Monday, July 19, 2010

Book Review: Laura Salah Nasrallah, Christian Response to Roman Art and Architecture. The Second Century Church Amid the Space of Empire

Yes, another book review. Summer is very much my time for reading, even this year where I'm so busy with a temporary job this month. I came upon the book I'm reviewing in this entry, Laura Salah Nasrallah's Christian Response to Roman Art and Architecture. The Second Century Church Amid the Space of Empire, quite by accident. I was doing a search on Greek theatres and found this in my list of hits. Goodness only knows how. Besides the general link to art and architecture, there is really very little about the ancient theatre in this book. So, chalk it up to the vagaries of library database searches or to chance for a lucky find.

Nasrallah's book fascinated me when I found it because of the promise of linking patristics, classics and art/archaeology- my three main intellectual interests. What is more, Nasrallah attempts to use these three unusually distinct disciplines to get a more complete picture of what it meant to be an Christian intellectual in the 2nd century. Central to Nasrallah's project are two major insights: first, that Christian writers of any age should not be removed from their intellectual environments and, second, that they were certainly not removed from their physical environment. These insights may seem obvious to my readers, but, given how classicists tend to deal with Christianity (which can be described as a scarcely veiled contempt, at best), they are potentially revolutionary for our understanding of the Fathers, if enough people bothered to learn enough languages, history, literature and theology to employ this type of analysis. That is becoming less and less common

The second century apologists are Nasrallah's main concern. Her main argument is that we have to understand them, first of all, within the literary-intellectual currents of their time. That means, for apologists like Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, we need to understand the 'Second Sophistic' that (Roman-sponsored?) revival of self-conscious Hellenism in the 2nd century AD. This revival included an increased focus on rhetoric, grammar (especially Atticizing the language) and, ultimately, on philosophy. Nasrallah argues that the Christian apologists participated in the debates about the true paidaia (education, but more than education), philosophy and power, albeit from a critical stance. They, implicitly, questioned the Greek paidaia and, through it,the philosophical status of the Roman emperors because of their inherent injustice and their unwillingness to accept the 'true philosophy' of Christ. She also identifies a crisis of representation which goes along with these criticisms and blurred the boundaries between human and the divine. There is more to this discussion than my rather glib summary, but this is enough to change our view of the apologists to narrow-minded partisans of religion to participants in second-century 'culture wars'. I hesitate on using the term 'culture wars' here because of the risk of anachronism implied with our own rather different ones, but I find the idea of connecting the apologists to the intellectual currents of the time fascinating.

Possibly the most original aspect of this book, however, rests in Nasrallah's attempts to link the debates in which these apologists participated to the physical surroundings they found themselves in. In each chapter, Nasrallah links a given apologist, a non-Christian writer and a building/artifact together in order to explore an aspect of the debates mentioned above. So, for instance, we see Athenagoras' apology, Dio Cassius account of the emperor Commodus, and the statue of Commodus as Heracles (now in the Capitoline Museum) into a discussion of the hazy boundary between human and divine which Athenagoras critisized as a failure of philosophy by even Roman emperors. These comparisons are bold, but they usually work quite well. I admit that my 'inner historian' did grind his teeth at a few of the linkages of clearly anachronistic combinations. For example, the linkage of the Acts of the Apostles with Panhellion of Hadrian really annoyed me. Mind you, Nasrallah's point that Paul in the Acts of the Apostles was creating a kind of league of Christian churches which was similar to Hadrian's much later Hellenic leagues (to organize the imperial cult among other things?) is still well-taken and an interesting insight in the religious-political sphere.

Despite minor quibbles, this book deserves wide reading by those interested in early Christianity and by classicists. It bridges a divide which desperately needs a bridge and provides interesting insights into Christian and non-Christian intellectual world of the 2nd century.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Book Review: Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life

In my last entry, I promised a review of Kathleen Norris' new(ish) book, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and A Writer's Life. So, here it is.

I have to start with an admission. I am a fan of Kathleen Norris and have been for about ten years or so. It was my wife who introduced me to her writing, just before we got married. I fell in love with Norris' blend of Benedictine spirituality, married experience and introspection so much so that, when I have problems sleeping (an annoying frequent experience for me), it is, most often, Kathleen Norris' prose to which I turn to calm down, let go of whatever I'm worrying about and re-connect to the reality that God has it all under control.

Acedia and Me is an excellent addition to Norris' better known books, Dakota, Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace. It focuses on the 'bad thought' of acedia- a kind of restless apathy, called in monastic literature, the 'noonday demon'. It is that feeling that I think we all get from time to time that what we are doing is completely pointless and which makes us so restless that we can't sit, we can't sleep and we can't work. All we can do is to sit an contemplate how pointless anything we can do is. Norris examines the idea of acedia, but also looks at in her own life, marriage and spirituality (all of which are closely intertwined). She considers acedia's relationship with depression, of course, but with a sense of balance which places her in between the extremes of modern thought which medicates any bad feeling and which rejects all medication- the pro-psychiatry and anti-psychiatry positions, if you like.

As she usually does, Norris weaves in a goodly amount of autobiography as she traces the impact of her life-long battle with acedia on her life. The details of the autobiographical elements aren't necessarily new to those who have read her new books, although there are more specifics at times, partly because there is less need to circumspection now that many people in Norris' stories have died, including her husband. This is one of my favourite parts of Norris' writings in that she takes the spiritual things she is discussing and traces them out in real life, in her real life. This makes them more real because it is all too easy to write about spirituality in a spirit of abstraction which leads directly to irrelevance and ennui in the reading. Norris' insights hit home because they are the result of a happy marriage of learning and experience without which no spiritual truth can be expressed.

Here the spiritual truth is one that needs expressing, but has somehow disappeared off the radar for centuries. We live in an age so filled with acedia that it seems to be part of the air we breathe. We even raise it to an art-form or, at least, we seem to make acedia a condition of being an artist/writer. I can see it in people around me. I can see it in my students. I can see it in my colleagues, friends and acquaintances. I can see it in myself. That voice which tells me that all of what I'm doing doesn't matter is the 'bad thought' of acedia.

It is ironic that we, sophisticated and modern as we think we all are, have to turn to the monastic tradition to figure out what to do with this 'bad thought'. Of course, the very tedium of the monastic life- the same pattern of worship, study and work day in and day out can be wearing, I'm sure- spawns it. The sanity of the monastic tradition's response makes for a refreshing alternative to our psychologizing of acedia. On one hand, we're told to stay in our cells and stop wandering about looking for the thing that will distract us from the acedia we are experiencing. We have to, in effect, get on to the life we have, not wander around for the life we don't. On the other hand, we're told that acedia is serious and that, if it is prolonged, we have to look for causes including spiritual direction and, now, psychiatry. We use the help we can get.

For me, Acedia and Me didn't show or tell me anything new, but it brought into focus a lot of disparate thoughts I've had over the years. Norris' blend of acute perception, contemplation and insights from the Desert Fathers makes for compelling spiritual reading. I know I'll be coming back to it regularly, along with her other books.