"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, November 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.

Monastic Experiences in Byzantium

The University of Notre Dame Press catalogue for spring 2019 has just been released, and in it we spy such forthcoming gems as Alice-Mary Talbot, Varieties of Monastic Experience in Byzantium, 800-1453 (April, 2019), 292pp. For those who follow the academic study of Byzantium in North America, Talbot's name is very familiar as the director emerita of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and editor of the Byzantine Greek series of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library in which she has published such works as Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Saints' Lives in English Translation as well as Holy Men of Mt. Athos, inter alia.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In this unprecedented introduction to Byzantine monasticism, based on the Conway Lectures she delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2014, Alice-Mary Talbot surveys the various forms of monastic life in the Byzantine Empire between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. It includes chapters on male monastic communities (mostly cenobitic, but some idiorrhythmic in late Byzantium), nuns and nunneries, hermits and holy mountains, and a final chapter on alternative forms of monasticism, including recluses, stylites, wandering monks, holy fools, nuns disguised as monks, and unaffiliated monks and nuns.
This original monograph does not attempt to be a history of Byzantine monasticism but rather emphasizes the multiplicity of ways in which Byzantine men and women could devote their lives to service to God, with an emphasis on the tension between the two basic modes of monastic life, cenobitic and eremitic. It stresses the individual character of each Byzantine monastic community in contrast to the monastic orders of the Western medieval world, and yet at the same time demonstrates that there were more connections between certain groups of monasteries than previously realized. The most original sections include an in-depth analysis of the challenges facing hermits in the wilderness, and special attention to enclosed monks (recluses) and urban monks and nuns who lived independently outside of monastic complexes. Throughout, Talbot highlights some of the distinctions between the monastic life of men and women, and makes comparisons of Byzantine monasticism with its Western medieval counterpart.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

St Cyprian of Carthage and the College of Bishops

Does anyone today like bishops, or see them as anything other than a corrupt bunch of self-serving gangsters and sexual abusers? If your local one is okay, what about his being yoked to his brothers? Can the Church retreat into local structures and communities and ignore the wider corruption? If not, what should we do then?

These are not new questions, as we see in a new book, St. Cyprian of Carthage and the College of Bishops by Benjamin Safranski (Fortress Academic, 2018), 250pp. I am especially gratified to see how much this new book is indebted to Afanasiev, who is no stranger to these parts.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
This book assesses episcopal cooperation as envisioned by the third-century bishop Cyprian of Carthage. It outlines and assesses the interactions between local bishops, provincial groups of bishops, and the worldwide college. Assessing these interactions sheds light on the relationship between Cyprian’s strong sense of local autonomy and the reality that each bishop was responsible to the world-wide college. Episcopal consensus was the sine qua non, for Cyprian, for a major issue of faith or practice to become one that defined membership in the college and, ultimately, the Church.
The book brings this assessment into a modern scholarly debate by concluding with an evaluation of the ecclesiology of the Orthodox scholar Nicolas Afanasiev and his critiques of Cyprian. Afanasiev lamented Cyprian as the father of universal ecclesiology and claimed that Cyprian’s college wielded authority above that of the local bishop. This book argues that Afanasiev fundamentally misconstrued Cyprian’s understanding of collegiality. It is shown that, for Cyprian, collegiality was the framework for the common ministry of the bishops and did not infringe on the sovereignty of the local bishop. Rather, it was the college’s collective duty to define the boundaries of acceptable Christian belief and practice.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Slavoj Žižek and Christianity

Routledge is one of the most important publishers around today, especially in the fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and theology, all of which come together in this newly released volume, Slavoj Žižek and Christianity, edited by Sotiris Mitralexis and Dionysios Skliris (2018), vii+230pp.

And for those who do not know him, Žižek  is also one of the most important figures writing today at the intersection of those three disciplines. His work comes in for scrutiny and dialogue in this volume, which features contributions from several Eastern Christians, and those conversant in recent developments in Eastern Christian theology.

The editors do a nice job in the introduction explaining the relevance of engaging a man who identifies as a Marxist communist atheist, but who nonetheless maintains that there is much of value in Christian theology for both philosophy and psychoanalysis. Moreover, Žižek offers a welcome critique of Christianity which helps it recover its emancipatory power and potential outside of its too-frequent institutionalization and accommodation to imperial and other worldly powers.

In his chapter, "From Psychoanalysis to Metamorphosis," Brian Becker pursues a line very much in keeping with what I have been arguing for several years now: theology and psychoanalysis need each other and have much to offer each other, not least in dealing with questions of finitude and uncertainty stemming from unconscious ideas and desires. When we approach limits, as analysis certainly does in its confrontation with what is not known because not conscious, theology offers a way forward beyond the impasse. Becker makes use of a number of interesting sources in his chapter, including John Zizioulas's Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church.

In his chapter,"Pacifist Pluralism vs. Militant Truth," Haralambos Ventis of the University of Athens also notes, as several other authors do, the similarities of Marxist and Christian critiques of social structures. Here Ventis draws on the fascinating figure of Cornelius Castoriadis  and his landmark book The Imaginary Institution of Society (The MIT Press, 1998), as well as a whole cast of other equally fascinating and influential figures, including Terry Eagleton (The Illusions of Postmodernism). the father of modern hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur (especially in his Oneself as Another), and the widely influential moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who should need no introduction around these parts. Ventis in particular draws on MacIntyre's under-appreciated 1999 book Dependent Rational Animals, which I have sometimes used with undergraduates, who find it an easier introduction than After Virtue

There is much in this chapter that is also connected to very recent and ongoing debates over the supposed terminal decline of liberalism today. Here Ventis draws on a number of contemporary Greek Orthodox theologians, including Pantelis Kalaitzidis, author of Orthodoxy and Political Theology.

The author concludes very succinctly and soberly by noting that "leftist" critics of Christianity are useful in reminding the latter of its duty to work against injustice and to repent of those many times when the Church has sided with those perpetuating injustice against, e.g., the poor. But equally he reminds those critics that they cannot abandon eschatology to create the Kingdom of God on earth for any and all attempts at doing so end up "creating hell."

In Bruce Kajewski's short but really intriguing chapter, "Murder at the Vicarage," he draws out the relationship between Žižek and Chesterton of all people, especially in the latter's fictional character Fr. Brown, the priest who solves murder mysteries and other crimes. (The BBC rendition of some of those stories, available on Netflix, has been a source of delight to my children. It often guts much of the theology, but does not make a total hash of things--although its liturgical scenes are absurdly anachronistic.) The chapter makes some bracing claims, but could have done with further elaboration, especially of what it calls "the linkage among violence, capitalism, and Christianity."

In his chapter, "Žižek and the Dwarf: A Short-Circuit Radical Theology," Mike Grimshaw looks at and situates himself as part of Žižek's idea of a "community of the Holy Spirit," a community that consists in part of atheists who have rejected the idea of God as a Big Other, and who want almost nothing to do with the conservative, reactionary and often self-serving institutions of Christianity like the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Rather, this community wants to be part of the "ethics of revolutionary love." Grimshaw's title and chapter is obviously heavily indebted to The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity as well as to The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?

Both of those books are by Žižek, who provides a brief Afterword to Slavoj Žižek and Christianity.It starts off with a bracing engagement of Pope Francis, moves almost immediately to the moral implications of the murder of Reinhard Heydrich, and then looks at the lessons of the book of Job--all in the context of considering the role of temptation and its relationship to the good. Žižek sees the book of Job as the first systematic critique of ideology and its tendency to rationalize meaningless suffering. This is wonderfully bracing stuff, and it only gets better.

Žižek, far from being bothered by the idiocies in Job and other parts of the Bible, says Christianity must keep them: "they are the very stuff which confers on Christianity the unbearable tensions of a true life" (222).

From here, he concludes on a note that will irk a lot of Eastern Christians (and those in the West increasingly coming to appreciate deification): he denounces theosis/deification/divinization. I won't give away what he says, but it's a definitive declaration made in his fulgurating style before lighting on to another topic and then quickly ending.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Religious Minorities in the Middle East

It's been out for almost a year, but I just came across a collection of articles, The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East, edited by John Eibner and published last year by Lexington Books (276pp.).

Other books and collections that treat this topic do not seem to have the wide-ranging scope of this one, which I'm looking forward to reading.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East addresses the domestic and international politics that have created conditions for contemporary religious cleansing in the Middle East. It provides a platform for a host of distinguished scholars, journalists, human rights activists, and political practitioners. The contributors come from diverse political, cultural, and religious backgrounds; each one drawing on a deep wellspring of scholarship, experience, sobriety, and passion. Collectively, they make a major contribution to understanding the dynamics of the mortal threat to the social pluralism upon which the survival of religious minorities depends.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Augustine's Confessions: A New Translation

Augustine of Hippo occupies a famously ambivalent place in certain Eastern Christian circles. As a rough rule of thumb, one may estimate that the higher the percentage of polemics he attracts from Orthodox, the higher the certainty that he has never been read comprehensively in original critical editions. Instead, like other major Western figures--one thinks immediately of Anselm and Aquinas in this regard--he has been traduced by ignorant apologists. Much of this was addressed in a volume that's been out for a decade now, but remains absolutely crucial: Orthodox Readings of Augustine, eds.  George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou (Fordham University Press, 2008).

But regardless of what one thinks of Augustine's theology--if, indeed, one can use such a term and assume thereby to have captured something simple and singular in so vast a corpus of writings--he has profoundly shaped the world we live in through his City of God as well as his Confessions--to say nothing of myriad other works. And no person considering oneself reasonably educated in antique literature can ignore The Confessions, which have, of course, often been described as the first major Western "autobiography" or reflection on one's inner life. They may be that, but they are much more than that.

They have also been regularly released in translation from major and minor scholars. Along comes another new translation which is the subject of a searching and laudatory review by Adam Phillips (who always attracts attention in these parts) in a recent edition of the London Review of Books which I read with great interest. While recognizing the uses of other major translators (including especially that of Henry Chadwick), Phillips commends to us Confessions: A New Translation by Peter Constantine (Liveright, 2018), 368pp. He notes that Constantine's translation helps us more sharply realize just how unreliable language is in and for Augustine, and how inadequate all our attempts to describe our searching for and desiring of Him who is beyond our categories of language and being.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
No modern, well-versed literature lover can call her education complete without having read Augustine’s Confessions. One of the most original works of world literature, it is the first autobiography ever written, influencing writers from Montaigne to Rousseau, Virginia Woolf to Gertrude Stein―and most recently informing Stephen Greenblatt’s provocative thesis about one of our foundational mythologies in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. It is here that we learn how one of the greatest saints in Christendom overcame a wild and reckless past, complete with a rambunctious posse of friends, an overly doting mother, and an affair that produced a “bastard” child. Yet English translators have long emphasized the ecclesiastical virtues of Augustine’s masterpiece, often at the expense of its passion and literary vigor. Restoring the lyricism of Augustine’s original language, Peter Constantine offers a masterful and elegant rendering of Confessions in what will be a classic for decades to come.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

But the End of the Beginning: on the Centenary of the End of the Great War

More than five years ago now, I noted that the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War was already occasioning a slew of new books from publishers. Without in any way pretending to be an historian of that conflict in all its complexity, I have nonetheless read a great deal for many years now, some of it connected with lectures I gave on the centenary of the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides of 1915 at the hands of the Ottomans. I am convinced, as many other historians are, that the First World War shaped everything that came after it, and shapes us still. The person who has argued this most persuasively--at least among those I have read--is the Cambridge historian David Reynolds, particularly in the book, The Long Shadow, which I noted here.

In anticipation of today's anniversary of the end of the fighting, I recently finished a book that has been out for some time: Joseph Persico, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax (Random House, 2004). It's a not bad book, though its format takes some getting used to as the author jumps back and forth, sketching individual characters or units on 11 November 1918 and then earlier in the war to see where they were, how they changed, and whether they survived to the end or not.

A just-released book also focuses on this particular day: Guy Cuthbertson, Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day 1918 (Yale UP, 2018), 304pp. I look forward to reading it.

One of the men in Persico's book, as he is of course in myriad others, is General Haig, a man for whom it is almost impossible to have any sympathy. (I have, I suppose, been influenced in my judgment by the ferocious attack on British army leaders in The Donkeys by Alan Clark--he of the uproarious diaries.) Haig is featured in a new study released this spring by Jonathan Boff, Haig's Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany's War on the Western Front (OUP, 2018).

Boff's book is featured in the history catalogue sent to me in October from Oxford University Press. In it they are featuring a number of new and forthcoming books connected to the end of the war.

Coming out early next year is Owen Davies, A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War (OUP, 2019), 304pp. About this book the publisher tells us the following:
It was a commonly expressed view during the First World War that the conflict had seen a major revival of "superstitious" beliefs and practices.
Churches expressed concerns about the wearing of talismans and amulets, the international press paid considerable interest to the pronouncements of astrologers and prophets, and the authorities in several countries periodically clamped down on fortune tellers and mediums due to concerns over their effect on public morale. Out on the battlefields, soldiers of all nations sought to protect themselves through magical and religious rituals, and, on the home front, people sought out psychics and occult practitioners for news of the fate of their distant loved ones or communication with their spirits. Even away from concerns about the war, suspected witches continued to be abused and people continued to resort to magic and magical practitioners for personal protection, love, and success.
Uncovering and examining beliefs, practices, and contemporary opinions regarding the role of the supernatural in the war years, Owen Davies explores the broader issues regarding early twentieth-century society in the West, the psychology of the supernatural during wartime, and the extent to which the war cast a spotlight on the widespread continuation of popular belief in magic. A Supernatural War reveals the surprising stories of extraordinary people in a world caught up with the promise of occult powers.
Davies' book immediately puts me in mind of a similar study, that of Phillip Jenkins' The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, which was published in 2014. It is a fascinating book I have often recommended to others and returned to many times, not least for its insight that Catholics, so hysterical about some apparent happenings in some obscure Portuguese village, were far from alone in claiming divine apparitions: it was a game that everybody got in on, with French atheists in foxholes claiming visions of their dead comrades in arms; Russian Orthodox peasants claiming divine visions; staid German Lutherans and English Anglicans also had their own supposed apparitions; and even Muslims were also claiming to have had visions.

Another book just out this month will also disabuse us of common assumptions today about the supposed origins of "fake news" under Trump. Au contraire, as Gill Bennett suggests in The Zinoviev Letter: the Conspiracy that Never Dies. About this book Oxford tells us this:
This is the story of one of the most enduring conspiracy theories in British politics, an intrigue that still has resonance nearly a century after it was written: the Zinoviev Letter of 1924. Almost certainly a forgery, no original has ever been traced, and even if genuine it was probably Soviet fake news. Despite this, the Letter still haunts British politics nearly a century after it was written, the subject of major Whitehall investigations in the 1960s and 1990s, and cropping up in the media as recently as during the Referendum campaign and the 2017 general election.
The Letter, encouraging the British proletariat to greater revolutionary fervor, was apparently sent by Grigori Zinoviev, head of the Bolshevik propaganda organization, to the British Communist Party in September 1924. Sent to London through British Secret Intelligence Service channels, it arrived during the general election campaign and was leaked to the press. The Letter's publication by the Daily Mail on October 25th 1924 just before the General Election humiliated the first ever British Labour government, headed by Ramsay MacDonald, when its political opponents used it to create a "Red Scare" in the media. Labour blamed the Letter for its defeat, insisting there had been a right-wing establishment conspiracy, and many in the Labour Party have never forgotten it. 
The Zinoviev Letter has long been a symbol of political dirty tricks and what we would now call "fake news". But it is also a gripping historical detective story of spies and secrets, fraud and forgery, international subversion and the nascent global conflict between communism and capitalism.
When the war ended, the armistice was of course signed at Versailles. That treaty is the subject of a recent Oxford UP book by Michael Neiberg, The Treaty of Versailles: A Concise History. I look forward to reading it in due course.

But Versailles was preceded by half a year of hard slogging among various powers in Paris. That process was covered by the superlative and unsurpassable book by  Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. which I have read three times with delight. It has justly won several awards.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Christianity in Iraq in the 15th Century

If nothing else has come out of the disaster which Iraq has been for fifteen years now since the neo-imperial American invasion, perhaps one might find some glimmer of good in the slightly increased (relatively speaking) awareness by American Christians of the age-old Christian presence in that country and surrounding region. Much of that Christian population has, of course, been destroyed since the war of 2003; much of it has fled. In his very useful new book Ecumenism of Blood, about which more another time, Hugh Somerville Knapman notes that in 2003 there were "1.4 million Christians" in Iraq, but by 2016 that number was "reduced to 275,000."

That much-reduced population has long roots, and a book set for release at the end of December will focus on one period of that population's history: Thomas A. Carlson, Christianity in Fifteenth-Century Iraq (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization, 2018), 322pp.

About this book the publisher tells us the following:
Christians in fifteenth-century Iraq and al-Jazīra were socially and culturally home in the Middle East, practicing their distinctive religion despite political instability. This insightful book challenges the normative Eurocentrism of scholarship on Christianity and the Islamic exceptionalism of much Middle Eastern history to reveal the often unexpected ways in which inter-religious interactions were peaceful or violent in this region. The multifaceted communal self-concept of the 'Church of the East' (so-called 'Nestorians') reveals cultural integration, with certain distinctive features. The process of patriarchal succession clearly borrowed ideas from surrounding Christian and Muslim groups, while public rituals and communal history reveal specifically Christian responses to concerns shared with Muslim neighbors. Drawing on sources from various languages, including Arabic, Armenian, Persian, and Syriac, this book opens new possibilities for understanding the rich, diverse, and fascinating society and culture that existed in Iraq during this time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Marriage and Sex in Early Christianity

I confess to growing weariness with the endless focus on sexual issues today and the endless policing of and editorializing about the same. But I have none of those fears in approaching a new book by David Hunter, whom I know personally to be a first-rate scholar of antique Christianity, treating issues with the serene and objective regard that characterizes historical scholarship at its best.

He is the editor of the newly released collection, Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity (Fortress Press, 2018), 272pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us this:
Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity is part of Ad Fontes: Early Christian Sources, a series designed to present ancient Christian texts essential to an understanding of Christian theology, ecclesiology, and practice. The books in the series make the wealth of early Christian thought available to new generations of students of theology and provide a valuable resource for the church. Developed in light of recent patristic scholarship, the volumes provide a representative sampling of theological contributions from both East and West. The series provides volumes that are relevant for a variety of courses: from introduction to theology to classes on doctrine and the development of Christian thought. The goal of each volume is not to be exhaustive but rather to be representative enough to denote for a nonspecialist audience the multivalent character of early Christian thought, allowing readers to see how and why early Christian doctrine and practice developed the way it did.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Medieval Middle Eastern Christians

I've followed the work of the relatively young scholar Jack Tannous for some time, and been consistently impressed. So it is with eager anticipation that I look forward to the publication, next week, of his book The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers (Princeton University Press, 2018), 664pp.

Bearing a slew of impressive recommendations, including from the well-known Byzantinist Averil Cameron, this book, the publisher tells us, is
A bold new religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East that places ordinary Christians at the center of the story.
In the second half of the first millennium CE, the Christian Middle East fractured irreparably into competing churches and Arabs conquered the region, setting in motion a process that would lead to its eventual conversion to Islam. Jack Tannous argues that key to understanding these dramatic religious transformations are ordinary religious believers, often called “the simple” in late antique and medieval sources. Largely agrarian and illiterate, these Christians outnumbered Muslims well into the era of the Crusades, and yet they have typically been invisible in our understanding of the Middle East’s history.
What did it mean for Christian communities to break apart over theological disagreements that most people could not understand? How does our view of the rise of Islam change if we take seriously the fact that Muslims remained a demographic minority for much of the Middle Ages? In addressing these and other questions, Tannous provides a sweeping reinterpretation of the religious history of the medieval Middle East.
This provocative book draws on a wealth of Greek, Syriac, and Arabic sources to recast these conquered lands as largely Christian ones whose growing Muslim populations are properly understood as converting away from and in competition with the non-Muslim communities around them.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Art of Armenia

If you read my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, you will know that I have a special affection for the Armenian Church, whose structures are utterly singular in the Christian world for reasons I go into great detail about.

So Armenia continues to fascinate, and some day I should be delighted to visit that small country that has suffered so much slaughter of the last 1400 years and more.

Oxford University Press has recently published a book by Christine Maranci, The Art of Armenia: An Introduction (OUP, 2018), 272pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:
Though immediately recognizable in public discourse as a modern state in a political "hot zone," Armenia has a material history and visual culture that reaches back to the Paleolithic era. This book presents a timely and much-needed survey of the arts of Armenia from antiquity to the early eighteenth century C.E. Divided chronologically, it brings into discussion a wide range of media, including architecture, stone sculpture, works in metal, wood, and cloth, manuscript illumination, and ceramic arts. Critically, The Art of Armenia presents this material within historical and archaeological contexts, incorporating the results of specialist literature in various languages. It also positions Armenian art within a range of broader comparative contexts including, but not limited to, the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, Byzantium, the Islamic world, Yuan-dynasty China, and seventeenth-century Europe. The Art of Armenia offers students, scholars, and heritage readers of the Armenian community something long desired but never before available: a complete and authoritative introduction to three thousand years of Armenian art, archaeology, architecture, and design.
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