Posts Tagged 'books'

More books for sale

Still more books have popped up for sale. Again, make offer if interested. E-mail rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.


Aleksiev, The Forgotten Medicine: The Mystery of Repentance.

Allen (ed.), Orthodox Synthesis.

Elder Cleopas, The Truth of Our Faith.

Fletcher, The Russian Orthodox Church Underground, 1917-1970.

Hopko, All the Fulness of God.

Ioannidis, Elder Porphyrios: Testimonies and Experiences.

Quenot, The Icon.

Moore, Formation of a Persecuting Society.

Riché, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne.

Schaeffer, Sham Pearls for Real Swine.

Thompson, Who was St. Patrick?

Verhovsky, The Light of the World.

Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.


Addenda ad Secundam Partem: In which the CIA and Howard the Duck make an appearance

Basically the years we’re talking about right now are third through seventh grade — two thirds of my elementary school years and my first year of junior high. It’s hard to make those years interesting on their own terms, but I’ll see what I can do.

When we got to the Seattle area, I managed to be placed in a magnet program called TAG, “Talented And Gifted”. (How on the nose can you be?) That took me up through sixth grade, and I discuss that experience somewhat here, so I won’t go over that particular ground again.

At the start of the school year, Wellington Elementary (where the TAG program was housed that first year I was in it) announced a musical — none other than You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Needless to say, I auditioned. I said earlier that I had thoroughly internalized the character, and this must have been evident in the audition process, because I was cast in the title role. It was my first theatrical endeavor of any sort (at least going by chronology of auditions; the first performed was an in-class presentation of “Witling and the Stone Princesses”, an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale “The Queen Bee”) and certainly my first musical, although one could argue that I had been playing the part for some time by that point. The rehearsal process was fairly lengthy, as I recall, and I think nobody was quite sure how I’d actually do once it became work, but it was the time of my life up to that point. The irony is that I’d identified the character because I was awkward and felt like an outsider most of the time, but I loved the other kids who were in it with me, and tried to stay friends with them. That might have worked better had the magnet programs not all moved to their own school the following year, and I lost touch with everybody pretty quickly (plus I was on the younger side of the cast anyway). Google searches turn up some of those folks — here’s Katie Margeson, my Lucy; and her sister, Anne, was Patty (none of this revisionist “Sally” nonsense in our production!). Chad Afanador, our Linus, actually has an IMDB page, and the Snoopy, Scott Grimm, is now a linguist of some note. (I am blanking on the name of our Schroeder. I’m sorry, man.) Anyway, I’d love to put up some pictures or video of this, but I think my mother has all of the photos. Dad videotaped the dress rehearsal, but the tape has been missing since 1994, when it was loaned to my then-girlfriend’s mother who was considering putting it on with her elementary school class, and I was never able to get it back (and in fact it was later claimed that she never remembered having it in the first place). If you ever find a VHS cassette labeled “Original C.B. Play” with a piece of masking tape on the front, do drop me a line. The thing about the videotape is that at some point during one of the verses of “The Kite Song”, I realized I was being filmed and choked on the words for a line or two, so it was never perfect anyway (but the actual performances were spot on!), but that’s maybe in keeping with the spirit of the character.

In absence of any of those pictures or video, here’s something that I’m pretty sure not every kid on my block had. Short version is that it wasn’t too far of a leap from Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Young Detective’s Handbook to spies, and I started reading everything I could on real-world espionage. A briefcase replaced my backpack to accompany the deerstalker and trenchcoat. When I was nine, I decided that I would be a perfect recruit as an intelligence agent — I was too young for anybody to ever suspect as a spy. With the courage of my convictions on the matter, I did what any normal kid would have done and wrote a letter to the CIA telling them they should bring me aboard.

I got a letter back, dated 5 March 1986, from one G. L. Lamborn, Public Affairs (who, if I’m not mistaken, is the author of this forthcoming book). “Dear Mr. Barrett: Thank you for writing the Central Intelligence Agency. You seem to be a bright, responsible, and ambitious young person. I am afraid, however, that you cannot be an intelligence officer until you are eighteen. We hope you will apply with us when you are older. A college education is useful for many of our positions — so study hard! We need people with your enthusiasm. I have enclosed two publications which will tell you more about the Central Intelligence Agency. Do not forget us.”

Well, obviously it didn’t turn into a career. It’s an interesting souvenir to have, at least, and I’m sure it made for an entertaining story for Mr. Lamborn.

Comic books became a big deal for me in around 1984. I still remember my parents freaking out the day when I decided that I was now collecting them — taking the advice of one collector’s manual to buy a bunch of new comics and see what I liked, I spent around $25 on a stack of new releases about as tall as my belly button (remember that these were the days of a 65-cent cover price). My Batman obsession has been reasonably well-discussed here, but I also quickly fell in love with the back issues of Howard the Duck. Yes, you read that correctly. The thing is, as written in the mid-’70s, Howard the Duck was an experiment on Marvel Comics’ part, a social satire, and it was hysterical. (I mean, c’mon. It took place in Cleveland, for heaven’s sake.) Imagine my bewilderment when I saw it realized on the big screen as kids’ horror-action-comedy. I still don’t quite know what George Lucas was thinking, but the movie’s duck simply wasn’t the same Howard who ran for President for the All Night Party in 1976 and fought Doctor Bong. Not even close. Batman in 1989 was a much happier time at the movies all around, to say the least.

In terms of music, piano lessons continued through the fifth grade, I think. There came a point where I was feeling overstressed; I was doing Columbia Boys Choir, piano lessons, and then my dad had enrolled me in karate lessons two days a week. I think I had one day at home after school a week, and it was getting a bit much. Plus, my voice was breaking, and I didn’t know how to manage that. This was in the middle of our domestic meltdown, so everybody was happy to have me doing less for multiple reasons. I didn’t necessarily give up the activities, just the formal involvement; I played Sir Joseph Porter in a sixth grade production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, and I started learning the guitar.

This meant I also picked up the pace in terms of reading. I read a lot of different kinds of mythology and folktales; Greek mythology, Welsh mythology (inspired somewhat by a book called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones), Nordic mythology, and even French-Canadian folktales (in the form of a little collection called The Golden Phoenix). I read a lot of role-playing games, but I could never quite figure out how to play them myself. Genre fiction became a real love for me in sixth grade, starting with Piers Anthony, with whom I even had a correspondence going for a couple of years (well, with his assistant, anyway, even if he signed the letters). This really picked up momentum in my junior high years, so its flourishing is somewhat beyond the present scope.

“Hey, Richard!” I’m hearing a couple of people say. “That’s awesome that the CIA started a file on you when you were nine, but did you do any, you know, normal kid things?” Eh, I don’t know. I wasn’t a terribly athletic kid, and I didn’t really understand sports or why I was automatically supposed to care about them. I hated fishing — the first time I went, I was having a great time with my dad and my great-uncle until they took the fish I caught and bashed it over the head with a rock. I burst into tears — I was not expecting that in the least. I went to summer camp a few times, the YMCA’s Camp Colman and Camp Orkila. I played with fire once by burning some thread in the sink to see if they’d burn the same way fuses were depicted as doing in cartoons and movies. My parents freaked out when they found me, thought I was trying to burn the house down (the house that they were trying to sell), and I had bruises on my rear end from a plastic spoon for a week. I guess that’s reasonably normal.

I didn’t have a ton of friends in elementary school and was the object of a good amount of merciless bullying, much of it by girls, which meant that other boys generally wanted nothing to do with me. From third to fifth grade, my best friend in the world was Jeff Fletcher, a kid who was one year older than I was and who was simply a kindred spirit in many ways. He was always at my house, and we were inseparable. Then he went to junior high a year before I did (naturally enough), and our paths diverged a bit, coming back together when I got to junior high. There was also Brian Ward, whom I met in sixth grade and whose family also went to Overlake. In seventh grade, there was a bit of peer group that I found, consisting of Matthew Arndt, Brian, Eric Rachner, Eric Stangeland (another friend of mine with an IMDB page), Robert Stevens, and Russ Needham (who, with Brian, is pictured with me on 23 June 1989 at Luxury Alderwood Cinemas for Batman).

And that’s that for now.

Update, 6 February 2012, 3:06pm — I should mention that Jeff Fletcher and I were all-too briefly accompanied in our early years by one Chris Holtorf. He wasn’t around anywhere near as long as we should have liked, since his family moved to California when I was in fourth grade, I believe, but for the short time we were together, were a terrible trio, to say the least.

Chris and I recently (like, in the last few hours) re-established contact via Facebook for the first time in, I believe, twenty-six years, and he wanted me to also pass on that the three of us had a plan to construct a working replica of the Millennium Falcon in my backyard. It’s true. We were generally too busy sliding in sleeping bags down my staircase into Ember, my beloved Bernese Mountain Dog (an activity we generally referred to as “SLEEPING BAG DOGGIE!!!!!!!!!”), to actually get the damn thing built. Oh well.

Fleshing some things out

I realized yesterday after I hit “publish” that outlining my religious development is going to be terribly dull reading if I stick strictly to that topic and that topic alone, and probably pretty dull writing, too.

A few hopefully more-colorful details: you may have noticed that, when the guy at church was trying to strongarm me into standing, I wasn’t running around like a cat chasing a laser pointer dot, I wasn’t screaming my head off, and I wasn’t playing with the myriad of Star Wars action figures that I had at home. I was sitting quietly and reading.

My parents claim that nobody taught me to read. That strikes me as unlikely (check back with me again in four years on that one), but at the same time, I don’t remember ever actually learning to read. In any event, reading was how I instinctively occupied my time as a little kid, and I wasn’t intimidated by “grown-up books” even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything. I was memorizing passages out of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos from the time I was four. By the time I was seven, I found my way into Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, C. S. Lewis, Greek mythology, Madeleine L’Engle, and much more (including some potentially unlikely stuff for a little boy, like Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language, the first boarding-school book I recall encountering). When I was five or thereabouts, my parents got me this Reader’s Digest collection of articles on various topics called Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, and I read that thing cover to cover probably ten times by the time we left Wenatchee. In its pages I read about regression hypnosis, St. Christopher having a dog’s head, Jack the Ripper (as well as Spring-Heeled Jack), cybernetic implants, the Shroud of Turin, Bridey Murphy, Stefan Lochner’s The Last Judgment, and hundreds of other crazy things. I have no doubt that being so exposed to such an crazy range of topics so early on influenced how I perceive and process the world around me, but there we are. I like to think that at the very least, it helped to inspire a sense of wonder.

My formational religious reading was mostly the old Golden Press The Children’s Bible, which to describe as dated is nowhere near adequate, but it was what it was. Besides that, my mom gave me a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism. I wouldn’t say that a huge deal was made out of this, and it was sort of treated more as a curiosity, an heirloom, than anything I was to take seriously.

Probably like every other kid born around the time I was, the other overarching obsessions were Star Wars and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. I can remember being in the movie theatre at the age of three for the 1979 re-release of A New Hope, and I got the Death Star playset as a Christmas present the same year. I don’t know for sure that I remember seeing Superman: The Movie  in theatres, but it was the first movie I remember seeing on VHS, probably c. 1980 or so, and I saw Superman II probably five or six times in theatres. For after-school cartoons, I was a Star Blazers kid all the way.

And between 1982 and 1983, Tron and WarGames came out, which guaranteed that even to this day, Kevin Flynn (“BECAUSE, MAN! …somewhere IN one of these… MEMORIES… is the evidence!“) and not The Dude is the iconic Jeff Bridges performance for me, I naturally think of Global Thermonuclear War and not a Ferrari when I see Matthew Broderick, and I’m trying to imagine how my digital alter-ego is delivering my e-mails.

Then there was Charlie Brown. Yes, I had started carrying around a magnifying glass by this point, and certainly had the deerstalker hat and trenchcoat a bit later, but during those early elementary school years there was no literary character with whom I identified more fully than Charlie Brown. You’ve Done It Again, Charlie Brown! was a collection of strips I think my mother brought home for me one day when I was sick, and it was but the first of many, many more. I had devoured enough of those little Fawcett-Crest paperback collections by the time we moved to the Seattle area to have completely internalized the persona. I wanted to legally change my name. I know I’m not exactly unique to have had this particular childhood hero — that’s what made Peanuts so compelling for so long, after all, Charlie Brown’s Everykid status — but the thing is, I was awkward, even as a little kid I always felt like I struggled to get through the day, and I really did have a head round enough to be mistaken for a bowling ball. In general, while I was apparently a naturally gregarious and friendly kid, that made me fresh meat for other kids almost from day one.

Well. There was me being a naturally friendly and gregarious kid, yes. There was also the fact that I got bumped up a grade two weeks into kindergarten because of what I was reading (and supposedly that was a compromise with my parents, because the school wanted to put me in fifth grade or some nonsense like that). There was the stuff I was reading, like D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (to say nothing of the subsequent conviction that I could build a working time machine out of spare computer parts, and to say nothing even further still of my actual attempt to do so). Yyyyeeaaaahhhh… there was no way I wasn’t going home in tears after school most days. I had a couple of friends that I spent a good amount of time with, but in some ways I got along with their parents better than I got along with them.

Somewhere in here — I must have been five or six tops, and it was on a drive between Wenatchee and Seattle, for reasons that are presently escaping me — my mother said, “Richard, when you’re older, I’m taking you to Europe. I went when I was young, and it’s something I really want for you.”

The final detail I’ll give for now is the piano lessons I started when I was five. My dad had bought a beautiful Yamaha upright grand, and shortly thereafter I found myself being taken to a music store for my first formal music instruction. To bring this all back around to reading, the story my parents tell is that at the first piano recital, I sat in the audience reading a book. When it was my turn, I put the book down, went up to the piano, played my pieces, then returned to my chair and went back to reading.

By the way — hopefully it’s clear that all of these details are in no way comprehensive or anything other than impressionistic (however well-remembered I think they are) or given from the perspective of the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, and give no more and no less than exactly the picture I wish to give. If you want accuracy and objectivity you’re going to have to get it from Mrs. Plouff, my first grade teacher, and I don’t have a clue where she is these days.

Be all of that as it may, hopefully this spices things up a bit.

Review: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through The Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

First of all, in an ideal world, this would have gone up about three months ago. I had requested a review copy back at the beginning of May, and for one reason or another the copy wasn’t sent out until the beginning of August or thereabouts, which meant that I wasn’t actually in physical possession of the book until I got home from Oxford, and by that point it was off to the races for the start of the academic year. More about all of that elsewhere, however.

About six years ago or so, I was corresponding with a gentleman named Charles Carter. Charles was a Baptist who was something of a presence in Anglican online discussion groups, often as something of a gadfly. He was a strict five-point Calvinist (although I don’t know that he himself used that phrase), he had no patience for any kind of sacramental theology, and liked to say things like, “The Reformers had to whitewash the churches and tear out the organs in order to give them back to the people,” or recount how, growing up as a Baptist in the South, he “sincerely” wondered whether or not Catholics were Christians.

When Charles discovered that I was a former Episcopalian who had converted to Orthodox Christianity, he was perplexed to say the least. How was that the least bit justified? “Did you even consider the ‘Geneva option’?” he asked. One of his sticking points was the practice of so-called “closed Communion”, and he argued that any church organization that would exclude other Christians from partaking is demonstrating its lack of catholicity, not affirming it. (“If Jesus visited your Orthodox parish, would you let him take Communion?” was another one of his rhetorical questions. I pointed out that actually, Christ would serve as the celebrant, since he’s the high priest. He wasn’t impressed.) I suggested that this in the context of the historical self-understanding of the Orthodox and Catholics, Charles’ point of view imposed a definition of “catholicity” on them that didn’t take them on their own terms. Charles insisted that in contemporary times, no group that claims to be a Christian organization may presume to be “the Church,” but he acknowledged being largely ignorant of pre-Reformation history, and was open to hearing the historical argument that one might make.

I walked Charles through the history as I understood it, explained how I had resolved certain questions for myself, and also had him read the Florovsky essay “The Worshipping Church” for some background on the relationship between liturgy, ecclesiology, and catholicity, and for a while it seemed like we might be getting someplace. Still, he ultimately couldn’t get past his own presuppositions, and while he initially was quite taken with Florovsky, for example, his last word on it was, “It’s a compelling piece on its own terms, but I’m pretty sure I can disprove his whole argument from scripture.” As far as the historical argument went, he saw it in the end as question-begging (not illegitimate, I suppose, from a Protestant point of view), and our correspondence petered out when it became clear that the differences were insuperable. I’m not entirely sure what happened to him, although there was a commenter who called himself “Bubba” on Rod Dreher‘s old Crunchy Con blog who had an eerily similar temperament and set of pet issues when it came to Christians coming out of a sacramental tradition. I asked “Bubba” once if he was Charles, and he gave a strange, non-responsive answer that seemed to amount to, “Don’t call me that around here,” so I let it drop.

Today, if I were to find myself in a similar exchange, I would still have the person read Florovsky, but I would give him Fr. John McGuckin’s The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture for the history, and Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s Orthodoxy and Hetorodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith for a clear statement of how Orthodox Christianity sees itself in the midst of religious pluralism, be that Christian pluralism or non-Christian pluralism.

The project of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is to give the reader a clear picture of where Orthodox Christianity positions itself relative to other Christian groups, major and minor, as well as select few non-Christian so-called “world religions”. To this end, Fr. Andrew starts out with a clear statement that, yes, this book is going to deal with doctrine, it is going to do so with the core assumption that Orthodox Christianity teaches the right doctrine, and while all humility is intended to be employed, that’s going to involve saying where we think we’re right and others are wrong. In calling ourselves Orthodox, that presumes that differences constitute heresy and/or heterodoxy, and we’re going to use those words. Key distinctives of Orthodox doctrine are sketched out, and Fr. Andrew then walks the reader through a number of issues, historical and doctrinal, having to do with Roman Catholicism, the various historic Protestant groups (that is, the offshoots from the “magisterial” and “radical” Reformers), Revivalists, fringe groups, and so on.

There’s a very tricky space that the book is staking out from the first page; how do you accomplish the stated objective using the stated methodology without the book seeming like a non-stop polemic? It’s very easy to be tarred with the “anti-” brush just by pointing out where there is disagreement. Well, turns out that there is in fact a way to do it. Fr. Andrew’s approach is to discuss differences, yes, but to also always note agreement and similarities (where possible, at least), as well as points where there could be agreement, or at least similarity, should the other side clarify one or two things or move a little bit in some direction. In short, he calls a spade a spade, but he endeavors to do so to an extent where it acknowledges the positive as well as the negative. An example may be found in the conclusion to his chapter on Roman Catholicism:

…it is critical for Orthodox Christians to note that twentieth- and twenty-first-century Roman Catholicism has seen a number of developments bringing some theologians closer to Orthodoxy and others further away. There is much in the Ressourcement (French, “going back to the sources”) movement with its fresh emphasis on the Church Fathers that should encourage the Orthodox. At the same time, certain disturbing distortions occurred in some sectors of the Roman Catholic Church in the twentieth century, such as Liberation Theology, an attempt to wed church dogma with Marxist politics.

Because of these kinds of developments — as well as the ongoing problem of the gap between official Vatican teaching and what the average Roman Catholic personally believes or is taught from the pulpit — Orthodox believers should tread lightly in discussing theology with Roman Catholics. They may be closer to or further from Orthodoxy than what is officially taught by the Vatican. It is critical to discern what the person in front of you believes before launching into any sort of detailed refutation of Roman Catholic dogman and practice.

I also believe that much of modern Orthodox criticism of Roman Catholicism is based either on pre-twentieth-century models of Rome’s thought or simply on mischaracterizations and oversimplifications of its theology and practice. In my opinion, many of the Orthodox writers of our time have borrowed heavily from Protestant polemics against Rome, which are often based either in exaggerations of misunderstandings of Rome’s theology or are instead based on Protestant theology which is not consistent with Orthodoxy. Again, it is critical that we understand the theology of the person in front of us as well as our own (pp58-9).

Now, I have no doubt that somebody could jump all over him for a point or two here and there (I can think of one or two people who probably would not take kindly to his characterization of Liberation Theology as a “distortion”, for example, and I suspect that any positive assessment of Ressourcement would also raise the hackles of some others), but for my money there’s a lot to this approach to like. There is disagreement between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but it is not monolithic; this is what’s good, this is what’s problematic, and we’re not exactly perfect in our own approaches to criticism, so let’s have some humility. That is more or less the tone of the whole book, and it is a welcome one.

That said, there are some things that come across more sharply than others. It is accurate to point out, as Fr. Andrew does, that since Orthodox Christianity sees the Church as the New Israel and God’s chosen people, present-day Israel and Judaism have no special status from an Orthodox perspective. It is also uncomfortable to read stated so matter-of-factly in so many words. Again, as noted earlier, pointing out disagreement seems to lend itself easily to accusations of prejudice in the current era. Nonetheless, Fr. Andrew both makes it abundantly clear that’s not where he’s coming from and extends the same notice of similarities and agreement that he does to every other religion discussed in the book.

Fr. Andrew’s writing style is clear and accessible, but it is also articulate enough that one never gets the sense that he is dumbing anything down. He says what he has to say, and explains what he thinks needs explaining, and the end result should be quite readable for the average person while still being sophisticated enough for the reader who perhaps might assume that the book is written for a fifth grade reading level. There are occasional moments where his lucid prose style is interrupted with a logical leap I couldn’t quite follow, but these are few and far between. He demonstrates a wide familiarity with source materials for other religions, and also a wider knowledge of Orthodox sources than I might have expected. His is perhaps the first “mainstream” book on Orthodox Christianity in the English language I’ve encountered that cites Fr. Seraphim Rose to support an argument, for example (and to my mind, that’s progress).

For me, there is only one truly awkward moment in the book, and I’ll be up front and say it’s probably a personal issue. It is when he invokes the Civil War in discussing the differing concepts of the episcopate between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy:

The vision of Church governance is not merely administrative but involves a theological outlook different from Orthodoxy’s collegial episcopacy. Students of American history will recognize a transition similar to the one in which centralized federal power won out in the Civil War against a looser federation of sovereign states. Just as Americans began thereafter to refer not to “these United Sates” but “the United Sates,” Roman Catholics who refer to the “the Church” most often have in mind the Vatican rather than a sense of the wholeness of the people of God (p35).

I will fully acknowledge that this quibble may well be my problem and my problem alone, but my godfather (himself the author of a book outlining the difference between Orthodox Christianity and Restorationist Christianity that would perhaps be a useful reference for Fr. Andrew in future editions) is a Southerner who refers to the Civil War as “the war of Northern aggression”, and Fr. Andrew is fairly outspoken publicly about his localist political views, so it is difficult for me to not see this carefully-worded paragraph as a moment where politics that are tangential to the topic are seeping through. It’s enough of a minor, subjective, and arguable point that I hesitate to even mention it, but I found myself reacting very strongly while reading it, so there we are.

If I have any suggestions for future editions or printings, consulting my godfather’s book for the chapter dealing with Campbell-Stone folks would be one; another would be to reconsider the subtitle. Last year I wrote a paper that used the word “lens”, much as this book’s subtitle does, to describe perspectives that shaped analysis (not the first time I’ve done so, mind), and the professor circled the word and wrote the comment, “In these troubled times, everybody is resorting to looking at things through lenses. It has become a cliché, so please find another way to phrase it.”

In sum, Fr. Andrew’s Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is an articulate book that takes what could be treacherous subject matter and handles it with a lot of grace, authority, and humility. It strikes me as being a valuable resource for those who might have the responsibility of teaching adult catechism, as well as a worthwhile read for those non-Orthodox who want to get an adult-oriented, non-simplistic, reasonable take on just how much air there might be between Orthodoxy and their denomination. Recommended.

Repost — Review: Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell

I wrote this review about a year and a half ago for a group blog that I’ve discovered has closed up shop. So, here it is again.

There’s a reason I’m a historian and not a theologian – or a philosopher, for that matter.

See, I’m a pretty simple guy at heart – I like narrative. I like characters. I like finding out what happened next. As soon as people start talking about contemplating the Godhead or mystical union or appropriation of the means of production or things like this, my eyes glass over until something shiny crosses my field of vision. Somebody Who Is A Big Name once gave me advice that I should try to figure out how to incorporate Hans Urs von Balthasar into my research interests if I really wanted them to be marketable; I got about thirty pages into the first volume of The Glory of the Lord when I had to put it down and admit I didn’t understand a word.

From that standpoint, I think I’m a member of the target audience for Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s foreword says that the book is the product of “a specialist [who] cares enough to rethink [his] subject in non-specialist terms,” and I am definitely a non-specialist.

So what is this non-specialist’s verdict? Well… I can’t say I know any more about the theology of theosis than I did before I started the book, but that’s not Russell’s fault, that’s just a result of me not being terribly smart. However, as a historian, the book is very useful to me as an outline of the major contributors over the centuries to the understanding of what theosis is, and how they differ from one another.

Or is it? This is the problem with being a non-specialist reviewing a book for a non-specialist. I have to take the book’s word for it, for the most part.

At any rate, the overall project of the book is to be a general resource on theosis – what it is, the history of how Orthodox Christians talk about it, who has clarified which idea, and who agrees with whom and who doesn’t. It also spends time discussing how contemporary Orthodox theologians are looking at the issue, and also at least tries to move theosis out of the theoretical realm and to examine just what it means as a practical matter of day-to-day life.

Russell’s core argument is that theosis was a concept that was not fully articulated until St. Gregory Palamas, it was not fully articulated because it was not a matter of controversy until his time (with Russell arguing that all the elements of theosis were in place as normative for Orthodox Christians by the fourth century), and even so it has only been in the last four decades or so that it has taken center stage as a “common expression summarizing the whole economy [of] salvation.” Within the discussion, from the New Testament to the early Fathers, from them to Palamas, and from Palamas to Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) and Fr. John Behr, while there may be disagreement in the particulars of how theosis is described, Russell nonetheless sees a fundamental conceptual unity and convergence.

The structure of Russell’s presentation appears to be to deal with aspects of theosis in order of increasing complexity, which is perhaps why my copy is underlined less and less in later pages. The first question is, of course, is “what is theosis?” with an implied “why do we care?” Russell’s working definition is as follows:

Theosis is our restoration as persons to integrity and wholeness by participation in Christ through the Holy Spirit, in a process which is initiated in this world through our life of ecclesial communion and moral striving and finds ultimate fulfillment in our union with the Father – all within the broad context of the divine economy.

Okay – my eyes didn’t glass over too badly, so I guess that will work. Why do we care? Well, we care because, as stated above, this is the “ultimate fulfillment in our union with the Father”, our end goal as Christians.

From that starting point, Russell works through reasonably concrete questions of the relationship between theosis and salvation and how this relationship is situated within the divine economy, the scriptural foundations of theosis, and the impact of theosis on notions of Christian anthropology. In the last third of the book or so, Russell turns more to questions of a very speculative nature – self-transcendence, participation in the divine life, and union with God. (And before anybody yells at me for just quoting the last three chapter titles, it’s just about the best I can do with this section of the book. Passages like this one from the chapter on self-transcendence are why I’m not a theologian: “This ultimate unity is unity with the divine and yet it is not a unity with anything outside ourselves. It is when the self knows itself in a direct and immediate way that it ‘sees’ the divine.” Uh, okay.)

Thankfully, the epilogue, titled “Do You Live It?” tries to provide something of a practical framework for the more rarefied speculations:

The face that theosis encompasses the whole of the economy of salvation means that it is intended for all believers without exception. To live theosis, then, means to lead our life in an eschatological perspective within the ecclesial community, striving through prayer, participation in the Eucharist, and the practice of the moral life to attain the divine likeness, being conformed spiritually and corporeally to the body of Christ until we are brought into Christ’s identity and arrive ultimately at union with the Father.

And Russell must have known there would be a none-too-bright historian whose eyebrows would be crinkling with the strain of almost getting it, because he finishes the paragraph by saying:

In simpler terms, it means for an Orthodox Christian to live as a faithful member of the Church, attending the Liturgy, receiving the sacraments and keeping the commandments. Nothing more – or less – than that.

The book has a number of strengths; Russell appears to have a great deal of facility with the relevant authors, ancient and modern, and this combined with his organizational structure makes the book accessible and informative either as a whole or in distinct parts. He is also able to adduce evidence that goes beyond literary sources, iconographic and liturgical evidence for example, in a manner that is convincing and helpful. From that perspective, Fellow Workers With God is a useful quick-and-dirty introduction to the historian who needs a rundown of certain concepts and people without getting too confused by the theology; it does not shy away from the theology, however, so it would also seem appropriate as an introductory text for somebody just getting their feet wet in the world of Orthodox theology.

The prospective reader should be aware that this is certainly a St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press publication, for better or for worse (depending on the reader, of course). Among other things, I suspect that Russell will draw criticism from some circles in how he treats St. Dionysius the Areopagite; he follows academic convention in drawing a distinction between the disciple of St. Paul and the author of Celestial Hierarchies. Perhaps this may be seen as tempered by the amount of ink he gives Fr. Dumitru Staniloe, who evidently argued against the later dating of Celestial Hierarchies. I am also not familiar enough with contemporary theologians to know if those whom Russell examines in taking the present pulse of the question represent a group weighted too far in a particular direction. Certainly the citation of Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos), who has apparently suggested that theosis is “a fundamental human right” which thus “cannot remain the exclusive possession of the Orthodox”, leaves me scratching my head a bit. On the other hand, Russell quickly follows that up by reaffirming that “it is only within the Orthodox perspective… that theosis acquires its full theological, spiritual, and ecclesial dimensions.”

I don’t think that this will be a work that will be altogether convincing to scholars who are not already inclined to be sympathetic to the concept; Russell is rather too up front about the amount of human participation assumed in theosis to be able to assuage Calvinists, for example. In the epilogue, Russell references “Lutherans [who] have studied the notion of theosis closely to see how it can enrich their ideas of sanctification and justification,” but the obvious next two questions – which Lutherans, and how many – aren’t answered with any clarity. From this standpoint, it is unfortunate, if ultimately not problematic from a standpoint of Tradition or even in terms of how Russell handles the matter, that one of the shortest chapters in the body of the book is “The Biblical Foundations of Theosis,” clocking in at a mere sixteen pages.

In conclusion, this is a book that, for my purposes, was quite informative and will bear re-reading as a reference. I still can’t quite engage the guts of the subject matter, and I’m not sure I ever will, but I’m at least more informed than I was. I’m not sure that Russell’s work contributed to my theosis, but perhaps my review may contribute to his.


Review: Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell

I would like to note that I participated in what was originally going to be a group book review of Owen the Ochlophobist’s, but which ultimately because a review symposium hosted by Unmercenary Readers. We all read Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, and the reviews are being posted this week. Mine is now up.

I had to get a bit tough with them; they tried to force me to use a pseudonym. I pointed out that article #8 of their own manifesto encourages, but expressly does not require, pseudonyms, but suggested “Vassilis Taraxopoios” if they had to use something (a literal translation of the meaning of “Richard Barrett” into Greek — “King Troublemaker”). They were somewhat abashed at having their own manifesto used against them and consequently left it up to me. I had always intended to run it under my own name, and said so. I will be curious to see if I am the only one who does so, and further curious to see if the exercise causes them to revise their manifesto.

Qu’est-ce que je fais?

Brief check-in —

Many thanks to all of you who visited because of Eirenikon‘s links to my Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius write-ups; I hope you stay for awhile.

My French reading class started last Friday. I’m finding that the Latin and the Greek I’ve had in the four years since the last time I set foot in a French classroom is helping immensely; I’ve likely forgotten far more than I realize, but so far so good regardless. (I doubt very sincerely that Syriac is helping my French in the least.) We have two translation projects in the class; one which will be a text the instructor provides, and the other which will be a text of our own choosing — the idea is that we read a piece of scholarship (or a piece of a piece — three pages maximum) in our own fields. As it works out, there’s an article Fr. John Meyendorff wrote called “Byzance: l’image du Christ d’après Théodore Studite,” and it’s exactly three pages long. Sounds like a winner to me.

Reading-wise — well, there’s a pile of books on my wife’s side of the bed (and yes, I mean on her side of the bed; it keeps me from getting used to taking up the whole mattress in her absence), and it contains some of the following:

  • The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev. Yes, still.
  • Sunday Matins in the Byzantine Cathedral Rite, Alexander Lingas. Yes, still (and I have, alas, confirmation from the publisher that this will not be released on 28 June, as I suspected, and they frankly have no idea when it will be published, characterizing it only as “severely delayed”).
  • The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form, Hans Urs von Balthasar. I will note the following fun statistics about this particular book: it is volume one of seven, this volume alone is six hundred pages plus, and the “introduction” is over a hundred pages. I’m reading this because somebody made the professional suggestion that my interests in particular will ultimately be a lot more marketable if I can tie Balthasar in somehow. What I will say for now is that I really hope that I’m not someday told that I can’t claim to have read this unless I’ve done so in German; it’s going slowly enough in English.
  • The Church of the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed Statement of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue.
  • An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus (as found in the Schaff-edited Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers series).
  • A Patristic Greek Reader, Rodney Whitacre.
  • Hands of the Saddlemaker, Fr. Nicholas Samaras. I wound up at Fr. Samaras’ (as he prefers to be called) parish for Divine Liturgy the last day I was in New York for the Fellowship conference; this is a good story which I will tell later.

I also have various and sundry writing projects happening, scholarly and otherwise, some of which I might actually complete before the entropic cessation of the universe’s existence. My notes and answer key for Hansen & Quinn unit 3 I might even have done more quickly than that.

I hope to be able to distill the Fellowship experience into a magazine aricle; Prof. William Tighe is already doing the write-up for Touchstone, but we’ll see.

…and that’s the news from Lake Wifebegone, where the air conditioner is always on, the kitchen table is always messy, and the house always feels empty.

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