"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, September 30, 2013

The Anatomy of Stalin's Terror

For Eastern Christians in the former Soviet Union, the terror of that evil regime is not news. It martyred thousands if not millions of Orthodox and Catholic Christians--and still others. But that terror still continues to be studied, including in a book just published this summer: James Harris, ed., The Anatomy of Terror: Political Violence under Stalin (Oxford UP, 2013), 400pp.

About this book we are told:
Stalin's Terror of the 1930s has long been a popular subject for historians. However, while for decades, historians were locked in a narrow debate about the degree of central control over the terror process, recent archival research is underpinning new, innovative approaches and opening new perspectives. Historians have begun to explore the roots of the Terror in the heritage of war and mass repression in the late Imperial and early Soviet periods; in the regime's focus not just on former "oppositionists," wreckers and saboteurs, but also on crime and social disorder; and in the common European concern to identify and isolate "undesirable" elements. Recent studies have examined in much greater depth and detail the precipitants and triggers that turned a determination to protect the Revolution into a ferocious mass repression.
The Anatomy of Terror is an edited volume which brings together the work of the leading historians in the field, presenting not only the latest developments in the subject, but also the latest evolution of the debate. The sixteen chapters are divided into eight themes, with some themes reflecting the diversity of sources, methodologies and angles of approach, others showing stark differences of opinion. This opens up the field of study to further research, and this volume will proof indispensable for historians of political violence and of the era of Stalinist Terror.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Papacy and Primacy

As I have had many occasions to note, Northern Illinois University Press has been rather unique among academic presses in taking a very good, sustained, and commendable interest in Orthodoxy, especially, but not exclusively, Russian Orthodox history. Set for October release is another book from them, this one with a more clearly "theological" note than in some of their past works, which have often tended to be strongly historical in focus.

I am very pleased to see that this book is going to be in print. I was one of the manuscript reviewers commissioned by the editors to determine suitability for publication and I very warmly recommended that they do so. At once faithful to Orthodox ecclesiology and to Catholic realities, this is a cogently written, carefully thought out work that deserves a wide audience among Orthodox and Catholics alike: Maximos Vgenopoulos (with a foreword from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew), Primacy in the Church from Vatican I to Vatican II: An Orthodox Perspective (NIL Press, 2013), 220pp.

About this book we are told:
In this timely and comprehensive work, Maximos Vgenopoulos analyzes the response of major Orthodox thinkers to the Catholic understanding of the primacy of the pope over the last two centuries. Here Vgenopoulos brings together writings by Greek and Russian Orthodox theologians and systematically compares them to demonstrate the emergence of a concordance between the canons of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. Primacy in the Church from Vatican I to Vatican II is an invaluable resource on the official dialogue taking place between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church today. This important book will be of broad interest to historians, theologians, seminarians, and all those interested in Orthodox-Catholic relations.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Copts and Muslims in Egypt

Given the recent focus on Egypt and the ongoing violence by the Muslim Brotherhood and others against Coptic Christians in the aftermath of the overthrow first of Mubarak and more recently of Morsi, a book set for release early next year looks to be timely indeed: Abdel Latif Al Menawy, The Copts: An Investigation into the Rift Between Muslims and Copts in Egypt (Gilgamesh Publications, 2014), 210pp.

About this book we are told:
There are seventeen million Copts in the world, among them an estimated half million US Copts.This book covers the long history of this ancient Christian community, as well as the key role the Coptic Church played in the 2012 uprising in Egypt, and their prospects in post-revolution Egypt. Abdel Latif Al Menawy met and interviewed late Pope Shnouda, the third Patriarch of Egypt many times during his rule. Throughout his career in journalism he was constantly in touch with leaders of the Coptic Society in Egypt. He had unparalleled access to developments of the various crises unravelling in the streets of Egypt as a result to confrontation between religion and politics.
    Coptic Cairo explains how Christianity became so deeply rooted in Egypt that Islam was never able to overcome it, leading to an uneasy relationship between the two faiths. It will give accounts, never published before, of direct confrontations between  the Late Pope Shnouda and both Presidents Late Anwar Sadat and former President Hosni Mubarak.  Abdel Latif also reveals the role the Coptic Church has played in the recent uprising in Egypt.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Divine Eloquence and Human Transformation: How to Read Scripture

Fortress Press recently sent me their fall catalogue. One of their imprints is the Emerging Scholars series, largely featuring recent dissertations in theology, including this one with a nod to one of the greatest theologians of the Christian East, St. Gregory the Theologian: Ben Fulford, Divine Eloquence and Human Transformation (Emerging Scholars, 2013), 256pp.

About this book we are told:
Key to a theology of scripture and how theology functions in relation to the interpretation of Christianity's religious texts is the important issue of faith and history. Seeking to address a critical problem in theology and the interpretation of scripture raised by modern historical consciousness, Ben Fulford argues for a densely historical and theological reading of scripture centered in a Christological rubric. The argument herein uncovers a pattern of triune action and presence in the rhetorical use of Christian sacred texts, one which draws readers into fuller participation in the shaping of history in Christ. Tracing the problem through the modern theological heritage, the author turns to a comparative account of theologically patterned reading represented by patristic theology in Gregory of Nazianzus and postliberal theology in its pivotal founder, Hans Frei. The book addresses the challenge of historicity and historical consciousness, argues for the relevance of pre-modern approaches to scripture, and offers a fresh and extensive account of two salient figures from the early and contemporary tradition, thus enacting a theology of retrieval as a resource on a present issue of vital importance.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does God Love Russian Theologians?

Eerdmans has done a very commendable job over the years covering what they call "the Russian front." This has chiefly manifested itself in producing fine translations of the works of Bulgakov, but also increasingly in other areas, as with this forthcoming book by Johannes Oravecz, God as Love: The Concept and Spiritual Aspects of Agape in Modern Russian Religious Thought (Eerdmans, 2013), 528pp.

About this book we are told:
Nineteenth-century Russian religious intellectuals devoted a great deal of attention to the concept of agape, or Divine Love, arguing that the Christian church is a reflection of the triune, self-sacrificing God and his love for all of creation. On account of their deliberations, these intellectuals played a key role in mediating between the Orthodox Church and modern society.

In God as Love Johannes Oravecz presents a comprehensive summation of twenty-five prominent Russian thinkers and their thought on the concept of agape, showing in detail how they broke new ground in their various affirmations of the truth that God is love. No other book in any language treats this topic with such breadth and depth.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Syriac Stairmasters: Burn those Mental Carbs!

One of the happy developments in Eastern Christian studies in the last decade or two has been the increasing emergence of scholarly works on the Syriac tradition, which Oxford's Sebastian Brock famously called the "third lung" of Christianity, often, until recently, overlooked. Set for release at the very end of this year is a book that will continue to deepen our understanding of this rich tradition, sometimes referred to as a more "Semitic" Christianity prior to the Hellenization of theology: Kristian Heal and Robert Kitchen, eds., Breaking the Mind: New Studies in the Syriac Book of Steps (Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 304pp.

About this book we are told:
Among the earliest writings in Syriac literature is the collection of 30 memre or discourses entitled the Book of Steps or Liber Graduum, mostly probably written in the late fourth century inside the Persian Empire (modern Iraq). The author, who deliberately withheld his name, wrote extensively on the spiritual life and exploits of two groups of committed Christians—the upright and the perfect—that flourished in a period prior to the development of monasticism. Deeply immersed in the exegesis of the Bible as a means of defining and guiding an ascetical lifestyle, the author defends celibacy, absolute poverty, the vocations of prayer, teaching and conflict resolution, as well as insisting that the perfect should not work. In an unparalleled manner for ascetical literature, by the end of the collection the author encourages the predominantly lay "upright group" to keep striving for the status of perfection as he is disappointed in the failings of the senior group he calls "the perfect." This collection of sixteen new critical essays offers fresh perspectives on the Book of Steps, adding greater detail and depth to our understanding of the work’s intriguing picture of early Syriac asceticism as practiced within the life of a local church and community. The contributors offer perspectives on the book’s historical context in the midst of the Persian-Roman conflicts, the influence of Manichaeism, dietary images, sexuality and marriage, biblical exegesis and the use of Pauline writings and theology, as well as explorations of the Book of Steps’ distinctive approach to the ascetical life.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Synodality, Collegiality, and Orthodoxy

In the interview that has generated headlines around the world, Pope Francis said many noteworthy and important things, but for obvious reasons I fastened on to this particular passage:
We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality should be lived at various levels. Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops, because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality. The joint effort of reflection, looking at how the church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup between East and West, will bear fruit in due time…. We must continue on this path.
Where have we heard much of this before? Oh, that's right, in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Now, when I wrote that book I never for a moment thought that I was prescribing the answer to the problems of synodality, collegiality, and the papacy and thus to East-West unity. I have many failings, but that kind of scaldingly presumptuous approach to the nature and unity of the Church is not one of them. I've only ever seen what I wrote as a possible proposal, and certainly not a panacea. But I proposed what I did because an awful lot of other tremendously smart and "discerning" (to use a favored papal verb) people also said it--the leading lights of Orthodox and Catholic theology in the last half-century all agree with what I wrote, and what the pope has now said (echoing, of course, his two immediate predecessors, albeit more directly), viz., we require greater synodality in the Latin Church, and to learn what that means, the West must look to the East. In so doing, the Church can only be strengthened.

Such a proposal for greater synodality is welcome news indeed. But it will, predictably, give a case of the vapors to certain Catholics for whom a strongly centralized papacy is the only thing between us and the marauding barbarians at the gates--and the heretics inside many sanctuaries, chanceries, universities, etc. To those of this mindset, for whom the word "ultramontane" seems both outdated and anemic, even the barest hint of anything other than a Roman retrenchment will be greeted with alarm. For this crowd, the only thing necessary is a ringing denunciation--a syllabus of errors--at least once a month from the loggia in St. Peter's while we all kneel in the piazza; they yearn to see headlines like "Pope Sacks 500 Bishops, Tells Theologians to Shape Up or Face New Inquisition."

My response to these "arguments" is always the same: from the end of the nineteenth century onward, we have seen a steady centralization in the papacy and it doesn't work today. (For a history of this centralization, see such reputable historians as Owen Chadwick in his splendid A History of the Popes 1830-1914 as well as John Pollard's Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican, 1850-1950 and Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, which notes that it was only with the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law that a new canon was smuggled in, giving the pope exclusive right to appoint all the bishops of the world--a development so staggering that Duffy rightly and memorably calls it a "coup d'Église." One cannot thus argue with a straight face that a centralized papacy is "traditional" when it's only a century old; even more problematic are attempts to argue that such a model is theologically grounded, when plainly it is not. But what I find truly intolerable is the sheer fatuousness of this: in a time of great crisis for the Church, this strongly centralized papacy has not helped matters in most instances--and in fact has made the crisis worse in some cases. How, then, is more of the same supposed to arrest the crisis when it has failed to do so until now? This is like the doctor who, seeing that the penicillin he prescribed has not killed the bacteria after years of treatment, refuses to countenance another drug and instead simply applies more of the same failed pharmaceutical to the infection.

Now, to be clear, greater collegiality and synodality will not be a panacea. No system of governance is perfect, and each brings its own problems. But the idea that the current modus operandi for the papacy is the only theologically, historically justifiable model, and that we are not permitted to try something different, is simply not a serious proposition. Greater synodality will doubtless be messy, but why should that be thought a problem, still less an argument against proceeding? In addition to demonstrating to the Orthodox that the Catholic Church is serious about unity, greater synodality and collegiality has the very real potential--however counter-intuitive this may sound to some--not of weakening the Church but of strengthening her. For those Roman Catholics who fear that synodality=chaos=heresy, I always counsel, as the pope has done here, turning ad orientem: look at the Eastern Churches, including the Eastern Catholic Churches in your very midst: they are governed with a far higher (but not high enough!) degree of synodality and they have not fallen apart. Look, moreover, to the Eastern Orthodox Churches (with their various models, and varying degrees of centralization and synodality). They have plenty of problems, to be sure, but nobody--nobody-- thinks that turning the patriarch of Moscow, Constantinople, Antioch, Bucharest, Sofia, or Alexandria into a pope on the Roman model is the answer. 

Why Study History--and How?

I have, since I was a child, been fascinated by history, particularly military and political history. I have read a great deal of such histories, and numerous others besides. During the five years I was working on my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, I read a great deal of papal history and ecclesiological history.

And of course I have read, long admired, and been influenced by, the greatest Byzantine liturgical historian of our time, Robert Taft. More recently, I have been working in the area of the history of relations between Muslims and Eastern Christians, about which my next book is coming out late next year (D.v.). And all along the way, I have been haunted, as I briefly alluded here, to the problems of history, that is, to historiographical problems: how do we access history? what do we make of it? how do we tell it in a way free, so far as possible, from present political purposes? what are the "ground rules" for historical research? what are the hermeneutical problems of historiography and can we surmount them?

These are far from arcane academic questions. The failure to tell history faithfully and truthfully has wrought untold damage to numerous groups, causes, nations, peoples, and Christians in their search for unity. The abuses of history are exceedingly damaging and dangerous.

I was asked to give a lecture this December, and for my topic I chose "Rules for Thinking about the Past," coming up with sixteen such rules. That list was generated in part by an article I recently published in the area, which was itself based upon Taft's article "Ecumenical Scholarship and the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis Dispute," Ostkirchlische Studien 45 (1996): 201-226.

My research and writing in this area is increasingly motivated by something I've come to see more and more since finishing my first book: relations between Catholics and Orthodox turn, in many places, not so much on doctrinal disputes as on misconceptions about each other grounded in faulty history. It would be nice to think that this faulty history was merely the result of a  few ignorant souls gently laboring under a few factually incorrect premises the removal of which will immediately bring us all into the light of truth, harmony, and unity. But that is far from the case. Too often history is nothing more or other than a weapon with which, simultaneously, I protect my ecclesial identity and smite you, fiendish heretic.

In the Orthodox-Catholic context, there is no easier or more common way to prove this than to trot out those whom I refer to as the three theologians of the apocalypse: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas. How many times have these three, singly or collectively, been trotted out by Orthodox as proof that the West is not only hopelessly lost in "heresy" but is indeed "ontologically" deformed by them.Of course if you press these hyperventilating "traditionalists" to specify which works from the vast canons of these three they have read, or, better yet, whether they have the Latin sufficient to understand them (since, as the Italians always say, traduttore, traditore), and whether they have fairly represented each on his own terms, you are greeted with answers that could only charitably be called risible. Such people are fundamentally unserious, and their stories are not history but what Taft rightly derides as "confessional propaganda."

Orthodox, of course, are not alone in doing this: you will also find Catholic "traditionalists" plundering the past for present felt purposes, particularly on questions of liturgy, or "ultramontane" Catholics doing this about the pope, as we depressingly witnessed during the papal transition earlier this year. Such sentiments can be found elsewhere, too--not least among Muslims and, of course, in the wretched abuses to which the Crusades are subject.

We have, thankfully, begun to see real Orthodox scholars try to counter some of this gross abuse, first about Augustine, and then more recently, thanks to Marcus Plested's splendid work, about Aquinas. All that remains is for someone to do the same thing for Anselm, though David Bentley Hart has begun that task in a very commendable article which very much merits close reading: "A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo," Pro Ecclesia 7 (1998): 333-348.

All this is but preface to notice of a new book just published this month, which I am greatly looking forward to reading and which strikes me as just the sort of book Christians have long needed in these debates: John Fea, Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013), 192pp,

About this book the publisher tells us:
The interpretation of the past is at the core of many of today's divisive political and cultural debates. In this introductory textbook, accomplished historian John Fea shows how studying the past can help us understand the present world in which we live. Deep historical thinking has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and society, because it enables us to understand those with whom we differ on important issues. Studying history can relieve us of our narcissism; cultivate humility, hospitality, and love; and transform our lives more fully into the image of Jesus Christ.

Why Study History? explains why Christians should study history, how faith is brought to bear on our understanding of the past, and how studying the past can help us more effectively love God and others. Professors and students of history will value this unique, accessible introduction to the study of history and the historian's vocation.
We are also given the table of contents and an excerpt here.  
1. What Do Historians Do?
2. In Search of a Usable Past
3. The Past Is a Foreign Country
4. Providence and History
5. Christian Resources for the Study of the Past
6. History for a Civil Society
7. The Power to Transform
8. So What Can You Do with a History Major?
Epilogue: History and the Church
Appendix: A Proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Protestantism and Orthodoxy

If you ask some Christians what they can learn from each other, you are sometimes given polemical and triumphant answers that indicate any such learning will be entirely unidirectional and the only thing for the other party to do is to surrender, submit, and convert. This is sometimes the case for self-proclaimed "traditionalists" whether in Catholicism or Orthodoxy--often with reference to each other, and certainly with reference of either of them to Protestantism. Their "side" has all the answers beyond which there is only outer darkness and ignorance. What I find very amusing about such attitudes--in addition, of course, to their being historically ignorant and profoundly, ungenerously, ungraciously at odds with the much wider, more graciously accommodating and generously understanding traditions they purport to represent--is how often these Catholics and Orthodox have themselves taken on a distinctly, ironically Protestant hue as these individuals start promulgating their own magisterial encyclicals on Facebook and elsewhere instructing us on what "traditional Orthodoxy" or "truly canonical Orthodoxy" or "traditional Catholicism" really, really teaches. As Alasdair MacIntyre famously noted more than thirty years ago, modernity is the period par excellence in which the blind acclaim their own ability to see.

Not all books fall into that trap, however. A recent one asks what look to be intelligent and useful questions, born out of a concern for the decline of all Christian traditions in North America, especially oldline Protestantism: John P. Burgess, Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again (John Knox Press, 2013), 232pp.

About this book we are told:
When author and theologian John P. Burgess first travelled to Russia, he was hoping to expand his theological horizons and explore the rebirth of the Orthodox Church since the fall of Communism. But what he found changed some fundamental assumptions about his own tradition of North American Protestantism. In this book, Burgess asks how an encounter with Orthodoxy can help Protestants better see both strengths and weaknesses of their own tradition. In a time in which North American Protestantism is in decline—membership has now fallen to below 50% of the population—Russian Orthodoxy can help Protestants rethink the ways in which they worship, teach, and spread the gospel. Burgess considers Orthodox rituals, icons, saints and miracles, monastic life, and Eucharistic theology and practice. He then explores whether and how Protestants can use elements of Orthodoxy to reform church life.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Augustine Casiday on Worlds within Orthodox Worlds

Late last year I commented in some detail here on a most impressive new collection I had just received: Augustine Casiday, The Orthodox Christian World (Routledge, 2012), 608pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Over the last century unprecedented numbers of Christians from traditionally Orthodox societies migrated around the world. Once seen as an ‘oriental’ or ‘eastern’ phenomenon, Orthodox Christianity is now much more widely dispersed, and in many parts of the modern world one need not go far to find an Orthodox community at worship. This collection offers a compelling overview of the Orthodox world, covering the main regional traditions of Orthodox Christianity and the ways in which they have become global. The contributors are drawn from the Orthodox community worldwide and explore a rich selection of key figures and themes. The book provides an innovative and illuminating approach to the subject, ideal for students and scholars alike.
At last I've been able to interview the author about this excellent and fascinating collection he has published--a book that truly does deserve a place in every serious institutional and personal library with an interest in Eastern Christianity. Unlike other collections, this one, as we shall see, takes a unique and much more expansive approach, and that is greatly to be welcomed.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background:

AC: I am a native of Alabama and an alumnus of the University of Alabama and a Bama fan (more by default than by conviction: I studied there during pretty lean years for football and that’s been difficult to forgive). I had a major in Psychology (BS) and a double major in Classics and Philosophy (BA). For graduate work, I went to Washington University in St Louis where I earned my MA in Classical Philology. In 1999, I began my doctoral research – on John Cassian’s theology – at Durham University under the supervision of Prof. (now Fr.) Andrew Louth. After completing it, I took up a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, where I catalogued the literary sources available to St Aldhelm of Malmesbury as evident from his De virginitate, prosa. It wasn’t glamorous work, but one outcome was a discovery that enables us to push back the date that the Passio s. Thomae was circulating in the British Isles by about 200 years. And in any case it was very satisfying to put my Latin to good use. In fact, Latin is the golden thread through my education. I started studying it when I was 13 years old and after about a quarter of a century and exposure to roughly a dozen more languages (to varying degrees) Latin never ceases to impress me for its lucidity, expressiveness, subtlety, and beauty. But I am digressing. 

After the fellowship in Cambridge, I returned to Durham and secured a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship that enabled me to return to the writings of the Desert Fathers. I wrote a monograph on John Cassian’s contemporary, Evagrius Ponticus, which Cambridge University Press has just published. In 2006, I took up a lectureship in historical theology in the University of Wales, Lampeter, as it was called at the time. The past three years have been tumultuous for higher education in Wales and that university was merged, with far-reaching consequences for its provision of theology. In September 2013, I became Lecturer in Greek at Cardiff University, though I am still living in Lampeter. 

When I am home, I worship at Three Holy Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church, in the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. It is a small, friendly parish. Considering how rare Orthodox communities are in Wales, we may very well be unique for the amount of Welsh in the liturgy, though I have to admit I don’t know how things are at the Greek parish in Cardiff. 

AD: What led you to work on The Orthodox Christian World in particular? 

When I arrived in Cambridge in 2002, Marcus Plested invited me to join him editing a brief encyclopaedia on Orthodox Christianity for Routledge Press. Those plans were overtaken by internal changes at Routledge and, as a result, the Press cancelled that project. Some months later, I was contacted by the editor for Routledge Worlds. She knew about the proposed book and thought something like it might be suitable for her series. So she approached me. After lots of fruitful conversations, and more than a little guidance as to what books in that series should be like, I worked up a proposal. The core of that proposal was my decision to treat ecclesiology as one theme among many – something that one of the readers of the proposal found pretty outrageous. Happily, my editor allowed herself to be persuaded by my counter-argument, which was in essence very simple: She’d asked me to edit a book about the Orthodox Christian WORLD, not the Orthodox Christian Church or better the Orthodox Christian Churches. The implications of that shift in emphasis were far-reaching. For instance, chapters in the first part of the book (‘Orthodox Christianity around the world’) have a formulaic title: the Greek tradition, the Russian tradition, the Coptic tradition, the Syriac tradition. That was no accident. I wanted the contributors to be able to account for their subjects without having to adhere to an arbitrary normative pattern and without having to wreath their chapters in apologies if ever they introduced anything not strictly reducible to the Church as such. What’s more, I wanted to be clear to the readers that Orthodox Christianity in itself is more than its Byzantine heritage. That message is, I hope, plain and intelligible in the editor’s introduction. 

And, thanks to the invaluable help of Fr Vrej Nersessian in his (former) capacity in the British Library, it is also communicated by the image of St Luke on the book’s cover. Above and beyond the challenge and joy of thinking about Orthodox Christianity as broadly as I possibly could, the foundational work I did in planning the book was meaningful to me because (as well as being an academic) I am a parent and as such I feel an acute sense of responsibility to my children – who like me are Orthodox Christians and like me are culturally Western – to help them understand that being an Orthodox Christian does not necessarily mean being alienated from life in Wales, or England, or America. In other words, we aren’t obliged to pretend that we are Byzantines. 

AD: As you know, the past few years have seen an explosion in books about Orthodoxy, including, not last, major volumes from Wiley-Blackwell--a dictionary, and more recently an encyclopedia on Orthodoxy. What do you think explains such an increase in interest, especially from major academic publishers? 

To judge from the directions my editor gave me, the presses are aware that if they publish a book on Eastern Christianity then it will find a big market in North America. The greater the likelihood a book might become required reading for a course in a North American university, the more the publishers like it. (Just how that impacts upon the way a book is priced is a question that I’d very much like to have answered myself, but that’s a separate matter.) What drives the demand? I expect there are more answers to that question than there are readers of these books. But I’m confident that I can identify one factor: Orthodoxy has all the appeal of an exotic religion, with the enormously important factor more exotic religions lack – it is centrally about Jesus Christ. There’s a comparison to be made with St Augustine’s initial attraction to philosophy, which was checked by his realization that “that the name of Christ was not in it” (Conf. 3.4.8). What’s more, our ability to travel and to communicate rapidly over vast distances, together with patterns of migration across the planet, mean that Orthodox Christianity is visible in places where it doesn’t quite fit in with the local culture. Certainly in my own life, and I suspect for other people, too, the encounter with a church that is so unfamiliar elicits a strong desire to know more about it.

AD: To a reader coming fresh to Orthodoxy and picking up your book as well as John McGuckin's Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, what would you say differentiates your volume from his? 

The major difference is in the format. The Orthodox Christian World consists in essays that are on the whole much lengthier than the entries in Fr McGuckin’s Encyclopedia. His book has really precise treatments of a range of topics and, along with them, clusters of bibliographies. Coverage in his book is much more straightforward than it is in mine. But what my book lacks in straightforward coverage it makes up for in its longer, more discursive sections, which I think have great potential to inspire further thinking.

AD: Your introduction sounds several very commendable notes about not discriminating on the basis of Chalcedon, not taking refuge in some romanticized past, and not treating Orthodoxy as monolithic. In light of all those things, I'm wondering if it's possible to speak of scholarship on the Christian East as entering a new, perhaps third phase, a phase that is more balanced and above all self-critical? It seems to me we had books, until roughly the early 20th century, that were few and far between and treated Orthodoxy as exotica seen through Western, often colonial eyes; the second phase has been from the 1960s onwards (with Kallistos Ware's landmark The Orthodox Church), offering introductions by Orthodox themselves. Can one say that your book is in the vanguard of new developments in scholarship? 

I would certainly welcome developments along those lines! What will, I hope, drive it forward is a careful and serious interest in theology as such. Let me explain why I think profounder attention to theology matters. Your thematization of books about the Christian East is accurate. The second phase as you describe it – the internal perspective – challenges the imposition of extrinsic categories that characterizes the first phase. There is, however, a danger posed by resting content with internal perspectives, which I’ll borrow an expression from an anecdote an old friend told me and call the ‘Come and See’ problem. If insiders’ reports about Orthodox Christianity are the final word, then the standards for communicating about Orthodoxy shift. The conversation becomes enclosed and, not incidentally, within that conversation the inscrutables proliferate: experience, perspective, mystery all come to the fore – old terms but bearing new significance. Those terms don’t simply refer to the vantage from within Orthodoxy and how things seem from that vantage. 

In addition, all too often they also absolve the person who uses them from responsibility within the conversation. The burden for understanding shifts from the voice internal to Orthodoxy, who would normally be expected to provide meaningful explanation. Burden shifts onto the audience or readers, with the implicit (perhaps sometimes even explicit) suggestion that passing into Orthodoxy, participating in Orthodox life, and in fact taking up the internal point of view will bring them to understand more. Hence, ‘Come and See’ – an invitation that can bring a premature end to communicating. However hospitable it might seem, that invitation hides a harmful derogation of Christian responsibility to have a ready answer, to spread the good news, to go out into the highways and hedges. Don’t misunderstand me. Participation does open fresh possibilities for understanding. But in all honesty why would someone want to participate? That is the question that needs answering. And my expectation is that the answer needs to be communicated in terms that are theologically comprehensible. I believe theology is key since it enables us to talk intelligibly about God, and Orthodoxy exists principally in its relation to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Theology is not for that reason the totality of Orthodoxy, nor does everything Orthodox need to have a strict theological justification. It is hugely important, though, for all that as a discipline for conversation with and about God.

AD: Having finished this book, and taking stock of the current state of scholarship, which areas in Eastern Christianity still stand in great need of critical study and scrutiny? 

I’m going to answer with a note of specification, hoping that won’t make me seem evasive. Critical research into Eastern Christianity seems to me to be proceeding smoothly on far more fronts than I could hope to survey. But there are several areas where further critical attention from Eastern Christianity will benefit us all. I would start by identifying philosophy of history, Western Christianity (Orthodoxy’s great “Other”), theological literacy, and political discourse. None of these topics is totally ignored right now, of course. And yet in many cases the articles and books that are published on them are pre-critical in significant respects. I am reaching back to the terms of your fifth question when I say there is still a huge amount of Orthodox work that doesn’t seem particularly self-critical. Essays, suggestions, tantalizing hints of the perspective from a different vantage all have their place. I doubt anyone would seriously dispute the value of lucid statements from Orthodox commentators. After a while, though, it becomes impossible to ignore the limitations of “an Orthodox perspective” on X, Y, and Z. In my view, it would be really interesting to see what would happen if there were a moratorium on the use of confessional markers in English-language publications, so that the origins in Eastern Christianity of such publications can enrich them instead of marginalizing them as specimens of identity politics. 

AD: What were some of the criteria by which you selected the figures in part II, "Important Figures in Orthodox Christianity"? Many of the selections make eminent sense and their relevance is obvious, while a few others (e.g., Takla Haymanot) are more recondite, and still others whom one might expect to see (e.g., the Cappadocians, Paisius Velichkovsky or John Zizioulas) are treated in a number of scattered places, but do not have their separate entries. 

In making those decisions, I used a method that evolved gradually. I wanted the contents of this section not to leave any enormous gaps in coverage with respect to chronology and geography. The figures – almost all of them men, but I’ll come back to that point in a moment – were selected in part to illustrate particular moments and places in Orthodox Christianity. It often seems to me that a few eras and regions are privileged (fourth-century Asia Minor, eleventh-century Kyiv, fifteenth-century Constantinople, nineteenth-century Russia….) and the rest is simply presumed to be filled with more of the same. From the inception of my planning, I wanted this book to document the variety and vitality of Orthodoxy, so I couldn’t merely round up the usual suspects. Because I’d committed myself to including non-Byzantine traditions, it was important to include significant figures from those other traditions. 

You mentioned Abuna Takla Haymanot, who has fascinated me since seeing an icon reproduced in, I think, one of those extraordinary publications that Wallis Budge prepared for Lady Meux. Maybe it was an abuse of editorial privilege, but I thought what I had was basically an unmissable opportunity to get an expert to prepare a brief piece about him. So, thanks to Prof. Getatchew’s contribution, readers can take a close look into a transitional period in the history of Christian Ethiopia that complements the survey written by Fr Ranieri and, in the process, learn about a major figure in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Prof. Takahashi’s chapter (‘Barhebraeus’) similarly opens up for detailed consideration a fascinating place and period that many initial presentations of Orthodox Christianity overlook. 

Likewise, the chapter on St Raphael Hawaweeny enriches the book’s presentation (not least thanks to Fr. Herbel’s chapter) of Orthodoxy in North America – and has the further benefit that Bishop Basil, who wrote it, was also directly involved in the canonisation of St Raphael. Another factor that figured into the roster for Part II was my preference against including chapters on persons still living. Perhaps the bias of a classical education is overactive here, but it seems to me that judgments on contemporary figures often age poorly. Consider some of the books that appear about modern theology. Without being too indiscreet, I don’t mind relating that when I discuss them with other academics and friends we sometimes guffaw at the names that have been included: “Surely Professor [INSERT NAME HERE] is more relevant as media phenomenon than as a theologian,” or words to that effect. That isn’t to say that I avoided controversy. Two chapters about near-contemporary figures – Sergii Bulgakov and Matta al-Miskîn – clearly indicate that they were controversial during their lives and remain so now. 

I mentioned the overwhelming preponderance of men in Part II. One reader recommended by name two women that should be included. Without going into detail, the only distinctive feature I could identify in either case was the sex of the person in question. I felt that came uncomfortably close to tokenism. I took two measures to redress these problems. First, I commissioned a thematic chapter on women in Orthodox Christianity. The presence of that chapter allowed the contributor to address a host of issues directly, which seemed to me far preferable to hoping that those issues would somehow be resolved by including a chapter or two that were dedicated to one given Orthodox woman or other. The second was to include chapters written by women, whenever possible. It turns out that was easily possible on several occasions. Even so, my sense that something is very much amiss remains. Can I revisit my answer to your seventh question? I’d like to add another topic that needs more attention: the place, and service, of laity within Orthodox Christianity. 

AD: Yes, the question of the laity does deserve greater attention. I'd note that the former Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury turns to that question in his essay in the just-published Festschrift for Michael Plekon. And someone else in the Festschrift also wrote an article for you: Antoine Arjakovsky's fascinating article in The Orthodox Christian World on the Paris School puts forth the argument that Orthodoxy will not achieve internal reconciliation and unity until it moves from seeing itself as an "institution" instead of a "style of life." That seems to me to capture something of the spirit of your book--yes? If Arjakovsky is right, what challenges does such a transformation pose? Are there some major things in Orthodoxy that would have to change for this to happen?

I hadn’t made that connection myself, but I’m sympathetic to it. And it is entirely in line with a suite of decisions I made about the book following from the decision to emphasize that its subject is the Orthodox Christian world. In the course of answering your questions, though, I keep coming back to the thought that the past doesn’t furnish us with much by way of concrete examples of how intelligent, articulate lay Orthodox Christians should live in pluralist societies. I have loaded as many non-clerical, non-monastic qualifiers into that sentence as it will bear. My sense is that at present Orthodox churches valorise clergy and monks (sometimes nuns) in a way that makes non-clerical, non-monastic Orthodox Christians seem defective. And that has to be wrong. A confident, educated laity would by no means detract from the Church. To the contrary, Orthodox laity must have an incomparably greater role to play in extending Orthodox Christianity into society. 

AD: A couple of common areas not covered in your book are liturgy and iconography. I assume that is because, arguably, these areas more than others have seen enormous coverage in hundreds of books in the last few decades? 

That’s a reasonable assumption. One of the factors that guided my editorial decisions was the intention that the resulting book should not duplicate content readily available elsewhere. It was on that basis that I opted not to commission a chapter on iconography. I also didn’t commission a chapter on monasticism for similar reasons. As for liturgy, a chapter was commissioned – but, as is often the way in projects of this sort, the chapter simply didn’t materialize. It was not the only such chapter. Initial conversations for a chapter on the Bulgarian tradition went very positively, even though in the end that chapter was not forthcoming.

AD: What are you up to now? What projects are underway currently, and where do you hope to focus your energies now? 

Earlier today I responded to questions about my contribution to Peter Bouteneff’s “Foundations” series, which is published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. The title is Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage and it should be available soon. I’ve also frantically been reading books and articles about Zoroastrianism, the origins of Israelite monotheism, and the tragic life of Akhenaten – all by way of preparing for the module “Monotheism from Moses to Freud” that I’m delivering this autumn in Cardiff. Soon, I need to assemble a few applications for grants to support further research. Shortly before November, I will start work in earnest on an intellectual biography of Boethius that I hope to publish in 2017 or thereabout. I’m also research the legends that gave rise to the Life of St Barlaam and Joasaph. In the meantime, I try to keep up as best I can with some trashy television and with a few novels and collections of poetry I’ve been reading lately.

Friday, September 13, 2013

On "Territory," "Canonical" and Otherwise

For many years now, even before finishing my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, I lamented the lack of serious attention being paid to the often polemical and always tendentious concept of "canonical territory" being bandied about in Eastern Europe, chiefly (and incoherently) by the Russian Orthodox Church. In a globalized world, it seems to me, the geographic imaginary behind the ancient canons must be seriously re-thought. I have long thought that what we needed was not merely an examination of the canons in light of contemporary geopolitical realities, but a deeper study of the whole notion of territory, sovereignty, and how and why, if at all, we should accept that the boundaries of the modern nation-state are necessarily coterminous with those of any so-called autocephalous church.

Set for release later this month is a book that sounds as if it will pick up at least part of this challenge: Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013), 512pp.

Territory is one of the central political concepts of the modern world and, indeed, functions as the primary way the world is divided and controlled politically. Yet territory has not received the critical attention afforded to other crucial concepts such as sovereignty, rights, and justice. While territory continues to matter politically, and territorial disputes and arrangements are studied in detail, the concept of territory itself is often neglected today. Where did the idea of exclusive ownership of a portion of the earth’s surface come from, and what kinds of complexities are hidden behind that seemingly straightforward definition?
The Birth of Territory provides a detailed account of the emergence of territory within Western political thought. Looking at ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and early modern thought, Stuart Elden examines the evolution of the concept of territory from ancient Greece to the seventeenth century to determine how we arrived at our contemporary understanding. Elden addresses a range of historical, political, and literary texts and practices, as well as a number of key players—historians, poets, philosophers, theologians, and secular political theorists—and in doing so sheds new light on the way the world came to be ordered and how the earth’s surface is divided, controlled, and administered.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

So....Is Evagrius a Heretic or Not?

Some years back we ran an essay in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies that reviewed the spate of publications about Evagrius which began emerging early in the last decade. The author of that article, Andriy Chirovsky, began by noting that for some there is still a vague suspicion hanging over Evagrius as, perhaps, a kind of proto-Origenist and therefore a very bad man. Of course, this whole enterprise rests on a cascading series dubious assumptions--about Evagrius himself, about what his "friends" and followers may have done in his name without him knowing (indeed, long after he was dead), and of course about Origen himself. Whether the great teacher of Alexandria was a heretic is, among contemporary scholars, far from univocally or unambiguously settled. And whether his influence "tainted" Evagrius remains similarly debated.

It is, then, a very welcome development to note the publication this week of a book from a very respected scholar who has previously published learned articles about Evagrius, and a book about him in the prestigious Routledge series on the Fathers--as well as other major publications, including one I shall interview the author about presently.

Augustine Casiday's latest book, then, is Reconstructing the Theology of Evagrius Ponticus: Beyond Heresy (Cambridge UP, 2013), 274pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Evagrius Ponticus is regarded by many scholars as the architect of the eastern heresy Origenism, as his theology corresponded to the debates that erupted in 399 and episodically thereafter, culminating in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 AD. However some scholars now question this conventional interpretation of Evagrius' place in the Origenist controversies. Augustine Casiday sets out to reconstruct Evagrius' theology in its own terms, freeing interpretation of his work from the reputation for heresy that overwhelmed it, and studying his life, writings and evolving legacy in detail. The first part of this book discusses the transmission of Evagrius' writings, and provides a framework of his life for understanding his writing and theology, whilst part two moves to a synthetic study of major themes that emerge from his writings. This book will be an invaluable addition to scholarship on Christian theology, patristics, heresy and ancient philosophy.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Who Excommunicated Whom and with What Authority?

It remains a point of dispute in discussions of the supposed and so-called schism between East and West as to whether Cardinal Humbert, as papal legate, actually had authority to excommunicate the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1054 during their famously mutual temper tantrum in Constantinople. Perhaps this new book, forthcoming in November, will shed light on this vexed and significant issue--though, of course, even if it does, it will change little insofar as (a) the excommunications were officially "lifted" in December 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras; and (b) the real issues are not juridical and never have been: Kriston Rennie, The Foundations of Medieval Papal Legation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 264pp.

About this book we are told:
As the pope's alter ego, the medieval papal legate was the crucial connecting link between Rome and the Christian provinces. Commissioned with varying degrees of papal authority and jurisdiction, these hand-picked representatives of the Roman Church were nothing less than the administrative, legal, and institutional embodiment of papal justice, diplomacy, government, and law during the Middle Ages. By examining the origins and development of this ecclesiastical office in the early Middle Ages, this book defines the papacy's early contribution to medieval European law and society.
Presenting a pioneering inquiry into the field, The Foundations of Medieval Papal Legation demonstrates the growth of papal government and its increasing reliance on representation beyond Rome, explaining how this centralized position was achieved over time, going further to legitimize the papacy's burgeoning need for increased supervision, mediation, and communication throughout western Christendom. In so doing, it contributes to a wider administrative, legal, and institutional understanding of papal government in early medieval Europe as a whole.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ignatius of Antioch

It has been debated for a long time as to what to make of Ignatius of Antioch and his writings, to the extent that we have reliable texts at all. A book set for release in November takes up these debates and attempts to cast them in a new direction: Gregory Vall, Learning Christ: Ignatius of Antioch and the Mystery of Redemption (CUA Press, 2013), 400pp.

About this book we are told:
For centuries Ignatius of Antioch has been underestimated by his admirers and vilified by his critics. Scholars tend to view him as either a careless epistolographer and lesser theologian, or a manipulative ecclesiastical politician seeking to gain sympathy for himself and support for his agenda. Critics feel that he departed dangerously from the pure Pauline gospel of justification by faith and veered off into "early Catholicism," if not gnosticism. Learning Christ represents a thorough reevaluation of Ignatius as author and theologian, demonstrating that his seven authentic letters present a sophisticated and cohesive vision of the economy of redemption. Gregory Vall argues that Ignatius’s thought represents a vital synthesis of Pauline, Johannine, and Matthean perspectives while anticipating important elements of later patristic theology. Topics treated in this volume include Ignatius’s soteriological anthropology, his Christology and nascent Trinitarianism, his nuanced understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and his ecclesiology and eschatology. Methodologically, Learning Christ can be situated among recent attempts to recover a genuinely theological approach to early Christian texts within the perspective opened by modern historical-critical research. It aims to interpret Ignatius’s thought in a manner that is authentically rooted in the communicative intention embodied in the text of his letters, while avoiding the historicist reduction of their significance to its hypothetically reconstituted contextual meaning. Vall argues that we can learn a great deal from Ignatius both about the content of revealed truth and about how to do theology.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Arab Christians

I have previously expressed my astonishment that in the focus on the Middle East, from the Gulf War of 1991 through the Iraq War of 2003 to the present "debate" about Syria, most Americans singularly fail to recognize how much the actions of their country have contributed to the destruction of native Eastern Christian populations in the area. Few are aware of Eastern Christians, still less Arab Christians. Aren't all Arabs Muslims, people constantly ask me? A recent book should, I hope, disabuse people of this: Raouf Abujaber, Arab Christianity and Jerusalem (Gilgamesh Publications, 2013), 212pp.

About this book we are told:

As the focal point of the three major monotheistic religions, Jerusalem is home to a rich and diverse spread of different religious communities who have a complex history of alliances and rifts. Today's Christian communities are the survivors of the last two centuries of Islamic and Jewish governance, albeit often in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges. This unique record charts that struggle.  Dr Abujaber's vivid and dramatic account is drawn on extensive personal experience of the Christian families of the Levant region.  Arab Christianity in Jerusalem is unique in blending invaluable first person research with exhaustive research in international archives, weaving the various strands into one comprehensive yet readable account of the life in the Holy City. This landmark
book will be vital to all historians of the region as well as to religious scholars.

Friday, September 6, 2013

William Mills on Michael Plekon

I have in the past interviewed two Orthodox priests and theologians on here several times: Michael Plekon and William Mills. Both have talked about recent publications of great interest. Both are friends--with each other and with me. I hope it is not therefore seen as too much "inside baseball" if I interview the latter about the former and the Festschrift Mills has recently edited and published about Plekon:  Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon.  I myself contributed a chapter to the book, and was both pleased and honored to be asked to do so.

AD: Tell us about what led you to put this collection together 

WCM: It is a common practice in the academy to honor or show one's gratitude to one's teachers and mentors. I have been longtime friends with Michael and knew that the 2013-14 academic year was a milestone for two major reasons: his thirty-fifth year teaching at Baruch College (CUNY) and his sixty-fifth birthday this past April. In late 2012 I sent out a note to some of his friends and colleagues telling them about my thoughts on a future essay collection and voilà, Church and World was born! 

AD: Tell us a bit about the diverse contents: 

This is a hard question to answer. On the one hand I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely the various essays fit together. I knew that the contributors came from very diverse ecclesial and academic backgrounds: clergy, lay, and monastic; male and female; Eastern Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran. There is even a former archbishop included as well! Some of us are parish priests and others are full-time academics. I tried to cover as many bases as possible reflecting Michael’s interest in diversity and ecumenism. Therefore I wanted the essays to reflect that ecumenical flavor and I think it worked out well.

When I sent out my original letter I did not assign specific topics for contributors: I just requested that the topics be ones that were of interest to both them and to Michael. Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon includes, inter alia, two essays on the life and work of Elizabeth Behr Sigel, one dealing with Michael’s recent trilology on sanctity and holiness, two essays on pastoral and liturgical reform, one on the ecumenical thought of Sergius Bulgakov, one on the spirituality of presence, one on the nature of the academy and theology, one on mentorship, and then a very nice essay by Rowan Williams on the life and work of the Romanian Orthodox priest theologian Dumitru Staniloae and the Episcopal lay activist and theologian William Stringfellow. I was very pleased with the offerings and am thrilled with how the essays were formed and shaped into a book.

AD: Festschriften honour people who have achieved a certain point and influence in their career. Tell us a bit about the career of Michael Plekon and his influence on your own life. 

I really cannot do justice to Michael’s theological and pastoral career in a brief interview as this. I’d point the reader to his wonderful chapter titled, “You want to be happy? My Carmelite Years” in his recent book Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time as well as his extensive and formidable curriculum vitae in the back of Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon for more information about his essays, articles, books, and life work. As I mention in the introduction to the Festschrift, Michael and his family have been a very important influence in my life starting back in 1995 when I first met them. I was assigned to St. Gregory the Theologian in
Bright Monday (from the parish's Facebook page)
Wappingers Falls, NY for my parish assignment and Michael and Jeanne and their children Paul and Hannah had just started attending there a few years earlier. I never forgot my first impression of seeing him in his navy blue cassock and beige Birkenstocks in the altar, a.k.a his “Jesus shoes”! After that first meeting I knew that he was different and he certainly did not fit into the typical priestly and pastoral mold which I experienced at seminary. The Plekons were extremely hospitable, inviting me over for Sunday brunch where the food, coffee, and discussions were abundant. Our conversations were very natural, never forced, never cajoled: they exhibited pure freedom in Christ, which was refreshing. No topic was taboo or off limits. When Taisia, my then fiancée, now wife, came with me to church they all welcomed her with open arms. 

The Plekon Family
Looking back at our friendship though the years Michael has been extremely influential both in my scholarly and pastoral work. He introduced me to the Paris Theologians, first with the writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova then with others. I was amazed at their sense of freedom and openness, their devotion to ecumenical dialogue and unity, as well as their creativity. Over the following months he gave me several of his published articles on them as well as their own writings. I devoured them as a child devours cookies. I was introduced to Nikolai Berdiav, Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Lev Gillet, Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, and Kyprian Kern among others. I read their own works as well as articles about them. If it wasn’t for Michael I would not have known these great 20th century luminaries not to mention their fresh vision of theology and life. I guess my own work also fits within this same vision as I have trolled and mined the writings of both Alexander Schmemann as well as his mentor Kyprian Kern, publishing several books and essays on their writings. So I guess in many ways my own scholarly work and ministry fits into the same vein as does Michael and the Paris School of Theology as well, and what a wonderful legacy to follow! 

AD: "One of these things is not like the other" as they used to sing on Sesame Street: one of the contributors is a former archbishop of Canterbury. How did he come to be in the book and why?

Years ago Michael turned me onto the writings of Roman Williams, especially his books on spirituality such Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. When reading Williams I got the sense that while he is a highly regarded scholar and thinker, he has a pastor’s heart which is  evident when reading his sermons and essays. Furthermore, both Michael and Rowan Williams served on Brandon Gallaher’s doctoral committee at Oxford University, so it was a no brainer that I should invite Williams to contribute to the Festschrift. When I asked Williams to contribute an essay to the collection I was also aware that he was winding down his archpastoral ministry.  I thought he would be too busy to reply to my email request, but not only did he reply within 48 hours, he also sent me a lovely essay. I was very grateful for his contribution. 

AD: Michael Plekon does not often fall into the usual categories of what many expect an Orthodox priest and scholar to do. E.g., he has never taught full-time in an Orthodox seminary, and he writes appreciatively about non-Orthodox in his books. What lessons can Orthodox thought draw from such a diverse and unique career?

Michael, like many of the contributors in Church and World can’t be pigeonholed into one “thing” or “area” too, so we’re in good company! Years ago Jaroslav Pelikan said that one of the reasons he left seminary teaching was that he could not continue as a historical theologian in an ecclesiastical setting since his role was to continually push the theological horizons and say what he truly wanted to say so he took up a post at Yale University. Most institutional thinking is often very limited and narrow, everyone trying to conform or at least “look alike” in word and deed. It is very doubtful that Michael would ever feel comfortable or happy at an Orthodox-sponsored institution: he simply asks too many questions! I think one reason why Michael has stayed so productive over the years and that he continues to read, learn, and grow as a scholar/professor, is that he teaches at a very diverse, open, and free environment. Baruch College is at the crossroads of everything: big government and capitalism, liberalism and free thinking, diversity and culture, it's all there in one place. His students come from not only the different boroughs in New York City but from across the world. Michael has survived because he stands the corner of the Church and the world, the sacred and the profane, and culture and society. He is well aware of the many challenges, choices, trials, and temptations of both the academy and the Church. Simply put, Michael wouldn’t be Michael if he taught at an ecclesiastically sponsored institution.

AD: And yet, there is something deeply Orthodox about his approach insofar as he's not just an academic but a priest active in his parish. You yourself have said that we need to bridge the gap between the academy and the parish today, to have the 'pastoral scholars' and 'scholarly pastors' like so many of the Fathers were. Does Plekon's life contain lessons for how to do that? 

In my book on Alexander Schmemann's pastoral theology I critique a major problem within theological education, a critique which Schmemann alludes to in his writings (as did the late Aidan Kavanaugh as well), but which I make more clear, is the great chasm or rift between the academic study of theology (theologia) and its practical and pastoral application and implication in the parish (praxis). I find that theologians and seminary professors tend to write and speak to one another at their annual conferences and read one another’s articles in theological journals but this wonderful theology never gets incarnated in parish life. Likewise many of the problems, pains, issues, and questions among parish clergy and parishioners hardly get addressed in seminary training. There is a large gap in communication between the parish and the seminary, between the front lines and the training centers. This is not a particular problem among the Orthodox either, but among all Christian denominations. 

Since Michael was both a pastor, first in the Lutheran Church (ELCA) as well as a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church (OCA) he knows the trials, temptations, choices, challenges, pains, and problems of pastors, their families and their parishioners. Likewise since he has been a full-time scholar, professor, and speaker he is fully aware of the same problems in the academy, specifically pertaining to the academic study of religion and its incarnation in daily life. It is one thing for example to study the Qu'ran or the Torah or the New Testament but quite another to see how these texts are “lived” and “thrive” today. So I think in many ways Michael’s writings, but also his own personal life, serve as a bridge between the Church and the world, between liturgy and life, between Christ and culture. The title of the essay collection was quite easy for me because when I think of Michael I immediately think of the Church and the world.  

The very colorful icon of the Ascension, taken from an Armenian illuminated manuscript, was appropriate for the cover art because this feast reminds us that on the one hand Jesus ascends to his Father in heaven yet at the same he promises that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter into the world to guide, lead, and remind us that Christ will come again, emphasizing Church and world, heaven and earth together. 

AD: As you know, Michael often writes about the Paris School and Mother Maria with her approach to being a monastic "in the city." He himself teaches in the very heart of THE city in North America at an enormous "secular" school. Is that where more Christians belong today, trying to influence things for the good, trying to find the "hidden holiness" in such places?

I couldn’t see Michael flourishing somewhere like Fargo, North Dakota or McAllen, Texas not that Fargo or McAllen aren’t nice places to live, but they are rather small in terms of culture, religion, and life. New York City is a major crossroads of peoples, places, and ideas. Since Michael’s own work focuses on the sociology of religion and its impact on society there is no better place than working in a city where differing opinions and ideas are the name of the game. We need to remember that early Christianity was an urban phenomenon as pointed out by Wayne Meeks in The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul.

Both Jesus and Paul were not strangers to cities. Jesus frequently traveled through urban areas like Capernaum as well as Jerusalem and Caeserea Philippi, a major pagan pilgrimage destination in the day. When reading the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters we know that Paul preached at the market in Athens and traveled widely to urban areas where a diverse audience would have heard him, Greek, Jew, Roman, as well as the rich and poor, free and slave, male and female. When reading the gospels and Paul’s letters one quickly realizes that we do not have to run off to a remote village or monastery to seek and live out a life of holiness, one can do it wherever one finds oneself--in the city, in the “burbs,” or in the far hinterlands such as Fargo. If one follows contemporary trends in pastoral practice one sees great works of faith and philanthropy accomplished in the urban areas. St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Fransisco, for example, supports a wonderful food pantry ministry right in the heart of the city as well as St. Lydia's new Lutheran mission in New York City. Likewise St. Raphael house in San Fransisco, an Orthodox Christian ministry to the homeless, has been around for a while as well as Emmaus House in New York. Across the country there are wonderful outlets for ministry, holiness, and sanctity, but one has to have eyes to see and ears to hear as Jesus says. 

AD: Who should read Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon and why?

First and foremost any of Michael’s friends and colleagues will want to read this book. Second, anyone who is interested in an essay collection that pushes some intellectual boundaries and asks some hard questions regarding pastoral and liturgical reform, the perennial issues of freedom and the academy, and the interplay between holiness and sanctity should read Church and World as well. There are some very provocative essays in this book that ask really hard questions, especially for those of us in the Eastern Orthodox Church. At a recent conference the famous liturgical historian of the East, Father Robert Taft, said that one of the major problems among the Orthodox today is not the lack of theological or liturgical resources, but the lack of sufficient self-criticism--that we tend to point fingers at other ecclesial bodies, ideas, and theologies before looking at ourselves first! I hope that readers of Church and World will find this book both informative as well as provocative, pointing out some places where we could be better witnesses to other Christian bodies in the 21st century. 

AD: What projects are you at work on next?

Recently I just completed a comprehensive article on the history and analysis of Schmemann’s classic  For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy which will be published in the fall issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of For the Life of the World and in this essay I explore not only the origins of the book but also the conference held under the same title. It was a thrill using the archives at the Yale Divinity School Library too, a scholar's dream! 

Currently I am working on two book projects, Walking With God: Stories of Life and Faith and Paul the Pastor: Models of Ministry for the 21st Century. Walking with God is a collection of pastoral reflections on various gospel lessons such as my other books, Encountering Jesus in the Gospels and A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal

The second project, Paul the Pastor, is a slightly different project for me. For the past few years I have been intrigued by the intersection and interplay of leadership and pastoral ministry. There are hundreds of theological books on this topic, but most of them are themes borrowed directly from the business world such as Jesus as CEO and so forth. As you can imagine many of these books are not theologically sound or lack a strong biblical foundation. I want to dig deep into Paul’s writings and look at how we, as pastors in the 21st century, can regain a biblical notion of what Christian leadership really means vis-à-vis Paul’s writings. I envision Paul the Pastor as a book for clergy and seminary students who want to learn more about pastoral ministry and how Paul viewed ministry as being cruciform and service- oriented. Paul identifies his own life and ministry with that of the crucified and risen Lord, as he says in Galatians, “It is not I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” I want to explore what a cruciform and servant leader looks like for the 21st century pastor through looking at key metaphors which Paul uses such as the pastor as sower, pastor as athlete, pastor as builder, pastor as preacher, and so forth. I am looking forward to digging deep into Paul’s world and writings and providing readers with something substantial for the years to come.
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