08 April 2011

Not Magical History.

John Binns' name has made me and some of my Harry-Potter-loving friends giggle a few times, seeing as it's the name of the singularly boring professor who teaches History of Magic at Hogwarts. However, the Binns responsible for An Introduction to the Orthodox Christian Churches is quite the opposite of a boring ghost. For one thing, no revenant could have created so lively a voice; for another, it's... y'know... not a history of magic. What Binns has done is to create a readable, interesting breakdown of Orthodox Christian belief in its various facets, covering both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches, as well as the Greek Catholic and other Uniate belief systems.

Binns writes from the perspective of a terribly well-informed outsider:  Although himself a vicar in the Church of England, Binns is part of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius at Cambridge, as well as being the author of a number of books on topics in Orthodoxy. However, his sympathy with Orthodoxy of all stripes is very tenderly displayed throughout An Introduction..., and he is, thankfully, quite gifted in explaining the finer points of doctrinal issues and, equally importantly, why seemingly trivial issues can have ramifications far beyond what one might expect. He explains the Chalcedonian/non-Chalcedonian divide clearly and gracefully, and also casts a thoughtful eye over the events leading up to and surrounding the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Unlike a number of Byzantinists -- whose foci are, admittedly, elsewhere -- Binns is not content to let the Papal Bull lie, and identifies as more important the increasingly disastrous Crusades as the true culprit in permanently dividing the East from the West.

Binns is equally adroit, however, with the more modern history of the church, elucidating in the latter chapters its transformation from a church of empire, to a church oppressed, to a church that is, sometimes to its own detriment, often quite nationalist. He makes careful use of examples, and even when discussing more modern issues revolving around recent, delicate maneuvers towards ecumenism, he is at pains to be fair to all sides.

I honestly found An Introduction to the Orthodox Christian Churches to be not only quite readable, but also very enjoyable. I preferred it to my (admittedly flawed) memory of The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware's seminal text. Binns' elegant writing on the topic also encouraged me to begin reading this, which I also am thoroughly enjoying. I am very pleased to have finally found the time to read An Introduction..., and I look forward to seeing what else John Binns may have to say upon this more fascinating and dearly-held subject.

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