Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Miscellany of Thoughts

It has, of course, been a long time since I've written for pretty much the usual reasons. Busyness and fatigue. All of which raise real questions about the long-term viability of this blog, but I did want to write some more, if only to get Glenn Beck off my first page. Yes, I know, I gave him a place in the title, but, even if I had a point, it gets irksome and I sure as heck don't want that to be a last entry.

So, what I decided to put on offer was a just an assortment of my jumbled thoughts this week. I have plans for a book review and maybe a couple other posts over the next few weeks, but I haven't really formulated in my head what I wanted to say. So, instead, this is what we get.

So, first, thoughts about John Cassian. Through much of October, I spent much of my transit time reading through the Conferences of John Cassian, as ably translated by Boniface Ramsey. This is, of course, St. Benedict's fault, who recommends John Cassian's Institutes (I read these in the summer) and the Conferences as supplementary reading in his Rule. In both works, Cassian tries to take what he learned among the Desert Fathers in Egypt and apply them to his cenobitic monastery in the south of France. Ultimately, what is attractive in this work is the essential grace of John Cassian and of the Desert Fathers; a grace which is rather surprising to many because of the reputation of ascetics in general, who are seen as rather grumpy or insane or both. What comes out in these writings is more humility and just sheer good sense about the spiritual life and the struggles implicit in a serious spiritual discipline. Yes, there are sections which caused me to grind my teeth (the conference on the Abba Theonis, who abandoned his wife, got very much on my nerves- this would make a good post, so I will try to follow up on this), but there is more to learn from John Cassian than to dismiss. And Ramsey's translations are clear and readable which isn't always true of translations of the the Fathers.

Second, another useful find- the DVD Be Still, which was quite literally dropped into my mailbox by a friend (it took a week or so to get confirmation which one, but there was little doubt- thanks, Judy, if you read this). I found this a very useful video, especially because, when it came, I was up to my eyeballs in work, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the cast of commentators- Dr. Henry Cloud, Richard Foster, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Dallas Willard-; all luminaries of the evangelical scene these days. This fits in with the increased interest of many Evangelicals in contemplative prayer and it offers a really useful set of discussions around silence and reflective prayer. Normally, I really hate books and videos which talk about prayer, for reasons that I've ranted on before. Yet, this one was prayerful and practical. And it inspired me to get back to this, at least, in my early morning prayer. And that has made all the difference in this very busy and stressful few weeks. In fact, I think a refresher may be in order this week as reports cards are due.....

Third, a quote from Stanley Hauerwas' Peaceable Kingdom, which I'm re-reading slowly over breakfast (bracing, I can tell you at 6:15 in the morning):
Our initiation into a story as well as the ability to sustain ourselves in that story depends on others who have gone before and those who continue to travel with us. "What I am, therefore, is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition" [from Alaisdair MacIntyre). Given this, the crucial question becomes whether the tradition is more or less truthful. At least one of the conditions of a truthful tradition is its own recognition that it is not final, that it needs to grow and change if it is to adequately shape our futures in a faithful manner" (p.45)

I quote this because, in many ways, this explains my attitude to tradition and to history in a much more concise and clear way than I've every managed to say it. Much of my project as a historians has been to contribute to what I believe to be a truthful and living tradition, that of a broadly orthodox Christianity (in itself, also worth a blog entry to explain- not that I haven't tried already). Whatever else I decide to do with my life, I maintain an interest in explaining and interpreting this tradition, so this passage reminded me of what set me off in this direction over ten years ago.

My last thought is related to this topic. I've been reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity. The First Three Thousand Years. In a bit of a fluke, I found Christianity in one of the college libraries at U of T which was a surprise, given that it hasn't been out much more than six months. I had read MacCulloch's Reformation, which was an excellent book and I read my blogging friend, Jim's glowing review of MacCulloch's new book. I'm about a third of the way in and I'm less glowing. To be fair, of course, this shouldn't be surprising because the sections on the ancient world and Christianity are hardly MacCulloch's area of speciality and they are mine, so some discontent on my part is likely in this part. Still, I found it off putting and significant that the Greek background comes before the Judaic because, like many church historians, priority is frequently given to Greek philosophy and thought over the Judaic inheritance (to some degree rightly, the early and patristic church was notorious for this as well). Similarly, the confident and, occasionally, smug sense of superiority of modern biblical exegetical techniques gets on my nerves and I did grind my teeth a couple of times on the issue of 'censorship' in early Christianity (again, a complex enough topic which deserves more discussion). In many ways, these flaws are the flaws which one would expect in such a broad survey. MacCulloch makes no bones about being depending on the secondary literature for periods about which he is less familiar and that is fair enough. So, really, my problem with the tone of some of these sections is less a problem with MacCulloch than with modern scholarship on the topic. And, the sheer breadth of this history and the quality of the writing still make this a good book. Don't mind me, if I grind my teeth occasionally.

So, those are my thoughts this week. Hopefully, I'll make better sense next week.



Jim said...

I suppose 'glowing' is fair. And from my perspective the book remains a very good read.

My own (dare I call it scholarship -- study might be more apt) focused on the period between the Alexandrian conquests and the Herodian accession. Show me something in English from that period and I am likely to own it very quickly.

I see your complaint albeit probably in different areas but I still think it is a read more than worth the time.


Phil Snider said...

Don't get me wrong, Jim. I agree with you. It is a good book and well worth the read (I'm just finishing up the Russian Orthodox section to 1800). I have quibbles and sources of ambivilence, but that is common with many, many good books. McCulloch is good, but there is a dissonance between my own thinking about history and McCulloch's much more mainstream one. That is all I'm really saying. I don't mind the challenge, but I still reserve the right to grind my teeth sometimes.