The British Orthodox Church

within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

BOOK REVIEWS

Alister McGrath, Why God won’t go away, (SPCK, London, 2011); 118pp.. ISBN 978-0-281-06387-1,  £7.99

The title is somewhat misleading inasmuch as the author does not seem to deal with that issue until the last three or four pages of the book – the reason given and illustrated why God won’t go away is that so beautifully expressed by Saint Augustine’s words: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  Rendering this into contemporary or modern English “You have made us for Yourself” would have still worked but for the unfortunate typo or misprint which offers us instead “you have made us for ourselves…” (emphasis added)  The point of this final chapter is not an “intention to argue the case for the Christian faith” but rather to emphasise the failure and frustration of the New Atheists that they cannot expel God from general human consciousness and awareness.  This climax was somewhat spoiled for this reviewer by the aforementioned typo.  Perhaps we should move swiftly from title to subtitle which expresses rather better the general theme of the book: Engaging with the New Atheism.

This book is a follow up to the author’s (2007) The Dawkins Delusion a well written riposte to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  I felt that this sequel lacked at least a little of the academic and intellectual rigour of that earlier volume but, on the other hand, it is readable and easily accessible for a wide audience.

It could be argued that the author could have defined “New Atheism” more precisely and to that extent falls into the same error as his opponents with their imprecise use of terms such as “religion” and “God”. An exactly precise definition of the term would no doubt have not gone amiss but he does distinguish between atheism and new atheism well on the whole.  He clearly has respect for academic, intellectual, honest atheists, people with whom he would disagree but whose honesty he respects.  For example, he contrasts the “revulsion” of some atheists against the “dogged, even violent, intolerance of religion” of Sam Harris (The End of Faith) that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”  So “if certain beliefs cause people to behave in ways society chooses to regard as dangerous, we should get rid of them – both the beliefs and the people… since religion generates violence and hatred (a core New Atheist doctrine), it could be ethical to kill religious believers in order to make the world a better and safer place.”  Reminds you of the Soviet Union, the anti-religious state par excellence… wrong!  Well wrong it seems according to Christopher Hitchens (he’s the one who declared Mother Teresa of Calcutta a “fraud” and a “bitch” who made life worse for “millions”): since religion is evil and violent ant the Soviet Union was evil and violent, the Soviet Union was therefore religious!  Well, that’s Alister McGrath’s attempt at explaining Hitchen’s exposition of communism as religion.  Hopefully, the reader can see that whatever its shortcomings this little book engages with a vociferous contemporary phenomenon in New Atheism.

The author refers to the leading exponents of New Atheism, considers the core themes of New Atheism – that religion poisons everything and is “intrinsically and necessarily dangerous”, that religious belief is inherently irrational, and that science supports only atheism (not and never theism) – and endeavours to address where New Atheism is now…  Like many contemporary movements New Atheism is in some respects difficult to fully grasp for the basic reason it hasn’t been around long enough to harden into a more definite shape but the author does a good job of setting out the New Atheist agenda and where the movement is now.

Should Christians panic about New Atheism?  Absolutely no way!  For one thing that’s against our Faith – and for another, just look at the facts on the ground…

“The ironic fact is that New Atheist anger at the persistence of faith has inadvertently stirred huge interest in the whole God question.  It’s made people want to reflect on the other side of the story…  A young man…told me that he’d read Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion…and it seemed so unfair and one-sided that he felt he needed to hear the other side.  So he started going to church… the young man told me he had a theological question for me.  Since The God Delusion had been instrumental in his conversion, should he thank Richard Dawkins in his prayers?

“I’m still thinking about that one.”

For those of us privileged to pray within the Coptic Orthodox tradition, it’s an easy question to answer: “O Master, Lord, God Almighty, the Father of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we give Thee thanks for every condition, and for all things and in all things…”  I wonder whether we will find, at the end of all things, on that last great day, that Richard Dawkins prompted far more people to consider issues of religion and faith than ever he put off so doing…  maybe he got far more people interested than ever I did.  “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Father Simon Smyth

 

Paul E. Walker, Caliph of Cairo. Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, 996-1021 (American University in Cairo Press: 2009), x + 325 pp. & maps. ISBN 978 977 416 328 9. $29.95.

Al-Hakim, sixth Fatimid caliph and 16th Ismaili imam, is of particular interest to Christians because of his eccentric and erratic changes of policy, which resulted in the fierce persecution of Christians, culminating in the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009.  His sudden disappearance (or probable murder) when he rode alone out of the southern gates of Cairo and was never seen again, has made him one of the great enigmas of history.

Paul Walker is an Arabic scholar and has drawn on many diverse sources and chronicles to present a rare biographical narrative in English. Apart from the more frequently cited Coptic History of the Patriarchs, he quotes extensively from al-Maqriz’s Chronicle as well as the History of Yahya of Antioch, a Melkite contemporary.  In addition to placing his life within its historical and cultural contex, Walker critically examines the Institutions of his Rule as well as Social Reform and Legislation and his impact on Foreign Affairs.

Vivian Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt. Challenges of Modernisation and Identity (Taurus Academic Studies, London: 2011), xii + 258 & illus. ISBN 978-1-84885-499-4. £59.50

The appearance of Vivian Ibrahim’s study of the Coptic community during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century comes at a timely moment in Egypt’s history and provides a much-needed historical context in which to view the momentous changes which have taken place in the past six months. Her introduction, which opens with a contemplation of the Naga Hammadi shooting on Christmas Eve 2010, is clearly intended to provide that longer perspective needed if current events are to be properly assessed. Ibrahim’s understanding of the past enables her to challenge some of the long-established modes of analysis that have emerged in recent years within both Arabic and Western discourse relating to the Copts, which she believe fail to take into account the divergent opinions within the Coptic community. She rejects the depiction of the Copts as monolithic and stagnant as often viewed through the lens of a fixed internal hierarchy headed by the Coptic Pope, which fails to address the impact that modernisation had on the both the state and the Church. She is also critical of the portrayal of Copts as passive and submissive in their response to inter-communal tensions which have arisen in Egypt, a thesis which is supported by the recent Maspero demonstrations.

She divides her study into two distinct sections: inter-communal relations, tracing the Copts in their dealings with the state during the Egyptian Monarchy 1805-1946 and intra-communal relations within the Coptic community (1882-1954). Many Copts today have only a limited knowledge of their own recent history, probably knowing more about the struggles of Coptic Popes and martyrs during the great Christological disputes or the mediaeval golden age of Coptic culture before the curtain of Islam oppression descended. Yet the symbol of the cross and crescent and the memories of Egyptian national unity when Christians and Muslims shared a common purpose still underpins Coptic church policy today and will be the basis of responding to current challenges facing the Church and Egypt. Considering the impact of the British occupation and the shaping of a new national identity with its own fledging political and democratic institutions as Copts united with Muslims in the 1919 revolution and the rise of the Wafd party, Ibrahim also examines the careers of the now largely forgotten but very prominent Coptic politician, Makram Obeid Pasha (1888-1961) and the Black Book Scandal; Salama Musa and the rise of the Coptic Press and the emergence of political Islam with Hassan al-Banna and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian politics was never lacking in colourful politicians and apart from the charismatic Sa‘d Zaghlul, the Coptic clergy provided Qommus Sergius, known as ‘The Al-Azhar Orator’ because of his being often more welcome to address attentive crowds in mosques than in Coptic churches. His criticism of the church hierarchy and clerical abuses resulted in his being charged by the Patriarchate on more than sixty counts. Faced with his popularity, the church authorities decided to settle for his going back to his ministry in the Sudan in return for quietly dropping the charges against him. Ibrahim presents some fascinating insights on some of the Coptic Popes, especially Kyrillos V (1874-1925) whose papacy was not only the longest on record but also straddled such momentous times for modern Egypt. The internal struggles of the Coptic community for control of the communal institutions and the different strategies of successive Popes to address these, makes depressing reading, culminating in the institutionalised corruption under Pope Yusab II, including his abduction by young Copts and his eventual deposition.

The book ends with the 1954 Revolution, so only lightly touches on the positive relations established between Nasser and Pope Kyrillos VI but the author directs our attention towards the present in her brief epilogue.

Whilst this is not intended as a history of the Coptic Church in this period, its significance and the part it played in the wider political process, which is touched on here, still needs a full assessment. Ibrahim is to be congratulated in providing us with a well-documented and engaging narrative with her own measured and thoughtful assessments and it is to be hoped that she will either continue her research in this field or others will take up the torch she has lit. It is tragic that academic publishers, like Taurus, whilst giving strong encouragement to specialist studies of this nature, still  feel it necessary to price their books at such an unacceptable high price. This is a book which deserves a much wider audience but the cost will put it out of reach of many, which is a great pity.

Abba Seraphim

 

Walter E. Kaegi, Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa (Cambridge University Press), 345 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-19677-2,

Any reasonably well read Christian is aware that North Africa was once a Christian civilisation, and the recent conflicts in Libya, Algeria and Egypt bring North Africa, an area which was once home to St Cyprian of Carthage and St Augustine of Hippo, firmly into view. Nevertheless most journalists seem entirely unaware that the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, had established himself as unchallenged ruler among the ruins of the Byzantine and Christian province of Cyrenaica. The Christian history of the region is rarely mentioned. North Africa appears in modern times as having been always Muslim, but beneath the surface of towns and cities along the North African coastline there are Roman and Byzantine remains from the many centuries when a Christian civilisation flourished here.

The Islamic invasion of North Africa is perhaps best known among Christians by repute rather than based on firm facts and evidence. Kaegi begins his interesting and useful volume by critically reviewing the previous work on this subject, and describing how little is actually known. He suggests that a variety of reasons have led to this area of study being little addressed, the most important of which are perhaps that the evidence is indeed rather slim, and the ability to travel and excavate in the area has not always or often been very easy.

Kaegi carefully considers the Muslim, Byzantine and Latin sources for the period covering the end of the Byzantine civilization in North Africa and concludes that there is little that is reliable. There were no historians of the period, and the Imperial powers did not wish to draw attention to what was in fact a great failure of their government. The great interest in Kaegi’s work is that he diligently investigates all the scraps of information which are available from various sources, both documentary and archaeological, and draws them together into a detailed narrative, providing a coherent and convincing description of the period of the Islamic invasion.

One chapter of particular interest considers the effect of doctrinal controversy and conflict in regard to the collapse of Byzantine civilisation. This period was one in which the Monothelite controversy was underway, and the North African clergy were deeply involved in the different positions. Patriarch Pyrrhus of Constantinople even participated in a public debate in Carthage in 642 AD. The invasion of Syria and then of Egypt led to floods of refugees into the North African provinces, and these were made up of members of both the Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian communions. This hardly added to a sense of religious and communal unity in the region, just when such a unity was most required. It seems even to have been the case that a Byzantine army refused to come to the aid of Egypt when there was still a possibility of pushing back the Muslim flood because Maximus the Confessor had opposed such military action. Religion certainly played a part in the lack of a coherent response to the Muslim invasion, and Kaegi describes the different parties and opinions in detail.

This is clearly an historical rather than a theological study, but the description of the religious background is fair and balanced. Kaegi goes into greater detail when it comes to the various military encounters between the Byzantines and Muslims, and this is a reminder that the work is especially about the history of the politics and military responses to the Muslim invasion. Nevertheless it is of great interest, not least because it provides some context for the theological debates which were taking place, and provides great detail in regard to exploring how the Muslim armies were able to conquer all of North Africa. Rather than being considered as one single event which can be blamed on one person or people, it is shown to have been possible only because of a great many different aspects and attitudes of Byzantine society in the region.

This volume is to be commended because it adds to our knowledge of this period and brings to life a Christian society which is rather obscured by the greater centre of Alexandria in the East, and Rome to the North. When we study the controversialists of this period we do well to remember the context of invasion and social collapse in which they thought, wrote and argued.

Father Peter Farrington




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