Eastern Christianity – A Reading List

An acquaintance recently asked me for a list of five or six books that could serve as solid introductions to Eastern Christianity. Naturally, I sent him 25. In so doing, I told him that I had intentionally avoided suggesting any work that was needlessly polemical, theologically heavy, or spiritually dense. Because he is a Roman Catholic, I noted that some of the works listed might rub him the wrong way while also mentioning that it’s important to keep in mind that not every Eastern criticism of what we broadly call “Latin theology” and “Roman ecclesiology” is entirely off base or fueled by a lack of charity. Moreover, given that there are few “perfect books” written about much of anything, I stressed that I did not agree with every point in the books suggested, but felt it best for him to separate the wheat from the chaff himself.

The following list is ordered roughly in the manner I personally would proceed if I were to “start over” on my Eastern Christian reading. There is a heavy emphasis on history here which is entirely on purpose.

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Review: Stepan Bandera

Grzegorz Rossolinski’s Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult (Verlag 2014) is a straightforward book about an immensely complicated man with an exponentially more complicated legacy. In the aftermath of the Maidan in Ukraine, Bandera’s cult reemerged in such a profound way that for perhaps the first time ever, mainstream Western media, both in and outside of Europe, took notice. Fiercely nationalist at a time when that meant being rabidly anti-Polish and anti-Russian (or anti-communist), Bandera is an easy figure to rally around for Ukraine’s minority, albeit still formidable, far-right movements. Although Russian officials and media have been keen to label these groups “neo-Nazi,” the truth is that most of them trace their heritage back to Bandera and his Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) which, for better or worse, never saw the Nazis as much more than convenient bedfellows at a time when the Soviet Union appeared as the great Satan on the horizon.

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2014 Year in Books

I’m always making lists. Below are the top 15 new books I read in 2014, with the caveat that a couple of titles published in late 2013 made it on as well. The numbering reflects roughly my sense of the book’s overall worth as determined by a number of idiosyncratic criteria, including whether or not I threw the volume across the room and/or allowed my 18-month-old to play with it.

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A Man of Another Era

Juan Donoso Cortes would likely have been lost to that most obscure sector of intellectual history, the one reserved for prophets of a doom that didn’t quite come to pass, had it not been for the terrorist attacks which transpired on 9/11/01. In the months, then years, after the tragedy, theorists of different stripes began mumbling something about the U.S. — if not the Western world — being in a “state of emergency” or an “exceptional state”; that’s when folks started remember, or discovering, Carl Schmitt. The intellectual banalization of the opening line of Schmitt’s Political Theology — “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception” — is worth 10,000 words, but it’s not my concern here. What is of concern is how Schmitt, a theorist of dictatorship and decisionism, reopened interest in Cortes, a man whose writings clearly influenced Schmitt enough to where the latter, in 1950, devoted an entire book to the former. Unlike Schmitt, who received a mixed, but mostly fair, hearing from the professional academic community, Cortes became a subject of pure opprobrium. As a Catholic reactionary who believed that history could only be understood through a theological lens, there wasn’t  much room in the theoretician’s toolbags for what the Spanish diplomat had to say. Still, “Schmittians” of various stripes have, from time to time, felt compelled to say a word or two about Cortes. Perhaps it’s time for traditional Catholics to as well.

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Thinking Through Books

There seems to be something going around on web-logs and social media concerning ten (or so) books which people consider personally important and/or exerted considerable influence upon their thinking. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, for instance, has posted hers; my Facebook feed is filled with at least a dozen more such lists. Because I would hate to feel left out from the fun, I offer below my own ten titles (well eleven) with the preliminary remark that I am in considerable less agreement with these books now than when I first read them. In a sense they represent stepping stones on my less-than-linear journey to wherever I happen to be today. I have purposefully left off a large number of “Great Books” which everyone who is capable should try and digest at some point in their lives (e.g., Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and so forth). I have also left off any and all explicitly Catholic works, mainly because I plan to dedicate another post to them in the future. I imagine that some of you will be surprised by at least one or two title that pops up on the list below. I am not, for the time being, adding any explanations. Enjoy, and feel free to share yours if you are so inclined.

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More to Say on Vatican II?

I probably don’t need to plug Fr. John Hunwicke’s outstanding web-log on here, but just in case some of you aren’t aware of it, Fr. Hunwicke has just finished posting a three-part review of Roberto de Mattei’s sterling The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story. (You can — and should — purchase a copy of this volume here.) If you are not yet convinced that Mattei’s book falls under the category of a “Must Read” for those who are seriously interested in the most polarizing event in modern Catholic history, hopefully Father’s fine thoughts will make the case. You can find all three of Fr. Hunwicke’s posts linked below.