"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).

Monday, April 30, 2012

Political Theology

William T. Cavanaugh et al, eds., An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2011), 836pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology gathers some of the most significant and influential writings in political theology from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Given that the locus of Christianity is undeniably shifting to the global South, this volume uniquely integrates key voices from Africa, Asia, and Latin America with central texts from Europe and North America on such major subjects as church and state, gender and race, and Christendom and postcolonialism.Carefully selected, thematically arranged, and expertly introduced, these forty-nine essential readings constitute an ideal primary-source introduction to contemporary political theology — a profoundly relevant resource for globally engaged citizens, students, and scholars.
Among the many authors of interest included, Alexander Schmemann stands out but many other well known theologians are included. 

Greek Scriptures and Greek Fathers

Hendrickson Publishers continues to publish numerous reference books of interest to readers of the Septuagint and the Greek Fathers. Among those they have recently sent me include Rodney A. Whitacre, A Patristic Greek Reader.

More recently I have received Gary Alan Chamberlain, The Greek of the Septuagint: A Supplemental Lexicon (2011), 304pp. About this book the publisher tells us:

For New Testament students and scholars who want to fully exegete the Septuagint, this lexicon will be a welcome addition to their libraries. Used in conjunction with the New Testament (NT) lexicon they already possess, The Greek of the Septuagint: A Supplemental Lexicon will bridge the gap with additional information that's needed to translate the Septuagint. While those who have learned the Greek of the New Testament possess the grammatical skills necessary to read Septuagint Greek, the vocabulary found in the Septuagint differs sufficiently from both that found in the NT and that found in Classical Greek, so that a specialized lexicon is not just of great help, but essential.

Finally, Maurice Robinson and Mark House have edited a revised and updated edition of their Analytical Lexicon of New Testament Greek (2012), 506pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

The Analytical Lexicon of New Testament Greek is an invaluable resource for the study of the Greek New Testament. Based on a completely updated and corrected computer database, this new edition provides a detailed grammatical analysis (parsing) of each Greek word in the New Testament- information essential for correct translation and interpretation. A host of additional features make the Analytical Lexicon an essential addition to the library of any biblical student or scholar

Friday, April 27, 2012

Irenaeus of Lyons and the Theology of the Holy Spirit

I have before drawn attention to the importance of Irenaeus of Lyons, and the upsurge of scholarly interest in him lately. Now a new book, in the prestigious Oxford Early Christian Studies series, was just sent to me. It looks at his pneumatology: Anthony Briggman, Irenaeus of Lyons and the Theology of the Holy Spirit (2012), xv+247pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Irenaeus' theology of the Holy Spirit is often highly regarded amongst theologians today, but that regard is not universal, nor has an adequate volume of literature supported it. This study provides a detailed examination of certain principal, often distinctive, aspects of Irenaeus' pneumatology. In contrast to those who have suggested Irenaeus held a weak conception of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Anthony Briggman demonstrates that Irenaeus combined Second Temple Jewish traditions of the spirit with New Testament theology to produce the most complex Jewish-Christian pneumatology of the early church. In so doing, Irenaeus moved beyond his contemporaries by being the first author, following the New Testament writings, to construct a theological account in which binitarian logic did not diminish either the identity or activity of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, he was the first to support his Trinitarian convictions by means of Trinitarian logic.

Briggman advances the narrative that locates early Christian pneumatologies in the context of Jewish traditions regarding the spirit. In particular, he argues that the appropriation and repudiation of Second Temple Jewish forms of thought explain three moments in the development of Christian theology. First, the existence of a rudimentary pneumatology correlating to the earliest stage of Trinitarian theology in which a Trinitarian confession is accompanied by binitarian orientation/logic, such as in the thought of Justin Martyr. Second, the development of a sophisticated pneumatology correlating to a mature second century Trinitarian theology in which a Trinitarian confession is accompanied by Trinitarian logic. This second moment is visible in Irenaeus' thought, which eschewed Jewish traditions that often hindered theological accounts of his near contemporaries, such as Justin, while adopting and adapting Jewish traditions that enabled him to strengthen and clarify his own understanding of the Holy Spirit. Third, the return to a rudimentary account of the Spirit at the turn of the third century when theologians such as Tertullian, Origen, and Novatian repudiated Jewish traditions integral to Irenaeus' account of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Interpreting the Bible in Late Antiquity

As I noted before, conflicts over interpretation of Scripture are very commonplace at any point in Christian history.  A new book takes us back to some very early debates over how to understand Scripture, and the regional differences in those understandings: Interpreting the Bible and Aristotle in Late Antiquity: the Alexandria Commentary Tradition between Rome and Baghdad, eds., Josef Lössl and John W. Watt (Ashgate, 2011, 360pp).

About this book, the publisher tells us the following, supplying also the contents:

This book brings together sixteen studies by internationally renowned scholars on the origins and early development of the Latin and Syriac biblical and philosophical commentary traditions. It casts light on the work of the founder of philosophical biblical commentary, Origen of Alexandria, and traces the developments of fourth- and fifth-century Latin commentary techniques in writers such as Marius Victorinus, Jerome and Boethius. The focus then moves east, to the beginnings of Syriac philosophical commentary and its relationship to theology in the works of Sergius of Reshaina, Probus and Paul the Persian, and the influence of this continuing tradition in the East up to the Arabic writings of al-Farabi. There are also chapters on the practice of teaching Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy in fifth-century Alexandria, on contemporaneous developments among Byzantine thinkers, and on the connections in Latin and Syriac traditions between translation (from Greek) and commentary.
With its enormous breadth and the groundbreaking originality of its contributions, this volume is an indispensable resource not only for specialists, but also for all students and scholars interested in late-antique intellectual history, especially the practice of teaching and studying philosophy, the philosophical exegesis of the Bible, and the role of commentary in the post-Hellenistic world as far as the classical renaissance in Islam.
Contents: Introduction, Josef Lössl and John Watt.Part 1 Alexandria to Rome: Origen: exegesis and philosophy in early Christian Alexandria, Alfons Fürst; Prologue topics and translation problems in Latin commentaries on Paul, Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe; Ambrosiaster's method of interpretation in the Questions on the Old and New Testament, Marie-Pierre Bussières; Philosophical exegesis in Marius Victorinus' Commentaries on Paul, Stephen Cooper; Jerome's Pauline commentaries between East and West: tradition and innovation in the Commentary on Galatians, Andrew Cain; The Bible and Aristotle in the controversy between Augustine and Julian of Aeclanum, Josef Lössl; Boethius as a translator and Aristotelian commentator, Sten Ebbesen.
Part 2 Alexandria to Baghdad: Translating the personal aspect of late Platonism in the commentary tradition, Edward Watts; Aristotelianism and the disintegration of the late Antique theological discourse, Dirk Krausmüller; Sergius of Reshaina as translator: the case of the De Mundo, Adam McCollum; Sergius of Reshaina and pseudo-Dionysius: a dialectical fidelity, Emiliano Fiori; The commentator Probus: problems of date and identity, Sebastian Brock; Du commentaire à la reconstruction: Paul le Perse interprète d'Aristote (sur une lecture du Peri Hermeneias, à propos des modes et des adverbes selon Paul, Ammonius et Boèce), Henri Hugonnard-Roche; The genesis and development of a logical lexicon in the Syriac tradition, Daniel King; From Sergius to Matta: Aristotle and pseudo-Dionysius in Syriac tradition, John Watt; Al-Farabi's arguments for the eternity of the world and the contingency of natural phenomena, Philippe Vallat; Bibliography; Indexes.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Should Eastern Christian Parishes Have "Youth Ministries"?

Eerdmans, which has done so much to make Russian Orthodox thinkers such as Sergius Bulgakov accessible to anglophone audiences, just sent me their most recent catalogue. In it is a book with a striking title raising an important question for those Eastern Christian parishes and dioceses fretting over their lack of "youth ministry" programs and comparing themselves unfavorably to Catholic and Protestant parishes and programs: Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012), 276pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Pop worship music. Falling in love with Jesus. Mission trips. Wearing jeans and T-shirts to church. Spiritual searching and church hopping. Faith-based political activism. Seeker-sensitive outreach. These now-commonplace elements of American church life all began as innovative ways to reach young people, yet they have gradually become accepted as important parts of a spiritual ideal for all ages. What on earth has happened? 
In The Juvenilization of American Christianity Thomas Bergler traces the way in which, over seventy-five years, youth ministries have breathed new vitality into four major American church traditions — African American, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic. Bergler shows too how this “juvenilization” of churches has led to widespread spiritual immaturity, consumerism, and self-centeredness, popularizing a feel-good faith with neither intergenerational community nor theological literacy. Bergler’s critique further offers constructive suggestions for taming juvenilization.

Early Mediterranean Life

Averil Cameron is one of the most prominent scholars of Byzantium writing today. I earlier drew attention to her editorship of a welcome new series from Ashgate. One of her own books has recently been released in a second edition: The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: AD 395-700 (The Routledge History of the Ancient World, 2011, 320pp.)

First published in 1993, and reprinted several times since then, this volume was acclaimed as ground-breaking at the time and clearly filled a gap in the scholarly literature.

The publisher further tells us:
This thoroughly revised and expanded edition of The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, now covering the period 395-700 AD, provides both a detailed introduction to late antiquity and a direct challenge to conventional views of the end of the Roman empire. Leading scholar Averil Cameron focuses on the changes and continuities in Mediterranean society as a whole before the Arab conquests. Two new chapters survey the situation in the east after the death of Justinian and cover the Byzantine wars with Persia, religious developments in the eastern Mediterranean during the life of Muhammad, the reign of Heraclius, the Arab conquests and the establishment of the Umayyad caliphate.
Using the latest in-depth archaeological evidence, this all-round historical and thematic study of the west and the eastern empire has become the standard work on the period. The new edition takes account of recent research on topics such as the barbarian ‘invasions’, periodization, and questions of decline or continuity, as well as the current interest in church councils, orthodoxy and heresy and the separation of the miaphysite church in the sixth-century east. It contains a new introductory survey of recent scholarship on the fourth century AD, and has a full bibliography and extensive notes with suggestions for further reading.
The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity 395-700 AD continues to be the benchmark for publications on the history of Late Antiquity and is indispensible to anyone studying the period.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Death of Mohammad

The year of Mohammad's death has been disputed for centuries. Most sources date it to 632, and almost immediately afterward, the conquest of Christian Syria, Egypt, Armenia, and much else began. Now a new book has come out to re-examine the end of Mohammad and the beginnings of the Islamic empire: Stephen J. Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, 424pp.)

About this book the publisher tells us:
The oldest Islamic biography of Muhammad, written in the mid-eighth century, relates that the prophet died at Medina in 632, while earlier and more numerous Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, and even Islamic sources indicate that Muhammad survived to lead the conquest of Palestine, beginning in 634-35. Although this discrepancy has been known for several decades, Stephen J. Shoemaker here writes the first systematic study of the various traditions.
Using methods and perspectives borrowed from biblical studies, Shoemaker concludes that these reports of Muhammad's leadership during the Palestinian invasion likely preserve an early Islamic tradition that was later revised to meet the needs of a changing Islamic self-identity. Muhammad and his followers appear to have expected the world to end in the immediate future, perhaps even in their own lifetimes, Shoemaker contends. When the eschatological Hour failed to arrive on schedule and continued to be deferred to an ever more distant point, the meaning of Muhammad's message and the faith that he established needed to be fundamentally rethought by his early followers.
The larger purpose of The Death of a Prophet exceeds the mere possibility of adjusting the date of Muhammad's death by a few years; far more important to Shoemaker are questions about the manner in which Islamic origins should be studied. The difference in the early sources affords an important opening through which to explore the nature of primitive Islam more broadly. Arguing for greater methodological unity between the study of Christian and Islamic origins, Shoemaker emphasizes the potential value of non-Islamic sources for reconstructing the history of formative Islam.
In the coming weeks, I hope to feature an interview with the author of this book.

The Coming of Islam

Gorgias Press continues to bring out old works of historical scholarship no longer in print, and works from and about deceased authors. One of its recent such offerings is a collection about the work of John Wansbrough, an historian at the University of London who died in 2002.

In The Coming of the Comforter: When, Where, and to Whom?, Studies on the Rise of Islam and Various Other Topics in Memory of John Wansbrough, a posthumous Festschrift edited by Carlos Segovia and Basil Lourié. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
John Wansbrough is famous for his pioneering studies on the "sectarian milieu" out of which Islam emerged. In his view, Islam grew out of different - albeit rather marginal - Jewish and Christian traditions whose intertwinings deserve being studied. In the present volume, which is dedicated to Wansbrough's memory, specialists in Islamic studies and students of the Jewish and early Christian traditions out of which Islam presumably arose summarise Wansbrough's achievements in the past thirty years. The volume also goes a step further by setting forth new landmarks for the study of the traditions implied in Wansbrough's aforementioned concept of the "sectarian milieu" from which Islam emerged, perhaps later than is commonly assumed and in a rather unclear, even ambiguous way.
You may peruse the table of contents here

Monday, April 23, 2012

Empires of Faith

About the transition in the medieval period from Christian to Islamic empires we still do not know enough. Peter Sarris's new book should help shed light on this most consequential of periods: Empires of Faith: the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam 500-700 (Oxford University Press, 2011), 512 pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us that it offers
        • an unusually wide-ranging study which integrates medieval, Byzantine, and Islamic history.
        • Draws on latest scholarship to form an up-to-date study of the era. 
        • Includes an extensive bibliography to provide a framework for future study.
The publisher further elaborates:
Drawing upon the latest historical and archaeological research, Dr Peter Sarris provides a panoramic account of the history of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East from the fall of Rome to the rise of Islam. The formation of a new social and economic order in western Europe in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, and the ascendancy across the West of a new culture of military lordship, are placed firmly in the context of on-going connections and influence radiating outwards from the surviving Eastern Roman Empire, ruled from the great imperial capital of Constantinople. The East Roman (or 'Byzantine') Emperor Justinian's attempts to revive imperial fortunes, restore the empire's power in the West, and face down Constantinople's great superpower rival, the Sasanian Empire of Persia, are charted, as too are the ways in which the escalating warfare between Rome and Persia paved the way for the development of new concepts of 'holy war', the emergence of Islam, and the Arab conquests of the Near East. Processes of religious and cultural change are explained through examination of social, economic, and military upheavals, and the formation of early medieval European society is placed in a broader context of changes that swept across the world of Eurasia from Manchuria to the Rhine.

Warfare and plague, holy men and kings, emperors, shahs, caliphs, and peasants all play their part in a compelling narrative suited to specialist, student, and general readership alike.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Heretics and Colonizers

It has been fashionable for quite some time to condemn the proponents and the very idea of both "colonialism" and of "heterodoxy," sophomorically and simplistically insisting that both are nothing more or other than a disguised version of libido dominandi. One can accept without anxiety some recognition that some battles against heresy may have been motivated more by "political" concerns than doctrinal ones per se (if, indeed, one can even make such distinctions without anachronism: I am skeptical that one can); but such a recognition should in no way trouble any Christian who recognizes that the Church, like Christ, has both a human and a divine nature. Similarly, one can accept that not all colonial ventures ended happily--though many did, on balance, if the still-flourishing democracies in countries of the former British Empire are reliable examples, and I think they are.

Along comes a new book--new in paperback form, that is, having been published in 2005 in hardback--by Nicholas Breyfogle, which examines the linked phenomenon of Heretics And Colonizers: Forging Russia's Empire In The South Caucasus (Cornell University Press, 2011, 347pp.). 

About this book the publisher tells us:
In Heretics and Colonizers, Nicholas B. Breyfogle explores the dynamic intersection of Russian borderland colonization and popular religious culture. He reconstructs the story of the religious sectarians (Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks) who settled, either voluntarily or by force, in the newly conquered lands of Transcaucasia in the nineteenth century. By ordering this migration in 1830, Nicholas I attempted at once to cleanse Russian Orthodoxy of heresies and to populate the newly annexed lands with ethnic Slavs who would shoulder the burden of imperial construction. 
Breyfogle focuses throughout on the lives of the peasant settlers, their interactions with the peoples and environment of the South Caucasus, and their evolving relations with Russian state power. He draws on a wide variety of archival sources, including a large collection of previously unexamined letters, memoirs, and other documents produced by the sectarians that allow him unprecedented insight into the experiences of colonization and religious life. Although the settlers suffered greatly in their early years in hostile surroundings, they in time proved to be not only model Russian colonists but also among the most prosperous of the Empire’s peasants. Banished to the empire’s periphery, the sectarians ironically came to play indispensable roles in the tsarist imperial agenda.
The book culminates with the dramatic events of the Dukhobor pacifist rebellion, a movement that shocked the tsarist government and received international attention. In the early twentieth century, as the Russian state sought to replace the sectarians with Orthodox settlers, thousands of Molokans and Dukhobors immigrated to North America, where their descendants remain to this day. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Byzantine Pilgrimage Art

Interest in all things Byzantine, as well as all things iconographic, both remain very high, as I have noted on here many times before. A recent book looks at both in the context of the age-old practice of pilgrimage:

Gary Vikan, Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art, Revised Edition (Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 2011, 118pp.).

About this book, the publisher tells us that
Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art explores the portable artifacts of eastern Mediterranean pilgrimage from the fifth to the seventh century, presenting them in the context of contemporary pilgrims’ texts and the archaeology of sacred sites. The book shows how the iconography and devotional piety of Byzantine pilgrimage art changed, and it surveys the material and social culture of pilgrimage. What did these early religious travelers take home with them and what did they leave behind? Where were these “sacred souvenirs” manufactured and what was their purpose? How did the images imprinted upon many of them help realize that purpose? The first edition of this pathbreaking book, published in 1982, established late antique pilgrimage and its artifacts as an important topic of study. In this revised, enlarged version, Gary Vikan significantly expands the narrative by situating the miraculous world of the early Byzantine pilgrim within the context of late antique magic and pre-Christian healing shrines, and by considering the trajectory of pilgrimage after the Arab conquest of the seventh century.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Papacy and the Crusades

Interest in, and frequent misunderstanding of, the Crusades, remains high today, as I have noted before. The same could be equally said of the papacy. Ashgate has a new book that brings both together: Michel Belard, ed., La Papauté et les croisades / The Papacy and the Crusades (Ashgate, 310pp.). 

This book brings together the acts of the seventh Congress of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East that was held in Avignon in August 2008.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
This volume brings together a selection of the papers on the theme of the Papacy and the Crusades, delivered at the 7th Congress of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East. After the introduction by Michel Balard, the first papers examine aspects of crusader terminology. The next section deals with events and perceptions in the West, including papers on the crusades against the Albigensians and Frederick II, and on the situation in the Iberian peninsula. There follow studies on relations between crusaders and the local populations in the Byzantine world after 1204 and Frankish Greece, and in Cilician Armenia, while a final pair looks at papal interventions in Poland and Scandinavia.
The publisher also helpfully provides a table of contents:
  • Contents: Introduction, Michel Balard; Part I Les Mots: Nouveau mot ou nouvelle réalité? Le terme cruciata et son utilisation dans les textes poniticaux, Benjamin Weber; Le varie ragioni per 'assumere la croce'. Il senso di un arruolamento in più direzioni, Giulio Cipollone; The French recent historiography of the Holy War, Michel Balard. Part II L'Occident: Louis VII, Innocent II et la seconde Croisade, Monique Amouroux; Smoking sword: le meurtre du légat Pierre de Castelnau et la première Croisade albigeoise, Marco Meschini; Casting out demons by Beelzebub: did the Papacy preaching against the Albigensians ruin the Crusades? Karl Borchardt; The papal 'crusade' against Frederick II in 1228–1230, Graham A. Loud; When ideology met reality: Clement V and the Crusade, Sophia Menache; 1308 and 1177: Venice and the Papacy in real and imaginary crusade, David M. Perry; Papal claims to authority over lands gained from the Infidel: the Iberian peninsula and beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, Alan Forey; The papacy and the crusade in XVth century Portugal, Luis Adao da Fonseca, Maria Cristina Pimenta and Paula Pinto Costa. Part III L'Orient: The papacy and the 4th Crusade in the correspondence of the Nicean emperors with the popes, Aphrodite Papayianni; A vacuum of leadership: 1291 revisited, James M. Powell; Crusading in a nearer East: the Balkan politics of Honorius III and Gregory IX (1221–1241), Francesco Dall'Aglio; La politique de soutien pontifical aux lignages nobiliaires Moréotes aux XIIIe et XIVe Siècles, Isabelle Ortega; La Papauté et les Hospitaliers de Rhodes aux lendemains de la chute de Constantinople (1453–1467), Pierre Bonneaud; Papauté, Latins d'Orient et croisés sous le regard de l'archevêque de Tarse, Nersês Lambronatsi, Isabelle Augé; Le rôle de la papauté dans la politique arménienne des Hospitaliers au XIVe siècle, Marie-Anna Chevalier. Part IV L'Europe du Nord et de L'Est: Poland and the papacy before the 2nd Crusade, Darius von Güttner Sporzynski; Politics and crusade: Scandinavia, the Avignon papacy and the crusade in the XIVth century, Janus Moller Jensen; Index.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From Scroll to Codex to Book

Any Eastern Christian bibliophile--or any bibliophile for that matter--should be paying attention to Alan Jacobs. If you go here you can read his latest and completely absorbing essay, "Christianity and the Future of the Book," on the cultural implications of moving from biblical scrolls to the codex to the modern book--and possibly beyond, to e-readers and the like. Christians were the first to adopt the codex for four practical and organizational reasons. He ends by reflecting on what it means when many Christians today encounter Scripture not in books but instead de-contextualized and chopped into bits that are projected on large screens in churches:
the obligation to defend the book remains far greater. It is the book, largely as it emerged from the early Christian Church’s understanding of its own Scriptures, that has enabled much of the best that has been thought and said in the past fifteen hundred years. And its key virtues can be preserved, and perhaps even extended, in forms other than the paper codex.
As you can see he does not go on a rant against electronic publishing, but read the whole thing for yourself in The New Atlantis, which often publishes such long and fascinating essays on a variety of culturally important topics.
Jacobs is the author of such books as The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford UP, 2011, 176pp.) and  A Theology Of Reading: The Hermeneutics Of Love (Westview Press, 2001), 196pp.

About this latter book the publisher tells us
If the whole of the Christian life is to be governed by the “law of love”—the twofold love of God and one’s neighbor—what might it mean to read lovingly? That is the question that drives this unique book. Jacobs pursues this challenging task by alternating largely theoretical, theological chapters—drawing above all on Augustine and Mikhail Bakhtin—with interludes that investigate particular readers (some real, some fictional) in the act of reading. Among the authors considered are Shakespeare, Cervantes, Nabakov, Nicholson Baker, George Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Dickens. The theoretical framework is elaborated in the main chapters, while various counterfeits of or substitutes for genuinely charitable interpretation are considered in the interludes, which progressively close in on that rare creature, the loving reader. Through this doubled method of investigation, Jacobs tries to show how difficult it is to read charitably—even should one wish to, which, of course, few of us do. And precisely because the prospect of reading in such a manner is so offputting, one of the covert goals of the book is to make it seem both more plausible and more attractive.

Celibate Marriages?

Nearly a decade ago now, in a long and very rich article we published in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Brian Butcher looked at the diverse and sometimes rather odd portraits of married saints as they emerge in the hymnody of the Byzantine tradition. That article was the basis for a book Brian published in 2009: Married Saints in the Orthodox Tradition: The Representation of Conjugality in the Sanctoral Hymnography of the Byzantine Rite.

At the very end of 2011, a new book was published that goes over some similar territory: Anne Alwis, Celibate Marriages in Late Antique and Byzantine Hagiography: The Lives of Saints Julian and Basilissa, Andronikos and Athanasia, and Galaktion and Episteme (Continuum, 2011), 352pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
This book explores the puzzling phenomenon of celibate marriage as depicted in the lives of three couples who achieved sainthood. Marriage without intercourse appears to have no purpose, especially in Christian antiquity, yet these three tales were copied for centuries. What messages were they promoting? What did it mean to be a virgin husband and a virgin wife? Including full translations, this volume sets each life in its historical context, and by examining their individual and shared themes, the book shows that the tension raised by pitting marriage against celibacy is constantly debated. It also highlights the ingenuity of Byzantine hagiographers as they attempted to reconcile this curious paradox. The book addresses a gap in late Antique and Byzantine hagiographic studies where primary sources and interpretative material are very rarely presented in the same volume. By providing a variety of contexts to the material a much more comprehensive, revealing and holistic picture of celibate marriage emerges. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thomas Asbridge on the Crusades

Apart, perhaps, from the Catholic Church and Galileo, or Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, there are, as I have noted before, few topics in religious history more susceptible to gross, often tendentious, misrepresentation and misunderstanding than the Crusades. Along comes a new book attempting to tell this story in a way that is at once scholarly and accurate but also popularly accessible: Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (Ecco, 2010).

About this book, the publisher tells us:
Nine hundred years ago, a vast Christian army, summoned to holy war by the Pope, rampaged through the Muslim world of the eastern Mediterranean, seizing possession of Jerusalem, a city revered by both faiths. Over the two hundred years that followed, Islam and Christianity fought for dominion of the Holy Land, clashing in a succession of chillingly brutal wars: the Crusades. Here for the first time is the story of that epic struggle told from the perspective of both Christians and Muslims. A vivid and fast-paced narrative history, it exposes the full horror, passion, and barbaric grandeur of the Crusading era, revealing how these holy wars reshaped the medieval world and why they continue to influence events today. 
I asked the historian and specialist on the crusades, Michael Lawler of the University of Minnesota, to review this book for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. We will publish his review in our upcoming spring 2012 issue. About this book he says in part:
Anyone who is interested in the crusades, whether new to the subject or not, can learn a great deal from this book. By bringing together Muslim and Christian perspectives, Asbridge points the way forward to a new approach toward this most contentious of religious conflicts, one that is grounded in minute analysis of the sources produced by both religious traditions. All in all, The Crusades is a wonderful achievement.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Problem of Sovereignty

It has been suggested by such scholars as the Jesuit Herman Pottmeyer, the Russian Orthodox Nicholas Lossky, the Greek political scientist Paschalis Kitromilides and others that both Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology, from the nineteenth century onward, is deformed, not to say corrupted, by theories of national sovereignty as they emerge in the aftermath of the French Revolution. This has an impact on discussions at Vatican I about the jurisdiction and infallibility of the "Sovereign Pontiff." It would also seem to have had an impact on several Orthodox Churches that achieve autocephaly in the nineteenth century when their nation-states become independent. 

Much of the discussion of sovereignty comes from such fascinating figures as Joseph de Maistre, who is often portrayed as an antediluvian revanchist desperate to roll back 1789 and reassert the unity of "throne and altar," a portrait that, so far as I can see to date, is neither completely fair nor entirely accurate from what I can tell from reading numerous studies of him, including especially a wonderful work by the Canadian scholar Richard Lebrun, Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988).

Maistre, in his famous work Du Papeargued strongly in favor of a very centralized sovereign papacy--this much is fairly well known. What is not so well known, it seems to me, are what seem to be his reasons, two ad intra and one ad extra. The internal: he wanted a strong pope to unify the Church which he had seen as divided and weakened in two contexts: first in France, where Gallican-Ultramontane conflicts, as well as the Revolution, had done enormous damage; and second his witness of the weakness and divisions in the Russian Orthodox Church during his fourteen-year stint in Russia as ambassador of the king of Sardinia. 

The external: Maistre, like many Catholics of his generation, seems to have been not merely haunted but deeply traumatized, almost shattered, by the Revolution. The savagery of Robespierre, the bloodletting
of the Revolution, and the capacity to enact violence in the name of virtue forever turned off those who may have been sympathetic to some of the revolutionary causes. Maistre  drew from the Revolution, and a study of wider Western history, the clear realization of the flaws in all monarchs, the problems in all political systems and their endless capacity for tyranny and evil. So he seems to have thought that a strong Sovereign Pontiff would be the one and only force capable of serving as a check on man's capacity for trying to lord it over his fellow man. A strong pope, in other words, would be the last refuge, the last court of appeal, for nations being savaged by their own leaders. 

More recently, others have picked up on the theological connotations of modern notions of sovereignty, and taken them in interesting and often controversial directions. None did this more clearly or more controversially than Carl Schmitt in his short book Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, which opens with the famous ringing declaration that "sovereign is he who decides on the exception."

Now a new book comes along to continue the discussion in a new and very interesting direction: Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Columbia University Press, 2011), 224pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In this strikingly original work, Paul W. Kahn rethinks the meaning of political theology. In a text innovative in both form and substance, he describes an American political theology as a secular inquiry into ultimate meanings sustaining our faith in the popular sovereign. Kahn works out his view through an engagement with Carl Schmitt's 1922 classic, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. He forces an engagement with Schmitt's four chapters, offering a new version of each that is responsive to the American political imaginary. The result is a contemporary political theology. As in Schmitt's work, sovereignty remains central, yet Kahn shows how popular sovereignty creates an ethos of sacrifice in the modern state. Turning to law, Kahn demonstrates how the line between exception and judicial decision is not as sharp as Schmitt led us to believe. He reminds readers that American political life begins with the revolutionary willingness to sacrifice and that both sacrifice and law continue to ground the American political imagination. Kahn offers a political theology that has at its center the practice of freedom realized in political decisions, legal judgments, and finally in philosophical inquiry itself.
The book is not very big or very long, and I read it in an afternoon. It is an interesting attempt to analyze American polity in particular, and Western ideas of popular sovereignty in general, through a kind of neo-Schmittian lens. It is, it must be said, very thin on any theology qua theology. The author clearly knows his limits and does not want to deal with God except for a few perfunctory and passing references he does not develop. God seems largely irrelevant, though to his credit Kahn is not so simplistic or dismissive as other authors who attribute all theological references to fundamentalist troglodytes or otherwise regard them as the equivalent of phrenology. 

This book seems very much to be a "continuing the conversation" work, without expectation of solving the many problems it picks up or to which it alludes. Kahn is at pains to distance himself from Schmitt, whose ties to the Nazis of course make him rather problematic. But Kahn says that Schmitt still raises such compelling issues that one must think through him, leaving aside his odious ties to National Socialism. And the most compelling issue still needing careful thinking is "the serious claim of political theology...that the state is not the secular arrangement that it purports to be" (18). For Schmitt and others (including, as I have noted previously, William Cavanaugh) "political theology" is not some attempt to set up a state church or create some kind of theocracy. No, it is an attempt to show how the politics of the liberalism of modernity, the politics that gives us the modern nation-state, is not at all "secular" and free of religious or, better, "theological" claims, albeit in highly disguised fashion. As he puts it, "freeing the state from the church did not banish the sacred from the political. It might have, but it did not." Anyone who has attended to the history of arguably the three greatest revolutions of modernity--the French, the American, and the Russian--will immediately see the truth of this. All three purported to establish secular states but ended up smuggling in theological claims through the backdoor or else created ersatz forms of religiosity (e.g., Lenin's shrine tomb or the American flag and pledge of allegiance). As Kahn goes on, 
the French revolutionaries attacked the church, but they found it necessary to invent their own rituals of the sacred....The French tried to establish a ritual practice that sacralized reason, but they did so in the name of the sovereign people. The American Revolution practiced the same double forms of the sacred, worshiping "self-evident truths" set forth in the name of "We the People" (21).
Having distanced himself from Schmitt, Kahn wants to use him to think through the question at the heart of his book: "what do we learn if we engage Schmitt's argument from a perspective that substitutes popular sovereignty for his idea of the sovereign?" (9) From here he looks at notions of "American exceptionalism," the role of the US Supreme Court, the pardon power entrusted to the president under the US Constitution (and to various governors, inter alia), and similar issues. 

There were four hugely influential people whom I expected to see cited in this book but none merited even so much as a passing reference: the first, of course, was Maistre; but missing also, though having a very great deal to say on the issues Kahn treats, were Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor (especially his A Secular Age), and René Girard, who would have helped Kahn flesh out such underdeveloped lines as "We must take up the perspective of political theology, for political violence has been and remains a form of sacrifice" (7). Later on he says "We will never find an adequate explanation of the politics of sacrifice in liberal theory or positive political science" (17). Girard would certainly agree, and has spent his life howing just where we can find explanations of the source and origin of the sacrificial victim in Western culture.  

Still, for all that, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is an edifying and enjoyable little book that raises some enormously important questions which we very much need to consider more than we have. Political scientists, philosophers, jurists, and theologians would all profit from Kahn's engaging text. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Maximus the Confessor on the Life of the Virgin

Stephen Shoemaker, trans., The Life of the Virgin: Maximus the Confessor (Yale University Press, 2012), 232pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Long overlooked by scholars, this seventh-century Life of the Virgin, attributed to Maximus the Confessor, is the earliest complete Marian biography. Originally written in Greek and now surviving only in Old Georgian, it is now translated for the first time into English. It is a work that holds profound significance for understanding the history of late ancient and medieval Christianity, providing a rich source for understanding the history of Christian piety.
This Life is especially remarkable for its representation of Mary's prominent involvement in her son's ministry and her leadership of the early Christian community. In particular, it reveals highly developed devotion to Mary's compassionate suffering at the Crucifixion, anticipating by several centuries an influential medieval style of devotion known as “affective piety” whose origins generally have been confined to the Western High Middle Ages.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Red Sea

The American University of Cairo Press recently sent me their new catalogue, and as one would expect, many of the books in there treat the recent so-called Arab Spring and its implications for Egypt and beyond. Among the titles that caught my attention were the following: Timothy Power, The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500-1000 (AUC Press, June 2012, 384pp.).

About this book the publisher tells us:
The historic process traditionally referred to as the fall of Rome and rise of Islam is viewed from the perspective of the Red Sea, a strategic waterway linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and a distinct region incorporating Africa with Arabia. The transition from Byzantium to the Caliphate is contextualized in the contestation of regional hegemony between Aksumite Ethiopia, Sasanian Iran, and the Islamic Hijaz. The economic stimulus associated with Arab colonization is then considered, including the foundation of ports and roads linking new metropolises and facilitating commercial expansion, particularly gold mining and the slave
trade. Finally, the economic inheritance of the Fatimids and the formation of the commercial networks glimpsed in the Cairo Geniza are contextualized in the diffusion of the Abbasid ‘bourgeois revolution’ and resumption of the ‘India trade’ under the Tulunids and Ziyadids.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Screw the Rich?

In the late 90s, I had a lot of fun writing a short article on Evelyn Waugh's famously incorrect views about money, wealth, and social class. (I did this mischievously, I admit, in part because I had a lot of leftist friends whose pieties I wished to tweak. One in particular was left fulminating incoherently after reading my article, which was of course enormously amusing.) I tried, inter alia, to draw attention to the oft-ignored verse that comes immediately after the gospel's famous warning that the rich will find getting to heaven as easy as camels going through needles' eyes: "but with God all things are possible." Waugh showed, especially in his wonderful historical novel Helena, that it was possible for the rich and powerful not only to make it to heaven, but to do so after having lived saintly lives on earth. That may be the exception, but it is at least possible--with God.

If the dowager empress of the Roman Empire, the richest and most powerful woman of her time, could become a saint, there was hope for everyone, the rich included, which is precisely the oft-overlooked conclusion to the famous gospel passage above. (As Waugh said in one of his letters to his friends about his treatment of the upper classes in both Helena and the even more famous Brideshead Revisited, "it's not true that Catholics think the poor go to a servants' hall in heaven.")

Anyway, a new book has recently been published giving us Clement of Alexandria's treatment of the question of whether the rich will be saved: Quel riche sera sauvé ? (Texte grec d'O. Stählin et L. Früchtel [GCS 17²] — Introduction, notes et index par Carlo Nadi, Professeur à la Faculté de théologie de Florence et Patrick Descourtieux, Professeur à l'Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum — Traduction par Patrick Descourtieux; Éditions du Cerf, 2011, 264pp).

About this book the publisher tells us:

En déclarant qu'il était plus difficile à un riche d'entrer dans le Royaume des cieux qu'à un chameau de passer par le trou d'une aiguille (cf. Mc 10, 25), Jésus n'a-t-il pas voué à la perdition tout détenteur de capitaux ? L'effroi de ses auditeurs n'a pas échappé à Clément d'Alexandrie, ni la détresse spirituelle qui guettait les riches de la ville, quand ils voyaient la distance existant entre leur mode de vie et les exigences de l'Évangile.

Mais la parole du Christ avait-elle été bien comprise ? L'auteur des « Stromates » se révèle ici tour à tour exégète, dogmaticien, moraliste et directeur spirituel. Dans l'Alexandrie bigarrée de la fin du IIe siècle, sa pensée de fin lettré allait ouvrir à ses auditeurs et à ses lecteurs des perspectives insoupçonnées sur les richesses de la parole divine. Cette première homélie sur un sujet difficile et controversé devait connaître un grand succès.

Après une entrée en matière qui invite chacun à l'espérance, Clément analyse soigneusement le texte évangélique. Il s'élève ensuite à de profondes considérations sur l'amour de Dieu et du prochain, avant de conclure à nouveau par un vibrant appel à l'espérance. Le « Quis dives salvetur » est la première tentative de réflexion chrétienne sur les rapports de la foi et de l'argent. Le « Mamon de l'injustice » y devient un moyen d'accéder aux « tentes éternelles ».

Monday, April 9, 2012

Perceiving God through the Spiritual Senses

Pace the title, there is actually much in this book of interest to Eastern Christians; many figures who are so important to Eastern Christian spirituality and theology are examined here, including Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and Pseudo-Dionysius. The beauty of these figures, of course--and others whom one could list--is that they do not belong exclusively to either East or West, but are rightly claimed by both. One editor is a Western Christian (Coakley--an Anglican cleric and important theologian), and the other an Orthodox theologian and deacon in the OCA whom I met last year at the wonderful ASEC conference at Ohio State. Both have brought together a collection examining the role of the body in general, and the senses in particular, in the Christian life--an effort that puts one in mind of another book, published in 2006 (and reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies), by the Syriac specialist and Orthodox theologian Susan Ashbrook Harvey: Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination.

Sarah Coakley and Paul Gavrilyuk, eds., The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity (Cambridge UP, 2011), 336pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
Is it possible to see, hear, touch, smell and taste God? How do we understand the biblical promise that the 'pure in heart' will 'see God'? Christian thinkers as diverse as Origen of Alexandria, Bonaventure, Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar have all approached these questions in distinctive ways by appealing to the concept of the 'spiritual senses'. In focusing on the Christian tradition of the 'spiritual senses', this book discusses how these senses relate to the physical senses and the body, and analyzes their relationship to mind, heart, emotions, will, desire and judgement. The contributors illuminate the different ways in which classic Christian authors have treated this topic, and indicate the epistemological and spiritual import of these understandings. The concept of the 'spiritual senses' is thereby importantly recovered for contemporary theological anthropology and philosophy of religion.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Interview with John McGuckin

To know the work of the Orthodox priest and scholar John McGuckin is at once to ask: does he ever sleep? The answer to that must surely be no! Author of an acclaimed intellectual biography of St Gregory of Nazianzus and study of St. Cyril of Alexandria, of liturgical works, books of poetry, reference books on Origen and the Fathers generally, introductory texts on Byzantine spirituality, and much else besides, he has gone from strength to strength in the past two years with several major works, all discussed previously on here. I've had a chance to catch up with him and ask him about some of his recent publications as well as current and upcoming projects. Here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background, including, if you will, what it is like teaching at two institutions and your directorship of the Sophia Institute. What is the Institute trying to accomplish?

I am a Romanian Orthodox Priest, of Anglo-Irish descent, husband, father of three, grandfather of six, currently working in a small parish in Manhattan and also hold down the position of Nielsen Chair (i.e. professorship) in Early Church History at Union Theological Seminary, and the Chair in Byzantine Christian Studies in Columbia University. I write a lot; and in my spare time I….come to think of it I have no spare time. 

The joy of  being involved in two very different  institutions is sometimes muted by the necessity of having to attend two sets of faculty meetings!  But Union is an old Ivy League school of theological studies that has traditionally invested much in early Christian theology. Schaff, our early leader of History here (older than Oxford’s Church History department by the way), sponsored the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Church series, for example; and was instrumental in a very important 19th century reference set called the ‘Creeds of Christendom.’ Columbia is another old Ivy League school stressing more the phenomenology of religions (under which rubric Christianity  has a large role and voice). 

The different strands to my life, of course, are all interwoven. The theological task is  the chief coloration of my priestly service to the Church. Living in both worlds of Academy and Ekklesia is interesting--  but no more strange than most men and women will experience in the  contemporary world where multiple identities and roles often overlap, and sometimes ‘grind’ against one another. I have long held it necessary to bring critical historical scholarship to the illumination of  deep truths. I have never thought the  critical method to be its own justification, or that scholarship is self-justifying. It has inherent values (whatever one calls them – truth, qualitative difference, illumination, wisdom). One ends up as a ‘theologian’ (or at least a philosophe) in the Academy even if one is not specifically treating the  religious thought of the ancients. That or dilettantism are our choices. On the other side of the coin,  ecclesiastical  life and culture without the winnowing and aerating properties of the life of the mind, and the  currents of  broader culture, can all too easily become stifling and oppressive. They might not like each another; but they need one another.

AD: We seem to be living in a time when scholarship, at long last, is beginning to realize that "Christian" approaches to law and politics, in so far as they treat the East at all, must move beyond tiresome notions of "Caesaropapism." (I'm thinking here, e.g., of the recent three-volume collection, one volume of which was The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature.) Where does your own forthcoming book, Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization take the scholarly debate? What drew you to work on that topic? Why do you think there remains a very high level of interest today in studies on all aspects of Byzantium?

I agree with you about scholarship needing to renew itself. It can start by reviewing  the many clichéd presuppositions and short-cuts it clings to in lieu of addressing the primary sources. Our recent times have seen a great revival of interest in Byzantine studies, and more generally the  culture of patristic thought, and the life and culture of the Churches of the East.  When one looks at the majority of texts dealing with, let’s say, Eastern Christian religious culture,  from an earlier academic age, however, one is too often appalled by the undigested level of prejudices, false informations, and plain silliness one finds. One of the worst examples of all, I would suggest, is Donald Attwater’s books on the Eastern Churches. But even sharper scholars like Dvornik had an awful lot of silly things to say about the analysis of Byzantine subtleties of theology and politeia. His term "caesaropapism" has had a detrimental effect. So much of western scholarly attitudes to Byzantium up to the late 20th century were full of prejudices distilled from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. They are often blind to the real balances and subtleties that a close reading of the primary texts reveal. But you know what they say: “Why let the facts stand in the way of a good theory?"

My recent book on  Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization was written because I wanted to study and learn about an issue

where I could find very little extant literature to guide me. I don’t mean that there aren’t a bundle of books on canon law, or on Roman civil law – but rather that I could not find much to help me with a big question: What did Christianity do in its passage through the first millennium in consciously building a civilisation with its own stamp upon it? Law was surely in the heads and minds of the Christians from the times of avoiding Nero’s secret police to the legal scholastics of Justinian’s court. Christianity has invested so much in law, both civilly and ecclesiastically; and yet has always avoided the turn into becoming a religion of the law (be it Torah or Sharia) which other religious systems have chosen. My book therefore, is not so much a review of Byzantine canon law, or the Justinianic Code, as much as it is a question about principles of culture and polity-building at the heart of historical Christianity. I hope it will have much to say to a wide body of readers and theorists who might like to take a fresh look at the way so many areas (take Europe as an example) have advanced theories of human rights as a way forward to a secular paradise; yet in the  process have divorced their understanding of human rights from the sense of divinely graced anthropology by which Christianity first advanced the notion of the special dignity of  humankind. We now postulate  elevated rights for  humanity without any sense of a workable philosophical or metaphysical grounding to the theory: and we sit and wonder why the century that saw the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also the century that reinvented slavery, and brought back genocide to the body politic.

AD:  Not a lot of academics get a chance to work on the production of a movie or documentary, but you did exactly that in Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. Tell us about the process of producing the movie, and the traveling it involved.

Having completed the film, eight years after we initiated it, I can now appreciate why so few academics want to be involved in this genre. It was so much work; travelling, writing and rewriting scripts, hauling equipment up mountains, moving  a team by plane and bus from America to Egypt, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. Of course now that the film is completed it is clear that it has a charm of its own and will have a life of its own, reaching into homes on TV screens and  computer monitors where an academic work of mine, for example, would never appear.  The film is a visual study of several famous monasteries (including Sinai, St. Antony’s, and Sergei Posad) where we went as film-makers and just made the simple request of the ancient Orthodox pilgrims: ‘Abba, give me a word.’ We asked the senior monastics of each place (including several convents)  to tell us something about their practice of the Jesus Prayer. We think the film gives a little window, often in an intriguing way, into Orthodox monastic life and the hesychastic tradition of the Jesus Prayer.

AD: The Jesus Prayer and the practice of Hesychasm both seem today to be attracting a great deal of attention if the number of recent books is anything to go by. What do you think might explain this interest, including from non-Orthodox? What have been the reactions so far to the movie and book?

The very few secular critics who have noticed the film have tended not to like it. The general gist was that it ‘Did not tell me anything new;’ which surprised yet heartened me that so many  of them were already experts in hesychastic prayer. Who would have thought it?  

The larger number of Orthodox and Catholic faithful who have seen it and have responded back to us are almost  all singing from the same hymn sheet: they found it charming, restful and reverent, a feast for the eye and the heart, and so on. So it seems to have greatly pleased those who were, perhaps, more likely to have found it pleasing. I suppose we did a good service for exposing more of the hidden world of Orthodox monasticism to a larger audience. But I think this is the kind of film that will work better for the heart than the head ( which is after all a good thing for a hesychastic piece is it not?). 

The more I go on in life the more depth I discover in this simplest of all prayer forms – known as the Jesus Prayer. I have been working recently, academically, in researching Byzantine mystical ideas of cognition change. A recent article of mine in the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly looks at the states of soul-cognition in Elias Ekdikos, a major figure of the Great Church in Constantinople at the end of the first millennium. He shows, quite clearly, how advanced studies in cognitive changes (the theory of human consciousness) were part and parcel of what we today would call 'Byzantine spirituality.’ For many generations, of course, spirituality and  human culture, let alone the human sciences, have been artificially divided (this domain church; this domain culture; this domain critical thought, and so on). But it strikes me that in their  simplest of meditative techniques on the nature of the Holy Name, the  precise idea of rising up (from material consciousness, to intellective consciousness, to mystical awareness) is ever at the heart of what the hesychastic tradition is all about; and the literature on the Prayer speaks of this incessantly in the language of the ‘descent of the Nous into the heart.’ These are all deep things, difficult to talk about, of course. But when they are practised one sees it instinctively because (as Orthodox theology consistently says) these things are archetypal in the structure of the heart and soul of human beings (drop a cat--it will always land on its feet).  This is why many outsiders find the fire in the Orthodox spiritual traditions, while  many Orthodox remain unaware of their own treasures (because of over-familiarity?).

AD: Much of the movie saw you visiting or describing many venerable monasteries around the world, including some quite famous. But monasticism seems to struggle in North America--we have no equivalent of Athos, Sinai, the Kievan Caves, Trinity Sergius Lavra, etc. Why do you think that is?

The Kievan Caves Lavra can give an example to suggest an answer to your question. I could deduce the same thing from the monasteries of most other Orthodox countries I have visited.  Under the Soviets the Lavra was part destroyed, and more or less wholly turned over to be a museum. The monks, as you know, were thrown out. The religious memory of the place was desecrated and ridiculed. When I visited it in 1991 a tiny group of monastics had been allowed back and were inhabiting a small skete on the site, alongside many resentfully hostile government employees trying to run the site as a cash-making tourist enterprise.  

When we went back for the film, the site was more or less under the control of the Church (except for the main church). At its center was the archbishop’s administration for Ukraine, and the national seminary; but also a newly re-founded set of male and female monastic communities.  The latter were struggling to establish their typikon: a word which means not just the rule of life they should follow (how much prayer, how much study, what type of ministry etc) but also what ethos the community will manifest. It is easy to print out the typikon if it is simply the day’s schedule. It is by no means easy to “establish” the typikon in the sense of building up the spiritual ethos of a place. One needs to  have the stones and lanes of the monastery ‘prayed over’ for a long time. One needs monastics who have been themselves rebuilt by the grace of God over time. Such a  vested place is recognisable by the charisms and graces of men and women who have been rendered luminous by the Spirit: but it also an issue of having experienced and gracious pneumatikoi or startsi (spiritual elders) who can oversee the life of  these houses, nurture their members, direct and shape them over decades, and pass on the care of the houses to disciples who maintain the self-same ethos. 

America is good at building the plant for monasteries, in some cases; but it has difficulties in establishing the tradition of elders. It is still (in its head anyway) a new and ‘frontier civilization.’ The sense of quiet alignment with ancient wisdoms and old obediences does not come naturally to it. It is more Teddy Roosevelt than Paisy Velichovsky. That is why I think America still has some way to go to find itself as a monastically-graced land. It is not enough to don the klobuk and  behave as if the tsar might drop in one day. One needs to pass through the fires of God’s pitiful mercy in oneself, and emerge as someone who would like to build a shelter in the wilderness for the comfort of the poor passerby.

AD: In addition to these two major projects, you've also overseen something (to my mind) even grander, viz., the The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity published this year in 2 volumes by Wiley-Blackwell. Tell us about the Encyclopedia, and the process of producing such a massive work.

The old adage says : ‘Never work with animals or children.’ I would add a line – ‘Or  with Encylopedias of Orthodoxy.’  It was, actually, great fun to do. And I can say that now that it is all over and done with. I had a team of young and enthusiastic assistant editors to cheer things on. We had the inestimable privilege of working with so many splendid  international Orthodox intellectuals (for almost all the entries were by Orthodox people with doctoral level qualifications). It heartened me to see how greatly the Orthodox world has repaired its levels of education so devastated by oppressive forces over the previous century.  Almost all English-language reference works on Orthodoxy, if I may exaggerate only a tiny degree, have been written about the Orthodox by outsiders, who have had varying degrees of patience with us, or understanding of us.  This is the first  really large-scale work that looks at us from the inside: tells the story in our own words.  

The Moscow Patriarchate is currently bringing out a mammoth Russian language version--but they are still only up to 'A,' I believe. Even when this finally emerges in the light, nevertheless, ours will not be pushed aside; but I hope it will remain as an enduring monument because our work takes the highest levels of contemporary critical scholarship and analytical refinement, and allies it with a sense of reverence and delight in the affairs and culture of our Church. Ours also might “just fit” in a book bag. Theirs will need a truck to move it around!

AD: One of the many charms of the Encyclopedia was the inclusion of copies of beautiful icons produced by your wife, Eileen. Is she a full-time iconographer? Where did she study?

Yes, you are right. I did not realize this until I actually saw the book physically in hand, when Blackwells sent me a boxed set: but how beautiful a thing it is to hold and smell (I like smelling books!). It is charming. The production costs were mounting of course, and although the publishers wanted  illustrations they could not stretch to many colored ones. So I had to reach out to another charmer, my wife Eileen, who is a very successful professional iconographer, and I had to go playing my sad violin so she would let me use her images to  demonstrate Orthodox iconography. This was no difficult task. Even though I may be biased, of course, I find her work ‘commanding’ among the many splendid new iconographers we have in our time. She, for me, is a buoyant example of some of the best things going out there internationally. So I was  blessed to be able to include her work. 

People can see a fuller range here. She studied as a fine-arts student (landscape painter) at Newcastle University in England, and went on to  have a full career as an educationalist. When we moved to America in 1997,  and I took up my academic appointment here, she retired early from academia and took up her painting again (which had been a leisure-hours activity all those years). She opened up ‘The Icon Studio’ in New York and has never since been without a list of advance commissions. She absorbed the techniques of icon painting in many places: studios in Athens and the Islands, and some ateliers in Romania. Her color palette is radiant. Her line is very pure and refined. Enough already--you might think I had a special affection for the woman!

AD: Wiley-Blackwell also brought out your own The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, the latest in a considerable number of introductions to, dictionaries of, surveys covering Eastern Christianity. Why do you think we are seeing such an upsurge in major publications on Eastern Christianity today by major publishers--Wiley, Oxford, Routledge, Cambridge, Columbia, and others? Has the world--or at least the academic world--finally "discovered" the East?

Well, Wiley Blackwell is graced to have at the helm of its religion publishing list a very wonderful person called Rebecca Harkin. She is consummately professional, but also has a finely discerning eye. And, though I should not put thoughts in her head or words in her mouth, I think she saw in the traditions of the Orthodox church a fountain of real-world Christian wisdom that was both grounded and mystical at one and the same moment, and which could  be of great utility to the large numbers of intelligent Christians out there today who are ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’ It was Rebecca who came to me and pushed me to compose both these very large works. I (of course) like my Orthodox Church book.  I tried to make it always faithful to the Orthodox tradition in all respects. But I also wanted, all the way through it, to talk about the “real world.”   So it speaks of war, and human grief, and sexuality, and corporate greed in the market place; as well as speaking about the Virgin-Theotokos, the angels, the liturgy and sacraments.  That is my real world, you see: the juxtaposition of the 7th age of the unrealised hopes of humanity, with the glimmering light already breaking through of the 8th age of the Kingdom.

AD: What projects are you at work on currently?

My immediate problem is how to get through to the end of this period of Lent without staining my teeth dark brown with un-milked coffee. This is a recurring project: something of the level of what the ancients would call an aporia: roughly translatable as: Solve that one if you can!  In terms of literature I am resting my steaming head on the table at present and glad to see the release in 2012 of Prayer Book of the Early Christians

as well as The Ascent of Christian Law (SVS Press), and later in the year also the  issuing of a set of studies I have introduced and edited from a number of young scholars, titled The Concept of Beauty in Patristic and Byzantine Theology. The publisher for this is not yet settled. Make me an offer someone out there? This last book looks at the tradition in Platonic philosophy of the ‘Ascent to Transcendent Beauty’ (see the priestess Diotima’s wonderful speech in the Symposium). The Byzantine church Fathers take and adapt this theme to make it a magnificent set of reflections on the  beauty of the divine transcendent.  I think this will itself be a beautiful book, as well as a deeply instructive one. I have composed for it the Introduction on the nature of beauty as a transcendental in patristic thought; as well as an article in the  main body of the book on the manner in which St. Maximus the Confessor deals with the  idea. Other chapters deal with Plato himself, with Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Niketas Stethatos and others. I like offering patristic books which are dealing with real theology, real philosophy – full of substance not merely dead and deadly exercises in academic exactitudes; and thus as dry as dust. The great Fathers of the Church were radiant mystagogues in many cases. Many of their works still leap with the  power of the Spirit. Many  modern theologians have habitually dismissed them as theologians dead and gone, who have nothing to say to the world. This is the mistake of those who have never really read them. For us Orthodox, they are our living treasure. The lights are still on in the house. 

When my head stops steaming, I am turning my mind for the latter part of 2012, towards two projects on my open list. The first is the contract  I have with IVP Academic publishers to offer them, some time before 2014, a large  text book on the history of the Christian Church in the first millennium. It is going (tentatively) to be entitled The Cross Ascendant.    I am also starting a project I have long desired to do: a translation of the Hymns of Divine Eros of St. Symeon the New Theologian, which will itself be hymnal (poetic) in character and will reflect in English blank verse the varying metric rhythms of the poetic originals. I have lived on and off with St. Symeon for most of my scholarly life, since the day he found me as a 23-year-old know-it-all in a library in Durham. And I want to render his  magnum opus   in a version which will show what a master he was in both doctrine and poetry. Just talking about it makes me want to go and smell the Greek originals again! 

So I’m off – and thank you for your kindness is asking about my work.
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