The Greatest Treasures
These are some of the greatest treasures around to read, and there’s a lifetime worth of reading in them. I may be critical in some of my reviews, but I only list books I think are worth reading, and the pieces I criticize are probably worthy of a more charitable spirit.
- The Orthodox* Study Bible (Kindle)
- In this Orthodox bookshelf, a decisive pride of place goes to The Orthodox* Study Bible. I have felt more comfort in reading it than any other Bible, and it gives a real sense of reading the Bible, not privately, but in community with the saints across the ages. The footnotes are decisively better than the Bible de Jérusalem / New Jerusalem Bible, and those responsible for The Orthodox* Study Bible decisively understand that the proper use of footnotes in a text is not to speculate about how a text came together across the ages, but to illumine the Bible as the ultimate work of practical, spiritual, and mystical theology, with footnotes oriented towards practical, spiritual, and mystical theology.
Then why have I put an asterisk in The Orthodox* Study Bible?
The Orthodox* Study Bible shows signs of a group of converts who have described as trying to do too much, too fast. Their selection of saints for commentary is limited to the first millenium (have no nineteenth century saints already stood the test of time?), and the introduction harps on the ancient Church.
If harping on the antiquity of the Church doesn’t seem strange, think about how we are all the continuation of the royal, ancient bloodline of His Majesty King ADAM and Her Majesty Queen EVE. Poetry and meaning are alike profound when, to quote a Protestant author, C.S. Lewis has Aslan proclaim “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.” Such a thing may be poetic to note, and quaint, but it would be a strange thing to harp on and say that you respect other people primarily as carriers of an ancient bloodline. Most of the respect we have, or should have, for other people is not for the antiquity of our bloodline, but because they are fully human, however we may understand being human, because they are made in the image of God and can be transformed into the likeness of Christ. It may be a useful thing to remember that a beggar or a person we can’t stand is ultimately family to us, but very little of the language of respect for the human person, whether Orthodox, other religious, or secular, states that we are the fullness of the ancient bloodline of our first parents. And, notwithstanding that eagerness to re-create the ancient Church was foundational to the Reformation and can still be found in Protestant influences, the basis of respect for Orthodoxy is not that it is Ancient Orthodoxy, but that it is Holy Orthodoxy.
Though The Orthodox* Study Bible introduces its material by talking about the authentic continuity of the Orthodox Church (without so much as a brief passing mention of our antiquity as the authentic continuity of the bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve), I have never heard such harping on the ancient Church among cradle Orthodox. Admittedly the Orthodox Church is the same living organism as the ancient Church, but in the altar at my parish, most of the books are ancient in character (service books, Gospel books, a Greek New Testament), not one of them is labelled as ancient: no service book touts “the ancient Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.” ‘Ancient’ is not the point.
And there are other things like that are written to “smooth things over” at the expense of truth in The Orthodox* Study Bible. For one instance, the note on Creation on page 2 says like a politico, “Regarding scientific questions about the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation, and about various viewpoints concerning evolution, the Orthodox Church has not dogmatized any particular view.” This is misleading disinformation; origins questions may well be among the many areas “not dogmatized”, but there is a near-universal consensus among the Church Fathers, including the Church Fathers of the first millenium that The Orthodox* Study Bible returns to, that the earth was created in six days about six thousand years ago. This may be inconvenient to point out, and it might be easier to help people get along if we say that several views are legitimate, but this is twisting facts for the sake of convenience. (And for the recdord, I believe in a billions of years old earth and legitimate disagreement over how God created the world), although the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.)
With all that stated, The Orthodox* Study Bible has a number of helpful and edifying notes in an overall tenor that provides guidance in reading the Bible, and nothing better has come to fill its place.
Perhaps another work will come along that is not trying to do “too much, too fast,” but The Orthodox* Study Bible has left behind a pretty big pair of boots to fill, and there is much profit in it whether you know the Bible well or are just beginning to dive into it.
- Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint Old Testament (Read online) and The King James Version of the New Testament
- One tacit assumption about the Bible is that we have to have it in one volume. In fact, we do not, and when I read the Bible in Greek, one volume is a copy of the Septuagint (with Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation on the side), and the other is a Greek New Testament (admittedly, a Western critical edition rather than the Byzantine text). This works quite well.
The language of both is a little unfamiliar today, but there is something unsurpassed in the King James Version. Modern translations of the Bible are the work of specialized language scholars, and their technical skill in the original language is not matched by being able to write well in English: in fact the only time I’ve heard of someone selected to help in translation based on being able to write well in English is the very tangential involvement of J.R.R. Tolkein in The New English Bible(?). The King James Version is the work of generalists, Renaissance men whose technical knowledge of original languages was matched by aptitude as English wordsmiths. And that is something that modern bureaucratic translations don’t even try.
The best alternative I am aware of to The Orthodox* Study Bible is a combination of Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint, which was clearly written to match the excellence of The King James Version, and the King James Version of the New Testament.
And if the language seems a little unfamiliar at first, I would recall one encounter in The Way of the Pilgrim, where a man had been cured of alcoholism by a priest who gave him a Gospel book and told him to read one Gospel each day (which he made a part of his practice). The Gospel was in Slavonic, which is further from that day’s Russian than the Elizabethan English of The King James Version is from our English. The priest, giving him the Gospel book, said, “Do not worry if you do not understand [all of] what you are reading. The demons will understand.”
- The Philokalia is a library of practical theology, and there is nothing else like it. It is a collection about the science of spiritual struggle, and though entries can vary substantially from each other, they are very edifying and can orient us to what is truly important in life.
The Philokalia is best viewed, not as a book, but as a library of classics, and the intent is that people would read specific works as selected by a clergy member. I can attest that simply reading it cover to cover is a second-best solution.
Many Orthodox give The Philokalia first place outside of the Bible.
- The Ladder of Divine Ascent
- The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a work addressed to monastics, and is read each Lent in monasteries. However this is far from being a treasure only useful to monastics. It is a jewel of the Orthodox Church as a whole, and all kinds of people have read The Ladder of Divine Ascent to great spiritual profit.
- The Prologue of Ochrid (Volume 1, Volume 2 (Daily selections online; Old Calendar)
- The Orthodox Church has a great tradition of biography as theology: one grasps holiness by reading the lives of the saints. A rich sampling of these lives is found in the daily readings of the Prologue, which tells of all the saints commemorated on a particular day.
- The Jordanville Prayer Book
- Praying the prayers of the Church is a great help along the way, and The Jordanville Prayer Book (or any other good prayer book) is like the script to a play: it is not primarily meant to be read silently while sitting in a chair, but spoken aloud, brought to life, preferably from a standing position.
Prayers, with fasting, are an area to work out with one’s priest or spiritual father. They come alive when they are practiced as part of the life of the Church.
- Akathists (links to many good Akathists; note that the website, Orthodox Wiki, should be taken with a little grain of salt).
- St. Romanos the Melodist is said to have miraculously received the prayer of the Akathist to the Mother of God. Since then there is a tradition of Akathist prayers; the term “akathist” means “not seated,” i.e. standing to deliver the prayer. The first Akathist, and many of the ones that follow, are beautiful and powerful prayers.
- The Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Series 1, Series 2) collections (Read online)
The Ante-Nicene and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers provide the standard reference translations to a great many Church Fathers. This collection receives its own asterisk because while the texts are Orthodox they were translated by Anglicans grinding a massive axe against Rome. Hence a condemnation of contraception, abortion, and infanticide by St. John Chrysostom is turned into a condemnation of abortion and infanticide alone; Augustine may be allowed to condemn Natural Family Planning, but there is an axe that is ground in the texts and is even more explicit in the accompanying notes and introductions.
Still, this does not stop a great deal of glory from the Fathers; read, for instance, St. John Chrysostom’s Treatise to Prove that No One Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself. The collection, for all its deficiencies, is still a great treasure.
- St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Kindle), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, etc.
- I have picked these two examples of works that it is work to read. I read them, not because I have grown enough that they seem easy and natural to read, but because they stretch me and challenge me to enter into a larger space. Fr. John Behr said, “The only thing worse than not reading the Fathers and reading them systematically;” in a similar fashion, the Fathers are of the most value to us, not when we find an endorsement of what we have always believed, but when we are challenged and invited to grow. I am challenged by these works, and I pick out these two as representative examples of innumerable works that challenge me to grow bigger and unpleasantly challenge me to enter a larger world.
This is a collection of lesser greats, limited in number by the limitations of what I am familiar with. Note that this does not include a lot of popular authors, such as Fr. Seraphim (Rose), or Met. John (Zizioulas); in the latter case, I answered the question, “Is John Zizioulas an existentialist in disguise?” by asking, “Where’s the disguise?” However, there is some good work produced recently, and I’ve even read a little of it.
- The Orthodox Way
- The standard print introduction to Orthodoxy is His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos’s The Orthodox Church, but what captivated my attention was not that more systematic work but the less systematic and more mystical The Orthodox Way. It is an excellent introduction to Holy Orthodoxy.
- The Way of the Pilgrim (Kindle)
- The Way of the Pilgrim is a glimpse of one pilgrim for whom the Philokalia unlocked the treasures of the Gospel. The author, whose name is lost, would today be considered a vagrant; that was the form taken by his pilgrimage. Along the way the Jesus Prayerunfolds in his heart. The book is a lesser classic, but it is a classic.
One queer postmodern theologian speaking in class spoke of how the Fathers used “the best philosophical resources of their day,” the implication being that we should use the postmodern resources fashionable today. To that I might reply: the best philosophical resources available to the Fathers were neo-Platonism, and the best philosophical resources available today are neo-Platonism. That may sound harsh, but the Church that said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” used philosophical resources without limiting themselves to them as captives. Neo-Platonism was at once the air the Fathers breathed and the opponent they struggled against; in today’s terms, slightly clumsy to apply to them, they strove for a critical reception of neo-Platonism, or developed (or rather preserved) a counterculture.
These books are not exhaustive; but they serve to point to an area that is worth reading. But perhaps this section of this Orthodox bookshelf is less important than one might think.
Note here that there is one category I have deliberately excluded: Gnostic and other heretical writings. Gnostic writing is spiritual pornography and I regret I have ever set eyes on it. I thought it would provide perspective to help me understand Orthodoxy. It did not, and I would rather have read any Orthodox resource than that form of spiritual poison.
- Plotinus: The Enneads (Kindle)
- A central work of neo-Platonism, and possibly the best single resource in philosophy from outside the Church into what the Fathers drew from when they drew from pagan philosophy, in the image of one Church Father, “like a bee that goes straight to the sweetest nectar and ignores all else.”
- Plato: The Republic (Kindle)
- A seminal work that was the first domino that would build to neo-Platonism. There are parts of the work that seem strange today; Derrida called it “the world’s oldest, longest, and least funny political joke”. I would amend that to “the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke.” The treatment of sexuality reads like something plagiarized from Monty Python today, but viewed in relation to historical context (in books I shouldn’t have read), it does not seem nearly so provocative a stance against currents of its own day as in currents of our own day. It sets forth one of the oldest radical political ideologies, but for all that it is a seed of many important things, many good things, and I lightly adapted its most famous passage in Plato: The Allegory of the…Flickering Screen?.
Almost last, and certainly least,
I would at least like to mention my own offerings, not because there is any conclusion that they are classics, but because I cherish them and they are what I have to offer. They are in:
The “Big Room”
Programmer slang uses “the Big Room” for outside, the “room” one is in when one is not hunched over a computer indoors. And there is something profound to looking beyond books and learning from life.
Monasticism has a maxim, “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know.” And the precept holds whether or not one is a monk; staying in one’s place and learning things is powerful. Most monks have been illiterate and not owned books; the maxim is not simply “Your bookshelf will teach you everything you need to know,” but “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know.” The here and now that God has put you in, that you are tempted to escape by real or virtual means, will teach you everything you need to know.