I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Pp 372.
Klawans challenges long held notions concerning biblical notions of sacrifice and purity in modern scholarship. Any scholar who writes about these subjects without consulting Klawans’s work will be greatly outdated.
Until now, contemporary scholarship on purity and sacrifice has been influenced by several factors: 1) Christian and Jewish supersessionism, 2) evolutionary schemes, and 3) understanding sacrifice only as literal. Klawans shows that these understandings fail to account for how the ancient Israelites themselves understood the purity and sacrificial system.
Klawans first makes a distinction between ritual impurity, and moral impurity. Ritual impurity comes about though natural means, such as birth, death, bodily flows, etc. He remarks that purifying oneself of these sorts of impurities makes one more god-like, thus allowing one to enter the temple.
The other impurity is moral impurity, also known as abominations. These include transgressions such as idolatry, sexual transgression, bloodshed, and economic exploitation. The only resolution for these is atonement or punishment, and, ultimately, exile. These sorts of impurities do not ban someone from entering the temple, but they do defile the Temple, and the land.
Klawans argues that the ancient Israelites understood sacrifice as imitatio Dei; that is to say that they saw themselves as imitating God (tied to ritual impurity) within the Temple, which was a microcosm of the world. Just as God shepherds his people within the world, and has control over life and death, so the priests, in imitation of God, have control over life and death within the world of the temple. The purpose of sacrifice was to attract and maintain the presence of God for the community.
The impact of his scholarship is immediately seen when he states that it is sin that undoes sacrifices rather than sacrifices that undo sin.
In the remaining chapters, Klawans traces his line of thought through the biblical prophets, ancient Judaism (including Philo and Josephus), the Qumran community, the medieval rabbis, and the New Testament.
For me, as an Orthodox priest, I was most interested in his assessment of the New Testament. Since he is not a New Testament scholar, per se, he is very hesitant to firmly conclude anything. Instead, he states he is only introducing ideas for other scholars to think about.
He argues that the New Testament is not anti-Temple, and he gives several citations where the apostles continue to use the Temple after Christ’s resurrection.
Regarding the Last Supper, he concludes:
“…Jesus’ Eucharistic words and deeds find a likely context in the multifarious and well-attested ancient Jewish efforts to channel the temple’s sanctity into various other ritual activities, such as prayer and eating. …And thus the historical Last Supper was most likely not an antitemple symbolic action. ‘This too is divine service’ is probably what and all Jesus original intended to say.” (pg. 244)
Klawans also addresses the “cleansing” of the Temple. He notes that Jesus only expels the moneychangers and pigeon sellers, which, as he notes, are items that only the poor would use (richer people would have been buying different sacrificial animals). He writes,
“I am suggesting that Jesus felt the temple should pose no financial burden to the poor at all. Those with money should give, those without should be exempt. If anything, the system should provide for the poor. But this did not amount to a rejection of the temple by circumventing the ill effects from the traders.” (pg. 239)
He looks at Acts 2, and understands the redistribution of wealth among the early Christians as a way for all to be able to participate in the Temple system.
“By sharing wealth among themselves, they could provide the sacrificial needs for the poor among them (and perhaps other poor folk as well). Hence, I suggest the juxtaposition in the book of Acts of the community of goods with the continued Christian worship in the temple. The good of the sharing of goods trumps the bad from the exaction of fees form the poor” (pg. 239).
I found Klawans’s thesis intriguing, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand the Bible better. I look forward to more work from him.
Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, translated by Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011). Pp. 282.
Despite completely disagreeing with the author’s conclusions, this book was simply marvelous! Ferry gives a complete overview of philosophy, from the ancient Greeks to our own contemporary time. In order to be able to show how thought has evolved in philosophy, Ferry looks at three dimensions in each period: a theoretical stage; a moral, or ethical stage; and, finally, a conclusion as to salvation, or wisdom. This gives Ferry a common base from which to compare various philosophies through the centuries. His ultimate conclusion is that there’s no need for religion, and that salvation can be found in philosophy. It is here that I disagree with him, yet I still believe this book is very useful - even for believers!
Ferry starts by discussing Greek stoicism. He argues that the stoics saw nature as a harmonious whole. Our task, and our means of salvation, is to find our place in nature, and, when we die, we are joined to the whole of the cosmos.
From here he continues by discussing how Christianity was able to overthrow this philosophical system. Its primary advantage was that salvation is now personal – we are saved as individuals and, by remaining distinct, we can be reunited with our loved ones in death. Even Ferry says this is a very attractive feature of Christianity.
Following this Ferry moves to humanism by means of Kant, Descartes, and Rousseau. By this time, science has shown that the world is chaotic. In light of this, Rousseau redefines what it means to be “human.” He says that humans are capable of liberty of action, whereas animals only operate by instinct. This allows the humanist philosophers to create ideals that replace religions (e.g., scientism, patriotism, and various utopias).
Next comes post-modernism with the ideas of Nietzsche, who says that the ideals developed by the humanists are basically a new form of religion. For him, these values imply that there is a better and external value to life itself, an idea he doesn't believe. Believing that reality is chaotic, he argues that we must learn to situate ourselves with this chaos. Ferry goes on to write a clear explanation of reactive forces, active forces, the power to will, and other aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophical system.
Ferry next draws on Heidegger to move beyond Nietzsche's deconstructionism. Essentially Ferry argues that our capitalistic globalism betrays the fundamental promises of democracy. We have lost the power to determine the course of our lives because technology now evolves not because technological advance can help us live happier lives, but, rather, it evolves simply for the sake of change, motivated by economic interests.
Finally, Ferry draws all this together to form a modern philosophy. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that Ferry’s philosophy for today is a new transcendence that essentially means the deification of man (not in the religious sense, though).
The beauty of this book is the clarity of writing and the clarity of the argument. Anyone, even without a background in philosophy, is able to pick up this book and understand key concepts in the history of philosophy, and how those concepts have built upon one another and developed over time. I have seen some reviews that criticize Ferry for not introducing certain philosophers. However, I believe this is an unfair criticism because this book is to serve as an introduction, and if he had introduced too many philosophers, I believe the reader would have easily gotten bogged down in too many theories.
As I wrote in the opening paragraph, I completely disagree with his argument that one can find salvation in philosophy, thus replacing religion. As a Christian, I believe that truth is not just a logical, or philosophical, reflection, but rather it's a revelation from a Creator. Believing this, of course, changes the game. However, I believe this book is still very useful. For example he writes,
“[By learning about others]... You enter into a larger and more universal sphere, that of another culture, and, if not a different humanity, at least a different community from that to which you belonged formerly... By uprooting ourselves from our original situation, we partake of a greater humanity. By learning another language [or about another culture/religion], we can communicate with a greater number of human beings, and we also discover...other ideas and other kinds of humour, other forms of exchange with individuals and with the world. You widen your horizon and push back the natural confines of the spirit that is tethered to its immediate community... If to know is to love, then it is also true that by enlarging your horizons and improving yourself, you enter a dimension of human existence which 'justifies' life and gives a meaning and a direction.”
Ideas like this can certainly help everyone live together in an ever more global community. It’s also a good philosophy for why various denominations and religions can – and should – learn to cooperate together to make a difference in our world for the better.
Gary Neal Hansen, Love Your Bible: Finding Your Way to the Presence of God with a 12th Century Monk (Climacus Publishing: 2015). Pp. 46.
In today’s world, many people are searching for a connection with Christ. Unfortunately, there aren’t many aids out there to help people find a truly deep connection with Him; so many go hungry. Many of those who do search for a meaningful spiritual path turn to the Bible, but many of them easily become frustrated looking for a way to read Scripture in a way that will feed their soul. Hansen’s book seeks to correct this by giving people a resource to connect to Scripture in a way that will lead them into a deeper relationship with Christ.
Hansen draws on the work of a 12th century monk, Guigo II, and makes it accessible to us in the 21st century. Guigo, in The Ladder of Monks, lays out a plan for lectio divina that consists of 4 steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Hansen draws on this work to expertly explain each of these steps, and he does so by giving us Guigo’s practical examples (from the Beatitudes), and by giving us his own examples (from Psalm 1:1).
While lectio divina is becoming more and more popular in our contemporary society, much of it is very superficial and not rooted in the historical practice of it. By introducing us to Guigo’s work through this little introduction, Hansen is correcting this problem, and giving us a way to mine the deeps of this spiritual practice.
Though the author is very ecumenically minded, this book does lean towards a Protestant mindset. For example, in the “reading step,” the practitioner of lectio divina is encouraged to do one’s own research into the biblical verse being used. Though one is encouraged to use the Bible as a reference, at no point is one encouraged to read the Bible in context. For me, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, this context is what St. Irenaeus would call the Rule of Faith (such as the Creed). As 40,000 different denominations have demonstrated, context as a starting point is very important.
The other Protestant influence is in the discussion of the “prayer step.” Here Hansen takes the Lutheran perspective of Law and Grace. He writes that our reading, and meditation of Scripture, allow us to see our brokenness and sinfulness, and then our prayer is our opportunity to call out for God’s grace. From Orthodoxy’s point-of-view, a distinction between law and grace is not made, and one’s works are to be a synergy of cooperation with Grace.
One possible weakness of using lectio divina in a modern context is the difference in approach to Scripture in the 21st century. Historically, the ancient Church approached Scripture either allegorically, or typologically. It is this sort of approach that allowed the early Christians to look back at the Hebrew scripture and see it not as the history of the Israelites in the Middle East, but as the Old Testament – a set of writings that foreshadow Christ. It is also this sort of approach that allowed the early Christians to form basic Christian doctrine such as the dual nature of Christ, God as Trinity, and Mary as Theotokos. However, modern Christians will approach Scripture using modern academic approaches taught to them in school, such as scholasticism, critical-historical methods, etc. So, even though one may be following the steps of lectio divina set out by Hansen and Guigo, the approach – and, perhaps, the results – will be very different. However, Hansen does suggest using a Concordance in one’s research, which points one to these more ancient approaches.
To make the book even more ecumenically minded – as Hansen did with his earlier book, Kneeling with Giants – there could have been a connection between the “contemplation step” and Orthodoxy’s understanding of theosis, which is an experience of transfiguration.
In all though, this book is a welcomed addition. It isn’t meant to be a deep academic or all-inclusive magnum opus into lectio divina. It’s meant as a guide to get one started, and as a meditation for reflection. In this respect, it does a marvelous job!
Disclaimer: I received a free promotional copy of this book in exchange for this honest review.
P.S. You can get a free copy by going here: http://bit.ly/LoveYourBible-eBook
George Kordis, Icon As Communion: The Ideals and Compositional Principles of Icon Painting, translated by Caroline Makropoulos (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2010). Pp. 102. Paperback $19.95.
This book doesn’t focus on the theology of the icon itself, but rather it focuses on the theology of the line. By connecting the way the line is drawn to Orthodox theology, he is able to distinguish a Byzantine style that sets it a part from other styles of art. What he does is actually quite remarkable. He develops his argument in such a way that one can easily remember the distinguishing aspects of a Byzantine line, yet, at the same time, he’s teaching the reader about key Orthodox theological points. It’s like getting two birds with one stone – the reader learns about God and art at the same time.
Kordis’s thesis is based upon the doctrine of salvation: theosis (deification – or becoming god by grace). Theosis is the participation of humanity in the energies of God, rather than the nature (essence) of God. This participation is a movement by both God and humanity towards each other, and this movement is communion. However, it’s not human nature as a whole that has to move towards God, but rather each individual, who is a specific existence, also known as a “hypostasis.” Here’s where it gets really exciting.
Each line drawn in an icon distinguishes the various forms (garments, facial features, buildings, etc.), thus giving each form a specific "hypostasis." If lines didn’t do this, you’d just have blobs of color. However, each of these lines, each of these hypostases, have to work harmoniously together to give the whole composition meaning. When drawn well, the lines generate movement and energy, which draws the viewer into a relationship with the icon. Kordis also writes that each hypostasis has to be reconciled with the whole composition. This means that it looses its individual autonomy to acquire a common energy and a common point of reference. He says that in this way each line is purified of its passion. If this didn't happen, you'd have a work of Picasso rather than an icon.
Wow! This describes the Christian life perfectly. We, as individuals, are a part of human nature, but human nature doesn’t exist as a thing by itself. Human nature needs a specific mode of existence, such as an individual, i.e., hypostasis. Yet, the process of salvation is to do the will of God. We learn to do this by conforming our individuality to his will, or, in short, we loose our individual autonomy to acquire a common energy. In short, just like the line in an icon that seeks to reconcile itself to be a part of the larger composition, we too seek to reconcile ourselves to God so that we can be a part of the larger composition, which is participation in the energies, or life, of God. When we loose our independence to exist in harmony with God, then we are not static, but rather we exist in a relationship and have communion with God.
This brings us full circle – the icon as communion. Of course Kordis goes on to talk about what sort of lines fit this profile and what lines do not (and why). He also goes on to talk about the overall composition of an icon and how it must have balance. Because the Prosopon School of Iconology (in New York City) has a large influence in the Orthodox iconology world (especially in the United States), let me compare Kordis’s argument to them. The Prosopon School develops their theology also in terms of deification. However, their theology centers on color and how color is built up in such a way as to transfigure the individual ("In your light, we shall see light"). What the Prosopon School is to color, Kordis is to line. In short, I believe both schools of thought are complimentary and I’d love to see someone bring them together.
St. Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003). Pp. 188. Paperback $16.00.
On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ has become one of my top favorite books because St. Maximus has a holistic view of salvation. In the American context – the one in which I live – the predominate view of salvation is that one “accepts” Jesus as Lord and is, consequently, saved. This view is based on an idea of original sin that declares us guilty in an imaginary courtroom, but if we submit ourselves to Christ, his sacrificial crucifixion pays our debts and we are able to “go to heaven.” This entire view, however, is foreign to ancient eastern Christianity and the Orthodox Church. St. Maximus’s view is that salvation is about union with God; one which is so intimate that we aren’t just “saved,” but we actually participate in the life of God. I believe this is a much-needed corrective to the Christian American’s view of salvation.
St. Maximus is, by no means, original. He stands on the shoulders of esteemed theologians who came before him, especially St. Gregory of Nazianzus. What he does do, is articulate theology in a very precise way, which includes using Greek philosophical argumentation; however, even this is borrowed from earlier Christian theologians – such as Origen – rather than directly from Greek philosophers. So, St. Maximus isn’t even innovative in this way, but rather he clarifies misinterpretations.
St. Maximus argues that ideally we are born, have movement towards God through our lifetime, and then come to find rest in God (salvation, deification, theosis). However, instead of moving towards God (contemplating God), humanity turned to move away from God (contemplating material things, or the world) instead. At this point, St. Maximus has a very interesting understanding of death, pain, and suffering. He says God introduced them into the world to show us that our contemplation of material things was flawed and not life-giving. Our pain, suffering, and eventual death are to get our attention so that we would turn again to God, the only one who gives life.
However, our fall introduces a vicious cycle into human existence. Our contemplation of material things is a search for sensual pleasure (as opposed to spiritual pleasure), which includes sexual gratification. Of course, this sort of pleasure brings about a birth that can only end in death. It seems that St. Maximus envisions that had humanity not fallen in the garden, our birth would not come about through sexual pleasure; however, he doesn’t elaborate on what a “spiritual” birth would have looked like in a pre-fallen world. Thus, pleasure, birth, and death become an unending cycle.
The solution and the plan for salvation is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. St. Maximus very clearly articulates that when Jesus became man, humanity was infused with divinity. This action recreates, or renews, our human nature. Because Christ was not born though sensual passion, he breaks the cycle of pleasure, birth, and death. Yet, because he does die, and this death is unjust, his death has the affect of triumphing over death. We, as Christians, are now given the opportunity to be reborn (baptism), and because this birth is also not the result of sensual pleasure, but rather spiritual contemplation, it unites us to Christ, and allows us to participate in the life of God. This is our second birth.
This union with God is salvation. Christ gives us the opportunity to turn our attention away from the contemplation of material things, and again towards the contemplation of God. In short, Christ shows us how to move towards God so that we can experience our third birth: resurrection. Thus, St. Maximus is able to say, “hence the whole man, as the object of divine action, is divinized by being made God by the grace of God who became man.” In short, being saved is much more than submitting to a master (Lord); rather it’s about synergistic union with God.
This book is one of the more, if not most, difficult books of the Popular Patristic series. However, it does include an excellent introduction that helps one pull St. Maximus’s theology together. Though it can be difficult working your way through this volume, I believe the payoff is priceless. This is well worth the read.
St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, translated by Andrew Louth (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003). Pp. 163. Paperback $17.00.
If anyone is interested in Orthodox iconography, or the tradition of Christian painting, this book is a must read. Because this book is well translated and very accessible, I highly recommend simply reading this book – a primary source – rather than reading a secondary source where an author describes St. John of Damascus’s theology of iconography. What makes this book an especially “must read” for those interested in iconography is the influence St. John had on the theology of Christian images. This book provides the foundation for all subsequent theology. In addition, St. John not only articulates the theology of images, but he articulates how iconography is central to all of Christian theology. His treatment is all-inclusive, and it goes much further than simply arguing that now that God has been seen in the person of Jesus Christ we can depict his image. Because iconography is so central to Christian theology and salvation, this book is a must read.
I won’t write out his full theology here, but I will give a brief introduction. He starts by taking a look at the Old Testament prohibition against idols. St. John views this prohibition from two perspectives: 1) the nature of the commandment, and 2) the definition of veneration. He says that the nature of the commandment was to prevent the Israelites from falling into idolatry. He also argues that the commandment is more specifically against depicting the nature/essence/substance of God, and to prevent humanity from worshiping creation instead of the Creator. Iconography, St. John points out, does neither of these: it’s not a depiction of God’s essence, nor does it lead one to worship creation. The second aspect, veneration, boils down to an articulation of definition. St. John argues that veneration has two meanings: one is worship, and the other is to pay honor to someone. While worship is due to God alone, honoring the person depicted in an icon is not worship, but it is paying honor, which ultimately glorifies God.
It is, at this point, that St. John is able to fully turn his attention to iconography. What changes the entire game is the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, that is God enfleshed, or Incarnate. St. John writes, “Therefore I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participating in the flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh” (I.4).
Even the Incarnation has several levels of understanding. In the first aspect of the argument, St. John argues that what was invisible is now visible. Here he does a lengthy analysis of the definitions of “image.” He states that it is important to note that images make manifest what was hidden or unseen. In this way, an image holds two realities together: the seen/visible and unseen/invisible. With this in mind, St. John is able to say that icons of Christ both depict the Son of God as he was in the 1st century, as well as indicate his invisible presence among us now.
At this point, that St. John delves deeper into Incarnational theology. He reminds us that after God created the visible (earth, animals, seas, etc.) and invisible (heaven, angels, etc.) worlds, God created humanity to unite the two worlds (i.e., we were created in His image to attain His likeness). Our task, in sum, was to make creation a sacrament. However, we failed in this task; but Christ, through his Incarnation, was able to succeed where we failed. This union means that humanity is now infused with divinity. Matter is recreated, and it is now glorified with God’s presence. It is for this reason that we can venerate the icons.
St. John writes, “I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake, and in matter made his abode, and through matter worked my salvation. ‘For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ It is clear to all that flesh is matter and is a creature. I reverence therefore matter and I hold in respect and venerate that through which my salvation has come about, I reverence it not as God, but as filed with divine energy and grace” (II.14). In this way, the use of icons in worship is a sacramental act.
It is also because of the Incarnation that we can glorify God through the saints; after all they able to participate in the life of God because of the divine/human union in Christ. So when we venerate the image of the saints, we are, in actuality, glorifying God. St. John takes it further by writing, “The temple that Solomon built was dedicated with the blood of animals [Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement] and adorned with images of animals, of lions and bulls and phoenixes and pomegranates. Now the Church is dedicated by the blood of Christ and his saints and adorned with an image of Christ and his saints” (II.15).
There’s much more in this these amazing three treatises; however, it’s really about the Incarnation, the Son of God taking on flesh, and the transfiguration of matter that takes place as a result, which allows for our deification. It’s also about the meaning of image and veneration, the dignity of matter, and the importance of the unwritten tradition handed down by the Church through the apostles and now articulated by St. John.
Gary Neal Hansen, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012). Pp. 237. Paperback $12.80.
This book came across my desk at the invitation of the author to participate in an online continuing education class for pastors. The focus of the class was learning, and teaching prayer, and this book was the textbook. I’m an Eastern Orthodox priest, and, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t sure how this particular book would fit into my ministry. The Orthodox Church has a rich tradition of prayer, so I was curious to see how the prayer methods Prof. Hansen wrote about would augment my ancient tradition. My conclusion, after reading the book and taking the class with the author, is that this book has a lot to say to Christians of every tradition!
There are far too many methods to cover in a review such as this, but allow me to write about a few of them.
Prof. Hansen begins his book with St. Benedict and the Divine Office. For many Protestants, this method of prayer is very foreign. However, for me as an Orthodox Christian, it’s very comfortable. I was able to adapt this method to my tradition very easily; as I worked my way through this chapter I simply used the Orthodox Hours instead of the Benedictine Hours. Even though I was using the Eastern version, what Prof. Hansen had to say about learning the rhythm of the hours, and his encouragement to stick with it even the prayers may feel rigid, apply to everyone equally – Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.
In chapter four, Prof. Hansen asks us to pray with John Calvin. Before I began this chapter, I thought to myself, “There’s no way I’ll find this chapter helpful.” Yet, low and behold, this became one of my favorite methods of prayer. Generally speaking, the method in this chapter is a form of Lectio Divina, which is not completely foreign to Orthodoxy. What was most helpful were the charts in this chapter, which help one go through scripture in a very studious way. Many people in the modern world practice Lectio Divina in a way that doesn’t take one very deep into the study of scriptures. Prof. Hansen is able to engage the reader and show one how to truly meditate on scripture as the early Christians were taught to do.
In chapter seven, Prof. Hansen asks us to pray with the Puritans, which means praying through journaling. Again I found myself thinking that I’d be very uncomfortable with this method; but, to my surprise, I found this chapter very helpful. The way the exercises are laid out allow one to truly explore the depths of one’s soul. For me, this method of prayer is great for preparing for confession. I can turn to this chapter, and allow my preparation not to be just a listing of my sins, but also an experience of prayer.
The final prayer method I want to comment on is the one found in chapter nine: praying with Agnes Sanford. Sanford’s method of prayer stresses supplication. After reading through the other methods, of it was this method that I found the most troubling, but not because of the type prayer – the Orthodox services have a very large supplicatory aspect; what was troubling for me was the theology of Sanford herself. I would have preferred to stress Christ’s actions more in the process. The point of the book, however, was not to present forms of prayer that work for everyone. The point was to introduce different forms of prayer the Church has used throughout her history so that each reader can discern what works best for him or her. This book acts an in invitation and provides an opportunity for one to grow in one’s Christian walk through prayer. Even though I didn’t like Sanford’s methodology, I was still glad to be introduced to it because she’s had a very big influence on many American Christians, many of whom I interact with daily.
Though a Protestant author wrote this book, don’t let that scare you because this book is written in a way that allows it to speak to all Christians. It does cover methods of prayer used by Catholics (Benedictine Hours, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Teresa Avila), prayers used by Orthodox Christians (the Jesus Prayer), and prayers used by Protestants (Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Puritans, Agnes Sanford, and Andrew Murray). However, I discovered that many of the methods are applicable to any tradition. The only downfall is that if you want the Reader that accompanies this book, you will have to buy the e-book version.
Augustine Casiday, Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2014). Pp. 198. Paperback $20.00.
The description of this book sounded very intriguing to me. Here’s how it was advertised: “The faith of the orthodox Christian is ‘apostolic,’ in that it is continuous with the faith of the first century apostles. But to be truly apostolic it must be sent into the world, speaking to each new age. In this fresh and innovative work, Augustine Casiday shows us what it means to re-appropriate the wisdom of the Fathers and to give their words new life in a new age.” As a priest who is tasked to preach every week, this book sounded invaluable. One of my greatest challenges is to articulate the faith in a way that engages modern people. Did this book help? Yes, and no. Let me explain.
Casiday starts with a chapter explaining what he means by “Patristic Heritage.” Though interesting, I’m not sure it was needed. I think he could have explained what he meant by the terms a few short paragraphs. He also used this chapter to explain how modern Orthodox academics have used the Church Fathers: the Neo-Patristic Synthesis (Florovsky) vs. the Russian Religious Philosophy (Bulgakov). Again, interesting, but it seemed only to be “extra” for what was promised in the advertising of the book.
The next chapter takes the reader into territory that seems much more pertinent to the topic. Here he decided to see how later Church Fathers have used earlier Church Fathers in hopes of discovering a methodology that could be adaptable for us. He first explores St. Vincent of Lérins and concludes that St. Vincent encouraged advancement of theology (what I would call, clearer articulation), but noted that this is much different than change in theology. Next he looks at St. Maximus the Confessor and how St. Maximus uses texts by St. Gregory. Casidy concludes that St. Maximus’s approach was to make clearer definitions of what St. Gregory had written to show that it was indeed in line with proper Orthodox theology. Finally, Casidy looks at how St. Photius the Great used Church Fathers to combat the Latin theologians who defended the filioque, also using earlier Church Fathers. Through this study, Casidy shows how St. Photius is able to articulate that the Church Fathers were not infallible. In other words, he shows that one can still be a saint through living a life centered on Christ, while still having flaws in one’s teaching.
In chapter three Casidy turns to a discussion of symbols and how they function for a group. He discusses both physical symbols, and texts as symbols, e.g., the Creed. He notes that they serve to unify a group as well as to point to something beyond itself, something that is absent. One would expect him to say that symbols can act as a guideline in articulating theology in the modern world. However, using established Church Fathers he is able to show that one can be “Orthodox” even if a symbol is absent, or if a symbol has had an addition. His point was to show that symbols are incomplete and they shouldn’t trap us; we are free to continue to articular – to advance – theology in our own day. In some ways, however, this chapter may be been better adapted to a book about the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
In Chapter four, Casidy brings the discussion to the 20th century. He looks specifically at the theology of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas). What was especially interesting in this chapter was that some believe Met. John to be advancing Orthodox theology – as discussed previously in the book – while others argue he is misreading the Church Fathers. However, this section ends a bit frustratingly because Casidy refuses to comment on how well he thinks Met. John did at articulating the Fathers in a modern era. Casidy only ends this section with a question. Finally, he ends this chapter by looking at how St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil adapted monastic asceticism to the “regular” people of their time. This is clearly a study of faith in action.
Finally, in the conclusion, Casidy states, “The question is not whether modern Orthodox theology should be influenced by Christian antiquity, but how it should be influenced” (pg. 193). His answer? Well, it’s simply to keep studying Patristics, languages, history, philosophy, and culture (as if that’s all!) and to do so with a spiritual discipline of carefulness, humility, patience, honesty, and integrity.
In short, I think this book less about how to engage the Church Fathers, and more about not being afraid to engage them. Was this needed? Well, I suppose it depends on who you are and what your stance is on the past!
Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1996). Pp. 170. Paperback $17.00.
Two weeks ago I participated in an egg tempera icon-painting workshop led by an instructor from the Prosopon School of Iconology in New York. The workshop lasted 6 days, and each day started with a lecture by the instructor. The lectures were outstanding. I learned how the process of writing an icon loosely follows a lectio divina model: meditation, practice, and contemplation. This process, however, is not just a teaching method to instruct students how to paint. That is to say, painting (or writing) an icon is to be a form of prayer. Each layer of paint represents the process of human transfiguration. One ascends from body, to soul, to spirit, drawing closer to God with each step. This process is to be a model for our lives so that we too become an icon of the living God.
This school is very steeped in the mystical tradition of the Orthodox Church. One of the most influential theologians in this tradition happens to be Pavel Florensky and his book, Iconostasis. Though I had read this book several years ago, I thought in light of my recent experience, I should pick it up again and give it a second read.
Florensky starts by describing dreams, and how, when we dream, we are caught between two different worlds: that of reality, and another dream-like world. He goes on to write, “A dream, then, is a sign of movement between two realms – and also a symbol: of what? From the heavenly view, the dream symbolizes earth; from the heavenly perspective, it symbolizes heaven” (pg. 43). He starts with dreams because that’s an experience we all have; it’s an experience to which we can all relate. He then says that icons function in the same way: “Art is thus materialized dream, separated from the ordinary consciousness of waking life” (pg. 44). In other words, the icon acts as the movement of ascent into the spiritual world, which is just as real – if not more – than our own.
This leads him into a discussion of how we, as human beings, are made in the image of God, but we are to ascend into the likeness of God (spiritual perfection). This is a mystical experience when “…the soul is raised up from the visible realm to where visibility itself vanishes and the field of the invisible opens…” (pg. 45). For Florensky the services of the Orthodox Church are the way to this sort of mystical ascent. It is here that Florensky starts to talk about icons.
He begins with a discussion of the iconostasis – the wall of icons that separates the altar from the nave in an Orthodox Church. For him, this wall of icons is not a barrier but an opening up. “But this spiritual prop, this material iconostasis, does not conceal from the believer some sharp mystery; on the contrary, the iconostasis points out to the half-blind the Mysteries of the altar, opens for them an entrance into a world closed to them…But the material iconostasis does not, in itself, take the place of the living witnesses, existing instead of them; rather, it points toward them, concentrating the attention of those who pray upon them – a concentration of attention that is essential to the developing of spiritual sight.” (pg. 62-3). It’s like those dreams he explained: an entrance into a spiritual reality.
He then goes on to discuss the history of the icon and the theology of the icon. Finally, he ends with a discussion of the process of writing and icon, and the meaning behind this process.
Some are very uncomfortable with this mystical explanation of icons. In fact, they believe that Florensky is saying that icons are, in their essence, something other than paint and wood. However, I think this is resolved by what the translator says in the preface, “Through the medium of the believer’s faith, the icon becomes an opening through which God can act directly in the believer as the cause of his or her comprehension of the icon: such is the ground” (pg. 3). In other words, understanding iconography, as Florensky explains it, is like learning to read. If you don’t know your ABCs, then words are just black lines on a page. If, however, you do know how to read, those black lines open up a whole new world.
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2013). Pg. 202. Paperback $24.00.
I picked up this book at the recommendation of a friend. I’m glad it was recommended, because when I read this book, I discovered how the cross is still delivering a powerful message even in 21st century America. Between the Civil War and the 1940s, there were about 5,000 lynchings in America. This book explores how the African-American community was able to take this despicable act, and see in it the cross of Jesus Christ.
Cone’s message, in many ways, is a very simple one. He argues that the lynching tree served the same function that the cross served for the Romans in the first century: a brutal and humiliating warning for people to keep in their place. He notes that just as crucifixions were often driven by mob mentality (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19), so too were lynchings. However, he also argues that just as Jesus was able to take the cross, an instrument of death, and change it into a symbol of life, so too did the African-American community take the lynching tree, a humiliating and tragic part of America’s story, and change it into a sign of hope.
Through the various chapters, Cone explores the meaning of the cross in African-American churches, as well as how that imagery even influenced blues music. Both church and music allowed African-Americans to believe that, in the end, God could and would redeem their suffering.
In chapter two, he explores the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. Because I’m an Orthodox Christian, I was unfamiliar with this theologian. Cone goes to great lengths to show how Niebuhr was aware of lynchings, but never connected lynchings with his theology of the cross. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was fair to argue against someone based on an absence of evidence, as Cone was doing here, but, as I’m unfamiliar with Niebuhr, I’ll assume Cone knows what he’s talking about. What I did take away, however, was that Cone really wanted to show that there’s an obvious connection between the lynching tree and the cross, yet, despite this obviousness, white theologians failed to make the connection.
In the next chapter, largely about Martin Luther King, Jr., Cone shows how there was a clear difference between white theology, represented by Niebuhr, and black theology. He shows that sermons and hymns from the American-American community were full of images of the cross; images that take suffering and transform it into a means of salvation. He further explores this idea in the next two chapters, which look specifically at popular literature, and women in the African-American community.
Cone very brilliantly concludes that the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians, and when we are able to see the cross as a first century lynching, then we are able to encounter Christ in our own time and place.
The reason I didn’t give it the full number of stars was because of the writing style. Cone often goes on tangents, which interrupt the train of thought. He uses a lot of quotes from sermons, letters, hymns, poems, etc., yet sometimes they are awkwardly placed. He also, at times, becomes repetitive, rehashing an argument he’s already made in a previous chapter. This leaves one wishing Cone had more to add to his argument. Perhaps a better way to have written this book would have been as a source book. He could have written a short introduction, and then made the rest of the chapter primary sources that backed up his argument. Despite these flaws, this book is still has a powerful message for America today, and it’s worth reading.
Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (New York: Perennial, 2003). Pp. 186. $12.95.
It seems that the Middle East is becoming more and more unstable. Along with this, it also seems that the U.S. has no interest in leaving the area, thus making the Middle East an issue within American politics. Therefore, it behooves me to learn a bit more about the situation. In this regards this book was a huge help. Lewis’s main goal was to explain *how* exactly the Middle East became so unstable, and what role the West has played in helping, or hindering, the situation. Though Lewis doesn’t offer any solutions to the current situation, he did help me understand the complexity the situation and all the factors that are at play here.
I don’t want to rewrite the book, but I do want to highlight some things that Lewis points out about the Middle East. The first is that one should remember that in the Middle Ages, it was the Middle East that was pinnacle of civilization (other than the Byzantines, which fell in the 15th century, and the Chinese, who kept to themselves for the most part). During this time Europe was in the dark ages, and the Islamic empires saw them as barbarians, and thus ignored them. However, Europe didn’t remain in the dark and grew by means of the Renaissance, and then secular humanism (starting with the French Revolution). What was really struck me was that the Islamic empires had no idea of these developments in the West. Lewis points out that they didn’t have a tradition of sending ambassadors to other nations, they didn’t translate European literature into Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi, and their merchants didn’t travel to the West. So, when the West completely transformed its society – technologically, economically, and socially – the East remained ignorant of the changes.
The East’s ‘awakening’ to the developments in the West were encounters - or should I say losses – on the battlefield (starting with the Holy League and the Treaty of Carlowitz), and on the seas (European colonization). For the Ottomans, defeats in these areas were quite a shock. What was interesting was that they quickly adopted Western military technology, but were only interested in adopting it to defeat the West. Any westernization that Muslim rulers adopted – especially in areas of production and administration – ended in disaster.
Perhaps Lewis’s discussion of how secularism came into Europe helped explain why the West was successful with modern progress and the East was not. Secularism, he points out, was a solution to a problem that existed in Christian Europe, not the Islamic East. In Europe, the state had often used religion to extend its authority, and, at other times, religion used the state to enforce doctrine. Secularism separated the two – what we now know as the separation of church and state. For Christianity, this was easy to do. Christianity had developed as a minority religion within the Roman Empire, and thus it has set up its own institution, the Church, which had its own leaders, the hierarchy. Thus when church and state get separated, each has its own structure to keep it organized.
Lewis argues that secularism was a solution to a Christian problem. Islam was never a minority within a state, and thus there was no hierarchy, no clergy, and no institution like the “church.” Islamic leadership had always also been political leadership. Thus to divide religion and government was not as simple as it was in Europe, where there already existed a secular government and an ecclesiastical authority.
Also, Islam developed as an egalitarian religion that focused on right practice, rather than right belief. Thus, the foundation of the religion was much different than Christianity. In fact, “denominational” separations within Islam were not over doctrinal issues, but rather over political leadership. Thus law, and practice, was seen as something given by God, and the idea of having a secular law in addition to an ecclesiastical law, was a completely foreign idea and seen as separating loyalties. Christianity had always has this tension, and even the Gospels record Jesus preaching about this tension, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Islam did not have this concept. Thus secularism was hard to grasp.
Lewis points out that there are profound differences between East and West in three areas. The first was the role of women in society. While Islam makes everyone equal in regards to highborn/lowborn, rich/poor, Arab/non-Arab, or white/black, there were three areas in which inequality existed: free/slave, believer/nonbeliever, and male/female. Lewis points out that whereas a slave could be freed, and a nonbeliever could convert to Islam, a woman had no choice to remain in her societal position. In some Islamic cultures, this is still true. He says changing the role of women is seen as an incitement to immorality and promiscuity, and a blow to the heart of Islam. This is a very hard cultural aspect to change, though there have been liberation movements within Islamic society.
The second profound difference is in science. Whereas Medieval Islam was the world leader in science, at some point Islam began to venerate an approved corpus of knowledge, which stagnated any further development. They believed they had learned all there was to know, and European inquisitiveness never developed. Why this was the case is not quite understood. But what’s important to know is that a drive to continually dig deeper into science never developed. The East was content to use technologically advanced things – such as weapons or clocks – without understanding how they worked.
The third profound difference was in music. He notes that Western music – polyphony – has been adopted in most of the world now, including Asia, and South America. However, Western music is still not played in Middle Eastern culture. They have adapted Western clothing (male, that is), they now translate Western literature, and they have adopted other forms of Westernization, but music is one area they have yet to adopt. Why that is, is still not known.
Another very interesting clash in cultures is the idea of nationalism. In Europe, nationalism takes the place of religion (instead of a clash between Catholic and Protestant, it’s now a clash of your country vs. mine). However, Islam has a strong sense of unity. One is a brother, not because of ethnicity or political allegiance, but because the other has accepted Islam. When the West colonizes the Middle East, and then sets up the current state system based on national identity, this is a foreign idea. To a Muslim, nationalism is seen as breaking up the greater Islamic unity.
The concluding chapter takes a look at the blame game that is being played. Some blame the Mongols; the Arabs blame the Turks; The Turks blame the Arabs; the Iranians blame the Mongols, Arabs, and Turks; some blame Western imperialism; some are anti-Semitic in their blame; some blame Islam itself; while others blame the role of religion within society; Muslim fundamentalists say that they weren’t faithful enough to Islam; and some blame sexism. Lewis says none of these can really be the full cause of the poverty and destructionist currents of the current Middle East. What he can conclude is that if a solution isn’t found soon, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor the whole region.
In all, I highly recommend this book. Lewis does an excellent job of explaining the complete surprise the Islamic world had to the newly developments in the Western world. He then goes on to explain the various stumbling blocks the East had to adopting the developments of the West –cultural, social, religious, and economic. Though he explains *how* things didn’t work out in the East, the *why* is left unanswered; though that may be a question that never can be answered exactly.
Constantine Cavarnos, Byzantine Sacred Art: Selected Writings of the Contemporary Greek Icon Painter Fotis Kontoglous on the Sacred Arts according to the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Compiled, Translated from the Greek, and Edited with a Preface, Introduction, Notes, and Illustrations, 2nd Edition, Revised and Considerably Enlarged (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1992). Pp. 171.
This book starts with an introduction by Cavarnos, and then it presents a series of essays by Photios Kontoglou (note, some editions present his name as Fotis Kontoglous), who is a famous Greek artist of Orthodox iconography. Kontoglou is such a big name in this field because he played a large part in reviving traditional Cretan-style iconography around the world. For this reason alone, one should stop to pay attention to what he has to say about Byzantine art. However, with that having been said, in some respects I completely disagree with his conclusions.
For Kontoglou, Orthodox iconography – what he calls Byzantine art – is the pinnacle of all art. It is the pinnacle because he believes the very essence of iconography is different than other forms of art (Renaissance, Impressionism, etc.). For him, the essence of an icon participates in the mystery of Christ and salvation. It isn’t an imitation of the natural world, but rather a revelation of and participation in a spiritual reality.
One also gets the sense that Kontoglou has been criticized for his stance on Byzantine art. According to him, many have criticized his art – and Byzantine art – as being primitive in form, unnaturalistic, and slavish copies. He labors at length arguing that Byzantine art is none of these observations precisely because this art is working on a completely different “level” than secular art – in short, it’s not about the artist’s skill, or how well a piece of art represents nature, or how a piece of art makes a profound statement.
My critique of his argument falls on the level of semiotics. I believe he has confused the 'sign' for the 'object' it should represent. His argument is largely based on the *style* of the icon. He believes that *how* one represents Christ and the saints (the artistic style) is an indication of its inner essence. This would be like saying that the letters T-R-E-E can only represent that large thing with a trunk, limbs, and leaves if they are written in New Times Roman, but if you write those letters in Arial, for example, you no longer are talking about the same thing. This, of course, doesn’t hold up. I would argue that what matters for iconography is the composition of the figures so that it continues to illustrate a precise theological point. In short, I’m saying as long as the letters are T-R-E-E, the style, or font, doesn’t matter. What matters is that it still points to the same object (or theological idea).
One could further illustrate this point by pointing to an image I’ve seen of a pagan god – I believe he had antlers coming from his head. The catch is, however, that this pagan god was painted in the Byzantine style. Just because it adheres to the traditional style of iconography, does not mean that it points to an Orthodox theological truth.
My second objection to this work is the use of “Byzantine.” Because this is also the word used for the Eastern Roman Empire, I’m hesitant to tie religious painting to a fallen empire because worshipers around the world are still praying before these works of art. In short I see “Byzantine” as a political word, and I wish he would have stressed the connection of this art with the Orthodox Church. My preference would have been to simply call this art, “iconography.” Also, by using the word “Byzantine,” he’s able to stress a particular style over other styles (for example, what’s called Russian mannerism – the style of Andrei Rublev). Where does Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian, etc. iconography fit into his thesis?
The third objection to this work is that most of his essays are simply an exercise of name-dropping. For example, the chapters on Mt. Athos, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and the various chapters about the icons of different feasts, are simply catalogs of where particular icons exist, who painted them, and what they look like. There’s very little explanation – theological or otherwise – that draws the reader deeper into the “mystery,” as he might say. I would ask, to what do these particular icons point? What is their meaning?
One discussion that I thought was worthwhile was the discussion about the Greeks under the Ottomans. Here he makes a connection between icons of suffering (the crucifixion, extreme humility, poor Lazarus, etc.) and the suffering of the people under their political suppressors. This is an interesting idea, and I would like to see it fleshed out a bit.
In short, if you’re really into iconography, you may want to check this book out. However, if you’re new to iconography and you’re looking for an introduction that really explains the theology of icons, how to understand them, and how they are used by the Orthodox Church, you may want to look elsewhere.
Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (New York: The Modern Library, 2002). Pp. 230. Paperback $15.95.
I was going through used bookstores in Omaha last week and I came across this book. It was a decent price, and I’ve been looking for a book about the history of the Middle East. I want to be better informed about the politics of the region, and this book appeared to fit the profile. In fact, the President will make a major announcement about military action in the Middle East later tonight. This region affects U.S. politics, and that, in turn, affects me. Living in ignorance is not good, and to be a better voter, it behooves me to learn more. Plus, I’m hoping to be better informed for the ecumenical dialogues I participate in.
The book starts with Muhammad, then progresses through the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Crusades, and the Mongols. After that, Armstrong discusses the rise of the empires of the Safavids, Moghuls, and the Ottomans. Finally, she ends with a discussion of the arrival of the West and the contemporary situation of the Middle East.
This book is entitled, Islam, but it’s really about the people that made up the empires I described above. Armstrong does write a bit about Islamic ideals and beliefs, but what makes this book stand out, and what makes it a very good introduction, is her discussions of how these various empires and rulers were able to use – or distort – Islam. Within this mix, she is also able to write about various movements/schools that develop, and how they influence various aspects of Islam and the empires in which they existed.
I don’t want to have too many spoilers, but there are a few things of note that I found very interesting, and I’d like to share them here. As Armstrong is opening her book, she writes about Muhammad’s motivation and how he saw Islam fitting into his world. Three of them I thought were of note.
Firstly, Mecca, Muhammad’s hometown, was experiencing economic growth for the first time in its history. As a part of the population gained wealth, another part was experiencing extreme poverty. Muhammad was very uncomfortable with this inequality.
Secondly, Muhammad had an admiration for the religion of the Jews and the Christians. Armstrong says that he felt that the Arabs had been left out of God’s overall vision. However, with his visions of the Quran, he believed that the Arabs now became a part of the ‘family,’ so to speak. However, Armstrong notes that Muhammad was unaware not only of the differences between Judaism and Christians, but also that various types of Christianity existed in this period (Orthodox, Nestorians, Arians, Monophysites, etc.). He believed the each ethnic group received their own prophet – Moses, Jesus – to reveal the one God.
Thirdly, Muhammad was tired of the fighting that existed between the various Arab tribes. With the advent of Islam came the idea of ummah, or community. From my understanding, this isn’t much different than the Christian idea of koinonia. Once an Arab tribe became Muslim, they were forbidden to attach another Muslim tribe. In this way, Muhammad was able to unite the Arabs for the first time in their history.
After reading about these three motivating factors, it became clear that Islam was fundamentally different than Christianity. Christianity is, at its basic level, a religion of orthodoxy (right belief – and this gets played out in Byzantium where the councils are convened to determine right belief, and heretics are anathematized); however, Armstrong strongly points out that Islam is a religion of orthopraxy (right practice). The practice of Islam is the practice of living in harmony with one another in an ideal society, which is God’s desire for the human race. This is why Islam has such a strong sense of giving to the poor.
This unity of the Arabs had consequences, however. Arabia is basically a desert. So for each tribe to get the resources they need to survive, they developed the idea of ghazu, or raids. Why they didn’t develop a more sophisticated form of trade, I’m not sure. However, if all of tribes are now united in Islam, they couldn’t raid each other for resources, so they turn to the non-Muslims of the north (Byzantium and Persia). This begins the expansion of the Islamic empires.
From here on out, Armstrong is able to articulate the various expressions of Islam and how the various monarchs and empires use, or distort, Muhammad’s original vision. One of the first disputes in Islam is over the proper successor of Muhammad – this eventually leads to the Shiis and the Sunnis. It also leads to other Muslims having visions and declaring themselves prophets, known as the riddah. They also lead to the First and Second Fitnahs (literally, temptation, but I think of them as civil wars). Of course, these disputes cause an identity crisis of sorts because the idea of Islamic unity, ummah, is threated. This very idea is in play today in the Middle East.
Islam also faced new trials as Islam became a part of an empire. The rulers of these empires soon discovered that the most efficient way to run a medieval agrarian society was to rule as absolute monarchs – along the lines of the Persians, and the Byzantines. However, Islam, as a religion, is more egalitarian, and Muhammad advocated a more ascetic lifestyle. This caused tension between faithful practitioners and the royal courts. In fact, Shariah law starts as a protest to the state, though later the Ottomans incorporate it into the state.
After progressing through several empires, she has a good discussion about Islam’s encounter with the West. The West had spent the last 300 years easing into modernity, changing from a religious based society to a secular based society. Their economy completely changes – from agrarian to one founded on technology and an investment in capital. This allows the West to produce goods indefinitely, and it brings most people above the subsistence level. It also meant that they needed to turn to other places for resources, and this lead to colonization in the Middle East (as well as elsewhere).
The Middle East, which was still an agrarian society, had always seen the West as barbarians (after the fall of the Byzantines). Thus they typically paid no attention to the West and were completely unaware of the advances there. So, when the West shows up, worlds begin to clash. But I won’t spoil the whole thing here. It’s also quite involved and not easy to sum up, so I’ll just recommend you read Armstrong’s book.
I could go on and on from what I learned in this book – how the capitals changed cites, how the esoteric movements began, the Islamic renaissances… However I’ll just end this review by stating that I found this book very helpful. It is straightforward and easy to read for someone who is unfamiliar with the history and Arabic terminology. The only reason I gave it 4 starts instead of 5 is that Armstrong isn’t quite as unbiased as she should have been – she takes a few cheap shots at the West. But they are few, and it shouldn't discourage you from using this book to learn more about the Middle East and how the current situation developed.
Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City, translated by Paul Cartledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Pp. 280. Paperback.
After reading about sacrifices at the ancient Jerusalem Temple, I was curious as to how sacrifices were carried out in the Greek world. To answer this question, I turned to this book, which was one that was on my undergrad syllabus - a class with Prof. Sellew. Outside of Walter Burkert's book, Greek Religion, this seems to be the best introduction to ancient Greek paganism.
Originally this book was written in French, and then translated by Paul Cartledge. However, the authors state in their preface that this translation has a number of improvements, so instead of thinking of this as a translation, one could think of it as a second edition.
The main thesis of this book is that one can't approach Greek Religion from our viewpoint. If we do, we tend to impose Judeo-Christian categories and values,which forces us to think about Greek religion in a way that would have been foreign to those who practiced it. If we are careful to study Greek Religion from the framework of the ancient Greeks, we notice that religion, politics, and the civil life were all tied together. This observation is what led them to title the book, Religion in the Ancient Greek City.
Some examples of Judeo-Christian values that we can't impose on Greek religion would be the idea that God is the creator and external to creation - Greek gods were themselves created and a lived within creation, in fact rather than gods, we may want to think of them as immortals; the idea that religion is for salvation; and the idea that religion is governed by a set theology or particular book, such as a Bible.
Another example of us imposing Jude-Christian values on Greek religion is the idea that there are "sacraments" that demarcate various stages of life (birth, marriage, death). While there are rituals and sacrifices that existed for these events, we need to remember that ritual was a part of everyday life, so we shouldn't be so quick to see them as unique events. What was most interesting to me was to see that pagan Greek religion had some practices that exist in modern Greek Orthodoxy, ones that don't exist in Roman Catholicism - such as the wearing of crowns at marriages, and circling the hearth/altar for newborns, and weddings. Though this book isn't interested in making modern day connections, I can't help but wonder if our modern practices don't have an origin in ancient Greek religion.
For the Greeks, religion was more about an interaction with the "divine world," so as to maintain a balance for social and civic stability. This comes out very clearly in the rationale behind sacrifices. The myth of Prometheus and Pandora sets the stage for sacrifices (though this isn't universal). Prometheus makes a sacrifice but withholds the best portion for humankind. Zeus gets angry and takes fire away from humans, but Prometheus steals it back. Zeus, again angry, sends Pandora (which means "gift for all") to humans, but this "gift" unlocks all the ills that now plague humanity. This myth explains why certain portions of the sacrifice go to the gods, and why certain portions are eaten by man. Sacrifices symbolically represent a communion that humanity once had with the gods, yet, at the same time, it also represents the gulf that now exists between the divine and the human. While it connects humanity to the primordial events that set the stage for our current existence, it also shows that "fire," like Pandora, was both a gift and a curse.
The book also explains how sacrifices were done; typically three parts: 1) the promenade, 2) the sacrifice, and the 3) butchering and eating of the sacrifice. It then also explains the various competitions that may have been connected to sacrifices: games, theater, music, etc.
One of the best aspects of this book is the way it places religion in an everyday context. It becomes very clear that libations and other sorts of sacrifices were an integral part of life. Religion is played out not only in the home life (oikos), but also as a part of the overall working of the city-states. The book also discusses how religion was able to unite the Greeks in pan-Hellenic celebrations (the most famous for us being the Olympics or the plays in celebration of Dionysus - think of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, or Aristophanes).
Another amazing discussion in the book was how to understand the myths, and representation of the gods, as a whole. Whereas most books want to discuss each god individually, this book stresses that a proper understanding of the gods is in relationship to one another, and in relationship to the city in which they were worshiped. Though there are a limited number of gods, the roles they played within society varied depending on the city-state, hence the great number of epithets that existed for each god.
In short, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how ancient Greek religion worked, and what it meant to those who practiced it. This book will give you a good foundation from which to understand the classical world. It's very readable and not written in a highly academic tone. The only thing it won't do is systematically go through the stories of all the gods - the mythology. However, it will give you a way of understanding classical mythology, if you want to go on and read those stories, and that is very valuable!
E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 B.C.E. - 66 C.E. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992). Pp. 580. Paperback.
My original review can be found here; however, as I said, I had a very specific reason for picking up this book. I wanted to learn more about first century Judaism and how the temple functioned. My goal was to be better informed when reading the New Testament. My last review discussed the book as a whole; in this review I want to focus on the sections that spoke about the sacrificial system of the temple: how sacrifices where done, and how people understood the theology of them.
When Sanders begins his practical discussion of how the sacrifices were done, he begins with a discussion of the temple mount, and a physical description of the temple. For those who have never thought about this, the second temple was huge, especially after the renovations of King Herod. As Sanders described the temple, I was able to use several charts he included to visualize myself walking through the various courts. His description is well written, so much so that I know which door I would enter in, where I would go to buy a victim to be sacrificed, and how I would take my offering into the temple.
Sanders then fully describes how I would have offered my sacrifice: how I would have laid my hands on the head of the sacrifice and made a confession (i.e., what the offering was for, or what type of offering it was); how I, not a priest (assuming I’m a first century Jewish male), would have reached over the barrier to slit the throat the animal (which sounds disgusting to us, but Sanders points out this would have been very common in the ancient world); how the priest would collect the blood to pour it around the altar; how the priest would then take the animal to butcher it; how the priest would take the appropriate parts to be burned; and then how the priest would return the appropriate parts to me so that I could also share in the meat of the offering. In all, he imagines this would have been about a 10 minutes process.
Sanders also describes how the temple priests would have started and ended their day with a community sacrifice that included two male yearling lambs with flour, oil, and wine. This was a very in depth discussion, which even included how the priests cleaned the temple. This daily routine of morning and evening (late-afternoon) offerings included the casting of lots for jobs, the offering of incense within the temple, prayers in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and the clanging of cymbals with the recitation of Psalmody. He imagines the temple would have been staffed with 700 Levites and priests a week – 50 at a time for 2 shifts a day.
Sanders also describes the exact liturgical celebration of the 3 major feasts: Passover, Feast of Weeks (also called Pentecost or Day of First Fruits), and the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). It’s interesting that he includes a discussion of the Day of Atonement as a separate feast, apart from the other three (why it’s not the 4 major feasts, I’m not sure – perhaps because it wasn’t celebrated by the community, as a whole, as the others were?).
As much as I found the description of the liturgical rites interesting, I found the theology of the sacrifices even more interesting. Here’s how Sanders spells it out:
As I read through this list, I was struck by how close it matches the Eastern Orthodox understanding of communion, which is offered as a thanksgiving (i.e., the Eucharist), as a means of purification (forgiveness, or remission) from sins, on behalf of the world, as a means of communion with God, and as a means of transforming the world – among other things. What this indicates, for me at least, is that the more traditional understanding of communion (rather than the Protestant’s stress of communion as only a remembrance) has roots in the temple.
I’ll end this review again by stating that I highly recommend this book to anyone who takes his or her biblical studies very seriously. It will not only aid your reading of the New Testament, but also your understanding of Church theology.
E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 B.C.E. - 66 C.E. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992). Pp. 580. Paperback.
I chose to read this book to answer a very specific question: how exactly was Judaism practiced in the time of Jesus, and how did the Temple function? I've been reading various books about ancient and middle-eastern culture, and it became very obvious that the culture of the biblical world was very different than our world. As I thought about this, I wondered about the things that the New Testament authors don't mention in their texts because they presumed the reader had a familiarity with the context in which the stories were written - context that includes the daily practice of first century Judaism and the workings of the sacrificial system of the Temple. However, since this presumed context no longer exists for a 21st century American reader, I decided I needed to do some reading in order to be able to understand the New Testament better. Here's where Sanders's nearly 600 pages comes in.
This book was an amazing recommendation. The only other books that cover this topic in depth are History of the Jewish People, vol. II by Schürer, and Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus by Jeremias. Sanders's book is, in many ways, a correction of several theses argued in these two volumes.
Sanders is mostly concerned with what he calls "common Judaism" in the first century. This includes the ideas that were common in all practices of Judaism; ideas that shaped people's observances, and their daily, weekly, seasonal, and annual practices. In short, he summarizes the beliefs of common Judaism as: 1) There is a God who created the universe and he has chosen Israel to do his will - the idea of election; 2) As a result of this election, Israel was given the Law, and they were to obey it; 3) It also means God will protect and save his people, at least those who are loyal to him.
With this in mind, Sanders is able to discuss how the Temple functioned: daily, seasonal, and annually. For example, if you wanted to offer a sacrifice, he explains how one would do this. Sanders also explains how the Levites and priests lived while serving in the Temple, and how they lived, and what they did, while at home. He then discusses how the average Jew lived out his religion. There’s a discussion about how tithes and taxes worked, how the major feasts were celebrated, and how worship and Sabbaths were observed. Within these discussions, Sanders is also able to write about circumcision, purity, food, charity, love, and hopes for the future.
After discussing common Judaism, Sanders turns to a discussion of the three main parties within Judaism: the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Pharisees – which were all quite small, compared the entire first century Jewish population. His argument articulates exactly what role they played in society, and what sort of influence they may have had on how Judaism was practiced, as well as how much influence they had on the politics of the time. Here is where he tends to disagree the most with Schürer and Jeremias. It's interesting to note that the Pharisees have less power than many presume, and that they have less control over the life of the synagogue than previously thought.
The real beauty of this book is that Sanders is able to articulate three things: 1) how Judaism was practiced (the ins and outs of how the rites where performed); 2) what the rites meant to the people (the theology of first century Judaism); and 3) how Judaism, and its various parties, fit into a larger socioeconomic and cultural context.
Though the almost 600 pages may be a bit much for the average reader of scripture, I do highly recommend it for anyone who is a serious student of the Bible, anyone who teaches biblical literature, or anyone who has to preach from biblical material. It will definitely give you a better foundation in which you can understand the stories of the New Testament.