"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).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Three New Works in Coptic Orthodoxy

Our long-suffering brothers and sisters in the Coptic Church continue to amaze with their resilience and their learning in the face of formidable and often bloody Muslim opposition and persecution. There are at least four recent books that I have read about them.

The first has not received much attention at all, in part because it was only very recently published by a Coptic museum in Scarborough, Ontario:


That book, brought together by three scholars, viz., Marcos A Marcos, Helene Moussa, and Carolyn Ramzy, is entitled Marguerite Nakhla: Legacy to Modern Egyptian Art. It is a welcome book, not least because recent scholarship on Coptic iconography is not nearly as plentiful as it is for the Byzantine tradition. This new book helps partially to fill the gap, at least in English, by demonstrating that Coptic iconographical traditions continue to grow and develop in Egypt through such as, e.g., in Marguerite Nakhla (1908-1977), a pioneer of modern Egyptian art. This book brings together many illustrations of her folk art, her “folkloric” biblical paintings, and her more traditional—though clearly “modern”—iconographic work.  
The book is exquisitely produced on high-quality paper with a myriad of lavish plates handsomely laid out, offering a feast for the eyes and mind. The authors have done a splendid job bringing this collection together and in contributing illuminating essays to it based on their academic and pastoral backgrounds.

The second book is Gawdat Gabra, The A to Z of the Coptic Church (The A to Z Guide Series) (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), xvi+332pp.

Gabra, chief editor of the St. Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies, has compiled this dictionary (with contributions from Birger Pearson, Mark Swanson, and Youhanna Nessim Youssef) largely because the valuable eight-volume Coptic Encyclopedia went out of print shortly after its publication in 1991, and is not available on the Internet. Gabra’s text cannot, of course, be as detailed as the Encyclopedia, but it does attempt to supply as much information in as succinct a format as possible, and in that it succeeds admirably. Most entries are brief, though a few (particularly those dealing with liturgical texts or topics) are longer and more detailed.
The introductory chronology begins with the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 bc but stops inexplicably at ad 1971, as though nothing significant has happened in the subsequent four decades. The introductory essay, coming next, remedies this by bringing the reader up-to-date on current issues and conditions, including the appalling descent into greater persecution of Copts by Muslims: “According to statistics compiled by the Center for Egyptian Human Rights, Muslim fundamentalists have committed 561 acts of violence against Copts since 1994” (7). The volume is concluded with a detailed bibliography of nearly sixty pages, helpfully organized by both subject and author.

The third book was published by an obscure Australian Protestant publisher. It is a brief, and not entirely satisfactory, biography of Fr. Zakaria Botross, a Coptic priest and apologist to Islam: 
Stuart Robinson with Peter Botross, Defying Death: Zakaria Botross: Apostle to Islam (Upper Mt. Gravatt, Australia: City Harvest Publications, 2008), vi+152pp.

As I noted in my review in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, this short biography introduces us to the life of Zakaria Botross, a Coptic Orthodox priest whom some have called the foremost Christian apologist to Islam today—a role that has forced him to live in an undisclosed location from which he is nonetheless able to continue his Arabic-language broadcasts into Muslim countries, where, we are told, “it is estimated that in excess of 50 million people watch each episode” (145). His is a life of heroic suffering and sacrifice—along with the suffering of his wife Violet and children: bogus arrests and time in horrifyingly inhumane prisons; longstanding harassment and bounties placed on his head; and multiple abrupt moves to different parts of the world.  

Robinson’s book should have avoided an occasional lapse into condescending Protestant editorializing and an irrational profligacy with commas. Moreover, his book could have offered a deeper examination of Muslim-Coptic relations, and also intra-Coptic relations. (A Coptic friend of mine from Cairo tells me Bottross’s broadcasts have had serious consequences for Copts there, consequences he escapes because he lives elsewhere. This does not always endear him to his co-religionists.)  Still, for the time being, Robinson tells the story of a priest whose courageous evangelical efforts deserve to be widely known, and the trials and martyrdoms of his church more widely still.

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