Monday, 4 May 2015

Book review: Light From the East By Aidan Nichols





Light From the East
By Aidan Nichols
Continuum Books (1995)
ISBN: 072205081X
Price: £34.99 (Amazon UK)

Review By Deacon Daniel Malyon (British Orthodox Church)

There are a number of books which track the development of Eastern Orthodox thought in the 20th Century, though usually these are focused on a singular concept or theme. In Light from the East, Aidan Nichols has removed this thematic element to allow for a broad overview of the major players in the 20th Century Orthodox Theological world and allowed for these themes and ideas to be explored in a wide-ranging collection of thinkers.

The text explores the key works and ideas from well-known modern Orthodox Theologians such as Vladimir Lossky, Sergei Bulgakov, Nicholas Afanasiev, Georges Florovsky amongst others. In each of these sections there is a short biographical passage, explanation of the context in which the thinker emerged, coverage of ideas and an evaluation of the key development with which the thinker is most associated. This makes the text somewhat unique as it is based organised in a fashion which emphasises the specific person and not their idea. This also allows for a deeper exploration of the development of these ideas throughout the life of the writer as opposed to simply addressing it is a simplistic form.

The book would be of some use for someone (such as myself) with some grasp of the seminal works of the thinkers covered but who wishes to get to grips with the development of Eastern Orthodox thought in the past century as a whole. This is because of the structure above all, which I have already praised for its focus on the context as opposed to simply the ideas. In this way the book demonstrates a positive growth in the level of ecumenical research being carried out by thinkers in the west and makes the text praiseworthy for that significant step in both an academic and ecclesiological sense. 

In the same way, this academic structuring of the book is a weakness, as the evaluation section seems to depend on decontextualizing the idea and dissecting it through means of a western approach. When looking at such ideas as the radical apophatic theology of Lossky, this approach seems to undermine the very essence of that apophatic thought by tackling it through means of analytic thought. In this way, the criticisms levelled by the author become irrelevant to an Orthodox reader who simply wishes to look into the developments from within his/her own tradition.

Overall, I would recommend this text to anyone who wishes to get to grips with the various and somewhat divergent schools of thought of Eastern Orthodox Theology in the 20th Century. It gives a great overview of the various thinkers involved as well as the way in which their ideas were formed, allowing for a broader explanation of these developments than many other texts would allow.


Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Book Review: Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity By Fr John Behr





Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity
By Fr John Behr
Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press (2015)
ISBN: 0199214638
PricE: £18.99 (Amazon uk)

Being a Philosophy teacher, I run discussions and evaluations into ‘The Theodicy of Irenaeus’ on a regular basis and when I do so, it is always interesting to discover that those who write of this Theodicy know little to nothing of the Saint himself and tend to echo more the works of John Hick and other modern thinkers who appropriated what they saw as the works and ideas of Irenaeus.

Dr John Behr’s work on St Irenaeus came highly recommended as an introduction to the life and work of this saint, who has suffered a great deal of neglect through the years due to being deemed as irrelevant to the later theological debates by early modern writers and as a mere polemicist by the more liberal voices in modern Theology. It is for this reason that such research as that of Fr John Behr opens his life and work up to further research in a fair manner, without simply using this Saint as a sidenote in a larger discussion.
The book begins with an overview of the life of St Irenaeus and the place of his work within the wider context of the Roman Christian community at the time. This section is extremely detailed and beneficial to understanding the life of Irenaeus and his relationships with other Christian groups and writers of the time The structure of this section allows for readability, splitting into sections to describe the various players in the roman stage as well as Irenaeus’ interactions with them. This allows the reader to come to grips with what was a highly complex and fragmented community at the time.

Following this detailed overview, we are treated to an in depth analysis of the first 2 books of Irenaeus’ most known text, Against Heresies. In this section, Fr John Behr opens this famed work and breaks down its structure in a way that allows the reader to understand its natural flow. This is supported with excerpts from the text itself and an explanation of any irregularities or ambiguities therein. After this section the same is done with the last 3 books, demonstrating the natural split within the text. Both of these sections contain detailed Theological analysis of the text and its context, as well as a fair review of the work as a piece of personal writing which allows us a greater understanding of Irenaeus himself as a Christian writer of his period.

The book ends with a conclusion in which Fr John Behr demonstrates his passion for Saint Irenaeus and emphasises his importance in our understanding of the development of Orthodox Christianity and the Roman Christian community of its time. It is at this point that you really come to grips with the text and just how underplayed the Saint has been with regards to his role in identifying Christianity and its progression.
A key strength of the book lies in the depth of Fr John Behr’s analysis into the life and work of St Irenaeus. One only needs to look at the author’s previous writing to see that this is Fr John’s labour of love. The text itself contains a myriad of key historical and theological points which are brought to light in the way that only someone who knows and appreciates his topic can do. This made the book thoroughly readable on a personal level, as it brought the Roman Christian life and the works of Irenaeus to life and caused me to forget at times that I was reading a contextual study of a 2nd century Christian writer.

 A down side that I would put on this text is that it is not a light read. Though extremely readable to someone who understands the historical context of the work, it could not be recommended to someone who simply wishes to know about St Irenaeus. This point is a fairly obvious one due to the text being labelled ‘A contextual study’ though it needs to be said that the text looks at this context at such a depth that someone simply looking to find facts about Irenaeus may well miss them. 

Overall, I would recommend this text to anyone with an interest in the period or who wishes to take on the works of Irenaeus with a suitable guide to assist them on every step of the way.

Book Review: Becoming Human by Fr John Behr



 
Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image
By Dr John Behr
St Vladimir's Seminary Press (2013)
ISBN: 0881414395
Price: £17.50 (Amazon UK)

A few years ago, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware stated that Christian Anthropology will be the key subject of our time. At the time he stated this, I had little interest in the matter due to my heart being set on Canonology. However, last year it seemed that I could not escape the topic, following a chance meeting with Dr John Behr of St Vladimir’s Seminary. 

 Having been given a copy of ‘Becoming Human’ as a gift by Fr John Behr at a recent conference in London, I originally intended to simply keep it on the shelf, however I decided to read a chapter each day to assist me in my Lenten reflection. 

The book is a small and simple collection of ‘meditations on Christian Anthropology’ though goes far more impacting in its analysis of the Biblical and Patristic texts with regards to the meaning of being human than a number of texts on the same subject. It starts with a focus on the words of St Irenaeus of Lyons, who stated that “The Glory of God is a complete human being” and takes that opportunity to ponder the nature of the complete human being, drawing from various saints and scriptural passages along the way, which can make the book appealing to readers with an understanding of Patristic Theology as well as those who are simply reading the text for inspiration and for a simplistic understanding.

The book will appeal to anyone who likes the simpler side of the Christian Faith and is happy to sit for 10 minutes with a book and an open mind. It is not designed as a significant study of anthropology, but as a collection of musings from a respected academic on Patristics and Anthropology. This may put some people off of the text if they are looking for something more substantial in the field, though it should make a good stepping stone for someone trying to get their head around an often overanalysed and underappreciated subject. With this in mind, I would certainly recommend this book to those who enjoy lighter reading, though would not expect it to gain as much appreciation from those who expect a dense academic tome by their bedside.