"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).

Monday, May 8, 2017

On the Once and Future Melkite Church

With the news of the resignation of the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham comes, no doubt all too briefly, a return to focusing on Arab Christianity, and the Christians of the Middle East more generally. But for those wanting to focus even more particularly on the Melkite Church herself, it is passing strange to me how few scholarly books we have for doing so in English. If someone is aware of significant studies I have missed, or is aware of some that are being prepared even now, I should be most grateful if s/he would let me know so that I can draw attention to such books.

There are, however, books that treat the wider context of Arab Christianity, many of which I have noted on here over the years, including one, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700 - 1700: An Anthology of Sourceswhose editors I interviewed here. One of those editors, Sam Noble, has gone on, with Constantine Panchenko, to co-edit a second valuable work, Arab Orthodox Christians Under the Ottomans 1516–1831.

I heard His Beatitude give a lecture at the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa in the early part of the last decade, and he discombobulated some in the audience when he said to us something similar to what he says in this article: “Our simple existence ruins the equations whereby Arabs can’t be other than Moslems, and Christians but be westerners.” He was, on that occasion and many times since, inclined to use the phrase "the Church of Islam," which, admittedly, could perhaps be explicated with greater detail sometimes. But I always assumed that he had something in mind along the lines of what Sidney Griffith describes in his invaluable book, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam.

That book, for all its merits, first appeared now a decade ago in hardback, and was a work of history; it did not really attend to current Melkite realities, especially from 2011 onward.

Griffiths' more recent study, The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the 'People of the Book' in the Language of Islam, is not of course especially focused on the Melkite Church, but it is useful also if only in dispelling the depressingly common assumption I encounter in my classes every semester that (as His Beatitude noted) all Arabs can only but be Muslims.

If wide-ranging general studies of the Melkite Church are few, there are at least some in-depth studies of some of her illustrious figures from the recent past, including perhaps the most notable among them, Louis Massignon, about whom I have read a number of interesting articles over the years, and presided over publishing several of them as editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 

One such article was by Christian Krokus, author of a just-released study that looks to be among the most important and comprehensive: The Theology of Louis Massignon: Islam, Christ, and the Church (Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 272pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Anticipating the vision of Nostra Aetate, Louis Massignon (1883-1962) imagined and worked toward a revolution in the relationship between Muslims and Christians, from one poisoned by fear and rivalry to one rooted in mutual understanding and fraternal correction. His lifelong study of the Qur'an, Muhammad, Arabic, Sufism, and the Muslim mystic and martyr al-Hallâj (858-922), who was executed by crucifixion for having publicly claimed union with God, grounded Massignon's conviction that there was a Christological nexus between the two religions. His founding of the Badaliya sodality with Mary Kahil (1889-1979) sought to bring Christians and Muslims together in prayer and substitutive love, and his writings and personal contacts helped to form the views of the men who would eventually draft the statements on Muslims at the Second Vatican Council. For all those reasons and more Massignon has been called "the single most influential figure [in the 20th century] in regard to the Church's relationship with Islam," and his approach has only become more important in the decades since his passing.
In The Theology of Louis Massignon, author Christian Krokus argues that Massignon's achievements in Christian-Muslim understanding, his activism on behalf of Muslim immigrants, refugees, and Middle Eastern Christians, as well as his developing understanding of Islam must be understood in the light of his Catholic convictions in relation to God, Christ, and the Church. With ample references to primary works, many translated into English for the first time, Krokus offers a comprehensive account of the main points of Massignon's religious thought that will prove essential to theologians and historians working on questions of Christian-Muslim dialogue, comparative theology, and religious pluralism. As global tensions between Christians and Muslims rise, the learned, religious, and humanizing vision of Louis Massignon is urgently needed.
Massignon, in fact, comes in for sustained attention in another book published only this year: Dorothy Buck, Louis Massignon: A Pioneer of Interfaith Dialogue (Blue Dome Press, 2017), 306pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The root of the word Badaliya in Arabic, means to replace or exchange one thing for another. The French scholar and spiritual seeker, Louis Massignon (1883–1962), interpreted the word as a willingness to put oneself in the place of another, to give one's own life for the sake of someone else. This offering of himself for the well-being of his Muslim brothers and sisters was the inspiration for Massignon's entire life. In 1947, the renowned orientalist, who had regained his Christian faith and identity while on a research expedition in Baghdad, in present day Iraq, established an international prayer association that he named, the Badaliya and for which he remained the organizer until his death in 1962.
The fifteen annual letters and ninety-one monthly convocations of the Badaliya are as much invitations to prayer and a consecration of individual lives as they are a witness to the incarnational spirit active and alive in our contemporary world today. These letters read like a diary that follows the events and conflicts of the time but also, due to the genius of Massignon's mystical reading of history, these precious documents reveal fifteen years of a singular spiritual adventure. Framed by an introduction presenting the context and genesis of the prayer movement and completed with a description of the Badaliya today, this book permits the reader to grasp the fruitfulness of the spirit of the Badaliya. No other text has yet permitted us to so deeply penetrate the heart of the spirituality and the struggles of Louis Massignon, who remains, even today, a master for our time.
Finally, this collection by Jerrold Seigel, Between Cultures: Europe and Its Others in Five Exemplary Lives (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 288pp. This book has the merit not just of a chapter on Massignon, but also one about Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer courageous enough to call his countrymen to account for the Armenian Genocide.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

Richard Burton. T. E. Lawrence. Louis Massignon. Chinua Achebe. Orhan Pamuk. The remarkable quintet whose stories make up Jerrold Seigel's Between Cultures are all people who, without ever seeking to exit from the ways of life into which they had been born, devoted themselves to exploring a second cultural identity as an intrinsic part of their first. Richard Burton, the British traveler and writer, sought to experience the inner life of Islam by making the pilgrimage to Mecca in the guise of a Muslim in 1853. T. E. Lawrence, famously known as Lawrence of Arabia, recounted his tortuous ties to the Arab uprising against Turkish rule in his celebrated Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Louis Massignon was a great, deeply introspective, and profoundly troubled French Catholic scholar of Islam. Chinua Achebe, the celebrated pioneer of modern African literature, lived and wrote from the intersection of Western culture and traditional African life. Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, explored the attraction and repulsion between East and West in his native Turkey.
Seigel considers these five individuals not only for the intrinsic interest of their stories but also for the depth and breadth of their writing on the challenges of creating an intercultural identity, enabling him to analyze their experiences via historical, psychological, and critical approaches. Fascinating in and of themselves, these lives between cultures also highlight the realities faced by many in this age of high mobility and ever-greater global connection and raise questions about what it means for human beings to belong to cultures.

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