Sunday, 19 February 2017

Book Review: Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion By Jonathan Clements

Christ's Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion
By Jonathan Clements
ISBN: 1472137418
Price: £13.48 (Amazon UK)

Japanese history has always been a topic I have had an interest in, though there are many aspects of this history which I have not had the opportunity to delve into. The events of the Shimabara Rebellion is one of these areas and so I jumped at the opportunity to pick up this text on the topic by the historian Jonathan Clements. The book is an overview of the events leading to and during the Shimabara Rebellion, tackling it from a multi-layered event in Japanese history as opposed to the traditional view of it as being a simple religious revolt by the Christians of the prefecture.

The text uses a chronological approach to the topic and starts with the introduction of Christianity to Southern Japan through the trade routes with westernised ports in China. It then traces the development of the Japanese Jesuit missions and communities and the difficulties in transmitting the faith. This analysis of the distinctively native form of Christianity and the way in which the Catholic faith was somewhat mutated by local elements entering the language and practices of the local uncatechised peasant communities adds an interesting dimension to the text, reminiscent of Endo’s “Silence” and his description of Japan as a swamp in which the Christian faith cannot grow.

The book then describes the political events leading to the persecution of Christians in japan and the subsequent development of small hidden communities in the islands of the South. Clements’ description of the descent through the use of specific characters of the era assist in creating a narrative and image for the reader. The rest of the book is dedicated to a carefully structured, play by play, image of the Shimabara Rebellion itself which gives the reader a well detailed account of the conflict with reference to contemporary witnesses and documents to show how both sides reacted to specific stimuli and events in the course of the eventual siege of Hara Castle.

The almost novel like narrative and use of contemporary witness accounts makes this book an easy and gripping read, showing Clements’ love of the topic and the people involved. When reading, it does not come off as simply a history book but invites the reader to engage with the characters in a way which is only deepened when the account is supported by quotations from the letters, reports and journals of the historical players themselves. In using this style of writing, Clements has created a historical run down which feels closer to a novel than a non-fiction piece and done so in a way which does not infringe on the academic integrity of the piece as evidenced in the primary sources littered throughout the book.

My only real gripe with the cook is the conclusion. The Shimabara rebellion, on which the book focuses, is given a build up of close to 75 pages outlining the rise and fall of the Jesuit order as a major player in Japanese politics at the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Following the conflict, only 19 pages are dedicated to its aftermath. Since Clements emphasises that the rebellion is not simply a religious one he seems to ignore any analysis of the impact of the sudden drop in population on the area or the importance of the conflict as a final fight for many aging Samurai. As well as this, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of the impact of this on wider religious freedom in Japan in the times between the rebellion and the Meiji Restoration. These two areas seem neglected here, especially when compared to the detail in which Clements covers them in the run up.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone interested in either the history of Christianity in the far east or in Japanese history generally. Clements has demonstrated that a history book can be both engaging and academic, and made it look easy. The book is one which is hard to put down and always has the reader wanting to see what happens next in this play by play walk through what was a fascinating and complex time in Japanese history.

Book Review: Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt By Febe Armanios

Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt
By Febe Armanios
ISBN: 0190247223
Price: £17.27
Febe Armanios’ book is one that I had been looking forward to reading for (literally) years. Whilst writing my Mth Thesis on the development of the Coptic Papal Election system one of the great difficulties was a lack of academic writing on the Coptic community during the Ottoman Era, and this text fills in the gap nicely, using sources from both Ottoman and Coptic records to give a broader understanding of the historical period and the community relations therein.

Armanios’ writing takes a thematic approach to the topic, looking at specific themes and historical instances during the Ottoman Era in Egypt in order to gain an insight into the place of the Coptic Church in society as well as the allowances and practices of the community in the Ottoman yoke. The text starts with a look at the sources available to us to do this, and raising the issue of lack of available sources to academics. It goes on to look at martyrdom stories and their impact on the community, pilgrimage and the development of rights and finally to cover the use of sermons to define Coptic identity during conflicts with missionaries from the Catholic and Protestant communities.

The structure of the text and its great insight into a very loosely explored period in Coptic history allows this book to demonstrate some great and original research into themes which have not been looked at. As well as this, Armanios’ approach to the topic and the readability through which she expresses her research allows the reader to access a vast historical landscape in an easy manner. This readability and originality makes Armanios’ book a great read and certainly one to be recommended to anyone with an interest in Coptic history or general Ottoman studies.

As for any weaknesses, the main one is one which Armanios herself addresses in the book. In the introduction she states that due to prejudices with regards to the period and a general lack of scholarship as to Coptic communal history the text can only give a broad overview of the period without delving into any of the subjects in further detail. Therefore to any specialist reader looking into a certain aspect of Coptic history or Ottoman history in Egypt it can seem too loose in areas, though this is not the fault of the writer but simply a symptom of a lack of academic resources available.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As mentioned, it is readable and original in its scholarship which allows it to be a text with a lot to offer the reader. I would recommend it to anyone looking to fill in this much misjudged gap in Coptic Historical studies and anyone with an interest in the development of modern Coptic society generally.

Making Lent Great Again: Some thoughts on Lenten Preparation

With Great Lent approaching I promised myself that I would write a few points on the subject both to prepare myself and to share with any others needing a boost in their own preparation. Whilst pondering this on the way home I decided to specifically look at how to make the Great Lent meaningful especially for those who take it with a touch of “oh, here comes the fast again…” and thus the title “Making Lent Great Again.”

Starting with the basics, what exactly is the Great Lent and why do we partake in it? Lent is the forty-eight-day period leading up to Feast of the Resurrection. The practice of fasting in preparation for this event is dated back to the Apostolic Era, where we see the likes of St Irenaeus of Lyon, St Athanasius the Apostolic and multiple other fathers of the Church write on the importance of holding a period of fasting to prepare ourselves spiritually for this event. By fasting we do not just speak of the abstinence from rich food, sexual contact and other temptations but the reduction of distractions from our spiritual lives to make way for acts and meditations which will prepare us for the remembering of Christ’s resurrection.

This distinction between the Orthodox practice of fasting and simply abstaining from foods is vital, it reminds us that the Great Lent is a journey in which we take take our full selves out of the busy modern life to seek the fullness of God once more. as St John Cassian reminds us that bodily fasting is useless unless accompanied by, “contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the scriptures, toil and manual labour.” Through these actions, we are given guidance as to how to remain focused on God and not on worldly distractions.
So what is the purpose of Lent? I have mentioned the historical reason for it existing and how it is a preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection but the real purpose of the period needs more examination. Fr Tadros Malaty explains how the period has a two-fold purpose for the Orthodox believer; to prepare us to fully experience the joy of the resurrection and to prepare us with practical repentance and teaching so that we may enter the feast with complete contrition of heart and understanding of the implications of the event. As St Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Romans, “then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
With this knowledge, We can now look at how to prepare ourselves for the fast. Firstly, preparing for Lent does not mean stacking our fridges with as many ‘meat substitutes’ as possible, as this is simply a way of trying to cheat at the fast. If your idea of Lent is “Today I ate Vege-Sausage and margarine mash instead of Sausage and mash, yay me,” then you have not begun to fast. Preparation for the fast is a matter of spiritual preparation for the fast as opposed to arming yourself with ways to avoid it having any impact at all. If you must try out new recipes or adapt then so be it, just remember that fasting is not about showing off your extravagant new cooking skills but placing things aside to focus on God.
Practically speaking a good way to start the journey of the Great Lent is to ensure that you lighten your timetable, this is difficult in a world where many of us work 12 hour days. Do this by working out what you should really be putting aside for your prayers in the first place. Whether this is that excess social engagement, that TV binging evening or the gaming that you enjoy on a far too regular basis. A practical development of a prayer rule is a good way to pick up a good habit. Ensure that you give yourself that hour or so a day with family to pray in the morning and evening, as well as other times if you can. Also ensure that you have time to read Scripture to achieve this sense of immersion in the lessons being passed on to us through this practice. It is appreciated that this is not always going to be smoothly, but as HH Pope Shenouda III reminds us “we must repair the results of our sins as much as we can,” we all miss the mark, it is how we respond and in not giving up that we grow. As lent passes and your praying of the hours and reading of Scripture becomes more of a natural part of your life you will feel this impact, as is the aim of the extended fasting period. This will also strengthen your spiritual life on the daily basis after the fast.
As well as this, remember that lent is a time of giving and for rejecting the material distractions of the world to be reminded of our priorities. Many have suggested practical ways of doing this, such as giving any excess money you would have used on the things you have on charitable endeavours or by giving up things to charity during this period such as old clothes. There are also many ways in which you can be more charitable in your nature. As lent is a time of prayer you can work to ensure that you pray for others or spend your excess time assisting those who need it. Charity is not always a matter of giving physically or financially, the greatest and sometimes most difficult of chartable acts that are carried out are those that cost nothing, as they demand us to give emotionally.
Finally, lent is a time for repentance. As mentioned previously, lent is the time in which we aim to prepare ourselves to fully experience the joy of the resurrection through practical repentance. We have already looked at three ways to do this; fasting, prayer and charity. Through our prayers and out focus on rejection of those things which have distracted us from God and our service of him, we are enabled to see our sins clearly. In working towards casting these things aside we can develop a better understanding of our own repentance. The great battle of repentance in the fast is something that Fr Matta El-Meskeen described as working towards, “an acceptance of the destruction of self,” through rejection of one’s own wants and desires to focus on God. Lent, with its emphasis on selflessness, gives us an edge in this battle and allows for the practical application of these various Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and charity to see one’s failings and develop ways to counter them as part of this journey in preparation to announce the resurrection of our Lord in full joy.
On this note, I will end this short piece and I hope that it has given you some ideas as to how you can ‘Make Lent Great Again’. I wish you all a blessed Lenten period, asking for whoever reads this to pray for me and my own efforts. I hope that this has been useful in some manner.
Dcn Daniel

Monday, 25 July 2016

Book Review: Why Can't They Get Along? A Conversation Between a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian By Dawoud El-Alami, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, George D. Chryssides

Why Can't They Get Along? A Conversation Between a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian
By Dawoud El-Alami, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, George D. Chryssides
Price: £9.99 (Amazon UK)

My wife have often scolded me for referring to some theological texts as objectively 'bad,' stating that my opinion on the book is not authoritative and simply an opinion. However, having now read this book I can say that there are some books which are objectively bad and this is one of them.

I picked up 'Why Can't They get Along?' a few weeks ago whilst away at a conference to give me something interesting to read on the train home. The premise of the book was an interesting one, with respected thinkers from the three Abrahamic Faiths giving overviews of their community's positions on certain areas of contention and then having a civilised discussion of the issue. Though ultimately doomed to produce agreement (since acceptance of something contrary is arguably rejection of the others) I felt was it as an interesting book to help me understand how to discuss matters with friends of other faiths and the book certainly makes for an interesting read on Islamic and Jewish approaches to matters of faith.

The text itself is split into four parts which are labelled Teachings, Practices, Ethics and Societal Issues. These themselves are split into four chapters on specifics which are discussed by the three authors. The structure of the writing is that it is introduced by one author from his community and then the other will state theirs, which then leads to the three each having an opportunity to comment on the issues raised. This makes a fair discussion between the authors and allows for them to touch on the issues as well as introducing their position with adequate space.

The discussion concept is however the biggest issue with the book, and there are many issues to discuss. Firstly, the concept of a text designed to allow some form of interfaith dialogue does not work in the way it intended. The book often seems to collapse into off topic attacks on one or two of the authors. This tends to start from an offhand comment by an author, for example bringing the Palestine conflict up when discussing the nature of God, to try and score cheap kicks. Considering that the book is supposed to be an academic text, this is disappointing.

As well as this, the caliber of the Christian discussion is quite simply dire. Having met both Dawoud El-Alami and Dan Cohn-Sherbok whilst studying is South Wales I know them to be reputable scholars of their respected faiths, something they demonstrate in the book by giving faith acknowledgement of the varying positions taken on matters. George Chryssides, on the other hand, does a poor job of representing Christianity and comes off as an extremely liberal and somewhat theologically inept clergyman.

Two examples of this are him being corrected in his Trinitarian Theology when he suggested that the sabellian approach to the trinity is the correct one, amusingly leading to Dan Cohn-Sherbok explaining that Sabellius was anathematised, and also his suggestion that very few Christians see anything in the Bible (including the virgin birth) as more than mythological devices with little regard to the doctrinal positions of communities such as the Orthodox Church or even that of the Creed, in which it is made clear that it is anathema to oppose that Christ was born of a Virgin. Both of these demonstrate either an unbearably liberal approach to the faith (where doctrinal positions are non-existent) or a very poor understanding of these matters and make the book almost unreadable to anyone who takes the Christian faith serious.

On a positive note, the book gives some amazing insight into the life and faith of Islam and Judaism and the conflicts that exist within these communities on matters of belief and practice. Put simply, the book would be marvellous if it were called 'Why Can't They Get Along? A Conversation Between a Muslim and a Jew' and the Christianity section was simply cut out. Both Dawoud El-Alami and Dan Cohn-Sherbok equally sell the premise of the book and do not pull punches when getting into controversial topics such as views on historical genocides, apostasy and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

For the reasons covered above, I would sadly not recommend this book to anyone unless they simply wanted to know more about Judaism and Islam. As someone that enjoys Theological texts (and reviewing them) I almost refused to finish this book due to the awfully misrepresented character and theology of Christianity portrayed in the book. I would go as far as to recommend it be renamed ‘Why Can't They Get Along? A Muslim and a Jew demonstrate why Christians need to learn Theology before they open their mouths about it. ’ Because of this, I found the book dishonest and lacking in any theological discussion of value to the Christian so there is no way I could recommend it to others who seek a genuine text of this nature.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Book Review: Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons By Dr Lewis Patsavos

Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons
By Dr Lewis Patsavos
ISBN: 1885652682
$12.00 (SVS Press)

This book was the second of the ‘Birthday Surprise’ texts I received this year from my dear wife and it was a great thing to receive considering that it is a book I have been seeking to read for quite a while now. Following my dissertation, I have felt that I have missed out on Canonology reading and am struggling with the lack of academically respectable texts on the subject available so when I saw Dr. Patsavos’ book mentioned on a few sites I tried to pick up a copy and yet this always evaded me.

The book itself is a short introduction to the role of the canons in the life of the Church. Unlike many other respected Canonology texts it does not seek to do this through giving specific examples of situations but through a detailed study of ecclesiology and mission linking the topics to the Canons and demonstrating the vital role of these Canons in these important aspects in the life of the Orthodox Church.

The book starts as expected with an explanation of the role of the Canons in the Church today and the history of the canonical tradition in the Orthodox church. It does this through looking at the different stages of the development of this tradition and at times making comparison to other concepts of legal tradition such as secular law and Roman Catholic Canon Law. Follow this, it addresses the role of the canons in the life of the Church, especially looking into the role of the canons in the order of the church and the question of their flexibility (A topic I have covered before in articles.) Following this, it addresses a number of issues with regards to the canons such as how the canons can be used to address pastoral issues in the Church and their correct application. The text finishes with a directory of canons and the topics under which they fall.

As a book I will state that this is the best short introduction to Orthodox canonology that I have read. Rodopoulos’ vital text book on the matter is practical and respected as an academic text though as a guide to the canons from a pastoral perspective this text is more beneficial. The text using ecclesiology and the spiritual life of the Church as the basis for its discussion on the canons gives it a vitality and relevance to the reader that the more traditional academic canonology texts lack. As well as this, Patsavos’ discussion of issues in canonology is reminiscent of Fr John Erikson’s writing on the topic, again giving it a relevance beyond a simple explanatory text.

With regards to the weakness, I feel that the text’s length is problematic. In the book Patsavos states how in the next edition he will go into some topics in more detail, such as the pastoral issues. The fact that this second edition has not emerged makes the reader feel that he is only being given half the story. In matters of canonology a certainty in application is needed so to be told when studying the matter that it will ‘be continued’ takes away from the benefits of the text. Regardless, the areas explained are done so in such a manner that this is not damning.

Overall, Patsavos’ book is a great edition to a growing canon (no pun intended) of texts for anyone interested in the study of Orthodox canonology and its application in the Church. It provides a well explained overview of the subject with some clearly employed example and avoids over-legalism or preference towards a single school of canonology in his analysis.  I would certainly recommend it to anyone with a love of the topic or seeking a nice and unintimidating way to enter into its study.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Book Review: Canon Law as Ministry: Freedom and Good Order for the Church By James Coriden

Canon Law as Ministry: Freedom and Good Order for the Church
By James Coriden
ISBN: 0809139782
£9.00 (St Philip’s Books)

As something on a Canon Law enthusiast I decided to spend my birthday gift voucher exploring the western tradition of Catholic Canon Law and was advised by a friend of similar interests to pick up some works by James Coriden, a much respected Catholic Canonist. This led me to pick up the text and start some exploration into this section of canon studies. A quick note on this text, it is designed for the Canonist and not for a general introduction to Canon Law in the Catholic Church so in my final paragraph, I will not be recommending it for general reading. This is not a criticism of the book, just a quick point before people who read this review start saying how they will add it to their reading list.

From the start, Canon Law as ministry sets outs its aim clearly. It is written with the purpose of saving the reputation of the canonist from the wave of infamy which has engulfed canonology since Vatican II. Coriden makes it clear that he feels that Canonists have been given a bad reputation since the Catholic Church’s shift in emphasis at the Council from the more tradition concept of Christian morality to the somewhat vague conscience based system. Coriden states his concern that this has led to Canon law becoming seen as an outdated and archaic practice and the text gives a clear outline to the canonist as to how the concept of Canonology is still a vital part in the Catholic Church today.

Now I am by no means an expert on Catholic Canonology though with my academic research area being Orthodox Canonology I felt the text was a good place to start to gain an understanding of Western Canonology since it is designed to put the area into a modern context and it does this very well with clear links made to both local issues in the parish and wider issues which encompass the entire Catholic Church. The book starts by giving an analysis of the current debate over Canon Law. This section was fascinating since it sets out the different schools of Canon Law clearly and explains their development well. This struck a chord with me as in the Orthodox community there are also various different schools of canonology and it was interesting to see how many of the Catholic approaches tend to fit well with some of the Orthodox ones and how the Codification of Canon Law in the west has led to the development of a wider variety of schools of Canon Law.

Following this, Coriden gives a historical and theological overview of Canon Law. This section was one which I found quite disappointing since it only covered the Canons from the Biblical perspective of law and their codification, almost deliberately missing out the centuries of the use of the Canons as guidance as opposed to a codified legal system. This is of no consequence to the message of the text though, as it moves on to analyse the role of Canon Law in the Catholic Church today, especially its role as granting assistance in dealing with issues of freedom and also in promoting good order in the Church. The book finishes with an explanation of the place of the Canonist as a minister and Canon Law itself as the ministry of the Canonist, again setting out the emphasis of the remaining vital place of Canon Law in the Church.

The main strength of the book comes from Coriden’s writing. You can see that he is a firm believer in the vital place of Canon Law in the Church and this comes across in his style. From Coriden’s use of his local parish Church to demonstrate the practical benefits of correct canonology for the people to his grand scale dream of the vindication of the canonist, the text is most certainly a heartfelt pledge for understanding. In the same way he refers to the documents of Vatican II constantly to evidence his message of the relevance of canonology.
On the other hand, Coriden’s conciliatory approach to the topic seems to undermine the message. In this the text Coriden seems to willingly accept the watering down of Canonology at times and spends much time emphasising the conscience as a supreme moral guide. Though I appreciate this point as sensible, especially in the modern Catholic Church, it seems to backstep when the point of the book is to demonstrate that the Code of Canon Law can still be applied in a meaningful way when the claim is followed by the clause of it being ultimately up to the individual.  

Overall, I found the text to be an interesting introduction to the issues surrounding Canon Law in the Catholic Church, especially when many of these issues are not found amongst the uncodified concept of canonology in the East. Coriden raises many issues in the text which remind us of the importance of the Canons as a form of ‘measure’ of the faith and as guidance and is able to give some beautifully well thought out defences of the art of Canonology in an age of relativity and moral personalism. 

I would recommend the book to students of Canon Law, especially those living in the West or looking into the struggles between Canonology and modernity. As previously mentioned I do not feel that it would be an appropriate text as an introduction to the canons or for someone curious on the matter without proper understanding of the subject. This is not a criticism of the text, since it does not set out to introduce to the topic, however Coriden’s aim is to speak to the Canonists of this generation and therefore as a text it is certainly to be left to the Canonist as intended.