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Archive for the 'Academia' Category

What did you do on #elevennine?

Every generation has days where they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was one for my parents. The earliest one I remember is the Challenger explosion; also Princess Diana’s death, maybe. 9/11 is, of course, one of those days as well, and still very much in recent memory.

11/9 is, I think, going to be another one. It already has been a day of note in past years; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht, and 9 November 1989 was the fall of the Berlin Wall. It remains to be seen just what kind of a marker 9 November 2016 will be remembered as; one way or the other, though — as I tell other historians — we are seeing periodization in action. This is close of one chapter and the beginning of the other; 11/9 is a day we will see as a dividing line of some kind.

So where was I and what did I do on 11/9?

We had been up watching the returns since the first polls closed Tuesday night. We watched his speech, and at 3:30 in the morning turned in. I got up to go chant Orthros and Divine Liturgy for St. Nektarios of Aegina, praising God and his saints with my voice as best I could, and then I went to go teach the undergraduates taking my Ancient Greek History survey course.

I walked in and saw a lot of low, low faces. Some of them were gathered around a laptop. “She’s speaking right now,” one of them said.

“Right,” I said. “I’ll put it up on the projector screen.”

We watched her concede.

I had a lesson planned for the day. I thought to myself, screw it.

“Okay, folks, obviously today is going to be a little different –”

“The next four years are going to be a little different,” one of my students said.

“Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what.” I pulled up an article from “Patriotic Folks dot Com”, one of the alt-right sites to which some of my ultra-conservative Facebook connections are always posting links, and put it up on the projector screen. “You know why I’m always harping on questions like audience, genre, agenda, view of the past, and so on? Because of pieces like this.” I show them the article, which seemed to assert that some famous Hollywood actor had posted a picture of himself holding up a pro-Trump sign, and then aggregated tweets from both right and left showing their reactions. Of course, the headline presented it as “Liberal Twitter melting down”. Of course the picture is fake, and the article even acknowledges that it’s fake, at the very end. The only point of the piece is to point out how the image punks the “other side”, while naturally ignoring that “their” side got punk’d, too.

“I make you think about those questions precisely because we all get bombarded with this stuff every day, and unlike the tabloids when I was a kid, where you could distinguish based on format and location in the store, everything looks equally authoritative when shared as a Facebook link. You have to evaluate based on content, not format, and if you can’t do that, we’re all going to be in trouble. My generation has not been well-educated about this, neither has the generation before mine. You have to figure it out. The point isn’t really whether Thucydides is ‘more reliable’ as a ‘scientific historian’ than Herodotus; the point is, that’s an exercise that will help you evaluate garbage like this. If a historian five hundred years from now sees this website and can’t answer those kinds of questions, then this is going to be useless as a source; but if you can think about it and answer those questions, then it can tell you a lot.”

A Mexican woman told me, We’re not rapists and criminals. And nobody gets “sent” here in the first place.

An African American woman told me, I grew up in Boston. I had heard about racism and xenophobia as issues, but I had never really seen the extent to which they were things real people actually did.

“See, for eleven years, I lived twenty minutes south of the birthplace of the KKK, right on the edge of what is, for all intents and purposes, rural and culturally Southern. That’s an experience that means I’m surprised by this outcome, but not blindsided. I’ve seen this face to face.”

Then I showed them the video from Monday night of Pres. Obama in New Hampshire telling the story of the woman in Greenwood, South Carolina, one of twenty people at one of his early 2008 campaign meetings, who got the room excited for him by saying “All fired up! Ready to go!” This was the woman, he said, who made him realize that “…one voice can change a room… And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world.”

Be the voice that changes the room, I told them.

Then I went to a rehearsal and sang beautiful music as best as I could.

That is how I spent 11/9. What did you do?

And then, today, on 11/10, the real question — what are you and I going to do? Because there’s a lot to be done.

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Review Essay: The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church

maxresdefaultA couple of years ago, I contributed this piece to the sadly-now-defunct Red Egg Review. It seems quite relevant now, so I repost it in full here.

I find it curious that, amidst a series of heavier news reports of import to Orthodox Christians being covered in American media, such as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the civil war in Syria, the recent synaxis of the Orthodox primates at the Ecumenical Patriarchate made the Huffington Post via a Reuters story (although somebody at the HuffPo concocted an ill-informed headline on the piece, announcing that the synaxis had planned a new “ecumenical council” for 2016, and I’m not the only one who noticed this).  As can be typical, the writers of the piece seemed to stumble a bit when it came to explaining the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch; +Bartholomew is “the spiritual leader” of the Orthodox, the “senior-most Orthodox leader” who has a “prestige” position but a “tiny” church, with “no authority over other churches” and “none of the resources the large Russian church enjoys”.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is often a lightning rod for confusion and criticism by Anglophones, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Not only is the American media not certain in what box to put him, but online chatter about the Patriarchate among American Orthodox converts is often sharply negative. He is critiqued for his support of environmental concerns and framing of them as a matter of Christian stewardship, for his willingness to interact with the Pope, for what the critics portray as a penchant for consolidating his own power, for a willingness to embrace political expediency in Turkey rather than bravely face martyrdom (as was at the heart of some critical reviews of his book, such as those by Rod Dreher and Charlotte Allen), and for a lack of concern for American issues besides shoring up support for the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Fr. Peter Gillquist’s allegation of the EP’s (+Demetrios in those days) poor treatment of the delegation from the Evangelical Orthodox Church is a story that is not easily forgotten, and it is trotted out with some regularity. Others offer the hypothesis that the Patriarchate seeks to establish itself as the “Orthodox papacy” specifically so that, when (so this line of thinking goes) +Bartholomew enters into reunion with Rome, it will be no conceptual difficulty to hand that authority over to the Roman Pope. Uncompromising reassertions of the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate by Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambrianides) of Bursa have not helped the matter (at the same time, neither have similarly aggressive-sounding words from Moscow).

There are parallels here to the situation in 1970s. Greece had just emerged from its military dictatorship in 1974, the same year as the coup in Cyprus and subsequent Turkish invasion Lebanon’s civil war started in 1975; Soviet Russia was at its height – and the Orthodox world was preparing for a council. Preparatory meetings had been held since 1961, at Rhodes and at Chambesy, and in 1972, the same year that Patriarch Athenagoras passed away and a year after the Theological School in Halki was closed, a collection of the introductory reports of the Preparatory Commission were published under the title Towards the Great Council, the introduction to which contains the rather charming and confident statement that “[t]he Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church is planned to be held in all probability some time during 1974[.]”

The same year, Metropolitan Maximos of Sardes of blessed memory published a work of historical theology titled The Œcumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church: A Study in the History and Canons of the Church, published by the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies (Thessaloniki). The work begins in the Apostolic era, tracing the historical development of the office of the bishop through the Council of Nicea in 325, at which point +Maximos looks specifically at the episcopate as it developed in Constantinople. He spends quite a bit of time on the Council of Chalcedon, and then studies the way the role of the Patriarchate, as articulated at Chalcedon, was realized from the end of late antiquity up until the twentieth century. The book appears to have been conceived of in the context of an impending Great Council; +Maximos specifically has as his framing device the (then) recent memory of the first Conference at Rhodes in 1961, at which he was a delegate:

The conference was held primarily to demonstrate the unity which has held the Orthodox Church together in faith and service throughout the centuries, despite what at times has been considered as its injurious decentralization and the independence of the individual churches…  No doubt as a result of [such] misunderstandings, some curious articles have been published… about antagonism between the Oecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Church, and about the victory of one over the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one scored a victory at Rhodes. Rhodes saw but one victory; the triumph of Orthodoxy (p. 15).

Space only permits a brief summary of +Maximos’ 327 pages’ worth of observations and conclusions; in a nutshell, the Church is a divinely-instituted, mystical (as in sacramental) Body; at the same time, it is a historical reality, with visible power and authority being given to the Apostles. The episcopate is a charismatic office that is derived from Apostolic origin but is not, essentially, apostolic in character; in other words, the Apostles had a fundamentally missionary role, whereas the episcopate has a fundamentally liturgical and pastoral role. Ultimately it is Christ who is the divine founder of the Church; it is the bishop who is the earthly – that is to say, historical – head; this power is properly considered to be within, rather than over, the Church, and the bishop is the personification of the organic unity of the Church.

As Christianity spread, and the need for bishops to decide things in synod developed, a system of precedence emerged out of necessity, with preference being given to the “mother church” of a given synod. As new communities started emerging in the periphery rather than the metropolitan centers, this practice of customary precedence came to represent concrete administrative power, but these prerogatives were accompanied with a “reciprocity” of obligation. As the 34th Apostolic Canon prescribed, the bishops in a given synod are not to do anything without their head, but neither is the head to act without his bishops, “because harmony and love must prevail amongst the bishops as an example to the clergy and people and for ‘the glory of God, through the Lord, by the Holy Ghost’” (322).

Within this system emerged metropolitans, then patriarchs of autocephalous churches, then the patriarchates of Rome and New Rome. This is a historical development that still must be seen as an organic necessity:

[O]nly in this organization can the Church continue to exist in the midst of human societies… Thus even the highest institutions of its historical development, such as the emergence of the office of patriarch in the oecumenical Church, must be seen as vitally necessary phenomena, deriving in ecclesiastical life by a gradual and continuous process from the ecclesiastical idea of order, organization, and perfection in administration, under the same conditions as those under which the whole administration of the oecumenical Church has evolved; phenomena fully in accord with the internal presuppositions of ecclesiastical order as these were recognized by the Church itself and were developed in its legislation… Thus even if all the bishops are equal by divine institution, enjoying to the same degree the gift of the episcopal grace and share the same unbroken Apostolic succession, they are not all equal-in-honor in the canonical system of the ecclesiastical administration… Some bishops emerge as senior to the others…Enjoying special privileges, they take the initiative in general ecclesiastical issues. (324-25)

In this context, the Patriarch of Constantinople has a precedence of honor that is related to his administrative function. This is not, +Maximos insists, a supremacy in all aspects of ecclesiastical life (the way he would define “neo-Papism”), but an authority in the context of the dual principles of “conciliarity and collegiality” and “non-intervention in the internal affairs of other churches” (326).

History does interfere, however. The Ottoman takeover of the former Empire is well-covered territory; more recently, +Maximos examines the problem of the rise of nationalism in the Balkans and Europe, where the boundaries of local churches were now being drawn according to self-consciously secular and political criteria – division by tribe; that is to say, racism. It was in this context that the Patriarchate condemned ethnophyletism in 1872: “We renounce, censure, and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds, and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which ‘support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it, and lead it to divine godliness’.” (300-309)

+Maximos also spends some time on the question of the diaspora (a loaded word for some in 2014 that presumably was assumed merely to be descriptive in the 1970s). He acknowledges the problem that the emphasis on national origins has posed in Europe, Canada, Australia, and North America: “This makes Orthodoxy appear divided and at odds with itself… with disastrous consequences when it comes to projecting its unity to the outside world” (309). +Maximos here suggests that the diaspora represents three problems to be solved: what the local principle in the organization of the Church means as an issue of dogma, the canonical jurisdiction of Constantinople over Orthodox Christians outside of the boundaries of established churches (per Chalcedon 28, which +Maximos deals with at great length in his fourth chapter), and the “so-called psychological question of ecclesiastical unity” (311). An article of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s, dating from 1954 – sixteen years before Moscow’s granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America – is brought to bear in support of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s role in establishing unity in the diaspora. Apparently Schmemann was for the EP before he was against it.

The legacy of +Maximos’ book, particularly in Anglophone literature, is curious. The English translation was published in 1976. The Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies had commissioned Gamon McLellan, an Anglican who had been a student of +Kallistos Ware’s (now Metropolitan of Diokleia) and who was working with a team of paleographers at the Institute at the time of the commission. In preparation for writing this piece, I was fortunate enough to speak with Mr. McLellan by Skype, and I am indebted to him for his comments and his help in providing useful historical context for his work. He had a great deal of personal access to +Maximos, and they discussed his translation extensively. Mr. McLellan’s work was also reviewed by a team of senior theologians at the Patriarchal Institute. As much care as was put into the publication of the translation, however, it is unclear what the reception to the work was amongst English readers. WorldCat lists only forty-one libraries worldwide with a copy of Mr. McLellan’s translation in circulation, and the Patriarchal Institute in Thessaloniki has let the English edition go out of print. Indeed, while a second edition of the book was published in Greece in 1989, three years after +Maximos’ repose, no English translation has been published of that, and the Greek edition has proven impossible to acquire via Western interlibrary loan systems. On the whole, +Maximos does not appear to have been cited very much in English, save for a very small handful of scholarly works and a couple of essays on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website. And yet, a note of inquiry to +Elpidophoros of Bursa regarding the current appraisal of +Maximos’ study by the Patriarchate yields the following response: “…it does not merely reflect the thinking of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it describes the Ecumenical Patriarchate as it is. After saying that I do not see any space for any Patriarch to change something about that.”

The book is, to be sure, a dense read. +Maximos’ command of historical sources is exhaustive. At the same time, Mr. McLellan’s translation renders the recounting of canons and Councils into English that is as readable as it could be, and it is rewarding and informative reading. While it is a different world today in terms of Anglophone scholarship than it was in 1976 – the translation of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamum’s ecclesiological studies into English has been monumental all by itself (and +Maximos relies on him greatly in the early chapters) – surely a refreshed translation of the 1989 second edition, along with perhaps a scholarly afterword bringing the study up to date, would be a worthwhile project for a publisher like Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

A thought that emerges in my reading of this work is the applicability of the Byzantine love of paradox;[1] certainly, +Maximos is careful to acknowledge the paradoxical nature of the picture he paints. “Power and service are indeed mutually contradictory,” he writes, “power usually destroying any idea of service… However, when the Oecumenical throne exercises the power given it by the canons and by history, the aspect which predominates is that of offering service in the entire Orthodox economy, thus imitating and carrying on the unique example of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (327). Mutual contradiction – that is to say, paradox – does not represent an impossibility; it represents the chance for Christ to make Himself known (and one need only attend a Salutations service during Great Lent to hear the manifold ways this is expressed regarding the Mother of God in the Akathistos hymn).

+Maximos’ presentation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on its own terms serves as a useful corrective to the all-too-convenient picture that can be presented of a weak, ethnocentric, would-be Pope, and for that even if for no other reason, it is a work that deserves more of a hearing amongst Anglophone Orthodox than it seems to have received. Seen in the light of the picture +Maximos paints, +Bartholomew is an Ecumenical Patriarch who is trying to serve the oecumene – that is, the civilized world – not take it over and hand it to Rome in a neatly-wrapped package. Even if the reader, after giving him a fair hearing, still disagrees with +Maximos’ conclusions, it will be an exercise that, by the end, will make the reader more informed about Orthodox ecclesiological theology and the historical nature of Orthodox ecclesiastical structure, and will also be greatly illuminating in terms of where the Patriarchate and Patriarch are locating themselves in the scheme of Christian history.

[1] See, for example, Anthony Kaldellis’ exploration of this theme with respect to the Mother of God: ‘“A Union of Opposites”: The Moral Logic and Corporeal Presence of the Theotokos on the Field of Battle,’ in C. Gastgeber et al., eds., Pour l’amour de Byzance: Hommage à Paolo Odorico (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013) 131-144.

 

…and just like that…

I’m not really going to go into all the detailed ins and outs of why, at least not at the moment, but academic year 2014/2015 is over, and I have neither a finished dissertation nor an academic post, nor, really, specific academic prospects of any kind moving forward. My hope is that I’ve got the dissertation done by next year; maybe I even get enough of it finished this summer that my committee is willing to set a defense date. We’ll see what happens next at that point.

A perusal of the archives of this blog will yield a narrative about me trying my hardest to get into academia by way of grad school, even against very long odds, getting in regardless, and doing very well. It is odd to think that the endgame of all of that might well involve something other than the academy, but I think it is the hard reality that even people with Ph.D.s in hand are having to face right now.

Does it seem like I’ve skipped some things? Well, maybe I have. Let’s see what gaps I can fill in.

I always knew that, when the time came to go on the job market, there sure as heck wasn’t going to be anybody who hired me for my looks. Nor was I going to be any kind of an obvious Wunderkind, for the same reasons that it was so hard for me to get into grad school. So, my best bet was going to be, present myself as a colleague who is already fully-functioning, but who just doesn’t have an academic post yet. To that end, I worked my tail off to get some good papers into some real conferences and publish a couple of peer-jockeyed articles, and to do other things that, hopefully, made me visible and useful, and made me look like somebody starting down a road of academic leadership in my field.

I got to Holy Cross last August having announced as clearly as I could my intentions to finish that academic year. I had an internal schedule of a chapter draft every 4-5 weeks, and in terms of production volume, between September and March, I think I accomplished that. In addition, buoyed by both my writing pace and my confidence that there was no way I wouldn’t be finished by May 2015, I applied for close to thirty academic jobs and probably twenty postdocs.

However, there were logistical breakdowns; I don’t really want to get into the details of that lest it come off as finger-pointing, but towards the end of October I started hearing people say things that were very troubling, like “Well, there’s no way you were ever going to finish this year anyway, which means you’re not going to get a job, so what exactly is your rush, anyway? You’re planning on coming back to Bloomington, right? I mean, what was really the point of you leaving a place where you had nothing to do except write for someplace that is littered with distractions, particularly when you’re just going to have to come back to finish?” And, I suppose, from one perspective, there are some valid points in those statements. All the same, on the other hand, on a very human level, we needed to get out of Bloomington because it was killing us. As it was, I got far more done in Boston this last year than I would have possibly gotten done in Bloomington for a variety of reasons.

All the same, by the time the American Historical Association conference rolled around at the new year, I had gotten absolutely no interview requests and a lot of letters that said, in a nutshell, “thanks but no thanks.” A tiny handful of one year positions got posted in January and February; they all yielded responses that gave some variation of, “Wow, we’ve never seen 150+ applications for a visiting one year position before. Sorry.”

By the end of February, the writing was on the wall, and I realized I needed to start weighing my other options. Simultaneously, the realization struck that we absolutely loved being in Boston, 108+ inches of snow and all. After eleven years in the landlocked part of the Midwest, to be in a city on the coast, with topography, activity, a high density of Orthodox churches, culture, history, public transportation, water, boats, and seafood, was a total breath of fresh air. Granted, we were shielded from little things like, say, the cost of living, by the provisions of my fellowship at Holy Cross, but the quality of life is a different ball of wax regardless.

So it was that, with the end of the academic year hurtling towards us like an asteroid, I started putting every iron in the fire I possibly could — journalism, arts and nonprofit administration, higher ed administration, and so on. I let people know at schools where I had some connections that, hey, I’m in need of something to do after May. I got to know the Western music faculty member at Holy Cross, and I started a more-or-less regular church singing job in his choir at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. I took a lot of performing and teaching gigs for the summer to make sure I would have something going on. A little bit of a wrench in the works was that, while we had been told initially by the Holy Cross people that if we needed some flexibility in our living situation over the summer, that could be worked out, nonetheless when we actually raised the issue, “flexibility” meant all of a two-week extension. So, we had to start hunting around for a place to live, too.

(At which point, after paying $775/month for a house with a yard for nine years, we discovered that $1700/month for an apartment is cheap in Boston. Wow, yeah, that was a mental adjustment. On the other hand, the difference in income makes up for that. Additional perspective was provided by seeing that our old $945/month condo in Seattle now rents for $1450/month, and by seeing that apartments in Chicago, supposedly the “cheap” big American city, go for rents that are comparable to Boston’s prices.)

And, something happened — I got contacted for interviews. I was asked if I was available for things. I did some second- and third-rounds. Entirely unlike academia, there seemed to be a market for me and my skill set in Boston, and a lot of the things I have done and continue to do for free putting together The Saint John of Damascus Society and running its activities have been able to catch the eyes of people in arts and cultural organizations here.

There are still some plates spinning in the air, to be sure, and I’m not going to say that we’ve got everything figured out at this point. We don’t. But things are gradually coming into focus; we’ve found a place to live, I’m doing some contract stuff for a couple of organizations while continuing to network, Megan had a phone interview today for German and English teaching that went well, and I’m a little less freaked out now than I was a couple of months ago.

(Oh, and I successfully passed the Byzantine chant certificate exam at Holy Cross earlier this month. I got to walk in the school’s commencement ceremony and everything. So, I’m not finishing the year entirely empty-handed. More on that experience another time.)

But whither the academy? As anybody who has ever read Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (an intentionally ridiculous title that is supposed to be a bad joke, but I’m not at all sure that everybody gets exactly what I’m making fun of) knows, I’ve put a huge amount of time, effort, struggle, emotional capital, and yes, money, into getting into, getting through, and getting out of graduate school, and I didn’t do so thinking that I wouldn’t parlay the Ph.D. into a career in the professoriate afterward.

At the same time, higher education in this country is in a very different place now than it was ten years ago when I finally admitted to myself, in a moment that felt like the scene in Unbreakable where Bruce Willis’ character finally acknowledges and embraces his powers, that I was better as an academic who liked to sing than as a singer who liked to read. A friend of mine who participated in a hiring committee for his department told me a couple of years ago, “Getting a job is insane. The way the process works, it’s a miracle that anybody has a job.” And, while I’m not quite prepared to tear into the academy and enumerate how all of its shortcomings represent a personal affront to me in the reality in which we find ourselves in 2015, I think the words of my colleague and cohort member Alex Kirven are compelling:

If there are any university administrators and politicians reading this, I want you to know that I think it is a splendid idea to model your labor practices on such workers’ paradises as McDonald’s. Keep up the good work. I’m sure America’s universities will continue to remain competitive!

So what does that mean for me? I’m not entirely certain yet. The fact is, I’ve got a kid with an eating habit; it’s a financial non-starter for us to move back to Indiana for the poverty wages of a graduate assistantship, and we can’t afford to stay in Boston and do nothing. I’ve had some people tell me that this approach to the problem represents a “distraction” from getting my work done, and that what I need to do is figure out how to put myself in a position where the dissertation is the only thing occupying my time. I am not certain that this advice is either helpful or realistic; from where I sit, we have to do what we have to do.

Nonetheless, I still intend to finish the dissertation, definitely. I’ve come too far not to do so. I can say, hopefully without arrogance, that the core competencies of the professoriate are things that I’m good at; I’m good at research, I’m a good teacher, I’m a good writer, and I’m also able to produce quickly. Do I have a teaching vocation? Sure, I’ll go ahead and say that I do. However, it does not follow that I have to work in the academy to exercise that vocation. I’m not opposed to entering the professoriate as a career if the opportunity is right, but I will say that I am at a stage in my life where I’m not at all convinced that it’s in my or my family’s best interests to sacrifice everything else for That Dream Tenure Track Job.

I hope that, as things settle into focus, I can return some energy to the dissertation this summer. With any luck I can set a defense date by the end of the summer, or maybe by early fall. And then, sure, I’ll do another round of applying for jobs — why not? But I don’t think I’m going to do so indiscriminately. Living in Boston is really, really attractive right now, and if I have something that I’m doing that I enjoy, that is paying the bills while living here, and that is allowing me to cultivate other opportunities, then I don’t think I’m interested in moving out to the middle of nowhere just so I can get on the Visiting Assistant Professor/Visiting Lecturer train and hope that I can be competitive for a tenure track position someplace else in the middle of nowhere in 4-5 years. I’m 38, folks, and I’ve got to start earning a real living, even if it means having to reinvent myself yet again. The Ph.D., at the end of the day, will be its own reward and that will be fine; there are also lots of transferable skills, but I’ve learned over the last several years how to find ways of making opportunities in my surrounding environment, and I will continue to do so.

I’m not going to lie — I’m angry about some things (and, if I’m honest, I’m angry about some things going all the way back to completion of coursework, but that’s not a story I can really go into detail about here, not yet anyway). I feel like the outcomes of this year could have been different, and that I did my part as much as I could. But, whatever, they went the way they went, and what I’ve got is what I’ve got. It’s all right — if we had stayed in Bloomington, we would be in the same situation, except that we’d still be in Bloomington, and we would have significantly reduced opportunity for the things that we’re able to do now. I would not trade this last year for anything, even if where we’re at on the other side of it doesn’t really look how we were intending it to look when we pulled up to the seminary in August of 2014.

There’s another feeling that I’ve been trying to process. It isn’t anger, exactly. It’s a kind of puzzlement, a temptation to despair. It’s maybe a feeling of being perennially at the tail-end of the life cycle of choices. Does anybody else know what I’m talking about? To put it one way, feeling like by the time you’ve heard of a career path that you might be good at, it’s no longer a sector that somebody like you has any chance at getting even an entry-level job in. That by the time you might be potentially in the market to buy a house or rent an apartment someplace, you can’t afford to live there anymore. I’m talking about seeming to have a social network that seems to route directly away from anybody who might be able to do anything to give you any kind of a connection to the things you’re trying to accomplish just to keep the lights on.

I’m talking about feeling like that even though, theoretically, you made all the right choices. You chose not to drink in high school. You just said no. You hit the books rather than that ass. You went to college because everybody told you, an education will give you so many choices. And yet, somehow, by the time you made them, it was already too late for those choices to do you a lot of good. By the time you realized that, you saw that the partiers at your high school were all making lots of money after coasting through college, and the temptation was to try to play catch-up.

In my case, I’ve made choices all my life that were intended to favor what I was always told was my potential. My academic potential. My intellectual potential. My technical potential. My musical potential. Even after I dropped out of college, I was able to be clever enough to worm my way into an interview for a technical company that, at the time, had the highest per capita number of millionaires working there anywhere in the world. “The stock has always gone up,” they told me when I was hired and were explaining why the stock option grants made the lower salaries worth it.

I was lucky enough not to be stupid enough to borrow against my options. But I was in that very first generation of permanent employee who saw the stock decline sharply and then stagnate, that generation of worker who came in with stars in their eyes and yet for whom it would never be anything beyond a semi-decent middle class job.

I went back to school after a few years, feeling like I could do better. I was told I had a voice that I could make a real operatic career out of. I made a bet that that was true — only to find out that, while maybe I was good, the paths that somebody like me could make a career out of didn’t really exist anymore. I needed to have figured it out maybe ten years before, maybe while I was even still in junior high.

But while I was learning that, I was also having some academic success that was catching the attention of certain people. Go to grad schoolthey told me. You’re a natural fit for it, and you’ll thrive there. So, eventually, as a first-generation college graduate with a Bachelor of Music degree, I found a way to do so, and I did well, I published well-received articles as a student, I gave some good papers, and I got an awesome fellowship to go someplace cool while I was writing my dissertation.

And now, in the process of finishing the dissertation — what do you know, in the last several years while I’ve been in grad school, it turns out that, while somebody like me may indeed be good at the requirements of the profession, it’s a profession that looks like vaporware now, by and large. It seems like there is no “academic career” anymore, not for most people, not unless you were already a rockstar like seven years ago.

So here I am, on the cusp of my forties, having made three successive bets on career tracks since my twenties, having made those bets way too late in the life cycle of those career tracks, and there’s a real temptation to feel like I don’t have much to show for it.

The tagline for this blog used to be, “The adventures of a wannabe academic who got a late start.” Since getting into grad school, it’s been “The adventures of an academic who got a late start.” Now what? Getting a late start seems to be reality for me, one way or the other — is there a way I can finally use that to my advantage? Maybe getting out of the academic game, if that’s indeed what I do, represents an opportunity for me to get ahead of the curve for once.

I don’t know. I’m struggling with what exactly to do with that. Whatever — in the main, I feel pretty good right now, and while we don’t have everything worked out quite yet, it’s clear to me we’re where we should be, and things will be clear. God’s in charge, and while everything is still on a need-to-know basis and we still don’t need to know, we’re doing okay, and it looks like things will probably work out pretty well. We’ll see.

Okay, more later.

The present-day relevance of Byzantine history

A few months ago, an opportunity came up to pitch an essay explaining the relevance of my subject area to a public audience. I made a pitch about Byzantine history, the editors liked the pitch, and I wrote a draft. Two drafts later, even cutting the things they asked me to cut and changing the things they asked me to change, it became clear that what I was trying to say wasn’t working for the forum as the editors envisioned it; from my perspective, what they wanted was an apologia for Byzantine history that somehow strictly avoided any actual discussion of Byzantine history or the perspectives of current scholars in the field, and I rather feel like their objections to what I wrote only proved the point I was trying to make.

Oh well; the beauty of having a personal blog is I can put up whatever I like, so I’ve thrown back in a lot of the things they asked me to take out, updated it a little bit more, and I present it to you here. Doubtless the audience will be much smaller, but whatever. It’s Akathistos Saturday, and I discuss the modern significance of the events commemorated therein in this essay, so it seems appropriate to publish it today. Enjoy.

The word “Byzantine” is pejorative in the vast majority of English-language contexts. As a Byzantine historian, this always leaps off the page at me, and it strikes me that our conceptions and misconceptions about the distant past influence our attitudes towards present-day matters. Recent citations provides no shortage of examples.

  • Consider a 22 January 2015 headline from the Canadian newspaper National Post: “Shawn Rehn case shows Byzantine criminal justice ‘system’ built to avoid accountability.” In the body of the article itself one finds the declaration that “A lot of facts can’t be established in the… case because the paperwork… is Byzantine and emanates from multiple arms of the beast that pretends to be a system.”
  • For example, a 26 January 2015 Huffington Post piece by Rebecca Orchant on the settlement between The Hershey Company and an import company that effectively prohibits the import of several brands of chocolate made overseas, in which Orchant, a retailer, says that her choices now are to “turn to more Byzantine measures to get our British chocolate, or sell an inferior product.”
  • There is also a Heritage Foundation report from 26 January 2015 titled “Reforming DHS: Missed Opportunity calls for Congress to Intervene,” which calls the oversight of the Department of Homeland Security not just “byzantine” but “balkanized and dysfunctional”.

“Byzantine”, for these writers, means overly ornate, unnecessarily — but possibly intentionally — complicated, corrupt. The Heritage Foundation juxtaposes it with “balkanized”, another geographic term (describing a former portion of the Byzantine Empire) that has been turned into a pejorative, here meaning a whole divided into small, mutually-opposed parts.

“Byzantine”, in fact, is a word that the so-called “Byzantines” did not use to describe themselves; “Byzantium” was the old name of the port town on the Bosphorus at the intersection of eastern Europe and Asia Minor where the Roman emperor Constantine decided to establish his new capital city in 325. He called it “New Rome”, it came to be known as Constantinople, “Constantine’s City”, today known as Istanbul (probably from the Greek phrase eis tin poli — “to the city”). While Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West, abdicated to Germanic forces in 476, by that point the Roman Empire had re-centered itself around Constantine’s capital. Eventually its borders began to shrink irrevocably, but nonetheless, the transplanted eastern empire survived in one form or another until 1453, when the city fell to the Ottomans.

For a Byzantine historian in the West, the pejorative use of “Byzantine” in our vernacular represents a never-ending series of “teachable moments”, opportunities to examine the myopic privileging of the immediate present by our media at the very least, but also to interrogate the way various fields reflexively treat that which is “Eastern” as something inherently “foreign”, “mysterious” – or worse, “mystical”. That Byzantine history is by definition a pre-modern subject already guarantees its marginalization by the mainstream, but even among medievalists, it is not sufficiently “Western” for a discipline that tends to privilege Latin and French subjects, being situated in the “Greek East”. At the same time, it is also not really sufficiently “Eastern” for most historians who work with Middle Eastern or Far Eastern topics; Edward Said, for example, sees Christianity, even that of the “Greek East”, as being fundamentally “Western”.[1] These barriers can tend to ghettoize Byzantine issues, placing them off to the side in survey courses and textbooks. To the extent that the Byzantine world is talked about in those contexts, they are largely informed by biased Western sources — such as the tenth century Liutprand of Cremona, who after an embassy to Constantinople described the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas as “a monstrosity of a man… [and] in color an Ethiopian” dressed in royal robes that were “old, foul smelling, and discolored by age” — resulting in an Orientalizing overemphasis on the perceived differences between the “Byzantine east” and the “Latin west”. The discourse emphasizes the tawdry excess of supposed cultural discontinuities – aesthetics, politics, art, religion, and so on – and discusses them as misunderstood, abstract distortions rather than as concrete realities. The picture of the Roman East that emerges is really a straw man, representing everything that the we Westerners pat ourselves as having left behind after the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment — ugly aesthetics that take the worst elements of the classical world and distort them, corrupt politics represented by the machinations of the monarchical emperors, a state-subject church that combines the most patriarchal and superstitious elements of paganism and Christianity. It is not a fully-qualified subject of interest in its own right; it is a gaudy red-headed stepchild of Western history cloaked in a cloud of incense.

Recent scholarship, thankfully, is showing that many of these characteristics, so distasteful to a Western intellectual ethos, are misunderstood and mischaracterized, such as the claim that Eastern Empire was an absolute imperial theocracy.[2] As well, an informed understanding of many of today’s pressing international issues — ISIS’ violence against religious minorities in Mosul and Libya, the civil war in Syria, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the complexity of Turkey’s application to the European Union, Greece’s economic woes, even elements of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine — must acknowledge a sense of the sweep of history that includes, rather than dismisses, Byzantium.

To give but one example, the demonstration by tens of thousands of Muslims in front of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on 31 May 2014 makes far more sense if you understand that what is today a museum was built by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century as the Empire’s largest church. This exemplar of Byzantine sacred architecture was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years; it was repurposed as a mosque by the sultan Mehmed II after 1453, inspired sultan Ahmet I to build the so-called Blue Mosque as a copy just a few hundred meters away in 1609, and then was decommissioned and turned into a secular museum by Ataturk in 1934. Today, besides the Muslims who hope to persuade the Turkish government to re-open the monument as a mosque, there are Greeks who want to see the monument returned to the Greek Orthodox Church. Hagia Sophia may be little more than a museum to some, but it is a Byzantine foundation that still has considerable discursive power in 2015, resonating for present-day adherents of Islam and Orthodox Christianity, as well as being a symbol of two past empires for their would-be inheritors. The discursive weight of such symbols stretches far beyond modern-day Turkey, extending throughout the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia.

The recent episodes of violence by ISIS against Christian minority groups in Mosul and Libya are also rooted in chapters of Byzantine history. Coptic Christians, like those beheaded in Libya in February 2015, are the modern Christian group that count themselves as the present-day successors of the historic Church in Alexandria, Egypt. They were part of the Roman Empire in the East only to be separated ecclesiastically by theological disputes. Assyrian Christians, like those kidnapped in Tal Tamer on 23 February 2015, are the modern Middle Eastern Christian group that claims continuity with the so-called Church of the East or Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ktesiphon of antiquity, a Christian group that straddled the frontier between the Roman and Persian empires. They were cut off more because of geography and political boundaries than because of theological disputes. In the seventh century, both groups were permanently separated from the Byzantine mainstream by Arab invaders.

To say the least, this background is not at all well-understood by our media; even well-intentioned pieces, like Graeme Wood’s recent “What ISIS Really Wants” for The Atlantic, demonstrate serious ignorance in passages such as this, where Byzantium is nothing more than a transitional stage between ancient Rome and present-day Turkey, not even worth mentioning by name:

Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago.

In terms of my specific area of research — I am writing a dissertation on public devotions to the Virgin Mary in Constantinople between the fifth and seventh centuries. The Byzantine image of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, is another kind of symbol with powerful religious and political resonance, and the memory of seventh century events associated with the Virgin are still present in today’s discourse. For example, on 22 April 2013, The New York Times reported that the Syriac and Greek Orthodox bishops of Aleppo were kidnapped in the village of Kfar Dael.[3] As of this writing, that situation has not been resolved, and tensions and violence have, obviously, continued to escalate otherwise there. In response to the kidnapping as well as the overall time of hardship, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X gave a fascinating instruction in an encyclical for Orthodox Palm Sunday: “Let our [Palm Sunday] processions be this year with candles tied with black ribbons, chanting the hymn: ‘To Thee O Champion Leader…,’ instead of the hymn “Rejoice O Bethany…,” asking the Virgin Mary to keep our Church as a fortified city.”[4]

John’s instructions are rooted in matters of the Eastern Romans’ historical record. “To Thee O Champion Leader” refers to a seventh century hymn that was appended as a proemium to the beginning of a much longer hymn, a fifth century sung theological poem called the Akathistos (“not seated”, referring to the practice of standing while it is sung) hymn. The proemium was composed after Constantinople’s successful repulsion of the Avar attack in 626 with, according to some accounts, the Virgin Mary herself fighting on the walls of the city. It is a first-person statement of civic devotion and gratitude on the part of Constantinople itself to the Virgin:

To you, all-victorious general, I your city, O Mother of God, having been delivered from terrible things, ascribe to you thank-offerings of victory. But as you have invincible power, free me from all dangers, so that I may cry to you: rejoice, O bride unwedded.[5]

The entire text of the Akathistos has a particular liturgical relationship to the Lenten season that precedes Palm Sunday; during the five Sundays of Lent the proemium is sung during the Sunday Divine Liturgy (or Mass), and then the Akathistos hymn is sung three times in its entirety throughout the course of the Lenten season. However, by the time of Palm Sunday, the services are properly considered those of Holy Week rather than Lent, and the time for people to have “To Thee O Champion Leader” on their lips has passed.[6] Patriarch John’s instruction, then, is disregarding the liturgical season and instead looking back to the historical circumstances surrounding the proemium’s composition. Just as the Virgin was the defender of the City then, John is saying, Christians now in this time of crisis may make a point of singing this hymn to the Mother of God outside of its proper time to appeal to her as the defender of the Church, the heavenly city.

Late antique Constantinople’s explicit identification of itself as the Virgin’s city, then, is extended and repurposed for the present day in the context of a liturgical celebration of high solemnity,[7] with the population of Christians under Patriarch John now being the Virgin’s city. John is discursively engaging current circumstances through the liturgy, through music, through Orthodox Christianity’s own sense of late antique events as sacred history, and doing so in a way clearly focused on the person of the Mother of God and rooted in Constantinople’s devotion to her at the level of the city itself.

In conclusion, I would echo Dame Averil Cameron’s recent insistence that Byzantine history is in fact mainstream history, and that to treat it as otherwise is to treat it as “subaltern”.[8] I maintain that Byzantine history is not simply an irrelevant distorted mirror image of the West, a chapter best forgotten except when we need a pejorative to describe things that are helplessly tangled and complex, but in fact an area of inquiry that is vital to understanding the world in which we find ourselves today.

[1] E.g. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003), 59.

[2] Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[3] Hania Mourtada and Rick Gladstone, “Two Archbishops Abducted Outside Northern Syrian City,” The New York Times, 23 April 2013 2013.

[4] Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East John X, “Pastoral Letter,” (Our Lady of Balamand Monastery, Tripoli, Lebanon: The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, 2013).

[5] Akathistos, Prooemium II. Translation mine.

[6] For a discussion of the rubrics, see Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon decoded: An explanation of Byzantine liturgical practice, ed. Paul Meyendorff, trans. Paul Meyendorff, Orthodox Liturgy Series (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), 199-201.

[7] Ibid., 209-11.

[8] Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 115.

Who are the Assyrian Christians?

(Once again, this post is intended for a more general audience than what I usually do. You can see yesterday’s post for some helpful background; unfortunately, current events dictated a more immediate followup than I really had in mind.)

CNN reports that ISIS militants are presently holding as many as 150 “Assyrian” Christians hostage and are threatening to kill them. Yesterday, there were news stories that ISIS militants took some 90 Assyrians in northeastern Syria as they retreated from Kurdish forces, but the number appears to have been underestimated. The BBC’s account says that the incident took place in a town called Tal Tamr, which it locates on a map as shown to the left.

The BBC describes the “Assyrian” Christians thusly:

Assyrians, of whom there were about 40,000 in Syria, are Nestorian Christians and speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ.

The largest concentration of Assyrians in Syria is in Hassakeh province, but there are also smaller communities in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

Again, as I tried to explain in yesterday’s piece on Coptic Christians, this is not altogether wrong, but neither is it as clear as would be ideal about who they are or why they are considered a separate group. The short version is that the Assyrian Church of the East is the modern Middle Eastern Christian group that claims continuity with the so-called Church of the East or Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ktesiphon of antiquity, a Christian group that was isolated from the Roman mainstream by the seventh century, although more because of geography and political boundaries than because of theological disputes.

To recap a couple of things from yesterday: Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were the linguae francae in the eastern part of the empire with their own gravitational pull, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. These languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

Another point is that from the standpoint of this Mediterranean, Roman world, the other major player of importance was the Persian Empire. Maps are always tricky, and the nature of frontier borders is that they’re contested and always moving, but here’s a broad — if simplified — sense of the parameters of the Roman Mediterranean in the first part of the fourth century:

Basically, in terms of present-day national identities, it was England, Spain, and North Africa on the Western side to Egypt, and Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria on the Eastern side, with the Mediterranean Sea smack dab in the middle — “frogs around a pond”, as Plato put it. To the north were various Germanic tribes; to the south was desert; to the East were a handful of small kingdoms, and then Persia. Again, maps are tricky, but here’s a pretty good one showing what the Roman-Persian frontier looked like over time:

Based on what I said earlier about proximity to major cities and proximity to the sea, it should be evident that, while the Roman/Persian frontier was of strategic importance, it wasn’t really anyplace anybody from the big cities would have been excited about being in, it was pretty far removed from the Greco-Roman culture of the area more central to the Mediterranean, and local languages like Syriac were far more prevalent than Greek. And, despite its strategic importance, it was at times a hard place for emperors to justify the cost of defending; Arab the sixth century saw the frontier left to its own devices on more than one occasion when Justinian was too busy trying to reclaim the Italian peninsula. It fell to allied Arab tribes and border kingdoms to defend Roman territories in the frontier.

Christianity on the frontier was intellectually and spiritually vibrant nonetheless, even if life on the border was uncertain. The fourth century produced one of the greatest Christian poets in history, Ephrem the Syrian, who worked first in the border town of Nisibis and then moved to the somewhat more centralized Syriac city of Edessa when Nisibis was surrendered to the Persians in 363 and the Christian communities expelled.

At the same time, there were Christian communities that emerged in Persia in antiquity, and the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ktesiphon was home to its own bishopric starting in the third century. This church was obviously isolated, and while Christian communities appear to have formed there in the first couple of centuries AD, it doesn’t seem to have been until 280 that visiting bishops were able to establish a working ecclesiastical structure there. Still, they were isolated, and tended be focused further East than towards the Mediterranean centers of ecclesial activity. (How far East? They sent missionaries to the Mongols in Central Asia and to China starting in the sixth and seventh centuries.) As such, many of the theological arguments swirling around Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch simply weren’t terribly relevant to the churches on the border or in Persia, and the remained loyal to what they saw as their own tradition. They identified with the Council of Nicea, perhaps, since that was everybody’s major point of reference following Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, but beyond that it got a little obscure.

There was a thread of intellectual continuity that made it from Byzantium to Ktesiphon, to be sure, but the supply lines were a bit tangled and on the thin side. A major theological figure of the Syrian East, the fourth/early fifth century Theodore of Mopsuestia (close to the southeastern border of modern-day Turkey), had been the student of Libanius, a major teacher of rhetoric in Antioch. Theodore appears to have had significant influence on the thought of Nestorius, whom you may recall from yesterday’s post as the Constantinopolitan bishop on the losing side at the Council of Ephesus in 431. In the aftermath of the Christological disputes of the fifth century, Nestorius’ followers relocated to Persia; the Persians perceived in their position a fundamental continuity with Theodore and their own strongly Antiochene perspective, and they welcomed the Nestorians with open arms.

There continued to be some awareness and mutual sympathy between Persian and Roman Christianity; as late as 614, the Persian Emperor Khosroes appears to have had a Christian wife (“but after the heresy of Nestorius”, the witness is clear to specify) who did much to aid Christian prisoners of war after Khosroes’ sack of Jerusalem. The writings of the seventh century Christian ascetic figure Isaac of Nineveh (modern Mosul, in Iraq), despite Isaac formally being a part of the Persian church, were nonetheless eagerly received in Byzantium and translated into Greek. (And, as the best sign of admiration, Greek authors wrote spurious works under Isaac’s name.)

Still, in 644, the Arab invaders under Umar overthrew — or perhaps subsumed — the Persian Empire, and the church under Seleucia-Ktesiphon was permanently isolated. Over time the Persian church came to be known variously as the Nestorian Church, the Church of the East, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Syriac (more about which in a moment) remains their predominant liturgical language, and like the Copts, they have a distinctive liturgical tradition. You can get a sense of it from this video (which is in English):

From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the Church of the East was at the center of the intellectual life in the Islamic world and played an important role in the translation of Greek texts into Arabic. Following the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, they retreated to the relative safety of the mountains of Northern Iraq. Their period of flourishing and expansion was over, and they were isolated again in northern Mesopotamia. Since then, their relatively small size, internal divisions, shifting ecclesial ties, and political instability in the region have meant that they’ve been forced to move around a lot over the last several centuries, and they have been largely concentrated in pockets of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Their patriarch, or chief bishop, is at present in exile in Chicago.

A last point for the moment. Concerning language: Syriac is often referred to in Western media as “the language of Christ”. This is fundamentally misleading, but it also reveals a certain myopia of our media outlets and worldview. Jesus, as a Jew in Roman Judea, probably spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic as his native language, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and modern Arabic. More than likely, he spoke some Greek as well, since that was the common language of business and society for a Roman province. Classical Syriac began as the dialect of Aramaic of the city of Edessa, and it developed into a key literary and liturgical language perhaps in the second century; certainly the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Syriac in the second century (although a complete New Testament has murkier origins, without a clear appearance until the fifth century). It should be clear, however, that a form of Syriac remains a living, albeit endangered, language in some Assyrian communities, which means that it has developed and evolved from its classical iteration. Much as calling Modern Greek “the language of Homer”, or modern Italian “the language of Virgil”, or modern English “the language of Beowulf” misleadingly elides centuries of language change, calling Syriac “the language of Christ” does the same. It also ignores the far more interesting linguistic relationship between ancient Aramaic, classical Syriac, and the modern language known by its speakers as Assyrian, and also implies that these people, their culture, their history, and their language are only of secondary interest to an imaginary reconstruction of the world of the New Testament. That is to do sufficient justice neither to the Syriac/Assyrian people and heritage, which are under significant and immediate attack now (besides the kidnapping, there’s also Sunday’s burning of Mosul’s library), nor to Christianity and its history, nor to the history of the Roman East and the Roman/Persian frontier in antiquity as its own fully-qualified subject of interest. There is far more going on in current events with far deeper roots than these one-paragraph summaries would have you believe, and pithy statements like “Syriac is the language of Christ” do nothing to illuminate that.

Lord have mercy on the Assyrian Christians!

(I am grateful to Sam Noble, Eric Jobe, David Maldonado-Rivera, Fr. Andrew Damick, and Lucas Christensen for their helpful comments on yesterday’s piece as well as today’s. Any errors that remain are, of course, my own.)

Who are the Copts?

Icon the 21 Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, painted by Tony Rezk.(Note: this piece is intended for a general audience, not necessarily my normal two readers, whom I would expect would be familiar with at least some of the issues discussed here.)

On or before 14 Feburary, an “affiliate” of ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya, as depicted in a video the ISIS affiliate released to the public. The story made international news, and the Coptic Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II declared that they were to remembered as martyr saints and added them to the Coptic Synaxarion, the book that lists the saints commemorated by calendar day. Their future commemoration will be on 15 February.

CNN’s story on the beheading had this brief statement explaining Coptic Christian identity:

Coptic Christians are part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, one of three main traditions under the Christian umbrella, alongside Catholicism and Protestantism. Copts split from other Christians in the fifth century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Well, that’s not entirely wrong, but it could do with some unpacking. The short version is that Copts are the modern Christian group that count themselves as the present-day successors of the historic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the five major episcopates in late antiquity, the others being Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Copts are generally understood as belonging to the so-called Oriental Orthodox tradition, as opposed to the Greek or Eastern Orthodox tradition; The Oriental Orthodox communion includes the Syriac, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Indian Orthodox Churches. Oriental Orthodox recognize the first three Ecumenical Councils — Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus; by contrast, the Greek Orthodox are normally said to recognize the first seven, and Roman Catholics recognize twenty-one, up to Vatican II in the 20th century. Copts remain principally Egyptian in terms of modern national heritage. They have their own distinctive liturgical tradition that is separate from the Byzantine and Roman/Frankish rites, and you can get a sense of the current practice of it here.

Why do the Copts exist as a separate group? To make a complicated story a little shorter, Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were common in the eastern part of the empire, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. Egypt still spoke Egyptian, with a major literary dialect known as Bohairic, commonly known as “Coptic”. This dialect had been used continuously going back to the pharaohs, and for historical reasons, it adopted the Greek alphabet and some Greek vocabulary. These local languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

In 325, Constantine started to build his New Rome at the site of Byzantium, a port town that straddled the western edge of Europe and the eastern edge of Asia Minor. Constantinople may have been the new capital by fiat, but it had to earn its intellectual credibility, and while the first two ecumenical councils were held in or near Constantinople, the theological and ecclesial powers at play were Antiochene and Alexandrian. The arguments were certainly about the nature of Christ in content; inter-city Roman politics were part of the context nonetheless.

In the early decades of the 400s, Constantinople was ready to try its hand at theology, and it was a disaster. Nestorius, the capital’s archbishop, got involved in a Christological argument, and in 431 at the Council of Ephesus (the third Ecumenical Council) he got his head handed to him by Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria and heavyweight champion of theological disputes. Incidentally, it is because of the Council of Ephesus that the Virgin Mary’s status as “Mother of God” is a dogmatic point for Oriental and Greek Orthodox, as well as for Roman Catholics; the base question, despite an awkward appellation in English (the Greek word, Theotokos, is more literally, if woodenly, rendered as “One who carried God in her womb”), is strictly whether the child to whom Mary gave birth was God from conception or not, not a matter of Mary as the source of Christ’s divinity.

In any event, the memory of Cyril as the voice of authority at Ephesus was powerful, and over the next twenty years there was jockeying for control of his memory amongst successors and putative successors in Constantinople, Rome, and Alexandria. In addition, there were residual issues left over from Ephesus, as Cyril’s Christological formulations that dogmatized the Virgin Mary as Theotokos also raised new questions. A council in 449 convened by Emperor Theodosius II to address the new theological disputes seemed inclined to favor Dioscorus, Cyril’s successor as Patriarch of Alexandria, and to do at the expense of Flavian, Constantinople’s own patriarch. Then Theodosius died, and his successor, Marcian, convened a council in Chalcedon (modern-day Kadıköy in Turkey) that favored Rome and Constantinople at Dioscorus’ expense. Dioscorus was exiled, and Constantinople appointed their own Patriarch of Alexandria. He didn’t last long; the Alexandrians forced him out to elect whom they wanted as Dioscorus’ successor.

The disputes were made worse by the linguistic issues; the Christological formulations relied on specific vocabulary in Greek that was difficult to render in other languages. Monks in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria felt that the faith of their beloved Cyril was being sacrificed at the altar of politics in favor of settled heresy being rehabilitated by sophistry. The so-called Tome of Pope Leo I, a sort of “friend of the court” briefing for the Second Council of Ephesus (although not read until Chalcedon) that was written in Latin, only made things worse in its (possibly deliberately) clumsy approximation of Greek theological vocabulary. Imperial fiat did not fix the problem either; a compromise decree by the Emperor Zeno in 482 made nobody happy, and hardened the division between those who adhered to Chalcedon and those who were, by now, fairly described as anti-Chalcedonian.

Emperors and bishops continued waging these internal battles for another century before the non-Chalcedonians became a separate ecclesial entity; the sixth century emperor Justinian held several “heretical” bishops from Alexandria and Syria under house arrest in Constantinople, and they consecrated a monk named Jacob as a bishop. Jacob traveled in rags throughout the regions sympathetic to Alexandria, consecrating close to a hundred bishops and perhaps thousands of priests. An ecclesial structure parallel to, but separate from, the Church of the Roman Empire had been established.

Whatever hope there may have been at reunification and reconciliation was lost in the seventh century, when the Rashidun Caliphate captured Alexandria, Antioch, and other major regions in the East where there had been anti-Chalcedonian sentiment and a non-Chalcedonian church structure. Egypt remained predominantly Christian for some time, but by the 12th century the Christian community was a minority.

The Oriental and Greek Orthodox remain separated and “out of communion” in the present day; there have been theological discussions in the last several decades to attempt to resolve the issues once and for all, but the division remains an official reality. In the Middle East, however, there is a great deal of practical cooperation between Christian groups, regardless of official structural division.

In modern Egypt, Coptic Orthodox make up perhaps 7-10% of the country’s population, and in recent years there have been a number of reports of violent attacks in Alexandria. A bomb at the Coptic church of Al-Qiddissin on New Year’s Day 2011 killed twenty-one people, for example, and there have been additional attacks throughout the cities and countryside.

In Libya, where the beheadings took place, Copts are the largest Christian group.

Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, pray for us!

This year’s gift ideas

Christmas gift ideas are something I’ve done before, and it’s that time again, to say the least. Christmas is a week from tomorrow, so probably you want to order whatever it is you’re going to order in the next couple of days if you want to make sure it’s received on time. Here are this year’s gift suggestions, from me to you:

– Fr. Ivan Moody’s new book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music. I’ll be review this book shortly for Orthodox Arts Journal, but I’ll go ahead and recommend it to you now. It’s a fascinating look at how 20th/21st century art music from around the world engages Orthodox liturgical music and vice versa, and really turns on its head the idea that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”.

 

– Keeping with the theme, the CD Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music, with Fr. Ivan Moody conducting Cappella Romana. I reviewed it here, and it’s a terrific stocking stuffer for the lover of choral music who might like something a little different.

 

– The world-music collective Dünya has a really fascinating recording out titled A Story of the City: Constantinople, Istanbul. It’s a collection of Byzantine music, Ottoman classical music, and more; I highly recommend it.

 

 

– One more CD suggestion: Christmas in Harvard Square, by the St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square. I just blogged something about the school, so they’re on my mind; plus, it’s a really nice treble sound.

 

 

The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer briefcase was a gift suggestion here three years ago; this year, I’m pleased that I can finally suggest the Parental Unit, their brand spanking new diaper bag. I remain pleased with my Checkpoint Flyer three and a half years after buying it (as well as with Tom Bihn’s customer service; they’ve been as good as their word on the lifetime guarantee), and while the Parental Unit came along a little late for our needs with Theodore (as in two and a half years late), it looks like it’ll be great for future consideration. (Not an announcement, by the way.)

– Sometime in, I think, 1989, I read an interview in the long-defunct Comics Scene magazine with an animator named Richard Williams. He had just won two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and he talked about how this was allowing him to finish, at long last, his decades-in-the-making masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler. The story of why this turned out not, in fact, to be case, why instead Disney released its, shall we say, fascinatingly similar film a few years later (arguably getting away with murder), and why you might find a $2 DVD in grocery store bargain bins titled Arabian Knight using some of the animation produced for Cobbler is nothing less than one of the artistic tragedies of the twentieth century. Over the last few years years, there has been something of a renaissance of interest in Cobbler, with an unofficial, so-called “recobbled” cut having been produced by one Garrett Gilchrist. Over the last year, there have been a couple of screenings of Williams’ workprint, both at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and at the British Film Institute. Filmmaker Kevin Schreck has also produced a documentary about Cobbler and why you never saw it titled The Persistence of Vision, and it has been very well-received in the festival circuit for the last year or so. While it’s a difficult film to license commercially for a number of reasons, Kevin has been able to produce a limited edition 2-disc DVD release of the documentary, and it also includes Williams’ workprint among the special features. It is available for what it is officially being called a donation of $25, and I recommend it highly — it really is fascinating.

– Averil Cameron’s new book, Byzantine Matters, is a concise, readable overview of the state of the field of Byzantine studies, as she sees it. There’s a lot here that’s worth thinking about, and while much of it is prompted by her ongoing feud with Byzantinists who work a bit later than she does, she is up front about that disagreement and what she thinks the problem is.

 

– Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery. I’ve spoken my piece about Twin Peaks here already, so hopefully this speaks for itself. Just get it.

 

 

– If Twin Peaks is your thing, there’s also Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, a behind-the-scenes treatment of the series by Brad Dukes. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks really interesting.

 

 

 

StJohnDamascus-logo-color-420x230– Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, and there’s also a book called 75 Years of DC Comics that would be right up my alley. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this. Or even this.

Okay — Christ is born! Glorify Him! May you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!


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