Friday, 25 August 2017

Book Review: Theology of a Classless Society By Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios

Theology of a Classless Society
By Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios
ISBN: 0718824156
Price:  £89.95 (Amazon UK Marketplace)

I had been planning to buy and read this text for a number of years to have a further understanding of Mar Osthanasios’ political philosophy and his theological justification of it. Since in the summer I was visiting Kerala, I thought to take the opportunity to read this text since it is seen as one of his most famous works. As well as this, the text is often cited as an important English language work from the Indian Orthodox, especially with regards to concepts of social justice. With these in mind, I felt it important to read and understand.

The book is presented as an explanation of Mar Osthasios’ theory of the possibility of a classless society, demonstrated as Christian through use of theological examination with plenty of reference to the coequality of the trinity and Christ’s teachings on community. It is divided up based upon themes, from the outline of the theory, its application, to its theological justifications, with most of the book dedicated to the theological justification. Following on from this, Mar Osthasios gives a short question and answer section of the theory as well as a justification for his trinitarian terminology use which he states in the text as controversial.

Though I struggle with the premise of the book, a good strength of it is its resourcing. Mar Osthasios, having been educated under some of the most prominent Orthodox thinkers and secular philosophers of our time, puts a great deal of research into the sourcing and referencing of his work to support his theory. As well as this, the importance placed on the justification of his theory gives the book a sense of respect since regardless of your view on the theory you can sense the passion of the writer and it often draws you in. Though both of these are important points, I feel the greatest strength of this book is the writer’s awareness of the issues which people could raise with his theory. There is no sense of arrogance in the text, which is a rarity in political theology and many theological text. Mar Osthasios knows some people will scoff at the idea or at his theory’s application but wants you to know why he believes it. 

The major difficulty for me with this text lies in the theory itself and the way it is displayed. Though I admire the rigor and passion of Mar Osthasios in presenting his theory, I still feel that it is simply presented as a Christian Communism and is drawn too much on his admiration of communism as opposed to the theological and ecclesiological foundations it is claimed. An example of this comes in his ideas of application. He often compares his view to Liberation Theology and throughout the text he states his admiration for key thinkers of the movement without addressing its issues Theologically. He also states that he does not see communism as an answer since it is secular, however he then speaks in praise of Mao for being used by God as a tool to develop ideas of a classless society, comparing him to God’s use of Cyrus for the return of the Jews from exile without justifying the false equivalence here. 

The problem with this is that the Theological aspect seems to be simply a coating for the theory rather than its foundation, as demonstrated in his tracts on Jesus’ life and its links to a classless society, which would have given a perfect opportunity to evaluate the communist links in a more theological level but instead leaves them uncontrasted apart from the general “but that is secular” comment. As well as this, the Theological examples used are often vague and even risking heresy, which Mar Osthasios even admits when addressing his almost tritheistic view of trinity. To me this makes the book suffer greatly, since it slowly seems to reveal itself as less of a ‘Theology of a Classless Society’ and more of a ‘View of a Classless Society with a dash of Theology.’
Overall I would say that the text is a good one for looking at how Christian thinkers have attempted to address the issue of clearly unfair social practices and problems they have faced, however I cannot recommend it as a viable foundation to a theory of political theology since it fails to address a number of issues both theologically and politically which I feel undermine the theory and make it appear a simple communist text with a light coating of theology, one which has been seen in the past and has not seen itself aligned with the Ecclesiological or Theological standings of the Orthodox Church.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Book Review: On the Tree of the Cross: Georges Florovsky and the Patristic Doctrine of Atonement

On the Tree of the Cross: Georges Florovsky and the Patristic Doctrine of Atonement
Edited by Matthew Baker, Seraphim Danckaert and Nicholas Marinides
ISBN: 1942699093
Price: £23.02 (Amazon UK)

As an admirer of the works of Fr Georges Florovsky and the study of patristics in general, I have been eager to pick up a copy of this text for a while, a recent trip abroad gave me the opportunity to both buy and read this text through, and it was well worth the wait. It contains several great essays by prolific modern thinkers in Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism, spanning the centuries of the Early Church and Florovsky’s analysis of their thought.

As an essay collection, the book is split into different sections by different authors based on papers presented at a patristic symposium in honour of Florovsky held at  Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton University in 2011. These papers each cover a specific thinker’s view on the topic of atonement, along with links between the specific text or line of thought covered and how this view was understood in the work of Florovsky. A large of the text is dedicated to the specific debate between the western substitute view of atonement and the Orthodox ontological view, however this guiding line is demonstrated throughout to be somewhat polemical and not true of patristic thought. The book ends with a collection of Florovsky’s essays, some previously unpublished, on the subject.

As mentioned at the start, I am an admirer of Florovsky’s work and so seeing many current thinkers cover and discuss his work in the text was an enjoyable treat and a reminder of the splendid work being done by Orthodox thinkers in continuing Florovsky’s own patristic studies and the incorporation of the Neo-Patristic synthesis into modern theological questions. I especially enjoyed the sections by John Behr and Khaled Anatolios on Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius, knowing how both are seminal thinkers on these saints it was good to have their views on the matter of salvation analysed at this level. The book also demonstrates the great strives made in patristic study. Overall, the text is a great piece of work, compiling the work of some of the best modern Orthodox thinkers on a difficult and often misjudged area of study, using their patristic knowledge to contextualise the question of Atonement and tackle the various approaches made.

With regards to drawbacks of this book, the only major one which comes to mind is that it often raises more questions than it answers. This is not a flaw in the writing but a general problem which I find with books based on conferences of collections of papers. An example of this comes from its principle point of discussion on the Ontological vs Substitutory view of Christ’s Crucifixion. Due to the essays being from various writers and from various perspectives it gives different answers to the same questions, leaving many readers with no definitive Orthodox view on these matters.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the thoughts of the fathers on the matters of redemption and atonement or with an interest in the ideas and legacy of Georges Florovsky. The book is a great overview of the topic, utilising some of the major Orthodox thinkers and academic writers of this generation to tackle the question with both academic vigour and appreciation of the theological depth of the topic.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Book Review: Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion By Jonathan Clements

Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion
By Jonathan Clements
ISBN: 1472137418
Price: £13.48 (Amazon UK)

Japanese history has always been a topic I have had an interest in, though there are many aspects of this history which I have not had the opportunity to delve into. The events of the Shimabara Rebellion is one of these areas and so I jumped at the opportunity to pick up this text on the topic by the historian Jonathan Clements. The book is an overview of the events leading to and during the Shimabara Rebellion, tackling it from a multi-layered event in Japanese history as opposed to the traditional view of it as being a simple religious revolt by the Christians of the prefecture.

The text uses a chronological approach to the topic and starts with the introduction of Christianity to Southern Japan through the trade routes with westernised ports in China. It then traces the development of the Japanese Jesuit missions and communities and the difficulties in transmitting the faith. This analysis of the distinctively native form of Christianity and the way in which the Catholic faith was somewhat mutated by local elements entering the language and practices of the local uncatechised peasant communities adds an interesting dimension to the text, reminiscent of Endo’s “Silence” and his description of Japan as a swamp in which the Christian faith cannot grow.

The book then describes the political events leading to the persecution of Christians in japan and the subsequent development of small hidden communities in the islands of the South. Clements’ description of the descent through the use of specific characters of the era assist in creating a narrative and image for the reader. The rest of the book is dedicated to a carefully structured, play by play, image of the Shimabara Rebellion itself which gives the reader a well detailed account of the conflict with reference to contemporary witnesses and documents to show how both sides reacted to specific stimuli and events in the course of the eventual siege of Hara Castle.

The almost novel like narrative and use of contemporary witness accounts makes this book an easy and gripping read, showing Clements’ love of the topic and the people involved. When reading, it does not come off as simply a history book but invites the reader to engage with the characters in a way which is only deepened when the account is supported by quotations from the letters, reports and journals of the historical players themselves. In using this style of writing, Clements has created a historical run down which feels closer to a novel than a non-fiction piece and done so in a way which does not infringe on the academic integrity of the piece as evidenced in the primary sources littered throughout the book.

My only real gripe with the cook is the conclusion. The Shimabara rebellion, on which the book focuses, is given a build up of close to 75 pages outlining the rise and fall of the Jesuit order as a major player in Japanese politics at the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Following the conflict, only 19 pages are dedicated to its aftermath. Since Clements emphasises that the rebellion is not simply a religious one he seems to ignore any analysis of the impact of the sudden drop in population on the area or the importance of the conflict as a final fight for many aging Samurai. As well as this, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of the impact of this on wider religious freedom in Japan in the times between the rebellion and the Meiji Restoration. These two areas seem neglected here, especially when compared to the detail in which Clements covers them in the run up.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone interested in either the history of Christianity in the far east or in Japanese history generally. Clements has demonstrated that a history book can be both engaging and academic, and made it look easy. The book is one which is hard to put down and always has the reader wanting to see what happens next in this play by play walk through what was a fascinating and complex time in Japanese history.

Book Review: Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt By Febe Armanios

Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt
By Febe Armanios
ISBN: 0190247223
Price: £17.27
Febe Armanios’ book is one that I had been looking forward to reading for (literally) years. Whilst writing my Mth Thesis on the development of the Coptic Papal Election system one of the great difficulties was a lack of academic writing on the Coptic community during the Ottoman Era, and this text fills in the gap nicely, using sources from both Ottoman and Coptic records to give a broader understanding of the historical period and the community relations therein.

Armanios’ writing takes a thematic approach to the topic, looking at specific themes and historical instances during the Ottoman Era in Egypt in order to gain an insight into the place of the Coptic Church in society as well as the allowances and practices of the community in the Ottoman yoke. The text starts with a look at the sources available to us to do this, and raising the issue of lack of available sources to academics. It goes on to look at martyrdom stories and their impact on the community, pilgrimage and the development of rights and finally to cover the use of sermons to define Coptic identity during conflicts with missionaries from the Catholic and Protestant communities.

The structure of the text and its great insight into a very loosely explored period in Coptic history allows this book to demonstrate some great and original research into themes which have not been looked at. As well as this, Armanios’ approach to the topic and the readability through which she expresses her research allows the reader to access a vast historical landscape in an easy manner. This readability and originality makes Armanios’ book a great read and certainly one to be recommended to anyone with an interest in Coptic history or general Ottoman studies.

As for any weaknesses, the main one is one which Armanios herself addresses in the book. In the introduction she states that due to prejudices with regards to the period and a general lack of scholarship as to Coptic communal history the text can only give a broad overview of the period without delving into any of the subjects in further detail. Therefore to any specialist reader looking into a certain aspect of Coptic history or Ottoman history in Egypt it can seem too loose in areas, though this is not the fault of the writer but simply a symptom of a lack of academic resources available.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As mentioned, it is readable and original in its scholarship which allows it to be a text with a lot to offer the reader. I would recommend it to anyone looking to fill in this much misjudged gap in Coptic Historical studies and anyone with an interest in the development of modern Coptic society generally.

Making Lent Great Again: Some thoughts on Lenten Preparation

With Great Lent approaching I promised myself that I would write a few points on the subject both to prepare myself and to share with any others needing a boost in their own preparation. Whilst pondering this on the way home I decided to specifically look at how to make the Great Lent meaningful especially for those who take it with a touch of “oh, here comes the fast again…” and thus the title “Making Lent Great Again.”

Starting with the basics, what exactly is the Great Lent and why do we partake in it? Lent is the forty-eight-day period leading up to Feast of the Resurrection. The practice of fasting in preparation for this event is dated back to the Apostolic Era, where we see the likes of St Irenaeus of Lyon, St Athanasius the Apostolic and multiple other fathers of the Church write on the importance of holding a period of fasting to prepare ourselves spiritually for this event. By fasting we do not just speak of the abstinence from rich food, sexual contact and other temptations but the reduction of distractions from our spiritual lives to make way for acts and meditations which will prepare us for the remembering of Christ’s resurrection.

This distinction between the Orthodox practice of fasting and simply abstaining from foods is vital, it reminds us that the Great Lent is a journey in which we take take our full selves out of the busy modern life to seek the fullness of God once more. as St John Cassian reminds us that bodily fasting is useless unless accompanied by, “contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the scriptures, toil and manual labour.” Through these actions, we are given guidance as to how to remain focused on God and not on worldly distractions.
So what is the purpose of Lent? I have mentioned the historical reason for it existing and how it is a preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection but the real purpose of the period needs more examination. Fr Tadros Malaty explains how the period has a two-fold purpose for the Orthodox believer; to prepare us to fully experience the joy of the resurrection and to prepare us with practical repentance and teaching so that we may enter the feast with complete contrition of heart and understanding of the implications of the event. As St Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Romans, “then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
With this knowledge, We can now look at how to prepare ourselves for the fast. Firstly, preparing for Lent does not mean stacking our fridges with as many ‘meat substitutes’ as possible, as this is simply a way of trying to cheat at the fast. If your idea of Lent is “Today I ate Vege-Sausage and margarine mash instead of Sausage and mash, yay me,” then you have not begun to fast. Preparation for the fast is a matter of spiritual preparation for the fast as opposed to arming yourself with ways to avoid it having any impact at all. If you must try out new recipes or adapt then so be it, just remember that fasting is not about showing off your extravagant new cooking skills but placing things aside to focus on God.
Practically speaking a good way to start the journey of the Great Lent is to ensure that you lighten your timetable, this is difficult in a world where many of us work 12 hour days. Do this by working out what you should really be putting aside for your prayers in the first place. Whether this is that excess social engagement, that TV binging evening or the gaming that you enjoy on a far too regular basis. A practical development of a prayer rule is a good way to pick up a good habit. Ensure that you give yourself that hour or so a day with family to pray in the morning and evening, as well as other times if you can. Also ensure that you have time to read Scripture to achieve this sense of immersion in the lessons being passed on to us through this practice. It is appreciated that this is not always going to be smoothly, but as HH Pope Shenouda III reminds us “we must repair the results of our sins as much as we can,” we all miss the mark, it is how we respond and in not giving up that we grow. As lent passes and your praying of the hours and reading of Scripture becomes more of a natural part of your life you will feel this impact, as is the aim of the extended fasting period. This will also strengthen your spiritual life on the daily basis after the fast.
As well as this, remember that lent is a time of giving and for rejecting the material distractions of the world to be reminded of our priorities. Many have suggested practical ways of doing this, such as giving any excess money you would have used on the things you have on charitable endeavours or by giving up things to charity during this period such as old clothes. There are also many ways in which you can be more charitable in your nature. As lent is a time of prayer you can work to ensure that you pray for others or spend your excess time assisting those who need it. Charity is not always a matter of giving physically or financially, the greatest and sometimes most difficult of chartable acts that are carried out are those that cost nothing, as they demand us to give emotionally.
Finally, lent is a time for repentance. As mentioned previously, lent is the time in which we aim to prepare ourselves to fully experience the joy of the resurrection through practical repentance. We have already looked at three ways to do this; fasting, prayer and charity. Through our prayers and out focus on rejection of those things which have distracted us from God and our service of him, we are enabled to see our sins clearly. In working towards casting these things aside we can develop a better understanding of our own repentance. The great battle of repentance in the fast is something that Fr Matta El-Meskeen described as working towards, “an acceptance of the destruction of self,” through rejection of one’s own wants and desires to focus on God. Lent, with its emphasis on selflessness, gives us an edge in this battle and allows for the practical application of these various Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and charity to see one’s failings and develop ways to counter them as part of this journey in preparation to announce the resurrection of our Lord in full joy.
On this note, I will end this short piece and I hope that it has given you some ideas as to how you can ‘Make Lent Great Again’. I wish you all a blessed Lenten period, asking for whoever reads this to pray for me and my own efforts. I hope that this has been useful in some manner.
Dcn Daniel

Monday, 25 July 2016

Book Review: Why Can't They Get Along? A Conversation Between a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian By Dawoud El-Alami, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, George D. Chryssides

Why Can't They Get Along? A Conversation Between a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian
By Dawoud El-Alami, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, George D. Chryssides
Price: £9.99 (Amazon UK)

My wife have often scolded me for referring to some theological texts as objectively 'bad,' stating that my opinion on the book is not authoritative and simply an opinion. However, having now read this book I can say that there are some books which are objectively bad and this is one of them.

I picked up 'Why Can't They get Along?' a few weeks ago whilst away at a conference to give me something interesting to read on the train home. The premise of the book was an interesting one, with respected thinkers from the three Abrahamic Faiths giving overviews of their community's positions on certain areas of contention and then having a civilised discussion of the issue. Though ultimately doomed to produce agreement (since acceptance of something contrary is arguably rejection of the others) I felt was it as an interesting book to help me understand how to discuss matters with friends of other faiths and the book certainly makes for an interesting read on Islamic and Jewish approaches to matters of faith.

The text itself is split into four parts which are labelled Teachings, Practices, Ethics and Societal Issues. These themselves are split into four chapters on specifics which are discussed by the three authors. The structure of the writing is that it is introduced by one author from his community and then the other will state theirs, which then leads to the three each having an opportunity to comment on the issues raised. This makes a fair discussion between the authors and allows for them to touch on the issues as well as introducing their position with adequate space.

The discussion concept is however the biggest issue with the book, and there are many issues to discuss. Firstly, the concept of a text designed to allow some form of interfaith dialogue does not work in the way it intended. The book often seems to collapse into off topic attacks on one or two of the authors. This tends to start from an offhand comment by an author, for example bringing the Palestine conflict up when discussing the nature of God, to try and score cheap kicks. Considering that the book is supposed to be an academic text, this is disappointing.

As well as this, the caliber of the Christian discussion is quite simply dire. Having met both Dawoud El-Alami and Dan Cohn-Sherbok whilst studying is South Wales I know them to be reputable scholars of their respected faiths, something they demonstrate in the book by giving faith acknowledgement of the varying positions taken on matters. George Chryssides, on the other hand, does a poor job of representing Christianity and comes off as an extremely liberal and somewhat theologically inept clergyman.

Two examples of this are him being corrected in his Trinitarian Theology when he suggested that the sabellian approach to the trinity is the correct one, amusingly leading to Dan Cohn-Sherbok explaining that Sabellius was anathematised, and also his suggestion that very few Christians see anything in the Bible (including the virgin birth) as more than mythological devices with little regard to the doctrinal positions of communities such as the Orthodox Church or even that of the Creed, in which it is made clear that it is anathema to oppose that Christ was born of a Virgin. Both of these demonstrate either an unbearably liberal approach to the faith (where doctrinal positions are non-existent) or a very poor understanding of these matters and make the book almost unreadable to anyone who takes the Christian faith serious.

On a positive note, the book gives some amazing insight into the life and faith of Islam and Judaism and the conflicts that exist within these communities on matters of belief and practice. Put simply, the book would be marvellous if it were called 'Why Can't They Get Along? A Conversation Between a Muslim and a Jew' and the Christianity section was simply cut out. Both Dawoud El-Alami and Dan Cohn-Sherbok equally sell the premise of the book and do not pull punches when getting into controversial topics such as views on historical genocides, apostasy and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

For the reasons covered above, I would sadly not recommend this book to anyone unless they simply wanted to know more about Judaism and Islam. As someone that enjoys Theological texts (and reviewing them) I almost refused to finish this book due to the awfully misrepresented character and theology of Christianity portrayed in the book. I would go as far as to recommend it be renamed ‘Why Can't They Get Along? A Muslim and a Jew demonstrate why Christians need to learn Theology before they open their mouths about it. ’ Because of this, I found the book dishonest and lacking in any theological discussion of value to the Christian so there is no way I could recommend it to others who seek a genuine text of this nature.