Archive for the 'Early Christianity' Category



An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

Some last-minute gift ideas…

Obviously it’s Thursday, and Christmas is Sunday, so this isn’t even last-minute but last-second. Last-millisecond, even. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions for those of you foolish enough to think that my taste might be the slightest bit relevant:

Consider giving a gift to International Orthodox Christian Charities. Their mission: “IOCC, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond.” They do a lot of wonderful work throughout the world like Palestine, Syria, Romania, Ethiopia, and more — including the United States.
A Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer. My Samsonite leather satchel fell apart on me over the summer, and I contemplated whether or not I could swing a Saddleback classic briefcase (my godson Lucas has one and it is a thing of beauty), but then Larry Anderson suggested I check out the options from Tom Bihn. I got a great traveling laptop briefcase for about a third of what the Saddleback bag I was considering would have cost, it’s got a lifetime guarantee, and it’s been perfect for when I’ve needed to travel with my 15″ MacBook Pro. Of course, the day after the bag arrived I bought an iPad 2 (yeah, yeah, earlier than I said I would, but no regrets, let me tell you), so I have tended to need to transport the laptop less (short version: to the extent that laptops have become desktop replacements, iPads are laptop replacements), but it’s stil been exactly right for what I need. It’s very elegantly designed, and it’s very good at making sure there is a place for everything. The one caveat I might add is that while the bag is plenty sturdy, the stretchy shoulder strap may feel like it’s more stressed than it actually is if you overload it. Not an issue if you don’t, well, overload it, and the bounce the shoulder stap provides makes the bag a lot easier to carry once you get used to it (it basically seems to function as a shock absorber).

Cappella Romana’s new disc Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium. A full review of this is forthcoming, but for right now suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully-sung account of medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Repertoire includes material for Vespers of the Feast of St. Catherine, as well as from the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, which used to be served on the Sunday before Nativity. Some of this has been recorded before by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir for a disc called “Byzantine Hymns” (and one can find the audio on YouTube but I can’t find out anything about the disc, so if anybody knows anything about it, please let me know), but Cappella Romana is a very different ensemble from GBC in a number of ways, and their rendering of the material is very much worth hearing. Like I said, full review coming, but this is a great stocking stuffer. For that matter, so is the reissue of the Epiphany disc under their own label. And, of course, their recording of Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a must-have. One can also make a gift to Cappella Romana, either to their general operating fund or to support one of their several in-the-works recordings.

If you’re an iPad user who thinks that the soft-tipped styli that you’re likely to find at Best Buy don’t really do what you need them to do, I highly recommend the Jot-Pro. It makes handwriting and drawing much easier.

For another music suggestion, Marcel Peres/Ensemble Organum’s recording of Christmas music from the Old Roman Chant repertory, Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siècles, is a fascinating and beautiful reconstruction of a time when East and West had a lot more in common, culturally and spiritually, than we’re used to now. “Reconstruction” is often a euphemism in early music circles for “making nonsense up”, but as I’ve noted before, I think Peres (collaborating with Lycourgos Angelopoulos) makes a pretty compelling case.

If you’re a Mac user and a writer who needs to manage a decent amount of research, notes, ideas, dates, etc., Scrivener and Tinderbox are a pretty powerful one-two punch. If you’re already a Scrivener user, there’s also deal on Tinderbox. I’m new to Tinderbox myself, but I’ve been using Scrivener for several years now, and I find it to be fantastically helpful in terms of its set of writing tools. I’ve written (and am still revising) a children’s book and several academic papers with it. The only thing I wish it had was cleaner EndNote integration, and I also have to make sure I remember to not send compiled *.rtf documents as finished drafts (must save as a Word doc or a *.pdf), lest the person on the other end simply open it in a text editor by default and think I’ve made the rookie mistake of not including any footnotes. (Yes, this has happened. Recently.)

Horrified as I am by the K-Cup craze, I’m going to suggest the paleocafephile route (I think I just invented a word) — the briki/ibrik, with which one makes Greek/Turkish/Arabic coffee. You don’t have little plastic containers that keep you from ever handling grounds; nonononono. Heh. No. Instead, you grind the beans to powder, boil the grounds directly (no filter), pour it into a cup, add sugar (and maybe cardamom if you’re Cypriot), and then you deal with the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It’s the only way to fly in a word that wants to make your coffee experience as safe and plastic and single-serving-sized as possible.

Michael Uslan is, without doubt, the comic book geek made good to end all comic book geeks made good. His memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is tremendously inspiring, and is a must-read for anybody, whether they’ve read a comic book or not, who has ever been told, “Kid, you can’t get there from here.”

All right — may the last few days of the fast treat everybody well!

A second hurdle cleared…

As chronicled somewhat after-the-fact, in November of 2010 I cleared the first of a handful of hurdles towards finishing graduate school — I passed my third semester review, which meant that I had finished my Masters degree.

For a number of reasons, I took an incomplete in a seminar that same semester. I’d planned on a paper for that seminar that had the severe discourtesy to show up in a major journal written by somebody else that same fall, which really threw me for a loop, and for a number of reasons the prof was largely unavailable (for good reasons, I should stress) for consultation on other possibilities. I sort of cobbled together some thoughts from the rubble, and showed them to the prof in March of this year as something of an abstract/outline/stream-of-consciousness, and he found them largely incomprehensible. When I tried to re-explain what I was shooting for, he had some more or less decent suggestions, but he didn’t exactly seem thrilled, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled either. By May I had completed all coursework requirements except for this seminar.

When I feel like I’m on shaky ground with my subject, my instinct is to show my work. So, taking some of the professor’s suggestions and trying to turn them into a paper, but not feeling totally confident it by any means, I showed my work. A lot. I turned in a rather long paper in June, and I still think it’s work that had a good point to make, but I got an e-mail from him a week later asking if it was a draft to be discussed or a final paper that needed a grade. The vibe I got from the question indicated to me that it would be in my best interest to say, Oh, it’s a draft, of course it’s a draft, yes, since is the last seminar paper I get to write I’d love to have feedback.

Thus it was in July that my instincts proved correct; he gave it back to me and said, in essence, I don’t know what the hell you thought you were writing, but try again, and good luck, because I don’t really know how you’re going to fix what you have.

I still think, as I said, that what I wrote was more reasonable than what he thought. However, I also have to acknowledge that I wrote a patristics paper for a political historian, and therefore it should be no real surprise that the political historian took one look at it and said, “Huh?” I’m absolutely certain it wasn’t a perfect patristics paper, but I’m positive it wasn’t the awful one he said it was — it just wasn’t a good enough one to really be able to transcend methodological boundaries.

Well, anyway, I kind of flailed about with what I wanted to do for a couple of months. Then I had a conversation with a different faculty member who revealed that she had been one of the reviewers for the article that had knocked the wind out my sails on my original topic, she said her feedback had been rather clumsily incorporated, and that there was lots wrong with the finished product. Suddenly I felt quite emboldened to return to the project the way I had originally conceived it, and once I got going on it, it went pretty quickly. The result was much leaner and tighter, and after a round of feedback on it with this second professor, I turned it in three weeks ago yesterday (Thursday).

Yesterday I got the paper back, and it was a much happier conversation than the one we’d had in July. My incomplete was changed to a grade by yesterday afternoon, and so now I’m officially done with PhD coursework. Next up, exams… which will be their own party to be sure, but the hurdles are getting cleared.

Reviewing some of my thoughts during this blog’s first year of existence (like the examples below) — well, I’ve come a long way, thank God.  I just turned 35 a couple of weeks ago, and It’s still even possible I might have a real job before I’m 40. (Assuming that higher education doesn’t completely collapse, but never mind that now.)

https://leitourgeia.com/2007/12/10/getting-a-late-start/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/03/a-high-number-of-strong-applicants/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/09/on-forgiveness-sunday-the-alleged-plurality-of-methods-by-which-one-may-relieve-a-feline-of-its-flesh-and-other-musings/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/18/dr-liccione-my-prayeris-to-be-shown-a-way-out-of-the-box-im-in/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/20/more-on-the-alleged-plurality-of-means-by-which-one-may-remove-flesh-from-a-feline/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/04/25/a-parable/

https://leitourgeia.com/2008/07/28/that-unwelcome-guest-known-as-reality/

If you needed a gift idea for me…

So, because I know my loyal readers (both of them) are desperately wondering what in the world to get the man who always seems to buy everything well in advance of his birthday and/or Christmas, or are looking for a late nameday gift, I thought I’d pass this on:

The Case Against Diodore and Theodore: Texts and Their Contexts, edited with a translation and a historical and theological introduction by John Behr.

This is a landmark work, providing the first complete collection of the remaining excerpts from the writings of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia together with a ground-breaking study of the controversy regarding the person of Christ that raged from the fourth to the sixth century, and which still divides the Christian Church. Destroyed after their condemnation, all that remains of the dogmatic writings of Diodore and Theodore are the passages quoted by their supporters and opponents. John Behr brings together all these excerpts, from the time of Theodore’s death until his condemnation at the Second Council of Constantinople (553) – including newly-edited Syriac texts (from florilegium in Cod. Add. 12156, and the fragmentary remains of Theodore’s On the Incarnation in Cod. Add. 14669) and many translated for the first time – and examines their interrelationship, to determine who was borrowing from whom, locating the source of the polemic with Cyril of Alexandria.

On the basis of this textual work, Behr presents a historical and theological analysis that completely revises the picture of these ‘Antiochenes’ and the controversy regarding them. Twentieth-century scholarship often found these two ‘Antiochenes’ sympathetic characters for their aversion to allegory and their concern for the ‘historical Jesus’, and regarded their condemnation as an unfortunate incident motivated by desire for retaliation amidst ‘Neo-Chalcedonian’ advances in Christology. This study shows how, grounded in the ecclesial and theological strife that had already beset Antioch for over a century, Diodore and Theodore, in opposition to Julian the Apostate and Apollinarius, were led to separate the New Testament from the Old and ‘the man’ from the Word of God, resulting in a very limited understanding of Incarnation and circumscribing the importance of the Passion. The result is a comprehensive and cogent account of the controversy, both Christological and exegetical together, of the early fifth century, the way it stemmed from earlier tensions and continued through the Councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople II.

About the Author

Fr John Behr is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ.

If, perhaps, you’re looking for something a little less spendy, the book on Ss. Irenaeus and Clement would also work. There’s also the amusing anecdote in which I see somebody whom I think might be an usher at a Broadway musical who actually turns out to be Fr. John Behr (to whom I’m still quite grateful for his encouragement, I might add, even if I didn’t wind up going to St. Vlad’s and even if I decided to not go with his more specific research-related questions… yet).

The difference between “of” and “for” in the definition of a word

For those of you who may be interested in the core meaning of the word “liturgy,” I give you the following relevant quote from an article titled “Leitourgeia and related terms,” written by Naphtali Lewis and published in the Autumn 1960 issue of the journal Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies:

…it was the established view in antiquity that the words of the λειτουργεία group were compounded of the elements “public” + “work”, to signify “work for the people”, hence “service to the state”. (Lewis 1960, p.117 — this article will eventually be publicly accessible here; for the time being you need a research library that either has a physical copy or access to Periodicals Archive Online.)

Read the rest of the article if you’re able and draw your own conclusions, but do note that the preposition he uses to describe the relationship of “work” and “the people” in the definition of liturgy is for and not of. He goes through five basic senses of the word as found in antiquity in the order that they appear to develop — euergetism on the part of the wealthy as a political service owed to the state, some kind of service benefiting the greater community, any kind of function that benefits somebody else, religious ritual, and (evidently) the service of a military engineer. Nowhere does he encounter a sense of the word that amounts to “task being undertaken by a large group”. Quite the opposite — it’s a task being offered by an individual for the benefit of a large group. In that sense, the idea of a θεία λειτουργεία, a Divine Liturgy, seems to be that it is the service being offered by God for the benefit of his politeia, his commonwealth (πολιτεία or πολιτεύμα — in the Apolytikion of the Cross it’s πολιτεύμα, “…καί τό σόν φυλάττων διά τού Σταυρού σου πολίτευμα” “…and guarding your commonwealth/republic/state/etc. through your cross”).

In any case, even if it is from 1960, this appears to be the present state of the research, as Lewis is still being cited in current works.

I know I’m a nobody of a grad student with a blog nobody reads, but if you are one of the two people who reads this, can you please help me put this “work of the people” nonsense to rest?

Update, 31 May 2011: Just minutes after posting the above, I saw this post over on New Liturgical Movement, which quotes Pope Benedict XVI in a letter to the Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music:

However, we always have to ask ourselves: Who is the true subject of the liturgy? The answer is simple: the Church. It is not the individual or the group that celebrates the liturgy, but it is primarily God’s action through the Church… (emphasis mine)

I think Benedict has slightly more influence than me, so this is good.

My first grown-up conference

This last fall, my PhD advisor’s PhD advisor paid a visit to the IU campus and met with some of us. After chatting with me a bit, he said, “You should think about going to the Oxford Patristics Conference next summer.” Oh, I said, I don’t know that I would have anything worth presenting. “Go just to go,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to meet people and hear what other people are doing.”

When I next met with my advisor, I told him the suggestion I had been given. “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” he said. “Let’s plan on you doing that.” So, I sort of tentatively planned to go, along with a list of other things that would be really cool to do over the summer.

In January, I met a Fordham doctoral student in theology at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Champaign, Illinois. (Long story.) We chatted a bit, and the Oxford Patristics Conference came up. “Yeah,” she said, “I’ll probably go, but there’s no way I’ll make the first deadline, and if you don’t make that batch, there’s almost no point in submitting anything.” I nodded in agreement, saying that I was being encouraged to go, but that I certainly didn’t have anything that was going to be ready by 31 January, and really, I probably wasn’t going to have anything appropriate this year anyway.

This semester, I took a Religious Studies seminar on early Christian mysticism — a lot of pagan neo-Platonic stuff, ironically, enough, but also Origen, Evagrius Pontus, Augustine, and (Ps.-)Dionysius. Plus, I was going to have to write a review of von Balthasar’s book on Maximus the Confessor. I realized that it was about as close to a course on patristics as I was going to get to take during my time here, and so I asked the professor, “Hey, do you think it would be worth my time to submit an abstract for the paper I’m writing for your class to Oxford?” “Oh, yes, definitely,” he said.

Well, okay, then. I thought of a topic, and I started researching it. In the meantime, I found out that some of the other cool things I thought I might do over the summer weren’t going to work out. On 25 March, I submitted an abstract for a “short communication” titled “Let us put away all earthly care: Mysticism and the Cherubikon of the Byzantine Rite in Late Antiquity”. I Tweeted, “RichardRBarrett just submitted an abstract. Yay.” This prompted Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick to ask me on Facebook, “Could you get any more vague?” Not willing to be outdone on the snark, I then Tweeted, “RichardRBarrett just did something that involved doing some things with other things. (Let me know if that’s sufficient, Fr. Andrew.)”

Anyway.

I turned the final paper in for the class this last Tuesday, got a very positive assessment of it back this morning, and I was inspired to drop the conference folks a line to see just what form our notification would take — we were supposed to hear by 15 May, but did we need to be checking the website, would we get an e-mail, or…?

We received over 675 abstracts, the organizer said, so what’s your reference number?

I told her. Five minutes later, I got an answer back: Yes, you were accepted.

So, there it is. I’ve presented at six graduate student conferences over the last five years, but this is my first big-boy pants conference, and it’s in my favorite place in the universe.

If I may — I’m getting a good chunk of support for this trip from a couple of sources, but it’s not quite the same thing as being a professor with a research account. If either of my regular readers have ever thought about clicking on that link up there that says “Tip Jar” and then thought, oh, well, he probably doesn’t need it, please let me assure you that this is an occasion where it would be most appreciated.

All this, and Thor rocked. It was a good day. Now I’ve got about 65 final exams on ancient Greek history to grade.

Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Steven Bigham

Last fall, as I mentioned here, I sat in on an Art History seminar titled “Problems in Early Christian Art.” It was a really valuable experience for several reasons, and one of the big takeaways for me was the rather frank admission on the part of the professor, as well as several of our readings, that the origins of Christian uses of figurative art are murky at best. As much as art historians might like there to be a clear narrative of “pristine original Christianity seeing any and all images as idolatry” vs. “big corrupted institutional church with pagan ceremony adapted for imperial use,” that narrative just isn’t supported by the evidence, and the narrative that can be constructed from the evidence is still quite foggy. There is definitely a strain of what can be read as image-cautious (at least) rhetoric in some early writers, but the fact is that the images were nonetheless there in one form or another from earliest days, and they didn’t go away. What struck me was that veneration of images always seemed popular, in the sense of it being something that the people did, and it didn’t appear to matter too much who was telling them not to do it — it was instinctive to make an image of the object of one’s devotion, and this had even more meaning in an era when not everybody had digital cameras on their cell phones. For me, it raised the question — is it possible that the theological place of images was simply something God chose to reveal in a “bottom-up” fashion rather than “top-down”? The question of divine intent is obviously not the kind of matter one can address using secular historical methodology, but in any event it was fascinating to hear a secular academic acknowledge that the history doesn’t fit into as neat of a little box as they would like.

Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Fr. Steven Bigham, published in 2004 by the Orthodox Research Institute, examines this absence of a neat narrative from an explicitly confessional point of view. It is a translation of a work he originally published in French in 1992; Fr. Bigham is a Carpatho-Russian priest who serves the Francophone Orthodox community in Montreal, and who teaches Orthodox theology at Université de Sherbrooke. In a nutshell, his argument is that the historical and scriptural witness in no way supports the idea of the Second Commandment being understood by the Jews as an absolute prohibition on figurative art, with or without a liturgical use, and neither is there a clear, unambiguous witness either from the New Testament or from patristic writings supporting such a blanket hostility towards images. Examining the historical evidence up to 313 A. D. (in other words, using the Edict of Milan as the dividing line) he argues that while there is a clear and universal condemnation of idolatrous images, it does not follow that all images are presented as idolatrous. In fact, he points out, St. John of Damascus understood a writer like Eusebius of Caesarea to be supportive of Christian images, as opposed to the contemporary perception of Eusebius as proto-iconoclast.

In many ways, a book like this is useful as a tool for the faithful more than as a scholarly work. It is an excellent introduction to the historiography of this problem, a good overview of the major scholarly players and the literature (with whom and which Fr. Bigham is clearly very familiar), and it’s extremely useful as a tour through the source texts and the archaeological evidence. His argument, as presented, is an absolutely fair set of points; he makes plain that the rhetoric of the textual sources must be both properly understood in terms of their context as well as reconciled with archaeological evidence, and that when you do that, there is no way to arrive at the conclusion that pre-Constantinian Christians were uniformly and universally against the use of images for Christian purposes. For the Orthodox Christian wanting to understand more about what the scholarly discourse is regarding the history of Christian art, this book is a terrific place to start, and should also be an excellent catechetical tool.

From a scholarly perspective, however, the book is problematic. The most glaring problem is that the translation from the French is awkward and not necessarily well-edited; mistakes like not distinguishing between “principle” and “principal” abound, for example. In addition, Fr. Bigham’s treatment of the primary source texts leaves the impression that he is reading them in translation. An extreme case that underscores the problem is the following citation of St. Irenaeus of Lyons:

Gnosticos se autem vocant: etiam imagines, quasdam quidem depictas, quasdam autem et de reliqua materia fabricatas habent, decentes formam Christi factam a Pilato, illo in tempore quo fuit Jesus cum hominibus: (p. 99)

The footnote for this passage doesn’t actually cite St. Irenaeus, but rather a scholar quoting him. Fr. Bigham then gives the following translation:

As if all above-mentioned things were not enough, these people even have images… which practice they justify… by saying that an image of Christ… (ibid.)

This is, Fr. Bigham qualifies, a “free translation” from the scholar he’s quoting. The trouble is, it’s a translation so “free” as to have nothing to do with the Latin that’s quoted. To make things worse, a reasonable, if elliptical, translation is quoted on the previous page, properly citing the Eerdmans ANF edition:

Irenaeus of Lyons informs us that the Gnostic Carpocratians “also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of materials; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them.” (p.98)

It seems likely that this is just an author’s mistake not caught by the translator or the editor; that the English translation on p. 99 was probably just mismatched to the wrong Latin text — or there was some similar error — and nobody along the way in the editorial process knew enough Latin to be able to catch the problem. Even if that was what happened, it is unclear which passage we are supposed to understand as being important to Fr. Bigham’s point. The net result is that it just looks like it was translated wrong one way or the other, and it doesn’t leave the reader who does have knowledge of Greek and/or Latin with confidence in Fr. Bigham’s ability to properly analyze these texts.

Another, more minor, quibble is that, while extensively footnoted, the book lacks a comprehensive bibliography. The footnotes are perhaps the single most valuable asset this book has, but a catalogue of primary and secondary sources would make the book more efficiently accessible from a scholarly point of view.

In summary, this is a book well worth reading by the armchair Orthodox Christian art historian — perhaps in conjunction with a sourcebook like Cyril Mango’s The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453as a clear discussion of the issues, the sources, and the scholarship. It is also a worthwhile read for the theology student who is interested in a frankly Orthodox exploration of the topic. Fr. Bigham demonstrates considerable facility in engaging the literature on the matter, and his citations alone are extremely valuable as a reading list on the topic for both scholar and casual reader (although do be aware that, while the English translation is recent, the original French text dates back eighteen years, so scholarship cited tends to not be later than the 1980s). In terms of its academic use, however, it seems to me that it might best function as a roadmap for somebody who is more comfortable accessing the Greek and Latin sources in the original languages, and be able to more convincingly analyze those texts with authority. It is certainly the kind of contribution that Orthodox scholars should be trying to make to the bigger conversation, and it would be a welcome thing if it could be made in a way that makes a bigger audience more inclined to take it seriously.


Richard’s Twitter

adventures in writing alexander lingas all saints bloomington all saints orthodox church american orthodox architecture american orthodox music american orthodoxy Antiochian Archdiocese Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America Antiochians books byzantine chant cappella romana chant church architecture ecclesiastical chant ethnomusicologists ethnomusicology fellowship of ss. alban and sergius Greece Greek greek food greekness hazards of church music international travel tips ioannis arvanitis joe mckamey john michael boyer kurt sander Latin liturgical adventures liturgical architecture liturgical music liturgical texts and translation liturgy liturgy and life lycourgos angelopoulos medieval byzantine chant Metropolitan PHILIP militant americanist orthodoxy modern byzantine architecture modern greek music music as iconography my kids will latin and greek when they're newborns my kids will learn latin and greek when they're newborns orthodox architecture orthodox architecture is bloody expensive Orthodox choir schools Orthodox Ecclesiology orthodox outreach orthodox travel pascha at the singing school Patriarchate of Antioch Patriarch IGNATIUS IV Patriarch of Antioch publishing random acts of chant richard barrett in greece richard toensing rod dreher sacred music st. vlads st john of damascus society Syriac the Bishop MARK fan club the convert dilemma the dark knight The Episcopacy The Episcopate the only good language is a dead language this american church life travel we need more american saints why do we need beautiful music in churches?

Blog Stats

  • 228,978 hits

Flickr Photos