"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, December 30, 2016

The Future of the Past

A new book by the eminent historian Serhii Plokhy is always something to watch out for. Forthcoming in January is a collection he has edited, The Future of the Past: New Perspectives on Ukrainian History (Harvard UP, 2017), 516pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Ukraine is in the midst of the worst international crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, and history itself has become a battleground in Russia-Ukraine relations. Can history and historical narratives be blamed for what has happened in the region, or can they show the path to peace and reconciliation, helping to integrate the history of the region in the broader European context?
The essays collected here address these questions, rethinking the meaning of Ukrainian history by venturing outside boundaries established by the national paradigm, and demonstrating how research on the history of Ukraine can benefit from both regional and global perspectives. The Future of the Past shows how the study of Ukraine’s past enhances our understanding of Europe, Eurasia, and the world—past, present, and future.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Transnational Ukraine

As the calendar turns and we enter 2017, the saga of Ukrainian invasion and corruption continues for another year. Will 2017 see any improvement? At the very least, the new year will bring a new book looking at recent events in Ukraine: Timm Beichelt and Susann Worschech, eds., Transnational Ukraine? Networks and Ties that Influence(d) Contemporary Ukraine (Ibidem Press/Columbia University Press, 2017), 200pp.

About this collection, we are told:
The Euromaidan protests showed Ukraine to be a state between East and West European paths. Ukraine's search for an identity and future is deeply rooted in historical fractures, which indicate its longstanding ties beyond its borders. In this volume, distinguished scholars provide empirical analysis and theoretical reflections on Ukraine's transnational embeddedness, which surfaced with an unexpected intensity in the recent political conflict. The essays have subjects including the role of international media and of diaspora communities in Euromaidan's aftermath, the transnational roots of memory and the search for collective identity, and transnational linkages of elites within Ukrainian political and economic regimes. The anthology demonstrates the theoretical and analytical value of the concept of transnationalism for studying the ambivalent processes of post-Soviet modernization.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Understanding ISIS

The historian and psychoanalyst Charles Strozier (editor of a collection discussed here) recommended to me a new book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015), 432pp., released a year ago now.

I read it through in a sitting. It is very much written in a "journalistic" style. Thus, while dealing with heavy content, the style allows for a rapid reading. It is useful in tracing out the links between Al-Qaeda and ISIS, including the deadly rivalry that developed between them. It also lays bare some of the mistakes in the 2003 Iraq war and post-war strategy that only fueled the rise of ISIS. Finally, it contains some sensible though by no means earth-shattering suggestions on how to respond to ISIS.

It is curious to me, however, that in calling for greater Western efforts to counteract ISIS propaganda, whose history the authors subject to a wide-ranging, careful, and fascinating analysis, they acknowledge dealing with both the contents and the methods of ISIS propaganda, but are shy about discussing the former in any detail at all. And yet to read that propaganda is at once to be confronted with a ceaseless (and, of course, tendentious) barrage of references to "the Crusades" and the "Crusader" powers of modern Western governments. The authors avoid even mentioning this, let along getting into any detailed discussion of it.

Their silence is most curious. Is it because they assume that the Crusades are an unanswerable blight on Western history, an example of gratuitous proto-colonialism and proto-imperialistic violence, as almost everyone (entirely falsely) assumes today? Or do they, rather, recognize that the history of the Crusades is too complex for them to entertain, an area outside their competence?

In any event, it remains obvious to me that this part of ISIS propaganda remains in need of careful treatment. In a context of increasing chatter about "fake news" and its ability to sway events--elections and otherwise--this is Exhibit A of fake news now, in some cases, over a hundred years old. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Byzantine Art and Devotion

As I have very often noted on here, interest in all things "Byzantine" remains high, and this is never more true than when it comes to Byzantine art and iconography, as three recent publications happily illustrate. The first, Epigram, Art, and Devotion in Later Byzantium by Ivan Drpić, has just appeared in a Kindle edition from Cambridge University Press, 2016, 514pp.
by Ivan (Author)

About this book we are told:
This book explores the nexus of art, personal piety, and self-representation in the last centuries of Byzantium. Spanning the period from around 1100 to around 1450, it focuses upon the evidence of verse inscriptions, or epigrams, on works of art. Epigrammatic poetry, Professor Drpić argues, constitutes a critical - if largely neglected - source for reconstructing aesthetic and socio-cultural discourses that informed the making, use, and perception of art in the Byzantine world. Bringing together art-historical and literary modes of analysis, the book examines epigrams and other related texts alongside an array of objects, including icons, reliquaries, ecclesiastical textiles, mosaics, and entire church buildings. By attending to such diverse topics as devotional self-fashioning, the aesthetics of adornment, sacred giving, and the erotics of the icon, this study offers a penetrating and highly original account of Byzantine art and its place in Byzantine society and religious life.
The second also comes to us from Cambridge UP. Authored by Cecily J. Hilsdale, Byzantine Art and Diplomacy in an Age of Decline, at 424pp. is a hefty tome about which the publisher tells us:

The Late Byzantine period (1261 1453) is marked by a paradoxical discrepancy between economic weakness and cultural strength. The apparent enigma can be resolved by recognizing that later Byzantine diplomatic strategies, despite or because of diminishing political advantage, relied on an increasingly desirable cultural and artistic heritage. This book reassesses the role of the visual arts in this era by examining the imperial image and the gift as reconceived in the final two centuries of the Byzantine Empire. In particular it traces a series of luxury objects created specifically for diplomatic exchange with such courts as Genoa, Paris and Moscow alongside key examples of imperial imagery and ritual. By questioning how political decline refigured the visual culture of empire, Cecily J. Hilsdale offers a more nuanced and dynamic account of medieval cultural exchange that considers the temporal dimensions of power and the changing fates of empires."

The third collection treats biblical art in Byzantium but also more widely: Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World  (Thames and Hudson, 2016, 336pp.).

About this book we are told:
A beautiful and informative exploration of the illuminated manuscripts of the Bible over a millennium and across the globe, shedding new light on some of the most significant, yet rarely seen, paintings of the Middle Ages
For two millennia the Bible has inspired the creation of extraordinary art. Within this history illuminated biblical manuscripts are among the best tools for understanding early Christian painting and artistic interpretations of the Bible.
This extensively illustrated new book, compiled and written by two internationally renowned experts, transports readers, by way of forty-five featured manuscripts, across the globe and through 1,000 years of history. Passing chronologically through many of the major centers of the Christian world, from Constantinople and imperial Aachen to Canterbury, Mozarabic Spain, Crusader Jerusalem, northern Iraq, Paris, London, Bologna, and Rome, Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle shed light on some of the finest but least-known paintings from the Middle Ages, and on the development of art, literature, and civilization as we know it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Take, O Lord, and Receive All My Memory...."

Thus begins the famous prayer of the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, in his famous Spiritual Exercises. This particular line comes in for especial attention in Matthew Ashley's short, suggestive lecture which I have read with great interest: Take Lord and Receive All My Memory: Toward an Anamnestic Mysticism.

What does that mean in itself? What would--does--the Lord do with our memory in such cases? Has He a hidey-hole where He keeps it for safekeeping in case we want it back? Would He cast it into oblivion where neither we nor--perhaps--even He could retrieve it, so "far as the East is from the West...does He remove our transgressions from us" (Ps. 103:12)?

What does it mean with reference to, say, controverted and divisive Christian events such as the Council of Chalcedon or the Fourth Crusade? What would the Lord do with our memories in such cases? Is it possible, in the search for Christian unity, that we might need to ask the Lord to obliterate our memories of division?

Readers will know that these and related questions continue to occupy my thinking, as I have often noted on here over the past year especially.

Several new or forthcoming works will continue to put these questions before us, including Orthodox and Catholic Christians in Eastern Europe, as in this new study by Uilleam Blacker, Memory, Forgetting and the Legacy of Post-1945 Displacement in Russia and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2017), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
After the Second World War, millions of people across Eastern Europe, displaced as a result of wartime destruction, deportations and redrawing of state boundaries, found themselves living in cities that were filled with the traces of the foreign cultures of the former inhabitants. In the immediate post-war period these traces were not acknowledged, the new inhabitants going along with official policies of oblivion, the national narratives of new post-war regimes, and the memorialising of the victors. In time, however, and increasingly over recent decades, the former "other pasts" have been embraced and taken on board as part of local cultural memory. This book explores this interesting and increasingly important phenomenon. It examines official ideologies, popular memory, literature, film, memorialisation and tourism to show how other pasts are being incorporated into local cultural memory. It relates these developments to cultural theory; and argues that the relationship between urban space, cultural memory and identity in Eastern Europe is increasingly becoming a question not only of cultural politics, but also of consumption and choice, alongside a tendency towards the cosmopolitanisation of memory.
Another new study will force the uncomfortable question of what is to be gained by forgetting, rather than remembering, such horrors at the Holocaust--a question also asked by David Rieff in his book, which I discussed on here extensively: Alejandro Baer and Natan Sznaider, Memory and Forgetting in the Post-Holocaust Era: The Ethics of Never Again (Routledge, 2016), 182pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
To forget after Auschwitz is considered barbaric. Baer and Sznaider question this assumption not only in regard to the Holocaust but to other political crimes as well. The duties of memory surrounding the Holocaust have spread around the globe and interacted with other narratives of victimization that demand equal treatment. Are there crimes that must be forgotten and others that should be remembered?
In this book the authors examine the effects of a globalized Holocaust culture on the ways in which individuals and groups understand the moral and political significance of their respective histories of extreme political violence. Do such transnational memories facilitate or hamper the task of coming to terms with and overcoming divisive pasts? Taking Argentina, Spain and a number of sites in post-communist Europe as test cases, this book illustrates the transformation from a nationally oriented ethics to a trans-national one. The authors look at media, scholarly discourse, NGOs dealing with human rights and memory, museums and memorial sites, and examine how a new generation of memory activists revisits the past to construct a new future. Baer and Sznaider follow these attempts to manoeuvre between the duties of remembrance and the benefits of forgetting. This, the authors argue, is the "ethics of Never Again."

Monday, December 19, 2016

On the Development of Doctrine

With all the controversy swirling around the shambolic and sprawling Amoris Laetitia, even to the point of drawing a rare commentary from the Ecumenical Patriarch, my students in the spring semester are in the happy position of being able to examine that vexed document and its apologists' claims for it to be an instance of the development of doctrine. We will do so in a course devoted to the topic of doctrinal development, and naturally enough we will, inter alia, be reading John Henry Cardinal Newman's landmark treatment, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

To understand the context of that work in Newman's life, we will begin with the wonderful work of Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography. That is a richly detailed and compelling scholarly biography by the world's leading Newman scholar.

The concept of the development of doctrine is sometimes sneered at in the Christian East. Even so sober and venerable a scholar as Andrew Louth pours cold water on the notion in his essay in the 2006 Festschrift, Orthodoxy And Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday.

Others, however, dispute that the East rejects development. Daniel Lattier, e.g., in his essay in Pro Ecclesia in the fall of 2011, "The Orthodox Rejection of Doctrinal Development," has unearthed compelling evidence to suggest that (as in so many things) the East rejects a caricature of what it takes the West to believe. (Cf. Lattier's essay, "Orthodox Theological Receptions of Newman" in the new collection, Receptions of Newman.)

The literature on doctrinal development is, as I discovered more than a decade ago now, when I was working on a draft proposal for the dissertation that became the book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, vast indeed. The best place to begin--as with so many things in Christian history--is with one of the Chadwick brothers: in this case, with Owen's invaluable From Bossuet to Newman: the Idea of Doctrinal Development.

My early drafts looked extensively at Newman and the concept of development. (These were later excised for the book.) It was fascinating to me that, as the Greek Orthodox scholar George Dragas demonstrated, Newman was the only 19th-century Catholic figure to be translated into Greek and studied by Greek scholars during his own day.

Regardless of what one thinks of development--as I always say to people when asked--one should read Newman for the sheer loveliness of his prose. Rightly regarded as the master stylist of 19th-century letters, Newman--whether in his Essay on Development, or perhaps even more his Apologia Pro Vita Sua--is a delight to read.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Weight, Work, and Worth of the Dead

This winsome review essay draws our attention to what sounds like a fascinating new book I must read, Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton UP, 2015), 711pp.

In reading the review, I am put in mind of several similar books I have noted on here over the years, beginning with what remains one of the most moving and compelling: Juliet du Boulay, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. Boulay's book is an anthropological study of life in the Greek mountains in the latter part of the 20th century. As such she examines a great deal besides death customs, but those remain some of the most fascinating chapters in her lovely and lyrical study.

I have made note on here (and elsewhere) several times over the years of books treating dying, death, and the dead, including our changing funerary practices and treatment of the grieving.

In particular, go here for my interview with the Orthodox deacon and his wife, Mark and Elizabeth Barma, discussing their book A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition. They are doing rare but incredibly important work in offering alternatives to "professional" burial practices today that have so often been stripped of any real meaning beyond bourgeois sentimentality.

The importance of Christians offering an unabashedly Christian witness to the dignity of the dying and the dead, and to their immortal souls which need our prayers and not our decadent and indulgent "celebration of life" pseudo-liturgies in the local pub, is especially brought home to us by Candi Cann's book,Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century.

Cann's book is a fascinating anthropological and sociological analysis that reveals, inter alia, the necessity humans have for rituals surrounding the dead; and if churches won't provide them in an eschatologically robust fashion, then substitutes will be found, no matter how cringe-worthy they may seem to some of us. I discussed Cann's book here in some detail.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Feast Draweth Nigh

With just 10 days to go until Christmas (unless you are following the Julian calendar....), there is still time to order books for the Eastern Christian bibliophile in your life. I take the liberty of drawing your attention to my long listing of some books from 2016, with links back five years to previous lists of Christmas recommendations. You may find this year's list here, containing links to previous years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Coptic Culture and Knowledge

I finished a discussion with my students just two short weeks ago now looking at Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt, and allowed myself a very cautious expression of hope that perhaps under President el-Sisi we were seeing long-overdue signs of improvement in treatment of the Coptic Church in Egypt--that was before the attack on the cathedral in Cairo this Sunday. Copts, as I stressed in class, have been in it for the long haul, and know, more than just about anybody else, the costs of living long-term under Islam. Theirs is a venerable culture with an extensive and impressive history, some of it told in this new book, Studies in Coptic Culture: Transmission and Interaction, Mariam Ayad, ed. (American University of Cairo Press, 2016), 288pp.

About this book we are told:
Coptic contributions to the formative theological debates of Christianity have long been recognized. Less well known are other, equally valuable, Coptic contributions to the transmission and preservation of technical and scientific knowledge, and a full understanding of how Egypt's Copts survived and interacted with the country's majority population over the centuries. Studies in Coptic Culture attempts to examine these issues from divergent perspectives.
Through the careful examination of select case studies that range in date from the earliest phases of Coptic culture to the present day, twelve international scholars address issues of cultural transmission, cross-cultural perception, representation, and inter-faith interaction. Their approaches are as varied as their individual disciplines, covering literary criticism, textual studies, and comparative literature as well as art historical, archaeo-botanical, and historical research methods. The divergent perspectives and methods presented in this volume will provide a fuller picture of what it meant to be Coptic in centuries past and prompt further research and scholarship into these subjects.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Who Wants to See a Bloodbath in Church?

It was nearly 30 years ago now when, in a small (and now, sadly, closed) Anglican parish in southern Ontario, I witnessed my maternal grandmother go to war with the parish liturgical committee as it tried to impose the 1985 Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada. Ever since then I have, in Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox contexts been aware of how profoundly neuralgic liturgical and musical questions are for people--and rightly so. For contrary to all the arrogant bollocks one hears from self-important "liturgists" about how they alone have the "qualifications" and "credentials" to talk about such matters, the liturgy is, perforce, the work of the people. And getting it right is not, contrary to the endless chatter of the current incumbent of the Roman bishoprick, a form of "rigidity" as I argued here, quoting one of the triumvirate (the others being MacIntyre and Newman) who made me a Catholic, Stanley Hauerwas:
One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.
Disputes about music and liturgy will surface afresh next spring with the publication of a collection edited by James Hawkey, Ben Quash, and Vernon White: God’s Song and Music’s Meanings: How Shall we Sing the Lord’s Song?
About this book the publisher tells us:
The public making of music in our society happens more often in the context of chapels, churches and cathedrals than anywhere else. The command to sing and make music to God makes music an essential part of the DNA of Christian worship. Taking seriously the practice and not just the theory of music, this ground-breaking collection of essays establishes a new standard for the interdisciplinary conversation between theology, musicology and liturgical studies. Framed by two substantive essays by leading theologians with a profound interest in music, the book’s four main sections will address questions about the history, the performance, the contexts, and the nature of music, as Christians understand it. It will show how any serious discussion of music opens onto considerations of time, tradition, ontology, anthropology, providence, and the nature of God.
We are also given the contents. While some chapters obviously pertain to a Western context, the first chapter, by the patristics scholar Carol Harrison, will obviously be of especial interest to Eastern Christians; and then the final chapter by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart will be likewise along with the response from the Anglican scholar of Orthodoxy, Rowan Williams:

Ben Quash
Introduction: What Does ‘Musical Meaning’ Mean? Jeremy Begbie

1. Providence and Prayer: the Theology of Music in the Patristic Church
Carol Harrison
2. Music in the Great Chain of Being: Medieval Christianity
Emma Dillon
3. Hearing Revelation: Music and Theology in the Reformation
Jonathan Arnold
4. Music, Atheism and Modernity
Gareth Wilson
4. The Worship of God and the Quest of the Spirit: ‘Contemporary’ versus ‘Traditional’ Church Music
Gordon Graham
5. The Rise of the Individual, and the Fall of Communal Participation
Anthony Ruff
6. Musical Promiscuity: the Gods Music Serves
Lucy Winkett
7. What’s Sacred About ‘Sacred Music’?
John Butt
8. Christ the Song of God: Is Music Absolute?
Daniel Chua
9. Sacred Music and the Holy Trinity
David Bentley Hart
Response to the Essays Rowan Williams

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Churches Leaving Buildings (II)

I ventured some initial thoughts here on this book, The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the Twenty-First Century, edited by my friend Michael Plekon, whom I have in the past interviewed on here about some of his many other books. Let me continue to unpack some of the riches of this volume.

It is a short book that can easily be read in a sitting, and in several ways that seems appropriate, not least because many of the contributors, including myself, were reflecting on the possibilities that come from church communities being lightened of the burdens of old buildings and dying practices. That is not to say, however, that the tone of the chapters is frivolous or in any way unserious. These are serious times and we face serious challenges. Each of us who contributed a chapter recognizes the seriousness of the challenges facing Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant communities up and down this continent.

But rather than write some maudlin and melancholy tract mourning a lost "Christendom," or breathing fire against "secularization," or ginning up various "options" (Benedictine, Dominican, Augustinian--basta!) each contributor has instead chosen to reflect, often in autobiographical ways, on changing experiences of life in parishes of all traditions and in a variety of places--inner city, suburban, major metropolises, and elsewhere.

While a few contributors ventured to suggest ideas from their own life or pastoral practice that have been helpful in moving towards newer forms of community, everyone was aware of the challenges faced today, and the complexity of them which resist simple solutions in some cases, or applying solutions from one context to a totally different one.

Yet, at the same time, many were also aware that the oft-discussed anxiety about the rising "secularization" of North America, the rising tide of the "nones" when it comes to surveyed religious practice an ecclesial membership, is not what it seems. We are not, in fact, seeing a straightforward exit out of Christian life and community because of a rejection of some creedal claims. Much of the decline in parish life is driven by economics, and rare is the parish today that has long-term families in it because some or all of them have been driven hither and yon in search of employment.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Russian Enlightenment

I received the 2017 religious studies catalogue in the mail from Yale University Press, and it draws our attention to such books relevant to the Christian East as a new and hefty tome from G.M. Hamburg, Russia's Path Toward Enlightenment: Faith, Politics, and Reason 1500-1801 (2016), 912pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

This book, focusing on the history of religious and political thinking in early modern Russia, demonstrates that Russia’s path toward enlightenment began long before Peter the Great’s opening to the West. Examining a broad range of writings, G. M. Hamburg shows why Russia’s enlightenment constituted a precondition for the explosive emergence of nineteenth-century writers such as Fedor Dostoyevsky and Vladimir Soloviev.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Evelyn Waugh: A Brief Note About Another Biography

I have previously paid fulsome tribute to Evelyn Waugh on here and elsewhere. At the time I noted the forthcoming publication of another biography, which has since appeared and I have since read: Philip Eade, Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited.

I have read it, and after doing so found my judgment unaltered: Douglas Lane Patey's 1998 The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography is far, far and away the superior--indeed superlative--biography of Waugh. Patey's book is not only a scholarly analysis of Waugh's life and work, but it is the most theologically informed and intelligent biography every written of Waugh. Indeed, I would say that it's very high and elegant theological literacy sets the standard for other biographies of Christian writers.

Eade's book, by contrast, pays scant attention to theology, and overall breaks very little new ground. His groundbreaking is extremely workmanlike, without great flourish or insight. So there is nothing wrong, per se, with the book--only that it is superfluous. What few new letters he has purportedly seen he manages, strangely, to render in a very flat and bloodless way, leaving the book teetering on the one social sin Waugh himself regarded as unforgivable: to be a bore.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Problems with Eastern Christian Nationalism or: Can Patriotism Be a Virtue?

This article, about the intersection of Orthodoxy in North America (especially that practiced by converts, whom Fr. D.O. Herbel discusses in his excellent book; cf. Amy Slagle's similarly excellent The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) with new "nationalist" movements of the "far-right" or "alt-right" variety, has sparked some comment, part of a broadening commentary on the apparent resurgence of "nationalist" or other movements as part of, and apparently leading up to, the Brexit vote in HM's United Kingdom, and to the Trump election in Her Majesty's erstwhile American colonies.

As I have often remarked on here over the years, and elsewhere as well, nationalism and Eastern Christianity go hand in glove: this is so well known among scholars of the Christian East as to have acquired the status of a commonplace stretching back at least 200 years.

But more recently we have in fact been seeing an upsurge in such nationalism in Russia and elsewhere over the last decade and more, attracting wider attention--as in the linked article--from more than just scholars of the Christian East. But what does this all mean? Is it nationalism of the pure laine variety, or is it a mixture of multiple issues? What, if any, is the difference between nationalism and patriotism--or are they largely synonymous today? (I strongly suspect the latter, for reasons presently to be discussed.) Can we lump Brexit and Trump together? Is Russian Orthodox nationalism a prototype of all Orthodox nationalisms? Are Orthodox converts or other Eastern Christians in the United States proposing a racist nationalism, an economic nationalism, a hybrid of these two along with other issues?

Clearly these are all complicated matters requiring a good deal of careful thought beyond sloganeering, shaming, and silencing-- those tedious techniques by which too many people today attempt to abort important if uncomfortable debates about, inter alia, sexuality, immigration, Catholic canon law about divorce and remarriage, Islam, so-called nationalist or fascist movements, etc.

I will not for a moment pretend to have answers here, but I do want to suggest a few books and essays that have helped me continue to think through some of these questions; and then I want to suggest a few lines of inquiry that I think need to be taken up anew today. I hope to do some of this myself in the new year based, inter alia, upon a re-reading of Erich Fromm's landmark Escape from Freedom.

(Parenthetically, I would also, before going farther, want to strongly insist on bringing in another psychoanalytically informed social critic, Vamik Volkan, whose work I only discovered this fall and continue to find fascinating and compelling. I will say more about him and the nationalist question, on which he has written several things, in another post.)

For now, let us look to sort out some questions about patriotism and nationalism with the help of Alasdair MacIntyre.

As in many things, my early instincts upon entering a discussion are to return to what the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written, for he has a singular ability to render difficult questions pellucid. And so, 20 years after working on an MA thesis about him, I went back to read his essay "Is Patriotism a Virtue?" He begins helpfully by clarifying the nature of patriotism, noting how, in the American experiment, the old virtues of patriotism are covertly taken up in a new fashion and merged incoherently with the supposedly disinterested rationalism of liberalism and its bureaucratic apparatus in the modern state, creating the odd hybrid of what we could call modern nationalism.

And such nationalism has been witheringly scorned by MacIntyre. I have very often, on here and elsewhere, had occasion to quote MacIntyre's acid dismissal (in an essay discussing the politics of Irish poetry) of that "dangerous and unmanageable institution," the modern nation-state which pretends to be value-neutral except when its covert values invite/require you to die for it, a request/demand MacIntyre says is like being asked to die "for the telephone company."

And I have often thought of his rather witty essay, "The American Idea," on the bicentennial of the American founding, in which he talked about how, in some ways, everyone is an American today--whether living in Montreal, Mumbai, Montevideo, Munich, or Melbourne; and how, further, anti-Americanism is itself both American but also universal. So questions of nationalism, patriotism, and liberalism in late modernity are not nearly as clear as those coining the labels today would have us believe. Clearly more is at work, in most cases, than straight-up revanchist desires for some "pure" and protected "homeland" deracinated of all except my chosen tribe. At once we are entering a nexus of concerns--immigration, Islam, economics, etc. One must proceed carefully.

And carefully MacIntyre does proceed, noting at the outset that while many people may divide patriotism neatly into either a virtue or a vice, depending on their politics, matters are not so neat and tidy. MacIntyre says that patriotism needs to be distinguished from attitudes too often too easily assimilated into it, starting with a sort of political romanticism in which my nation is the bearer of some transcendent ideal--whether of "liberty and justice for all" or "peace, order, and good government" or liberté, égalité, fraternité. This group was active in Germany in prosecuting the Great War, seeing it as a fight for Kultur, a point MacIntyre has shown with some rather startling detail in his book Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922. This group is more interested in fighting and protecting the ideal wherever it may be found, and thus is not so attached to the particularities of place. Writing in the late 80s, MacIntyre gives a further example here of American notions of resisting communism and fighting for "freedom" not just in America or the North American continent, but worldwide.

Today, I think we could say that part of the Russky mir notions emanating out of Russia, and discussed in a variety of places, including the article linked to above, arise out of this concern to spread a transcendent ideal regardless of geography. (Putin has made it very clear that borders are an irrelevancy to him in many respects, as Crimea clearly shows.) In this regard, I would say that such movements are ironically branded as "traditionalist" or "nationalist" when in fact they are entirely too modern and unique creatures of late modernity, seeing that their understanding of morality is transcendent of time and place.

Equally too we could say that American imperialist attempts to foist decadent bourgeois sexual morality (LGBT rights, etc.) on other countries around the world are a form of colonialism masquerading as transcendent idealistic liberalism dressed in its familiar outfit of basic "rights," a notion whose historicity, at least, MacIntyre has scorned in After Virtue and elsewhere.

The patriot, MacIntyre says, is usually tied to a particular place, country, and/or people. But here too we must notice that patriotism is not usually mindless boosterism for a place or people simply because they are my own. Rather, it often involves an awareness that these particular people and this place are both my own and also the bearers of some praiseworthy virtues. To the liberalism of modernity, MacIntyre notes, this cannot but appear as a vice precisely because and insofar as it is not transcendent and "inclusive" of all people, but tied to and "priviliges" a particular people and thus offers prima facie evidence of racism, nationalism, xenophobia, etc., etc.

In the end--in a move familiar to readers of MacIntyre--he clearly demonstrates that liberalism and patriotism are in some ways mirror images of each other, and both have crucial, likely fatal, weaknesses that neither is able to overcome. (As he elsewhere says, in modernity we are all liberals: some are liberal liberals, some are radical liberals, and some are conservative liberals.) What is the alternative? Here MacIntyre ends his essay, saying a bit too breezily that that is a problem for another time. But since writing this essay, patriotism has not been a prominent theme in his more recent writings. Whether he returns to the issue in his newest book is not clear to me, not yet having had a chance to read Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. But I look forward to doing so.

Here, instead, let me turn to other sources, beginning with a new book by the English scholar Nigel Biggar, that suggests an alternative. Biggar, a Regius Professor of pastoral and moral theology in the University of Oxford, has recently penned a short essay, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (Cascade, 2014), 126pp.

As I said elsewhere in my review, the virtue of this book lies in its offering some useful but by no means exhaustive reflections that recognize not just the problems, but also the promise and even the positive aspects, of the modern nation-state. This is a discerning, careful treatment.

It is also a very English, very Anglican book--but in the best senses of both--with a suggestive, if not entirely convincing, case being made for how England manages to be both liberal-universalist, welcoming (as it has since the war) vast numbers of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere; and also at the same time not entirely bereft of a certain nationalism-patriotism that conserves its own venerable and long-standing traditions as seen in, e.g., the state Church of England and her rituals for coronations, royal weddings, prime ministerial funerals, national days of thanksgiving for the monarch's succession, or national days of mourning on, e.g., 9/11.

Biggar, strikingly, argues that a vaguely Christian state like the United Kingdom is better able to safeguard the values of modern liberalism than liberalism itself is. This vague form of Christian establishmentarianism also serves to remind people that nations and nationalism are poor substitutes for a transcendent metaphysic. This vague form of cultural Christianity  is preferable to a “triumphal secularism” (44) often promoted today by “illiberal barbarians inside the gates” (35).

Biggar's book doesn't answer all the problems raised by MacIntyre; nor does it really treat the ugly side of nationalism as it has been a stranglehold on Orthodox Churches in, e.g., Russia. But it is a helpful place nonetheless to try to find some common ground between equally unrealistic alternatives of a deracinated and impossible liberalism-from-nowhere, and a xenophobic crew of the Iron Guard in Romania or the Black Hundredists in Russia.

I have written too much already, so let me close with just a few other books that may interest those who want to understand Eastern Christianity and nationalism better.

There are useful essays or chapters in such studies as James Hopkins's 2009 book The Bulgarian Orthodox Church: A Socio-Historical Analysis of the Evolving Relationship Between Church, Nation, and State in Bulgaria.

I would also refer the reader to the edited collection, containing both commentary and primary texts: The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature. (Additionally, see here and here for a couple of other notices about much more general studies.)

But perhaps the most promising place to begin would be with a book I have discussed on here several times already: Lucian Leustean, ed., Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe (Fordham UP, 2014).

This book is a collection of scholarly essays, each of which is illuminating in its own way. But what is especially valuable about this book is the introductory chapter, which cogently sets forth an overview of forms and causes of nationalism and various scholarly theories and treatments of it, and is therefore itself worth the price of the book.

After that, the book devotes chapters to Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the sunset of the Ottoman Empire and its millet system. The details unearthed considerably complicate conventional portraits about ethno-phyletism, the role of the French Revolution, and much else besides. This is a deeply fascinating book that has been smoothly edited. Anybody with any interest in the vexed question of Orthodoxy and nationalism--as well as the wider religio-political history of southeastern Europe over the last 150 years--cannot be without this book.

None of these studies treats, of course, the problem with which we began: the apparent attraction of a tiny handful of "nationalist" converts to Orthodoxy in North America. But let us end by noting that converts to Orthodoxy are extremely few in numbers, as Orthodoxy itself remains such a tiny part of the American "religious" landscape that it regularly fails to appear in polls, surveys, and other studies. So this is not a huge movement at all, and still needs further study. I would hope that such study would--following MacIntyre--make a serious attempt to put into question not just such converts, or the Orthodoxy in question, but indeed to put into question the whole enterprise of an incoherent liberalism and its telephone companies masquerading as impartial nation-states of transcendent values to which any rational individual should give assent after having severed all ties to kith and kin.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gentrification in the City of Man

One of the clear and strong themes in the recent collection to which I contributed, and on which I have commented previously, The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the Twenty-First Century is that of the changing economics of our time, and the frequency with which such changes have left many large urban churches facing closure or having already closed because of people moving across the country regularly in search of employment. So parishes are changing and have changed, just as cities and their economies have changed and are changing, and this has occasioned no small commentary from Christians.

But what reflection has been done on the changing nature of the city as such? Apart from the doctoral dissertation of the Greek Orthodox scholar Timothy Patitsas, linking liturgy and Jane Jacobs, I know of no recent or substantial Eastern Christian reflection on cities and their changing nature.

But if parish life has been changing dramatically for decades now, so too have cities, this latter process often going under the heading of "gentrification," describing the apparent return to once hollowed-out urban centres. Alas, some of what has passed under this banner has been merely the triumph of toffs and hirsute hipsters hawking their overpriced mocha-chinos and designer hotdogs out of re-purposed steel mills or foreclosed brownstones, driving up prices of real estate and doing nothing to address poverty or the lack of affordable housing. But gentrification need not result in such bourgeois triumphs as a new collection, set for release next year, suggests: J.J. Schlictman et al, Gentrifier (University of Toronto Press, 2017), 216pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
As urban job prospects change to reflect a more ‘creative’ economy and the desire for a particular form of ‘urban living’ continues to grow, so too does the migration of young people to cities. Gentrification and gentrifiers are often understood as ‘dirty’ words, ideas discussed at a veiled distance. Gentrifiers, in particular, are usually a ‘they.’
Gentrifier demystifies the idea of gentrification by opening a conversation that links the theoretical and the grassroots, spanning the literature of urban sociology, geography, planning, policy, and more. Along with established research, new analytical tools, and contemporary anecdotes, John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill place their personal experiences as urbanists, academics, parents, and spouses at the centre of analysis. They expose raw conversations usually reserved for the privacy of people’s intimate social networks in order to complicate our understanding of the individual decisions behind urban living and the displacement of low-income residents. The authors’ accounts of living in New York City, San Diego, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Providence link economic, political, and sociocultural factors to challenge the readers’ current understanding of gentrification and their own roles within their neighbourhoods. A foreword by Peter Marcuse opens the volume.
I have long maintained an amateur's interest in questions of urban development since a professor very unexpectedly assigned the reading of Jane Jacobs in an undergraduate ethics course twenty years ago. Her first and most celebrated work, The Life and Death of Great American Cities is one that often comes back to mind as I am wandering around cities and neighborhoods, whose layout and design I find fascinating.

I tried to read several of her other works, including Cities and the Wealth of the Nations as well as Dark Age Aheadbut in both cases I admit she lost me in the details of economics; neither book had the grand narrative thrust of her first book.

Jacobs has recently been the subject of two biographies, reviews of which I have read in several places. Robert Kanigel's Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs was released by Knopf this past September.

Earlier this year, Peter Laurence's Becoming Jane Jacobs was published in January. I hope to have a chance to read one or both as time allows.

I did, some time ago, read a third biography of Jacobs, written by Alice Sparberg Alexiou and published in 2006 as Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. It was moderately interesting.

Given this much attention, it is almost inevitable that certain revisionists and critics would push back, as Peter Moskowitz did last spring here and as Adam Gopnik did somewhat in the New Yorker. It is clear, then, that just as the future of city churches continues to come in for much debate, so too will the future of those cities themselves.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...