Archive for December, 2011

In which the author keeps the Mass in Christmas and shares other various thoughts

Christ is born, glorify him!

I got a phone call from my priest a week after Thanksgiving with a proposed Nativity schedule of Royal Hours with Divine Liturgy Friday morning, with Matins and Divine Liturgy Saturday evening. I gently suggested in return that it would be good to verify that the Divine Liturgy he was suggesting for Friday morning wasn’t the one we weren’t supposed to have Friday morning, since Nativity fell on a Sunday this year. More importantly, however, I asked him, why would we not want to have our festal liturgy the morning of, the one time in six years when our usual reasons for not doing so aren’t applicable?

This reasoning apparently made sense, because when the December calendar for the parish was published, the Nativity weekend included Royal Hours Friday morning, Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, Vespers Saturday evening, and Matins and Liturgy Sunday morning.

Then, the Friday before last, I asked him, hey, if I can guarantee the presence of bread and wine, would you be up for doing Litya/Artoklasia the next couple of Saturdays, given that they are festal observances where it would be appropriate? Yes, he said, and so I baked the five loaves both Saturdays and donated a bottle of Greek ecclesiastical wine I still had in the house.

For the Vespers and the Liturgy for Nativity, I even did something I don’t normally do for purposes of voice saving, the Old Testament and Epistle readings. My cardinal rule with those is — thank you, John Boyer — “If you think you’re going too slow, slow down,” and it’s really tempting in a space with no resonance whatsoever to speed up, but I didn’t. Saturday evening, even with only three of the Old Testament readings, my — shall we say — unhurried ekphonesis plus Litya and Artoklasia and all of the extra stuff for Nativity meant that Vespers clocked in at an hour and forty-five minutes, easily the longest Vespers service that has ever been served at All Saints. It was probably about nine hours of singing all told, from Friday through Sunday morning. Next year, with Christmas falling on a Monday, I may suggest that we just do a real All-Night Vigil (Small Compline, Great Vespers, Matins, Divine Liturgy), but I suspect that will go over like a lead balloon.

Anyway, as soon as we got home after church on Sunday we had to start in on the goose. Cooking plus company meant that it was about 10:45pm before we actually got around to any gift unwrapping.

I’ll note that I find the whole discussion about whether or not churches should close on Christmas when it falls on Sunday a little odd. To the extent that Christmas (or Easter, for that matter) are components of a liturgical year that has been largely abandoned, why should Christmas be given any special treatment one way or the other? 25 December is less “Jesus’ birthday” than it is the first day of the twelve day liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, which really is something a bit different, coming as it does after a penitential fasting season and coming right before Epiphany/Theophany. I suppose Christmas really does primarily function as a family holiday without that context, so it may as well be one. Jesus may certainly be the reason for the season, but the expression of that season is based in an ecclesiastical setting, and if you don’t have that setting (and/or if your first criterion is whether or not service times are “kid friendly”, which I’ve heard as a reason for why Midnight Mass in Catholic circles is downplayed these days), what’s all the fuss about whether or not the churches are open? Can you keep the Christ in Christmas without also keeping the Mass in it, at least and have it mean the same thing? If we’re taking the liturgical celebration of the Incarnation of Christ with all of its beautiful and glorious imagery and theology and reversals of human wisdom and so on and having to recast it as Jesus’ birthday party in order for it to make any sense in our current world, then is it really Christmas, or is it basically a cultural winter holiday with distant Christian roots where it would be nice if we emphasized them more?

On the “kid-friendly” point — my recollection is that I didn’t sleep much Christmas Eve as a little kid because of the anticipation of Christmas morning. So if your kid is going to be up all night with a lot of nervous energy to begin with, it seems to me an All-Night Vigil starting at 10pm Christmas Eve and going until 5am is perfect. You’ll all be getting home right about the time the kid was going to be up anyway, so what’s the problem?

A commenter recently weighed in on one of my postings on church architecture that Christ chose to be born in a lowly cave, so I’ll use that as the pivot from Christmas to my next set of thoughts.

St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Riverside, CA has gotten a fair amount of attention lately over their new church building. It is worth pointing out, however, that not all of the attention has been positive. There’s a good amount here worth thinking about, and I’ve been part of the discussion about building at my own parish for the last six years, so here goes.

A good twelve years or so ago, when I was attending St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Factoria, one of Bellevue’s commercial districts, they were embarking on a capital campaign to tear down the old nave and build a new one. The priest talked about the vision, what it would cost, and what the timeline was.

A woman raised her hand. “I have a question,” she said. “What if we waited? There are so many needs, in terms of supporting missions and giving to the poor. Why can’t we say, ‘We’re going to do that first,’ and put off building until we’ve done more in those areas?”

The priest was clearly expecting the question. “Well,” he said, “a couple of years ago we went through the exercise of asking, where do we think God is calling us to be as a parish in ten years? We looked at the ministries we support, how we’re going to continue supporting them, how we expect them to grow, and the other ministries we want to be able to support, and it was clear to us that in order to do these things, our current facilities were inadequate. So, that’s why the plan is to build.” The woman who asked the question clearly wasn’t buying the answer, but at least there was an answer.

Now, in my time in Episcopal circles, one thing you could never fault them on was process. Results — well, there they could be a little shakier. St. Margaret’s built a new church, most certainly — but they fell noticeably short of the ten year goal, from everything I’ve seen since I moved away in 2003. They lost people while they were building, the priest who married us left under some very unpleasant circumstances which caused more people to leave, and the series of interim leaders who followed meant that more people left because of uncertainty about where the parish was going. Bottom line is, the priest gave a good answer to a good question, that there was a plan and they were following it, and this plan will allow a both/and approach, but it still turned out to be the wrong thing to do, and right now the parish is drowning in debt (at least, that’s the picture I get from the website devoted to their debt reduction initiative).

I’ve written about this before, but one thing I experienced in Greece was that the poor congregate around churches. They hang out by the entrance of the narthex, some will sit quietly with hands up, some will hustle you, some will have something to try to sell, but the simple fact of the matter is that you can’t go into an urban church without having to interact with those whom Christ told you to feed and clothe on your way in. This is a good thing; their presence convicts you and hopefully prompts you to do something about it. We’re isolated from that experience in suburban churches, and to our own detriment.

At All Saints, we’re not a suburban church, we’re more of an exurban church. We’re in the middle of nowhere — no nice way to put it. There’s no way to get there if you don’t have a car — we’re in unincorporated county, so the closest bus stop is two and a half miles away, and trying to ride a bicycle or walk on these roads would be insane. We’re at the intersection of rural roads that are such that, even if I lived across the street, I’d still drive. We had a visiting priest tell us once, “Your remote location is a gift — it means you aren’t bothered by the concerns of being in a city like drug dealers and gangs and things like that.” This was some time after my return from Greece, and the first thing that went through my head was that this priest had sorely missed the point. The Church and the church building are not supposed to isolate us from the people we’re serving; they are supposed to help us serve them better. Right?

In Orthodox Christianity, as I understand it, the building is supposed to serve a number of functions — iconographic, practical, liturgical, and so on. Unfortunately, it seems like the conversations we have to have about building are required to assume that those functions have little to no bearing on what you’re actually going to be able to build, because we’re not actually building Orthodox churches in an Orthodox context — we’re building Orthodox shells in a Protestant context. What do I mean by that? Well, St. Irene Church in Athens does not have a fellowship hall, it does not have a set of Sunday school classrooms, it does not have a gym. It has offices for the priest; beyond that, it’s a church. By contrast, in the setting we have in this country, we’re supposed to have all of these other auxiliary services, and the fact is that they’re often the tail that wags the dog. At All Saints, we built a shoebox that looks like an office building first. It was envisioned as being the classroom wing of a three-wing facility that included a church; we built that first because the conventional wisdom was — so I’m told — “People come to church for church, but they stay for everything else a church does. This building allows us to do some of those other things while getting by as a church.” I had a conversation a week ago or so about another Orthodox building project where they’re building the hall first — the priest has evidently said that there’s simply no advantage in starting out by building the church, precisely because it’s the part everybody wants. Without that carrot to dangle, there will be no incentive to finish the project. So, we’re marginalizing our primary liturgical function because it’s just not practical when everybody is conditioned by the Protestant landscape to expect a buffet of secondary functions.

But, nonetheless, we’ve got a theology of how the church building functions iconographically and liturgically beyond merely the practical concern of needing a room in which to gather. Theoretically, we’re supposed to give the best of what we have to support those functions. We don’t do that to the exclusion of our duty to feed and clothe the poor — that is, to show mercy on our brothers and sisters — rather, it is part and parcel of it. Part of the function of the church building, as I am given to understand it (and as Lotar alludes to), is to be the property of the poor — something they have that is beautiful and divine in the midst of a life of hardship. (Which is why I’m a little less than impressed when I hear about churches that build facilities that they then go out of their way, with things like cardkey lock systems and whatnot, to make sure poor people can’t ever enter.)

Okay, so, fine, that’s the theological theory. All Saints has a complex relationship with those in need. First of all, we’re mostly a lower-middle to lower-class parish, so many of the needy whom the parish serves are its own parishioners. Second, we’re the first church listed in the Yellow Pages, so we tend to be the first called when people are calling churches looking for assistance of some kind. Our priest does what he can; our previous priest had a secular retirement plus the stipend the parish gave him, so he was in something of a position to give out of his own pocket to such people, but such are not the current priest’s circumstances. He tries to have a stock of prepaid debit cards and food on hand to be able to do something when people call; we used to have a relationship with a local homeless mission, and I’m not certain why we don’t anymore. A few years ago there was a discussion about trying to form some kind of an ecumenical effort in Bloomington to do more for the homeless, but the response the priest got from other pastors was, “Sorry, that’s just not going to work in this town.” Something the priest has started doing with catechumens is instructing them to have a bag of food in their cars that they can give to people who approach them on the street, and I think that’s a great step to be taking. Could we do more? Doubtless — who couldn’t? — but the structures aren’t really in place, and All Saints is not in a position to bear the administrative weight. We could hold a soup kitchen at All Saints, but who would come, and how would they get there? You need to do such things in the places where the people are, and that’s something we can’t do under current conditions.

The relationship with building is even more complex. Anything we build will take a capital campaign, and those are scary words for a lot of our people. The hard reality is that even more than St. Margaret’s in 1999, we have very little we’re able to do in our current facility. It doesn’t serve our needs liturgically, iconographically, or practically, beyond simply being four walls and a roof that’s sort of able to house services. At the very least, we can’t really grow without building, but there are parishioners who are adamant that we must grow before we can build. In a smallish community like ours, the big killer of any effort is apathy rather than opposition — opposition is at least engaging in the conversation. Apathy is not even acknowledging that there’s a conversation. Despite efforts over the years to get a conversation going about moving towards the permanent church building, there’s really no popular impetus to do anything. Some people have suggested that it might be better to talk about how we can expand the current space, but it just wasn’t designed in a way that would make that possible and cost-effective. 11 years ago, when they built it, they figured that it would allow them to grow to a point where they would be able to build the rest of it within five years, but neither the location nor the facilities are conducive to growth, and the realities of a college town with no real economic diversity to speak of have left the All Saints demographic in a position where many of them have had to leave Bloomington rather than stay and help grow the community they were part of establishing. Somebody told me a few days ago that the parcel of land in the middle of nowhere was partially justified as being someplace where maybe an archdiocesan retreat center could eventually be built, thus being a source of some income for the parish, but… well, it all takes money, money that people have not been thrilled about parting with for the last 11 years. So, six years ago, our priest said, “Now’s the time, we’re going to do it,” and six years later, we haven’t pounded a single nail. Will we ever? Hard to say. All Saints is an experiment, some say, in seeing if you can successfully plant an Orthodox church someplace in America where there have never been the usual reasons to have one. This is something of a strange way to put it to me; it’s clear that there has been a large community of Greeks in Bloomington since the early 20th century, they just apparently never felt terribly compelled to build a church. In any event, it seems to remain an open question as to whether or not the experiment was truly successful.

So, back to St. Andrew’s. It sounds to me like Lotar is probably a lot like the woman who asked the St. Margaret’s people, back in 1999, do we really have to do this now? Is building our dream church in the suburbs really so pressing a need that we’ve got to spend millions of dollars on it that could be spent on the things Christ actually told us to do? I’m torn, because I understand his point, but I also understand the point of building. Now, that said, he makes some swipes that strike me — as someone admittedly unfamiliar with the situation, particularly in contrast to Lotar — as uncalled for; it’s simply not true that “the whole of world Orthodoxy” does Italianate-style iconography while it’s only crazy American converts that want “Byzantine anachronisms”. What is true is that there are different styles that have been employed over the centuries, it’s somewhat cyclical, and right now there is a revival of the “Byzantine style” going on, not only among American “pseudo-pious” crazies, but certainly in Greece and in Russia as well. In Athens, yes, any church that was built in the nineteenth century is going to have western-looking icons, but anything painted in the last few decades isn’t going to look like that. If his story about the Georgian family is accurate, then that hardly makes it excusable, but I’m left wondering if there might not be more to the story because of how he has otherwise oversimplified some things.

My gut instinct is that there’s no way the Riverside project would have ever been justifiable in Lotar’s eyes; perhaps I’m wrong on that point, but I’m pretty sure that the answer the priest gave the woman at St. Margaret’s in 1999 didn’t turn her into a believer in the project, and from what I’ve encountered in various instances of these kinds of conversations, there are some disagreements that can only end in an angry standoff, with one side or the other bitterly claiming to having not been heard.

That said, reading the piece Lotar links to, I wish the priest had given an answer that was more like the one the Episcopal priest gave twelve years ago — that there’s a plan that is getting us to where we think we need to be in order to do the things we’re supposed to do as a parish, and this building is part of that plan. It’s not that what he says is wrong, exactly — and I can’t speak one way or the other to Lotar’s rebuttal on St. Andrew’s involvement with ministries for the poor — but it does seem easily read as unnecessarily self-justifying. It doesn’t seem to me to have been intended that way, but publicly dismissing those with questions as “small-souled” comes across as awkwardly off-message to say the least. There is a way to answer the concerns that people have in the context of a building project, but marginalizing them isn’t the way to do it. As I say, I get the impression that Lotar’s contempt for the project was probably a given from the get-go (and was probably a function of contempt for the community itself, or at least some segment of it), so maybe there’s no way that the outcome would have been different.

And maybe the thing that is unavoidable is that building projects are divisive. You’re not going to make everybody happy, you’re not going to be able to convince everybody that it needs to be done, you’re even not going to be able to convince everything that it isn’t a huge mistake. Yes, sometimes the naysayers are right; maybe they’re even right more often than we’d like to admit. I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t know if the Riverside church is a huge waste of money by a bunch of anachronistic and silly white people who are willfully skirting their obligations to the poor by building themselves a pretty toybox. I don’t know if All Saints needs to just get used to the idea that Orthodox Christianity in south central Indiana is a solution looking for a problem.

I believe the concerns of somebody like Lotar need to be heard and taken seriously. I also believe that Fr. Josiah is right in that the answer to those concerns is “both/and” — but the question is, how do you articulate the “both/and” such that the the person who believes they need to ask, “What if we waited?” actually believes that they’ve been heard and taken seriously, and so that the “both/and” actually gets realized? That’s a lot harder.

I feel compelled, for reasons I’m not entirely sure I can explain, to close with this passage from the ninth ode of the first canon for the Nativity:

A strange and wonderful mystery I see, the Cave is heaven, the Virgin the Cherubic throne, the Manger the Place in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid. Him we praise and magnify.

Christ is born, glorify him! Merry Christmas!

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Some last-minute gift ideas…

Obviously it’s Thursday, and Christmas is Sunday, so this isn’t even last-minute but last-second. Last-millisecond, even. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions for those of you foolish enough to think that my taste might be the slightest bit relevant:

Consider giving a gift to International Orthodox Christian Charities. Their mission: “IOCC, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond.” They do a lot of wonderful work throughout the world like Palestine, Syria, Romania, Ethiopia, and more — including the United States.

A Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer. My Samsonite leather satchel fell apart on me over the summer, and I contemplated whether or not I could swing a Saddleback classic briefcase (my godson Lucas has one and it is a thing of beauty), but then Larry Anderson suggested I check out the options from Tom Bihn. I got a great traveling laptop briefcase for about a third of what the Saddleback bag I was considering would have cost, it’s got a lifetime guarantee, and it’s been perfect for when I’ve needed to travel with my 15″ MacBook Pro. Of course, the day after the bag arrived I bought an iPad 2 (yeah, yeah, earlier than I said I would, but no regrets, let me tell you), so I have tended to need to transport the laptop less (short version: to the extent that laptops have become desktop replacements, iPads are laptop replacements), but it’s stil been exactly right for what I need. It’s very elegantly designed, and it’s very good at making sure there is a place for everything. The one caveat I might add is that while the bag is plenty sturdy, the stretchy shoulder strap may feel like it’s more stressed than it actually is if you overload it. Not an issue if you don’t, well, overload it, and the bounce the shoulder stap provides makes the bag a lot easier to carry once you get used to it (it basically seems to function as a shock absorber).

Cappella Romana’s new disc Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium. A full review of this is forthcoming, but for right now suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully-sung account of medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Repertoire includes material for Vespers of the Feast of St. Catherine, as well as from the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, which used to be served on the Sunday before Nativity. Some of this has been recorded before by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir for a disc called “Byzantine Hymns” (and one can find the audio on YouTube but I can’t find out anything about the disc, so if anybody knows anything about it, please let me know), but Cappella Romana is a very different ensemble from GBC in a number of ways, and their rendering of the material is very much worth hearing. Like I said, full review coming, but this is a great stocking stuffer. For that matter, so is the reissue of the Epiphany disc under their own label. And, of course, their recording of Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a must-have. One can also make a gift to Cappella Romana, either to their general operating fund or to support one of their several in-the-works recordings.

If you’re an iPad user who thinks that the soft-tipped styli that you’re likely to find at Best Buy don’t really do what you need them to do, I highly recommend the Jot-Pro. It makes handwriting and drawing much easier.

For another music suggestion, Marcel Peres/Ensemble Organum’s recording of Christmas music from the Old Roman Chant repertory, Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siècles, is a fascinating and beautiful reconstruction of a time when East and West had a lot more in common, culturally and spiritually, than we’re used to now. “Reconstruction” is often a euphemism in early music circles for “making nonsense up”, but as I’ve noted before, I think Peres (collaborating with Lycourgos Angelopoulos) makes a pretty compelling case.

If you’re a Mac user and a writer who needs to manage a decent amount of research, notes, ideas, dates, etc., Scrivener and Tinderbox are a pretty powerful one-two punch. If you’re already a Scrivener user, there’s also deal on Tinderbox. I’m new to Tinderbox myself, but I’ve been using Scrivener for several years now, and I find it to be fantastically helpful in terms of its set of writing tools. I’ve written (and am still revising) a children’s book and several academic papers with it. The only thing I wish it had was cleaner EndNote integration, and I also have to make sure I remember to not send compiled *.rtf documents as finished drafts (must save as a Word doc or a *.pdf), lest the person on the other end simply open it in a text editor by default and think I’ve made the rookie mistake of not including any footnotes. (Yes, this has happened. Recently.)

Horrified as I am by the K-Cup craze, I’m going to suggest the paleocafephile route (I think I just invented a word) — the briki/ibrik, with which one makes Greek/Turkish/Arabic coffee. You don’t have little plastic containers that keep you from ever handling grounds; nonononono. Heh. No. Instead, you grind the beans to powder, boil the grounds directly (no filter), pour it into a cup, add sugar (and maybe cardamom if you’re Cypriot), and then you deal with the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It’s the only way to fly in a word that wants to make your coffee experience as safe and plastic and single-serving-sized as possible.

Michael Uslan is, without doubt, the comic book geek made good to end all comic book geeks made good. His memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is tremendously inspiring, and is a must-read for anybody, whether they’ve read a comic book or not, who has ever been told, “Kid, you can’t get there from here.”

All right — may the last few days of the fast treat everybody well!

Unabashedly not adhering to sola Scriptura – surely there’s another way to put that…

In a discussion with a Calvinist friend (and to be fair, I don’t know that he himself identifies as a Calvinist, but his church certainly identifies as “Reformed” with lots of appeals to Calvin) about something else recently, one of our points of disagreement on the issue at hand was determined to be rooted in doctrinal differences. In this case, it was a matter of whether or not the Gospel is principally a textual phenomenon. I said that it is not; the Gospel is Christ resurrected in the flesh, trampling down death and redeeming fallen Adam — that is, the Truth of our faith is a Person whom we know and with whom we have fellowship, not a set of texts we read. The texts are a way we know about Him, and a way He is proclaimed in the context of the worshipping body, but those texts aren’t the only way or even the principal way we know about Him or proclaim Him. My friend’s response was to say, you’re right, this is a doctrinal dispute that’s older than we are, but needless to say, I unabashedly adhere to sola Scriptura and believe Scripture teaches it.

A different conversation with an Orthodox person about a completely different matter also touched on the question of textuality, in this case whether or not liturgy, as understood by the Orthodox, is a chiefly textual experience. To this person, the answer was without question yes; everything in our services more or less expresses a set of texts, and anything that obscures those texts need to be reconsidered. My thoughts on the matter were that the Divine Liturgy is chiefly the celebration of the Eucharist — that is, communion with God — not a proclamation of text. While there are texts that are proclaimed, they are done so in the context of other sensory experiences — incense, icons, singing, movement, and so on. Yes, this person replied, but the celebration of the Eucharist is preceded by the parts of the service intended to prepare us to receive it, which means prayers that we’re supposed to say, and while we do adorn the texts with things like incense, those seem to have only become important as we’ve gotten away from understanding the Liturgy as textual. Part of my problem, as I told this person, is that sounds a little close to sola Scriptura for me; no, he replied, sola Scriptura is a doctrinal dispute between Protestants and Catholics that doesn’t have anything to do with us. Hm.

By contrast to both of those discussions, another friend was telling me about a paper he’s having to write for an ethics class. His professor is big on a threefold model of “doing, thinking, and knowing”, and evidently the model that gets used is that of romantic relationships — dating -> doing, engagement -> thinking, marriage -> knowing. So, my friend is looking at how this model might apply to textures of Byzantine chant. He’s arguing that things like psalm verses, refrains, petitions, liturgical dialogue, and so on constitute “doing”, stichera and troparia (to name a few) are “thinking”, and then the melismatic textures are “knowing”. He singled out kratemata and terirem (basically musical meditations on nonsense syllables) as, in this model, being the ultimate form of “knowing”, saying that if hesychasm is our ideal form of prayer, then these represent the musical equivalent. I was reminded of this passage from St. Augustine’s commentary on Ps. 100:

The one who sings a jubilus [qui iubilat] does not speak with words, but it is a certain sound of joy without words: it is the voice indeed of a soul exhilarated with joy, expressing to the extent possible love but not encompassing sentiment. A man rejoicing in his own exultation, after certain words which are not able to be spoken or understood, bursts forth into such a voice of exultation without words; so that it appears that he indeed rejoices with his own voice, but as though filled with too much joy, he is not able to express with words that in which he rejoices.

I’ll note that I’ve heard qui iubilat argued to mean “the one singing a jubilus” (that is, the melismatic ending to the Alleluia in the Mass); I’ve also heard it argued that this understanding must be anachronistic, and that is simply means “he who jubilates”. The former is what I was taught in music history, so I’ll stick with it for now. In any event, whatever qui iubilat means, this “sound of joy without words” seemed to be very much what my friend was getting at with the “knowing” part of the model.

Finally, I recently encountered this passage from a 1923 essay by Pavel Novgorodtsev titled “The Essence of the Russian Orthodox Consciousness”:

When… Protestant writers reproach the Orthodox Church for not developing sufficiently the practice of spiritual exhortation in its church services, for having little concern for the moral superiority of its flock, then here… misunderstanding continues. For the Protestant in his church service, between the bare walls of his temple, the chief thing is to listen well to the moralizing teaching, to do the expected psalm singing and prayers, which have as their goal the same moral concentration and self-purification. The chief thing here is human influence and personal introspection. On the contrary, for the Orthodox the main thing in the Church service is the action of divine grace on the believers, their communion with divine grace. Here it is not human influence that is determinate but divine action; the goal here is not simple moral education but mystical unity with God. The beneficent force of the Eucharist and liturgical religious rites, in which the grace of God mysteriously descends upon those who pray — this is the highest focus of the church services and prayerful exhortations. The cry of the holy servant [that is, the priest celebrating the Eucharist] “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” summons the gifts of divine grace on all present at the liturgy[.] (collected in A Revolution of the Spirit: Crisis of Value in Russia, 1890-1924, ed. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal and Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak)

How to put all of this together? To come back to the conversation with my Calvinist friend, I was really struck by how he described himself as “unabashedly” adhering to sola Scriptura. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean this, but in thinking about it, it seemed that it could be understood as him thinking that the main reason one might not adhere to sola Scriptura is because they are “abashed” — that is, ashamed of Scripture. This would be suggested by something that he said, that we have to be willing to proclaim all the truth of Scripture — not just the easy, warm and fuzzy parts, but also the “gnarly” (his word) bits that are hard to reconcile with where the world is at right now.

In any event, I don’t adhere to sola Scriptura, and I unabashedly don’t adhere to sola Scriptura, but I don’t unabashedly not adhere to sola Scriptura because I’m ashamed of Scripture. Now, here’s the problem — how does one restate that positively?

The arguments about sola Scriptura are centuries old, and no blog post I could possibly write in between spurts of exam reading is going to resolve that dispute, so I’m not going to bother trying. Here are some things that I think I can say about the experience of an Orthodox Christian with respect to Scripture:

  • The principal experience of Scripture for an Orthodox Christian is hearing it proclaimed in the context of the worshipping body. That’s not to say that we don’t ever read it on our own, just that the normative way it is transmitted and received is that it is heard in the context of corporate worship. That includes the Epistle and Gospel readings in the Divine Liturgy, but it also includes Old Testament readings at Vespers, Gospel readings at Matins, and Psalms at every service. Another way to put this is that the Gospel, Epistles, Psalter, and Prophets are books written by the Church, organized and edited by the Church for the Church, and done so for the Church’s use. If this seems a bizarre way to think of the Bible, well, I refer you to Harold O. J. Brown, late of the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who noted once that “there is no way to make the New Testament older than the church” (“Proclamation and Preservation: The Necessity and Temptations of Church Traditions”, Reclaiming the Great Tradition,  Intervarsity Press, 1996).
  • (As a side note, I’ll say that somebody close to me recently bought an audiobook version of the Bible. “It’s really fascinating what you get out of it hearing it out loud rather than just reading it on your own,” this person said to me. “Have you ever heard it that way?” I gently suggested to this person that this is not exactly news in Orthodox circles.)
  • The hearing of Scripture in the context of the Liturgy is one of many elements in support of the celebration and reception of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is not in support or an expression of Scripture; it may be the Body and Blood of the incarnate Word, but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s chiefly about words.
  • Scripture is not in conflict with Tradition. Scripture is the component of Tradition that has been passed down through the written witness of the Apostles, the Evangelists, and Prophets. We have knowledge of what Scripture is because the Church was able, by means of Tradition, to evaluate the various writings claiming status as Scripture.
  • The Truth that we proclaim is not a set of writings, but a Person. The Gospel is that the Christ, the Son of the Living God, having been crucified in the flesh, rose from the dead and trampled down death by means of death itself. Scripture is one of the ways that this is witnessed to and proclaimed, but it is neither the only way nor even the chief way. One of the chief ways, yes.
  • The Divine Liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist, is itself not principally a textual experience. It is an experience of heaven on earth, communion with the Living God, a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. There are many modalities of sensory experience that are used to present this image of heaven; hearing and sight are among them, but one hears many other things besides just the plain words of Scripture in the context of our worship, and while one may see things that invoke certain Scriptural images (there is a distinct relationship between what one sees going on at the altar and the description of heavenly worship in the Apocalypse of St. John, for example), one rarely sees the words of Scripture in a service as such (unless it is one’s liturgical function to proclaim Scripture). Sensory experience as a way of knowing God has a long Christian tradition; I refer the reader to Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s study of the sense of smell in the late antique Christian East, Scenting Salvation, as a place to start on this.
  • None of this is to discount, devalue, displace, diminish, disobey, marginalize, or minimize Scripture. No, indeed; the point is honor Scripture in its proper place — to “hold fast to the traditions received from [the Apostles], whether by [their] word or [their] epistle” (2 Thess 2:15), and to hold the high view of the Church that we are to have, as witnessed to by Scripture — that the Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

As I said at the outset, my words — which sound an awful lot like a thousand other similar such things written by Orthodox Christians — aren’t going to resolve the long-held disagreements about this, so I’m not going to pretend they have any chance of doing so. The point is, what’s the positive thing that an Orthodox Christian can affirm so that we’re not just saying, “I don’t adhere to sola Scriptura“? Maybe ὅλη παράδοσις — “whole Tradition” (or “the whole of Holy Tradition”? Try saying that five times fast)? I guess it’s not found in Scripture in so many words, but it’s doing neither better nor worse than sola Scriptura on that front.

Let’s try that, then. I unabashedly adhere to ὅλη παράδοσις, Tradition in its fullness, and I believe that Scripture teaches it.

What does the term “educated class” actually mean?

In an exchange on Facebook yesterday where I outed myself as a godless commie pinko (I think that noise was Owen White blowing beer through his nose onto the library computer screen) because I think FOX is ridiculous in claiming that the Muppets are radical leftist propaganda, I mused that being part of the “educated class” (which, so we’re clear, I put in scare quotes and qualified by saying, “whatever that actually means”) seems to automatically place one to the left of most who publicly identify as “conservative”.

So what does the term “educated class” actually mean? About a year ago I was having a conversation with a friend about NPR as a source for news. I expressed appreciation for what seemed to be, on the whole, a lack of FOX News-style hyperbole; my friend said, “Well, it’s certainly the news outlet of choice for the educated class.” I’m sure that I had encountered the term “educated class” before, but not in a way struck me as being a discrete, identifiable category, and I’ve been chewing on it every so often over the past year.

Of course, in the past year, I’ve finished a Masters degree and completed doctoral coursework, so that makes me part of the so-called “educated class,” whatever that actually means, right…? I don’t know. Some initial poking into how the term actually gets used in public discourse turned up some not terribly conclusive references — it seems to be a term that neo-cons and moderates and “RINOs” use to pick cultural fights with each other more than anything. I’m half-tempted to see it as one of those terms like “moderate” where really it’s a label that allows for self-identification apart from distasteful extremes and is another way of saying “people like me”. It still seems, to me at least, that members of the “educated class” follow gut instinct as much as anybody else does, it’s just that we can back up our gut instinct with books you can’t find at Wal-Mart. Is that actually any better? I don’t know.

Since I’m not really sure whether or not to take it seriously, here is a half-serious/half-not look at what I think makes me part of the “educated class” (whatever that actually means):

  • I have multiple degrees and am still trying to get more.
  • I mostly hang out with people who have multiple degrees and/or are still working on more of them.
  • I am married to somebody with multiple degrees who is still working on more.
  • When I move (and remember I’m married to another academic), the single most expensive part of the move will be figuring out what to do with all of the books.
  • I belong to more academic societies than I will have degrees.
  • I assume that the people who write the books I read don’t make any money off of them.
  • I travel for conferences.
  • I actually attend conferences.
  • There are conferences for people in my field.
  • I have a “field”.
  • When I think of “conservatives” I think of people like David Gergen, Russell Kirk, and Rod Dreher. Names like Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney come to mind when I think of “angry and/or creepy white people”.
  • I get frustrated that what is presented as conservatism today seems to ignore its own intellectual history.
  • I think conservatism has an “intellectual history”.
  • I think there’s such a thing as “intellectual history”.
  • I think it’s weird that it’s spelled “conservatism” rather than “conservativism”.
  • I’d like to think that public discourse doesn’t have to be lowest common denominator in order to be effective.
  • I’ve read all of Ayn Rand’s major works (including some of her “non-fiction”) and I still think it’s not only intellectual garbage but bad literature.
  • I have to concede, with regret, that conservatives, at least in the last few decades, tend to produce lousy art.
  • I tend to agree with Paul Krugman that Newt Gingrich is a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like. I also think that tends to apply to Ayn Rand.
  • I think that “What do you read?” is a friendly, getting-to-know-you question. I’d love it if Katie Couric asked me that.
  • I’m weary of Republicans claiming that their willingness to eat their own is what separates them from the Democrats, when it is obvious to me that it isn’t true.
  • I’m aware that NPR isn’t free of bias but it’s nice to hear rational adults talking like rational adults, rather than watching either plastic people trying to buddy up to me over the anchor desk or angry white people yelling at me or each other about how a president who is to the right of Nixon on some points is a radical socialist.
  • I can tell you that Theodosius, not Constantine, made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
  • Even as an Orthodox Christian, I don’t think that science is a secular conspiracy theory, and as such I think science has implications and consequences for my behavior and choices — much as Christianity does.
  • I actually want my hypothetical future kids to learn languages other than English.
  • I actually believe there’s a connection between what academics do and what happens in the real world.
  • I don’t see being articulate (read: “being able to string a coherent sentence together”) and being authentic as diametrically opposed qualities. I’m a both/and kind of guy.
  • When I’m given the opportunity to donate a book to a children’s group, I instinctively grab a single-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings and hope that it inspires some kid somewhere to think, to believe, to wonder, and maybe to be interested in the stuff that made Tolkien want to write the story in the first place.
  • To think, to believe, and to wonder are the things I learned to do best as a little kid and they’re what I’ve tried to figure out how to make a living at doing ever since.

That’s all I can think of for now. Yeah, it’s kinda SWPL-ish, isn’t it? Maybe that’s inescapable. I’d be curious for anybody to come up with their own list.

New URL

By the way, this blog has a new URL: http://www.leitourgeia.com The old URL will continue to work, so no emergency, but update your bookmarks, blogrolls, etc. when you think about it.

A second hurdle cleared…

As chronicled somewhat after-the-fact, in November of 2010 I cleared the first of a handful of hurdles towards finishing graduate school — I passed my third semester review, which meant that I had finished my Masters degree.

For a number of reasons, I took an incomplete in a seminar that same semester. I’d planned on a paper for that seminar that had the severe discourtesy to show up in a major journal written by somebody else that same fall, which really threw me for a loop, and for a number of reasons the prof was largely unavailable (for good reasons, I should stress) for consultation on other possibilities. I sort of cobbled together some thoughts from the rubble, and showed them to the prof in March of this year as something of an abstract/outline/stream-of-consciousness, and he found them largely incomprehensible. When I tried to re-explain what I was shooting for, he had some more or less decent suggestions, but he didn’t exactly seem thrilled, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled either. By May I had completed all coursework requirements except for this seminar.

When I feel like I’m on shaky ground with my subject, my instinct is to show my work. So, taking some of the professor’s suggestions and trying to turn them into a paper, but not feeling totally confident it by any means, I showed my work. A lot. I turned in a rather long paper in June, and I still think it’s work that had a good point to make, but I got an e-mail from him a week later asking if it was a draft to be discussed or a final paper that needed a grade. The vibe I got from the question indicated to me that it would be in my best interest to say, Oh, it’s a draft, of course it’s a draft, yes, since is the last seminar paper I get to write I’d love to have feedback.

Thus it was in July that my instincts proved correct; he gave it back to me and said, in essence, I don’t know what the hell you thought you were writing, but try again, and good luck, because I don’t really know how you’re going to fix what you have.

I still think, as I said, that what I wrote was more reasonable than what he thought. However, I also have to acknowledge that I wrote a patristics paper for a political historian, and therefore it should be no real surprise that the political historian took one look at it and said, “Huh?” I’m absolutely certain it wasn’t a perfect patristics paper, but I’m positive it wasn’t the awful one he said it was — it just wasn’t a good enough one to really be able to transcend methodological boundaries.

Well, anyway, I kind of flailed about with what I wanted to do for a couple of months. Then I had a conversation with a different faculty member who revealed that she had been one of the reviewers for the article that had knocked the wind out my sails on my original topic, she said her feedback had been rather clumsily incorporated, and that there was lots wrong with the finished product. Suddenly I felt quite emboldened to return to the project the way I had originally conceived it, and once I got going on it, it went pretty quickly. The result was much leaner and tighter, and after a round of feedback on it with this second professor, I turned it in three weeks ago yesterday (Thursday).

Yesterday I got the paper back, and it was a much happier conversation than the one we’d had in July. My incomplete was changed to a grade by yesterday afternoon, and so now I’m officially done with PhD coursework. Next up, exams… which will be their own party to be sure, but the hurdles are getting cleared.

Reviewing some of my thoughts during this blog’s first year of existence (like the examples below) — well, I’ve come a long way, thank God.  I just turned 35 a couple of weeks ago, and It’s still even possible I might have a real job before I’m 40. (Assuming that higher education doesn’t completely collapse, but never mind that now.)

http://leitourgeia.com/2007/12/10/getting-a-late-start/

http://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/03/a-high-number-of-strong-applicants/

http://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/09/on-forgiveness-sunday-the-alleged-plurality-of-methods-by-which-one-may-relieve-a-feline-of-its-flesh-and-other-musings/

http://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/18/dr-liccione-my-prayeris-to-be-shown-a-way-out-of-the-box-im-in/

http://leitourgeia.com/2008/03/20/more-on-the-alleged-plurality-of-means-by-which-one-may-remove-flesh-from-a-feline/

http://leitourgeia.com/2008/04/25/a-parable/

http://leitourgeia.com/2008/07/28/that-unwelcome-guest-known-as-reality/


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