"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, July 30, 2018

The Martyrs of Iraq Ancient and Modern

It's been out for just over a year now, but I only just stumbled upon a book that reminds us, once again, of the horrific plight that has befallen so many Christians in Iraq in the last 15 years since the disastrous neoimperial war launched by the United States (the second of its kind in the region in just over a decade): Doves in Crimson Fields: Iraqi Christian Martyrs by Robert Ewan (Gracewing, 2017), 232pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Christianity has been firmly established in Iraq for nearly two thousand years, but from the fourth century to the present day Christians in Iraq have faced periods of terrible persecution. This book brings together their stories, from the witness of martyrs sixteen hundred years ago, across the centuries, to our own time. In the twenty-first century Iraqi Christians have been confronted by relentless terrorist attack, by genocide and exile from their homeland. Alongside accounts of martyrdom and massacre under the Persian and Ottoman Empires and, in the twentieth century, the newly independent Kingdom of Iraq, Robert Ewan records the heart-rending stories of just some of the myriad of contemporary martyrs: Sister Cecilia Moshi Hanna, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni and of the massacre at Sayidat al-Najat Church in Baghdad.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Liturgical Subjects and the Byzantine Self

It was acclaimed several years ago upon its publication in hardback, and now this noteworthy book is available this year in a more affordable paperback edition: Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium by Derek Krueger (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 328 pages.

About this book we are told by the publisher:
Liturgical Subjects examines the history of the self in the Byzantine Empire, challenging narratives of Christian subjectivity that focus only on classical antiquity and the Western Middle Ages. As Derek Krueger demonstrates, Orthodox Christian interior life was profoundly shaped by patterns of worship introduced and disseminated by Byzantine clergy. Hymns, prayers, and sermons transmitted complex emotional responses to biblical stories, particularly during Lent. Religious services and religious art taught congregants who they were in relation to God and each other.
Focusing on Christian practice in Constantinople from the sixth to eleventh centuries, Krueger charts the impact of the liturgical calendar, the eucharistic rite, hymns for vigils and festivals, and scenes from the life of Christ on the making of Christian selves. Exploring the verse of great Byzantine liturgical poets, including Romanos the Melodist, Andrew of Crete, Theodore the Stoudite, and Symeon the New Theologian, he demonstrates how their compositions offered templates for Christian self-regard and self-criticism, defining the Christian "I." Cantors, choirs, and congregations sang in the first person singular expressing guilt and repentence, while prayers and sermons defined the collective identity of the Christian community as sinners in need of salvation. By examining the way models of selfhood were formed, performed, and transmitted in the Byzantine Empire, Liturgical Subjects adds a vital dimension to the history of the self in Western culture.
The well-known Orthodox scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey blurbs this book thus:
 "A thrilling tour of Byzantine culture through wholly unexpected routes. With beautifully crafted prose, Krueger presents a trajectory lucidly drawn, filled with arresting insight and searing, poignant imagery; yet the account is concrete and concise, moving deftly through its chapters with impressive economy and formidable command of a wide array of textual and material evidence."—Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Brown University

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Exploring Gregory of Nyssa

It won't be out until December, making it an ideal Christmas present for those who are interested in the third Cappadocian father, often misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented (especially in the ongoing wars over gender and sex), who is enjoying a considerable upswing in scholarly studies devoted to his thought: Exploring Gregory of Nyssa: Philosophical, Theological, and Historical Studies, eds. Anna Marmodoro and Neil B. McLynn (Oxford University Press, 2018), 288pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us the following:
Exploring Gregory of Nyssa: Philosophical, Theological, and Historical Studies brings together an interdisciplinary team of historians, classicists, philosophers, and theologians to offer a holistic exploration of the thought of Gregory of Nyssa. The volume considers Gregory's role in the main philosophical and religious controversies of his era, such as his ecclesiastical involvement in the Neo-Nicene apologetical movement. It looks at his complex relationships-for example with his brother Basil of Caesarea and with Gregory of Nazianzus. Contributors highlight Gregory's debt to Origen, but also the divergence between the two thinkers, and their relationships to Platonism. They also examine Gregory of Nyssa's wider philosophy and metaphysics; deep questions in philosophy of language such as the nature of predication and singular terms that inform our understanding of Gregory's thought; and the role of metaphysical concepts such as the nature of powers and identity.
The study paints a picture of Gregory as a ground-breaking philosopher-theologian. It analyses the nature of the soul, and connection to theological issues such as resurrection; questions that are still of interest in the philosophy of religion today, such as divine impassibility and the nature of the Trinity; and returning to more immediately humane concerns, Gregory also has profound thoughts on topics such as vulnerability and self-direction. The volume will be of primary interest to researchers, lecturers, and postgraduate students in philosophy, classics, history, and theology, and can be recommended as secondary reading for undergraduates, especially those studying classics and theology.
We also have the Table of Contents:

Introduction, Anna Marmodoro and Neil B. McLynn

1. Gregory of Nyssa: A Brief Life and Context, John McGuckin
2. The two Gregories: Nyssen and Nazianzen, Neil McLynn
3. Dressing Moses: reading Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses literally, Susanna Elm
4. Allegory and Mysticism in Gregory of Nyssa, Mark Edwards
5. Predication, Metaphysics, and Divine Impassibility in Gregory of Nyssa's Christological Exegesis, Christopher Beeley
6. Spiritual Formation and the Body-Soul Relation in Gregory of Nyssa, Morwenna Ludlow
7. Gregory of Nyssa on the Soul (and the Restoration): From Plato to Origen, Ilaria Ramelli
8. The soul as dynamis in Gregory of Nyssa, Johannes Zachhuber
9. Vulnerability as Secret of Self-direction in Gregory of Nyssa, Sophie Cartwright
10. Gregory of Nyssa and the Three Gods Problem, Andrew Radde-Gallwitz
11. Gregory of Nyssa on the Trinity (with focus on his letter iAd Ablabius), Anna Marmodoro

Index of Names and Subjects
Index Locorum

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Makings of Psychohistory

Though it is sometimes controversial in some places, and in lesser qualified hands can be cheapened and abused, I am convinced that, broadly understood, a psychoanalytic approach to history can yield rich and important insights otherwise inaccessible to us. I have myself attempted such an approach in a variety of places over the past few years, and am in fact finishing an article analyzing ISIS propaganda using Freudian and contemporary psychoanalytic thought, including that of people previously noted on here--especially Charles Strozier and Vamik Volkan. I'm also firmly convinced that psychoanalytic categories are useful in understanding much of the mindset of the Russian Orthodox Church today, and other Eastern Christian groups and issues. When, as so many churchmen have talked for forty years now, about the "healing of memories" among Christians, we and they are invoking insights about trauma first tentatively grasped by Freud in the aftermath of the Great War, and since then very considerably deepened by many clinicians.

For many reasons, then, I am looking forward to reading this new book published in April by Routledge: The Making of Psychohistory: Origins, Controversies, and Pioneering Contributors by Paul H Elovitz (2018),152pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
The Making of Psychohistory is the first volume dedicated to the history of psychohistory, an amalgam of psychology, history, and related social sciences. Dr. Paul Elovitz, a participant since the early days of the organized field, recounts the origins and development of this interdisciplinary area of study, as well as the contributions of influential individuals working within the intersection of historical and psychological thinking and methodologies. This is an essential, thorough reflection on the rich and varied scholarship within psychohistory’s subfields of applied psychoanalysis, political psychology, and psychobiography.
We are also given the table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. My Exuberant Journey

3. The Early History of Psychohistory

4. Resistance and Perseverance

5. Comparing the Early Freudian and Psychohistorical Movements

6. A Psychohistorian’s Approach to Childhood and Childrearing

7. Prominent Psychohistorians Lifton, deMause, and Volkan

8. Outstanding Psychohistorians Gay, Loewenberg, and Binion

9. My Journey as a Psychohistorical Teacher

10. My Role in Creating and Nurturing Postgraduate Psychohistorical Education

11. The Dilemmas of a Presidential Psychohistorian

12. Finding My Voice with Halpern, deMause, Ullman

13. Builders of Psychohistory

14. Concluding Thoughts; Appendices A. Featured Scholar Interviews, B. Memorials

Friday, July 20, 2018

Muslims Making Martyrs of Christians

In the wrong hands, narratives of early Islamic conquest of Christian Syria, Egypt, and Armenia can be turned into unrelenting and unambiguous tales of constant and total bloodshed and violence, the Christians always victims and the Muslims always violent. But we are increasingly seeing important studies published that complicate overly tidy and often tendentious tales of "chosen trauma" (Volkan). One such is set for publication next month: Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World by Christian C. Sahner (Princeton University Press, 2018), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:

How did the medieval Middle East transform from a majority-Christian world to a majority-Muslim world, and what role did violence play in this process? Christian Martyrs under Islam explains how Christians across the early Islamic caliphate slowly converted to the faith of the Arab conquerors and how small groups of individuals rejected this faith through dramatic acts of resistance, including apostasy and blasphemy.
Using previously untapped sources in a range of Middle Eastern languages, Christian Sahner introduces an unknown group of martyrs who were executed at the hands of Muslim officials between the seventh and ninth centuries CE. Found in places as diverse as Syria, Spain, Egypt, and Armenia, they include an alleged descendant of Muhammad who converted to Christianity, high-ranking Christian secretaries of the Muslim state who viciously insulted the Prophet, and the children of mixed marriages between Muslims and Christians. Sahner argues that Christians never experienced systematic persecution under the early caliphs, and indeed, they remained the largest portion of the population in the greater Middle East for centuries after the Arab conquest. Still, episodes of ferocious violence contributed to the spread of Islam within Christian societies, and memories of this bloodshed played a key role in shaping Christian identity in the new Islamic empire.
Christian Martyrs under Islam examines how violence against Christians ended the age of porous religious boundaries and laid the foundations for more antagonistic Muslim-Christian relations in the centuries to come.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Syriac World

One of the biggest and most significant developments in Eastern Christian studies in the postwar period is the rise of great interest in and attention to the Syriac Christian tradition, led by first-rate scholars such as Sebastian Brock of Oxford, Sidney Griffith of CUA, and Susan Ashbrook Harvey at Brown; and now by a new young generation of scholars, including Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, whom I interviewed here about her book.

Early this fall we will have a hefty new collection that gives a very wide-ranging treatment to diverse aspects of The Syriac World, ed. Daniel King (Routledge, 2018), 840 pages.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
This volume surveys the "Syriac world", the culture that grew up among the Syriac-speaking communities from the 2nd century CE and which continues to exist and flourish today, both in its original homeland of Syria and Mesopotamia, and in the worldwide diaspora of Syriac-speaking communities. The five sections examine the religion; the material, visual and literary cultures; history and social structures of this diverse community; and Syriac interactions with their neighbours ancient and modern. There are also detailed appendices examining the patriarchs of the eastern church as well as the relationship between western Syrians and the Maphrians. The last appendix lists useful online resources for students.
The Syriac World offers the first complete survey of Syriac culture and fills a significant gap in modern scholarship. This volume will be an invaluable resource for undergraduate and postgraduate students of Syriac and Middle Eastern culture from antiquity to the modern era.
And we are given a detailed table of contents:
 List of Figures

List of Tables

List of Maps

List of Contributors




Part 1: Backgrounds

The Eastern Provinces of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity (Muriel Debié)
The Sasanian Persian Empire (Touraj Daryaee)

Part 2: The Syriac World in Late Antiquity

The pre-Christian Religions of the Syriac-speaking Regions (John F. Healey)
The Coming of Christianity to Mesopotamia (David G. K. Taylor)
Early Forms of the Religious Life and Syriac Monasticism (Florence Jullien)
The Establishment of the Syriac Churches in the Fifth-Sixth Centuries (Volker Menze)
The Syriac church denominations: an overview (Dietmar W. Winkler)
The Syriac Church in the Persian Empire (Geoffrey Herman)
Judaism and Syriac Christianity (Michal Bar-Asher Siegal)
Syriac and Syrians in the Later Roman Empire: Questions of Identity (Nathanael Andrade)
Early Syriac Reactions to the Rise of Islam (Michael Penn)
The Church of the East in the ʿAbassid Era (David Wilmshurst)

Part 3: The Syriac Language

The Syriac Language in the Context of the Semitic Languages (Holger Gzella)
The Classical Syriac Language (Aaron Butts)
Writing Syriac: Manuscripts and Inscriptions (Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet)
The Neo-Aramaic Dialects and their Historical Background (Gefforey Khan)

Part 4: Syriac Literary, Artistic and Material Culture in Late Antiquity

The Syriac Bible and its Interpretation (Jonathan Loopstra)
The Emergence of Syriac Literature to AD400 (Ute Possekel)
Later Syriac Poetry (Sebastian P. Brock)
Syriac Hagiographic Literature (Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent)
The Mysticism of the Church of the East (Adrian Pirtea)
Theological Doctrines and Debates within Syriac Christianity (Theresia Hainthaler)
The Liturgies of the Syriac Churches (Baby Varghese)
Historiography in the Syriac-speaking World 300-1000 (Philip Wood)
Syriac Philosophy (John W. Watt)
Syriac Medicine (Grigory Kessel)
The Material Culture of the Syrian Peoples in Late Antiquity and the Evidence for Syrian Wall Paintings (Emma Loosley)
Churches in Syriac space: architectural and liturgical context and development (Widad Khoury)
Women and Children in Syriac Christianity: Sounding Voices (Susan Ashbrook Harvey)
Syriac Agriculture 300-1250 (Michael Decker)

Part 5: Syriac Christianity beyond the Ancient World

Syriac Christianity in Central Asia (Mark Dickens)
Syriac Christianity in China (Hidemi Takahashi)
Syriac Christianity in India (Istvan Perczel)
The Renaissance of Syriac Literature in the 12th-13th centuries (Dorothea Weltecke and Helen Younansardaroud)
Syriac in a Diverse Middle East: From the Mongol Ilkhanate to Ottoman Dominance, 1286-1517 (Thomas A. Carlson)
The Maronite Church in the Middle Ages and Modern Times (Shafiq Abouzayd)
The Early Study of Syriac in Europe (Robert J. Wilkinson)
Syriac Identity in the Modern Era (Heleen Murre Van den Berg)
Changing Demography: Christians in Iraq since 1991 (Erica Hunter)


I The Patriarchs of the Church of the East

II West Syrian Patriarchs and Maphrians

III Online Resources for the Study of the Syriac World

Index to Maps

Subject Index

Monday, July 16, 2018

Hindu and Orthodox Iconology

The last few decades have seen a slow but steady increase in inter-religious dialogue between Orthodoxy and other traditions. Oftentimes Orthodoxy is the last great Christian tradition to enter such dialogues, Catholics and Protestants having been involved in such endeavors for many decades before Orthodoxy.

A recently published book puts Orthodoxy into conversation with a tradition from the far East: The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs by Christine Mangala Frost  (James Clarke & Co., 2017), 368pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Despite the history that divides them, Hinduism and Orthodox Christianity have much in common. In The Human Icon, Christine Mangala Frost explores how both religions seek to realise the divine potential of every human being, and the differences in their approach. Frost, who has experienced both the extraordinary riches and the all-too-human failings of Hinduism and Orthodox Christianity from the inside, is perfectly placed to examine the convergences and divergences between the two faiths. Inspired by a desire to clear up the misunderstandings that exist between the two, The Human Icon is a study in how two faiths, superficially dissimilar, can nevertheless find meeting points everywhere. The powerful intellectual and spiritual patristic traditions of Orthodox Christianity offer a rare tool for revitalising too-often stalled dialogue with Hinduism and present the chance for a broader and more diverse understanding of the oldest religion in the world. Tracing the long history of Orthodox Christianity in India, from the Thomas Christians of ancient times to the distinctive theology of Paulos Mar Gregorios and the Kottayam School, Frost explores the impact of Hindu thought on Indian Christianity and considers the potential for confluence. With a breadth of interest that spans Hindu bhakti, Orthodox devotional theology, Vedānta and theosis, as well as meditational Yoga and hesychastic prayer, Frost offers a fresh perspective on how the devotees of both faiths approach the ideal of divinisation, and presents a thoughtful, modern methodology for a dialogue of life.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sins of the Turkish Fathers

I recently noted yet another publication devoted to the long-term psychological effects of the Armenian Genocide. And then Herder and Herder, now published by Crossroad, sent me their newest catalogue in which we find a book released this year: The Sins of the Fathers: Turkish Denialism and the Armenian Genocide by Siobhan Nash-Marshall  (Crossroad, 2018), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
We hear much talk today about post-truth. Journalists and intellectuals describe it as a shocking new phenomenon caused by recent electoral campaigns. They point to contemporary political statements as horrendous post-truths. Nothing is more misleading. ‘Historical engineering’ is not a new phenomenon. Nor are the events to which journalists point as exemplary instances of ‘post-truth’ particularly poignant. ‘Historical engineering’ is the intellectual twin of ‘social engineering’ and has been taking place on increasingly large scales since the dawn of the modern world. It is a consequence of the premises, methods, and ambitions of modern philosophy. This book is the first part of a trilogy – The Betrayal of Philosophy – that concerns the roots of the post-truth phenomenon. Its intent is to provide the philosophical world with a phantasm in which it can see not just the what of ‘historical engineering,’ but the why: to show the flaws of modern philosophy itself. The phantasm regards the most successful modern project of historical and social engineering: the Armenian Genocide. It includes both Turkey’s ‘historical engineering’ – its official policy of genocide negation – and the massive late Ottoman project of social and territorial engineering which led to the murder of the first Christian nation: Armenia.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On Misunderstanding Sacrifice

I have just finished reading and being edified by Terry Eagleton's newest book, Radical Sacrifice (Yale UP, 2018), 204pp.

Eagleton, for those who don't know him, is a wide-ranging and prolific theorist, literary scholar, and cultural critic who comes out of that always-fascinating world of the post-war British left. But unlike others whom one might mention here--the late Christopher Hitchens, say, or the tiresome pamphleteer Richard Dawkins--Eagleton has a Catholic background which shows up in some of his many books, including this one, where his grasp of both Scripture and theology is impressive and far outstrips many other academics who try to write about these matters.

In this regard, he is part of the world shaped by the late Herbert McCabe, and still populated by the great Alasdair MacIntyre. All three of these men, in ways that seem depressingly rare, understand the radical nature of the gospels and the fact that, properly understood and lived, Christianity is revolutionary in overturning so much of the neoliberal capitalism and violence of our world today. All three have sought to show (as, discussing McCabe and MacIntyre, I also did a bit here and here; and as Dorothy Day also did--for more on her see the book that Lance Richey and I edited for the splendidly named Solidarity Hall Press) that the relationship between Christianity and Marxism is far less antagonistic than has often been portrayed.

Christianity, as Eagleton, McCabe, MacIntyre, and Day have helped us to see, is also far more critical of the capitalistic world than most Christians realize. Every Christian, instead of making placards with John 3:16 on them to wave at sports events, should instead write this to chasten and harrow players (and their corporate sponsors) making millions for whacking balls and pucks around: "Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them." If they have especially big placards, they can put the whole quote from MacIntyre:
Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often enough been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities.
Getting back to Eagleton's new book, I would note that among its several virtues, it makes some necessary and, it seems to me, overdue criticisms of parts of Girard's theories about sacrifice, mimesis, and the scapegoat. Eagleton, greatly respecting Girard's insights and achievements, nonetheless rightly says that, inter alia, Girard often greatly exaggerates, provides too few concrete historical examples, and ignores questions of class.

Eagleton begins by noting that the notion of sacrifice is too little understood today and too often derided based on narrow, incomplete, or outright faulty notions. So the first part of the book is an exercise in clearing the ground to help us move beyond the idea that sacrifice means nothing more than "the voluntary relinquishing of what one finds valuable. But renunciation is only one feature of sacrifice, and not always the most prominent" (3). As he goes on to say, "sacrifice cannot be reduced to self-denial" (4). It is, rather, a "polythetic term, encompassing a range of activities that have no single feature in common." If this is true in general, a fortiori it is so in Christianity where it "spans a number of activities (praise, thanksgiving, prayer, witness, peacemaking, dedication to God and the like)" (6).

What makes Christian notions and practices of sacrifice even more unique, as Eagleton notes later in the book, is their lavish, superabundant, extravagant, and promiscuous nature: turning the other cheek, returning good for evil, blessing those who curse us, forgiving seventy times seven, etc. In doing all these things, Christians are engaged in "eschatological forms of excess--absurdist, avant-gardist, over-the-top gestures foreshadowing a future in which exchange-value will have been surpassed for what Paul Ricoeur terms 'an economy of superabundance'" (104).

Incidentally, this theme of superabundance puts me in mind of Hans Urs von Balthasar's winsome sermon for Trinity Sunday that I have often read to my students over the years where he says:
God is not a sealed fortress, to be attacked and seized by our engines of war (ascetic practices, meditative techniques, and the like) but a house full of open doors, through which we are invited to walk. In the Castle of the Three-in-One, the plan has always been that we, those who are entirely "other," shall participate in the superabundant communion of life. 
With an eye on anthropological work, especially that of another fascinating British Catholic and highly regarded scholar, Mary Douglas (whose book, Natural Symbols, should be required reading for liturgists, inter alia), Eagleton looks at sacrifice in a number of cultures, ancient and modern, and finds there common themes of power and the exchange of powers, especially with a divine figure or figures. There is, here and elsewhere, a paradox at work: to sacrifice something is in some instances to be able to go on to possess it more deeply later and in different ways. So what looks like a loss initially is often but the gateway to a much deeper and more powerful grasp of it, or by it, later on.

With a second eye on the Old Testament in particular, Eagleton notes that it generally takes a dim if not hostile view of sacrifice at least insofar as it is thought to be a means of averting God's gaze from injustice or a cheap trinket thought to appease divine wrath in the face of unchanged and unjust behavior. (See, e.g., much of Jeremiah or Micah.) This leads Eagleton on, in the next chapter, to argue that sacrifice-as-suffering cannot be blithely endorsed for others to endure, let alone forced to volunteer for: "Jesus never once counsels the diseased and disabled who flock around him to reconcile themselves to their misfortune" (38).

This is an especially important thing for Catholics to hear who may be inclined, as the Church often is, towards a passive siding with reactionary regimes whose injustices are downplayed while people are told to "offer up" various sacrifices of poverty, human rights, and injustice. In doing so, Christianity, whether inadvertently or not, presses its ascetical tradition into the service of profit and the violence that so often attends profiteers and capitalists: "Asceticism, Marx considers, is an integral part of a profit-driven social order" (180, referring to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). (For more on this, see my notion of an "ascetical politics" which I discussed in three parts here by drawing on the fascinating and valuable work of Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis.)

But that is not to say that voluntary acceptance of injustice and suffering is without merit. Indeed, in the example of Christ Himself voluntarily accepting the horrors of arrest, torture, and crucifixion, we come once again to the notion of sacrifice as an exchange of powers enabling one to go far deeper and far beyond what one otherwise could have done. Here Mary Douglas is pressed into service, when she notes (in Purity and Danger) that "when someone freely embraces the symbols of death, or death itself,...a great release of power for good should be expected to follow." Nowhere is that more true than in the case of Christ.

In addition to his work on Marx, Eagleton has also read Freud (and Lacan, inter alia) very perceptively, which most people today seem incapable of doing. This allows him to say--without, alas, developing it to the extent I wished--that the silence of the Father faced with His Son on the Cross "may be compared to the silence of the psychoanalyst who refuses the role of Big Other or transcendental guarantor" (41). (One thing it took me a long time on the couch to realize was that such silence was not neglect or lack of interest on the part of the remarkable woman who was my analyst. It was, rather, the very condition of freedom, and a very necessary reminder that the responsibility for the authorship of our lives must not mindlessly be handed over to others, tempting though that often is for many of us--cf. both Fromm and Winnicott on this point--as well as Adam Phillips.)

Here as elsewhere, Eagleton, discussing notions of sin, puts these Christian theological claims into dialogue with Freud and his notion of the death drive. Picking up a theme--that of desire--that one finds increasingly today in a good deal of work in philosophy, theology, and psychology, Eagleton notes that "desire itself can become ritualized and automated, assuming all the coercive, anonymous force of a law. If Freud names this condition neurosis, Paul gives it the title of sin, which he regards as a matter of the unconscious. When I sin, he writes in Romans, 'I do not understand my own actions'" (47). In this light, sin is a fake floor or false consciousness that prevents us from having access to and "being aware of our true desire" (48).

Eagleton, however, later turns the death drive around in a way that perhaps only a Christian could to argue that "there is a sense in which the death drive, striving to defeat the flow of temporality with its compulsive repetitions, represents a way of being undead, and so lies on the side of the living" (95).

Monday, July 9, 2018

Iconography in the Western Church

Today is the first full day of "Beauty Will Save the World!", a camp for high-school students I am running on the campus of the University of Saint Francis this week. Twenty-five students from five states are attending the second such camp we have run thanks to a grant I secured from the Lilly Endowment. Last year's went fantastically well, and we are even more confident for this year. The grant runs another two years at least, so if you have kids who would be interested, send me an e-mail (adeville@sf.edu) and I can put you on the list to receive word about next year's camp.

The centerpiece of the week is a workshop in Byzantine iconography taught by the lovely and talented Lorie Herbel, wife of the Orthodox priest and scholar Fr Oliver Herbel (whose book you must read!).

They will also be reading Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacrament Encounter by the lovely and talented Sr. Jeana Visel. You can read my review of this hugely helpful and important book here. It is very affordable; and if you are Roman Catholic and can spare it, buy an extra copy and give it to your priest or bishop.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Transgenerational Trauma: The Armenian Genocide Considered

To my mind one of the most important and far-reaching insights Freud first helped us to understand, and many analysts--as well as other psychologists, sociologists, historians, and churchmen--have deepened in the years after Freud (and in particular after the Holocaust) is the long-lasting nature of major trauma, and the very real ways in which something of those traumatic memories will shape later generations who did not experience the trauma directly.

In this instance, Eastern Christians have first-hand experience, starting in 1915 (though, of course, actually much earlier, given a centuries-long trail of blood and tears among Armenian Christians, subject to periodic mass slaughters under the Ottomans) with the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocides. The first of these was the largest, and has attracted a good deal of attention in the last two decades. Now that a century and more has passed, and all survivors are dead, the memories and effects of the genocide are not, as a new book reminds us: Anthonie Holslag, The Transgenerational Consequences of the Armenian Genocide: Near the Foot of Mount Ararat (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 291pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This book brings together the Armenian Genocide process and its transgenerational outcome, which are often juxtaposed in existing scholarship, to ask how the Armenian Genocide is conceptualized and placed within diasporic communities. Taking a dual approach to answer this question, Anthonie Holslag studies the cultural expression of violence during the genocidal process itself, and in the aftermath for the victims. By using this approach, this book allows us to see comparatively how genocide in diasporic communities in the Netherlands, London and the US is encapsulated in an historic narrative. It paints a picture of the complexity of genocidal violence itself, but also in its transgenerational and non-spatial consequences, raising new questions of how violence can be perpetuated or interlocked with the discourse and narratives of the victims, and how the violence can be relived.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Mohammad as Heretic, Islam as Heresy: Some Latin Views

If you survey the history of Christian thought on Islam, you find in the first millennium a question sometimes posed: is "Islam" just a heretical offshoot of Christianity--a strange kind of Arianism in Arab dress, say? Clearly some Christians, both Greek and Latin, thought that what we today call Islam was not a separate tradition but an unorthodox derivative of Christianity.

Some of those views are gathered together in a new book: Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad, trans. Julian Yolles and Jessica Weiss (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2018), 712pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians wrote about Islam and the life of Muhammad. These stories, ranging from the humorous to the vitriolic, both informed and warned audiences about what was regarded as a schismatic form of Christianity. Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad covers nearly five centuries of Christian writings on the prophet, including accounts from the farthest-flung reaches of medieval Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Byzantine Empire. Over time, authors portrayed Muhammad in many guises, among them: Theophanes’s influential ninth-century chronicle describing the prophet as the heretical leader of a Jewish conspiracy; Embrico of Mainz’s eleventh-century depiction of Muhammad as a former slave who is manipulated by a magician into performing unholy deeds; and Walter of Compiègne’s twelfth-century presentation of the founder of Islam as a likable but tricky serf ambitiously seeking upward social mobility.
The prose, verse, and epistolary texts in Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad help trace the persistence of old clichés as well as the evolution of new attitudes toward Islam and its prophet in Western culture. This volume brings together a highly varied and fascinating set of Latin narratives and polemics never before translated into English.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Why Study the Past?

To my horror, my students have often complained in my courses on the history of interactions between Eastern Christians and Muslims that "there's too much history" in the books we read. That, however, is, I'm relieved to note, a complaint that usually comes about one-third, or no more than one-half, of the way through the semester. By the time we get to the end of the semester, they note, with a charming mixture of relief and chagrin, that the history has been well worth it to understand the whole picture we are looking at in 2018.

I do not know what history they are learning, or what they are learning about historiography, if anything, in their prior schooling. But it seems universally to be appallingly thin stuff if my posing random questions of them, and being met with utterly blank stares, is any indication. I mean by this what I regard as the basic understanding of any moderately schooled and sensate person: e.g., when was the First World War? If such general history escapes them, Christian history does so a fortiori. But here ignorance is combined with disbelief and disdain: whadday mean they punched each other up at Nicaea over doctrine, or the churches divided bitterly after Chalcedon? Nobody understands that stuff and nobody cares! 

This is just a preface to say that I'm glad to see, from the fall 2018 catalogue Eerdmans sent me last week, that they are bringing out a new edition of Rowan Williams' welcome book, Why Study the Past: the Quest for the Historical Church. Williams, of course, is not just the retired archbishop of Canterbury, but one of the United Kingdom's leading scholars of the Christian East (and much else), and has been for decades, author of, inter alia, books on icons, Dostoevsky, and much else besides.

You can, for the time being, find inexpensive copies of the 2005 edition of Why Study the Past here. The description has not changed:

The well-worn saying about being condemned to repeat the history we do not know applies to church history as much as to any other kind. But how are Christians supposed to discern what lessons from history need to be learned?
In this small but thoughtful volume, respected theologian and churchman Rowan Williams opens up a theological approach to history, an approach that is both nonpartisan and relevant to the church's present needs. As he reflects on how we consider the past in general, Williams suggests that how we consider church history in particular remains important not so much for winning arguments as for clarifying who we are as time-bound human beings. Good history is a moral affair, he advises, because it opens up a point of reference that is distinct from us yet not wholly alien. The past can then enable us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about our identity in the often confusing present.

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