Book Reviews – Spring 2006

Stages on Life's Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics

by John and Lyn Breck

St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 250 pp, $17

Fr. John and Lyn Breck provide practical, theological, and pastoral thinking on issues embroiled in controversy: the use of embryonic stem cells, gene therapy, new definitions of sexuality and marriage, treatment of addictive behavior and substance abuse, and end-of-life care. Taking the reader through the stages on life's way, the Brecks provide an Orthodox perspective on some of the most important contemporary ethical topics.

Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions

by Fr. John Garvey

St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. 130 pp, $15

How should Orthodox Christians regard non-Christian religions? To treat this question, Fr. John Garvey provides a concise introduction to great religious traditions, East and West, and goes on to explore how seeds of truth may be found in them, while upholding the Orthodox Church's claim of being the unique repository of the Christian tradition and the ark of salvation.

The title of the book is informed by St. Justin Martyr's assertion that, "whatever has been spoken aright by any men belongs to us Christians." Orthodox Christianity has typically held onto what is good in a culture even if it is of non-Christian origin.

Garvey provides summaries of the essential beliefs and practices of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism and Sikhism. Another section briefly surveys the history of Orthodoxy's interaction with Judaism and Islam.

Garvey draws on the works of St. Justin Martyr, St. Gregory Palamas and Archbishop Anastasios of Albania to show how dialogue with other religions can be approached in the modern context. Garvey encourages the reader to learn about other faiths in order to be a better neighbor and a better Christian.

"A Christian can learn much from dialogue with people of other religious traditions," Garvey writes, "but there are limits and they involve both the respect we must have for other's traditions and our own vocation as Christians. There is a tendency, especially in America to downplay differences as if they were embarrassments and to emphasize those things in common. There is a seemingly opposite, but related trend of celebrating all diversity as if it were good in and of itself to have a number of differing opinions, all understood to be equally valid and finally reconcilable. Emphasizing what we have in common is a good beginning point for inter-religious discussion, and even after we have identified those points on which we cannot agree, there are still fruitful areas of discussion and cooperation. But there are differences that may not be downplayed without betraying our own tradition, and in our attempts to seem companionable, we may be showing a lack of respect for the other's tradition."

Against the Current: Reflections on the Misuse of Religion

by Fr. John Garvey

Templegate, 124 pp, $13

In Against the Current, Fr. John Garvey takes on the ways in which we use religion to keep ourselves from experiencing it at its real depths. Our culture distorts our sense of religion, often by reducing it to a mere preference or a hobby. A "self-help" mentality can lead us to oversimplify the complexities of the spiritual struggle. Our need to be right -- so often seen as a positive reinforcement in religion -- is usually nothing more than a way of protecting the ego, and can keep us from humility and a kind of creative doubt. Finally, what do we do when the church itself seems to be part of the problem? Garvey addresses such difficult questions in fresh and creative ways.

"The greatest danger of our culture, in making a religious commitment something like a consumer choice," Garvey writes, "is that we will not see that this commitment is finally a matter of life and death, for us and for a much larger community, one to which we have an obligation. Our culture allows us to take nothing seriously except what we perceive to be our needs and desires. Unless these have been informed by a relationship with the living God, they will mislead us."

The Beatitudes: When Mountain Meets Valley

by Ron Dart

Fresh Wind Press, 91 pp, $13

"The Beatitudes do not merely call us to a higher ethical life," writes Ron Dart. "They call us to become a different type of being." The mountain represents serenity, contemplation, and insight, the valley suggests toil, struggle and pain. Dart points out that both are necessary and complementary aspects of our existence, yet our tendency is to elevate the one and downgrade the other. We romanticize the peak and its focus on the inner life or "inscape," or we lose ourselves in the hustle and bustle of the valley, never withdrawing from the fray to get a fresh perspective on life. Dart sees the Beatitudes, as the key to living within the tension of mountain and valley.

Twice A Stranger

by Bruce Clark

Granata Books, 274 pp, 29

The pioneers of population exchange were the Greeks and Turks, who at Lausanne in 1923 faced what was then the greatest refugee crisis the world had yet seen. The dream of a Greater Greece stretching from the Ionian to the Anatolian interior had died an ugly death after the defeat of Hellenic forces by Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal. When the Greek army retreated, the fate of more than a million Orthodox Christians in Asia Minor lay in the balance.

Greece, in turn, had nearly half-a-million Muslims within its borders. For nation-builders on both sides, and their British mediator Lord Curzon, the terrible logic of swapping minorities was irresistible. The emerging League of Nations provided a political fig-leaf for its execution.

The power of Clark's book lies in his sympathy for the communities and individuals wrenched from their real homes and dumped in alien "homelands." He takes the reader to the villages of northern Greece where the Turkish-speaking Christians of Anatolia washed up, and to the Muslims of once-Christian Ayvalik, who still yearn for the Crete from which their grandfathers were expelled. Their narratives are woven through a book that moves seamlessly from the great halls of Lausanne to the barracks of Constantinople, made a charnel house by the disease and chaos of a fleeing multitude.

Clark finds abundant space for the complex communities whose religion, language and customs no longer fitted in a world re-ordered by the dreadful simplicity of nationalist ideology. Yet the book is not a polemic against the Lausanne treaty, the brilliant Greek statesman Venizelos, or the extraordinary Ataturk. Clark argues that the Western secular nationalism that swept into the collapsing Ottoman Empire was an alien force that exacted an enormous cost. In bringing this cost to life, there is a plea for greater sensitivity from the West as it steps up its demands from these two countries today.

This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony

by Gillian Crow

Darton, Longman & Todd, 251 pp, €18

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh was one of the most respected churchmen and gifted spiritual writers and broadcasters of recent decades. Such books as School for Prayer, Living Prayer and God and Man have become classics. As leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, he was one of the most prominent Orthodox personalities on the world stage.

The author searches for the inner man behind the public preacher and pastor. How did his life story and personality mold his Christianity? How did his work -- as monk, doctor, bishop and, almost to the end, parish priest and spiritual father -- affect his ministry and other writings?

Metropolitan Anthony was not the perfect man that some of his admirers took him to be. He was dictatorial, inconsistent, at times muddled as an administrator. He could be harsh, treating people as though they alone existed for him at one minute, treating them as strangers the next.

Gillian Crow, who worked closely with Metropolitan Anthony, presents a compelling portrait of a complex human being; both a charismatic, warm person, aglow with the joy of his faith, and someone who fought hard with inner demons of shyness, insecurity and depression.

Mount Athos the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain

Ed: Dimitri Conomos, Graham Speake

Peter Lang AG (Bern), 250 pp, €29

The papers included in this volume were presented at the first conference convened by the Friends of Mount Athos at Cambridge in 2003. The aims of the conference were to draw attention to the historic importance, the spirituality and the religious legacy of the Holy Mountain and to shed light on the contribution made by Athonite monasticism not only to worldwide Orthodoxy but to Christianity at large.

Many of the papers focus on individuals who from the fourteenth century to the twentieth have exemplified the spiritual traditions of Athos and whose memory as spiritual fathers, confessors, and ascetics continues to inspire their successors today. Authors include: Bishop Nikolaos Hatzinikolaou, Professor Andrew Louth, Bishop Kallistos Ware, Sister Magdalen, Fr. Nicholas Sakharov, Abbot Ephraim of Vatopedi, Abbot Elisaios of Simonopetra, and Fr. Alexander Golitzin.

The Cult of the Saints

by St. John Chrysostom

Translation and introduction

by Wendy Mayer with Bronwen Neil

St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 288 pp, $17

Though St. John Chrysostom's homilies are important witnesses to the cult of the saints that developed rapidly in the fourth century, until now few of his homilies on the saints and martyrs have been available in English. The cult's original point of focus were those Christians who died confessing their faith.

The introduction pinpoints conceptual shifts that shaped the devotion to martyr saints: the imitation of Christ's own death; the creedal declaration "I am a Christian"; the sense of privilege bestowed upon martyrs; the significance of relics; public veneration of the departed; and places made holy by the blood of martyrs.

Shadows of Yesterday

by Alvin Alexei Currier

Light & Life Books, $25

These lavishly-illustrated pages open a portal to what remains of the eastern European villages that so many Orthodox immigrants left behind when they came to the Americas. They are a trail lined with tales of the faith, fears, feasts, weddings and funerals that formed the daily life of the old world. With discernment, history and humor, the author welcomes us into this root of our roots.

The publisher deserves praise for so handsome a volume. All the photos are in color. The book is like an Orthodox edition of National Geographic Magazine.

Cassian and the Fathers: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition

by Thomas Merton

Edited by Patrick F. O'Connell

Cistercian Publications, 305 pp, $27

This book focuses on patristic figures preceding the time of St. Benedict, especially St. John Cassian, the most significant bridge between the early desert fathers and the development of monastic life in the West.

"Through Cassian I am getting back to everything," said Merton. Merton's lectures on patristic sources were revolutionary in evoking a monastic spirituality very different from the devotional piety and intellectualized meditation that was generally found in Roman Catholic communities at the time.

"If for some reason it were necessary for you to drink a pint of water taken out of the Mississippi River," Merton observes, "and you could choose where it was to be drawn out of the river -- would you take a pint from the source of the river in Minnesota or from the estuary in New Orleans? The example is perhaps not perfect. Christian tradition and spirituality does not become polluted with development. That is not the idea at all. Nevertheless, tradition and spirituality are all the more pure and genuine in proportion as they are in contact with the original source and retain the same content."

The Mystical Language of Icons

by Solrunn Nes

Wm. B. Eerdmans, 112 pp, $30

In a time when what passes for religious art in the West is often deplorable, it is a sign of hope to come across an iconographer who represents the canon of authentic Christian art.

The book is lavishly illustrated in color with Miss Nes's own icons, each in the style of one of the various schools with which she is most conversant. All are striking and luminous, and fully in accord with the tradition. Her work reveals how one committed prayerfully to the latter can nonetheless produce art of obvious creativity.

"The icon's motif is based on a historic event through which God has manifested himself," Nes writes.

"However, in so far as the motif has a current interest over and above the historic event, a style is used which underlines its universality and timelessness.

"As an expression of divine revelation the icon is subject to neither the laws of nature nor the reason of man."