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“Why Can Dead Do Such Great Things?” – by Robert Bartlett – a Book Review

Christmas is near – less than two weeks to go. And I think there comes no better time of the year to meditate about the sacred things – what makes us believe in God, what drives us ahead, why we are here. It is not that we should be more religious then we are. In the heat of our daily lives, when we run for better career prospects, increased ROIs, higher incomes, we tend to forget that other things are important.

So I decided to read laterally and do several different book reviews. The first one relates to a book called “Why Can Dead Do Such Great Things? – Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation”, by Robert Bartlett. You can hardly find a tome better suited to the Christmas period, I guess. First of all, it is a book about one of the most distinct features of the Christian religion – the veneration of saints.

Secondly, “Why Can Dead Do Such Great Things?” is an academic book – it approaches the subject from a research angle. Thirdly – the book is quite impressive in appearance in writing – more on this below.

“Why Can Dead Do Such Great Things?” is made of two parts – one looks at the saints’ veneration from the age of the martyrs to the time of the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century. The second longest part looks in a very systematic order (and when I say systematic, I mean – really structured and easy to follow through) with all the main themes of the sainthood. It might not look as much to the innocent reader, but believe me – when you open the 800 pages hardcover tome, the depth of the research will immediately become apparent! Robert Bartlett has gone farther than any other book on the topic I have ever seen – not only in terms of historical details, but also on adding context and depth to the facts. For example, Chapter 2 (“The Early Middle Ages”) depicts both the well-known drifts between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as the less known martyrology principles. How does a person become a saint? How did Church evaluate their merits in the beginning of the religion and then later? What were the main paradigms used in canonization? These are just the few questions which Bartlett ventures to explore – in a very English mildly-influenced manner.

“Why Can Dead Do Such Great Things?” should come with a warning – something like “This book can change the way you perceive the influence of your shortly mortal life on the great scheme of the religious things”. Because it does – the sheer amounts of facts concentrated in its pages, as well as their interpretations, starts to build up slowly a picture quite different from what the folks usually believe about saints and Christian high influencers. What was striking me was a certain randomness of the saints’ lives – and how they managed to overcome all of the adversities and still advanced their thinking and worshipping on the religion field. Many of them had dramatic and dangerous lives, plus brutal deaths. Yet, each and everyone of the saints left their mark on others – be it a certain posture, a different interpretation of the religion or their simple belief in a higher power which eventually prevails. By reading their stories, one can only wonder how our modern society would look like if the same fraction of us, the well-fed and always complaining XXIst century citizens, would put the same fervor in improving our lives and souls. It looks to me that we would fare much better in terms of our contemporary global problems – and we would be a much more relaxed and at peace global village. Well, this is not the case, so I guess we have to do our best.

The last – but not the least – “Why Can Dead Do Such Great Things?” comes in a wonderful presentation. Princeton University Press has done such a nice job in wrapping and editing the book – I can only be happy that they chose to edit it. This makes “Why Can Dead Do Such Great Things?” a wonderful Christmas gift for those intellectuals unhappy with the popcorn or popularization books from the library’s shelves. So give it a go as a gift, who knows what thoughts it might trigger J.


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