Liturgical Subjects

Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium

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Derek Krueger
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , January
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is most welcome, and for three reasons. First, it provides a broad survey of a theme that has interested the author for some time. In his Writing and Holiness (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), Derek Krueger summed up his conviction that the motives of a hagiographer mattered as much as—sometimes more than—the character of a vita’s subject. Now he has summed up another emphasis of his from the years since—namely, that ritual practice, both written and acted out, shaped its participants: their self-awareness, their moral orientation, and their understanding of ancient texts. Second, he has provided in a single volume an account of religious ceremony in the Byzantine Empire from the 6th century to the 10th. Major figures are examined with economy, but their textual legacy is explored in surprising depth and with perceptive sympathy. The chapter devoted to each—Romanos, Andrew of Crete, the Stoudites, and Symeon the New Theologian—provides an excellent introduction, with abundant references to encourage and guide a reader’s further interest. Third, and probably most arresting, Krueger shows how a focus on the moral struggles of leading figures in biblical history (and in the New Testament), when exercised in a ceremonial setting, encouraged a fusion between the individual and sacred scripture—a fusion that accentuated worshippers’ recognition of a personal need, drew them to identify with a timeless legacy, and forged within them a fresh urgency to change, to repent, and to improve.

Liturgical Subjects provides, therefore, a well-balanced whole, but it is no mere narrative. The chapters on the calendar and on the Eucharist (67-129) are particularly masterly. Krueger at once enfolds and energizes his account with a clear declaration of method. It is possible that he fails to criticize Foucault enough(although he does acknowledge his “limitations,” 10): the savant is mentioned explicitly only a few times, but he lurks incognito in many nooks and crannies of the text. That matters less, however, than two admirable convictions. First—and this is fully treated in the opening chapter—“the self in Byzantium,” like that of any other Christian at any point in history, is carefully shaped, partly by modeling on biblical types and partly by a constant cycle of stimuli provided by the church’s calendar. Visual art and skilful drama reinforce the effect. Liturgy becomes, in other words, a choreography of exegesis: to worship is to interpret, to transform a past narrative into a present experience. The pastoral effect thus achieved reaches well beyond a learned commentary—something the history of biblical interpretation has too often overlooked. The second important conviction is more difficult to express, which is why Krueger returns to it constantly. What exactly is meant by “the formation of the self”? What is implied by “absorbing the subject into preexisting models”? It cannot be, I think, that any Byzantine came into church “un-selfed,” as it were—a tabula rasa. There was a process at work, and one is entitled to imagine that there was a hand behind the process. It was not simply that worshippers “discovered” themselves: someone (and Krueger more than once indicts the “clergy”) was making sure that they did so, and that they discovered selves of a certain sort. There was, in other words, a “mechanism” involved (6). This darker side of self-discovery deserves inquiry.

It is probably apposite at this point, therefore, to voice two misgivings. First, the self Krueger is describing started life in monasteries. That much he admits (although it may be a matter of evidence: of finding that earlier self in monastic sources and formed in a monastic context). Krueger is anxious, however, to assert that the techniques and experiences he recounts soon found their way into ordinary urban church life, the life of the laity. I am not denying that such a transition seems likely, and Krueger provides examples. But the Stoudites and Symeon seem to bring us back to a monastic hothouse, and a pastoral broadening in the years after Symeon is more assumed than illustrated. I was reminded of Robert Markus’s theory of the “asceticization” of society (it is one of the merits of Krueger’s presentation that he several times adverts to Western similarities).

The trouble is—and this reflects my second misgiving—the transformation invoked presents a rather narrow image of self-identity. The liturgy seems to encourage unrelentingly the fostering of an individual marked most by sorrow for sin, fear of judgment, and dependence on group ritual. There is, I agree, little sign in Byzantine Orthodoxy of an Augustinian vitiation inherited from Adam (although scholarship is finding more and more reason to doubt that that is entirely fair to Augustine anyway). But surely those citizens of the Christian East felt other things about themselves (as Krueger once puts it, “even joy,” 168). Did the liturgy do nothing to underpin some greater degree of aesthetic delight, some day-to-day optimism? It seems bleak to think not.

This cannot be a book, however, that one judges in negative terms. The breadth is impressive, the juxtaposition of sacred text and ritual custom is significantly novel, the sensitive reading of hymns and prayers is a constant invitation to explore, and the easy style is a sustained pleasure. It marks another important step in Krueger’s enduring progress as a religious historian.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philip Rousseau is Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Early Christian Studies at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Derek Krueger is Joe Rosenthal Excellence Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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