"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, September 25, 2011

Eastern Christianity and Islam (III)

I have previously noted some of the problems with books treating the encounter between Eastern Christianity and Islam, and how much work remains to be done in the area. Facing Islam: What the Ancient Church Has to Say about the Religion of Muhammad, alas, does not help us much. I met the author at a little conference on Orthodoxy and Islam in Ohio in late August of this year. He is an affable fellow who is clearly brave enough to discuss some deadly serious issues that too many people cravenly run away from when talking about Islam today. But this is not a scholarly book. Indeed, I am reluctant even to call it a "book" for it lacks the coherence we often associate with that term, especially in monographs. This is, rather, something like an omnium gatherum. It throws together bits and pieces of the thought of St. John Damascene with verbatim quotations in extenso from several websites (including Wikipedia) and other publications alongside news reports and blog postings treating the death of the Russian Orthodox priest Daniil Sysoev at the hands of Muslims in Moscow in November 2009. And then there is extensive commentary from the author.

To put it bluntly, the book is more or less self-published even if it bears the name of "KBS Press," an utterly recondite outfit I had never heard of (and I think I may, at risk of being immodest, know more about publishers of Eastern Christian books than most) until now. We are witnessing far too much self-publishing today and that serves nobody well. Editorial and peer-review at reputable journals and presses usually performs an often invaluable service not just to the publisher and the reading public, but especially to the author himself. This book needed more such critical scrutiny from serious scholars. Inter alia, it needed to acknowledge and deal with:

The obvious rejoinder to all this is that quite likely the author never meant to write a scholarly book, only a "popular" one. As he himself admitted to me at the conference mentioned above, he is not a scholar, holding only an undergraduate degree. But one can write a "popular" (or, better, "accessible") book and still attend generously and judiciously to relevant scholarship while steering clear of dodgy sources, relentlessly polemical interpretations, and "confessional propaganda" (Robert Taft) masquerading as history. Let us have an end to that. Relations between Eastern Christians and Muslims are very complicated in many places, relatively amicable in a very few, deadly in others but in all cases too important, and the stakes far too high above all for Eastern Christians, to treat these relations, both historic and current, with anything other than scrupulous, contextualized, wide-ranging, and exacting study that has been carefully edited and reviewed.

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