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Q&A with Christopher Sheklian

We were honored to get to talk to Dr. Christopher Sheklian, the head editor of the St. Nersess Theological Review. Dr. Sheklian is a postdoctoral researcher of comparative religious studies at Radboud University.

Q: Your primary area of study is anthropology and its relation to religion. What has drawn you to dive so deeply into Armenian Christianity specifically?

A: The Armenian experience in general is a fascinating locus for the study of many fascinating questions: the place of tradition in contemporary life; the relation between religion and ethnicity/nationality; the uses and abuses of history; and (religious) minority life; just to name a few of the questions my broader anthropological work takes on. Growing up in the Armenian Apostolic Church, many of these were nascent questions before I had the academic and anthropological vocabulary to confront them in a theoretical way. As I increasingly took an anthropological perspective on Armenian Christianity, I realized that any engagement with those questions of tradition or the lived experience of religious minorities required a thorough engagement with the theology and practice of the Church. I then spent a year as a “special student” at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, where I had attended summer programs in my youth. The more I read of Armenian theology and the more immersed I was in Armenian liturgical practice, the more my anthropological perspectives made sense. So, while I’m not a theologian by training, I’ve taught liturgical and sacramental theology at the Seminary, and I work closely with theological texts. My theoretical conviction is that any exploration of the broader “form of life” of Armenians and Armenian Christians is inseparable from a deep engagement with the concepts and traditions—including the theology—of Armenian Christianity. So, in a way, I hope my broader “anthropological” perspective will shape an inclusive and wide-ranging conversation on Armenian Christianity in the pages of the St. Nersess Theological Review. 

Q: SNTR is poised to be a trailblazer, introducing all sorts of works to an English-speaking audience for the first time. What are you hoping the journal will bring into the wider conversation around Christianity in the west?

A: Christian theology and the study of Christianity broadly is greatly enriched by the engagement with different forms of Christianity. On one hand, we can say that forms of Christianity outside the mainstream of Western Christianity—or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, for that matter—help clarify and stimulate theological reflection in general. For instance, someone interested in the relationship between formal theological reflection and liturgical practice could learn a lot from the way the Armenian sharakan genre of hymns functions as a kind of commentary on both the source texts (often but not exclusively from the Psalms) and the liturgical celebration of the day. On the other hand, my hope is that SNTR will also simply enlarge what we consider to be mainstream, “unmarked” Christianity. Armenian Christianity shares many texts and practices with all forms of ancient Christianity, and there have often been moments of encounter and conversation between Armenian Christianity and other branches of Christianity, say, during the era of the Catholic Crusader States. In other words, Armenian Christianity might be from an “Eastern” or “Oriental” form of Christianity with its own beautiful and unique development, but it also isn’t fully outside of or “otherwise” than Christianity in the west. This is especially true in our contemporary world, with a large Armenian Diaspora spread across the globe. Armenian theologians have been reading and responding to developments in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant theological thought for a long time, now. My hope is that SNTR will provide new insights into longstanding concerns from an understudied Christian tradition outside the “mainstream,” while simultaneously enlarging our sense of what constitutes that mainstream. 

Q: Which Armenian theologian, past or present, are you particularly excited to introduce to a new audience?

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A: This is a wonderful and also tough question! Our first new issue is dedicated to the “School of Narek,” which flourished around the turn of the last millennium at the monastery of Narek on the southern shores of Lake Van. One of the greatest Armenian theologians of all time, St. Gregory of Narek, today recognized as a Doctor of the Faith by the Catholic Church, belongs to this school. While St. Gregory of Narek and his work still deserve a wider audience, through his canonization in the Catholic Church, he has already started to become better known.

So, to be honest, I’m even more excited about the chance to introduce some real titans of Armenian theological history, many of whom are barely known among Armenians. One of my favorite characters is Bishop Stepanos of Siwnik, an eighth century hierarch and intellectual. In addition to his influential commentaries, he is most likely the translator of much of the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus into Armenian. During his travels, he encountered many of the great churchmen of his day and lent his erudition to the Christological debates that were still raging. We are hoping to publish a translation of his important text, “On the Incorruptibility of the Body of Christ,” in our second issue, which will focus on the eighth century. 

Q: What advice would you give scholars hoping to start a journal?

A: I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of guidance and help, both from folks at CUA Press, and from my editorial team of Dr. Roberta Ervine and Julia Hintlian. I’ve also had the advantage that we are “reviving” SNTR after a long hiatus, so while I’m excited to have the opportunity to guide the editorial process, we also didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. 

Perhaps the thing I’ve been struck by is the need to build up a good team and at least a small body of work to get started. We’ll be putting out an open Call for Submissions for the second issue, but the first issue relied heavily on the editorial team’s knowledge of the field. This is where I have to be particularly thankful: while I hope my broad and anthropological vision of what constitutes the study of Armenian Christianity will make SNTR a novel and exciting journal, it is my co-editors’ deep theological knowledge and the sense of the field that has been absolutely crucial in getting us up and running! 

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