"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).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Books for Christmas

Around the world, thousands of children and others are excitedly getting ready for tomorrow's great feast celebrating one of the most beloved figures in any and every Christian sanctoral, viz., Nicholas of Myra, the great and greatly generous bishop of what is now the southern Turkish coast, noted as much for his generosity to the poor as for his hostility towards Arius at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325. A new book looks at him and his legacy: Adam C. English, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra (Baylor University Press, 2012), 246pp. About this book we are told:
With his rosy cheeks and matching red suit--and ever-present elf and reindeer companions--Santa Claus may be the most identifiable of fantastical characters. But what do we really know of jolly old Saint Nicholas, "patron saint" of Christmastime? Ask about the human behind the suit, and the tale we know so well quickly fades into myth and folklore.

In The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, religious historian Adam English tells the true and compelling tale of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra. Around the fourth century in what is now Turkey, a boy of humble circumstance became a man revered for his many virtues. Chief among them was dealing generously with his possessions, once lifting an entire family out of poverty with a single--and secret--gift of gold, so legend tells. Yet he was much more than virtuous. As English reveals, Saint Nicholas was of integral influence in events that would significantly impact the history and development of the Christian church, including the Council of Nicaea, the destruction of the temple to Artemis in Myra, and a miraculous rescue of three falsely accused military officers. And Nicholas became the patron saint of children and sailors, merchants and thieves, as well as France, Russia, Greece, and myriad others.

Weaving together the best historical and archaeological evidence available with the folklore and legends handed down through generations, English creates a stunning image of this much venerated Christian saint. With prose as enjoyable as it is informative, he shows why the life--and death--of Nicholas of Myra so radically influenced the formation of Western history and Christian thought, and did so in ways many have never realized.
In several cultures, it is common on this festal day to give gifts to family and friends in honor of, and following the example of, St. Nicholas. In that spirit, here are some suggestions as to books you could give.

In an enormous and detailed post from last year, which you should peruse here, I listed dozens and dozens of books, most published in 2011, in a variety of areas in Eastern Christianity. 2012 has seen no slowing down in the rate of publication of new and largely welcome books, and so there are many new books you should thus consider purchasing through my Amazon links for the Eastern Christian bibliophile / priest /seminarian / student / friend on your lists. Let us consider several areas:

There were several major studies published this year including, most recently, a welcome study of Alexander Schmemann from William Mills, whom I interviewed here. Another major study was that of Nicholas Denysenko (interviewed here), The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition.

Maxwell Johnson of Notre Dame's famed program in liturgics, was honored with a Festschrift whose details are here. Johnson teamed up with his UND colleague Paul Bradshaw to bring out an important collection of essays on the Eucharist noted here.

Yale's Bryan Spinks received a Festschrift whose details are here.

One of the most influential people in liturgics, dead for more than half a century, Anton Baumstark, was finally translated into English this year. I interviewed the translator, Fritz West, here, discussing On the Historical Development of the Liturgy.

A handsome new collection of prayers, edited by John McGuckin (about whom more presently), was noted here.

One especially welcome book was published this year treating a topic only rarely studied in the past: vestments in Byzantium.

There were several books of note published in this area this year, including a study of Gregory of Nyssa from Christopher Beeley noted here. Beeley also edited a collection on parish life and pastoral leadership drawing on the Fathers. The great Jesuit patrologist Brian Daley of Notre Dame, recently honored with the Ratzinger Prize for his scholarship, is the author of numerous patristics studies, discussed here. The world held its collective breath in March when it was announced that a hitherto unknown Greek Father had just been discovered.

There were two collections of diaries published this year that are especially noteworthy, and both of them concern the Second Vatican Council, whose opening fifty years ago in October has occasioned a lot of re-examination. The first were The Second Vatican Council Diaries of Met. Maxim Hermaniuk, C.Ss.R. (1960-1965) which I discussed in detail here

The second truly landmark diaries were, of course, those of the incomparable Yves Congar, which I discussed in great detail here. Congar's book is an invaluable collection not only for its insights into the debates and people at the council, but also for its bracing honesty. My Journal of the Council is a book definitely not to be missed. It will appeal to all kinds of readers on your Christmas list.

If through some monstrous act of omission you failed to notice my own work in ecclesiology, and did not order six thousand copies for your closest friends last Christmas, never fear: the book remains in print and you can atone for your neglect by ordering it at once: Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. (At risk of immodesty, it has been the object of numerous very laudatory reviews, none more noteworthy than Michael Fahey in North America's leading scholarly revue, Theological Studies.)

Other works of interest this year include Donald Graham on Newman's ecclesiology. A welcome English translation of Boris Bobrinskoy's book The Mystery of the Church appeared this year and was noted here. Another collection of essays surveying ecclesiology widely was brought out by Ashgate this year and noted here. Paul Valliere's important new book Conciliarism was discussed here.

In New York in September at the annual meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society of America, I gave a paper treating the problem of "sovereignty" in Orthodox (and Catholic) ecclesiology, drawing on Joseph de Maistre and Carl Schmitt and Paul Kahn.

OTSA's theme this year was "Orthodoxy and the Political" and another paper was from Aristotle Papanikolaou, whose book on the theme has just been released and whom I hope to interview early in the new year: The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy.

Muslim-Christian Relations:
As events continued to go from bad to worse for Christians in Syria and Egypt especially this year, scholarly attention continues to be paid to the encounters, both historic and current, between Muslims and Eastern Christians. New books trying to understand the notoriously controverted treatment of Jews and Christians under Islamic law were noted here and here.

I interviewed Uriel Simonsohn here about his new book A Common Justice: The Legal Allegiances of Christians and Jews Under Early Islam.

A large book, based on an exhibit at the Met in New York, was published on the topic of Islam and Byzantium; it was noted here.

An examination of the fate of minorities in Muslim societies today was noted here. An examination of relations today was noted here.

Milka Levy-Rubin's crucial discussion of the fate of dhimmis was reviewed in detail here. I also interviewed her about her recent book Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Coexistence.

I interviewed Andrew Sharp here discussing his important and welcome new book Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age.

Coptic Studies: Given the tumultous year in Egypt it is not surprising that there were several books of note published in this area this year. Those were noted here, here, here, here, and here.

Reference Works:
Augustine Casiday edited a large and welcome new collection: The Orthodox Christian World (Routledge Worlds). I began a discussion of it here, and look forward to featuring an interview with the editor soon. 


Jean-Claude Larchet, author of a number of important recent works in Orthodox theology, has recently had translated and published in English his Life After Death, which I noted here

One of the most unusual books I've read in a while, from Mark and Elizabeth Barma, A Christian Ending was reviewed in detail here, and the authors interviewed here.

Islamic Origins:

It is a welcome development at long last to have some more serious and searching scholarly scrutiny paid to the origins of Islam and some of the rather historically dodgy claims made about Mohammad and Islamic origins. Two recent books were noted: Stephen Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam. I interviewed the author here. The other book was from Gabriel Said Reynolds, noted here

East-Slavic Realities:

The Russian Church, as the largest Orthodox church in the world and as part of one of the world's most powerful countries, continues to attract considerable attention. A new book by one of her leading theologians, Hilarion Alfeyev, was noted here. And a book by her patriarch was translated into English and recently published.

Isaiah Gruber discussed the famous "time of troubles" in Russian Church history in his new book, Orthodox Russia in Crisis: Church and Nation in the Time of Troubles and in an interview I did with him here.

The reign of Peter the Great was subject to new scholarly scrutiny here.

A book examining her most famous monastery under communism was published this year. Written by Scott Kenworthy, The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism, and Society after 1825 is, as I noted here, a splendid work.

The excellent historian Serhii Plokhy published a new book this year on an important battle in Russian history.

A treatment of the question of authority in the Russian Church (which I also discuss in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity) was reviewed in detail here.

A book examining the fate of the Church after the collapse of communism was noted here.

Problematic claims in Ukrainian and Russian historiography were noted here and here.


One of the most rewarding books published this year was from my friend Michael Plekon, whom I interviewed here: Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time. That interview goes into a great many other books besides his so you'll want to check them out as well.

Other books in this area included one on Byzantine relics and hagiography.

Having recently given a paper on the phenomenon of holy fools, I was especially interested in a new book published about them: Holy Foolishness in Russia: New Perspectives, one of whose editors, Svitlana Kobets, I was pleased to interview here.

Interest in the Crusades remains high if the number of new books is any indication. Whether the Crusades will be better understood remains to be seen but books such as this one, this one, this one, and especially this one, should help.

I interviewed Tim Kelleher about his short and winsome DVD The Creed: What Christians Profess, and Why It Ought to Matter.
nd I also interviewed the astonishingly prolific John McGuckin about his many new books, and about the DVD he helped bring out: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer.

Canon Law:
Robert Taft famously called canon law the "bad side of the good news." 2012 saw the publication of at least two new studies in this area, noted here; and see also here.


2012 has seen no considerable slackening of the rate of publication of books about icons and related aspects. Of especial note was at least one study showing that Islam's relation to and understanding of images is not as straightforward as we might believe in the last several years after numerous puerile, but deadly, outbreaks of Islamic iconoclasm. 
A new translation of Bulgakov on icons was noted here.

A new book on Cypriot art and architecture was discussed here

A welcome new book on Coptic iconography, still under-studied relative to its Byzantine counterparts, was noted here.

A Kindle edition of Gabriel Bunge's book about Rublev's Trinity was noted here

Aidan Hart, a noted iconographer, was interviewed here about his recent books.  

One welcome new development in 2012 is the number of articles and books exploring Orthodox understandings of "science" broadly conceived. Several books were published, as noted here, here, and one here treating science in the Fathers. Of especial note is the collection  Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church, edited by Daniel Buxhoeveden and Gayle Woloschak, whom I interviewed here

1 comment:

  1. Hi Adam,
    Just wanted to let you know, I'm in book ordering mode for my library, and this post has been SUCH a help to me to spend what has been allotted to me. Thank you for it!
    --Donna Witek, Librarian, The University of Scranton


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