"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, March 30, 2022

The Hermeneutics of Iconoclasts

This book came out some months back, but I missed it until Paulist sent me their most recent catalogue. It treats of a very important issue that is often overlooked in the more popular treatments of iconography and iconoclasm: Hermeneutics of the Ban on Images, The: Exegetical and Systematic Theological Approaches by Friedhelm Hartenstein and Michael Moxter (Paulist Press, 2021), 232pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In the history of Judaism and Christianity the biblical ban against images has been a decisive factor in shaping collective identity around opposition to the veneration of images. The biblical ban inspired the iconoclastic controversy in Byzantium as well as iconoclasm during the Protestant Reformation. Even in the present, biblical texts prohibiting images may be easily misunderstood in ways that can lead to religious conflicts and even violence. At the same time, the humanities are experiencing an “iconic turn,” a marked attention to the role of images. Recognizing both the potential for misunderstanding the biblical texts and the promise of a more nuanced appreciation of the role of images in human experience, this book constructs a framework for understanding the place of images, and their prohibition, within the biblical text and Christian religious practice. In the form of a dialogue between an Old Testament scholar and a Protestant systematic theologian, the volume explores potential lines of convergence between the rationale behind rejecting visual representations of God and that behind regarding the icon of Christ as a representation of the invisible God. Consideration of Old Testament texts in their cultural context clarifies key distinctions underlying the prohibition of material representations of God, while explaining the central importance of the biblical texts for creating “mental iconography” of God. †

Monday, March 28, 2022

Augustine's Influences, Contexts, and Legacies

It is not often that a publisher proclaims a collection of essays "an indispensable resource for those looking to understand Augustine’s place in religious and cultural heritage," but given some of the contributors, and the editors, especially David Hunter (who has a chapter in my own recent book), this seems like no exaggeration: Augustine and Tradition: Influences, Contexts, Legacy , eds. David G. Hunter and Jonathan P. yates (Eerdmans, 2021), 501pp. 

Augustine, of course, has for some time been a convenient whipping-boy in the hands of those fourth-rate bloggers and other half-wits who pass themselves off as Orthodox apologists in our day. Some of that nonsense began to be dismantled with the publication in 2008 of the invaluable book Orthodox Readings of Augustine, which you should definitely read alongside this new one, about which the publisher tells us this:

Augustine towers over Western life, literature, and culture—both sacred and secular. His ideas permeate conceptions of the self from birth to death and have cast a long shadow over subsequent Christian thought. But as much as tradition has sprung from Augustinian roots, so was Augustine a product of and interlocutor with traditions that preceded and ran contemporary to his life. 

This extensive volume examines and evaluates Augustine as both a receiver and a source of tradition. The contributors—all distinguished Augustinian scholars influenced by J. Patout Burns and interested in furthering his intellectual legacy—survey Augustine’s life and writings in the context of North African tradition, philosophical and literary traditions of antiquity, the Greek patristic tradition, and the tradition of Augustine’s Latin contemporaries. These various pieces, when assembled, tell a comprehensive story of Augustine’s significance, both then and now.

Contributors: Alden Bass, Michael Cameron, John C. Cavadini, Thomas Clemmons, Stephen A. Cooper, Theodore de Bruyn, Mark DelCogliano, Geoffrey D. Dunn, John Peter Kenney, Brian Matz, Andrew McGowan, William Tabbernee, Joseph W. Trigg, Dennis Trout, and James R. Wetzel.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Ethiopian Christianity and its Entanglements and Disconnections

It has been a delight to watch the slow but steady increase of interest in Ethiopian Christianity over the last decade. A new collection published in February will deepen our understanding: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity in a Global Context: Entanglements and Disconnections, eds. Stanislau Paulau and Martin Tamcke (Brill, 2022), 260pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity constitutes an exceptional religious tradition flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa already since late antiquity. The volume places Ethiopian Orthodoxy into a global context and explores the various ways in which it has been interconnected with the wider Christian world from the Aksumite period until today. By highlighting the formative role of both wide-ranging translocal religious interactions as well as disruptions thereof, the contributors challenge the perception of this African Christian tradition as being largely isolated in the course of its history. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity in a Global Context: Entanglements and Disconnections offers a new perspective on the Horn of Africa’s Christian past and reclaims its place on the map of global Christianity.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Depicting Russian Orthodoxy in the Middle Ages

I yield nothing to anybody in my disdain for Putin and his war against Ukraine, but the current trend of refusing to play Russian music at your local symphony, or avoiding Russian literature or whatever is just silly and aids nobody. Perhaps those inclined to such ostentatious pseudo-sympathy might be less anxious about earlier works of Russian culture, including those discussed in a book by Agnes Kriza coming out late next month: Depicting Orthodoxy in the Russian Middle Ages: The Novgorod Icon of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom (Oxford UP, 2022), 384pp. + 105 colour plates.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The image of Divine Wisdom, traditionally associated with the Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod, is an innovation of the fifteenth century. The icon represents the winged, royal, red-faced Sophia flanked by the Mother of God and John the Baptist. Although the image has a contemporaneous commentary, and although it exercised a profound influence on Russian cultural history, its meaning, together with the dating and localisation of the first appearance of the iconography, has remained an art-historical conundrum. By exploring the message, roots, function, and historical context of the creation of the first, most emblematic and enigmatic Russian allegorical iconography, Depicting Orthodoxy in the Russian Middle Ages deciphers the meaning of this icon. 

In contrast to previous interpretations, Kriza argues that the winged Sophia is the personification of the Orthodox Church. The Novgorod Wisdom icon represents the Church of Hagia Sophia, that is, Orthodoxy, as it was perceived in fifteenth-century Rus. Depicting Orthodoxy asserts that the icon, together with its commentary, was a visual-textual response to the Union of Florence between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, signed in 1439 but rejected by the Russians in 1441. This interpretation is based on detailed interdisciplinary research, drawing on philology, art history, theology, and history. Kriza's study challenges some key assumptions concerning the relevance of Church Schism of 1054, the polemics between the Greeks and the Latins about the bread of Eucharist, and the role of the Union of Florence in the history of Russian art. In particular, by studying both well- and lesser-known works of art alongside overlooked textual evidence, this volume investigates how the Christian Church and its true faith were defined and visualized in Rus and Byzantium throughout the centuries.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Christian Thought in the Medieval Islamic World

In the dozen years this blog has now been active, it has been an especial joy to watch increased scholarly attention to the Syriac tradition, not a few of whose books have been featured on here. 

Set for release early next month will be another welcome volume aiding in our understanding of this tradition and its wider relations: Christian Thought in the Medieval Islamicate World: Abdisho of Nisibis and the Apologetic Tradition by Salam Rassi (Oxford University Press, April 2022), 400pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

Christian Thought in the Medieval Islamicate World is the first monograph-length study and intellectual biography of Abdisho of Nisibis (d. 1318), bishop and polymath of the Church of the East. Focusing on his works of apologetic theology, it examines the intellectual strategies he employs to justify Christianity against Muslim (and to a lesser extent Jewish) criticisms. Better known to scholars of Syriac literature as a poet, jurist, and cataloguer, Abdisho wrote a considerable number of works in the Arabic language, many of which have only recently come to light. He flourished at a time when Syriac Christian writers were becoming increasingly indebted to Islamic models of intellectual production. Yet many of his writings were composed during mounting religious tensions following the official conversion of the Ilkhanate to Islam in 1295. In the midst of these challenges, Abdisho negotiates a centuries-long tradition of Syriac and Arabic apologetics to remind his readers of the verity of the Christian faith. His engagement with this tradition reveals how anti-Muslim apologetics had long shaped the articulation of Christian identity in the Middle East since the emergence of Islam. Through a selective process of encyclopaedism and systematisation, Abdisho navigates a vast corpus of Syriac and Arabic apologetics to create a synthesis and theological canon that remains authoritative to this day.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Byzantine Christian Philanthropy

The University of California Press remains one of the few public academic presses I know of to take such longstanding and in-depth interest in early Christian history, including Syriac Christianity. They have recently published a new book, The Rich and the Pure: Philanthropy and the Making of Christian Society in Early Byzantium by Daniel Caner (University of California Press, 2021), 440pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

A portrait of history’s first complex Christian society as seen through the lens of Christian philanthropy and gift giving

As the Roman Empire broke down in western Europe, its prosperity moved decisively eastward, to what is now known as the Byzantine Empire. Here was born history’s first truly affluent, multifaceted Christian society. One of the ideals used to unite the diverse millions of people living in this vast realm was the Christianized ideal of philanthrōpia. In this sweeping cultural and social history, Daniel Caner shows how philanthropy required living up to Jesus’s injunction to “Give to all who ask of you,” by offering mercy and/or material aid to every human being, regardless of their origin or status.

Caner shows how Christian philanthropy became articulated through distinct religious ideals of giving that helped define proper social relations among the rich, the poor, and “the pure” (Christian holy people), resulting in new and enduring social expectations. In tracking the evolution of Christian giving over three centuries, he brings to the fore the concerns of the peoples of Early Byzantium, from the countryside to the lower levels of urban society to the imperial elites, as well as the hierarchical relationships that arose among them. The Rich and the Pure offers nothing less than a portrait of the whole of early Byzantine society.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Religion and Europe

This is a very rich collection, released last week, with numerous chapters on Orthodox realities diversely rendered: The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Europe, eds. Grace Davie and Lucian N. Leustean (OUP, 2022), 880pp. 

About this collection the publisher tells us this:

The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Europe offers a detailed overview of religious ideas, structures, and institutions in the making of Europe. It examines the role of religion in fostering identity, survival, and tolerance in the empires and nation-states of Europe from Antiquity until today; the interplay between religion, politics and ideologies in the twentieth century; the dialogue between religious communities and European institutions in the construction of the European Union; and the engagement of Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Eastern religions with the idea of Europe. The collection closes with an overview of European nation states, focusing on history, demography, legal perspectives, political authorities, societal changes, and current trends. Written by leading scholars in the field, the Handbook is an authoritative and up-to-date volume which demonstrates the enduring presence of lived and institutionalized religion in the social networks of identity, policy, and power over two millennia of European history.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Job and Greg Debate Ethics

Eastern Christians of the Byzantine tradition, immersed in Great Lent, will often celebrate a pre-sanctified liturgy whose authorship, at least in part, is attributed to St Gregory the Great. This towering pope of Rome is thus still thought 'orthodox' by the Orthodox, still regarded by them and the Latins as a saint, since he lived prior to the unpleasantness of 1054 and all that. 

So attention can and should still be paid to him and his writings, including a new translation, for release next month: Moral Reflection on the Book of Job, vol. 6, trans. Brian Kerns (Liturgical Press, 2022), 584pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

Gregory the Great was pope from 590 to 604, a time of great turmoil in Italy and in the western Roman Empire generally because of the barbarian invasions. Gregory’s experience as prefect of the city of Rome and as apocrisarius of Pope Pelagius fitted him admirably for the new challenges of the papacy. The Moral Reflections on the Book of Job were first given to the monks who accompanied Gregory to the embassy in Constantinople. This sixth volume, containing books 28 through 35, provides commentary on five chapters of Job, from 38:1 through 42:17. The present volume contains the Lord’s appearing to Job out of the whirlwind, the Lord’s two lengthy speeches to Job and Job’s responses, and, finally, the Lord’s rebuke to Job’s friends and restoration of Job’s fortunes. Finally, Gregory speaks of his intention in writing this long work and requests that his readers grant him their prayers and tears. Includes comprehensive indexes for volumes 1-6.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Bright Sadness

Slowly, reluctantly, in a world where there is already so much suffering and sacrifice, especially in Ukraine at the moment, the fast of Great Lent this year has approached not without some dread perhaps. But in dread of what we shall give up we must not overlook what we gain: Lent is a time of such splendid and diverse liturgical riches--the Canon of St. Andrew, the Akathist hymn, the life of St. Mary of Egypt, the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, and crowning it all the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy.

As we begin to think on our forty days in the desert, I draw your attention to something I wrote three years ago about making fasting perhaps a bit more practicable in our own day. 

I also reprint something I wrote on here more than five years ago now, offering some very rich readings as we prepare for, and then enter into, the mystery of the Lord's passover. 

Perhaps my favourite of his Alexander Schmemann's books, which every year I re-read at this time, is Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (SVS Press, 1974), 140pp.

This book, I think, is Schmemann at his best: serious but light, indeed lyrical; never letting the season of penitence and the tears of sorrow overwhelm the joy of knowing that Christ's Pascha has already happened, that death has been defeated, and that life will be given to those in the tombs.

One year I read the above work with his then just-released Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, and you can see in these latter reflections how much he loved the Lenten season and how he could, in spite of it all, never fail to see that Pascha really does stand at the heart of everything.

There are other books that come to mind here as well: Frederica Mathewes-Greene, First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew (Paraclete Press, 2006, 195pp.).

If you are not celebrating the Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in your parish, or cannot attend, then her little book is a good way of reading a short passage from the canon for each of the forty days. 

Lev Gillet's book The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church also has much good food for thought in meditating on the liturgical cycle of Lent, and in offering practical recommendations for askesis in addition to the customary fasting.

Equally edifying is the little book by the prolific pastoral theologian and Orthodox priest William Mills: The Prayer of St. Ephrem: A Biblical Commentary, on which I commented previously, and whose author I have interviewed several times about his other books.

Similarly, this splendid CD is a wonderful resource if you are on the road a lot or sitting at your desk: Have Mercy on Me, O God: The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle). Under the expert direction of J. Michael Thompson, this schola's rendering of the canon is sublime. I received from Thompson a version of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified gifts performed by the Schola under his direction. I have to confess that its lovely prostopinije setting has forced me to reconsider a chant system I had previously considered a poor cousin to the Galician and Kyivan. (This latter CD is available from the Sisters of St. Basil in Uniontown, PA.)

For those who want a serious scholarly understanding of the liturgical heart of Lent as it were, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, see Stefanos Alexoupolos, The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite: a Comparative Analysis of its Origins, Evolution, and Structural Components (Peeters, 2009), xvi+355pp. 

In his expert review of Alexoupolos in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, the Byzantine liturgical scholar Peter Galadza lauded his book and said that his work is sure to become the scholarly standard for years to come.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Armenian Spirituality

Readers of my two books in ecclesiology will be aware of my love for the Armenian tradition. So it is an especial delight for me to see that one of the important figures of that tradition has been steadily gaining attention in and translation for anglophone audiences. Just a few weeks ago we had a new publication, From the Depths of the Heart: Annotated Translation of the Prayers of St. Gregory of Narek, trans. Abraham Terian  (Liturgical Press, 2022), 568pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this: 

St. Gregory of Narek (ca. 945–1003), Armenian mystic poet and theologian, was named Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis on April 12, 2015. Not so well known in the West, the saint holds a distinctive place in the Armenian Church by virtue of his prayer book and hymnic odes—among other works. His writings are equally prized as literary masterpieces, with the prayer book as the magnum opus.

With this meticulous translation of the prayers, St. Gregory of Narek enters another millennium of wonderment, now in a wider circle. The prayers resound from their author’s heart—albeit in a different language, rendered by a renowned translator of early Armenian texts and a theologian.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Senses and Perceptions of Things Divine

I well remember the moment (or do I? how reliable are senses and memories anyway?) at the turn of the century when we started seeing books devoted to exploring the role of the senses in Christian experience. Since then we have had books on smell and scent, on sight and visual culture, on hearing and listening, and other things besides. 

This year two more will be introduced into this category, their authors no strangers to long-time readers of this wee blog. The first is an edited international scholarly collection, Perceiving Things Divine: Towards a Constructive Account of Spiritual Perception, eds. Frederick D. Aquino and Paul L. Gavrilyuk (Oxford University Press, 6 March 2022), 272pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

Sensory language is commonly used to describe human encounters with the divine. Scripture, for example, employs perceptual language like 'taste and see that the Lord is good', 'hear the word of the Lord', and promises that 'the pure in heart will see God'. Such statements seem to point to certain features of human cognition that make perception-like contact with divine things possible. But how precisely should these statements be construed? Can the elusive notion of 'spiritual perception' survive rigorous theological and philosophical scrutiny and receive a constructive articulation?

Perceiving Things Divine seeks to make philosophical and theological sense of spiritual perception. Reflecting the results of the second phase of the Spiritual Perception Project, this volume argues for the possibility of spiritual perception. It also seeks to make progress towards a constructive account of the different aspects of spiritual perception while exploring its intersection with various theological and philosophical themes, such as biblical interpretation, aesthetics, liturgy, race, ecology, eschatology, and the hiddenness of God. The interdisciplinary scope of the volume draws on the resources of value theory, philosophy of perception, epistemology, philosophy of art, psychology, systematic theology, and theological aesthetics.

The volume also draws attention to how spiritual perception may be affected by such distortions as pornographic sensibility and racial prejudice. Since perceiving spiritually involves the whole person, the volume proposes that spiritual perception could be purified by ascetic discipline, healed by contemplative practices, trained in the process of spiritual direction and the pursuit of virtue, transformed by the immersion in the sacramental life, and healed by opening the self to the operation of divine grace.

You will note here an impressive cast of contributors, including Sarah Coakley and Catherine Pickstock (who was going to be my doctoral director at Cambridge when I was admitted in 1999 before turning them down).  

The next book is Hearing the Scriptures: Liturgical Exegesis of the Old Testament in Byzantine Orthodox Hymnography by Eugen J. Pentiuc (Oxford UP, 2021), 456pp. 

About this book we are told:

Throughout the ages, interpreters of the Christian scriptures have been wonderfully creative in seeking to understand and bring out the wonders of these ancient writings. That creativity has often been overlooked by recent scholarship, concentrated as it is in the so-called critical period. In this study, Eugen J. Pentiuc illuminates the remarkable way in which the Byzantine hymnographers (liturgists) expressed their understanding of the Old Testament in their compositions, an interpretive process that he terms "liturgical exegesis."

In authorship and methodology, patristic exegesis and liturgical exegesis are closely related. Patristic exegesis, however, is primarily linear and sequential, proceeding verse by verse, while liturgical exegesis offers a more imaginative and eclectic mode of interpretation, ranging over various parts of the Bible. In this respect, says Pentiuc, liturgical exegesis resembles cubist art. To illuminate the multi-faceted creativity of liturgical exegesis, Pentiuc has chosen the vast and rich hymnography of Byzantine Orthodox Holy Week as a case study, offering a detailed lexical, biblical, and theological analysis of selected hymns. His analysis reveals the many different and imaginative ways in which creative liturgists incorporated and interpreted scriptural material in these hymns.

By drawing attention to the way in which the bible is used by Byzantine hymnographers in the living Orthodox tradition, Hearing the Scriptures makes a ground-breaking contribution to the history of the reception of the scriptures.

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