"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).


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Who Do You Say That I Am?

I sometimes think that the only Muslims interested in Jesus are academics and those involved in "professional" dialogues. In my experience with Muslim students in my classroom, they've scarcely heard or thought about Jesus, not least because references to Him are so few in the Quran. Along comes a new book looking at who Christ is in both Christianity and Islam: Mona Siddiqui, Christians, Muslims, and Jesus (Yale UP, 2013), 296pp. 

About this book we are told:
Prophet or messiah, the figure of Jesus serves as both the bridge and the barrier between Christianity and Islam. In this accessible and thoughtful book, Muslim scholar and popular commentator Mona Siddiqui takes her reader on a personal, theological journey exploring the centrality of Jesus in Christian-Muslim relations. Christian and Muslim scholars have used Jesus and Christological themes for polemical and dialogical conversations from the earliest days to modern times. The author concludes with her own reflections on the cross and its possible meaning in her Muslim faith.  Through a careful analysis of selected works by major Christian and Muslim theologians during the formative, medieval, and modern periods of both religions, Siddiqui focuses on themes including revelation, prophecy, salvation, redemption, sin, eschatology, law, and love. How did some doctrines become the defining characteristics of one faith and not the other? What is the nature of the theological chasm between Christianity and Islam? With a nuanced and carefully considered analysis of critical doctrines the author provides a refreshingly honest counterpoint to contemporary polemical arguments and makes a compelling contribution to reasoned interfaith conversation.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Student's Companion to the Theologians

Wiley Blackwell, continuing a trend they and other major publishers (Oxford, Routledge et al) have been involved with for some time, recently published a hefty collection under the editorship of Ian S. Markham, The Student's Companion to the Theologians (Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 576pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

This companion brings together a team of contemporary theologians and writers to provide substantial introductions to the key people who shaped the Christian story and tradition.
      • A substantial reference work, bringing together over 75 entries on the most important and influential theologians in the history of Christianity

      • Structured accessibly around five periods: early centuries, middle ages, reformation period, the Enlightenment, and the twentieth-century to the present
  • A to Z entries range from substantial essays to shorter overviews, each of which locates the theologian in their immediate context, summarizes the themes of their work, and explains their significance
  • Covers a broad span of theologians, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, through to C. S. Lewis, James Cone, and Rosemary Radford Reuther
  • Provides profiles of key Catholic, protestant, evangelical, and progressive theologians
  • Includes a useful timeline to orientate the reader, reading lists, and a glossary of key terms
The table of contents, with especially Eastern figures in bold:
 
Notes on Contributors viii
Preface xiii
Acknowledgments xv
Timeline xvi
Early Centuries 1
The Apocalypse of John 3
Arius (c.256–336) 6
Athanasius (c.295–373) 16
Augustine of Hippo (c.354–430) 26
Boethius (c.475–c.524) 31
The Cappadocians (c.329–c.524) 43
Cyril of Alexandria (c.378–444) and Nestorius of Constantinople (c.381–c.451)
Ephrem the Syrian (c.306–73) 60
Ignatius of Antioch (c.35–c.110) 71
Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century) 74
John the Evangelist 79
Marcion (c.85–c.160) 89
Maximos the Confessor (580–662) 93
Origen (c.185–254) 103
The Apostle Paul 113
The Synoptic Evangelists: Mark, Matthew, and Luke 119
Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) (c.155–c.225) 128
Middle Ages 137
Peter Abelard (1079–1142) 139
St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) 142
Thomas Aquinas, OP (c.1224–74) 153
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) 159
Bonaventure (c.1217–74) 162
Duns Scotus (c.1266–1308) 171Julian of Norwich (1342–c.1416) 181
William Ockham (c.1280–c.1349) 187
Reformation Period 197
John Calvin (1509–64) 199
Richard Hooker (1554–1600) 204
Martin Luther (1483–1546) 208
Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) 216
The Reformation 219
Teresa of Ávila (1515–82) 227
Enlightenment and Modern Period 237
Donald Baillie (1887–1954) 239
John Baillie (1886–1960) 245
Karl Barth (1886–1968) 250
Emil Brunner (1889–1966) 256
John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) 262
Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (1893–1979) 265
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) 276
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) 287
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) 290
C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis (1898–1963) 295
John Henry Newman (1801–90) 299
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) 310
Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834) 320
Gottfried Thomasius (1802–75) 326
Paul Tillich (1886–1965) 338
B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) 350
Twentieth Century to Present 353
Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–88) 355
Serge Laugier de Beaurecueil (1917–2005) 367
Black Theology 371
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) 378
James Cone (1938– ) 390
Austin Farrer (1904–68) 393
Hans Frei (1922–88) 397
Colin Gunton (1941–2003) 400
Gustavo Gutiérrez (1928– ) 402
Stanley Hauerwas (1940– ) 406
John Hick (1922–2012) 416
Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ (1941– ) 427
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–68) 431
Liberal Theology 438
George Lindbeck (1923– ) 451
Donald MacKinnon (1913–94) 454
John Milbank (1952– ) 458
Jürgen Moltmann (1926– ) 461
Richard John Neuhaus (1936–2009) 472
James Packer (1926– ) 475
Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928– ) 478
Charles Philip Price (1920–99) 486
Process Theology 491
Karl Rahner (1904–84) 502
Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936– ) 512
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1938– ) 515
Dorothee Sölle (1929–2003) 518
Richard Swinburne (1934– ) 522
Vatican II 527
Keith Ward (1938– ) 541
Glossary 546
Index 550

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Developments in Byzantine Chant

Interest in the musical patrimony of the Christian East continues to grow. Last year I noted an ethnomusicological study which Richard Barrett skillfully reviewed for the print edition of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. He will also be reviewing a new collection just out from Peeters: G. Wolfram et al, eds., Tradition and Innovation in Late- and Postbyzantine Liturgical Chant II: Proceedings of the Congress held at Hernen Castle, the Netherlands, 30 October - 3 November 2008 (Peeters, 2013), xxiv+328pp.

About this collection we are told by the publishers:

What is the relation between the Greek ecclesiastical chant traditions of today and Byzantine chant? That question can only be answered through a meticulous study of the transmission and transformation of both the melodies, the genres, and the whole musical culture of Late Byzantium and the subsequent centuries. This book presents a handful of studies focussing on both the development of new musical styles, such as the ornamented Kalofonia ('Beautiful sound'), and on the education of the cantors, the psaltai. The role of the master cantors, the maïstores, their teachings, treatises, traditions, innovations, compositions, and the various modes of interpretation (exegesis) are among the topics covered by this collection of papers, written by specialist scholars of Byzantine chant history.


Female Penitents and Hermits

For francophone students of female Georgian penitents (surely a huge market, yes?), Peeters has a forthcoming collection of interest to you: N. Mirachvili-Springer, ed.,Vies des pénitentes et des femmes ermites: Versions géorgiennes anciennes (Manuscrits des Xe-XIe siècles). V.

About this book we are told:

Le travail édite la version géorgienne des Vies de saintes femmes déguisées en moines ou de pécheresses converties. Le volume 655 propose le texte géorgien des Vies, établi critiquement sur la base des deux recueils les plus anciens: celui de la Bibliothèque Bodléienne d’Oxford, copié vers 1040 au monastère géorgien de Sainte-Croix à Jérusalem et le manuscrit A-95 de Tbilissi, copié à Parkhal en Tao-Klardjétie à la fin du Xe siècle. Le volume 656 comporte une traduction française à laquelle s’ajoute une étude textologique; le géorgien y est confronté aux rédactions grecques, syriaque, copte, arabe. Il se révèle que l’original sur lequel le géorgien a été traduit représente un état plus ancien de la tradition manuscrite grecque que celui qui nous est parvenu. Certains récits contiennent des calques de l’arabe. Les volumes comportent l’édition synoptique des textes. Un index (géorgien - grec) a été établi. Les Vies étudiées sont les suivantes: Vie de Thaïs l’Égyptienne; Vie de Pélagie d’Antioche; Vie de Marie l’Égyptienne (2 rédactions); Vie de saint Abraham et de sa nièce Marie; Vie d’une Vierge canonique; Vie de sainte Marine; Vie d’une prostituée d’Alexandrie; Vie d’Anastasie la Patrice. Leur examen sert à la connaissance de l’histoire du christianisme d’Orient.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Turkish Nationalism and Christian Minorities

Last summer in preparation for a paper I gave to the Orthodox Theological Society of America, I read a great deal in French political theory, especially from the 18-19th centuries, and the baleful influence of nationalism spread through French thought into Eastern Christian lands, including Russia, Syria and the Levant. Eastern Christians, however, are not only perpetrators of nationalism, but in some cases victims of it. Perhaps nowhere today is that so clear as in Turkey, about which a recent book has been published: Derya Bayir, Minorities and Nationalism in Turkish Law (Ashgate, 2013), 302pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Examining the on-going dilemma of the management of diversity in Turkey from a historical and legal perspective, this book argues that the state's failure to accommodate ethno-religious diversity is attributable to the founding philosophy of Turkish nationalism and its heavy penetration into the socio-political and legal fibre of the country. It examines the articulation and influence of the founding principle in law and in the higher courts' jurisprudence in relation to the concepts of nation, citizenship, and minorities. In so doing, it adopts a sceptical approach to the claim that Turkey has a civic nationalist state, not least on the grounds that the legal system is generously littered by references to the Turkish ethnie and to Sunni Islam. Also arguing that the nationalist stance of the Turkish state and legal system has created a legal discourse which is at odds with the justification of minority protection given in international law, this book demonstrates that a reconstruction of the founding philosophy of the state and the legal system is necessary, without which any solution to the dilemmas of managing diversity would be inadequate. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, this timely book will interest those engaged in the fields of Middle Eastern, Islamic, Ottoman and Turkish studies, as well as those working on human rights and international law and nationalism.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Basilian Monasticism

As I noted recently, we are this year seeing new interest in St. Basil the Great's works, especially those pertaining to monasticism. Cambridge University Press is this very week reissuing a book on him that was originally published precisely 100 years ago:W.K. Lowther Clarke, St Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism (CUP, 2013), 190pp.

About this book we are told:
Originally published in 1913, this book presents a detailed study of St Basil the Great and his monasticism. The main focus of the text is on Basil's ascetic writings, but information is provided on the surrounding historical context and the framework of early monasticism. Preceding the publication of this volume, there had been no detailed account of the ascetic writings and their significance for the development of early Christianity. The appendix section includes a table of dates and bibliography. This book will be of value to anyone with an interest in St Basil, monasticism and asceticism.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Assyrians

There are "Eastern" Christians and then there are really Eastern Christians--those beyond the borders of the Roman Empire who carried Christianity to the farthest Eastern parts of the world in the first millennium. These include, of course, the Assyrian (sometimes if infelicitously "Nestorian") Church of the East, who will be examined in fresh detail in a book set for release this fall:  Eden Naby, The Assyrians of the Middle East: The History and Culture of a Minority Christian Community (I.B. Tauris, November 2013), 256pp.

About this book we are told:
The Assyrians are the last substantial ethnic group in the world to have preserved Aramaic - the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples - as its native language. To listen to Aramaic is to catch the echoes of biblical Palestine. A minority people with distinctive cultural and religious, as well as linguistic, traditions, the Assyrians have in the modern era come under threat from the twin perils of persecution and assimilation. Though nowadays located mostly in Iran and Syria, this remarkable indigenous race - the easternmost Christians of the Middle East - were at one time numerically strong also in Iran, before falling victim in the early 20th century to Ottoman assault. The rise of Islamic exclusivity - in Iran following the Revolution of 1979, and in recent decades elsewhere in the Middle East - has further diminished the Assyrian communities, driving them from their ancient homelands. Does diaspora offer them rescue, or oblivion? Eden Naby is the foremost scholar in English of the venerable Assyrian heritage. In her much-anticipated and lively book she charts the the community from its identification with the ancient Akkadian and Assyrian empires through to Christian conversion; subsequent religious fragmentation (Nestorians, Chaldeans and Syriacs); genocide in the First World War; and statelessness and dispersal across the globe. This is the first time that the story of the resilient Assyrians has been told in its entirety.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Copts at the Crossroads

The events in Egypt over the last 3 years are a source of great sadness--and not a little frustration given how predictable much of this was. The frustration grows when one sees the same mistakes being pursued by the Obama administration now in Syria. Once again it seems painfully clear that the Eastern Christian populations are of no consideration or worth to those who make these geopolitical calculations.

A book released just last week takes a fresh look at what has been going on in Egypt: Mariz Tadros, Copts at the Crossroads: The Challenges of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt (American U of Cairo Press, 2013), 320pp.


About this book the publisher tells us:
A detailed examination of Christian–Muslim relations in Egypt before and since the 2011 Revolution

In the light of the escalation of sectarian tensions during and after Mubarak’s reign, the predicament of the Arab world’s largest religious minority, the Copts, has come to the forefront. This book poses such questions as why there has been a mass exodus of Copts from Egypt, and how this relates to other religious minorities in the Arab region; why it is that sectarian violence increased during and after the Egyptian revolution, which epitomized the highest degree of national unity since 1919; and how the new configuration of power has influenced the extent to which a vision of a political order is being based on the principles of inclusive democracy.
The book examines the relations among the state, the Church, Coptic citizenry, and civil and political societies against the backdrop of the increasing diversification of actors, the change of political leadership in the country, and the transformations occurring in the region. An informative historical background is provided, and new fieldwork and statistical data inform a thoughtful exploration of what it takes to build an inclusive democracy in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Politics of Iconoclasm

The events from at least 2006 onward, with the so-called Danish cartoons, have brought the concept of iconoclasm in its Islamic forms to the fore. But historically, of course, that was a Jewish, and later Christian, phenomenon before it was an Islamic one. A book set for release this fall takes a look at iconoclasm in both its Islamic and Christian forms: James Noyes, The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-breaking in Christianity and Islam (I.B. Tauris, October 2013), 288pp.

About this book we are told:
From false idols and graven images to the tombs of kings and the shrines of capitalism, the targeted destruction of cities, sacred sites and artefacts for religious, political or nationalistic reasons is central to our cultural legacy. This book examines the different traditions of image-breaking in Christianity and Islam as well as their development into nominally secular movements and paints a vivid, scholarly picture of a culture of destruction encompassing Protestantism, Wahhabism, and Nationalism. Beginning with a comparative account of Calvinist Geneva and Wahhabi Mecca, The Politics of Iconoclasm explores the religious and political agendas behind acts of image-breaking and their relation to nationhood and state-building. From sixteenth-century Geneva to urban developments in Mecca today, The Politics of Iconoclasm explores the history of image-breaking, the culture of violence and its paradoxical roots in the desire for renewal. Examining these dynamics of nationhood, technology, destruction and memory, a historical journey is described in which the temple is razed and replaced by the machine.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Holy Unmercenaries

Given the propensity for twins in my wife's family, we prepared ourselves for that possibility, but none have shown up so far. If they had, we early on decided on the noble names of Cosmas and Damian in the event they were of the male sex.

Those two holy unmercenary physicians arguably are more relevant today than ever in reminding Christians that (as the Latins used to say) one of the "corporal works of mercy" is care for the sick--something the Catholic Church still does today on a scale unmatched by any other organization in the world.

A new book has just appeared to look at the life and legacy of these two: Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Saints: Cosmas and Damian in a Postmodern World (Oxford UP, 2013), 256pp.

About this book we are told:
Cosmas and Damian were martyred around the year 300 A.D. in what is now Syria. Called the Anargyroi ("without silver") because they charged no fees, they became patrons of medicine, surgery, and pharmacy and the focus of cults ranging across Europe. They were popular in Byzantine and Orthodox traditions and their shrines are numerous in Eastern Europe, southern Italy, and Sicily. The Medici family of Florence viewed the "santi medici" as patrons, and their deeds were illustrated by great Renaissance artists. In medical literature they are now revered as patrons of transplantation.

Jacalyn Duffin offers a profound exploration of illness and healing experiences in contemporary society through the veneration of the twin doctors Saints Cosmas and Damian. She also relates a personal journey, from her role as a hematologist who unexpectedly came to serve as an expert witness in the Church's evaluation of a miracle to her research as a historican on the origins, meaning, and functions of saints.

Duffin's research, which includes interviews with devotees in both North America and Europe, focuses on how people have taken the saints with them as they moved both within Italy and beyond. She shows that veneration of Cosmas and Damian has spread beyond immigrant traditions to fill important functions in healthcare and healing. Duffin's conclusions provide essential insights into medical history, sociology, anthropology, and popular religion, as well as the current medical debate over spiritual healing. Medical Saints draws on medical history and Roman Catholic traditions, but extends to universal observations about the behaviors of sick people and the formal responses to individual illness from collectivities in religion, medicine, and history.

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Interview with Rod Dreher

Earlier I posted some thoughts on Rod Dreher's new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. I've since been able to interview him by e-mail and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background as a writer and Orthodox Christian.

RD: I've been a journalist for almost 25 years, mostly writing opinion and analysis for newspapers and magazines. I've been on staff at the New York Post, National Review, and The Dallas Morning News, among others, and am at the present time a senior editor at The American Conservative. I was a film critic for a while, but mostly have written about politics, religion, and culture. I'm a cultural conservative, but am registered as an Independent. I've lost most of my interest in politics, and have become far more interested in religious and philosophical questions and concerns. 


I washed ashore in Orthodoxy out of the shipwreck of my Roman Catholic faith. I had been a serious Catholic for 13 years, having come into Catholicism in my twenties from a mainline Protestant background. I had been philosophically oriented as a teenager, but not pious. Reading Thomas Merton, visiting the Chartres cathedral, and encountering Kierkegaard in college -- all these things awakened a sense of quest within me, which culminated, after much struggle, with my becoming Catholic. I was an ardent Catholic, intellectually oriented and, I now see, a rather political one, in a way that no doubt laid the groundwork for my undoing.

In short, I began writing about the church's sex abuse scandal in 2001, and went headlong into the muck in 2002, with the Geoghan trial in Boston, which set off the national wave of scandal revelations. At the time, I did it not in spite of being Catholic, but because I was Catholic. I loved the church and wanted to help purify it of this cancer. Plus, I was a father, and it made me sick to see how bishops and others in church authority had treated children and families. What I did not realize -- though the courageous Catholic priest Tom Doyle had tried to warn me -- was that the evil of this thing was far darker, and went much deeper, than I imagined. I was not prepared for it, especially for the lies and cutthroat behavior of bishops, including cardinals. You think you've read enough church history that you can handle just about anything, but then you talk to a father whose abused son blew his own brains out, and learn that that boy's molester had been tied to four other suicides -- and that the diocese had known about this priest's problem all along, but done nothing. Do that, and think of your own child, and how the church you loved and served would have done the same thing to you and your kid, and it works on your mind. If I had spent even half the time in prayer that I spent talking about church politics, I might have withstood this test. But I didn't, and I didn't. 

The final straw came in 2006, when we learned that a Catholic priest in Dallas who was getting closer to our family was a manipulative liar who wasn't supposed to be in ministry, as he had been accused in Pennsylvania of molesting a teenager. My wife and I were mortified, not least because we thought we were the type of people who couldn't be fooled, given our level of awareness about the issue. But he manipulated our prejudices. Who knows where this would have gone if he hadn't slipped up and showed his cards? Anyway, that was it; we were done. We simply lost the will to believe in the Roman church. I had always imagined that if I had the syllogisms straight in my head, that my faith could withstand anything. But that turned out not to be true. 


There was nowhere else left for us to go but to Orthodoxy. We began attending St. Seraphim cathedral in Dallas, not intending to join, but just to be around the real presence in the Sacrament (Catholics accept the validity of Orthodox sacraments), and to be somewhere where the worship was beautiful, and we didn't carry with us the baggage of fear and loathing of the Catholic hierarchy. Eventually we knew we weren't going to be able to go back to Rome. We were received into Orthodoxy there in Dallas.

It was one of the saddest days of my life. Don't misunderstand -- I don't regret becoming Orthodox, and am, in fact, grateful that the Lord gave me a second chance in the Orthodox church. I felt so mournful over my lost Catholic faith that I couldn't experience the joy that everyone else experiences when they become Orthodox. It's hard to express how painful losing my Catholicism was. I suspect this is what happens when a marriage becomes irretrievably broken. You know that what you once had is gone, and can't come back, and you're relieved to be out of a situation that brought you torment ... but you still mourn. An Orthodox convert from Catholicism that I sort of knew came up to me around that time and started badmouthing the Roman church, and I told him I wasn't interested in that. The whole experience of losing my Catholic faith was the most painful thing I've ever lived through, even more painful than living through the death of my only sibling. It has taken me a long time to heal from it all.

But I'll tell you this: God's hand was in it all. He humbled me in a way I needed to be humbled. I had been a pretty arrogant Catholic. The scandal beat that out of me. I'm a different kind of Christian now. Plus, Orthodox spirituality is helping me get outside of my head, in part by challenging at every turn my deep-seated tendency to intellectualize things. I thought before that because my head was converted, that my heart was too. That's not true.

I can never see the Orthodox church institution with the same naive fideism that I held towards the Roman Catholic institutional church. I came into Orthodoxy chastened and wary -- and, as we've seen in the past few years, the Catholics do not have a monopoly on bad bishops and corrupt priests. I'm grateful to be Orthodox, but deeply wary of the kind of piety I had before, as a Catholic. I see some Orthodox with it, and I go the other way. It's not for me. I can never say often enough, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." 

AD: Tell us a bit about the genesis of this book. At what point did you realize that your sister's illness and death contained a wider, deeper story that needed telling? 

I've written a blog since 2006, and have built up a pretty good-sized following. The blog is my notebook, my diary, a place in which I write straight-up opinion journalism, but also personal reflections. When my sister was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in 2010, I flew from Philadelphia to Baton Rouge to be with her, and wrote about what I saw. It was a harrowing week, but also a time of extraordinary grace -- all of it pouring through my sister Ruthie, who responded to this catastrophic news with a degree of courage and fortitude that I found to be holy. I simply wrote about what I was seeing there, with my sister, and with the community of friends and family taking care of her. And I wrote about how watching all this was changing my own heart. My readers responded strongly to it, so I kept them updated on all the incredible things happening in Ruthie's life as she fought cancer.

When she died, I wrote about her wake, her funeral, and the incredible things that were happening around her death -- and how it all transfigured this little country town I had left so long ago, such that I wanted to return. Again, readers responded powerfully to these stories. But it wasn't until I told on the blog a story about candles in the cemetery on Christmas Eve, and how a loving neighbor carried on a tradition that my mother was too grief-stricken to celebrate that year, that things really changed. The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about that Christmas gift. His column set off a bidding war among New York publishers for the story. A week later, I had a book deal, and The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming was underway. What Brooks saw in this story, and what the publishers saw, was a tale of reverse migration: of someone who rejected an ordinary life in a small town, with all its limits, coming to see in the life and tragic death of his sister a hidden greatness within the ordinary, and a reclamation of the sense of community and rootedness that's missing from so many contemporary American lives.

AD: My friend the Orthodox priest and theologian Michael Plekon has written extensively about what he calls "hidden holiness" in the lives of people not often thought of as saints, but who are nonetheless living holy lives not by being thrown to the lions or saving scores from the gutters of Calcutta, but by staying where they are and loving the people around them. That would seem very much to describe Ruthie, yes? 

Yes, absolutely. Ruthie taught middle-school math in a rural parish in south Louisiana. I was the worldly sibling; she was the one who wanted nothing more than to stay here at home. When we were at college together, we rarely spent time with each other, because we were so different. In Little Way, I tell the story of the time she sat with my best friend and me at dinner in the cafeteria, listening to us talk about Nietzsche, the death of God, and philosophical topics. She stood up and told us we were full of crap (though I think the word was a little more colorful), and that all our philosophical speculation was vanity. What counted was what we did, not what we thought, or so Ruthie thought. She was intensely practical, and very much anti-intellectual (this, even though she made better grades than I did). 

Ruthie led a quiet life. She never much talked about God, just remained faithful to the Methodist church in which we were raised, and in which she and her husband Mike raised their daughters. You might have thought Ruthie was a friendly person, a morally serious person, and even a wise person. But what you didn't know about Ruthie -- well, what I, her brother, didn't know about Ruthie -- was the love and devotion she poured out on her students, many of whom came from poor and broken families. At the visitation, I met so many people who told me some variation of, "You don't know me, sir, but your sister was my teacher, and this is how she changed my life." It was incredible. I saw that Ruthie, a country Methodist, had a lot in common with St. Therese of Lisieux, who described her own path to God as the "little way," in that they both believed that it was not given to everyone to live a dramatic life of grand gestures. They would be satisfied with what God gave them, including where he placed them (a convent, a middle school) and do their best to live and to act in pure love. This was Therese's little way, and it also describes Ruthie's. 

AD: Plekon (among others) has resisted the tendency of older forms of hagiography to turn people into "plaster saints" or what Cardinal Newman called "clothes-racks for virtues." Your book very commendably manages to achieve a balance between recognizing the goodness, sanctity even, in your sister, but also not hiding her conflict with you. Was that a hard balance to maintain? 

Yes, it very much was. The truth is, Ruthie was a saint, or at least I think she was. But she was a human being too, and in my case, it meant she was at times bitter and spiteful toward her brother. Ruthie was a lot like our father, in that she didn't understand why anybody would want to leave what we had here in Louisiana. I've called them Bayou Confucians, because they believe life has a hierarchy, and one's duty if to find one's place within that hierarchy, and live it out. For Ruthie and my dad, my leaving was a sign of betrayal -- and nothing more than that. To be fair, after my first, failed attempt to return, in the mid-1990s, my father had a moment of grace in which he saw -- or said he saw -- that my vocation required me to live away from here. The thing is, we forget such moments of clarity. My father and my sister had a very strong "poetic memory" (I think the phrase is Kundera's), in which they selectively remembered details that caused a narrative to make emotional sense to them. It made emotional sense for Rod to be here with the family -- and ultimately, they wouldn't allow any facts to counter that narrative within their hearts.

This caused me a lot of pain, and truth to tell, it still does. Once Ruthie decided on a story, she hung onto it with the tenacity of a snapping turtle. This served her well facing cancer; the story she hung on to was that God loved her and would be with her no matter what. Don't get me wrong, I believe that's a true story. The point here is the strength with which she clung to that narrative. Unfortunately that trait was destructive of her relationship with me. For a reason I don't fully understand, she would not admit any facts that contradicted what she wanted to believe about me and the things I loved. For Ruthie, to have chosen a way of life other than the one we were prescribed by our father was, it seems, an unforgivable sin. The thing is, there was only one person in the world she judged so uncompromisingly: me.

I don't say all this to invite the reader's pity, but rather to explore the mystery of my sister's character, and of human character. One friend of mine told me the other day that reading my book, he has a tough time accepting my judgment that Ruthie was probably a saint. Like most people who have expressed this to me, he's thinking about the bouillabaisse story, but also about my niece Hannah's revelation in Paris, toward the end of the book. I appreciate his sympathy, but I think in our time, we confuse sanctity with niceness. I can't deny Ruthie's ugliness towards me, but I certainly cannot deny that that's pretty much the only blemish on a lifetime of extraordinary goodness. One does not obviate the other. St. Paul struggled with a thorn in his flesh; Ruthie and I were the thorns in each other's flesh. The difference is that Ruthie had a greater capacity than I to endure emotional pain for the sake of sticking by her principles. My dad is the same way. In most cases, this presents itself as evidence of a principled character, which is what Ruthie was and my dad is. But at times this refusal to examine critically one's own conclusions can manifest as sheer obstreperousness. It's sometimes hard to know where to draw the line.

Anyway, my goal in telling this story was to make the case for why I consider my sister to be a saint, or in any case to have led a life of sanctification, despite her all-too-human flaws. And I wanted to indicate that I too likely played a role in turning my little sister against me when we were young. The bouillabaisse story is, for me, the key myth about my family's attitude to me in adulthood. But the early childhood story with which I begin the book -- the story about Ruthie I told in her eulogy -- is the key myth, in my mind, about the kind of Christ-like character my sister had innately. 

AD: Your title refers to St. Therese of Lisieux. Did your sister ever read her autobiography or hear about her from you? What do you think she would have thought of the comparison?

No, not to my knowledge, unless she saw the comparison on one of my early blogs about her cancer. Ruthie was not well read, and certainly not in the Catholic tradition. She was a conventional churchgoing Methodist, but even her best friend Abby couldn't figure out why Ruthie was so prayerful and spiritually minded, but never came to Bible study or did anything more formal with the church. Ruthie would have reacted against the comparison, not because of anything particular to Therese, but because Ruthie would have considered it ridiculous and embarrassing to compare her to a saint.

Had she read Therese, though, I think she would have felt a deep kinship with the saint, who believed that the ordinary could be sanctified through love. That's how Ruthie lived. One interesting thing I've observed since moving back is how people around town will casually mention to me that they talk to Ruthie, or will pray, asking Ruthie to help them with some challenge. These are Protestants, mind you, but they believe that Ruthie, their friend, lives with Christ now, and can still hear them, and pray for them. Many times I've heard someone talk this way about Ruthie, and thought, This is how we get saints -- in a sociological sense, I mean. There was a holy person who lived in a certain community, and her memory is revered over time, and she is believed to be capable of hearing prayers and helping people after her death. We think, maybe, that we're beyond that today, that saints belonged to ages past. But I'm watching the process happen here. Mind you, a Methodist will never be canonized, but then, most saints who ever lived were never raised to the altar.

AD: What connections do you see between this book and your earlier book, Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots? Do you think if you hadn't written the earlier book you might not have been as open to seeing the virtues of life in a small town in southern Louisiana?  

I'm glad you asked that, because the progression from Crunchy Cons to Little Way tracks a theme within the latter. I began to think more deeply about my own conservatism, and to move in a more traditionalist direction, when I grew deeper into my own Catholic faith after marriage, and when my wife and I had our first child. As I point out in Little Way, my strong tendency is toward contemplation, while Ruthie's was toward action. I was satisfied to theorize about localism and traditionalism, and make a few moves toward living a life more coherent with my beliefs, but I remained a dilettante. Still, I had the theory in my mind, and that was important.

The moment of conversion was standing outside the Methodist Church at my sister's wake, seeing all those people there, and thinking about the 19 months preceding that night -- from Ruthie's diagnosis until that moment -- and grasping in both my mind and my heart that I was witnessing the theories incarnate in the love and community of these people. That night, for the first time, the things I professed as a matter of theoretical ideals entered into my moral imagination in a galvanizing way. If it hadn't been for 10 years of reading Wendell Berry, Crunchy Cons, Front Porch Republic and all that, I might not have been able to recognize the revelation on the church's lawn -- which is to say, I might not have been able to hear God's calling me home.

AD: When Pope Benedict came to the US in 2008, he lamented at one point the loss of Catholic "ghettos" especially among early immigrants and recognized the need deracinated Catholics had today for new and deeper forms of community. What role, if any, do you see churches playing today in helping people find the kind of community your family has been a part of in Starhill for generations?  

I'm not sure, because I'm not sure what "church" means in America today. We have become so individualistic in our approach to religious faith that I don't have a clear model for what stable church community looks like. When I returned to my hometown, I didn't return to the church in which I was raised, the Methodist church, because I am now an Orthodox Christian. Rather, I joined with some fellow Orthodox converts in town, and we opened a mission. I find as a general matter people in town these days are unaware of the theological differences between the churches, or why they are important. That makes it easier to work across denominational lines, but it also means that the loss of particularity, and of social unity around a shared story, makes the kind of deep community the Catholic ghettos experienced highly problematic. 

At the same time, with reference to the churches, as Walker Percy would say, what else is there? St. Francisville is a Christian town. Not everybody goes to church, but the churches not everybody goes to are Christian ones. The town is full of sinners, but there is enough residual Christianity here that the faith is still felt as a force in people's lives, in a way that it is not in most places I've lived (Dallas being the great exception). 

My sense, though, is that the Church -- by which I mean all Christian churches -- has to become far more radical and conscious of itself as a countercultural force, and as a countercultural community, or Christianity will not endure. I'm not talking about adopting a fortress mentality, but rather teaching ourselves and our children what makes us different from others, why we believe the things that we do -- and why that matters. What's more, as my pastor says, Orthodoxy is not an add-on to life; it is a way of life. All churches should regard what they preach in that way. Church must not be merely the middle class at prayer. 

When I say "countercultural force," I'm not talking about being culture warriors per se, but rather living as people who profess and (more importantly) embody a way of life and a vision that serves as a sign of contradiction to the modern world. Ruthie may not have been theologically educated, or even much interested in theology, and she was a flawed vessel, but the life she lived by staying in place and submitting to the limits of place was, to me, a sign of contradiction, and, I think, a call to conversion. It's not that we all must commit to staying in one place, forever and ever, amen -- where would any of us be if not for missionaries, not least among them St. Paul? -- but rather Ruthie's story shows us how much a life lived in faithful service to and friendship with a community can matter. 

Still, I am aware that any words about the value of stability from a man who has a track record of restlessness are bound to be taken with a fistful of salt.

AD: Towards the end of the book, especially during the painful conversation with your niece on the last night in Paris, a comparison came to my mind in reading your struggle to reconcile the holiness and love you saw in your sister with the unresolved conflict between the two of you and her attitude towards you. The comparison was that of Lady Marchmain (Ruthie) and Charles Ryder (you) in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Lady Marchmain was often thought of by others as being a saint, though her simple, unquestioning piety (and adamantine summary judgments of others) could be off-putting to some, including Ryder, who, early in the book, is very much the questioning skeptic. Later he becomes a believer. Do you think your sister's simple, unquestioning faith and refusal to be mad at God has deepened your own faith and trust? Are the questions for you greater or fewer since her death?

It has, but only indirectly -- and it has reinforced the lessons I've been learning through the practice of Orthodox Christianity. As I detail in the book, I've always been a Seeker; Ruthie was always an Abider. I've been through a number of churches; Ruthie stayed in the church in which we were raised. I don't say this to praise her, necessarily; Ruthie had a considerable mind, but no curiosity about the world of ideas. She was a mathematics teacher, and had a deep and growing interest in science (she told me once that if she beat cancer, she would like to go back to college and study forensic pathology.) What I've learned through Ruthie is to put more value on what we come to know through relationship, and less value on what we come to know through reading or intellection. Ruthie was not balanced; neither am I. But I need more of what she had. 

Similarly, through Orthodoxy, I've learned to focus far more on the conversion of the heart. As a Catholic, I was stuck in my head. Orthodox polemicists tend to blame this kind of thing on the nature of Western Christianity. They may be onto something, but I choose not to think about that. I choose to blame myself. If I had not been a Catholic, I still would have been this kind of Christian. Ruthie excelled in being present in the moment -- even before she was diagnosed. I am bad at that. I am always analyzing the present moment, standing at some remove from it. I have always been mystically inclined, but tripped up by my seeming inability to be still and to be open. I've always faulted Ruthie to some degree for her lack of curiosity, and her instinct to pass negative judgment on anything she didn't understand. But what a source of strength her unquestioning trust in God was as she fought for her life. I realized, as I say in the book, that if I had awakened one day to find that I had Stage Four cancer, I would read every book on my shelves, consult with monks, priests, and sages, agonize over it publicly and privately, and if I were lucky, I would end up exactly where Ruthie started: serene, trusting in God's love, and learning how to cherish every moment of life. 

She could do that because that's how she lived. Hers was a very simple faith, but felt in her marrow. That made all the difference. 

AD: Sum up for us what you hope to have accomplished with the book and what you hope people will take away from it.

First and foremost, I hope people will reflect on the extraordinary life of this ordinary person, my sister Ruthie, and grasp how both goodness and greatness is possible for all of us. As Leon Bloy said, the only tragedy in life is not to have been a saint. I look at Ruthie's life and understand what he means. There was nothing unusual in her life. She was born in an obscure town in the Deep South, married her high school sweetheart, built a house on the land where she was raised, had children, taught school, went fishing, got cancer, and died. Yet within that narrative, she found and lived out such spiritual grandeur, concealed by the very ordinariness of her life. It's there for all of us, I hope to show.

Second, this is a book about home. I hope to speak to restless Americans everywhere -- people like me -- and provoke serious thought and discussion about the meaning of home, and how to achieve the kind of stability we want and need to flourish, but that seems so far away. Ruthie had limitations, but she knew something that so very many of us do not. It's also true, though, as my father's startling confession at the end of the book reveals, that we can never fully know whether we've chosen wisely. 

Third, this is a book about family -- the love we share, and the wounds we inflict on each other. My father and my sister wanted me to come home because they loved me. Yet the way they loved me -- the demanding, intolerant way -- made that impossible, and has set up obstacles even today that I doubt will ever be overcome. These stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our families, they matter. They really do. A tragedy of my sister and my dad, who were and are exceptionally good and loving people, is that the thing they wanted more than they wanted most things -- a united family, sharing the same place -- they made unattainable. I think we can all learn from that. 

AD: What other writing projects are coming up next? Are you at work on another book at the moment? 

I'm not, but I hope to be soon. I'm looking for another project. This book has, I think, profoundly changed the way I see my vocation. I've been drifting pretty steadily away from political writing since the end of the Bush years, but the overwhelming reaction to Little Way has made me rethink the power of narrative journalism, of storytelling. Ruthie's story made me see the world in a different way, and caused me to change my life -- I think for the better, though this new path has brought with it other challenges. I'm on the lookout for this kind of story now -- stories that tell the truth about the way we live, and the ways we might live, and give people hope. Anyway, the language we use to talk politics has been completely blasted and evacuated of meaning. We need fewer op-ed writers, pundits, and purveyors of argument, and more storytellers. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Does God Speak Greek or Irish?

For some time now, as I have noted several times before, we have been seeing a resurgence of interest in the study of the Septuagint. Next month another book will add to this deepening interest: Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford UP, 2013), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
How did the New Testament writers and the earliest Christians come to adopt the Jewish scriptures as their first Old Testament? And why are our modern Bibles related more to the rabbinic Hebrew Bible than to the Greek Bible of the early Church?

The Septuagint, the name given to the translation of the Hebrew scriptures between the third century BC and the second century AD, played a central role in the Bible's history. Many of the Hebrew scriptures were still evolving when they were translated into Greek, and these Greek translations, along with several new Greek writings, became Holy Scripture in the early Church.

Yet, gradually the Septuagint lost its place at the heart of Western Christianity. At the end of the fourth century, one of antiquity's brightest minds rejected the Septuagint in favor of the Bible of the rabbis. After Jerome, the Septuagint never regained the position it once had. Timothy Michael Law recounts the story of the Septuagint's origins, its relationship to the Hebrew Bible, and the adoption and abandonment of the first Christian Old Testament.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Thatcher, the Collapse of Communism, and the Liberation of Eastern Christians

Though born with a WASPish horror of strong emotion, especially in public (it was, I think, the inimitable Florence King who once said the only emotion WASPs are permitted to show is "mild irritation"), and fancying myself something of a man of the left at the time, I nonetheless wept in my high-school library in November 1990 when I read the papers and saw that Margaret Thatcher had been turfed from office by a bunch of third-rate tossers and cowards. I did so largely because, regardless of what her positions were, I admired how relentless she was in pushing her arguments in a very formidable way because she had the courage of her convictions--which no Canadian politician at the time could ever muster if he tried for a thousand years. (The late and splendidly splenetic diarist and sometime Thatcher cabinet minster Alan Clarke, in his Diaries 1972 - 1999 once wrote of an argument with her in which he was trying to persuade her to ban the import of Canadian fur. He lost the argument because her strategy completely unmanned him:  "a prototypical example of an argument with a woman--no rational sequence, associative, lateral thinking, jumping rails the whole time.")

Charles Moore's authorized biography has recently been published, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands and I am greatly looking forward to reading it, especially after this review in the London Review of Books. There are also, of course, a slew of other books that have come out and are coming out so soon after her death in April.

Thatcher, together with Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Mikhail Gorbachev, played a role in the downfall of the evil empire and thus the freeing of millions of Eastern Christians who had lived under that tyranny.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The History of Nationalism

As we all know, ethno-phyletism and nationalism have long been besetting problems among Eastern Christians,  leading, notably, to their condemnation at the council in Constantinople in 1872.

Continuing their welcome series of "handbooks," Oxford University Press just last month published John Breuilly, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism (Oxford UP, 2013), 800pp.

With chapters on nationalism and religion, nationalism in Eastern Europe, nationalism in the Middle East, and Arab nationalism, inter alia, there is much in here to interest the scholar of Eastern Christianity in all its varied cultural contexts.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism comprises thirty six essays by an international team of leading scholars, providing a global coverage of the history of nationalism in its different aspects - ideas, sentiments, politics. Every chapter takes the form of an interpretative essay which, by a combination of thematic focus, comparison, and regional perspective enables the reader to understand nationalism as a distinct and global historical subject.

The book covers the emergence of nationalist ideas, sentiments, and cultural movements before the formation of a world of nation-states as well as nationalist politics before and after the era of the nation-state, with chapters covering Europe, the Middle East, North-East Asia, South Asia, South-East Asia, and the Americas. Essays on everday national sentiment and race ideas in fascism are accompanied by chapters on nationalist movements opposed to existing nation-states, nationalism and international relations, and the role of external intervention into nationalist disputes within states. In addition, the book looks at the major challenges to nationalism: international socialism, religion, pan-nationalism, and globalization, before a final section considering how historians have approached the subject of nationalism.

Taken separately, the chapters in this Handbook will deepen understanding of nationalism in particular times and places; taken together they will enable the reader to see nationalism as a distinct subject in modern world history.
The editor writes an interesting article on the OUP blog telling us more of the genesis of this welcome collection. You may read that here.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

As an editor for more than a decade now, I have gone through a lot of texts, and it is exceedingly rare--in fact, so rare I cannot recall a recent example--that, having finished a manuscript, I think "I wouldn't change a word." But I thought that after finishing Rod Dreher's new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life (Grand Central, 2013), 288pp. 

Dreher is an Orthodox blogger whom I've read for years now. In fact, given the high level of nonsense on the Web, and the very few hours in the day at my disposal, I restrict my blog-reading to a tiny handful, and Dreher is one of only two blogs I permit myself to check each day. Unlike too many other Orthodox bloggers, he does not bore one into a condition of coma by sanctimoniously conjuring up proofs of the superiority of Orthodoxy or railing against the "pan-heresy of ecumenism" or other such nonsense. Rather, he writes about an interesting mix of topics in our culture today--from the politics of food and cooking to travel, community life, the challenges of raising children, and much else besides--in sum, what makes for a good life not understood individualistically but communally. I do not always agree with him, but he has the singular merit of raising interesting and important questions.

I read his 2006 book Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots. There is much in there to agree with, but much to disagree with also. His tone did not, I thought, endear him to those who would otherwise agree with him. But I've been accused of the same thing. As someone who worked for Greenpeace for a time, who sought single-handedly to convince his Anglican parish in southwestern Ontario to become "green" in the 1980s before it was trendy, and who retains, to some, a puzzling mix of revanchist theological views and "leftist" ideas on food, agriculture, community, and economics, I relate very strongly to Dreher's defying of conventional political categories.

In his latest book, I relate to him even more strongly. In fact, it is uncanny how much his recent life has been similar to mine:
  • his younger sister died unexpectedly of advanced cancer in 2011 as did mine, leaving three children (as did my sister);
  • her small town rallied around her, as did my sister Becky's community, albeit on a smaller scale;
  • his parents were married in 1964 as were mine, and his mother is named Dorothy as is mine;
  • her relationship to him was complicated as mine was to my sister, in part because of our very different backgrounds and preoccupations.
That is all by way of preface to say that I read this book with more than usual scholarly dispassion. It is, in fact, a deeply moving and very poignant book looking at what happened to his sister Ruthie upon her diagnosis with aggressive and highly advanced lung cancer--this in a non-smoker who had done all the "right" things in life (as my own sister had done)--never smoking, eating healthily, etc. Cancer is never pleasant but it seems especially cruel in a young mother with young children. But Ruthie never raged against the Fates, never dared go beyond Job to insolently demand answers of God. Again and again she encouraged others simply to accept what had happened, and to commit to not getting angry with God over this. She put her trust in God and the doctors, and never demanded to know more than was required. Her brother found this a staggering approach, as I would too.

When Becky was diagnosed in 2008, she called me up and asked me "What am I supposed to learn from this?" Being a boring and unimaginative academic, I turned the question back to her (because I sure as hell didn't have any good answers) and said "Well, what do you think you are to learn?" She had no good answers then, and I don't know if  she acquired any in the next three years. At one point I wrote her a letter when snatches of something I had read in my adolescence came back to me: parts of the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, including the fourth letter where Rilke says:

to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

My sending her that may have been a dodge for my own lack of answers, though in my defense I did think of something Alasdair MacIntyre said of Edith Stein in his important prosopographical study, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922:  that Stein, her life also cut short by the Nazis in Auschwitz, deserved to be remembered not so much for her answers to philosophical problems (she studied under Husserl) as for the very questions she posed, questions MacIntyre said were of perduring relevance and importance. (I've discussed Stein and MacIntyre elsewhere.) Becky's question could, I discovered sadly, only be answered, however haltingly, after her death nearly two years ago: she was to learn--as were we all--what an amazing group of friends she had, who rallied around her, held parties for her (including a hilarious wig party in which all came becostumed to celebrate her loss of hair), drove her to appointments, made food for her family, took her kids on especially tiresome days, and, perhaps most extraordinarily, raised funds to send her on a trip to Ireland--a life-long dream of Becky's she could not realize, cancelling the trip in late May 2011 when the cancer was found to have moved from her breast not merely to her lungs but then to her brain. The answer to her question, in fact, was captured by the Irish poet W.B Yeats: "Think where man's glory most begins and ends/And say my glory was I had such friends."

The raising of questions, as MacIntyre has said elsewhere, can result in an "epistemological crisis" in which the foundations of what you thought you knew crumble as a result of new insights or challenges. In such a crisis, MacIntyre says most people do one of three things: collapse and admit defeat; retrench and refuse engagement (and thus likely sink into justified obscurity); or engage, change, and survive, albeit in different form. The remarkable thing about Ruthie Leming is that she underwent no such crisis, but continued to have a simple and unswerving faith in God. This was a revelation to Dreher, whose life as a journalist and writer has consisted precisely in raising of difficult questions, probing the dark areas of human life (e.g., priestly sexual abuse) and the role of evil in the world. But--in what I found to be one of the most searing insights in the book--he realizes that whether Ruthie kept up with her trust, or gave into a consuming and tireless quest for answers, would make virtually no difference to the outcome of her life, and might, in fact, have shortened it with worry.

In her trust, combined with much else, Dreher sees the makings of a saint, but not in that ghastly treacly way too much hagiography would have us believe (the Orthodox priest and theologian, and my friend, Michael Plekon, being the happy exception). Dreher does not sing her praises unreservedly. Rather, it was her submitting to the "little way," the way of being a school teacher in a little town, doing little things but with great love, that Dreher finds examples of his sister's holiness. This is magnified, of course, in her submitting to the journey with cancer that took her to her grave, but that journey was of a piece with her whole life. Dreher, like Plekon's portrayals of holy figures in our time, has not edited out the "warts" in his sister's life. There are in fact moments in which she acts towards her brother with a stunning lack of grace--e.g., turning down a lovely dinner Dreher and his wife had labored all day to prepare because it was too posh. But as anyone who understands sanctity knows, it has little if anything to do with being "nice" or conforming to tidy bourgeois notions of what constitutes "good" behavior. There are plenty of saints who could be perfect asses at certain moments.

In this regard I think often of what the great Evelyn Waugh said of Helena, the central character in his splendid historical novel--a book he regarded as his magnum opus even if most readers and critics did not. (It's full of hilarious anachronisms, buried puns, and other wonderful jokes.) Writing to John Betjeman in November 1950, Waugh said:
I liked Helena's sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn't thrown to the lions, she wasn't a contemplative, she wasn't poor and hungry, she didn't look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.  And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.

I could go on and on, and already have. In the coming weeks I hope to interview Dreher. But for now, I very warmly commend to you a book that avoids treacly hagiography while nonetheless telling a poignant story. It avoids simplistic answers while nonetheless raising some acutely important questions about the nature of community in our time. And it does so in a cogent, elegant manner--a splendid achievement. 


The Real Pope

The pope of Rome's use of that title is generally agreed to be later than the pope of Alexandria--though neither, of course, exactly has a copyright on the word "father," which is what it means. The pope-patriarch of Alexandria, who traces his apostolic lineage to St. Mark, lives in vastly different--which is to say vastly worse--conditions today than his Roman brother. A new book, set for release next month, looks at their history: Sawirus al-Mugaffa, History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: The Copts of Egypt Before and After the Islamic Conquests (I.B. Tauris, 2013), 692pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
A History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria is a unique series of biographies of the Coptic patriarchs from the earliest, St Mark, to the tenth century. Many of the accounts are in fact older Greek and Coptic works translated into Arabic and edited by Sawirus, who sought out the originals from the monasteries of the day. The events recorded include the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the overthrow of the last Umayad ruler Marwan II, Arab-Christian relations, and histories of the various countries. Often based upon eyewitness accounts by contemporary authors, they provide an essential source for the religious, economic and social life of Egypt in the early Islamic period. Unavailable even in many libraries, this edition contains both the Arabic text and the English translation of B. Evetts, together with an Introduction by leading contemporary scholar Hugh Kennedy.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Byzantium's Sacred Architecture

As I have had many occasions to note on here previously, interest in all things Byzantine, including her iconography, art, and architecture, remains high. Another book, coming out early this fall, continues that interest: Nicholas Patricios, The Sacred Architecture of Byzantium: Art, Liturgy and Symbolism in Early Christian Churches (I.B. Tauris, September 2013), 384pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The churches of the Byzantine era were built to represent heaven on earth. Architecture, art and liturgy were intertwined in them to a degree that has never been replicated elsewhere, and the symbolism of this relationship had deep and profound meanings. Sacred buildings and their spiritual art underpinned the Eastern liturgical rites, which in turn influenced architectural design and the decoration which accompanied it. Nicholas N. Patricios here offers a comprehensive survey, from the age of Constantine to the fall of Constantinople, of the nexus between buildings, worship and art. His identification of seven distinct Byzantine church types, based on a close analysis of 370 church building plans, will have considerable appeal to Byzantinists, lay and scholarly. Beyond categorizing and describing the churches themselves, which are richly illustrated with photographs, plans and diagrams, the author interprets the sacred liturgy that took place within these holy buildings, tracing the development of the worship in conjunction with architectural advances made up to the 15th century. Focusing on buildings located in twenty-two different locations, this sumptuous book is an essential guide to individual features such as the synthronon, templon and ambo and also to the wider significance of Byzantine art and architecture.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Orthodoxy and Human Rights

As a student of Alasdair MacIntyre, I retain something of his skepticism about the discourse of "human rights," though his skepticism pertains particularly to the supposed etymology of the term in the history of philosophy. As far as the substance of "rights" claims and their politics, he very perceptively argued in 1981 that "when claims invoking rights are matched against claims appealing to utility or when either or both are matched against claims based on some traditional concept of justice, it is not surprising that there is no rational way of deciding which type of claim is to be given priority or how one is to be weighted against the other" (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition, p.71). If you need proof of this, look around you--not least at debates over same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

Some Christians, the Catholic Church included, have embraced rights language rather strongly. Others have been more circumspect if not suspicious of this language, and not without good reason in some cases. Until recently, Eastern Christians have not engaged the area very much, though two recent books (the other one being noted here) look set to change that: A Brjning, ed., Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights (Peters, 2012), 387pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us:

Orthodox theology and the Orthodox Churches had, and continue to have an ambiguous relationship towards the concept of Human Rights: principal approval often stands alongside serious criticism. This is especially true for those Orthodox Churches which have their centre in a country of the former Soviet sphere. On the one hand, especially since the fall of Communism they enjoy religious freedom that forms a central element within the framework of Human Rights. On the other hand, the transformation process of the 1990s and the challenge of pluralism and globalization have all confronted them with aspects of freedom that could not but affect their stance towards the Human Rights concept in general. This also means, that doubts and reservations related to this concept came to the fore again, which had yet existed already decades before. These reservations focused on such issues as Church and secular society, Church and state, furthermore on the understanding of central terms such as "freedom", "dignity", "rights" - central also for an Orthodox anthropology, that needs to be reconciled with the partly differing approaches behind the Human Rights concept.
The chapters of this volume try and explore as much the philosophical and theological as the social, historical and practical aspects of this complex relationship. Based either on the discussion of differing theological concepts, or on empirical and concrete case studies respectively, they clearly show the tensions and fractures that do exist. On the other hand, in this way they also hint at possibilities to overcome these tensions, to continue a dialogue that already has begun, and to avoid the numerous misunderstandings between East and West which currently tend to form a hindrance to this dialogue at various points.
A detailed table of contents is here in PDF.

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