"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, November 25, 2016

2016: A Look Back, With Christmas Recommendations

As I've done on here for previous years, so let me now offer a look back at some of the significant books of 2016 in case you are looking for Christmas gift ideas for the bibliophile in either your own soul or your family and friends. My list from 2015 is here, the one for 2014 here, and the one for 2013, with links to years before that, is here.

None of these lists, it should go without saying, is anything like exhaustive. The rate at which new publications pour forth each year is little short of diluvial, and this blog is just a small canal containing and trying to observe, and sometimes comment on, only some of that enormous outflow. You are welcome to paddle around here until your heart's content, navigating via the tags and labels on the side, reviewing past years' lists, or whatever method suits your fancy.

Let us begin with a study of Christmas itself, and our sometimes complicated relationship to this season, reactions to which among Christians and others vary from robust rejoicing to puritanical sloganeering about "Jesus is the reason for the season": Christmas as Religion: the Relationship between Sacred and Secular by Christopher Deacy (Oxford UP, 2016), 256pp.

Ecclesiology and Ecumenism:

Let's start with everybody's favourite topic in the Orthodox world--ecclesiology and ecumenism. (All together now: "Ecumenism is the pan-heresy!") 2016 was, of course, the year of the long-expected "Great and Holy Council," which finally met in Crete in June.

A new collection, looking at some of the past councils considered ecumenical, was released just before Crete. That was noted here, along with an interview of its editor.

I had begun the year looking at whether Crete would be held, and noting some other books on past councils I often recommend to my students. See some of those recommendations here.

In preparation for Crete, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book edited by a man singularly involved in Crete, John Chryssavgis. That two-volume collection was published this year by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press as Primacy in the Church. I gave the details of it here.

Evangelical and Orthodox missionary co-operation came in for study in a new book noted here.

A rarely attempted philosophical engagement with the Christology of the ecumenical councils was noted here.

My dear friend, the Orthodox theologian Will Cohen, published his important and very learned study, The Concept of ""Sister Churches"" in Catholic-Orthodox Relations since Vatican II. If you go here, you can read my interview with him about his fascinating life and new book.

In the Catholic world recently, discussions of synodal and papal authority have really been "hotted up" in the aftermath of the two synods on the family and the resulting post-synodal exhortation published by the pope of Rome. That document, in turn, has spawned renewed interest in questions of papal authority and infallibility, which I treated here with a very long discussion of many books from Catholic and Orthodox authors alike.

Inspired by re-reading Adrian Fortescue's bracing polemics on the papacy, and drawing on such as Sergius Bulgakov, I noted some thoughts here on the vexed question of why Pope Pius IX felt entitled to go ahead with a unilateral dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception.

I also noted here some early thoughts on the forthcoming publication of what is sure to be a landmark work by A. Edward Siecienski, The Papacy and the Orthodox (Oxford UP, 2017), 528pp. Though official publication is listed as early February, you can order an advance copy now on Amazon.

On the Remembering and Forgetting of (Crusades and Other) History:

2016 will go down as the year in which the widely respected doyen of Crusades scholars, Jonathan Riley-Smith of the University of Cambridge, died. I posted a partial necrology here, discussing some of his many influential books and articles, any and all of which are more than worth your time and should be required reading by everyone before ever again opening a discussion about these most controverted of events.

For a recent study on Arab views of the Crusades, see this book.

For a note on the 25th anniversary edition of a landmark book that has done much to shape discussions of the uses and abuses of the past, go here to read more about David Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country.

For more than a year now, I have been working on the historiographical problem of the Crusades, especially as it appears in ISIS propaganda. I noted a new collection here that treats these issues somewhat. Edited by Megan Cassidy-Welch, Remembering the Crusades and Crusading (Routledge, 2016) is one of several such recent studies to focus on the complex problems of historical "memory."

Much of what I am especially interested in when it comes to the Crusades is the nakedly political and highly tendentious process by which we "remember" but also and especially the untapped potential of deliberate "forgetting."  On this latter topic, 2016 has been an especially rich year, and I discussed many studies on here, beginning with David Rieff's very valuable essay, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies. This provocative and stimulating study occasioned a series of reflections, beginning here.

Another book of similar size, thrust, and importance is Manuel Cruz, On the Difficulty of Living Together: Memory, Politics, and History. I discussed it here in some detail, and then used it as the basis elsewhere for an essay reflecting on the Cretan council and Orthodoxy's problems with history.

I have noted numerous other studies on forgetting, including those discussed here; another, arising out of a post-revolutionary French context, here; and then discussed still others here and here.

On the temptation to "invent" and "imagine" a useful liturgical past, see this important collection.

Byzantine History:

Though often derided as having produced little that is culturally useful, you should go here for a recent book on the intellectual methods and influences of 12th-century Byzantium across Europe.

On the transformations of Egypt from a Byzantine to Islamic nature, see here.

For other similar transformations across the rest of North Africa, see this study.

For the always-shifting line between sanity and sanctity, as in the holy fools of Byzantium, see here. For the holy fools in cinema, see here.

For mosaics in Middle Byzantium, go here.
For a Byzantine monastic office, see the new book noted here.

Ottoman History:

I noted the changing role of the Sultan in the late Ottoman period here.

For an answer to the ISIS-inspired questions Which Caliph? Whose Caliphate, see here.

For a new study of a little-known genocide committed at the very end of the Ottoman Empire, that against Assyrian Christians, see here.

For a new study of the attempted recovery of Armenia after the 1915 genocide against them by the Ottoman Empire, see this new study.

See my review here of Eugene Rogan's splendid and deeply fascinating book The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East.

The fate of converts and apostates in the late Ottoman period was examined in this new study.

Greek Orthodox musical culture in late Ottoman Istanbul was studied in a book noted here.

The Ottomans, of course, were not the only empire to fall as a result of the Great War. So too did the Habsburgs, whose history has been told in a new study noted here.


Though Christians, both East and West, have for a long time been not entirely unjustly wary of certain strands of psychoanalytic thought, there is much within this broad tradition worthy of respect and engagement. For several reasons, this was the year that I returned to a re-engagement with psychoanalytic thought, which I had studied in the 1990s as an undergraduate psychology student who came very close to undertaking analytic training himself.

So this year I began a multi-part series this year "The Mind of Christ and a Psychoanalytic Mind," noting several books along the way, including this one by Peter Tyler, one of several recent studies attempting to reconsider the sometimes fraught relationship between theology and psychoanalysis.

But my multi-part series was really inspired by Fred Busch's fascinating and deeply suggestive book, Creating a Psychoanalytic Mind: A Psychoanalytic Method and Theory. I spent some time suggesting ways in which this approach might be useful to spiritual directors.

Another, rather less successful, collection of essays on theology and psychoanalysis was reviewed here.

The late Donald Spence wrote a disturbing study on the relationship, and often antagonism, between what he called historical truth and narrative truth. I briefly discussed it here.

I spent a little bit of time here discussing a new book examining the healing power of ritual, which Christians have of course long known, but psychotherapists have too little recognized--until now.

For more on the uses of psychoanalytic categories for treating fundamentalism, apocalypticism, and religiously inspired violence, as with ISIS (discussed above), see this recent collection here, noting especially the fascinating work of Vamik Volkan, including his Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride To Ethnic Terrorism

I am going to continue to read more of Volkam in 2017, and use him in a new class I am teaching this spring. In particular, his pioneering work on the ideas of "chosen trauma" and "chosen glory" goes a long ways to helping understand parts of Eastern Christian history (e.g., Serbian relations with Islam after the infamous Battle of Kosovo) as well as contemporary ISIS uses and abuses of "Crusades" history.

There are, I am finding, certain books one perhaps rather insouciantly picks up, not expecting much, only to find that they stay with one a very long time, weaving in and out of one's thinking in a variety of ways and on a variety of topics. One such book for me this year was the deeply fascinating and provocative book by the English literary scholar and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived LifeI very much warmly commend this book to you; it has wisdom for us all.

I attempted to suggest, in an Evagrian spirit, that much of what Philips advocates could easily be understood in apophatic categories common to Evagrius, Ps-Dionysius, and much of the Eastern tradition as a whole.  This book has continued to haunt me this year, and I fully expect to be drawing on it in a variety of ways, and towards a variety of ends, in the years ahead--much as I have done with Erich Fromm (see below), whom I first read in the 1990s.
Door to Freud's Office
(author's photo)

For further thoughts on the widespread influence of psychoanalysis, see some thoughts here based on reading I did in preparation for a trip I took to Vienna, which included a pilgrimage to the famous Bergasse 19, home of our father among the saints Prof. Dr. S. Freud.

For a new autobiographical memoir by Julia Kristeva on her marriage, go here. Early in the year I wrote a rather diffuse essay on Kristeva, the European refugee crisis, Orthodox nationalism, and psychoanalysis. You can check that out here.

On the value of returning to books one read in one's 20s, see here for some brief thoughts on returning to the hugely influential Erich Fromm, including a new biography about him.


On biographers, biographies, and the challenges faced by the former in writing the latter, I noted some overarching thoughts here.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh has been studied in a new biography, which I noted here along with some comments on earlier studies of the man.

Alexander Men has been studied in a new biography noted here.

2016 was the 50th anniversary of the death of the greatest Catholic novelist of the last century, Evelyn Waugh. I discussed his biography, and his life's work, in several places, including here and with greater detail here. See here for some reflections on his mocking of certain Eastern Christian pieties around the emperor Constantine in his hilarious novel Helena

John Chryssavgis, mentioned above in reference to the Cretan council, is the author of an authorized biography of the Ecumenical Patriarch, noted here.

Going as I was in the spring to Vienna, I determined to read more about some of its most illustrious erstwhile residents, and so I noted here the lovely, lyrical, accessible biography of Mozart written by the great historian Peter Gay.

The Christian thinker of our time who has arguably done more than anybody to shape discussion about Christianity in the public square, especially an American public square, is the late priest Richard John Neuhaus, who has found a worthy biographer indeed in the splendid Randy Boyagoda, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public SquareI posted a long review of the book here.

Islamic Encounters with Eastern Christians:

Arabic conquests of historically Christian lands were noted here.

Two important new books on Syriac Christian encounters with Islam were noted here.


These remain a topic of perennial interest and fascination on the part of many, not just Eastern Christians. I noted two new books this year here and here.

I also noted a new interdisciplinary study here on images of deification.

And the theme of deification/divinization/theosis came up in an interview with Carl Olson, one of the editors of a wholly welcome and important new collection on this theme in a Catholic context, where it has sat uneasily for far too long. For that interview go here.

Author Interviews:

In addition to the interviews noted above, I would also draw your attention to three others I was happily able to do this year, beginning with my dear friend Michael Plekon, discussing his new book Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience. You may read the interview here.

I was also very happy to be able to interview my prolific friend Nick Denysenko about his latest book on Orthodoxy and liturgical reforms. That interview is here.

Finally, Amir Azarvan put together a collection entitled Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience. I interviewed him here about that.

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