Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Book Review: Orthodox Constructions of the West by George Democopoulos and Aristotle Pakanikolaou

Orthodox Constructions of the West
By George Democopoulos and Aristotle Pakanikolaou
ISBN: 0823251934
Price £22.99

Amongst Orthodox Christians today, one of the most common terms used when discussing comparative Theology is “The West.” This will be used as all-encompassing term to refer to various Theological and political positions taken by Catholic and Protestant thinkers, especially targeting the Roman Catholic Church. Amongst the Byzantine community, the term is especially common when discussing anything which is not Orthodox or something which is the opposite in value to Orthodoxy. This term often used but never analysed to determine its accuracy.

The book Orthodox Constructions of the West is a collection of essays from contemporary Historians and Theologians which seeks to analyse and deconstruct the mythologies created by Orthodox polemicists regarding the ‘folk devil’  concept of the West. This is achieved through a deep analysis of the historical conflicts between Christian communities in the past and the ways in which this contributed to this cultural split and the way in which it has been expanded through the ages by writers. Some of the articles which were extremely interesting were The Orthodox naming of the Other and The image of the West in Contemporary Greek Theology as well as various writings on the subject of ‘The West’ from the perspective of political science.

A key strength of this book is that it is a positive step in opening reflecting on the use of folk devils in the Orthodox community and shows the academic challenge to the growing market for polemic writings. As Dr Peter Bouteneff explains, it “represents a significant step in the direction of self-reflection and self-criticism” which Orthodox writers have lacked over time. This strength of the book as a scholarly analysis of this issue of east/west relations makes it an interesting read for the academically minded who feel frustrated by ongoing polemics under the guise of Theological correctness.

On the other hand, the understanding tone of the text is sometimes too generous to the point of severely understating issues. An example of this is the discussion of the reading of St Thomas Aquinas amongst early modern Russians, seeing the positive way in which they read him as a demonstration of Theological acceptance. This approach ignores the theological issues wmerging from the reading for the sake of amicability. This may put many off reading this, seeing the text as simple ecumenist writing, leaving the book’s credibility damaged regardless of the clear scholarly benefits it provides as a whole.

Overall, Orthodox Constructions of the West is a well compiled collection of texts which allow for an open and scholarly dialogue to develop between Orthodox Christians and Catholics on the so called ‘East-West divide.’ It provides a useful resource when looking at the complicated history of the use of ‘The West’ to mean the essence of ‘the other’ and a fascinating multi-faceted analysis of this, from the political to the Theological. Though I would not recommend the book to the average reader, it is an interesting source for Orthodox academics who wish to verse themselves in the complexities of this issue.

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