Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Derek Krueger, Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. xi, 311. ISBN 9780812290158. $75.00.

Reviewed by George E. Demacopoulos, Fordham University (demacopoulos@fordham.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Liturgical Subjects is a pioneering examination of the medieval religious subject that adds texture and nuance to studies that, so far, have tended to emphasize only the Western Christian tradition. While we know a great deal about the texts and movements of Byzantine ritual, due primarily to the work of Robert Taft, Krueger's is the first study to examine how Orthodox liturgy functioned as a mechanism for the formation of the Byzantine Christian's perception of self. Krueger's seven chapters progress diachronically across the span of Byzantine liturgical development, paying special attention to the penitential themes associated with the Lenten period.

Chapter One functions largely as an introduction to the methodological parameters within which Krueger will examine liturgical texts as a witness to the Byzantine Christian self-formation. Correcting long-standing scholarly assumptions, Krueger explains that Greek theological writers had a rich tradition of exploring and reforming the conscience. But it was Byzantine hymns, especially, that "offered performances of the self where the singer modeled conscience-stricken interiority" (17). Indeed, hymnography offered a vehicle for a public vocalization in "I" speech through which the Byzantine Christian declared publicly his or her standing before God.

Chapter Two introduces the great early-Byzantine poet, Romanos the Melodist, who was responsible for popularizing a unique form of hymnography (known as Kontakia), which offered imaginative extra-biblical dialogues between biblical personalities. Krueger presents a careful analysis of a handful of Romanos' texts, emphasizing the ways in which these hymns invite both singer and listener to envision themselves as part of the biblical story and to participate in the inner monologue of some of its most intriguing figures. As Krueger notes, Romanos is not so much interested in the acts of these individuals as he is keen to emphasize their interior self-regard once they seek forgiveness or spiritual healing (62). Part of Romanos' significance lies in the fact that he transposed the epistemological and spiritual categories of the monastic community to a broader community. In Foucaultian terms, Romanos imparted a set of monastic technologies of the self to a lay and urban audience.

Chapter Three continues the examination of Romanos' hymns but does so in the context of the cycle of the liturgical year. It combines this material with an examination of sermons and the emerging iconography depicting the life of Christ. To be sure, the major feasts of the Eastern Christian calendar were largely established by the sixth century, but Romanos' Kontakia gave poetic force and spiritual gravity to the rhythm of the calendar. Krueger aptly notes the ways in which Romanos' hymns simultaneously retell the story of the past and, in many cases, reenact the biblical past by inserting the singer's self-conscience into the story.

Chapter Four turns to a different form of liturgical evidence by examining the theological content of the Eucharistic prayers offered by the clerical celebrant. Whereas the festal cycle of hymns brought considerable variation to the content of liturgical focus, the prayers of the "anaphora" offered a consistent reflection on the history of God's encounter with humanity (creation, fall, prophecy, and redemption). Krueger keenly points to a Justinianic-era law prescribing that all priests recite the prayers of the anaphora audibly, so that they might stir "compunction" in the heart of all of their listeners. While the audible recitation of the Eucharistic prayers did not survive, the link between self-accusation and the reception of the Eucharist grew during later Byzantine periods.

Chapter Five analyzes the development of a new form of liturgical hymn—the Kanon—and its most famous example, the Kanon of Andrew of Crete. The Kanon was first developed in the monastic communities of Jerusalem during the seventh and eighth centuries at a time when the region had already become part of the Islamic Caliphate. Andrew was largely responsible for introducing the form of the Kanon to Constantinople (and Byzantium more broadly) and his Kanon is an elaborate example of the type. For Krueger, Andrew's Kanon reflects a deepening of interiority of the Byzantine hymnographical tradition in the sense that the recounting of biblical stories leads the singer/audience to accuse themselves personally rather than share in the flaws of the biblical figures (as encouraged by Romanos). "Andrew called all to see themselves through the penitential lens of scripture. The entirety of biblical history results in the convicted conscience, and this is his instruction to his flock" (163).

Chapter Six brings the focus of Krueger's study directly to the Lenten period, the Triodion, and the cycle of hymnographic Kanons developed by the Studite monks of Constantinople during the eighth and ninth centuries. For the most part, the hymns of the Triodion would have been sung during the morning office (Orthros) and employ the rhetorical technique of ethopoeia (speech in character) in order to dramatize the remorse, anguish, and terror befitting Lenten penance (166). Krueger aptly notes that even though these hymns routinely employ "I" speech, they were almost certainly sung by the entire community. He then offers a careful analysis of the ways in which these hymns differ from those of Romanos. In doing so, Krueger not only makes a compelling case for the sophistication and poetic merit of hymnography in this period but also shows himself to be an especially careful reader of theological texts.

Chapter Seven investigates the monastic self as configured by Symeon the New Theologian. Here, Krueger's theoretical insights are most on display and offer the greatest payoff. The interior speech encouraged by Symeon reveals monasticism to be a kind of "performed identity" and the relentless encouragement of confession coupled with thanksgiving "ritualizes an epistemology of the self through prayer" (205). Krueger notes, albeit tantalizingly briefly, that Symeon presents a conceptualization in which the "self" and the "soul" are separate though interrelated entities. The self that matters is the sinful one, "constituted discursively in the language provided by the [abbot]" (200).

The Conclusion weaves the threads together, submitting that Byzantine liturgy produced (and was informed by) an introspective conscience of guilt set to the narrative of salvation history. While the Lenten hymns (like this monograph) underscore a negative and sinful self-image of the Byzantine Christian, Krueger's final charge to his readers is to recognize that the liturgy taught that God would not be angry forever—the Christ of Orthodox hymnography is amenable to supplication through worship.

Like most books that strike boldly in new directions, Liturgical Subjects opens avenues for future research that did not exist previously. For example, building on Krueger's investigation of the penitential "I" speech of the Triodion, one might explore the more celebratory "we" speech of the Pentacostarion hymns for the period after Easter. If the sinner is an "I" and the redeemed are a "we," what does this say about the role of community in Orthodox theology? Krueger's study will likely also spur future researchers to analyze how the ritualized movements of the liturgy combined with the scents and shifts in lighting to reinforce or complicate our understanding of these hymns. One might also take Krueger's lead and ask additional theoretical questions. For example, what happens to the self when it resists the message of the hymn, when it refuses to accuse the conscience? Or put another way, what is the space in which—and how does the scholar account for—the Byzantine Christian who internally "speaks back" to the hymn?

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Liturgical Subjects is that it compellingly demonstrates that these texts (and the communities that produced them) reflect both a considerable degree of sophistication and variation. Byzantine liturgical life, it turns out, was not nearly as banal or static as it is often presented (even by those who are sympathetic to it). This book will be required reading for anyone interested in Byzantine Christianity and is an important addition to the broader conversation about the self in Christian Studies.

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