Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Book Review: ‘Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today’ By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

‘Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today’
By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
ISBN: 9780385518130
Price: £12.50 (Amazon UK)

People often say that a New Year requires a new perspective, new goal or new beginning to life. I do not prescribe to that idea in any formal way but it is always a blessing to have your eyes opened to a new approach or perspective on matters you have studied for years, especially when you realise that some complex explanations can in fact be so simple that you missed the core all along. This is pretty much the impact that this book has had, it has not drawn any significant new information for me but has demonstrated the simplicity and beauty of the Orthodox Faith in a way that other introductory texts never got close to.

The book, by HAH Bartholomew, is a brilliantly personalised introduction to the Orthodox Faith which covers many aspects of Orthodoxy alongside their importance and role in the modern world. The main aspects of the text cover the Topics of History, Iconology & Liturgy, Theology, Monasticism, Sacraments, Iconology, Freedom and Justice. The first five of these focus on major factors of the Orthodox faith and allowing the reader a basis in which to tackle the modern moral issues raised in the other four (as well as the epilogue.) This way it provides both an introduction to the faith and allows the reader to understand its relevance in addressing modern issues, giving a basis for developing the faith within the modern world. Though this focus on ‘Orthodox living’ means there is no deep coverage of such matters as Christology and other such aspects, I feel that this does not take away from the book as a whole with regards to its use as an introductory text.

Due to this structure, I find the book unique amongst introductory texts which, when speaking in terms of history and the modern world, usually tend to focus on the History of the Church followed by some small chapter on the Church today rather than starting with a few pages on History and then expressing Orthodox approaches to the modern world. This makes the book extremely readable as a personal account on these issues by H.A.H rather than a generic ‘This is where we come from and this is what we believe’ introduction to Orthodox Christianity.
This personal aspect is also one of the draws of the more doctrinal explanations of the book, with H.A.H ending many explanations of theological concepts with a short anecdote or personal note from his own life such as comments regarding his fondness of his personal chapel and liturgies in the smaller Churches in the Patriarchal Complex. This can allow the reader to develop a further appreciation for the beauty of the Orthodox Faith and the important impact of these key factors of the Faith on the life of the individual as opposed to simply having ideas explained to them. 

Though I have listed a number of strengths of the book, I would have to say that the simplicity of the writing is its biggest draw. As someone who has studied theology academically for over a dozen years and taught it for the past five, it is always an awkward moment to realise that the concept that you spent 20 minutes explaining to a group of 16 year olds only a few weeks ago can be outlined in the most beautiful language in less than a page. In this way, the book is accessible to people of all levels of understanding and makes a great introductory text for those with little grasp of technical language or little intention to study the more in depth points of theology. To put it simply, it is a book written from experience of living the faith which is a viewpoint missed by many in a world of bitesize Theology websites and podcasts. 

Alhough the book is a great introduction to living the Orthodox Faith, the one issue that I would raise is based on the book’s suggestions to some of the issues it raises, an example of this being in the Ecology section. H.A.H is commonly referred to as ‘The Green Patriarch’ for his admirable approach to environmentalism, though the book seems to play out his respect for the environment in a more idealistic way than other texts. This approach also enters into some of the other sections and though this provides some insight into the spiritual aspects of all areas of life it can seem overbearing when reading it from the position of the layman.

Overall I would certainly recommend the text to anyone beginning to take an interest in Orthodoxy, and it may well replace HE Metropolitan Kallistos’ text as my first choice for a number of new enquirers, however the text also provides a refreshing approach to living the Faith for other Orthodox readers and is certainly a healthy addition to my bookshelf.

1 comment:

  1. He overdoes the environmentalism bit which has become its own religion. Liberals tend to worship the Creator's creation but only pay lip service to the Creator.