"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).

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hidden Churches and Treasures of Ethiopia

Ethiopian Christianity has long fascinated me, and remains an area I want to explore more deeply. When I teach my introductory course on iconography, I try to work in Ethiopian icons because I love their vibrant colours and patterns, and how they are so markedly different from the Byzantine and Coptic traditions: more exuberant than the former, more colourful than the latter but in any event quite captivating.

A book set for release this week looks at the churches where one finds some of those icons, and much else besides: Bob Friedlander  Marie-Jose Friedlander, Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia: A Guide to the Remote Churches of an Ancient Land (I.B. Tauris, 2015), 352pp.

About this book we are told:
Ethiopia is a land of hidden treasures, and among the greatest are its remote churches, whose richly decorated interiors amaze and astound with their vibrant colours and extraordinary illustration. Yet steeped in ancient legend, and often situated in remote locations, a true appreciation and understanding of these unique churches and their spectacular murals has been restricted to a select few. Now, in Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, Maria-Jose Friedlander provides a unique guide to the churches, their architecture and decoration. Ranging from the rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region to the spectacular timber-built cave church of Yemrehane Krestos, Maria-Jose Friedlander provides detailed descriptions of the wonderful murals and of the stories behind them. Many of the wall paintings contain inscriptions in Ge'ez - the ancient language of Ethiopia - and full translations of these scripts are given. Detailed plans show the exact location of the paintings within the churches and the superb colour photographs by Bob Friedlander show the many aspects of the churches and their decoration

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The God Who is Dark

Among the self-congratulatory shibboleths some Eastern Christians like to use to disdain a Western tradition about which they know virtually nothing and thus bolster their shaky self-confidence is the claim that all Eastern theology is apophatic, while all Western theology is rationalistic, scholastic, kataphatic. Even before I became an Eastern Christian I knew this was bunk after Stanley Hauerwas told me in the late 90s that if I was going to Cambridge for doctoral studies then I had to get in touch with her Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, Denys Turner, and read his book The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, which helped me to see that the West has its own deep tradition of apophatic mysticism even as the West also has had certain periods and persons who are indeed rationalistic and scholastic--and not always in a completely good way. These latter do not, however, represent the entire Western tradition (any more than one can say that everyone in the East is a hesychast).

Turner moved back across the Atlantic to Yale, and in November of this year is being honored with a Festschrift: Eric Bugyis and David Newheiser, eds., Desire, Faith, and the Darkness of God: Essays in Honor of Denys Turner (UND Press, Nov. 2015), 480pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In the face of religious and cultural diversity, some doubt whether Christian faith remains possible today. Critics claim that religion is irrational and violent, and the loudest defenders of Christianity are equally strident. In response, Desire, Faith, and the Darkness of God: Essays in Honor of Denys Turner explores the uncertainty essential to Christian commitment; it suggests that faith is moved by a desire for that which cannot be known.
This approach is inspired by the tradition of Christian apophatic theology, which argues that language cannot capture divine transcendence. From this perspective, contemporary debates over God’s existence represent a dead end: if God is not simply another object in the world, then faith begins not in abstract certainty but in a love that exceeds the limits of knowledge.
The essays engage classic Christian thought alongside literary and philosophical sources ranging from Pseudo-Dionysius and Dante to Karl Marx and Jacques Derrida. Building on the work of Denys Turner, they indicate that the boundary between atheism and Christian thought is productively blurry. Instead of settling the stale dispute over whether religion is rationally justified, their work suggests instead that Christian life is an ethical and political practice impassioned by a God who transcends understanding.
Contributors: Eric Bugyis, Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis, David Burrell, C.S.C., Oliver Davies, Terry Eagleton, John Hare, Karl Hefty, Robin Kirkpatrick, Karmen MacKendrick, Philip McCosker, Bernard McGinn, Vittorio Montemaggi, David Newheiser, Cyril O’Regan, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Denys Turner, Ludger Viefhues-Bailey, A. N. Williams
“Desire, Faith, and the Darkness of God: Essays in Honor of Denys Turner is a testament to the range of Denys Turner’s influence and the varieties of modes of argumentation with which his work is conversant. The volume will be read with pleasure by scholars in the history of Christianity, particularly of Christian mysticism, Christian theologians, and philosophers of religion, as well as scholars across a range of subdisciplines." — Amy Hollywood, Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School

Monday, May 25, 2015

Orthodox Christian Social Thought

I have often heard it said that Eastern Christian thought has a great deal of catching up to do compared to the developments in Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII's landmark Rerum Novarum. Though many Eastern Fathers--some of them noted on here--have of course written treatises about poverty, hunger, and treating the downcast, not a lot has been written in the modern period taking account of very different socioeconomic contexts. But that is changing, and a new book from the Orthodox priest-scholar Gregory Jensen aims to help: The Cure for Consumerism (Acton Institute, 2015), 154pp.

Volume 2 in Acton's series on Orthodox social thought, this latest installment, according to the publisher, has the following focus:
Despite the rapid increase in human flourishing since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, critics of the market economy insist that it leads inevitably to consumerism and other excesses of materialism. Those who make this indictment—including sociologists, political pundits, and religious leaders—also ignore how economic liberty has brought about one of the most remarkable achievements in human history: an 80 percent reduction in world poverty since 1970. The Cure for Consumerism examines popular prescriptions for addressing consumerism that range from simply consuming less to completely overhauling our economic system. In this lively and accessible book, Rev. Gregory Jensen synthesizes insights from the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church with modern social science to craft a clear understanding of consumerism, to offer real solutions to the problems, and to put faith and economic freedom to work for both the common good and the kingdom of God.
I've been in touch with the author about an interview, and hope to have that up here over the summer.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Russian Orthodox Pilgrimages

The blurb is replete with the sort of off-putting jargon that is popular in academia just now, but there is at least one chapter in this collection that will be of interest to Eastern Christians: Stella Rock's essay "Touching the Holy: Orthodox Christian Pilgrimage within Russia" in John Eade and Dionigi Albera, eds., International Perspectives on Pilgrimage Studies: Itineraries, Gaps and Obstacles (Routledge, 2015), 226pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Although research on contemporary pilgrimage has expanded considerably since the early 1990s, the conversation has largely been dominated by Anglophone researchers in anthropology, ethnology, sociology, and religious studies from the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Northern Europe. This volume challenges the hegemony of Anglophone scholarship by considering what can be learned from different national, linguistic, religious and disciplinary traditions, with the aim of fostering a global exchange of ideas. The chapters outline contributions made to the study of pilgrimage from a variety of international and methodological contexts and discuss what the ‘metropolis’ can learn from these diverse perspectives. While the Anglophone study of pilgrimage has largely been centred on and located within anthropological contexts, in many other linguistic and academic traditions, areas such as folk studies, ethnology and economics have been highly influential. Contributors show that in many traditions the study of ‘folk’ beliefs and practices (often marginalized within the Anglophone world) has been regarded as an important and central area which contributes widely to the understanding of religion in general, and pilgrimage, specifically. As several chapters in this book indicate, ‘folk’ based studies have played an important role in developing different methodological orientations in Poland, Germany, Japan, Hungary, Italy, Ireland and England. With a highly international focus, this interdisciplinary volume aims to introduce new approaches to the study of pilgrimage and to transcend the boundary between center and periphery in this emerging discipline.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Missionary Stories and Syriac Churches

We are living in boom times for the study of Syriac Christianity--relative, of course, to the previous neglect. A pioneering generation of scholars--Sidney Griffith, Sebastian Brock, Susan Ashbrook Harvey and others--is still around, but as they age they have fortunately have been training a younger generation, several of whom I have met, including the author of this forthcoming study, Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, who finished her doctorate under Harvey at Brown University and for the last few years has been teaching at Marquette. I met Saint-Laurent at a conference in Washington, DC in 2011 and she was very lovely and gracious. Her scholarly acumen is matched by a deep faith from what I could tell, and Marquette is thus very lucky to have her.

Set for release in the middle of next month is her Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches (U California Press, 2015, 232pp).
About this book the publisher tells us:
Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches analyzes the hagiographic traditions of seven missionary saints in the Syriac heritage during late antiquity: Thomas, Addai, Mari, John of Ephesus, Simeon of Beth Arsham, Jacob Baradaeus, and Ahudemmeh. Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent studies a body of legends about the missionaries’ voyages in the Syrian Orient to illustrate their shared symbols and motifs. Revealing how these texts encapsulated the concerns of the communities that produced them, she draws attention to the role of hagiography as a malleable genre that was well-suited for the idealized presentation of the beginnings of Christian communities. Hagiographers, through their reworking of missionary themes, asserted autonomy, orthodoxy, and apostolicity for their individual civic and monastic communities, positioning themselves in relationship to the rulers of their empires and to competing forms of Christianity. Saint-Laurent argues that missionary hagiography is an important and neglected source for understanding the development of the East and West Syriac ecclesiastical bodies: the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East. Given that many of these Syriac-speaking churches remain today in the Middle East and India, with diaspora communities in Europe and North America, this work opens the door for further study of the role of saints and stories as symbolic links between ancient and modern traditions.
I'm hoping to arrange an author interview with this book once the publisher sends me a copy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Comrades Stumbling Along

We hosted a fantastic conference on the life and work of Dorothy Day last week at the University of Saint Francis. I was delighted that the priest-scholar Robert Wild from Madonna House in the Ottawa Valley was able to come and give a paper on the "Eastern" connections as it were. His lecture drew on his book, Comrades Stumbling Along: The Friendship of Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day as Revealed Through Their Letters (Alba, 2009), 173pp. The correspondence between these two women is as fascinating as they themselves were. Doherty, a Russian Orthodox who wound up in Canada, and Day, an Episcopalian who wound up in New York: both found themselves in the Catholic Church at the same time with a similar vision and mission to serve the poor, which they did in unique and lasting ways. Born within a year of each other, and both dying in the 1980s, these two fascinating, deeply challenging women have left behind a legacy on this continent that continues to enrich the lives of many. Eternal memory indeed!

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Messiness of Synodality

It always astonishes me that my students are astonished at the development of Christian doctrine. These innocents, knowing very little even recent American history, know absolutely nothing about ancient Christian history. They seem fondly to have imagined—if they have thought about the matter at all—that, e.g., the Nicene Creed “had fallen from heaven quite unexpectedly during Good Friday luncheon some years back” (to use one of the lines from Evelyn Waugh’s uproariously politically incorrect novel Black Mischief). When they discover that it did not—that the creed was a lengthy process of synodal or conciliar debate going on for decades—they are not only amazed but some of them even a little disgusted. The raw humanity of the Church--which, I must remind them, has two natures, as Christ did: divine and human--seems to be rather disdainful to some. (Others, of course, can see only the human side, and therefore reductionistically and simplistically assume that every decision was the result always and only of political machinations of the most sordid and self-interested variety, with no possible room for the Holy Spirit to drop His ready-made creeds into the diners' laps.)

When we cover the era of The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, starting at Nicaea I in 325 and ending with Nicaea II in 787, and spending the most time on Chalcedon in 451, every one of them in classes going back nearly a decade has professed to be amazed at how messy, protracted, polemical, and confrontational the process was by which Christological doctrine was shaped and defined, not least in the creed. In the passive-aggressive argot of today, they ask: Why was everyone so “divisive”? Wasn’t the reaction to Arius rather “extreme”? Couldn’t they have just tolerated a diversity of opinions? After all, who cares how many natures Christ has, or what the relationship, if any, between them is. This is all irrelevant nonsense--isn't it? We can still be nice persons whether Christ has one nature, two, or 391,704.

Eventually, of course, the Church was guided to understand the dyophysite nature of Christ, and to settle other related and controverted matters. But it took time and effort lasting centuries. There was, then, no neat, tidy, simple, quick process for the formation of doctrinal claims that most of us take for granted today and have seemed settled for ages if not forever. It was a process taking decades and centuries, and in the meantime there was a lot of unsettled opinion and a great deal of vigorous, and occasionally violent, fighting. A very good, if dense, book for the formation of Christological doctrine remains that of Khaled Anatolios (whom I interviewed here), Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine.

Such is the way of synods and councils, East and West, ancient and modern. As we finish the seemingly endless commemorations of Vatican II this year, Catholics of a certain age--now fewer and fewer with each passing year--will remember the tumult in the post-conciliar period. Those with longer historical memories will know that whether it is Nicaea I, Chalcedon, Lateran IV, Trent, or some other synod, it takes decades for things to settle down, and in the meantime the process remains often painfully messy. Indeed, in not a few cases, things get worse after a synod/council, and the question is often raised: was the "cure" not worse than whatever the precipitating "disease" was? Such is the way synodality down through the ages.

I mention all this in anticipation of what I fully expect to be a shambolic synod in Rome in October, picking up where last year's session left off. I've talked to many people who have been disconcerted by the messiness and controversy last fall, but such concern is, in part, likely a function of just how unfamiliar the West is with synodality, though there is a long history of the same going back to the earliest centuries, as I documented in my book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

For those wishing more depth and detail on the topic, see the hefty scholarly collection (of uneven quality, and with articles in French and other European languages), Synod and Synodality: Theology, History, Canon Law and Ecumenism in New Contact.

Other works, most of them mentioned or reviewed on here over the years, that may be of interest would include Paul Valliere's rather uneven but still insightful Conciliarism: A History of Decision-Making in the Church.

Valliere's title does not really treat what one expects under the heading of "conciliarism," on whose history, in the West, Francis Oakley is the doyen. As I have noted before, Oakley's book on the topic, The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870, discussed in depth here, is a deeply disturbing one raising age-old questions that nobody has bothered to answer--preferring instead to ignore them or "forget" them. I am using part of it in a lecture I am giving at Fordham next month at the OTSA meeting.

Finally, I would recommend a rich collection discussing ecclesiological and ecumenical issues, including synodality: Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Von Balthasar Among the Russians

Just as, recently, it seems that everyone has suddenly "discovered" the great Russian thinker Sergius Bulgakov thanks to the translations of his works that Eerdmans has been cranking out over the last decade, so too there was a period in the 1990s when it seemed that suddenly everyone had "discovered" the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who died suddenly in 1988 days before being made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. Journals were suddenly ablaze with all kinds of articles about von Balthasar, whom Joseph Ratzinger, preaching his funeral homily, called perhaps the most cultured man in Europe. Certainly von Balthasar's vast learning, and enormous output, made him a formidable man to grapple with. Of all this many works, he is perhaps best known for his "theological aesthetics."

In the craze to engage him, many books were written, but not, to my knowledge, many engaging him vis-à-vis the Christian East--until now: Jennifer Newsome Martin, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 315pp. The publisher tells us the following about this book, forthcoming this October:
in Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought, Jennifer Newsome Martin offers the first systematic treatment and evaluation of the Swiss Catholic theologian’s complex relation to modern speculative Russian religious philosophy. Her constructive analysis proceeds through Balthasar’s critical reception of Vladimir Soloviev, Nicholai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov with respect to theological aesthetics, myth, eschatology, and Trinitarian discourse and examines how Balthasar adjudicates both the possibilities and the limits of theological appropriation, especially considering the degree to which these Russian thinkers have been influenced by German Idealism and Romanticism.
Martin argues that Balthasar’s creative reception and modulation of the thought of these Russian philosophers is indicative of a broad speculative tendency in his work that deserves further attention. In this respect, Martin consciously challenges the prevailing view of Balthasar as a fundamentally conservative or nostalgic thinker. In her discussion of the relation between tradition and theological speculation, Martin also draws upon the understudied relation between Balthasar and F. W. J. Schelling, especially as Schelling’s form of Idealism was passed down through the Russian thinkers. In doing so, she persuasively recasts Balthasar as an ecumenical, creatively anti-nostalgic theologian hospitable to the richness of contributions from extra-magisterial and non-Catholic sources.
“With her Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought, Jennifer Newsome Martin has produced an accomplished, literate, and original contribution that is much needed in Balthasar scholarship. To my knowledge, this is the only text on Balthasar and three important Russian Orthodox thinkers—Soloviev, Berdyaev, and Bulgakov—who engaged ancient Christianity with modern philosophical currents. Additionally, Martin brings to light aspects of Balthasar’s theological method that go beyond Balthasar’s own importance to broader issues in theology.” — Anthony C. Sciglitano, Seton Hall University

Friday, May 8, 2015

On the 50th Anniversary of Ware's The Orthodox Church

For decades, it seemed that the only reliable, accessible, affordable introduction to Orthodox Christianity available to Anglophone readers was The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware and published by Penguin. And it was a solid book and very useful. When I began in 2008 to teach introductory courses on Eastern Christianity, I used Ware's book. I was later forced to abandon it, when, to my horror, students whined that it "has too much history in it," a claim I find about as intelligible and defensible as saying of the Pacific Ocean "it has too much water in it." But given that most students today don't know even the most recent and elementary history (I can reliably count on fewer than 5% of any given class knowing the dates of either of the two World Wars), still less anything about Christian history, I adopted another text which has worked better for us: David Bell's Orthodoxy: Evolving Tradition.

Today, happily, as I have had frequent occasion to note on here, we live in an era of riches and abundance: introductions to Orthodoxy abound in English, from simple, accessible and affordable paperback's like Bell's through to major encyclopedias and dictionaries as well as handbooks, companions, and other substantial and welcome studies from prominent and widely respected scholars, not all of them Orthodox themselves. 

Later this autumn, the 50th-anniversary edition of Ware's famous text is being published in an anniversary edition: The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity (Penguin, October 2015), 368pp.

About this forthcoming re-issue, we are told by the publisher:
'Orthodoxy claims to be universal . . .' 'Since its first publication fifty years ago, Timothy Ware's book has become established throughout the English-speaking world as the standard introduction to the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy continues to be a subject of enormous interest among western Christians, and the author believes that an understanding of its standpoint is necessary before the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches can be reunited. In this revised and updated edition he explains the Orthodox views on such widely ranging matters as Ecumenical Councils, Sacraments, Free Will, Purgatory, the Papacy and the relation between the different Orthodox Churches.
It will be interesting to see how updated this version is, and how explicit it is about those updates, and whose they are. By that I mean one must look to see whether the updates merely reflect new scholarly developments and discoveries, or whether some of the updates reflect--as some, especially Catholic, critics of this book have long felt--a covert form of "doctrinal development" (or degradation, as the case may be). The infamous test-case here has long been birth control: the first edition of this book in the 1960s noted that it was forbidden in Orthodoxy; but subsequent versions through the 1970s-1990s progressively weakened that view, ending up with what we read in the 1997 edition: "Concerning contraceptives and other forms of birth control, differing opinions exist within the Orthodox Church. In the past birth control was strongly condemned but today a less strict view is coming to prevail....Many Orthodox theologians and spiritual fathers consider that the responsible use of contraception within marriage is not in itself sinful. In their view, the question...is best decided by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own consciences" (p.296).  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Orthodox-Muslim Relations in Medieval Anatolia

This book, Islam and Christianity in Medieval Anatolia, just released last week, was sent to me and I began it straightaway after my semester ended, papers were marked, and grades all submitted. It is a hefty and very detailed and substantial collection I have only begun. So I will have a more detailed review later. But for now, let me stress that this rich and fascinating collection, edited by A.C.S. Peackock, Bruno De Nicola, and Sara Nur Yildiz, and just published by Ashgate, is a must-have for every serious scholar and library devoted to Muslim-Christian relations.

This book is not inexpensive, but very much worth the price. Collections of academic articles often vary in quality, but so far my reading of two of the articles, and skimming of the rest of the book, suggest that each article is of a very high quality. They are written by scholars who know what they are talking about, showing a wide and impressive familiarity with Eastern Christianity in various forms--especially Greek and Armenian--and with recent scholarship on Eastern Christianity and its encounters with Islam. The footnotes and nearly fifty-page bibliography are themselves virtually worth the price of the entire book.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Peter Bouteneff on Arvo Part

I have had a chance to interview Peter Bouteneff about his recent book to which I drew attention earlier. Bouteneff, a professor at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, New York, is the author of such works as Sweeter Than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma And Truth and Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. Here are his thoughts on his latest work.

AD: Tell us about your background
My first degree was in music – I studied jazz and ethnomusicology at New England Conservatory in the early 80’s. After travels far and wide, including a 2-year sojourn in Japan, I ended up at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and then at Oxford for further theological studies. I spent five years in Geneva with the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, and I’ve been teaching at St. Vladimir’s since 2000.

AD: What led to the writing of this book, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence?

I first met the composer in 1990 and have been smitten by his music ever since. In 2011, my colleague Nicholas Reeves and I conceived of what would become The Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. That was a massive, all-consuming undertaking that led to concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to the composer’s first New York appearance in 30 years. But the Project had always had a more reflective and theological dimension in mind as well. Once the concerts were over, I could devote attention to the book, which I’d been thinking about for the better part of a year. I also had several important conversations with Arvo and Nora Pärt that fed the book at crucial moments.

AD: For those not familiar with Pärt, give us a brief sketch of the man

Owing to at least three factors (his shyness and love of quiet, his beard, and commentators’ apparent need to Orientalize and exoticize him) he has this reputation for being “a monkish recluse.” He is indeed shy, but can be very animated, witty, whimsical, fun, and quite serious too. And comfortable with silence. As the world’s most-performed living composer, he is resigned to his fame, and to the effect of his music on people. Somehow he remains completely humble.

AD: You mention your first exposure to his music while you were a doctoral student at Oxford. Tell us about his Passio and your reaction to it. 

Well, I kind of describe that experience at the outset of the book, but that concert represented a turning point of my life. The book also concludes with a walk-through of that same composition, as a way of summarizing several of my recurring themes.

AD: In your introduction, you quote Pärt himself as saying that to understand his musical philosophy, one needs to turn to the Church Fathers. Are there specifically “patristic” influences on his music that you have detected, or was this a short-hand way of referring more generally to the influence of Orthodoxy on his music and life? 

The latter, for sure. But much of my book is concerned with proposing connections between Pärt’s music and certain scriptural, patristic, liturgical, and ascetical themes in the Orthodox tradition. I never claim that the composer drew on these very same sources, or consciously constructed his music on the themes as I construe them. I’m “just putting it out there,” as it were. I’ll be interested to see if my proposed connections resonate with other listeners. And with Pärt himself.

AD: In your “methodology” section, you take considerable pains to differentiate between causation and correlation when assessing the relationship between Orthodoxy and Pärt’s music. Why is it important to make these distinctions? 

Ah yes – I was just making that point, and I’m glad you notice it! It’s partly because Pärt himself is never explicit about the direct theological/spiritual sources of his music’s inner life. In fact I’m not at all sure that he has pondered the theological connections very fully. It’s more an organic, intuitive process for him. So it would be crazy-pretentious of me to presume that I’d unlocked the hidden key to his work.

AD: I confess that, as my late grandmother used to say, I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. For musical innocents such as myself, where should we start in seeking to appreciate Pärt’s music? If you were stranded on the proverbial island and could only have 3 of his compositions with you, which would you choose and why? 

You’re forcing me to choose from a treasury of riches, but let me try. The first might be Für Alina, the short, unassuming but haunting piano work with which he emerged from his eight-year compositional deadlock into his tintinnabuli style.

The second might be his Passio (the St. John Passion). This is a 70-minute immersive experience that is best experienced with close attention, following the text.

Third, Adam's Lament, to witness what he does with the text of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, setting it within a widely ranging palette of tonalities.

AD: You reflect a great deal—as your title suggests—on the role of silence in Pärt’s music. If you were to speculate a bit, do you think the huge interest in Pärt today has to do precisely with how little silence we have in our world of endless twittering and texting?

Absolutely. A great many listeners speak about his music as a refuge, giving them space to create or think.

AD: The third and final section of your book uses a phrase I first read in Schmemann many years ago: “bright sadness.” How does that notion help us to understand Pärt’s music?

It’s become a common feature of stories about Pärt – people notice this strangely “dual” quality to his music, describing it in terms of “loss and hope,” “suffering and consolation,” “zero and one,” “frailty and stability.” Pärt even adds “human and divine,” as well as “sin and forgiveness.” It’s something that listeners simply intuit, with remarkable consistency. But there is a technical feature in his music, a rule that he consistently deploys, that is at the root of that binary. Read the book to learn more…

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book, and tell us who especially should read it

My hopes: to reach a broad audience, a-religious, religious, and in-between. To bring any listener into a deeper engagement with Pärt’s music. To explore the relationship between the music’s broad, near-universal reach, and its particular roots in Orthodoxy. To yield insights into the relationship between theology and art.

AD: Having finished the book, what are you at work on now—what is the next project?

After a few long-promised essays on theological topics, I’m planning a short book on how to understand oneself as “a sinner” without going crazy with either pride or self-hatred.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...