"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, July 31, 2013

Romanian Icons

When I'm in New York and New England, as I usually am at least twice a year, I make the rounds of the used bookstores, beginning with the incomparable Strand Books on Broadway in lower Manhattan, right on the edge of Greenwich Village. If you are ever in New York, you simply must go here, and you must give yourself the better part of a day to do the place justice (three floors, very high shelves, packed floor to ceiling). For the Churchill fans out there, do make a point of visiting the charming Chartwell Booksellers, which describes itself as "the world's only Winston Churchill bookshop." (Oh, and forgive one more vulgar commercial: if, like me, you started as a child to write notes in your books with a fountain pen and still appreciate the delight of using such an "instrument," then you will enjoy a trip to the Fountain Pen Hospital just up the street from City Hall.)

This summer I discovered a recently opened bookstore run by the Friends of the Ferguson Library in downtown Stamford, CT. Bright, clean, and easily accessible, I found a surprisingly large haul of books, all priced between $2 and $6 at most. With all the talk about the "digitization" of books today, I am fiercely attached to used bookstores and the joys and delights to be found therein, and hope at least a few of them do not go away.

One such book I found is a very handsome, and splendidly illustrated, volume Romania: Land of the Icon. This trilingual volume (Romanian, French, English) was published in 2003 in Bucharest by a team of editors, illustrators, and translators. Unlike some other volumes on icons, this one does not stint on illustrations: every page is in color, and the book features icons both ancient and modern, reflecting a variety of styles as well as "Western" influences on "modern" Romanian iconography. It is a welcome addition to the iconology and iconography section of any library, personal or institutional.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Byzantine Iconoclasm

Leslie Brubaker, director of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham in England, has emerged as one of the top scholars today (if not the scholar) of Byzantine iconoclasm. I've just started reading her most recent work, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol Classic, 2012), 160pp. and even before finishing it I want to draw attention to it. Indeed, I'm already thinking it would make an excellent book for students in survey courses on iconography, and to that end will likely adopt the text when I teach my course on icons next year.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Byzantine 'iconoclasm' is famous and has influenced iconoclast movements from the English Reformation and French Revolution to Taliban, but it has also been woefully misunderstood; this book shows how and why the debate about images was more complicated, and more interesting, than it has been presented in the past. It explores how icons came to be so important, who opposed them, and how the debate about images played itself out over the years between c. 680 and 850. Many widely accepted assumptions about 'iconoclasm' - that it was an imperial initiative that resulted in widespread destruction of images, that the major promoters of icon veneration were monks, and that the era was one of cultural stagnation - are shown to be incorrect. Instead, the years of the image debates saw technological advances and intellectual shifts that, coupled with a growing economy, concluded with the emergence of medieval Byzantium as a strong and stable empire.
The book, as Brubaker frankly admits in the preface, distills the research of her earlier works into a more accessible format. She begins by noting that in this present work she will assume nothing, and to that end sets off straightaway noting that almost all of us today uses the word "icon" all the time given the ubiquity of computers, tablets, and cell phones, but we do not know the long historical roots of that word; similarly, "iconoclast" is frequently found in journalism today, though it is a very recent invention and often used to mean something different from those figures of the seventh to ninth centuries who went about smashing icons, whitewashing them, or gouging their eyes out. And then of course there is the whole notion of "Byzantine," a term nobody ever used prior to Gibbon because those so designated considered themselves Romans.

The text itself contains such brief definitions of terms, and is written in an accessible way, eschewing a heavy reliance on footnotes or jargon, and thus making the book, it seems to me, a good introduction to those with little to no background in the area.

Brubaker has authored other books on the topic, including, with John Haldon, the massive 2011 tome, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680-850: A History (Cambridge UP), 944pp. I drew attention to this book's details here.
Cambridge University Press, in 2008, also published her Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium: Image as Exegesis in the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus, about which we are told:
This book centers on the copy of the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus produced in Constantinople around 880 for the emperor Basil I as a gift from the patriarch Photios. The manuscript includes forty-six full page miniatures, most of which do not directly illustrate the text they accompany, but instead provide a visual commentary. Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium deals with how such communication worked, and examines the types of messages that pictures could convey in ninth-century Byzantium.
Finally, for the true scholar of iconoclasm, there is the invaluable (if not inexpensive) collection co-authored once again with Haldon: Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (C. 680-850): The Sources: An Annotated Survey.

As I make my way through Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm I will post more thoughts. But it is, as I say, a very good introduction to the area. And an added, and not insignificant, bonus is that this book is easily the most affordable of all her works in the area.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Preserving the Christian Heritage of Mt. Sinai

This post from Daniel Larison, who is always worth reading, linked to this story: both are about Mt. Sinai and what is going on there today in the context of the on-going troubles in Egypt. Both note the efforts to preserve the cultural and scholarly heritage of the monastery, which preserves some of the most precious and ancient documents and images we have in the Christian East. Both note, too, the fact that there is a considerable, and sadly rare, example of Muslim-Christian co-operation in trying to protect the monastery.

This put me in mind of two books noted on here previously about the monastery: this one about her icons--the most ancient we have prior to the outbreak of imperial iconoclasm--and this scholarly collection about the history and patrimony of the monastery. 

Between Terror and Tolerance

Timothy Sisk's recent book offers some insights into two Eastern Christian countries that have often been plagued with violence: Lebanon (with the Maronites in particular), and Egypt, with the very long-suffering Coptic population, whose fate, even today, remains grimly uncertain: Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders, Conflict, and Peacemaking (Georgetown U Press), 280pp.

About this book we are told:

Civil war and conflict within countries is the most prevalent threat to peace and security in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. A pivotal factor in the escalation of tensions to open conflict is the role of elites in exacerbating tensions along identity lines by giving the ideological justification, moral reasoning, and call to violence. Between Terror and Tolerance examines the varied roles of religious leaders in societies deeply divided by ethnic, racial, or religious conflict. The chapters in this book explore cases when religious leaders have justified or catalyzed violence along identity lines, and other instances when religious elites have played a critical role in easing tensions or even laying the foundation for peace and reconciliation.

This volume features thematic chapters on the linkages between religion, nationalism, and intolerance, transnational intra-faith conflict in the Shi'a-Sunni divide, and country case studies of societal divisions or conflicts in Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Lebanon, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Tajikistan. The concluding chapter explores the findings and their implications for policies and programs of international non-governmental organizations that seek to encourage and enhance the capacity of religious leaders to play a constructive role in conflict resolution.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Empires of Faith

First published in 2011, and forthcoming later this month in paperback from Oxford is Peter Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford UP), 448pp.

About this book we are told:
Drawing upon the latest historical and archaeological research, Dr Peter Sarris provides a panoramic account of the history of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East from the fall of Rome to the rise of Islam. The formation of a new social and economic order in western Europe in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, and the ascendancy across the West of a new culture of military lordship, are placed firmly in the context of on-going connections and influence radiating outwards from the surviving Eastern Roman Empire, ruled from the great imperial capital of Constantinople. The East Roman (or "Byzantine") Emperor Justinian's attempts to revive imperial fortunes, restore the empire's power in the West, and face down Constantinople's great superpower rival, the Sasanian Empire of Persia, are charted, as too are the ways in which the escalating warfare between Rome and Persia paved the way for the development of new concepts of "holy war," the emergence of Islam, and the Arab conquests of the Near East. Processes of religious and cultural change are explained through examination of social, economic, and military upheavals, and the formation of early medieval European society is placed in a broader context of changes that swept across the world of Eurasia from Manchuria to the Rhine.

Warfare and plague, holy men and kings, emperors, shahs, caliphs, and peasants all play their part in a compelling narrative suited to specialist, student, and general readership alike.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A History of Hell

The British publisher I.B. Tauris continues to bring out books of interest to Eastern Christians and others. Set for release early next year is a new book from the Oxford scholar Margaret Kean, Inferno: A Cultural History of Hell (I.B. Tauris, 2014), 240pp.

About this book we are told:
Eternal fire, diabolical torment, graphic mortification of the flesh and a smoke-filled underworld pierced by the despairing shrieks of the damned: the idea of Hell has for thousands of years exerted both fascination and terror. And despite its horrors, it is hard to resist its almost seductive allure. Whether expressed in medieval Doom paintings and grim warnings of everlasting suffering, or in modern psychological interpretations, the belief in a ghastly terminus for the souls of the cursed has proved remarkably resilient and persistent. It has far outlived specific portrayals by artists, writers and theologians, and has seemed far more resonant an idea than either a heavenly Paradise or New Jerusalem. Why has hell retained this extraordinary potency, even as western society has become more sceptical and secular? In her rich and wide-ranging book, Margaret Kean tells the history of hell through literature, philosophy, art, music and film. She shows that affirmations of human freedom and the value of the individual have remained closely tied to the notion of hell even as contemporary narratives have replaced a medieval mindset. From Dante and Bosch to Blake and Milton, and from Joseph Conrad and Primo Levi to Angel Heart, Alien 3 and Event Horizon, Kean vividly explores hell as both secular confessional and divinely ordained penal colony - as metaphor for alienation and infernal locale for one's never-ending worst nightmare.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Centenary of the Great War

This time next year we will, no doubt, be greeted with a barrage of stories about the centenary of the outbreak in August 1914 of what was at the time called, simply, the Great War. Some of us have been thinking about it for some time now. Amidst the inexorable tedium of graduation ceremonies in May, I did have one cheering conversation with a colleague whose ideas gave me something to think about and look forward to as we were forced to sit for hours on end on wretched little chairs mashed together while students trooped up for their diplomas and photo-ops. My colleague, the art historian Dr. Elizabeth Kuebler-Wolf, wrote her MA thesis on the propaganda posters of the Great War, and proposed to several of us a conference in Ft. Wayne late next summer or early next autumn on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities.

I have been an avid reader of all things about the First World War for a decade and more now, and I am therefore excited that this "avocational" reading will be put to wider use. I'm already contemplating paper and presentation topics. There is, alas, no shortage of events to focus on just among Eastern Christians. Immediately one thinks, of course, of the Armenian genocide (as well as others), or the Bolshevik revolution, which ushered in more than seven decades of persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the Soviet Union. One thinks of the forced postwar shift of populations, as Greek Christians were forced out of Anatolia, and Turkish Muslims were forced in. One thinks of the creation of new countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iraq, and what happened, then and more recently, to their ancient Christian populations. In short, the events of 1914-18 ushered in a century of suffering for millions of Eastern Christians (and millions of others) which is still being felt today in too many places.

My interest in the First World War was a consequence of interest in the Second; I read about the latter first and worked my way backwards. My interest in the Second was germinated in part by listening to my Glaswegian grandmother when I was a boy. She told me what it was like to live through the Battle of Britain and later blitzes which not only hit well-known places like London and Coventry, but parts of west-central Scotland along the River Clyde, which was then the scene of the largest shipbuilding works in the British Empire and therefore a natural target for the Luftwaffe. My grandmother lived along the Clyde as a girl, and regaled me with stories of how close they came to being bombed, and how often bombs landed in the river rather than on any property, and failed to go off, especially if the river was running low and rather muddy. She also told me what it was like listening to Churchill live on the wireless, and how his oratory was able to rally and unite a country, if only for a brief time.

I make no pretense to any kind of systematic reading here, and I defer to professional historians, but for those interested, here are a few books I have found both profitable and enjoyable:

General Histories:

Perhaps one of the most well-known books on the background of the war remains Barbara Tuchman's  The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War I. Originally published in 1962, it offers a compelling background to the war, but I am unclear how well it has stood up in light of a half-century of further scholarship. Her other book is also interesting: The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914.

John Keegan, before his recent death, was widely respected as one of Britain's foremost military historians. I read his The First World War (Knopf, 1999) many years ago, and earlier this spring, on a long drive, I listened to it on CD. The book is very smartly written.

The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson's The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I (Basic Books, 2000) does a very good job at capturing the widespread bewilderment that is still felt by many who ask why the war ever had to begin in the first place. It is still a mystery to me in some ways, through the next book goes some way towards solving the hugely vexing question of why the war started in the first place.

If I had to pick two books that, more than anything else I've read, help one grasp the enormous complexity surrounding the "causes" of the Great War, and the massively complicated and destructive mess it left, then I would turn to David Fromkin. His Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (Vintage, 2005), though written in a curious style I'm not entirely enamored of, is nonetheless a very skillful untangling of the myriad of factors and actors leading up to the outbreak of what he says started off as two wars: Austria's punitive war against Serbia (for which it had plans in place, and a deep desire to execute, well before the infamous archducal assassination, which conveniently provided the perfect pretext); and then the general war in which, thanks to bungling in both Vienna and Berlin, the Germans dragged the Russians in, and as a result the French were involved, and lastly the British. The former war was not supposed to give way to the latter but for a variety of reasons, as we all know, it did.

Fromkin's other book is even more splendid, and looks at the aftermath in the Middle East: A Peace to End All Peace, 20th Anniversary Edition: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Originally published to great acclaim in 1989, and updated in 2009, this book contains a wealth of scholarship carefully sifted and judiciously arrayed. For anyone trying, even today, to understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, problems in the Arab world and much else besides, this is a good place to being.

One of the legacies in the Middle East, of course, was not only the collapse of the Ottoman empire, but the creation, particularly by the British and French, of new countries and new zones of influence. The borders shifted dramatically and maps were redrawn. I am forever telling my students in introductory courses on Eastern Christianity that our first task is to understand what is meant by Eastern, and so we must spend time forgetting our reliance on GPS units and instead break out maps to see the geography of the ancient East, and how the borders have changed, and what consequences those shifting borders have had for Eastern Christians. I therefore find atlases invaluable, and this one, from one of Britain's most widely respected historians--and official authorized biographer of Winston Churchill--is very good: Martin Gilbert, Atlas of World War I.

While Gilbert's focus has been on both Churchill and the Second World War, he has also authored a solid volume on the First: The First World War, Second Edition: A Complete History. It is well done, as is Kegan's, though I did not find much between those two books that was noticeably different--both cover the same territory in similar ways as I recall.

Churchill himself was of course in the War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. He authored one of the first multi-volumed histories of the war. When I began reading about the war more than a decade ago, I was intimidated by the prospect--since remedied--of reading his six volumes, so I began with the much abridged The World Crisis, 1911-1918. I later read all six volumes.

Particular Battles:

Gilbert also authored a volume about the single-worst single-day battle in the history of the British Expeditionary Force: The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. The July 1916 battle of the Somme saw more men slaughtered in a 24-hour period than ever before. From a very different perspective, Christopher Duffy also covered the Somme in his hugely interesting and entertaining Through German Eyes: The British & The Somme 1916. Duffy had access to Bavarian and other German military archives and unearthed insights into what the German "Jerrys" thought about the British "Tommies" whom they were fighting. Many Germans held their British counterparts in condescending contempt as the "poor little men of a diseased civilization." Time and again, in the amusing records Duffy found, the German interrogators, confronted with British prisoners of war, could not believe that the former might lose the war to the latter's army of men of "crooked legs, rickety, alcoholic, degnerate, ill-bred, and poor to the last degree."

It is hard, in reading of the Somme, not to think that Alan Clark's famously controverted description of the generals, at the Somme and elsewhere, was correct: they were a bunch of donkeys--unthinking, unfeeling generals who unimaginatively and callously threw millions of men into a mass slaughter--cannon fodder--for mere yards of ground gained, lost, and re-gained over four years.

Frustration with such lack of progress in trench warfare gave rise, of course, to the infamous Dardanelles campaign for which Churchilll has often been blamed, as he certainly was at the time. But most historians now recognize that Churchill was one important, but by no means solitary or singular, figure in this campaign. The First Sea Lord John Fisher and the Secretary of War Lord Kitchener were also heavily involved. This infamous Gallipoli campaign sought to force passage through the Dardanelles, capture Constantiople, open the Black Sea to the Russians, drive Turkey out of the war, and then sail up the Danube to outwit the Germans on their own turf when they could not be defeated on land in France--and doing all this, of course, with the Royal Navy, then the world's strongest, and thus outwitting the formidable German Army. For complicated reasons, that battle failed though it was in some respects a close-run thing--though the Western powers did not know it at the time. One recent, though not entirely satisfactory, treatment of this failed campaign is Graham Clews's Churchill's Dilemma: The Real Story Behind the Origins of the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign.

Sadly, as we all know and can admit--unless you live in Turkey--the war was one atrocity piled on another, and for Eastern Christians the worst of these occurred in Armenia in 1915 (though hundreds of thousands of Armenians had suffered and been killed at Muslim hands for many centuries before that). About that country's genocide we have had many books over the last decade or so. Of these, several are very good, including Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response.

Other solid studies include Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian; and A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility by Taner Akcam, who has also authored  The Young Turks' Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire. Akcam was actually born in Turkey, and this second book is important for its access to, and publishing of, hitherto unknown archival documents from the Ottomans.

One other person to mention: Donald Bloxham is a leading scholar of genocide, and in 2007 published The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians.
Finally, for those interested in audiovisual presentations, useful in the classroom, we have The Armenian Genocide - The Critically Acclaimed PBS Documentary by Andrew Goldberg.

Finally, for recent books in the new discipline of genocide studies, see the many books published by Routledge Press.

New and Forthcoming Works of Interest:

I am greatly looking forward to reading each of the following books and to seeing this first book in particular expertly reviewed as it sounds like it will generate some controversy. The author, Bülent Özdemir, has written Assyrian Identity and the Great War (Whittles Publishing, 2013), 192pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Until the beginning of the 19th century, Nestorians, Chaldeans and Syrian Christians, belonging to various different branches of Eastern Christianity,  lived as small, little-known communities within the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. This book examines the situation of these Eastern Christians during the First World War using a wide range of Western and Ottoman archival sources.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Nestorians, Chaldeans, and Syrian Christians found themselves trapped in the middle of the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Entente powers. The Syrian Christians and Chaldeans remained faithful to Ottoman rule and were generally quiescent during the war, while the Nestorians, encouraged by Russia, entered the war as the Entente powers’ ‘smallest ally’.

The Eastern Christian communities appeared on the stage at the most critical period of the First World War, and left a tragic story behind them. Owing to modern claims that a mass murder or ‘genocide’ of the Nestorians and Syrian Christians was committed during 1915, the issue is no longer obscure and has become an international historical and political problem.

This book presents interesting new historical material and provides a fascinating perspective on this issue for all scholars and students of Middle Eastern history and geopolitics that is relevant to the regional situation today.
Returning to the question of causes, territory that continues to be long worked over, there was a book published in March of this year by Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

About this book we are told:
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is historian Christopher Clark’s riveting account of the explosive beginnings of World War I.
Drawing on new scholarship, Clark offers a fresh look at World War I, focusing not on the battles and atrocities of the war itself, but on the complex events and relationships that led a group of well-meaning leaders into brutal conflict.
Clark traces the paths to war in a minute-by-minute, action-packed narrative that cuts between the key decision centers in Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, and Belgrade, and examines the decades of history that informed the events of 1914 and details the mutual misunderstandings and unintended signals that drove the crisis forward in a few short weeks. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is a dramatic and authoritative chronicle of Europe’s descent into a war that tore the world apart.
Published a month later, in April of this year, was Sean McMeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War.

 About this book we are told:
When a Serbian-backed assassin gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June 1914, the world seemed unmoved. Even Ferdinand’s own uncle, Franz Josef I, was notably ambivalent about the death of the Hapsburg heir, saying simply, “It is God’s will.” Certainly, there was nothing to suggest that the episode would lead to conflict—much less a world war of such massive and horrific proportions that it would fundamentally reshape the course of human events.

As acclaimed historian Sean McMeekin reveals in July 1914, World War I might have been avoided entirely had it not been for a small group of statesmen who, in the month after the assassination, plotted to use Ferdinand’s murder as the trigger for a long-awaited showdown in Europe. The primary culprits, moreover, have long escaped blame. While most accounts of the war’s outbreak place the bulk of responsibility on German and Austro-Hungarian militarism, McMeekin draws on surprising new evidence from archives across Europe to show that the worst offenders were actually to be found in Russia and France, whose belligerence and duplicity ensured that war was inevitable.
Whether they plotted for war or rode the whirlwind nearly blind, each of the men involved—from Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov and French president Raymond Poincaré—sought to capitalize on the fallout from Ferdinand’s murder, unwittingly leading Europe toward the greatest cataclysm it had ever seen.

A revolutionary account of the genesis of World War I, July 1914 tells the gripping story of Europe’s countdown to war from the bloody opening act on June 28th to Britain’s final plunge on August 4th, showing how a single month—and a handful of men—changed the course of the twentieth century.

Finally, set for release in October of this year is Margaret Macmillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, 880pp. If this book is as good as her wonderful Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, it will be very good indeed. Her book on the Paris peace conference was history writing at its best: detailed but with a taut narrative that never loses its way or the reader; microcosmic and macrocosmic at the same time; serious but deftly weaving in amusing anecdotes and character sketches, and other telling details.

About this forthcoming book we are told:
From the bestselling and award-winning author of Paris 1919 comes a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, a fascinating portrait of Europe from 1900 up to the outbreak of World War I. With a sweeping story, vivid characters, and sharp insight, Margaret MacMillan powerfully explores the decisions made and the economic, social, political, and human tensions that determined the outbreak of a war that transformed Europe and the world.

The century since the end of the Napoleonic wars had been the most peaceful era Europe had known since the fall of the Roman Empire. In the first years of the twentieth century, Europe believed it was marching to a golden, happy, and prosperous future. But instead, complex personalities and rivalries, colonialism and ethnic nationalism, Germany’s rise to power, and shifting and secret alliances all exerted influence and helped to bring about the failure of the long peace and the outbreak of war. MacMillan creates indelible portraits of people and identifies critical turning points when options narrowed and conflicts escalated so as to make avoiding war more difficult.

The War That Ended Peace brings vividly to life the military leaders, politicians, diplomats, bankers, and the extended, interrelated family of crowned heads across Europe who failed to stop the descent into war: in Germany, the mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II and the chief of the German general staff, Von Moltke the Younger, nephew and namesake of the great Prussian officer Von Moltke the Elder; in Austria-Hungary, Emperor Franz Joseph, a man who tried, through sheer hard work, to stave off the coming chaos in his empire; in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife; in Britain, King Edward VII, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and British admiral Jacky Fisher, the fierce advocate of naval reform who entered into the arms race with Germany that pushed the continent toward confrontation on land and sea.

There are the would-be peacemakers as well, among them prophets of the horrors of future wars whose warnings went unheeded: Alfred Nobel, the wealthy dynamite manufacturer who donated his fortune to the cause of international understanding; and Bertha von Suttner, a writer and activist who was the first woman awarded Nobel’s new Peace Prize. Here too we meet Count Harry Kessler, an urbane and cosmopolitan German who, in his wide-ranging diaries, recorded many of the early signs that something was stirring in Europe; the young Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and a rising figure in British politics; Madame Caillaux, who shot a man who might have been a force for peace; and more. Among other things, this book shows how the fateful decisions of a few powerful people changed the course of history.

Taut, suspenseful, and impossible to put down, The War That Ended Peace is also a wise cautionary reminder of how wars happen in spite of the near-universal desire to keep the peace. Destined to become a classic in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, The War That Ended Peace enriches our understanding of one of the defining periods and events of the twentieth century.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rethinking Trinitarian Theology

As I have had several occasions to note before, perhaps most clearly in my interview with Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering, we have been seeing a revival of interest in Trinitarian theology (as well as the history of its development) for the last couple of decades.

In the Orthodox world, one of the most prominent voices, in Trinitarian theology and much else, has been John Zizioulas, who remains one of the biggest names in Eastern Christian theology today, and has for some time. He began to make his mark in the anglophone world with the 1985 publication of his landmark work Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. This is a work that has been regularly and widely cited in the literature across traditions--one often notices it in Protestant and Catholic, as well as Orthodox, works. Many of the themes in this book were continued in the 2007 book Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan (T&T Clark).

A sense of the breadth of engagement of Zizioulas (who is not without his critics in Orthodoxy, including perhaps especially Lucian Turcescu) may be seen in such studies as Paul Collins, Trinitarian Theology West and East: Karl Barth, the Cappadocian Fathers, and John Zizioulas from 2001 as well as the collection edited by Douglas Knight, The Theology of John Zizioulas, and Paul McPartlan's own early work, The Eucharist Makes the Church: Henri De Lubac and John Zizioulas in Dialogue.

Zizioulas is not always easy to read both for the profundity of the matters he discusses as well as for the style of his writing, especially in Being as Communion. For that reason, I always recommend starting with his very lovely, and generally accessible, collection, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, which I have used with great profit in several different classes.

Zizioulas authors a chapter on the Trinity in the recently published collection, Giulio Maspero and Robert Wozniak, ed., Rethinking Trinitarian Theology: Disputed Questions And Contemporary Issues in Trinitarian Theology (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2012), 512pp. There are other chapters in this book of interest to Eastern Christians, including on the Fathers as well as two chapters about the Holy Spirit and the filioque. About this book we are told: 

The book aims at showing the most important topics and paradigms in modern Trinitarian theology. It is supposed to be a comprehensive guide to the many traces of development of Trinitarian faith. As such it is thought to systematize the variety of contemporary approaches to the field of Trinitarian theology in the present philosophical-cultural context. The main goal of the publication is not only a description of what happened to Trinitarian theology in the modern age. It is rather to indicate the typically modern specificity of the Trinitarian debate and - first of all - to encourage development in the main areas and issues of this subject.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Searching for the Sacred in Dionysius and....Fort Wayne?

I have the happy and high privilege of collaborating with my friends at the OCA parish in Ft. Wayne, the Archpriest Andrew Jarmus and the Protodeacon Michael Myers, in co-hosting a conference next month entitled "Searching for the Sacred." To be held the evening of August 9 and all day on the 10th, at both St. Nicholas parish and on the campus of the University of Saint Francis, the conference will feature three speakers, including the OCA's bishop of the Bulgarian diocese, Alexander (Golitzin), who taught at Marquette University for more than two decades. Fr. Silviu Bunta of the University of Dayton and Fr. Peter Galadza of Saint Paul University, Ottawa, are the other two speakers.

Details of the conference may be had here. I do encourage all within the area not only to come, but to continue to spread the word. Fort Wayne is an easy drive from many major cities (Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland, Indianapolis, etc.) where there are large numbers of Eastern Christians of all traditions. Others, Catholics especially, but also Protestants and Jews interested in the topics, are heartily encouraged to register and come. It is designed not as a "heavy" academic conference but as something to benefit lay people interested in the search for the sacred in liturgy, the Scriptures (especially the Jewish scriptures), and monastic-ascetical life, showing the connection of all these with "everyday" life.

His Grace Bishop Alexander is a scholar of the Fathers, of the spiritual life, and of early Christianity in general. This fall he has a book coming out that builds on some of his earlier work: Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita, ed. Bogdan Bocur (Cistercian Press, November 2013), 416pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Mystagogy proposes an interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus in light of the liturgical and ascetic tradition that defined the author and his audience. Characterized by both striking originality and remarkable fidelity to the patristic and late neoplatonic traditions, the Dionysian corpus is a coherent and unified structure, whose core and pivot is the treatise known as the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Given Pseudo-Dionysius fundamental continuity with earlier Christian theology and spirituality, it is not surprising that the church, and in particular the ascetic community, recognized that this theological synthesis articulated its own fundamental experience and aspirations.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Prayer and Belief: What is the Relationship?

My graduate students always struggle with the relationship between doctrine and liturgy in the aftermath of Prosper of Aquitaine's famous adage lex orandi, lex credendi. It is not a straightforward or one-way relationship, but more complicated than that. The liturgical theologian Dr. Daniel Galadza, teaching in Vienna, just alerted me to a book that may help clarify this question. Forthcoming next month from the well-known and respected liturgist at Notre Dame Maxwell Johnson is Praying and Believing in Early Christianity: The Interplay between Christian Worship and Doctrine (Liturgical Press, 2013), 168pp.

About this book we are told:
What was the impact of liturgy on the development of orthodox doctrine in the early Christian church? With renowned liturgical historian Maxwell E. Johnson as a guide, readers of Praying and Believing in Early Christianity will discover the important and sometimes surprising ways that worship helped to shape what was believed, taught, and confessed. In particular, Johnson considers this relationship in terms of
  • soteriology: What is the role of grace in the process of salvation?
  • Trinity: How did early devotion to Christ and the church's baptismal and eucharistic liturgies help shape the developing doctrine of the Trinity?
  • Christ and Mary: What does the devotional and liturgical term theotokos say about them both?
  • ethics: How does the liturgy contribute not only to doctrine but also to convictions about morality?
  • Johnson also explores the ways this relationship worked in the opposite direction: How did doctrinal developments shape liturgical texts in the patristic period? This is an excellent text for beginning students in liturgical studies at the master's level.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Icons vs. Statues

Why, in general (though by no means exclusively), has Western religious art often tended towards 3-d statuary while the East has usually (but again not exclusively) preferred 2-d iconography? A new book may shed some light on this question: Beate Fricke, Fallen Idols, Risen Saints: Sainte Foy of Conques and the Revival of Monumental Sculpture in Medieval Art (Brepols, 2013), 300pp. + 5 colour + 80b/w ills.

About this book we are told:
This book presents an analysis and contextualization of the revival of monumental sculpture in medieval art, and outlines the history of image culture, visuality and fiction. This book investigates the origins and transformations of medieval image culture and its reflections in theology, hagiography, historiography and art. It deals with a remarkable phenomenon: the fact that, after a period of 500 years of absence, the tenth century sees a revival of monumental sculpture in the Latin West. Since the end of Antiquity and the "pagan" use of free-standing, life-size sculptures in public and private ritual, Christians were obedient to the Second Commandment forbidding the making and use of graven images. Contrary to the West, in Byzantium, such a revival never occurred: only relief sculpture – mostly integrated within an architectural context – was used. However, Eastern theologians are the authors of highly fascinating and outstanding original theoretical reflections about the nature and efficacy of images. How can this difference be explained? Why do we find the most fascinating theoretical concepts of images in a culture that sticks to two-dimensional icons often venerated as cult-images that are copied and repeated, but only randomly varied? And why does a groundbreaking change in the culture of images – the "revival" of monumental sculpture – happen in a context that provides more restrained theoretical reflections upon images in their immediate theological, liturgical and artistic contexts? These are some of the questions that this book seeks to answer.The analysis and contextualization of the revival of monumental sculpture includes reflections on liturgy, architecture, materiality of minor arts and reliquaries, medieval theories of perception, and gift exchange and its impact upon practices of image veneration, aesthetics and political participation. Drawing on the historical investigation of specific objects and texts between the ninth and the eleventh century, the book outlines an occidental history of image culture, visuality and fiction, claiming that only images possess modes of visualizing what in the discourse of medieval theology can never be addressed and revealed.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

New Books from Brepols

After a sojourn in New England, I returned to a number of catalogues announcing forthcoming fall publications, including several from Brepols: Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony and Lorenzo Perrone, eds., Between Personal and Institutional Religion: Self, Doctrine, and Practice in Late Antique Eastern Christianity (Brepols, 2013), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The shift from Late Antiquity to Early Byzantium seen in the light of the mutual relations between personal and institutional religion. This book addresses change and continuity in late antique Eastern Christianity, as perceived through the lens of the categories of institutional religion and personal religion. The interaction between personal devotion and public identity reveals the creative aspects of a vibrant religious culture that altered the experience of Christians on both a spiritual and an institutional level. A close look at the interrelations between the personal and the institutional expressions of religion in this period attests to an ongoing revision of both the patristic literature and the monastic tradition. By approaching the period in terms of ‘revision’, the contributors discuss the mechanism of transformation in Eastern Christianity from a new perspective, discerning social and religious changes while navigating between the dynamics of personal and institutional religion.
Recognizing the creative aspects inherent to the process of ‘revision’, this volume re-examines several aspects of personal and institutional religion, revealing dogmatic, ascetic, liturgical, and historiographical transformations. Attention is paid to the expression of the self, the role of history and memory in the construction of identity, and the modification of the theological discourse in late antique culture. The book also explores several avenues of Jewish-Christian interaction in the institutional and public sphere.
Students of Maximus the Confessor will be interested in Joshua Loller, "To See Into the Life of Things" the Contemplation of Nature in Maximus the Confessor's "Ambigua to John" (Brepols, 2013), 357pp.

About this book we are told:
This work provides a synthetic treatment of Maximus the Confessor’s Ambigua to John, a collection of texts uniquely expressive of the speculative contours of his thought.
Maximus the Confessor (580-662) is one of the great minds of the Christian tradition and his Ambigua to John are a collection of texts uniquely expressive of the speculative contours of his thought. They have not, however, received a synthetic treatment until now. This work provides such a synthetic treatment and argues that Maximus’ central concern in the Ambigua to John is to articulate the nature of philosophy and, more precisely, the scope of the contemplation of nature (θεωρία φυσική) within the philosophical life, where "philosophy," the love of wisdom, is nothing less than the love of the Divine. Part I of this study provides a thorough background in Greek philosophical and patristic philosophies of nature, showing how Maximus’ predecessors understood knowledge of the world in relation to philosophical life, discourse, and praxis. Part II studies the contemplation of nature in the Ambigua and analyzes Maximus’ account of human affectivity in the world, his account of the coherence of philosophical life (praxis and contemplation) as a response to this affectivity, his understanding of the relation between God and the world, and his reconciliation of these various aspects of philosophy in the Christian economy of salvation, which he understands as the renewal of nature and its contemplation.
Finally,  students of the Church of the East, and the complex religious route known as the Silk Road, will be interested in Sam Lieu et al., Medieval Christian and Manichaean Remains from Quanzhou (Zayton) (Brepols, 2012), x+282pp.+ 127b&w ills.
About this book we are told:

Better known to western medieval travelers as Zayton, Quanzhou in Fujian was China’s main port and also the terminus of the Maritime Silk Road. The city was home to a cosmopolitan population especially when China was under Mongol rule (ca. 1280-1368 CE). Italian visitors to and inhabitants of the city included Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone and Andrew of Perugia. The city had a significant Christian population, both Catholic and Church of the East (Nestorian), and the nearby town of Jinjiang has to this day in its neighbourhood a Manichaean shrine housing a unique statue of Mani as the Buddha of Light. These religious communities left a wealth of art on stone which first came to light in Mid-Twentieth Century but is still very little known and studied outside China. This volume containing over 200 illustrations (many in full colour) is the work of a team of scholars from Australian universities in collaboration with the major museums in Quanzhou and Jinjiang and is the first major work on this unique material in a western language. The book will be of great interest not only to scholars of Manichaeism and of the Church of the East but also to scholars of East-West contacts under the Mongols.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Catherine's Russia

Northern Illinois University Press remains an important publisher of works in Orthodoxy, particularly Russian Church history. This spring we saw published one such work by Elise Wirtschafter, Religion and Enlightenment in Catherinian Russia: The Teachings of Metropolitan Platon (2013), 200pp.

About this book we are told:
This valuable study explores the Russian Enlightenment with reference to the religious Enlightenment of the mid to late eighteenth century. Grounded in close reading of the sermons and devotional writings of Platon (Levshin), Court preacher and Metropolitan of Moscow, the book examines the blending of European ideas into the teachings of Russian Orthodoxy. Highlighting the interplay between Enlightenment thought and Orthodox enlightenment, Elise Wirtschafter addresses key questions of concern to religious Enlighteners across Europe: humanity’s relationship to God and creation, the distinction between learning and enlightenment, the role of Christian love in authority relationships, the meaning of free will in a universe governed by Divine Providence, and the unity of church, monarchy, and civil society. Countering scholarship that depicts an Orthodox religious culture under assault from European modernity and Petrine absolutism, Wirtschafter emphasizes the ability of Russia’s educated churchmen to assimilate and transform Enlightenment ideas. The intellectual and spiritual vitality of eighteenth-century Orthodoxy helps to explain how Russian policymakers and intellectuals met the challenge of European power while simultaneously coming to terms with the broad cultural appeal of the Enlightenment’s universalistic human rights agenda.
Religion and Enlightenment in Catherinian Russia defines the Russian Enlightenment as a response to the allure of European modernity, as an instrument of social control, and as the moral voice of an emergent independent society. Because Russia’s enlightened intellectuals focused on the moral perfectibility of the individual human being, rather than social and political change, the originality of the Russian Enlightenment has gone unrecognized. This study corrects images of a superficial Enlightenment and crisis-ridden religious culture, arguing that in order to understand the humanistic sensibility and emphasis on individual dignity that permeate Russian intellectual history, and the history of the educated classes more broadly, it is necessary to bring Orthodox teachings into the discussion of Enlightenment thought. The result is a book that explains the distinctive origins of modern Russian culture while also allowing scholars to situate the Russian Enlightenment in European and global history.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Constantine the Emperor: Debating the Legacy

Two decades ago when I began to read Stanley Hauerwas, I found him frequently railing against the baleful influence of "Constantinianism," by which he meant (at the time) the interference in, and thus taming of, the Church by the empire--notions Hauerwas borrowed, if memory serves, from John Howard Yoder. I was not entirely convinced of this line of argumentation at the time, and over the years have become less so; I think Hauerwas has himself moderated his views somewhat.

In the last two decades, and especially in the last five years, this legacy of Constantine (whom the Byzantine tradition calls "equal to the apostles") continues to be debated, as I have noted repeatedly before. But much of what people today seem to be "rediscovering" or reconsidering about Constantine was, at least in inchoate fashion, discussed more than half a century ago by the Jesuit historian Francis Dvornik, as I mentioned before.

Further studies about Constantine coming out this year, on top of a book recently published by Oxford University Press: David Potter, Constantine the Emperor (OUP, 2012), 368pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

This year Christians worldwide will celebrate the 1700th anniversary of Constantine's conversion and victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. No Roman emperor had a greater impact on the modern world than did Constantine. The reason is not simply that he converted to Christianity but that he did so in a way that brought his subjects along after him. Indeed, this major new biography argues that Constantine's conversion is but one feature of a unique administrative style that enabled him to take control of an empire beset by internal rebellions and external threats by Persians and Goths. The vast record of Constantine's administration reveals a government careful in its exercise of power but capable of ruthless, even savage actions. Constantine executed (or drove to suicide) his father-in-law, two brothers-in-law, his eldest son, and his once beloved wife. An unparalleled general throughout his life, even on his deathbed he was planning a major assault on the Sassanian Empire in Persia. Alongside the visionary who believed that his success came from the direct intervention of his God resided an aggressive warrior, a sometimes cruel partner, and an immensely shrewd ruler. These characteristics combined together in a long and remarkable career, which restored the Roman Empire to its former glory.

Beginning with his first biographer Eusebius, Constantine's image has been subject to distortion. More recent revisions include John Carroll's view of him as the intellectual ancestor of the Holocaust (Constantine's Sword) and Dan Brown's presentation of him as the man who oversaw the reshaping of Christian history (The Da Vinci Code). In Constantine the Emperor, David Potter confronts each of these skewed and partial accounts to provide the most comprehensive, authoritative, and readable account of Constantine's extraordinary life.
The other study, apparently published at the end of June, is a critical scholarly engagement of Peter Leithart's 2010 book (which we had expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies) Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Leithart's work engendered a good deal of criticism, some collected in John Roth, ed., Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate (Pickwick, 2013), 216pp.

About this collection we are told:
This collection of essays continues a long and venerable debate in the history of the Christian church regarding the legacy of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. For some, Constantine's conversion to Christianity early in the fourth century set in motion a process that made the church subservient to the civil authority of the state, brought a definitive end to pacifism as a central teaching of the early church, and redefined the character of Christian catechesis and missions.

In 2010, Peter J. Leithart published a widely read polemic, Defending Constantine, that vigorously refuted this interpretation. In its place, Leithart offered a thoroughgoing rehabilitation of Constantine and his legacy, while directing a rhetorical fusillade against the pacifist theology and ethics of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

The essays gathered here in response to Leithart reflect the insights of eleven leading theologians, historians, and ethicists from a wide range of theological traditions. They engage one of the most contentious issues in Christian church history in irenic fashion and at the highest level of scholarship. In so doing, they help ensure that the "Constantinian Debate" will continue to be lively, substantive, and consequential.

Monday, July 8, 2013

From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt

Though for understandable reasons most of our attention today is on current Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt, those relations go back to the very beginnings of Islam and have waxed and waned for 1400 years. Set for release just before Christmas is a new study that will help us appreciate the depth of relations in Egypt, and the process of her becoming an increasingly Islamized society from the seventh century onward: Maged S.A. Mikhail, From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt: Religion, Identity and Politics After the Arab Conquest (Tauris Academic, 2013), 304pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The conquest of Egypt by Islamic armies under the command of Amr ibn al-As in the seventh century transformed medieval Egyptian society. Seeking to uncover the broader cultural changes of the period by drawing on a wide array of literary and documentary sources, Maged Mikhail stresses the cultural and institutional developments that punctuated the histories of Christians and Muslims in the province under early Islamic rule.

From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt traces how the largely agrarian Egyptian society responded to the influx of Arabic and Islam, the means by which the Coptic Church constructed its sectarian identity, the Islamisation of the administrative classes and how these factors converged to create a new medieval society. The result is a fascinating and essential study for scholars of Byzantine and early Islamic Egypt.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ross Douthat on Bad Religion

I recently finished reading Ross Douthat's book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), 352pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
As the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. In Bad Religion he offers a masterful and hard-hitting account of how American Christianity has gone off the rails—and why it threatens to take American society with it.Writing for an era dominated by recession, gridlock, and fears of American decline, Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of the nation’s political and economic crises. He argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
These faiths speak from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”—and many of their preachers claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity—not the real thing. Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, Douthat argues, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption.
In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, he brilliantly charts institutional Christianity’s decline from a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith—which acted as a “vital center” and the moral force behind the civil rights movement—through the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s to the polarizing debates of the present day. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Barack Obama, Eat Pray Love to Joel Osteen, and Oprah Winfrey to The Da Vinci Code, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel’s mantra of “pray and grow rich,” a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach, and the warring political religions of left and right have crippled the country’s ability to confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline. His urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity is sure to generate controversy, and it will be vital reading for all those concerned about the imperiled American future.
This is a well-written and smoothly edited book with whose arguments I generally agree. Douthat shows in some, but not overwhelming, detail how most versions of Christianity in America--by which he means Protestantism and Catholicism: Orthodoxy is basically invisible in this book--have been corrupted--perhaps unconsciously in a few cases--by various ideas to greater or lesser degrees originating in the singularity of American culture and history. That history and culture have given birth to some entire sui generis faiths, in fact, which are in significant ways simply Christian grotesques: Mormonism, of course, is the clearest example of this. But Mormonism, at least directly, remains strange enough to most that it is not nearly the threat that the "prosperity gospel" poses.

This "gospel" has gone a very long way not only to give cover to all those repellent preachers on TV hawking "water from the Jordan" or "sand from the Holy Land" or but has also, I think, made serious inroads into Orthodoxy and Catholicism in North America, both of which have moved a long way from the faith of immigrants, peasants, and workers to being much more "mainstream" and "respectable" in some ways. That process, for understandable and often commendable socioeconomic reasons, has not come without some cost--what I would, as a kind of short-hand, refer to as the "bourgeoisification" of Christianity in North America--how very middle class it is in mores and much else. The clearest evidence of this, to my mind, remains the fact that contemporary Orthodoxy and Catholicism have not produced--as far as I can see--any contemporary "holy fools" of a truly outstanding and outrageous nature. Perhaps, given their propensity for "hiding" their holiness, there are many fools among us, but I should like them to have a more public presence if they are indeed around. Christians need to be reminded, often, that Christianity should not neatly coincide with middle-class notions of respectability and comfort. As I put it to my students earlier this year when looking at the holy fool in the movie Ostrov, if your faith does not make you seem at least a little strange to people around you, you are probably not doing it right.

When he was here in 2008, I well recall Pope Benedict raising the question that perhaps, in the often understandable rush from various "ghettos" in which pre-war Catholics lived for the prosperous and diffuse suburbs, something had been lost that needed to be reconsidered. A fortiori this seems true to me when considering the material prosperity of Christians on this continent. There is nothing wrong with being middle class, and much that is good for which we should be grateful. But I think there is an invidious corruption of orthodox Christianity that too often accompanies material prosperity--we become soft, unwilling to sacrifice, complacent in all kinds of practices, especially ascetical ones. (Eastern Christians must check temptations to pride here: while we have, in theory, retained, e.g., far more fasting days than Western Christians, how many of us actually practice them with some rigor? How many of us--as others have commented--restrain the impulse for ostentatious trips to Whole Foods to get "just the right kind" of hummus during Great Lent, or to make sure the recipe for lentils and shrimp goes well with the Gewürztraminer we have selected for those days on which, by some mystery, wine is allowed?)

The problem with the so-called prosperity gospel, at least in the survey Douthat provides of many of its pamphleteers and propagators (of whom the oleaginous Joel Osteen is probably reigning champion today), is that it conflates spiritual and material blessings, and it seems not only totally ignorant of, but positively immune to, any of the ascetical practices that have marked Christianity from the beginning: fasting, abstinence, and other forms of self-renunciation. It also seems to traffic in--to use Eric Voegelin's famous phrase--an immanentization of the eschaton, seeming to promise people that all the limitations, problems, and sufferings of a fallen world can be largely if not entirely overcome if we pray the right prayers the right way and just "hope" enough.

This needs to be challenged more than it is, but Douthat's main brief is that a lot more needs to be challenged as well: preachers and hierarchs need to be more vigorous in "rightly imparting the word of your truth," as we pray in the Chrysostom anaphora. Douthat is not calling on bishops to become scolds or moralizers, but simply to be more vigilant than many have been hitherto in checking egregious departures from apostolic Christianity. Of course, this leaves unanswered the age-old question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Douthat does not address this question, and he leaves other important questions unasked, but his book does give us clear and sober insights into the kind of Weltanschauung many Christians have today, and there is much to be learned here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Natural Theology

As I have noted before, major publishers today continue to publish highly useful "handbooks" or "companions" to various topics. (I have myself contributed to two such forthcoming handbooks from Oxford: one on the sacraments, and another on ecclesiology. Both should be in print next year.) These handbooks aim to bring leading scholars together covering a variety of topics in a given area, offering the reader a portrait that is at once scholarly, current, and accessible.

In March of this year, under Russell Re Manning's editorship, another such handbook was published: The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology (Oxford UP, 2013),672pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology is the first collection to consider the full breadth of natural theology from both historical and contemporary perspectives and to bring together leading scholars to offer accessible high-level accounts of the major themes. The volume embodies and develops the recent revival of interest in natural theology as a topic of serious critical engagement. Frequently misunderstood or polemicized, natural theology is an under-studied yet persistent and pervasive presence throughout the history of thought about ultimate reality - from the classical Greek theology of the philosophers to twenty-first century debates in science and religion.

Of interest to students and scholars from a wide range of disciplines, this authoritative handbook draws on the very best of contemporary scholarship to present a critical overview of the subject area. Thirty eight new essays trace the transformations of natural theology in different historical and religious contexts, the place of natural theology in different philosophical traditions and diverse scientific disciplines, and the various cultural and aesthetic approaches to natural theology to reveal a rich seam of multi-faceted theological reflection rooted in human nature and the environments within which we find ourselves.
Two chapters will be of especial interest to Eastern Christians:

3. Natural Theology in the Patristic Period , Wayne Hankey

13. Natural Theology and the Eastern Orthodox Tradition , Christopher C. Knight

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Religions of Iran

Iran continues to be in the headlines, often simplistically portrayed as a monolithic Muslim theocracy bent on evil designs--a view helpfully challenged in this fascinating article.

What typical headlines about Iran ignore, of course, is its complex history and religious culture. Set for release later this fall is a new study of what remains one of the most fascinating if hidden countries in the Middle East, whose complex religious history, especially that of Assyrian and other Eastern Christians, is not well known: Richard Foltz,   Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present (OneWorld Publications, 2013), 368pp. 

About this book we are told:
Although today associated exclusively with Islam, Iran has in fact played an unparalleled role within all the world religions, injecting Iranian ideas into the Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Manichaean traditions of the merchants who passed along the Silk Road. This vivid and surprising work explores the manner in which Persian culture has interacted with and transformed each world faith, from the migration of the Israelites to Iran thousands of years ago to the influence of Iranian notions on Mahayana Buddhism and Christianity. Foltz considers Iran's role in shaping the Muslim world, not only in the Middle East but also in South Asia in an evocative and informative journey through the spiritual heritage of an ancient and influential region.

Although today associated exclusively with Islam, Iran has in fact played an unparalleled role within all the world religions, injecting Iranian ideas into the Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Manichaean traditions of the merchants who passed along the Silk Road. This vivid and surprising work explores the manner in which Persian culture has interacted with and transformed each world faith, from the migration of the Israelites to Iran thousands of years ago to the influence of Iranian notions on Mahayana Buddhism and Christianity. Foltz considers Iran's role in shaping the Muslim world, not only in the Middle East but also in South Asia in an evocative and informative journey through the spiritual heritage of an ancient and influential region.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Global War on Christians

Given what has been going on in Egypt for more than two years, as well as Syria and too many other places to count, it is not apologetical propaganda or polemical pamphleteering to speak, as John Allen does in a book to be published in October, of The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (Image Books, 2013), 356pp.

About this book we are told:
John Allen Jr. uses his unparalleled knowledge and insight to investigate the troubling worldwide persecution of Christians. A detailed and statistical look at the ways Christians are persecuted around the world and a challenge to American Christians to take notice of the persecution of others.The bestselling author of The Future Church uses his unparalled knowledge and insight to investigate the troubling worldwide persecution of Christians. From Iraq and Egypt to Sudan and Nigeria, from Indonesia to the Indian subcontinent, Christians in the early 21st century are the world's most persecuted religious group. According to the secular International Society for Human Rights, 80 percent of violations of religious freedom in the world today are directed against Christians. In effect, our era is witnessing the rise of a new generation of martyrs. Underlying the global war on Christians is the demographic reality that more than two-thirds of the world's 2.3 billion Christians now live outside the West, often as a beleaguered minority up against a hostile majority-whether it's Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, Hindu radicalism in India, or state-imposed atheism in China and North Korea. In Europe and North America, Christians face political and legal challenges to religious freedom. Allen exposes the deadly threats and offers investigative insight into what is, and can be, done to stop these atrocities.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...