Oosterse christenen binnen de wereld van de islam

Herman Teule en Anton Wessels (editors)

This book is 438-page collection of small papers about the history of Christian churches in countries controlled by Islam, and about the present-day situation. Seeing that my Patriarch resides in Constantinople, Istanbul for those buying a plane ticket, and that he still isn’t allowed to re-open his theological university on Halki Island, this topic is pretty interesting to me.

And the book did not disappoint. Most papers are clear and concise, and, as far as I can check, pretty accurate and well-researched. There are three parts: history, description of churches and recent development, giving a relatively complete introduction to the field. There are also a number of black-and-white reproduction of photographs and icons.

Given the incredible complexity of the situation caused by hundreds of years of oppression, internecine strife, Papal encroachment, crusades and what-not, a book like this can only be the beginning of further study; fortunately there’s a good bibliography, too, and a decent index.

De Bloei van het Oosters Christendom

Olivier Clement

The Orthodox Theologisch Vormingscentrum de Heilige Johannes de Theoloog has already translated many courses and books originally published by l’Institut de Th√©ologie Orthodoxe Saint-Serge. However, being chronically
understaffed and overworked, the translations are given to the students as soon as the actual translation has finished. There’s no time for proofing, and no time for an accurate colofon either. So I don’t know to which of Olivier Clements numerous works the book I just finished belongs — the English translation of the Dutch translation or interpretation of the French title is, more or less, “The Heyday of Oriental Christianity”, and it’s Church history, not a contemporary sermon. Not that oriental Christianity isn’t flourishing, because it is, at least in the occidental Netherlands, where we’re looking for a bigger church building again, because we simply don’t fit in the building we own now.

Anyway, apart from the forgiveable typoes and the rather flowery style — Olivier Clement is a French intellectual from the twentieth century — this book is the goods. It is a thorough investigation of the history of theological thought in the Orthodox Church, in particular as influenced by the Western Church during the century preceding and following the Great Schism.

Clement must be a gifted writer, and the translator has done his or her level best, because even in the hasty translation into Dutch, Clement manages to make the particular issues surrounding the filioque and other thorny theological issues quite clear, often in a single paragraph or even in a well-put sentence.

It’s refreshing enough to get something to read that shows the Orthodox¬† vision of the Great Schism, but it is admirable that the author doesn’t get bogged down in a defensive (or offensive) position, but manages to show where both sides were right, and where they were wrong in an objective way, while at the same time not falling into the trap of considering everything through the distortion of a contemporary set of values, nor through an anemic impartiality where no longer any moral decision is possible.

It’s a pity that the Dutch translation is apparently incomplete — the footnotes are indicated as missing, but I also fear that there are rather more than the 100 pages we were given… Next time I’m in Brussels I should ask for the French title, so I can acquire it.

The Orthodox Churches and the West

Volume 13 of Studies in Church History
edited by Derek Baker

Being temporarily outwitted by some hairy coding problems in Krita, I’m trying to clear some square metres of floor space by doing Fading Memory entries on books I’ve read in December, when I didn’t have time to write anything. And Fading Memories was, after all intended to be a faithful log of my reading so I wouldn’t forget what I had already read before. So, without further ado, a few notes on this curious book I borrowed from the Church library. (Which I’m librarian of for the Western section, with Julia doing the Cyrillic section. Not that I cannot read the Cyrillic script, if there’s one thing that has always come easily to me it’s been learning scripts, but my Russian has really detoriated since 1992, when I spent a year learning the language well enough to read a grammar of Tangut published in Leningrad.)

Anyway, this book, published by Blackwell in Oxford in 1976, is typical of its kind: a regular series where scholars in a particular discipline can publish their papers, somewhat thematically ordered, but not too much, most of them read at one particular conference. The kind of book someone who hasn’t published in it buys if one paper turns out to be really interesting, against all expectation, or which you have a subscription to if it’s your field.

However, it turned out to contain a nice paper by Bishop Kallistos on the secret conversion to Orthodoxy by an English peer in the first half of the nineteenth century and a really amusing account of corruption in the Greek church under the Turks — a bishop was said to eat lakes of yoghurt for breakfast and mounds of filleted sardines for lunch. Poor man… The article by Nicolas Zernov on the Russian diaspora in the west and its effects on the Christian West is probably why my unknown predecessor in the library has bought the volume; it’s interesting, but a little too self-congratulatory for my tastes. And so the collection winds to its somewhat weary end: twenty papers from the late seventies, I should not expect all of them to be interesting in 2004.