Books


I really do intend resuming blogging, hopefully soon. But in the meantime, this is something that I have published on my bookbinding site and which may also be of interest to readers of this blog.

Posting this here may seem like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted – after all, many of the people who visit this site do so because their Bibles are in various states of disrepair. But, having seen some of the Bibles that have come for repair recently, I have been thinking that it may be worth giving some advice on things to consider when buying a new Bible. Although it may appear that bookbinders can work miracles in making an old book look like new, there are some things that even we can’t make right.

Whatever Else You Do, Buy a Sewn Bible
This is really the most important point. From a binding perspective, there are two basic categories of mass-produced contemporary books, the glued and the sewn. Glued books consist of single pages that are glued together along the spine. (This is also known as perfect binding). They are only held together by glue, albeit a very strong hot glue. But when they come apart, while one can re-glue individual pages, re-gluing the whole Bible is not going to produce a satisfactory result – partly because one is unlikely to have much margin to work with, and partly because the cold glue that most bookbinders work with today is not as strong as the original hot glue that was used in the factory.

This is a clear example of what a sewn book looks like, although the signatures are sometimes finer and less clear.

This is a clear example of what a sewn book looks like, although the signatures are sometimes finer and less clear.

Sewn books, on the other hand, are held together by both stitching and glue. They are printed in such a way that the book consists of a series of booklets called signatures. Each signature is folded over and is usually stitched through the fold. (This is sometimes called Smyth sewn). If you look at the top or bottom of the Bible, you should be able to see if it is made up of signatures (which vary in thickness) that indicate that it is sewn. (Leonard’s Books has some more advice on this here).

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of buying a stitched Bible rather than a glued one. Not only are stitched books far more durable that glued ones, but they also open far better and can lie flat, something that a glued book will not easily do. A glued book is all very well for a thesis or a whodunit that is not likely to be read again, but is totally unsuitable for a book that will be constantly re-read and cherished.

Bonded Leather is Not Leather
I have been horrified to see the prices that are asked for Bibles bound in bonded leather. It needs to be stated very clearly that bonded leather is not leather, but is rather recycled leather fibres that are held together by a substantial amount of a gluey substance. To call bonded leather leather is like calling chipboard wood – and using chipboard in place of wood is probably a better option than using bonded leather in place of leather, because wood does not need to be supple as leather does, and bonded leather is definitely not supple, nor does it last well.

The grey underside is a sure indication that this was bonded leather, despite the "Genuine Leather" stamp.

The grey underside is a sure indication that this was bonded leather, despite the “Genuine Leather” stamp.

Even more horrifying is the fact that it appears that some Bible manufacturers are passing bonded leather off as genuine leather. I recently had a Bible in for repair that I thought looked more like bonded leather than genuine leather, although it was stamped “Genuine Leather” on the back. I thought that I must be mistaken, but, when I opened it up, there was no mistaking the grey nylon underside of the bonded leather.

Consider Rebinding a New Bible
Instead of buying a glued Bible bound in bonded leather for a hefty price, you would be far better off buying a well-stitched book block with a cheap binding. Even a stitched paperback is preferable to a glued Bible, although a hard cover is preferable as it is likely to round more easily. You could then have it rebound in leather, either immediately, or when you can afford to do so. This option will also allow you to personalise the binding as you consider what sort of cover you want. While the leather available in this country is limited (and I don’t import leather as it would drive the prices up exponentially), it is nevertheless genuine leather, lasts well, and will protect your Bible for many years to come.

I’m afraid that this blog has been very neglected of late (I do intend continuing the series I launched in the last post and then promptly abandoned, but…) and I had meant to do this book review much earlier. But let me at least get it up before Lent actually starts!

Vassilios Papavassiliou. Meditations for Great Lent: Reflections on the Triodion, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon Paperback & Kindle.

In November, I reviewed Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s Meditations for Advent; Preparing for Christ’s Birth, which had just been published and I wrote about his very welcome entrance into the world of contemporary Orthodox literature. Apart from Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which came out in 2012, he has just published Thirty Steps to Heaven on the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and another book on Holy Week is due out soon. While some of us struggle to write single blog posts, he has been churning out books at an incredible rate. And they are, moreover, very good. As I said previously, they are accessible to a wide readership and yet they also contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Meditations for Great Lent was published in 2012 and is somewhat shorter than Meditations for Advent. In fact, it is very much a “to the point” book. By this I mean that there is a fair bit that it doesn’t include, such as a discussion of most of the Sundays of Great Lent. But I suspect that that was a conscious decision so as not to distract us from the central thrust of the book, which is to open up for us the true meaning of our Lenten repentance as we journey towards Pascha.

As the subtitle indicates, Father Vassilios draws heavily on the liturgical texts of the Church and this is one of the great strengths of these books. I seem to never tire of quoting Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “The Church choir is the school of theology,” yet the reality is that for many people these great riches are virtually unknown. And, to be honest, they are probably also not that accessible to many people. But these books provide an entrance point, providing the great riches of the Church in a truly accessible way.

Interestingly, about half of the book deals with the period before Great Lent actually starts. Most of The Sundays that Father Vassilios focuses on are actually the first four Sundays of the Triodion and I suspect that the reason for this is that it is these Sundays that really teach us what the Fast is about and how we are to approach it. Here we find reflections on humility, repentance, ascetic love, fasting, not judging and forgiveness. There are stern warning against self-righteousness, the dangers of piety and an with obsession outward rules. We are reminded that “pride renders fasting useless” and are told in no uncertain terms that:

If the fast is not a means to improving our spiritual lives, if we fast from food but not from sin, then we are no better than devils! The demons do not eat, but they are no closer to God for it. (Kindle location 196)

Central to the purpose of the Fast is that it is there to teach us the true meaning of repentance. Such repentance

… looks forward and not back; it looks upward and not down. It is, ultimately, something that leads us to joy and liberation. God calls us to true joy and true freedom, and we cannot attain that until we have rejected the false joy and freedom of sin. (Kindle location 271)

This positive destination is seen in the chapter on the Return to Paradise in which we see the role of food both in the loss of Paradise by Adam and Eve, and also in our journey back to God.

The purpose of our fasting is spiritual. Spirituality must not be viewed as something that does not concern the body, but as something that is made possible through and within the body. We all too often find within ourselves a conflict between body and soul. The desires and needs of the flesh can all too often overpower the spirit. Fasting is a means of restoring the balance between soul and body, a means of bringing the flesh under the control and will of the mind and spirit. In restoring this balance, we turn back to Paradise, to the life of Eden. Then we can have hope that, like Moses, we too may see God. (Kindle location 329)

Of crucial importance on this journey is the struggle against the passions and the cultivating of the virtues, and there is an exceptionally good chapter on this which is based on the prayer of Saint Ephrem, and which really deserves a separate discussion. There is also an important chapter on the joy of Lent. Consider this:

Those who think of Lent purely in terms of fasting and obligations can never fully experience the joy of Lent. The joy of Lent is offered to us in the Lenten worship, through the services of Great Compline and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. These solemn services help us gradually to change our hearts and lives by entering into the bright sadness of Lent, through which we are able to make our own the joy of repentance, the joy of returning to God. (Kindle Location 476)

This positive orientation is continued in the chapters on the Sunday of the Cross and the Canon of Saint Andrew, and it ends by reminding us of our true destination.

Lent is a journey to Pascha. It is thus a season of joyful expectation. If we take Lent seriously, the journey is arduous, but this only makes Pascha all the more radiant and joyful. But throughout Lent, we are never allowed to forget the Resurrection, which fills all things, all ascetic labors, all solemnity, sorrow, and contrition, with gladness and brightness. (Kindle location 552)

And,

Lent is the rediscovery of that which is most essential in our lives. In this rediscovery, we return to God and to the very meaning of life. (Kindle location 557)

As I said of Meditations for Advent, this is a book to be read and then re-read slowly a prayerfully as we enter this holy season.

On my Life-Giving Spring site I have written about a project that we have begun with a group of children who have been coming to Church in Robertson for some time. Like many South African children who are victims of social poverty and an often dysfunctional education system, they have serious learning challenges, but one of the things that we have identified as a viable project is to try and get them reading and to encourage a culture of literacy. You can find more information  about this via the link below, but we really need books and especially Afrikaans children’s books – although other books are also accepted as are financial contributions. If you are able to help us, please do so! And, please also remember this project in your prayers – the need is huge and it could develop into something bigger, but we need to take one step at a time.

An appeal for children’s books.

Vassilios Papavassiliou. Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon Paperback & Kindle.

I had meant to do a review of this recently published book before the Nativity Fast started, but didn’t get to it. But I have just finished reading it – although it is certainly worth another reading and a slow, prayerful pondering – and want to say something about it, for it is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

For those who haven’t heard of him, Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain and has recently emerged as a popular but very worthwhile Orthodox author. I have been wanting to do a review of his Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and will try and do that before long although Father Deacon Aaron also has a short reference to it here. There is also Meditations For Great Lent. Reflections on the Triodion which I’ll come back to again.* I’m not sure if it’s because he’s British rather than American, or because he’s Greek but living in Britain, or because he’s a “cradle” Orthodox who is obviously used to interacting with the non-Orthodox world, but his books strike me as refreshingly free from the sort of triumphalistic self-absorption that sometimes characterizes some contemporary popular Orthodox writing. They are accessible to a wide readership, but they contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Advent, as Father Vassilios points out in the introduction, is not a word that is often used in historically Orthodox countries and the Orthodox Nativity Fast differs from the western Advent not only in the details of its celebration, but also in its dominant symbolism. Instead of being focused on the First and Second comings of the Lord, the Orthodox Advent focuses primarily on the Mystery of His Incarnation. It is a forty day fast that precedes the celebration of the Nativity, just as Great Lent is a fast that precedes Pascha – indeed it is sometimes referred to as a “Lent,” just as the Nativity has been referred to as a “Winter Pascha,” – for the meaning of the Incarnation is inseparable from that of the Crucifixion and Resurrection as we see in many of the liturgical texts.

Father Vassilios explores the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in the four major sections of this book, which help to elucidate the depth of the Church’s faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The first section is entitled “Prepare, O Bethlehem” and focuses on the underlying themes of the feasts in this period, as well as in the two Sundays before the Nativity. By looking at the feasts of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, Saint Andrew and the Conception of the Mother of God by the barren Anna, and the imagery associated with the Ancestors of Christ and the Saints of the Old Testament, the book shows how the longing for the Saviour that is found in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New. It helps us to identify ourselves with this longing as the Church’s hymnography helps us to encounter something of the depths of its meaning as we too are brought to the Forefeast of Christmas and are confronted with the astounding truth that the God of all has come to us as a child and can only be encountered with the childlike qualities of wonder, joy, faith and humility. And it is the learning of such attitudes that is surely the point of the repentance that is at the heart of our fasting.

The second section is entitled “Search the Scriptures” and is a reflection on the Scriptural imagery found in the hymnography for Advent, and especially in the Katavasias. This section could do with an extended discussion on its own, and I may come back to it again, but it helps to illuminate the author’s statement in the introduction that “Advent is one great Bible study that sheds light on the meaning of the Old Testament as a preparation for the New.” The hymns for this season are full of references and allusions to Old Testament theophanies, prophecies and types of the birth of Christ. This section provides enough background information for us to understand these references and provides an entry into the Orthodox approach to understanding Scripture.

The third section is entitled “The Icon of the Nativity” and illustrates how the Church’s theology is passed on not only through her hymnography, but also through her iconography. As in the hymnography, the icon of the Nativity makes a clear link between Christ’s birth and His burial. It also illuminates the Scriptural basis for the oxen and donkeys found in Nativity plays – far from being about sentimentality, the presence of the animals in the icon (which was taken up by later western imagery) comes from the prophet Isaiah (1:3) and challenge us as to whether we truly recognize Christ’s presence. “Heathens [the Magi] and animals are seen worshiping the one true God. It is a humbling image. Are we Christians worse than heathens and animals? Will we deny God while they accept Him?” Finally, the discussion of the star in the icon provides a link to the icon of the Transfiguration, showing that this was no ordinary star, but a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

The fourth and final section is entitled “The Incarnation” and – using again the liturgical texts and their understanding of Scripture – it opens up some of the depths of the Church’s faith and what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human. At the heart of the Nativity is the understanding of Jesus Christ as the New Adam who has come to restore Adam to paradise, restoring the Image of God in us that had become tarnished by sin. This reminds us of the purpose of the fast: “A simple choice has been laid before us: to die to Adam— that is to sin, passion, and self— and live to Christ; or to go on living as though the Incarnation never happened.” The Incarnation does not remove us from the reality of the world. Christ is the true Light who has come into the world, but no sooner have we celebrated the coming of this Light, than we are plunged into darkness with King Herod’s killing of the children.

Many think of Christmas as something sweet and sentimental. But this grim event in the midst of the Nativity narrative reminds us that there is nothing sentimental about it. Instead we are shown the harsh reality of evil, of the kind of violent world that Christ enters as a newborn baby. In becoming one of us, in taking on human existence in everything but sin, He subjects Himself to human tragedy, to suffering and death. Already, from the moment of His birth, we see Christ offering Himself to the reality of our own pain and mortality, with no power, no authority, no means of defense. Yet in spite of this, the Light of the world was not extinguished by the darkness.

As I said before, this is a book that needs to be read slowly and prayerfully. I would see its strength as threefold. Firstly, it provides an entry into the way the Church reads Scripture. Secondly, and through this, it leads us ever-deeper into the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ which we can only really grasp in a liturgical context (once again, I am reminded of Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “the Church choir is the school of theology”). And thirdly, and related to these, it focuses us on what really matters. As he did in his book on the Liturgy, Father Vassilios has produced a book that, by focusing on Advent, introduces people to the fundamental faith of the Church.

* Father Vassilios Papavassiliou also has a blog entitled orthodoxymoron here and is on Twitter here.

bks all
In addition to the Bibles that I mentioned previously, I have just added a page to my bookbinding site where I am selling a variety of hand-bound notebooks and journals, most of them with quite creative covers. I’m presently exploring various options as earning a living from bookbinding is not proving that simple. There is work, but the situation is quite complex, and I either need to get it more streamlined or explore something else. In any case, I am exploring various options at present, including selling these sorts of books. I will probably move them all to another online shop before long, and the prices may also go up, but I am selling them on my own site for the time being. So, if you are interested, please have a look…

It is possible to sing praises to the Lord without ceasing. ‘The soul is a consummate musician, an instrumentalist. The instrument is the body, which serves as lute, harp and lyre… Desiring to teach you that you should sing praise to Him and glorify Him always. God joined together instrument and player [that is, the body and the soul] in a permanent union.’ (1)

In the Orthodox Church, we do not use musical instruments in worship. Every believer is a musical instrument made by God, and at the same time a musician. If the musician (the soul) keeps the instrument (the body) pure and uses it properly, the two together raise to the Creator a hymn of praise that is pleasing to God. For the hymn that is sacred ‘is born of the soul’s piety, nourished by a good conscience, and accepted in heaven by God.’ (2)

(1) St John Chrysostom, Homily on Holy Week and on Psalm 145, 3, PG 55.522.
(2) St John Chrysostom, Homily on being ordained Priest, 1, PG 48.694.

Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, (Cell of St John the Theologian, Koutloumousiou Monastery), 139-140.

I was given this book when I became Orthodox, but have only recently got to reading through it seriously, as part of my preparation for a (very basic) series that I am doing on the Liturgy in Evangelion. But I was struck by these words, which are largely quotations from Saint John Chrysostom. In recent months, I have come across some discussions on Christian worship which have left me wondering about the criteria that people use for determining what is and is not appropriate in worship, or even whether there can be any criteria for what constitutes Christian worship. For many Christians worship seems to have simply become about entertainment or about “what works for me.”

I am raising this not to criticise others or to condemn all use of musical instruments – although I am very pleased that the tradition of the Church is as it is! – but rather to point out that, in the tradition of the Church, worship is not something subjective but is, among other things, a pedagogical activity that leads us to God and therefore has a real and objective content. Moreover, while this content has a clear textual and intellectual content – “The Church choir is the school of theology” in the words of Archimandrite Cyprian Kern – it also has a less immediately identifiable but no less real spiritual content which does its work on us through the bodily acts of singing and hearing, together with a host of other physical and sensory “texts”.

Being more or less musically illiterate, I dare not say anything much about music! But it has become increasingly apparent to me that, in large part, the point of Christian worship is to lead us into silence. Prayer consists of quietening the mind and the heart so that they can be purified in order to see, encounter and receive God. And the sacred music of the Church (and possibly also of other traditions) has been developed over centuries and in an era when people had a far better understanding of the relationship between the body and soul that we would appear to have today.

 

The popular idea that Christianity says “human nature” is inherently bad is actually the opposite of what the earliest Christian theologians believed. This book challenges the popularized negative view by proposing a prophetic alternative grounded in early Greek Christian sources. It draws on the wealth of early theological reflection, the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers, and the heritage of Eastern Christianity to discover what God has made us to be.

Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Baker Academic, 2010), 5.

This book arrived several months ago. I have dipped into it, and have wanted to get down to a serious reading of it many times, but let’s just say that other things have intervened. I don’t intend blogging on it in detail, worthwhile though that would be, because such an intention would no doubt simply go the way of all my other good intentions! But I do hope to write more about it at some stage, for it strikes me as a very important book. Sister Nonna is an Orthodox monastic and patristics scholar who has taught in Protestant seminaries, and what she writes here would appear to present a very accessible and also practical introduction to Orthodox Christian anthropology.

The point of this post, however, is to highlight something that she says in the introduction, for this is also something that I keep coming up against and may even at times have said myself without thinking. All too often when we are confronted with the evil around us, and with the bad choices that people make, we hear people say rather resignedly that this is simply “human nature.” Scandals may occur because of greed, but greed is simply “human nature”. Moreover,

The difficulty is that folks today frequently see a Christian understanding of human identity as part of the problem. This is because an oversimplified negative vision of humanity is taken for granted in popular culture, and churches often reflect this negative vision. (3)

The idea that human nature is inherently sinful is of course the opposite of what Christians believe, for “Throughout the ages, Christians have believed that the image of God in which we are created (Gen. 1:26-27) is at the core of who we are and defines us as human.” (5) While sin has buried, wounded and distorted our true nature, it has not destroyed it, for “the image of God remains present in us as a foundation and a potential that awaits our discovery and can transform our lives.” (6)

Although Sister Nonna doesn’t address this in this chapter, I think it would also be worth pointing out that, were our human nature inherently evil, Christ could not have assumed it. Salvation, according to a Christian understanding, is dependent on His taking on our nature and transforming it from within; “What is unassumed is unhealed” in the oft-quoted words of Saint Gregory the Theologian. And we are constantly reminded of this in the words of a prayer by Saint Basil the Great that we pray in preparation for Holy Communion, “with your own blood you refashioned our nature which was corrupted by sin.”

So, when we see evil around us – and, which is more difficult, recognize its roots within us – let us not blame this on “human nature,” but let us rather look at how we may recover the true nobility of our nature which has been tarnished and covered over by sin.

b-all

In case any readers of this blog are interested, I have just added a new page to my bookbinding site, with details of some hand-crafted leather bound Bibles that I am selling. Over the past couple of years I have collected some Bibles and rebound them and am now offering them – some are second-hand, of a lesser quality, or Bibles I’ve used to experiment with, and some are real bargains. They can be found here if you are interested…

Metropolitan Hierotheos continues his discussion of Orthodoxy as a therapeutic science in Orthodox Psychotherapy by arguing that if Christianity is chiefly something that heals, then the same should be said for theology. Orthodox theology is both the fruit of therapy and also points the way to therapy.

Theologians, in an Orthodox understanding, are those who have been healed. His Eminence quotes Saint Gregory the Theologian who claimed that theology is “for those who have been examined and are passed masters in the vision of God and who have previously been purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified.” (31) Moreover, Saint Neilos the Ascetic (Evagrius of Pontus)* linked theology with prayer, especially noetic prayer, stating “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (more…)

I decided to start reading Orthodox Psychotherapy by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos for Lent. I don’t know how much blogging I will do on this, but I am going to try. I had thought of reading this book quite a while ago but had been a bit put off for two reason – partly the negative reaction of someone else, whose judgements I have since learnt to take with a certain caution, and partly because I had assumed from the title that it is a book about Orthodoxy and psychology. I have nothing against such books but, not having much background in psychology, it is a genre that I have not yet got into.

However, on closer perusal it became clear that the title is misleading – it does not refer to the modern practice of psychotherapy, but rather to its literal meaning, namely the cure of the soul, or the healing of the person. Essential this is a book about the Orthodox understanding of spiritual life.

In his opening chapter Metropolitan Hierotheos outlines that Christianity, and especially the Orthodox understanding of it, is a therapeutic science. He begins by asking what Christianity is and argues that it is not a philosophy or a religion in the sense that these are normally understood today. It is not a abstract speculation, nor is it a way to placate God or ensure a place in the afterlife. Rather it is the revelation of God and the vision of the uncreated Light which enables us to participate in the Kingdom of God here and now.

It offers life, transforms biological life, sanctifies and transforms societies. Where Orthodoxy is lived in the right way and in the Holy Spirit, it is a communion of God and men, of heavenly and earthly, of the living and the dead. In this communion all the problems which present themselves in our life are truly resolved. (25) (more…)

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