"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).

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Ukrainian Nationalism and Ukrainian History

One of the longest "foreign" trips I undertook 20 years ago was to Ukraine. That capped a decade of extensive international travel to five of the world's continents, which included numerous trips just to Europe itself. In the summer of 2001 I left Canada in late June and did not return until late August, spending all but 24 hours in Ukraine (with an overnight stop in Warsaw en route). My two months in Ukraine were wonderful and I have always wanted to go back. In the meantime, I I keep a close eye on Ukrainian realities and national struggles. 

So I took special notice, when reading a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, of the ads from publishers of new books about Ukraine, including these two. First up is Ukrainian Nationalism in the Age of Extremes: An Intellectual Biography of Dmytro Dontsov by Trevor Erlacher (Harvard University Press, 2021), 654pp. About this biography the publisher tells us this: 

Ukrainian nationalism made worldwide news after the Euromaidan revolution and the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014. Invoked by regional actors and international commentators, the “integral” Ukrainian nationalism of the 1930s has moved to the center of debates about Eastern Europe, but the history of this divisive ideology remains poorly understood.

This timely book by Trevor Erlacher is the first English-language biography of the doctrine’s founder, Dmytro Dontsov (1883–1973), the “spiritual father” of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Organizing his research of the period around Dontsov’s life, Erlacher has written a global intellectual history of Ukrainian integral nationalism from late imperial Russia to postwar North America, with relevance for every student of the history of modern Europe and the diaspora.

Thanks to the circumstances of Dontsov’s itinerant, ninety-year life, this microhistorical approach allows for a geographically, chronologically, and thematically broad yet personal view on the topic. Dontsov shaped and embodied Ukrainian politics and culture as a journalist, diplomat, literary critic, publicist, and ideologue, progressing from heterodox Marxism, to avant-garde fascism, to theocratic traditionalism.

Drawing upon archival research in Ukraine, Poland, and Canada, this book contextualizes Dontsov’s works, activities, and identity formation diachronically, reconstructing the cultural, political, urban, and intellectual milieus within which he developed and disseminated his worldview.

The next book is by an excellent historian who needs no introduction, whose previous books have been fascinating and important: Serhii Plokhy, The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present (Harvard University Press, 2021), 416pp. Plokhy is one of the most important and prolific historians of East-Slavic realities. About his newest work, HUP tells us this: 

The Frontline presents a selection of essays drawn together for the first time to form a companion volume to Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe and Chernobyl. Here he expands upon his analysis in earlier works of key events in Ukrainian history, including Ukraine’s complex relations with Russia and the West, the burden of tragedies such as the Holodomor and World War II, the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and Ukraine’s contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Juxtaposing Ukraine’s history to the contemporary politics of memory, this volume provides a multidimensional image of a country that continues to make headlines around the world. Eloquent in style and comprehensive in approach, the essays collected here reveal the roots of the ongoing political, cultural, and military conflict in Ukraine, the largest country in Europe.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Challenges of Historiography

It was thanks to the combined influence of the historians Robert Taft, late of the Society of Jesus, and David Reynolds of the University of Cambridge (especially in his absolutely spellbinding book In Command of History) that I first came, almost two decades ago now, to take such interest in historiography. This led one on to crucial new ways of critically understanding, e.g., how the story of the quasi-split of 1054 is told, or the Union of Brest, or the pseudo-sobor of Lviv of 1946. The usual renderings of all these--as well as other events--reveal deeply problematic tendencies on the part of Eastern Christians to amplify what Vamik Volkan has so memorably called "chosen trauma," which is so often paired with "chosen glory," both of them distorting the actual nature of the events in question and their long withdrawing roar. 

More recently that has lent itself into writing and lecturing about the shabby way in which Crusades history is recounted, with artery-clogging masses of tendentiousness more than enough to introduce a myocardial infarction in any serious historian--or, indeed, fair-minded observer. 

Along come several recent scholars to keep our historical hearts and minds in fighting form. Up first: The Saint and the Count: A Case Study for Reading Like a Historian by Leah Shopkow (University of Toronto Press, 2021), 216pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

 While historians know that history is about interpreting primary sources, students tend to think of history as a set of facts.

In The Saint and the Count, Leah Shopkow opens up the interpretive world of the historian using the biography of St. Vitalis of Savigny (d. 1122) as a case study. This biography was written around 1174 by Stephen of Fougères and provides a rich stage to demonstrate the kinds of questions historians ask about primary sources and the interpretive and conceptual frameworks they use. What is the nature of medieval sources and what are the interpretive problems they present? How does the positionality of Stephen of Fougères shape his biography of St. Vitalis? How did medieval people respond to stories of miracles? And finally, how does this biography illuminate the problem of violence in medieval society? A translation of the biography is included, so that readers can explore the text on their own.

The second book, from the same publisher, is The Devil's Historian: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past by Amy Kaufman  and Paul Sturtevant (2020), 208pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant examine the many ways in which the medieval past has been manipulated to promote discrimination, oppression, and murder. Tracing the fetish for “medieval times” behind toxic ideologies like nationalism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy, Kaufman and Sturtevant show us how the Middle Ages have been twisted for political purposes in every century that followed. The Devil’s Historians casts aside the myth of an oppressive, patriarchal medieval monoculture and reveals a medieval world not often shown in popular culture: one that is diverse, thriving, courageous, compelling, and complex.

Monday, December 20, 2021

A Prophet Has Arisen

I have previously been delighted to interview on here the author of this new book, Stephen J. Shoemaker, A Prophet Has Appeared: The Rise of Islam through Christian and Jewish Eyes, A Sourcebook (University of California Press, 2021), 322pp. 

About Shoemaker's latest, the publisher tells us this:

Early Islam has emerged as a lively site of historical investigation, and scholars have challenged the traditional accounts of Islamic origins by drawing attention to the wealth of non-Islamic sources that describe the rise of Islam. A Prophet Has Appeared brings this approach to the classroom. This collection provides students and scholars with carefully selected, introduced, and annotated materials from non-Islamic sources dating to the early years of Islam. These can be read alone or alongside the Qur'an and later Islamic materials. Applying historical-critical analysis, the volume moves these invaluable sources to more equal footing with later Islamic narratives about Muhammad and the formation of his new religious movement.

Included are new English translations of sources by twenty authors, originally written in not only Greek and Latin but also Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Hebrew, and Arabic and spanning a geographic range from England to Egypt and Iran. Ideal for the classroom and personal library, this sourcebook provides readers with the tools to meaningfully approach a new, burgeoning area of Islamic studies.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Continuing Controversy over the Crusades

There is no end to the debates around, controversies over, and myriad misunderstandings enveloping "the Crusades." This has been obvious for decades. A book set for release soon revisits some of these and extends the discussion.

Forthcoming in February of next year is a more affordable paperback edition of a hardcover that was originally published in July 2020: Controversial Histories – Current Views on the Crusades: Engaging the Crusades, Volume Three, eds. Felix Hinz and Johannes Meyer-Hamme (Routledge, Feb. 2022), 156pp. The hardcover was originally published in July 2020.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Engaging the Crusades

is a series of volumes which offer windows into a newly-emerging field of historical study: the memory and legacy of the Crusades. Together these volumes examine the reasons behind the enduring resonance of the Crusades and present the memory of crusading in the modern period as a productive, exciting and much needed area of investigation.

Controversial Histories assembles current international views on the Crusades from across Europe, Russia, Turkey, the USA and the Near and Middle East. Historians from the related countries present short narratives that deal with two questions: What were the Crusades? and What do they mean to "us" today? Narratives are from one of possible several "typical" points of view of the related country and present an international comparison of the dominant image of each respective historical culture and cultures of remembrance. Bringing together ‘victim perspectives’ and ‘perpetrator perspectives’, ‘key players’ and ‘minor players’, they reveal both shared and conflicting memories of different groups. The narratives are framed by an introduction about the historical and political significance of the Crusades, and the question of history education in a globalized world with contradicting narratives is discussed, along with guidelines on how to use the book for teaching at university level.

Offering extensive material and presenting a profile of international, academic opinions on the Crusades, Controversial Histories is the ideal resource for students and educators of Crusades history in a global context as well as military history and the history of memory.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Byzance après Byzance Indeed!

Forthcoming in January next year from (appropriately enough) the premier centre in North America for Byzantine studies is The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe (Dumbarton Oaks Press, 11 January 2022), 400pp. edited by Nathanael Aschenbrenner and Jake Ransohoff. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

A gulf of centuries separates the Byzantine Empire from the academic field of Byzantine studies. This book offers a new approach to the history of Byzantine scholarship, focusing on the attraction that Byzantium held for Early Modern Europeans and challenging the stereotype that they dismissed the Byzantine Empire as an object of contempt.

The authors in this book focus on how and why the Byzantine past was used in Early Modern Europe: to diagnose cultural decline, to excavate the beliefs and practices of early Christians, to defend absolutism or denounce tyranny, and to write strategic ethnography against the Ottomans. By tracing Byzantium’s profound impact on everything from politics to painting, this book shows that the empire and its legacy remained relevant to generations of Western writers, artists, statesmen, and intellectuals as they grappled with the most pressing issues of their day.

Refuting reductive narratives of absence or progress, this book shows how “Byzantium” underwent multiple overlapping and often discordant reinventions before the institutionalization of “Byzantine studies” as an academic discipline. As this book suggests, it was precisely Byzantium’s ambiguity―as both Greek and Roman, ancient and medieval, familiar and foreign―that made it such a vibrant and vital part of the Early Modern European imagination.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Dostoyevsky, Kristeva, and Williams Meet in the Bar of a Bulgarian Dacha

Look at this highly interesting trifecta of writers: Dostoyevsky, Julia Kristeva, and Rowan Williams. All three appear in a new book just published: Dostoyevsky, or The Flood of Language by Julia Kristeva. Translated by Jody Gladding. Foreword by Rowan Williams (Columbia University Press, 2021), 112pp. 

Kristeva is a fascinating scholar and psychoanalyst I have paid too little attention to on here and elsewhere. My sole venture so far was here, writing about her book on psychoanalysis and faith. I also started her Nations without Nationalism but don't think I ever finished it. She comes out of a Bulgarian Orthodox background and has written many books, most of which remain on my endlessly expanding To Be Read list--including New Maladies of the Soul. 

Williams, of course, is the former archbishop of Canterbury, and easily the most scholarly and accomplished man to hold that office in centuries. His scholarship on the Christian East, as seen in such books as his most recent, Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Traditionis highly respected. And he has--of course he has--written his own book on Dostoevsky, along with scores of others of interest to Eastern (and Western!) Christians. 

Back to the new translation of Kristeva for which Williams has provided the foreword. About this new book, we are told this by the publisher:

Growing up in Bulgaria, Julia Kristeva was warned by her father not to read Dostoyevsky. “Of course, and as usual,” she recalls, “I disobeyed paternal orders and plunged into Dosto. Dazzled, overwhelmed, engulfed.” Kristeva would go on to become one of the most important figures in European intellectual life—and she would return over and over again to Dostoyevsky, still haunted and enraptured by the force of his writing.

In this book, Kristeva embarks on a wide-ranging and stimulating inquiry into Dostoyevsky’s work and the profound ways it has influenced her own thinking. Reading across his major novels and shorter works, Kristeva offers incandescent insights into the potent themes that draw her back to the Russian master: God, otherness, violence, eroticism, the mother, the father, language itself. Both personal and erudite, the book intermingles Kristeva’s analysis with her recollections of Dostoyevsky’s significance in different intellectual moments—the rediscovery of Bakhtin in the Thaw-era Eastern Bloc, the debates over poststructuralism in 1960s France, and today’s arguments about whether it can be said that “everything is permitted.” Brilliant and vivid, this is an essential book for admirers of both Kristeva and Dostoyevsky. It also features an illuminating foreword by Rowan Williams that reflects on the significance of Kristeva’s reading of Dostoyevsky for his own understanding of religious writing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Ukrainians and the Holocaust

If you do not know the work of John Paul Himka, you should, not least for such books as Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians. Himka has been a well respected historian of Galician realities for decades now, as seen in such important books as Religion and Nationality in Western Ukraine and then The Greek Catholic Church and Ukrainian Society in Austrian Galicia.

He has a new book published this fall on a topic whose controversies and debates have raged for some time now, and are regular features in anti-Ukrainian propaganda coming out of Russia: Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust: OUN and UPA’s Participation in the Destruction of Ukrainian Jewry, 1941–1944 (Ibidem/Columbia University Press, 2021). About this book the publisher tells us this:

One quarter of all Holocaust victims lived on the territory that now forms Ukraine, yet the Holocaust there has not received due attention. This book delineates the participation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its armed force, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrainska povstanska armiia—UPA), in the destruction of the Jewish population of Ukraine under German occupation in 1941–44. The extent of OUN’s and UPA’s culpability in the Holocaust has been a controversial issue in Ukraine and within the Ukrainian diaspora as well as in Jewish communities and Israel. Occasionally, the controversy has broken into the press of North America, the EU, and Israel.

Triangulating sources from Jewish survivors, Soviet investigations, German documentation, documents produced by OUN itself, and memoirs of OUN activists, it has been possible to establish that: OUN militias were key actors in the anti-Jewish violence of summer 1941; OUN recruited for and infiltrated police formations that provided indispensable manpower for the Germans' mobile killing units; and in 1943, thousands of these policemen deserted from German service to join the OUN-led nationalist insurgency, during which UPA killed Jews who had managed to survive the major liquidations of 1942.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Armenian Artefacts on the Silk Road

This exciting book brings together my two favourite Oriental Orthodox churches, the Ethiopian and Armenian in a fascinating survey of cross-cultural economic exchanges down a celebrated route: the Silk Road, especially in its western stretches: Christiane Esche-Ramshorn, East-West Artistic Transfer through Rome, Armenia and the Silk Road: Sharing St. Peter's (Routledge, 2021), 224pp. The publisher provides the following blurb, giving us additional details: 

This book examines the arts and artistic exchanges at the ‘Christian Oriental’ fringes of Europe, especially Armenia.

It starts with the architecture, history and inhabitants of the lesser known pilgrim compounds at the Vatican in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, of Hungary, Germany, but namely those of the most ancient of Churches, the Churches of the Christian Orient Ethiopia and Armenia. Without taking an Eurocentric view, this book explores the role of missionaries, merchants, artists (for example Momik, Giotto, Minas, Domenico Veneziano, Duerer), and artefacts (such as fabrics, inscriptions and symbols) travelling into both directions along the western stretch of the Silk Road between Ayas (Cilicia), ancient Armenia and North-western Iran. This area was truly global before globalization, was a site of intense cultural exchanges and East-West cultural transmissions. This book opens a new research window into the culturally mixed landscapes in the Christian Orient, the Middle East and North-eastern Africa by taking into consideration their many indigenous and foreign artistic components and embeds Armenian arts into today’s wider art historical discourse.

This book will be of interest to scholars in art history, architectural history, missions, trade, Middle Eastern arts and the arts of the Southern Caucasus.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Ethiopian Christian History, Theology, and Practice

Early last month I drew attention to three recent books on the glories of Ethiopian culture and theology. Now we have another book to look forward to reading: Ethiopian Christianity: History, Theology, Practice by Philip F. Esler (Baylor University Press, Nov. 2021), 326pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In Ethiopian Christianity Philip Esler presents a rich and comprehensive history of Christianity’s flourishing. But Esler is ever careful to situate this growth in the context of Ethiopia’s politics and culture. In so doing, he highlights the remarkable uniqueness of Christianity in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Christianity begins with ancient accounts of Christianity’s introduction to Ethiopia by St. Frumentius and King Ezana in the early 300s CE. Esler traces how the church and the monarchy closely coexisted, a reality that persisted until the death of Haile Selassie in 1974. This relationship allowed the emperor to consider himself the protector of Orthodox Christianity. The emperor's position, combined with Ethiopia’s geographical isolation, fostered a distinct form of Christianity—one that features the inextricable intertwining of the ordinary with the sacred and rejects the two-nature Christology established at the Council of Chalcedon.

In addition to his historical narrative, Esler also explores the cultural traditions of Ethiopian Orthodoxy by detailing its intellectual and literary practices, theology, and creativity in art, architecture, and music. He provides profiles of the flourishing Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism. He also considers current challenges that Ethiopian Christianity faces—especially Orthodoxy’s relations with other religions within the country, in particular Islam and the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Esler concludes with thoughtful reflections on the long-standing presence of Christianity in Ethiopia and hopeful considerations for its future in the country’s rapidly changing politics, ultimately revealing a singular form of faith found nowhere else.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

On Eschatology

Whose thoughts, as the night draws in earlier and earlier in the northern hemisphere, and the cold deepens, and the trees enter their season of dormition, do not turn to questions of ending and dying? Such thoughts and questions are as old as time, but form the focus for a new, large, and very diverse collection of scholars: Eschatology in Antiquity: Forms and Functions, eds. Hilary Marlow, Karla Pollmann, and Helen Van Noorden  (Routledge, 2021), 654pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

This collection of essays explores the rhetoric and practices surrounding views on life after death and the end of the world, including the fate of the individual, apocalyptic speculation and hope for cosmological renewal, in a wide range of societies from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Byzantine era.

The 42 essays by leading scholars in each field explore the rich spectrum of ways in which eschatological understanding can be expressed, and for which purposes it can be used. Readers will gain new insight into the historical contexts, details, functions and impact of eschatological ideas and imagery in ancient texts and material culture from the twenty-fifth century BCE to the ninth century CE. Traditionally, the study of “eschatology” (and related concepts) has been pursued mainly by scholars of Jewish and Christian scripture. By broadening the disciplinary scope but remaining within the clearly defined geographical milieu of the Mediterranean, this volume enables its readers to note comparisons and contrasts, as well as exchanges of thought and transmission of eschatological ideas across Antiquity. Cross-referencing, high quality illustrations and extensive indexing contribute to a rich resource on a topic of contemporary interest and relevance.

Eschatology in Antiquity is aimed at readers from a wide range of academic disciplines, as well as non-specialists including seminary students and religious leaders. The primary audience will comprise researchers in relevant fields including Biblical Studies, Classics and Ancient History, Ancient Philosophy, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Art History, Late Antiquity, Byzantine Studies and Cultural Studies. Care has been taken to ensure that the essays are accessible to undergraduates and those without specialist knowledge of particular subject areas.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Islam and Greek Nationalism

The complicated relations between Eastern Christians and Muslims, especially in the long twilight of the Ottoman Empire, continue to fascinate me; so too does the question of nationalism. Both of these come together in a new book I'm looking forward to reading: Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 by Stefanos Katsikas (Oxford University Press, 2021), 296pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Drawing from a wide range of archival and secondary Greek, Bulgarian, Ottoman, and Turkish sources, Islam and Nationalism in Modern Greece, 1821-1940 explores the way in which the Muslim populations of Greece were ruled by state authorities from the time of Greece's political emancipation from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s until the country's entrance into the Second World War, in October 1940. The book examines how state rule influenced the development of the Muslim population's collective identity as a minority and affected Muslim relations with the Greek authorities and Orthodox Christians.

Greece was the first country in the Balkans to become an independent state and a pioneer in experimenting with minority issues. Greece's ruling framework and many state administrative measures and patterns would serve as templates in other Christian Orthodox Balkan states with Muslim minorities (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Cyprus). Muslim religious officials were empowered with authority which they did not have in Ottoman times, and aspects of the Islamic law (Sharia) were incorporated into the state legal system to be used for Muslim family and property affairs. Religion remained a defining element in the political, social, and cultural life of the post-Ottoman Balkans; Stefanos Katsikas explores the role religious nationalism and public institutions have played in the development and preservation of religious and ethnic identity. Religion remains a key element of individual and collective identity but only as long as there are strong institutions and the political framework to support and maintain religious diversity.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Mohammad and the Origins of Islam in a Byzantine-Slavic Literary Context

You come to this blog, dear reader, because you care about books in themselves, but do you also care--as I fondly do, and eagerly hope you do, too--about books about books? Do you care about the history of books, and about the history of bibliographies as well? Do you eagerly desire to know more about how books were shaped in the way they were, and what sources were influential upon them and their authors? If so, then early next year will be your time to order Zofia A. Brzozowska, Mirosław J.Leszka, Teresa Wolińska, Muhammad and the Origin of Islam in the Byzantine-Slavic Literary Context: A Bibliographical History (Jagiellonian University Press, February 28, 2022), 384pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The presented publication is a type of bibliographic dictionary, compiled by an interdisciplinary team of authors (Byzantynists and Paleoslavists), containing an overview of medieval texts referring to the person of Muhammad, the Arabs, and the circumstances of the birth of Islam, which were known in the Slavia Orthodoxa area (especially in its eastern part, i.e. in Rus’). Therefore, it presents the works written in the Church Slavic language between the 9th and the mid-16th centuries. As the Old Rus’ discourse on Islam was shaped under the overwhelming influence of Byzantine literature, the majority of the presented sources are Byzantine texts from the 6th–14th centuries, translated into the literary language of the Orthodox Slavs. The reader will also find here a discussion on several relics, originally created in other languages of the Christian East (Syriac, Arabic) and the West (Latin), which – through the Greek – were assimilated on the Slavic ground.

This book aims to fill a gap in previous studies on inter-religious polemics in the Middle Ages, which has usually focused on Christian-Muslim cultural relations, analyzing Greek and Latin texts or the works written in one of the Middle Eastern languages, almost completely ignoring the Church Slavic heritage. It is worth noting that a number of the texts presented here (as well as Slavic translations of Byzantine sources) have not been published so far. The information on them, provided in this monograph, is therefore the result of research conducted directly on the manuscript material.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Early Christian Biblical Interpretation

Are there many phrases that quicken and gladden the bibliophile's impecunious heart like "new in paperback"? That will indeed soon be the case for an impressive, but hitherto expensive, collection, The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation, eds., Paul M. Blowers and Peter W Martens (Oxford UP, February 2022), 784pp. The eager reader will note the presence in this book of numerous Eastern Orthodox contributors. About this collection we are further told this by the publishers:

The Bible was the essence of virtually every aspect of the life of the early churches. The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation explores a wide array of themes related to the reception, canonization, interpretation, uses, and legacies of the Bible in early Christianity. Each section contains overviews and cutting-edge scholarship that expands understanding of the field.

Part One examines the material text transmitted, translated, and invested with authority, and the very conceptualization of sacred Scripture as God's word for the church. Part Two looks at the culture and disciplines or science of interpretation in representative exegetical traditions. Part Three addresses the diverse literary and non-literary modes of interpretation, while Part Four canvasses the communal background and foreground of early Christian interpretation, where the Bible was paramount in shaping normative Christian identity. Part Five assesses the determinative role of the Bible in major developments and theological controversies in the life of the churches. Part Six returns to interpretation proper and samples how certain abiding motifs from within scriptural revelation were treated by major Christian expositors.

The overall history of biblical interpretation has itself now become the subject of a growing scholarship and the final part skilfully examines how early Christian exegesis was retrieved and critically evaluated in later periods of church history. Taken together, the chapters provide nuanced paths of introduction for students and scholars from a wide spectrum of academic fields, including classics, biblical studies, the general history of interpretation, the social and cultural history of late ancient and early medieval Christianity, historical theology, and systematic and contextual theology. Readers will be oriented to the major resources for, and issues in, the critical study of early Christian biblical interpretation.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Byzantine Art and Architecture

Set for release later this month--and presumably in time to order for all the Byzantinists, artists, historians, and architects on your Christmas lists--is The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture by Ellen C. Schwartz (OUP, December 2021), 664pp. + 150 illustrations. About this book the publisher tell us the following: 

Byzantine art has been an underappreciated field, often treated as an adjunct to the arts of the medieval West, if considered at all. In illustrating the richness and diversity of art in the Byzantine world, this handbook will help establish the subject as a distinct field worthy of serious inquiry.

Essays consider Byzantine art as art made in the eastern Mediterranean world, including the Balkans, Russia, the Near East and north Africa, between the years 330 and 1453. Much of this art was made for religious purposes, created to enhance and beautify the Orthodox liturgy and worship space, as well as to serve in a royal or domestic context. Discussions in this volume will consider both aspects of this artistic creation, across a wide swath of geography and a long span of time.

The volume marries older, object-based considerations of themes and monuments which form the backbone of art history, to considerations drawing on many different methodologies-sociology, semiotics, anthropology, archaeology, reception theory, deconstruction theory, and so on-in an up-to-date synthesis of scholarship on Byzantine art and architecture. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art and Architecture is a comprehensive overview of a particularly rich field of study, offering a window into the world of this fascinating and beautiful period of art.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Demonic Bodies in the Christian East

The Coptic tradition, and the venerable city of Alexandria, are both well represented in this forthcoming book from Oxford early next year: Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture by Travis W. Proctor (Oxford UP, February 2022), 280pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

Drawing insights from gender studies and the environmental humanities, Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture analyzes how ancient Christians constructed the Christian body through its relations to demonic adversaries. Through case studies of New Testament texts, Gnostic treatises, and early Christian church fathers (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian of Carthage), Travis W. Proctor notes that early followers of Jesus construed the demonic body in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways, as both embodied and bodiless, “fattened” and ethereal, heavenly and earthbound.

Across this diversity of portrayals, however, demons consistently functioned as personifications of “deviant” bodily practices such as “magical” rituals, immoral sexual acts, gluttony, and pagan religious practices. This demonization served an exclusionary function whereby Christian writers marginalized fringe Christian groups by linking their ritual activities to demonic modes of (dis)embodiment. The tandem construction of demonic and human corporeality demonstrates how Christian authors constructed the bodies that inhabited their cosmos--human, demon, and otherwise--as part of overlapping networks or “ecosystems” of humanity and nonhumanity. Through this approach, Proctor provides not only a more accurate representation of the bodies of ancient Christians, but also new resources for reimagining the enlivened ecosystems that surround and intersect with our modern ideas of “self.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Glories of Ethiopian Christianity

When I teach Eastern Christian iconography, I always reserve my favourite tradition, the Ethiopian, to the end, after we have been utterly exhausted by the seemingly endless surfeit of Byzantine images, and only moderately sobered up by the Coptic tradition. I tell my students to keep an eye on the Ethiopian tradition for its academic study is only now coming into its own.

That study will be greatly edited by three recent books, highly praised by the venerable and eminent historian Peter Brown in a recent NYRB essay I read with great delight. Here is the choicest bit:

In 1441 Ethiopian monks visited Rome. They told Pope Eugenius IV...that the Ethiopians were somewhat surprised that they had received no word from any pope in eight hundred years. It was time for that negligence to be remedied. However, they reassured Eugenius that they would report back to their master that the pope seemed to be a good Christian!

The arc of the essay is to point out what a formidable cultural stronghold Ethiopia was, far surpassing all the patronizing nonsense later talked about it by Roman and European Christians and historians, including that execrable old fool Gibbon. Ethiopian Christianity, in Brown's mind, must be counted at least as strong and important a tradition as the Latin, Greek, or Syriac. He advances an interesting thesis, worthy of debate by theologians, that perhaps Ethiopia's being miaphysite or monophysite (he uses the terms interchangeably, which is not without problems) is what abled them to form such a stronghold of Christianity that was never swallowed up by Islam. 

In any event, Brown draws our attention to three recent publications, all of which he praises. The first of these is A Contextual Reading of Ethiopian Crosses Through Form and Ritual: Kaleidoscopes of Meaning by Maria Evangelatou (Gorgias Press), 382pp. Brown praises this as a "book of stunning beauty." About it the publisher further tells us this:

Ethiopia is unique among Christian lands for the incomparable prominence of the cross in the life of its people and for the inexhaustible variety and intricacy of decorative patterns on cross-shaped objects of all kinds. Crosses of wondrous diversity and sophistication are extensively used in religious and magic rituals, as well as in the daily social interactions and personal experiences of people in a variety of contexts. This book explores the ways in which Ethiopian crosses reflect and shape a broad range of ideas, from religious beliefs to interrelated socio-political values, and from individual notions of identity and protection to cultural constructs of local and universal dimensions. Thus the cross of the Ethiopian tradition emerges as the sacred matrix that encompasses the life of the world in both its microcosmic and macrocosmic dimensions; and as the social and cultural nexus through which and with which people interact in order to shape and express personal and communal identities and hopes.The investigation includes textual and visual evidence, as well as aspects of Ethiopian history and cultural tradition, and highlights elements of both continuity and change. Special attention is given to religious rituals in which crosses guide the participants to internalize abstract ideas central to their culture, through sensorial experience and interaction. A main objective of this analysis is to contribute to an understanding of visual creations as interactive depositories and therefore also generators of ideas, with an influential role in identity formation, socio-cultural interactions and the construction of power relations.

The second book he notes, and praises equally highly, is Samantha Kelly, A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea (Brill, 2020), 606pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea introduces readers to current research on major topics in the history and cultures of the Ethiopian-Eritrean region from the seventh century to the mid-sixteenth, with insights into foundational late-antique developments where appropriate. Multiconfessional in scope, it includes in its purview both the Christian kingdom and the Islamic and local-religious societies that have attracted increasing attention in recent decades, tracing their internal features, interrelations, and imbrication in broader networks stretching from Egypt and Yemen to Europe and India. Utilizing diverse source types and methodologies, its fifteen essays offer an up-to-date overview of the subject for students and nonspecialists, and are rich in material for researchers. 

Contributors are Alessandro Bausi, Claire Bosc-Tiessé, Antonella Brita, Amélie Chekroun, Marie-Laure Derat, Deresse Ayenachew, François-Xavier Fauvelle, Emmanuel Fritsch, Alessandro Gori, Habtemichael Kidane, Margaux Herman, Bertrand Hirsch, Samantha Kelly, Gianfrancesco Lusini, Denis Nosnitsin, and Anaïs Wion. 

The third and final book is Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe by Verena Krebs  (Palgrave, 2021), 325pp. About this book the publisher has this to say: 

This book explores why Ethiopian kings pursued long-distance diplomatic contacts with Latin Europe in the late Middle Ages. It traces the history of more than a dozen embassies dispatched to the Latin West by the kings of Solomonic Ethiopia, a powerful Christian kingdom in the medieval Horn of Africa. Drawing on sources from Europe, Ethiopia, and Egypt, it examines the Ethiopian kings' motivations for sending out their missions in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries - and argues that a desire to acquire religious treasures and foreign artisans drove this early intercontinental diplomacy. Moreover, the Ethiopian initiation of contacts with the distant Christian sphere of Latin Europe appears to have been intimately connected to a local political agenda of building monumental ecclesiastical architecture in the North-East African highlands, and asserted the Ethiopian rulers' claim of universal kingship and rightful descent from the biblical king Solomon. Shedding new light on the self-identity of a late medieval African dynasty at the height of its power, this book challenges conventional narratives of African-European encounters on the eve of the so-called 'Age of Exploration'.

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Glories of Syriac Christianity

In a recent review essay (about which more later) in the New York Review of Books, the eminent and venerable Peter Brown draws our attention to a forthcoming volume he praises highly: Invitation to Syriac Christianity: An Anthology, eds. M.P. Penn, Scott Johnson et al. (University of California Press, February 2022), 450pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Despite their centrality to the history of Christianity in the East, Syriac Christians have generally been excluded from modern accounts of the faith. Originating from Mesopotamia, Syriac Christians quickly spread across Eurasia, from Turkey to China, developing a distinctive and influential form of Christianity that connected empires. These early Christians wrote in the language of Syriac, the lingua franca of the late ancient Middle East, and a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Collecting key foundational Syriac texts from the second to the fourteenth centuries, this anthology provides unique access to one of the most intriguing, but least known, branches of the Christian tradition.

Incidentally, I interviewed one of the editors, Scott Johnson, here about an earlier publication. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

Mark Roosien on Bulgakov and the Eucharist

Just a month ago now, I was able to interview an author about his newly translated collection of Sergius Bulgakov's works. You may read that wonderfully fascinating interview with Roberto de la Noval here

Now we have another translation of another work of Bulgakov: The Eucharistic Sacrifice, trans. Mark Roosien (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021). 140pp. I wrote to Mark to ask about his work, and his thoughts follow. 

AD: Tell us about your background

MR: I was born and raised in West Michigan and attended North Park University in Chicago where I majored in philosophy. After studying Russian for a year in the city of Cheboksary, Russia, I attended the University of Notre Dame where I received an MTS and PhD in theology, focusing on liturgical studies and early Christianity. I was ordained as a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America in 2018. I am currently Lecturer in liturgical studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.

AD: How did you get into the world of theological translation, and specifically the Russian tradition?

MR: I’ve had an interest in Russian literature since making an extended visit to Moscow in 1999 when I was 12 years old. Those were interesting times in Russia, to say the least. In college I acquired an interest in Russian religious thought, and when I studied Russian intensively between college and grad school I would spend evenings reading Berdyaev with a dictionary.

The Eucharistic Sacrifice is my first published foray into translation. I discovered the book somewhat by accident (I had never seen anyone write about it—it was published in Russian only in 2005), as I was doing research for a question on Bulgakov for my doctoral candidacy exams. The translation project began simply as a way to keep up my Russian, but I soon realized that it was an important text that deserved wide readership.

AD: Interest in Bulgakov has been on a steady upward trajectory for the better part of two decades now. What lies behind this do you think?

MR: The “material cause” for this, I suppose, is the steady stream of English translations that have appeared since the turn of the century, especially by Boris Jakim, Thomas Allan Smith and Catherine Evtuhov, and more lately Stephen Churchyard and Roberto De La Noval

But more importantly, I think Bulgakov was simply ahead of his time. I have a few (debatable) pet theories as to why it is only now that he has acquired such status. I may as well lay them out here. The world needed to pass through the gauntlet of World War II, the stagnation of the American and European empires, and the fall of the Soviet Union to appreciate his prophetic critique of modernity in its capitalist and communist incarnations. 

The theological academy needed to wrestle for some time with the likes of Barth, Rahner and von Balthasar, especially on the question of the relationship between nature and grace, to appreciate the originality of Bulgakov’s theological interventions. Western culture needed to exhaust the possibilities of modern art to see Sophiology as more than just another version of romanticism. 

Finally, as Celia Deane-Drummond has shown, rising awareness of climate change has proved Bulgakov to be an important conversation partner in eco-theology, a relatively recent subfield in theology. 

AD: Let's get right to the title and focus: eucharistic sacrifice. Here I am taken back immediately to my Anglican childhood, reading the Thirty Nine Articles, and being sternly lectured that "Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits." Bulgakov would obviously have a different take on this, so give us a brief overview of his ideas.

MR: As is typical of Bulgakov on many theological questions, he would say, “yes and no.” As my dear friend and fellow Bulgakov translator Roberto De La Noval likes to say, never has a thinker wanted so much to have it both ways. 

Bulgakov would say this: There is danger in a narrow focus on the eucharist as sacrifice, which is evident in certain liturgical abuses. He sees such an abuse in the practice of votive masses, where, at least in the Western Middle Ages, one could pay a priest to say a mass for someone—to make a sacrifice on their behalf—and not even show up for the mass oneself. Bulgakov would certainly agree that Christ is not sacrificed “again” in the liturgy in the way that might be implied by this practice, since Christ cannot be crucified more than once. 

Following the Epistle to the Hebrews, he holds that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the sole sacrifice for sins, made “once and for all.” But he takes it a step further–and this is the main thrust of The Eucharistic Sacrifice. The crucifixion of Christ, his sacrificial offering on the cross, is but the pinnacle of a larger, all-encompassing sacrifice: the eternal, sacrificial love that is God. The cross, which sums up Christ’s entire cruciform life, is the manifestation in time of an eternal reality. That reality is the sacrificial love of God in the Trinity which is poured out in the creation of the world and the Incarnation of the Word (including His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, etc.)

This threefold exitus—trinitarian kenosis, the creation, and the Incarnation–is the sacrificial work of Divine love and salvation. The eucharist is Jacob’s Ladder, the means for the world’s reditus up into the divine life of the Trinity. The eucharist is how that salvation is made real for us, how human beings participate in the divine-human sacrifice. The eucharist manifests the eternal sacrifice of God through God’s kenosis made available to human beings on any altar at any time and any place. In other words, it is a “repetition”—but not a “re-crucifixion.” It is the endless sacramental presence in time of one single, salvific reality of sacrifice that is both temporal and eternal, heavenly and earthly.

AD: More recently, Terry Eagleton has taken up the topic of sacrifice, and argues that we misunderstand it if we only see it as self-renunciation and self-denial. How might Bulgakov respond to this?

MR: Bulgakov would agree. For him, sacrifice is above all life-giving, not life-abnegating. It is an act of creativity—as every artist knows. It is inevitable that in humanity’s fallen state we cannot help but see sacrifice in terms of denial of the good and beautiful. What, after all, is uglier than blood sacrifice? 

In the Eucharistic Sacrifice, however, Bulgakov takes apart the act of sacrifice and unveils the ways in which, in its essence, it is about the gift of life. For him, the ultimate meaning of sacrifice is found in God’s kenotic, creative love, which is revealed on the cross. While the crucifixion is indeed ugly and terrifying, it is also, in a profound sense, beautiful. As one of the texts for Sunday Vespers in the Byzantine reads, “When you appeared, O Christ, nailed upon the cross, you altered the beauty of created things.” Through the “life-giving cross” (as we say often in Byzantine liturgy), we see the beautiful, creative nature of sacrifice.

AD: You note in your introduction that Bulgakov's 1930 essay "The Eucharistic Dogma" grew out of his "love affair with Roman Catholicism a decade earlier." Tell us more about this.

Bulgakov was ordained a priest in 1918, just in time to witness firsthand what he perceived as the collapse of the Russian Orthodox Church under Bolshevik pressure. By 1921 or so (as revealed in his letters and diaries), he had concluded that the reason the Russian Church collapsed so quickly was because of its rotten ecclesiology. In order to restore the church and stand firm against the winds of modernity, the Orthodox Church needed to unite with the Roman papacy

To make a long story short, he abandoned this position by 1924 for both personal and theological reasons, but was forever grateful that he passed through what he later called the “fires” of Catholicism, because it purified his own ideas. In the “The Eucharistic Dogma,” he lays out his case against the Thomistic formulation of transubstantiation and in so doing levels a critique against the metaphysics and method of scholasticism that he had earlier so admired (and in many ways continued to admire, but from greater critical distance). 

AD: You mention a 1933 essay on the connection between the Eucharist and social problems and its ecumenical application to the Orthodox-Anglican relationship. Tell us how and why, as you say, Bulgakov "advocated for (limited) eucharistic intercommunion  between Anglicans and Orthodox." Did he also hold such views with regard to Catholics?

MR: Bulgakov’s failed attempt at reunion with Rome in the early 1920’s soured him somewhat on Catholicism. Many of the Roman Catholics with whom he shared his ideas on church reunion met them with bewilderment and, as he tells it, simply tried to convert him to Roman Catholicism. He resented this. It is perhaps for this reason he didn’t pursue Orthodox-Catholic reunion again. But Bulgakov always appreciated Western Christianity a great deal. He simply found the Roman papacy in its post-Vatican I form to be too great a theological obstacle for church reunion. Yet he saw an opening for ecumenical relations with the Anglicans in the early 1930’s, especially because they did not have a papacy and thus in theory might have fewer obstacles to church reunion. Unfortunately, the talks failed and intercommunion was not established.

Clearly, Bulgakov, believed in the necessity of the eventually reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Here’s what Bulgakov wrote about Catholicism in the 1940s, toward the end of his life: “The time for a relationship based on mutual recognition and respect for one another’s individual character has not yet come for Eastern and Western Christianity…It is the task of love which is the life of the church to bridge the chasm by working together, and thus prepare the ground for the reunion of the churches”(Autobiographical Notes, [Russian edition], YMCA Press, 1946, pp. 48-49). 

I wonder what he would say today. Have we gotten any closer to such a relationship based on mutual recognition that could form a groundwork for reunion? While I find some hope in the mutual appreciation and, it seems, genuine affection between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, there are also many reasons for pessimism. 

AD: At the end of your introduction you very briefly discuss the interaction between, and only partial influence of Bulgakov on Schmemann as these two differed in some important respects. Describe where they differed.

MR: For one thing, Schmemann was not very interested in metaphysics and definitely not in theological systems. He was basically averse to Bulgakov’s Sophiology, though perhaps more in form than in content. Schmemann, in my reading, attempted to communicate plainly and almost artlessly the experience of the Kingdom that Bulgakov expressed using the more abstract language of Sophiology. 

I suspect that the passages in Bulgakov’s books that Schmemann liked best were the autobiographical ones in which his former teacher painted lyrical, vivid pictures of the experience of God in the here and now. This is precisely what Schmemann was trying to do in his books on liturgical theology. So, I tend to see them in continuity more than others do, at least in terms of content, even though their style and theological mood is very different. 

AD: Having finished this translation, what are you at work on now?

I mentioned my brilliant friend Roberto above—he and I are working together on a translation of Bulgakov’s Spiritual Diary written in 1924-5 while he was in Prague, just before he moved to Paris to found and lead the St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. I know that Rob described the book already on this blog, but I will just add this. I believe that it was in these years that Bulgakov became the Bulgakov that we know from his great trilogies, which were all written after this time. What is revealing, and perhaps surprising, about the Spiritual Diary is that it shows that Bulgakov did not see his calling as fundamentally a theological or academic one. The many personal and professional tragedies that he had experienced until that point humbled him in some of his grand ideas for church reunion or theological renewal. Rather, by this time, he saw his mission primarily as a pastoral one. How might it change the way we read Bulgakov’s theology when we keep in mind this fundamental orientation? Although we tend to see Bulgakov’s theology as highly complex and abstract, he was, I believe, getting at something that resides at the core of the life of faith in its concrete experience. To me, that is why Bulgakov still speaks. 

I’m also plugging away at the endless project of turning my dissertation into a book. The book will be on theological and liturgical responses to natural disasters—especially earthquakes—in Byzantine Constantinople. It is a historical/theological study that unites liturgical and environmental history. In addition to being a contribution to the field of liturgical studies, I hope that it will also be a resource for those (like myself) who are interested in critically wrestling with the tradition as the church finds ways to boldly and faithfully respond to climate change.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book, and who especially would benefit from reading it. 

MR: At roughly 120 pages, this book is a great short introduction to Bulgakov’s thought. As one of his final writings, it touches on and summarizes nearly every major aspect of his ideas in their most mature form. I hope that it will serve as an entry-point for those who are interested in Bulgakov but don’t know where to start. 

It’s also an important text for 20th century sacramental theology, in that, more than any other thinker that I know of, Bulgakov articulates the connection between the eucharist and the Trinity. So this book will certainly appeal to anyone who is interested in sacramental theology, systematic theology, and Orthodox theology. 

Finally, I hope this book will help make some headway in ecumenical discussions on the fraught notion of the eucharistic as sacrifice, which has been divisive issue among the churches since the Reformation.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Luther in Orthodox Eyes

I thought the promise of the calendar turning from 2017 to 2018 was that we would hear less and less about the 500th anniversary of Mr. Luther's loquacious hammering but perhaps I was a minority in that hope. In any event, we have a new book to consider: Christophe Chalamet, Konstantinos Delikostantis, Job Getcha, and Elisabeth Parmentier, eds., Theological Anthropology, 500 Years after Martin Luther: Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives (Brill, 2021), 344pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Theological Anthropology, 500 years after Martin Luther gathers contributions on the theme of the human being and human existence from the perspectives of Orthodox and Protestant theology. These two traditions still have much to learn from each another, five hundred years after Martin Luther's Reformation. Taking Martin Luther's thought as a point of reference and presenting Orthodox perspectives in connection with and in contradistinction to it, this volume seeks to foster a dialogue on some of the key issues of theological anthropology, such as human freedom, sin, faith, the human as created in God's image and likeness, and the ultimate horizon of human existence. The present volume is one of the first attempts of this kind in contemporary ecumenical dialogue.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Christianity and Islam in Post-Soviet Russia

When I teach, as I do every semester, my course on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam, I love the time we spend on Russia for it gives me a chance to upend a lot of silly notions that American Christians have about Russia, Russian Orthodoxy, and Islam, including in its Russian embodiment and context where there are many notably different practices from Islamic life in, say, the Arabic world. A recent book helps us further appreciate the unique challenges in the Russian context: Languages of Islam and Christianity in Post-Soviet Russia by Gulnaz Sibgatullina (Brill, 2020), 230pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

In her book, Gulnaz Sibgatullina examines the intricate relationship of religion, identity and language-related beliefs against the background of socio-political changes in post-Soviet Russia. Focusing on the Russian and Tatar languages, she explores how they simultaneously serve the needs of both Muslims and Christians living in the country today. 

Mapping linguistic strategies of missionaries, converts and religious authorities, Sibgatullina demonstrates how sacred vocabulary in each of the languages is being contested by a variety of social actors, often with competing agendas. These linguistic collisions not only affect meanings of the religious lexicon in Tatar and Russian but also drive a gradual convergence of Russia's Islam and Christianity. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Palamite Anthropology

The rediscovery of Palamas in the contemporary period is one that must be regarded with some ambivalence insofar as he has often been used to posit certain polemical and apologetical positions by some Orthodox vis-à-vis the Catholic Church, and vice versa. Nevertheless, interest in him remains high, and we have a recent book that adds to it: Alexandros Chouliaras,

The Anthropology of St Gregory Palamas: The Image of God, the Spiritual Senses, and the Human Body (Brepols, 2020), XVI+243 pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

How are we to regard our body? As a prison, an enemy, or, maybe, an ally? Is it something bad that needs to be humiliated and extinguished, or should one see it as a huge blessing, that deserves attention and care? Is the body an impediment to human experience of God? Or, rather, does the body have a crucial role in this very experience? Alexandros Chouliaras’ book The Anthropology of St Gregory Palamas: the Image of God, the Spiritual Senses, and the Human Body argues that the fourteenth-century monk, theologian, and bishop Gregory Palamas has interesting and persuasive answers to offer to all these questions, and that his anthropology has a great deal to offer to Christian life and theology today.

Amongst this book’s contributions are these: for Palamas, the human is superior to the angels concerning the image of God for specific reasons, all linked to his corporeality. Secondly, the spiritual senses refer not only to the soul, but also to the body. However, in Paradise the body will be absorbed by the spirit, and acquire a totally spiritual aspect. But this does not at all entail a devaluing of the body. On the contrary, St Gregory ascribes a high value to the human body. Finally, central to Palamas’ theology is a strong emphasis on the human potentiality for union with God, theosis: that is, the passage from image to likeness. And herein lies, perhaps, his most important gift to the anthropological concerns of our epoch.

Alexandros Chouliaras, post-doctoral researcher at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Department of Theology, holds a PhD in Theology from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Religion and Theology, under the direction of Professors Andrew Louth and John Behr. Some of his texts have been presented in international theological conferences and published in peer-reviewed academic journals. He serves as a parish priest in Athens, Greece (Metropolis of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki), where he lives with his wife and their four children.

Friday, October 22, 2021

God, Grades, and Graduation

I have taught for almost a quarter-century now at the high-school and university levels in Canada, the United States, and briefly Ukraine. Every year it seems conversation turns to what "today's teens" or "this generation of students" are or are not like, but my own undergraduate background in the social sciences, and my psychoanalytic instincts, make me leery of anecdotal generalizations of so sweeping a scale. But a new book, set for release at the end of this year, has some hard data from a fairly wide survey of students offering some very interesting insights: God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion's Surprising Impact on Academic Success by Ilana Horwitz (Oxford University Press, Dec. 2021), 288pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

The surprising ways in which a religious upbringing shapes the academic lives of teens

It's widely acknowledged that American parents from different class backgrounds take different approaches to raising their children. Upper and middle-class parents invest considerable time facilitating their children's activities, while working class and poor families take a more hands-off approach. These different strategies influence how children approach school. But missing from the discussion is the fact that millions of parents on both sides of the class divide are raising their children to listen to God. What impact does a religious upbringing have on their academic trajectories?

Drawing on 10 years of survey data with over 3,000 teenagers and over 200 interviews, God, Grades, and Graduation offers a revealing and at times surprising account of how teenagers' religious upbringing influences their educational pathways from high school to college. Dr. Ilana Horwitz estimates that approximately one out of every four students in American schools are raised with religious restraint. These students orient their life around God so deeply that it alters how they see themselves and how they behave, inside and outside of church.

This book takes us inside the lives of these teenagers to discover why they achieve higher grades than their peers, why they are more likely to graduate from college, and why boys from lower middle-class families particularly benefit from religious restraint. But readers also learn how for middle-upper class kids--and for girls especially--religious restraint recalibrates their academic ambitions after graduation, leading them to question the value of attending a selective college despite their stellar grades in high school. By illuminating the far-reaching effects of the childrearing logic of religious restraint, God, Grades and Graduation offers a compelling new narrative about the role of religion in academic outcomes and educational inequality.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Who Produced Early Conciliar Acta and How?

I am endlessly fascinated by historiography, not least the exploration of how certain reputations in ecclesial history get traduced and trashed as "heretics." Yes, I'm thinking of Origen here, and derivatively of his ostensible follower Evagrius of Pontus (on whom, in this connection, the definitive "rehabilitation," as it were, has been written by Augustine Casiday. I interviewed him here about his book on Evagrius which everybody must read.) But we could ask such questions of every person of prominence, and especially of every council in ecclesial history--though it seems we rarely do ask such questions. 

As someone who has over the years often played secretary to various academic committees, I am only too aware of how one can shape the record for good or ill. I alert my colleagues to this problem by making them watch two clips of the invaluable and hilarious Yes, Prime Minister, as here and here

But we rarely--in my experience at least--pay sufficient and critical attention to the crucial question of who was involved in the writing of the minutes or acta of councils in the Church. How much credibility ought we give to such people if we can even find out who they were in some cases? How reliable is their record? How many machinations were going on behind the scene to make sure something was or was not on the agenda (and when!), did or did not get minuted, came up for discussion or was then decided or shelved, etc? 

Perhaps more rarely do we attend to the socioeconomic conditions in which councils were held and their records produced. (John O'Malley's great book on Vatican I, as I showed here, is a recent and prominent exception.)

If you read the uproarious diaries of Congar, as I did here, you get the low-down on all these things: committees that overran their time, leaving everyone hopping on one leg with full bladders; people furiously pulling levers behind the magic curtain to promote or forbid discussion of certain things, to get their favourite candidates onto drafting committees (or have their enemies on them silenced or evicted), and to ensure that their hands remain on the levers of power, not their enemies'. Other diaries, including those of Bouyer, even more shocking in some respects than Congar's, or of Hermaniuk's (much the tamer of the three), all show this. 

Every time I am doing a clinical intake with a patient, I am asking myself the question "How reliable an historian is this person" in telling me of, say, their childhood, or the violence they saw, or any other thing? For human memory is malleable and fallible, and that includes the memories of churchmen gathered in council. But too many Christians seem blithely unaware of these difficulties, and too anxious to press too far into inquiring about them. 

A new book, however, does not shy away from doing so but instead looks set to draw some welcome and overdue attention to this problem: The Acts of Early Church Councils Acts: Production and Character by Thomas Graumann (Oxford UP, 2021), 352pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The Acts of Early Church Councils Acts examines the acts of ancient church councils as the objects of textual practices, in their editorial shaping, and in their material conditions. It traces the processes of their production, starting from the recording of spoken interventions during a meeting, to the preparation of minutes of individual sessions, to their collection into larger units, their storage and the earliest attempts at their dissemination.

Thomas Graumann demonstrates that the preparation of 'paperwork' is central for the bishops' self-presentation and the projection of prevailing conciliar ideologies. The councils' aspirations to legitimacy and authority before real and imagined audiences of the wider church and the empire, and for posterity, fundamentally reside in the relevant textual and bureaucratic processes. Council leaders and administrators also scrutinized and inspected documents and records of previous occasions. From the evidence of such examinations the volume further reconstructs the textual and physical characteristics of ancient conciliar documents and explores the criteria of their assessment. Reading strategies prompted by the features observed from material textual objects handled in council, and the opportunities and limits afforded by the techniques of 'writing-up' conciliar business are analysed. Papyrological evidence and contemporary legal regulations are used to contextualise these efforts. The book thus offers a unique assessment of the production processes, character and the material conditions of council acts that must be the foundation for any historical and theological research into the councils of the ancient church.

We are also given the table of contents: 

Abbreviations and Conventions


Part I: The Quest for Documentation

1. The Earliest Church Councils: A Documentary History

2. 'Council Acts' and the Variations of Conciliar Documentation and Recording Patterns

3. The Conference of Carthage (AD 411): An Imperial Model Case

Part II: 'Reading' and 'Using' Acts

4. Examining the Records: Two Inquiries into Eutyches' Trial (AD 449)

5. Original Acts and Documents at Chalcedon (451)

6. 'Authentic' Documents: Visual Features, Annotation, and Administrative Handling

7. Assessing and Performing Authenticity: A View from Later Councils

Part III: 'Writing' Acts: The Council's Secretariat in Action

8. All the President's Men: Administrative Aides and the 'Official' Secretariat

9. The Stenographic Protocol: Professionalism, Conventions, and Challenges

10. 'Transferring' Shorthand Notes to Long-hand Transcript

Part IV: The Written Record

11. The Hypomnemata: Production and Qualities

12. Documents Incorporated: Incorporating Documents

13. Abstracting and Summary Records

14. Collecting and Appending Signatures

15. The Structure and Elements of the 'Ideal' Session-record and the Role of 'Editing'

Part V: Files, Collections, Editions: Dossierization and Dissemination

16. Council Acts Gathered and Organised: Minutes, Case Files and Collected Records

17. Ancillary Documentation and the Beginnings of Dossierization

18. The Preparation of 'Editions' and the Dissemination of Documentation



Monday, October 18, 2021

The Politics of Persecution

Questions of religious persecution, both historic and current, are often presented tendentiously as a part of current political jockeying. Christians are not immune to treating such phenomena as "chosen trauma," in the words of Vamik Volkan. That does not mean that we should not pay attention to persecution, nor that it is not a source of real and genuine suffering, often on an astonishingly large scale today. 

A new book looks at the history of persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, taking an historical and critical eye to these challenges: Mitri Raheb, The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire (Baylor University Press, September 1, 2021), 215pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

 Persecution of Christians in the Middle East has been a recurring theme since the middle of the nineteenth century. The topic has experienced a resurgence in the last few years, especially during the Trump era. Middle Eastern Christians are often portrayed as a homogeneous, helpless group ever at the mercy of their Muslim enemies, a situation that only Western powers can remedy. The Politics of Persecution revisits this narrative with a critical eye.

Mitri Raheb charts the plight of Christians in the Middle East from the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 to the so-called Arab Spring. The book analyzes the diverse socioeconomic and political factors that led to the diminishing role and numbers of Christians in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan during the eras of Ottoman, French, and British Empires, through the eras of independence, Pan-Arabism, and Pan-Islamism, and into the current era of American empire. With an incisive exposé of the politics that lie behind alleged concerns for these persecuted Christians―and how the concept of persecution has been a tool of public diplomacy and international politics―Raheb reveals that Middle Eastern Christians have been repeatedly sacrificed on the altar of Western national interests. The West has been part of the problem for Middle Eastern Christianity and not part of the solution, from the massacre on Mount Lebanon to the rise of ISIS.

The Politics of Persecution, written by a well-known Palestinian Christian theologian, provides an insider perspective on this contested region. Middle Eastern Christians survived successive empires by developing great elasticity in adjusting to changing contexts; they learned how to survive atrocities and how to resist creatively while maintaining a dynamic identity. In this light, Raheb casts the history of Middle Eastern Christians not so much as one of persecution but as one of resilience.

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