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