"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, February 28, 2022

The Fourth Council of Constantinople and its Acts

I have previously and regularly hailed the efforts of Liverpool University Press to bring out volumes in their series Translated Texts for Historians. The beginning of May of this year will give us another: The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 869-70, trans. Richard Price and Federico Montinaro (LUP, 2022), 520pp.

Readers with better memories than mine will recall, as I seem vaguely to do, that the late John Meyendorff once pleaded with Christians, Catholics especially, to bring this council in from the cold and see it as an important tool to resolving the impasse over papal primacy. I'm sure Meyendorff's views are cited at greatly revealing length in this loser's book.

Anyway, about this new translation we are told this:

The Council of Constantinople of 869-70 was highly dramatic, with its trial and condemnation of Patriarch Photius, a towering figure in the Byzantium of his day, and the tussle of wills at the council between the papal legates, the imperial representatives and the bishops. It was church politics and personalities rather than issues of doctrine, such as icon veneration, that dominated the debates. Out of all the acts of the great early councils, the acts of this council, of which this edition is the first modern translation, are the nearest to an accurate and complete record. Its protest against secular interference in ecclesiastical elections was taken up later in the West and led to this council's being accorded full ecumenical status, although it had been repudiated in Byzantium soon after it was held. No early council expresses so vividly the tension between Rome's claim to supreme authority and the Byzantine reduction of this to a primacy of honour.

Friday, February 25, 2022

How Far East Do You Think the Christian East Goes?

In the hands of some, "the Christian East" and cognate phrases is often used to refer to what later generations might know as "Byzantium." Relatively few, however, remember that at one point Eastern Christianity lived the fullness of that term, stretching all across the easternmost reaches of Asia, and not just as a result of some Jesuit or other having got into China in the post-Reformation period. The Syriac expansion into East Asia in the first millennium is well known to specialists, but probably few others.

A new book out in April will correct that, reminding us of The Luminous Way to the East: Texts and History of the First Encounter of Christianity with China by Matteo Nicolini-Zani (Oxford UP/AAR, 2022), 424pp. 

This book, the publisher tells us,

offers a comprehensive survey of the historical, literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources of the first stage of the Christian mission to China. It explores the complex and multifaceted process of the interaction with the different cultural and religious milieux that the Church of the East experienced in its diffusion throughout Central Asia and into China during the first millennium.

Matteo Nicolini-Zani provides an overview of the Christian presence in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907) by reconstructing the composition and organization of Christian communities, the geographical location of Christian monasteries, and the related historical events attested by the sources. Through a new and richly annotated English translation of the Chinese Christian texts produced in Tang China, the volume provides a documented look at what was the earliest, and perhaps the most extraordinary, encounter of Christianity with Chinese culture and religions (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism). It shows how East Syriac Christianity in its eastward expansion along the Silk Road from Persia to China was open to the adoption of other languages and imagery and was able to enculturate the Christian teaching into new cultural and religious forms without losing its identity.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Oxford Handbook on Origen

I noted on here only last week a new book about Origen, in whom interest has remained very high this century. In April of this year, Oxford University Press will bring out another of their justly celebrated handbooks: The Oxford Handbook of Origen, eds. Ronald E. Heine and Karen Jo Torjesen (OUP, April 2022, 624pp). 

About this forthcoming scholarly collection, the publisher tells us this:

This interrogation of Origen's legacy for the 21st Century returns to old questions built upon each other over eighteen centuries of Origen scholarship-problems of translation and transmission, positioning Origen in the histories of philosophy, theology, and orthodoxy, and defining his philological and exegetical programmes. The essays probe the more reliable sources for Origen's thought by those who received his legacy and built on it. They focus on understanding how Origen's legacy was adopted, transformed and transmitted looking at key figures from the fourth century through the Reformation. A section on modern contributions to the understanding of Origen embraces the foundational contributions of Huet, the twentieth century movement to rehabilitate Origen from his status as a heterodox teacher, and finally, the identification in 2012 of twenty-nine anonymous homilies on the Psalms in a codex in Munich as homilies of Origen.

Equally important has been the investigation of Origen's historical, cultural, and intellectual context. These studies track the processes of appropriation, assimilation and transformation in the formation and transmission of Origen's legacy. Origen worked at interpreting Scripture throughout his life. There are essays addressing general issues of hermeneutics and his treatment of groups of books from the Biblical canon in commentaries and homilies. Key points of his theology are also addressed in essays that give attention to the fluid environment in which Origen developed his theology. These essays open important paths for students of Origen in the 21st century.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Imitations of Gregory of Nyssa's Desires

I am just old enough to remember when it seemed suddenly one day people in theology (at least in Canada) woke up and "discovered" René Girard. I wrote a bit about that, and my own discovery, here

More recently, I read Cynthia Haven's intellectual biography of Girard, Evolution of Desire. It is a fascinating read that I must go back to someday. 

Along comes a new book to continue the discussion of mimesis and desire in a theological context, and this one looks exceptionally interesting: Imitations of Infinity: Gregory of Nyssa and the Transformation of Mimesis by Michael Motia  (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), 326pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

We do not have many definitions of Christianity from late antiquity, but among the few extant is the brief statement of Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 CE) that it is "mimesis of the divine nature." The sentence is both a historical gem and theologically puzzling. Gregory was the first Christian to make the infinity of God central to his theological program, but how could he intend for humans to imitate the infinite? If the aim of the Christian life is "never to stop growing towards what is better and never to place any limit on perfection," how could mimesis function within this endless pursuit?

In Imitations of Infinity, Michael Motia situates Gregory among Platonist philosophers, rhetorical teachers, and early Christian leaders to demonstrate how much of late ancient life was governed by notions of imitation. Questions both intimate and immense, of education, childcare, or cosmology, all found form in a relationship of archetype and image. It is no wonder that these debates demanded the attention of people at every level of the Roman Empire, including the Christians looking to form new social habits and norms. Whatever else the late ancient transformation of the empire affected, it changed the names, spaces, and characters that filled the imagination and common sense of its citizens, and it changed how they thought of their imitations.

Like religion, imitation was a way to organize the world and a way to reach toward new possibilities, Motia argues, and two earlier conceptions of mimesis—one centering on ontological participation, the other on aesthetic representation—merged in late antiquity. As philosophers and religious leaders pondered how linking oneself to reality depended on practices of representation, their theoretical debates accompanied practical concerns about what kinds of objects would best guide practitioners toward the divine. Motia places Gregory within a broader landscape of figures who retheorized the role of mimesis in search of perfection. No longer was imitation a marker of inauthenticity or immaturity. Mimesis became a way of life.

Friday, February 18, 2022

On the Origins of Origen

It remains forever fascinating to me to see how much interest in and controversy over Origen of Alexandria one still finds today. As I have noted on here for well over a decade, books about him appear in substantial numbers every year or so, and 2022 promises to be no different with the forthcoming publication of Cross and Creation: A Theological Introduction to Origen of Alexandria by Mark E. Therrien (Catholic University of America Press, May 2022), 320pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Even though the theology of Origen of Alexandria has shaped the Christian Tradition in almost every way, the controversies over his legacy have been seemingly endless. One major interpretative trend, for example, has suggested Origen's theology is really akin to the heterodox Gnostics against whom he wrote than the actual teaching of the Gospel, since he (supposedly) had a disdainful attitude towards Creation and ultimately saw little redemptive meaning in the Passion.

In Cross and Creation: A Theological Introduction to Origen of Alexandria, Mark Therrien offers an original interpretation of Origen's theology. Focusing on some of Origen's most important works (especially On First Principles and the Commentary on John, but ultimately making reference to his writings more broadly), this book retrieves and examines some of the foundational pillars of Origen's theology through close readings and re-examinations of those texts. It examines eight of these theological foundations: God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the end, the soul, the world, the cross, and deification. Moreover, by showing the connections between Origen's understanding of these foundational pillars, it also shows the coherence of his theology as a whole. Taken collectively, what emerges from these eight chapters is that two doctrines specially shape Origen's theology: Cross and Creation. As Therrien shows, Origen did not hold contempt for Creation. Rather, Origen thinks that Creation emerges from the very life of God as eternally foreknown and provided for in the person of Christ, the Wisdom of God the Father. Moreover, he also holds that, though fallen, Creation will be restored according to its original, eternal intention in God precisely through the Passion of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The Cross is thus not minimalized in Origen's theology; it is rather its very center.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Greek Nationalism and European Revolution

Nationalism has long been a besetting problem within Eastern Christianity and attracts regular critical attention today, but it has roots that go back to the aftermath of the French Revolution and the revolutionary period in Europe from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Greece, about which we have a new book:The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe Hardcover by Mark Mazower  (Penguin, November 2021), 608pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

From one of our leading historians, an important new history of the Greek War of Independence—the ultimate worldwide liberal cause célèbre of the age of Byron, Europe’s first nationalist uprising, and the beginning of the downward spiral of the Ottoman Empire—published two hundred years after its outbreak

As Mark Mazower shows us in his enthralling and definitive new account, myths about the Greek War of Independence outpaced the facts from the very beginning, and for good reason. This was an unlikely cause, against long odds, a disorganized collection of Greek patriots up against what was still one of the most storied empires in the world, the Ottomans. The revolutionaries needed all the help they could get. And they got it as Europeans and Americans embraced the idea that the heirs to ancient Greece, the wellspring of Western civilization, were fighting for their freedom against the proverbial Eastern despot, the Turkish sultan. This was Christianity versus Islam, now given urgency by new ideas about the nation-state and democracy that were shaking up the old order. Lord Byron is only the most famous of the combatants who went to Greece to fight and die—along with many more who followed events passionately and supported the cause through art, music, and humanitarian aid. To many who did go, it was a rude awakening to find that the Greeks were a far cry from their illustrious forebears, and were often hard to tell apart from the Ottomans.

Mazower does full justice to the realities on the ground as a revolutionary conspiracy triggered outright rebellion, and a fraying and distracted Ottoman leadership first missed the plot and then overreacted disastrously. He shows how and why ethnic cleansing commenced almost immediately on both sides. By the time the dust settled, Greece was free, and Europe was changed forever. It was a victory for a completely new kind of politics—international in its range and affiliations, popular in its origins, romantic in sentiment, and radical in its goals. It was here on the very edge of Europe that the first successful revolution took place in which a people claimed liberty for themselves and overthrew an entire empire to attain it, transforming diplomatic norms and the direction of European politics forever, and inaugurating a new world of nation-states, the world in which we still live.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Religion in Turkey Today

The role of Islam in Turkey has been changing since the turn of this century, after having changed a lot at the turn of the previous century, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. A recent book helps us understand these recent changes: Kim Shivley, Islam in Modern Turkey (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), 256pp.

This book, the publisher tells us,
  • Investigates the social and political forces that have shaped Islamic practices in Turkey, from 1923 to now
  • Covers a different topic in each chapter: the Kemalist revolution, Sunni Islam, the Alevi minority, Sufi communities, political parties, religious education, and the contemporary period
  • Explores issues that have shaped public debates about the role of religion in the Turkish secular state in case studies on, for example, veiling; the use of Atatürk imagery, and the liberalisation of the media
  • Looks at the important – if contested – role of women and gender in religious practice in modern Turkey
  • Draws on ethnographic detail based on the author’s research in Turkey over the last 28 years
  • Provides the historical context for the rise of the controversial Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party
  • Includes a note on Turkish usage and a glossary of key terms
Additionally the publisher reports this: 
This book provides a survey of Islam in Turkey since the founding of the modern republic in 1923. It examines the secularising policies of Turkey’s founders and how these policies have shaped the development of religious institutions and social expectations around religious practice up to the present day. A special emphasis is on the relationship between religion and politics, with chapters focusing on state-based religious institutions, religious education, Sufi orders and religious communities, Alevism, Islamic-oriented political parties, and the effects of economic liberalization on the practice of Islam in Turkey.
Readers will also learn about the political and social developments that contributed to the rise of the current Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party. In this way, Islam in Turkey provides vital historical context for understanding both the rise of the controversial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and current events in Turkey and the Middle East more broadly.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Medieval Arabic Commentaries on the Coptic Liturgy

I am very glad to see that the Coptic tradition continues steadily to garner more and more scholarly attention. Our knowledge will only increase with the publication next week of Guides to the Eucharist in Medieval Egypt: Three Arabic Commentaries on the Coptic Liturgy (Fordham University Press, 15 February 2022), 240pp.

Part of Fordham UP's Christian Arabic Texts in Translation series, this book is authored by Yūḥannā ibn Sabbā‘, Abū al-Barakāt ibn Kabar, and Pope Gabriel V of Alexandria and translated by Arsenius Mikhail. About the book the publisher tells us this:
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed a rising interest in Arabic texts describing and explaining the rituals of the Coptic Church of Egypt. This book provides readers with an English translation of excerpts from three key texts on the Coptic liturgy by Abū al-Barakāt ibn Kabar, Yūh.annā ibn Sabbā‘, and Pope Gabriel V. With a scholarly introduction to the works, their authors, and the Coptic liturgy, as well as a detailed explanatory apparatus, this volume provides a useful and needed introduction to the worship tradition of Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Presented for the first time in English, these texts provide valuable points of comparison to other liturgical commentaries produced elsewhere in the medieval Christian world.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Byzantine Identity

I mentioned a few weeks back the problem of trendy verbs and nouns dominating scholarly publications for a while. There is arguably no greater example of this than the much-invoked concept of 'identity' which must surely be approaching the end of its useful shelf life. But before it does, we have coming out next month The Routledge Handbook on Identity in Byzantium, eds. Michael Stewart, David Parnell, Conor Whately (Routledge, March 2022), 450pp. 

About this collection the publisher tells us this:

This volume is the first to focus solely on how specific individuals and groups in Byzantium and its borderlands were defined and distinguished from other individuals and groups from the mid-fourth to the close of the fifteenth century. It gathers chapters from both established and emerging scholars from a wide range of disciplines across history, art, archaeology, and religion to provide an accurate representation of the state of the field both now and in its immediate future. The handbook is divided into four subtopics that examine concepts of group and specific individual identity which have been chosen to provide methodologically sophisticated and multidisciplinary perspectives on specific categories of group and individual identity. The topics are Imperial Identities; Romanitas in the late antique Mediterranean; Macro and Micro Identities: Religious, Regional, and Ethnic Identities, and Internal Others; and Gendered Identities: Literature, Memory, and Self in Early and Middle Byzantium. While no single volume could ever provide a comprehensive vision of identities on the vast variety of peoples within Byzantium over nearly a millennium of its history, this handbook represents a milestone in offering a survey of the vibrant surge of scholarship examining the numerous and oft-times fluctuating codes of identity that shaped and transformed Byzantium and its neighbours during the empire's long life.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Dostoevsky and the Problem of Punishment

If it is granted unto me to live long enough, and to write another book in theology proper (my next two will both be in psychotherapy), I would like to give some sustained thought to the problem of punishment in the Christian tradition, which seems to me to pose nearly insuperable problems in several areas. Until and unless I get around to doing that, I'll have to content myself with reading the works of others, including a new book released just this month: Wages of Evil: Dostoevsky and Punishment by Anna Schur  (Northwestern University Press, 2022), 256pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Dostoevsky’s views on punishment are usually examined through the prism of his Christian commitments. For some, this means an orientation toward mercy; for others, an affirmation of suffering as a path to redemption. Anna Schur incorporates sources from philosophy, criminology, psychology, and history to argue that Dostoevsky’s thinking about punishment was shaped not only by his Christian ethics but also by the debates on penal theory and practice unfolding during his lifetime.

As Dostoevsky attempts to balance the various ethical and cultural imperatives, he displays ambivalence both about punishment and about mercy. This ambivalence, Schur argues, is further complicated by what Dostoevsky sees as the unfathomable quality of the self, which hinders every attempt to match crimes with punishments. The one certainty he holds is that a proper response to wrongdoing must include a concern for the wrongdoer’s moral improvement.

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