Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace

For many years I have dealt, as do the priests mentioned in Prof. Slagle's book, with the ongoing conversation with both "convert" and "cradle" or "newbie" and "lifers" or however you want to categorize the influx of non-Orthodox Christians into the Orthodox faith.

Amy Slagle's new book The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 2011) is a welcome book for expert and non-expert alike. Slagle is a professor of religious studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. This book is an ethnographic study of what it means to convert to the Orthodox faith and practice. Slagle spent time in both the Pittsburgh, PA area interviewing both clergy, one bishop, and several parishioners as well as in the Deep South, in Jackson Mississippi where she did the same thing. The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace is well written and she included not only a thorough bibliography and copious footnotes but also a list of questions which she asked in her interviews as well as some general background on the parishioners, whom she calls "informants." Everyone agreed to be interviewed and Slagle mentions from time to time that she was present at various liturgical services as well.

As an Orthodox priest who is also a "lifer" this book was particularly interesting because Slagle brings up many points that I myself have thought about and reflected upon. For example the zealousness of new Orthodox Christians to the faith, those who might read several books on the history and practice of the Church and then begin questioning why our parish does things "wrong." In seminary one new convert seminarian questioned my "modern icon" that I had hanging in my room and I smiled when I said that my parish priest gave it to me as a gift when he returned from Moscow! She also brings up issues such as the various times, materials, and resources that converts use to find their way into the Orthodox faith, some via internet and others by reading and studying and others by just "coming and seeing."

Slagle also brings up other points as well, non-Orthodox spouses who convert to the Orthodox faith versus those who spend years of study and research. She also considers both ethnic and non-ethnic Churches too and how they respond to new converts, at one point I caught myself laughing when she discusses new converts in a Greek Church and they call the new person "xenie" which is "foreigner" as if the new person was a stranger or something.

This book would have been very dry probably if it wasn't for Slagle's fine writing style. She manages to weave modern sociological theory, drawing from people like Peter Berger and others as well as weaving direct quotes from her many interviews. We hear from clergy, from converts, from their spouses, and from regular parishioners. We get a ground view of the relationships among these people. She includes lengthy quotes from her interviews so we get a better feel for these people, they are not just generic informants but people with real lives.

While not extensive, after all Slagle only interviewed a select number of people in only two geographic places, we do get a very good picture, grounded in sound socio-anthropological theory on how the Church can accommodate both "newbie converts" and "life-long Orthodox" in a Church which seems to be getting more attention as the years go on. We have to thank Prof. Slagle for her work and hope it continues well into the future.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review--Did Jesus Exist?

Did Jesus exist? Was there a person named Jesus of Nazareth who taught people about the Kingdom of God, who performed miracles, who healed the blind and the lame, and who raised the dead? Of course you say! But deep down the question still nags at you probably. I know it bothers a lot of people. When I taught introductory courses in the New Testament to college students we always had very lively debates about the person and work of Jesus, some believed, others didn't, and still others were left in the middle. The good thing, at least in my opinion, was that people were actually interested in Jesus!

Thanks to the work of Bart Ehrman we now have a handy reference and resource which surveys the recent scholarship surrounding the person and ministry of Jesus. Yes, Ehrman says, there was a person named Jesus but, as he says himself,

"He may not have been the Jesus that your mother subscribes to, or the Jesus of the stained glass window, or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist, or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, or the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic."

In other words, we have to get back to the gospel image of Jesus rather than the Jesus constructed in our own image and likeness.

Did Jesus Exist is divided into three parts Evidence for the Historical Jesus, The Mythicists' Claims, and Who was the Historical Jesus. Ehrman goes through the known evidence that we have about Jesus in the early centuries, which is very little to the suprise of many people, and then deals with the more modern approach that denies that Jesus existed at all. Ehrman has a clear writing style and his prose reads as if he were in the room with his readers leading a book discussion, a result I assume of his many years teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where Ehrman serves as a Professor of Religious Studies.

As we enter into Holy Week and then Easter we will certainly hear more about Jesus of Nazareth and the Easter event. We will see documentaries of all sorts either debunking Jesus as a fabric of peoples' imaginations. Major newspapers and magazines will run stories about Jesus too.

If you want solid scholarship in an easy to read format, that turn to Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist (NY: HarperOne, 2012). Certainly this book is not the last word in the perennial Jesus debates but at least it is one step closer to a better understanding of Jesus.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A 30 Day Retreat----Kindle Edition

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my book A 30 Day Retreat is now available as an e-book, wow, what a great way to start a day!

I have received some very kind words about this book, it is very practical and the chapters are rather short so readers can easily follow the chapters day by day for their own do-it-at-home retreat.

Have a great day everyone and happy reading!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tantur Institute---Holy Land

Are you looking for an extended stay in the Holy Land? Do you want some rest and relaxation and walk where Jesus and the early Christians walked? Do you want a real live face to face meeting with other Christians, Jews, and Muslims? If so then you have to visit the Tantur Institute in the Holy Land. Tantur is an institute sponsored by the University of Notre Dame and for decades it has been a meeting place for clergy, scholars, and lay leaders who want to experience the Holy Land.

While at Tantur you can use their library, perhaps take a class or two, and then take a tour of the Galilee or a walking tour of Jerusalem.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review--Making Toast

This week I read a heart wrenching memoir by Roger Rosenblatt called Making Toast (NY: Harper Collins, 2010). Rosenblatt is a longtime essayist for Time magazine as well as a commentator for the Jim Leher News Hour and other media venues.

The story involves the sudden death of his daughter Amy who collapses on the treadmill during one of her workouts, she was only 38 years old, a physician and mother of three. Told in a non-sentimental way, Rosenblatt takes his readers through the first several months and years of moving in with his son-in-law and helping with child-care, which we quickly find out seems to be a full time job for both he and his wife. His son-in-law is also a doctor, a hand surgeon, and his new practice and role as a single father seems impossible. Rosenblatt not only helps with the children but he also continued teaching as a creative writing instructor on Long Island.

I don't want to give too much away about the book, but don't let its small size fool you. Making Toast is a touching book revealing the humility and humanity of everyday people as well as the fragility of life. Indeed, we find out at the end life does go on, not the same life as before, but a life nonetheless.

I recommend this book for pastors and lay leaders who are dealing with grief work, especially those working with children. Rosenblatt provides much food for thought as it comes to post-trauma grief and how people deal with similar issues. Along the same lines I recommend Joyce Carol Oates' recent memoir too, A Widow's Story since she deals with similar themes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review Coming Soon.........

I haven't reviewed many books this year but it doesn't mean that I haven't read any, it's just, well, like everything else, book reviews get short listed for other bigger and better things in life! Better things than books? Well, not exactly, but reviews are lower on the totem pole than other important things like parish work, family, and writing.

I am looking forward to reading and reviewing Dr. Slagle's new book called The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace published by Northern Illinois Press. Slagle's work considers the current situation in the Orthodox Church regarding those who are new to the faith. I heard some good things about this book from a friend of mine so I wanted to check it out.

Will tell you about the book soon.

Below is some information about the book from the publisher's website.

By the way, I am thrilled that Church, World, Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundations of Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology (Hillenbrand Books, 2012) will be coming out this Fall. Right now the book is going through copyediting and the art director is working on the cover art. I'll keep you posted..........

American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity

The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace

Amy Slagle

“Slagle’s study is an important contribution to several fields. It adds significantly to the treatment of conversion in the sociology of religion, which has tended to focus mainly on Protestantism and secondarily on Catholicism. The book is extraordinarily well written and organized, combining data and theory with an ease seldom found in academic prose.” —Andrew Buckser, Professor of Anthropology at Purdue University and co-editor of The Anthropology of Religious Conversion

“This is a fascinating collective biography of American spiritual seekers. Slagle’s study simultaneously broaches issues of personal identity, ethnicity in religion, what it means to be American, and the conflicting roles that race might play in the process of conversion to Orthodox Christianity in twenty-first century America.” —Roy R. Robson, Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia

The Eastern Orthodox converts in this study are participants in what scholars today refer to as the “spiritual marketplace” or quest culture of expanding religious diversity and individual choice-making that marks the post-World War II American religious landscape. In this highly readable ethnographic study, Slagle explores the ways in which converts, clerics, and lifelong church members use marketplace metaphors in describing and enacting their religious lives. Slagle conducted participant observation and formal semi-structured interviews in Orthodox churches in Pittsburgh, PA—the “Holy Land” of North American Orthodoxy—and Jackson, MS, in the Bible Belt—where the Orthodox Church in America has marshaled significant resources to build mission parishes.

Relatively few ethnographic studies have examined Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the U.S., and Slagle’s book fills a significant gap. This lucidly written book is an ideal selection for courses on the sociology and anthropology of religion, contemporary Christianity, and religious change. Scholars of Orthodox Christianity, as well as clerical and lay people interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, will find this book to be of great appeal.

Amy Slagle is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New Audio Scripture Commentary

The other day I wrote about a new Scripture commentary on Ezekiel. However, if you are like me, and want to dig deeper into the riches of the Word of God, especially the Old Testament texts then this new offering from Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Study (OCABS)is for you.

The Old Testament Audio Commentary is a line by line exegetical explanation of the entire Old Testament. The CD is 100 hours so talk about value! Here you get both the text read as well as Father Tarazi's commentary.

OCABS also has a complete 100 hour commentary on the New Testament as well.

Below is the description from the OCABS website. Scroll down further for ordering information.

Quick Overview

This is the second and final MP3-DVD volume in Fr. Paul Tarazi's groundbreaking Orthodox Audio Bible Commentary. As each verse of the Old Testament is read aloud and carefully explained, listeners can hear the story of the Bible unfold in its entirety, while learning relevant historical, linguistic, and literary facts.

To order a copy of the Audio Commentary click here

Sunday, March 18, 2012

New Scripture Commentary Available

If you are interested in learning more about Scripture and want to be fed and nourished with good exegetical teaching then look no further. The Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies (OCABS) has published a new commentary on the writings of the Prophet Ezekiel. Father Paul N. Tarazi's thorough analysis of the text will provide the reader with food for the journey.

Below is a description about the book from the OCABS website.

Scroll down further for ordering information

Quick Overview

In this volume, the author, Paul Nadim Tarazi, explains that "The most striking aspect of [Ezekiel's] message is that the exile has been willed by a teaching lesson." Instead of heeding God's instruction, "under Solomon and his successors, [the people of Israel] treated Canaan as another Egypt where, this time round, they would be 'masters' of their own destiny. Little did they realize that neither they nor the Pharaohs are 'masters' of their fate. God alone is the Lord and master of all. Thus, it is God himself who calls upon the new 'Egyptians,' the Assyrians and the Babylonians, to punish Samaria and Jerusalem."

Friday, March 16, 2012

More on Father Schmemann

Off and on for the past seven years I have been reading, re-reading, and writing about the life and legacy of Father Alexander. It's like spending time with a close friend. Unfortunately I never had the chance to meet Father Alexander, he died in 1983, but after reading so much about him I do feel at least like I know something about him, just a little maybe.

People ask me why I find his writings inspirational. Well, for starters he speaks the truth. Just read a few entries from his published journals and you'll see why. He rails against false spirituality and putting on airs when it comes to Church matters, for example, wearing long prayer ropes in plain eye sight of others, drawing attention to oneself at services, and the various reductions of Church life such as fasting and long services as if we can reduce the gospel message of the Kingdom to a few obligatory things.

Father Schmemann has been a breath of fresh air to me, the light and salt that I so desperately look for these days in the arid ecclesial life in which I find myself.

Also, Father Schmemann speaks a lot about the joy of life, that Christ came to bring joy to the world through the cross and through the Last Supper, the Eucharist. We gather together and share fellowship with one another. We share the goodness and grace of Jesus' love for us.

If you have not done so I encourage you to read some of Father Alexander's writings, there are several good articles on a website dedicated to him which you can find below and also I have a few links to his writings.

Take some time during this Lent or after Easter and read some of his writings, hopefully you'll be inspired as I am!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Coming Soon: Saints As They Really Are

I am thrilled to announce that Father Michael Plekon's new book, Saints as They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time will be published in May by The University of Notre Dame Press. Father Plekon is also the author of Living Icons as well as his most recent book Hidden Holiness also published by The University of Notre Dame Press.

The cover art is beautiful, contrasting the iconographic image of the late Dorothy Day, writer, editor, philanthropist, and servant of the poor with a real photo of her below.

Below are some comments about Father Plekon's new book. Further down you will find more information about Father Michael as well as ordering information.

“This is the third in a progression of books by Michael Plekon that have served to expand our understanding of saints and holiness. In this new book, he has taken yet a further step in relating holiness to ordinary or everyday life by showing the contours of grace, or the harmonics of holiness, revealed in the Christian journey of a number of contemporary Christian memoirists. He shows how the gospel story of death-resurrection is written in the journey of ordinary Christians.” — Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints

“In this profoundly engaging and moving book, Michael Plekon looks at a range of contemporary writers who have charted their own paths in ‘holy living’ in the context of a fast-changing church and world. He introduces us to the three-dimensional reality of some of those who have explored God’s ways with us in recent decades and distills a great deal of significant theological and spiritual wisdom. And, above all, he boldly argues that what he has been describing is seriously good news about the future of Christian discipleship in the supposedly secular North Atlantic world. This is a book to unsettle us and inspire us: that is, it is a Christian book.” — Archbishop Rowan Williams

“Actual saints, Michael Plekon reminds us, don’t come with ready-made halos. They struggle and fail just as we do, endure bitter disappointments, and are at times nailed to the cross by the church itself. One of Plekon’s main themes is the problem of dysfunctionality in religious institutions. Too often those entrusted to lead ‘poison our hunger for God, discourage our desire to serve God and the neighbor, even disorient our vision of human relationships.’ Even so, saints—few of them formally canonized—continue to arise, partly thanks to the church, partly despite it. Plekon’s book challenges the reader’s very idea of sanctity.” — Jim Forest, author of All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day