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

Monday, August 30, 2021

Russian Orthodox Presence in Hong Kong

It is, perhaps, an "Orientalist" mentality that leads some to assume the "ethnic" churches of the East never bother with peoples not a part of their ethnos beyond their borders, but this is false in all sorts of instances going back centuries. It is still false today as a new book, set for early September release, reminds us: The Russian Orthodox Community in Hong Kong: Religion, Ethnicity, and Intercultural Relations by Loretta E. Kim and Chengyi Zhou (Lexington Books, 2021), 301pp.  

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Hong Kong has been a unique society from its establishment as a political region separate from mainland China in the nineteenth century under British colonial rule until the present day as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. A hub of interregional and international migration, it has been the temporary and long-term home of people belonging to many racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. This book examines the evolution of the community established by clergy and congregants of the Russian Orthodox Church. This community was first developed in the 1930s and then revived after a hiatus of over two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s with the founding of the Orthodox Parish of Apostles Saints Peter and Paul (OPASPP) at the turn of the twenty-first century. This study demonstrates how the OPASPP has become a vital provider of knowledge about Russian language and culture as well as a religious institution serving both heritage and convert believers. The community formed by and around the OPASPP is important to foster Sino-Russian relations based on individual-to-individual contact and mutual exposure to Chinese and Russian cultures in a region of China which allows spiritual and social diversity with minimal political constraints.

Friday, August 27, 2021

John Zizioulas on The Meaning of Being Human

In Eastern Christian studies, a new work by John Zizioulas has to count as a major event. He has commanded wide respect and authority across Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions for decades now. Some years back, I did an informal survey of university and seminary classes in ecclesiology where his first and still most famous book Being as Communion was assigned. It was an impressively high number in schools of all three aforementioned traditions. His ecumenical reach is very impressive and very much to the good. 

He has recently released a new book: The Meaning of Being Human (Sebastian Press, 2021), 100pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

In this book Metropolitan of Pergamon is dealing with the most contemporary, the most urgent, the most existential issues facing the Church today. The core of author’s argument is that personhood as an ekstatic and hypostatic mode of existence is not subject to any predetermination or necessity. The book provides a perfect opportunity to look retrospectively at Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ profound theological vision. It serves both as a significant illustration of his vitality in preserving the continuance of his thought, and of his enduring faithfulness to the constants which permeate his entire theological legacy. The restoration of personhood in Christ leads inevitably to the community of the Church which, in its turn, offers impersonal nature the possibility of being “referred” to God in its integrity through the personhood of man. This makes the Church eucharistic in its very nature, and man God by participation in God. The Church’s eucharistic identity has led Zizioulas to rethink theology as a whole on the basis of ecclesial experience as a reflection of Trinitarian life.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Evil Eye

Growing up in WASP culture in late-20th-century North America I blithely assumed that the "evil eye" was some superstitious old nonsense nobody today could possibly take seriously, and had accordingly died out long ago. International travels, not least to Eastern Europe, forced me out of my lazy assumptions--later aided by a book I have often recommended on here by the anthropologist Juliet du Boulay. 

Along comes a new book by a scholar and practicing psychotherapist that looks at this whole phenomenon anew: Evil Eye in Christian Orthodox Society: A Journey from Envy to Personhood by Nikolaos Souvlakis (Berghahn Books, 2021), 262pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Evil eye is a phenomenon observed globally and has to do with the misfortune and calamities that we can cause to someone else out of jealousy of their possessions. The book engages with evil eye beliefs in Corfu and investigates the Christian Orthodox influences on the phenomenon and how it affects individuals’ reactions to it. Developing an interdisciplinary dialogue, it offers a fresh view of evil eye as a facilitator of wellbeing rather than a generator of calamities.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Orthodoxy and Gender

First released in late 2019, this book is now published this summer in a more affordable paperback edition. It treats what is arguably one of, if not the most, neuralgic areas in contemporary Christian debates: Orthodox Christianity and Gender, eds. Helena Kupari and Elina Vuola (Routledge, 2021), 224pp. 

About this collection the publisher tells us this:

The Orthodox Christian tradition has all too often been sidelined in conversations around contemporary religion. Despite being distinct from Protestantism and Catholicism in both theology and practice, it remains an underused setting for academic inquiry into current lived religious practice. This collection, therefore, seeks to redress this imbalance by investigating modern manifestations of Orthodox Christianity through an explicitly gender-sensitive gaze. By addressing attitudes to gender in this context, it fills major gaps in the literature on both religion and gender.

Starting with the traditional teachings and discourses around gender in the Orthodox Church, the book moves on to demonstrate the diversity of responses to those narratives that can be found among Orthodox populations in Europe and North America. Using case studies from several countries, with both large and small Orthodox populations, contributors use an interdisciplinary approach to address how gender and religion interact in contexts such as, iconography, conversion, social activism and ecumenical relations, among others.

From Greece and Russia to Finland and the USA, this volume sheds new light on the myriad ways in which gender is manifested, performed, and engaged within contemporary Orthodoxy. Furthermore, it also demonstrates that employing the analytical lens of gender enables new insights into Orthodox Christianity as a lived tradition. It will, therefore, be of great interest to scholars of both Religious Studies and Gender Studies.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Russians Atop Mt. Athos

The attraction that Mt. Athos poses recently to a lot of people, including American journalists, is actually nothing new. It has long roots--very long roots, according to a book that is coming out next month: Russian Monks on Mount Athos: The Thousand Year History of St Panteleimon's by Nicholas Fennell PhD (Holy Trinity Seminary Press, Sept. 2021).

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The Holy Mountain of Athos is a self-governing monastic republic on a peninsula in Northern Greece. Standing on the shores of the Aegean Sea is one of the twenty ruling monasteries that comprise the republic, that of St Panteleimon, known in Greek as the Rossikon. Its building, fully restored in recent years, can accommodate up to 5,000 men, reflecting the scale of the settlement at its apogee in the nineteenth century and prior to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the monastery has experienced a strong revival and is now among the most numerous of the twenty. But the vast buildings that can be seen today are a reflection of only the past two centuries. That the Russian presence on Athos goes back more than one thousand years is much less well known.

This book is the first comprehensive account in the English language of this millennium of history. The author has been able to draw from previously inaccessible archival materials in gathering the wealth of information he shares in this work. The history of the community is not described in geographical isolation but shown as interacting with the much wider worlds of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the modern nation state of Greece, together with that of the Russian homeland whose political character is constantly evolving. There are shown to be three distinct phases in this history: 

--from the tenth to the twelfth centuries when Russian Athonites inhabited the ancient Russian Lavra of the Mother of God, also known as Xylourgou;

--then the six hundred years from the mid-twelfth to the mid-eighteenth century when the ancient Monastery of St Panteleimon was the Russian house on Athos, more commonly referred to as Nagorny or Stary Rusik;

--the most recent 250 years, that are naturally covered in greater depth thanks to the wider availability of sources.

Amongst the themes explored in the book are ethnic relations, the Pan-Orthodox ideal, the role of money and political pressure, sanctity and heroism in adversity, and the importance of historical memory and precedent. The author seeks to arbitrate fairly between often strongly opposing ethnic viewpoints. 

It examines in detail the fluctuating fortunes of the monastic community of St Panteleimon during the past 250 years, when its ethnic identity was frequently questioned. St Panteleimon's is a history that has been blighted by Greek-Russian quarrels, mass deportation of dissenting brethren, troubles in the Caucasus, and even tangential implication in the present-day dispute between the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchates over Ukraine.

This text will be invaluable to both academic historians and the general educated reader who does not possess specialist knowledge. It is complemented by a timeline, glossary, comprehensive bibliography, index, full-color illustrations and photographs.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Performing Byzantium

It is always interesting to watch what verbs and nouns become prevalent in academic discussion, and in my short lifetime, "performing" and cognates has become very common, not least when it comes to Byzantine history. A recently published book by an art historian at the University of California continues this trend: Performing the Gospels in Byzantium: Sight, Sound, and Space in the Divine Liturgy by Roland Betancourt  (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 320pp. 

Betancourt is a recently prolific fellow, as you can see from his other recent book which I noted here; and still others here

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Tracing the Gospel text from script to illustration to recitation, this study looks at how illuminated manuscripts operated within ritual and architecture. Focusing on a group of richly illuminated lectionaries from the late eleventh century, the book articulates how the process of textual recitation produced marginalia and miniatures that reflected and subverted the manner in which the Gospel was read and simultaneously imagined by readers and listeners alike. This unique approach to manuscript illumination points to images that slowly unfolded in the mind of its listeners as they imagined the text being recited, as meaning carefully changed and built as the text proceeded. By examining this process within specific acoustic architectural spaces and the sonic conditions of medieval chant, the volume brings together the concerns of sound studies, liturgical studies, and art history to demonstrate how images, texts, and recitations played with the environment of the Middle Byzantine church.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Human Migration and Security in the Orthodox World

Some--typically reactionary American fantasists and recent converts, the two often being the same dreary little group--like to put it about that "holy Orthodoxy," especially in places like Russia or Greece, is somehow immune to the social problems of "the West." Anyone familiar with this thing called a newspaper, or more recently Google, knows how easy it is to disprove such romantic rubbish. A new book will further aid in that. 

First published in 2019 in hardback, and newly released in a more affordable paperback edition, is Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World, ed. Lucian N. Leustean  (Routledge, 2021), 336pp.

About this book the publisher tell us this: 

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the European refugee crisis have led to a dramatic increase in forced displacement across Europe. Fleeing war and violence, millions of refugees and internally displaced people face the social and political cultures of the predominantly Christian Orthodox countries in the post-Soviet space and Southeastern Europe. This book examines the ambivalence of Orthodox churches and other religious communities, some of which have provided support to migrants and displaced populations while others have condemned their arrival. How have religious communities and state institutions engaged with forced migration? How has forced migration impacted upon religious practices, values and political structures in the region? In which ways do Orthodox churches promote human security in relation to violence and ‘the other’? The book explores these questions by bringing together an international team of scholars to examine extensive material in the former Soviet states (Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and Belarus), Southeastern Europe (Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania), Western Europe and the United States.

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Ongoing Legacy of Communism in Romanian Christianity

The two editors of this volume, released last month, are very well known and respected in scholarly circles for their ongoing analysis of Romanian Christianity during and after communism. They have just published Church Reckoning with Communism in Post-1989 Romania, eds. Lucian Turcescu and Lavinia Stan (Lexington Books, 2021), 236pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The present volume focuses on the relationship with Communism of Romania's most important religious denominations and their attempt to cope with that difficult past which continues to cast an important shadow over their present. For the first time ever, this volume considers both the majority Romanian Orthodox Church and significant minority denominations such as the Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, the Reformed Church, the Hungarian Unitarian Church, and the Pentecostal Christian Denomination. It argues that no religious group escaped collaboration with the Communists. After 1989, however, most denominations had little desire to tackle their tainted past and make a clean start. In part, this situation was facilitated by the country's deficient legislation that did not encourage the pursuit of lustration, which in turn did not lead to a serious movement of elite renewal in the religious realm. Instead, a strong process of reproduction of the old elites and their adaptation to democracy has been the dominant characteristic of the post-Communist period.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Michael Plekon on the Church and Community

I recently drew your attention to Michael Plekon's new book, Community as Church, Church as Community. In keeping with longstanding custom on here, where I have interviewed him in the past about other books, I recently sent him some questions about the book, and here are his thoughts. 

AD: Tell us about your background, especially recent changes

MP: The biggest change is that in late August 2017 I retired almost 40 years to the day I began at The City University of New York, Baruch College. I had begun this new book then, but it mostly was completed and revised in the last three years. I was graced with a number of friends and colleagues—yourself included--who were willing to read a draft and offer criticism. I believe the book is much better for this. 

I also have asked for retired status in the church. Living half the year in the desert in San Diego county has added almost another “life” to what we had before. It shows in Jeanne’s painting, now both East Coast and Desert works (www.jeanneplekon.com).

As for retirement, I still am an active scholar. I gave the Florovsky Lecture for the Orthodox Theological Society (OTSA) in America last November, presented a paper at the recent biennial conference of the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS), hopefully to soon be published. And I have been writing book reviews, at least a dozen a year, for journals such as The Wheel, The Journal of the Orthodox Christian Studies, Cistercian Studies Q, among others. I have been doing two different weekly ZOOM talks with discussion since the start of the lockdown. I am not bored.

AD: What led you from your last book, The World as Sacrament (which we discussed in this interview) to this new one? 

MP: Easy. The request to present at a conference at Loyola-Marymount’s Ecumenical Institute a few years back, then the collection of essays by laity and clergy I edited, The Church Has Left the Building, as well as several other talks, all led to the project of this new book. I place a lot of trust in the personal experience that shaped me and then leads me by the nose. 

I have since 1983 been a “worker priest,” that is a non-stipendiary priest at several Northeast parishes, Lutheran and Orthodox. I think the large parish at which I began serving and its parish culture and “world” now strike me as a time and world gone by. In almost 40 years I have seen so much change in the life of the parish—and that is chronicled in the book, also supported by a lot of research from Pew, and various institutes that study congregational life, as well as researcher like Nancy Ammerman, Nick Denysenko, Nancy Gallagher, and commentators like Andrew Root, Jason Byassee, Same wells, to mention a few. Also, the parish I last served had seminarian interns. So, following the lives of these young people was an important source of inspiration.

AD: Every author, I imagine likes to think the timing, the moment, for his book is just perfect, but yours really does seem that way, focused as it is on community, whose loss we have all suffered in the pandemic. How much did Covid change the shape of the book you thought you were going to write, and in what ways? 

MP: I have said, almost ad nauseam, that blaming everything on the pandemic is a forgetting of the state of things before the Covid appeared. Parishes were already shrinking, declining. We have been aware of the religious “nones” and “dones” for over a decade. All of us have written about the disasters passing as responses of the institutional church—to the sexual abuse situation, to so many “culture war” issues such as the status and rights of LGBTQ+ people, of people of color and immigrants, to Asians and Muslims. What was sick about the last few years was the legitimizing of open, explicit hatred and vilification by the country’s chief executive and a major political party. “Conservative values” cannot be used as an excuse for targeting, reviling, marginalizing so many. All this said, getting to the core of parish existence, to what is the heart of congregations, namely koinonia, community, is timely. That is essentially what the book’s about, an intersection of ecclesiology and sociology of religion, something Peter Berger encouraged me to do years ago.

AD: You mention how often "religion" is conceived of individualistically, and then the "communal core" of Christianity "eclipsed or forgotten" (p.3). What lies behind that--some of the factors leading to its diminishment into a private hobby?

MP: There are numerous sources of the eclipse of community, something that’s been studied and written about by Robert Putnam, the late Robert Bellah, Arlie Hochschild, and so many others. It almost has become an industry in social science. I doubt we have become significantly more individualist in the past decade or two. In North America, there has been a historical nostalgia about freedom, about rugged independence, with the cowboy riding off into the sunset, the notion that I am the master of my own destiny, that no one, either in church or government or the academy or science, can tell me what to do. This is myth. 

Likewise the notion that somehow various strains of Protestantism were hyper-individualist. When I hear Catholic or Orthodox blaming sola scriptura, the primacy of the Bible, or the loss of clerical hierarchy as the cause of individualism, I cringe. Some religious folk just listen to too much fake theology, inaccurate tales. And it’s not just Newsmax, OAN, and Fox News that manufacture their own news and facts. 

Everyone who’s ever belonged to a parish, whether as a child or an adult, knows how communal church is. I delight in writing about the liturgies, the prayer of making pyrohy, Easter breads, nut rolls, the second “communion” of the coffee hour and church suppers and post-funeral repasts. In the book I try to show that community is more than our warm feelings of friendship (as well as frustration and irritation) with each other in parishes. Baptism means incorporation into a people, the people of God. Eucharist requires communal sharing of bread and cup, concelebration by all the community, not just those ordained. And the weekday service of the neighborhood around is also a communal work of love.

AD: You show your debts early to Afanasiev, to whom my own work is also heavily indebted. Tell us a bit about his importance, especially for your work. 

MP: I have long thought Afanasiev’s work was wrongly overlooked and, in some cases, rejected. Anastacia Wooden’s recent dissertation and soon, I hope, book will show just how much Afansiev’s vision has been distorted by his critics, and how truly “back-to-the-sources” his work is. And it is not just Afanasiev as some “voice crying in the desert,” since it is a consensus of church historians and theologians that the church of the first several centuries was less constrained by law and clerical stratification that later on. Afanasiev emphasized what we find in the NT, namely that the church and the “local church” of the diocese and most especially the parish is intensely communal. He says, in the last chapter of The Church of the Holy Spirit, that the authentic power in the life of the people of God is that of love, not canon or clerical authority.

AD: One of the many valuable things about your work is how seriously you take the economic reasons for changing patterns of parish life. Tell us a bit more about their importance. In addition, I surmise from your wide and generously ecumenical survey of every Christian tradition that economic changes and factors do not care whether you're old-calendarist Greek Orthodox, gay-affirming Episcopalian, Latin-Mass-loving Roman Catholic, or anything else? In other words, nobody is immune to these changes?

MP: All the changes occurring to parishes are ecumenical, universal. It makes no difference whether East or West, nor the particular church tradition. Mostly this stems from the changes taking place or long ago having happened in the society, in politics and the economy and culture. Multi-generational families were the backbones of parishes. 

Now, mobility is the norm. Children grow up, go off to university, to marriage, family and careers and do not return home. Yes, of course here and there one finds exceptions, either due to ethic/language group or geographic location. But this intensified mobility is but one of the numerous variables at play in change in our lives. We no longer depend on a horse or wagon or our feet to get to church. Thus, many small towns, rural as well as urban parishes have become redundant. In Brooklyn NY, from a corner one could see perhaps half a dozen Lutheran church buildings, originally planted due to language/ethnic diversity. Now Mideast and Asian groups have replaced the Scandinavian and German communities. 

On a corner in Northeast Pennsylvania, the “coal region” from which my father’s family came, one could see a dozen church spires, half of them Eastern “onion domes” or cupolas, each established by an immigrant community from a different local in what is now Ukraine, the Slovak Republic or Poland. Then there is the transformation of the industrial revolution that drew so many to North America. In countless towns, the factories, mills and mines are long since closed, the industries totally changed or relocated. The cathedral-like parish church buildings remain, often down to 20 or 30 or fewer seniors. From sources like Pew Research, The Church Times, The Christian Century, US Congregational Life Survey, National Congregations Survey, Faith & Leadership, Alban Institute at Duke Divinity, Religion News Service, among others, I collected many examples, mini-case studies of congregations in transition. They represented most denominations here in the US and Canada. They tell of decline, shrinkage death…but also replanting, reinvention, repurposing of property--in short, resurrection.

AD: Your argument (p.34) that "A closer look at who’s gone, no longer in the pews, and why is a reminder that the decline of religion is no simple rejection of doctrine or ritual, and what is more, is not restricted to categories of age, education, political preference, or region" really complicates, if not destroys, simplistic nostrums that the way to hold, or attract, people is to offer, say, only "contemporary" liturgy or "traditional" teaching, "conservative" morality or "liberal" activism?  

MP: I listened to Kaya Oakes, David Gushee, Jon Pavlovitz, Andrew Root and others on why people are religious “nones” and “dones,” as well as the voices of those who departed communities of faith themselves. No church body can escape what they say drove people away—indifference to pain and need in the neighborhood, lack of compassion for the “other,” whether persons of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ folk, those struggling with emotional and physical challenges. The churches have, often enough, been their own worse enemies. A friend called their operating system “survival theology,” a desperate, and sometimes ruthless struggle to keep the heat and the roof on, at all costs. Or a retreat into an imagine past, or an escape into ritual or rules.

The most effective assessment of the sad state of institutional religion is to hold up the New Testament to the mix of introversion and obsessive thinking that passes for parish life. The riveting memoirs of Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Holloway and Barbara Melosh, among others, force us to see the ugly humanity of congregations from pastors’ views. But what presents as unwelcoming, inhospitable, rigid clinging to the past need not be so. There are plenty of examples of parish communities taking the hand of consultants, pastors and each other to find a way to keep living forward, to keep living the Gospel rather than trying to merely stay open.

AD: Further complicating things, your section on location (pp.47ff) seems to suggest that merely because a city or region is growing does not mean that church growth automatically follows in those areas. What else has to happen for communities to experience new life? 

MP: Even in neighborhoods where unemployment, addiction, poverty, poor schools are the landscape, one often can find vibrant, life-giving congregations. This has historically been true for Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and other “inner mission” or urban mission movements. It used to be assumed that congregations that grew in the suburbs of the 1950s and 60s would simply continue that direction going forward. Now, formerly large, affluent suburban parishes are having to merge, to reinvent themselves, repurpose their buildings as the generations of parish youth moved away and more recent cohorts feel no pressure to join or even baptize their children. The “toolbox” of church is not in question. Baptism, eucharist, the scriptures, prayer, preaching and teaching and service. If there is something crucial, essential for communities to experience new life where they are, it is the Sprit’s prompting and their saying “yes.”

AD: As you move into your discussion about communities enjoying resurrection, but first having been "repurposed, reinvented, replanted," I'm wondering: was there one that stood out to you as the most unexpected or unusual reconfiguration that you least expected?

Several stand out, but one more than the rest. I will have an article in The Christian Century for September 8, 2021 about the story of Fr. Paisios, now Alexis Altschul, his late wife Thelma, St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox parish they founded, and Reconcilation Services (RS)--the amazing network of outreach ministries and service providers they gathered downstairs on Troost Street in Kansas City, MO. It made me think of the multiplication of the few loaves and fishes to feed thousand, this vision of a parish living out the Gospel. 

A former intern and colleague and friend, Fr. Justin Mathews is director of RS. A pay-what-you-can café is part of RS, Thelma’s Kitchen, remembering Presbytera Thelma’s feeding people out her backdoor. Employment counseling, therapeutic sessions, senior and well-baby clinics, are among the services offered. Even though the parish has now distanced itself from RS under a new rector, the reality is that RS has been born as a new kind of local church, a parish in which love of the neighbor dominates, much in the example of St. Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris.

AD: I'm very glad you work in even a brief mention of "pastoral losses" (p.142-46) and the difficulties clergy face amidst so much uncertainty. I'm wondering if you know how well, if at all, such things are taught in seminaries? Are we training people to deal with the grief of loss of place, familiar location and routine, etc? And, in a related way, are Christians training ourselves to be less attached to buildings so that if we have to let them go, we can do so with more ease and less of a sense of loss? 

MP: I had to say things about the ordained ministry and the process of formation for this work in the book. But I was aware and explicitly warned that I could not do it justice—that will be for the next book. 

That said, despite institutional lethargy, uncertainly and fear, theological schools are beginning to experiment—while they too shrink, even close and realign with each other. In the UK half of all ordinands in training no longer go live at a theological school/seminary but do their training on site, in a parish, with a pastor-mentor. Coursework for the most part is remote learning, with summer sessions for encounter with fellow seminarians. 

Luther Seminary in St. Paul has adopted this model for a two-year M.Div. Others will appear. Bishop Andrew Doyle argues that the ministries we have—bishop, presbyter, deacon—need to be adapted to how we actually live and behave as church in our time. This means the formation process must change as well. Anyone who has dealt with the administrative apparatus of any church body, even now, knows just how resistant to adaptation and change these staffers and their culture are. But the ability of UMC pastor Dave Barnhart to develop a network of house churches, St. Junia’s parish, in the Birmingham AL area is a sign of hope and the possibility of change. 

AD: In ch.6 you write "I have changed my mind about small churches." Tell us what led to that change, and how you see small churches today. I'm assuming (given earlier rightly critical references) that by small churches, you are not advocating the kind of self-selecting faux-Benedict option communities certain reactionary and decadent bloggers advocate?

MP: Coming round to embrace small parishes for me has absolutely nothing to do with the Benedict XVI or Dreher/pseudo-St Benedict ideas of culling out the membership, waving goodbye and good riddance to the less than fervent church folk. Rather my view is one of realism: congregations for the most part will not be the sprawling post WWII, 1950s congregations bursting at the seams. The smaller, household size parishes will not be the “elect” the “select,” but those who can listen to the prompting of the Spirit and with courage find new ways of living out the Gospel. Also, “small is good” has nothing to do with the decidedly sectarian impulse one can now track among the Eastern Orthodox, some Anglicans and Catholics and others. Purging dissenting, perhaps too open, liberal people is not churchly, not godly.

AD: After so much change discussed in such fascinating detail, you quote Eugene Peterson's charming and hope-filled phrase at the very end of your book: "God...will continue to 'move into the neighborhood'.” That rather seems to me to be the pattern of the entire history of Christianity, yes? Knowing this wider history, it seems, is crucial for not succumbing either to despair or to wide-eyed romanticism about some magical solution for a better future. Churches of all traditions have risen and fallen--Augustine's Hippo in North Africa is no longer a major episcopal centre as it was in the fourth century, yet there are millions of Christians in other parts of Africa. Is this the pattern you see continuing as the century unfolds?

MP: History makes fools of us. Hippo is not the ecclesial centre it was in Augustine’s time. Diarmaid Macculloch teases, in his fine Christianity, the first 3000 Years, that Baghdad once was an ecclesial and theological centre perhaps superior to Alexandria or Jerusalem. Not so much now. There is something at once terrifying and exhilarating in seeing how much changed in one’s own brief life. I recall that, seeing some scenes of the HBO series This I Know Is True, in very small part filmed at my old parish. The emeritus rector was already there in the early 1980s in which the drama is set. I was also serving my first parish just a few miles away. But in the expanse of those year, how much has changed for both parishes, and for him and for me!

We really are fools if we think the church falls and rises with ourselves. I offer no recipes for parish resurrection in the book. I distrust church consultants generally. 

However, listening to those who found the energy to reinvent their parishes, to share their buildings with the surrounding neighborhood, thereby replanting and connecting to neighbors—this is the new life the Risen One constantly hold out to us. I have heard, a deanery meetings and the like, that one ought not drag Jesus or the Gospel into discussion. The presumption is that the bishop or the canons are more constitutive of the church and ministry. Seriously? Ever holy woman or man who sought to breath again the Spirit and live the Gospel knows better. We should listen more carefully to Mother Maria Skobtsova, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Nicholas Afanasiev, Alexander Schmemann, Sam Wells, Barbara Brown Taylor, among others.

 AD: Having finished the book, what are you at work on now? 

MP: As I already mentioned, I believe I have to look at ministry, and in particular, the ministry of the ordained. I sense that there is a vigorous rediscovery of the priesthood of all the baptized now, even if that language were not used. Maybe discipleship, or like Bishop William Barber often says, standing up for God’s justice. But there is way more institutional encrustation with the ordained, many more models in need of reform, renewal, a lot of baggage that has more to do with social status, culture and yes, politics. Cyril Hovorun’s books are essential for tracking all the political and cultural use and abuse of church. I would also like to contribute some of my own pastoral experience while I still am able to write about it.

Many thanks for having this exchange and I hope readers will find the book worthwhile.

Friday, August 6, 2021

That We Might All Be Transfigured

The Transfiguration has long been my favourite feast. It its honour today, I reprint below an updated and slightly condensed version of several posts from many years ago now. 

The Transfiguration has an obvious Paschal character--to say nothing of the fact that is so wonderfully captures the "dyophysite" nature of humankind: called to transfiguration ourselves, beholding the glory of Christ as far as we can bear it, we are also at the same time like the apostles: falling down the mountain, our faces half-covered in cowardice and bewilderment. 

As for suitable books for feasting this occasion, I first draw your attention to this interview I did with Michael Martin about his book Transfiguration: Notes Toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything

Next I point you to a book from two of the leading patrologists of our time, one Catholic and the other Orthodox: Brian E. Daley, trans. and John Behr, ed. Light on the Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord (SVS Press, August 2013), 378pp.

About this collection, which is volume 48 in the SVS series "Popular Patristics," we are told by the publisher:

The episode of the Transfiguration of Jesus plays a key role in the narrative of the Synoptic Gospels. Peter and his fellow Apostles have just acknowledged Jesus to be Israel s long-awaited Messiah, and have been shocked by Jesus immediate prediction of his coming passion and death. Now Peter, James and John are allowed to share an extraordinary vision, marking him out as truly God s own Son, radiant with divine glory. Early Christian commentators and preachers recognized the crucial importance of this incident for Christian faith and discipleship, as pointing in advance to the power of the cross and resurrection of Christ. The liturgical feast of the Transfiguration, anticipating that of the Exaltation of the Cross by forty days, came to be celebrated in the Eastern and Western Churches, beginning in the seventh century; yet since at least the third century, theologians have reflected on the significance of this event for the life of faith.

This volume brings together, in a new translation, a comprehensive collection of homilies on the Transfiguration of Christ from the Greek Patristic and Medieval Church, from Origen in the third century to St. Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth. Together they form a profound and moving set of meditations, from many perspectives and in many voices, on the light of the recognition of the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Cor 4.6), and on its importance for our lives.

Homilies include:

Origen, Commentary on Matthew 12.36 43 (on Matthew 17.1 9)

John Chrysostom, Homily 56 on Matthew (on Matthew 16.28 17.9)

Proclus of Constantinople, Homily on the Transfiguration

Cyril of Alexandria, Homily 51 on Luke (on Luke 9.27 36)

Pantoleon, Sermon on the Transfiguration of the Lord

Leontius, Presbyter of Constantinople, Homily 14 on the Transfiguration

Patriarch Anastasius I of Antioch, Homily on the Transfiguration (Homily 1)

Timothy of Antioch, Homily on the Cross and Transfiguration of Jesus

Anonymous, Incomplete Homily on the Transfiguration (7th-9th c.)

Anastasius of Sinai, Homily for Feast of the Transfiguration

Andrew of Crete, Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration

John of Damascus, Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Emperor Leo VI (the Wise), Three Homilies for the Transfiguration:10,11,39

Philagathos of Cerami, Homily 31 on the Feast of the Saving Transfiguration

Neophytos the Recluse, Catechesis on the Transfiguration

Theoleptos of Philadelphia, Catechesis for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

Nikephoros Choumnos, On the Holy Transfiguration of Christ

Ps-Chrysostom, Discourse on the Transfiguration (Sicily, 14th c.?)

Gregory the Sinaite, Discourse on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

Gregory Palamas, Two Homilies for the Feast of the Transfiguration (34 and 35)

Next let me draw your attention to several other books focused in particular on the iconography of the feast, and starting with Solrunn Nes, The Uncreated Light: An Iconographiocal Study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church. 

Andreas Andreopoulos is a prolific author and scholar who has written two books of relevance here: Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography and then his more recent study, This Is My Beloved Son: The Transfiguration of Christ. 

I commend both authors and all three books to your attention, as well as the ones above. All of them invite us to enjoy a feast whose glory comes to us “as far as we can bear it.” And if you are unable to get to a celebration of it, then enjoy this vigil from the finest Byzantine parish in North America: 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Church as Community and Community as Church

I am not unbiased when it comes to the work of Michael Plekon, to whom I owe much. It is a great gift to have him as a friend; but his works are also gifts, and my students delight in them when I assign his books in the classroom, including, recently his Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience and Saints as They Really Are.

Now he has a new one out: Community as Church, Church as Community (July 2021), 272pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

Parishes of all denominations are in decline, shrinking, closing, dying. We know that there are increasing numbers, young and older, who are religious “nones” and “dones.” This book explores why the decline is taking place, why the distancing is going on. But it goes on to examine parishes from all over the country and from various church bodies that are resurrecting. The central theme of death and resurrection shapes the analysis of parishes covered. Parishes are resurrecting by reinventing their ministries, by repurposing their building to better serve their neighborhoods, thus replanting and reconnecting with them. All of this is the Spirit’s doing but through the community of sisters and brothers who make up each congregation of faith. Community as the core of church is the other reality shaping the book’s reflection. And community, a parish being with those around, living for more than its own survival are visions for going forward. Other aspects of congregational life are also examined, most importantly the pastors—how they serve when budgets shrink, how they are trained, how pastors act with the community not above it. No recipes are suggested for parish resurrection, but the stories of the parishes that have revived bear within numerous lessons for us in the future.

I read parts in draft, and have again read the whole book this month. I've sent some questions to him for a blog interview, and await with great interest his thoughts, which I will post in due time.  

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

To Be a Priest of Creation

Neither John Chryssavgis nor John Zizioulas need any special introduction to those with any passing familiarity with contemporary Orthodox thought, especially its "green" turn. But the former has nonetheless edited a new book about the latter's recent sacerdotal-ecological writings: Priests of Creation: John Zizioulas on Discerning an Ecological Ethos (T&T Clark, July 2021), 248pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Based on a constructive reading of Scripture, the apostolic and patristic traditions and deeply rooted in the sacramental experience and spiritual ethos of the Orthodox Church, John Zizioulas offers a timely anthropological and cosmological perspective of human beings as “priests of creation” in addressing the current ecological crisis.

Given the critical and urgent character of the global crisis and by adopting a clear line of argumentation, Zizioulas describes a vision based on a compassionate and incarnational conception of the human beings as liturgical beings, offering creation to God for the life of the world. He encourages the need for deeper interaction with modern science, from which theology stands to gain an appreciation of the interconnection of every aspect of materiality and life with humankind. The result is an articulate and promising vision that inspires a new ethos, or way of life, to overcome our alienation from the rest of creation.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Whence Cometh and Wither Goeth Human Desire?

My 2019 book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power is very much indebted to the work of the Spanish priest and psychoanalyst Carlos Dominguez Morano's book Belief After Freud, which every Christian should read, Catholics especially. It is an incredibly challenging book at just the moment when the Catholic Church needs to be challenged, and in the areas he highlights. 

His next book to make an appearance, late last year, in an English translation is The Myth of Desire: Sexuality, Love, and the Self (Lexington Books, October 2020), 254pp. I have a copy and will get around to blogging about it one of these days. "Desire" seems to be one of those topics rising slowly but steadily up the lists of publishers today in the worlds of spirituality and psychology. It will be interesting to see where this goes and where it winds up....

Later this year we will have another book on the topic of desire, though its title does move me to some anticipatory skepticism insofar as it seems to follow the poor poppets of popular psychology today in chasing after fads and desperately trying to copyright certain talismanic phrases in the hopes of cashing in big. One such fad currently on an upward trajectory involves sticking the prefix "neuro" in front of all sorts of things. I would be the first humbly and gratefully to recognize how much we still have to learn about neurology and the brain, but sometimes this "neuro" fad seems overly eager to appear "scientific" and also lazily to find a way around the perennial brain-mind problem, and more broadly the challenges of a proper hermeneutics of science. 

But let that pass and consider The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community by Curt Thompson (IVP Academic, October 2021), 248pp. 

About this forthcoming title the publisher tells us this:

We are people of desire. In The Soul of Desire, psychiatrist Curt Thompson suggests that underneath all our longings is the desire to be known―and what's more, that this fundamental yearning manifests itself in our deep need to make things of beauty, revealing who we are to others. Desire and beauty go hand in hand. But both our craving to be known and our ability to create beauty have been marred by trauma and shame, collapsing our imagination for what God has for us and blinding us to the possibility that beauty could ever emerge from our ashes. Drawing on his work in interpersonal neurobiology and clinical practice, Thompson presents a powerful picture of the capacity of the believing community to reshape our imaginations, hold our desires and griefs together, and invite us into the beauty of God’s presence. The Soul of Desire is a mature, creative work, weaving together neuroscience and spiritual formation to open up new horizons for thinking not only about the nature of the mind, but about what it means to be human.

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