Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Father of Christ, all-seeing, hear our prayers;
Look kindly on your servant’s solemn song.
He turns his footsteps down a godly path,
Who knows, while living, the ingenerate God,
And Christ, the king who bans all mortal ills.
Once, out of pity for our hard-pressed race,
Freely conforming to the Father’s will,
He changed his form, taking our mortal frame
Though he was God immortal, freeing us all
From Tartarus’s bondage by his blood.
Come now, refresh this soul of yours with words—
Pure, godly sayings from this sacred book;
Gaze here upon the servants of your Truth
Proclaiming life in voices echoing heaven!

St Gregory the Theologian. Translation by Brian Daley (Gregory of Nazianzus, 168-169)

More summer reading reviewlets

Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Mark Mazower (Knopf, 2004). Aaron Taylor, who lived for a time in Thessaloniki, recommended this book to me. As the title implies, it’s a history of the city from 1430 until approximately 1950. What we have here is not just the tale of some kind of Oriental Everytown, though some aspects of this apply, but the tale of a city of remarkable communities of people who managed to coexist and thrive until outsiders in the twentieth century ruined everything. The Germans, as usual, had a hand in this, not least of which was their nearly complete extermination of the entire Jewish population, a Jewish population that had been the pride of the city and of the entire Jewish world. Likewise, in the name of “progress”, the striking old city of so many minarets and courtyarded, tiled houses, has given way to a city that is a gigantic grid of ugly apartment blocks. How all this comes to be is related in sufficient detail by Mazower. And while he shows perhaps a bit too much sympathy for the Turkish Muslim perspective, this doesn’t affect the historical account. It’s a very good read, very relaxing.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak (Harvard University Press, 2009). Luttwak is the author of the magisterial The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third (Johns Hopkins, 1979). This volume might even be seen as more of a second volume to that than a separate work, as it immediately follows upon the heels of the last, and picks up the history of strategy in the fourth century, going until the end of the Empire in the fifteenth. Luttwak is a brilliant and engaging writer. I’ve never read such a thoughtful and stimulating book on military history and strategy before. Luttwak clearly admires the “grand strategy” of the Byzantine Empire (which he rightly recognizes as the Roman Empire, continuing after the loss of the West to the various barbarians), and suggests that we might find their strategy useful even today. Considering its remarkable success, I would agree. One wonders: was the vivid Orthodoxy of the Byzantines part of the explanation for their so very different strategy? At least in part it must be. Their adaptability and intelligence were legendary, contrary to the slanders of powdered, atavistic barbarians like Gibbon. This book merits rereading soon, I think.

Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, Paula Fredriksen (Doubleday, 2008). This is a remarkable book, one which has given me a new sympathy for St Augustine. Fredriksen provides a remarkable summary account of the evolution of Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman society as a setting for her detailed discussion on Augustine’s writings. She goes directly to the heart of the matter: the educational system of rhetoric, classical paidea, is crucial to an understanding of not just Augustine’s, but all writing of the time. Most people miss this, almost always pulling quotes out and presenting them as something or other that the author “believed” or “felt.” Baloney. Rhetoric was about winning. And if winning your audience over meant some over-the-top insults toward absent friends or foes, then so be it. Rhetoric was always a tool to a higher purpose, and Augustine clearly had higher purposes in mind than scoring cheap shots at his fellow citizens. As with other Church Fathers, his most vividly awful rhetoric regarding Jews is found in those orations which are attacking heretics, where these “Jews” are a standard trope standing in as an image of the heretics themselves (to quite drastically simplify!). In Augustine’s remarkable work Against Faustus, however, he develops a theology of the Jews that is actually quite positive: they exist as a separate entity from Christians because God wills it so, and those who would attempt for forcibly convert them work against the will of God. The Jews likewise are a help to Christians for their holy books, which are (essentially) those of the Christians also, and which therefore serve as a witness to pagans of the antiquity of the message. I really sped through this book, it was so enjoyable. Fredriksen put many years of work into this book, which shows in its smoothly flowing argumentation, and especially in the extraordinary presentation of helpful background material for those unfamiliar with the period. In future, I am going to recommend this book to those who need an introduction to the rhetoric of the Patristic period. It is excellent!

Thus endeth the lesson on the lessons of ye summer.