"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).

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An Interview with George Demacopoulos on Gregory the Great

As I noted last June, when notice of this book's publication was posted, we have been living in a time of increasing scholarship focusing on the diverse figures occupying, diverse theological understandings of, and diverse practices emanating from, the bishopric of Rome in the first millennium, a focus which was called for in part by the modern Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and the recent popes of Rome themselves, including John Paul II, on whose request I have had a few things to say. The more we learn of this period the more we find that it fits easily and neatly into nobody's imagined reconstructions of the past, especially hardcore triumphalistic apologists in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

One of those prominent figures contributing to this scholarship is the Orthodox George Demacopoulos of Fordham University, author of several recent studies, including The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, which I favorably reviewed elsewhere.

Along with Aristotle Papanikalaou, also of Fordham's theology department and its Orthodox Christian Studies Centre, Demacopoulos is editor of the invaluable scholarly collection Orthodox Constructions of the West (Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought, which I discussed on here in three parts.

His new book returns to some earlier work he did on St. Gregory the Great, including a translation, The Book of Pastoral Rule: St. Gregory the Great, part of the Popular Patristics Series of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Demacopoulos's first book, Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church, also featured a chapter on Gregory the Great, to whom he returns in his newest book, published this year: Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome (UND Press, 2015), 240pp. I sent him some questions to interview him about this newest book, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background, and what led you to this book:

George E. Demacopoulos: 15 years ago, I wrote my dissertation at UNC-CH on Gregory the Great's approach to spiritual direction, arguing that he attempted to bring to the broader Christian world the technologies of pastoral care then operative in ascetic communities.  At the time, Robert Markus has recently published his excellent biography of Gregory and my dissertation advisor wisely recommended that I look in a different direction when turning the dissertation into a book. So, for my first monograph, I put the questions about spiritual direction that I had for Gregory to a broader set of early Christian authors.

My second book continued to work in Gregory's world (the late-ancient papacy) but, again, examined one facet of his thought (the link between St. Peter and the papacy) that also captivated other late ancient authors.

So, in some sense, I have been thinking about this current book for nearly fifteen years, but it was only recently that I felt ready to attempt what I believe is a new approach to the so-called "two Gregorys"--the ascetic contemplative and the shrewd administrator.

AD: As you may know, the popes of Rome for 20 years now have been calling for more scholarship on the papacy in the first millennium--and the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue hsa done likewise. Do you see both your recent book, The Invention of Peter, and now this one on Gregory the Great as part of this trajectory of 'ecumenical scholarship' as it were?

GED: With regard to ecumenical engagement via historical study--Yes, I do see this as part of that broader project.  Not so much because I expect to strike the perfect cord between Orthodox and Roman Catholics but because I believe that the Orthodox have great deal to learn from figures like St. Gregory and because the Orthodox desperately need a little more nuance and sophistication in their understanding of the development of the papacy and the ways in which the papacy was understood by early Christians east of the Adriatic.

AD: Your introduction (p.5) speaks of a topic I've recently become preoccupied with: the role of 'editorial erasure...in the shaping of ecclesiastical memory.' Is that a significant factor in assessing Gregory's pontificate?

GED: In some sense, it is hard to know how much editorial erasure took place--we don't have much evidence of things that once existed and no longer do.  But it is really important for historians to be ever conscious of the fact that we have limited access to the figures of pre-modernity and that we are very much beholden to the editors and copyists, whatever theological or ideological biases, who preserved our records.

AD: A key theme throughout your work is the influence of Gregory's ascetic theology on the rest of his life and work. Tell us a bit more about that theology and its importance.

GED: What I find so intriguing about Gregory's ascetic theology was that it was somewhat unique of major late-ancient thinkers.  Whereas most ascetic theologians understood the summit of the Christian experience to be a kind of mystical encounter or union with the divine (one that typically required renunciation), Gregory speaks of the summit of the Christian life being achieved only when the ascetic forsakes the spiritual joys of contemplation for the benefit of others.  In Gregory, we find someone who genuinely sees perfection in service, rather than in ascetic isolation. But this perfection is always an asceticism of a particular kind.

AD: As you know, sometimes polemical treatments (whether Protestant or Orthodox) of the papacy view it as one long campaign of self-aggrandizement motivated by what Augustine famously called "libido dominandi." Yet you note (p.43) that in Gregory there is little evidence of one seeking gratuitously to expand Roman claims. Moreover, in the famous dispute with John the Faster over the title "ecumenical" and elsewhere, Gregory, as you note, is at pains to stress Peter's faults and flaws, which strikes me as a singular and rather odd strategy, at least in the eyes of modern papal apologetics. Why would Gregory have done that--rather than, say, play up Peter as "prince of the apostles"?

Yes, Gregory is the only late-ancient pope who even addresses with any significance Peter's flaws. And, for Gregory, these are the keys to Peter (pardon the pun).  Unlike Leo or Gelasius, Gregory has very little interest in asserting papal privilege on the basis of Peter (though he will of course defend Roman claims, but he doesn't attempt to extend those in any way). Gregory is deeply committed to a theology of spiritual direction, of spiritual reform, and of emphasizing the importance of humility in the Christian leader.  For all of these reasons, Peter, in Gregory's hands, is a model of repentance, of humility, and of spiritual growth after failure. That's why he emphasizes the flaws.

AD: Looking at him in the eyes of contemporary scholarship and churchmanship, as well as ecumenically, what do you see as Gregory's legacy today?

GED: Gregory is clear bridge between east and west and between late-antiquity and the middle ages. He was a man who longed for retreat and contemplation but felt moved to action for the benefit of others.

AD: Having finished Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome, what are you at work on now? What's the next project?

GED: I recently received a Carpenter Foundation Grant, which allows for a year-long sabbatical beginning next month.  The first book project will apply the resources of post-colonial critique to the study of Orthodox identity narratives in the wake of the Crusades.  I don't think I will get to a second project in that time frame, but the next one (which I've started to write a few articles about) explores the theology of violence in early Byzantine hymnography.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Handbook of Patristic Exegesis

I remember when the hardback version of this came out more than a decade ago, when it seemed a landmark event indeed. We had it reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, and the reviewer suitably recognized what a crucial collection this was to any serious library of patristic studies. Though the paperback version is still expensive, it is far cheaper than the hardback, and the price, I daresay, reflects the heft of this volume and the massive work that went into compiling it. So, early in the new year, a paperback version will be published of Charles Kannengiesser, ed., Handbook of Patristic Exegesis (SBL Press, 2016), 1580pp.

About this tome the publisher tells us:
This essential volume presents a balanced and cohesive picture of the Early Church. It gives an overall view of the reception, transmission, and interpretation of the Bible in the life and thought of the Church during the first five centuries of Christianity, the so-called patristic era. The handbook offers the context and presuppositions necessary for understanding the development of the interpretative traditions of the Early Church, in its catechesis, its liturgy and as a foundation of its systems of theology. The handbook presents a comprehensive overview of the history of patristic exegesis.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holy Men on the Holy Mountain

I have over the years drawn attention to various books and videos about Mount Athos. To that growing list we will, next year, have to add another volume published by the most prestigious centre for Byzantine studies in North America. Forthcoming in April 2016 is a newly edited and translated collection: Alexander Alexakis, ed., and R.P.H. Greenfield et al. trans., Holy Men of Mount Athos (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2016),740pp.

About this book we are told:
Often simply called the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos was the most famous center of Byzantine monasticism and remains the spiritual heart of the Orthodox Church today. This volume presents the Lives of Euthymios the Younger, Athanasios of Athos, Maximos the Hutburner, Niphon of Athos, and Philotheos. These five holy men lived on Mount Athos at different times from its early years as a monastic locale in the ninth century to the last decades of the Byzantine period in the early fifteenth century. All five were celebrated for asceticism, clairvoyance, and, in most cases, the ability to perform miracles; Euthymios and Athanasios were also famed as founders of monasteries.

Holy Men of Mount Athos illuminates both the history and the varieties of monastic practice on Athos, individually by hermits as well as communally in large monasteries. The Lives also demonstrate the diversity of hagiographic composition and provide important glimpses of Byzantine social and political history.

All the Lives in this volume are presented for the first time in English translation, together with authoritative editions of their Greek texts.

But if you can't wait until 2016, here is another study already in print, released earlier this year under the editorship of the well-known Orthodox Metropolitan and scholar Kallistos Ware with Graham Speake: Spiritual Guidance on Mount Athos (Peter Lang, 2015), 157pp.

About this book we are told:
Spiritual guidance is the serious business of Mount Athos, the principal service that the Fathers offer to each other and to the world. Athonites have been purveyors of spiritual guidance for more than a thousand years in a tradition that goes back to the fourth-century desert fathers. The recent monastic renewal on the Mountain is testimony to the Fathers’ continuing power to attract disciples and pilgrims to listen to what they have to say. The papers included in this volume examine some of the many aspects of this venerable tradition, as it has developed on Mount Athos, and as it has devolved upon monks and nuns, spiritual fathers and confessors, lay men and women, in other parts of Greece and in the world. Most of the papers were originally delivered at a conference convened by the Friends of Mount Athos at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, in 2013.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The History of Eastern Christian Historical Writing

I'm looking forward to teaching a course next year on the uses and abuses of history, focusing on Christian-Muslim relations and the ever-misunderstood Crusades, which the lovely inhabitants of ISIS keep banging on about in their propaganda. So historiographical questions have come to preoccupy my attention and thinking more and more over the last few months. I am therefore especially interested in this recently released volume in multi-part series: Sarah Foot and Chase F. Robinson, eds., The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 2: 400-1400 (Oxford UP, 2015), 672pp.

The volume has chapters on, inter alia, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syro-Arab, Syriac, Arab, and Byzantine histories. About this book the publisher further tells us:
How was history written in Europe and Asia between 400-1400? How was the past understood in religious, social and political terms? And in what ways does the diversity of historical writing in this period mask underlying commonalities in narrating the past? The volume, which assembles 28 contributions from leading historians, tackles these and other questions. Part I provides comprehensive overviews of the development of historical writing in societies that range from the Korean Peninsula to north-west Europe, which together highlight regional and cultural distinctiveness. Part II complements the first part by taking a thematic and comparative approach; it includes essays on genre, warfare, and religion (amongst others) which address common concerns of historians working in this liminal period before the globalizing forces of the early modern world.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Pushing Back Against Roman Catholic Iconoclasm

I have too often had recourse to quoting Joseph Ratzinger's observation in The Spirit of the Liturgy that there is a pronounced spirit of iconoclasm in the Western Church going back to its lack of adequate reception of Nicaea II's teaching on icons. (On the problematic non-reception of Nicaea II in the West, see T.F.X. Noble's invaluable study, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians.)

That iconoclasm emerged with renewed vengeance after Vatican II as Ratzinger noted (and many others have also). If anyone doubts that such a spirit of destructiveness is still at work in the Latin Church today, then one need look no further than to the literal and utterly infuriating iconoclasm at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Saviour in New York only this year--in 2015! That "pastor" should have been run out of town or hauled up for ecclesiastical trial in any self-respecting church but has not been. Shame on him and shame on his bishop.

As an antidote to this Western iconoclasm, at least in part, a book published this year promises to be healing medicine: Jeana Visel, Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacramental Encounter (Liturgical Press, June 2015), 144pp.

About this wholly welcome, long overdue, and sadly all-to-necessary book the publisher tells us:
Within the Eastern tradition of Christianity, the eikon, or religious image, has long held a place of honor. In the greater part of Western Christianity, however, discomfort with images in worship, both statues and panel icons, has been a relatively common current, particularly since the Reformation. In the Roman Catholic Church, after years of using religious statues, the Second Vatican Council’s call for “noble simplicity” in many cases led to a stripping of images that in some ways helped refocus attention on the eucharistic celebration itself but also led to a starkness that has left many Roman Catholics unsure of how to interact with the saints or with religious images at all.
Today, Western interest in panel icons has been rising, yet we lack standards of quality or catechesis on what to do with them. This book makes the case that icons should have a role to play in the Western Church that goes beyond mere decoration. Citing theological and ecumenical reasons, Visel argues that, in regard to use of icons, the post–Vatican II Roman Catholic Church needs to give greater respect to the Eastern tradition. While Roman Catholics may never interact with icons in quite the same way that Eastern Christians do, we do need to come to terms with what icons are and how we should encounter them.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Formation of the Syriac Churches: an Interview with Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent

As I have often noted on here, Syriac Christianity has been undergoing a period of wholly welcome sustained scholarly attention for more than a decade now, and it is splendid to see younger scholars picking up from the pioneers--Sebastian Brock, Sidney Griffith, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Robin Darling Young, and others. The Syriac tradition, as Brock famously phrased it, is the "third lung" of Christianity--in addition to the Latin and Greek lungs, these latter two having, until recently, seemed to hog all the attention, scholarly and otherwise. But that has been changing for a while, and we are all the richer for it.

I am delighted to have this interview with a lovely young scholar whom I met briefly at a conference in Washington, DC in 2011. Shortly after that, Marquette, in its great wisdom, scooped up Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, a specialist in Syriac Christianity who studied with the Orthodox scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey at Brown University. Saint-Laurent is the author of Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches (University of California Press, 2015), 232pp. I asked her for an interview about this book, and here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

I grew up in southern California and was raised in a Catholic family.  My late parents, George and Michaeleen Saint-Laurent, were both educators.  My father taught Religious Studies at Cal State Fullerton, and my mother taught religion at a Catholic high school.  We travelled extensively, and learning about different cultures, languages, and religions of the world was a formative part of my childhood.  

I went to Gonzaga University, where I studied Classical Languages and Religious Studies.  In college, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and my visit to the catacombs outside of Rome led me to want to study the early Church.  I earned in an M.A. in Early Christian Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and it was there that I began my study of the Syriac language and tradition with Prof. Joseph Amar.  I went on a Fulbright scholarship to Salzburg, Austria, and then finished my training at Brown University with Susan Ashbrook Harvey where I finished my PhD in 2009.  She was a terrific mentor. 

I was junior fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2008-2009.  I then taught at St. Michael’s College from 2009-2013, and now I teach at Marquette University in the historical section of the Theology Department.  I am married to a wonderful person, Matthew Mellon.  We have a son, Damien, and a poodle, Blaise Pascal.     

AD: What led to the writing of this book, which treats two areas some readers may not be familiar with: hagiography, and then the Syriac tradition.

My interest in hagiography began in graduate school at Notre Dame.  I read monastic hagiography in a class that I took with Dr. Blake Leyerle. I discovered that it was a rich genre to learn about the social history of the early Church.  And so with my interest in the Syriac language, Syriac hagiography was a natural fit, especially when I discovered that so many stories from this rich tradition had never even been translated.  It struck me that this was a field that in which I could make a contribution.  I wanted also to be help the Christians in the Middle East by increasing the knowledge of their heritage.

AD: How did you arrive at the 7 figures you treat--were there others you wanted to look at but had to exclude? Are these 7 the most important? What were your criteria for focusing on them?

I wanted to choose figures whose stories were particularly formative for the Syriac late-antique church. I also had a chronological limit – I did not want to go very far into the Post-Islamic era, since my knowledge of Arabic is so very limited, and so I did not have the scholarly expertise to tackle post-Islamic Christian literature.  I wanted to show the literary and cultural links among these missionary saints and their stories. 

AD: Your introduction notes that hagiography "is a problematic--though entertaining--genre to tackle and study." Tell us a bit more about why you say that. What are the major problems?

The main issue is how to read hagiographic texts.  Should they be treated as literature or history?  If they don’t have “historical” content, should they be dismissed?  Or are overly literary readings of these texts a disservice to the historical context to which the stories point?  There are many methodological hurdles with hagiography.  I still haven’t resolved them, but I made a first attempt with this project.  

AD: You note that one way of trying to analyze and understand hagiography is to view it as similar to painting or "works of art." Tell us a bit more about what you mean.

Art and story go together in the formation of religious memory.  One need only look a church from the early Christian period to see how pictures told stories for the faithful.  Both use religious symbolism in important ways.  Very often the hagiography of a saint’s life is influenced by the depictions of that saint or vice versa.  In both artistic presentations of a saint’s life and hagiography, bold images are used to create a memory of person’s life. Both artistic and narrative representations are non-linear ways of creating a communal memory of a holy person.  In both art and story, saints are clothed with symbols of holiness that represent the ideals of a particular community.        

AD: Skeptics today might dismiss hagiography as just a lot of pious folk-tales nobody should take seriously. But is there not an argument to be made that many, perhaps most of us, nonetheless create hagiographies all the time--whether about some movie star, or football player, or politician? Is hagiography, in other words, something of a universal impulse in humans?

That is an interesting idea! It is certainly true that modern media enjoys embellishing people’s lives, accentuating their admirable traits and “forgetting” their flaws!  I suppose that what is universal is our desire to romanticize (and demonize) our heroes or foes.  What we learn through studying cultural idealizations of our heroes often tells us more about ourselves than about the subject who is admired. Through attending to a society or community’s heroes (whether religious, athletic or political), we learn about what is valued in that particular historical or cultural milieu.  In hagiography, for instance, military saints might become popular in times or war – medical saints in times of plague, and so on.    

AD: Very recently I've been working on questions of memory in the formation of Orthodox-Catholic conflicts, especially around the papacy. Thus I noted with great interest that your "book considers hagiography's role in the creation of religious memory" (p.13). Tell us a bit more about how you see the relation between hagiography and a community's shared memory.

Synaxis of the Syriac Fathers by Fr. Vladimir Lysak 
Saints are created within the context of a community.  What is remembered about a person’s life, and what is forgotten, are the impressive or outstanding features that distinguish him or her. It is the community, the hagiographer, who determines what it is about a person that makes that person an exemplar of holiness. A hagiographer chooses the ideals of that person’s life with which he wants his community to identify.  Often many versions of a saint’s life circulate, each with different details about the saint; one community will not tell the same story of a saint as the next.  That is why it is important to do comparative studies of hagiography to see how the lives of these persons were diffused and translated.  Shared motifs as well as absences in competing forms of a saint’s life teach us how particular communities crafted a saint’s memory.  Typically, later versions of saint’s story become more embellished as he or she achieved a higher status in a community’s religious memory.   

AD: Sum up the book and your hopes for it. Who especially should read it?

My hope for the book is to bring a greater awareness of the richness of Syriac hagiographical tradition. I also hope that readers can find a model in my work for using hagiographical sources in their historical interpretations of the past.  I hope that it can be useful for specialists in Syriac studies as well non-specialists with an interest in late antiquity or hagiography.  

AD: Having finished the book, what projects are you at work on now?

I am currently working with Syriaca.org as the co-editor (with David Michelson) of a two-part digital database on Syriac hagiographic literature: the Gateway to the Syriac Saints. The first volume is entitled Qadishe, and it is an on-line database featuring information on holy people venerated in the Syriac tradition. 

The second database is called the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Syriac Electronica.  It features bibliographic data on over 1000 saints’ lives in the Syriac tradition.  We have encoded all of the data in TEI, or Text Encoding Initiative.  This will make it open, free, and linkable, so that other libraries and databases can access our work and use it for their own resources.  We hope that this project will be a useful tool for specialists and non-specialists alike.  It will be published in the coming months.  You can see a draft form here.

Finally, my friend Kyle Smith and I are producing a translation and commentary of a 12th-century Syriac hagiography, Behnam and Sara, for the series from Gorgias Press entitled the Persian Martyr Acts in Syriac.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Psychoanalysis and Spiritual Direction

As I've had occasion on here to note several times, there grew up in certain Eastern Christian circles a deep suspicion of modern psychology. Some of that may be justified; some of it is part of a broader anti-intellectualism and anti-Westernism; and some of it is certainly unjust and founded on little more than ignorance and fear.

At the same time, of course, there has long been an anti-"religious" sentiment running through Freudian thought, though that has never troubled me for I have long adhered to the assessment of (if memory serves....) Christopher Lasch, who seems to have said that as a clinician Freud gave us startling, original, and useful insights; but as a cultural theorist he was totally out of his depth. Just so.

Among Christians who wanted to engage rather than dismiss psychoanalytic thought (and, let it be noted, there are many more "schools" than the Freudian, most of them at least a little less dismissive of religious traditions), Western Christians have a longer tradition of attempting to engage Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition, an engagement that continues in a book I recently noted on here, Marcus Pound's Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma.

That engagement continues apace, as seen in this forthcoming paperback edition by Peter Tyler,The Pursuit of the Soul: Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian Tradition (T&T Clark, 2016), 208pp.

As the publisher tells us: 
One of the most striking features of contemporary psychology is the return of language of the 'soul' in contemporary discourse. In this original analysis Dr Peter Tyler investigates the origins and use of 'soul-language' in the Christian tradition before turning his attention to the evolution and preoccupations of modern psychoanalysis. In his forensic examination he explores the dynamics of psychoanalysis as a 'tool to rediscover the soul' of the 21st century seeker. Central to his book is the perceived clash between analysis and the spiritual tradition. His uncompromising conclusion is that the dialogue of the two in our present time will have far-reaching repercussions for church, society and future human well-being.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Justifying Origen

Controverted though he has been, Origen remains nonetheless (perhaps in part because of the controversy) an early Christian figure on whom books continue to be published year in and year out. His influence then and since has been vast in many areas.

Forthcoming early in 2016 will be a paperback edition of a book first published in 2008: Thomas Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen's Commentary on Romans (UND Press, 2016), 312pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Standard accounts of the history of interpretation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans often begin with St. Augustine. As Thomas P. Scheck demonstrates, however, the Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans by Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE) was a major work of Pauline exegesis which, by means of the Latin translation preserved in the West, had a significant influence on the Christian exegetical tradition.
Scheck begins by exploring Origen’s views on justification and on the intimate connection of faith and post-baptismal good works as essential to justification. He traces the enormous influence Origen’s Commentary on Romans had on later theologians in the Latin West, including the ways in which theologians often appropriated Origen’s exegesis in their own work. Scheck analyzes in particular the reception of Origen by Pelagius, Augustine, William of St. Thierry, Erasmus, Cornelius Jansen, the Anglican Bishop Richard Montagu, and the Catholic lay apologist John Heigham, as well as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and other Protestant Reformers who harshly attacked Origen’s interpretation as fatally flawed. But as Scheck shows, theologians through the post-Reformation controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries studied and engaged Origen extensively, even if not always in agreement.
An important work in patristics, biblical interpretation, and historical theology, Origen and the History of Justification establishes the formative role played by Origen’s Pauline exegesis, while also contributing to our understanding of the theological issues surrounding justification in the western Christian tradition.
“Thomas Scheck's Origen and the History of Justification is first of all invaluable for increasing readers' exposure to a primary text of an exegete and theologian who will always be very relevant for the church—Origen. Second, this work is invaluable for presenting all sides of the debate today on the meaning of justification. All who weigh in on the doctrine of justification must consult this work in order to understand the seismic quakes that still affect Christians' balance on this issue. And third, since this book focuses on Origen's Romans commentary, it must be read by all Romans students who want to be able to discern the magnetic fields that still powerfully pull readers of Paul's letter in different directions.” —Mark Reasoner, Bethel University
“The interpretation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been a central and continuing preoccupation in the western Christian tradition. Origen’s contribution to its interpretation was seminal, subtle, and suggestive. But the expansiveness of Origen’s Commentary on Romans, combined with later controversies about Origen’s views, appears to have inhibited scholars from tracing the reception of Origen’s commentary in the West. Thomas P. Scheck’s book ably and admirably remedies this oversight.“ —Theodore de Bruyn, University of Ottawa
“Thomas Scheck demonstrates the range of Origen's influence and establishes his as the real alternative to the Augustinian understanding of the divine operation in Christians. His study raises again the questions posed by Robert O'Connell of Augustine's appropriation of and dissent from Origen. In each chapter, Scheck both reports and advances the existing scholarship on Origen's influence.” —Patout Burns, Vanderbilt Divinity School

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Politics of Iconoclasm

I discussed the hardback version on here in some detail when it appeared a few years ago now, but a very affordable paperback version of James Noyes, The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam (I.B. Tauris, 2016), 256pp. will appear at the end of January. So now there is no excuse not to own this book, an important and well-argued contribution to the expanding field of iconoclasm studies.

About this book the publisher tells us:
From false idols and graven images to the tombs of kings and the shrines of capitalism, the targeted destruction of cities, sacred sites and artefacts for religious, political or nationalistic reasons is central to our cultural legacy. This book examines the different traditions of image-breaking in Christianity and Islam as well as their development into nominally secular movements and paints a vivid, scholarly picture of a culture of destruction encompassing Protestantism, Wahhabism, and Nationalism. Beginning with a comparative account of Calvinist Geneva and Wahhabi Mecca, The Politics of Iconoclasm explores the religious and political agendas behind acts of image-breaking and their relation to nationhood and state-building. From sixteenth-century Geneva to urban developments in Mecca today, The Politics of Iconoclasm explores the history of image-breaking, the culture of violence and its paradoxical roots in the desire for renewal. Examining these dynamics of nationhood, technology, destruction and memory, a historical journey is described in which the temple is razed and replaced by the machine.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Vladimir Solovyov on Judaism

The University of Notre Dame Press, the largest and most prestigious Catholic publisher of academic works in the world, just sent me their 2016 catalogue, and in it we find such offerings as a new translation of Vladimir Solovyov, The Burning Bush: Writings on Jews and Judaism, trans. Gregory Yuri Glazov (UND Press, 2016), 456pp.

Forthcoming in May of next year, this book will, the publisher tells us, introduce readers to
Vladimir Solovyov, one of nineteenth-century Russia's greatest Christian philosophers, who was renowned as the leading defender of Jewish civil rights in tsarist Russia in the 1880s. The Burning Bush: Writings on Jews and Judaism presents an annotated translation of Solovyov's complete oeuvre on the Jewish question, elucidating his terminology and identifying his references to persons, places, and texts, especially from biblical and rabbinic writings. Many texts are provided in English translation by Gregory Yuri Glazov for the first time, including Solovyov's obituary for Joseph Rabinovitch, a pioneer of modern Messianic Judaism, and his letter in the London Times of 1890 advocating for greater Jewish civil rights in Russia, printed alongside a similar petition by Cardinal Manning.

Glazov's introduction presents a summary of Solovyov's life, explains how the texts in this collection were chosen, and provides a survey of Russian Jewish history to help the reader understand the context and evaluate the significance of Solovyov's work. In his extensive commentary in Part II, which draws on key memoirs from family and friends, Glazov paints a rich portrait of Solovyov's encounters with Jews and Judaism and of the religious-philosophical ideas that he both brought to and derived from those encounters. The Burning Bush explains why Jews posthumously accorded Solovyov the accolade of a "righteous gentile," and why his ecumenical hopes and struggles to reconcile Judaism and Christianity and persuade secular authorities to respect conscience and religious freedom still bear prophetic vitality.

"Gregory Glazov's The Burning Bush: Writings on Jews and Judaism by Vladimir Solovyov is a beautifully conceived and expertly executed volume. Judith Deutsch Kornblatt did the field of modern religious philosophy a great service by bringing Solovyov's sophiological writings together in a single elegant volume. Glazov has done the same for Solovyov's writings on Judaism." —Paul Valliere, McGregor Professor of the Humanities, Butler University

Friday, December 11, 2015

Saint-Serge Series in Eastern Christian Liturgics

I recently received in the mail two books from Aschendorff Verlag out of Münster, the 58th and 59th volumes in their series "Semaines d'études liturgiques Saint-Serge." The Saint-Serge Institute, of course, needs no introduction as the leading centre of French Orthodox intellectual culture for most of the last century. These are fascinating collections of scholarly articles.

The 58th volume, edited by two Orthodox scholars André Lossky and Goran Sekulovski, is entitled Jeûne et pratiques de repentance : dimensions communautaires et liturgiques (2015), 332pp.

About this collection the publisher tell us:

La question des jeûnes et autres restrictions est fréquemment objet d’annonces médiatiques; elle suscite des débats et des commentaires, parfois sans beaucoup de discernement sur le sens de ces pratiques, qu’il s’agisse d’actes religieux ou par exemple d’une grève de la faim. Les organisateurs des Semaines d’études liturgiques Saint Serge de Paris ont choisi de consacrer en 2011 un colloque ayant proposé plusieurs approches, principalement mais non exclusivement chrétiennes. Les lecteurs trouveront dans ces pages un éventail d’exposés soit introductifs, soit voulant présenter des réflexions et recherches plus spécifiques, ainsi que les riches échanges ayant suivi les communications. Par-delà les diversités, les pratiques religieuses de restriction, alimentaire ou autre, demeurent l’expression d’une attente et d’une soif de Dieu.
Depuis 1953, les Semaines d’études liturgiques organisées à l’Institut de Théologie orthodoxe Saint Serge à Paris réunissent des chercheurs principalement chrétiens invités à examiner ensemble des pratiques liturgiques observées hier ou aujourd’hui par diverses traditions, dans un but de découverte réciproque et de dépassement des incompréhensions.
This collection features articles on Lutheran and RC liturgical issues, but the majority of the chapters are devoted to Orthodox liturgical questions, with several on Lenten liturgical practices in both Byzantine usage as well as in the Coptic church; there are also numerous chapters on monastic practice, along with several on fasting customs. About 90% of the collection is in French, but the chapters on fasting in the Ethiopian Church, and in the Eparchy of Mukachevo, are both in English.

The 59th volume, under the same editorship, is entitled Liturges et liturgistes: fructification de leurs apports dans l'aujourd'hui des églises (2015), 371pp.

About this collection the publisher this time gives us an English blurb:
The 59th Semaine d’études liturgiques (Week of Liturgical Studies) offered its participants an opportunity to reflect on the issue of reception of the work of several known liturgists in various communities. These pages contain basic introductory presentations, followed by other studies of examples addressing liturgists and reputed liturgiologists, and the examination of some specific aspects concerning the concrete reception of the results of scholarly studies in liturgy. Since 1953, the Semaines d’études liturgiques organized at the Orthodox Theological Institute of Saint Serge in Paris bring together mainly Christian researchers. Participants are invited to examine together liturgical documents and observed practices, yesterday or today, by Christian communities, from an ecumenical perspective and with a scholarly approach. The purpose of these meetings, animated by a fervent hope of overcoming misunderstandings, is a mutual discovery of the various liturgical traditions and their possible convergences
As with the above collection, the majority of articles are in la plus belle langue, though three are in English. Many of the articles engage well-known liturgists, liturgical scholars, or historians of the 20th century including Dom Odo Casel, Dom Gregory Dix, Cipriano Vagaggini, Dom Bernard Capelle, and Anton Baumstark. There are chapters on Mt. Athos, and Slovakia, this latter focusing on prostop'enie chant among Greco-Catholics.

Both collections clearly merit a place in every serious liturgical library.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Orthodox and Greek Catholics in Transylvania

Though some shriek in high dudgeon whenever the "Uniates" or "Greek" Catholics (or, better, Greco-Catholics) are mentioned, the fact is that Eastern Catholics have been bound up with other Eastern Christians from the very beginning, and treating them like lepers is, at the very least, liable to make for rather poor scholarship--to say nothing of ecumenical relations and basic Christian charity. Happily, a new book, from a Romanian Orthodox bishop and scholar, takes a wide and generous view in sketching history of Orthodox and Greek Catholic relations: Macarie Dragoi, Orthodox and Greek Catholics in Transylvania (1867-1916): Convergences and Divergences (SVS Press, 2015), 296pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:
Orthodox and Greek Catholics in Transylvania (1867 1916): Convergences and Divergences, attempts to capitalize, as much as possible, upon both of the fundamental research methods and priorities of contemporary ecclesiastical history: documentary and interpretive. By opting not to treat the history of these two Romanian communities separately, but rather through the lens of their encounters whether peaceful or contentious this work intends to emphasize, as stated in the title, the convergences and the divergences in the ecclesiastical history of the Transylvanian Romanians between 1867 and 1916. This research aims to bring forth new contributions of a documentary kind by incorporating a wealth of archival information heretofore unknown in ecclesiastical historiography extracted from the documentary collections preserved by the National Archives in Transylvania, as well as in church archives, especially those in the Sibiu Archive of the Romanian Orthodox metropolitan see of Transylvania.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Georges Florovsky and the Fathers

I just got the T&T Clark/Bloomsbury catalogue in the mail, and noticed a volume coming out in late 2016 edited by B.Gallaher with P. Ladouceur as co-editor: The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky: Essential Theological Writings (October 2016, 304pp).

About this book the publisher tells us:
This book is a collection of major articles and texts by Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), an important 20th-century theologian, historian, ecumenist and patristic scholar. It includes representative and widely influential but now largely inaccessible writings, some newly translated, with explanatory and bibliographical notes, covering all periods of his career and divided into four major thematic sections: 1) Creation and Incarnation; 2) The Nature of Theology; 3) Ecclesiology and Eschatology; 4) Scripture, Worship and Eschatology.
A foreword by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware presents the theological vision of Georges Florovsky and discusses the continuing relevance of his work not only for Orthodox theology but also for modern theology in general. The Introduction by Brandon Gallaher and Paul Ladouceur gives a broad theological and historical overview of Florovsky's work, relating it to trends in both modern Roman Catholic and Protestant theology and outlining his importance to contemporary ecumenism, patristics and Orthodox thought and life. The book includes explanatory notes, translation of patristic citations and an index of proper names.
Florovsky, of course, remains one of the most important (some would say the most important) Orthodox theologians of the 20th century, and his death in 1979 has if anything only increased interest in his work, as Paul Gavrilyuk's recent book on Florovsky makes clear. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Christmas 2015 Recommendations

For the last several years, I have been able to provide a synopsis of all the books noted on this blog in the previous twelve months. Last year's list is here, and the one from 2013 is here and contains links to previous years also. You are encouraged to review those lists, and the blog overall. What follows here is not an exhaustive summary of everything this year, but selected highlights under numerous categories.

Eastern Christian Encounters with Islam:

In a year in which so many headlines have been "inspired" by ISIS, it seems almost grimly fitting that the number of books treating Muslim-Christian relations, especially up to the end of the Ottoman period, has continued to grow. A new book on Christians in late antique Iran, and their interactions with Persian Muslims was recently noted here. A forthcoming book on Coptic Christians was noted here.

For further details on Europe and the Islamic World: A HistoryJohn Tolan's latest book, go here.

Perhaps the most widely respected Catholic scholar of early Christian-Muslim relations, especially in Syria, is Sidney Griffith, author of The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the 'People of the Book' in the Language of Islam, details for whose new paperback edition are here.

A study looking at Christian exegesis of the Quran was mentioned here.

Egypt, long a front-line for Christian-Muslim relations, was the object of at least two new studies this year, including one noted here.

A second study, on Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt, was discussed here.

My students get sick of my constantly telling them how important maps are in an era when we foolishly take for granted GPS systems. Thus I was especially interested in a recent study examining the shifting Byzantine-Islamic frontier, noted here.

A book treating Orthodox-Muslim relations in medieval Anatolia may be found here.

Syriac Christianity continues to receive perhaps the greatest attention in the field of Christian-Muslim relations, and for good reason insofar as Syria was of course the first country to be invaded and conquered by Islam, as a new book, noted here, reminds us.

A new study from Oxford on Greek Christians and power politics under the Ottoman sultans was mentioned here.

An important collection of primary source texts of Muslim-Christian relations was noted here. I hope to have more to say about it in the new year once I've finished reading it.

Byzantine Studies:

The category of Byzantium never runs dry. Dozens of books in Byzantine history continue to appear each year. I drew attention to just a few this year, including a book on Byzantine manuscripts here.

My year-long and ongoing fascination with death and funerary customs and practices saw me note a new book on Byzantine funeral orations here.

A fascinating study of Marian icons in Byzantium and their links to Italy was noted here.

I had occasion here to draw attention to a book on Byzantine vestments first published in 2012 but given renewed prominence this year thanks to a display at the Met in New York.

A recently published book, Performing Orthodox Ritual in Byzantium was noted here in some detail.

Derek Krueger's recent study on Byzantine liturgics was noted here.

Author Interviews: 

My friend, the prolific Orthodox pastoral theologian Bill Mills was recently interviewed here on the challenges to following Christ today.

The Ukrainian scholar Cyril Hovorun was recently interviewed here about his fascinating new work in ecclesiology, which I hope to adopt for my courses next year.

I interviewed Daniel Opperwall about his singular and welcome book translating the insights of the desert fathers to our time. This would make an excellent book for introductory courses on patristic spirituality, or for parish study groups.

Gregory Jensen was interviewed here on asceticism as the antidote to consumerism.

My interview with Peter Bouteneff about his new study of the Orthodox composer Arvo Part may be seen here.

The Tataryns were both interviewed here about their intriguing book on the Trinity and disability.

The Greek Orthodox philosopher John Panteleimon Manoussakis turned his hand to a short but lovely and compelling study on some of the challenges Catholics and Orthodox face in the search for unity. My interview with him may be seen here.

Evidently a brave man, Michael Martin tackles the still controversial question of sophiology in his new book, about which I interviewed him here.

Marcus Plested, whose splendid and vitally important book Orthodox Readings of Aquinas I reviewed here several years ago when it was first published in hardback, and whom I interviewed here, had his book released in paperback this year, as noted here. It continues to deserve a wide audience.

Syriac Christianity:

Though the on-going war in Syria threatens to continue to diminish the already reduced Christian communities there even further, they have not yet disappeared entirely from a place where they have had a vibrant, distinct, and vital tradition for most of the last two millennia. The Syriac tradition continues to be the object of scholarly study today more than at any point in the recent past, even in English alone. This year I drew attention to, inter alia, a new book on Ephraim's hymns here.

A new book on Syriac Christians and Islam was detailed here.

And finally Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent's study (her doctoral dissertation) on Syriac missionary stories was noted here. She has promised us an interview about this book, and I hope to run that as soon as she gets it to me, but as she's just had a baby, she is justly occupied with maternal duties just now.

Centenary of the Armenian Genocide:

For a unique story of "ecumenism in action," if you will, a story of an American Methodist rescuing Armenian Christians, see here.

For a collection that brings us up to date on the general state of the scholarly literature on genocide in general--covering not just the events in Armenia, but other more recent genocidal activities as well--see here.

In this centenary year of the genocide, it is not surprising that we have seen so many books emerge in the last 12-18 months on the horrifying fate that befell Armenian Christians in the summer of 1915. In a lengthy note here, I listed many of these recent publications.

Oxford Handbooks:

Oxford University Press, the oldest and most prestigious academic press in the anglophone world, continues to publish an impressive collection of "handbooks" devoted to hundreds of topics, including many theological topics. Their recent handbook on Christology was noted here.

Their hefty collection on sacramental theology was noted here, where I drew attention to the extensive inclusion of Eastern Christian thought, including a chapter from yours truly.

That great Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor continues to draw considerable scholarly attention, and Oxford's handbook on him was detailed here.

Finally, with attention to Eastern and patristic courses, the handbook on natural theology was noted here.

Russian Religious History:

This has been an interesting year especially for treatment of the question of tolerance of religious minorities in Russia, under the tsars and more recently. For one, the fate of Old Believers was noted here. For another, the role of the Jesuits at the court of the tsar was mentioned here. Additionally, Russian-Greek identities were treated in a new book by Lucien Frary, Russia and the Making of Modern Greek Identity, 1821-1844. Finally, tolerance and religious diversity in tsarist Russia was treated in a new book noted here.

Gavrilyuk's splendid book Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance is now available in a very affordable paperback. My lengthy discussion of it, based on my 2014 OTSA presentation, was noted on here last year.

The beautiful art and architecture of churches in Russia has long continued to draw admiration from around the world. A new book focuses on a neglected region, the far north of Russia as noted here.

At long last we had a fine English translation of Destivelle's landmark study, The Moscow Council (1917-1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Churchfurther details of which were noted here.


We saw at least two new books this year on the golden-mouthed preacher of Constantinople. In the first instance, we had a book on Chrysostom's views on slavery and in the second a book on his theology and preaching, noted here.

The great Alexandrian father Origen continues to inspire a large scholarly following, and this year a new book on his views on evil was noted here.

Oxford isn't the only game in town to publish handbooks. Wiley-Blackwell has been in on the action for a while, calling theirs "companions to...." In this case, we recently saw a hefty companion to patristics noted here.

As a psychoanalyst manqué, I was fascinated to see the publication this year of a book devoted to visions and patristic dreams.

A new collection of collected essays on John the Damascene may be found here.

And finally the latest translation of Cyril of Alexandria's commentary on John was noted here.

Problems in Historiography

I am becoming more and more fascinated by the uses and abuses of memory, history, and identity (on which see, inter alia, the elegant Margaret MacMillan's useful little book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History) in not only intra-Christian disputes, but also in Christian-Muslim relations as well. A recent collection, noted here, treats some of the issues in Christian historiography.

A new study of the early Arab conquests revisits some of the problems, long known to scholars, of the unreliability of virtually everything from the first century of Islamic history.

The new edited collection The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity treats papal history in the first millennium but begins, as I noted in my initial review, with serious historiographical problems.

This summer saw the release of an important new book raising a difficult question on the secular-sacred split in Russian archives.

Ukrainian History and Christianity:

John-Paul Himka's lates book Ukrainian iconography was noted here.

Serhii Plokhy's year has been a busy one, with his latest study on Ukrainian history noted here. Earlier this year he also published The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union.

With the commemoration in July of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, I drew attention to Ukrainian Catholic churchmen of the 20th century here.

In addition, thanks to the ongoing in interest in the country over the last two years as a result of the Russian invasion and war of aggression, I noted various works in Ukrainian history here.


Though published in 2014, it was only this year that I got around to reading, and here initially reviewing, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe. It remains an important and wide-ranging collection devoted to an issue that has long bedeviled Eastern Christianity--to say nothing of Islam.

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