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


Thursday, March 28, 2013

On James Hitchcock's Errors about the East

I just received in the mail a new book from the historian James Hitchcock, whom I have read with pleasure and profit in the past. E.g., his 1995 book The Recovery of the Sacred mounts a good case for fixing some of the problems in the reformed Roman liturgy. His latest book was published just before Christmas: History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius Press, 2012), 584pp.

Naturally I turned first to the sections on the Eastern Churches, and here I follow the so-called Hunwicke Rule: if a book is bad in seemingly small (but in fact greatly significant) matters, why trust it in large?
The Hunwicke test is this. I find some topic in his discussion in which the Big Writer has strayed into an area in which I do know something. And I test his assertions. My assumption is that if it turns out that he is writing a load of tasteless white fish with small, needle-like bones [pollocks] in an area in which I am able to judge him, there is every possibility (or at the very least a risk) that he is just as unreliable, tendentious, or crooked in areas where I do not have competence.
Some may assume this is an unfair rule, to which the always witty (and sadly infrequently blogging) Fr. John Hunwicke replies thus:
You may tell me that in so very Big a Book, it is unreasonable for a writer to be expected never to make little errors. "Don't be a pedant. Go for his Big Picture."

I could not more profoundly disagree with you. Any Big Picture is built up of innumerable small brush-strokes. If a man is slipshod about his details, it will be, to a greater or lesser extent, probable that his Big Picture is not worth the paper, so to speak, which it is written on. And in any case, nobody is under a legal or moral obligation to write Big Books. If someone chooses to do so, he should either get his facts straight or be excoriated for not doing so.

Hitchcock has written a very big book indeed, and in his small "brush-strokes" treating the Christian East, we see a picture little short of disastrous. Not only are hugely important events given no mention at all, but even very basic factual matters are dead wrong. It is alarming and depressing that this book, puffed on the back by "big names" in contemporary American Roman Catholicism (George Weigel, Timothy Dolan, Charles Chaput et al), cannot master even basic facts that even such a notorious site as Wikipedia is capable of mastering. Ignatius Press used to be a reliable organization, but it seems clear that for this book they employed no fact-checkers and subjected the book to no serious scholarly review from relevant experts. Consider the following:
  • Hitchcock uses the term "Uniates" with no recognition that this is a pejorative and, to many, offensive term now widely avoided.
  • He claims that Pope Benedict XIV was univocal in his support for Eastern Christians, Eastern Catholics especially. There are no sources given for this claim, and the historical record is not quite so univocal as, e.g., Maria Teresa Fattori's article on Benedict, published in the most recent issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, shows.
  • His too-brief discussion of married Eastern Catholic priests in the US totally ignores the pig-headed chauvinism of Latin bishops (e.g., John Ireland) which resulted in, inter alia, thousands of Catholics leaving the Church and becoming Orthodox.
  • He claims that "[u]ntil 2000 [sic], one of the official papal titles was 'patriarch of the West'" (p.207)! This is just embarrassing. Does nobody Google these things or pop onto the Vatican website, or for that matter read my book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, which discusses the fact that it was in March 2006 that Pope Benedict XVI quietly retired the title, for no compelling reason he ever explained?
  • He treats the Byzantine Rite as a monolith and flatly asserts that it "uses Old Church Slavonic." That's wrong, and would be news to, inter alia, Greeks, Ukrainians, Romanians, Melkites, Antiochians, and Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians in the OCA and other bodies using a dozen and more languages for the Byzantine liturgy--none of them Slavonic. Apart from the Russians, almost nobody else today uses Slavonic.
  • When it comes to the primate of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC), Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (on whom major studies exist in English, as well as French, and of course Ukrainian, inter alia), he gets two important and basic facts wrong: first (though it seems almost churlish to point out this almost charming error), he calls him "the heroic St. Andreas Szeptycki." Ukrainian Catholics will appreciate this (as will many others, not least the many Jews whom Sheptytsky personally saved), as many feel he is indeed a saint, but Sheptytsky (the common English spelling today) has never been officially glorified or canonized by either the UGCC or by Rome. Second, Hitchcock claims that Sheptytsky "was deported to Russia, where he died in 1944." This, too, is wrong: he died in his see-city of Lviv, Ukraine, which for most of 1944 was under German occupation before being retaken by the Red Army and murderously reintegrated into the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. Admittedly, given the shifting borders around Lviv, and more generally around Galacia (beautifully treated in Christopher Hann and Paul Robert Magocsi's Galicia: A Multicultured Land), whom Lviv "belongs" to changed rather a lot--Habsburgs, Poland, briefly the Western Ukrainian Republic, the USSR, etc--but any serious historian should have no trouble sorting this out.
  • After botching Sheptytsky's death, Hitchcock gives an inexcusably sanguine interpretation of events that saw the arrest of Sheptytsky's successor, Joseph Slipyj (treated in Jaroslav Pelikan's book Confessor Between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj) who was exiled to the Gulag for 18 years, and the arrest of the entire UGCC hierarchy along with the forced reunion of the UGCC with the Russian Orthodox Church as the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv of 1946, which everyone now recognizes as a total farce--and not a funny one, either, as the UGCC would then spend the next 43 years as the largest illegal and thus underground religious body in the world, and many of her bishops, clergy, and faithful would be martyred. Some of those stories are recounted in such works as Blessed Bishop Mykolay Charnetsky, C.SS.R., and Companions: Modern Martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, but you wouldn't know any of this from reading Hitchcock. If thousands and thousands of people getting killed precisely for their fidelity to the Catholic Church (many of whom were beatified by Pope John Paul II) don't merit a mention in a book about the same, what does it take? Such an omission is a huge insult.
  • Other errors abound, not least terminological: repeatedly Hitchcock refers to Orthodox Christians as "schismatics," which  (as Henry Chadwick's genuinely magisterial East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church: From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence makes clear) was never appropriate in the first place, and was rightly abandoned by the Catholic Church at Vatican II. This kind of language, along with a smug tone (smugness being, as Flannery O'Connor said, the besetting Catholic sin) through much of the rest of the book, make the whole thing very off-putting.
  • Equally incorrectly he refers to Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians and others as "monophysite" though scholarship for the last four decades and more has shown that that term was never correct in the first place, and certainly isn't today.
  • His treatment of Chaldean Christians ignores the hugely significant recent event whereby Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians came to an agreement of eucharistic sharing made all the more significant by Roman recognition of the ancient anaphora of Addai and Mari, a decision which the great Robert Taft said is the most significant ecumenical-ecclesiological decision made by Rome since Vatican II.
These are intolerable errors of both omission and commission. Some of these have huge ecumenical and ecclesial implications, so nobody can be thought picayune for pointing these out. Some are basic factual errors while others are more a problem of tone--and in some respects these are the more serious. For too long, as David Bentley Hart has said in his essay in Ecumenism Today, Catholics and Orthodox have allowed bad history to get in the way of unity. It is sad that this book, even in the brief treatment it gives to the East, merely repeats this process and compounds these errors. One expects better in 2013--much, much better than this "confessional propaganda" (Taft).  

Syriac Heritage

Released last year under the editorship of some of the leading Syriacists of our time is a collection that no serious student of Syriac Christianity and no serious research library will want to be without: Sebastian Brock et al., eds., Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Gorgias Press, 2012), 612pp.

About this hefty tome we are told:
The Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (GEDSH) is the first major encyclopedia-type reference work devoted exclusively to Syriac Christianity, both as a field of scholarly inquiry and as the inheritance of Syriac Christians today. In more than 600 entries it covers the Syriac heritage from its beginnings in the first centuries of the Common Era up to the present day. Special attention is given to authors, literary works, scholars, and locations that are associated with the Classical Syriac tradition. Within this tradition, the diversity of Syriac Christianity is highlighted as well as Syriac Christianity s broader literary and historical contexts, with major entries devoted to Greek and Arabic authors and more general themes, such as Syriac Christianity s contacts with Judaism and Islam, and with Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Georgian Christianities. In addition to the literary tradition, inscriptions and objects of art are given due consideration. The entries are accompanied by 131 illustrations, twenty of which are in color. The volume closes with maps, lists of patriarchs of the main Syriac Churches of the Middle East, and elaborate indices.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Warfare in Eastern Europe

For the military historians among us, and those interested in pivotal events that shaped many of the homelands of Eastern Christians, a recent book edited by Brian L. Davies, Warfare in Eastern Europe, 1500-1800 (Brill, 2012), 364pp.

About this book we are told:
This volume examines continuities and new developments in the conduct of warfare in early modern Eastern Europe from the early sixteenth century, when Ottoman imperial expansion reached the Danube and Crimea, to the late eighteenth century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned out of existence and Russia rolled back Ottoman power from Ukraine and Moldavia. Contributors include specialists in Russian, Polish, Ottoman, Habsburg, Cossack, and Crimean Tatar history. The essays engage military history understood in the broadest sense and treat such subjects as taxation, recruitment, the sociology and culture of officer corps, logistics, command-and-control, and ideology as well as technology and tactics. The volume aims at facilitating comparative study of Eastern European military development across Eastern Europe and its points of divergence from military practice in the West.

Contributors are Virginia H. Aksan, Brian J. Boeck, Peter B. Brown, Brian Davies, Dariusz Kupisz, Erik Lund, Janet Martin, Oleg Nozdrin, Victor Ostapchuk, Geza Palffy and Carol Belkin Stevens.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bible Wars!

One of the most wonderfully provocative (there are many) of Stanley Hauerwas's books that I read a long time ago was his Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, which begins by saying that no Bibles should be left lying about for untrained people to pick up and attempt to read for themselves. Hauerwas says nobody--not kids at their confirmation or graduation, not adults in church--should be able to just pick up a Bible and decide for himself what it means. We are all too corrupted by the reading habits of modernity to be able to do that and we need to submit to the Church to learn how to live in peace with one another before opening the Scriptures together under the authority of the Church.

That book came back to me in reading of a forthcoming study later this spring: Stephen Batalden, Russian Bible Wars: Modern Scriptural Translation and Cultural Authority (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 360pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Although biblical texts were known in Church Slavonic as early as the ninth century, translation of the Bible into Russian came about only in the nineteenth century. Modern scriptural translation generated major religious and cultural conflict within the Russian Orthodox church. The resulting divisions left church authority particularly vulnerable to political pressures exerted upon it in the twentieth century. Russian Bible Wars illuminates the fundamental issues of authority that have divided modern Russian religious culture. Set within the theoretical debate over secularization, the volume clarifies why the Russian Bible was issued relatively late and amidst great controversy. Stephen Batalden's study traces the development of biblical translation into Russian and of the 'Bible wars' that then occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Russia. The annotated bibliography of the Russian Bible identifies the different editions and their publication history.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ottoman Iconodules?

The contemporary outbursts of Islamic iconoclasm are not all reflective of Islamic history when it comes to art, a point that Emine Fetvaci makes in his new book released just last month: Picturing History at the Ottoman Court (Indiana University Press, 2013), 332pp.  

About this book the publisher tells us:
The Ottoman court of the late 16th century produced an unprecedented number of sumptuously illustrated chronicles. While usually dismissed as imperial eulogies, Emine Fetvacı demonstrates that these books commented on contemporary events, promoted the political agendas of courtiers as well as the sultan, and presented their patrons and creators in ways that helped shape the perspectives of their elite audience.Picturing History at the Ottoman Court traces the simultaneous crafting of political power, the codification of a historical record, and the unfolding of cultural change.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Little Bit of Churchillania

In a different life, I probably would have been a military historian. As it is, my bedtime reading for nearly a decade now has basically run from 1853 to 1945, that is, from the start of the Crimean War to the end of World War II, with special attention on World War I. Each of those conflicts, of course, would have major implications for Eastern Christians in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere; but I don't read about these events for that so much as for their own sake--and also to understand what my maternal grandparents lived through in the Battle of Britain while working and living alongside the River Clyde in Scotland, then the scene of the largest ship-building works in the whole of the British Empire and therefore a target of frequent Luftwaffe bombing.

Like many Britons of her generation, my grandmother regaled me as a child with stories of several narrow escapes from bombing raids, and also the stirring oratory of Churchill on the wireless. As an adult, I decided that I needed to read more by and about Churchill to understand better who this man was who, my grandmother said, "united the whole country." I began of course by reading his six-volume The Second World War, which won him the Nobel Prize for literature. From there I backtracked to read his history of the First World War, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, a book about which one of his detractors rather archly said othat "Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis." Arthur Balfour, prime minister of Britain from 1902 to 1905 and a sometime nemesis of Churchill, said that he was reading Churchill's "autobiography disguised as a history of the universe." Both histories are rather sui generis: part history, part autobiography, part memoir, part political tract written with present politics firmly in mind--a point made by David Reynolds' really splendid and enormously enjoyable In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War.

Reynolds' careful archival research has revealed in fascinating detail how Churchill worked as an author, and how he tendentiously put together especially the sixth volume with an eye to contemporary relations with Eisenhower, newly changed from supreme Allied commander to US president.

After reading Churchill himself, I began tackling Sir Martin Gilbert's biography of Churchill, starting with his helpful one-volume Churchill: A Life and then reading Gilbert's multi-volume authorized biography, which, with its official documents, runs to many thousands of pages in multiple volumes. Along the way, I enjoyed Gilbert's own self-reflective book--similar to Reynolds in some respects, though not so narrowly focused--In Search of Churchill: A Historian's Journey. Last Christmas, while driving across the country, I listened to the audio version of Gilbert's Churchill and America.

All this is just prelude to mention that I have just finished another very recent book about him that was immensely enjoyable: Barbara Leaming, Churchill Defiant: Fighting On: 1945-1955.

Haunted by the staggering electoral loss of July 1945, Churchill resisted, right up until the very last days, numerous and repeated efforts by everyone--friend, family, and foe--to get him to retire from 1945 onward. He felt he wanted to win an election on his own merits (he came to the premiership in 1940 when Neville Chamberlain resigned and advised King George VI to send for Churchill rather than Lord Halifax) and even more he felt that if he had power again he could mitigate the Cold War by arranging a three-power conference involving himself, Stalin, and Eisenhower, the latter of whom wanted nothing to do with such a tete-à-tete. Churchill, in his late seventies now, finally clawed his way back to government in the narrowly won 1951 election, and hung on until April 1955, surviving several strokes and continually going back on his word to his chosen successor, Anthony Eden, as to when he would retire.

Leaming's book is more blunt in some respects and does not shy away from some of the more ruthless aspects of Churchill's character. It is a helpful counterpoint to read alongside another book covering the same time-frame, a book that is written with a more moving and intimate portrait from Churchill's last private secretary and strong loyalist, Anthony Montague Brown: Long Sunset.

Montague is also interviewed by Churchill's grandaughter, Celia Sandys, in her Chasing Churchill: The Travels of Winston Churchill, a book that was later turned into an enormously enjoyable and deeply affecting documentary by PBS: Chasing Churchill.

Finally, I should mention that I'm looking forward to reading a new book Cita Stelzer has just published: Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table. I heard the author interviewed a few weeks ago by Lynn Rossetto Kasper on her delightful radio program The Splendid Table.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Orthodox Constructions of the West

Few things are more tedious than the ignorant potshots too many Orthodox "apologists" take at "the West," the "Western Church," "Western Christianity," etc. These are invariably without irony, without self-awareness, and certainly without any real or serious knowledge of, inter alia, history, theology, etc., etc.

But, happily, we are living in a time when intelligent and critical but charitable and informed discussion can be had by and among Eastern Christians about the Western world we all inhabit, and between Eastern and Western Christians. As I noted with the recent publication of Marcus Plested's splendid book about the reception of Aquinas in Orthodoxy, we seem to have turned a corner and are entering a time of very productive historical research and scholarly debate whose net effect should be to clear away a lot of the bad history and tendentious cant we have allowed to disrupt Christian relations and efforts towards Christian unity. 

Along comes another book that will deepen this process. Fordham University Press tells us that at long last we will, in June, see the publication of a very welcome volume of conference proceedings edited by Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demarcopolous:  Orthodox Constructions of the West (June 2013), 352pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

The category of the "West" has played a particularly significant role in the modern Eastern Orthodox imagination. It has functioned as an absolute marker of difference from what is considered to be the essence of Orthodoxy, and, thus, ironically, has become a constitutive aspect of the modern Orthodox self. The essays collected in this volume examines the many factors that contributed to the "Eastern" construction of the "West" in order to understand why the "West" is so important to the Eastern Christian's sense of self.

And about this book, St. Vladimir's Professor Peter Bouteneff tells us:
This book represents a significant step in the direction of self-reflection and self-criticism that has almost completely eluded Orthodox identity narratives colored by centuries of political oppression and demographic challenges. After too long a wait, such an initiative is all the more remarkable: it approaches the prophetic. Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou are to be recognized for having assembled a world-class array of scholars in diverse fields to produce a compilation that is fascinating, accessible, and at points highly challenging. It will inspire heated debate, and will surely become a staging point for future work.
I look forward to reading this upon publication and will have more to say in due course. Bravo to the editors and contributors for taking this project on!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Life of C.S. Lewis

Some Eastern Christians, especially converts, tend to ignore or scorn Western Christian thinkers, but C.S. Lewis seems to be an exception, especially for those Orthodox coming out of an Anglican or evangelical background where, in some cases, Lewis reigned almost supreme.

Alister McGrath last month published a new biography of Lewis, C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale, 2013), 448pp.

About this book we are told:
Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis continues to inspire and fascinate millions. His legacy remains varied and vast. He was a towering intellectual figure, a popular fiction author who inspired a global movie franchise around the world of Narnia, and an atheist-turned-Christian thinker.

In C.S. Lewis—A Life, Alister McGrath, prolific author and respected professor at King’s College of London, paints a definitive portrait of the life of C. S. Lewis. After thoroughly examining recently published Lewis correspondence, Alister challenges some of the previously held beliefs about the exact timing of Lewis’s shift from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. He paints a portrait of an eccentric thinker who became an inspiring, though reluctant, prophet for our times.

You won’t want to miss this fascinating portrait of a creative genius who inspired generations.
McGrath is a busy fellow with a strong interest in Lewis because next month he also has coming out what looks to be a more academic work: The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 208

About this book the publisher tells us:

Marking the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis sees leading Christian thinker Alister McGrath offering a fresh approach to understanding the key themes at the centre of Lewis’ theological work and intellectual development.
  • Brings together a collection of original essays exploring important themes within Lewis’ work, offering new connections and insights into his theology
  • Throws new light on subjects including Lewis’ intellectual development, the uses of images in literature and theology, the place of myth in modern thought, the role of the imagination in making sense of the world, the celebrated 'argument from desire', and Lewis’ place as an Anglican thinker and a Christian theologian
  • Written by Alister McGrath, one of the world’s leading Christian thinkers and authors; this exceptional pairing of McGrath and Lewis brings together the work of two outstanding theologians in one volume
 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Jews and Christians in the Abode of Islam (I)

Last week I signed a contract with Routledge Press to edit a collection of scholarly articles to be published next year under the title "Eastern Christian Encounters with Islam." Part of what motivated me to propose this book was the fact that trying to get a handle on the encounters, past and present, between Eastern Christians and Muslims is an extremely difficult task and most works to date have succeeded only partially; many fail because they are outdated, intolerably politicized and tendentious, or otherwise guilty of ignoring politically inconvenient facts, usually, but not always, at Christian expense.

For those seeking to get a handle on the literature of Jewish and Christian encounters with Islam, I am happy to recommend a new book: Jacob Lassner, Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam: Modern Scholarship, Medieval Realities (U. Chicago Press, 2012), 336pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
In Jews, Christians, and the Abode of Islam, Jacob Lassner examines the triangular relationship that during the Middle Ages defined—and continues to define today—the political and cultural interaction among the three Abrahamic faiths. Lassner looks closely at the debates occasioned by modern Western scholarship on Islam to throw new light on the social and political status of medieval Jews and Christians in various Islamic lands from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries. Utilizing a vast array of primary sources, Lassner balances the rhetoric of literary and legal texts from the Middle Ages with other, newly published medieval sources, describing life as it was actually lived among the three faith communities. Lassner shows just what medieval Muslims meant when they spoke of tolerance, and how that abstract concept played out at different times and places in the real world of Christian and Jewish communities under Islamic rule. Finally, he considers what a more informed picture of the relationship among the Abrahamic faiths in the medieval Islamic world might mean for modern scholarship on medieval Islamic civilization and, not the least, for the highly contentious global environment of today.
The author has written in an explicitly accessible manner, and his book is in many respects a very long book report on numerous other publications, in a variety of Semitic and Western languages, written over the last 1400 years. For the general reader especially--and also, perhaps to a lesser degree, the scholar needing his memory refreshed--this is very helpful: a scene-setting of sorts, usually done quite dispassionately, but in justified instances Lassner does not pull his punches. He surveys, inter alia, how Jewish and Christian writers have written about Islam, especially in the medieval period; how Muslim writers have written about both traditions, and their own, especially in the last century; how the so-called Orientalists, especially British and American, wrote about "the East," especially Islam, from the 19th century onward, and how they were criticized by Edward Said's infamous book Orientalism; how those criticized (particularly Bernard Lewis) responded; and how Muslims, whom Lassner calls "occidentalists," wrote, in turn, about their perceptions of the West. 

I'm almost finished the book, and will have more to say when I do. But in the meantime, it is, as I say, a very useful and gracefully written survey of a vast array of literature, judiciously judged, and I gladly recommend the book.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Post-Soviet Religious Policy in Russia

Unlike a lot of other Eastern Christian countries, Russia does not want for scholars studying her history, her Church, her culture, and much else besides. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, we have seen an ever-growing number of books on Russian religiosity appear, and late last year another such book appeared: Geraldine Fagan, Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism (Routledge, 2012),  320pp.

This book, we are told:
presents a comprehensive overview of religion in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life. It shows how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition, and how the leading religious institutions in Russia today, including especially the Russian Orthodox Church but also Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist establishments, owe a great deal of their special positions to the relationship they had with the former Soviet regime. It discusses the nature of everyday religious life in Russia, contrasting the internal life of faith communities with the public discourse of their leaders. It examines the flowering of religious freedom and the burgeoning of new sects in the years immediately after the end of the Soviet regime, showing how freedoms were subsequently curtailed, but only partially, by the important law of 1997. It discusses how far Russian Orthodox Christianity is related to Russian national culture, demonstrating the unresolved nature of the key question, Is Russia to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state? and concluding that Russian society has so far failed to reach a consensus on the legal status of religion and its role in public life, contrasting the position in Russia on this with the position in other former Soviet republics including Belarus and Ukraine.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis and His Namesake

In watching Pope Francis emerge on the loggia, I was struck by several things, but one thing seems to have escaped the notice of almost everyone: he opened with an unacknowledged quotation from perhaps the most famous saying of St. Ignatius of Antioch, referring to the Church of Rome as the church "which presides in love." That good note was quickly followed by others: his reference to being bishop of Rome (the most important title, as the Orthodox rightly note) and his concern to meet and care for the Christians of his new see-city; his bowing low and asking the people for prayers that the Lord would bless him; and his simpler vesture. 

Speculation grew as to whether his namesake was St. Francis Xavier (a fellow Jesuit) or St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican spokesman, Fr. Lombardi, made it clear that it was the latter. Needless to say, this only endeared the new pope further to many of my colleagues: I work in a university run by very lovely Franciscans, viz., the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, founded in Germany until Bismarck chased them out and they came to the Mid-West to run hospitals and schools. (Our department just spent a lovely retreat last weekend at the sisters' motherhouse in Mishawaka, IN.)

Among the more idiotic things you hear among some self-appointed fringe apologists for Orthodoxy on the Web is an attack on St. Francis for his supposed prelest, that is, his spiritual and likely demonic delusions which led him to believe he had the stigmata. But these are, as I say, foolish fringe voices, and by no means representative of all Eastern Christians.

A decade ago, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, of which I am editor, published a fascinating and wide-ranging article written by an Orthodox theologian looking at the question of sanctoral cycles and hagiographic devotion across many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Eastern and Roman Catholic, and Protestants traditions. Written by Ron (Serafim) Grove, it was entitled "Whose Saints? How Much Can We Recognize Holiness beyond the Pale?" Here is the abstract I wrote for the article, published in vol. 43-45 (2004):
The author examines what might be called “cross-confessional” or “trans-jurisdictional” sanctity, i.e., figures accounted as “saints” in one Church who are also venerated as such by another Church which may not be in communion with the canonizing Church and may indeed even be otherwise vigorously opposed to their theology and practices. The author explores this often-contradictory phenomenon as it is found in Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches, Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches, and in Protestant bodies, analyzing particularly the liturgical calendars of each. In addition, and by means of contrast, the author also provides a brief analysis of “saint-making” as it occurs in some secular circles and non-Christian religions, especially Judaism and Islam. This analysis reveals several things: that veneration of holy figures is a catholic practice not confined to explicitly religious people but seems almost globally humanly ingrained; that such veneration often proceeds quite independently and “democratically” as people venerate holy figures irrespective of decisions made about them by their leaders; and that such veneration highlights (sometimes almost comically so) a theological incoherence that can be nonetheless ecumenically useful as people today seek out spiritual relationships with those once accounted heretics and enemies. The author concludes with a salutary warning not to assume too blithely that “if our saints are true, yours must be false” because in the search for Christian unity accommodations will eventually have to be made in hagiographical canons and liturgical calendars.
Among those analyzed by Grove in this fascinating survey was of course St. Francis of Assisi, to whom a wide array of Eastern Christians--and Muslims, among others--have a deep devotion. A couple of Orthodox friends asked me about Francis in the last few days, and I in turn asked colleagues of mine in the department more conversant with Francis and all things Franciscan for some recommendations on books for those who are interested in learning more about the man whom the new bishop of Rome has chosen as his patron and namesake. 

Here are a few, thanks to Sr. Anita Holzmer and Dr. Lance Richey. Of these, I have myself only read one, viz., Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (IVP, 2002). This is a charming and very accessible biography, made all the more so by its relative brevity and the fact that the author is not a Catholic. 

Other recommendations include:
More recent treatments would include Lawrence S. Cunningham's Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel of Life (2004) and last year's historically rigorous biography by a Dominican of all people: Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography.
             

    The Cross and the Kremlin

    Late this year, Eerdmans is bringing out a new history of the Russian Orthodox Church: Thomas Bremer, Cross and Kremlin: A Brief History of the Orthodox Church in Russia (Oct. 2013), 192pp.

    About this book we are told:
    Russian political history and Russian church history are tied together very tightly. One cannot properly understand the overall history of Russia without considering the role of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

    Cross and Kremlin uniquely surveys both the history and the contemporary situation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The first chapter gives a concise chronology from the tenth century through the present day. The following chapters highlight several important issues and aspects of Russian Orthodoxy -- church-state relations, theology, ecclesiastical structure, monasticism, spirituality, the relation of Russian Orthodoxy to the West, dissidence as a frequent phenomenon in Russian church history, and more.

    Wednesday, March 13, 2013

    Christianity in Iran

    Iran is of course regularly in the headlines over the question of its nuclear capacity and what threat if any that poses to others. Iran, since at least 1979, has often been portrayed as an exclusively Muslim country, but there is a long presence of Eastern Christians there, as a book published in 2009 in hardback and more recently in paperback suggests: Mark Bradley, Iran and Christianity: Historical Identity and Present Relevance (Continuum, 2011), 210pp.


    About this book we are told:
    In this enlightening study Mark Bradley looks at the growing underground church in Iran. Given the hostility of the regime, it is often assumed that Christianity is withering in Iran, but in fact more Iranian Muslims have become Christians in the last 25 years than since the seventh century, when Islam first came to Iran. Beginning with an in-depth look at the historical identity of Iran, religiously, culturally and politically, Bradley shows how this identity makes Iranians inclined towards Christianity. He goes on to look at the impact of the 1979 revolution, an event which has brought war, economic chaos and totalitarianism to Iran, and its implications for Iranian faith. The study concludes with an analysis of church growth since 1979 and an examination of the emerging underground church. 
    This is a fascinating work, guaranteed to improve any reader's knowledge of not only Iranian faith and church growth, but of Iranian culture and history as a whole thanks to the thorough treatment given to the country's background.

    Tuesday, March 12, 2013

    Russian-Jewish Encounters

    I just received a long review-essay that will run in a forthcoming issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. Authored by Robert Slesinski, the essay very carefully discusses a recent and very important, if difficult and controversial, collection by Dominic Rubin treating the explosive questions of Judaism, anti-Semitism, and Russian Orthodox theology: Holy Russia, Sacred Israel: Jewish-Christian Encounters in Russian Religious Thought (Academic Studies Press, 2010, 400pp.).

    About this book the publisher tells us:
    Holy Russia, Sacred Israel examines how Russian religious thinkers, both Jewish and Christian, conceived of Judaism, Jewry and the 'Old Testament' philosophically, theologically and personally at a time when the Messianic element in Russian consciousness was being stimulated by events ranging from the pogroms of the 1880s, through two Revolutions and World Wars, to exile in Western Europe. An attempt is made to locate the boundaries between the Jewish and Christian, Russian and Western, Gnostic-pagan and Orthodox elements in Russian thought in this period. The author reflects personally on how the heritage of these thinkers little analyzed or translated in the West can help Orthodox (and other) Christians respond to Judaism (including 'Messianic Judaism'), Zionism, and Christian anti-Semitism today.

    Monday, March 11, 2013

    The Copts in Egyptian Politics

    As we continue to watch the sad decline of Egypt and the sadder plight of her Coptic Christians, a new book reminds us that it has not always been this way: B.L. Carter, Egypt: The Copts in Egyptian Politics (Routledge, 2012), 344pp. 
     
    About this book we are told:
    This book explores the political relationship between the Muslim majority and Coptic minority in Egypt between 1918 and 1952. Many Egyptians hoped to see the collaboration of the 1919 revolution spur the creation of both a new collective Egyptian identity and a state without religious bias. Traditional ways of governing, however, were not so easily cast aside. Some Egyptians held tenaciously to the traditional arrangements which had both guaranteed Muslim primacy and served relatively well to protect the Copts and afford them some autonomy. Differences within the Coptic community over the wisdom of trusting the genuineness and durability of Muslim support for equality were accentuated by a protracted struggle between reforming laymen and conservative clergy for control of the community. The unwillingness of all parties to compromise hampered the ability of the community both to determine and to defend its interests.
    The Copts met with modest success in their attempt to become full Egyptian citizens. Their influence in the Wafd, the pre-eminent political party, was very strong prior to and in the early years of the constitutional monarchy, and their formal representation was generally adequate and, in some parliaments, better than adequate. However, this very success produced a backlash which caused many Copts to believe, by the 1940s, that the experiment had failed: political activity has become fraught with risk for them. At the close of the monarchy, equality and shared power seemed motions as distant as in the disheartening years before the 1919 revolution.

    On this Most August of Anniversaries

    It was two years ago this month that the world held its breath until Amazon delivered into its hands the first copies of my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity from the University of Notre Dame Press. If you have been in a coma, on the moon, or dead, you would have a legitimate excuse for not having read it in the last two years, but in case it slipped your notice, it is still happily in print.

    It may be worth revisiting the book in view of the number of churches who have new patriarchs: the Greek patriarch of Alexandria was recently installed; the Coptic Church elected a new pope-patriarch last year; and the Ethiopian Church has just elected its new patriarch. One of the things my book does is to examine in more detail than anyone else did the powers of patriarchs, the processes for choosing them, and related matters--including the patriarch of Rome, whose office is of course currently vacant.

    The book has been praised by all the right sorts of people in the best sorts of journals--Theological Studies, Religion in Eastern Europe, America, Catholic World Report, One in Christ, Journal of Ecumenical Studies.

    And the rest? Here I'm reminded of an anecdote told about Evelyn Waugh when asked about a slashing review of his Brideshead Revisited in the 1940s by the enormously self-regarding critic Edmund Wilson of New Yorker fame. Waugh, with a mischievous glint in his eye rather archly and ironically sniffed to his interlocutor "Isn't he an American?" (thus suggesting that Wilson could be safely ignored as a colonial hick). Waugh knew full well who Wilson was for Wilson had previously praised Waugh as a first-rate comic genius, but Wilson found Brideshead unbearable because it had the vulgar temerity to mention God, for which Wilson savaged Waugh. Waugh later got his revenge when Wilson contacted him saying he was coming to London and asking Waugh to show him around. Waugh initially agreed but then, as he confided to his magnificent Diaries, he never showed up: "chucked appointment to show London to some insignificant Yank." Quite.

    Friday, March 8, 2013

    "Fearful of My Joy"

    By dint of familial circumstance, I needed to begin to cook when I was 12, at first very ploddingly and dutifully obedient to every dictate of simple recipes. Later and more recently cooking has become far more adventuresome and a great joy. I involve my children when possible: they love to help with the chopping and stirring and smashing and peeling, and I like to think I am imparting some skills to them that will be of use later in life, especially in what Eric Schlosser has written about so alarmingly and depressingly: our Fast Food Nation.

    Cooking (which, bizarrely, people watch constantly on TV but rarely do themselves) is of course far more than a utilitarian necessity. It is a deeply, uniquely human activity the absence of which increasingly today can only be greeted with alarm--not only because of what its lack does to us psychologically as families and communities, but also physiologically: some studies have recently shown that the failure to cook regularly not only has deleterious effects on the family as such, but also on our physical health through the rise of diabetes and obesity even in very young children. The failure to eat together as humans is equally destructive in related and different ways.  

    But I am not here, schoolmarm-like, to hector you about nutrition. Such busybodies are the most tiresome people around. As an unabashed fan of Evelyn Waugh, I firmly believe with him that "food can and should be about enjoyment. As for 'nutrition'--that is all balls." And I would note that when Jennifer Patterson, one of the two gloriously grand, uproariously funny and hugely incorrect "Two Fat Ladies" died of lung cancer in the summer of 1999--while still smoking in the hospital and eating caviar and drinking champagne apparently--I used some of their recipes to make a special dinner for some of my friends in honour of Patterson--a devout Catholic and parishoner at the glorious London Oratory of which I have such fond memories from a 1997 visit. (During that dinner, and too many others, I have often bored myself by quoting Chesterton too frequently: "Catholicism is a thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar!")

    Some days I am tempted to write a book "Towards an Eastern Christian Theology of Feasting and Fasting" but you will be spared the dyspepsia that would come from reading such a turgid volume because I think it has largely been done better by others, including Robert Farrar Capon (an Episcopalian theologian actually) in his Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating and his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

    Among Eastern Christians, the best person to write on the connections of food-feasting-sacraments is of course Alexander Schmemann in his For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, which I have been reading this semester with my students. Schmemann beings by observing that
    man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table…. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life (11).
    I recently tried to illustrate the centrality of the banquet by watching with my students a charming movie from 1987,  Babette's Feast. If you've not seen it, go and watch it. It's a marvelous illustration of the importance not only of feasting, but of the very sacramental nature of human life even in ways not often thought of in those terms--opera, dancing, music, and of course the preparing and enjoying of both food and wine. It also wonderfully illustrates the joy of cooking good food and, in doing so, the joy of giving joy to others--the joy of gracious hospitality graciously conveyed and received. (Mary may think she had the "better part" but there's a lot of delight for the Marthas of this world being in the kitchen.) 

    The movie raised some difficult questions for my students--and I daresay for most of us today in our absurdly over-busy age--not least because of its languorous pace: each course (of seven) is focused on as each diner enjoys every bite slowly and deliberately. How rarely, they admitted, do they feast like that--even on a much less grand scale--at such a pace, and without doing so while texting, watching TV, or playing on the computer. What are we losing by not doing this regularly? Why do we deprive ourselves of one of the most basic and joyful of human encounters qua human? (One answer to that was provided many decades ago now, but all the more important today: Joseph Pieper's splendid work Leisure: The Basis of Culture.) Good food, wine, and conversation: what more could one ask for? Why would one absent oneself from that or pick oneself up from the table only to hurry back to what--the Internet or some ghastly bit of ironically so-called "reality" TV?

    At one point in the movie, one of the sisters, Philippa, is very nearly rescued from her very dour Danish preacher-father and very bleak upbringing by a Parisian ("papist"!) opera singer, who convinces her father to let her take singing lessons with a view to going off to Paris to make it big. But the passion the music--Mozart's Don Giovanni--arouses frightens her and she discontinues the lessons, leaving M. Papin to return to Paris alone and heartbroken. The words Philippa sings are deeply revealing: "I'm fearful of my joy." That, it seems to me, is the most succinct summary possible of a life that refuses to be sacramental. How sad. Instead of fear, these brief experiences of joy in feasting should make us long all the more for the heavenly banquet, where the food and feasting truly will be unforgettable--and where, with Jennifer Patterson devoutly interceding for us, there will never be too much double-cream:

    Thursday, March 7, 2013

    Proto-Byzantine Cypriot Reliquaries

    I have fond memories of my trip to Cyprus in 1993 for a meeting of the World Council of Churches. A recent book helps us understand the depth of the island's Christian culture and history: M.C. Comte, Les reliquaires du Proche-Orient et de Chypre à la période protobyzantine (IVe-VIIIe siècles): Formes, emplacements, fonctions et cultes (Brepols, 512pp. + illustrations).  

    The publisher gives us a bilingual overview of this book:
    After the Peace of the Church, the cult of martyrs, which had previously been forbidden and observed only clandestinely in cemeteries, was officially recognised and practised in churches. The first reliquaries of Palestine and Syria became particularly abundant in the 5th and 6th centuries, both in these provinces and in the province of Arabia. Numerous discoveries during the last forty years have increased our knowledge of these liturgical objects, during a period in which the Christian cult was being established, and provide confirmation of well-known texts and literary sources. They shed new light on the purpose of reliquaries and on the different phases of development of the cult of martyrs in the patriarchates  of Jerusalem and Antioch.
    The book is divided into two parts: an Overview (first part) and a Catalogue (second part). Drawing on examples from the catalogue, the author discusses the physical appearance of reliquaries and their location in the church, and the changes that are believed to have occurred in the veneration of saints. Notable differences exist between provinces and bishoprics. The location and installation of mobile reliquaries, which vary within the three provinces of Palestine, are often repeated with minor differences in the liturgical practices of the province of Arabia; there are similarities also in the form of the reliquaries and the method of veneration.
    The mountains of northern Syria are a special case, because the reliquaries are large, many have been found in the same room, and they are never found in the apse, but always in a small room attached to the church (the martyrion). “Flowing Oil” is always a feature. Syrian influence can also be found in the neighbouring provinces of Euphratesia and Cyprus.
    The Catalogue comprises examples of more than 250 reliquaries from the Near East and Cyprus. Where possible, entries are classified by Roman province, and include a description of the reliquary and details of its origin; some of these are still located in ancient Christian monuments. In addition, some examples which are now in museums are described, a few of them never having been classified, and not all of them having a known origin.
     C’est à partir de la Paix de l’Église que le culte des martyrs jusqu’alors interdit et caché, limité aux cimetières, s’est développé de façon officielle, prenant place dans les églises. Les premiers reliquaires apparus en Palestine et en Syrie connurent un grand essor aux Ve et VIe siècles dans ces provinces ainsi qu’en Arabie. Les nombreuses découvertes effectuées au cours des quarante dernières années ont considérablement augmenté notre connaissance de ces objets liturgiques, pendant cette période de mise en place du culte chrétien, confirmant ainsi les textes, et sources littéraires connues et ajoutant des informations complémentaires, sur leur fonctionnement et sur les phases d’évolution du culte des martyrs dans les patriarcats de Jérusalem et d’Antioche.
    L’ouvrage se compose de deux parties : un texte de synthèse (première partie) et un inventaire sous forme de catalogue (deuxième partie). Se fondant sur les exemples du catalogue, l’auteur a procédé à l’étude des reliquaires en fonction de leur forme, de leur emplacement dans l’église et des modifications supposées être intervenues dans le culte des saints. Selon les provinces et les évêchés de rattachement, des variations notables sont en effet décelables. La position variable des reliquaires mobiles dans les trois provinces de Palestine et les installations qui les accompagnent se retrouvent avec quelques différences dans certains des arrangements liturgiques de la province d’Arabie. Les formes adoptées et les modes de vénération sont proches également.

    La région des jébels de Syrie du Nord constitue un monde à part, à la fois par la taille considérable des reliquaires et leur nombre important dans la même pièce, ainsi que le système de « circulation d’huile », unanimement adopté pour la vénération. L’influence de cette région est sensible dans les provinces voisines : Euphratésie, Phénicie II et à Chypre.
    Le catalogue est constitué d’un corpus de plus de 250 reliquaires provenant du Proche-orient et de Chypre, classé par provinces romaines, donnant le détail des lieux de trouvaille et de la variété des objets parfois encore en place dans les monuments chrétiens. S’y ajoutent des exemples conservés dans les musées, certains inédits, dont la provenance est plus incertaine.

    Wednesday, March 6, 2013

    Holy Trinity Jordanville Publications

    Holy Trinity Publications in Jordanville, New York, recently sent me a number of books both new and recent including How to Live a Holy Life by Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov) of St. Petersburg (2005; 150pp.).

    This is a small book, the size of one's hand, containing a series of very practical reflections on how to pray, how to work, how to deal with problems and people in life. The publisher further elaborates:
    This pocket-sized book, originally published in Russian in 1904, is a short but comprehensive work offering guidance to the Christian on how to conduct himself through the course of the day. In a eminently straightforward manner the author describes how to conduct oneself in the morning, in relation to God, in common situations of life, in daily work, during meals, during the afternoon rest, in the evening, before sleep, and during sleeplessness. He concludes with a consideration of prayer and guidance and on how to spend Sundays. A biography of the author, Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov) of St. Petersburg (1784-1860), concludes the work.

    Published in 2011 is a book by Mikhail Chevalkov, Testament of Memory: A Siberian Life (xix+146pp.). This book, the publisher tells us, is a:
    remarkably simple and yet profoundly deep narrative, this translation is an introduction to the remote world of the 19th-century Altai: a mountainous region of southern Siberia possessing unique flora and fauna and peaks rising to nearly 15,000 feet. Native Altai tribesman Mikhail Chelvalkov vividly describes the physical beauty of the region while chronicling many of the encounters that took place throughout his life as the population transformed from competing nomadic pagan tribes to a settled and harmonious Orthodox Christian culture. One of the first native disciples of the Russian Orthodox missionary priest Makarii Glukharev—who was made a saint in AD 2000—Chelvalkov’s testament provides invaluable insights for students of Christian mission, ethnography, geography, and botany.
    Last year, Holy Trinity brought out the second edition of a book they first published in 1970 with a foreword from then-Archimandrite Kallistos Ware: Ignatius (Brianchaninov), The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life (xxiii+ 282pp.).
    About this book we are told:
    One of the most important and accessible texts of Eastern Orthodox Christian teaching on the spiritual life, this book draws upon the ascetic and mystical doctrine of the Greek Fathers and greats of the Orthodox Christian church. In an age alienated from spiritual culture and rooted in materialism, these teachings pose both a challenge and an invitation to those seeking heightened spirituality. This book is essential reading for anyone who desires a profound spiritual journey based upon an encounter with Christ as God.

    And finally, published just last month is another small handbook originally written by St Innocent of Alaska:  Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven: An Introduction to Christian Life (xii + 82pp.). About this book we are told:
    Originally published in the Aleut (Eskimo) language in 1833, this book is a simple yet challenging introduction to Christianity from one of the greatest teachers of the Russian Orthodox Church: sainted Russian Bishop and missionary Innocent Veniaminov. Timeless and universal, this updated edition—which includes a new section entitled "Points for Reflection" at the end of each chapter—discusses what it means to know God and have a relationship with Jesus. It will appeal to those seeking to understand their own faith more fully.
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