"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).


Friday, December 30, 2011

Author Interview: Fr. Oliver Herbel

Earlier I drew attention to the recent publication of a new book by the American priest and historian Oliver Herbel. I interviewed him about his new book, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background, including your other writing projects, blog, and work on American Orthodox history. 

My background is fairly “ecumenical.”  I was baptized as a Lutheran and also later confirmed as a Lutheran.  At times, we attended a Methodist parish and in high school I attended a Presbyterian parish.  In college, I met my future wife, who was Lutheran, and we began attending church together.  I graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, went on to earn an MA in the history of Christianity from Luther Seminary, an M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University (SLU).  I was not church-shopping outside of the Lutheran church, but I learned about Orthodoxy from professors at Concordia College and became Orthodox while yet a student at Luther Seminary. 


At SLU, I initially was interested in the early church period but developed a strong interest in American Christianity.  I have published articles on both early church and Byzantine topics as well as American topics.  I currently have a couple of forthcoming book chapters on American Orthodoxy.  I am writing an article on the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America, a 1942-1943 predecessor to SCOBA; and editing my dissertation with the intention of publishing an edited version as a book.  I am also editing some research notes on iconography that I have had to gather over the years for various speaking engagements and class lectures, with the intention of publishing a book geared toward a more “popular” audience.  I also have some other future projects in mind, but they will remain on the back burner for some time, I’m afraid. 


I am involved with the Orthodox History blog. That is the website for the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA).  Matthew Namee and others do much of the writing on that site, though.  My main efforts with SOCHA involve the academic end such as the symposium we held this fall or the establishment of a peer-reviewed electronic journal. I did have a blog for a while that concentrated on historical theology, but it took too much time.  I do keep up a parish blog, which this is much less involved.

AD: Your publisher's blurb notes that Serapion of Thmuis has remained in "relative obscurity." How is it, then, that you first found out about him and were drawn to write about him?

I first learned of St. Sarapion in a liturgical theology class at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  His euchologion, or collection of prayers, has been studied and I was intrigued by them.  For example, in the Eucharist and at Baptism, rather than praying for the Holy Spirit’s descent, the Word of God was asked to descend.  I looked into him a little more and learned that St. Antony the Great willed one of his two cloaks to Sarapion.  The other he had willed to St. Athanasios the Great.  St. Athanasios’ letters to a “Sarapion” were, in fact, written to this same Sarapion and this led me to research whether any of Sarapion’s own writings were still extant.  Some are: two complete letters, a treatise against Manichaeans, and a letter partially preserved, written to Antony’s disciples.  

There are also a few quotes (from sources no longer extant) found in the works of others.  The partially preserved letter had been translated into French, which I think most English readers can quickly learn to read, but the two complete letters remained only in Greek and the treatise was in Greek and German.  By this point, I was curious about this “mystery saint,” if you will, and the secondary literature only piqued my interest.  There seemed to be some disagreement on whether his biblical interpretation was “Alexandrian” (allegorical) or “Antiochene” (tending toward typology and literalism).  I was also fascinated by his connection to the monks of the desert (one of his extant letters is addressed to a group of such monks) and intrigued by his notion of Hades/hell as a place of purgation, or education.  Once I started translating him, I also quickly realized just how indebted to Stoicism he had been.  Of course, all early church fathers were so indebted, but Sarapion especially so.

AD: For whom did you write the book--did you have a particular audience in mind?

The book is, admittedly, primarily for an academic audience.  The first part of the book consists of an introduction to Sarapion’s thought, focusing on his biblical interpretation and use of Stoic philosophy.  I also argue for the authenticity of Sarapion’s authorship of the Letter to the Monks.  Klaus Fitschen, the only the other contemporary scholar to have devoted a book-length manuscript to Sarapion, argued against Sarapion’s authorship of the letter, but for reasons I give in the book, I think we would do well to follow the manuscript tradition in accepting Sarapion’s authorship.  The second portion of the book consists of Sarapion’s own writings—the two letters and the treatise.  The treatise itself is the sort of writing that will tend to interest scholars primarily as it’s an extended theological argument and not a spiritual reflection of the kind that would garner a large popular readership today.  All that said, my choir director read through the book I donated to our parish and he found some portions of the treatise to be well worth the read.  So, I really do think anyone who is theologically informed would get something out of the book. 

AD: As I have noted before, there seems to be a very great interest in the Desert Fathers and Mothers today if the number of recent books is anything to go by. Why do you think that is? What wisdom do figures like Serapion and others in the desert have that people are looking for today?

I think there are many reasons people today are interested in the Desert Fathers.  I think some people hearken back to them in a nostalgic/romantic sort of way—as though they represent some lost time of real, vital spirituality and spiritual warfare.  Others, I believe, see the Desert Fathers as representing a real spirituality not in a nostalgic sort of way, but rather in a timeless way.  Such people see the Desert Fathers as being applicable even in today’s setting, despite the radically divergent historical contexts.  

Of course, there are also those who simply find many of the stories wild and fantastic, and many stories are, but I think most people fall into one of the first two categories, at least from what I can tell.  Personally, I think there is much that is yet relevant.  In St. Sarapion’s case, I think his view of hell is one that will be thought-provoking, especially in light of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (which has caused a stir amongst Evangelicals) or even Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.  Additionally, Sarapion’s writings are important for studying early Christian biblical interpretation—for noting how the “Scriptures” meant what we call “the Old Testament” and how the Trinitarian Christian message was found to be present within those Scriptures.  I also believe there is much practical wisdom, even though the writings I translated are not “sayings” from St. Sarapion.  For example, his emphasis on free will and his reminder that Christians are not dualists.  I even find his Letter to the Monks to be important as a reminder that the prayers of our monastics have cosmological significance—the ongoing cycle of prayers help sustain the universe.

AD: Are there things in Serapion's Pastoral Letters that you would recommend to pastors to read today? Are there things you would not recommend? 

I think both of Sarapion’s letters are worthy pastoral reading.  The Letter to the Monks is a praise of the monastic life and a reminder of the ascetic devotion to which monastics are called as well as a reminder of the power of prayer.  I also think that many of things for which Sarapion praises the monks may be adopted by all Christians.  The Letter to Bishop Eudoxios is a reminder that we should not let our bouts with illnesses get us down but we should remember that we have our hope in God no matter how dire our circumstances.  
There is nothing I would not recommend that pastors read today, because I think pastors should be grounded in the fathers of the church and certainly shouldn’t be reading only what they happen to like in a particular father. This does not mean, however, that everything he wrote can have a direct application today.  For example, at one point in his Letter to the Monks, Sarapion wrote an aside describing how complicated and bad and pathetic things can be for one who has chosen to raise a family in the world.  Without a context permeated by Christianized Stoicism, this can be a difficult passage to accept and I do not find it readily applicable to the average parishioner in America.  A heightened view of a single, chaste, monastic life has roots in St. Paul’s writings and continues on down throughout church history but most Americans live in cities and towns with families in a culture that presumes family life is the norm and is a good thing.  Whether St. Sarapion would have written or spoken otherwise for Christians living in Thmuis, the city in which he was the bishop, we may never know, but I suspect he did.  I think this example I’ve chosen to highlight can serve as a reminder to keep in mind a writing’s context when assessing applicability to contemporary life. 

AD: Were there any surprises as you were writing--unexpected discoveries, developments you were not expecting?

His extended discussion of the Book of Judith in his Against the Manichaeans caught me off guard.  I knew it was read by Christians, of course, as it is scripture, but hadn’t run across a lengthy discussion of that book in a theological treatise before.  I also found myself becoming sympathetic to Sarapion’s view of hell and how he grounded that view in free will.  Prior to translating his treatise, I did not have any sympathy toward that view, which I would now call “purgative inclusivism.”  What changed my perception was a realization that Sarapion’s position could not be reduced to mere “Origenism,” and, more importantly, that his view was grounded in a dual belief in God’s unrelenting mercy and humanity’s capacity for free will even after the fall.  Finally, I was surprised at how Sarapion’s biblical interpretation fit so well with some central themes found in Fr. John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea. Sarapion post-dates the second century, but there are some real parallels between how St. Irenaeus responds to Valentinianism and how Sarapion responds to Manichaeism.

AD: The Manicheans continue to provoke interest today among some, especially those for whom "heresy" seems but an expression of a "will to power" over ideological enemies. Remind us who the Manicheans were in Serapion's context and why he opposed them. 

The Manichaeans were a real threat to the existence of the Church at that time.  Mani was the third-century founder of the religion and seems to have been raised as a member of some sort of Gnostic sect.  Mani’s dualistic tendencies resonated with many and his belief that some are the elect and that such elect lived a hyper-ascetic form of life enabled Manichaeans to infiltrate Christian monasteries at the time.  Manichaeism taught that the cosmos was filled with trapped portions of light from the good kingdom, which the evil kingdom had trapped in matter. Jesus was a savior figure for Manichaeism but in the sense of being sent to inform people of this trapped light. I suppose one could argue for a Nietzschean (“will to power”) interpretation of how Christianity came to view and defeat Manichaeism.  Some pieces of history would fit such an interpretation.  Manichaeism becomes outlawed within the Byzantine Empire because it was viewed as a “Persian” religion, and indeed, a Persian religion directly antagonistic toward Christianity.  

Also, one might view treatises such as Sarapion’s treatise or the slightly earlier pastoral letter against Manichaeism by Patriarch Theonas of Alexandria as examples of the church exerting a will to power over the Manichaeans.  I think that interpretation does an injustice to the actual difficulties on the ground, however.  Such letters and treatises were written in order to present real arguments in a lively and complicated theological context.  Furthermore, Sarapion’s biblical interpretation proves to be so consistent with the general Christian response to Gnosticism and Marcionism that I think it’s much more accurate to read Sarapion’s treatise as continuing a tradition of biblical interpretation rather than seeing it simply as an expression of exerting power.  Related to this, incidentally, is the generally accepted practice amongst scholars to call Gnostics and even Manichaeans “Christians,” a phenomenon to which I do respond in my introduction.  I honestly think the contemporary fascination with Gnostic Christianity has to do with a desire by some to find some romantic, nostalgic form of tolerant, enlightened Christianity.  For others, I think the fascination exists because defending Gnosticism can be a means of attacking the current expressions of Christianity.  If one removes these two motivations, one greatly narrows the number of people interested in Gnosticism.

AD: Conflicts over biblical interpretation are as old as Christianity itself. Your book examines Serapion's biblical hermeneutics. Does he offer us any hermeneutical guidance today?

I think Sarapion’s biblical interpreation is a reminder that we Orthodox (and frankly, all Christians) need to make sure we side-step the whole parameters of biblical interpretation that were solidified in the late nineteenth century between liberal scholarly uses of the various critical methods on the one hand or a dogged insistence upon a particular literal reading on the other.  Those parameters inevitably lead to things like the Scopes Monkey Trial.  We can, should, and must do better than that.  Indeed, the same kind of Christocentric, Trinitarian reading of the Scriptures that St. Sarapion performed may be found throughout Eastern Christian hymnography. 

AD: Sum up briefly for us what the main contents and arguments of the book.

The Introduction discusses Sarapion’s historical context, his hermeneutics in the treatise (with sub sections describing the Stoic elements, the Christocentric dimension, and free will), and the two letters, with discussions of the concept of suffering, the hermeneutics in the letters, and an argument for Sarapion’s authorship of the Letter to the Monks.  A translation of those writings, a select bibliography, and an index conclude the book. 

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