Thoughts on the Twin Peaks revival (SPOILERS; DO NOT READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED)

Yesterday (Friday) was my birthday; I’m 38 now, I guess beyond doubt putting me in my late thirties. Twenty years have passed since I became a legal adult; I’ve known my wife for almost twenty years; Kurt Cobain has been dead for more than twenty years; Soundgarden has been broken up long enough to get back together and to remaster old albums. Hammerbox remains broken up after a failed revival, which, alas, is probably for the best (although their in-studio acoustic performance was pretty awesome). It’s been 20 years since George Lucas made it clear that he really did intend to make the Star Wars prequels, and now next year we’re going to get Episode VII. Tim Burton’s first Batman movie is 25 years old, old enough for Michael Keaton to make a movie that effectively functions as metacommentary on his time in the role.

And, now, Twin Peaks has been over long enough to get a third season continuation.

(That’s fan-made, by the way. It’s fifty kinds of awesome, but it’s fan-made.)

Y’all have no idea how big of a deal this is to me. A Cocteau Twins revival would be just about the only thing that could possibly make me giddier at this point, but I’d be wary of that after how Hammerbox’s reunion was apparently over before it began.

Flesh of My Flesh threw me a lovely dinner party with several of our new friends here at Holy Cross, and instead of making me a birthday cake, she made me a cherry pie (using the Access Guide recipe) as a way of celebrating the news; our crowd last night was mostly too young to have seen Twin Peaks, however, so this required some explanation. Explanation led to watching the pilot episode with some of our guests; I expect this will lead to watching future episodes with some of them.

Much pixelage has already been employed in speculating about what the 2016 season might look like, so I don’t want to repeat any of that. The series finale and Fire Walk With Me both suggested that there was still a lot of story that Lynch had to tell, so I’m not particularly concerned about that (particularly with Laura Palmer’s line to Cooper about seeing him again in 25 years).

What I am wondering about, however — and not from a standpoint of concern; I want my Twin Peaks revival and I want it now; bring me a TARDIS so I can go to 2016 immediately and watch this – is this: Twin Peaks, when it came out in 1990, had a context of a particular widely-held image of the Pacific Northwest. Money Magazine had declared Seattle the best place to live in the United States in August 1989, to be sure, but keep in mind that this was pre-”Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Melody Maker had only just run their first major article on the “Seattle sound” in March 1989), and Microsoft had only just made their initial public offering in 1986, not to mention that Windows was only on version 2.x, so the tech industry had yet to permeate the Northwest landscape the way that it would by the late 1990s. Really, the main things that the Pacific Northwest was known for when Twin Peaks debuted were serial killers, UFO sightings, Boeing, mountains, and logging; Twin Peaks needed all of that to work, and it played with each of those elements on some level.

So, twenty-five years later, when Pearl Jam is now what Aerosmith was when Twin Peaks came out and Kurt Cobain is the Northwest’s iconic rock death (surpassing even Jimi Hendrix, maybe), when the image of the Pacific Northwest is now split between Seattle as the techie haven for the nouveau riche and Portland as the hipster capital of the world, when the Seattle Mariners are tied for the most wins during a season, the Seahawks have won a Superbowl, and basketball has left Seattle in favor of soccer, what will the town of Twin Peaks look like 25 years later? Now, the show was specific about locating the town in the northeast corner of Washington state, which is still basically the middle of nowhere, but if the Twin Peaks of the revival still looks exactly the same as the Twin Peaks of 1990-1992, well, it would be tempting to say that it’s David Lynch’s riff on Brigadoon. One wonders if technology might be kept self-consciously retro — will Cooper still be dictating notes to Diane via microcassette recorder even while the rest of the world has moved on to smartphones? Will we know that he’s still possessed by BOB because he drinks K-Cup coffee?

And, of course, there’s the question of how a new Twin Peaks season can break new ground after twenty-five years’ worth of television that has been influence by Twin PeaksX-FilesNorthern Exposure, even Veronica Mars – heck, for that matter, Hannibal the last couple of years, in which Mads Mikkelsen has given us a Hannibal Lecter with Ray Wise and Frank Silva as reference points every bit as much as, if not moreso than, Anthony Hopkins. What can Lynch bring to the form now, a quarter-century later?

Speaking of Ray Wise, since Fire Walk With Me he’s been a bad guy in 24 and, quite literally, the Devil in Reaper. Frank Silva passed away in 1995, so presumably Leland will now be BOB’s permanent form. The way they could get around this would be to cast Silva lookalike and opera star Greer Grimsley, but I’m not holding my breath on that.

I will say that the perspective I have now of Twin Peaks at 38 is wildly different than that which I had even twelve years ago. Watching the pilot last night, things that used to seem self-consciously melodramatic now seem quite real. Where I once might have wanted to chuckle at how deliberately over-the-top Lynch was being — for example, his cutting back and forth between a hysterical and screaming Sarah Palmer on one end of the phone line and a Leland Palmer who, presumably, is coming to the dawning realization that his daughter has been murdered and reaching hysterics himself (but is he? Even after Fire Walk With Me, this is still ambiguous) — now I look at it and think, “Yeah, that’s about what it would be like if I got the news that my child had been killed; Lynch just isn’t letting the camera move away, no matter how much I might want him to.” Broadchurch (and Gracepoint, to the extent that it’s a scene-for-scene remake) also manages to capture this rawness of parental grief, but in a much different way; it’s a far more self-consciously realistic treatment of a similar moment.

One final thought for now – Twin Peaks was a cultural moment, not unlike the ’89 Tim Burton Batman (yes, I know, that’s a touchstone that makes a particular kind of sense to me and perhaps nobody else), that was about the end of the 1980s marking some kind of a generational shift. Batman looked at this from the urban angle; Twin Peaks looked at this from the small town angle. Batman played with deliberate anachronism, putting Prince songs in the same world as 1920s-era gangsters, creating a Gotham City you couldn’t really locate on either a calendar or a map but that was still identifiable as a caricature of a New York that had produced Michael Milken, Ed Koch, John Gotti, and Bernie Goetz. Twin Peaks didn’t go the route of anachronism; rather, it gave the audience a world that was very specifically dated (24 February 1989 is the date given in the pilot episode, meaning it took place exactly 12 years before my wedding day) but that also freely employed the ethos of an earlier generation, while implying very strongly that that there was something seriously rotten underneath that generation’s surface. Certainly the presence of flannel, jeans, saddle shoes, and a sheriff named Harry S. Truman made Twin Peaks feel like a town that had been spared the nastiness of the ’80s; then there was the cast. All the young, scrubbed, shiny faces of James Marshall, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Madchen Amick, and Dana Ashbrook made the town look like a place where young people might be bored but safe (which made it all the more shocking when their faces might be smeared, sometimes with running mascara, sometimes with blood, sometimes both); Kyle MacLachlan’s lantern jaw, black suit, and slicked-back hair was clearly intended to evoke somebody like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.’s character from The F. B. I.; amongst the older adults, there was Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, Peggy Lipton, Ray Wise, Piper Laurie — heck, even Michael Ontkean — all recognizable faces from the ’60s and ’70s, all of them now able to put on a sheen of middle-aged respectability, and the show subverted and undermined their respectability from the first scenes of the pilot episode. A generation that had grown up in the ’50s, become adults in the ’60s, and had kids in the ’70s were now having to face the consequences of their choices, Lynch seemed to be saying, and their children weren’t necessarily turning out any better just because they had fled the city for small-town life. This wasn’t Family Ties. Maybe small-town life just made it easier to hide weirdness, ugliness, and evil in plain sight.

Thing is, all of those concerns are basically old hat at this point. Many of us assume these days that the cities are corrupt hellholes and that there is no Mayberry, that small towns are probably cesspools of backwardness, ignorance, and abuse that cover it up with a sheen of self-righteousness that refuses self-reflection. We know that there are no safe havens anymore; New York isn’t really the land of opportunity and the small town in the middle of nowhere isn’t a sanctuary against the evil that men do. And, unfortunately, it’s no longer the bloodcurdling shock that it once was when we find out that Daddy was doing bad things to his kids, and we don’t need the distance of demonic possession to make it believable. We accept it, we process it as just one more tragedy, and we know that the generation that’s growing up right now is basically screwed no matter where we live or what we do. We’re over it; life goes on somehow. Next topic.

So, the point of this is to say — how will a new Twin Peaks season engage our current cultural anxieties the same way the original did, using the original’s setting? I assume Lynch and Frost must have something in mind for how they might do this, but how? In the real Pacific Northwest, the Ghostwood Country Club and Estates were eventually built everywhere, replacing the woods. Does that mean that the evil lurking in the woods has been let out into the open? Or has it just been built over for now, and it’s biding its time?

I guess we’ll find out in 2016.

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When Roman history makes the news

Pre-modern historians often lament that our subjects are treated as irrelevant by society at large. While this is often true, and is certainly frustrating when it comes to convincing the general public to be interested in what we do, I’m not at all certain that it’s better when public figures feel empowered to misuse the materials of the pre-modern historian in order to serve their own agendas or to make themselves look they are of loftier minds than they actually are. (I also think it’s a problem when otherwise intelligent people respond in kind by simply re-subordinating those materials to their own agendas, but never mind that now.)

Senator Ted Cruz’s recent appropriation of Cicero (or, really, Charles Yonge’s translation of Cicero) has already been well-examined by classicist Jesse Weiner, writing for The Atlantic. I don’t think there’s a ton to add there, but I would consider the longer arc of history as well; Cicero’s militant defense of what he saw as the fundamentals of the Roman Republic did nothing in terms of the big picture to keep the Republic from turning into an Empire less than 40 years later. I’m not the kind of historian who talks about this or that person being on “the wrong side of history”, but I think it’s hard to get around the fact that Cicero was on the losing side, at the very least.

What perhaps might be more useful is considering the Empire’s relationship with its provinces, and how eventually, in 212, an emperor named Caracalla found it useful to extend citizenship to the provincials:

I grant Roman citizenship to all aliens throughout the Roman world, except the dediticii [meaning obscure], local citizenship remaining intact. For it is proper that the multitude should not only help carry all the burdens but should also now be in included in my victory. (Giessen Papyrus 40.1)

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One can interrogate Caracalla’s motives — broadening the tax base? Making sure Christians were subject to Roman laws? — and there were consequences to this that were both positive and negative, to be sure, but destroying the Empire wasn’t one of them.

Maybe the Edict of Caracalla is applicable to today’s circumstances, maybe it isn’t; the point is that you can’t just do a Google search on English translations of Latin rhetoric and cherry-pick what sounds useful. Using Cicero as an out-of-context prooftext for your political aims, pro or con, is simply stupid. I think I’d rather stay irrelevant than see my area get abused by opportunistic demagogues.

Checking in from Boston, and musings on weddings

IMG_3508I am looking up briefly from the Scrivener window at my carrel in the Holy Cross library. I have to say, it’s been a lovely time thus far. The library has been excellent for my purposes; at IU, I had to have 30-40 items out via interlibrary loan at any given moment, but here, I’ve only had to ILL 2-3 books. Fr. Joachim Cotsonis, the library’s director (also the Byzantine lead seals specialist), and Hilary Rogler, the circulation and ILL librarian, have been wonderfully helpful at every turn. I’m getting a lot done, and it’s been due in no small part to their help. A chapter went out to my advisor a couple of weeks ago; I’m hopeful that I will have another one out sooner than later.

A couple of weekends ago we drove back to Indianapolis (yes, drove; airfare for three of us for a weekend just wasn’t going to be worth it) for the wedding of our dear friend Laura Willms, the Tall Ray of Sunshine herself, as well as one of the Orthogals, and the Executive Board secretary of the Saint John of Damascus Society. Flesh Of My Flesh was the koumbara, so we left Thursday evening and arrived in Indy on Friday afternoon in time for the bachelorette party. Saturday was a crazy day of rehearsal stuff, which I was semi-involved with because I was part of the wedding choir. Sunday, we attended Divine Liturgy at Holy Apostles, which was very much like being home again, even if for the rest of the trip it felt very strange being back. The wedding itself then followed at Ss. Constantine and Helena, an OCA parish under the Romanian Episcopate, and it was quite a wedding service; besides their pastor, an archpriest from St. Tikhon’s and a ROCOR priest from Detroit were also concelebrating, and it was a grand affair to say the least. Following that, we enjoyed ourselves at the reception, and then it was time to make the trek home. We headed out Sunday evening, and got back to Brookline Monday afternoon. Many years to Laura and Gabe!

I would like to give a shout out to Summer, our hostess; we used Airbnb to find a place to stay, and it was our first time doing so. We lucked out — we found a lovely cottage in the Irvington neighborhood that was really comfortable, more than reasonable price-wise, and conveniently located. Summer has done a lot with the place to make it homey and welcoming, and I highly recommend booking with her if you need accommodations in Indianapolis.

I’ll also mention an experience that I had while we were out there that demonstrated for me how much the PDF has changed the business of the copy shop. I needed (or so I thought) to print out my music for the wedding, so I went to the FedEx Kinko’s in Broad Ripple to print it out. I had been e-mailed 20 separate PDFs, and I had them on my iPad. I asked somebody behind the counter, is there a way I can print these directly from the iPad? No, they said, and we can’t touch them because they’re music PDFs. We have to have written permission to copy before we can do anything with sheet music behind the counter.

Before I forget, I should note that I had Theodore with me, and that FedEx Kinko’s is a really bad place to take squirrelly two year olds.

But, whatever, okay, fine. I worked at a Kinko’s 10 years ago, and I know my way around, more or less. I went to one of the pay workstations to transfer them from my e-mail to a thumbdrive. Theodore was taking a little too much interest in the workstation’s CD drive, though, so I tried to make it quick.

I took the thumbdrive over to one of the copiers. The first thing I noticed was that the copiers could access Dropbox, and they were also able to access mobile devices directly. Grr. That’s why I asked, people behind the counter.

The second thing I noticed was that there was no way to batch print PDFs; I had to go through something like five screens to print each one individually. With twenty PDFs to print, each taking an individual series of fine motor skills to do so, keeping Theodore under control quickly became like trying to juggle Jell-O. I got two printed out before Theodore cheerfully realized that the main power switch on the copier was exactly at his eye level.

I took the thumbdrive back to somebody at the counter. Is there any way I can avoid having to print out all of these individually? I asked. Can I do anything to just print them as a batch? The guy said no, not from a copier, and he was just about to take the thumbdrive from me to print them out himself… when the co-worker I talked to earlier piped in and said, “No, it’s music, we can’t do anything with it.” I told her the PDFs were all public domain. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Without written permission to copy, we can’t touch it.”

Okay, I said, you see I’ve got a toddler with me. Is there an easier way to do what I’m doing?

Well, she said, you could batch print from a workstation, but they’d be five times the cost.

There’s really nothing else that can be done?

Nope.

I printed the remaining PDFs as quickly as Theodore would allow me to do and left. I also theoretically needed to buy a black binder, but at that point I was irritated enough at their lack of helpfulness that I didn’t want to spend any more money there. So, I texted the choir director, saying, hey, do you have an extra black binder?

He texted me back saying, yeah, I’ve got all the music printed out and in binders here already.

Le sigh.

This capped off what has been a year of weddings; last October, our friends Phil and Lisa got married at All Saints, the next month was the wedding of our Indianapolis friends Fotios and Diana, the sister of Theodore’s godmother got married in Illinois this last May, and then in July, Benjamin, Theodore’s godfather, got married in Cleveland (at the Deer Hunter church, no less). I also got pulled in to chant a wedding at St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cambridge the weekend before Gabe and Laura’s wedding, bringing me full circle back to point of origin for the Boston Byzantine Choir, whose Mystical Supper was the first CD of Orthodox music I ever bought.

At this stage of the game, I’ve seen a lot of Orthodox weddings. I remember going to my first; it was in Fort Wayne, and it was 10 years ago. I was still at the OMGEVERYTHINGISSOAMAZINGLYBEAUTIFUL stage of my inquiry, and that was pretty much what I had to say about the wedding service. Since then, I’ve chanted a couple (not many, just because of the nature of the parishes where I’ve chanted for the most part), I’ve sung in a choir for a few; I’ve been koumbaros for a few; I’ve stood in the congregation for a few. I’ve seen first marriages between converts, first marriages between converts and spouses who don’t plan on converting, first marriages between cradles and converts, first marriages between cradles and non-converts, second marriages between converts, and second marriages of converts to spouses who have no intention of converting. I don’t think I’ve yet been to a wedding service for two cradles, but I assume that’ll happen here before too long.

I’ve been to weddings under a lot of different circumstances. One of the second marriage services was between two divorced people who basically shopped for a bishop who would sign off on the second marriage when the bishop at their home parish dragged his feet. I’ve seen converts convince the priest (a Serbian) to allow kilts and bagpipes in the church for the service. I’ve seen two priests marry off their kids together. I’ve seen weddings that are pro forma ceremonies for people who have been married for years but need crowns so that their bishop will accept the husband as a seminarian. I’ve seen an Orthodox/non-Orthodox coupling do an Orthodox service with, essentially, a Protestant service then performed at the reception. I’ve seen the koumbaros get asked to serve at the last second because the non-Orthodox groom didn’t realize that his non-Orthodox close family member couldn’t do it until the priest told him. I’ve seen converts marry where one spouse’s family is Protestant, the other spouse’s family is also Orthodox, but to make it even more fun, the Orthodox family at some point decided to go non-canonical Old Calendar, even though the child in question stayed in a canonical jurisdiction. I’ve seen the non-Orthodox spouse grumble about the layout of the church and their own lack of “lines”. I’ve seen converts marry where one family is unchurched, the other family is polemically anti-Orthodox, and both families are big enough that the only Orthodox in attendance at the service are up at the solea because the couple couldn’t make room on the guest list for more than a couple of their church friends. I’ve seen the betrothal done months in advance because the couple wanted the engagement to be more than just an engagement in the worldly sense; I’ve seen it done separately because the non-Orthodox spouse was was worried about the length of the service for non-Orthodox attendees.

My observation, on the whole, is that the wedding can really present something of a conundrum for the non-Orthodox participants, be they spouse or family of the spouse. This conundrum can be handled well, or, well, not; somebody — a convert who married a convert — once told me that in some ways, he/she wished that they had gotten married before they converted. They could have gotten married at the church of one of the families, then been baptized, then been crowned, and it would have amounted to the same thing without making the day itself such a lightning rod for contention.

This is also not exclusively an Orthodox conundrum, I should hasten to add. Neither my wife nor I had any Anglican family when we got married in the Episcopal Church way back in the day; her background being Catholic, there were certainly some issues there, and my background being a combination of unchurched/militant atheist and Evangelical, the high church (well, as high as we could make it in a suburb of Seattle) ceremony and the Catholic-ish sense of things was difficult for some of my people, too.

Some of it, for better or for worse (so to speak), is the service itself. It’s not that long as wedding services go (our Anglican wedding, with full Eucharist, was an hour and fifteen minutes long), but to the extent that the secular norm now seems to be something like 10 minutes long (“Do you think this is a good idea?” “Yes.” “How about you?” “Yes.” “Okay, you’re married.”), the 45 minutes to an hour that most Orthodox weddings I’ve been to have lasted probably seem intimidating, and since there are no vows, there’s nothing really for the non-Orthodox crowd to hang their hat on in terms of familiarity. And, oh wow, you guys still do that Corinthians reading? Is that even legal in 2014? Some priests insert commentary as they go, and that can be a help, but it can also be really cloying if not done well. Other priests charge on through, and hopefully somebody’s put together a well-annotated service leaflet.

Some of it, though, I have to imagine is simply non-Orthodox participants realizing that they’re marrying off somebody close to them at a Greek/Russian/whatever Orthodox wedding, seeing the crowns, and thinking, People still do this in this day and age? I guess it’s cute that they think all of this matters, but, really? We’re not Hindus or whatever. Couldn’t you just do the aisle and vows and call it good for the sake of everybody else, and if this other stuff is so important to you, do it on a day when we all aren’t trying to share it with you and looking stupid because we don’t have a clue as to what’s going on? We can’t even say the Lord’s Prayer right in here. What the hell happened?

Here’s the thing. If you’re a non-Orthodox parent of a convert, or even a non-Orthodox spouse, marrying a cradle, then you have something bigger you can point to as to what the hell happened. They’re marrying into a family with a strong religious tradition, and that’s what you do. Without that external explanation, though, you’re left with a very real distance between you and your child that your child chose. Your child chose to have a wedding that was something different than what you imagined for him or her way back in the day, you may have strong ecclesial feelings that do not look kindly on the Orthodox Church, you have no input into a service that is fixed, and the result is that you feel like you can’t fully participate. That’s a hard thing, and in the worst case scenario, I’ve seen the family sullenly sit there throughout the whole service, not even acknowledging the proceedings enough to stand. Alternately, I’ve seen the parts that the families can have input on, like the reception, the budget, etc. become where people decide to locate the hills on which they’re willing to die. Mostly, though, I just see people looking confused and awkward, and then visibly relieved when it’s over. “I want to be respectful,” a bride’s family member once told me, “but I had no way to follow what was happening, even with the program notes.”

It’s like I’ve said before; we converts hope, in our heart of hearts, that when people visit our churches it will be the Russian Primary Chronicle again, with the non-Orthodox not knowing whether they were in heaven or on earth but knowing that God dwells there because of the beauty. That just isn’t what happens, for the most part. People come to weddings in America in 2014 to participate emotionally, not to see a beautiful service. When they don’t feel like they have a way to do that (or a reasonable way to explain why they don’t have a way to do that), it’s just not the same, no matter how beautiful of a service it is.

To be clear about something — I’m not criticizing the service or converts getting married. I love the Orthodox wedding service; I love participating as cantor (I wish I’d had the opportunity to chant more of them than I have), and I love just being there as a supportive onlooker. If you’re listening to the words (or following along with a booklet if it’s in Greek or Slavonic or what have you), there’s no way to get around how grounded in the Scriptures it is, so ideally, I think the wedding service should serve as a way to make the non-Orthodox feel more at home with what’s happening, and I think it’s unfortunate that that isn’t what happens. The message of the service is, plainly, You’re married, and now God’s in charge, and it seems to me that that should be entirely unproblematic.

At the same time, what is evident from some of the weddings I’ve seen is that however earnest the participants, that message can be obscured by how the receiver sees the sender, and there isn’t an easy way around that.

If I were to make what would be intended as helpful suggestions — first of all, to everybody concerned, perspective is your friend. The wedding is a big event, but it’s not the marriage. Whatever happens at the wedding, theoretically you’re going to have to deal with each other for the duration. Compromise and getting along is part of the deal, both between spouses and with family; start now.

Second, to the couple, include your immediate family in at least some of the discussions with the priest. If you let them participate in those conversations, and give them a chance to ask their questions in the presence of the priest at a meeting that actually matters, they will at least feel included, what’s going on the day of will seem a lot less daunting, and there will be a lot less tension about things unexpressed. To the family, if your kids ask you to come to one of those meetings, go. Everybody will be happier.

To bride and groom: the great thing about an Orthodox wedding service is that it’s purpose-built. In terms of the specific parts, you don’t need to customize anything. If you want specific settings of the hymns or whatever, a specific cantor, specific choir members, particular crowns, multiple priests, that kind of thing, okay, but really, it’s already all there and ready to go. That’s a gift, not an imposition; it means you have less you have to worry about. The less you make it about you, the less subjective you make the service, the less you’re going to have to freak out about, and the less everybody else will see reason to be concerned.

To the groom, whatever the convert/cradle situation might be for you: part of Orthodox tradition is that, ideally, you get married in the bride’s hometown. What that would indicate to me is that there is supposed to be some visible deference on the part of the groom to the bride’s family, to say nothing of the bride, who is easily the most vulnerable person involved. To the extent that you’re able to do so, when the bride’s family says something, smile and keep your mouth shut. If it’s an issue with the service, let the bride handle it, or, if you’ve been good about inviting the family to the meetings with the priest, tell the priest, and let him handle it with the family. Most important: let it go, whatever it is — start keeping a ledger of your sacrifices now and you aren’t likely going to stop.

To the bride: it’ll all be okay.

To everybody else: it’s an hour out of your life. You’ll live. Listen to the service, read along, whatever, but keep in mind that the message is, You’re married; now God’s in charge. Every part of the service expresses that somehow; if you want something to do to engage what’s going on and watching and following along isn’t enough, then ask yourself as the service goes on, how does this part of the service express that message? If that doesn’t do it for you, well, again, it’s an hour out of your life, and it’s not about you. Don’t worry; if it’s a proper Orthodox wedding, the reception is going to be a blast.

Suggestion to all concerned: wear comfortable shoes. Whatever the circumstances, you’ll be a lot less inclined to be grumpy by the end of the service.

Okay. I’ve got to write about the Akathistos hymn now. Pray for me.

Pushing to a finish line

Hi.

I’ve been a bad blogger for… well, awhile. I had a nice stride going in 2008-2009 (you know, back when I was despairing about life and could basically blog at work); then I got into grad school, and it’s really been hit or miss since then. I’ve been busy busy busy, I’ve had to teach, I’ve had to write papers, I’ve had to study for exams, I’ve had to write a dissertation proposal, I’ve become a father, and so on.

I know, I know. Excuses.

Here’s the thing. I’ve thought about formally closing it up. Leave it online, as a snapshot of something I did for awhile, but put up one final post saying, I’m done, look for me when you see me.

But… nah.

See, I don’t write this for hits. I don’t care if nobody reads this, and I never have. I write this for myself. In the beginning, it was so I could have an excuse to do something to build up some discipline where writing was concerned. Somewhere along the way, I wrote a couple of things that a few people liked and linked to, and before I knew it, I was… a really marginal figure on the fringes of a really marginal subculture of blogging. My biggest day was 906 views; historically it’s been more like 100-150 when I’ve been really active. It’s surprised the heck out of me when people I have met have said, “Oh, yeah, I read your blog,” because that’s incredibly unlikely, statistically speaking. But whatever; that’s not the point. You don’t do public access for the ratings.

Anyway, I still have things I want to say for myself in this venue, so even if it’s not consistent enough to “build readership”, that’s not really of interest to me. I’ll say things when I have them to say. I have ongoing things here and elsewhere I need to finish; I will finish them, and I’ll continue writing other things. So, I’m still here, but look for me when you see me.

One item of national (more or less) news I want to say something about very briefly — maybe 12, 13 years ago, the friend who was my best man was telling me about a new church venture he was involved with in West Seattle. This friend had long been involved in “postmodern Christianity”, an approach to “doing church” that, as he put it, didn’t assume that anybody walking in the door knew anything about what was going on. This new project in West Seattle was going to draw on elements that contemporary American Protestants generally ignored, like liturgical seasons, and explore the reasons for why those things had become a part of the tradition in the first place; it was also going to work cooperatively with a group of other local churches, centralizing administration and using that centralization as a way of helping to organize leadership and planting across that group of churches.

(“Huh,” I remember wanting to say to him. “Kind of like, oh, I don’t know, a diocese?” But I digress.)

This West Seattle church was being organized, at least at first, by a pastor to whom many of my friends from Bellingham had been close; he had been involved with The Inn campus ministry up there, and was now getting this going.

His name was Bill Clem, and the church was called Doxa Church. The faux-diocese was called the Acts 29 Network. (A presumptuous name, to be maximally kind.)

Except now Doxa is called Mars Hill. You might have heard of it. Also, it’s not part of Acts 29 anymore. Further, Bill Clem hasn’t run it since 2006; he’s now in Portland, and is advertising his connection in his current professional biography neither to Doxa or to Mars Hill.

I have a lot I want to say, but I will limit my comments to this: if I were Bill Clem, I would be thankful that I managed to get out when I did, and whatever the circumstances were that forced me out of what I had worked my tail off to start, I would call them God’s providence.

I’ll leave that there for now.

To make at least a nod towards catching up — the last several months have been among the most stressful of my life. We learned at the beginning of April that we’d be spending the year at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology; that was awesome, but it meant we had a move to prepare for with a kid and a parakeet, to say nothing of a house that had nine years’ worth of stuff packed into it that would have to be pared down for a two bedroom apartment. At least one garage sale seemed in the offing; it turned out to be two.

I also had a summer course to teach — a six weeks long medieval survey course, starting 23 June and going two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, until 1 August. I had never taught my own course before, and I had a lot of materials to prepare.

I had three conferences over the course of the summer that I knew were coming, too; I had a paper to present at the International Medieval Studies Congress in Kalamazoo, MI, where I was also one of the organizers for two sessions sponsored by the Byzantine Studies Association of North America, and where I was also participating in activities related to my service on the Graduate Student Committee of the Medieval Academy of America. Then, in June, I had Kurt Sander’s 2014 Pan-Orthodox Liturgical Music Symposium at Northern Kentucky University, where I was going to be singing in their festival choir, presenting a status report on the Psalm 103 Project, and also giving a talk on the Anglophone tradition of Byzantine chant. Oh, and we were trying to organize another working session for all of the composers while we were there, too. Finally, in July, we had the wedding of an old friend in Cleveland (also Theodore’s godfather), in which I was an attendant. I also knew I was going to be presenting a Byzantine chant workshop at the Mid-Eastern Federation of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians at the convention in Columbus, Ohio.

Right. So, preparing for a move, teaching a class, a wedding, and presenting at three conferences. That was enough, right?

During Holy Week, I got a text message from my friend Mark Powell, asking if I was available in May for two Cappella Romana concerts at the Getty Villa Museum in Los Angeles, doing a program of Holy Week and Pentecost material. Wednesday through Monday in LA — three days after getting back from Kalamazoo, which itself was Thursday through Sunday of Finals Week. And leaving from Chicago rather than Indianapolis was going to be more flexible in terms of flight options. I think my reply was “Well, of course, I’ll have to check my calendar and carefully consider my commi–YES OF COURSE I’LL DO IT”

Then there was an issue of availability with respect to the other course assistants for the professor I was working for last spring. One was an international student whose visa was expiring just in time to preclude their ability to do any grading of the final whatsoever, and the other was somebody who was just having to leave town the Monday after Finals Week. With around 150 exams to grade… yeah. Something got worked out where I got paid something extra for doing it, but from Sunday night when I got back from K’zoo to Tuesday afternoon when we were having to get ready to drive to Chicago, I was eating, sleeping, and breathing blue books.

Oh, yeah, one other thing — in April, I took my beloved 2000 Subaru Outback, which I had bought in 2000 with five miles on it, in for an oil change, tire rotation, and alignment check. I got it back with the technician saying that I needed to get some rust on the rear subframe looked at. The manager of a body shop took one look underneath the car and said, “Wow, that’s scary. You don’t want to drive on that.” (This was the week before I had to drive to Kalamazoo and then to Chicago, I should note.) When asked what it would probably cost to fix, he said that it would probably be upwards of a number that was more than the car was worth by this point. Because, you know, this was the perfect moment in our lives to be needing to buy a car.

A rental car got me to and from Kalamazoo and then to and from Chicago for the Los Angeles trip. The Subaru — of blessed memory — wound up being replaced with a 2014 Chevrolet Equinox after I got back from LA; I am eternally grateful to my mother and stepfather for what turned out to be an early PhD graduation gift.

(Ponder my progression of cars: first, a 1992 Volkswagen Golf GL, a German stick shift hatchback. Then, a 2000 Subaru Outback, a Japanese stick shift wagon. Now, a 2014 Chevrolet Equinox, an American automatic SUV. I have become the enemy. Oh well.)

The Los Angeles trip was, I have to say, a blast. A full write-up deserves its own post; suffice it to say that it’s an experience I hope to repeat.

(That said, I’m afraid that the Arctic Light review has to be my last for Cappella; too much of a conflict of interest otherwise.)

Then Lycourgos Angelopoulos passed away. Memory eternal.

Kurt Sander’s Symposium was a wonderful experience; a somewhat abbreviated version of the writeup I was asked to contribute may be found here. My presentation on the Psalm 103 Project is here; the audio of my Byzantine chant talk is here.

Then Richard Toensing passed away. Memory eternal.

And then we packed, I taught my first class as the instructor of record, we went to the wedding in Cleveland, and I went to the last of my conferences.

And then we moved, leaving our house on 1 August, with a move-in date of 11 August (that actually turned out to be 10 August). We killed time in Chicago, Cleveland, and South Canaan, PA.

Did I say that the last few months were stressful? They were stressful. Yeah.

I’m in Boston, by the way. We’ve been here for a day over four weeks; it’s been lovely so far, and we actually wound up getting a three bedroom apartment. The first three weeks was a bit of a vacation since the school year wasn’t yet going and the library had really limited hours; we enjoyed mild, beautiful, coastal weather; I’ve chanted in the chapel; I subbed unexpectedly for a few services at a Greek-only parish (that, I have to say, pays their chanters verrrrrrry reasonably); we enjoyed seafood on the wharf and a tour of Boston Harbor on a tall ship; we got unpacked; we made nachos. Last week was the start of the term, and I’ve been clearing the decks since then, dealing with a to-do list of administrivia that has managed to build up since we left Bloomington. It’s all stuff that’s had to get done for me to be productive in the way I need to be productive here, and I think I’ve got the list checked off sufficiently that I can actually get to the concrete work I need to do here on my dissertation.

A word about that: today (well, yesterday, when I started writing this) was the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. This feast employs one of the only festal hymns shared between the Byzantine chant books and the Latin chant books:

Your birth, O Mother of God, revealed joy to the civilized world, for from you the Sun of Justice rose, Christ our God, having destroyed the curse he gave a blessing, and having abolished death, he gave us eternal life.

nativitas tua, liber usualisi gennisis sou theotoke, kypseli versionIt’s curious for a number of reasons; one is that the Latin version is in the first mode, and the received Byzantine version is in the fourth. However, 10th/11th century Menaia show an ascription of first mode rather than fourth, suggesting that the Latin books preserve an older practice.

More curious is this — in the late seventh century, one of the so-called “Byzantine popes”, Sergius I, imported the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin onto the Roman calendar as one of a group of Marian feasts. This would, theoretically, have been a moment of liturgical unity between Rome and Constantinople; and yet, this hymn is the only piece of it that really survives.

There’s a paper I wrote on this several years ago, the first paper I ever wrote for a grad school class, that collected several observations about this issue. Some of the observations might be still valid, but I probably did a lot I was in no way qualified to do at the time and probably got a lot wrong. I’ll revisit it down the road when I need articles for the tenure clock, but I think that I actually need my dissertation done first, both so I can actually get a job, and also because I think any argument I’d make about this now would depend on my dissertation’s argument.

So, I’ve got to get the dissertation done — which is what I’m here to do — in order to finish the work that helped get me thinking along the lines of my dissertation. (I’m also going to take the Byzantine Chant certification exam while I’m here, but that’s a separate post.) It’s a dissertation that is largely inspired by those observations made back in 2006, so it seems appropriate that today’s the day I finally get settled enough to get down to work.

I will keep up with things here as I can; I’m not going to close up shop until I want to, even if that means not posting as often as I’d like, or if what I post winds up being somewhat random. First priority is getting the dissertation done and out the door; I want a real job before I’m 40, even knowing full well that I’ll then be busting my chops racing the tenure clock. Oh well; that’s the life I’ve chosen, and I’ve got to get past at least the first finish line, even if it’s not really a finish line by any reasonable definition. I’ll be trying to pop back here when I can, at any rate, and hopefully that’s more often than it has been. We’ll see.10667519_10104638060805829_761200563_oThat’s what I walk past on my three minute and forty-five second commute home. It’s not a bad state of affairs by any means.

More later.

CD Review: Cappella Romana, Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music

arctic_light_finnish_orthodox_import-cappella_romana-26407367-859743431-frntSo, occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I think I’m going to have to learn Finnish. I have this harebrained research idea about analyzing the Byzantine liturgical cycle as a national epic (I would still need to figure out the “for whom”, “where”, and “when” aspects of the matter), and since the Kalevala is the prototypical national epic, I’d have to be able to read Finnish to be able to do it properly.

Then my wife and my advisor both take turns in slapping me, yelling, “YOU HAVE ENOUGH TO DO!”

Still, I find the case of Finland fascinating. To break out a couple of academic buzz words, it’s an oddly liminal and contested place; the language, of course, is not Indo-European but rather Finno-Ugric (as the joke goes, Finnish and Hungarian used to married, and when they got a divorce, Finnish got all the vowels), and it’s right smack dab in middle between Russia and Scandinavia, with whom there are contentious histories, as well as contentious identity issues. The Finns are decidedly not Scandinavians or Russians — there is much more affinity with Estonia, which of course has its own issues with respect to contested identity — but the cultural contact happened, and there are imprints of both them to be found in Finland. They are not Russian, they are not Scandinavian (or Germanic at all) — they are Finnish.

Religion is a part of this strange mix; Karelia is the part of Finland that is traditionally Orthodox (so I’m told), which is also the homeland of the Kalevala poetry, in which we see odd references to Orthodoxy, like “standing in front of the icons” being used as a description of a wedding service. It’s enough of a part of the cultural fabric that it’s one of the two state religions of Finland; at the same time, there’s a cultural Protestantism that is also enshrined into law with the Lutheran church being the other state religion. I’m reminded, vaguely, of Germany’s religious schizophrenia as the birthplace of Lutheranism but also home to some fierce cultural Catholicism depending on geography. That’s got an entirely different history than Finland’s religious culture, but it’s the only comparandum I can really call to mind.

Where there is an intriguing religious culture, one hopes there will also be an intriguing culture of religious music, and Fr. Ivan Moody, conducting Cappella Romana, makes the case for the music of the Orthodox Church of Finland on the disc Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music. Finland represents an Orthodox musical culture still very much in its infancy, far moreso than the United States; it has been an independent state only since 1917, with the Church having been granted autonomy in 1921, subsequently coming under the wing of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1923. The transition to Finnish from Slavonic as the liturgical language then helped a unique Finnish musical voice begin to emerge. Basic parish repertoire, I am told, remains St. Petersburg Court Chant sung in Finnish, but over the last century a variety of composers have written music for the Church, contributing to a rich, beautiful body of repertoire. If it’s a bit “anything goes” still, well, they have some top-tier composers writing for them while they figure it out.

Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana present a survey of the 20th/early 21st century Finnish repertory, starting with early experiments by Pekka Attinen (1885-1956) and Boris Jakubov (1894-1923), followed by Paschal music from the present-day “elder statesman” Leonid Bashmakov (1927-), a Psalm 103 excerpt and Trisagion from Timo Ruottinen (1947-), a Cherubikon from a young Finnish composer, Mikko Sorodoff (1985-), and then festal hymns from the Dormition of the Virgin from Peter Mirolybov (1918-2004), who is presented as the composer in the group most connected to the Finnish Church’s Russian musical inheritance, as well as perhaps the one most attentive to this music’s liturgical context. In addition, Fr. Ivan himself (1964-) contributes a concert setting of the Exaposteilarion for Dormition.

I have to say, this has been a very difficult recording for me to figure out how to review, for many of the same reasons that Tikey Zes’ Divine Liturgy recording required an entire blog post’s worth of a prologue before I could talk about how I evaluate its musical merits. The problem is, of course, is that it’s not just a matter of evaluating musical merit; it’s also a matter of talking about how it functions as liturgical music, which is a sensitive conversation for Anglophone, North American Orthodox. This recording, much as with the Zes disc, is largely unconcerned with the categories of that conversation (although Fr. Ivan’s excellent liner notes touch on them briefly) while seeking to maximize the musical quality of the compositions performed. That’s a touchy thing to address when one is an American writing about an American composer in an American context, as with Tikey Zes; I’m writing as much more of an outsider in this case.

Still, there was something I realized while reading Fr. Ivan’s notes, particularly concerning the biographies of the composers. The American anxieties about the categories of “art music” and “liturgical music” overlapping are, frankly, minority concerns borne out of poverty — poverty when it comes to our music, who writes it in many cases, how we’re used to hearing it sung, and how our musicians and composers interact with the outside world, so to speak. There are notable exceptions, of course, but even some of those notable exceptions have to be a bit self-conscious because they’re the exceptions. Plus, there is something of a discourse about “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, problematizing concert pieces and such, meaning that when Orthodox Christians here do in fact do art, there’s some way in which they have to apologize for it, defend it, explain it, etc. In terms of how it presents Orthodoxy, this “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art” position is a defensive stance, culturally speaking, and it has consequences. I know composers who are Orthodox, very good composers who are renowned in secular music circles in fact, who absolutely refuse to pick up their pen to write music that could be sung in church; there’s simply too much baggage.

In the case of Finland, however, what the music on the recording suggests — and what the biographical notes in the booklet confirm — is that we’re talking about “real” composers, as it were, for whom there’s nothing necessarily self-conscious about writing Orthodox church music; it’s just one of the things you do if you’re a composer who happens to be Orthodox in Finland. Attinen, for example, taught in conservatories, wrote film music, and taught at the Orthodox seminary in Helsinki; his Cherubikon sounds very much like it is in dialogue with late 19th/early 20th century Romanticism, while still being a Cherubic Hymn meant to be sung in a Divine Liturgy (although it is evidently difficult enough that this is a rare occurrence). In any event, the hard and fast distinctions we want enforced here about “liturgical” vs. “concert” music don’t really apply; it’s a question of “good” vs. “bad” music, and that’s informed by tradition and liturgical function, but it’s also informed by musical education and exposure to the broader artistic conversation.

So, from that perspective, Arctic Light then becomes a relatively easy recording to review; it’s an aural treat in every way, with the vowel-rich language sparkling in the voices of Cappella’s singers. One can hear the Finnish language “in dialogue” with the ecclesiastical past of its country; fragments of Russian chant melodies echo in Bashmakov’s Paschal Ikos, for example, but they are transformed by the needs of the language and augmented by a harmonic vocabulary employed by an expert composer, and the result is something that “sounds Orthodox” (whatever that means — more to come on that later), but that also sounds like something new, and that could be as easily at home on the concert stage as well as in the choir loft. Sidoroff’s Cherubikon is a highlight, being perhaps a bit more conservative in terms of the sonorities he’s willing to use, but his use of different vocal textures — such as moving back and forth from men only, women only, and the full choir — makes it a rich contribution. Ruottinen is the most experimental of the group; he makes the least effort when it comes to invoking a chant foundation (he uses bits of the same melody as Rachmaninoff used for Psalm 103 in the All-Night Vigil), and at times he writes chords that sound like vocal jazz. The result is not unpleasant by any means, but it does stand out as one of the aesthetic oddities on the disc, and underscores that even within a musical culture that doesn’t feel the need to be self-conscious, perhaps some boundaries need to be kept in mind.

Fr. Ivan’s own contribution is noteworthy for multiple reasons; he is a non-native speaker of the language, and he uses the third mode Byzantine melody for the basis of his setting of the Exaposteilarion for the Dormition (“O you Apostles…”). The result is something that is clearly not operating in the same context as the rest of the repertoire on the disc, but the irony is that it is also the centerpiece of the program. It was written as a concert work, and despite using a different melodic vocabulary than that of the other composers presented, he is able to manipulate the Byzantine melody and build harmonies around it so that it sounds very much of a piece with Attinen and Bashmakov.

Fr. Ivan as the conductor gets Cappella Romana singing this kind of polyphonic repertoire as well as they have in years; the choir sounds bright, clear, and musical. At times the clarity and power of individual voices comes at the cost of blend — particularly in some of the higher voices — but it’s a tradeoff that allows the ensemble to play to their strengths.

If there’s something curious that I find in this collection — well, I should say it’s more about what I don’t find. There doesn’t seem to be a connection to a vernacular kind of singing in this music (although, ironically enough, elements of Ruottinen’s “vocal jazz”-ish choices sound somewhat like stereotypically Balkan folk music), and to the extent that there’s a musical conversation going on here about Finnish national and religious identity, that strikes me as strange. There is Finnish folk singing that has played what I would describe as an archetypal role in the building of national identity (such as what got compiled into the Kalevala); why would such elements be absent from this other project of identity-building? I may misunderstand the issues so much as to have come up with a meaningless question, but in any event, I am left curious about the interaction of Finnish Orthodoxy with Finnish folk culture.

In sum – Arctic Light is a complicated program. Finland, Finnish Orthodoxy, and Finnish Orthodox music have a complex history, and this disc is, in its own way, a document of some of that history. The result is that Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana are able make some beautiful, engaging music within that context, and provide a fascinating snapshot of an Orthodox musical culture that is developing its own very strong voice. Recommended.

A chapter ends: 22 August 2003-1 August 2014

It’s the Barretts’ last night as residents of Bloomington, at least for the foreseeable future.

I got here 3 weeks shy of 11 years ago, coming here with the specific objectives of finishing an undergrad degree in voice, possibly going on to a Masters, all in the service of the overall goal of setting myself up to be A World Famous Operatic Tenor. Seattle was a place you could be from and do that, but not if you never left Seattle, and IU seemed like just the kind of place where I could get what I needed in terms of final polish and stage time. I figured we’d be here three years tops.

11 years is almost 30% of my life, over 80% of my marriage, 100% of my time as a father, 100% of my time as an Orthodox Christian, 100% of my time as a Byzantinist.

I arrived thinking, based on what I had been told in Seattle, that I had most of what I needed to put together a great operatic career, and I just needed to get the right opportunity onstage in front of the right people. I leave with such musical successes as I have had being elsewhere than the operatic stage, with the vast majority of my success being in the academic arena rather than in the performance arena, and with the platform I have had for that success being largely hard-won.

I arrived hoping I would get to learn French, Italian, and Russian. I leave with some competency in French and Italian, yes, but also having studied Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic (and brushed up on my German).

I arrived thinking I’d be making my name as somebody who sang high notes down center onstage. I leave building a profession of lecturing at the front of a classroom.

I arrived thinking that maybe I’d get a Masters. I leave in the process of finishing a PhD.

I arrived thinking my wife is brilliant; I leave knowing that she is, and that that is only one of her many amazing qualities.

I arrived scared of fatherhood. I leave loving it, and wanting more.

I arrived having wanted the chance to travel really badly since I was a little kid. I leave having been to some pretty cool places like Greece, England, New York, Washington, D.C., and so on.

I want to wrap this up with a simplistic “I arrived a boy; I leave a man” but that’s false. I’m 37, married, with a toddler, and I’m still — as one person phrased it — in the U-Haul stage of life. Whenever it is we do wind up in a position to buy our own home, I expect that we will probably live in that first bought home for less time than the nine years we have spent in our little rental house. I hope and pray that I will have a real job before I’m 40; God knows. I had what would count as a “real job” from the time I was 21 to the time I was 26; I guess I’ve done some things in the wrong order. Oh well. For the last five years I’ve enjoyed the ride at least, which is more than I could say about big chunks of the previous six years, and I can look at the experience in its totality and see that nothing was lost, only that some things were transformed.

Two organizations/communities in particular have meant a great deal to me in my time here and have a special place in my heart — The Archives of Traditional Music, where I worked from April 2008-June 2009, and Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church of Indianapolis, where we have gone to church since January 2013. These were both places where warm welcome and appreciation were expressed at very key moments, and they both allowed the space for me both to do things I was able to do as well as to consider bigger possibilities I hadn’t thought of before. Another thing they have in common is that I got to spend far too little time at both places — just over a year for ATM, and about a year and two-thirds for Holy Apostles. Much gratitude to Alan R. Burdette, Marilyn Graf, and Susie Mudge at ATM, and another generous helping of thanks to Fr. John Koen, Debbie O’Reilley, Panos Niarchos, Angelo Kostarides, Dr. Thomas Kocoshis, Peter Americanos, and so, so many more at Holy Apostles. Special mention to Dean Maniakas and Fr. Bill Bartz of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, who have made us feel incredibly welcome and who have made it clear that we have friends at Holy Trinity.

I have not always enjoyed the experience of the last 11 years, as both of my longtime readers doubtless well know. Still, I am grateful to have had it, even if I still massage some literal and figurative scars that serve as reminders of certain lessons.

Time to go. Tomorrow we’re out of here. See everybody in Boston when we arrive. Glory to God for all things.

 

A vision for Orthodox university ministry — at Indiana University, and beyond

I’m somewhere between 3-6 weeks from leaving Bloomington. Our lease is up 1 August; we have a move-in date at Holy Cross of 21 August. We’re seeing if we can close the gap at all, but we won’t know if that will work until next week. We’re getting ready to sell one of our cars. We’re packing. I took a load of clothes to Goodwill two days ago. We just wrapped up our last moving sale. We’re selling books.

I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from living in Bloomington the last 11 years. The vast majority of my marriage has been here. The entirety of my experience as a father has been here. I have been in school for all but eight months of that time. I converted to Orthodox Christianity here. We’ve not only outlasted just about everybody who started here with us, we’ve outlasted just about everybody who ever knew them. The nine years we’ve lived in our little rental house has been the longest I have ever lived in the same place, and it has been a home even when, at times, Bloomington itself has defiantly refused to be.

I have written a lot in this blog about the experience of this town (like this, for example) from my vantage point as a university student, an Orthodox Christian, a worker bee, the spouse of a graduate student, and a church musician. I have found myself deeply concerned about and involved with mission from those perspectives; I have been, in many ways, an envoy on behalf of Orthodox Christianity to this strange university town that is Bloomington, but I have also had to represent the university to Orthodoxy at least as often.

As a result of these activities, I believe very strongly that there is much to be done in and for Bloomington that is not being done. Before I go into that, though, you need to read this. Also, there’s something we have to establish first.

There is not an Orthodox church in Bloomington.

There is an Orthodox church with a Bloomington address, yes, but particularly from the standpoint of an Indiana University undergrad without a car, that really is not the same thing. Regardless of what post office serves it, it is two and a half miles into unincorporated county; none of Bloomington’s municipal services reach it (including the bus), it is part of Perry Township, and it is closer to Smithville’s town center (1.6 miles) than Bloomington’s (6.2). (“But Smithville isn’t a town! It’s nothing!” I’m hearing some people say. Right. That actually underscores my point.) For all practical purposes, it is the closest Orthodox church to Bloomington, perhaps, but it is not a Bloomington church. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself; it’s a great thing for the people who go there. As I’ve written before, its own population is made up largely of people from areas peripheral to Bloomington; a fair number of people drive up from points south to attend there, and it serves that population very well. But, again, it is not a Bloomington church in the sense of being accessible to people who live and work in and around the university campus and the downtown area. This is manifest in the fact that IU’s OCF chapter isn’t even part of the Campus Religious Leaders Association here.

Along those lines – a friend of mine posted this on his Facebook timeline today:

it’s not a competition, but today I remembered that Bloomington is the best place to live in the world. Everything you could ever want in a city…on a much smaller scale.
Walk from church to coffee shop: 15 seconds. From coffee shop to music store: 2 minutes. From music store to comic book store: 30 seconds. From comic book store to amazing restaurant: 45 seconds. From restaurant to bike shop: 2 minutes

Now, there are multiple churches in Bloomington for which this is true, and what is further implied is proximity to the university; if you are Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Methodist, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Mormon, Christian Scientist, American Baptist, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Korean Methodist, Jewish, or Muslim, there is at least one congregation within a 5 minute bike ride or so from campus if not a 5 minute walk. Then, yes, from there a short hop, skip, and a jump to a coffee shop etc. And, if you’re Lutheran or Anglican, there’s even a campus house for you.

Let’s at once broaden and narrow the scope. Let’s broaden to the whole of the Big 10, and narrow to Orthodox churches specifically. Here’s a quick ‘n dirty chart for Orthodox churches in the Big 10 (click to enlarge). For each school, I list the number of parishes within 10 miles of campus (according to Google Maps and OrthodoxyInAmerica.org), the parish that’s closest to campus and its distance from campus (again, according to Google Maps), whether or not that’s walkable (that is, 2 miles or less from campus), walking time if so, transit time from campus to church via public transportation if applicable (again, according to transit data provided on Google Maps), drive time, the size of the metro area by population, and other relevant data.

We have to be careful here – these numbers don’t adequately take into account the size of the campus’ footprint and how that might impact distance from church, for example, and not everybody lives on campus. Still, I think there’s a decent initial picture that emerges here, even if it is a little rough.Orthodox Churches in the Big 10

So, with those numbers, on average, throughout the Big 10, there are about 5 Orthodox churches within 10 miles of the campus, and the closest church is an average of 3.14 miles away. Again, we have to be careful with what we’re looking at; these averages are driven up by Northwestern, for example. Northwestern has 19 Orthodox churches within 10 miles by virtue of being in Chicago, but their closest church is also, across the Big 10, the second farthest, at 5.3 miles away (and a pain in the neck to get to from campus, I’m told).

Also, Penn State, University of Iowa, and University of Urbana-Champaign are doing really well in terms of proximity; I know from personal experience how walkable St. Raphael of Brooklyn Orthodox Church is from University of Iowa, I’ve visited St. Nicholas at UIUC, friends of mine live in State College, PA, and those parishes really are standouts in terms of making themselves accessible (plus UIUC’s OCF has a house and an alumni association). Throughout the rest of the Big 10, in the main it’s not too bad, with churches being basically a 5-10 minute drive away. Public transportation doesn’t tell a great story there, with 5 schools not having Sunday bus service, and it taking 30-40 minutes to go 2-4 miles in those places that do have it on Sunday. We could be doing better in specific cases; we could also be doing a lot worse in terms of averages.

Here in Bloomington, the church that’s here is the one that’s the farthest away from campus in the whole Big 10; if you look at the campus religious guide linked to above, you’ll see that, except for an independent Baptist church one town over, it’s the farthest listed congregation away from campus of all of them. A 15 second walk to a coffee shop afterward? Heck, even a 15 minute walk? Nope, the nearest coffee shop according to Yelp is 2.6 miles away. My friend’s praises of Bloomington’s walkable accessibility simply don’t apply here; for an Orthodox undergrad without a car, getting to church on Sunday here is an exercise in tracking down a ride and going out to the middle of nowhere. To refer back to the linked Antiochian.org article above, in which ACROD’s Bp. Gregory expresses the hope that “our young college students will not only stay connected but deepen their faith during their years in post-secondary education and graduate to be faithful stewards of parishes across the country”, I have seen this lack of proximity and accessibility function as a major barrier from keeping young college students connected. I have also seen it work, to be sure, but the distance remains something that has to be overcome a lot of the time.

Indiana University is home to around 42,000 students, 3,000 faculty members, and I have no idea how many other staff members. There is a humongous international population here. It is home to major centers of scholarship for early Christianity, Modern Greek, the Middle East, Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe (and that’s all about to become a much bigger deal with the School of Global and International Studies). It is a very attractive place to be for people who are either cradle Orthodox or otherwise interested parties. There are a lot of thoughtful people here in general who would likely be open to what Orthodox Christianity is if it were but visible in the middle of the community. The parish with a Bloomington address but that isn’t actually in Bloomington is not in a position to engage such a population; they are more of a mission to rural southern Indiana, and, again, they are doing very well with that as their mission field.

The situation that is here in Bloomington is one that is ripe for a jurisdiction to take advantage of, and to build a flagship parish that would be a model of pan-Orthodox (in the best sense, where distinct traditions are acknowledged and embraced) university ministry. A parish close to campus, that can be accessible to students and faculty (and anybody else), that can be a resource for the departments and faculty whose work involves Orthodox Christianity, that can be a resource to the greater community about Orthodoxy. A congregation that can be connected to the IU community, and that can be home-away-from-home for students, be they Greek, Russian, Arab, Anglo, Georgian, or whatever. A place where serious, sincere conversations about Orthodox Christianity, be they with students who need an ear or with adults who have hard questions, can happen on Orthodoxy’s own turf and terms. Perhaps a parish that can support a house. A parish where students who want to learn more about Orthodox music can do so. A place where the greater Bloomington community is just a walk of a minute or two away, where the parish can throw open its doors to the greater community and the university, and where the parish can function in a manner that is connected with the community and the university.

Is this all a tall order? Yes. This would require, first and foremost, a great deal of prayer and guidance; it would require a bishop (if not multiple bishops) with vision and savvy; it would require a multitalented priest; it would require some cooperative and interested faculty (perhaps the easiest part, frankly); and it would require a lot of money and clever marshaling of resources, plain and simple. This is a big idea. At the same time, I have seen how this place works for the last eleven years; I’ve been an undergrad, staff, and a grad student here; I was actively involved in OCF for three years, hosting it at our house for one of them; I’ve organized a lot of events on campus; I was part of an attempt to cultivate an IU Orthodox alumni association; I have listened to what a lot of people have to say about why some things work here and some don’t in terms of church, university, and community. From what I’ve seen and heard, I firmly believe that it can be done with good planning, good leadership, and building of goodwill. More importantly than it being possible – it is needed.

There’s another component that’s vital here, and that’s creating an opportunity for Bloomington’s cradle community to fulfill the Great Commission in their own lives. For various complicated reasons, some of which I understand and others I don’t, many of them choose to not attend the parish that has set up shop in unincorporated county; some of them have lamented to me that, were there a church closer to campus, they would be more involved. Well, this would be exactly that chance — but besides being close to campus, it would be a chance to reach out to young people who wouldn’t really be able to pay them back, or even really be able to support the parish. Nonetheless, this would be good soil for those young people and students. It would be an opportunity for Bloomington’s cradle community to gather together, pool their resources, build something, hire someone, and pray hard. Even beyond that — here’s an opportunity to make this a movement, a change in the way jurisdictions think about how they plant churches in college towns, with cradles and converts alike encouraging their families in other college towns to make sure that there is a church within walking distance for Orthodox young people, and supporting exactly that in their own areas. Bloomington definitely isn’t the only college or university that needs this vision; it isn’t even the only Big 10 school that needs it. Still, it might need to be the place where it gets started.

How might such an undertaking be planned? Well, as long we’re dreaming here — if there were already sufficient seed funding to get something established, as well as a blessing from a bishop to form a parish with an assigned priest, two things would be important immediately, from where I sit. The first thing to do would be to form a non-profit organization that would serve as the umbrella organization for the education and culture side of things, with the board consisting of people in the community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, who have an interest in furthering those aims, with at least one student representative. Then, what would be great in terms of establishing initial visibility as well as the pan-Orthodox nature of the effort, would get it set up at a location — even if it is temporary at first — that is visible and easily accessible from campus, then inviting all of the bishops for the area — Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit (GOA), Bp. ANTHONY of Toledo (AOCANA), Bp. Peter of Chicago (ROCOR), and whomever else would be appropriate — along with somebody like Donna Elias, National Programs Manager for OCF, and then the priest for the chapel as well as all other area clergy to come to open it, with a procession from the Monroe County Courthouse in the square to the chapel’s location. It would be vital to see that it is well-publicized, and to treat it like a public event of community interest.

That’s where I think it could start. You’d have to do it in phases, certainly, and those would be negotiable — but something that would need to be treated as absolutely non-negotiable and vital to the exercise is proximity and accessibility to the university. It would be a tragedy to start out in a temporary location that’s a 30 second walk from Kirkwood Avenue only to wind up on the far west end of town halfway to Bloomfield. That would require, again, being smart and careful in terms of planning.

Now, I know full well that nobody is going to read this and say, “Well, heck, what are waiting for? Let’s do it!” I have no illusions about that. My point is simply that there is so much that can be done here, so much that needs to be done in terms of revealing Christ to Bloomington in the Orthodox Church; it’s not going to get done by one person with a vision, not by a long shot, but somebody has to be willing to commit to forming a vision for this kind of university ministry, articulating it to the people who can participate, and then bringing it about with God’s help. It can be done here, it can be done right, and I think it can even be a model for how you do it right. The harvest is plentiful if the workers will be there.

Okay, back to packing.

 


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