Archive for March, 2009

Pärt: In Principio

March 31, 2009

part-inprincipio

Pärt: In Principio
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Tõnu Kaljuste
(ECM New Series 2050; 70:36)

Arvo Pärt has had a special relationship with ECM Records from the beginning.  Twenty-five years ago it was ECM that first presented Pärt’s music to a sizable audience with the release of the now-classic album Tabula Rasa.  It was a marriage made in heaven, Pärt’s spare and contemplative music a perfect match for ECM’s sleek and austere aesthetic. In the intervening years the label has recorded most of Pärt’s major compositions, often in definitive versions. In Principio is the twelfth record to come from this fruitful relationship.

Some labels might have used the occasion of a major anniversary to bundle together some old recordings as a “Greatest Hits” album, but not ECM.  On the contrary, of the six pieces included on this disc, four are recorded here for the first time, and the other two are substantial revisions of older works.  All of the music was either written or revised in the last decade.

The centerpiece of the program is In Principio, a setting of the prologue of St. John’s Gospel for chorus and orchestra.  It’s an attractive piece that occupies a sonic space reminiscent of several other of Pärt’s recent compositions (both Litany and Lamentate come to mind).  La Sindone, for orchestra, is a quarter-hour long piece, written in honour of the Turin Shroud, that slowly unfolds a gentle, sinewy melody.  Cecilia, vergine romana is another work for chorus and orchestra, its text taken from the Roman Breviary’s account of the martyrdom of our beloved St.Cecilia.  It’s a gorgeous, evocative piece that I hope we will hear more frequently in the coming years.  Da Pacem Domine, written in 2004 to commemorate the victims of the Madrid train bombings, has been recorded a few times before, but appears here in a new version for chorus and orchestra. It is a near-static piece that seems to hang peacefully in the air, slowly settling over the listener like dew.  Mein Weg is a short piece that was originally written in the late 1980s for organ, but has been newly arranged for string orchestra and percussion.  The final piece on the record is Für Lennart in memoriam, an orchestral tribute to the late Estonian president Lennart Georg Meri.

None of these works break bold new ground for Pärt. He is one of the few modern composers blessed with a compositional voice that is both distinctive and accessible, and there can be little reason for him to tamper with a good thing.  The music is unfailingly beautiful, even if the level of inspiration is not as high as it once was. I consider Pärt main strength to be in composing for voices, and this record, which places choral works side-by-side with purely orchestral ones, confirms that judgement.  His harmonic language, when sung, sounds clear and pure, but, for some reason, when transferred to orchestral strings I find it a bit drab and one-dimensional.  But this is no reason to avoid this recording; it is still a splendid exhibition of Pärt’s enchanting art.

The performances and recording quality on this release are beyond reproach.  Kaljuste and the Estonians have been collaborators with Pärt for many years, and routinely premiere his pieces.  ECM’s engineers are as good as we have come to expect: the sound is clean and vibrant.

**

ECM has prepared a mini-site for this record, featuring music clips, videos, and background information.  It is well worth a look.

Lewis: The Weight of Glory

March 30, 2009

The Weight of Glory
C.S. Lewis (Harper San Francisco, 2001)
192 p.  First reading.

This is a collection of short pieces, addresses, and sermons, mostly on religious and moral themes.  They all display Lewis’ characteristic insight and literary grace, and a few of them are especially fine. For my own benefit, I here briefly summarize the content of each, beginning at the end.

“A Slip of the Tongue” and “On Forgiveness” are brief meditations on, respectively, the temptation to insulate ourselves from divine grace from fear of challenge and change, and the difference between forgiving and excusing.  Both serve as gentle spurs to self-examination.

“Membership” and “The Inner Ring” are concerned with rightly ordered interpersonal relationships, both in the Church and in society.  “Membership” is a sermon on what it means to be a “member” of the Church.  We tend to think the word means that one belongs, together with everyone else, in a more or less equivalent way, but Lewis reminds us that the word originally drew on a bodily analogy: just as the members, or organs, of our body each have a distinct role that contributes to the body’s overall health, so the members of the Church, the Body of Christ, serve in different but complementary ways. To speak of membership is to speak of vocation.  The Church is more like a family, where inequality of roles yields variety, enjoyment, and health, than it is like a state, where an artificial equality is enforced from without.  Lewis also makes some probing remarks about the basis of political equality and the meaning of the phrase “human dignity”.

“The Inner Ring” is one of Lewis’ most famous essays, and justly so.  He delivered it to students at King’s College, Cambridge in 1944, and it contains timely advice to those just launching themselves into the wide world.  The Inner Ring is the confidence and company of the People Who Matter.  It forms in every organization, almost always informally, and the list of who is In and who is Out is unstated but understood. Many, says Lewis, exhaust themselves in an effort to penetrate the Ring, to become a Favoured One.  He warns his listeners against this ambition.  The desire to enter the Inner Ring can provoke a man to evil actions which he would not otherwise commit, and furthermore the quest, when it succeeds, loses its appeal.  When once you are inside, you begin to look for another ring to enter.  Like all vices, it is a chasing after the wind, an attempt to “fill sieves with water”.  Rather than focus on social standing, Lewis counsels attention to craft: “If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters.”

“Is Theology Poetry?” takes up the question of how theological language ought to be understood.  Is it an attempt to appeal to our imaginations and appetites, or is it primarily addressed to our intellect?  Does it convey truths, or not?  Lewis points out, correctly, that the mere fact of a system of beliefs having aesthetic appeal does not make it untrue, nor does it mean that it is believed for aesthetic reasons.  By way of illustration, he gives a powerfully written description of the aesthetic appeal of scientific materialism, likening its account of the history of the world to an Elizabethan tragedy.  He then proceeds to examine the alleged poetic appeal of Christianity.  He admits, first, that it has relatively little aesthetic appeal to him personally, and then points out that the poetic element is in any case substantially reduced when moving from the Old Testament to the New.  The Church itself does not seem to be attempting to cultivate a myth.  It is true that some of her doctrines are expressed in language of metaphor and symbol, but that does not mean that the object of faith is merely metaphorical or symbolic.  When we say that Christ sits “at the right hand” of God, we mean what we say, but of course we don’t mean he literally sits on the right.  Theology is an attempt to convey truths.

“Transposition” is a thoughtful sermon preached at Oxford.  It explores the question of how to understand the fact that everything we call spiritual is, in fact, mediated to us through natural means.  Our religious language and imagery is drawn from the world around us; religious feelings of devotion, love, and sorrow all have non-religious significance as well. On what grounds, therefore, do we believe in the spiritual?  He develops his thoughts using analogies: a sick man may experience a particular unpleasant sensation in the stomach, and so may a man in love.  To a doctor there may be nothing to distinguish them, yet the experiences are certainly not the same.  The problem, says Lewis, is that an experience from a higher, more subtle, more complex realm (the mind and emotions) is being forced to manifest itself in a more rudimentary realm (the body); it must be transposed down, and in the process two or more quite different realities appear to be the same.  Furthermore, the activity in the lower domain can only be understood properly if we know about the higher domain.  A symphony can be played in a piano reduction, but only someone who knows about symphonies will be able to notice the resulting deficiencies.  To someone who approaches things only from below, it will always seem that “religion is only psychology, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry”.

“Why I Am Not a Pacifist” and “Learning in War-Time” were both given during World War II, and they deal in different ways with questions that had arisen as a result of the war.  Some Christians had argued, as some continue to argue, that pacifism is the appropriate Christian stance.  Lewis did not agree, and gives a quite closely reasoned critique of pacifism, and defence of just wars.  “Learning in War-Time” confronts a doubt which was felt by many students at that time: how can one justify study and intellectual life when a war is raging?  At a deeper level, this question asks about the purpose of intellectual life. Lewis answers that study, when carried out as a humble inquiry into truth, honours God, and has an intrinsic dignity. One might well ask, “What is the purpose of war?”  Is it not to safeguard other, higher pursuits, among which is study?

“The Weight of Glory” is, by a fair margin, the most probing and profound essay in the book.  I am going to leave it mostly untouched, because I am not able to speak adequately about it.  We all harbour, begins Lewis, a desire for a good we cannot name, a memory of a home we have lost:  “We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.  We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.” This desire, says the Church, is precisely for the glory which Christ has promised. Our understanding of what it means remains inchoate and symbolic, for we cannot grasp it, yet the thing we desire is real, and we have been made to find our fulfillment in it.  Lewis delves deeply into the traditional imagery and the history of Christian reflection on this promise.

This was an excellent book.  It was a gift, and I thank the person from whom I received it.

[Politics in context]
The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude.  To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour.  As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit.

Sunday night string quartet

March 29, 2009

Not feeling jittery enough tonight?  Here’s the remedy: the third movement from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.3, played by the Emerson String Quartet:

For Lent: Perils of asceticism

March 27, 2009

I think he told me that for forty years he slept only an hour and a half during the night and that in the beginning this was his greatest penitential trial, to conquer sleep, and that to do this he was always either on his knees or standing.  When he did sleep, he did so sitting up, with his head resting on a little log nailed to the wall.  He could not have stretched out even if he wanted to, because his cell – as is known – was no larger than four and a half feet.  However hot or rainy the weather was in all those years, he never put up his cowl; he wore nothing on his feet, nor did he wear any clothes other than a course serge habit with nothing else to cover the body – that was as tight as could be, and a short mantle over it made of the same material.  He told me that when it was terribly cold he took the mantle off and left the door and little window of his cell opened so that afterward by putting the mantle on again and closing the door he was able to appease the body by the warmth that came from more covering.  Eating every third day was a very common practice with him, and he told me when I showed surprise that it was easily possible for anyone who got used to doing so.

– St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life.

Alarming new music

March 26, 2009

Some brief news from the world of music: After having been quiet for a few years, Tom Waits is planning to issue three new CDs.  He will be revisiting some of his early material, from the days when he was a mellow tenor singing about ice cream and old shoes, and giving those songs his now customary deep-growl treatment.  Surprisingly, however, the instrumentation will be different: the junkyard clatter, accordions, and violins will be replaced by schmaltzy lounge-music arrangements and Motown back-up singers.  Kind of like Leonard Cohen.

Speaking of whom, Cohen too will be releasing a new album, entitled Early Summer Nights.  It will consist of songs sung in duet with characters from the Muppets, and in French.

At least, this is how it was in my dream.

Johnson: Rasselas

March 26, 2009

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)
Samuel Johnson (New Yale, 1929)
160 p. First reading.

Rasselas is a fable about a young prince who seeks wisdom about how to live the happy life.  All his life he has lived in an isolated valley where his every desire has been granted, yet he finds he is not happy. He says:

I can discover within me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure; yet I do not feel myself delighted. Man surely has some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification; or he has some desires distinct from sense, which must be satisfied before he can be happy.

So, with his sister and a guide, he leaves the valley and goes in search of happiness.  They encounter many different people, inquire into their way of life, and ask whether they are content, only to be disappointed.  Not the wealthy man, nor the scholar, nor the ascetic, nor the married man, nor the single, nor the powerful, nor the pastoral, nor the young, nor the old — none are truly happy.  A certain restlessness, a desire for something more, remains, which it seems may be found, if at all, only beyond the grave.  This observation brings their journey to its conclusion — in which nothing is concluded.

That might seem a dour end, and of course Dr. Johnson was subject to bouts of melancholy, but in fact the book is at times quite funny (as when Rasselas is trying to contrive some means to escape from the valley), and it is full of sagacious and astute observations about life.  It bears obvious similarities to Voltaire’s Candide, but it is not satiric, and it is as hearty beef to Voltaire’s thin gruel.  It also reminded me of Pilgrim’s Progress for its systematic examination of various conceptions of the good life, but it is not allegorical, and it is not half so dull as Bunyan.

This would be an excellent book to give to an adolescent who has begun to ponder what course he ought to take through life.  If he has a head on his shoulders, and an ear for strong English prose, he will appreciate the gift.

Thanks to my friend Adam for suggesting that I read the book.

[Good ends and evil means]
When we act according to our duty, we commit the events to Him by whose laws our actions are governed, and who will suffer none to be finally punished for obedience. When, in prospect of some good, whether natural or moral, we break the rules prescribed us, we withdraw from the direction of superior wisdom, and take all consequences upon ourselves. Man cannot so far know the connection of causes and events as that he may venture to do wrong in order to do right. When we pursue our end by lawful means, we may always console our miscarriage by the hope of future recompense. When we consult only our own policy, and attempt to find a nearer way to good by over-leaping the settled boundaries of right and wrong, we cannot be happy even by success, because we cannot escape the consciousness of our fault; but if we miscarry, the disappointment is irremediably embittered. How comfortless is the sorrow of him who feels at once the pangs of guilt and the vexation of calamity which guilt has brought upon him! (Ch.XXXIV)

[The soul]
“Some,” answered Imlac, “have indeed said that the soul is material, but I can scarcely believe that any man has thought it who knew how to think; for all the conclusions of reason enforce the immateriality of mind, and all the notices of sense and investigations of science concur to prove the unconsciousness of matter.

“It was never supposed that cogitation is inherent in matter, or that every particle is a thinking being. Yet if any part of matter be devoid of thought, what part can we suppose to think? Matter can differ from matter only in form, density, bulk, motion, and direction of motion. To which of these, however varied or combined, can consciousness be annexed? To be round or square, to be solid or fluid, to be great or little, to be moved slowly or swiftly, one way or another, are modes of material existence all equally alien from the nature of cogitation. If matter be once without thought, it can only be made to think by some new modification; but all the modifications which it can admit are equally unconnected with cogitative powers.” (Ch.XLVIII)

Feast of the Annunciation, 2009

March 25, 2009

Today we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation.  Here is Rachmaninov’s beautiful setting of the angel’s greeting to Our Lady:

Virgin Birthgiver of God, rejoice! Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast borne the Saviour of our souls!

This range of the brothers

March 25, 2009

Today a bit of fun: I took a recent Book Note about The Brothers Karamazov and used Babelfish to translate it into Russian and back.  It came out funny:

**

Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Of Fyodor Of Dostoyevsky (Most Modern Archive, of 1992)
The transfer: Pevear/Volokhonsky
P. 838. First reading.

Some speak that this there is no novel Russia of large. Bernards, every one. They placed forward one or another pitiful rival. I supply their blind alley with my praise! Yes, prevent me go more further! Prevent me to say that this not only good and most worthy roman Russia it blessed us, are entirely unworthy although we, even to the largest of all! Oh, others, I know, which govern respect, and I love them, but here and now, to shake in my wakefulness, to me cannot only bestow completely my attachment on this, final fruit of the life of great writer, men, and Russian. Yes, Russian in all!

Happy families entire similar, Russian proverb-creator it is as soon as said, but unhappy families each are unhappy in their own way. Was never true statement, true proverb, and so true as with this family, by this range of brothers — not to forget their father, also, is certain. They are unhappy; they know misfortune in all ways by which true Russian soul it can know it, with the sincerity and wholeheartedly — however we withdraw young Alyosha as the special case! Alexei Of Fyodorovich, our young hero, stands apart, even on the pedestal, small pedestal for that not to embarrass him. It the hero, spiritual element whom celebrates above all — or would triumph it did not have death, which comes as kidnapper in the night, knocking on the window, struck downward our author average-stride before its glorious work could being fully accomplished.

Its brother Ivan Fyodorovich is unhappy, and in its own way. His misfortune hidden after the cold behavior and highly airs, but it there all the same! Psychology, we know, sword with 2 edges, she cuts the first more one-sided, also, after this others, but still we are bold in order to manage it, if only for a moment. Ivan tormented, yes, with the torture of deep soul! It tormented not by the love of woman — although it tormented that too — but tormented in all God and by fate and to suffer. It does assume to center stage only a little times, but who can refuse that very weight and the force of gravity of his role almost of overwhelms rest? Bernards only. Its depth assumes it downward, although — which danger for the deep people — and it comes to know its which old it was luminous, is recently eclipsed. Yes, old scratch!

Not, this story belongs to Mitka, to our expensive of Mitenka, or, in order to place it simply, to Dmitri Of Fyodorovich. Its guilt or innocence which in a question. Its true Russian heart, clipped of discipline and reserve. It scoundrel — it declares scoundrel, his breast! It has the unrestraint of Karamazov, that wild passion for life, and any deficiency in the deficiencies. It, in other words, the son of his father. It has the inheritance at least. But he is child, open-hearted of men without guile, man which has, if he was, accepted thread and needle and sewed his heart there on its bushing, where any can see it. Oh, he is the fool, to be delirious, pop-eyed the fool, only fool for whom we has a pity and not a contempt. Examine his fate, too, you which would detain your heart from it.

I am fool? I spoke which here the largest of all Russian novels, and even the larger novel of all without the exception. In this I spoke boldly, and I will honor my own words and am even proud them! But my very sublimity, very the truth of my declaration, I do diminish me, for what words can I propose which would be worthy object? None. But here I, word by the way, and to what purpose? I – I! – hold modest silence in proportion to I cost in the shadow of sublimity. Any doubt I already spoke too much, from the turning. Therefore, in the presence to this noble company, this I proclaim relative to itself: I am poodle. Purebred poodle, although not Russian one. Yes, the large poodle of all without the exception! Exactly so.

Reflections on the Traditional Latin Mass

March 24, 2009

On the weekend I had the privilege to sing in a Gregorian schola for a special Traditional Latin, or “extraordinary form”, or “Tridentine”, Mass at the University of Toronto.  The event seems to have been a good success.  The music turned out fairly well, apart from one highly dissonant interval accidentally produced by yours truly.  The church was full, and many of those who attended had never been to an extraordinary form Mass before.  Afterward, there was a Q&A session at which people were given an opportunity to ask questions and make comments.

A few observations, based on my own experience and the comments I heard from others:

– First, the Mass was organized and served by young people, and a good proportion of the congregation was young.  This is perhaps not too surprising, given that it is a university parish, but nonetheless it was encouraging to me to see that many young Catholics taking an interest in this very traditional form of worship.

– This was not my first extraordinary form Mass — it was perhaps my tenth or so — but those for whom it was their first found it confusing.  Everyone was supplied with a missal containing the order of service, but I gather that without the overt cues from the priest or cantor, a fair number of people lost track of what was happening.  This is an issue that more familiarity and a little education would remedy.

– Some people remarked that their confusion was, in a sort of perverse way, edifying, because it emphasized the objectivity of the Mass: the consecration was happening whether they understood it or not.  An interesting point, but definitely a silver lining.

– One person complained at the post-Mass Q&A that the liturgy did not encourage enough “active participation” of the congregation.  A few people expressed privately to me that they felt more like observers than participants.  I think this is a common feeling for those who are used to the ordinary form of the rite: without the cues to do something, one can have a sense of vacancy, waiting for something to happen.  But I am inclined to attribute this to wrong expectations: in the older rite the priest is not the focus of attention to the same degree as in the newer one; watching him is bound to get dull.  The older rite grants the congregation long periods of prayerful silence. If you’re not praying in that way, you’ll be left with a vacant feeling.  Again, I think that greater familiarity with the older rite would help to ameliorate this problem.

– On a similar note, a few people said that there were not enough chances for the congregation to sing or respond.  Some felt left out when the schola sang the chant, and I understand that reaction — that’s why I joined the schola.  But it is not the case that in the newer form the congregation does sing those texts; they are almost always simply dropped from the liturgy, so they don’t count as a lost opportunity.  I believe that the Our Father and the psalm are the two texts which the congregation says or sings in the new form but not in the old.  On the other hand, the congregation gets more “Et cum spiritu tuo“s in the older form.

– The priest decided to sing the readings in Latin.  This was standard before Vatican II, but when Pope Benedict revived the extraordinary form a few years ago he permitted the substitution of readings in the vernacular.  It seems to be simple good sense to take advantage of that permission.  (Although it was lovely to hear the Scripture sung to those old tones.)

– A few people remarked at the Q&A session that they liked kneeling to receive the Eucharist, and they liked receiving directly on the tongue, rather than in the hand.  (At this church, which doesn’t even have kneelers in the pews (!), it is standard practice to receive in the hand while standing.)

– One elderly woman spoke up, with emotion in her voice, and said that hearing the Gregorian chant again, after so many years, had touched her deeply.  I was humbled by that, of course, but not to the extent of demurring.  The chant is wonderful, and we ought to restore it to “pride of place” in the liturgy, in accordance with the wishes (and instructions) of Vatican II.

Salt and Light Television was on hand with their one-eyed monsters, but I don’t know anything about their broadcast plans.  If anyone who attended the Mass is reading this and wishes to leave a comment, you are most welcome to do so.

Quasten: Patrology I

March 23, 2009

Patrology, Vol.I
The Beginnings of Patristic Literature
Johannes Quasten (Ave Maria, 1950)
367 p.  First reading.

One of the engagement gifts my wife and I received a few years ago was Johannes Quasten’s four-volume Patrology, which surveys early Christian writings from Apostolic times through the fifth century.  I have been slowly working my way through it, supplementing my reading with primary texts, and have at least reached the end of the first (and shortest) volume, which covers the earliest extant Christian literature, both orthodox and heterodox, up through St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the late second century.

After a brief introduction to the study of patristic literature, Quasten turns to the very earliest surviving Christian texts outside of the New Testament: the Apostles Creed and The DidacheThe Apostles Creed in its present form is substantially later than the period under consideration here, but portions of it are drawn from Scripture, and we have allusions to an early version in a variety of second-century texts.  The Didache I have written about on a previous occasion; it dates from somewhere in the late first or early second century, and is notable for, among other things, containing an early Eucharistic prayer and a summary of Christian ethics.

The following section takes up the writings of the Apostolic Fathers: those who either knew the Apostles, or were instructed by someone who did. Into this category fall Pope St. Clement I (whose Letter to the Corinthians I have discussed before), St. Ignatius of Antioch (discussed here), St. Polycarp of Smyrna, and, somewhat awkwardly, the apocalyptic The Shepherd of Hermas.  In these writings we begin to see the development of familiar Christian doctrines in their permanent form: there is a clearer articulation of the nature of the Church, of the priesthood and ecclesiastical hierarchy, and of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome; the sacraments of baptism, penance, and Eucharist are mentioned; the nature of Christ begins to be clarified, though the great Christological controversies are yet to arise; a theological understanding of martyrdom is developed.

In a section on early Christian imaginative literature, Quasten looks at poetry, legend, and apocryphal gospels.  The amount of poetry we have from this period is small, but important.  There are several early hymns, a large set of poems called the Odes of Solomon, some of which contain Christian content, and a set of Sibylline oracles composed in the second century.  Of special interest are several surviving tombstone inscriptions from the second century, especially the “Inscription of Abercius” in which the deceased’s Christian belief is conveyed in eloquent metaphors:

…Abercius by name, I am a disciple of the chaste shepherd,
Who feedeth His flocks of sheep on mountains and plains,
Who hath great eyes that look on all sides…

This inscription also contains the earliest non-manuscript reference to the Eucharist:

…Having Paul as a companion, everywhere faith led the way
And set before me for food the fish from the spring
Mighty and pure, whom a spotless Virgin caught,
And gave this to friends to eat, always
Having sweet wine and giving the mixed cup with bread…

The apocryphal literature of the early Church comes in several varieties: the apocryphal gospels, of which there are many, contain legendary embellishments about the life of Christ; apocryphal Acts of the Apostles elaborate on the later lives of the Apostles; and apocryphal Epistles address a variety of theological issues.  The existence of these apocryphal texts is sometimes taken to be scandalous, as though they contain the seeds of an alternative but equally valid version of Christianity that was suppressed by Church officials, quite possibly for their own nefarious purposes.  Quasten quotes a scholar named M.R. James, who addresses this view forthrightly:

People may still be heard to say, “After all, these Apocryphal Gospels and Acts, as you call them, are just as interesting as the old ones.  It was only by accident or caprice that they were not put into the New Testament”.  The best answer to such loose talk has always been, and is now, to produce the writings and let them tell their own story.  It will very quickly be seen that there is no question of anyone’s having excluded them from the New Testament: they have done that for themselves.

This is quite true: I have proved it by experiment.  In any case, these texts are non-canonical not principally because of what they say, but because of the late date at which they were written.  (Note, by the way, that M.R. James was writing in 1924; this is hardly a new issue.)  Nevertheless these texts are valuable in their own way.  Many of their stories have been incorporated into the traditions of Christian art, such as the story of the child Jesus making living birds from clay, or the description of St. Paul from the Acts of Paul (“a man little of stature, with bald head and bent legs, strong, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked”).

Another class of writings are the earliest Acts of the Martyrs, which vary from largely historical to mostly imaginative. Into the former category go several surviving records of official court proceedings against Christian believers, such as the Acts of St.Justin and his Companions, which recount the trial and execution of St. Justin Martyr and others, and the Proconsular Acts of St. Cyprian, based on the official reports surrounding the martyrdom of the great bishop of Carthage in September 258 AD.  Other texts are based on purported eyewitness accounts of martyrdom, such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp (156 AD) and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (202 AD).  These are of great value for understanding the early Church’s view of martyrdom, and they are of course very moving in their portraits of these faithful believers.  A third class of writings are legendary accounts of the lives and deaths of well-known saints such as St. Cecilia, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, Sts. Cosmas and Damian, and others.  These were written well after the fact, and probably contain much imaginative elaboration of the historical reality.  Still, they have their place.  Not for nothing have they been so popular.

More substantial fare is found in the writings of the early Greek apologists.  These men set themselves the task of defending the young Church against those who opposed her, and they proceeded along three main fronts: first, they challenged and corrected the calumnies and misconceptions concerning Christians that were common among their contemporaries, and pleaded eloquently for freedom of conscience and religion; second, they argued against pagan religion, attempting to show its various inadequecies; and third, they tried to show the superior wisdom of Christianity.  They contended not just that Christianity was better, but that is was better in a special way: it was true.  The names of these early apologists are not all well-known — Quadratus of Athens, Apollinaris of Hieropolis, and Melito of Sardis are fairly obscure — but others, such as St. Justin Martyr, are prominent figures.  Justin is notable for his balanced approach to Christian thought: whereas someone like Tatian the Syrian was so keen to show the absurdities of paganism that he relegated all of pagan thought to the trash, Justin set about building bridges between Christian belief and pagan philosophy (as, for instance, in his use of the concept of Logos, which I have written about elsewhere).  Interestingly, Justin is also the first known Christian theologian to elaborate the Scriptural contrast between Adam and Jesus with a parallel contrast between Eve and Mary.  Theophilus of Antioch, writing in about 180 AD, was the first theologian to use the word “Trinity” to describe the nature of God, and Athenagoras of Athens, one of the most eloquent early Christian writers, in an apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius gives one of the earliest and most complete articulations of the Christian opposition to abortion and infanticide.

Any survey of early Christian literature has to examine early heretical texts.  In the second century two movements arose within the Church that threatened her: Gnosticism, which in seeking a form of belief more palatable to pagan contemporaries introduced various corruptions into Christian theology, and Montanism, which advocated a retreat from the pagan world and thereby threatened the Church’s universal mission.  As Quasten says: “Of these two enemies, Gnosticism was by far the most dangerous.”

Gnosticism seems to be a perpetual temptation for Christians, for it has arisen again and again, in one form or another, throughout her history.  It existed in the ancient world, combining elements of Christianity with influences from Stoicism and neo-Platonism and Pythagorian philosophy; St. Augustine encountered it in the form of Manicheism; we find it again in medieval France among the Cathars; and some have argued that we see it still in certain strains of modern Protestantism.  Indeed, we find aspects of it sown throughout Western culture, whether religious or secular. There does not exist anything like an “official” form of Gnosticism, but certain characteristics are typical: a disparagement of faith in favour of a fully rational religion (cf. Enlightenment philosophy); claims to the possession of secret knowledge available only to initiates (cf. Scientology); a view of the world as a vast battleground between equally matched powers of good and evil (cf. “The Force”); a belief that the body, and even all matter, is evil, and an identification of the “real” person with a mind or immaterial entity inhabiting a body (cf. many modern Christians, advocates of the sexual revolution, and New Age gurus).  Gnostics in the early Church argued that Christ could not have been truly human, for it is not fitting that a Divine being be united to matter, and Christ could not have suffered and died, for this too is an offense against the Divine nature.  (Basilides, working in Alexandria, advocated a position rather close to the modern Muslim view: at the crucifixion Jesus changed identities with a bystander, who was killed in his place.)  Marcion argued that the God of the Jews and the God of the Christians are two different beings, and he sought to divorce the New Testament from the Old.  He denied that Christ died to redeem the body, and indeed he denied that he was born of a woman. He was excommunicated in the mid-second century and thereafter founded his own Church, some congregations of which survived into the Middle Ages.

The rise of this Gnostic literature in the second century provoked a response from orthodox writers, and they are the subject of the final chapter of this volume.  By a good margin the most important of these men was St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and that despite the fact that only two of his works have survived intact.  As a young man Irenaeus knew St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn had known St. John the Evangelist, so he has a fairly direct link of the Apostles, and he proved himself both zealous in defence of “the faith once delivered” and (not guaranteed solely on the basis of zeal) a competent theologian.  Quasten says that “Irenaeus deserves great credit for having been the first to formulate in dogmatic terms the entire Christian doctrine.”  At the heart of his theological project is the concept of “recapitulation”, found also in St. Paul’s writings: in Christ, the second Adam, humanity and all of creation are gathered up, renewed, and restored to communion with God.  The course of redemption echoes, and undoes, the course of the Fall.  Mary, too, has her role as the second Eve, the true spiritual mother of all the living.  He defended the apostolic nature of the Church, and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.  He is explicit, as others had been before him, in defending the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  He gives us our first reference to the practice of infant baptism in the early Church.  For these and other reasons (to which I can hardly do justice in a single paragraph), St. Irenaeus looms large in any understanding of early Christianity.  I would like to know him in greater detail.

The second volume in this series takes up theological developments between Irenaeus and the Council of Nicea.  I expect this to take a while.

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