All posts filed under: Christian History

A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Nicolas Diat)

A Time to Die is a small gem of a book which works on two levels. On one level, it is a self-examination for the reader, offering him a glimpse of a very specific kind of life and thought, thereby helping him think about his own death. On another level, it is an examination of the decline of our civilization. The monasteries profiled, and the view of human life and death their monks embody, seem like small wooden lifeboats—tiny, fragile, and tossed on the sea of liquid modernity, mere fragments of the glorious past of French monasticism. But are they as fragile as they seem? Or, if the future turns upward, are they rather the vanguard, seeds of a new thing?

Frederick the Second: Wonder of the World 1194-1250 (Ernst Kantorowicz)

This book defies easy characterization. It is, to be sure, a biography of the last of the great German medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. But it vibrates with a subdued roar under the surface. By turns it is fierce, melodramatic, evocative, pitying, and electric. Maybe, in 1927, with Germany at its nadir, Ernst Kantorowicz was trying to channel the modern age of steel and thunder, translating it through the works of a long-dead megalomaniac king into a hoped-for new era. Or maybe he aimed to wake the ancient ghost of Frederick, stirring him from his long sleep in the Kyffhäuser Mountains. Either way, Kantorowicz did see reborn the German energies he thought should be reborn. But as with most summoned spirits, the rebirth did not advantage the summoner.

The Samurai (Shūsaku Endō)

The Japanese author Shūsaku Endō is known primarily for his 1966 masterwork, Silence, about the persecution of Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan. The backdrop of Silence is the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion, a peasant rebellion crushed in 1638, which erupted in reaction to the vicious suppression of Christianity under the Tokugawa Shogunate, part of the turn of Japan inward. The Samurai focuses on events two decades prior, when Christianity was only partially suppressed, and the Shogunate still somewhat open to contacts with Europe. As with many of Endō’s works, The Samurai focuses on the internal struggles of its protagonists to live a Christian life in circumstances of extreme external and internal pressure and conflict.

The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark (Michael Pakaluk)

New translations of the Bible, targeted at a broad audience and done by individuals, rather than committees, seem to be a growth industry. This book, a translation of the Gospel of Saint Mark, joins, among others, Sarah Ruden’s excellent recent work, The Face of Water, which offers both commentary on translation and translation itself, and David Bentley Hart’s 2018 translation of the entire New Testament. The author, Michael Pakaluk, has done an outstanding job of writing a translation that is not daunting, yet is very enlightening, and this is a book well worth reading.

The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi)

This book, a massive study by two Israeli historians, aspires to answer why and how Turkey exterminated its Christian population in the thirty years between 1894 and 1924. Usually this extermination, or part of it, is referred to as the Armenian Genocide, except by the Turks, who to this day deny their crimes, and so don’t refer to it at all. That usual term is misleading, however. As Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi document exhaustively, the primary target was all Christians, and the primary goal religious cleansing of the Turkish nation. Proving this is the object of The Thirty-Year Genocide.

Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (Hilarion Alfeyev)

In recent months, I have talked a great deal about politics and current events. It is time to pivot, for a moment, and talk about something totally different—the eternal. This book is a detailed analysis of Eastern Orthodox views of Christ’s descent into Hades, a core yet obscure Christian doctrine found in both the Nicene Creed and the shorter Apostle’s Creed. It was recommended to me by a friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister, who knows of my particular interest in the areas of theology implicated by this doctrine. And, as expected, the book highlights areas of both commonality and difference among separate branches of Christianity.

Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (Brian A. Catlos)

I read this book, about the history of Spain under Muslim rule, hoping it would be less biased than Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, which I found to be too polemical in its criticism of Islamic domination. This book was closer to neutral, on the other side of neutral, but the author, Brian Catlos, has taken a fascinating period of history and made it boring. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s that he takes a kitchen sink approach that loses the reader in minutiae, with so many dramatis personae that there is no drama. Still, Kingdoms of Faith is useful as a reference work, and in addition, I think that the history recounted here has much to say about conversion of Muslims in lands reconquered by Christendom, past and future.

The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Martin Mosebach)

This book is, brought to the temporal sphere, Revelation 20:4. “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Martin Mosebach’s The 21 is an exploration and explanation of the twenty-one Coptic Christian migrant workers killed by Muslims in 2015 for refusing to apostatize from their Christian belief, a martyrdom made famous by the slickly produced video through which the killers broadcast their bloody work.

Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX (Andrew Willard Jones)

Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, I spend my days searching for a useful political program.  Necessarily rejecting all Left philosophies as anti-human and anti-reality, I go searching through the thickets on the Right, where of late various new approaches have arisen, to accompany various old ones that are getting fresh attention.  They do not get much older than the one espoused in this book, Catholic integralism—versions of the idea, in essence, that church and state should be cooperative joint actors in pursuit of a flourishing society, rather than separate spheres of action.  There is a lot to be said for this approach, but as always, its modern proponents spend too much time talking about the past, and too little on how elements of this approach could be used to build the future. Before Church and State is a very detailed examination of the relationship of church and state in the kingdom of Saint Louis IX (r. 1226–1270).  The focus is not so much on the king, although he appears often in the vehicle …

Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Mark Sedgwick)

This book is an academic study of an obscure movement, Traditionalism.  The name has a specific meaning; it does not mean traditional forms of belief, that is, generically, conservatism.  Rather, “Traditionalism” is a type of Gnosticism, holding that a core of hidden knowledge, contained within all true religion, is the cure for what ails the modern world.  I certainly think that the modern world needs curing, though I don’t think that Traditionalism is what the doctor ordered.  Still, the pull of Gnosticism across time and space must mean something.  But what?  Mark Sedgwick’s book helps us begin to answer that question.