Sunday, August 16, 2015

Steve Matthews: “Liturgical Subjects”

Steven Matthews

Book Review

Derek Krueger, Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 328 pp, 24 illustrations, endnotes, bibliography and index. ISBN: 9780812246445

1> English language scholarship of the Christian East, whether conceived as “Byzantium” or something more comprehensive, hovers at the margins of relevance for most scholars of the Early Modern period and Renaissance. This is unfortunate, given the prominence of Eastern Christian influence on the major thinkers of the Italian Renaissance, and the role which the Byzantine world had in mediating the texts of classical antiquity which exerted such strong influence upon the intellectual development of the West. Apart from singular, and very unrepresentative, figures such as Manuel Chrysoloras or Gemistos Pletho, the East seldom crosses over into Renaissance and Early Modern scholarship, despite the steady flow of people, books, and ideas westward which accompanied the Islamic conquest of the Balkans. For those seeking a single volume with the potential to introduce the Christian East on its own terms, there is no better choice than Derek Krueger’s most recent book.

2> Krueger’s work, both in this book and his previous publications, represents a departure from what many still expect in Byzantine studies: the “top down” political histories on the one hand, and the analyses of doctrinal debates on the other. Krueger is interested in the lives and identities of the common Eastern Christians. In this book Krueger uses the liturgical developments of the sixth through ninth centuries, developments which impacted every citizen of the Empire because of the centrality of Christian time and ritual, as a window into understanding the development of the self identity of Byzantine people. What emerges in the course of seven chapters is a summary of the Byzantine culture and worldview that endures to this day, and the book serves to explain the shared heritage of modern Russia, Serbia, and Greece no less than the medieval Byzantine world. Here the scholar of the Renaissance may also come to understand the people behind the Council of Ferrara–Florence who so impressed certain Florentines, as well as a sense of the profound difference in perspective which ensured that Council would fail.

3> Krueger’s own stated thesis is far more modest than what the book actually accomplishes: “Working at the intersection of Byzantine Christian religious culture and contemporary critical approaches to the history of subjectivity, this book explores Orthodox liturgy as a mechanism for the formation of interiority.” (p. 6) Krueger acknowledges that the “liturgical model for selfhood” is but one of many competing “selves” in the Byzantine world, “although it arguably had the greatest impact on Byzantine Christian self-conceptions across society.” (p. 7). We may add the obvious, that the influence of the church ensured that the other “selves,” whether established by family, gender, military, profession, etc. were all heavily informed by the liturgical self, as they still are in Orthodox countries today. The period which Krueger examines is the period in which great changes were occurring in the Byzantine rites which “transformed the Eastern Mediterranean Christianity of late antiquity into the Christianity of Byzantium. Between the sixth and the ninth centuries, the liturgical calendar increasingly brought the Biblical narrative to life.” (p. 2) These changes were dominated by a tendency of liturgical speech toward the first person, or toward a direct association of the individual soul with the events of the biblical narrative in which the individual is invited to insert herself into the narrative as a participant. Typical of this trend is the sixth century hymn of Patriarch Eutychios now known by heart throughout the Orthodox world: “At your mystical supper, Son of God, receive me today as a partaker, for I will not betray the sacrament to your enemies, nor give you a kiss like Judas, but like the Thief I confess you: remember me Lord in your kingdom.” (p. 1). This hymn simultaneously blends the singer and audience as individuals into the events of Holy Week, while associating the self with the faithful Thief, thereby establishing a self identity as a “redeemable sinner.” Krueger extends his study, at some points, to the turn of the eleventh century, but the emphasis is strongest on these early developments in the liturgy which establish a distinctive “self.” The implications for other scholarly literature on the development of interiority are significant. Krueger places the development of “an emergent awareness of the self” in the East far earlier than the twelfth century in which scholars such as Colin Morris and John Benton claim that it developed in the West. (p. 13) Similarly, Krueger’s thesis challenges the idea that a “normative model of the religious self” developed primarily as a result of the influence of Augustine. (p. 14) Since Augustine had no real influence in the East, Krueger has identified a very different point of origin for the religious self, which, necessarily, produces a very different religious self.

4> As he did ten years earlier in his book, Writing and Holiness: The practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East (U. Penn., 2004), Krueger here adopts a “case-study” approach in which he lays out his argument in the first chapter, and supports it with careful analyses of select sources in the remainder of the book. It is really these remaining six chapters which open the door to the Byzantine world in a more profound way than I have encountered in other literature. A first glance at the chapter titles suggested that he might have been overly selective, when the private prayers of the Eucharist and the Hymn of the nun Kassiani might give a more nuanced image of the Byzantine mindset than the Great Kanon of Andrew of Crete would alone. The chapter titles are a bit misleading, however, since Krueger manages to cover these topics as well, subsuming his discussion of the Hymn of Kassiani under St. Andrew’s Great Kanon, and the discussion of private Eucharistic prayers under his consideration of the Anaphora. The result is a tour de force of the landscape of Byzantine faith and theology, which reveals the comprehensive worldview that is established through the liturgy.

5> Chapters two and three blend together somewhat, since his examination of the hymns of the sixth century Romanos the Melodist in chapter two cannot be separated from the developments in the liturgical calendar (the focus of chapter 3) at the same time. Chapters four, five, and six, cover the Eucharistic Prayers of the Anaphora, the Great Kanon of St. Andrew, and the hymns of the “Lenten Triodion” respectively, but they do far more. They pan all of Orthodox theology from the perspective of the worshiping individual, and as such they serve as an excellent introduction to the “lived theology” of Orthodoxy, which is potentially a far more effective way of communicating the unique features of Eastern Christianity than the more dogmatic approach found in comparative theology. It is one thing to acknowledge that the Augustinian doctrine of inherited original sin is absent in the East, or that the East does not have a forensic understanding of the “Atonement” (no courtroom with an Angry God), but another to see how that affects the experience of sin and guilt as expressed in Orthodox hymnography. As Krueger states, “Prayer scripts the self. The recitation of set prayers conforms the speaker to a particular model of self-understanding and self-expression. In praying, one becomes the subject of the prayer, both in the sense of becoming the persona the text talks about and in the sense that one is acted upon, is under the creative power of the prayer to produce a particular self.” (p. 162)

6> Chapter seven, “Liturgies of the Monastic Self,” looks at somewhat later liturgical developments that are associated with Theodore the Studite and his school.  The chapter serves both as a summary of developments to that point, and a transition to the changes which would occur in the eleventh century as the liturgies of the monastery increasingly shaped practice outside the monastery in parish churches.

7> Krueger’s prose is fluid and accessible, and he strikes a fine balance between the two audiences that a Byzantine scholar must try to reach: those who know and study the Byzantine world, and those for whom it is foreign territory. My only criticism is one which could apply to all current scholarship of Byzantium: Krueger tends to emphasize the distinctiveness of the “Byzantine” over continuity with classical antiquity in the way he describes the changes of the sixth through ninth centuries. This can give the modern reader something of a false understanding: the people of the time would have emphasized continuity, and would be puzzled about the distinction we make by using the artificial word “Byzantine.” In other authors this has produced a historical narrowness which makes one wonder if they understand the previous eras. In Krueger’s case, it is just a habit of speech, for he has a thorough knowledge of prior history, and he easily connects the themes that emerge in the liturgy of the sixth century and following with their clear antecedents in the sermons of Chrysostom, Basil, and the like.

8> This book will profit any reader who wishes to understand more thoroughly the deeply rooted cultural differences between Eastern Europe and the West. It also would be a profitable read for Eastern Orthodox theologians who often lose sight of the stages in the historical development of their own faith, and particularly its intense “interiority” from the sixth century onward.

Steven Matthews is Associate Professor of history and department head of history at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Concordia Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Florida. He specializes in the history of science and the history of Christianity with an emphasis on the foundations of both and their subsequent interactions. He is also an Eastern Orthodox lay theologian.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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