"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, August 9, 2019

A Very Short Introduction to Orthodox Christianity: An Interview with A.E. Siecienski

It is always an unfailing pleasure to read anything A.E. Siecienski writes.

We were on a panel together at IOTA in Romania in January and I learned a great deal from his fascinating paper, as I have learned a very great deal over the years from reading his books on the papacy and the filioque, both of which should be in every serious library. They are models of scholarship: comprehensive in their sources, judicious in their analysis, and cogent in their style and composition. I have returned to them often, and you will too if you have not managed to buy and read them yet.

He has another one just out, also from Oxford University Press, but this, by design, very different in size, style, and focus. As part of their long-running series of books "A Very Short Introduction," he brings us Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2019), 124pp. The book itself is scarcely bigger than my hand, so this is a very short and very small introduction, but no less worthwhile. (As OUP says: "The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.")

About this book in particular the publisher tells us this:
To many in the West, Orthodoxy remains shrouded in mystery, an exotic and foreign religion that survived in the East following the Great Schism of 1054 that split the Christian world into two camps--Catholic and Orthodox. However, as the second largest Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity is anything but foreign to the nearly 300 million worshippers who practice it. For them, Orthodoxy is a living, breathing reality; a way of being Christian ultimately rooted in the person of Jesus and the experience of the early Church. Whether they are Greek, Russian, or American, Orthodox Christians are united by a common tradition and faith that binds them together despite differences in culture. True, the road has not always been smooth -- Orthodox history is littered with tales of schisms and divisions, of persecutions and martyrdom, from the Sack of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, to the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet Union. Still, today Orthodoxy remains a vibrant part of the religious landscape, not only in those lands where it has made its historic home (Greece, Russia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe), but also increasingly in the West. Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction explores the enduring role of this religion, and the history, beliefs, and practices that have shaped it.
I've previously interviewed the author here. With the publication of this new book, I sent him some questions about it, and am delighted to reproduce his thoughts below.

AD: Tell us about your background

A.E. Siecienski: I am a New Jersey native, and received my BA in theology and government from Georgetown University in 1990. After graduation I attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where I received a STB and MDiv in 1995.  I earned my PhD in historical theology from Fordham University in 2005 and have been teaching at Stockton University since 2008, where I am Clement and Helen Pappas Endowed Professor of Byzantine Civilization and Religion.  I am married with two children, enjoy European football (COYS!) and am active in both my parish and local BSA troop.  And yes, I am Orthodox.

AD: Tell us what led you to this book, Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction

AES: The simple answer is that the editors at OUP asked me to do it, and I said yes.  It wasn’t something I planned on writing, since I was still working through my trilogy on East-West issues.  However, once I said yes I took a break from azymes, beards, and purgatory and started work.

AD: After writing two wide-ranging, lengthy, highly detailed historical works on the papacy and the filioque clearly intended for a scholarly audience, how difficult was it to shift gears and write a very different book like this—introductory, no footnotes, just over 100 rather small pages? 

In some ways it was incredibly challenging, as I was constantly tempted to throw around theological lingo, assuming people knew what these terms meant.  One of the first things I did when I finished the initial draft was to give it to people — my father and our friend Stacy — who are very smart but know nothing about theology.  They circled words and phrases that I, a theologian, used all the time but (surprise!) weren’t known by people outside the field.  However, I’ve been teaching introductory courses in Christian theology and history for over fifteen years, so targeting a different audience wasn’t too big a stretch once I eliminated or explained the jargon.

AD: Over the last two decades, a number of other introductory texts to Orthodoxy have come out in English. Did you make any conscious decisions as to how yours might differ from those of, e.g., David Bell or John Garvey or James Payton or Katherine Clark?

I never made a conscious decision to make the book similar to, or different from, other introductions, although having read Metropolitan Kallistos’s The Orthodox Church early in my own journey I did appreciate how he presented Orthodoxy to the wider world.  A lot of my thinking about structuring the book was dictated by the VSI series and its goals, since its purpose is not to provide a “So you’re thinking about becoming Orthodox” guide but instead a very basic introduction to the topic aimed at those who know nothing about it.  I know that the “history, beliefs, and practices” approach to studying religions is sometimes considered trite and has its critics, but I use it when I have to teach comparative religions at my university (e.g., Abrahamic Faiths) and even when I taught Eastern Christianity a few years back.  In fact, my notes for that course provided the backbone of the book.

AD: Ch. 5 on sources of Orthodox thought takes a fairly strictly historically delimited approach, concerning itself with the Scriptures and Fathers as well as liturgy. But there was no mention of thinkers from Palamas onward, including the burgeoning of Orthodox thought in the 20th century under prominent people like Bulgakov, Zizioulas, Staniloae and others. Was that an approach dictated by word counts or other factors? 

Not so much by word count but rather because of the material I would have had to introduce and cover.  Obviously everyone you mentioned has helped shape the modern Orthodox intellectual tradition, but the minute you start introducing ideas like “neo-palamism,” “sophiology,” and the “ontology of personhood” you start losing people.  The real problem was dealing with Orthodoxy outside Europe, since American Orthodox (myself included) tend to focus on what’s happened, historically and theologically, on the continent.  Dr. Michael Azar, who read early drafts of the book, reminded me that I had to include something about Orthodox Christianity in the Middle East and Africa.

AD: I really appreciated your bluntness in ch. 11 on Orthodoxy in the modern world and the divisions that have opened up on questions like abortion, the council in Crete, ecumenism, etc. Did you feel any sort of “apologetic” urge to downplay such issues?

AES: No, like I said before, this was not supposed to be a “Welcome to the Orthodox Church” pamphlet handed out to perspective converts at the church door, but rather an objective look at Orthodoxy, warts and all.  Orthodoxy has its problems, and some are so glaring — e.g., the fact that half the Church is not currently in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch— that not mentioning it would simply be silly.  I must admit that I was a bit nervous about this particular chapter since it wasn’t in my original plan for the book and, being more of a dogmatic historian, I’m more comfortable with the past than the present.  I had a few people more familiar with modern Orthodoxy  — Drs. George Demacopoulos and Paul Gavrilyuk — double check that chapter to make sure that what I presented was, to their minds, accurate.

AD: Tell us a bit about your hopes for the book, and who would benefit from reading it

AES: Well, the editors at OUP designed the VSIs so that anyone who hears about a subject and wants a good, quick, clear introduction  — in 35,000 words or less — can avail themselves to the books in the series.  In many ways that is my hope as well.  That said, I also hope that the book could be used by university students, curious onlookers, and (most especially) by Orthodox Christians themselves.  When I was writing the book I did an adult education class at my own church (Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Medford, NJ) and so many people  — cradle Orthodox and converts — told me that a lot of this stuff was all new to them.  I have pre-teen and teenage children, so if they eventually use this book to learn about their own faith, I’d see that as a win.

AD: Having finished such a book as this, what is next for you? What are you working on now? 

AES: Now it’s back to Purgatory, Beards, and Azymes: The Other Issues that Divided East and West.  I’m about halfway through the first draft, so it will be a few years before it’s in print.  The idea is to have trilogy of books covering the issues that divided East and West so that if we can’t heal the schism we can at least figure out how we got there in the first place.  I’m having a lot of fun writing this one.

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