Rommen, “Into All the World”

intoalltheworld__33962.1509128445.300.300Earlier this week, I posted about the new Pew Report on Orthodox Christianity, which focuses, in part, on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I argued that the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian communion without colonial associations, is well positioned to do missionary work in Africa, where Christianity is booming. To do so, though, the Church may have to overcome a mindset that views missionary work as something for other Christians. I don’t know too much about the Ethiopian Church, but one often hears expressed, in other Orthodox circles, a reluctance to engage in missionary work–a reluctance that may be more comprehensible to Western Christians when one realizes that such work exposes missionaries to a real threat of murder in many areas where Orthodox live.

A new book from the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Into All the World: An Orthodox Theology of Mission, by Edward Rommen (Duke Divinity School), explores these issues. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Fr Edward Rommen makes the case that it is now time to reexamine the theological underpinnings of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s mission to the world. Globalization has clearly altered the various fields on which missions are carried out. Christians in the West, to their credit, have been actively developing a missional response to these changes. As a result, missiology and missions theology are well established in the academic institutions of the West. However, the Orthodox Church has, in spite of its rich history of missionary activity, been notably absent from these discussions. But now this is changing.

As the constraints of political and religious oppression have eased, the Church is awakening to its own history, but more importantly to its own missionary responsibility. There has been a great deal of fresh activity among Orthodox scholars that can enrich our reexamination of the Church’s mission. So it is now indeed an opportune time to tap into the biblical, historical, and traditional resources of the Orthodox Church and attempt to reformulate a systematic, theological statement of the rationale and goal of mission, to reaffirm the centrality of the Church in missionary outreach, to describe for a new generation the nature of the gospel and the basic content of church education, and to rearticulate the guidelines that should govern our mission work.

Vosganian, “The Book of Whispers”

9453aa94e9dd50e2c55ac53c0b7d9ad2Continuing our focus this week on Orthodox Christians, here is a new book from Yale University Press on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenian Orthodox Christians in Ottoman Turkey that also swept up Greek and Syriac Orthodox Christians, as well as Catholics and Protestants. The Book of Whispers, is by Romanian parliamentarian Varujan Vosganian. Here’s the description from the Yale website:

A harrowing account of the Armenian Genocide documented through the stories of those who managed to survive and descendants who refuse to forget

The grandchild of Armenians who escaped widespread massacres during the Ottoman Empire a century ago, Varujan Vosganian grew up in Romania hearing firsthand accounts of those who had witnessed horrific killings, burned villages, and massive deportations. In this moving chronicle of the Armenian people’s almost unimaginable tragedy, the author transforms true events into a work of fiction firmly grounded in survivor testimonies and historical documentation

Across Syrian desert refugee camps, Russian tundra, and Romanian villages, the book chronicles individual lives destroyed by ideological and authoritarian oppression. But this novel tells an even wider human story. Evocative of all the great sufferings that afflicted the twentieth century—world wars, concentration camps, common graves, statelessness, and others—this book belongs to all peoples whose voices have been lost. Hailed for its documentary value and sensitive authenticity, Vosganian’s work has become an international phenomenon.

Frankfurter, “Christianizing Egypt”

9780691176970_0The Coptic Church today is suffering one of the worst periods of persecution in its history. Yet few Americans, including American Christians, know much about it. In fact, I’d guess that most Americans, including American Christians, assume that Egypt is uniformly Muslim, except for a handful of American Evangelical missionaries and their congregations. In fact, Christianity has ancient roots in Egypt, and the Coptic Church preserves some of the earliest Christian traditions.

A new book from Princeton University Press, Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity, by Boston University Professor David Frankfurter, discusses some of that history. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

How does a culture become Christian, especially one that is heir to such ancient traditions and spectacular monuments as Egypt? This book offers a new model for envisioning the process of Christianization by looking at the construction of Christianity in the various social and creative worlds active in Egyptian culture during late antiquity.

As David Frankfurter shows, members of these different social and creative worlds came to create different forms of Christianity according to their specific interests, their traditional idioms, and their sense of what the religion could offer. Reintroducing the term “syncretism” for the inevitable and continuous process by which a religion is acculturated, the book addresses the various formations of Egyptian Christianity that developed in the domestic sphere, the worlds of holy men and saints’ shrines, the work of craftsmen and artisans, the culture of monastic scribes, and the reimagination of the landscape itself, through processions, architecture, and the potent remains of the past.

Drawing on sermons and magical texts, saints’ lives and figurines, letters and amulets, and comparisons with Christianization elsewhere in the Roman empire and beyond, Christianizing Egypt reconceives religious change—from the “conversion” of hearts and minds to the selective incorporation and application of strategies for protection, authority, and efficacy, and for imagining the environment.

New Pew Study on Orthodox Christianity

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Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral, Addis Ababa

 

All this week, I’ll be posting items on Orthodox Christianity, an important but understudied (at least in America) Christian communion. To start, here’s a new report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century,” released this month. Orthodox Christianity has relatively few communicants in the United States, mostly immigrants from Orthodox countries and their descendants, as well as a small number of converts, especially from Evangelical denominations. But, globally, Orthodoxy is the third largest Christian communion, after Catholics and Protestants, with a combined number in the hundreds of millions.

Orthodox leaders are becoming increasingly visible in global affairs. For example, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been active on environmental questions. Thanks to an increasingly assertive Russian Church, Orthodoxy is beginning to have an impact in human rights fora like the UN Commission. In fact, even in the US, Orthodox Christians may have had an impact on the last presidential election. At a panel at Fordham University earlier this month, scholar Nicholas Gvosdev pointed out that Donald Trump appealed to Orthodox Christians in places like Michigan–which Trump won with a narrow margin.

The Pew report reveals that although their numbers across the globe are growing in absolute terms, the number of Orthodox Christians has declined relative to Catholics and Protestants. In the Middle East, at least, that decline is explained in part by persecution against Orthodox (and other) Christians in the twentieth century, which continues today. Seventy years of Communist repression in the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc also didn’t help. But the report reveals a hopeful resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in former Communist countries.

The report pays a lot of attention to the largest Orthodox Church outside Europe, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (36 million members), one of the five so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. This is commendable, as people often assume that Orthodoxy is an entirely European phenomenon. Although declining in its historic European home, Christianity is soaring in the global south, including in Africa. In fact, the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian body without any colonial associations, may be well positioned to do missionary work across the continent in the coming century.

The report details many interesting facts about Orthodox practice and belief — compared to Catholics and mainline Protestants, for example, the Orthodox are deeply conservative on social issues like gender and marriage — as well as prospects for ecumenism. It will be very valuable for anyone interested in the sociology of Christianity today. (H/T: George Demacopoulos at Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, who served as a scholarly adviser on the report).

“Christianity and Natural Law” (Doe, ed.)

9781107186446Within Christian thought, natural law is typically seen as a Catholic concept, indeed, as a concept that distinguishes Catholicism from other Christian communions, like Orthodoxy and Protestantism–the former of which rejects natural law as too cerebral and the latter as too optimistic, given fallen human nature. A new collection of essays from Cambridge University Press, Christianity and Natural Law: An Introduction, examines the place of natural law in the differing Christian traditions and attempts something of a synthesis–a jurisprudence of Christian law itself. The collection is edited by Cardiff University law professor Norman Doe, from whose scholarship I have benefitted in the past. Looks interesting. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

Historically, natural law has played a pivotal role in Christian approaches to the law, and a contested role in legal philosophy generally. However, comparative study of natural law across global Christian traditions is largely neglected. This book provides not only the history of natural law ideas across mainstream Christian traditions worldwide, but also an ecumenical comparison of the contemporary natural law positions of different traditions. Its focus is not solely theoretical: it tests the practical utility of natural law by exploring its use in the legal systems of the churches studied. Alongside analysis of the assumptions underlying the concept, it also proposes a jurisprudence of Christian law itself. With chapters written by distinguished lawyers and theologians across the world, this book is designed for those studying and teaching law or theology, those who practice and study ecumenism, and those involved in the practice of church law.

“Into All the World” (Nobbs & Harding, eds.)

Most legal scholarship on church-and-state focuses on the here and now. Occasionally, legal scholars focus on the history of church-state relations, but rarely further back than the post-Reformation settlement in the West. (Harold Berman was a notable exception). But the relationship between the Christian Church and the state goes back millennia. Here is a new book from Eerdmans which, among other topics, addresses the relationship between Christians and the Roman Empire in the apostolic and sub-apostolic eras, Into All the World: Emergent Christianity in Its Jewish and Greco-Roman Context, edited by Australian scholars Alanna Nobbs (Macquarie University) and Mark Harding (Australian College of Theology). The description from the publisher’s website follows:

9780802875150.jpgInto All the World—the third volume from editors Mark Harding and Alanna Nobbs on the content and social setting of the New Testament—brings together a team of eminent Australian scholars in ancient history, New Testament, and the early church to take the story of Christianity into the Jewish and Greco- Roman world of the first century.

In thirteen chapters, the contributors discuss all the post- Pauline New Testament writings, devoting attention to both their content and their context. They examine the impact of the growth of the church on both Jews and Gentiles, exploring issues such as the diaspora, minorities, the Book of Acts, and the Fourth Gospel. The book then proceeds to a discussion of the impact of Christianity on the Roman state, including consideration of the book of Revelation and the imperial cult. A final chapter investigates how the church was perceived by Clement of Rome at the end of the first century.

Gonzalez, “A Brief History of Sunday”

Strict Sunday observance is less and less common among Christians in the West, and Sunday closing laws–although the US Supreme Court famously upheld their constitutionality in McGowan v. Maryland (1961)–have fallen into disuse, in those jurisdictions where they haven’t been repealed. As Robert Louis Wilken once said, the only thing that currently distinguishes Sunday from other days of the week is that the malls open a little later. At one time, though, Sundays were a day of observance, and the laws reflected that fact.

A new book from Eerdmans, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation, by Justo González, offers a history of Christians’ Sunday observance and of laws that date back to Constantine, and reflects on current practice in the West and beyond. Here’s the description from the Eerdmans website:

9780802874719In this accessible historical overview of Sunday, noted scholar Justo González tells the story of how and why Christians have worshiped on Sunday from the earliest days of the church to the present.

After discussing the views and practices relating to Sunday in the ancient church, González turns to Constantine and how his policies affected Sunday observances. He then recounts the long process, beginning in the Middle Ages and culminating with Puritanism, whereby Christians came to think of and strictly observe Sunday as the Sabbath. Finally, González looks at the current state of things, exploring especially how the explosive growth of the church in the Majority World has affected the observance of Sunday worldwide.

Readers of this book will rediscover the joy and excitement of Sunday as early Christians celebrated it and will find fresh, inspiring perspectives on Sunday amid our current culture of indifference and even hostility to Christianity.

Montero, “All Things in Common”

Rod Dreher’s recent bestseller, The Benedict Option, calls on Christians to reestablish tighter, more intentional communities in order to survive in a post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, culture. Dreher uses the Benedictine communities of the fifth century as an example, but there are even earlier ones. The Book of Acts describes Christian communities that were very tight and very intentional, including with respect to property. Few Christian lay communities hold everything in common nowadays, though some, like the Bruderhof, continue the practice.

In April, Wipf and Stock released a new monograph on the subject, All Things in Common, by Roman A. Montero. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

9781532607912All Things in Common gets behind the “communism of the apostles” passages in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, using the anthropological categories of “social relationship” espoused by David Graeber and other anthropologists. Looking at sources ranging from the Qumran scrolls to the North African apologist Tertullian to the Roman satirist Lucian, All Things in Common reconstructs the economic practices of the early Christians and argues that what is described in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 is a long-term, widespread set of practices that were taken seriously by the early Christians, and that differentiated them significantly from the wider world. This book takes into account Judean and Hellenistic parallels to the early Christian community of goods, as well as the socioeconomic context from which it came, and traces its origins back to the very teachings of Jesus and his declaration of the Jubilee.

This book will be of interest to anyone interested in Christian history, and especially the socioeconomic aspects of early Christianity, as well as anyone interested in Christian ethics and New Testament studies. It would also be of interest to anyone interested in possible alternatives to the ideology of capitalism.

Conversations: Rod Dreher

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Rod Dreher is a prolific journalist and author, and a senior editor at The American Conservative. He comments regularly on American culture, politics, and religion, and has written three widely-discussed books: Crunchy Cons (2006), The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013), and The Benedict Option (2017). His blog at The American Conservative gets about a million page views a month and draws followers from the left and the right. As a recent New Yorker profile explains, Rod has such a wide readership because he covers a wealth of interesting topics, in depth, and with valuable insight: “Because Dreher is at once spiritually and intellectually restless, [his] blog has become a destination for the ideologically bi-curious.”

Recently, Rod, who is a participant in our Tradition Project, agreed to answer some questions about his new, best-selling book, The Benedict OptionThe book argues that traditional Christians need to return to older, more intentional ways of living in order to thrive in a post-Christian culture. In our wide-ranging interview, Rod talks about why he thinks the Benedict Option is so necessary and why it isn’t just for monks and hermits. He discusses examples like classical Christian schooling and Christian centers at secular universities. He addresses the paradox of traditionalism in contemporary life, responds to progressive criticism, and explains the danger that “Technological Man” poses for traditional Christianity.

Movsesian: Rod, let’s begin by summarizing the main theme of your book. As I understand it, you argue that traditionalist, small-o orthodox Christians need to repurpose older, intentional ways of Christian living for our contemporary age. To take the “Benedict Option” means to establish tighter networks, communities, and institutions that will allow American Christians to survive in our post-Christian culture. Is that about right? Why do you think this option is necessary for American Christians today?

Dreher: Yes, that’s it. This is necessary because of the nature of postmodern culture, more on which in a second. In the book, I talk about a couple of social facts that so far, few if any critics have addressed head on. First is the fact that enormous numbers of Americans are leaving institutional Christianity. This has been shown repeatedly in recent years by reputable social scientists. In fact, back in 2010, Robert Putnam of Harvard and Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell said that if it weren’t for the heavy influx of Latino immigrants, the US Catholic Church would be hemorrhaging adherents at the same rate as Mainline Protestant churches. The numbers are not getting better for any of us. Last year, Mark Chaves and David Voas, two of the top sociologists of religion, published a paper analyzing social science data from the last decade or so, and concluding that the US is no longer a counterexample to the “secularization thesis” – that is, the idea that as modernity progresses, religion withers. It’s not true elsewhere in the world, but it was true in the West, with the notable exception of America. But we are now finally on the same steady downward slide that Europe pioneered.

And overwhelming numbers of young adults who still identify as Christians hold a nominal faith that has only scant connection to historic Christian orthodoxy. Their true faith is something the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – basically a shallow, self-centered, feel-good, emotion-driven faith that’s all about being nice and feeling happy with oneself. Smith and his colleagues do their survey work on Millennials, but he has said he is confident that quite a few older American Christians hold the same vapid faith. I concur.

The point is that American Christianity is so shallowly rooted that it will not be able to withstand the strong currents of post-Christian culture. Anecdotally, in my travels around the country, especially to Christian colleges, I am hearing the same thing. One Evangelical professor at a conservative Christian college told me that these kids are all nice and big-hearted, but they come to college knowing next to nothing about Christianity, with no formation at all. The main problem is not these kids, but their parents, their churches, and their Christian schools. Few people want to face the reality of this spiritual and cultural crisis, and to make the kinds of radical changes that are going to be necessary if the faith is going to survive into the coming generations.

American Christians simply cannot imagine that the faith might not be here for their descendants. The history of Europe in the 20th century, especially after the Second World War, ought to disabuse them of that fallacy. I was quite taken by a 2015 book by the historian Edward J. Watts, titled “The Final Pagan Generation.” It’s a short history of Roman elites born just before Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century. They lived through the collapse of paganism, which had been the religion of the Empire for many centuries. It all happened in a single century. Watts shows that these men – intelligent, cultured men – had no idea what was happening around them. They could not imagine that the world that formed them could dissolve so quickly. But it happened. I think it’s happening to us Christians today.

Movsesian: Of course, to call it the “Benedict Option” is to conjure up an image of a monastic retreat from the world—something suggested, as well, by the book’s cover photo of Mount St. Michel. And some Christian critics have taken to you task for that. But that isn’t quite what you mean, is it? You’re not calling on all Christians to live as monastics. Could you explain? Is the Benedict Option only for spiritual virtuosos? What about regular people who live in the world but would like a deeper Christian life?

Dreher: No, I’m not at all encouraging Christians to run for the hills and live like monks. Rather, I’m saying that all of us believers have to live lives of much greater spiritual discipline, with much thicker ties to our local churches and Christian communities. If we don’t, we are not going to make it as Christians through this Dark Age upon us. That’s not just an anxious American journalist saying this; Father Cassian Folsom, the former prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the saint’s hometown, told me exactly that when I first met him several years ago. This is not a game.

I call this project the Benedict Option after the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous final paragraph in “After Virtue,” in which he recalled the example of St. Benedict, leaving the ruins of imperial Rome to found a monastic order. MacIntyre said that today, we await “a new – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict” to help those who wish to live out the traditional virtues create resilient communities capable of doing this amid the chaos and barbarism of our own time. In my book, I ask what would a new and very different St. Benedict look like today? What would he tell us?

We lay Christians – Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox – have a lot to learn from the Benedictine tradition. In the book, I talk about certain ways of thinking and living that the Benedictines have from the early sixth century Rule of St. Benedict that we can Continue reading

Greely, “The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction”

As Rod Dreher points out in his new book, The Benedict Option, the sexual revolution, especially the separation of sex from reproduction that the Pill made possible, posed a deep challenge to traditional Christian ethics–a challenge Christianity has pretty much lost, in law and popular culture. A new book by Stanford Law Professor Henry Greely, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, predicts that technology will soon make the separation of sex from reproduction complete. One always has to be a little skeptical about “prophetic scholarship” directed, if the Harvard University Press announcement is to be believed, at readers yet “unborn.” But, if Greely is right, traditional Christian ethics will face even more difficult challenges in the future.

Here’s a description of the book from the Harvard website:

9780674728967Within twenty, maybe forty, years most people in developed countries will stop having sex for the purpose of reproduction. Instead, prospective parents will be told as much as they wish to know about the genetic makeup of dozens of embryos, and they will pick one or two for implantation, gestation, and birth. And it will be safe, lawful, and free. In this work of prophetic scholarship, Henry T. Greely explains the revolutionary biological technologies that make this future a seeming inevitability and sets out the deep ethical and legal challenges humanity faces as a result.

Developments in genetics and stem cell research are giving rise to new techniques that will vastly improve preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and in vitro fertilization (IVF), making sexless reproduction not just possible but cheap and easy—what Greely coins “easy PGD.” The first child born using PGD is now 25 years old, and thousands more are born each year. Advanced by economic, social, legal, and political forces, the emerging science has made the concerns that were once the stuff of science fiction into real problems that our children and grandchildren will face routinely.

Deeply informed by Greely’s command of both science and law, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction is a book for parents, citizens, and all those, born and unborn, who will face the consequences of a new era of human reproduction.

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