Byzantine Christianity and Little Books

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This weekend, I read Averil Cameron’s new little book titled Byzantine Christianity (2017). At about 120, modest-sized pages, it’s a concise and easy read, intended, it would seem for a wide audience unfamiliar with Byzantine history and anything more than the basic outlines of Orthodoxy.

Cameron divides the book into two parts. The first part deals with the history of Byzantium and locates various controversies and crises from the Christological debates of the 5th and 6th century to iconoclasm, the conflict with Latin Christianity, and evangelism among the Slavs amid a narrative of Byzantine politics. The second chapter looks at the lasting legacy of Byzantine Christianity both in Byzantine society and today with short sections on Byzantine spirituality, the veneration of icons and relics, church law, relations with Jews and Muslims, the Philokalia, and – perhaps most interestingly – the role of Orthodoxy in the centuries after the fall of Byzantium in both national churches and in global Christianity.  

It would be pretty easy to pick apart a book like this with variations on “this is not the book that I’d have written.” For example, the book doesn’t deal much with the actual experiences of Byzantine Christianity and seemingly downplays the role of liturgy in organizing Byzantine time and framing the Byzantine encounter with both the church and the divine. Cameron tends to introduce theological topics from monasticism and miaphysitism to iconoclasm and the dualism without offering much substance on what these groups actually believed. The book is biased toward Early and Middle Byzantium and might leave the impression that the struggles of the Byzantine state in the 14th and 15th centuries produced a corresponding malaise in Byzantine Christianity, which I might suggest was not the case. This reflects a tendency to conflate Byzantine Christianity with the Byzantine Church (or churches) in a rather top down view of faith in the wider Byzantine world. That all being said, these critiques are not particularly valuable or helpful in a book of 120 pages. Certain things get left out and other things get emphasized by comparison.   

It might be more helpful to attempt to imagine the situations in which a book like this could be useful. For example, I could imagine that it would be vaguely useful in a Medieval History class, in which students know something about what’s going on in the Byzantine East and the basic contours of Early and Medieval Christianity, but perhaps aren’t completely familiar with the intersection of Byzantine politics, culture, society and faith. Perhaps the book would be a nice addition to a global Christianity class, but it would have to be contextualized as the book lacks much in the way of comparative material outside brief and largely superficial references to Protestantism, scholasticism, and the like.

This kind of critique got me thinking about a larger issue that has permeated my recent conversations with David Pettegrew (and my own thinking while writing a book proposal for a 200 page book). Over the past couple of decades, two obvious trends have occurred in academic publishing. First, academic publishers have embraced the BIG edited volume whether these are “handbooks,” “companions,” or whatever, they tend to be over 400 pages and include numerous contribution that survey topics related to a field. These big books tend to be destined for academic libraries or online circulation where each article receives its own DOI and can be sold via subscription or individual article cost. 

Second, and perhaps related trend, is toward very short, concise, brief, very brief, even more shorter and briefer introductions with brilliant, if standardized, covers and often idiosyncratic coverages by top tier scholars who attempt to wrestle a career worth of specialized and detailed knowledge into around 150 pages. These books are rarely reviewed and rarely cited, but – apparently – sell in sufficient volume to be useful to a publisher’s bottom line and perhaps, one can at least imagine, useful in the classroom and perhaps on the general reader’s bookshelf. To write a good very short or brief guide to a topic is hard, of course, and very few of them are genuinely significant works of scholarship. Most feel like they’re written and edited with care, but also to a murky specification set by an even murkier sense of audience. They tend to trade on their accessibility and being concise. 

Don’t get me wrong. I like these little books, and some like Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons are lovely short essays that share an appealing aesthetic and form more than anything else. At the same time, I do wonder whether our interest in these short introductions is part of our growing impatience – as both authors and readers – with the incremental pace and diffuse range of academic knowledge making. This may also be growing skepticism and impatience with academic expertise or at least the impression that such expertise can be tidily distilled into a short, accessible volume. To be clear, I understand and respect these works as an effort to expand the audience for specialized academic knowledge, but I wonder whether the recent outpouring of short books runs the risk of over simplifying (or at least over promising) the potential of subtle, dense, and careful academic knowledge making.   

In fact, I wonder whether for academics, writing for the public (or for a non-specialist audience) involves writing with a greater degree of certitude than we might write to our academic peers. This reinforces view of “factual knowledge” that obscures the importance of debates, disagreements, nuance, and complexity (even ideological and political) complexity present in academic writing and thinking. 

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