Saturday, 26 March 2016

Book Review: Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Life and Work of Alexander Men





Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Life and Work of Alexander Men
Edited By Edith Roberts and Ann Shukman
SCM Press Limited, 1996

ISBN: 033402613
Price: £12.95

During the early part of my journey to Orthodoxy when I have struggled to reconcile my faith with my wider life, two great modern thinkers that have helped me through their works are Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and Fr Alexander Men. Both have a way of explaining issues in a way that resonates with the western mind, especially with those versed in the writings of modern French and German philosophers. Though the works of Metropolitan Anthony seem to appear on bookshelves across the world there is little available in the English language by Fr Alexander. It was therefore a great blessing to discover this small collection of his articles, talks and essays in a London bookstore only a few days before the start of lent.

The text is split into three sections, one on Christianity in general, another on Russian Christianity and the third giving a summary of where Christianity was seen to be heading at the time. This structure allows the reader to see the overview of the problems facing Christians in the modern world, along with the specific example from Fr Alexander’s context as well as the solutions and ideas put forward by Fr Alexander as a way of dealing with the problems and ending with the talk which Fr Alexander gave on the night before his death. As well as this structure providing a useful narrative to the collection, it also serves as a way to understand the ideas and thoughts of Fr Alexander better, letting us see the world which he faced during his life and to see how he wished to help those struggling in this. 

The first section’s articles speak much on Fr Alexander’s views regarding issues such as suffering an state Churches. Fr Alexander was seen as a controversial figure by many due to these positions, with many accusing him of extreme ecumenism and others speaking out against his opposition to state churches. The articles in this first section provide a fascinating insight into the arguments he put forward with regards to this. The second of these looks at the specific situation in Russia following Perestroika. In these interviews and articles we see Fr Alexander addressing the struggle of returning to spirituality and the ‘problem of choice’ faced by many Russians. These demonstrate the challenges that Russia in regaining its identity after the fall of the Soviet Union and Fr Alexander’s willingness to work to address this. The third section provides a summary of the vision for the future and contains the talk which gives the book its name. These give an idea of what Fr Alexander saw as the solution to the aforementioned problems.

As mentioned previously, I see the books structure as one of its biggest strengths. It gives us a good overview of Fr Alexander’s life and works in a meaningful way. As well as this, I would say that the book’s other key strength comes from the content itself. Fr Alexander Men was an extremely thoughtful and prevalent writer during his life, and though I am reviewing this specific collection it is important to really point out that the writings themselves are extremely well thought out. Fr Alexander’s use of western Philosophical writings to express ideas and his love for the Eastern Mystical tradition both shine through in these works, giving us a real insight into how much of an important figure Fr Alexander was. The choice made in the writings allows this to come through with the context of early nineteen-nineties Russia giving them their setting.

Unfortunately, this focus on the context can also be seen as the weakness of the text. Fr Alexander wrote close to ten books on Christian thought in Russia, as well as various theological texts covering exegesis and Christology. The book’s preoccupation with Fr Alexander’s more political writings gives the image of a man whose only real focus was on this situation and plays Fr Alexander as more of a political figure than he really was, this is not helped by the ominous red figured cover, which again paints Fr Alexander in this light. The writer explains in the introduction that a complete summary of Fr Alexander’s work is “a task for another time” but still suggests that the selection is a broad one which is a claim I disagree with.  I feel that more of an introduction to Fr Alexander as an Orthodox thinker would be needed for the text to really give a feel for his prominence in this field.

Overall, the book was a good one to start the Lenten fast. It served to remind me that in a world where many call themselves Christian for a national or political identity we should look more at ourselves and see that our lives are spent in a prayerful search for the true meaning of this identity and that we should not take half measures or rely on some kind of national tribalism to make our way easy as it should never be an easy path to live.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book Review: "When Buddhists attack: The Curious Relationship between Zen and the Martial Arts" By Dr. Jeffery K Mann






"When Buddhists attack: The Curious Relationship between Zen and the Martial Arts"
By Dr. Jeffery K Mann
ISBN: 9784805312308
Price: £14.99
In case it isn't very obvious, this book is slightly different to my usual review material. I am neither involved in Zen Buddhism or academically involved in the study of Buddhism apart from previously teaching it as part of the A Level Religious Studies course. I picked this book up a curiosity, being a student of Aikido I found myself wanting to understand how the traditional link between the study of martial arts and Zen Buddhism works when most forms of Buddhism are traditionally supportive of Pacifism, or at least non-violent resolution. What I found was a fascinating read which looks at the topic both historically and theologically.
As mentioned, I am not well versed in the diversity of the buddhist community and so cannot review this book in the same manner as books looking at Christianity, I can however comment on the nature fo the text and its contents. The book is written as an academic piece, something that the writer himself emphasises in the text when he addresses the romanticisation of Buddhism and especially the Samurai of Japan. This gives the reader a sense of respect for the text and an understanding fo the challenge of writing an academically fair assessment of a topic which has been sold as ‘mystic gibberish' on the market  in many ways.
The structure of When Buddhists Attack' is a traditional one of introducing the history of the topic and following on to delve into specific themes which have been mentioned. The book starts by discussing the life of the Buddha, the development of various strands of Buddhism and the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. It then goes on to tackle the praxis and ethics of Japanese Buddhism in the context of medieval Japan and especially the Tokugawa Shogunate, when the Martial Arts began to take on a more religious aspect than a purely practical one. Dr Mann finishes by investigating the modern situation in Budo and asking whether such things as Olympic Budo and modern Budo practice without the explicit links to Zen are still expressions of Zen.
A key strength of the book comes from its academic nature. As previously mention, the author outright states that most discussions of this are romanticized and therefore do not tackle the question itself. As well as this, the vastness of the study is impressive. Dr Mann introduces various forms of Japanese Buddhism to the reader and explains their development and history in the region, backing up key points of opinion and reference with evidence from scholars. In this way, it is a triumph of academic writing.
Though I do not see any clear criticism of the book, I feel that the subject of contemporary budo could have done with more content. The analysis of the topic made by the author is sufficient for the text, however it leaves the reader wanting to understand this development more. Regardless of this, the overall book suffers from nothing that I feel would warrant any real criticism, though as a layman of this subject I cannot comment from any position of academic authority.
Overall, When Buddhists Attack is a fascinating study into the somewhat contradictory world of Traditional Martial Arts. The book is written in such a manner than someone who have only looked into the topic in the thinnest terms can come to terms with the subject in a deeper way and the clearly academic style of the writing shows a professionalism in the author that goes beyond most western writers on the subject. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the subject, whether new to it or a seasoned Budoka.

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.