"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).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Allah: A Christian Response

In my classes on Eastern Christianity and the Encounter with Islam, I am regularly asked how a Christian ought to view Allah. Is the God of the New Testament the same as the God of the Quran? Are they completely and irreconcilably different figures? Are there similarities between them? And is it more important to understand the similarities or emphasize the differences? Too much of the emphasis, for obvious political reasons, has been lately on emphasizing similarities, almost invariably at a cost of being completely truthful and faithful to both Christian and Islamic theological sources. Following Stephen Prothero, in his fascinating new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World I take a dim view of efforts to conjure connections or suggest similarities solely to make people feel good while holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Those who do that either do not know what they are talking about or are being deliberately obscurantist in their approach, or both. The responsible approach, it seems to me, is to allow both Christian and Islamic traditions to speak for themselves without forcing them together artificially--but equally without polemically blasting them apart into two solitudes. 

These are questions that animate a new book by Myroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011), 336pp.

About this book, the publisher says:
Three and a half billion people—the majority of the world’s population—profess Christianity or Islam. Renowned scholar Miroslav Volf’s controversial proposal is that Muslims and Christians do worship the same God—the only God. As Volf reveals, warriors in the “clash of civilizations” have used “religions”—each with its own god and worn as a badge of identity—to divide and oppose, failing to recognize the one God whom Muslims and Christians understand in partly different ways.

Writing from a Christian perspective, and in dialogue with leading Muslim scholars and leaders from around the world, Volf reveals surprising points of intersection and overlap between these two faith traditions:
• What the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by Christians today.

• A person can be both a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian without denying core convictions of belief and practice.

• How two faiths, worshiping the same God, can work toward the common good under a single government.

Volf explains the hidden agendas behind today’s news stories as he thoughtfully considers the words of religious leaders and parses the crucial passages from the Bible and the Qur’an that continue to ignite passion. Allah offers a constructive way forward by reversing the “our God vs. their God” premise that destroys bridges between neighbors and nations, magnifies fears, and creates strife.
I've already started reading it, and will have more to say about it on here later.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Eastern Christianity and Islam (IV): The Syriac Churches

Syria is of course much in the news today because of on-going political instability and unrest in this year of the so-called Arab Spring. Relations between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Syria are rather more complicated than simplistic media narratives would have us believe, and many Christians in the country are on the side of the government in the current unrest, fearing (with good reason) that the alternatives are much worse. An Antiochian Orthodox priest from Texas, Joseph Huneycutt, who recently visited Syria to find out what Christian-Muslim relations are really like today, has written up a six-part series on his visit that is informative in this regard. If and when Noriko Sato's oft-delayed book Orthodox Christians in Syria (Durham Modern Middle East and Islamic World Series) is published, we may have further details--though the situation is so fluid that the danger of any book being published is that it can instantly end up out being out of date.

We are, however, seeing an increasing number of scholarly studies of Christian-Muslim relations in Syria in historical perspective; I noted a few of them earlier in this series. The focus on Syria reminds us that it was in every sense of the word on the forefront of Arab Muslim conquests in the seventh century.

Now another welcome collection has recently been published: Dietmar W. Winkler, ed., Syriac Churches Encountering Islam: Past Experiences and Future Perspectives (Pro Oriente Studies in the Syriac Tradition) (Gorgias Press, 2010), xii+253pp.

There are, I want to stress, riches in this book that others could and should benefit from. These riches, alas, are heavily obscured thanks to the fact that many of the contributors wrote in a language obviously not native to them and the book was "edited" by an Austrian. Why a publisher would allow such an arrangement is a mystery; but the greater mystery is why this book was not copy-edited in any form by a competent anglophone. I should be hugely embarrassed as an editor and publisher to put into print a book (especially one so steeply priced as this) whose nearly every page is positively scrofulous with errors, the worst being Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim's chapter, "The Syrian Churches During the Umayyad Era," which, a mere seventeen pages in length, has, by my count, 144 (one-hundred-and-forty-four) errors in it. Line after line, paragraph after paragraph, page after page: they are all so filled with errors as to render much of his text incomprehensible. Errors of spelling, grammar, style, formatting, and fact fill every page; but my favorite has to be the howler repeated regularly by the author in his reference to "St. Simeon the Stylist [sic]." Ah--so the mystery is at last revealed: atop his pillar (στυλος), one finds a hairdressing shop tended by St. Simeon the Stylite! I should certainly find the prospect of working in a beauty salon an extreme askesis indeed, but this is not what Simeon endured.

Joseph Yacoub's article "Christian Minorities in the Countries of the Middle East: a Glimpse to the Present Situation and Future Prospects" was obviously written (based on the dated material he cites) at least five, and like more, years ago now. He does not inspire confidence in the reader when, at the outset, he purports to introduce the different Christians in the Middle East, and says that "in Jordan, there are Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics (Melkites), and Eastern Christians of the Latin rite" (173). What is that last phrase supposed to mean? On the next page he seems to compound the problem by claiming that, among others, "the oriental Christians are....the Latins and the Protestants," also a bizarre categorization. He ends his introduction by saying "this paper will focus on Syriac Christianity" but on the very next line he dives into "Iraq: a decimated Christianity" and spends the next twenty-six pages (more than half the chapter) attacking the American invasion of Iraq ("the crusade launched by George W. Bush" and supported by "Christian fundamentalists in the entourage of George Bush" with ostensible ideological support, and financial backing, from the nefarious "National Association of Evangelicals" which, in case we miss the point, is "linked to the Republican party"). This screed proceeds with all the de haut en bas attitude sometimes attributed to French academics in the popular imagination. It is sloppy, dripping with condescension, and wildly off target. When he finally turns to Christians in Syria and, even more briefly, Turkey, he says nothing that has not been better said, with much greater and more current detail, elsewhere.

Syria reappears in "Culture and Coexistence in Syria" by Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, but this short article (barely six pages in length) is also riddled with errors, and one's confidence, already very shaky after the previous encounter earlier in the book with this author, is destroyed at the outset by the author's absurd and utterly unprecedented claim that "Historically, the See of Antioch was the first See in Christendom" (222). The hairdressing Simeon shows up again at least once here.

Dietmar Winkler's article "Christian Responses to Islam in the Umayyad Period" is a marked by many typos, but it tells an extremely important story and reinforces Griffith's point (noted below) that no Christian rejoiced in the Arab-Muslim invasion. Those who claim this are almost invariably people who have no facility in the original texts, and instead repeat received myths that no serious historian accepts. Indeed, Winkler makes it clear that "the fact that within a century of the death of Muhammad (632) Islam had spread across much of the known world was for many Christians inexplicable, frightening, and theologically incomprehensible" (72).

The one chapter on Islam in India deals with "Christian-Muslim Relationships on the Malabar Coast" by Baby Varghese. The jist of his article--which is too short, and unaccountably ends in 1964, with no mention of anything that has happened since then--is that relations between the Thomas Christians of Kerala (and other Syriac-derived Christian groups) and the Muslims who later arrived there were decent until Portuguese Christians (Roman Catholics) begin showing up at the end of the fifteenth century. Then the Portuguese, in their religio-cultural chauvinism, began buggering things up for everybody, treating both the native Christians and Muslims with violent hostility and contempt.

The highlight of this book has to be Sidney Griffith's article, "The Syriac-Speaking Churches and the Muslims in the Medinan Era of Muhammad and the Four Caliphs." Anyone who knows Griffith's work knows he is rightly recognized today as one of the world's leading scholars of the ancient encounter between Christians and Muslims, especially in Syria. This has been demonstrated in over three decades' worth of scholarship in many places, including perhaps most notably The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam

With his customary lucidity, care, and command of the sources, Griffith first demonstrates just how influential Syriac Christianity was on the composition of the Quran: "the Qur'an itself is the best witness to the Christian presence in Muhammad's world"(17), not least because of the "Syriacisms in the Arabic diction" and by "how much of the Qur'an's eschatology echoes that of the classical Syriac writers" (19).

Griffth then turns to Christian reactions to Islam, which of course were varied depending on place and time. Often a common initial reaction was that the "scourge of the Saracens" was sent by God to chastise the Christians and bring them back to repentance and holiness. At no point did any Christian ever understand the invasion to be a good thing, still less something to be welcomed with open arms. This absurd myth, repeated as recently as a few weeks ago as I noted on here, is debunked once again by Griffith, who shows that the idea of Coptic welcome of invasion stems from a notoriously misquoted and misunderstood letter from Isho'yabh III (d. 659), patriarch of the "Church of the East." When read in context, that letter, on "closer inspection reveals that the writers were not so much voicing a welcome for what we recognize in hindsight as the onset of the Islamic conquest as they were invidiously comparing even Arab rule, which they disdained, to the oppressive conduct of their previous governors....[T]he Christians of all denominations unanimously regarded the conquest as a disaster"(28).

Mar Julius Mikhael Al-Jamil's article "The Personal Status of Christians in the Ottoman Empire" is a short treatment of the infamous millet system and the ritual of firman or berat, the investiture of (initially) Greek, Armenian, and Jewish leaders as the ethnarchs heading up their respective communities--a list later much expanded to include other ethno-religious communities given such arrangements under pressure from Western (especially French) powers at the sunset of the Ottoman Empire. This topic has been treated elsewhere at greater length and with more detail than one finds here.

Karam Risk's article "Christians Build a State--Lebanon" ends the book. It is a mere nine pages, and therefore treats Lebanese history with extreme brevity, ending with a paean to Lebanon whose "future remains radiant and luminous."

In the end, the intent of this collection was noble indeed. It brings together some fascinating material still not well known today, and in fact still often wildly (sometimes intentionally) misrepresented and misunderstood. But the execution of too many articles, and of the book as a whole, leaves much to be desired. This is greatly to be regretted because we desperately need good scholarship today more than ever. The search continues.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

New Book on Icon Painting

Aidan Hart has just published what looks to be a most impressive book on the techniques of icon painting. (I am aware that some insist on speaking of "icon writing" but that is often an affectation based on overlooking the multivalence of Greek and Slavonic in which the verbs "to write" and "to draw" are so closely related as to be susceptible of either translation into English.)

Aidan Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting: Egg Tempera, Fresco, Secco (Gracewing, 2011), 460pp. + 450 colour illustrations + 160 drawings.

About this book we are told:
This is the most comprehensive book to date on the techniques of icon and wall painting. Illustrated by over 450 colour ilustrations and over 160 drawings, it is a source of pleasure and inspiration for the general reader as well as for the practising icon painter. More than just a technical manual, it sets artistic practice in the context of the Church's spirituality and liturgy, with chapters on the theology and history of the icon, and the reasons behind the placement of wall paintings within churches.
The book carries a slew of impressive endorsements, including from the well-known Orthodox theologian and hierarch, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who writes in the preface: 
I know of no comparable work in the English language that deals with the technique of icon painting in such a thorough and comprehensive manner. Yet, while concerned with technique, the treatment is never merely technical. At every point we see how technique reveals a transfigured world. Spirituality and technology are combined together, so that each illuminates the other.
Another endorsement comes from Sr. Wendy Beckett, whose own recent book on icons I favorably discussed on here earlier:
An icon is visual theology, the Word of God. It can only be written in truth by one who seeks and loves this holy Word. Aidan Hart understands this to the depth.
On Hart's website, you may view a detailed table of contents, some sample plates, and find an order form to buy the book. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Just in Time for Christmas

Two months from today, if you can imagine, is Christmas. It's not too early to start thinking about what gifts would give the greatest delight to the Eastern Christian bibliophile in your family. Try, for example, to think of the joy of your family and friends when they unwrap a copy of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. Spread the joy this season--order your copy, and enough for your 93 closest friends and family, today!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Damascene Developments

As what we today call Islam begins in the seventh century its campaign of expansion out of the Arabian peninsula and into Syria, Egypt, and beyond, what was life like in those newly conquered territories, beginning with the first of them, Syria? What did Islam do to the Christians in Syria--and others--and the long-established religious culture of the region? A new book comes along to help us understand these questions more deeply: Nancy Khalek, Damascus after the Muslim Conquest: Text and Image in Early Islam (OUP USA, 2011), 224pp.
About this book, the publisher says that
Unlike other histories of the early Islamic period, which focus on the political and military aspects of the conquests, this book is about narrative history and the constitution of identity in the changing and dynamic landscape of the early Islamic world.
    Before it fell to Muslim armies in AD 635-6 Damascus had a long and prestigious history as a center of Christianity. How did the city, which became capital of the Islamic Empire, and its people, negotiate the transition from a late antique, or early Byzantine world to an Islamic culture? In this innovative study, Nancy Khalek demonstrates that the changes that took place in Syria during the formative period of Islamic life were not a matter of the replacement of one civilization by another as a result of military conquest, but rather of shifting relationships and practices in a multi-faceted social and cultural setting. Even as late antique forms of religion and culture persisted, the formation of Islamic identity was effected by the people who constructed, lived in, and narrated the history of their city. Khalek draws on the evidence of architecture, and the testimony of pilgrims, biographers, geographers, and historians to shed light on this process of identity formation. Offering a fresh approach to the early Islamic period, she moves the study of Islamic origins beyond a focus on issues of authenticity and textual criticism, and initiates an interdisciplinary discourse on narrative, story-telling, and the interpretations of material culture.        

    Sunday, October 23, 2011

    Greek Patristic and Orthodox Interpretations of Romans

    Great are the numbers of commentaries on Romans by prominent theologians ancient and modern. But in the modern period, Eastern studies of this text are not as numerous nor as prominent as, e.g., Karl Barth's famous studies of this text.  Early next year a new collection will help to fill in this gap: Daniel Patte and Christine Kelly, eds., Greek Patristic and Eastern Orthodox Interpretations of Romans (Romans Through History & Culture) (T&T Clark/Continuum, 2012), 224pp.

    About this book, the publisher says:
    This collection of essays integrates scholarly and scriptural interpretations, Eastern Orthodox biblical scholarship, together with biblical interpretations throughout church history. Unlike the Western interpretations that read Romans in terms of theological anthropology, the Greek Fathers do not presuppose such a concept and therefore each of the articles in this volume invites Western scholars and students to re-read Paul's letter with new eyes: with a greater sensitivity to the nuances of the Greek text; with an openness to envision what Paul is saying from very different theological and hermeneutical perspectives; and with the awareness that the Greek Fathers addressed particular contextual issues of their time.
    The publisher has also helpfully provides us a detailed table of contents: 

    • Introduction/Vasile Mihoc, Facultatea de Teologie 'Andrei Saguna', Sibiu, Romania. 
    • Basic Principles of Orthodox Biblical Hermeneutics as Rooted in the Greek Fathers' Interpretation/Daniel Patte, Vanderbilt University. 
    • How the Essays in this Volume Complement Each Other/Matthew W. Bates, University of Notre Dame. 
    • Prosopographic Exegesis and Narrative Logic: Paul, Origen, and Theodoret of Cyrus on Psalm 69:22-23/Steven DiMattei, University of Houston. 
    • Adam, an Image of the Future Economy: Romans 5:14 in the Context of Irenaeus' Christological Exegesis of Genesis 1:26/Archbishop Demetrios [Trakatellis], Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. 
    • "Being Transformed": Chrysostom's Exegesis of the Epistle to the Romans/Vasile Mihoc, Theological School Sibiu. 
    • St. Paul and the Jews in John Chrysostom's Commentary on Romans 9-11/George Kalantzis, Wheaton College. 
    • The Voice So Dear to Me: Themes From Romans in Theodore, Chrysostom, and Theodoret/Bruce Lowe, Macquarie University-Sydney. 
    • What Does Proecho Really Echo in Romans 3.9? Re-evaluating Arethas & Photius' 9th-10th Century Greek Interpretations/Stelian Tofana, Babes Bolayi University. 
    • The Interdependency between Destiny, Humankind and Creation According to Rom. 8:18-23: An Orthodox-Patristic Perspective/Conclusion/Daniel Patte, Vanderbilt University. 
    • Some of the Theological/Hermeneutical, Contextual, and Analytical/Textual Choices Made by Greek Fathers and Eastern Orthodox Interpreters of Romans
    • Biographies of contributors
    • Indices

    Friday, October 21, 2011

    The Vatican and the Holodomor in Ukraine

    Those of you in Rome or with easy access to it may be interested to know of a book launch on October 26th at 5:30pm* at the Centro Russia Ecumenica (Borgo Pio 141, Roma) of a new scholarly work by Athanasius McVay and Lubomyr Luciuk, The Holy See and the Holodomor: Documents from the Vatican Secret Archives on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine.

    We will have this book expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, and also discussed on here later.

    * Which I previously mistakenly mentioned as being on Sept. 26th

    Dictionaries of Orthodoxy

    Reference works about Eastern Christianity have increasingly appeared in the last decade. In 2001 we had the very useful Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Then last year we saw the appearance of The A to Z of the Orthodox Church (The A to Z Guide Series)
    This is, as I noted in my review in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, a useful volume, but it is simply a  reprinted and re-titled version of The Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church  first published in 1996. It is no.175 in the ongoing series of rather useful “A to  Z Guides” that  Scarecrow Press has been bringing out, including the recent A to Z of the Coptic Church.

    The usefulness of this book, however, will be limited by the fact – obvious from reading various entries, as well as the introductory chronology – that most of this book was written in the very early 1990s as the Soviet Union was collapsing. The ecclesiological and ecumenical consequences of  that collapse, and its many subsequent developments, are not covered in this book, which also appeared just before an explosion of  new  publications  in Eastern Christian studies.  This book’s eighty-eight-page bibliography,   therefore, would now require considerable updating.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology

    Earlier this year, in a long review of a fascinating new collection, I drew attention in particular to the work of Radu Bordeianu on Dumitru Staniloae, widely regarded as Romania's pre-eminent theologian of the twentieth century. Now the latter again occupies the former's attention in a welcome new book to be released later this year:

    Radu Bordeianu, Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology (Ecclesiological Investigations) (T&T Clark/Continuum, 2011), 240pp.

      About this book, the publisher says: 
    Widely considered the most important Orthodox theologian of the twentieth     century, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993) contributed significantly to an ecumenical understanding of these themes. Because of his isolation by the Romanian Communist regime, his work still awaits its merited reception, especially given its potential contribution towards Christian unity.

    In Staniloae's understanding the Church is a communion in the image of the Trinity. Because there is a continuum of grace between the Trinity and the Church, the same relationships that exist among trinitarian persons are manifested in creation in general, and the Church in particular. In this way, the Trinity fills the world and the Church, determining their mode of existence. Intratrinitarian relationships are manifested in the relationships between humankind and non-human creation, the Church and the world, local and universal aspects of the Church, clergy and the people, and among various charisms.
    We also have the table of contents:

    Part One - Ecumenical Ecclesiology
    Chapter 1 - Open Sobornicity: Staniloae's Interaction with the West
    Chapter 2 - Filled with the Trinity: The Relationship between the Trinity and the Church
    Part Two - Filled With the Trinity
    Chapter 3 - Adoptive Children of the Father: The Relationship between the Father and the Church Chapter 4 - Body of Christ: The Relationship between the Son and the Church
    Chapter 5 - Filled with the Spirit: The Relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church
    Part Three - Communion Ecclesiology
    Chapter 6 - Priesthood Toward Creation
    Chapter 7 - The Priesthood of the Church: Communion between Clergy and the People
    Chapter 8 - Locality and Universality: Eucharistic Ecclesiology

    I greatly look forward to reading this, reviewing it for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, and discussing it on here--as well as interviewing the author in the weeks ahead. 

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    The Development of Christology

    Many people today, alas, know little history, and even less Christian, specifically doctrinal, history. They are as a result often upset to hear of the vigorous debates--not to say fights--that embroiled many Christians between the third and eighth centuries especially. Along comes a new book surveying the development of Christological doctrine and challenging some of the assumptions about that development: 

    Charles Talbert, The Development of Christology During the First Hundred Years: And Other Essays on Early Christian Christology (Brill, 2011, 200pp.).

    About this book the publisher says:
    Entering the debate about the development of Christology among Jesus' earliest followers, this volume critiques both the traditional evolutionary view that posited an elementary early Jewish Christology that developed in complexity as it was increasingly Hellenized and the more recent attempt to see a full-orbed Christology both as early and as Jewish, not Hellenistic, in its categories. It contends that during the first 100 years Jesus' followers employed four models from their milieu, Jewish and Greco-Roman, both to understand and to communicate their Christologies. These models were appropriated because they were appropriate vehicles for expressing the impact of Jesus on them, past, present, and future

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Desert Fathers and Mothers

    Interest in the Fathers, especially those of the deserts of Egypt, remains high. In the last decade more than a dozen books have appeared. Especially noteworthy are several volumes by John Chryssavgis, including In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers; and Tim Vivian, ed., Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

    Now another book has been released just last week: David G.R. Keller, Desert Banquet: A Year of Wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers (Liturgical Press, 2011), 256pp.

    About this book, the publisher says:
    The wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers lies in their experiences of solitude, prayer, community life, work, and care for their neighbors. Their goal was transformation of their lives through openness to the presence and energy of God in Christ. They taught by example and by sharing narratives and sayings that reflect the deep human psychological and spiritual aspects of their journey toward authentic human life. The venue for their transformation was the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. They emphasized self-knowledge, humility, purity of heart, and love of God and neighbor. Far from being naïve, their sayings and narratives reflect honest struggles, temptations, and failures. They also demonstrate the disciplines of prayer and meditation that kept them centered in God as their only source of strength. The daily reflections in Desert Banquet introduce readers to a variety of these early Christian mentors and offer reflections on the significance of their wisdom for life in the twenty-first century.
    The noted Orthodox theologian John McGuckin, whose work we have discussed on here several times, has praised Keller's book thus:

    "This delightful book presents a year´s daily readings from the Early Christian Desert tradition, with a very helpful spiritual commentary for each date. It is a veritable pocket Philokalia, such as we hear about in The Way of the Pilgrim. Fr. David Keller has done a great service in providing this very profound source of lectio divina for those seriously interested in the spiritual path."

    Monday, October 17, 2011

    The Copts and the Muslims

    Those of us who have spent 2011 very anxiously watching events unfold in Egypt cannot but have an increasingly sickening feeling that initial suspicions are being borne out and things are going from bad to worse for the Coptic Christians in that country.

    Too many journalists, bloggers, and even would-be academics such as Walter Russell Mead cannot bother to bestir themselves to understand the situation of the Copts beyond mindlessly repeating demonstrably false and thoroughly discredited slanders, the grossest and most lamentably common of which is that, in the mid-seventh century, the Copts "welcomed" invasion by Arab Muslims, supposedly with open arms. Serious historians who know what they are talking about have shown this to be false--but to paraphrase Robert Taft at Orientale Lumen in June, why bother studying history when instead you can just make it up?

    Most recently this absurd myth of Coptic welcoming of Muslim conquest has again been debunked by Sidney Griffth in his essay "The Syriac-Speaking Churches and the Muslims in the Medinan Era of Muhammad and the Four Caliphs," part of a collection edited by Dietmar Winkler and entitled Syriac Churches Encountering Islam: Past Experiences and Future Perspectives (Pro Oriente Studies in the Syriac Tradition). I have noted the contents of this book before and hope to have a long review of it posted in the weeks ahead.

    Griffith, author of The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, in the above-noted essay shows that the idea of Coptic welcome of invasion stems from a notoriously misquoted and misunderstood letter from Isho'yabh III (d. 659), patriarch of the "Church of the East." When read in context, that letter, on "closer inspection reveals that the writers were not so much voicing a welcome for what we recognize in hindsight as the onset of the Islamic conquest as they were invidiously comparing even Arab rule, which they disdained, to the oppressive conduct of their previous governors....[T]he Christians of all denominations unanimously regarded the conquest as a disaster"(28; emphasis mine). May this pernicious fiction die the death it deserves. And more important, may the Copts soon obtain that freedom from persecution that they have for too long been denied.

    Sunday, October 16, 2011

    Orthodoxy in the Spiritual Marketplace

    Twice in as many years, I have heard lectures by Amy Slagle of the University of Southern Mississippi, and both were fascinating. Both were delivered in the context of the ASEC conference, which is really one of the most outstanding academic conferences I've attended, marked by a wonderful spirit of collegiality, thanks in no small part to the leadership of the lovely and delightful Jenn Spock, an historian of Russian monasticism teaching at Eastern Kentucky University under whom the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture (ASEC) goes from strength to strength. At the most recent conference, held at Ohio State University (whose Hilandar Research Library and Resource Centre for Medieval Slavic Studies, under Dr. Predrag Matejic's leadership, really is an outstanding place) October 7-8, Slagle gave another paper on the role of Seraphim Rose in contemporary American Orthodoxy.

    Slagle has just recently published her first book, based on her doctoral dissertation: The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity (Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 207pp.

    This is a superlative study, and I warmly recommend it. I think that sociologists of religion, anthropologists studying religious communities, and of course Eastern Christians themselves, perhaps especially pastors and hierarchs looking to understand the mindset of many converts to Orthodoxy today, would benefit greatly from reading the only study of its kind in North America today.

    One of the several happy aspects of this book is how wonderfully it is written. Slagle--unlike too many people trained in the methods of the modern social sciences--writes with great lucidity and cogency, eschewing the often jargon-laden, leaden, and lethal prose one so often finds in social-science journals and books. Slagle herself said to me that the book is a fast read, and indeed it is; but one should not allow the speed with which the pages turn to distract one from the many and significant insights she weaves into her analysis of the fascinating stories of the forty-eight converts to Orthodoxy whom she studied in different parts of the country and in different Orthodox churches. This is a ground-breaking book, and in its care to tell stories honestly and analyze them without imposing an ideological agenda, Slagle sets the bar high for future studies--and notes the need for such studies because hers has not, she is at pains to say, been "a complete, comprehensive, or generally representative portrait of  'the conversion experience' of American-born converts to Orthodox Christianity" (37).

    After two introductory chapters--the first on Orthodoxy in general, the second on Eastern Orthodoxy in the context of late-modern North American pluralism--Slagle turns, in chapter three, to the diversity of practices used to receive converts into Orthodoxy, depending, inter alia, on whether they were baptized before or not; and if so, from which tradition they may be coming. There is, as John Erickson and others have noted, no consistent practice on how other Christians are received into Orthodoxy. Chapters 4-6 are the heart of the book, exploring the meaning and motivation of conversion, the perspectives of converts on Orthodox liturgics and ritual, and then the convert's perspective on the question of ethnicity in Orthodoxy.

    One of the many fascinating insights Slagle uncovers through structured interviews with her subjects, and through participant-observation of Orthodox parish life, is that "even in their embrace of Orthodox tradition, converts retain generalized American assumptions that religion should promote interior growth, fulfillment, and psychological comfort" (15). Many of them come to embrace Orthodoxy through a quintessentially modern American method of  "church shopping" in which "church affiliation [is] more a matter of personal taste than an imperative to find the doctrinally true" (47). I was especially fascinated by Slagle showing that even for those converts for whom some notion of objective truth was ostensibly their motive for converting, a "subjective view of religion as a kind of handmaiden to the needs of the self was not easily shaken" (48). The paradoxes of modernity, and the The Triumph of the Therapeutic, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to outwit. (In the memorable words of the late Richard John Neuhaus in his The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World, converts are often those who "exult in the freedom to submit to authority with wild abandon"!) This idea of "religion" as therapeutic, aimed towards my happiness, runs smack into "one of the most common informant responses to the question of difficulties they [coverts] had encountered in becoming or being Orthodox," namely fasting.

    Slagle's chapter on ethnicity and converts is full of surprises (as are her findings of the differences in how converts by marriage are treated vs. converts who come as seekers from other traditions) on the part of the attitude both of the converts, and of the parishioners and clergy in their new-found communities. The stories of converts, and the reactions of priests and cradle members of parishes, are all told with Slagle's careful, unobtrusive, and very even-handed manner.

    In her conclusion, Slagle notes that "these conversions defy simple characterizations" (157) and are often not the end of the story: "many converts...leave the Orthodox Church for other religious options" (161). Let us hope that Slagle will next turn her hand to exploring these converts who leave Orthodoxy, and their reasons for doing so, for that would make for another welcome book, as likely as fascinating and well-written as The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity.

    Friday, October 14, 2011

    Author Interview: Christopher D.L. Johnson

    Last weekend, at the very rich and rewarding ASEC conference, I met Christopher Johnson, author of Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation (Continuum Advances In Religious Studies, 2010, 224pp.). I interviewed him about his book

    AD: Please tell us about your background. 

    I am currently an instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. I received my B.A. in Philosophy and Religious Studies from Rhodes College (Memphis, TN) and my M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh. My research agenda focuses on the ongoing interpretation and adaptation of Orthodox Christian beliefs and practices both within the Church and in other settings.

    Tell us why you wrote this book:

    I wrote this book for several reasons. I had a very vague idea of what the Jesus Prayer was growing up and, after reading J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, The Way of a Pilgrim, and other works, it became clear that there was an interesting struggle at work over the proper use and interpretation of the practice. This fascinated me and gave a concrete direction for my dissertation, providing a methodology that dealt mainly with issues of hermeneutics, reception, and appropriation. Another reason for writing the book was that there is practically nothing written about hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer that is not explicitly theological or comparative. While I value these approaches, I felt my role as a scholar within religious studies could be put to use in beginning to fill such a gap and extending the discussion beyond its traditional boundaries.

    For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?
    The book is written for those with a scholarly interest in hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer. It is also, more generally, for those who study Christian mysticism and contemplative practices in Christianity, the reception and adaptation of religious practices, or Byzantine/medieval Christian history and theology and its impact on contemporary spirituality. While it is aimed at a scholarly audience, I believe the general idea of the book will be of interest to those wanting to learn about contemporary spirituality and Orthodox Christianity.

    What about your own background led you to the writing of this book? 
    The Jesus Prayer was somewhat familiar to me from a young age since I grew up in an Orthodox Christian environment. I only became more aware and interested in the practice while in college. My master's thesis was on the relationship between the philosophical phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of religion promoted by Mircea Eliade, arguing for an embodied understanding of Eliade's terms 'sacred' and 'profane'. My doctoral dissertation, which was the seed of this book, continued several themes from my master's thesis, but was a departure in its focus on Eastern Orthodox prayer. I spent two months on Mount Athos during 2008 to immerse myself in the historical epicenter of the practice of the Jesus Prayer and this obviously had both a profound academic and personal impact in relation to the book.

    Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?

    It is surprising that there are so few scholars working on this topic! As I wrote, I also began to see many themes in my research that reoccur in other settings, usually in different ways. One example of this would be the discourse on appropriation. Some feel non-Orthodox use of the Jesus Prayer is a dangerous and disrespectful appropriation while others feel justified in using this practice outside of an Orthodox context without approval since they do not see the practices as owned by anyone. This is a topic relevant to many contemporary debates, such as that over the appropriation of Native American spirituality, but the way it plays out in relation to the Jesus Prayer is unique and not reducible to any general model of appropriation. This is something I touch on at the end the book, but hope to elaborate on more fully in a future study.

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

    Most available books on this topic deal with questions such as the history of hesychasm, how to pray the Jesus Prayer, and how the prayer is similar or dissimilar to other religious practices. In other words, existing works are typically historical, theological, or polemical. I have tried to adopt theories and methodologies from the social sciences and humanities instead to consider the interplay between the past and present of this contemplative tradition. There are several related studies that have come out recently that add significantly to this subject area, such as Daniel Payne's The Revival of Political Hesychasm in Contemporary Orthodox Thought: The Political Hesychasm of John Romanides and Christos Yannaras and Irina Paert's Spiritual Elders: Charisma and Tradition in Russian Orthodoxy among others. Veronica della Dora's recent book Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place from Homer to World War II also takes a similar methodological approach by studying the various ways in which Mount Athos has been represented and imagined in its history. These are welcome contributions to what is, I hope, a burgeoning area of study.

    Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation:

    The main idea of the book is that, as hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer have spread and become globalized, they have also become inevitably contested (thus the title). While these were originally monastic practices passed along orally and then through monastic texts, when the writings were compiled and published for a general audience in the eighteenth century, the practices gradually made their way into the awareness of the general public. This shift from the controlled interpretive environment of oral monastic instruction to a pluralistic situation where various interpretations vie for legitimacy has caused a multiplication of competing uses and views of the practice. I argue that each such view of the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm can be best understood by considering its overall worldview and conception of religious authority, tradition, and ownership.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Augustine of Hippo and Orthodoxy

    Too many Orthodox polemicists and apologists, who--as the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has himself admitted--invariably know very little about what they are railing against and have almost never read the sources they fatuously criticize (and do not have the languages to read those sources in their originals), are fond of holding up Augustine of Hippo as one of the worst offenders in Western theology's supposed long trajectory into heresy and outer darkness and ultimately separation from the East. To be able to sum up thus the unspeakably vast and complex corpus of Augustine's works is a little breath-taking. (That is not to say that there are not aspects of Augustine thinking unworthy of criticism--indeed there are.)

    The place and understanding of Augustine came up last weekend at the outstanding ASEC conference where Amy Slagle--on whose wonderful new book I shall have more to say next week I hope--presented a paper on the influence of the late Seraphim Rose. In the discussion after her lecture, I asked for her thoughts on why, in some respects, Rose seemed to return to Augustine each year for the former's Lenten readings when (a) Rose seemed to rather severely misunderstand Augustine; and (b) Rose was so highly critical of many other aspects of Latin Christianity.

    I read Rose many years ago now and put him out of my mind as an obvious crank whose interpretation of Augustine (to whom he always referred with strange circumlocutions and epithets), inter alia, was, to put it charitably, sui generis. But in misunderstanding Augustine, Rose is not at all sui generis in many respects. Augustine is, in fact, regularly (tendentiously) misunderstood by some Eastern Christians today, though if they attended to three recent studies many of the misunderstandings would be cleared up. First, more than ten years ago now, there was Myroslaw Tataryn's Augustine and Russian Orthodoxy, a careful study that still repays attention today.

    Then in 2008, we had two important studies. The first was a very lucid and compelling article by Peter Galadza, “The Liturgical Commemoration of Augustine in the Orthodox Church: An Ambiguous Lex Orandi for an Ambiguous Lex Credendi,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008): 111-130.

    The second was a very welcome, and widely praised, collection of articles by George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou, eds., Orthodox Readings of Augustine (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008), 304pp.

    About this book, the publisher tells us that it
    not only presents Eastern Orthodox readings of the great Latin theologian, but also demonstrates the very nature of theological consensus in ecumenical dialogue, from a referential starting point of the ancient and great Fathers. This collection exemplifies how, once, the Latin and Byzantine churches, from a deep communion of the faith that transcended linguistic, cultural and intellectual differences, sang from the same page a harmonious song of the beauty of Christ. Contributors are: Lewis Ayres, John Behr, David Bradshaw, Brian E. Daley, George E. Demacopoulos, Elizabeth Fisher, Reinhard Flogaus, Carol Harrison, David Bentley Hart, Joseph T. Lienhard, Andrew Louth, Jean-Luc Marion, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and David Tracy. 
    In the last review he ever wrote for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, the noted Augustine scholar J. Kevin Coyle--before his untimely death a year ago--noted of Orthodox Readings of Augustine that "all the volume’s entries are thoughtfully written and rarely does the reader’s mind wander" and in sum this book constitutes "a welcome contribution to dialogue between East and West on Augustine."

    Religion and Russian Foreign Policy

    Last weekend, while at the fantastic ASEC conference at Ohio State, I listened to Lucien Frary present on his research into the role of Orthodoxy in shaping Russian foreign policy in the nineteenth century, especially vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire and its many Orthodox Christians, for whom Russia felt some solicitude. The role of religion in Russian politics and policy continues to come in for fresh examination, including now in a forthcoming book by Alicja Curanovi: The Religious Factor in Russia's Foreign Policy (Routledge Contemporary Russia and Eastern Europe Series, 2012, 400pp.).

    About this book, the publisher says that it
    examines how religion interacts with Russian foreign policy, arguing that religion is an important and neglected factor in shaping Russia’s outlook towards international relations. It surveys the importance of religion in Russian social life - past and present - and considers the range of attitudes which are affected by religion – such as Russian nationalism, notions of Slavic solidarity, the divine mission of Russian Orthodox civilisation, Russian imperialism, and Russia’s special approach towards Islam. The book discusses how religious organizations, especially the Russian Orthodox Church, operate in international relations, pursuing, through ‘religious diplomacy’ their own interests and those of the Russian state; explores how religious ideas and culture linked to religion impinge on Russian attitudes and identity, and thereby affect policy; and demonstrates how policy influenced by religion impacts on Russian foreign policy in practice in a wide range of examples, including Russia’s relations with other Orthodox countries, non-orthodox Western countries, Muslim countries, Israel and the Vatican.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011


    For Christians of all traditions, the Catholic-led ressourcement movement has to be counted among the great achievements of the twentieth century. Those who were a part of this movement included many French Dominicans (such as Yves Congar, left) and Jesuits (such as Henri de Lubac,right).

    Their work contributed to a renewal of theology not only in the Catholic Church, where it paved the way for the Second Vatican Council, but in Orthodoxy and increasingly Protestantism as well. Now a forthcoming book from Oxford University Press promises to examine this movement anew: 
    Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology provides both a historical and a theological analysis of the achievements of the renowned generation of theologians whose influence pervaded French theology and society in the period 1930 to 1960, and beyond. It considers how the principal exponents of ressourcement, leading Dominicans and Jesuits of the faculties of Le Saulchoir (Paris) and Lyon-Fourviere, inspired a renaissance in twentieth-century Catholic theology and initiated a movement for renewal that contributed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The book assesses the origins and historical development of the biblical, liturgical, and patristic ressourcement in France, Germany, and Belgium, and offers fresh insights into the thought of the movement's leading scholars. It analyses the fierce controversies that erupted within the Jesuit and Dominican orders and between leading ressourcement theologians and the Vatican. The volume also contributes to the elucidation of the complex question of terminology, the interpretation of which still engenders controversy in discussions of ressourcement and nouvelle theologie. It concludes with reflections on how the most important movement in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology continues to impact on contemporary society and on Catholic and Protestant theological enquiry in the new millennium.
    Chapters of particular interest to Eastern Christians will include:
    • 22: Brian E. Daley, SJ (University of Notre Dame, USA): Knowing God in history and in the church: Dei Verbum and 'nouvelle théologie'
    • 25: Paul McPartlan (Catholic University of America, Washington DC, USA): Ressourcement, Vatican II, and eucharistic ecclesiology 
    • 29: Paul D. Murray (Durham University, UK): Expanding Catholicity through Ecumenicity in the Work of Yves Congar: Ressourcement, Receptive Ecumenism, and Catholic Reform
    • 31: Andrew Louth (Durham University, UK): French ressourcement theology and Orthodoxy: a living mutual relationship?
    Look for this to be reviewed in 2012 in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 

      Tuesday, October 11, 2011

      Saint Katherine of Alexandria

      Alexandria has long been in the forefront of Christian scholarly centres, with many illustrious names attached to her prominence--Origen, Clement, Athanasius, and others, including perhaps the most famous woman whose life has long captivated many Christians, both East and West. that life was famously told six hundred years ago in a book now newly translated:

      John Capgrave, The Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, trans. Karen Winstead (ND Texts Medieval Culture) (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 168pp.

      About this book, the publisher tells us:
      The fifteenth-century scholar and Augustinian friar John Capgrave took as his subject the virgin martyr Katherine of Alexandria, who was an anomalous cultural icon, a scholar, and a sovereign whose story unsettled traditional gender stereotypes yet was widely popular throughout Western Europe. Capgrave’s Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria (ca. 1445) stands out among the hundreds of surviving vernacular and Latin narrations about the saint by its intricate plotting, its moral complexity, its obtrusive Chaucerian narrator, and its attention to psychology, history, and theology. The Life of Saint Katherine is a bold literary experiment that transforms the genre of the saint’s life by infusing it with conventions and techniques more often associated with chronicles, mystery plays, fabliaux, and romances. In Capgrave’s hands, Katherine emerges as a sensitive and studious young woman torn between social responsibilities and personal desires. Her story unfolds in a vividly realized world of political turmoil and religious repression that, as Capgrave’s readers were bound to suspect, had everything to do with the England they inhabited and its recent past. Katherine’s debate with her lords anticipates arguments for and against female rule that would be made in Tudor England, when the ascensions of Mary I and then Elizabeth I made gynecocracy a political reality, while her debate with the philosophers is a daring exercise in vernacular theology that flouts the censorship then current.
      Winstead’s translation—the first into idiomatic modern English—brings to life Capgrave’s sharply drawn characters, compelling plot, and complex, unsettling moral. Its promotion of an informed, intellectualized Christianity during a period known for censorship and repression illuminates the struggle over the definition of orthodoxy that was excited by the perceived threat of Lollard heresy during the fifteenth century. This volume also includes an appendix with passages of Capgrave's original Middle English and literal translations into modern English, providing a valuable tool for teachers and students.

      Monday, October 10, 2011

      Orthodoxy and Human Rights

      A few years ago, in a long review essay I wrote of new books on Orthodoxy and sociopolitical questions, I noted the fact that Orthodoxy is almost invariably ignored in any recent attempts to ask "What do Christians think about social, economic, or political issues?" If attention is paid, it is usually to slag Orthodoxy as being hopelessly, helplessly bound up with some configuration of "Caseropapism" or other, notwithstanding the fact that no serious scholar accepts that label today.

      Happily, we are seeing better attempts today to be more rigorous and precise in analyzing Orthodoxy and its relations to politics and the state, and in particular that uniquely modern question of the nature of human rights. Two recent studies aid us in this task. The first is from the prolific John McGuckin, "The Issue of Human Rights in Byzantium and the Orthodox Christian Tradition." This essay may be found in a new collection, John Witte and Frank Alexander, eds., Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 400pp.

      About this book the publisher tells us:
      Combining Jewish, Greek, and Roman teachings with the radical new teachings of Christ and St. Paul, Christianity helped to cultivate the cardinal ideas of dignity, equality, liberty and democracy that ground the modern human rights paradigm. Christianity also helped shape the law of public, private, penal, and procedural rights that anchor modern legal systems in the West and beyond. This collection of essays explores these Christian contributions to human rights through the perspectives of jurisprudence, theology, philosophy and history, and Christian contributions to the special rights claims of women, children, nature and the environment. The authors also address the church's own problems and failings with maintaining human rights ideals. With contributions from leading scholars, including a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this book provides an authoritative treatment of how Christianity shaped human rights in the past, and how Christianity and human rights continue to challenge each other in modern times.
      Later this year, Peeters has a forthcoming book that will make for very interesting reading, treating the topic at length:  A. Brüning and E. van der Zweerde, eds., Orthodoxy and Human Rights (Peeters, 2011), x+387pp. 

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

      Sunday, October 9, 2011

      Diaries of Met. Maxim Hermaniuk at Vatican II

      I am an unrepentant reader of diaries, especially, as it happens, of "controversial" but hugely entertaining Englishmen such as the greatest Catholic writer of his generation, Evelyn Waugh or the Tory cabinet minister Alan Clark: The Diaries 1972 - 1999, a racy collection by a man who could have rivaled Waugh for the political incorrectness award of the twentieth century. The genre of a diary was, of course, made most famous by that of another Englishman, Samuel Pepys. Many others have followed suite down through the ages. E.g., John Colville's The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955 offers fascinating insights into the Second World War in general and Churchill's direction of it in particular. For the same time, The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1964 are also fascinating, not least for Nicolson's very unusual marriage to Vita Sackville-West.

      In theology, the diary is not a major genre, though there are arguments to be made that some of the classical literature of the Fathers, including much of the patristic literature of the desert, along with Augustine's Confessions come close to what we understand as a diary in the modern sense. But it is in the last two centuries in particular that we find more celebrated examples of theological diarists, including, once more, the greatest Englishman of his day, John Henry Cardinal Newman, a voluminous writer of letters, diaries, and other magnificent prose, most famously his Apologia pro Vita Sua. More recently still, in Mon journal du Concile the French Dominican ecclesiologist, ecumenist, and historian Yves Congar reveals fascinating details of his life at the centre of some of the great controversies in the Catholic Church in the twentieth century--before, during, and after Vatican II.

      In an Eastern context, there are several recent examples, including The Diary of Mar Dionysios Georgios al-Qas Behnam, Metropolitan of Aleppo (1912-1992) (Dar Mardin: Christian Arabic and Syriac Studies from the Middle East); and Aleksandr Elchaninov, The Diary of a Russian Priest. But the best example remains, of course, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, published in 2000 by SVS Press in a redacted form.

      More recently, the fuller version was published in French, and Michael Plekon discussed them in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies last year at this time. In his review, Plekon began by saying that
      Before going on, let me plead that those in control of these texts allow them to be published in English translation—not the truncated collections of excerpts, but the full entries, and all of them. And let me further note that not only should the full journal see the light of day in English, but also his letters and perhaps earlier papers and memoirs. There is a wealth of tapes and transcriptions of the thousands of talks Schmemann recorded for Radio Liberty for broadcast to the USSR
      Later this year, we should see the publication of The Second Vatican Council Diaries of Met. Maxim Hermaniuk, C.Ss.R. (1960-1965) under the editorship of Jaroslav Skira and K. Schelkens (Peeters, 2011). These promise to be fascinating as Hermaniuk was a major figure at the council and after, sometimes called the "father of collegiality."

      He was forthright about certain developments after the council, voicing the disappointment of many that the "synod" of bishops Pope Paul VI ironically unilaterally created in 1965 was not a real example of Synod and Synodality but instead just "international study days for the Catholic bishops." (I review the nature and different types of synods in the East in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity). We will certainly be paying attention to Hermaniuk's diaries upon publication, discussing them on here and reviewing them in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, the scholarly revue of which Hermaniuk was editor-in-chief from 1993 until his death in 1996.

      Saturday, October 8, 2011

      Expanding Muslims and Shrinking Byzantines

      Books about the encounter between Muslims and Eastern Christians in the seventh and subsequent centuries continue to emerge, shedding helpful light on a period and events still too little understood today. A recent such book, from an acclaimed Byzantinist, is that of Walter E. Kaegi, Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa (Cambridge UP, 2010), 366pp.

      About this book, the publisher provides the following overview:
      Who 'lost' Christian North Africa? Who won it and how? Walter Kaegi takes a fresh look at these perennial questions, with maps and on-site observations, in this exciting new book. Persisting clouds of suspicion and blame overshadowed many Byzantine attempts to defend North Africa, as Byzantines failed to meet the multiple challenges from different directions which ultimately overwhelmed them. While the Muslims forcefully and permanently turned Byzantine internal dynastic and religious problems and military unrest to their advantage, they brought their own strengths to a dynamic process that would take a long time to complete – the transformation of North Africa. An impartial comparative framework helps to sort through identity politics, 'Orientalism' charges and counter-charges, and institutional controversies; this book also includes a new study of the decisive battle of Sbeitla in 647, helping readers to understand what befell Byzantium, and indeed empires from Rome to the present.
      The publisher further says of this book that it:
      • Offers the first large-scale reinterpretation in English of the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the light of the Arabic, Greek and Latin sources, the latest modern scholarship, and visits to the sites with Maghribi scholars
      • Surveys the cultural and historiographical dimensions of the end of Roman and Byzantine North Africa, with a separate chapter on 'historiographical hurdles' that block current understanding of Maghrib history
      • Re-examines localities and terrain based on a reading of neglected Arabic sources and archives, travels, and on-site consultation
      Kaegi is well known in treating these questions, having previously authored a book on Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium who oversaw the initial invasions and feeble military responses of the Byzantine Christians. In addition, Kaegi is the author of the groundbreaking study Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquest, also from Cambridge University Press (1995).

      Thursday, October 6, 2011

      Author Interview: Ron Heine

      Interest in Origen of Alexandria--almost universally considered the greatest of the Alexandrine theologians, notwithstanding a few problems that he (and/or his disciples) may or may not have gotten himself into--continues at a high level today. Many new studies continue to emerge on one of the most fertile and wide-ranging theologians of third-century theologians. A new book about him, Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church, has just come out from Ronald Heine, whom I interviewed about his work.

      AD: Tell us a bit about your background:

      I am Professor of Bible and Theology at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Oregon.  Among my previous teaching and research positions are 17 years at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary in Illinois and 11 years as Director of the Institut zur Erforschung des Urchristentums in Tübingen.   In the latter position I worked with Otto Betz in co-leading a theological Kolloqium at the University for foreign doctoral students.   I received my Ph. D. from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in classical philology with an emphasis on the literature of the Greek and Latin Fathers;  William R. Schoedel was the director of my dissertation.  I also have graduate degrees in New Testament and in Semitic languages and literature from the seminary in Lincoln.

      My research has focused on third century Christianity, especially on Christianity in Alexandria, and more particularly on the use and interpretation of Scripture by the early Christians. In connection with the latter interest, I published a book called Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future) in 2007. I have also published  work on the  fourth century Father, Gregory of Nyssa.  My most extensive research, however, has been on Origen.  I have three volumes of translations of his works in Catholic University of America’s Fathers of the Church series, and a volume published by OUP, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians (Oxford Early Christian Studies).

      My church affiliation is with what is sometimes referred to as the Stone-Campbell Movement.  This group is known variously as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ.  I am ordained in this fellowship.

      Tell us why you wrote Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church

      I must begin by saying that I was invited to contribute the volume on Origen in the Oxford University Press series, Christian Theology in Context.  This interested me because the series title ran parallel to an idea about Origen’s thought I had nurtured for several years, but never explored in detail.  This was that Origen’s thought had developed or even changed somewhat, both in conjunction with his age and his location.  Earlier studies of his thought had viewed him as having a rather monolithic mind.  He was presented as one who worked out his thought rather early in his life and never deviated from that early system.  Early works and late works were treated together without much differentiation concerning where they fell in Origen’s actual life experience.  I wanted to take an alternative look at Origen’s thought. Christian Theology in Context gave me the opportunity to spread Origen’s works out along the continuum of his life's settings to see how the different settings affected his thinking.

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

      I wanted to write the book so that it would be understandable and useful for both upper division undergraduate and graduate level students of theology and the early church.  I also tried to write it in a way that educated lay people, who are not theologians but have an interest in early Christian history and thought, could understand.  I attempted to avoid technical language as much as possible and to explain terms and concepts that I thought non-theological readers might not be familiar with.

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

      I have been reading and working with texts of Origen for more than 35 years.  I was introduced to the Alexandrian tradition in my doctoral work, and while my dissertation was on Gregory of Nyssa, there were significant sections where I had to work with Origen’s thought to understand and present Gregory for he was strongly influenced by Origen in many ways.  Very few of Origen’s writings had been translated into English when I began working with him, so I focused on translating some of his major writings such as his Commentary on the Gospel of John.  I also became interested in the attempt to recover some of Origen’s lost works from their use in other writers such as Jerome (see my The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians) and Hilary or in the fragments quoted in the ancient catena commentaries.  All of this work on Origen’s texts provided the context for my interest in pulling together what I had learned about Origen for this book.

      Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?

      It is probably not correct to call what you anticipated a surprise, but I think I was able to discover some significant differences in emphasis between the late Origen of Caesarea and the early Origen of Alexandria.  My close familiarity with Origen’s commentary on the Gospel of John was particularly helpful in this regard.  This commentary was begun early in Origen’s writing career in Alexandria and completed probably midway in his career in Caesarea.   In the Alexandrian books of the commentary one of Origen’s major concerns, and perhaps the reason his patron Ambrose had asked him to write the commentary, was to counteract the interpretation of this gospel by the Gnostic Heracleon.  In the books written later at Caesarea, however, Heracleon gradually fades from the picture until, in the last books, he is never mentioned.  What begins to appear as a concern in the later books is the conflict between the synagogue and the church and the salvation of the Jews. Caesarea was a major center of rabbinic education.

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

      There are, of course, numerous books on Origen.  There are not however, many recent books which attempt to cover the whole of Origen’s life and thought.  I think I have already noted how my book differs from the earlier studies of Origen in my attempt to pay careful attention to the particular situation in which the various books of Origen were written.

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

      The main contribution this book makes to Origen studies is to show that there are differences between the thought and emphases in Origen’s earlier and later works.  His earlier works were focused primarily on correcting Christian heresies, especially that of Gnosticism.  These concerns do not vanish completely from his later works, but his concern with the tension between the synagogue and the church and with the role of the Jews in God’s plan and their ultimate salvation come to play a major role in his later works.  There are also hints in his later works that he was rethinking some of his earlier viewpoints such as universalism.  One cannot say that he had abandoned these views completely, but he seems to have had some questions.  These questions seem to me, at least, to have arisen out of his stronger emphasis on the exegesis of the whole text of the Bible in his later period.  In his early period his commentaries indicate that he took up only those portions of the Bible that the heretics used in order to offer an alternate interpretation.  None of his early commentaries appear to have been on complete books of the Bible.  But in the Caesarean period we have his commentary on the whole of Romans, and fragments from commentaries on several Pauline epistles.  He produced commentaries on Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Song of Songs, and the Psalms in this period, most of which have perished except for three books of the commentary on the Song of Songs in Latin translation, and fragments from the other works.   He also produced a commentary on the whole of the Gospel of Matthew of which perhaps two-thirds is preserved, and he refers to working on a commentary on the twelve minor prophets, though that is lost in its totality.  This intense focus on the text of whole books of the Bible might be explained, it seems to me, by his contact with the synagogue and the rabbis in Caesarea and their continual debates about the meaning of the text of the Bible.

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