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  • Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium by Derek Krueger
  • Thomas Arentzen
Derek Krueger
Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014
Pp. xi + 311. $75.00.

Michel Foucault discovered a self-reflecting and repentant self in early desert monasticism and Western Christianity. Derek Krueger’s Liturgical Subjects challenges the tendency to view this—especially through the lens of Augustine—as an exclusively Western development. He argues that even though the Byzantine world only relatively late fostered a sacrament of repentance, penitence and rituals were indeed interwoven in the East, too. Constantinopolitan poets and preachers employed a variety of liturgical genres to shape and script the selves and the self-reflection of a wide Christian audience. The writers attempted to [End Page 636] mold common shapes of introspection; the selves to whose creation the literature contributed were not individual selves, but culturally formed entities, which to a certain extent even trumped the demands of gender.

Krueger traces the paths of internalization that the liturgical poetry opens for its listeners; hence he pays meticulous attention to the texts’ placing in the liturgical calendar and other aspects of their performance, aspects which would shape their reception. The focus on repentance and sin makes the study primarily an examination of the hymns and prayers of Lent.

One of the great achievements of the book is its long sweep across Byzantine history. The early (late ancient) period is too often treated separately from the later period. This is particularly true in liturgical studies, where the early period of the kontakia and the later period of the canons tend to be divorced or contrasted—despite the fact that such a chronological periodization has long been abolished; we know that the kontakia and canons lived side by side for centuries. Krueger traces several varieties of first person speech and is able to show that although the Constantinopolitan rite undergoes changes and reforms, strikingly similar forms of self-reflection are endorsed. The book moves chronologically: three chapters focus on sixth-century Constantinople: Romanos the Melodist, Leontios the Presbyter, and Eucharistic prayers (chs. 2–4); one chapter treats the Great Kanon from around the turn of the eighth century and then ninth-century Kassia; one deals with a selection of (probably) ninth-century canons from the Triodion collection, and the last chapter engages tenth-century catechetical instructions by Symeon the New Theologian. As instructions for monks, they constitute the most totalizing way of scripting interior speeches.

Krueger calls his own analysis “selective” (159). This is true, of course, but he is able to incorporate works by most of the great poets of these five centuries. The study concentrates on Constantinople and moves from popular to monastic settings. In the middle stand Andrew of Crete and the emergence of the canon. Krueger suggests—and rightly so, I think—that Andrew may have written his canons for a popular rather than a monastic audience.

One of the most prominent features that Krueger demonstrates is the persistency with which self-blame is connected to the biblical past and the history of salvation. The writers’ task was to help the faithful internalize the divine gaze (the one that post-Iconoclastic artists would paint in church domes), and hence to project the whole dynamic of human salvation history into the Byzantine person. By accusing themselves, Krueger concludes, “Christian subjects participated in their own redemption” (218).

Liturgical Subjects is unique in being the first cultural history of Byzantium and its subjectivity written solely on the basis of its hymns (and some homilies). The study of late ancient and medieval Christian poetry has generally been an exercise performed by scholars interested in technical aspects of the hymns as literature. Who influenced whom? How did genres develop? Krueger’s theoretically informed approach shows how suitable and useful these texts are as sources of Christian ideas. His nuanced and insightful readings demonstrate the complexity of meaning the liturgical texts yield. He creates dialogue between liturgical poetry, objects, and art, so that hymns, prayers, and their ritual settings render [End Page 637] rich insights into Byzantine ideologies...


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pp. 636-638
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