The First Monastics

One of the most important consequences of the so-called “Constantinian compromise” in the fourth century was the rise of the monastic movement. Once Christianity became part of the Roman establishment, some believed they could preserve a pure faith only by removing themselves for a life of prayer in the desert. The movement was especially influential in Roman Egypt–where Coptic monasteries continue to thrive, under great stress and threat of violence, today. Next month, Cambridge releases a translation of the works of one of the fathers of Coptic monasticism, Selected Discourses of Shenoute the Great: Community, Theology, and Social Conflict in Late Antique Egypt. The translators are David Brake (Ohio State) and Andrew Crislip (Virginia Commonwealth University). Here is the description from the Cambridge website:

Shenoute the Great (c.347–465) led one of the largest Christian monastic communities in late antique Egypt and was the greatest native writer of Coptic in history. For approximately eight decades, Shenoute led a federation of three monasteries and emerged as a Christian leader. His public sermons attracted crowds of clergy, monks, and lay people; he advised military and government officials; he worked to ensure that his followers would be faithful to orthodox Christian teaching; and he vigorously and violently opposed paganism and the oppressive treatment of the poor by the rich. This volume presents in translation a selection of his sermons and other orations. These works grant us access to the theology, rhetoric, moral teachings, spirituality, and social agenda of a powerful Christian leader during a period of great religious and social change in the later Roman Empire.

A New Book on Methodism

Methodism, with about 80 million adherents around the world, has had an enormous influence in American culture, ever since George Whitfield preached during the Great Awakening. Like many mainline Protestant churches, the United Methodist Church, the movement’s American branch, is experiencing internal strains right now, over issues like same-sex marriage, which divide some American Methodists from their co-religionists in Africa and other regions. Earlier this year, the General Conference of the UMC sustained global Methodism’s opposition to same-sex marriage–a surprise, given the pattern in other mainline churches, though the controversy probably isn’t over. So this seems an opportune moment for a new book from Oxford University Press, released earlier this month, Methodism: A Very Short Introduction, by theologian William Abraham (Southern Methodist). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Beginning as a renewal movement within Anglicanism in the eighteenth century, Methodism had become the largest Protestant denomination in the USA in the nineteenth century, and is today one of the most vibrant forms of Christianity. Representing a complex spiritual and evangelistic experiment that involves a passionate commitment to worldwide mission, it covers a global network of Christian denominations.

In this Very Short Introduction William J. Abraham traces Methodism from its origins in the work of John Wesley and the hymns of his brother, Charles Wesley, in the eighteenth century, right up to the present. Considering the identity, nature, and history of Methodism, Abraham provides a fresh account of the place of Methodism in the life and thought of the Christian Church. Describing the message of Methodism, and who the Methodists are, he also considers the practices of Methodism, and discusses the global impact of Methodism and its decline in the homelands. Finally Abraham looks forward, and considers the future prospects for Methodism.

Augustine vs. Academics

Here is another new work on the patristic period, with a title that recommends itself. Last month, Yale University Press released a new translation of Augustine’s first work after his conversion, Against the Academics: St. Augustine’s Cassiciacum Dialogues, Volume 1, by Baylor University patristics scholar Michael Foley. The publisher’s description follows:

A fresh, new translation of Augustine’s inaugural work as a Christian convert.

The first four works written by St. Augustine of Hippo after his conversion to Christianity are the remarkable “Cassiciacum dialogues.” In this first dialogue, expertly translated by Michael Foley, Augustine and his interlocutors explore the history and teachings of Academic skepticism, which Augustine is both sympathetic to and critical of. The dialogue serves as a fitting launching point for a knowledge of God and the soul, the overall subject of the Cassiciacum tetralogy

Evangelicals in England

Here in the US, we tend of think of Evangelicalism as an American phenomenon. But it isn’t today and has never been. A forthcoming book from the Boydell and Brewer (distributed in the States by the University of Rochester Press), Converting Britannia: Evangelicals and British Public Life, 1770-1840, by Gareth Atkins (Queens College-Cambridge), describes the impact of Evangelical Christian reform movements in early-19th Century Britain. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The moralism that characterized the decades either side of 1800 – the so-called ‘Age of William Wilberforce’ – has long been regarded as having a massive impact on British culture. Yet the reasons why Wilberforce and his Evangelical contemporaries were so influential politically and in the wider public sphere have never been properly understood. Converting Britannia shows for the first time how and why religious reformism carried such weight. Evangelicalism, it argues, was not just an innovative social phenomenon, but also a political machine that exploited establishment strengths to replicate itself at home and internationally.

The book maps networks that spanned the churches, universities, business, armed forces and officialdom, connecting London and the regions with Europe and the world, from business milieux in the City of London and elsewhere through the Royal Navy, the Colonial Office and East India and Sierra Leone companies. Revealing how religion drove debates about British history and identity in the first half of the nineteenth century, it throws new light not just on the networks themselves, but on cheap print, mass-production and the public sphere: the interconnecting technologies that sustained religion in a rapidly modernizing age and projected it into new contexts abroad.

The Law in Piers Plowman

This past winter, we noted a book on how the law figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Here is another book arguing that a classic of medieval literature can shed light on that era’s law, especially its canon law: Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages, by UCLA English professor Arvind Thomas. The publisher is the University of Toronto Press. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of “Piers Plowman” as an early Protestant work. The publisher’s introduction suggests the poem was firmly situated in medieval Catholicism:

It is a medieval truism that the poet meddles with words, the lawyer with the world. But are the poet’s words and the lawyer’s world really so far apart? To what extent does the art of making poems share in the craft of making laws, and vice versa? Framed by such questions, Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages examines the mutually productive interaction between literary and legal “makyngs” in England’s great Middle English poem by William Langland.

Focusing on Piers Plowman’s preoccupation with wrongdoing in the B and C versions, Arvind Thomas examines the versions’ representations of trials, confessions, restitutions, penalties, and pardons. Thomas explores how the “literary” informs and transforms the “legal” until they finally cannot be separated. Thomas shows how the poem’s narrative voice, metaphor, syntax and style not only reflect but also act upon properties of canon law, such as penitential procedures and authoritative maxims. Langland’s mobilization of juridical concepts, Thomas insists, not only engenders a poetics informed by canonist thought but also expresses an alternative vision of canon law from that proposed by medieval jurists and today’s medievalists.

The Protestant Conservative Fusion

Here is an interesting new book on the ways in which Protestantism and American conservatism have been brought together from the Puritan period through the 21st century: Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History (Oxford University Press), by Gillis J. Harp.

“The rise of the modern Christian Right, starting with the 1976 Presidential election and culminating in the overwhelming white evangelical support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, has been one of the most consequential political developments of the last half-century of American history. And while there has been a flowering of scholarship on the history of American conservatism, almost all of it has focused on the emergence of a conservative movement after World War II. Likewise, while much has been written about the role of Protestants in American politics, such studies generally begin in the 1970s, and almost none look further back than 1945. 

In this sweeping history, Gillis Harp traces the relationship between Protestantism and conservative politics in America from the Puritans to Palin. Christian belief long shaped American conservatism by bolstering its critical view of human nature and robust skepticism of human perfectibility. At times, Christian conservatives have attempted to enlist the state as an essential ally in the quest for moral reform. Yet, Harp argues, while conservative voters and activists have often professed to be motivated by their religious faith, in fact the connection between Christian principle and conservative politics has generally been remarkably thin. Indeed, with the exception of the seventeenth-century Puritans and some nineteenth-century Protestants, few American conservatives have constructed a well-reasoned theological foundation for their political beliefs. American conservatives have instead adopted a utilitarian view of religious belief that is embedded within essentially secular assumptions about society and politics. Ultimately, Harp claims, there is very little that is distinctly Christian about the modern Christian Right.”

The “Strong Gods”

Rusty Reno, the editor at First Things Magazine, had an interesting piece two years ago concerning what he termed the “strong gods“–populism, nationalism, a notion of the sacred in public life, and others–and their resurgence in the wake of various problems experienced by the liberal political order. Reno predicted that the conflict between these “strong gods” and the existing order would intensify in the coming decades, as each would strive for dominance. In this new book, he expands on that thesis: Return of the Strong Gods (Regnery/Gateway).

“To understand the nationalist populism that has upended politics in America and Europe we have to understand the spiritual issues at stake. The postwar consensus that sought to weaken men’s oldest and strongest attachments is breaking down as the “strong gods” — nationalism and religion among them — reassert themselves. R. R. Reno considers the new form of conservatism that this historical moment requires.”

American Roman Catholicism

The particular history and cultural fortunes of Catholicism in the United States may itself be some small proof of American exceptionalism–surely the U.S. is the only nation that has anything like it. Here is a new, second edition of an important study on the subject, American Catholicism in America (Columbia University Press), by Chester Gillis.

“Who are American Catholics and what do they believe and practice? How has American Catholicism influenced and been influenced by American culture and society? This book examines the history of American Catholics from the colonial era to the present, with an emphasis on changes and challenges in the contemporary church.

Chester Gillis chronicles American Catholics: where they have come from, how they have integrated into American society, and how the church has influenced their lives. He highlights key events and people, examines data on Catholics and their relationship to the church, and considers the church’s positions and actions on politics, education, and gender and sexuality in the context of its history and doctrines.

This second edition of Roman Catholicism in America pays particular attention to the tumultuous past twenty years and points toward the future of the faith in the United States. It examines the unprecedented crisis of sexual abuse by priests—the legal, moral, financial, and institutional repercussions of which continue to this day—and the bishops’ role in it. Gillis also discusses the election of Pope Francis and the controversial role Catholic leadership has played in American politics.”

A Scriptural Account of Religious Freedom

Here’s an interesting new book by star litigator of religious liberty at the Becket Fund, Luke Goodrich, which approaches several of the contemporary conflicts in church-state law in light of what the Bible has to say. The book is Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America (Multnomah).

“Many Americans are concerned about rising threats to religious freedom. They feel the culture changing around them, and they fear that their beliefs will soon be marginalized as a form of bigotry. Others, younger Christians in particular, are tired of the culture wars, and they wonder whether courtroom battles are truly worthwhile, or even in line with the teachings of Jesus. Luke Goodrich offers a reasoned, balanced, gospel-centered approach to religious freedom. He applies biblical understanding to a number of the most hot-button cultural issues of our day. He also offers practical steps Christians can take to respond to religious freedom conflicts in an informed, responsible, and graceful way.”

A New Book on Discipline in the Early Church

Church-and-state scholars are showing a new interest in the Patristic period: consider new books from Steve Smith and Robert Louis Wilken. The Patristic period is so interesting, today, because it represents the last time in the West when Christianity was seriously challenged–if one may put it that way–as a social institution. Perhaps today’s Christians can learn something about thriving in an alien environment by examining the faith’s early centuries.

A new book from St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary Press, The Testament of the Lord: Worship and Discipline in the Early Church, looks interesting. The author is Alastair Stewart, an Anglican priest. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The Testament of the Lord is one of several ancient “Church Order” texts. Written in the first four centuries of the Church, they direct Christian conduct and morality, ecclesiastical organization and discipline, and the Church’s worship and liturgical life. Beginning with an apocalyptic section in which the risen Lord himself addresses the reader, The Testament then describes the building of a church, the mode of appointment for clergy and monastics, and the conduct of daily prayers and of other liturgical services.

The text is newly translated from the extant Syriac (with an eye to Ethiopic manuscripts), and the introduction makes the case for a fourth century Cappadocian redactor who gave the work its present shape, though much of its material goes back at least to the third century. Those who are interested in early Church Orders will also find the Didache and St Hippolytus’ On the Apostolic Tradition in the Popular Patristics Series (PPS 41 and 54).

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