"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, January 30, 2015

Wanted: Christian Burial Societies

Ask the average person (sadder still: the average Catholic) to name one of the corporal works of mercy, and you'll very likely get a blank stare. Ask him what the pope said recently about the reproductive habits of rabbits and Catholics, and you'll get some fulsome burbling about how Francis is just the coolest pope ever.

But burying the dead is one of those practices of charity and mercy enjoined upon all Christians. And burial practices today, as I recently noted, are very much in a state of flux and change. This creates problems for Christians insofar as many of these new practices (and a goodly number of the older ones also) subtly, and sometimes overtly, undermine the Church's faith in the resurrection in particular and her teaching on eschatology more generally.

Such, at any rate, is my thesis for a lecture I am giving next month at Baylor University's Wilken Colloquium (part of the Paradosis Centre). The colloquium is named after the historian and patrologist Robert Louis Wilken, author of numerous important works, including The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, John Chrysostom and the Jews : Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century, and The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom; and translator of others, including Maximus the Confessor, On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ.

As I am thinking about this problem, and how to bolster a proper eschatology, my mind returns to two books previously discussed on here: Juliet du Boulay, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village; and then Mark and Elizabeth Barna, A Christian Ending. I interviewed the Barnas here.

Du Boulay's book, which I discussed briefly here, has made me realize that restoring Christian funerary practices in a robust and undiluted way will not come about merely by getting the liturgy correct--much as I love the Byzantine liturgical tradition and think it alone today has some of the crucial elements in her funeral rites missing in Western traditions. Absent an entire local community (such as the villages in the Greek islands du Boulay surveyed), it will not be possible to pull off what I am proposing. Too many recent commentators (e.g., Thomas Rausch) have noted that you can have wonderful liturgy with all the correct theology and yet get nowhere with preaching the resurrection of the flesh to people surrounded by contrary cultural customs and beliefs. Liturgy, thus, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to recovering healthy Christian practices and a solid eschatology.

What is further needed, I am coming to see, is the establishment of something with an old history: Christian burial societies to handle the work--washing and dressing the body, building coffins, digging graves, planning funerals and memorials and meals. These societies existed at one point in England, and still exist in Jewish form in Israel and elsewhere today. But for all intents and purposes Christians today in the West have handed over their dead to funeral "professionals." I'm not denying that many such professionals do a fine job with the best of intentions (though there are, of course, shady operators).

But as Thomas G. Long's recent and excellent book, Accompany Them with Singing--The Christian Funeral notes, the professionalization of funerals has also resulted, however inadvertently, in their paganization also in significant ways. If Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection (as St. Paul put it), then this is not something we can afford to get wrong, or to hand over to others who do not share the same fundamental theology. Hence I should be delighted to see the work the Barnas are doing, training volunteers in how to handle death, spread very widely until it becomes the norm, at least for Christians. This would be a good in itself, but it would also be a tool of evangelical outreach to a world one can characterize as increasingly rébarbatif.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ukrainian and Russian Realities Past and Present

The University of Toronto Press recently sent me their catalogue, and there are a number of new books (or newly reprinted in paperback) in there of interest especially to Eastern Christians in Eastern Europe. A particular focus is on Ukraine, which, given the ongoing and Russian-instigated conflict there, is not surprising.

Two of the new publications come from the well-known and prolific historian Serhii Plokhy whose fascinating book Yalta: the Price of Peace captures a crucial moment in World War II history and the development of the early Cold War. He has also authored two more recent studies, including Ukraine and Russia: Representations of the Past (U Toronto Press, 2014, 412pp).

About this book we are told:
The question of where Russian history ends and Ukrainian history begins has not yet received a satisfactory answer. Generations of historians referred to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, as the starting point of the Muscovite dynasty, the Russian state, and, ultimately, the Russian nation. However, the history of Kyiv and that of the Scythians of the Northern Black Sea region have also been claimed by Ukrainian historians, and are now regarded as integral parts of the history of Ukraine. If these are actually the beginnings of Ukrainian history, when does Russian history start?
In Ukraine and Russia, Serhii Plokhy discusses many questions fundamental to the formation of modern Russian and Ukrainian historical identity. He investigates the critical role of history in the development of modern national identities and offers historical and cultural insight into the current state of relations between the two nations. Plokhy shows how history has been constructed, used, and misused in order to justify the existence of imperial and modern national projects, and how those projects have influenced the interpretation of history in Russia and Ukraine. This book makes important assertions not only about the conflicts and negotiations inherent to opposing historiographic traditions, but about ways of overcoming the limitations imposed by those traditions.
Plokhy also authored Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History (Toronto, 2015, 630pp).

About this book the publisher says:
From the eighteenth century until its collapse in 1917, Imperial Russia – as distinct from Muscovite Russia before it and Soviet Russia after it – officially held that the Russian nation consisted of three branches: Great Russian, Little Russian (Ukrainian), and White Russian (Belarusian). After the 1917 revolution, this view was discredited by many leading scholars, politicians, and cultural figures, but none were more intimately involved in the dismantling of the old imperial identity and its historical narrative than the eminent Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866–1934).
Hrushevsky took an active part in the work of Ukrainian scholarly, cultural, and political organizations and became the first head of the independent Ukrainian state in 1918. Serhii Plokhy's Unmaking Imperial Russia examines Hrushevsky's construction of a new historical paradigm that brought about the nationalization of the Ukrainian past and established Ukrainian history as a separate field of study. By showing how the ‘all-Russian’ historical paradigm was challenged by the Ukrainian national project, Plokhy provides the indispensable background for understanding the current state of relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Two other books treat Ukrainian-Russian relations during the Soviet period, including Serhy Yekelchyk, Stalin's Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination (U Toronto Press, 2014), 252pp.

About this book we are told:
Based on declassified materials from eight Ukrainian and Russian archives, Stalin's Empire of Memory, offers a complex and vivid analysis of the politics of memory under Stalinism. Using the Ukrainian republic as a case study, Serhy Yekelchyk elucidates the intricate interaction between the Kremlin, non-Russian intellectuals, and their audiences. Yekelchyk posits that contemporary representations of the past reflected the USSR's evolution into an empire with a complex hierarchy among its nations. In reality, he argues, the authorities never quite managed to control popular historical imagination or fully reconcile Russia's 'glorious past' with national mythologies of the non-Russian nationalities. Combining archival research with an innovative methodology that links scholarly and political texts with the literary works and artistic images, Stalin's Empire of Memory presents a lucid, readable text that will become a must-have for students, academics, and anyone interested in Russian history.
Stephen Velychenko, Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red: The Ukrainian Marxist Critique of Russian Communist Rule in Ukraine, 1918-1925 (2015), 288pp.

About this last study, the Press tells us:
In Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red, Stephen Velychenko traces the first expressions of national, anti-colonial Marxism to 1918 and the Russian Bolshevik occupation of Ukraine. Velychenko reviews the work of early twentieth-century Ukrainians who regarded Russian rule over their country as colonialism. He then discusses the rise of “national communism” in Russia and Ukraine and the Ukrainian Marxist critique of Russian imperialism and colonialism. The first extended analysis of Russian communist rule in Ukraine to focus on the Ukrainian communists, their attempted anti-Bolshevik uprising in 1919, and their exclusion from the Comintern, Painting Imperialism and Nationalism Red re-opens a long forgotten chapter of the early years of the Soviet Union and the relationship between nationalism and communism. An appendix provides a valuable selection of Ukrainian Marxist texts, all translated into English for the first time.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Gay Bathhouses on Mt. Athos?

Live long enough in the academy and you'll see the most improbable pairings and the most unlikely couplings. But even by that semi-cynical standard, I confess that I did not expect to see a new work coming out this spring from Eerdmans: Sergey S. Jorujy, Practices of the Self and Spiritual Practices: Michel Foucault and the Eastern Christian Discourse, ed. Kristina Stoeckl, trans. Boris Jakim (Eerdmans, 2015), 232pp.

About this book we are told:
In this book Sergey Horujy undertakes a novel comparative analysis of Foucault’s theory of practices of the self and the Eastern Orthodox ascetical tradition of Hesychasm, revealing great affinity between these two radical “subject-less” approaches to anthropology. As he facilitates the dialogue between the two, he offers both an original treatment of ascetical and mystical practices and an up-to-date interpretation of Foucault that goes against the grain of mainstream scholarship.

In the second half of the book Horujy transitions from the dialogue with Foucault to his own work of Christian philosophy, rooted in -- but not limited to -- the Eastern Christian philosophical and theological tradition. Horujy’s thinking exemplifies the postsecular nature of our contemporary period and serves as a powerful invitation to think beyond religious-secular divides in philosophy and Eastern-Western divides in intellectual history.
My surprise at this volume comes from knowing something of the rather scabrous life and having read some of the works of Michel Foucault, who died in 1984 at the age of 57 after having contracted AIDS at a sadomasochistic gay bathhouse in San Francisco. When I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, Foucault was all the rage in my English and psychology courses, inter alia, and so we heard all about him along with the other "post-structuralists" and their colleagues, especially Lacan and Derrida. Some of Foucault's works actually had valuable insights (e.g., Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison or parts of The History of Sexuality) but reading any of this unholy trinity and their too-frequent propensity for leaden, jargon-beggared, neologism-ridden prose put me in mind of Clive James' acid aphorism about another ghastly French philosopher we were also forced to read, viz., Sartre: "In Sartre’s style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas."

Such is not the kind of commendation you would expect for someone brought into dialogue with one of the central spiritual practices of Eastern Christianity, viz., hesychasm. But as I've noted repeatedly on here over the years, hesychasm today seems to be a topic coming in for more frequent academic analysis, and to the extent such a development may encourage new audiences to take up prayer, that cannot necessarily be a bad thing. The distance, then, between a monastery on Mt. Athos committed to hesychastic prayer, and a gay bathhouse in San Francisco (which the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once memorably called "that sceptered isle of swinging silliness") committed to sexual practices no orthodox Christian could countenance, is not so great, and increasingly traverses the quad in front of your local college. If this isn't a case of "despoiling the Egyptians" or "baptizing the pagans," then I don't know what is.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

50 Years Ago Today...

My esteem for Winston Churchill has bee noted already. Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of his death, precisely 70 years to the day (as he had earlier predicted) of his own father's death. His final years are narrated by the Cambridge historian David Reynolds in this documentary. And these clips give a few insights into his state funeral.

He was a complex man, of course, and there is perhaps as much to praise as to criticize in him, as many have recognized for decades now. But--if I may be forgiven for intruding an autobiographical note here--I would defend him for personal reasons insofar as his stout defense of Britain helped my grandparents and mother to survive and thus made my life possible.

From the beginning he saw the threat of Bolshevism that was to destroy scores of millions of Eastern Christians and was never shy about calling for a fight against that menace, not only during the immediate post-WWI years, but through the inter-war years and even as late as 1945 when he had plans drafted ("Operation Unthinkable") for the soon-to-be subdued Germans to come over to the side of the Western powers to resume the fight against the Soviet Union, which was already swallowing up Eastern Europe and reneging on its commitments with regards to Polish elections and much else beside.

There continues to be a flood of books written about Churchill, and I noted in the link above some of the ones I have found most enjoyable and edifying. I would also note the charming documentary put together by his granddaughter Celia Sandys, Chasing Churchill. It is a very winsome and revealing portrait, and I have re-watched it this day in the great man's honour. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Disordered and Demonic Thoughts

Though I think, after Augustine Casiday's recent work, that any suspicion of Evagrius should be set aside, I would argue that even those who are still a bit uneasy about him can and should benefit from his original and path-breaking insights into the role of the mind and the destructive power of thoughts--1500 years before Freud and modern psychology. I thought of Evagrius and his insights into the logismoi or disordered thoughts when listening last weekend to a fascinating and moving interview on NPR with Martin Pistorius and his harrowing descent into massive disability whereby he was unable to move or communicate, but still had an active mind--a mind that began malevolently to work against him, assaulting him with dark and despairing thoughts of his hopelessness and worthlessness. How cruel those thoughts can be! It is little short of miraculous that he has made the dramatic recovery he has, as recounted in his recent memoir, Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body.

There are many recent studies on Evagrius, but three in particular address the thoughts and the temptation of despair: George Tsakiridis, Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts. (I interviewed George here.) In addition, there is David Brakke's Evagrius Of Pontus: Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons and then Gabriel Bunge's Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Greek and a Turk Walk into a Bar...

Discussions of the First World War have, as I've noted before, focused on Christian suffering, especially in Armenia in 1915. Far less attention has been paid to the slaughter, at that same time, of Assyrian Christians and Pontic Greeks. Still less attention is given to the postwar massacres of Greek Christians in the forced exchanges of population after the war, events which came with the razing of Smyrna, inter alia, and the expulsion of Greeks from Anatolia. But the more we learn of Christian-Muslim relations in the antebellum period, the more we realize that it was not all bloodshed and violence. A new book continues to help us see the messiness of history in this period and place: Vally Lytra, ed., When Greeks and Turks Meet: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Relationship Since 1923 (Ashgate, 2014), 319pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The relationship between the history, culture and peoples of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus is often reduced to an equation which defines one side in opposition to the other. The reality is much more complex and while there have been and remain significant divisions there are many, and arguably more, areas of overlap, commonality and common interest. This book addresses a gap in the scholarly literature by bringing together specialists from different disciplinary traditions - history, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, literature, ethnomusicology and international relations, so as to examine the relationship between Greeks and Turks, as well as between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. When Greeks and Turks Meet aims to contribute to current critical and comparative approaches to the study of this complex relationship in order to question essentialist representations, stereotypes and dominant myths and understand the context and ideology of events, processes and experience. Starting from this interdisciplinary perspective and taking both diachronic and synchronic approaches, the book offers a fresh coverage of key themes including memory, history and loss; the politics of identity, language and culture; discourses of inclusion and exclusion. Contributors focus on the geographical areas of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and on the modern historical period (since 1923) up to the present day, offering in some cases an informed perspective that looks towards the future. When Greeks and Turks Meet will be essential reading for students and researchers working on the cross-roads of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, on South-East Europe and the Middle East more generally. It will also be a valuable resource for students and researchers in inter-cultural communication, cultural and media studies, language and education, international relations and politics, refugee and migration studies, conflict and post-conflict studies.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Christianity and Ecological Responsibility

With rumors flying that the next papal utterance to which we are to be treated in encyclical form will cover the controverted and tiresome topic of global warming, it is interesting to note that Eastern Christianity has been addressing ecological concerns for quite some time now. Indeed, the Ecumenical Patriarch has sometimes been nick-named the "green patriarch" for his frequent discussions of ecological issues. At the same time, however, Orthodox theology has not developed as far as Catholic theology has when it comes to other social and economic issues. Catholic social teaching goes back well over a century while comparable Orthodox teaching is somewhat more recent on some questions. 

A new collection looks like it will go some way towards helping Orthodox theology further engage with some of the socio-economic and ecological questions of our time: John Chryssavgis and Michele Goldsmith, eds., Sacred Commerce: A Conversation on Environment, Ethics, and Innovation (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2014), 152pp.

About this collection we are told:
In Sacred Commerce distinguished religious leaders, environmentalists, and businessmen share together their respective understandings and assessments concerning the present and future conditions of our planet. Well-known anthropologist Jane Goodall discusses biodiversity. Bill McKibben offers sobering statistics and a call for restraint. James Hansen addresses the present and future effects of climate change. Gary Hirshberg relates by example how a business can be successful and environmentally responsible. Amory Lovins reveals how the energy demand that fuels our businesses can be environmentally responsible. Richard Chartres discusses how we must exchange our economic calling, grow first and clean up later, for a new religious calling, one human race and one whole world. Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon offers insight on where we must go in the future. Sacred Commerce presents the creativity of business, the evidence of science, and the understanding of religion in a united effort for the welfare of not only industrialized countries, but for all human communities and living things now present on earth.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Religion and Democracy in the South Caucasus

Living as so many countries in the region do in the shadow of the Russian behemoth, smaller countries in Eastern Europe as well as the Caucasus do not often garner nearly the same attention as Russia. In the quarter-century since the collapse of the evil empire, former Soviet states have developed in a variety of ways--as have, not incidentally, their Christian, especially Orthodox, populations. A recent collection examines three Caucasian countries: Alexander Agadjanian, Anscar, Jödicke and Evert van der Zweerde, eds., Religion, Nation and Democracy in the South Caucasus (Routledge, 2014), 296pp.

About this book we are told:
This book explores developments in the three major societies of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – focusing especially on religion, historical traditions, national consciousness, and political culture, and on how these factors interact. It outlines how, despite close geographical interlacement, common historical memories and inherited structures, the three countries have deep differences; and it discusses how development in all three nations has differed significantly from the countries’ declared commitments to democratic orientation and European norms and values. The book also considers how external factors and international relations continue to impact on the three countries.

Monday, January 19, 2015

New Voices in Greek Orthodoxy

The Greek Church today, like most Christian bodies, seems to be riven between a reactionary and retrograde crowd (led by bishops who wrote that silly letter last spring to the pope, which I discussed here) on the one hand, and, on the other, led also by those willing to recognize that the world today has changed and the Church has to figure out how to respond to that without retreating into a patristic fundamentalism and other pathologies. In witness of this changed situation, I recently reviewed elsewhere a fascinating collection, Innovation in the Orthodox Christian Tradition?: The Question of Change in Greek Orthodox Thought and Practice, which looks at Greek Orthodox Christians in Greece itself but also in North America and Australia and how, at various points in their history, they have negotiated very significant changes.

Now another book looks at change of that longstanding problem to afflict all Eastern Christians, viz., nationalism: Trine Stauning Wilert, New Voices in Greek Orthodox Thought: Untying the Bond between Nation and Religion: Difference Is Everything (Ashgate, 2014), 197pp.

About this book we are told:
New Voices in Greek Orthodox Thought brings to the light and discusses a strand in contemporary Greek public debate that is often overlooked, namely progressive religious actors of a western orientation. International - and Greek - media tend to focus on the extreme views and to categorise positions in the public debate along well known dichotomies such as traditionalists vs. modernsers. Demonstrating that in late modernity, parallel to rising nationalisms, there is a shift towards religious communities becoming the central axis for cultural organization and progressive thinking, the book presents Greece as a case study based on empirical field data from contemporary theology and religious education, and makes a unique contribution to ongoing debates about the public role of religion in contemporary Europe.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Orthodox Family in Eastern Europe and Elsewhere

North American Christians have been obsessing over "family values" for a long time, and often making rather a hash of them, not realizing--as Stanley Hauerwas pointed out more than twenty years ago--that the gospel is rather hard on "family values," calling sons and daughters to be prepared to sacrifice even parents and children in order to follow Christ. But the state of the family in the Orthodox world, especially post-communist Eastern Europe, has not been nearly as well studied until now. Nicu Dumitrascu has edited an impressive new collection, Christian Family and Contemporary Society (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 304pp.
About this book we are told that it: 
...integrates a broad spectrum of geographical, denominational, and interdisciplinary perspectives, and analyses the relationship between family and religion in its various contexts, both historical and contemporary.

Divided into four key parts, the contributors address first the biblical and patristic background of the family construct, while the second part reveals denominational and ecumenical perspectives on marriage and the family. The third part sketches a sociological profile of the family in some European countries and addresses pastoral and sacramental issues connected with it. The final part places the Christian family in the context of contemporary society.
There is an introduction from the Orthodox scholar John McGuckin, who writes:
The book represents cutting edge theological scholarship in a pastoral dimension of great urgency for Eastern Europe and the Orthodox world in general. It will have a wide zone of interest for theologians, pastors, sociologists and all interested in the state of family life, especially considered in a religious environment. Mostly, it will serve to be of importance and interest in theological schools, churches, pastoral care programs, and seminary environments.
The publisher gives us the following detailed table of contents:


1. The Synoptic Gospels and Family
Daniel Ayuch, University of Balamand, Lebanon
2. Pauline guidelines on Christian families in Greco-Roman social environment
Mato Zovkic, Sarajevo Theological Seminary, Bosnia-Herzegovina
3. The Christian family according to the Sacred Canons of the Orthodox Church
Elena Giannakopoulou, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece
4. Glimpses into the Cappadocian Fourth-Century Family by Gregory the theologian
Pablo Argarate, University of Graz, Austria
5. The Christian Family and its problems in the light of St Basil's canons - a pastoral approach, Viorel Sava, Al.Ioan Cuza University of Iasi , Romania


6. The Plan of God for Marriage and the Family. A Roman-Catholic Perspective, Jose R. Villar, Universidad de Navarra, Spain
7. Marriage in the Catholic Church and the problems of interdenominational families, Przemyslaw Kantyka, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
8. Marriage and the Family between Tradition/traditions and contemporary life in Orthodox Spirituality
Nicu Dumitrascu, University of Oradea, Romania
9. Catholic and Lutheran Theology of Marriage. Differences and Resemblances
Piotr Kopiec, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
10. Mixed Marriages in the Antiochian Orthodox Church: An Educational Approach to a Pastoral Challenge
Bassam Nassif, University of Balamand, Lebanon


11. The French Family in All Conditions: From the Best to the Worst
Michel Cozic, Centre Lenain de Tillemont, France
12. Families for Objects of Pastoral Care to Builders of Ecclesial Community?
Thomas Knieps - Port le Roi , KU Leuven, The Netherlands
13. Families in Finland between Idealism and Practice
Gunnar af Hällström, Abo Akademi University, Finland
14. The Theology of the Sacrament of Wedding in the Orthodox Church
Marian Vîlciu, Valahia University of Targoviste, Romania


15. Discipline and Love - Biblical Roots of Modern Christian Parenting
María Ágústsdóttir, University of Iceland, Iceland
16. This is Our Family - Protestant Perspective
Margriet Gosker, The Netherlands
17. Orthodox Christian Family in the Present Day - Day Society
Stefan Florea, Valahia University of Targoviste, Romania
18. New Challenges in Religious Education of Generation Z (the youngest children)
Dana Hanesová, Matej Bel University, Slovakia
Index -

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Natural Theology

As I've mentioned before in looking at comparable handbooks, we are, happily, living in a time when such scholarly collections can no longer ignore the East, and so manage to have at least one chapter on Eastern Christian realities. Forthcoming in March is a paperback version of  The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology (Oxford, 2015),672pp. Though "natural theology" is not a category that has preoccupied the East as much as the West for several reasons, nonetheless Orthodox contributions to the debates are noted here.

Edited by Russel de Manning, this book, the publisher tells us:
is the first collection to consider the full breadth of natural theology from both historical and contemporary perspectives and to bring together leading scholars to offer accessible high-level accounts of the major themes. The volume embodies and develops the recent revival of interest in natural theology as a topic of serious critical engagement. Frequently misunderstood or polemicized, natural theology is an under-studied yet persistent and pervasive presence throughout the history of thought about ultimate reality - from the classical Greek theology of the philosophers to twenty-first century debates in science and religion.

Of interest to students and scholars from a wide range of disciplines, this authoritative handbook draws on the very best of contemporary scholarship to present a critical overview of the subject area. Thirty eight new essays trace the transformations of natural theology in different historical and religious contexts, the place of natural theology in different philosophical traditions and diverse scientific disciplines, and the various cultural and aesthetic approaches to natural theology to reveal a rich seam of multi-faceted theological reflection rooted in human nature and the environments within which we find ourselves.
We are also given a detailed list of the contents. Chapters 3, 13, and 33 are of especial interest.

I: Historical Perspectives on Natural Theology
1. Classical Origins of Natural Theology, Stephen Clark
2. Natural Theology and the Christian Bible, Christopher Rowland
3. Natural Theology in the Patristic Period, Wayne Hankey
4. Natural Theology in the Middle Ages, Alexander Hall
5. Early Modern Natural Theologies, Scott Mandelbrote
6. Nineteenth-Century Natural Theology, Matthew Eddy
7. Natural Theology in the Twentieth Century, Rodney Holder
II: Theological Perspectives on Natural Theology
8. Jewish Perspectives on Natural Theology, Daniel Frank
9. Natural Theology in Eastern Religions, Robert Morrison
10. Perspectives on Natural Theology from Eastern Religions, Jessica Frazier
11. Catholic Perspectives on Natural Theology, Denis Edwards
12. Protestant Perspectives on Natural Theology, Russell Re Manning
13. Natural Theology and the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, Christopher Knight
14. Theological Critiques of Natural Theology, Andrew Moore
III: Philosophical Perspectives on Natural Theology
15. Perspectives on Natural Theology from Analytical Philosophy, Keith Parsons
16. A Perspective from Continental Philosophy, Russell de Manning
17. Process Thought and Natural Theology, David Ray Griffin
18. The Design Argument and Natural Theology, Neil A. Manson
19. Morality and Natural Theology, William Schweiker
20. Religious Experience and Natural Theology, Mark Wynn
21. Postmodernity and Natural Theology, Clayton Crockett
22. Feminist Perspectives on Natural Theology, Pamela Sue Anderson
23. Comparative Natural Theology, Wesley Wildman
24. Philosophical Critique of Natural Theology, Charles Taliaferro
IV: Scientific Perspectives on Natural Theology
25. Natural Theology: The Biological Sciences, Michael Ruse
26. Physical Sciences and Natural Theology, Paul Ewart
27. Chemical Sciences and Natural Theology, David Knight
28. Mathematics and Natural Theology, John Polkinghorne
29. Natural Theology and Ecology, Christopher Southgate
30. Sciences of the Mind and Natural Theology, Fraser Watts
31. A Sociological Perspective on Natural Theology, Richard Fenn
32. Scientific Critiques of Natural Theology, Philip Clayton
V: Perspectives on Natural Theology from the Arts
33. Aesthetics and the Arts in Relation to Natural Theology, Frank Burch Brown
34. Imagination and Natural Theology, Douglas Hedley
35. Natural Theology and Literature, Guy Bennett-Hunter
36. Natural Theology and Music, Jeremy Begbie
37. Images in Natural Theology, Kristof Nyiri
38. The Film Viewer & Natural Theology God's "Presence" at the Movies, Robert Johnston
Conclusion: The Future of Natural Theology

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Restoration of Rome

The international dialogue between Orthodoxy and Catholicism has for some time been looking at the papacy in the first millennium in part to discern whether there are lessons in that era that can guide the search for unity today. Several recent studies, including Susan Wessel's and George Demacoupoulos' The Invention of Peter have contributed to this historical research. Another recent study will no doubt aid in that process--while also contributing much to imperial Roman history and the discussion of Church-state relations: Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Oxford UP, 2014), 488pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In 476 AD, the last of Rome's emperors, known as "Augustulus," was deposed by a barbarian general, the son of one of Attila the Hun's henchmen. With the imperial vestments dispatched to Constantinople, the curtain fell on the Roman empire in Western Europe, its territories divided among successor kingdoms constructed around barbarian military manpower.

But, if the Roman Empire was dead, Romans across much of the old empire still lived, holding on to their lands, their values, and their institutions. The conquering barbarians, responding to Rome's continuing psychological dominance and the practical value of many of its institutions, were ready to reignite the imperial flame and enjoy the benefits. As Peter Heather shows in dazzling biographical portraits, each of the three greatest immediate contenders for imperial power--Theoderic, Justinian, and Charlemagne--operated with a different power base but was astonishingly successful in his own way. Though each in turn managed to put back together enough of the old Roman West to stake a plausible claim to the Western imperial title, none of their empires long outlived their founders' deaths. Not until the reinvention of the papacy in the eleventh century would Europe's barbarians find the means to establish a new kind of Roman Empire, one that has lasted a thousand years.

A sequel to the bestselling Fall of the Roman Empire, The Restoration of Rome offers a captivating narrative of the death of an era and the birth of the Catholic Church.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mosaics of Faith

We continue to learn, and in some cases un-learn, about the encounter between Byzantine Christians and Muslims, especially during the Umayyad period. A recent hefty publication shows us that the early encounters, far from destroying everything in a spate of Islamic iconoclasm, in fact allowed Byzantine Christian art to continue to flourish: Rina Talgam, Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land (Penn State U Press, 2014), 600pp.

About this book we are told:
This monumental work provides a comprehensive analytical history of the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Early Abbasid mosaics in the Holy Land, spanning the second century b.c.e. to the eighth century c.e. Previous general studies of the Holy Land mosaics have focused on specific collections; in Mosaics of Faith, Rina Talgam sets out to demonstrate how mosaic art constructed cultural, religious, and ethnic identities in eras that shaped the visual expressions of three monotheistic religions. Her examination of the mosaics in a pivotal area of the eastern Mediterranean sharpens and refines our understanding of the region's societies and their ideologies, institutions, and liturgies. Covering almost one thousand years of mosaic production, Mosaics of Faith offers an unprecedented view of the evolution of floor decorations from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods, in the transition from Roman to Early Byzantine art, and in the persistence of Byzantine traditions under Umayyad rule. More than other corpora of ancient mosaics, those from the Holy Land have generated greater awareness of the intricate visual exchanges between paganism, Judaism, Samaritanism, Christianity, and Islam. Talgam examines the mosaics' formal qualities in conjunction with the religious and cultural contexts within which they were produced and with which they had a profound, multidimensional dialogue.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Living High Atop a Column

When he was younger, one of my sons was fascinated with the life of St. Symeon Stylite, the ascetic who apparently lived atop a pillar for part of his life. Symeon is just one of many ancient figures treated in a recently published collection edited by Carol Harrison, Caroline Humfress, and Isabella Sandwell: Being Christian in Late Antiquity: A Festschrift for Gillian Clark (Oxford UP, 2014), 320pp.

About this book, published in honor of the historian and patristics scholar Clark, the publisher tells us:
What do we mean when we talk about "being Christian" in Late Antiquity? This volume brings together sixteen world-leading scholars of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and Greco-Roman culture and society to explore this question, in honor of the ground-breaking scholarship of Professor Gillian Clark. After an introduction to the volume's dedicatee and themes by Averil Cameron, the papers in Section I, "Being Christian through Reading, Writing, and Hearing," analyze the roles that literary genre, writing, reading, hearing, and the literature of the past played in the formation of what it meant to be Christian. The essays in Section II move on to explore how late antique Christians sought to create, maintain, and represent Christian communities: communities that were both "textually created" and "enacted in living realities." Finally in Section III, "The Particularities of Being Christian," the contributions examine what it was to be Christian from a number of different ways of representing oneself, each of which raises questions about certain kinds of "particularities," for example, gender, location, education, and culture.

Bringing together primary source material from the early Imperial period up to the seventh century AD and covering both the Eastern and Western Empires, the papers in this volume demonstrate that what it meant to be Christian cannot simply be taken for granted. "Being Christian" was part of a continual process of construction and negotiation, as individuals and Christian communities alike sought to relate themselves to existing traditions, social structures, and identities, at the same time as questioning and critiquing the past(s) in their present.
The publisher also gives us this:

Table of Contents
Introduction: The Discourses of Gillian Clark., Averil Cameron
I: Being Christian through Reading, Writing and Hearing
1. Why Don't Jews Write Biography? Simon Goldhill
2. The Maccabaean Mother between Pagans, Jews and Christians., Tessa Rajak
3. On the Status of Books in Early Christianity., Guy Stroumsa
4. An Inextinguishable Memory: Pagan Past and Presence in Early Christian Writing., Joseph Lossl
5. Playing Ball: Augustine and Plutarch on Capturing Wisdom., Carol Harrison
II: Being Christian in Community
6. Fiunt, non nascuntur christiani: Conversion, Community and Christian Identity in Late Antiquity? Andrew Louth
7. Julian and the Christian Professors, Neil McLynn
8. The City of Augustine: On the Interpretation of Civitas, Catherine Conybeare
9. Christianity and Authority in Late Antiquity: The Transformation of the Concept of Auctoritas, Karla Pollmann
10. Church Councils and Local Authority: The Development of Gallic Libri Canonum during Late Antiquity, Ralph Mathisen
III: The Particularities of Being Christian.
11. The Empresses' tale, AD 300-360, Jill Harries
12. 'Being Female': Verse commemoration at the Coemeterium S. Agnetis (Via Nomentana), Dennis Trout
13. Self Portrait as a Landscape: Ausonius and his Herediolum, Oliver Nicholson
14. Fashions for Varro in Late Antiquity and Christian Ways with Books, Mark Vessey
15. The Image of a Christian Monk in Northern Syria: Symeon Stylites the Younger, Fergus Millar

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How We Grieve Today

I have made no secret of my dislike of the funeral industry in North America, nor of many Christian funerals today, nor of our culture's denial of death and unwillingness to allow people to grieve. Equally, I cheered at the emergence of new practices, which I discussed here in my interview with the Orthodox deacon Mark Barna and his wife Elizabeth about their excellent book A Christian Ending, which pastors and parishes should read and put into practice where possible.

Now along comes a new book with a wealth of fascinating detail: Candi Cann, Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century (University of Kentucky Press, 2014), 212pp. 

I began reading this book last fall in preparation for a lecture I've been asked to give at Baylor University at the end of February on Byzantine funeral liturgies. As someone who thinks that the Byzantine funeral liturgy as it is most often celebrated today remains a great gift to the grieving, I am nonetheless also aware of how odd it appears to many North Americans today. If Christians are to continue to preach a message of the risen Christ, then we have to understand how our contemporaries view death and grieving today, and Cann's book aids that process. It is wonderfully written--clear, crisp, cogent. The research and learning, which are considerable, are lightly worn. For someone who spends a good deal of time dealing with sociological research, Cann does not burden her reader with the academic jargon and ponderous pseudo-insights one often finds among academic writing in that discipline.

I confess that as I've made my way through the book, some of my dislike--bordering on snobbery--for the practices she describes began to melt away. I have been a staunch traditionalist when it comes to grieving, horrified by people who show up at funerals in anything other than black suits (for men). (I have lost track of the number of funerals—as well as weddings—I have attended where people show up at the church dressed as though they are en route to the nearest beach. It seems deplorably common today that more and more men know no intimate congress with a jacket and tie. To be too poor to own a suit is quite understandable; showing up as a slob too lazy to put one on is not.) 

Thus I was prepared to dislike some of the new things Cann documents: e.g., the rise of car decals after someone has died. I initially thought them rather impermanent and cheap, but she made the helpful analogy to other, earlier, "transitory" forms of mourning that involved public expressions: e.g., appearing in black, or wearing a black armband, for a year after a death. Given how much time we spend in our cars today, and given, as she says, how much "car culture" is imbued, especially in the United States, with a sense of personal identity, and given, moreover, how little time one is given today to formal periods of mourning, the use of car decals is an interesting way to let people know one remains in a state of mourning--and also to ensure people do not forget the deceased, either.

Other trends, again just in the last decade, include the rise of memorial tattoos. Here my snobbery has not abated: I think tattoos ugly and vulgar and bourgeois. But I now understand and quite accept why people get them as memorials. Cann recounts several moving interviews with tattoo "artists" who relay how they are turned into priests and therapists when working on a client who is having an image of a dead loved one engraved on their body. The very process of "inking" becomes therapeutic and almost spiritual-sacramental for some. Moreover, it is now even possible (though apparently of dubious legality) in some places for the tattoo ink to be admixed with the cremains of the dead person, so that the one being tattooed now bears in his or her body some part of the very flesh of the decedent!

Additional ways in which forms of grieving today are changing are further documented in the book. I will discuss those in the coming days. In the meantime, Candi Cann's Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century remains a fascinating work and I commend it to your interest.

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