Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita.

Mystagogy (Cistercian Studies)Mystagogy by Alexander Golitzin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love this book. It also infuriates me. The biggest problem with the book is the frequent use of foreign words and phrases that are neither transliterated, translated, or defined. This makes large sections of the book unintelligible to the educated lay reader. This, in my opinion, makes the book a vanity project, one written by an academic to impress fellow academics. It is irritating to have to use an online Greek typewriter to type in συνεργεια, then copy it into Google translate to discover that it means synergy. To make sense of this book, as good as it is, means I have to do this for almost every paragraph. It is ironic that a book intending to explain Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite ends up being harder to read than Dionysius himself.

To be fair, this may be a problem with the editor rather than the author. If I was the editor, I would insist all foreign words be transliterated and translated. I would also insist that all foreign phrases be translated in the footnotes.

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A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s not often I’ll read a book and bust a gut laughing. Most written humor isn’t worth more than a chuckle. This book is different.

Perhaps it is my upbringing as the son of a former logger, who used to tell tales of hiking to camp for the season with a Franklin stove strapped to his back, or as the grandson of a miner who on a Friday night would run 10 miles down the mountains to play piano in a dance band, then run back up the mountain in time for work the next morning. Every summer our family used to drive up abandoned logging roads and climb directly over mountains (instead of around them) to reach a mountain lake situated almost exactly at 10,000 ft in elevation. If you got there too early in June or too late in August, you risked being snowed in. The weather was below freezing at night, sometimes hot during the day, and could change from warm and sunny to snow within minutes. This was what we called fun.

I remember one summer my father took a friend and I camping. We hiked quite a ways along a trail before stopping for the night. Shortly after making camp, a group of young men arrived, made camp, and commenced drinking, swearing, and generally doing what young, unaccompanied young men do. My father put on his boots, his cowboy hat, and his .45 revolver, then walked into their camp and invited them to leave. Within minutes, they were gone.

When I tell you this book rings true, you can believe me. I know what it is like to be overweight, out of shape, and stupidly attempting things that young men would be wary of. I saw my father do it over and over again. And I remember when he, like Stephen Katz in the book, would begin deliriously divesting himself of various gear, comestibles, and assorted clothing. It’s only after hiking uphill to almost 12,000 ft that you suddenly realize you don’t need that second cast aluminum skillet, or that huge roll of 6 mil plastic, or that bag of Quikrete you intended to use to route a spring to a place nearer to the campsite.

When I tell you I laughed out loud, it is because I recognized something of myself, my father, and our silly exploits in this book.

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Doubt in the Face of God

Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peaceWhy I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace by Frank Schaeffer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Prophet Job declared: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” And yet it was the same Job also stated: “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. …Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” This is the same Job who cries out: “Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?”

The prophet Job is conflicted. He rejoices in God, and has hope in the bodily resurrection. And yet at the same time he curses the day he was born to this life of trouble, this life of sin and strife. Why does God give light and life to a man, only to have him suffer torment. Why?

Let Job stand in for humanity, and you have the human condition. The torments of Job are the torments of us all. Even when things are going well, we know things could turn on a dime. And, ultimately, we all die. So what is the point of it all?

And yet there are great books, there is beautiful music, and there is the sort of love that transcends this mortal coil, that brings us out of ourselves and points the way to — to what exactly? We don’t really know, except to say that everything in our human experience tells us this material existence cannot be all there is. For if we as humans know love and beauty, and if we recoil at horror and death, then we know that none of this makes sense if this material world is all there is. For death is normal, it comes to us all. We cannot escape death; all we can do it try to rise above it before it takes us all. And yet what does it mean to rise above it, if this material world is all there is? Why bother trying? Why not do as Job’s wife suggested — why not curse God and die?

We have our dreams, our desires, and our doubts. Does God exist? Well no, God does not exist in the same way we exist. If there is indeed a God, this God must stand apart from this existence. This God must transcend this world of matter and energy in the same way that art, love, and companionship transcend our mortal existence — the same way art, love, and companionship provide our lives with meaning and purpose. Is God good? Well no, not in the way we think of good, as something defined in terms of our lives, something that provides benefit to the things we appreciate and the persons we love. The goodness of God, if indeed it exists, cannot be defined on our terms; the greater cannot be defined in terms of the lesser.

And so, as Frank Schaeffer writes, we can doubt the love of God, the goodness of God, and indeed the existence of God — or at the very least the certainties provided by our faith communities — while still seeing signs of the existence of God all around us. We can taste God in the flesh of a freshly picked tomato on a warm summer’s day; we can hear God in the laughing of grandchildren; we can see God in the faces of those who know us best, and love us anyway.

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Neither Will I Tell You…

Neither Will I Tell YouNeither Will I Tell You… by Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this volume, Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica uses the three states of the spiritual life as an interpretive lens on scripture. As the spiritual Father of a monastic community, Metropolitan Nahum addresses these homilies to monks. The reader needs to keep this in mind while reading, as exegesis, explanation, and exhortation meant for monks is not always generally applicable to those of us ‘in the world’, so to speak.

Metropolitan Nahum lays out the three stages of the spiritual life as follows: the purification of the heart; the illumination of the mind; and deification. He uses these three stages in a variety of ways, including applying them to the three orders of the clergy. One who has mastered deification is ready to be ordained as a deacon; one who has mastered illumination is ready to be ordained as a presbyter; and one who has attained deification is ready to be ordained as a bishop. He also points out that the three stages of the spiritual life are ‘determined solely by the quality of prayer’.

Metropolitan Nahum provides a wonderful service with his description of three different methods of interpreting Scripture: the Alexandrian school, which uses parables and allegory; the Antiochian school, which uses history and ethics; and what he calls the ‘Hagiorite-Macedonian School’, which focuses on the systematization and harmony of Orthodox spiritual life.

Metropolitan Nahum of Stumica is part of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which is out of communion with the rest of the Orthodox Church. The reasons for this are primarily political; when the Macedonian government inserted itself into the discussions between the Macedonian and the Serbian Orthodox Churches, the Macedonian Orthodox Church broke off discussions. Apparently this was done to keep the church free from political and nationalistic machinations. I say this neither to condemn nor absolve, but merely to provide context for those who might otherwise question the wisdom of reading this book.

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Turning East

Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (Orthodox Christan Profiles)Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith by Rico Vitz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fascinating book. Each of the philosophers provides some rationale for being Orthodox, finding in Orthodoxy a way to resolve — or at least come to grips with — the antimonies that are all around us. While this is no formal apologetic for Orthodoxy, yet it is interesting to find Western intellectuals coming to terms with the limitations of materialism, rationalism, and the academic method. One common theme is that the Western model of philosophy is purely intellectual, whereas for the ancient philosophers it was about discovering the right way to live, and therefore a way of life. Another theme is that the western method of doing theology is really philosophizing about theology, as opposed to theology as a lived out faith.

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Facts vs. Faith, and Faith’s Seeming Fragility

The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It)The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong by Thom Stark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Faith can be a fragile thing. It is possible to lose your faith when confronted by facts that don’t fit into your mental model. With that in mind, I cannot recommend this book to my Protestant friends, particularly those who are inextricably wedded to a literalistic interpretation of the bible. This book has the potential to change your perception of scripture and, with nothing to replace it, destroy your faith.

The Bible is not what we are so often told it is, particularly when we claim to be biblical literalists and interpret the text solely according to the historical-grammatical method. The fact is that no one is a biblical literalist, as the author aptly demonstrates. What are we to make of the evidence that our scriptures contain multiple points of view about who God is? About the existence of other gods? And even (God forbid) child sacrifice? The fact that we explain these away instead of taking them at face value is evidence that we are spiritualizing the scriptures, reading into them our point(s) of view.

If we come face to face with the obvious differences of opinion within scripture regarding fundamental things, what are we to do? For many, having no explanation and unable to integrate what they know into their religious perspective, they lose their faith. I don’t think that is what the author is trying to do, yet the author exposing these issues without providing a completely satisfactory solution.

Most of what Thom Stark describes is known to the Christian world — just not the Protestant world, and in particular the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. For most of the world’s Christians, the Bible is Sacred Scripture because the Church says it is. The Bible was written within the Church, declared to be scripture by that same Church, and interpreted within and by that Church on the basis of a living Holy Tradition (also known as the general consensus of the Church Fathers).

When Peter wrote that Paul’s letters were scripture, which ones? Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians; we have only the second and the fourth. Again, in Ephesians 4:15,16 Paul tells the Ephesians to read in church the epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans. The missing Pauline epistles were determined by the Church not to be scripture, while others became part of the New Testament.

Thom Stark contrasts the literalist, historical-grammical hermeneutic with three other hermeneutical methods of dealing with problem texts, each of which come up wanting. These are the allegorical, the canonical, and the subversive readings.

Stark recognizes that those employing the allegorical method recognize the problematic nature of some texts (particularly the genocidal narratives of the conquest of Canaan), yet argues that when this reading becomes the traditional meaning, it prevents people from confronting the problem texts directly, and dooms us to repeat the conquest narratives (as in the Crusades, the Colonial era, and Manifest Destiny) instead of learning their lessons.

The Canonical Method recognizes that the scripture was created within, by, and for the community of faith. Stark argues that the determination of what is and is not scripture was not created by the faith community, but by the elites within that community. The argument seems to be that because the process was not democratic, it may be that the elites chose those scriptures most amenable to their point of view and the maintenance of their status. This is a highly problematic argument, as it reads the modern western culture back into the situation as it existed in the past. Moreover, it ignores the fact that in the early church, bishops were sought out for persecution; some early records show that the term of a bishop was typically in the low single digits, and bishops often died as martyrs. To be elevated to the position of bishop was, in many cases, a death sentence. And finally, the idea that the Holy Spirit moved within the community of faith apart from the bishop was foreign to the early church.

The Subversive Method points out that in many cases a meaning can be given to a text that subverts its obvious meaning. In some cases this is justified; the Revelation of St. John is full of coded language suggesting the end and judgement of the Roman Empire. Even Jesus’ call to ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” has a subversive message—since everything ultimately belongs to God, nothing rightfully belongs to Caesar. But it is possible to subvert the subversive message to justify confiscatory taxation, as took place in the Byzantine Empire, and under the Medieval popes. It is also possible to use scripture to justify racism, slavery, polygamy, and the subjugation of women.

Stark offers an alternative approach: viewing certain texts as condemned texts. Their status as scripture would be precisely because of what they reveal about us, and about what they fail to say about God. Under this reading, the text is valuable as an example of what not to do and how not to think. For example, few Fundamentalists think the fatalistic message of Ecclesiastes is an example for us to follow, but rather an example of just where an idolatrous and hedonistic life ends up. So too we don’t accept Satan as a role model to follow, even though his seven-fold “I will” is recorded in the book of Isaiah.

What Stark fails to recognize is the vibrancy of Holy Tradition as a guide for the interpretation of the text. The fathers recognized the problematic nature of some of scripture; not only that, but they wrote about it, and we use their writings today to help us deal with the same problems. We don’t hide these texts away, we don’t pretend they don’t exist, and we don’t explain them away. Just as the church has determined the canon of Sacred Scripture, so too the church has passed on the methodology of dealing with problem texts. This methodology is different on a case by case basis. In fact, there are competing hermeneutics within Holy Tradition, just as there are competing views about God within Sacred Scripture. None of this is either a revelation or a problem for the Orthodox. All the hermeneutics described by Stark are present to some degree or another, in some place or another, within Holy Tradition.

I finish this review as I began. If you are a Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestant, avoid reading this book, as you lack the cognitive framework for dealing with the information.

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Redating the New Testament

Redating the New TestamentRedating the New Testament by John A.T. Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bishop Dr. John A. T. Robinson (1919-1983) was a thoroughgoing theological modernist. He began writing this book as a theological exercise, as “little more than a theological joke”. At some point he asked himself “why any of the books of the New Testament needed to be put after the fall of Jerusalem in 70.” He notes that none of the books make any reference (actual or metaphorical) to the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event. He contrasts this with the apocryphal books, with their use of the earlier destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians standing in for the recent Roman actions. (Robinson contrasts the restrained style of the canonical books with the more flamboyant and detailed post-event writings of II Baruch, II Esdras, and the Sibylline Oracles.) Ultimately he supports the (then shocking) conclusion that none of the New Testament books were written after 70 A.D. (C.E., for those with scholarly pretensions).

One of Robinson’s contributions is to draw attention to the chains of inferences and preconceptions that are used by those arguing for the late dating of the canonical New Testament scriptures. That there is no reason to accept the late dates becomes increasingly clear as these preconceptions are dealt with and swept aside.

What is also clear is that Robinson (as a theological modernist), has no conception of the church or tradition as an authority. He, like most western theologians since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, view the authors of scripture primarily as competing individuals rather than as part of the Church. He has difficulty accepting the authors of scripture as people who cooperated in the proclamation and promulgation of the Gospel.

To the western scholar and theologian, the questions of who wrote what and when are quite important. However, for the Eastern Church, the question of who wrote what is subordinate to the question of inspiration and canonicity. Where the modern scholar might look askance at seeming interpolations such as the ending chapter of the Gospel of Mark, within the Eastern Church this interpolation is not a problem, because the Church determined that the supposed (and probable) interpolation is part of inspired scripture. Thus the question of whether the apostle Peter wrote the epistle of II Peter is unimportant, despite its being the subject of never-ending speculation on the part of the theological liberals.

Yet Robinson does the Church a great service by laying bare the ephemeral nature of the claims that many of the New Testament writings were not written by their ascribed authors. He notes that the claims based on statistical word counts, diction, and style are all over the map, pointing to the probability that their differences can be ascribed as much to differences in the preconceptions used to construct the statistical algorithms. He notes as well that “there is an appetite for pseudonymity that grows by what it feeds on.” Once you assume pseudonymity, you see it everywhere. He argues against a tradition of pseudonymity on the basis of historical church writings which reject books on that basis, and mention the deposing of a bishop who wrote such a pseudonymous book. He notes as well the Pauline attitude towards those circulating books claiming to be written by him. (II Thess 2:2; 3:17).

Whether you are a scholar or merely a theological dilettante (like me), you need to have this book in your library.

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