Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book Review: Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam by John Oliver





Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam
By John Oliver
ISBN: 1888212659
Price: £9.83 (Amazon UK)
Touching Heaven was the second of my Christmas Holidays 'Theology Light' purchases, the purpose of these being to pick up and read through some of the more personalised Orthodox texts as a way of stepping out of academic theology works which dominate both my professional and personal life most of the time.
Touching Heaven is the story of the author's search for meaning in life, eventually leading him to discover the Orthodox Faith and join a pilgrimage to Valaam Monastery.  The book itself is split into seventeen chapters, which can be split into three sections which cover the author's journey Orthodoxy, their experience in the monastery and the implementation of the lessons learnt in their daily life. The book as a whole gives a very personal feel to the experience of the monastery as well as introducing a group of characters who we can relate to in our daily lives, allowing us to understand the struggles experienced in the life at the monastery and in the daily existence of the author.
The aforementioned structure in the book allows it to be easily digestible and readable in a short period of time. As well as this, the clever narrative and writing style allows the author to express both a personal spiritual journey and some important lessons in Orthodox living without focusing on a single part of the story or single moral point for too long. The writing style also allows the narrative to be broken up to include jumps to other story points (usually monastery flashbacks) without interrupting the flow.
Although the strength of the book as a narrative comes from its clever interplay between moral message and personal journey, the main draw of the book comes from its personalised take on the dilemmas faced by the author during his time at the monastery and in bringing the lessons he learnt there into his daily life. As someone that has been through this struggle, I feel that it is a challenge that faces all Orthodox Christians living secular lives which do not easily interplay with the spiritual requirements and discipline of the Orthodox life. The author’s personal anecdotes and experience in dealing with this can come as a reassurance and blessing to anyone new to Orthodoxy or trying to make more time for their faith in an age of 24/7 obligation. This simple and personal approach to the struggles faced can be a source of great strength to anyone reading the book as a way to seek answers to discovering Orthodoxy in the modern world.

The simple and personal approach to the issues can also be seen as the book’s weakness for some readers. Due to the book spending much time on how the author personally struggled with various issues of faith, it often addresses these issues and prioritises them based on the author’s personal challenges, missing many issues which others may face. An example is that the author does not seem to have any struggle with understanding key aspects of the faith, instead accepting Orthodox Christianity on merit due to his previous understanding and experience in Christianity. The book is mainly focused on monastic values and the lessons which can be learnt for the laity from the monastic life, it therefore puts priority on the inner struggle with the lifestyle over those which may be faced by people experiencing Christianity for the first time. 

Overall, I highly enjoyed the book and the somewhat unique way of looking at these issues through the eyes of a recent pilgrim. The book also allowed for a number of interesting anecdotes to provide wisdom from the Islands of Valaam, which are very handy to dwell upon when dealing with the struggles of the faith in daily life. It was a good read and would be of interest for anyone wishing to make more of their Orthodox Faith in their daily life, though the amount you get out of it will be based on what aspects you are seeking to develop.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Book Review: ‘Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today’ By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
























‘Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today’
By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
ISBN: 9780385518130
Price: £12.50 (Amazon UK)

People often say that a New Year requires a new perspective, new goal or new beginning to life. I do not prescribe to that idea in any formal way but it is always a blessing to have your eyes opened to a new approach or perspective on matters you have studied for years, especially when you realise that some complex explanations can in fact be so simple that you missed the core all along. This is pretty much the impact that this book has had, it has not drawn any significant new information for me but has demonstrated the simplicity and beauty of the Orthodox Faith in a way that other introductory texts never got close to.

The book, by HAH Bartholomew, is a brilliantly personalised introduction to the Orthodox Faith which covers many aspects of Orthodoxy alongside their importance and role in the modern world. The main aspects of the text cover the Topics of History, Iconology & Liturgy, Theology, Monasticism, Sacraments, Iconology, Freedom and Justice. The first five of these focus on major factors of the Orthodox faith and allowing the reader a basis in which to tackle the modern moral issues raised in the other four (as well as the epilogue.) This way it provides both an introduction to the faith and allows the reader to understand its relevance in addressing modern issues, giving a basis for developing the faith within the modern world. Though this focus on ‘Orthodox living’ means there is no deep coverage of such matters as Christology and other such aspects, I feel that this does not take away from the book as a whole with regards to its use as an introductory text.

Due to this structure, I find the book unique amongst introductory texts which, when speaking in terms of history and the modern world, usually tend to focus on the History of the Church followed by some small chapter on the Church today rather than starting with a few pages on History and then expressing Orthodox approaches to the modern world. This makes the book extremely readable as a personal account on these issues by H.A.H rather than a generic ‘This is where we come from and this is what we believe’ introduction to Orthodox Christianity.
This personal aspect is also one of the draws of the more doctrinal explanations of the book, with H.A.H ending many explanations of theological concepts with a short anecdote or personal note from his own life such as comments regarding his fondness of his personal chapel and liturgies in the smaller Churches in the Patriarchal Complex. This can allow the reader to develop a further appreciation for the beauty of the Orthodox Faith and the important impact of these key factors of the Faith on the life of the individual as opposed to simply having ideas explained to them. 

Though I have listed a number of strengths of the book, I would have to say that the simplicity of the writing is its biggest draw. As someone who has studied theology academically for over a dozen years and taught it for the past five, it is always an awkward moment to realise that the concept that you spent 20 minutes explaining to a group of 16 year olds only a few weeks ago can be outlined in the most beautiful language in less than a page. In this way, the book is accessible to people of all levels of understanding and makes a great introductory text for those with little grasp of technical language or little intention to study the more in depth points of theology. To put it simply, it is a book written from experience of living the faith which is a viewpoint missed by many in a world of bitesize Theology websites and podcasts. 

Alhough the book is a great introduction to living the Orthodox Faith, the one issue that I would raise is based on the book’s suggestions to some of the issues it raises, an example of this being in the Ecology section. H.A.H is commonly referred to as ‘The Green Patriarch’ for his admirable approach to environmentalism, though the book seems to play out his respect for the environment in a more idealistic way than other texts. This approach also enters into some of the other sections and though this provides some insight into the spiritual aspects of all areas of life it can seem overbearing when reading it from the position of the layman.

Overall I would certainly recommend the text to anyone beginning to take an interest in Orthodoxy, and it may well replace HE Metropolitan Kallistos’ text as my first choice for a number of new enquirers, however the text also provides a refreshing approach to living the Faith for other Orthodox readers and is certainly a healthy addition to my bookshelf.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Book Review: "Islam and the Future of Tolerance" by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz




"Islam and the Future of Tolerance" by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz
Harvard University press (2015)
ISBN: 9780674088702
Price: £9.77 (Amazon UK)
I picked up this book after watching a number of debates in this matter by both writers. With a keen interest in both current affairs and Islamic Theology and Exegesis, I decided to give the book a read, not having any real presumptions as to the depth of content. On this matter, I was presently surprised, with the book portraying a fair and balanced discussion of the question of the links between exegesis and faith, as well as the social issues.
The book itself is a short read, at 128 pages, and can be easily read over a few days. It is formatted as a dialogue between the two thinkers, with Sam Harris often portraying the student and stating the issues, with Maajid Nawaz filling in the  details from the Islamic perspective, followed up by Sam Harris' response of 'I agree but..." to move the conversation on. In some areas it is split into sections, however this is only where there is a significant shift in the conversation.
The topics discussed in the book mainly focus on the question of how to tackle Islamic extremism and its source. it starts this by looking at the problem of identifying the exact issue, doing this by clarifying the names of the different forms of extremism faced (Specifically the difference between types of Islamism and Jihadism) and illustrating the difficulties caused by misattributing thinkers and  events to a different school of thought. The discussion then moves on the failure to tackle the problem in the west and how this is exacerbated by the ‘regressive left’ and rise of the far right across Europe. This finishes on the more controversial question on whether this strain of thought is inherent in Islam, to which there is a fascinating discussion of schools of Exegesis and the variety of thought in medieval Islam, along with some harsh condemnations of the illusory ‘Islamic Utopia’ sold to us by many modern popular historians.
Some of the key points I enjoyed about the book were the honesty, the candid nature of the discussion and the fact that it opened up a topic for discussion which is shied away from by many for fear of being branded as a bigot or islamophobe. The early discussion on the issue of the ‘Liberal Betrayal’ opened the book up for this honest discussion of the topic in a way which is rarely seen, something which is not possible in many academic texts, which demonstrates an advantage of the format and the open-mindedness of Nawaz with regards to his willingness to critique the ideas rather than attack a strawman. As well as this, the discussion of the exegetical schools and Nawaz’s readable yet sufficiently academic explanations of such concepts as Taqqiyah allowed for the reader not to be drawn into any of the traditional polemical ideas which we see on the side for the far right. 

In the same way, Sam Harris’ role as the skeptic worked well in the text, an example of this being his assault on the mythical ‘Utopia’ view of the Ottoman Empire. This position allowed for the more balanced approach, instead of the book becoming the ‘Maajid Nawaz show,’ with some very frank statements on attempts to put the concept islamic extremism down to purely political grievance allowing the book to tackle the issue of islamic Extremism straight and in a way which maintains the interest of the readers, many of whom would have picked this book up with the intention of seeking a fair discussion of the question of the link between Islam and Extremism.

The format, as well as being what stabilizes the book, is also the cause of my one criticism. Due to the conversational format of the text it is prone to the occasional glossed over and unclarified statement, in some cases leading to factual error. One of these points which caught my attention was Nawaz’s claim comment on the Council of Nicaea being the point at which Rome accepted Christianity. This point is clearly a factual error, but due to the book being in a dialogue, the point is one simply glanced over as an example of ‘Dominant Doctrines’ and their power rather than clarified or linked to another point. The happens on a few occasions in the book and at times can hit the reader with a reminder that the book is not a piece on religious thought specifically but a dialogue between two academics discussing a socio-political issue developing in the realm of religion. 

So would I recommend the book? Yes. It is a very good short read into this complex and often misappropriated topic of Islam and Extremism, and sufficiently covers and clarifies the more complex points of it to make the reader satisfied that the text delivers on its promise of a reasonable and fair dialogue which does not avoid controversy or sell itself as a polemic. Overall, an excellent starting point for some truthful and honest discussion on a matter which is avoided far too often.