As has been our custom for the last seven years, New Year’s found me and Flesh of My Flesh in the company of our dear friends Benjamin and Paul for a long weekend of food and movies. We all started out in Bloomington at about the same time, and we all converted to Orthodox Christianity within a year of each other. During academic year ’05/’06 Benjamin and Paul were roommates, and for all intents and purposes there was something of a miniature commune between our two residences, with at least one shared meal virtually daily at either our place or theirs. When they both departed for broader horizons in summer of 2006 — Benjamin to take an adjunct voice teacher position at his alma mater in Cleveland, Paul to pursue different opportunities in New Jersey — we made a point of continuing to spend New Year’s together, and save for ’10/’11 when Megan was in Germany for the year (and therefore I was overseas visiting her for the New Year), we have done so every year since. ’06/’07 and ’07/’08 were in Cleveland, ’08/’09 was here in Bloomington, and then this time we all made the trek out to New Jersey, since Paul has always been good enough to come out to see us in past years. This year the menu was French food, largely inspired by Benjamin and Paul’s respective travels; the films included The King’s Speech (I’d seen it before; it’s good but I can’t say I found it life-changing or worthy of Best Picture) and The White Countess (excellent on every level, and I was left wondering why in the world I’d never heard of it before). I also had the pleasure of introducing Paul to the Steven Moffat/Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman Sherlock, and I have to say that I have yet to show anybody the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” who hasn’t both been glued to their chair for the rest and bugging me for the next two or three days about watching the other two episodes. This means I’ve seen “A Study in Pink” now about ten times, but that has yet to be a problem. I will have to write later about how Steven Moffat, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Matt Smith have gradually taken over such TV viewing habits as I have; suffice it to say for the time being that I’m not pleased that I will have to wait until May for “A Scandal in Belgravia” and God-only-knows-when for Series 7 of Doctor Who.
A visit to Paul’s current parish Sunday morning was interesting for a number of reasons. Among them was the choir situation; they appear to be quite blessed with a volunteer choir that can pretty much sing whatever the director puts in front of them, and the director himself is a very capable conductor. He’s given them all very thick binders with multiple options for everything, and he apparently chooses everything on the fly during the service based on whom he happens to have that particular morning. He’s not shy about giving them tougher stuff, either, or about making some, uh, unorthodox musical choices, like Sarum chant and William Byrd.
We had, to say the least, a lively conversation following the Divine Liturgy, prompted in no small part by the director’s mention of the recent publication of the Suchy-Pilalis first Nativity Canon. He brought it up, mentioned that he saw that it was a new melody composed using Byzantine principles for the Lash translation, and I was about to say, “Yes, it’s great work that is one of a few things like that pointing the way forward” when he surprised me with his adamant insistence that it was nonsense. He asserted rather bluntly that composing for English texts using Byzantine compositional principles is no better than keeping an existing melody, whiting out the Greek, and shoehorning in the English. He said over and over again that you absolutely cannot do that — I think he may have even called it “unconscionable” that anybody would think that it’s an acceptable approach. His stance was that Byzantine compositional principles assume an inflected language with particular stress patterns for particular kinds of cadences, and that English doesn’t work that way, so it’s just another way of shoehorning English texts into a context they were never meant to fit. Plus, he said, even if you recompose for English, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re talking about a musical idiom that has zero cultural resonance whatever for the native English speaker, and thus utterly fails in terms of mission. In all fairness, he didn’t really single out Byzantine chant; he seemed to be suggesting that virtually all received forms of Orthodox liturgical music need to be consigned to the dustheap for purposes of English. If they’re going to survive at all, he said, they need to be adapted “organically” for purposes of a culturally American, English-language context, but even when pressed it seemed unclear exactly what he had in mind.
I found myself even more perplexed when it came to what he saw as a better alternative. He was as unsympathetic to the idea of using existing American vernacular musical idioms as a starting point as he was to anything else; “You’re just arbitrarily historicizing something else that way,” was his response. He made it clear that he wasn’t suggesting that we look to Eminem for a example of what “the music of the people” might sound like, but exactly what he thought we should be looking to was never articulated precisely.
He also had unmitigated wrath for anybody who might preserve any kind of Jacobean-style English, arguing that the style has the exact opposite effect from what it was intended to have. Thees and thous were supposed to be familiar, he said, and we now use them to distance ourselves from God and place him higher than ourselves rather than to address him with intimacy. Megan tried to express some appreciation for the style and he would have none of it; “You want Christ’s crucifixion to be meaningless just so you can have your thees and thous!” he told her. (A friend of his started to intervene at this point, only to have him yell, “WE’RE NOT ARGUING!”)
Now, lest I be misleading, I should say that while I intensely disagree with this gentleman on a number of points, he was — believe it or not — good-natured and friendly throughout the conversation, and very well-informed on the whole. There were a couple of things he said where I’m not sure where he’s getting his information, but it’s safe to say that our disagreements are generally informed disagreements, and those are the kind I’d rather have with people.
Megan also asked him, “Why do we need to reinvent the wheel when the wheels we have have done pretty well in every other situation for at least the last 1500 years?” His answer? “Good question. Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.”
Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.
Matthew Namee’s recent piece over at SOCHA, “Toward and American Orthodox historical narrative”, looks to the concept of “encounter” as a way of talking about American Orthodox history — “Encounter between Orthodoxy and the West; encounter between long-isolated Orthodox ethnic groups; and encounter between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.” He expands on the notion of the encounter with the West using Orthodox youth as an example:
From the beginning, American Orthodoxy has struggled to retain its young people. It didn’t help that, for decades (and in some churches, up to the present) Orthodoxy was treated as more of a cultural artifact than a living faith. Old languages were preserved, and English was resisted, and most young people didn’t care about the misguided justifications for using only Greek or Slavonic or Arabic or what have you. Who wants to worship in a language they can’t understand? And no matter how beautiful a language is, if the people can’t understand it, it has failed in its fundamental purpose: to communicate meaning.
He wraps up the “encounter with the West” idea thus:
We encountered the West, and we didn’t know what in the heck to do with it. We weren’t prepared. We flailed about, dancing with the Anglicans, wallowing in our nominalism, ordaining every male American convert who expressed the faintest interest in the priesthood. All too often, we have lacked a vision for our mission in America, and even our identity as the Apostolic Church — the Church. Sentimentalism, ethnic pride, a desire for acceptance, a pleasant feeling of surprise when we are accepted — these things all can be good, and they can have their place. But they can also be our downfall.
The “encounter with the West” notion seems to agree with this New Jersey choir director that “those wheels don’t travel on our roads”. What we had doesn’t work here, and the more we try to make it work here, the more it underscores how badly it doesn’t work here. From a musical point of view this problematizes the whole notion of a “received tradition”; you can’t speak of a “received tradition” when nobody’s receiving it. This appears to be what the New Jersey choir director is getting at: reception isn’t happening, and the more you try to make the existing idioms get along with our language and culture, the more it emphasizes that it can’t be done.
As far as Matthew Namee’s piece goes — I like a lot of what he has to say, and I think what he has to say about the dangers we’ve set up for ourselves with convert clergy being ordained too lightly and too quickly is probably exactly right. Still, there are some over-generalizations that bother me. The language issue — and I’m not even going to go near the bit about the “fundamental purpose” of language, because that’s a significantly complicated matter — certainly gets its exercise in almost any conversation about this stuff, but the flipside is the phenomenon I’ve seen of people who’ve grown up in parishes where a non-vernacular liturgical language is preserved and for whom hearing the services in English is a cheapening experience. It’s great that it’s in English, it’s great that I can understand this or that part of the service, they say, but… something’s wrong. It sounds like English, but it doesn’t sound like church. What I have come to understand from what I’ve experienced in non-English parishes is that, for a significant portion of cradles, it matters that the language they hear in church is the language in which they remember hearing their grandmother pray. It matters because liturgy builds, maintains, and transmits religious identity, and to the extent that liturgy feels like a “family affair” in a broad and a narrow sense of the term, it’s going to be difficult for such people to separate their earthly family from their church family. I recently met an older Greek-American who lives here in Bloomington and was part of what became All Saints in the early days but who declined to continue to be part of it when the community incorporated under the Antiochians. He said, rather bluntly, “Forgive my ethno-centrism, but I just can’t do it. What a Greek person gets out of going to a Greek church is very personal, and it’s not something you can just transplant or translate.” A somewhat more flippant Greek-American friend of mine recently put it, “So often, you just want to say, ‘American Orthodoxy — you’re doing it wrong.’”
But let’s be honest — that’s what’s at the core of King James-style English, too. Even we as English speakers want church to sound like church. That’s the Lord’s Prayer the way we were taught it as kids — once again, the way we we remember hearing our grandmother pray. And the New Jersey choir director is right, sometimes that means the meaning has shifted — take the Paschal greeting the way it’s typically rendered into English: “Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!” And we hear things about how that means that Christ is risen now, today, that it’s an ongoing reality — but that’s not actually what “is risen” means. “Christ is risen” is an archaic way of saying what we would now express in English as “Christ has risen”. It’s a perfect tense — think the Christmas carol “Joy to the world” — “The Lord is come“. It’s still the way you do perfect tenses in German — “Christus ist auferstanden!” — but in English it’s an archaicism, and one we don’t readily grasp as being so. If you translate Χριστὸς ἀνέστη literally, it’s something like “Christ rose”; it’s an aorist tense, past time and simple aspect — the narrative past tense, if you like, which establishes it as a once-and-for-all historical event, which is something very different from understanding “Christ is risen” as being in the present tense. But if we started saying “Christ arose!” on Easter, I’m guessing it really wouldn’t work for most people.
If archaic language is keeping youth out, but English isn’t necessarily solving the problem, then there is more of an issue here, and maybe Namee gets more to the point when he says that Orthodox Christianity “didn’t know what the heck to do” with the West.
Here’s what I think is the hard reality: Orthodox Christianity in the United States, at least as presented up to this point, is a solution looking for a problem.
I don’t think I’m going too far when I say that Americans, by and large, have no interest in being part of Holy Russia, have no interest in re-establishing the Roman Empire, and have no real interest in Russian or Greek cultures except when they can get good poppyseed rolls or have a gyros while watching some kids re-enact Zorba’s dance. Yes, fine, we all know that. Americans want to be Americans.
But you know what? From what I’ve seen, I don’t think Americans, for the most part, have any particular interest in being part of “the one true Church” either. America, like it or lump it, is culturally Protestant, and as soon as you start using that kind of language, you’re already making assumptions that were rejected by our forebears centuries ago. Most Americans are not looking for a “more authentic” liturgical experience; most Americans are not looking for anything “traditional” or that constitutes a “deeper Christian spirituality”, or whatever the other buzzwords are that we all like to use. I have seen with my own eyes what can happen when certain kinds of American Protestants try to speak in that language, and the result is something like theatre for the deaf. Americans, at least some of them, can be well aware of the consequences when those elements of Christianity with even the vaguest of historical roots are traded for a mess of pottage, and in a way this can be seen as a manifestation of the same problem as language — church seems too distinct from your everyday life, which might be a problem, but in updating, it loses an important distinction from everyday life, and thus there ceases to be a compelling reason to go. But, by and large, these are pretty rarefied problems from the standpoint of most Americans trying to figure out where they might go to church on Sunday morning. Even the apparent cultural impulse in which Orthodox Christianity subsists of gilding and ornamenting the things you love and think are important falls totally flat in a culture that thinks you need to strip the things you care about down to bare essentials. As marketed and described, at least, Orthodox Christianity, frankly, is just in the wrong key for American culture, no matter what melody you try to write in that key. It may very well be what America needs, but that’s something completely different.
Orthodox Christianity, in order to succeed in any kind of an American mission, doesn’t first and foremost need to find a musical idiom that will have cultural resonance, it doesn’t first and foremost need to be in English, and it doesn’t first and foremost need a simpler liturgy or reduced vestments or married bishops or anything like this. I have a lot more faith in what has been passed down than that — those things have survived this long under wars and occupation and servitude and so on, and I’m not convinced that America is a worse threat than any of those issues. Does Orthodox Christianity need to preach the Gospel, Christ crucified? Yes, but it’s going to be painfully obvious in doing so that we’re not the only ones who are, and being “the one true Church” isn’t going to sufficiently elevate us over the competing ambient noise, I don’t think.
What Orthodox Christianity needs to do is actually have a way of addressing real problems real people have rather than thinking that Joe Average is going to care about Arianism or Iconoclasm. I think I’m on safe ground in saying that most people don’t think they have a “true Church” problem. Most people don’t think they have a liturgy problem or a filioque problem. Most people these days are just trying to get through the day with some amount of sanity and dignity and without going broke, and when they go to church they want to feel like they’re getting comfort of some kind. Solace. Some sense of belonging, of acceptance of and respite from their daily struggle the rest of the week. Some sense that God’s in control even if they’re not.
How does Orthodox Christianity do this? I don’t know. Our services don’t really do catharsis, and I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves or anybody else well to try. I don’t think we do it via self-conscious “accessibility” efforts; I could say something really obvious and pithy like, we have to do it by loving other people, and while that’s true, what does that look like so that, as C. S. Lewis might have put it, in aiming for it, the ecclesial, liturgical, and spiritual issues get thrown in? Certainly organizations like IOCC and OCMC already perform valuable social services and missions and so on, but the narrative of “Orthodoxy doesn’t do those things” already exists, rightly or wrongly, and efforts in those areas are seen as confirming their scarcity rather than speaking to their abundance or efficacy.
By the way, what I’m not arguing here is that we somehow need to come up with a “strategy”. I’m actually trying to say that the strategies we’ve come up with up to this point aren’t actually accomplishing what we think they should be. Some of you may recall that over a year ago, I was trying to get an Orthodox IU alumni association going. Well, we put together a mailing list of 500 people, and somebody got involved who himself had a lot of experience at what he called the “science” of marketing and fundraising. He gave a lot of specific advice about what the mailing should and should not do and look like, and what actually went out in the mail, even though it bore my signature, was more based on his concept than mine. In any event, he believed very strongly that what we sent out should have really grabbed a lot of attention and gotten a lot of people involved. It was a well-strategized effort, to say the least — and there was absolutely zero response. Zero. The strategy accomplished nothing. Why? Again, because we were a solution looking for a problem — for a good chunk of the people we were trying to reach, there would be no association of Orthodoxy with their time at IU because there was no church here in those days. There would be no reason for them to be sold on an Orthodox alumni association if they were already members of the regular alumni association and didn’t have any particular already-established goodwill towards the parish here. Strategies do nothing if you aren’t actually addressing an issue somebody has, unless you’re Steve Jobs, in which case you are magically able to convince people they need something they’ve never heard of before. Orthodoxy in this country has not had a lot of luck being Steve Jobs, although the reason why he was so good at it was because the designs produced under his name were useful and elegant and beautiful. We haven’t yet convinced ourselves that we have the resources to do all three of those things the way they would actually need to be done.
To come back to liturgy and music — I myself do not play to English exceptionalism. English is important, yes, sure, fine, but catering to it to the extent of throwing out large chunks of historical practice with the justification that we have to do it because it’s English can hardly be priority zero. (I’ve already said what I think about the textuality of the liturgy.) I don’t hear anybody arguing that icons need to look more like Norman Rockwell painted them. I think the wheels we have do travel on our roads — I think the simple fact is that we aren’t building the wheels well enough for the most part. If we’d actually build them as designed with skill and attention to quality, they’d work just fine. We need to do what we do and what makes us distinctive as well as we possibly can, not decide for everybody else that they won’t like it anyway. What form of music will play in Peoria is, honestly, a side issue. If the Orthodox Church can actually reach an average person in Peoria who is struggling with just getting through the day, love that person unconditionally, and proclaim the Gospel to that average person in a way that sticks, then that person isn’t going to care that the music is Byzantine chant — rather, he or she will associate that music with the difference that is made in his/her life. (That’s something I have seen, I should hasten to add.) If we don’t take our own practices seriously enough to do them well and with care, then such a hypothetical person will sense that we don’t care about them, and he/she won’t care about them either.
Anyway — all of that is to say, Orthodoxy in America as a solution looking for a problem. Discuss.