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Angelico Press asked me last winter to read in mss form a short little book that is now in my hands in published form: Hanna Skandar, Love is a Radiant Light: The Life and Works of St. Charbel, trans. W.J. Melcher (Angelico, 2019), 116.

As I said in my blurb, it is a short little book whose virtue consists in getting directly to the point, reminding us in pithy and pellucid sayings and examples of the clear and eternal truths of the gospel.

The publisher further tells us this about the book:
"A man who prays lives out the mystery of existence, and a man who does not pray scarcely exists." Thus writes St. Charbel Makhlouf (1828-1898), a Maronite monk and priest from Lebanon whose reputation for sanctity spread widely during his life, and whose heavenly intercession has worked countless miracles after his death. St. Charbel's homilies and proverbs are reminiscent of the sayings of the Desert Fathers: simple, homespun, and direct, yet shining and profound. "Success in life consists of standing without shame before God."
This holy monk speaks from a reservoir of silence about the fundamentals of the Faith and targets the temptations facing all Christians today: the flight from suffering, excessive attachment to comforts, pride over accomplishments, complacency, factiousness, substituting talk for action, fear of proclaiming the truth in an age of hostile unbelief. Alert to the reality of spiritual warfare, St. Charbel calls each one of us to hold fast to the Cross, "the center of the universe and the key to heaven," and defy the devil who seeks our ruin. This collection of some of the most beautiful words spoken by St. Charbel is augmented by a short biography that will bring him to the attention of those who have not yet made his acquaintance or profited from his wisdom.
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With all this incessant and self-congratulatory remembrance about the moon landings going on just now, the tedium of which is most intolerable to those of us unmoved to fetishize floating rocks access to which costs a wholly unjustifiable sum better spent fixing earthly problems, I am reminded of a delightful book I have mentioned on here often before--but not for some time--which deserves a renewed audience: Juliet de Boulay, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village

There are fascinating insights galore in her book--about "hatch, match, and dispatch" customs; the latter, funerary customs, are especially interesting. She shows, time and again, how loosely the villagers wove together their Orthodox Christianity with beliefs and practices one might be tempted to call "pagan."

But along the way Boulay, who was in Greece doing her research at the time of the moon landings, documents how many people there utterly refused to believe in them, thinking the whole thing an enormous fabrication.
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When, in the latter part of the 1980s, I was first learning about ecological issues and the Church's possible role in them, I came across the name of the Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Berry, whose writings on ecological stewardship long seem to have predated comparable writings on the same themes by, e.g., the bishops of either old or new Rome, or other Catholic and Orthodox figures generally.

Now Berry is the subject of a full-length biography I look forward to reading: Thomas Berry: A Biography by Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal (Columbia University Press, 2019), 360pp.

Thomas Berry (1914–2009) was one of the twentieth century’s most prescient and profound thinkers. As a cultural historian, he sought a broader perspective on humanity’s relationship to the earth in order to respond to the ecological and social challenges of our times. This first biography of Berry illuminates his remarkable vision and its continuing relevance for achieving transformative social change and environmental renewal.
Berry began his studies in Western history and religions and then expanded to include Asian and indigenous religions, which he taught at Fordham University, Barnard College, and Columbia University. Drawing on his explorations of history, he came to see the evolutionary process as a story that could help restore the continuity of humans with the natural world. Berry urged humans to recognize their place on a planet with complex ecosystems in a vast, evolving universe. He sought to replace the modern alienation from nature with a sense of intimacy and responsibility. Berry called for new forms of ecological education, law, and spirituality, as well as the creation of resilient agricultural systems, bioregions, and ecocities. At a time of growing environmental crisis, this biography shows the ongoing significance of Berry’s conception of human interdependence with the earth as part of the unfolding journey of the universe.
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Too much of monastic history and practice is traduced today by people who seem to feel (as the useful phrase has it) they can magic up a solution to problems in Church and world alike. Careful study of monastic history, theology, and structures, as well as attendance upon the broader problems of historiography and the relationship between history and theology, is one way to avoid some of these traps. A recent book by a well-respected author will assist in this: The I.B. Tauris History of Monasticism:The Eastern Tradition by John Binns (I.B. Tauris, 2018), 336pp.

Binns is the author of, inter alia, the recent study, The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia as well as Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine 314-631.

About this new book on monasticism, the publisher tells us the following:

For all its rich history in the Latin lands, Christian monasticism began in the east; and it is from the third-century Egyptian wilderness that the wellsprings of monastic culture and spirituality can most directly be sourced. This essential companion to the corresponding I.B.Tauris volume on the western tradition thus begins with St Anthony, the 'Father of Monks', who retreated with his disciples into the scorched Eastern Desert. Anthony inspired the former Roman conscript Pachomius (292-348 CE) to establish a monastery for men and women and devise a formal rule. Such community monasticism then brought cells of hermits together into a federalised structure where property was held in common under an abbot or abbess.
John Binns shows how the Orthodox community of Mount Athos and the western Rule of St Benedict were alike strongly influenced by the austerity and sanctity that began with the original Desert Fathers and also by the organisational efforts of Pachomius. This vivid, authoritative account traces the four main branches of eastern Christianity, up to and beyond the Great Schism of 1054.
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With chapters by Orthodox scholars such as John Behr, Peter Bouteneff, and Mary Cunningham, as well as many other riches, this is yet another Oxford handbook that no serious library will want to be without: The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation, eds., Paul M. Blowers and Peter W Martens (Oxford UP, July 2018), 784pp.

About this hefty collection the publisher tells us this:
The Bible was the essence of virtually every aspect of the life of the early churches. The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation explores a wide array of themes related to the reception, canonization, interpretation, uses, and legacies of the Bible in early Christianity. Each section contains overviews and cutting-edge scholarship that expands understanding of the field. 
Part One examines the material text transmitted, translated, and invested with authority, and the very conceptualization of sacred Scripture as God's word for the church. Part Two looks at the culture and disciplines or science of interpretation in representative exegetical traditions. Part Three addresses the diverse literary and non-literary modes of interpretation, while Part Four canvasses the communal background and foreground of early Christian interpretation, where the Bible was paramount in shaping normative Christian identity. Part Five assesses the determinative role of the Bible in major developments and theological controversies in the life of the churches. Part Six returns to interpretation proper and samples how certain abiding motifs from within scriptural revelation were treated by major Christian expositors.
The overall history of biblical interpretation has itself now become the subject of a growing scholarship and the final part skilllfully examines how early Christian exegesis was retrieved and critically evaluated in later periods of church history. Taken together, the chapters provide nuanced paths of introduction for students and scholars from a wide spectrum of academic fields, including classics, biblical studies, the general history of interpretation, the social and cultural history of late ancient and early medieval Christianity, historical theology, and systematic and contextual theology. Readers will be oriented to the major resources for, and issues in, the critical study of early Christian biblical interpretation.

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I briefly met the author of this new book when I was in Romania in January for the inaugural IOTA conference. Carrie Frederick Frost was and perhaps still is one of the officers of the International Orthodox Theological Association as well as the author of Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East (Paulist Press, 2019), 144pp. About the book the publisher tells us this:

In Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East, Carrie Frederick Frost places Orthodox Christian sources on motherhood icons, hymns, and prayers into conversation with each other. In so doing, she brings an anchored vision of motherhood to the twenty-first century especially the embodied experience of motherhood.
Along the way, Frost addresses practices of the Church that have neglected mother s bodies, offering a insight for others who also choose to live within truth-bearing but flawed traditions. Whether female or male, whether mothers or not, whether mothers adoptive or biological we each make our appearance in the cosmos through a maternal body; our mother s body gives us our own body. In these bodies we live our lives and find our way into the next. From the unexpected and fresh vantage point of the maternal body, Frost offers new ways of understanding our incarnate experience as humans and better cultivating a relationship with our Creator.
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As I have noted on here from the beginning, Western interest in Byzantine iconography has been growing for at least two decades now. One of the best books to introduce the area to Latin Catholics is Jeana Visel's Icons in the Western Church, which I am using later this week with some high-school students coming to the University of Saint Francis for almost a week in which they will learn about the history and theology of images, interact with university faculty from across all disciplines, and then paint their own icons with the help, and under the guidance, of Lorie Herbel, who has done this now three years in a row, and is just a wonderful teacher.
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Catholic apologists make much hay insisting that faith is not magic, and is compatible with reason. Catholics frequently talk about their own intellectual tradition as something very considerable, demonstrating a long tradition of thinking about big questions in a rigorous and serious way. And yet, when it comes to the ongoing abuse of sex, money, and power in the Church today, the default for virtually all bishops, and most others, is to magic up some spiritualized solution that will in fact solve nothing: just pray and fast more, little children! (The other, equally fatuous, approach is to scapegoat: if only we didn't have all these gays, or this "heretical" pope, or these bad bishops, or these "lavender mafias" then everything would be grand.)

There is no serious reasoning here. It is partial, ideological, and blind. One can cite, week after week, examples of this magical "thinking," this infantile exercise in wish fulfillment exactly as Freud demonstrated. It comes from those who identify as liberal, progressive, conservative, and traditional--and just about everyone in-between. This time it comes from Phoenix, whose bishop published his weekly column, ostensibly offering practical solutions for people to overcome these crises. While claiming that "problems and crises must not be over-spiritualized," he does exactly that by mindlessly rehearsing all the same old procedures in place for years now which have not prevented the crisis, and then by even more mindlessly exhorting people to just somehow believe more! believe harder! have stronger faith!

What is absent, of course, is any admission of what bishops should do, both immediately and by way of long-term reform. Instead, it's the usual pious guff designed to deflect from their own culpable wickedness and to inflict guilt on the people of God in the usually pathological way we have come to expect from hierarchs. (The Spanish Jesuit psychoanalyst Carlos Dominguez-Morano is the absolute best person here for diagnosing these psychopathological dynamics masquerading as piety.)

Thus the Latin ordinary of Phoenix claims: "Scandals are the manifestation of a crisis of faith. Therefore, scandals will be healed by strong faith, spiritual courage and heroic confidence in our Lord." This, as I argued here, is a tendentious and obvious twisting of the very meaning of "scandal," which today only means one thing: bad PR for the bishop.

And as I argued in Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, drawing on Dominguez-Morano and others, the fetish for "spiritualized" solutions reflects a crypto-monophysite ecclesiology which will only continue to harm the Church.

Rather than indulging in this nonsense, what is needed is to begin to talk about power, about structures, and about the unhistorical and theologically unjustifiable monopoly on power held by hierarchs and clerics in the Church today.

My book, taking with deadly seriousness the Church's teaching on original sin, is guided by one adamantine principle: nobody, at any point and for any reason, in any organization--the Church or otherwise--should ever have a monopoly on power. The lure of libido dominandi (original sin's chief and perennially tempting manifestation) is too great, and ordination does nothing to lessen it (another form of magical thinking). The reforms we must begin to put in place in the Church today must ensure going forward that nobody ever again has a monopoly on decision-making power--whether over the appointment of parish clergy, the diocesan budget, or any other major matter.

Laics, clerics, and hierarchs must learn to hold each other accountable. Absent this, the abuse crisis will continue sine die.
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In a time when Confederate monuments are being torn down, other colonial and imperial figures erased from university campuses, and now a mural in San Francisco being covered up, I pause only to note an invaluable book by James Noyes that many years ago laid out with pellucid cogency this rule: whenever iconoclasm breaks out, it is always a prelude to a new politics. 

Unlike many books treating iconoclasm, which often confine themselves to the so-called Byzantine outbreaks of the eighth-ninth centuries, Noyes' book, The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence, and the Culture of Image Breaking in Christianity and Islam, takes a wide and fascinating approach, showing the outbreak of image smashing in a variety of Christian and Muslim contexts ancient and modern, and also in 20th-century politics in Germany and Russia, inter alia. These latter outbreaks were tied directly to the rise of revolutionary politics in and after 1917 in Russia, and the rise of Nazism after 1933 in Germany. Both destroyed old images and art and replaced it with that of their own devising for obviously political purposes.

The same is no less true today whenever the demand is made for historical memorials or other art forms to be effaced, erased, removed, or destroyed. For some people perhaps more than others, "we suffer from our reminiscences," as Freud famously said.

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Say what many will about Freud, he seems, relative to Jung and Lacan, to have been a far more faithful husband and far less destructive father. Indeed, I would put that more strongly, based on reading, inter alia, Paul Roazen's invaluable books: Freud seems to have had a very charming domestic life as a rather conservative member of the upper middle-classes of Vienna. Lunch times were, many reported, including Oskar Pfister, a warm, languid opportunity to indulge in unhurried and wide-ranging conversation about all manner of topics without embarrassment. All the hoary ideas of him as some kind of sexually libertarian revolutionary find no support in how he lived his life.

Not so Lacan. I've tried off and on to read him over the years, but never with any success. What little I have read of and about him has consistently made him sound like an over-rated wanker who mistook obscurity for profundity, and recondite jargon and graphics for any serious or concrete insight.

He does not improve after reading the most recent London Review of Books, where we find L.O. Rowlands' review of A Father: Puzzle, written by Sibylle Lacan and translated by A.N. West (MIT Press, 2019), 92pp., This odd memoir of sorts makes Lacan appear by now completely unattractive. It seems impossible to understand his relationship to her other than a lifelong sadistic dangling of interest, affection, and attention that was quickly retracted, slowly driving her mad. He eventually recommended she go into analysis, but then ended up sleeping with his daughter's analyst. In the end, Sibylle killed herself.

Andrew Preston has a long and fascinating review of Michael Cotey-Morgan's new book The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War (Princeton University Press, 2018), 424pp. The negotiations dragged on for so long and were so complicated, requiring the presence of so many people, that they ended up moving from Helsinki, judged to have inadequate and insufficient facilities for all the delegations, to Geneva. Precisely because of their complexity and length, most governments in the West and Soviet bloc alike seem to have taken their eyes off the ball, and misjudged what ought to have been top priorities for each vis-a-vis the other. In the end, it is suggested that both sides underestimated the consequences of several of the agreements, and that doing so would prove costly to the Soviets in ways they never expected.

Along the way there are amusing anecdotes, not least about the chef de mission for France. His government, like apparently all the others, lost interest in the endlessly complicated discussions, and apparently begged for far fewer documents to be sent home regularly. So he devised an ingenious method for making things work: at the end of the week, he would send, each Friday, a list of questions for further instruction back to Paris. Then he got on a plane from Geneva, flew to Paris, went into his office Monday morning, answered all his own questions with fresh instructions on how to proceed, and returned to Geneva!

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