"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).

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.

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