puts me in mind of a book just released two weeks ago by a young Dominican theologian whom I briefly met at a conference four years ago. Here he introduces to a Roman Catholic audience the central notion of divinization understood in terms of what could be called a "liturgical iconology":  Andrew Hofer OP, ed., Divinization: Becoming Icons of Christ through the Liturgy (Hillenbrand, 2015), 164pp.


About this book we are told:
Written as an accessible introduction to the Catholic teaching of divinization, Divinization: Becoming Icons of Christ through the Liturgy explains the startling claim, so often overlooked, that God transforms the Christian people through the Church’s liturgy to share in his divine nature. Divinization: Becoming Icons of Christ through the Liturgy is a short collection of essays that serves as an excellent introduction to the Catholic theology of divinization, which means that human beings are raised to be “partakers in the divine nature” (cf. 2 Pet 1:4) through the work of the Liturgy. Although different in authorship and in focus, the essays in this work form a coherent introduction to how God makes the faithful in the pews partakers in his divine nature through the action of the liturgy.

This remarkable book offers an accessible and systematic organization of essays on different aspects of divinization—liturgical theology, scripture, pastoral teaching, liturgical renewal and evangelization—contributed by theologians with much experience in teaching in the classroom and parish settings.
The book also bears the blurbs of two people whose views I respect enormously, one Catholic:
“Our life in Christ, according to Blessed Columba Marmion, is ‘constituted by the fact of being sons of God—a participation, through sanctifying grace, in the eternal filiation of the Incarnate Word….The whole of Christian life, holiness itself, consists in being, by grace, that which Jesus is by nature: Son of God.’  This splendid collection of essays unfolds the many facets of the profound mystery of divinization at the core of the Christian life, according to which our transformation in Christ is nothing less than a conformation to him.”--Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, OP, Vice-President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei; Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,Vatican City.
And the other Orthodox:
“Eastern Christian theology celebrates divinization as the divine telos for all human beings, that we might become God’s fellows and partakers. Now we have a much-needed book that celebrates divinization in the Roman Catholic tradition! Andrew Hofer’s team of theologians presents an intriguing explanation of divinization by drawing from the treasury of Catholic tradition. In a writing style accessible to the Catholic in the pew, the authors establish the biblical roots of divinization, show how people and communities receive the gift of divinization in liturgy, and connect divinization to the urgency of the new evangelization. I highly recommend this sophisticated and theologically-rich book for clergy, theologians, students, and general readers.”--Nicholas Denysenko, PhD, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies and Director, Huffington Ecumenical Institute, Loyola Marymount University.

Monday, August 3, 2015

That Heretic Marcion

A graduate student of mine is working on Irenaeus of Lyons, and along the way has been telling me about her various encounters with Marcion, who tangled with Irenaeus and others and about whom a new study has just been released: Judith M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge UP, 2015), 520pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
A comprehensive and authoritative account of the 'heretic' Marcion, this volume traces the development of the concept and language of heresy in the setting of an exploration of second-century Christian intellectual debate. Judith M. Lieu analyses accounts of Marcion by the major early Christian polemicists who shaped the idea of heresy, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius of Salamis, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Ephraem Syrus. She examines Marcion's 'Gospel', 'Apostolikon', and 'Antitheses' in detail and compares his principles with those of contemporary Christian and non-Christian thinkers, covering a wide range of controversial issues: the nature of God, the relation of the divine to creation, the person of Jesus, the interpretation of Scripture, the nature of salvation, and the appropriate lifestyle of adherents. In this innovative study, Marcion emerges as a distinctive, creative figure who addressed widespread concerns within second-century Christian diversity.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Legacy of Evagrius

As I have noted before, there remains a debate about the supposed "heterodoxy" of Evagrius, about whom a steady stream of books has been published in the last fifteen years. I am of the view that such doubts and debates have now been concluded in favor of Evagrius thanks to the landmark work of Augustine Casiday, whom I interviewed here.

But those debates do not seem to be over, and a new book edited by an important Catholic patristic scholar, Robin Darling Young, together with Joel Kalvesmaki, will bring us further insights from them and other scholars, including Gregory Collins, Brian E. Daley, Luke Dysinger, Julia Konstantinovsky, Columba Stewart, and others: Evagrius and His Legacy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 376pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Evagrius of Pontus (ca. 345-399) was a Greek-speaking monastic thinker and Christian theologian whose works formed the basis for much later reflection on monastic practice and thought in the Christian Near East, in Byzantium, and in the Latin West. His innovative collections of short chapters meant for meditation, scriptural commentaries in the form of scholia, extended discourses, and letters were widely translated and copied. Condemned posthumously by two ecumenical councils as a heretic along with Origen and Didymus of Alexandria, he was revered among Christians to the east of the Byzantine Empire, in Syria and Armenia, while only some of his writings endured in the Latin and Greek churches. 
A student of the famed bishop-theologians Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, Evagrius left the service of the urban church and settled in an Egyptian monastic compound.  His teachers were veteran monks schooled in the tradition of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Anthony, and he enriched their legacy with the experience of the desert and with insight drawn from the entire Greek philosophical tradition, from Plato and Aristotle through Iamblichus.
Evagrius and His Legacy brings together essays by eminent scholars who explore selected aspects of Evagrius’s life and times and address his far-flung and controversial but long-lasting influence on Latin, Byzantine, and Syriac cultures in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Touching on points relevant to theology, philosophy, history, patristics, literary studies, and manuscript studies, Evagrius and His Legacy is also intended to catalyze further study of Evagrius within as large a context as possible.
"The scholarship on Evagrius Ponticus has seen a veritable explosion in the last ten to fifteen years. Now recognized as a major fourth-century intellectual figure, Evagrius and his role within contemporary networks continue to be reassessed. Evagrius and His Legacy is a valuable contribution to that effort; focused and excellently structured, this splendid volume represents the state of the art of Evagrian scholarship while leading the way toward further inquiry." —Susanna Elm, professor of history and classics, University of California, Berkeley

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What Did the Fathers Dream About?

Freud, of course, called dreams the "royal road to the unconscious." But long before Freud, the capacity of dreams to reveal important messages was known by Jews and Christians as seen by the number of dreams of significance that show up in the Bible. Biblical dreams have been studied by scholars, but analysis of the uses of dreams and visions in post-biblical and especially patristic literature has tended to be piecemeal. But now we have a book-length study recently released:

Jesse Keskiaho, Dreams and Visions in the Early Middle Ages: The Reception and Use of Patristic Ideas, 400-900 (Cambridge, 2015), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Dreams and visions played important roles in the Christian cultures of the early middle ages. But not only did tradition and authoritative texts teach that some dreams were divine: some also pointed out that this was not always the case. Exploring a broad range of narrative sources and manuscripts, Jesse Keskiaho investigates how the teachings of Augustine of Hippo and Pope Gregory the Great on dreams and visions were read and used in different contexts. Keskiaho argues that the early medieval processes of reception in a sense created patristic opinion about dreams and visions, resulting in a set of authoritative ideas that could be used both to defend and to question reports of individual visionary experiences. This book is a major contribution to discussions about the intellectual place of dreams and visions in the early middle ages, and underlines the creative nature of early medieval engagement with authoritative texts.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Does Heaven Smell Better than Hell?

I remember once attending a very spikey (did only Canadian Anglicans use that odd term to describe the highest of high-church Anglo-Catholic liturgics?) Evensong and Benediction presided over by the local bishop who said of St. Barnabas in Ottawa and its lavish use of incense "At least here you know you are in a church thanks to the smell," a reference, I thought, to the often indistinguishable modern, purpose-built churches of cinder block that look like some hideous hybrid between an office block and a Soviet hydro station, lacking any distinguishing signs or smells of divine worship. (Speaking of which, as a would-be collector of incense, I found this website has fantastically fast service and a wonderfully wide collection of some really delightful and outstanding incense.)

The role of smell has fascinated me for a long time. In the 1990s I did extensive traveling (five of seven continents, as it turned out) and I remember being on an ecumenical trip thousands of miles from home and going for an evening stroll with some of my colleagues. Some smell or other in the wind instantly transported me back home and evoked still-sore memories of a girl I had then been dating until recently.

Why does the olfactory sense have such power? That question came up in a book whose hardback version has been out for nearly a decade, and was very favorably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. Now the University of California Press tells me a more affordable paperback version is forthcoming this September of a fascinating book from the Orthodox scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (U Cal Press, 2015), 448pp.

About this book we are told:

This book explores the role of bodily, sensory experience in early Christianity (first – seventh centuries AD) by focusing on the importance of smell in ancient Mediterranean culture. Following its legalization in the fourth century Roman Empire, Christianity cultivated a dramatically flourishing devotional piety, in which the bodily senses were utilized as crucial instruments of human-divine interaction. Rich olfactory practices developed as part of this shift, with lavish uses of incense, holy oils, and other sacred scents. At the same time, Christians showed profound interest in what smells could mean. How could the experience of smell be construed in revelatory terms? What specifically could it convey? How and what could be known through smell? Scenting Salvation argues that ancient Christians used olfactory experience for purposes of a distinctive religious epistemology: formulating knowledge of the divine in order to yield, in turn, a particular human identity.

Using a wide array of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, Susan Ashbrook Harvey examines the ancient understanding of smell through religious rituals, liturgical practices, mystagogical commentaries, literary imagery, homiletic conventions; scientific, medical, and cosmological models; ascetic disciplines, theological discourse, and eschatological expectations. In the process, she argues for a richer appreciation of ancient notions of embodiment, and of the roles the body might serve in religion.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through

The Greek Orthodox scholar and priest John Panteleimon Manoussakis, whom I interviewed here about his recent splendid book, posted something to Facebook recently about a book I had not read, but which he was finding profitable: Marcus Pound, Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma (SCM Press London: 2007), 210pp.

Psychoanalytic thought is not entirely foreign to Eastern Christianity, though scholarly efforts to study and integrate it are not nearly as frequent or far advanced as for psychoanalysis and Western Christianity, not least in Jungian terms. I noted here a recent scholarly monograph, and gave some fuller thoughts here to the uses and abuses of Freud.

About this book by Pound the publisher tells us:
Marcus Pound's book develops a specifically theological form of psychotherapy rooted in liturgy and arising from engagement with postmodern psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacans claim that the unconscious is structured like a language radically challenged psychoanalysis and Pound uses this as the basis for his work in this volume. Postmodern psychoanalysis has been anticipated by theology, and Pound goes further in this claim to argue there has been a return to theology in psychoanalysis.
I returned to Freud this year in writing my lecture for last month's OTSA conference at Fordham, where I took up the uses and abuses of "forgetting" in various forms as an integral part of how Christian tradition develops, not least in the history of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement and reconciliation. As I think we have all learned by now thanks to him and modern psychology, not all forms of forgetting are regrettable, and not all forms of remembering are commendable.

So I went back to Freud, especially his short essays "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through" as well as "Motivated Forgetting" from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (The Standard Edition).


I also found two other works very insightful and helpful here, beginning with Paul Ricoeur's  Memory, History, Forgetting. Ricoeur is of course no stranger to Freud, having engaged him for decades, not least in his Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation.

Even more than Ricoeur the work of a contemporary scholar is very suggestive and illuminating: Bradford Vivian of Syracuse University's  Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again is an interesting and suggestive work that argues about how, when it comes to such things as cultural conflicts and reconciliation, deliberate forgetting can be as beneficial ritualized remembrance. In witness of this, consider recent debates over what to do with the Confederate flag in the south. The move to have it removed from official public display suggests that culturally many people are understandably prepared to "forget" that history instead of seeking ad perpetuam rei memoriam.

The importance of forgetting remains an important and under-appreciated one for Catholics and Orthodox still struggling to come to terms with our dolorous and divisive past. We remember and repeat, Freud showed, in order to work through--or (as we say today), "move on." Let it be so, and soon. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Performing Orthodox Ritual in Byzantium

Just when I've about despaired of any further point in remaining on Facebook, with its capacity to hoover up huge amounts of time for little to no substantial purpose, along comes someone posting of a new book that had escaped my attention: Andrew Walker White, Performing Orthodox Ritual in Byzantium (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 284pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In this groundbreaking, interdisciplinary study, Andrew Walker White explores the origins of Byzantine ritual - the rites of the early Greek Orthodox Church - and its unique relationship with traditional theatre. Tracing the secularization of pagan theatre, the rise of rhetoric as an alternative to acting, as well as the transmission of ancient methods of musical composition into the Byzantine era, White demonstrates how Christian ritual was in effect a post-theatrical performing art, created by intellectuals who were fully aware of traditional theatre but who endeavoured to avoid it. The book explores how Orthodox rites avoid the aesthetic appreciation associated with secular art, and conducts an in-depth study (and reconstruction) of the late Byzantine Service of the Furnace. Often treated as a liturgical drama, White translates and delineates the features of five extant versions, to show how and why it generated widely diverse audience reactions in both medieval times and our own.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Good Hill to Die On

I taught a mini-class on ecclesiology last week, and we spent a great deal of time on papal history and the papacy in general. My students asked me for references to general works in Church history, including the history of Orthodox-Catholic divisions and relations, and also papal history in particular. Unhesitatingly I recommended to them, inter alia, various works of the Chadwick brothers, including Henry Chadwick's invaluable and magisterial East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church: From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence (Oxford, 2005).

It's not for the faint of heart, or those without solid background. But for those who have the background, Chadwick's book lays out, in prose so taut and spare as almost to be painful, the disintegration of East-West relations and the long process of estrangement, all of which is treated with great care and even-handedness, offering few rationalizations or comforting places to hide from the painful facts. Though the Guardian obituary for Henry's brother Owen Chadwick says of the latter that he wrote in "short sentences: no modern writer employed so few subordinate clauses. He had a penchant for one-sentence paragraphs. His writing was always crisp and vivid," that could equally be said of Henry in East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church, a book which seems to have been written (or at least edited) by someone with an almost sadistic desire to prune out everything but the most essential points, with no digressions or detail beyond what was judged strictly necessary. I think only a senior scholar could have pulled it off. As I tell my students, especially those fresh out of highschool, it is much harder to write a short essay or book than a long one, and they rarely believe me. But discipline--askesis--if you will is necessary in writing as in life. 

Henry wrote as an Anglican, so in some important ways had no dog in any Catholic-Orthodox fights and could rise above polemics in East and West. He once said of ecumenical scholarship, and the ecumenical movement, that it was a "good cause to die for," and I agree. Henry died in 2008 at the age of 87, after a long and prolific life.

His brother Owen, also a Church of England cleric, theologian, dialogue partner with Orthodoxy on behalf of the Anglican Communion, and historian, lived to be 99, and died last Friday after an equally if not more prolific life as a scholar at the top of his class. He was rightly lauded by his country. Her Majesty made him a member of the Order of Merit, which is within the sole gift of the Sovereign, limited to 24 members, and is thus unique and rare in the British honours system as being free from grubby control by government ministers. (Having said that, I've never understood why the queen sullied so rare a guild by inducting the former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien, as sordid, dimwitted, and oleaginous a mediocrity as ever emerged from her senior dominion.)

I have not read many of Chadwick's books, but have scholarly friends who have and they recommend various of them, including his study of the important patristic figure John Cassian.

I can say something more about two that I have read. More than ten years ago now, when I was grappling with the East-West divide over whether in any significant sense one can say that doctrine "develops," as the West, above all in the person of Cardinal Newman, says it can (and as the East sometimes denies), I found Chadwick's book From Bossuet to Newman a very useful history and chronology, studying figures who are sometimes lost in the massive shadow that Newman casts here, as in so much else.

But it is Owen Chadwick's A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (Oxford, 2003) that I have found utterly invaluable over the years. I think he and others--including the other Cambridge historians John Pollard and Eamon Duffy--are right in seeing this period as crucial for the creation of the modern papacy, with all its centralized power, global prominence--and ecumenical difficulty. Chadwick got in first with his study and it remains a landmark work of papal history, not least for Eastern Christians trying to understand how Vatican I came about with its twin problematic definitions of papal infallibility and jurisdiction (about which I have had a thing or two to say).

For such a crucial period of nearly a century, Chadwick's taut and spare style was on display again: the book, though 614pp. long, could easily have been twice that in lesser hands. Moreover, this is not dry-as-dust prose, either. He had, here as elsewhere, a keen eye for an illuminating tale, an amusing anecdote (as the typically winsome obituarist at the Daily Telegraph recognizes), or a juicy bit of gossip that was relevant but not salacious or vicious.

That latter point seems to come out in something lighter, which I only discovered upon reading the obits: I have just ordered his Victorian Miniature, about which the publisher tells us:
Nancy Mitford once observed that some of the most bitter personal clashes of all time have been 'between the Manor and the Vicarage'. Owen Chadwick's Victorian Miniature paints a detailed cameo of nineteenth-century English rural life, in the extraordinary battle of wills between squire and parson in a Norfolk village. Both the evangelical clergyman and the squire, proudly conscious of his Huguenot ancestry, were passionate diarists, and their two journals open up a fascinating double perspective on the events which exposed their clash of personalities. The result is a narrative that is at once deeply informative about Victorian class distinctions, rural customs and festivities, and richly entertaining in a manner worthy of Trollope.
As a fan of Nancy Mitford, and even more of Trollope's Barchester Towers, which I thoroughly enjoyed more than twenty years ago, Chadwick's book sounds like pleasurably diverting reading now.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Heroic and Holy Ukrainian Churchmen of the 20th Century

The news that the Vatican dicastery responsible for such matters has been ordered by the pope of Rome to publish a decree recognizing the heroic virtues of Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky is good news indeed, as the Ottawa institute bearing his name explains.

Would it be churlish to remark that such news is grossly overdue, and should never have been held up for decades in Rome in the first place? There are important ecclesiological issues here. More than a decade ago now I asked those involved with the process why the synod of the supposedly sui iuris Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC) did not simply go ahead with its own process of declaring Sheptytsky a saint (of which I am not in doubt). The argument in favor of handling matters locally only gained strength under the papacy of Benedict XVI, who returned beatifications to the home church of the candidate in question, and was, moreover, on record going back decades in calling for far greater decentralization (of many issues and practices) out of Rome and back to the local and regional structures of the Church. Canonizations were once, of course, very local affairs, and only gradually centralized in Rome for reasons that make rather limited sense today.

There are, moreover, important geopolitical considerations, at least according to John Allen. I think Allen may be making more of this than meets the eye, but let that pass for now.

What of this towering man--both literally and figuratively (he was nearly 7 feet tall)? Who was this "lion of Halychyna"? For those unfamiliar with his life, this recent article, while suffering from the usual infelicities of English (and some confusion about Habsburg geography), is not a bad place to start. The historian Timothy Snyder--who, I recently discovered with some surprise, is apparently a fluent Ukrainian speaker--outlined Sheptytsky's role in rescuing Jews from the Holocaust in this 2009 piece from the New York Review of Books. Snyder is the author of such important and well-received studies as his recent Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and earlier works, including The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–-1999.

For those who want good studies on Sheptytsky, there are, fortunately, several in English by reputable scholars--though, alas, no good book-length biography that I know of, notwithstanding the fact his rich, long, productive life would certainly lend itself to one. Perhaps the estimable church historian and priest Athanasius McVay, author of several recent studies, and author also of this invaluable blog, can be thumb-screwed into writing one if he is not already doing so. I interviewed him here about one of his earlier books; but see here also for others.

Returning for a moment to the question of his role in the Holocaust, see this handsome and moving book recently published by the Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa: Archbishop Andrei Sheptytsky and the Ukrainian Jewish Bond. But see even more the memoirs of one Jew whose survival he attributes to Sheptytsky: Kurt Lewin's  A Journey Through Illusions. (A Ukrainian version was apparently published in 2007.) This is a haunting, moving book deserving a wide audience.

For a study of Sheptytsky's liturgical theology, see Peter Galadza's The Theology and Liturgical Work of Andrei Sheptytsky (1865-1944).

For his sophiology, see Andriy Chirovsky's Pray for God's Wisdom: The Mystical Sophiology of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky.

For his moral theology, see Andrii Krawchuk's  Christian Social Ethics in Ukraine: The Legacy of Andrei Sheptytsky.

For an early and very short work about his ecumenical activity, see George Perejda's Apostle of Church Unity: The life of the servant of God, Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky. But there is in fact a much more recent, much more scholarly, and much more wide-ranging treatment of his ecumenical activity and much else besides in the collection Morality and Reality: The Life and Times of Andrei Sheptyts'kyi. Edited by Paul Robert Magocsi and Krawchuk, with an introduction by the eminent historian Jaroslav Pelikan, this collection is not to be missed.

After his death on 1 November 1944, Sheptytsky was succeeded as primate by the formidable Joseph Slipyj, who was arrested the next year along with the rest of the UGCC hierarchy and sent to the Gulag.

Many other Ukrainian Catholics were simply shot or murdered in other horrifying ways. Some of them were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001. Some of their stories are told in Blessed Bishop Nicholas Charnetsky, C.Ss.R., and Companions Modern Martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church: Modern Martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I also drew some lessons from this "church of martyrs" in a recent article here.

The story of another martyr is told by Athanasius McVay in God's Martyr, History's Witness.

Slipyj was not killed but spent a brutal 18 years in concentration camps. He would be released in 1963 and exiled to Rome (his "gilded cage" as I was told he called it) for the remaining 21 years of his life, dying just a scant 5 years before the legalization of the UGCC and its emergence from the underground.

Slipyj was the object of a study by the eminent Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan: Confessor Between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj. This, too, is an invaluable study and nobody with any interest in these matters can afford to be without this study written by Pelikan, who was regarded by many as the doyen of church historians until his death in 2006.

On the thirtieth anniversary of Slipyj's death last September, several publishers brought out English translations of some of his works. One such may be found here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Greek New Testament

Though schoolchildren all over the planet don't think there's enough summer left, there is in fact plenty of time and daylight still in which to begin learning the original language of the New Testament. Many summers ago now, while a grad student, I started studying Greek under John Jillions, the Orthodox priest, scholar, and now chancellor of the OCA. He had done his doctorate at the University of Thessaloniki on the New Testament and thus was ideally skilled as a teacher. As I now tell my students, there is always value in learning another language--and ideally several--but for scholars that value is at least doubled when it comes to languages such as Latin and Greek. Along comes a new course of study from the Jesuit Francis Gignac, An Introductory New Testament Greek Course (CUA Press, 2015), 232pp.
About this book we are told:
New Testament Greek is a form of Koine Greek, the common language that evolved in the time of Alexander the Great from a welter of dialects of classical times. For more than ten centuries. Koine Greek was the ev- eryday commercial and cultural language of the Mediterranean world. It is best-known, though, for being the language in which the New Testament was composed.

Many Christians have the desire to read the New Testament in its original language. Unfortunately, books that introduce the student to New Testament Greek either tend to be long-winded, or overly simplified, or both. In this book, legendary scholar of biblical Greek, the late Frank Gignac provides a straight-forward "just the facts" approach to the subject. In fifteen lessons, he presents the basics of the grammar and the vocabulary essential for reading the Gospels in the original language. All the reader need do is to supply the desire to learn. As Gignac writes, "Good luck as you begin to learn another language! It may be sheer drudgery for a while, but the thrill will come when you begin to read the New Testament in the language in which it was written."

This new edition features a new preface from the author, a foreword from fellow classicist Frank Matera, and an answer guide to the problems presented in the exercises. The book thus can be used for self- study for those who seek to learn the language of the early church.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Erasmus of Rotterdam on Origen of Alexandria

The latest catalogue of the Catholic University of America Press was on my desk after return from holidays in New England. Among the several new books of interest coming out later this year and early next year is a new translation by Thomas P. Scheck of Erasmus's Life of Origen: A New Annotated Translation of the Prefaces to Erasmus of Rotterdam's Edition of Origen's Writings (1536) (CUA Press, 2016),288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) hailed Origen of Alexandria (185-254) as a holy priest, a gifted homilist, a heroic Christian, and a celebrated exegete and theologian of the ancient Church. In this book Thomas Scheck presents one of the fruits of Erasmus's endeavors in the field of patristic studies (a particularly neglected field of scholarshipwithin Erasmus studies) by providing the first English translation, annotated and thoroughly introduced, of Erasmus final work, the Prefaces to his Edition of Origen's writings (1536). Originally published posthumously two months after Erasmus's death, the work surveys Origen of Alexandria's life, writings, preaching, and contribution to the Catholic Church. The staggering depth and breadth of Erasmus's learning are exhibited here, as well as the maturity of his theological reflections, which in many ways anticipate the irenicism of the Second Vatican Council with respect to Origen. Erasmus presents Origen as a marvelous doctor of the ancient Church who made a tremendous contribution to the Catholic exegetical tradition and who lived a saintly life. Scheck's translation of Erasmus's prefaces is prefaced by four substantial chapters of introductory material, outlining Erasmus's program for theological renewal, a survey of Origen's life and works from a modern perspective, a discussion of Origen's legacy in the Church as an exegete and theologian (focusing particularly on Origen's influence on St. Jerome), and the immediate 16th century background of Erasmus's Edition of Origen. These chapters are followed by the translation itself, to which is then appended a lengthy appendix chapter that discusses Erasmus's own legacy in the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Russian Architecture

Whatever one thinks of the ugliness of the geopolitics and war-making of the current Russian regime, there is no detracting from the often staggering beauty of much of Russian church architecture, liturgy, and iconography. I have many lavishly illustrated coffee-table books about Russian churches and architecture, and many more about Russian iconography--to say nothing of CDs of Russian liturgies, all of which are lovely indeed.

A book just released at the end of last month takes us to the ends of the earth in exploration of some recondite architectural masterpieces: William Craft Brumfield, Architecture at the End of the Earth: Photographing the Russian North (Duke, June 2015), 256pp.

About this book we are told:
Carpeted in boreal forests, dotted with lakes, cut by rivers, and straddling the Arctic Circle, the region surrounding the White Sea, which is known as the Russian North, is sparsely populated and immensely isolated. It is also the home to architectural marvels, as many of the original wooden and brick churches and homes in the region's ancient villages and towns still stand. Featuring nearly two hundred full color photographs of these beautiful centuries-old structures, Architecture at the End of the Earth is the most recent addition to William Craft Brumfield's ongoing project to photographically document all aspects of Russian architecture.

The architectural masterpieces Brumfield photographed are diverse: they range from humble chapels to grand cathedrals, buildings that are either dilapidated or well cared for, and structures repurposed during the Soviet era. Included are onion-domed wooden churches such as the Church of the Dormition, built in 1674 in Varzuga; the massive walled Transfiguration Monastery on Great Solovetsky Island, which dates to the mid-1550s; the Ferapontov-Nativity Monastery's frescoes, painted in 1502 by Dionisy, one of Russia's greatest medieval painters; nineteenth-century log houses, both rustic and ornate; and the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Vologda, which was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 1560s. The text that introduces the photographs outlines the region's significance to Russian history and culture.

Brumfield is challenged by the immense difficulty of accessing the Russian North, and recounts traversing sketchy roads, crossing silt-clogged rivers on barges and ferries, improvising travel arrangements, being delayed by severe snowstorms, and seeing the region from the air aboard the small planes he needs to reach remote areas.

The buildings Brumfield photographed, some of which lie in near ruin, are at constant risk due to local indifference and vandalism, a lack of maintenance funds, clumsy restorations, or changes in local and national priorities. Brumfield is concerned with their futures and hopes that the region's beautiful and vulnerable achievements of master Russian carpenters will be preserved. Architecture at the End of the Earth is at once an art book, a travel guide, and a personal document about the discovery of this bleak but beautiful region of Russia that most readers will see here for the first time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Orthodoxy and Nationalism

I drew attention to this collection edited by Lucian Leustean, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe, when it was published last year, and it has since then sat accusingly on my desk. I've picked it up several times and started it over the last few months, but always some interruption or other took me away from it. Only this week had a chance to devote some time to it.

Let me say straightaway that anybody with any interest in the vexed question of Orthodoxy and nationalism--as well as the wider religio-political history of southeastern Europe over the last 150 years--cannot be without this book. The introductory chapter, which cogently sets forth an overview of forms and causes of nationalism and various scholarly theories and treatments of it, is itself worth the price of the book.

After that, the book devotes chapters to Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the sunset of the Ottoman Empire and its millet system. The details unearthed considerably complicate conventional portraits about ethno-phyletism, the role of the French Revolution, and much else besides. This is a deeply fascinating book that has been smoothly edited.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Macedonians and Ottomans: Nationalism and Religion

With the centenary last year of the outbreak of the Great War we have, as I've frequently noted, seen a flood of books on not just the war but on antebellum events, empires, and churches, including the long, slow dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of modern Orthodox nation-states in the nineteenth century, usually forcibly carved out of the Ottoman regime. A recent book examines a small but significant region often overlooked: Ipek K. Yosmaoglu, Blood Ties: Religion, Violence and the Politics of Nationhood in Ottoman Macedonia, 1878-1908 (Cornell University Press, 2013), 336pp.


About this book we are told:
The region that is today Macedonia was long the heart of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. It was home to a complex mix of peoples and faiths who had for hundreds of years lived together in relative peace. To be sure, these people were no strangers to coercive violence and various forms of depredations visited upon them by bandits and state agents. In the final decades of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, however, the region was periodically racked by bitter conflict that was qualitatively different from previous outbreaks of violence. In Blood Ties, Ipek K. Yosmaoglu explains the origins of this shift from sporadic to systemic and pervasive violence through a social history of the "Macedonian Question."

Yosmaoglu's account begins in the aftermath of the Congress of Berlin (1878), when a potent combination of zero-sum imperialism, nascent nationalism, and modernizing states set in motion the events that directly contributed to the outbreak of World War I and had consequences that reverberate to this day. Focusing on the experience of the inhabitants of Ottoman Macedonia during this period, she shows how communal solidarities broke down, time and space were rationalized, and the immutable form of the nation and national identity replaced polyglot, fluid associations that had formerly defined people’s sense of collective belonging. The region was remapped; populations were counted and relocated. An escalation in symbolic and physical violence followed, and it was through this process that nationalism became an ideology of mass mobilization among the common folk. Yosmaoglu argues that national differentiation was a consequence, and not the cause, of violent conflict in Ottoman Macedonia.

Friday, July 3, 2015

From Rome to Byzantium

A colleague of mine, a medieval historian, recently started teaching a course called "The Dark Ages: Were They All That Dark?" More recent scholarship continues to suggest that we have been too quick not only to label that period "dark" but, more generally, to police past periods in light of present politics in service of today's agendas. A recent book continues in the process of re-evaluating the past rather than blithely assuming it was all darkness and chaos: A.D. Lee, From Rome to Byzantium AD 363 to 565: The Transformation of Ancient Rome (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 360pp.

About this book we are told:
Between the deaths of the Emperors Julian (363) and Justinian (565), the Roman Empire underwent momentous changes. Most obviously, control of the west was lost to barbarian groups during the fifth century, and although parts were recovered by Justinian, the empire's centre of gravity shifted irrevocably to the east, with its focal point now the city of Constantinople. Equally important was the increasing dominance of Christianity not only in religious life, but also in politics, society and culture. Doug Lee charts these and other significant developments which contributed to the transformation of ancient Rome and its empire into Byzantium and the early medieval west. By emphasising the resilience of the east during late antiquity and the continuing vitality of urban life and the economy, this volume offers an alternative perspective to the traditional paradigm of decline and fall.

Chrismation and Catholics

Last year I interviewed Nicholas Denysenko about his splendid recent book Chrismation: A Primer for Catholics.

This year it was announced in late June that Nick's book had won second place in the Liturgy category of the annual book awards of the Catholic Press Association. Axios!

Also earlier this year I used the book with my grad students in a class on sacraments, and they found it a challenging, compelling, and cogent study which they all enjoyed and from which they found themselves greatly edified.

So for all these reasons: if you haven't ordered it yet, go ahead and do so!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Greek Language and Culture in Eastern Christianity

I've drawn attention earlier to this welcome series that Ashgate is putting out. It is by no means inexpensive, but certainly every serious institutional library devoted to Eastern Christianity will spare no monies in attaining this complete collection, which continues to appear volume by volume roughly every 12-18 months. The latest installment is edited by a young scholar whom I have interviewed on here before about his other works: Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, ed., Languages and Cultures of Eastern Christianity: Greek (The Worlds of Eastern Christianity, 300–-1500) (Ashgate, 2014), 579pp.

About this collection we are told:
This volume brings together a set of fundamental contributions, many translated into English for this publication, along with an important introduction. Together these explore the role of Greek among Christian communities in the late antique and Byzantine East (late Roman Oriens), specifically in the areas outside of the immediate sway of Constantinople and imperial Asia Minor. The local identities based around indigenous eastern Christian languages (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, etc.) and post-Chalcedonian doctrinal confessions (Miaphysite, Church of the East, Melkite, Maronite) were solidifying precisely as the Byzantine polity in the East was extinguished by the Arab conquests of the seventh century. In this multilayered cultural environment, Greek was a common social touchstone for all of these Christian communities, not only because of the shared Greek heritage of the early Church, but also because of the continued value of Greek theological, hagiographical, and liturgical writings. However, these interactions were dynamic and living, so that the Greek of the medieval Near East was itself transformed by such engagement with eastern Christian literature, appropriating new ideas and new texts into the Byzantine repertoire in the process.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Islamic-Byzantine Frontier

I gave a lecture a few weeks ago on the history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East, and noted that those of us who are scholars far from the region are in the happy position (unlike, sadly, many of the Christians themselves in the region) of having an abundance of scholarly resources continuing to pour forth on the topic. Released earlier this year is one more title to add to a growing list: A. Asa Eger, The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier: Interaction and Exchange Among Muslim and Christian Communities (I.B. Tauris, 2015).

About this book we are told:
The retreat of the Byzantine Army from Syria in around 650 CE, in advance of the approaching Arab armies, is one that has resounded emphatically in the works of both Islamic and Christian writers, and created an enduring motif: that of the Islamic-Byzantine frontier. For centuries, Byzantine and Islamic scholars have evocatively sketched a contested border: the annual raids between the two, the line of fortified fortresses defending Islamic lands, the no-man's land in between and the birth of jihad. In their early representations of a Muslim-Christian encounter, accounts of the Islamic-Byzantine frontier are charged with significance for a future 'clash of civilizations' that often envisions a polarised world. A. Asa Eger examines the two aspects of this frontier: its ideological and physical ones. By uniting an exploration of both the real and material frontier and its more ideological military and religious implications, he offers a more complex vision of this dividing line than has been traditionally disseminated. With analysis grounded in archaeological evidence as well the relevant historical and religious texts, Eger brings together a nuanced exploration of this vital element of medieval history.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Bishop of Rome in Antiquity

As I mentioned earlier this month, in drawing attention to George Demacopoulos's forthcoming book on Gregory the Great, scholarship for the last decade and more, especially scholarship committed to overcoming the East-West divide, has been looking at various popes and leaders of the first millennium to see what we may need to re-learn from them today. In the various recent studies I have read, including Susan Wessell's splendid Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome, both East and West have been discovering surprising things not only about the papacy and each other, but also about their own particular traditions in this process. A book released at the end of May promises to continue that process: Geoffrey D. Dunn, ed., The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2015), 270pp.

About this book (which contains an essay from the aforementioned Demacopoulos), the publisher tells us:
At various times over the past millennium bishops of Rome have claimed a universal primacy of jurisdiction over all Christians and a superiority over civil authority. Reactions to these claims have shaped the modern world profoundly. Did the Roman bishop make such claims in the millennium prior to that? The essays in this volume from international experts in the field examine the bishop of Rome in late antiquity from the time of Constantine at the start of the fourth century to the death of Gregory the Great at the beginning of the seventh. These were important centuries as Christianity underwent enormous transformation in a time of change. The essays concentrate on how the holders of the office perceived and exercised their episcopal responsibilities and prerogatives within the city or in relation to both civic administration and other churches in other areas, particularly as revealed through the surviving correspondence. With several of the contributors examining the same evidence from different perspectives, this volume canvasses a wide range of opinions about the nature of papal power in the world of late antiquity.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pope Gregory the Great

As I have noted before, much of the last two decades of ecumenical dialogue between East and West has turned its focus to the first millennium, looking for people and models of unity that can potentially guide the way forward today. But that scholarship has unearthed some surprises that discomfit both East and West, making it clear that any romanticized appeal to the first millennium as a golden time of unity is bound to be revealed for the nonsense that it is.

Among those who have been looking at prominent figures of the papacy in the first millennium is the Orthodox scholar George Demacopoulos, translator of The Book of Pastoral Rule: St. Gregory the Great in the Popular Patristics Series of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press and author more recently of The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity which is a fascinating study I have reviewed elsewhere at length. 

In October he will be out with a new study I look forward to reading: Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 to 604) is one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity. His theological works framed medieval Christian attitudes toward mysticism, exegesis, and the role of the saints in the life of the church. The scale of Gregory's administrative activity in both the ecclesial and civic affairs of Rome also helped to make possible the formation of the medieval papacy. Gregory disciplined malcontent clerics, negotiated with barbarian rulers, and oversaw the administration of massive estates that employed thousands of workers. Scholars have often been perplexed by the two sides of Gregory—the monkish theologian and the calculating administrator.

George E. Demacopoulos's study is the first to advance the argument that there is a clear connection between the pontiff's thought and his actions. By exploring unique aspects of Gregory's ascetic theology, wherein the summit of Christian perfection is viewed in terms of service to others, Demacopoulos argues that the very aspects of Gregory's theology that made him distinctive were precisely the factors that structured his responses to the practical crises of his day. With a comprehensive understanding of Christian history that resists the customary bifurcation between Christian East and Christian West, Demacopoulos situates Gregory within the broader movements of Christianity and the Roman world that characterize the shift from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. This fresh reading of Gregory's extensive theological and practical works underscores the novelty and nuance of Gregory as thinker and bishop.
This original and eminently readable interpretation will be required reading for students and scholars of Gregory and sixth-century Christianity, historians of late antiquity, medievalists, ecclesiastical historians, and theologians.
Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome has the potential to be the most important intellectual biography of Pope Gregory I to appear since the publication in 1988 of Carole Straw’s landmark study, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Demacopoulos proposes a new interpretive paradigm by insisting that the ‘problem of the two Gregories’ is not really a problem at all: Gregory’s ascetic and pastoral theology, he argues, informs and structures his administrative practices. This important insight will have significant impact on future research." — Kristina Sessa, Ohio State University.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Endless Russian Revolutions

I have heard it said since at least 2001 that revolutionary, ideological, and imperial ambitions in Russia are never dead. The Revolution may have been nearly a century ago, and the collapse of the poisoned fruit of that revolution nearly a quarter-century ago now, but the hopes of re-founding an empire are eternal. If anyone doubts this, simply look at the annexation of Crimea, the gratuitous and aggressive war against Ukraine, and the other recent machinations of the Putin regime.

A recent history also advances this theme. Written by the colorful and sometimes controversial Orlando Figes (whose book The Crimean War: A History, as I noted several years ago, is just splendid), Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History (Metropolitan Books, 2014, 336pp.) is, as the publisher tells us:

an original reading of the Russian Revolution, examining it not as a single event but as a hundred-year cycle of violence in pursuit of utopian dreams
In this elegant and incisive account, Orlando Figes offers an illuminating new perspective on the Russian Revolution. While other historians have focused their examinations on the cataclysmic years immediately before and after 1917, Figes shows how the revolution, while it changed in form and character, nevertheless retained the same idealistic goals throughout, from its origins in the famine crisis of 1891 until its end with the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991.

Figes traces three generational phases: Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who set the pattern of destruction and renewal until their demise in the terror of the 1930s; the Stalinist generation, promoted from the lower classes, who created the lasting structures of the Soviet regime and consolidated its legitimacy through victory in war; and the generation of 1956, shaped by the revelations of Stalin’s crimes and committed to “making the Revolution work” to remedy economic decline and mass disaffection. Until the very end of the Soviet system, its leaders believed they were carrying out the revolution Lenin had begun.
With the authority and distinctive style that have marked his magisterial histories, Figes delivers an accessible and paradigm-shifting reconsideration of one of the defining events of the twentieth century.
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