Professor Pelikan

A keen sense of what matters
Church historian Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, who died May 13, felt like a relative, thanks to consanguinity among our Slovak friends. I could not have taught Christian history without using his books, though he could teach at least 39/40ths of what he taught without ever consulting one of mine.

People in our business say that no 20th-century scholar in the Christian East or West could have written what he did. Writing his five-volume work on The Christian Tradition demanded linguistic skills that were unmatched. The press reported that he spoke ten languages. I’d add “for starters.” Once, riding in a shuttle bus with him, I heard him amiably chatting in a foreign language, and after disembarking I asked him what language it was. “Albanian.” Albania was the most closed-off country in Europe in those years. How could he have learned conversational Albanian? “Oh, once you know one of those languages, you know them all.” Oh.


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