J.N.D. Kelly’s Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop is a comprehensive biography of a beloved Eastern Church Father. The book proceeds chronologically, examining John’s life, preaching, and writings. Most of the significant events in John’s life involved broader personalities and forces, and Kelly delivers a satisfying amount of detail regarding the relevant geography, culture, and political and ecclesiastical figures. Several secondary characters, most notably Empress Eudoxia, come to life alongside John. Kelly is generally sympathetic to John, but he also acknowledges John’s character defects, political naivety, and moderate misogyny. Golden Mouth contains several maps and three appendices, each containing useful scholarly information.
Kelly covers John’s sermons and writings, both major and minor. He expounds not only on their content, but also on their style, date, circumstances, purpose, and results. Since John was primarily a practical rather than dogmatic preacher, Golden Mouth contains much less systematizing than one would find in a biography of, for example, Origen. The chronological organization fits John’s personality better, since most of his sermons and writings are quite personal, written for specific occasions, reacting to the immediate needs of his congregation, and sometimes referencing specific people for praise or (discrete) rebuke. Since John is primarily known for his eloquent preaching, I would have appreciated an extended excerpt, at least a few paragraphs, of one of John’s sermons to appear in the text, or perhaps as an appendix. The lack thereof does not detract much from Kelly’s volume, but without such an inclusion the reader does not personally experience John’s eloquence.
Golden Mouth is quite readable, but definitely aimed more for the scholar than for a popular audience. Frequently Kelly takes several paragraphs or more to discuss the precise dating of a group of sermons or an event, or to explain the discrepancies among the historical sources that relate John’s life. His descriptions of travel routes are very minute, offering exact kilometer distances for different segments of the journey and other such information. This is perfectly fine, even admirable, for a scholarly biography, but it bogs down the narrative and would detract from the experience of a casual reader. Furthermore, Kelly’s style is slightly lacking. More than once, due to misplaced modifiers, awkward sentence structure, or unclear pronoun references, I had to reread a sentence several times to understand it.
Overall, I believe Golden Mouth is a commendable biography of a deserving church Father. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to my more academically inclined friends, but perhaps not to more casual readers.