"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).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reverse Perspective in Icons

As I commented only days ago, we are seeing a happy resurgence in interest on icons as witnessed by, inter alia, many publications on them from all kinds of authors and publishers. Along comes a more "technical" one recently published by Ashgate, which continues to put into print all kinds of works of interest to Eastern Christians: 

Clemena Antonova and Martin Kemp, Space, Time, and Presence in the Icon (Ashgate Studies in Theology, Imagination and the Arts) (2010), 206pp. 

About this book, the publisher tells us:

This book contributes to the re-emerging field of  'theology through the arts' by proposing a way of approaching one of the most challenging theological concepts - divine timelessness - through the principle of construction of space in the icon. One of the main objectives of this book is to discuss critically the implications of 'reverse perspective', which is especially characteristic of Byzantine and Byzantining art. Drawing on the work of Pavel Florensky, one of the foremost Russian religious philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century, Antonova shows that Florensky's concept of 'supplementary planes' can be used productively within a new approach to the question. Antonova works up new criteria for the understanding of how space and time can be handled in a way that does not reverse standard linear perspective (as conventionally claimed) but acts in its own way to create eternalised images which are not involved with perspective at all. Arguing that the structure of the icon is determined by a conception of God who exits in past, present, and future, simultaneously, Antonova develops an iconography of images done in the Byzantine style both in the East and in the West which is truer to their own cultural context than is generally provided for by western interpretations. This book draws upon philosophy, theology and liturgy to see how relatively abstract notions of a deity beyond time and space enter images made by painters.
I look forward to having this reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies and also discussed  here. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Marriage, Canonically & Ecclesiologically Understood

Robert Taft has called canon law "the bad side of the good news." This is perhaps never so true as when dealing with marriage. At Orientale Lumen last month, Met. Kallistos Ware, in speaking about the complexity of the problem of treating the papacy in the first millennium, noted that one could find various Eastern appeals to the pope of Rome during that time period, but they were far from straightforward, and it would be exceedingly dangerous to extrapolate from them--a point I have myself made in print before. Ware noted the example of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI, to whom the epithet ''the Wise'' is sometimes suffixed. Leo appealed to Rome against the Ecumenical Patriarch when the latter forbade the emperor from attempting to contract a fourth marriage after his first three wives died without giving him a male heir. (Ware's droll comment was to the effect: How correct is it to call ''wise'' a man who marries four times?) The Roman canonical tradition had no objection to fourth marriages and so the pope blessed the emperor to proceed with a fourth marriage. It would be fatuous to draw from this the conclusion that ''the East'' was therefore always willing to submit to ''papal authority'' in the first millennium, whether on canonical questions or any others. 

David Heith-Stade has recently written a book treating of marriage in the Eastern canonical tradition that looks very interesting:

Marriage as the Arena of Salvation: An Ecclesiological Study of the Marital Regulation in the Canons of the Council in Trullo (Orthodox Research Institute Press, 2011), 206pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
Despite the importance of canon law in the life of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, there has not been a study of the ecclesiology of the canons regulating marriage. Marriage is an object of right regulated both by civil law and the canon law of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Marriage as an object of right is at the intersection of two legal orders - the ecclesial and the civil. The canonical regulation of marriage as an object of right confronts us with a twofold ecclesiological problem: (a) how does the Church perceive the civil legal order in relation to its own legal order; and, (b) how is the self-understanding of the Church, i.e. its ecclesiology, reflected in its canon law? Thus, the ecclesiological problem examined in this study is the question of how the ecclesial polity (politeuma), as the Eucharistic ekklēsia of the people (laos) of the new covenant, actualizes itself as taxis within a concrete society. The hypothesis is that the aim of the ecclesial polity is covenant holiness, and, furthermore, that the aim of the canonical taxis is to establish and maintain covenant holiness within the concrete socio-historical setting of the ecclesial polity. By actualization, this means the diachronic institutional process whereby the ecclesial polity subsists in a society as an institution determined by its finality and institutional potentiality.
I will have a canonist review this for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2012.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Christians and Muslims in Iran

Christian-Muslim relations in Iran are much more complicated than many realize. Iran has a reputation for being a "theocracy" run by bomb-seeking crazies, but such images overlook many things, including the fact that Iran has one of the oldest Christian populations in the entire region, and that some Christians are still able--not easily, to be sure--to struggle to exist there in a way that could not be said about, e.g., the so-called great friend of the West, Saudi Arabia, where Christianity is outlawed entirely.  

Two recent books help shed light on the plight of Christians in Iran, one historical and the other contemporary.

The first of these is the fourth and latest volume in a series devoted to the topic: C. Jullien, ed., Chrétiens en terre d'Iran IV: Itinéraires missionnaires: échanges et identités (Peeters, 2011), 235pp.

The publisher gives us the following summary of the book's contents:
Peter Burns, «Hagiographia satis legendaria. Einige Beobachtungen zum Mar Behnam-Martyrium (BHO 177)»; Florence Jullien, «Stratégies du monachisme missionnaire en Iran»; Vittorio Berti, «Idéologie et politique missionnaire de Timothée Ier, patriarche syro-oriental (780-823)»; Marco Bias, «Rendre à César pour rencontrer Dieu. La mission politico-religieuse de l'évêque Israyel chez les Honk'»; Alexander M. Schilling, «Autour des mages arabisés. La vie de Zoroastre selon Girgis ibn al-'Amid al-Makin»; Angelo Michele Piemontese, «La traduction persane de l'évangile par Leopoldo Sebastiani».
The second book brings us up to date: Sasan Tavassoli, Christian Encounters with Iran: Engaging Muslim Thinkers after the Revolution (International Library of Iranian Studies) (London, 2011), ix+305pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
The interface between the current Shi‘ite landscape and Christian thinking is of the greatest significance for the shifting political and religious dynamics of the Middle East. Sasan Tavassoli here examines Iranian Shi‘ite thinkers’ encounters with Christian thought since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and provides insight into the cultural and intellectual climate surrounding Christian-Muslim dialogue in contemporary Iran. The literature on Christianity in Iran reveals a wide range of approaches and attitudes, and Tavassoli demonstrates that traditional polemics are giving way to a more descriptive and subjective understanding of Christian thought. He also studies Muslim-Christian dialogue and research conducted and supported by governmental as well as non-governmental organizations, and offers a close examination, with interviews, of the work of three prominent liberal religious intellectuals--Abdol Karim Soroush, Mostafa Malekian and Mojtahed Shabestari. Placing contemporary Shi‘ite thought in the broad historical context of pre- and post-revolution Iran, Tavassoli relates concrete religious, cultural and socio-political realities to the themes and orientations in the latest phase of the Shi‘i Islam-Christianity encounter, and offers fresh insight into the dynamism of contemporary Islam and the religious complexities of the Muslim world.
The publisher also helpfully gives us the table of contents:
* Acknowledgements * A Note on Translation, Romanization and Dates * Iranian Shi‘ite Thinkers and the Christian Faith: A Theological Perspective * Factors in Muslim-Christian Intellectual Encounters and Dialogue in Contemporary Iranian Society * Iranian Shi‘ites and the Christian Faith: A Survey of Iranian Publications on Christianity * Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Some Organizational Encounters  * Iranian Shi‘ites and Christian Thought: A Look at Three Liberal Religious Intellectuals * Iranian Shi‘ites and the Christian Faith: Where Have They Come From and Where are They Heading? * Bibliography of Works in English * Bibliography of Works in Farsi
I look forward to having this latter book expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2012.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Repositories of Byzantine Chant in Greek Libraries

Anyone who knows anything about the study of Eastern liturgics, especially Eastern liturgical music, knows that the state of the discipline is woefully behind comparable Western studies, and there is enormous work to be done even in such seemingly simple (but in fact hugely difficult) tasks as actually finding out what manuscripts are still extant and where. Along comes a new volume from Ashgate to assist in this task: Diana H. Touliatos-Miles, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Musical Manuscript Collection of the National Library of Greece (Ashgate, 2010), 654pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
The National Library of Greece (Ethnike Bibliothike tes Ellados) is one of the richest depositories of Byzantine musical manuscripts and is surpassed by its holdings in Greece only by the multitude of manuscripts found in the monasteries of Mount Athos. In spite of being such a rich archive, the National Library has never published a catalogue of its musical manuscripts - not all of which are Byzantine or Greek. It is the purpose of this catalogue to recover or, in some instances, to present for the first time the repertory of the musical sources of the library.This project has been twelve years in the making for Professor Diane Touliatos, involving the discovery and detailed cataloguing of all 241 Western, Ancient Greek, and Byzantine music manuscripts. Not all of these are from Athens or modern Greece, but also encompass Turkey, the Balkans, Italy, Cyprus, and parts of Western Europe. This variety underlines the importance of the catalogue for identifying composers, music and performance practice of different locales.The catalogue includes a detailed listing of the contents as written in the original language as well as the titles of compositions (and/or incipits) with composers, modal signatures, other attributions and information on performance practice. Each manuscript entry includes a commentary in English indicating important highlights and its significance. There is a substantive English checklist that summarizes the contents of each manuscript for non-Greek readers. A bibliography follows containing pertinent citations where the manuscript has been used in references. There is also a glossary that defines terms for the non-specialist. Examples of some of the manuscripts will be photographically displayed.The catalogue will enlighten musicologists and Byzantinists of the rich and varied holdings of some of the most important musical manuscripts in existence, and stimulate more interest and investigation of these sources. As such, it will fill a major gap in the bibliography of Byzantine chant and other musical studies.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

There Be Dragons

Brill has just brought out a unique iconographic study written by Sara Kuehn: The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art (Islamic History and Civilization) (Brill, 2011), xiv+300pp. 

While the price is steep (as most of Brill's books are, alas), it would seem justified, in part, by the fact that the book has some 200 illustrations in both color and black and white.

The publisher further tells us about this book that it is
a pioneering work on a key iconographic motif, that of the dragon. It examines the perception of this complex, multifaceted motif within the overall intellectual and visual universe of the medieval Irano-Turkish world. Using a broadly comparative approach, the author explores the ever-shifting semantics of the dragon motif as it emerges in neighbouring Muslim and non-Muslim cultures. The book will be of particular interest to those concerned with the relationship between the pre-Islamic, Islamic and Eastern Christian (especially Armenian) world.
The study is fully illustrated, with 209 (b/w and full colour) plates, many of previously unpublished material. Illustrations include photographs of architectural structures visited by the author, as well as a vast collection of artefacts, all of which are described and discussed in detail with inscription readings, historical data and textual sources.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Anglicanism and Orthodoxy

The relations between the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church are quite interesting. In part, the former has often seemed motivated to seek out the approbation of the latter when the Catholic Church was not willing to ''play ball'' and, e.g., recognize Anglican orders. And of course some Anglicans and some Orthodox have drawn together in part because of a shared disdain for the Roman papacy.

Anglican-Orthodox relations come in for periodic, but fascinating, study. In 2005 we had Peter M. Doll's well-received study, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy 300 years after the 'Greek College' in Oxford. 

Then in late 2009 we had a fascinating new study by Bryn Geffert: Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans: Diplomacy, Theology, and the Politics of Interwar Ecumenism (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 560pp. 

About this book, the publisher, tells us:
Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans is the first sustained study of inter-Orthodox relations, the special role of the Anglican Church, and the problems of Orthodox nationalism in the modern age. Despite many challenges, the interwar years were a time of intense creativity in the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian emigres, freed from enforced isolation in the wake of the Russian Revolution, found themselves in close contact with figures from other Orthodox churches and from the Roman Catholic Church and all varieties of Protestant confessions. For many reasons, Russian exiles found themselves drawn to the Anglican Church in particular. The interwar years thus witnessed a concentrated effort to bridge the gap between Orthodox and Anglican. Geffert's book is a detailed history of that effort. It is the story of efforts toward rapprochement by two churches and their ultimate failure to achieve formal unity. The same political, diplomatic, historical, personal, and religious forces that first inspired contact were the ones that ultimately undermined the effort. Bryn Geffert recounts the history of an important chapter in the history of Christian ecumenism, one that is relevant to contemporary efforts to achieve meaningful interfaith dialogue.
I asked the Anglican scholar Hugh Wybrew of Oxford to review this for us in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. Wybrew is the author of such acclaimed texts as The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite as well as Orthodox Feasts of Jesus Christ & the Virgin Mary: Liturgical Texts With Commentary and Risen with Christ: Eastertide in the Orthodox Church. In addition, he has authored Risen with Christ: Eastertide in the Orthodox Church.

In his review, Wybrew notes that this is a "very thoroughly researched" from an author who "knows his subject well and presents it in a readable and attractive way,"

Monday, July 25, 2011

Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Fall 2011

In the upcoming fall issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, we will of course have the usual best scholarship in several articles, including one on Pavel Florensky, essays, and notes; and then many book reviews, including the following:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Papacy and Much Else Besides

The author of Byzantine Texas asked me for my thoughts on my book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

You may read my comments on it and related matters given in an interview here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Interview with David Bertaina

The historian David Bertaina,
whose recent book Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East I mentioned earlier this month, has agreed to an interview about that new book of his and his other scholarly endeavors.

AD: Please tell us about your background:

DB: I am an assistant professor of comparative religion in the History Department at the University of Illinois at Springfield.  I obtained my doctorate in Semitic Languages and Literatures from The Catholic University of America in 2007.  My areas of research include the intellectual, social and religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East. 

I write on medieval encounters between Muslims and Christians, especially in Arabic and Syriac dialogue literature and the how these texts framed the construction of identity.  This year I published Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East.  I have taught courses on Christian-Muslim Encounters, Islamic History, Islamic Historiography, Eastern Christianity, Late Antiquity, Early Christian Historiography, Judaism-Christianity-Islam, World Religions, Introduction to Islam, and Historical Methods. 

Tell us why you wrote this book:

The book started as an outgrowth of my doctoral work. I was working on a single account, a ninth-century debate between Melkite bishop Theodore Abu Qurra and Muslim dialectical theologians in the presence of the caliph al-Ma’mun. As I studied more of the dialogue literature (sometimes called disputations), I found a number of important similarities between Christian and Muslim texts and was struck by the religious uses of the stories to dramatize what are essentially theological narratives. I wanted to publish something that would make more of these stories accessible.

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

Ideally, the book would be accessible to undergraduates as well as specialists. It was difficult to balance these competing audiences in the narrative, and I think someone who is familiar with the medieval Middle East will have a much easier time with the book. At the same time, I deliberately left out special characters and always translated Arabic words into English. One of the problems in our field is the tendency to use the original Arabic word because the English word doesn’t convey the exact same meaning. My intention was to describe these stories of dialogue in a way that someone could understand the narrative even if they don’t have knowledge of Syriac or Arabic.

What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

I applied to graduate school with the plan to focus on the Arab Christian tradition, with a special focus on the medieval ‘Melkites’ (from which both the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church derive their origins). I was a member of an Eastern Catholic community in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my interests were primarily in liturgy and Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism. Then 9/11 happened, and my esoteric field suddenly became much more interesting for the wider populace. I was working at Ohlone College in Fremont, CA, at the time, which was called ‘little Kabul’ because of the large Afghani Muslim population there.  My experiences related to inter-religious dialogue, both positive and negative, really encouraged me to look at the Melkites not in an isolated manner, but within the wider field of the Islamic world. After going to work on my PhD and dissertation, I shifted my focus toward Arab Christian interactions with Muslims. The book is the fruit borne of those stories.

Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?

One of my surprises was that Arabic-speaking Christians possessed detailed knowledge of and appreciation for the Qur’an. Even when they would critique Muslims, they would make sure to use qur’anic idioms, or quote from an oral tradition. Medieval Arab Christian authors were not only more biblically literate than most people today, but they were also more aware of Islamic texts, traditions, and legends than western Christian communities, medieval or modern.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

There is a significant amount of literature devoted to these medieval Christian-Muslim texts. However, most of the writing is in Arabic, or found in journals published in the Middle East, or in articles that are inaccessible to non-specialists. One exception is the work by Sidney Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (2008). My book stands out from others because it seeks to follow a thread from the Qur’an until the Crusades in which Christians and Muslims both used a literary framework to communicate their theological messages and their perceptions of the other community. My approach limits the potential list of Arabic sources and the ramifications of my conclusions, but it allows for comparisons of Christian and Muslim dialogue. 

Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of the book

Most histories talk about Eastern Christians until the rise of Islam, and then they magically disappear from the narratives. With the exception of Byzantine Christianity, the rest of the Christian groups are ignored by historians and theologians (though not liturgists, thankfully). Christian and Muslim Dialogues reminds readers that Christians did not disappear in the first century of Islamic rule. Instead, we can see a lively dialogue taking place between communities in the Middle East. Most importantly, the book reveals how dialogues were used for Christological debate, exegesis of the Bible, conversion, competing historiographies, theological education, hagiography, and reinterpreting the Bible and the Qur’an. The stories of dialogue retold in the book act as a guide for these themes. They show that Arab Christians incorporated the realities of religious pluralism into their communities, but not at the expense of claims to objective truth. In today’s climate of inter-religious dialogue, the assumption that religious pluralism negates claims to truth is one of the great dangers for participants. The inheritance of modernity has made western culture generally distrustful of medieval claims to truth, but I think that these encounters teach us that dialogue can take place without falling into a latent relativism.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Religion and the State in Russia and China

If I had a kopek for every time that someone lazily referred to pre-revolutionary Russia as guilty of the apparent sin of "caesaro-papism," I would be approaching kulak status at least. Relations between religion and state in Russia, both historic and current, are so often misconstrued by external observers that I am no longer surprised by the lapse into lazy cliché.

Similar problems bedevil those who open their mouths to comments on relations between the Catholic Church and the state in China today. There are many problems, perhaps most important the appointment of bishops, which the government wishes, tendentiously, to control, and which the Holy See, rightly, wishes to decide without government interference. If anyone knows anything about the history of the Catholic Church, especially since the Investiture Controversy, one knows how often and how vigorously the Church has fought for the libertas ecclesiae.

Russia and China, of course, share a border, and in addition to the Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church has long had a presence in China--along with a Catholic presence, and that of other Western Christians. Along comes a new book to look at Christian relations in both countries:

Christoper Marsh, Religion and the State in Russia and China: Suppression, Survival, and Revival (Continuum, 2011), 288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Religion and the State in Russia and China explores the religious nature of man through  the cases of forced secularization in the Soviet Union and China.
The book provides an in-depth account of the failure and successes of both countries’ secularization policies. Starting with the theological innovations that led to atheistic theorizing, it then looks at the policies that were implemented to speed up the suppression of religious beliefs and what ultimately led to today’s resurgence of religion.

Russia and China are ideal cases for a comparative study as both experimented with the idea of eradication of religion under Marxist-Leninist parties and regimes. However, they differ in their relationship with their states, religious denominations, and societies.

The research for this project includes extensive fieldwork in both Russia and China, including participant-observation at rallies and demonstrations as well as interviews with scholars, religious believers/non-believers, and religious leading figures.

Religion and the State in Russia and China offers original research for an in-depth survey that will interest anyone studying politics and religion, policies, as well as theories of desecularization.Introduction: From Forced Secularization to Desecularization
The publisher also gives us the table of contents: 
1. The Theological Roots of Militant Atheism
2. Evicting God: Forced Secularization in the Soviet Union
3. Faith in Defiance: The Persistence of Religion under Scientific Atheism
4. Russia’s Religious Renaissance
5. China’s Third Opium War: The CCP’s Struggle With Religion
6. Keeping the Faith: The Persistence of Religious Life in Communist China
7. From Religious Anesthesia to Jesus Fever
Conclusion: Man, The State, and God

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Final Enemy to Be Defeated

My beloved younger sister Becky died last week after a three-year-long battle with cancer, leaving behind a devastated family: a husband, three young children, parents, brother, sister, and myriad friends. A brother could not wish for a better sister. To know her was to know that she was among the most tenacious and courageous people around, and to know these virtues of hers was to think that she was capable of defying formidable odds. I said to her more than once that she would live to be 85 and see her great-grandchildren playing on her front porch. It was not to be--though it is clear that cancer has not had the last word: the Lord has chosen to heal her of that dread disease, but not in our time, not in this world, not as we so deeply wished.

As I commented last Christmas, Christianity, alone, makes death comprehensible and so makes life bearable. Without knowledge of the resurrection, life would be absurd. In such moments, when, as the Psalmist says, "You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; darkness is my one companion left" (87: 18 [LXX]), one seeks the light where one instinctively knows to find it.  One of the people who always brightly shines the paschal light is Alexander Schmemann in his O Death, Where Is Thy Sting? (SVS Press, 2003), 115pp. 

I always return to Schmemann during that yearly period of "dying" that is Great Lent: Journey to Pascha and I find his reflections greatly edifying. Though he is not counted ''officially'' as a poetic theologian (theological poet?) in the way that, e.g., St. Ephraim the Syrian, Dante, or St. Gregory Nazianzus are, nonetheless Schmemann, I have long found, writes theological poetry disguised as prose. What a shame that cancer took him, too, from us too early. What a delight it will be to watch that disease ground under the heal of the Theotokos proleptic to the parousia and the final conquest of her Son over all disease and death. Let us all hasten on to that eternal banquet where our song will forever be Christos anesti!

Christianity and Hellenism

Nearly a decade ago now, I first read Georges Florovsky on idea of the Hellenization of Christianity (see, inter alia, vol. 12 of his Collected Works) vs. the Christianization of Hellenism. This is a topic of perennial interest as a conference on the theme last summer at St. Vladimir's Seminary would indicate.

Early next year, a new book will be published to continue looking at this relationship:

Yannis Papadogiannakis, Christianity and Hellenism in the Fifth-Century Greek East: Theodoret's Apologetics against the Greeks in Context (Hellenic Studies Series) (2012, 200pp.).

About this book, the publisher tells us:
This book—the first full-length study of the “last and most beautiful” apology against paganism, Theodoret’s Therapeutic for Hellenic Maladies—combines close readings of the text with detailed analysis of Theodoret’s arguments against Greek religion, philosophy, and culture and the ways in which that Greek influence interacts with other diverse ideas, practices, and developments in the fifth-century Roman empire.
The book’s larger underlying themes—the continuing debate between Christianity and Hellenism, and the relationship between classical and Christian literature—offer insights into more general late Roman and early Byzantine religious and cultural attitudes and issues, including the relations between pagan and Christian paideia, the cult of the martyrs, and the role of Christianity in the Roman empire.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Eastern Christianity and Islam (II)

As I noted before, we are seeing an upsurge in publications treating the encounter between Eastern Christianity and Islam. This is, in the main, a welcome development, though there is much work that remains to be done. One recent publication from Somerset Hall Press is a collection edited by George Papademetriou:

Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue (2011), 339pp. 

This is a handsome book, well edited, that will prove especially useful to historians seeking an understanding of recent attempts at dialogue between Greek Orthodoxy and Islam. After a very brief foreword from the Ecumenical Patriarch, and another from a Muslim academic at Hartford Seminary, the book is introduced by the editor and then divided into three parts:

1) Historical, Philosophical, and Theological Encounters (with five essays)

2) Contemporary Dialogue (with five essays)

3) References (with a brief glossary of Islamic terminology and basic beliefs, and a chronology of recent dialogues with Islam initiated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate).

In the first section, we find the essay of George Papademetriou (professor emeritus from Holy Cross College in Brookline), "Saint Gregory Palamas: Three Dialogues with Muslims." This gives a helpful contextualization and analysis of Palamas, showing him a clever thinker who, as with Saint Paul, seems to have tried to be all things to all people, showing a subtle and pastoral understanding of the importance of using different dialogical methods with different audiences in different contexts--without, however, being disingenuous.

The highlight of this section is Radko Popov's essay ''Speaking His Mind in a Multi-Cultural and Multi-Religious Society: John of Damascus and His Knowledge of Islam in Chapter 101 ('The Heresy of the Ishmaelites') of His Work Concerning Heresy." This is an important and welcome essay that provides a very lucid and serene contextualization and analysis of the Damascene's thought. Popov begins by noting that ''perhaps what is most striking about his writing is how firmly and strongly John of Damascus critiqued Islam while he was living under tolerant rulers" (109). John, born c. AD 680, was raised in Damascus, which had been conquered by Arab Muslims roughly a half-century before--conquered, I would add, but not yet "Islamized," a much longer process of cultural conversion not yet in place, and that may go some way to explaining how it is he could write relatively unharassed. The Damascene's life shows that early encounters between Christians and Muslims in Syria saw the latter, however uneasily, often greatly reliant upon the skills of the former, a process Sidney Griffith has outlined in his superlative study The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam.

John, of course, is very sharp in places in his critique of Islam, and there are four areas in which he criticizes Islam. He begins by seeing it as the ''forerunner of the Anti-Christ," and finding its theology to be little more than a variant of Arianism. More subtly, however, he undertakes an analysis of the ''Christology'' of the Quran, showing its flaws, and of the Islamic critique of the Triune God. Those who fail to see the Son and Spirit as also God, John says, are ''mutilators.'' After these two more explicitly theological critiques, he makes two ''moral'' arguments: Islam is a false religion because it permits such immoral practices as polygamy and divorce; and Mohammad is a false prophet because he does not conform to biblical type--why no miracles, and why so much bloody and murderous violence? 

John comes up again in the first essay in the next section, an essay that I think is the highlight of the entire collection: "Byzantine and Contemporary Greek Orthodox Approaches to Islam" by Anastasios Yannoulatos, the archbishop of Tirana and primate of Albania. The author divides these approaches into five phases. The first, beginning precisely with people like John of Damascus and running until the mid-ninth century, was polemical and dismissive. (John calls Islamic teachings ''worthy of laughter.'')  The second phase, from the ninth to fourteenth centuries, takes Islam more seriously because of the potent political threat it represented. Texts in this period, including Niketas Choniates' Refutation of the Book Forged by the Arab Mohammed, are aggressively polemical. The third phase, by contrast, is much calmer and consists of ''mild criticism and objective evaluation of Islam.'' In this phase we see people like Palamas offering their careful reflections, along with those of the Emperor Manuel II Paleologos (d. 1425) and the Ecumenical Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios, whose On the Only Way for the Salvation of Mankind was translated into Turkish-Arabic, and who also wrote a Confession of Faith. The fourth phase Yannoulatos characterizes as one of ''silence'' and non-dialogue, especially in the Balkans in the late Ottoman period. Fifth and finally we have the modern phase, of the last several decades, in which dialogues have taken place, especially between academics. In sum, Yannoulatos notes, ''it is best to speak of a dialogue between some Christians and some Muslims" (162; his emphasis). The author concludes with five important points that, he says, are the distinctive contributions of Eastern Christianity to the dialogue, five areas of fundamental theology which could only be overlooked at risk of doing violence to the very nature of Orthodoxy.

There is also, in this section of the book, a suggestive essay by Samira Awad Melki, "The Jesus Prayer and Dhikr: a Potential Contribution to Christian-Muslim Dialogue." His arguments here have been developed at greater length by others in the book edited by James Cutsinger, Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East.

The remaining essays in Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue are really just chronologies of the dialogues between Islam and Greek Orthodoxy (the Slavic experience, both East and South)
is entirely ignored in this book) in general, and the dialogues in particular hosted or influenced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. These would be good for historians looking for such an overview, but there is little substance to them beyond the strictly chronological.

If there are lacuna to this volume, one of them was just noted: the title would suggest that more than merely Greek or Grecophone Orthodoxy is treated here, but it is not. Relations between Orthodoxy and Islam in a Slavic (or Romanian, or Armenian, etc)context are not treated. In addition, nothing is made at all of the plight of far too many Orthodox Christians in places like Egypt; and the whole nasty phenomenon of dhimmitude is not mentioned at all. What would have been especially helpful (though clearly impolitic) would be a dialogue on the views and role of violence in the persons of Mohammad and Jesus, or as treated in Islamic and Christian scriptures. So too a dialogue on the role of religious minorities--Muslims in modern Greece, for example, or relations between Greeks and Arabs in Jerusalem. Still, one cannot treat everything in one volume, and so the better thing would have been to use a more refined title indicating that this book is concerned with Greek Orthodoxy, which is no small thing. To the extent that it is, Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue is a welcome contribution, and it belongs on every bibliography treating the encounter, both historic and current, between Orthodoxy and Islam in that particular part of the world.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Orthodoxy in Greece in Our Time

I have a friend about to move to Athens for work, and the news out of Greece these days gives me frequent pause over what he will be facing there with the financial problems and consequent social turmoil embroiling the country currently. Greece, of course, is the only Orthodox country in the European Union, and Orthodox monks, according to this fascinating article, have played a not insignificant role in the fiscal crisis.

Now a new book, briefly mentioned before, comes along to look at the wider picture of Greek Orthodoxy:

Victor Roudometov and Vasilios N. Makrides, eds., Orthodox Christianity in 21st Century Greece (Ashgate, 2010), 268pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
One of the predominantly Orthodox countries that has never experienced communism is Greece, a country uniquely situated to offer insights about contemporary trends and developments in Orthodox Christianity. This volume offers a comprehensive treatment of the role Orthodox Christianity plays at the dawn of the twenty-first century Greece from social scientific and cultural-historical perspectives. This book breaks new ground by examining in depth the multifaceted changes that took place in the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and politics, ethnicity, gender, and popular culture. Its intention is two-fold: on the one hand, it aims at revisiting some earlier stereotypes, widespread both in academic and others circles, about the Greek Orthodox Church, its cultural specificity and its social presence, such as its alleged intrinsic non-pluralistic attitude toward non-Orthodox Others. On the other hand, it attempts to show how this fairly traditional religious system underwent significant changes in recent years affecting its public role and image, particularly as it became more and more exposed to the challenges of globalization and multiculturalism.
I asked Dr. Nicolas Prevelakis, who lectures on social studies at Harvard, to review the book for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. His long and considered review will be published in our fall issue. Prevelakis calls this ''a very impressive, extremely interesting and much needed book. It is of great value to scholars of contemporary Greece and at the same time very accessible to a wider audience.''

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Sophiology of Thomas Merton

In the spring issue (vol. 52, nos. 1-2) of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Michael Plekon of Baruch College in the City University of New York has a very appreciative review of Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, xxx+322pp.

Plekon opens his review by saying that ''without a doubt, this is the most important piece of Merton scholarship, and the most elegant, beautifully styled and discerning study of Merton’s thinking, in many, many years.'' Pramuk discusses such Russian sophiologists as Sergius Bulgakov and others, including Paul Evdokimov and Vladimir Lossky. Pramuk's study draws on the enormously valuable work of Paul Valliere, Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key. As Plekon goes on to note, in his considered judgment, Pramuk's book ''has changed the way we look at Thomas Merton.''

In the coming weeks, I hope to have an interview on here with the author, Christopher Pramuk, to talk about this book and his other scholarly endeavors.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Byzantine Theotokos

In August Ashgate will be releasing what looks to be a fascinating study exploring hagiography and iconography, and much else besides:

Leslie Brubaker and Mary Cunningham, Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium (Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies) (Ashgate, 2011), 336pp.

About the book, the publisher tells us:
This volume, on the cult of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) in Byzantium, focuses on textual and historical aspects of the subject, thus complementing previous work which has centered more on the cult of images of the Mother of God. The papers presented here, by an international cast of scholars, consider the development and transformation of the cult from approximately the fourth through the twelfth centuries. This volume opens with discussion of the origins of the cult, and its Near Eastern manifestations, including the archaeological site of the Kathisma church in Palestine, which represents the earliest Marian shrine in the Holy Land, and Syriac poetic treatment of the Virgin. The principal focus, however, is on the 8th and 9th centuries in Byzantium, as a critical period when Christian attitudes toward the Virgin and her veneration were transformed. The book re-examines the relationship between icons, relics and the Virgin, asking whether increasing devotion to these holy objects or figures was related in any way. Some contributions consider the location of relics and later, icons, in Constantinople and other centres of Marian devotion; others explore gender issues, such as the significance of the Virgin's feminine qualities, and whether women and men identified with her equally as a holy figure. The aim of this volume is to build on recent work on the cult of the Virgin Mary in Byzantium and to explore areas that have not yet been studied. The rationale is critical and historical, using literary, artistic, and archaeological sources to evaluate her role in the development of the Byzantine understanding of the ways in which God interacts with creation by means of icons, relics, and the Theotokos.
I look forward to seeing this reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Icon Painting

As I have noted many times on here already, books on icons are just about the most popular of all publications in Eastern Christian studies. They continue to pour forth from presses large and small, academic and ecclesial, Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic. This is not a little surprising when one realizes, first, that scarcely a century ago icons were often ignored or scorned by academics and historians as the primitive totems of backwards peoples too stupid to appreciate the canons and conventions of a supposedly more sophisticated Western art; and, second, a little more than a century ago, at the 1888 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican bishops who gathered there had sniffed of Orthodoxy that “it would be difficult for us to enter into more intimate relations with  that Church as long as it retains the use of icons”! (Cf. the situation of today, when major academic presses publish appreciative books on icons and when Anglican publishing houses publish several books on icons by Anglican clerics, and when Orthodox publishers print one of the most widely used introductions to icons--written by another Anglican!)

Holy Cross Press earlier this year published a short work devoted to the technical aspects of icon painting/writing:

George Kordis, Icon as Communion: The Ideals and Compositional Principles of Icon Painting (Holy Cross Press, 2011), 118pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

This work largely consists of notes and observations on the drawing stage in icon painting. The chief objective was to present the thought underlying the Byzantine artistic system, and how this is expressed in the handling of the face, the human figure and the composition.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...