"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).


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Patriarch Nikon: Reform, Schism, Deposition

The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are a fascinating time in the East-Slavic world. The post-Reformation period gives rise to such changes as the Union of Brest (about which one must read Borys Gudziak's work) which in turn leads on to dramatic changes in Russia, many brought about by Patriarch Nikon, about whom two recent books have been written. The first, in 2007, was by Ioann Shusherin.

Now Cambridge University Press is bringing out:


Paisius Ligarides, History of the Condemnation of the Patriarch Nicon: By a Plenary Council of the Orthodox Catholic Eastern Church Held at Moscow A.D. 1666-1667, trans. William Palmer (Cambridge, 2010), 630pp.


Nikon, as Paul Meyendorff demonstrated in a book almost twenty years ago now, oversaw dramatic changes in the liturgical life of the Russian Church, changes that caused enormous religious and nationalist furor at the time and resulted in the rise of schismatic groups, some still extant, and leading to the deposition of Nikon--for reasons too complicated to enter into here--from his patriarchate.

This book will be reviewed next year in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Alexander Schmemann and Stanley Hauerwas

As I noted previously, Stanley Hauerwas is one of the most significant figures in the North American theological landscape. Now some of his former students have come out with a Festschrift for him on his 70th birthday:

Charles Pinches et al., eds., Unsettling Arguments: a Festschrift on the Occasion of Stanley Hauerwas's 70th Birthday (Cascade Books, 2010), 356pp.

Festschriften are often notoriously shallow books as academics (especially young ones) get another publication on their CV without the rigors of peer-review, or the discipline imposed by long-form writing of monographs. It is easy to dash off something grateful and appreciative--even sycophantic--about a mentor or colleague, but such tributes, however sincere, can sometimes be superficial and tedious to anyone not interested in the honoree. This volume very commendably avoids that problem in part by a strong focus on the public implications of Hauerwas's moral theology for modern America. Hauerwas, heavily influenced by the late Mennonite John Howard Yoder, has perhaps emerged today as the most prominent Christian "pacifist" and one of the most prominent critics of all the pomps and works of the nation-state and the wars so often committed in its name. 

Not all the articles are of the same quality. Some say little; and at least one in particular should never have seen the light of day--full of the tendentious sloganeering and jargon-laden self-righteous preening that so rightly cause so many people to roll their eyes when some academics begin their tiresome pontifications on topics like "race."

One in particular will be of particular interest to Eastern Christians: "Worshiping in Spirit and Truth" by Kelly S. Johnson of the University of Dayton. She looks at Hauerwas's oft-stated claim that the first task of the Church is to be the Church, and the subsequent claim that the most important thing Christians can do is celebrate the liturgy. Hauerwas is not formally a liturgical theologian, and she notes that his "writing on the liturgy ought not to be taken as unproblematic; a great deal of work remains to be done" (302). Much of the work, she later notes, is twofold: grappling with the question of how liturgy can be so central when it is precisely in the liturgy, at the eucharistic table, that Christians are still most noticeably divided (310). The other issue she notes is that there is "considerable evidence that regular participation in liturgy does not make people virtuous or even more aware of what a virtuous life should be" (311). Anyone who knows anything about parish life in Eastern Christian churches can surely agree with this statement. 

Johnson goes on to note that Hauerwas "turns uncharacteristically reticent when...talking about God's role in liturgy" (307). She compares his thoughts on liturgy with the great--arguably greatest--Orthodox liturgical theologian of the twentieth century, Alexander Schmemann, especially in his book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Johnson argues that Hauerwas shares with Schmemann a sense that "liturgy is participation in the divine life. But it's also clear that he finds such a thing difficult to write about." Perhaps, I might add, that is not necessarily a weakness but could perhaps be considered an example, perhaps unwitting, of the apophaticism that some recent scholars have traced back to Clement of Alexandria, but which is today increasingly being found in Western theologians and philosophers.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Byzantine Liturgical Reform

Indisputably the most controversial change in the Latin Church following Vatican II had to do with liturgy. Debates about liturgical reform continue to roil the Church of Rome today, and show no sign of abating any time soon. Most Eastern Christians look on this with a mixture of pity (for those suffering the changes) and gratitude that our own traditions have been largely spared such upheaval. Some Orthodox I know look upon Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio of 2007, Summorum Pontificio, as a great advance in the struggle to restore liturgical tradition in the Latin Church. Other Eastern Christians,  perhaps most notably Robert Taft, think the reforms of Vatican II a great success. I asked him about them at a conference last summer, and he reacted with great disdain (which I thought a bit de trop) for those who criticize the liturgical reforms after the council, calling himself "a Vatican II loyalist." 

Now a new book is out to look at the issue of liturgical change in the Byzantine tradition. I have asked Fr. Peter Galadza to review next year in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies:

Thomas Pott, Byzantine Liturgical Reform: A Study of Liturgical Change in the Byzantine Tradition, trans. Paul Meyendorff (SVS Press, 2010).


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bernard Lewis on Religion, Politics, and the Middle East

The Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is widely hailed as the doyen of historians of Islam today. His latest book is

Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (Oxford UP, 2010), xxi+208pp).

This is a small volume and consists entirely of collected essays all published elsewhere between 1988 and 2009. There is no index, bibliography, or footnotes. It is clearly written for the general reader coming to these matters with little to no previous background.

I had thought, given the title, that we might have a wider examination of religion and politics among the Jews, Eastern Christians, and Muslims of the Middle East. But we do not: this book's overwhelming preoccupation is Islam. When he treats Christianity it is always in the broadest, most abstract terms, as in the following formulation, repeated thrice in the text (as with all collected works of disparate essays, there is considerable repetition throughout the volume, almost verbatim in many places):
Moses led his people out of bondage and through the wilderness but was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Christ died on the cross, and his followers were a persecuted minority until centuries later....Muhammad, the Prophet and founder of Islam, achieved worldly success during his lifetime, becoming the head of a state that was soon to grow into an empire (xii-xiiii).
His point, of course, is that those formative events of the "careers" of Moses and Jesus shape the way Jews and Christians will come to understand their relationship to the world, and in particular the relationship between synagogue/church and the state. The same is true for Mohammad, but in a radically different direction. Lewis notes that "in classical Islam, church [sic] and state are one and the same" (xii) so that to talk about them as two separate institutions is quite "meaningless"(ibid). Lewis then proceeds to categorize Muslim states according to a sixfold typology of the "existing regimes in the Islamic countries of the Middle East": traditional autocracies; liberalizing autocracies; dictatorships; ex-Soviet republics; revolutionary Islamic regimes; and democracies, of which there is only one--Turkey.

His main question, to which he returns repeatedly, is whether "liberal democracy [is] basically compatible with Islam, or is some measure of respect for law, some tolerance of criticism, the most that can be expected from autocratic governments" (62)? He does not have a definitive answer to whether democracy will spread more in the Islamic world, saying "it would be rash to conclude that because democracy has not worked in the past, it will not work in the future" (121). Connected to this question is that of freedom and rights. A little earlier he observes that "traditional Islam has no doctrine of human rights" (71). He does not elaborate this point, but the reasons for this are clearly theological: the roots of Western rights discourse and doctrine are ultimately theological in nature, coming from Christianity.

Along the way he treats a variety of related issues--the rise and fall of the Ottomans who, of course, so heavily influenced the fate of Eastern Christians, Greeks and Armenians especially; rights of women; homosexuality (whose "tolerance...was almost total" in the Muslim world he surprisingly claims [p.101]); the growth of American influence after World War I and the resentment this has generated; and the increase, from the 19th century onwards, of European "imperial" influence and presence in the Middle East, not all of which was by any means bad. On this latter point, it is heartening to see Lewis refuse to prostrate himself before the almost universally accepted academic shibboleths that "colonialism" and "imperialism" were unmitigated evils. Many Egyptians, Lewis notes, have told him sotto voce that their country was never so free or prosperous, before or since, as when Great Britain ran it (pp.142-43).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Holy Spirit in Eastern Christian Worship


It is a commonplace that the West's Pneumatology is weak while the East's is strong--but is that the case always and everywhere? Is that not one of those received stereotypes or shibboleths--like saying the West is always "scholastic" and "rationalist" while the East is always "patristic" and "mystical"--that was tendentiously reasserted again and again as an excuse for East-West division, and even a justification for their ongoing separation? As David Bentley Hart has rightly noted, we have too often allowed bad history to be used by many Orthodox Christians to justify their disdain of, and separation from, the Catholic Church. Such ideas as a supposedly defective or deficient Western Pneumatology--in contrast to the supposed superiority of the East on this point--are usually based on only a passing familiarity with actual history, and rightly do not withstand serious scholarly scrutiny. We see precisely such welcome scrutiny in a new book, bringing together some leading North American liturgists to examine the issues:

Teresa Berger, Bryan Spinks, eds., The Spirit in Worship: Worship in the Spirit (Liturgical Press, 2009).

Among the articles of particular note to Eastern Christians will be, first, Peter Galadza's "The Holy Spirit in Eastern Orthodox Worship: Historical Enfleshments and Contemporary Queries." With his characteristic lucidity and cogency, and his usual willingness to pull no punches, Fr. Peter shows fairly that the accepted ideas about Orthodox Pneumatology are not always borne out in practice, and the theology of Chrismation raises more questions than is usually thought. What, e.g., are we to make of the fact that St. John Chrysostom held that the prebaptismal anointing was sufficient to convey the "seal" and "gift" of the Holy Spirit, obviating the need for "chrismation" as a second, separate sacrament? These and other questions he discusses by combing sources, ancient and modern, in Greek, Russian, Slavonic, French, English, and Ukrainian. The influence of the historical-comparative methods of Anton Baumstark and Robert Taft can be seen throughout the article. 

Other articles of note include Simon Jones on Syrian baptismal theologies and Habtemichael Kidane on the Holy Spirit in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition.

Look for this book to be reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies next year.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Bishop of Rome on being the Bishop of Rome

As I noted during the interregnum in 2005, coverage of the papacy by the so-called mainstream media--always a dim lot at the best of times--is invariably tendentious and unreliable. I cannot improve on Conrad Black's acerbic description of most journalists as
ignorant, lazy, opinionated, and intellectually dishonest. The profession is heavily cluttered with aged hacks toiling through a miasma of mounting decrepitude and...arrogant and abrasive youngsters who substitute 'commitment' for insight. The product of their impassioned intervention in public affairs is more often confusion than lucidity.

So it is completely unsurprising that the media has seized on excerpts from this forthcoming book:

Peter Seewald, Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times (Ignatius, 2010). 

and then propagated aggressively the myth that the pope has launched a wholesale change in Catholic teaching on contraception. This stupidity is too tedious to refute, especially when it has been done in such a pitch-perfect polemic as you can read here.

I look forward to reading this book and then discussing it on here. To my great surprise, Benedict's papacy has done more to advance Orthodox-Catholic rapprochement, and more quickly, than I think even the most wild-eyed optimist expected. We shall see what, if anything, he has to say about the East in this book-length interview--one of several he has done over the years with Seewald, who was prompted to a conversion (reversion?) based on how moved he was by Ratzinger's gracious life and absorbing faith.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In Search of the Earliest Icons

Books about icons continue to pour fourth from a variety of presses, secular and ecclesial; and Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. Orbis Books, whose other recent and generally delightful publication about Marian icons I noted previously, has just put into my hands its latest book:

Sister Wendy Beckett, Real Presence: in Search of the Earliest Icons (Orbis, 2010), 138pp.

As I have noted previously, good, reliable studies, in English, of Coptic iconography are not very numerous--especially when compared to the myriad of books on Byzantine icons. Several earlier books exist in French, but these are not accessible to my students; others seem content to downplay or ignore the theological significance of Coptic art precisely as Christian and iconographic. So it is a happy development to have Real Presence devoted to pre-Iconoclastic icons at the famous St. Catherine's of Mount Sinai Monastery. It confines itself to icons largely before the eighth century (her cut-off is AD 726), but it will nonetheless be useful in giving the general reader and undergraduate a very good introduction to pre-Iconoclastic and proto-Coptic iconography.

It will also be useful, I hope, in overcoming some of the "Byzantine snobbery" I've heard from people who condescendingly dismiss Coptic icons as being but "cartoons" compared to the ineffable splendors of Byzantium. Yes, certain developments did not take place in Egypt, and yes Egypt never produced a Rublev or Theophanes, but such criticism of Coptic art ignores, inter alia, the fact that after the 640s Egypt was ruled by an increasingly hostile power, and Islam of course was then and certainly is now deeply iconoclastic. The Byzantines were unmolested for another 800 years and so could continue to develop their iconographical techniques, which they bequeathed to the East-Slavs, who continued to develop them after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.(I should perhaps confess, as is the fashion today, a certain "bias" insofar as the very first icon I was ever given was a beautiful Coptic icon of the Virgin enthroned, which was sent to me while in hospital by the Coptic priest Fr. Marcos A. Marcos, who almost single-handedly did so much to establish a Coptic presence in Canada and the United States. That icon provided much consolation to me during a long convalescence after a city bus tried to kill me, and I have continued to regard it as my favourite of all the Marian icons I have.)

Sr. Wendy notes that "the Egyptian Christ has not the classic stateliness that was to become the norm in the Byzantine Empire. He is stately, but the countenance is long and often thin, much more semitic [sic] in its poignancy" (35). A little later she notes that "many...Coptic images have an intimacy that clutches at the heart-strings" (40) and she illustrates this with an icon of Christ resting his hand on the shoulder of the Abbot Menas (not St. Menas, she says, but a later monk):

 
Sr. Wendy is no stranger to works on Christian art in general, and iconography in particular, having written an earlier volume on Marian icons from Mt. Sinai: Encounters With God: In Quest of Ancient Icons of Mary 

Real Presence has a winsome narrative describing her visits to Mt. Sinai (as well as Rome and Kiev, where some of the monastery's icons may today be found) and experience of its history, its collections, and its monks. Sr. Wendy writes with a commendably simple, accessible style, making this a fine introduction for those with little background in iconography.

She begins with a brief comment on her title "Real Presence," noting its felicitous reminder of the more common connotations of that phrase to denote Christ in the Eucharist. Both icons and the Eucharist, she rightly notes, make Christ accessible to us. Icons are sacramental--though, of course, in different ways than the Eucharist and other sacraments. (One should recall here that the septinarium is a Western achievement dogmatized at Trent, but lacking comparable authority in the East--which means that there is nothing "official" to prevent icons from being considered in sacramental terms equal to and numbered alongside the Eucharist, inter alia.)

After this, she offers an overview of how she came to be aware of these icons, and of their history. She also narrates, again very briefly, the history of St. Catherine's Monastery, the "oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the Christian world" (12), a monastery that "has become the resting-place of some of the oldest Biblical texts in existence and of the extraordinary collection of pre-iconoclastic icons" (13). That collection, she notes earlier, numbers "over three thousand" (2), and is unique in the entire world in preserving so many icons from the "thorough job of destruction" carried out by Emperor Leo III and others (3). As I am forever telling my students, you cannot understand much of history, religious history especially, until you first understand the geography. These icons were saved largely because they were beyond the reach of the imperial agents of destruction, who seem to have been unwilling to enter deep into a country that had been considered "enemy territory" after Chalcedon, and was, by the time of Iconoclasm, increasingly Muslim in nature. Even if the Iconoclastic agents had gotten as far at Mt. Sinai, there is no guarantee they would have gotten their hands on the icons for they would have been confronted with one of Justinian's architectural wonders: a "fortress monastery, one that could resist hostile attacks...built...so superbly that it stands majestically to this day" (11).

Part of the importance of this collection is that it gives us access to "the earliest icons that we actually have...from the sixth century" (13). Sr. Wendy then gives us a tour through many of the most prominent of these icons, which are reproduced in color and black-and-white plates. She offers commentary on their features, most of which is very illuminating, but in a few places it is trickier to see some of what she sees. And she recognizes this at the end, saying that readers should "look at the pictures of the icons and what I have said about them, and decide whether my comments have been of any use to you" (131).

There are three small infelicities in the text: her one-sentence summary of Arianism is very confused (18); she says the first Council of Nicaea was held "in 383" (18) when of course it was 325; and one icon, whose face has been removed, is, she says, of a monk and not a bishop even though the figure has on an omophor--or so it seems from what we can glimpse of what remains of the icon (105-06). Apart from these, however, this is a lovely and important little book, and we can be very grateful Orbis has brought it out in such charming form and for so affordable a price.

Friday, November 19, 2010

May We Hope for All Men to Be Saved?

The question of "soteriological exclusivism" has haunted Christianity from the beginning. Is the covenant with Israel exclusive to Jews, open to Gentiles, or in fact supplanted by a "new" covenant in Christ? From at least Origen onwards--and most notoriously in the case of his theory of ἀποκατάστᾰσις--Christians have been sharply divided in trying to answer the question of whether it is possible to think that ultimately all may be saved. What is the relationship between the universal nature of Christ's redeeming sacrifice, and his particular "scandalous" incarnation as a first-century Jew? As we saw only few weeks ago in the course of the Roman synod of bishops on the Middle East, the question of the place of the Jews in the economy of salvation still occurs. Can one differentiate between hoping that all may be saved, on the one hand, and recognizing, on the other, that salvation is not automatic, and that those whose lives give little to no sign of repentance, who reject communion with God and His Church, severely--perhaps fatally--imperil precisely that hope of everlasting life?

These questions are given fresh examination in a new publication from Cascade books:

Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann (2010), xii+439pp.

This is a very "ecumenical" collection, with several articles on Eastern Christian figures. The complete list is as follows:
  • Origen (Tom Greggs)
  • Gregory of Nyssa (Steve Harmon)
  • Julian of Norwich (Robert Sweetman)
  • The Cambridge Platonists (Louise Hickman)
  • James Relly (Wayne K. Clymer)
  • Elhanan Winchester (Robin Parry)
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher (Murray Rae)
  • Thomas Erskine (Don Horrocks)
  • George MacDonald (Thomas Talbott)
  • P. T. Forsyth (Jason Goroncy)
  • Sergius Bulgakov (Paul Gavrilyuk)
  • Karl Barth (Oliver Crisp)
  • Jaques Ellul (Andrew Goddard)
  • J. A. T. Robinson (Trevor Hart)
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edward T. Oakes, SJ)
  • John Hick (Lindsay Hall)
  • Jürgen Moltmann (Nik Ansell)
Look for this to be reviewed here and in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies next year.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    Armenian Christology

    The Armenian Church is of course counted as one of the so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the last forty years, however, the whole business of the divisions after Chalcedon have come in for fresh re-examination on all sides, and dialogues between Orientals and Catholics, and between Orientals and Byzantines, have both revealed that the Chalcedonian divide was never as wide as imagined, and has today been largely bridged. Now we have a new book examining Armenian Christology:

    Mesrob Krikorian, Christology of the Oriental Orthodox Churches: Christology in the Tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Peter Lang, 2010), 309pp. 


    The Armenian priest and theologian Daniel Findikyan will review this in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2011.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Introductions to Orthodoxy


    In the last three years alone, at least five rather good introductions to Orthodoxy have appeared in English. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Among the latest is

    Katherine Clark, The Orthodox Church (London: Bravo, 2009), 168pp.

    This latest introduction is a very small book—no larger than one’s hand—by Katherine Clark, an American-born translator and teacher who lived in Greece for many years and eventually converted to Orthodoxy. Clark does a generally commendable job in explaining the basics of Orthodoxy.

    There are, however, a few infelicities in this book, including the occasions where Clark describes sui generis practices observed in a handful of parishes in Greece and extrapolates from them to assume that all Eastern Christians everywhere celebrate services in the manner she observed. Her treatment of holy orders ignores deacons; her treatment of the Julian calendar mangles the dates for Christmas, and claims “all” Orthodox follow the Julian paschalion, which is false; and her sweeping treatment of clerical appearance incorrectly claims that all Orthodox priests are “always bearded” and “always clothed in long robes quite distinct from modern dress.” So one must use this book with some caution, and it will not rival, in my estimation, David Bell's recent introduction, which is superb.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Syriac Women

    Almost alone in the world today, Brown University's Susan Ashbrook Harvey, an Orthodox Christian, has been focused on Syriac Christianity in general and women in particular. Her latest book continues this scholarship:

    Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Song and Memory: Biblical Women in Syriac Tradition (Marquette UP, 2010), 96pp. 

    This short book is based on the author's 2010 Père Marquette Lecture at the university of the same name. It will be reviewed in 2011 in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    Religions of the Silk Road

    Earlier, I mentioned one of several new books on the religions of the Silk Road. I've just finished reading Richard Foltz's slender volume:


    Foltz teaches religion at Concordia University in Montréal. He has here updated a book first published in 1999. It would be an excellent text to use in a course on "Eastern" religions, or on the historial-social-economic-religious development of that part of the world from the eastern Mediterranean across the Eurasian steppe through to China. Undergraduates should benefit from a lucid presentation that gives enough detail to make sense of an enormous swath of history and geography without overwhelming them under a blizzard of arcane details. Foltz writes with a very deft balance and a very even-handed presentation of many different historical periods, geographical circumscriptions, and religious traditions, including Zoroastrianism, Islam, Manichaeanism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity. He has packed a great deal into a small text.

    That said, there are two relatively minor concerns about this text. The first is that the footnotes would suggest that parts of the book were not thoroughly updated. His preface, which is new, notes how much has changed in the last decade, but his bibliography seems not to reflect this in places. There are at least two bibliographic lacunae: first in the area of Syriac Christianity, and second in the nature of the encounter between Islam and other religions, especially Eastern Christianity. There has been an outpouring of works in the last two decades on Syriac realities, but one finds almost none of those noted here--inter alia Sebastian Brock, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Dietmar Winkler, Robin Darling Young, and Sydney Griffith are all absent from the notes and bibliography. Several footnotes reference books published in the 1970s.

    This problem is especially noticeable in chapter seven, which begins by lamenting the fact that "historians have tended to breeze over the question of exactly how and when Christianity was extinguished in Central Asia" (127), but then Foltz offers little to rectify this problem. Christianity was present well into China (as he nicely puts it earlier in the volume, "Nestorian Christianity, expelled as a heresy from the Byzantine realm, moves eastward, touches hundreds of thousands...[of] people, and appears centuries later like a bad dream to the first Catholic missionaries in China who find it comfortably entrenched there as the recognized resident Christianity of the East" [9]) but when it disappears, we are not often given adequate, much less comprehensive, explanations of why. Christian historians, he says, have not shed much light on why their faith disappeared, apart from lamenting its loss in terms of "tragedy, of promise unfulfilled" (129). Foltz's own contribution towards an historical explanation adds little. He says that one should not look at the problem as one of loss, but instead "marvel at the 'success' of Christianity in Asia, which thrived for over 1,000 years." (That's not an answer, but a dodge.) He also says that "one aspect that has not been emphasized is the lack of a powerful Nestorian entity sponsoring trade" (130). And that's it. Much of his book focuses on the relationship between "mercantile and missionary activity," as he puts it earlier, and there is much to this thesis, but it would have been nice to see it fleshed out with greater detail in this particular case.

    The second area I would quibble with is that he--albeit briefly--slips into the habit, common among historians and religious studies scholars alike (and, alarmingly, not a few Christians I know), of treating  ecumenical councils as merely power-politics in fancy dress. Thus he sweepingly says that "doctrinal disputes within the early Christian church were a reflection of the struggle for supremacy between the highly placed advocates of various interpretations, and thus tended to be identified with particular regional power bases" (60). He illustrates this by reflecting on the twin fates of Nestorius as patriarch of Constantinople and Cyril as patriarch of Alexandria, and the conflict between them at the Council of Ephesus--reflecting, of course, the wider divergence between Antiochian and Alexandrian Christologies that would converge in the famous Chalcedonian synthesis. (On this question, a much fuller treatment of the Christological divergences is offered in Kenneth Yossa's recent book.) Yes, Cyril used his imperial connections with Pulcheria, sister of the emperor Theodosius II, to have Nestorius banished; and yes every ecumenical council saw such antics--but so what? One cannot justly see Ephesus as solely and simply "politics" and personalities at work in a mishmash of Machiavellian machinations: that is to prescind unhelpfully from the larger and all-important question of truth.

    In my experience, too many people melodramatically collapse on their fainting couches as they purport to be "scandalized" after reading of the (horrors!) "politics" of the ecumenical councils. Such people are what I call ecclesiological monophysites: they seem to think that the Church should be of one divine nature in which the sometimes dirty rough-and-tumble of human "politics" has no place. But, because we are humans and not angels, there is politics in everything, and in itself politics is not bad. Some seem to expect that if something so vulgar as a doctrinal debate had to be held, it should have been quickly and quietly resolved over cucumber sandwiches at a church tea in which no voices were raised and no hair was out of place among the white-gloved set. Others seem to think that the councils were but brawling matches among bloody-minded bishops who bashed each other into submission, or berated the emperor to do so, and sycophantically cheered him on when he did. Foltz very briefly seems to incline somewhat towards the latter view, a view which is regrettable because it is a simplistic and reductive one that serves nobody well. In point of fact the councils, like the Church herself and Christ Himself, were "dyophysite" bodies, reflecting both the human and divine natures of the Church: the messy "politics" in the human--including sinful actions on the part of some--and, more important, the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit, who ensured that the Church ultimately got it right. Whether the Church did get it right is, of course, not a question an historian can settle: it is a question of faith. And, to be fair, Foltz is not writing as a believer, and so we do not expect him to settle it.

    Still, these are minor quibbles in a short book. In sum, this is, as I say, a very cogent and fascinating introduction to a complex and variegated world of multi-ethnic, multi-religious interactions in their economic, geographical, and historical contexts.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Spiritual Elders in the East

    Northern Illinois University Press continues its welcome publication of new books in Eastern Christianity, including:

    Irina Paert, Spiritual Elders: Charisma and Tradition in Russian Orthodoxy (NILP, 2010) 308pp.

    Fr. Bill Mills will be reviewing this in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies next spring.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    "When You Were Transfigured, O Christ..."


    The Transfiguration has long been my favourite feast of the year. I was therefore delighted when Eastern Christian Publications sent me a review copy of Robert Slesinski's new book:


    This lovely little book is suitable for slow, rich meditation on the Transfiguration, which I have often thought the most felicitous feast of the year after Pascha, to which it is closely linked chronologically in the life of Christ, and liturgically in some traditions, such as the Latin, where the gospel pericope is read during Lent. (The Latins never celebrated the Transfiguration widely until, Slesinski tells us, 1457, but even today for them it is only a second-class feast and has “never carried the same importance and gravitas as in the Christian East.” Why this should be so is an interesting question not pursued by the author.)

    Slesinski examines the feast through numerous biblical texts as well as a close reading of the Byzantine liturgical texts, ending with a brief “mystagogical catechesis” of the feast. His edifying efforts are the latest in a series of recent books on the Transfiguration, including—to cite only the most recent, and only from Eastern authors—Solrunn Nes (The Uncreated Light: an Iconographic Study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church) and Andreas Andreopoulos (Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography and his forthcoming work, This is My Beloved Son: the Transfiguration of Christ, about which more later). Now we have Slesinski’s book, offering us great spiritual insights into a feast whose glory comes to us “as far as we can bear it.”

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Luxembourg Emperors and Orthodox Europe

    From the Austrian Academy of Sciences Press comes a new title:


    Ekaterini Mitsiou et al., eds., Emperor Sigisimund and the Orthodox World (Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010), 158pp.  

    The publisher provides us the following blurb:

    Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368–1437), king of Hungary, Roman German king and finally emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, is not only a prominent figure of the late Middle Ages in “Catholic” Western Europe; always close were also his contacts with the “Orthodox World” in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. These contacts did not only include his crusade against the Ottomans, which failed at Nicopolis in 1396, but continued until the end of his reign. Particularly intensive were of course his relations with the two Orthodox Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, and with the Orthodox Christians living within the Kingdom of Hungary in Transylvania in large numbers. The studies combined in this volume try to illuminate this aspect of the activity of Sigismund, his diplomatic, military and church-political efforts to achieve unity, both between Eastern and Western Church and within the Western Church, and to organise the defense against the Ottoman expansion. Some contributions also show that Sigismund’s efforts arose the attention of his Byzantine contemporaries who mention him in various sources. Because of this interdisciplinary view from east to west and vice versa, the volume is of interest both for medieval studies directed at Western Europe as well as at Eastern Europe.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    Ohio Slavic Papers: Eastern Christian Studies


    In October of last year, there was an excellent conference of the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. I attended both out of interest and also to represent Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

    That conference was the third of three to be held so far. The first inaugural conference was held at OSU in 2005, and its papers are now in print. I have received them this week from one of the editors, Jenn Spock. "Eastern Christian Studies" is a sub-series of the Ohio Slavic Papers, a series published by Ohio State's Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures.

    This thick volume (xxviii+415pp.), denominated as volume 1 of the sub-series and volume 9 of the OSP series (ISBN: 9780893579824; ISSN: 19327617), edited by Spock and Russell Martin of Westminster College, along with assistance from M.A. Johnson,  offers a wide range of papers on the 2005 conference theme: "Culture and Identity in Eastern Christian History." Herewith a summary of the some of the contents, and then longer comments later after I've read more of the pieces:

    Predrag Matejic of the wonderful Hilandar Research Library at OSU offers a preface to this volume before the introduction by the editors. Twenty-four articles then follow on an enormous range of topics, including:
    • epigraphic texts for pre-Christian Slavic religions (by Matilde Casas Olea); 
    • Russia and the independent Greek Church (by Lucien Frary), 
    • the Russian Church under Ivan IV (by Charles Halperin); 
    • female monasticism in Russia (three articles: one by Scott Kenworthy, another by Nadieszda Kizenko, and a third by Marlyn Miller); 
    • demon-possession in Russia (Eve Levin); 
    • Old Believers in Latvia (Roy Robson); 
    • Bulgakov: two articles on his thought in relation to questions of identity (T.A. Smith, Scott Lingenfelter);
    • Christianity and Magic in Kievan Rus (Susana Torres Prieto-Hay);
    • American Orthodox converts and their notions of tradition and identity "à la carte" (Amy Slagle);
    • the keynote address: "The Formation of Byzantine Identity" by Warren Treadgold.

    In sum, this is a very impressive and wide-ranging collection of very scholarly papers, and includes abstracts of each paper at the end, along with many plates and illustrations in several articles, especially those touching on liturgical and patristic texts. It is not the kind of thing one could easily dip into for light bedtime reading, but it most certainly is a volume that belongs in every self-respecting scholarly library, and deserves attention from scholars in the field of Eastern Christian studies and related areas.

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    On Not Selling One's Soul for a Mess of Green Pottage



    For some time now, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, pictured above, has been acclaimed as the "green patriarch" for his activities and vocal insistence that Christians must be good stewards of creation. But there is more going on here than fastening on to some  ecological-theological principle. Fastening on to an issue like this has ensured that the Ecumenical Patriarchate attracts some attention from the bien-pensants to its beleaguered situation in Constantinople, where Christians are fast disappearing. Unlike the Vatican, the Phanar has very little ability to draw media attention, and so environmentalism has become the only card in its deck, and as a consequence is played regularly. Lest we be scandalized by the politics of this, remember that a Christian must, after all, be as wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. But is environmentalism innocent and pure as the driven snow?

    His ecological thoughts are gathered together in a collection recently published by Eerdmans:

    Cosmic Grace contains a foreword from John Zizioulas. It has been superbly edited and introduced by John Chryssavgis. His introduction, in fact, helps to clarify some of Patriarch Bartholomew’s points and to give them a stronger theological under-girding. This is an important service of Chryssavgis because several Orthodox theologians have sharply questioned the patriarch’s overwrought focus on ecology to the near-total neglect of much more serious issues such as abortion, and wondered aloud on Orthodox websites whether the patriarch was not being manipulated to provide window-dressing for “global warming” activists whose “scientific” case has become a shambles. None has given more eloquent expression to this unease than the Orthodox priest Fr. Johannes Jacobese, whose numerous critical reflections are invaluable and must be read alongside this book.

    Saturday, November 6, 2010

    Overcoming the Chalcedonian Divide

    Kenneth F. Yossa, Common Heritage, Divided Communion: Advances of Inter-Orthodox Relations from Chalcedon to Chambésy (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009), x+272pp.

    Many people today, so ill educated in even recent history and having no knowledge of doctrinal history, seem to imagine the creeds fell from heaven during luncheon one Friday afternoon. These innocents continue to be slack-jawed when they hear of the debates and divisions in the aftermath of Chalcedon, and even more astonished when they hear that those divisions are still not healed. Many, perhaps most, Orthodox faithful in particular are unaware that things have advanced to such a point today that neither side of the Chalcedonian divide can justly or correctly be condemned as "heterodox."  But many misunderstandings continue to abound about Chalcedon and its aftermath. I noted earlier a recent book about all this, but thought I would post my longer review (from Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies) of a superb new book by the Romanian Catholic priest Kenneth Yossa because he helps us to see precisely where we are, and what we must do to heal the Oriental-Byzantine divide. 

    Yossa's first two chapters synthesize the history of doctrinal definitions and divisions in the early Church, centering, of course, on Chalcedon. This part of the book would function very well on its own as an introduction to the ecumenical councils. He is able to describe an enormous terrain of considerable complexity, but do so in a way that never loses its focus or overwhelms the reader in a mass of tangents or distractions. 

    The third chapter focuses on the beginning of Orthodox ecumenical dialogue in 1960s. The first (unofficial) 1964 Aarhus (Denmark) consultation, followed by the 1967 consultation in Bristol, England, both, in a matter of days, produced an agreement on the part of theologians and bishops on both sides stating that neither side was guilty of “the heresy suspected of it by the other” (100). The Bristol consultation also produced the (to my mind) astonishing statement that “dogmatic formulae can be transcended by the experience of the Church, which can complete them and extend them…safeguarded by the holy limits of Revelation.” If that is not an endorsement of the concept of “development of doctrine” that some Orthodox theologians sneeringly dismiss whenever Catholics raise the notion, then I do not know what is. 

    After continued unofficial and official meetings over the next two decades, progress was made to such a point that, in 1990 in Chambésy, both affirmed that “we have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they have used Christological terms in different ways” (124). They went on to call for the lifting of “all anathemas and condemnations” and a consequent restoration of full eucharistic communion. As things have turned out, the greater difficulty has proven to be not the Christological debate, but the anathemas and condemnations each side hurled at the other. To retract these now would seem to suggest that the canonical and liturgical texts were somehow in error, a mind-boggling notion for many. 

    Since 1993, no formal meeting of all representatives of Churches on both sides has taken place, and no individual Church on either side of the divide has actually ratified the agreed statements. Worse, in the late 1990s, as the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe continued to emerge from their communist pasts, some of them—the Georgian in particular—actually repudiated the earlier agreed statements, unhelpfully calling them “unacceptable.” This sad development followed on shortly from the Georgian Church’s withdrawal, in 1997, from the World Council of Churches. 

    The situation in the Middle East, however, is much more positive, as Eastern and Oriental Churches there have continued the work of drawing closer to one another. The Coptic and Greek patriarchs of Alexandria, and the Greek and Syriac patriarchs of Antioch, have produced very similar agreements on limited sacramental sharing, catechetical co-operation, and other pastoral matters. Here, as in Europe, the focus has “shifted from the ‘what’ of the Christology to the ‘how’ of ecclesiology” (148). Today both sides need to grapple with the role of councils and their reception, with anathemas of saints and fathers, and with jurisdictional questions (“one bishop to one city”). 

    A further question has arisen in this dialogue as in the Eastern Orthodox-Catholic one: what is the real meaning and purpose of lifting an anathema or excommunication if it does not in fact lead to a shared sacramental life around one eucharistic table? If we are not excommunicated from one another, but yet not sharing one chalice, then what are we? Is there some kind of half-way house to unity? 

    Yossa recognizes that we need a widespread healing of memories, and much work must be done at the level of what he variously calls “local ecumenism” or “popular ecumenism.” He notes that “very little, if anything, has changed in the popular view regarding ‘Monophysites’ in the West and in most Eastern Orthodox communities” (185). Both sides need to overcome the ancient mentality which continues today to condemn the other side as “heretical” and, tediously, to slander all laborers for unity as guilty of the “pan-heresy” of “ecumenism.” Difficult though ecumenical dialogue and progress may be, Christians of all traditions need to realize that the will of Christ for unity among His followers is not something we can chuck because it is laborious, or condemn because it does not fit into straitened and simplistic categories of our own devising. After sixteen centuries of division, when the Byzantine and Oriental Orthodox have already come so far and unity is so agonizingly close, can any of us afford to continue to try the Lord’s patience by failing to advance towards the full and complete unity He demands of us?

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    Praying and Fasting With William Mills





     
     

    The prolific Orthodox priest William Mills has recently published a number of books in pastoral theology and scriptural commentary. The two noted above are marked by a lucid clarity of style and cogency of expression.

    The book on the Our Father is a short attempt to introduce or re-introduce this most basic of prayers to those who, having perhaps recited it by rote for too long, discover a desire to enter more deeply into the meaning of its various phrases, which Mills winsomely compares to the patches that make up an Amish quilt. (The author used to live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish capital of the world.)

    The book on the feasts would surely come in handy in every priest’s library. Generously quoting from the various liturgical texts of the twelve great feasts of the year (according to Byzantine usage), the author comments on the feast and highlights key aspects that speak to our own life today. These commentaries would surely be useful in homiletic preparation or simply as material for further personal spiritual reflection. He concludes with three useful appendices, the first offering guidelines on how to observe liturgical feasts at home in families; the second containing the scripture readings (for Matins, Vespers, and Divine Liturgy) of each feast; and the third excerpting various patristic commentaries on the feasts.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    The Byzantine Empire


    Joan Hussey, a professor of history at the University of London, first published this landmark work in 1986. 

     The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (Oxford History of the Christian Church) 



    She died in 2006 at the age of 99, but her book has been reissued this year with a new foreword and updated bibliography by Andrew Louth. He notes that at the time of first publication, this book was almost alone in the terrain it covered, and has stood up very well over the last quarter-century, not least, Louth says, because Hussey came from an earlier school of historiography that sought to narrate historical events as dispassionately as possible and based as closely as possible on the sources and textual evidence—a “sign,” he says, of Hussey’s “self-effacement.” Today, Louth observes, it is very difficult to write history this way because too many historians are obsessed with questions of “identity.” Louth notes that many of the lacunae Hussey lamented have since been filled by other scholars. His welcome “Bibliographical Note” very helpfully lists titles, mostly in English, that have appeared in the last two decades. 

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    The Holocaust in Ukraine

    Indiana University Press, which specializes to some extent in Slavic realities, today tells me of a new paperback version just out:

    Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower, eds., The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization (IUP, 2010), 392pp + maps + illustrations.


    As the publisher notes, the Shoah in Ukraine has not been as well studied as in other areas. I remember reading a number of years ago the memoir of Kurt Lewin, A Journey Through Illusions, in which he recounts the role of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, primate of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, in saving many Jews in Ukraine from deportation and death. But there is still much study to be done and many issues to be considered here.

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    The Glory of Ukraine


     
               
    This book, brought together by various persons and institutions, including especially the Kyiv Pechersk National Historical and Cultural Preserve and the Lviv National Museum Named for Andrei Sheptytsky, was published in conjunction with an iconographic exhibition in the United States under the same name. I saw this exhibition, and bought the book, in Manhattan at the Museum of Biblical Art in late July 2010, almost nine years to the day I was in the Kyivan Caves Monastery itself. The exhibition is also touring Washington, DC and then Omaha, Nebraska. 


    This book reproduces in handsome full-page color plates the many icons and other religious works of art now on display outside Ukraine for the first time. I remember standing in the Sheptytsky Museum in Lviv in 2001 amazed at the metropolitan’s prescience in preserving so many precious artefacts that he knew would one day again be of interest to religious believers, art historians, and other scholars worldwide. This exhibit and book are proving him right nearly seven decades after his death.

    In addition to icons, both the exhibition and this book feature several gospel books on display, numerous hand and pectoral crosses and encolpia, liturgical items (veils, a diskos and asterisk, tabernacle, chalices), and a few vestments, including a striking green highback phelon with silver thread from the eighteenth century. Religious art dominates both the exhibition and the plates in this book, though only part of it is, strictly speaking, iconographic in nature. Much more common, in fact, are eighteenth-century three-dimensional Baroque paintings, including several of the charming if odd “Christ the Vigilant Eye” type.
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