"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, May 6, 2016

Amir Azarvan on Re-Introducing Eastern Christianity

As I have noted on here several times, we live in a happy moment when introductions to Eastern Christianity abound in English, from the simple and inexpensive overviews aimed at those with no background, to more detailed scholarly "handbooks," dictionaries, encyclopedias, and "companions."

Even given this emerging array of books, which has helped to begin overcoming the longstanding ignorance of the Christian East, there is still plenty of room for creativity and diverse approaches depending on author and audience alike. Thus I greeted with interest a new collection that does indeed take a singular approach to the genre of introductory texts: Amir Azarvan, ed., Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience (Wipf and Stock, 2016), 210pp.

The book is divided into seven sections, covering such topics as theosis, the communion of saints, the process of salvation, icons, sacraments, the reality of the resurrection, women in the Orthodox Church, and much else besides. I asked the editor, Amir Azarvan, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, for his thoughts on the book. Here they are.

AD:Tell us about your background

I was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio.  I come from an Iranian-Muslim family. I began calling myself a Christian around the turn of the century, and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2007.

AD: What led you to putting together this collection, Re-Introducing Christianity?

It occurred to me that contemporary critiques of Christianity center mostly on the beliefs of an unrepresentative sample of Christians.  These beliefs often relate to such questions as: How is one saved? How should the Bible be interpreted?  Are the Scriptures a scientific textbook?  Who “goes to” heaven?  Who doesn’t?

Therefore, a growing number of people are drawing conclusions about Christianity from a relatively small (not to mention new) subset of it.  Thus, I wanted to introduce religious skeptics and believers in the West to a more authentic expression of Christianity. Judging by the growth of Eastern Orthodoxy in certain parts of the West--including here in the US--I think many people in our rapidly secularizing society might find this version more appealing.

AD: As you no doubt are aware, we have seen a considerable number of introductions to or handbooks of Orthodoxy in English over the last decade. What led you to produce this one with its unique focus? 

With religious belief on the decline, and Christian faith becoming increasingly de-spiritualized and thus vulnerable to abandonment, I saw the need for a book that addresses a more exhaustive list of religiously significant issues; a book that could guide the reader from atheism or agnosticism to theism, from acceptance of a vague conception of a deity to belief in the specific God of Christianity, and finally, from small “o” to big “o” orthodoxy.  I decided to enlist the help of others as I quickly realized that I was in no position to embark on such an ambitious project alone.

AD: Whom did you have in mind as the audience for this book?

This book is aimed at two audiences: religious skeptics and “modern Christians” (the latter category cuts across denominational lines).  

AD: Your introduction notes that you want to focus not on the continuities between traditions, but on Orthodoxy's capacity to meet the "universal desire for lasting happiness." What led you to take such a focus?

Although we’re accumulating more and more stuff, anxiety and depression seem to be on the rise in the West.  We all want to be happy, but the curious thing about the current era is that we appear to be pursuing it in very counter-productive ways. Faith can play an important role in enhancing happiness, and there’s quite a lot of empirical research supporting this claim.

AD: You end your introduction by noting that neither you nor any of the other contributors are writing from a triumphalistic stance, but want to offer an honest and non-adversarial appreciation of Orthodoxy. Isn't such a focus too often missing today, especially in on-line discussions?

Absolutely.  The Internet can bring out the worst in people (it’s called the “online disinhibition effect”).  While many of us are great at speaking the truth, few heed St. Paul’s call to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  Fidelity to one’s faith doesn’t require treating others with contempt, and I’m honestly shocked that this very simple point is lost on so many people.

AD: Each of the chapters is quite short, and written in a "conversational" style. Was that intentional?

I explicitly instructed contributors to keep their chapters “concise and readable”.  It was intended to be a sort of reference book that is accessible to a large audience.

AD: Having finished Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience, what are you on now? What future projects and publications do you have in the works?

I’ve begun working on a book on Islam that draws on political science, Christian theology, and personal experience.  It’s tentatively titled “What the Left and Right Get Wrong about Islam.”  I’ll take it as a sign of success if my book irks Christians on both ends of the spectrum!

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