"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, December 31, 2018

Justinian: Architect and Emperor

For those following the on-going struggle in Ukraine for an Orthodox church free from neo-imperial control and aggression, and for those interested in on-going ecclesiological and ecumenical searches for greater decentralization in the Church both East and West, a recently published book sheds light on the fact that these issues go back a long way: Stanislaw Turlej, Justiniana Prima: An Underestimated Aspect of Justinian's Church Policy (Jagiellonian University Press, 2018), 272pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
The book explores the history of Justiniana Prima, a city built by Emperor Justinian I (527-565) in his birthplace near Niš in present-day Serbia. Previous studies focused on determining the city's location, underestimating the significance of analyzing written sources for the reconstruction of this city's genesis and importance. Using information from Emperor Justinian's Novels XI and CXXXI, as well as Book IV of Procopius of Caesarea's De aedificiis, Stanislaw Turlej endeavors to show that Justiniana Prima's historic significance resulted from granting its Church the status of an archbishopric with its own province in 535, which was independent of Rome. Justinian wanted to introduce profound changes to the ecclesiastical organization based on state law.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

In Search of the Earliest Icons: In Memory of Sr. Wendy Beckett

In honour of her recent passing unto eternal life, I reprint and update slightly the following post from November 2010.

Books about icons continue to pour fourth from a variety of presses, secular and ecclesial; and Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. Orbis Books, whose other recent and generally delightful publication about Marian icons I noted previously, has just put into my hands its latest book:

Sister Wendy Beckett, Real Presence: in Search of the Earliest Icons (Orbis, 2010), 138pp.

As I have noted previously, good, reliable studies, in English, of Coptic iconography are not very numerous--especially when compared to the myriad of books on Byzantine icons. Several earlier books exist in French, but these are not accessible to my students; others seem content to downplay or ignore the theological significance of Coptic art precisely as Christian and iconographic. So it is a happy development to have Real Presence devoted to pre-Iconoclastic icons at the famous St. Catherine's of Mount Sinai Monastery. It confines itself to icons largely before the eighth century (her cut-off is AD 726), but it will nonetheless be useful in giving the general reader and undergraduate a very good introduction to pre-Iconoclastic and proto-Coptic iconography.

It will also be useful, I hope, in overcoming some of the "Byzantine snobbery" I've heard from people who condescendingly dismiss Coptic icons as being but "cartoons" compared to the ineffable splendors of Byzantium. Yes, certain developments did not take place in Egypt, and yes Egypt never produced a Rublev or Theophanes, but such criticism of Coptic art ignores, inter alia, the fact that after the 640s Egypt was ruled by an increasingly hostile power, and Islam of course was then and certainly is now deeply iconoclastic. The Byzantines were unmolested for another 800 years and so could continue to develop their iconographical techniques, which they bequeathed to the East-Slavs, who continued to develop them after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.(I should perhaps confess, as is the fashion today, a certain "bias" insofar as the very first icon I was ever given was a beautiful Coptic icon of the Virgin enthroned, which was sent to me while in hospital by the Coptic priest Fr. Marcos A. Marcos, who almost single-handedly did so much to establish a Coptic presence in Canada and the United States. That icon provided much consolation to me during a long convalescence after a city bus tried to kill me, and I have continued to regard it as my favourite of all the Marian icons I have.)

Sr. Wendy notes that "the Egyptian Christ has not the classic stateliness that was to become the norm in the Byzantine Empire. He is stately, but the countenance is long and often thin, much more semitic [sic] in its poignancy" (35). A little later she notes that "many...Coptic images have an intimacy that clutches at the heart-strings" (40) and she illustrates this with an icon of Christ resting his hand on the shoulder of the Abbot Menas (not St. Menas, she says, but a later monk):

Sr. Wendy is no stranger to works on Christian art in general, and iconography in particular, having written an earlier volume on Marian icons from Mt. Sinai: Encounters With God: In Quest of Ancient Icons of Mary 

Real Presence has a winsome narrative describing her visits to Mt. Sinai (as well as Rome and Kiev, where some of the monastery's icons may today be found) and experience of its history, its collections, and its monks. Sr. Wendy writes with a commendably simple, accessible style, making this a fine introduction for those with little background in iconography.

She begins with a brief comment on her title "Real Presence," noting its felicitous reminder of the more common connotations of that phrase to denote Christ in the Eucharist. Both icons and the Eucharist, she rightly notes, make Christ accessible to us. Icons are sacramental--though, of course, in different ways than the Eucharist and other sacraments. (One should recall here that the septinarium is a Western achievement dogmatized at Trent, but lacking comparable authority in the East--which means that there is nothing "official" to prevent icons from being considered in sacramental terms equal to and numbered alongside the Eucharist, inter alia.)

After this, she offers an overview of how she came to be aware of these icons, and of their history. She also narrates, again very briefly, the history of St. Catherine's Monastery, the "oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the Christian world" (12), a monastery that "has become the resting-place of some of the oldest Biblical texts in existence and of the extraordinary collection of pre-iconoclastic icons" (13). That collection, she notes earlier, numbers "over three thousand" (2), and is unique in the entire world in preserving so many icons from the "thorough job of destruction" carried out by Emperor Leo III and others (3). As I am forever telling my students, you cannot understand much of history, religious history especially, until you first understand the geography. These icons were saved largely because they were beyond the reach of the imperial agents of destruction, who seem to have been unwilling to enter deep into a country that had been considered "enemy territory" after Chalcedon, and was, by the time of Iconoclasm, increasingly Muslim in nature. Even if the Iconoclastic agents had gotten as far at Mt. Sinai, there is no guarantee they would have gotten their hands on the icons for they would have been confronted with one of Justinian's architectural wonders: a "fortress monastery, one that could resist hostile attacks...built...so superbly that it stands majestically to this day" (11).

Part of the importance of this collection is that it gives us access to "the earliest icons that we actually have...from the sixth century" (13). Sr. Wendy then gives us a tour through many of the most prominent of these icons, which are reproduced in color and black-and-white plates. She offers commentary on their features, most of which is very illuminating, but in a few places it is trickier to see some of what she sees. And she recognizes this at the end, saying that readers should "look at the pictures of the icons and what I have said about them, and decide whether my comments have been of any use to you" (131).

There are three small infelicities in the text: her one-sentence summary of Arianism is very confused (18); she says the first Council of Nicaea was held "in 383" (18) when of course it was 325; and one icon, whose face has been removed, is, she says, of a monk and not a bishop even though the figure has on an omophor--or so it seems from what we can glimpse of what remains of the icon (105-06). Apart from these, however, this is a lovely and important little book, and we can be very grateful Orbis has brought it out in such charming form and for so affordable a price.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Idea and Role of Nicaea I

Reception history seems to be the rage lately amongst a lot of scholarly treatments of Christianity. Much of it is fascinating. Early next year we will see published another study looking at the reception of arguably the most consequential council in Christian history: The Idea of Nicaea in the Early Church Councils, AD 431-451 by Mark S. Smith (Oxford UP, 2019), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
The Idea of Nicaea in the Early Church Councils examines the role that appeals to Nicaea (both the council and its creed) played in the major councils of the mid-fifth century. It argues that the conflict between rival construals of Nicaea, and the struggle convincingly to arbitrate between them, represented a key dynamic driving—and unsettling—the conciliar activity of these decades. Mark S. Smith identifies a set of inherited assumptions concerning the role that Nicaea was expected to play in orthodox discourse—namely, that it possessed unique authority as a conciliar event, and sole sufficiency as a credal statement. The fundamental dilemma was thus how such shibboleths could be persuasively reaffirmed in the context of a dispute over Christological doctrine that the resources of the Nicene Creed were inadequate to address, and how the convening of new oecumenical councils could avoid fatally undermining Nicaea's special status.
Smith examines the articulation of these contested ideas of 'Nicaea' at the councils of Ephesus I (431), Constantinople (448), Ephesus II (449), and Chalcedon (451). Particular attention is paid to the role of conciliar acta in providing carefully-shaped written contexts within which the Nicene Creed could be read and interpreted. This study proposes that the capacity of the idea of 'Nicaea' for flexible re-expression was a source of opportunity as well as a cause of strife, allowing continuity with the past to be asserted precisely through adaptation and modification, and opening up significant new paths for the articulation of credal and conciliar authority. The work thus combines a detailed historical analysis of the reception of Nicaea in the proceedings of the fifth-century councils, with an examination of the complex delineation of theological 'orthodoxy' in this period. It also reflects more widely on questions of doctrinal development and ecclesial reception in the early church.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Compulsive Repetition, Self-Destruction, and Death

It is curious that as we approach the centenary of the publication, in 1920, of Freud's most neglected and professionally disliked book, Beyond the Pleasure Principlewe are now seeing a renewed interest in its most controversial idea: the death drive. As I said on here only the other day, the sputtering bewilderment proffered by psychoanalysts and others in the face of this theory is itself bewildering to me for evidence of a human propensity towards self-destruction (and the unconscious pleasure, or at least purpose served by such destruction) seems constantly on offer. (Exhibit A might perhaps be the opioid epidemic we keep hearing about.) For Christians, as I shall contend later and elsewhere at greater length, there is an important soteriological dialogue opened by Freud's theory that has not, so far as I have been able to detect thus far, been taken up but should be.

Whether one has to have a theory of the death drive to account for human self-destruction, and whether Freud's theory is the best one, are important questions to which I will return in a moment, aided by an important new book discussed below. But discussions of Freud's notion of a death drive, which were few and far between even while Freud was alive, are now taking off nearly 80 years after his death. Perhaps this is one more illustration of Adam Phillips' argument from some time ago that the best time to re-examine Freud is precisely now, when nobody thinks much of him anymore and there are fewer and fewer professional establishments rushing to "protect" him from being critically scrutinized, or rushing to enforce some orthodox line or other:
This is certainly a good time for psychoanalysis: because it is so widely discredited, because there is no prestige, or glamour, or money in it, only those who are really interested will go into it. And now that Freud’s words are so casually dismissed, a better, more eloquent case needs to be made for the value of his writing ("After Strachey," London Review of Books vol. 29 no. 19, 4 October 2007, p.36) 
So scrutiny is returning to several parts of Freud's project, but noticeably his late-period "cultural works." Thus, earlier this year, as I discussed here in some detail, there was Benjamin Fong's fascinating new book Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism.

And before him, in 2013, in one of the most richly provocative books I've read in a long time, there was Todd McGowan's Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, which I discussed in detail in three parts. I think the book deserves a wide audience, especially among Christians concerned with what the various depredations of what is variously called consumerism, materialism, or, simply, capitalism.

In addition to Fong and McGowan, nobody has written as much about the death drive as Todd Dufresne, whom I have been reading profitably for some time now, and through whom I discovered the wonderful work of his Doktorvater, the late Paul Roazen.

Roazen's Meeting Freud's Family is a thoroughly charming book. His Freud and His Followers was a groundbreaking and controversial work which fills in very important gaps in the historiography. And I have found his Encountering Freud: The Politics and Histories of Psychoanalysis useful in surveying what religious and theological responses were made over the history of psychoanalysis to the 1990s.

Dufresne's work on the death drive is found first in his Tales from the Freudian Crypt: The Death Drive in Text and Context and then, more recently and succinctly, in his introductory essay to the Broadview translation of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 

To my enormous surprise and puzzlement, neither of these books shows up anywhere in the newest book devoted to the topic, Repetition, the Compulsion to Repeat, and the Death Drive: An Examination of Freud's Doctrines, co-authored by M.A. Holowchak (a philosopher) and Michael Lavin (a clinician) (Lexington Books, 2018, viii + 163pp.). It is a very useful, crisply written, and largely clearly argued work.

There are several virtues to this book, including its relative brevity, and the arrangement of each chapter, which aids in reading. More broadly the book will be useful if it is received as the history it is, tracing out the trajectories of the concepts of repetition, compulsive behavior and thinking, and the death drive across the Freudian canon. As such it goes back to 1895 and Studies in Hysteria, co-authored by Freud and Breur, and then forward past Beyond the Pleasure Principle to works in the last period of Freud's life, often referred to as his "cultural" or "meta-psychological" period. Along the way it also notes such "watershed" publications as Freud's 1914 paper, "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through" as well as his essay on anxiety from 1932, by which point he seems to have moved from the very tentative and speculative writing of Beyond the Pleasure Principle 

Further virtues include the fact that this is neither an attack on Freud--though it advances important, serious, and considered criticisms of his theory--nor a glorification of him in aid of enforcing a certain orthodoxy. It agrees with Freud in places, argues with him in others, and gives evidence in still others for where Freud may have been wrong, or subsequent research does not bear out his often highly tentative and speculative claims in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. On the latter score, it notes problems with Freud's attempting to find phylogenetic evidence for a death drive and compulsive repetition. The question remains: can his theory be rescued if the evidence he claimed to find for it in the biological sciences does not exist, or can be explained by other theories? In answer to that question the authors diverge somewhat, and candidly acknowledge this in the conclusion. For my part, I see few problems in separating out and sustaining most of the theory from insufficient "natural" evidence, and again the authors seem--albeit somewhat uneasily--inclined to agree, especially in a clinical setting, noting that clinicians rarely take their theory pure and whole.

All that having been said, the drive to destroy, including the self, is often a repetitive one, and we are faced with the question of why that is when such a drive brings terrible anguish, suffering, and consequences to the self and to others. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the drive for pleasure and the death drive are not always operating in mutual and exclusive opposition. As the authors admit flatly, "eros and the death drives do not function independently of each other" (85). In fact, one of Freud's key insights here and in other areas was the admixture of experiences and emotions. In this light, one can, as he himself wrote, find in destructive repetitions the "pleasure of mastery or revenge," including against childhood traumas, enemies, or frustrations.

Such an understanding also goes some way towards accounting for what is perhaps Freud's clearest clinical evidence for compulsive repetitions and self-destructive behaviors: the regularly observed fact that patients get bogged down in treatment, and come actively to undermine the very thing that may help them get better through attacks on the analyst and the "therapeutic alliance" between analyst and analysand (as Christopher Bollas calls it). In this regard, as D.W. Winnicott put it, attacks on a therapeutic analysis may be understood to reflect the fact that for many of us, "health is much more difficult to deal with than disease." In our perverse ways, we like being sick, we like being punished, and though we do not always admit this to ourselves consciously, our unconscious repetitions-in-action bear this out.

By chapter 6, it seems the authors' patience is wearing a wee bit thin, as they sum up the "view in the secondary literature...that the death drive creates more problems than it solves" (98). I think this overstates the case and the authors themselves have not provided absolutely conclusive evidence to support this judgment. Moreover, they fear that Freud's insistence on the death drive runs the "risk of throwing his metapsychology into a state of chaos" (108).

Here is precisely the point where an engagement with Todd Dufresne, mentioned above, would have been crucial. Dufresne's argument is that BTPP is a deliberate act of sabotage on Freud's part, undermining his theories of sexuality and much else. As Dufresne puts it, "metapsychology subverts psychoanalysis," whether "playfully or otherwise," inflicting from a position within the movement a "trauma" on psychoanalysis. Dufresne does not elaborate much on why he thinks Freud may have done this, but I would speculate--following Adam Phillips--that this may have been done precisely to keep the analytic movement from becoming a closed, rigid ideology with enforced orthodoxies and a putative epistemological omniscience.

Freud was certainly aware of the dangers in this direction (and had himself on occasion contributed to it), especially if analysis remained in the hands of psychiatrists or other medical doctors alone. He was forced to address this problem in 1926 in The Question of Lay Analysis, a work I would also see (as, again, Adam Phillips has) as pushing back against analysis becoming a closed system with a closed caste of expert "professionals," especially if those medical professionals were Americans, of whom he thought very little and whom he regarded with enormous skepticism. Such a resistance reflects Freud's own compulsive concerns in some ways, for he was clearly desperate for respect and acceptance for most of his life, but late in life seems to have come to regard such desires with disdain and begun to resist them and call for others to do likewise.

In the end, Holowchak and Lavin conclude there is not a lot that can be salvaged from Freud's death drive, but they do themselves a great service by noting that many other prominent analysts, including Klein, Lacan and Laplanche, disagree with them. Laplanche, it seems to me, takes the most sensible route forward by arguing that if the theory is stripped of biological concepts, if it is seen as exclusively human, and if it is seen as operating not independently but bound up with other drives and desires, it can be rescued.

What, in brief, should the Christian make of all this? Here is where more work needs to be done, but at the very least I think one can say that the destabilizing motives Dufresne detects in defending the death drive and Beyond the Pleasure Principle more generally are ones that Christians should welcome, finding in them analogues to the destabilizing forces of death, grief, and mourning. These forces--as I suggested earlier this month--should function for Christians as a reminder not to close our lives off in presumption of salvation whereby everything is known and everything is resolved, and all must have prizes. Here below we continue to sin, suffer, destroy, and die. Freud attempted to answer why that is, and Christianity does likewise. Between the two there is not nearly so much daylight as many assume--but that, perhaps, is for another day.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Collective Remembering, Forgetting, and Forgiving

I have for many years been fascinated with, and written numerous articles about, the questions of remembering and forgetting among Christians, especially between and among Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Too much of what still divides us is bad history badly "remembered." The remembering has very little to do with the past, and much to do with present politics, as Adam Phillips (also explored extensively on here) has so helpfully and rightly reminded us: "memories always have a future in mind."

The on-going problem is how we can overcome these dodgy so-called memories and find true healing. Some have suggested we need to engage in deliberate forgetting, an idea I explored in detail here, by discussing David Rieff's useful little book.

Since it remains an on-going problem, I remain on-goingly interested in books exploring these questions. Oxford University Press recently sent me some such books in exchange for reviewing manuscripts for them. Among the books I asked for were J.K. Olick et al, eds., The Collective Memory Reader (OUP, 2011), 528pp.

As you might imagine, it features very short (most are c. 3-4pp.) excerpts from a huge range of people, some well known--Freud, Burke, Marx, Durkheim, Benjamin, Blondel, Foucault, Ricoeur--alongside many others who were knew to me. The editors argue in their introduction that the study of collective memory really goes back to Maurice Halbwachs, whom I had not read previously, and who was first translated by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, whom I have read to great profit (see, inter alia, her Natural Symbols as well as Purity and Danger).

One of the other authors excerpted in this collection is Roger Bastide, whose The African Religions of Brazil argues that we need to be careful about assuming that we either remember or forget (for whatever motives) in anything like a straightforward manner. Instead, both the remembering and forgetting can be subject to individualized and idiosyncratic mutations that may or may not bleed into the supposedly collective memory.

The other book OUP sent me is Jeffrey Blustein's Forgiveness and Remembrance: Remembering Wrongdoing in Personal and Public Life (OUP, 2014). Blustein is a philosopher who teaches bioethics at the City University of New York.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Forgiveness and Remembrance examines the complex moral psychology of forgiving, remembering, and forgetting in personal and political contexts. It challenges a number of entrenched ideas that pervade standard philosophical approaches to interpersonal forgiveness and offers an original account of its moral psychology and the emotions involved in it. The volume also uses this account to illuminate the relationship of forgiveness to political reconciliation and restorative political practices in post-conflict societies.
Memory is another central concern that flows from this, since forgiveness is tied to memory and to emotions associated with the memory of injury and injustice. In its political function, memory of wrongdoing -- and of its victims -- is embodied in processes of memorialization, such as the creation of monuments, commemorative ceremonies, and museums. The book casts light on the underexplored relationship of memorialization to transitional justice and politically consequential interpersonal forgiveness. It examines the symbolism and the symbolic moral significance of memorialization as a political practice, reflects on its relationship to forgiveness, and, finally, argues that there are moral responsibilities associated with memorialization that belong to international actors as well as to states.

I'm only a little ways into the book, and hope to report more later. But for the time being, I wanted to draw it to your attention as one of the most philosophically rigorous and carefully argued books I have yet found in this whole complex of topics. Other works, including Rieff's, have only glanced at some of the serious challenges we face if we talk about learning to forget and forgive. Blustein faces these challenges head-on, and his book is much the richer for it, as I hope to show in a future note about it.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Politicians Who Aren't Loathsome: A Long-Lost Species

I have been reading biographies of, books by, books about, and books written by people somehow connected to, Winston Churchill for two decades now. Even before that, when I was quite young, my Glaswegian grandmother got me interested in him and in the war by telling me harrowing tales of her surviving the Blitz and Battle of Britain: her father worked in the shipyards on the River Clyde around Port Glasgow, and these were of course the subject of special attention from the Luftwaffe. She also mentioned the unity felt by the country as a result of his Churchill's famously stirring speeches, a unity she claimed was lost after the 1945 election. (Andrew Sullivan also indulges more recently in some Churchill nostalgia here, asking if we will have another today. I think the better question, after the turmoil of Trump, is whether we can have an Attlee instead.)

She put me off Churchill's successor, Clement Attlee, and the post-war Labour government, through for reasons that were never clear until recently reflecting on it more than a decade after her death. I think hers was the unreflecting prejudice of the family she married into in 1942: my grandfather's family were small-business owners who fell for Tory propaganda about Labour somehow being against them. As a result of all this, I never bestirred myself to look closely into these questions until early in 2017 I went back and read Alasdair MacIntyre's many "lost" essays from the postwar period in which he was actively involved in the politics of the British left. Those essays are found in an indispensable collection. I will soon read that collection alongside John Gregson's forthcoming study, which looks most fascinating: Marxism, Ethics and Politics: The Work of Alasdair MacIntyre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 224pp.

So as a child and then adult who adored his grandmother and her often fiercely expressed opinions, I never realized what an utterly compelling life Clement Attlee led until I just finished reading John Bew's new and splendid biography of him, Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain (Oxford UP, 2017), 688pp. To my mind, it is a mark of a good biography that one is a little sad at coming to the end of it, and immediately files it away to be read again down the road, as I shall do with this one. For those with any interest in biography, wartime Britain, and the politics of the British left, this is a must-read.

Attlee, of course, was compulsively reticent and an almost sadistically taciturn man. I knew that much of him (and have often quoted his apparent response to Harold Laski's endless and prolix agitations: "a period of silence from you would be most welcome"), but not how far he carried that until reading Bew's biography. Once, a BBC interviewer had prepared 28 questions for what was to be a half-hour broadcast with Attlee, who answered all her questions in 5 minutes flat and then stared at her with his pipe as both wondered what to do next.

Attlee emerges as a thoroughly admirable character who seems never to have sought office, honours, or glory for himself. But he was certainly no pushover, no pious pacifist afraid of a fight. (Even though initially turned down as too old at the age of 31, he was eventually enlisted and fought in the Great War, including at Gallipoli, and was twice invalided out but kept wanting to get back into action as soon as possible.) He could be withering when needed, and saw off many attempts on his job as Labour leader (1935-55), which he usually managed to rebuff without scruple.

He didn't have much truck with explicit forms of Christian faith, but he had many virtues nonetheless, perhaps none so clear as his genuine desire to help the poor of the slums of London (and the Welsh coal-miners from whom key Labour ministers like Aneurin Bevan came), among whom he began to work as a social worker at the end of the Victorian era. Unlike some with such motivations, he seems never to have been condescending about it, and never to have thought himself above such people, or the working classes and trade unionists on whom he and his party depended so much. Almost until the end of his parliamentary career in the mid-1950s, he took the tube by himself to Westminster quietly reading the paper, and would often be asked by people "Has anyone ever told you you bear a striking resemblance to Clement Attlee?" to which he would reply "Yes, often" and leave it at that.

Having some time back read David McCullough's fascinating biography Truman, there are, I think, certain parallels between him and his contemporary, Attlee: both thrust most unexpectedly into office within weeks of each other in 1945 (almost everyone thought the Churchill Tories would be returned with a modest majority: nobody, least of all Attlee himself, thought Labour would win the largest landslide in its history), and both replacing wartime leaders who were then, and have remained since, giants on the global stage partly for their compelling ability to communicate with their followers--whether in FDR's fireside chats, or Churchill's speeches on the BBC and in Parliament. Both Truman and Attlee were moderately of the left, and both came after larger-than-life leaders and presented a welcome contrast of much more contained, direct, business-like and modest leadership without flashy rhetoric or fiery oratory. Both did not appear over-much to enjoy the perks of power or especially the limelight, and both gratefully retired to very modest surroundings in the 1950s.

When his memoirs, As It Happened, were published, the New York Times review said that Attlee had the maddening habit in every chapter of leading readers up to a cliff's edge and having them sit there, so drained was the text of all drama and so heavily downplayed the many major events and personages he was involved with. Bew retails many amusing instances of this, and it drove some people like Aneurin Bevan to distraction. Bevan, of course, was the fiery Welshman who brought in the National Health Service in 1948, and was always pushing Attlee from the left to do more and faster. But Bevan could not always restrain himself and often overshot.

Attlee, no violent firebrand or revolutionary he, much preferred the slow and incremental approach. In doing so, he strikes me as a quintessential character of his generation of the type well-understood by his contemporaries the Scottish psychoanalyst W.R.D. Fairbairn (whose rather interesting biography by John Sutherland I also recently read) and his English counter-part D.W. Winnicott: the "good enough" leader not overly concerned with ideological orthodoxy whose schizoid aloofness allowed him to survive much political turmoil and intra-Labour intrigue, and in doing so managed to accomplish a very great deal of good without going too far. In the end, he outlived almost all of the 1945 government, including those who would have gladly replaced him--Nye Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Ernie Bevin and others--and died full of honours: ennobled as an earl, and made Knight of the Garter, Companion of Honour, and Order of Merit. In typical fashion, he mocked this gently in a bit of doggrel he composed looking back on his improbable life:

Few thought he was even a starter.
There were many in life who were smarter.
But he finished PM,
A CH, an OM,
An earl and a Knight of the Garter. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Russia: from Orthodoxy to Atheism and Back Again?

Self-identified "atheists" are invariably the least self-aware of people. Their massive inability to see that they merely worship other gods, perform other rituals, enforce other orthodoxies, and evangelize in favour of other creeds would be rather touching were it not so tedious.

Along comes a new book to show how this was so on the largest stage on which a politically enforced attempt at atheism was ever attempted: Victoria Smolkin, A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton UP, 2018), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
When the Bolsheviks set out to build a new world in the wake of the Russian Revolution, they expected religion to die off. Soviet power used a variety of tools--from education to propaganda to terror―to turn its vision of a Communist world without religion into reality. Yet even with its monopoly on ideology and power, the Soviet Communist Party never succeeded in overcoming religion and creating an atheist society.
A Sacred Space Is Never Empty presents the first history of Soviet atheism from the 1917 revolution to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Drawing on a wealth of archival material and in-depth interviews with those who were on the front lines of Communist ideological campaigns, Victoria Smolkin argues that to understand the Soviet experiment, we must make sense of Soviet atheism. Smolkin shows how atheism was reimagined as an alternative cosmology with its own set of positive beliefs, practices, and spiritual commitments. Through its engagements with religion, the Soviet leadership realized that removing religion from the "sacred spaces" of Soviet life was not enough. Then, in the final years of the Soviet experiment, Mikhail Gorbachev―in a stunning and unexpected reversal―abandoned atheism and reintroduced religion into Soviet public life. A Sacred Space Is Never Empty explores the meaning of atheism for religious life, for Communist ideology, and for Soviet politics.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Mourning, Melancholia--and Hope Amidst the Ashes

In his last interview, Joseph Ratzinger makes what struck me as an anguished comment that in getting older as a Christian everything gets harder. He did not really elaborate, but I wonder if what he had in mind was the more generally human experience that the longer one lives, the more one has to mourn: the more loss one has endured, and therefore the more space grief occupies in one's life.

That came back to mind in reading this interview, "Anxiety is Our New Religion," with the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster about her new book, Conversion Disorder, where she says that too much of "contemporary life feeds into the expectations that you're not supposed to feel unwell. Whereas I don't see what in this world provides you anything more than uneasiness. I think it's very uneasy to be a human being." (Her book has certain parallels to another new book I noted here.)

It is precisely this awareness that suffering is a semi-permanent feature of life, and "happiness" a fleeting, superficial, inconstant companion, that has long made Freud a deeply attractive and compelling figure for me. I recall reading his Civilization and its Discontents in an undergrad course in the early 1990s. While almost all the other students--as I recall--were appalled by his seemingly dour view of life expressed therein, I found it described the world so exactly that I could scarcely see what they were objecting to. (More recently I had and have the same reaction to all those objecting to Freud's theory of the death drive, which drive I take to be so obvious and powerful a feature of human life that denying it is like denying the law of gravity. The theory is well treated in a new book I am reading now and will come back to later.)

Since then it seems to me--and Webster and others--that the cult of compulsory happiness (a capitalist creation, of course, designed to sell many commodities, not least psychotropics that purport to make you happy again) has only become more insidiously pervasive.

While psychoanalysis sought, as a therapeutic method, to relieve certain neurotic miseries, that was, Freud said, only so that neurotic forms of unhappiness could be replaced by ordinary unhappiness. People who feel entitled to go beyond that as a regular matter of course, or to invent apps or drugs (etc.) purportedly enabling them to do so, are the truly unwell members of our society who should be help up to careful and constant scrutiny. The old Christian discipline of regarding this life as a "valley of tears" is not far off the mark.

Webster in her interview quotes from an "amazing letter by Freud to Princess Marie Bonaparte. He was talking to her about depression and he said, “I think the problem with the depressed is that they simply have too high of an expectation for life. They think life is supposed to have more meaning than it does.”

Some of this, of course, must, I would argue, reflect Freud's own life: having suffered enormous deprivations in war-time Vienna and many senseless losses from the war, including that of his daughter Sophie in the flu epidemic at the end of the Great War, he would also spend the last 16 years of his life in constant agony from many surgeries to keep the cancer in his jaw at bay. And then, of course, he was chased out of Austria and forced to flee to London by the Nazis, dying there eighteen months later in September 1939. (His death is well treated in Mark Edmundson's 2007 book The Death of Sigmund Freud: the Legacy of His Last Days. Before that, Freud's physician in his final years, Max Schur, wrote Freud: Living and Dying, which was published in 1972. I am reading it currently and finding it fascinating.)

I think Madeleine Sprengnether is right--as I said here in my discussion of her new and welcome book Mourning Freud--in seeing that Freud himself perhaps did not always acknowledge as much as he should have, or needed to, the role of grief and loss in his own life. Certainly by the time of his London exile, he had endured many losses, with many more to come: not just of family (all of his sisters, as elderly as he, had to be left behind--neither enough money nor enough time could be raised to bribe the Nazis and placate them with endless paperwork to get the sisters out, and most of them were killed in the Holocaust) but also of his life's work, which was, in Mitteleuropa, virtually wiped out by the war. To the extent psychoanalysis survived at all, it was in Britain and the United States.

Freud was not unaware of grief and loss, of course. His 1917 essay "Mourning and Melancholia" is one I have often gone back to, finding the distinctions he makes there helpful. But on these questions there is more than a touch of the Athenian Stoic about this Austrian analyst. And as someone who described himself as a "Godless Jew," he refused what he took to be the over-easy comforts of "religion," which he neither fully understood nor, as Ana-Maria Rizzuto has convincingly shown, ever fully managed to extricate himself from.

But even here Freud is more ally than many, perhaps most, Christians. Few things are more insufferable than the unwillingness of so-called people of faith to face death, loss, grief, mourning, and the melancholy (and its frequent disguise, anger) that are our lot. Few things are more intolerable than happy-faced insistence on canonizing people at their funerals (if they have one) and banishing mourning with blithe assurances that everyone is even now partying in heaven. If that is what constitutes "Christian hope" today, then I'll gladly take Freudian atheism any day, and twice on Sundays.

Fortunately, of course, mourning and melancholia are all through the Scriptures, not least the Psalter and prophets. Mixed in with them is our hope. We do not, as Saint Paul says, mourn as those who have no hope. But neither is our hope an antidote, a nifty memory drug, that wipes out all traces of grief and mourning. They remain with us forever mixed together.

And that admixture comes out in a new book I am using next semester with some of my students: William Abraham's Among the Ashes: On Death, Grief, and Hope (Eerdmans, 2017), 127pp. About this book the publisher tells us the following:
How can we hold fast to the hope of life eternal when we lose someone we love? In this book William Abraham reflects on the nature of certainty and the logic of hope in the context of an experience of devastating grief.
Abraham opens with a stark account of the effects of grief in his own life after the unexpected death of his oldest son. Drawing on the book of Job, Abraham then looks at the significance of grief in debates about the problem of evil. He probes what Christianity teaches about life after death and ultimately relates our experiences of grief to the death of Christ.
Profound and beautiful, Among the Ashes tackles the philosophical and theological questions surrounding loss even as it honors the experience of grief.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Politically Coerced Orthodoxies

I met Cyril Hovorun in Chicago in 2012 at the AAR, but have only been reading him seriously for about 3 years now--and in that time he's produced a trilogy of very important books (starting with Meta-Ecclesiology) in ecclesiology. Happily, we have a habit of getting to the same conferences, so I saw him in Vienna in 2016, in San Felice del Benaco in 2017, and will see him (D.v.) in January 2019 in Romania.

With his two latest books especially, he has rocketed up to the top of my list of "must-read" Orthodox authors, for he always talks such good sense about controverted issues, calmly and unflappably laying out a compelling case for things that too many Catholic and Orthodox Christians are otherwise emotionally over-invested in and thus incapable of seeing clearly.

Thus, e.g., his Scaffolds of the Church  (about which I interviewed him here) looked at the question of hierarchy in a way that freed it of the self-aggrandizing nonsense sometimes talked about it by popes, patriarchs, and bishops of both East and perhaps especially West.

And now, in his newest book, Political Orthodoxies: the Unorthodoxies of the Church Coerced (Fortress, 2018, 210pp.) he has emerged at precisely the right time to shed needed light on some of the underlying issues in the on-going Constantinople-Kyiv-Moscow conflict over Ukrainian Orthodoxy (whose history is so well told in Nick Denysenko's book; interview here).

Part of my interest in Political Orthodoxies comes from its focus (albeit too briefly) on the role of coercion in Christian history. It's a theme I'm addressing in the paper I'm giving in Romania while focusing on the problem of papal primatial powers. (It's also a theme Ashley Purpura has very helpfully addressed in her book for which I interviewed her here.)

Hovorun gets right to his point in the introduction to Political Orthodoxies, picking up where Scaffolds left off by noting how much of Christian understanding and practice of ecclesial offices and authorities, and both with their coercive powers, were "imported to Christianity in late antiquity from the Roman political world" (3). While he thinks in some cases this was an understandable move, he also notes how quickly it developed into problems, not least "hierarchism and stratification" (4). Moreover, the Church continued, under and after Constantine, to suffer more and more from "coercion," which Hovorun calls  "one of the chronic infections the Church contracted from the state" (8).

As Christianity develops, especially in the East, these once-imperial structures and coercive practices get adopted by local churches who seem to think that such practices are some kind of package-deal, little realizing--as Hovorun shows in his second chapter--that civil religion and political religion are quite different from Christian faith. This failure to make necessary distinctions means that too often in Orthodoxy certain political ideologies are adopted "under the guise of Christianity" (75). This chapter surveys such unhealthy and unhelpful transformations in Greece, Romania, and Russia, which are presented as case-studies. There are some staggering details here, and lengthy and damning quotations from various Greek, Romanian, and especially Russian churchmen sucking up to politicians or justifying various immoral activities. Clearly the metropolitan of Odessa does not specialize in subtle sycophancy.

The case-study method is used again towards the end of the book as Hovorun looks at the problems of anti-Semitism in Orthodoxy as well as nationalism. In all these cases--civil religion, political religion, anti-Semitism, and nationalism--Hovorun argues that some or all of them often get bound up with Orthodox theology and church life, to the latter's detriment. Indeed, he goes farther and says that too many Christians are "unable to discern between the norms of the gospel and the simulacra offered by political Orthodoxies" (185), leading, e.g., to their inability or unwillingness to speak out against "wars between Orthodox peoples," not least in Ukraine.

In his conclusion, Hovorun returns briefly and more explicitly to the issue of coercion again, noting once more that a return to "apostolic non-coercive ethos" (199) of the foundations of Christianity remains very much a desideratum today in the Orthodox world. The same, I would add, could be said of the Catholic Church, too, but that is a thought for another day.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Ecumenical Patriarchate's Politics

I have read fascinating studies by the Cypriot political scientist Paschalis Kitromilides on questions of nationalism and other problems, and so I look forward to reading his Religion and Politics in the Orthodox World: The Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Modern Age (Routledge, 2018), 160 pp. This book is very timely with the renewed attention focused on the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its role in liberating Ukrainian Orthodox Christians from Russian imperial and other shackles.

This book explores how the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the leading centre of spiritual authority in the Orthodox Church, based in Istanbul, coped with political developments from Ottoman times until the present. The book outlines how under the Ottomans, despite difficult circumstances, the Patriarchate managed to draw on its huge symbolic and moral power and organization to uphold the unity and catholicity of the Orthodox Church, how it struggled to do this during the subsequent age of nationalism when churches within new nation states unilaterally claimed their autonomy reflecting local national demands, and how the church coped in the twentieth century with the rise of nationalist Turkey, the decline of Orthodoxy in Asia Minor and with the Cold War. The book concludes by assessing the current position and future prospects of the Patriarchate in the region and the world.

We are also given a table of contents:

Foreword by the Metropolitan of Pergamum Ioannis Zizioulas




I. The Orthodox Church and the Enlightenment. Testimonies from the correspondence of Ignatius of Ungrowallachia with G. P. Vieusseux

II. The Orthodox Church in modern state formation in Southeastern Europe

III. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the challenge of nationalism in the 19th century

IV. The end of empire, Greece’s Asia Minor catastrophe and the Ecumenical Patriarchate

V. The Ecumenical Patriarchate during the Cold War (1946-1991)

VI. A religious International in Southeastern Europe?

VII. Orthodoxy, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Ecumenical Patriarchs, 1800 –



Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Orthodox Cyprus Under the Latins

Well do I recall, in October 1993, being jolted out of my ignorance and naivete as a young Canadian unaccustomed to the scars of political violence when I visited Nicosia on Cyprus and saw the militarized border between Cypriot and Turkish claims to the island. I was there for a World Council of Churches conference of which I remember little now except for how hot it was relative to Ottawa, and how I almost didn't make it by developing acute appendicitis six days before I was supposed to leave. Oh, and the food. The food, of course, was wonderful. 

But back to matters at hand: a new book looking at the pivotal role Cyprus plays in the Mediterranean, not least with Crusaders coming from Western Europe to the Middle East and stopping off in various places, and sometimes never leaving, as happened in Cyprus, newly examined by Chrysovalantis Kyriacou, Orthodox Cyprus under the Latins, 1191–1571: Society, Spirituality, and Identities (Lexington Books, 2018), 354pp.
About this book the publisher tells us this:
Medieval and Renaissance Cyprus was a fascinating place of ethnic, cultural, and religious encounters. Following almost nine centuries of Byzantine rule, Cyprus was conquered by the Crusaders in 1191, becoming (until 1571) the most important stronghold of Latin Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean—first under the Frankish dynasty of the Lusignans, and later under the Venetians. Modern historiographical readings of Cypriot identity in medieval and early modern times have been colored by British colonialism, Greek nationalism, and Cyprocentric revisionism. Although these perspectives have offered valuable insights into the historical experience of Latin-ruled Cypriots, they have partially failed to capture the dynamics of noncoercive resistance to domination, and of identity preservation and adaptation. Orthodox Cyprus under the Latins, 1191–1571 readdresses the question of Cypriot identity by focusing on the Greek Cypriots, the island’s largest community during the medieval and early modern period. By bringing together theories from the fields of psychology, social anthropology, and sociology, this study explores continuities and discontinuities in the Byzantine culture and religious tradition of Cyprus, proposing a new methodological framework for a more comprehensive understanding of Cypriot Orthodoxy under Crusader and Venetian rule. A discussion of fresh evidence from hitherto unpublished primary sources enriches this examination, stressing the role of medieval and Renaissance Cyprus as cultural and religious province of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine Orthodox world.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Russian and Other Nationalisms

We live in an era that has suddenly rediscovered the problems of nationalism it seems. For those of us in the Christian East, this has been a problem since at least the beginning of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. It has never gone away, but here too seems to be undergoing an unwelcome and unhelpful revival. As a result, more and more scholarly attention is being paid to it in a variety of contexts, as the following brand new books indicate.

With the ongoing war Russia has launched against Ukraine (and before it Georgia let us not forget) and is recently ratcheting up, it is no wonder that more and more attention is being paid to Russian nationalism, though what we are seeing in Ukraine and elsewhere is more properly a re-emergence of neo-imperialism. Nevertheless, a new book by Marlene Laruelle may help us understand this picture more clearly: Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields (Routledge, 2018), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
This book, by one of the foremost authorities on the subject, explores the complex nature of Russian nationalism. It examines nationalism as a multilayered and multifaceted repertoire displayed by a myriad of actors. It considers nationalism as various concepts and ideas emphasizing Russia’s distinctive national character, based on the country’s geography, history, Orthodoxy, and Soviet technological advances. It analyzes the ideologies of Russia’s ultra-nationalist and far-right groups, explores the use of nationalism in the conflict with Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, and discusses how Putin’s political opponents, including Alexei Navalny, make use of nationalism. Overall the book provides a rich analysis of a key force which is profoundly affecting political and societal developments both inside Russia and beyond.
Nationalism is not just a political phenomenon, of course, but often has deep psychodynamics at play, many if not most of them illusions in the strict Freudian sense, and sometimes pathologically so. Two new books examine some of those fascinating dynamics: first and more broadly is Patrick Colm Hogan, Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Cognitive Science, and Identity (Ohio State University Press, 2018), 408pp.

About this book the publisher gives us the following information:
From the rise of Nazism to the conflict in Kashmir in 2008, nationalism has been one of the most potent forces in modern history. Yet the motivational power of nationalism is still not well understood. In Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Cognitive Science, and Identity, Patrick Colm Hogan begins with empirical research on the cognitive psychology of group relations to isolate varieties of identification, arguing that other treatments of nationalism confuse distinct types of identity formation. Synthesizing different strands of this research, Hogan articulates a motivational groundwork for nationalist thought and action.
Understanding Nationalism goes on to elaborate a cognitive poetics of national imagination, most importantly, narrative structure. Hogan focuses particularly on three complex narrative prototypes that are prominent in human thought and action cross-culturally and trans-historically. He argues that our ideas and feelings about what nations are and what they should be are fundamentally organized and oriented by these prototypes. He develops this hypothesis through detailed analyses of national writings from Whitman to George W. Bush, from Hitler to Gandhi.
Hogan’s book alters and expands our comprehension of nationalism generally—its cognitive structures, its emotional operations. It deepens our understanding of the particular, important works he analyzes. Finally, it extends our conception of the cognitive scope and political consequence of narrative.
The second book takes us into some of the dynamics of the on-going assault by Russia on Ukraine, including a chapter on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the conflict: Neighbourhood Perceptions of the Ukraine Crisis: From the Soviet Union into Eurasia? eds. Gerhard Besier and Katarzyna Stoklosa (Routledge, 2018), 282pp.

About this book we are told the following:
Recent events in Ukraine and Russia and the subsequent incorporation of Crimea into the Russian state, with the support of some circles of inhabitants of the peninsula, have shown that the desire of people to belong to the Western part of Europe should not automatically be assumed. Discussing different perceptions of the Ukrainian-Russian war in neighbouring countries, this book offers an analysis of the conflicts and issues connected with the shifting of the border regions of Russia and Ukraine to show how ’material’ and ’psychological’ borders are never completely stable ideas. The contributors – historians, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists from across Europe – use an interdisciplinary and comparative approach to explore the different national and transnational perceptions of a possible future role for Russia.

As I mentioned at the outset, the role of Christianity within nationalism--whether Russian, Romanian, Greek, Serbian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, or any other--is of course well known. But a new book takes a wider look at the role of Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective by J. Christopher Soper and Joel S. Fetzer (Cambridge UP, 2018), 304pp.

This book contains chapters on countries with substantial Eastern Christian presence, including Israel, India, and Greece. We are further told the following about this book:
It is difficult to imagine forces in the modern world as potent as nationalism and religion. Both provide people with a source of meaning, each has motivated individuals to carry out extraordinary acts of heroism and cruelty, and both serve as the foundation for communal and personal identity. While the subject has received both scholarly and popular attention, this distinctive book is the first comparative study to examine the origins and development of three distinct models: religious nationalism, secular nationalism, and civil-religious nationalism. Using multiple methods, the authors develop a new theoretical framework that can be applied across diverse countries and religious traditions to understand the emergence, development, and stability of different church-state arrangements over time. The work combines public opinion, constitutional, and content analysis of the United States, Israel, India, Greece, Uruguay, and Malaysia, weaving together historical and contemporary illustrations.
Finally, this book caught my interest because of the role of music, not least in two Orthodox-majority countries it covers, viz., Serbia and Bulgaria:  Choral Societies and Nationalism in Europe eds. Krisztina Lajosi and Andreas Stynen (Brill, 2018), 285pp.

About this book we are told this:
This wide-ranging contribution to the study of nationalism and the social history of music examines the relationship between choral societies and national mobilization in the nineteenth century. From Norway to the Basque country and from Wales to Bulgaria, this pioneering study explores and compares the ways choral societies influenced and reflected the development of national awareness under differing political and social circumstances. By the second half of the nineteenth century, organized communal singing became a primary leisure activity that attracted all layers of society. Though strongly patriotic in tone, choral societies borrowed from each other and relied heavily on prominent German or French models. This volume is the first to address both the national and transnational significance.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: Now in Paperback

I have long been fascinated by all aspects of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia--her vibrant and uniquely colourful iconography, her singular liturgical traditions, her close proximity to Judaism in certain disciplinary aspects, and her relations, not always amicable, between her mother-church of Egypt and her daughter (sister?) church of Eritrea.

But good, reliable studies in English of Ethiopian Christianity have been relatively few and far between--until quite recently. Last May, John Binns, a respected scholar and author of the study (which was favourably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christianity), An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Cambridge UP, 2002)  published a hardback edition of The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia: A History (IB Tauris, 2017), 320pp. At the end of this month, November 2018, it's due to appear in a paperback edition.

About this book the publisher tells us
Surrounded by steep escarpments to the north, south, and east, Ethiopia has always been geographically and culturally set apart. It has the longest archaeological record of any country in the world. Indeed, this precipitous mountain land was where the human race began. It is also home to an ancient church with a remarkable legacy. The Ethiopian Church forms the southern branch of historic Christianity. It is the only pre-colonial church in sub-Saharan Africa, originating in one of the earliest Christian kingdoms-with its king Ezana (supposedly descended from the biblical Solomon) converting around 340 CE. Since then it has maintained its long Christian witness in a region dominated by Islam; today it has a membership of around forty million and is rapidly growing. Yet, despite its importance, there has been no comprehensive study available in English of its theology and history. This is a large gap which this authoritative and engagingly written book seeks to fill.
The Church of Ethiopia (or formally, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) has a recognized place in worldwide Christianity as one of five non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches. As Dr. Binns shows, it has developed a distinctive approach which makes it different from all other churches. His book explains why this happened and how these special features have shaped the life of the Christian people of Ethiopia. He discusses the famous rock-hewn churches; the Ark of the Covenant (claimed by the Church and housed in Aksum); the medieval monastic tradition; relations with the Coptic Church; co-existence with Islam; missionary activity; and the Church's venerable oral traditions, especially the discipline of qene-a kind of theological reflection couched in a unique style of improvised allegorical poetry. There is also a sustained exploration of how the Church has been forced to re-think its identity and mission as a result of political changes and upheaval following the overthrow of Haile Selassie (who ruled as Regent, 1916-1930, and then as Emperor, 1930-74) and beyond.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wiley Companion to Patristics

The (more expensive) hardcover edition was published in 2015, but good things come to those who wait, including an affordable paperback edition of a forthcoming collection set for release in late December: Ken Parry, ed., Wiley Blackwell Companion to Patristics (WB, 2018), 552pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

This comprehensive volume brings together a team of distinguished scholars to create a wide-ranging introduction to patristic authors and their contributions to not only theology and spirituality, but to philosophy, ecclesiology, linguistics, hagiography, liturgics, homiletics, iconology, and other fields. This book:
Challenges accepted definitions of patristics and the patristic period – in particular questioning the Western framework in which the field has traditionally been constructed.
Includes the work of authors who wrote in languages other than Latin and Greek, including those within the Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic Christian traditions
Examines the reception history of prominent as well as lesser-known figures, debating the role of each, and exploring why many have undergone periods of revived interest
Offers synthetic accounts of a number of topics central to patristic studies, including scripture, scholasticism, and the Reformation
Demonstrates the continuing role of these writings in enriching and inspiring our understanding of Christianity

Friday, November 23, 2018

Christmas 2018 Recommendations

Hard though it is to believe, we are staring down the last five weeks of the civil year, and so it is time for our annual look back at some of the books published, noted, and discussed on here in 2018. For last year's recommendations, go here (and follow the links there for previous years).

Once again, the real highlight of this blog is the ability to talk to new authors about their work, as I did with an array of folks this year.

Author Interviews:

For his magisterial book on the complicated and long-standing conflicts in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, see Nicholas Denysenko interviewed here. His The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation should be required reading before anyone comments on the on-going struggles there.

Ines A. Murzaku and Douglas J. Milewski both wrote thoughtful responses to my interview with them about their translation of the life of Neilos of Rossano, which may be found here.

I interviewed Ashley Purpura here about her fascinating and timely book on Byzantine theologies of authority. I'm drawing on this welcome new book of hers for a paper I'm giving in Romania in January at the inaugural gathering of the International Orthodox Theological Association.

David Fagerberg was interviewed here discussing his new book on Alexander Schmemann. Both Fagerberg and Schmemann are always worth reading, and I regularly assign both to students in my liturgy classes, and both authors invariably prove hugely popular.

For some time there has been a burgeoning interest in Bulgakov studies. We began the year with a new one by Walter Sisto on Bulgakov's Mariology. I interviewed Sisto here.

One of the real highlights of my spring semester was meeting the legendary biblical scholar Fr Paul Tarazi, whom I interviewed here. I've heard many stories about him from Orthodox friends over the years, and they did not disappoint when we were able to have a rollicking good time over lunch. I could easily have spent several days listening to him and his wonderfully no-nonsense approach to the Bible, Church, Orthodoxy, and must else. You will get a good flavour of that in his book The Rise of Scripture

Bp. Seraphim Sigrist is really the one to whom I owe the inspiration to interview authors, as I did with him back in this blog's early days. So I was glad to be able to do so again, discussing his new short book on life's tapestries.


Byzantine history always remains a popular category even among general readers. I noted several new studies this year, including one on monastic institutions in Byzantium, for which go here.

The widely respected Byzantinist Averil Cameron this year gave us Byzantine Christianity: A Very Brief History, first noted here.

Byzantine notions of personhood are treated in a new book noted here.

And, in a similar vein, Byzantine bodily perceptions are treated in a book whose details are here.

Patristics/Antique Christian History: 

Is there anyone, at least in the Catholic world today, who finds that bishops are increasingly indistinguishable from gangsters? These issues are not new, and some of the wider ecclesiological problems pertaining to the office of bishop are treated in a new study on St. Cyprian and the episcopal office, noted here.

The Donatist crisis has sometimes been flung about in recent "debates" between a certain votary of a certain Roman ordinary and a certain American blogger. For a new study about that controversy, go here.

For a new translation of a particular work of Cyril of Alexandria, go here.

The first time I attempted the Summa some twenty years ago, it was quickly becaome obvious to me that Thomas owed huge debts to the East, especially the Cappadocian Fathers. I never did a formal or exact count, but even a cursory noting of his references to the Greek fathers quickly added up to a huge list. And now, just this month we have a welcome new collection further fleshing out Thomas's debts to Greek patristics: Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers.

That book should be required reading, alongside Marcus Plested, for any future Orthodox "apologist" tempted to open his mouth to traduce what I call the A-Team: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas are all represented as the font of every Western error by people who've never read any of them in the original languages, much less a critical scholarly edition. Six years ago I interviewed Marcus Plested about his book, Orthodox Readings of Aquinaswhich remains utterly indispensable.

For some modern American Christians Genesis and its interpretation continues to present difficulties. In such circumstances, they turn to see what the Fathers may have said. A new collection devoted to patristic interpretations of Genesis was noted here.

I am greatly looking forward to reading a wholly welcome new collection, Exploring Gregory of Nyssa, first noted here. It won't be out until the end of December, but it will be worth waiting for. Of all the figures in fourth-century patristics, Nyssa seems to be the most intriguing, not least for his controverted and (in some cases) ambiguous ideas about sex, gender, and eschatology.

Since I began this blog, there has always been a steady stream of new books, often several every year, on Maximus the Confessor. This year was no different as we saw the publication of a translation of his work on difficulties in Scripture.

Brian Daley is a part of that generation of great Jesuit historians and scholars who are, alas, beginning to pass from the scene. I've met him several times, and always found him a wonderfully warm and gracious human being. And he's never written a bad book--or at least one that I've read. He has a new one out on patristic Christology reconsidered.

Philo of Alexandria continues to be an intriguing figure. For more on him, see this new biography.

Communism and the Cold War:

On Bulgarian Orthodoxy and the communist regime see the new study briefly noted here.

Here I wrote some longer notes on North American Churches and the Cold War, a fascinating and unusually detailed new collection.


For a new scholarly work on liturgy and the New Testament go here

For liturgy and Byzantine self-formation go here to find the latest work by the widely respected Derek Krueger.

Again, if you missed it earlier, the greatest Orthodox liturgical theologian of the last century, Alexander Schmemann, is seen through David Fagerberg's eyes.

Muslim-Christian Relations/Middle East:

For a collection raising questions of religious freedom and the status of minorities in the Middle East, go here.

Iraq: For a study on Christianity in Iraq in the fifteenth century see this new book. And for a new book on ancient and modern Christian martyrs in Iraq, go here.

Eqypt: I noted a new book on Coptic identity in context here. And I noted a new book on Coptic martyrs of 2015 in light of Catholic theology here. I wrote a review of it for Catholic World Report. It's a useful, accessible, workmanlike book for any Catholic labouring under any difficulty about whether Orthodox martyrs can be recognized as such by Catholics.

Israel: For a new book studying Syriac Christians in Bethlehem, go here.

For a broader study on Syriac Christian life, see this new book. On the death of the Syriacist Robert Murray, see the books noted here.

For those who have followed his scholarship to date, it has been obvious that Jack Tannous will continue to be an impressive figure in the years ahead. For his new book go here.

For a study on Christian martyrs and the formation of Islam, see here. Similarly, on the legal status of Christians in early Islam, go here.

The historiography of early Islamic conquests has long been bedeviled by many problems. A new study, noted here, sheds light on some of them.

World Wars and Genocides: 

This year, of course, and particularly this month, marked the anniversary of the end of the Great War. Centenaries of the beginning and end of the Great War were noted here with lengthy lists of books treating various aspects of this history and its enduring legacy.

During that war, of course, there were multiple mass slaughters of Eastern Christian populations. For some time the Armenian genocide has generated a great deal of interest. Far less known is the Greek genocide of 1915, now treated in a welcome new book noted here.

On-going Turkish denials of the 1915 Armenian genocide were discussed in this book. For discussion of that genocide in light of what modern research into trauma has taught us, see this new book.


Slavoj Žižek and Christianity come together in a fascinating and fun new collection I discussed in some detail here.

Terry Eagleton is always worth reading for his provocative and often droll prose as well as for his pungent explosions of commonly held myths. For a book that does all that and more, see my long discussion of his newest work on misunderstanding sacrifice here.

Sarah Coakley responded to my paper at an international conference last summer and it was a great delight and honour to talk with her. I finally got around this year to reading her on God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity,' which I discussed here. It is a deeply suggestive work containing much wisdom.

Maggie Ross is an absolute gem. This interview, now several years old, will give you great insights into why I think so highly of her. For my two-part discussion of her invaluable book on silence, go here.

Of all the books I read this year, the one by Todd McGowan on ascetical politics (go here for the three-part essay I wrote) ranks in the top three of most insightful and challenging works. I have thought about it more times this year than I can recount.


For a general overview of relations between Ukraine and the other parts of Europe today, go here 

For questions of war and memory in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere, see this new collection.

Again I draw your attention to my interview with Nicholas Denysenko here about his book on the history of Ukrainian Orthodox divisions and various attempts at autocephaly and unity.

Ukrainian Catholics in particular, especially those in North America, will be interested in the new biography of a Ukrainian-American bishop noted here.


Russia, because of its size in the Orthodox world as well as memories of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, continues to command much attention today on all fronts and for many reasons. Among the numerous books published this year, I noted one of Russian church-state relations here.

Discussions of nationalism have been heating up in Western Europe and North America, but among scholars analysis of Russian nationalism has been going on for some time, including in the recent book noted here.

The status of Old Believers in imperial Russia was noted here.

When I teach my course on Orthodox-Muslim relations, Russia is always a fascinating unit generating much discussion. Given the size and complex history of the country, I always tell my students there is no one simple narrative of relations between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Russia. And now a new book further complicates the picture of relations between the two largest traditions. I noted it here.

A new book looks at Marian devotion in Russia from the imperial to the post-Soviet periods. I drew attention to it here.

Among some in North America especially, a narrative of "chosen trauma" (Christianity is declining here) works hand-in-hand with a narrative of "chosen glory" in which "holy Rus'" is held to be the saviour of Christian civilization today. But how holy is Russia? This question was asked and answered in a new book noted here.


A new book by Cyril Hovorun is always worth waiting for, reading, and then re-reading. I haven't yet discussed his new book, noted here, but I hope to in the coming weeks. It is short, accessible, clearly written, and very timely, not least in the on-going Moscow-Kyiv-Constantinople business.

Again, if  you missed my mentioning it earlier, I draw your attention to Nick Denysenko's book here, which contains fascinating vignettes into ecclesiology and ecclesial practices, especially in early-20th-century Ukraine not found elsewhere.

Broader and more general studies on the nature of the Church continue to emerge. And Oxford University press continues to publish most useful handbooks, including on ecclesiology noted here.

A new book by the Jesuit historian John O'Malley is also always worth waiting for and then reading with great profit. For his new book on Vatican I go here. I reviewed it at Catholic World Report.

In my forthcoming book, Crucifying the Church: the Costs of Reform Today, I found myself going back to this new book of Steven Ogden on Foucault and power and authority in the Church. I wrote extensively about that book here.

Intellectual History/Genealogy:

The publisher asked me to read and then write a blurb for Antoine Arjakovsky's What is Orthodoxy: A Genealogy of Christian Understanding, which I noted here. I have long profited from reading Arjakovsky, and this book is no different.

I read another work this year by Todd McGowan on false ideas of eschatology undergirding capitalist theories of desire. My discussion of that may be found here.


A very suggestive new study on Paul's theology of sin in light of Freud's death-drive was noted here. It's among the more serious and systematic studies putting psychoanalytic and biblical scholarship into dialogue.

I tried to suggest some similarities between the psychoanalytic "fundamental rule" of free association and prayer in light of Herbert McCabe and Christopher Bollas here.

Belief After Freud is a stunning new work, first noted here. I have not yet given it any treatment on here because I am still thinking it through. It is an exceedingly brave and necessary book, and never more so than at this moment of crisis in the Catholic Church. This book is apparently already in its fifth edition in Spanish. It deserves a wide anglophone audience. I will return to lengthy discussion of it on here in the weeks ahead.

I discussed two new books on mourning and melancholia here. For a similarly titled new work, see this book of Christopher Bollas.

Adam Phillips continues to be an invaluable dialogue partner. For my thoughts on his book on Darwin and Freud go here.

Psychoanalysis and religion: I have read more books in this area over the past two years than I can count. Most are worth rather little. For some thoughts on some of the better collections see here.


For inter-disciplinary works on iconography and Russian modernism go here; and for iconography and Russian literature see here.

An interesting new work on iconography and iconoclasm in light of Christology was noted here.

The well-known scholarship of John-Paul Himka continues to impress. For a newer and more affordable version of his book on Last Judgment imagery in the Carpathians see here.

The acts of Nicaea II, the council devoted to the defeat of iconoclasm, have not often been available in reliable translation--until now. For details see here.

For a general study on the Bible and images go here.

So-called pre-historic iconoclasm is studied in a new book noted here.

Theodore the Studite, of course, looms large in the campaign against iconoclasm. We have long had translations of his works, but not--until now--a sufficient study setting him and his works in wider intellectual context. For that go here.

Finally, I have long benefited from, and often returned to, the scholarship of C.A. Tsakiridou's 2013 book Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity. So I am greatly looking forward to reading her new book published this year, Tradition and Transformation in Christian Art, first noted here.

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