Posts Tagged 'liturgy and life'

Review: Garments of Salvation: Orthodox Christian Liturgical Vesture by Krista M. West

Kh. Krista West has made a name for herself as a wonderful tailor of Orthodox church vestments. She does lovely work; I bought an exorason from her three years ago to replace the cheap, ill-fitting, mass-produced cassock that I originally got when I was tonsured as a reader, and it is high-quality. I have heard people gripe about her work being supposedly “the exact same thing you can get through one of the ecclesiastical suppliers, just for three times the cost”, but I know the difference, and that’s just not true. If one follows the principle that the most cost-effective way of doing anything is to do it right the first time, then Kh. Krista’s work is definitely worth it. Yes, I may pay four times for an exorason from her what I paid for one from one of the supply houses, but I expect one of her garments to last me a lifetime if I take care of it properly, as opposed to replacing it every few years.

Kh. Krista has done a lot of work, through media efforts like The Opinionated Tailor, to try to inform laypeople about the importance of, not just vestments, but good vestments. She’s a practitioner of a liturgical craft who, to the best of her ability, tries to be as informed about her craft as she can be, and also an evangelist through that craft, and through education about that craft. This is something I truly respect. As somebody with similar objectives in the craft I work in, I find it intriguing, but also unfortunate, that the people who work seriously with the liturgical crafts of Orthodox Christianity are put in a position of having to be the best advocates for those crafts, rather than the leadership of the Church itself. Sometimes it can very much seem like lay and clerical leadership tries very hard to downplay advocacy for liturgical crafts, either out what is called “pastoral necessity” or a desire to “not reify worship” or simply from a lack of resources making it necessary to speak of them from a spiritual, rather than practical, standpoint. I’ve seen this with music, I’ve seen it with architecture, I’ve seen it with vestments. Orthodox Arts Journal I think is a good venue for discussion of a lot of these things, and I’d love to see Kh. Krista write a piece for them. Architect Andrew Gould also has pulled together his own workshop/cooperative for liturgical crafts, and vestments are among what his collaborators are producing. My hope here is that “more is more”, and that this points to more of quality being produced by all involved, in all disciplines.

So, the most recent fruit of Kh. Krista’s efforts is a book — Garments of Salvation: Orthodox Christian Liturgical Vesture, published this year by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, and they were kind enough to send me a review copy.

I’ll talk about the book in a moment. Before I do so, however, I need to talk about how I approach reviews for this blog. As a blogger, I really try to review things first and foremost from an inherently friendly, constructive, and appreciative perspective. This isn’t to say I try to make every review an exercise in sending everybody off with a head pat and a “Good try!” at the very least, but I also don’t want to be a nitpicky critic who tears things down because he enjoys tearing things down, because I don’t enjoy tearing things down. I should also say that this is different from my persona as a writer of academic book reviews for scholarly journals, where it is my job to be critical and merciless where it is necessary (and I have most certainly done that when I have had to). Bottom line, I don’t like to be jerk if I don’t have to be, and even when I have to be, I try to not be any bigger of one than is necessary.

However, even within the rubric of “not being a bigger jerk than I have to be”, I still have to report fairly and honestly on things I review for this blog. If something has problems, I have to be up front about what those problems are — but I will endeavor to be as constructive in my discussion of those problems as I can manage. I don’t want to be in the business of hatchet jobs; I want to be helpful, not obnoxious.

So, all of this is is a very long-winded prelude to saying that there are severe problems with Kh. Krista’s book that can’t be sugar-coated, and this is going to be a negative review (one that I really don’t want to write). My hope is that it can be a constructive review, however, because there is a lot here that deserves a hearing; there’s just a long way to go yet before it gets there.

First off, this is a great topic. Vestments are, along with iconography and architecture, one of the most striking visual elements of an Orthodox service. Even if one is in a storefront church with two mounted print icons on easels at the front, there’s going to be a fully-vested priest (probably). The iconography of the priesthood that the vestments carry will at least go with with the person who himself stands as the icon of Christ at the altar, even if other iconography might be lacking. Kh. Krista seeks to cover a lot of ground with this topic, too, starting off with a Prologue that summarizes her own journey from recent convert to experienced vestment maker, with a discussion of Photios Kontoglou’s writings on Byzantine aesthetics as providing a basis for her understanding of the principles at work. The first chapter outlines the theological import of vestments in terms of incarnational theology, the sanctification of matter, and the heavenly beauty of the Church; the second chapter traces the historical development of garments from antiquity through late medieval Byzantium; the third chapter discusses in detail present-day use and practice; the fourth chapter looks at church furnishings or “paraments”; the fifth chapter is a discussion of the Byzantine perception of color and how that applies to the colors of vestments used throughout the liturgical year; the sixth chapter is about the history of textiles used for Orthodox liturgical vestments. There is then an Afterword that is something of a manifesto about how Orthodox Christians in this country need to approach the vestment tradition, and then appendices on the practical care of vestments, the prayers of vesting, and a glossary of terms.

Secondly, this is a great topic being tackled by somebody who clearly has a lot to say about it and has gone to great lengths to understand it from the inside out. As the above outline hopefully makes clear, Kh. Krista speaks about vestments from a number of different vantage points; the history of their development, the materials they’re made from, how rubrics in the service books about color assume a different perspective on color than our modern view, how they work in conjunction with other liturgical furnishings, how the textiles are made, and so on. These are all worthy things for Orthodox Christians to think about, whether they might be wearing them, making them, or simply looking at them being worn. What do these colorful garments mean, where do they come from, and why do our clergy wear them?

Unfortunately, this book is hampered by a lack of an obvious intended audience, which subsequently keeps the book from having sufficiently specific focus or a clear structure. It is further hampered — and this, I think, is the core problem — by an apparent lack of proofreading or outside readership at the pre-publication stage, which is made evident in some obvious factual errors and an approach to citations that is at once overdone to the point of being distracting, but also not as informative as one would want. To put it another way: this is a book that needs to decide whether it is primarily for clergy and interested laypeople, or if it is a more academically-shaded work (but perhaps still at the popular level). Right now it is trying to be both, but it manages to be neither.

Let’s start with the factual errors: the most obvious, and therefore the most troubling, are in the chapter on historical developments. Page 60, for example, tells the reader the following:

At the Council of Laodicea in Phyrgia [sic], at the end of the fourth century (AD 342-380), minor orders were forbidden to use the orarion, which demonstrates that the garment was already well established as an identifying mark of the clergy by that time.xxii In Canon 23, St John Chrysostom provides the first extant mention of the sticharion as a purely liturgical garment (although he refers to it as a “chitoniskos” which is linguistically related to “chiton,” the ancient Greek word for tunic).xiii [sic]

First of all, there’s the typo on Phrygia, but then there’s the reference to the Council being “at the end of the fourth century” with the years given as 342-380. 342-380 cannot be considered “the end of the fourth century”, but then Laodicea was actually in 363-64 to begin with, which also can’t be considered “the end of the fourth century”. And while she’s right that Canon 23 speaks of the orarion, to attribute Canon 23 of Laodicea to Chrysostom is a head-scratcher, since he wasn’t there and would have been all of 16 years old when it took place. To Kh. Krista’s credit, her footnotes help one track down the error — although, again, a typo hinders the effort somewhat; note that we go from citation xxii to citation xiii. Since the next citation is numbered as xxiv, I assume she means to give the notes in sequence, so looking at citation xxiii, she cites page 37 of Archimandrite Chrysostomos’ Orthodox Liturgical Dress, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press in 1981. Page 37 of this book does indeed talk about the orarion and Chrysostom’s mention of it: “The first use of the sticharion as a purely liturgical garment is recorded in the writing of Saint John Chrysostom. Chrysostom describes a garment which in every respect is the sticharion, but he uses the word chitoniskos to identify it.” The author provides a footnote; it’s a Patrologia Graeca reference, and looking it up, it’s from chapter 6 of Chrysostom’s Homily on Matthew 26:26-28, not the acts of the Council of Laodicea. Finally, as a minor point, describing chitoniskos as “linguistically related” to chiton is too imprecise of a statement to be at all informative. “chitoniskos from chiton” would be sufficient here.

Another factual problem is Figure 10 on page 66 (below).

west page 66 figure 10

This is a mosaic she refers to as “[a] mosaic from Sant’Appolinare in Classe depicting courtiers wearing the pallium.” The trouble is, it isn’t; it’s the mosaic of Justinian from San Vitale in Ravenna, one of the most identifiable mosaics from Late Antiquity:

Again, to her credit, her footnotes help track down the problem. Kh. Krista cites Plate 27 of Sacred Fortress by Otto Von Simon [sic, actually Von Simson], which is this image:

von simson plate 27

This is, in fact, Sant’Apollinare in Classe, but it’s not the same image as what she shows. I grant that they are similar enough in the broad strokes that it’s easy to see how the error might happen, but this is still a major misidentification. It’s particularly unfortunate because later in the book Kh. Krista mentions seeing San Vitale in person; it’s clear she knows the difference, but this mistake made it into the manuscript and through the editorial process regardless.

The book’s citation system is helpful in cases like this, but it is also at once overdone and underdone. Kh. Krista, for some reason, uses both endnotes and footnotes, inserting numbered footnotes for additional commentary and Roman numeral endnotes for source citations. I’m not sure I understand what this accomplishes, and it’s certainly not a standard approach. Better to do all endnotes or footnotes, or, if one must separate source citations from comments, to use parenthetical citations. The problem isn’t just how she does it but also when, however; in the third chapter, she speaks extensively of practical matters concerning vestments — how they are made, what they look like, who wears them, and when — but cites almost nothing in terms of sources of this information, and this is particularly concerning when she asserts that this is the oldest tradition or that one is not in keeping with tradition.

To be clear, Kh. Krista is forthcoming about her own limitations in the acknowledgments and the Prologue; she describes herself as “just a tailor… I do not have any letters after my name and I certainly am not a scholar” (p. 16). Well, it is clear from the scope and the effort put into this book that she is more than “just a tailor”. At the same time, this is a big project with an expansive scope, and details such as those I’ve described are going to matter. Another point where the boundaries of her abilities don’t help her is with non-English sources; she is, again, up front about her limitations where this is concerned, but it means she isn’t able to engage things that should directly impact some of what she discusses. There is, for example, her discussion of the use of the exorason by cantors:

The outer cassock, known as the “exorason” in Greek or “ryasa” in Russian, is the more voluminous form of the cassock and is worn over the inner cassock in semi-formal, formal, and liturgical settings. Of elegant design, the exorason features the same front and back construction as the zostikon, but instead of angled fronts a triangular-shaped section is sewn to each front and the particular cut of this piece allows the fronts of the garment to overlap along the center without any closure, save for the hook-and-eye closure at the mandarin collar (whereas the zostikon has multiple collar variations, the exorason invariably features a mandarin collar). These front edge panels are fully lined so that, when they fall open as the wearer walks, the back side of the piece is as beautiful and finished as the front side. The garment employs the same general sleeve panel arrangement as the zostikon, but instead of a tailored sleeve-and-gusset combination it has a very large kimono sleeve sewn to a side panel which has eight-inch vents at the hem to allow greater freedom of movement while walking.The width of the sleeves is an indication of rank: chanter’s width sleeves are approximately thirty-six inches in circumference, the deacon’s and presbyter’s are forty-eight inches, and the bishop’s width is sixty inches. The sleeves have a six-inch deep lining that is made from the same fabric used for the lining of the front edge panels. The sleeves are worn long, typically two to three inches longer than inner cassock sleeves and thus covering the hands entirely when the wearer stands with his hands at his side. [...]

In the Greek tradition the exorason is worn for services by chanters and sextons (liturgical assistants) with the narrowest-width sleeves and with no inner cassock underneath… Orthodox faithful in North America are sometimes puzzled by this liturgical use of the exorason by members of the laity, particularly when it is worn by women chanters. In this regard it is helpful to note that the narrow-sleeved version of the exorason is essentially the traditional Greek Orthodox Christian version of a choir robe. In Greece the chanter’s exorason is often made distinctive by the placement of galloon or colored, decorative banding upon the collar. (pp.114-116, emphasis mine)

This is certainly descriptive of some customs regarding the cantor’s use of the exorason; however, something that needs to be addressed here is the instruction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that the psaltis‘ cassock is to be indistinguishable from that of the priest, and not made distinct by collars or sleeve width, precisely because the cantor is part of the clerical order and not something separate. Kh. Krista also does not mention in her historical discussion the distinctive vestments worn by the psaltes and domestikoi previous to the fall of Constantinople (and colorfully recreated by the Romeiko Ensemble).

There are three more problems I’ll mention briefly; there is a historiographical problem, in that her historical treatment (particularly of textiles in chapter 6) does not adequately acknowledge periodization. Does the rich textile industry she describe persist from late antiquity until the Latin Empire in 1204? How, then, to make sense of Liutprand of Cremona, who writes during his visit to Constantinople in the middle of the 10th century that the robes are “old, foul smelling, and discolored by age”? Periodization is always arbitrary, to be sure, but it will be helpful here to keep from misleading. There is also a bibliographic problem, in that even in English language literature, there is much missing from her citations that would help her discussion. One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about how the Byzantine conception of color is very different from the modern understanding of the spectrum, and the work of Liz James here would be incredibly useful — notably, Light and Colour in Byzantine Art (Clarendon Press, 1996), as well as her more recent article “Colour and Meaning in Byzantium” (Journal of Early Christian Studies 11.2, Summer 2003, pp223-33). Mark Bradley’s Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2011) would also probably be a worthwhile reference.

Finally, there’s a theoretical problem, and it’s one that troubles everybody who would be a practitioner of traditional Orthodox liturgical crafts in this country; p.79-80 avers that “[t]he study of vestment construction… must be based upon the traditional apprentice and master model in which one desiring to learn the craft of vestments must study with a master tailor for a period of several years.” And yet, what Kh. Krista tells the reader of her own journey to being a master tailor she tells in largely the language of an autodidact. How do we reconcile this? I don’t know. It is certainly the reality of being an Orthodox Christian in this country that easy access to the sources for this kind of knowledge is not readily available — as I’ve recounted here before, the closest Byzantine chant teacher to where I live is five hours away, and I ultimately found it more practical to go to Greece for a summer and find somebody there.

All of this said — and I need to stress this, since I’ve spent around 2000 words talking about the problems — there is a lot here that’s good, it’s just a question of getting clear on the audience and reworking it accordingly. The good parts here are disjunct; her foregrounding of Photios Kontoglou’s aesthetic writings is really nice, for example, but it’s not threaded through the entire book sufficiently to feel like a framework. Besides that, it feels like there are pieces of at least three books here; a historical treatment, a description of present day practice, and a call-to-arms about what Orthodox Tradition means in the United States. These parts can be synthesized into an organic whole, but it’s not there yet.

Right now, the problem with citations aside, the chapter where she talks about present-day practice is her surest footing, and is what I would look to as the centerpiece of any revision. Perhaps the book is really for an audience that doesn’t need citations, just a list of books at the end titled “Additional Reading”, in which case the history chapter really could get away with being a summarized version of its present form that’s a few pages long. Or, maybe it really is a more scholarly treatment, in which case the third chapter is still a great anchor, it just needs to be clearer where she’s getting her information. In either case, once the focus is figured out, then the long block quotes from secondary literature need to be summarized rather than quoted, the citation system needs to be straightened out, the errors need to be fixed, and I would also make a strong plea for at least some color plates.

I’d like to close this review by saying that I think Kh. Krista has probably made about as honest of an effort as somebody in her position could possibly make on the first draft of a project like this. Errors happen, focus gets lost, chapters get away from people — even for the most celebrated of scholars! Unfortunately, much of the apparatus that used to be standard for publishers in terms of getting books to the next level after the first draft — outside readers, copy editing, fact checking, etc. — is, so people at my own lowly level are told when we attend publishing workshops, cost-prohibitive for all but the most financially secure of presses. It is unlikely that even a seasoned academic will be able to successfully edit and evaluate their own book without mistakes creeping through, so as far as I’m concerned, none of this really reflects badly on Kh. Krista, the “just a tailor” who is clearly more than “just a tailor”. My sincere hope, however, is that this feedback will help spur discussion between the author and the publisher on how to make the second edition the excellent book that it I have no doubt that it can be.

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Book review: The Typikon Decoded by Archimandrite Job Getcha

French is, truthfully, not the hardest research language in the world to learn for an Anglophone, but there can be other issues of access that a translation put out by an Anglophone publisher can help minimize — like, well, access. For example, I don’t really think I would have too much of a problem with the French in Archimandrite Job Getcha’s Le typikon décrypté: manuel de liturgie byzantine (Paris: Cerf, 2009), but a quick consultation of WorldCat tells me that, were I to try to get it via interlibrary loan, my home library would have all of three options in the entire world from which they could try to acquire it. Were I to try to buy it, it would be probably close to $70 once all shipping charges and currency conversions had taken place. By contrast, even if I don’t have a problem with the French, getting Paul Meyendorff’s translation, The Typikon Decoded: An explanation of Byzantine liturgical practice (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), for $23 and free shipping is just a lot easier all around. That may not be the most scholarly attitude in the world, but I’m over it.

I will admit that I am first and foremost a bit befuddled by the title of this book. I assume it is intended to evoke Schmemann, who in Introduction to Liturgical Theology criticized the modern implementation of liturgical rubrics, arguing that liturgical taxis

was fettered and became the private possession of the typikonshckiki precisely because the ecclesiological key to its understanding and acceptance had been lost and forgotten. It is only necessary to read over the “rubrics” and prescriptions with new eyes, and to meditate on the structure of the Ordo, in order to understand that its major significance lies in its presentation of worship as the service of the new people of God… [E]verything that is important and basic in the Ordo is a Byzantine “transposition” of the original meaning of worship as the corporate act and “fulfillment” of the Church. (pp.218-19)

In other words, Schmemann is saying, the Typikon is best understood as a descriptive document of how the Church worships, not a prescriptive document of how churches should worship. I’m not here to argue or side with Schmemann; my point is simply that the title appears to be referencing this critique and suggesting that the author has taken Schmemann’s call-to-arms as his mission. The preface suggests something of this approach in talking about about how the Typikon, “…far from being merely a collection of dry and legalistic rules, is in fact a summary of two millennia of the Church’s experience… It is living Tradition and the foundation of Orthodox spiritual life” (p.7). Despite comments like that, Schmemann’s manifesto doesn’t really seem to be the practical trajectory of the book, however — which, I should hasten to say, is fine, because there are lots of other merits that make the book worthwhile, but perhaps a title less laden with baggage would have been more to the point.

So, what is the book doing? The first chapter is a very nice introduction to liturgical books used in the Byzantine rite; he uses Velkovska’s chapter “Byzantine liturgical books” in Liturgical Press’ Handbook for Liturgical Studies (1997) as a starting place, which has been a standard reference (to say nothing of the only real resource for Anglophone scholars available) up till now, but he’s able to bring a number of points up to date, which is most appreciated. It’s an excellent summary of what the different books are and the historical issues surrounding them. Following that discussion, the second chapter outlines the services of the Hours, the services celebrated daily apart from the Divine Liturgy — the Midnight office, Orthros, the Hours themselves (First, Third, Sixth, Ninth, the “Intermediary” Hours, Typika), Vespers, and Compline. Again, Archimandrite Job does a lovely job giving an introductory explanation of what the individual offices are and a brief account of where they come from.

The third, fourth, and fifth chapters are largely matters of application, dealing with the Typikon is applied for services governed by the Menaion, that is to say the observances tied to fixed calendar dates, then the Triodion, the observances leading up to Great Lent and going up through Holy Week, and finally the Pentecostarion, the services throughout Paschaltide, ending with the Feast of All Saints on the Sunday after Pentecost. As with the first couple of chapters, there are brief, useful summaries of historical matters throughout.

The Typikon Decoded is quite useful as an introductory treatment of Byzantine liturgical issues; one gets a sense of the various historical poles at work — city and monastery, Jerusalem and Constantinople, Studite vs. Sabaite, contemporary Greek practice vs. contemporary Slavic practice, etc. — and how these factors are synthesized over time. In conjunction with something like Robert Taft’s The Byzantine rite: a short history, a similarly accessible treatment of some of these issues, albeit from a bit of a different angle, Archimandrite Job’s book could serve as an excellent initial reference point. One also gets a picture of the foundational scholarship that is still yet to be done for Byzantine liturgy; critical editions of the liturgical books, for example. This is a baton that somebody needs to pick up and run with; there’s a lifetime’s worth of work out there for the textual scholar interested in Byzantine liturgy (and, it should be noted, Archimandrite Job is hardly the first person to try to encourage some reader somewhere to take it on).

Some caveats must be noted, however. Other reviewers have already noted the near-total absence of Greek language liturgical scholarship by important figures such as Gregorios Stathis; besides that oversight, with the exception of a small handful of significant references — the aforementioned Velkovska, for example, and Peter Jeffery’s work on the Georgian recensions of the Jerusalem liturgical books in relation to the Oktoechos — Archimandrite Job effectively treats Anglophone scholarship as so much chopped liver. It seems very odd to this reviewer, for example, in a discussion of the state of the question of psalmody in the Cathedral Rite of Hagia Sophia, to ignore Alexander Lingas’ studies of the Great Church’s Vespers and Matins services. Granted that the Matins study remains unpublished as a book (“yet”, I am assured), but the dissertation is readily available as a PDF with a simple Google search. In Archimandrite Job’s treatment of the historical circumstances surrounding Akathistos Saturday during Great Lent in particular, his representation of the current state of the discussion was very surprising, omitting entirely the recent work of Leena Peltomaa and Vasiliki Limberis. That said, the other side of this problem is that the book is a great bibliographic reference for the Anglophone scholar for non-Anglophone research, particularly French and — perhaps more important — Russian. As much as we English speakers may have no excuse when it comes to French (and vice-versa), many of us still make excuses where Russian is concerned (myself included!), and The Typikon Decoded is an excellent reference with respect to that particular language barrier.

Other caveats are more cosmetic; I know we’re not supposed to talk about copyediting issues in book reviews, but persistent errors become distracting. Meyendorff universally chooses the verb “incense” rather than “cense” to describe the ritual action of swinging a smoking thurible, and while the dictionary tells me that’s a perfectly acceptable option, I can’t help but instinctively feel, when I read a phrase like “The priest incenses the entire congregation”, that I’m reading about a cleric giving a particularly bad homily rather than filling the room with aromatic smoke. There’s also the matter of the page header for the fifth chapter giving the chapter title as “The Services of the Pentecostarian” (as opposed to “Pentecostarion”) on every page.

Still, I should stress that these issues are cosmetic rather than substantive. In terms of substance, SVS Press and Meyendorff’s efforts are well worth it, making a very useful introductory treatment of Byzantine liturgy accessible to a wider audience, and giving a much-needed initial glimpse into Russian scholarship for English speakers.

Update, 10:34pm 26 May 2013: Sorry, two other points — a confusing reality of translating this kind of work is that hymns tend by convention to be referred to by incipit; Χριστὸς ἀνέστη, for example, instead of the Apolytikion for Pascha. Well, you have three choices as to how to do that in the target language; if they’re in a liturgical language that you expect your audience to be familiar with, like Greek, you can leave them in Greek. Or, you translate the incipits anew; maybe I refer to Χριστὸς ἀνέστη as “Christ stood up”. Or, you can decide that you’re going to use the incipits of a commonly used set of liturgical books in the target language; the Triodion and Festal Menaion of Met. Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary, maybe, and you make that point of reference explicit in a translator’s foreword. Meyendorff does not leave them untranslated, but I’m not entirely sure what he is doing; the incipits are not what I’m used to, and while I’m able to identify them from context most of the time, he doesn’t explicitly identify a schema that he’s adopting (there is no translator’s foreword or notes, and more’s the pity).

The other point is reasonably brief: a topical index would have been most welcome. Alas.

Update #2, 10:52pm 26 May 2013: One other thing that occurred to me that I really appreciate about Archimandrite Job’s treatment of the Byzantine liturgical aesthetic vis-à-vis the application of the Typikon’s rubrics: he treats it as, in fact, a multisensory aesthetic, rather than strictly as a manipulation of texts. He makes reference to singing, to censing, to lighting of lamps, to ritual movement — he does a very nice job of presenting the services as a bodily experience of worship; it is not simply a cold transmission and reception of texts. He does this without drawing any particular attention to it, it’s simply assumed as being the case, which is why it just occurred to me that it’s one of the positive features of the book.

Another contribution elsewhere

Just FYI — Fr. Andrew Damick invited me to contribute an essay to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog considering the points raised by this piece, and my essay was published this morning. Should you be coming here from Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, welcome. There’s a decent amount to read in the archives; oral exam prep and fatherhood have slowed my output down somewhat, but I still treat this blog as a going concern, so do please stick around.

“Always start out with a few good jokes” — a choir director’s initial and parting thoughts

I had my last rehearsal with the All Saints choir last night, and I gave a little bit of a farewell speech. I found some prepared notes from my very first rehearsal with the All Saints choir seven and a half years ago, and they still seemed relevant, if clearly pre-dating some things that I’ve learned in the intervening time. I prefaced all of this by mentioning that my favorite quote from my teaching evaluations this fall was, “Needs dumbed down”, which I find wonderful on several levels. Anyway, I didn’t read all of this last night, just some select chunks, but here’s the whole thing:

2 July 2005, All Saints Choir Rehearsal #1

Always start out with a few good jokes:

Music vocabulary—

Bar line: A gathering of people, usually among which may be found a church musician or two (usually Episcopalians).

Tenors: Most choirs have either a) none, or b) too many. When wholly absent they leave an aching void. When too numerous, they fill the void without removing the ache. Tenors rarely sing words and often produce regional sensations rather than actual notes. During the mating season, they draw attention to themselves by sustaining high notes while the rest of the choir has gone on with the phrase.

Seen in a church bulletin: “At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What is hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.

The Scriptures on singing in worship

Romans 15:9—And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.

1 Cor 14:15—What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Ephesians 5:19—Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

Colossians 3:16—Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Hebrews 2:12–Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

James 5:13—Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

The Church Fathers on singing in worship

“Let us consider the entire multitude of angels, how standing by you they minister to his will. For the Scripture says: ‘Ten thousand stood by him and a thousand ministered to him and cried out, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth, the whole creation is full of his glory.’ (Isaiah 6:3) Let us, therefore, gathered together in concord by conscience, cry out earnestly to Him as if with one voice, so that we might come to share in his great and glorious promises.” (St. Clement of Rome (c. 96 A.D.), First Epistle to the Corinthians, italics mine)

“…you make up a chorus, so that joined together in harmony, and having received the godly strain in unison, you might sing in one voice through Christ to the Father, so that He might hear you and recognize you through your good deeds as members of His Son…” (St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.), Epistle to the Ephesians, italics mine)

“We want to strive so that we, the many, may be brought together into one love, according to the union of the essential unity. As we do good may be similarly pursue unity….The union of many, which the divine harmony has called forth out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony, following the one leader of the choir and teacher, the Word, resting in that same truth and crying out, ‘Abba, Father.’” (St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D.), Protrepticus)

A modern Christian writer on singing in worship:

All quotes from Why Catholics can’t sing by Thomas Day.

“[T]he sung ritual [is] a symbol of a burning faith [...] The [sung] liturgy in any language [is] the symbol of faith so intense and filled with joy that it [has] to burst forth in almost continuous song.”

The Great Unwritten Law of Church Music: “[M]usic for the church must not clash with the liturgical function; it must take its place in the objective liturgical setting and not seem like an intrusion. [It] must display a degree of quality and craftsmanship which will be agreeable to a prince and peasant, male and female, young and old. Everyone who […] hears the music must sense a group endeavor, a group prayer: maybe something performed by the assembly or by a choir acting in the name of the assembly […] that seems to sum up the highest religious aspirations of a whole people. [T]he icon painters [pray] and [fast] as they [struggle] to put the holy images into the exacting forms prescribed by tradition. You must try to do something similar.”

Music in the Church is best when it “(1) expresses the noblest aspirations of the communal, cultural, tribal consciousness and (2) seems to submit to the higher purposes of the rite itself.”

So, what does this mean for us?

As an Orthodox choir, our job is not to sing one or two “anthems” or “offertories” at specific points in the service as in a Protestant church. Our job is to help the congregation sing the entire service. With a 90% sung liturgy lasting close to an hour and a half, that’s no small feat. We sing liturgical music, which means we sing the music that comes out of the work of the people (the literal meaning of “liturgy”) [NOTE, 21 Dec 2012: this is the main spot where obviously my thinking has changed, and I would find a different way of putting this today]. That means, simply put, our worship is work. Given our leadership role in the work, our job is not to be individuals who just happen to stand in a different place in the nave from everybody else; our job is to lead the rest of the congregation into the ideal of “one voice” in worship. By definition, to do this takes time, effort, and commitment to taking that leadership role seriously.

It also takes the choir functioning as a community within the community. From one perspective, the expectation is quite high: we’ve gotten up early so our voices haven’t completely woken up yet, and if we’re receiving the Eucharist we haven’t been able to do the normal things that help get the throat and vocal cords going the way they need to—drink water, coffee, tea, eat something, and so on—but we still have nearly an hour and a half worth of singing to do, more if we’re singing in the Matins service. The only way we can do that well, not to mention healthfully, is to support each other, personally and vocally, so that no one person in any section is carrying everybody else for the entire Divine Liturgy. What it takes is simply time, effort, and commitment from all who are willing to give it. It’s that difficult and that easy.

To that end: In consultation with Fr. Athanasius, while I am directing the choir, we will take the following steps:

1) Incorporate the choir into Saturday evening Vespers for the four-part portions of the service, and rehearse either before or after Vespers. We will try rehearsing after Vespers for the time being; we might very possibly try it before Vespers if it is found that this works better all around. I have deliberately scheduled the rehearsal around an already existing service, and I will never take up more than an hour of your time at any given rehearsal. Ideally, there will be rehearsals where my agenda for the evening will take up less time than that, and we will only continue through to the end of the hour if there is something that the group wishes to work on. These rehearsals will consist of a combination of vocal warm-ups, sight-singing warm-ups, announcements, polishing music we already know and learning new music. The balance of these various components will vary from week to week, based on the service requirements for that week and coming weeks.

2) Warm up as a group either at 9:35am on Sunday morning or after the Matins Gospel, whichever comes first. Starting Sunday, 17 July 2005 (that’s two weeks from now), this will be the skeletal minimum with respect to my expectation of you if you intend to sing that morning. If you cannot make a Saturday evening rehearsal at this time, then I absolutely need you to warm up with the group Sunday morning. For those of you who sing in the Matins service, we will devise a regular rotation so that one week you may finish out Matins, the next week you will warm up with the choir, and so on.

3) Gradually phase out the use of soloists for verses and replace them with unison chanting. We will talk about this more as we go, but for Psalm verses and whatnot, I would like to see an alternating “left choir/right choir” approach, where perhaps the women sing one verse, the men sing the next verse, etc. We will experiment with this over time to see how it best works with this group. The vocal and acoustic circumstances are simply not ideal for solo voices, and where it is practical to use an ensemble, we will.

I will also do the following:

1) Put out a calendar outlining rehearsals and services coming up a month out (perhaps two months out, if I find that it’s necessary). If you know you won’t be at a rehearsal or a service, please sign out on the calendar. Additionally, if you plan to attend a service or a rehearsal, should something happen at the last minute preventing your attendance please call me or e-mail me as soon as you possibly can so that I know what to expect for that rehearsal or service. I offer you all the same courtesy—if something happens to me, I will let you all know as soon as I possibly can.

2) Make myself available for work outside of regularly scheduled rehearsals and services. For example—if you need help with something musically, want extra sight-singing practice, if the tenor section needs extra help and wants a section rehearsal, if you need to talk to me about something privately, or if you just want to chat, please give me a call or send me an e-mail and we will find time to do so.

3) Make rehearsals as fun as I possibly can. I want you all to want to come to rehearsal, not feel like you have to come, which in my experience will only ensure that you want to come even less. I want our rehearsals to be a friendly, positive working environment, because I think we’ll all get more done that way.

My final point for now is this: a no is as good as a yes, as far as I’m concerned. If, after hearing all of this, you are thinking to yourself, “He’s going to have to count me out,” that’s fine. I’m not mad at you, and neither is anybody else. What I ask, however, is that you not make a snap judgment now. I ask that you give it some time to see how it will work—perhaps you’ll surprise yourself.

I believe this is a group who is capable of a lot. If we can commit to putting in the time and the effort, and remember that this is not about us but about the glorification of God, I believe we will be able to accomplish a lot.

Okay, I’m done talking now. Let’s sing.

I also mentioned some passages from +BASIL’s essay, “The Ministry of Church Singers”. I think parts of this have to be contextualized as a bishop being pastoral and pious, but there are nonetheless some things he says unequivocally:

There are few ministries of the Church that require the devotion and the dedication that church singing does. You who lead the singing as well as you who follow the leader are precious gifts to your parishes. You are as important to the parish as is the holy table itself. As there can be no liturgy without the holy table, there can be no liturgy without you. This is not to compliment you or increase your pride, but rather to put a little fear and awe in you, so you know what your responsibilities are. Church singing is not a hobby. Being a choir director is not something one does for personal fulfillment. It is first and foremost a duty, a duty of those to whom God has given musical talents. It is sinful, in my opinion, for someone not to sing who has been given the gift to sing. Sinful! You join the angels, and do that which the angels do perpetually. That’s not an interest, avocation, or a hobby; it is a duty. Angels were created to serve and to praise, and you have been given voices for that same purpose.

[...] It’s a holiness. It’s not your ministry. It’s a ministry that belongs to the Church, and you respond to the call as well as recognize that the gift which you specifically fulfill in the church was, traditionally, and in some sense still is, an ordained ministry. The choir was not some club that existed in Church for those with some particular musical talent. To be a church singer was an ordained office within the Church. Canon 15, from the Council of Nicea, the Council of the 4th century, makes its point clear that only canonical singers should be appointed for that kind of ministry in the Church. That means “one set apart” for that particular ministry. Today we might call them Readers. While I’m not saying that every choir member must be a tonsured Reader, I do say that if we fulfill at least the spirit, if not the law of the Canon, that each choir member ought to see his/her participation in the choir as seriously as the ordained clergy take their ministry. I don’t know any priest who thinks that he can say on some Sunday, “I don’t want to serve because I want to sit with my wife,” or, “I don’t feel like serving today,” or, “I’m angry, one of the altar boys offended me, so I don’t want to serve this morning.”

[...] We jump in and we jump out. Some of us jump in on time and some of us jump in a little bit late. In my opinion, being in church for that first “Amen” is a sign, an indication of one’s humility. And where humility is, indeed, a virtue, its opposite is a sin. The sin is not disturbing other people. The other people in the church are not the object of our worship. It is rude, but not necessarily sinful, to disturb other people. But it is sinful to be presumptuous and prideful that one can jump in and sing with thousands of archangels and ten-thousands of angels at one’s own whim. “This Sunday I feel like singing, and next Sunday I won’t sing. I want to sit with my wife.” Leave that Hallmark—card kind of sentimentality for restaurants, concerts, and cinemas. You sing with angels, that’s secondary to sitting with any husband or wife or children. We stand before the throne of God, and when we realize that, every other consideration, all of our own personal likes and dislikes, become secondary. I’m giving my opinion now, and hopefully it humbles all of us. It’s a humiliation, that in its end, should be something that elevates us, that exalts us, something that gives us wing.

[...] You and your choir need be as aesthetically perfect as you are able. God not only expects, but He accepts only our best.

As I said to the choir last night, I’m a convert, not a cradle, and every convert brings with them some baggage from their previous experience. My background is one that places a high value on liturgical beauty and music, and that value is practical, not just theoretical. Church music is a profession. It is not unheard-of for church musicians in my former communion to have terminal degrees and to have half-time, if not full-time, salaries. While I have always known that such a set of circumstances would never even come close to being reality at All Saints, I have always tried to fulfill the musical function at All Saints as though those were the expectations of me — and I should stress the “of me” part, because certainly the point was never to turn the All Saints choir into an opera chorus. Rather, the point was that, if I was excited about what I did and took it seriously in the way +BASIL describes, hopefully everybody else would catch the spark, too, and get excited about it along with me. It was an experiment to see if one could build a fully-functioning music ministry at the only Orthodox parish in a town that was home to a Big Ten university and one of the best schools of music in the country. I’m happy that the experiment has borne fruit, even if it won’t specifically be attached to the parish anymore. All told, this (as well as the ongoing annotation and discussion of it here) represents a pretty good snapshot of my thinking of how the effort worked, and how I would approach such a project if I were to start afresh now.

Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἔνεκεν. As always, we’ll see what happens next. I thank All Saints, Fr. Peter, and those who sang with me for the chance to serve over the years, I hope that I was able to communicate some small element of what I love about our Church’s music despite all of my own faults and foibles, and I wish all of them, as well as whomever my successor will be, many blessings. Again, I crave your prayers for myself and my family as we make this transition.

Review: Anton Baumstark, On the Historical Development of the Liturgy, trans. Fritz West

I first encountered the ideas of Anton Baumstark in the fall of 2005, when I wrote a paper for my undergraduate early music history course that (badly) attempted to compare Byzantine, Gregorian, and Old Roman use of Psalm 67 (“Let God arise…”), specifically one of the cornerstones of his comparative liturgy project, the so-called Gesetz der Erhaltung des Alten in liturgisch hochwertiger Zeit (usually translated as something like “law of preservation of ancient practice in especially solemn celebration”). There’s not really anything salvageable in that paper, but it pushed me towards many of the things I do now, and Baumstark was effectively a “gateway drug” to other liturgical scholars of the twentieth century, such as Dix, Schmemann, Taft, and so on.

Vom geschichtlichen Werden der Liturgie is a somewhat lesser-known work of Baumstark’s; it was published in 1923, a good eleven years before the publication of the lectures that would become the more famous Liturgie comparée (Comparative Liturgy). While the latter has been available in English translation since 1958, the former has only just been translated by Fritz West and published as On the Historical Development of the Liturgy.[1] West, a liturgical scholar and UCC minister, has produced a very accessible and thoroughly annotated edition of the book, which hopefully will be thought-provoking and generative for a current crop of both liturgical historians and historians interested in liturgy.

A truly useful outcome of West’s translation would be a re-articulation of Baumstark’s framework in a way that takes into account modern historiographical approaches; as West notes in his introduction, Baumstark’s perspective is notably weighed down for today’s reader by a reliance on “Great Man”-style theoretical models. Even more problematic, however, is his post-World War I resentment-fueled German nationalism (Baumstark would become a Nazi sympathizer in the 1930s). This is most clearly evident in chapter 11, titled “Language and Nation,” in which he attempts to show the relationship between ethnic identity (the German word he uses is Blut; West translates it as “race”) and liturgical development. This section of the book is frankly uncomfortable to read, given Baumstark’s own historical context; consider passages such as this one:

The readings in the Roman Breviary from the First and Second Books of Maccabees make for a singular impression, with their responses containing prayers for times of war and expressing a soldier’s delight upon seeing sunlight reflecting off of golden shields. Had the German people not become the preeminent guarantor of the Roman liturgy’s preservation and dissemination, these readings would have been hard put to maintain their impressive position in the lectionary of the office. Now they stand there as a towering monolith, recalling the proud days of the Vikings and bearing public witness against all would confuse the virile spirit of the church with programs for world peace, born of a weak and weary spirit. Could a nation in fact collapse utterly when suffering the heaviest blow fate could mete out in a national war of desperation if — in that decisive hour of its history — that nation were able to experience firsthand the Breviary prayer for the month of October in a liturgical setting? […] Without exception it was emotional values that the German people contributed to their adopted Roman liturgy… the full actualization of the German national character in liturgy was fettered by the use of Latin, a foreign language… one can only imagine how the Roman liturgy would have developed on German soil had the dialect of the Saxon troubadours, who chanted Heliand, had the opportunity of becoming the language it used for worship.[2]

Looked at another way, however, it is possible to see Baumstark’s project as tracing liturgical development in history as a way of constructing a Christian community that is truly universal, not just in geographic or national terms but in temporal terms — a way to establish a link to the Fathers, to putatively better times for German “Roman” Christianity in the person of Charlemagne (a figure constantly invoked by Baumstark), to Christ and the apostles themselves.

[The liturgical partcipant] participates in the deepest life of them all: the life of the millenniums. His individual prayer becomes for him an infinitesimally small ringlet in a virtually endless golden chain, stretching from the earthly days of the Son of Man, when Jesus wandered upon the shores of the blue Sea of Galilee, until that final day when he will await the return of the Son of Man in the glory of the Father.[3]

Baumstark’s proposal is that the impact of historical factors — such as political developments, missionary activity, theological crises, and so on — on liturgical development leads to identifiable strata in the evidence, explicitly invoking geology as a comparable image (chapter 1). He begins tracing this impact through identifiable modalities in pre-Constantinian Christianity: differing liturgical practices in the private home and public gatherings (chapter 2), the Jewish synagogue (chapter 3), and the Hellenized world in Greece, Asia Minor, and beyond (chapter 4). This examination leads to the preliminary conclusion that the trajectory of liturgical development has been a fundamental diversity which are molded into increasing conformity (chapter 5).

Following that, Baumstark examines how the fundamental diversity manifests regionally, with major cities functioning as strong centers of influence on surrounding regions (chapter 6). These centers tend to influence each other, such as Jerusalem and Constantinople in the East and Rome and Gaul in the West (chapter 7). The top-down influence of political and ecclesiastical elites on liturgical development, with Baumstark’s prime example being Charlemagne’s project of simultaneously forging a German identity that is Roman and a “Roman” identity that is unmistakably German (chapter 8). Monastic and urban practices represent another axis that tends to more or less blend together (chapter 9).

Baumstark also argues that the impact of notable historical actors upon liturgical development is paradoxical but undeniable. The end result of the liturgy for the worshiper of any given period is necessarily impersonal, an object fundamentally rooted in communal experience, but looking backward, the hand of individuals must be acknowledged, be they hymnographers, ecclesiarchs, or putative “authors” of entire rites — but he is careful to point out that sometimes it is less significant that an individual actually had a particular liturgical impact than the community believes that person to be worth the attribution (chapter 10). Language and ethnic identity, as already discussed, are also important factors to be considered for Baumstark (chapter 11).

At some point, rites tend to coalesce into more-or-less final forms with their own immutable tendencies and characteristics that reflect the various factors that have led to this point (chapter 12). This seems to inevitably give rise to a situation where liturgical language is frozen independent of vernacular usage, leading to a pastoral problem that a given rite has to figure out how to solve without losing its fundamental character. Baumstark argues that the West solved this problem by emphasizing Latin as a unifying characteristic of the Roman liturgy; the East by assigning to the deacon a role that mediates the action at the altar to the congregation (chapter 13).

Rites may tend to let their characteristic tendencies completely overshadow their core liturgical function; here Baumstark specifically criticizes the East’s allowance of liturgical poetry to become a “thicket of rank growth, proliferating out of control (chapter 14).[4] He also argues that the manifests in the East as a tendency towards overscripting the altar, turning the liturgy into a long exercise of personal devotion for the celebrant (chapter 15).

In the West, at least, the coalescence into a final form has led to formal, top-down mechanisms of reform and pruning, starting with the Council of Trent. These mechanisms, according to Baumstark, generally work as intended in the West, although in the East similar attempts appear to have messier results, such as the Old Believer schism in Russia (chapter 16).

Finally, Baumstark cautions, the scholar and worshiper must be careful with what they do with this kind of information, because of the clear limits of what we can conclude from our data. Of course, the methodology modeled by Baumstark is useless for predicting future changes, but epistemological boundaries exist looking backward as well. A historical understanding of the liturgy can enrich a present-day encounter, but without the context of direct experience, we can never completely ascertain the liturgical practices of a given time and place in their fulness (chapter 17).

It seems to me that it would be useful to reconsider many elements of Baumstark’s perspective anew. Off the top of my head, some possibilities of what could be done seem to be — how does a periodization model that includes late antiquity impact how these arguments are articulated?[5] How does a model of center and periphery clarify the relationships of geography and liturgy?[6] How could recent explorations of sensory experience in liturgy allow us to rethink the text-heavy emphasis?[7] How do frameworks such as Benedict Anderson’s imagined community illuminate the various social dimensions of the liturgy?[8] How does Paul Connerton’s work on inscribed vs. Incorporated memory suggest further pathways to better understanding Baumstark’s argument that the liturgy functions “trans-historically”?[9] How does the identification of orientalism as a problematic meta-narrative help us to tease apart Baumstark’s tendency to view development in the East as self-indulgent overgrowth, while the character of Roman liturgy is the standard to which everything else adheres or from which everything else falls away?[10] How might the methodology of ethnomusicology help us to better understand the ways in which the liturgy expresses characteristics and tendencies of the worshipping community?[11] If the liturgy is itself an object that belongs to the community, can we push that further and try to talk about a given rite, or a given section of a rite, as a “thing”?[12] Those are all very theory-heavy ideas from somebody who generally only half-jokingly introduces himself as a “paleostructuralist”, but they strike me as having the potential to be genuinely illuminating and generative of further discussion. They also have the extra advantage of being the kinds of approaches that would make liturgical matters relevant to historians who are not liturgical specialists.

West’s translation is quite lucid and readable; the annotations are generally very useful, if verging on repetitive at times. He also includes a collection of short biographies of all historical figures mentioned, which in and of itself is an invaluable reference. There are minor errors, such as the claim that the Syriac language is named for historic Syria[13] (it appears to have nothing to do with the historic region, with its origins as a distinct literary language apparently being in Mesopotamia)[14]. There also seems to be some fuzziness on the specifics of Eastern liturgical forms; Baumstark refers to the Latin Stabat mater text as “a Western counterpart to the ancient Syrian-Greek lament heard from Mary at the cross,”[15] most likely a reference to the genre of Eastern hymn known as the stavrotheotokion, but West’s note relates it to the ninth ode of the canon for Holy Saturday (“Do not lament me, O Mother…”), which seems to me improbable. Nonetheless, West has made a most valuable contribution by making this book accessible to English audiences.

I can’t help but wonder what Baumstark would have thought about the developments in the Roman liturgy post-Vatican II; would his framework have allowed him to understand the changes in terms of continuity? I expect not, but that may be something for others to argue about.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2 ed. New York: Verso, 2006.

Baumstark, Anton. On the Historical Development of the Liturgy. Translated by Fritz West. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011.

Boulay, Juliet du. Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. Edited by Denise Harvey, The Romiosyni Series. Limni, Evia: Denise Harvey (Publisher), 2009.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 1-22.

Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity: Ad 150-750. Edited by Geoffrey Barraclough, Library of World Civilization. London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989.

Coakley, J. F. Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises in Syriac Grammar. 5 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Galtung, Johan. “A Structural Theory of Imperialism.” Journal of Peace Research 8, no. 2 (1971): 81-117.

Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. Edited by Peter Brown, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Jeffery, Peter. Re-Envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant. Edited by Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettle, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Reprint, 2003.


[1] Anton Baumstark, On the Historical Development of the Liturgy, trans. Fritz West (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011).

[2] Ibid., 172-74.

[3] Ibid., 44.

[4] Ibid., 204.

[5] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: Ad 150-750, ed. Geoffrey Barraclough, Library of World Civilization (London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989).

[6] e.g, Johan Galtung, “A Structural Theory of Imperialism,” Journal of Peace Research 8, no. 2 (1971).

[7] Notably, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, ed. Peter Brown, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[8] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (New York: Verso, 2006).

[9] Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[10] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003).

[11] e.g, Juliet du Boulay, Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village, ed. Denise Harvey, The Romiosyni Series (Limni, Evia: Denise Harvey (Publisher), 2009). Also, Peter Jeffery, Re-Envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant, ed. Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettle, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[12] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001).

[13] Baumstark, Historical Development, 56, n. 1.

[14] J. F. Coakley, Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises in Syriac Grammar, 5 ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 1, n. 1.

[15] Baumstark, Historical Development, 212.

Notes from the psalterion

I have been the choir director and cantor at All Saints since the summer of 2005. I sang there for two years before that, and I had been a professional church singer in Anglican circles for several years before that (in fact, an Episcopal church was the very first place that ever paid me to sing). As an Orthodox church musician, I’ve tried on several fronts to contribute to the conversation about our liturgical music; if you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you’ll be familiar with some of the ways I’ve tried to contribute, so I won’t recap all of that here.
Lately, I’ve had a number of discussions with people about what the operating principles should be for music in our churches. What is the function of the cantor/choir director? How should they conceive of doing their jobs? How should the quality of their work be measured? In the spirit of my recent post about principles regarding church buildings, I wanted to try to list some of my conclusions. There will be some definite overlap with the principles about building; in a way, the person who sings in church interacts with the building in a manner that others do not, so perhaps this should not be surprising. Some of this I also talk about here,
  • Principle #0: The act that you are performing as a singer in church is the sung worship of God according to the practice and tradition of Orthodox Christianity. One may fairly insist that this is something different than a concert; one may also fairly insist that this is also something different than a campfire singalong, an exercise in nostalgia, the affirmation of somebody’s childhood, or the salving of one’s insecurities. At any rate, understood this way, singing in church is at once a privilege, a craft, and a discipline.
  • Principle #1: As the object of this sung worship is God, it is to be performed as prayerfully, skillfully, and within the parameters of the traditions governing the chosen style of music as the singer is capable of doing.
    • Principle #1a: This assumes that “performance” and “worship”, properly understood, do not constitute a dichotomy but parts of the same whole.
  • Principle #2: The easiest way to establish a tradition of good singing in a parish is to do it right from the start.
    • Principle #2a: At the very least, “doing it right from the start” means identifying and cultivating and talent (assuming you don’t have somebody from the get-go who knows what they’re doing), and providing the person who has that talent with the necessary resources to continue to improve.
    • Principle #2b: It will be far more practical in the long run to pick one musical idiom that you can do well than to try to do several and do them all at varying levels of mediocrity. 19th century Russian polyphony and Byzantine chant were never intended to coexist in the same service, and they require two entirely different musical skill sets.
      • Principle #2b.1: When picking this musical idiom, fight your weight. If you have a choir of five or six people and are meeting in borrowed office space, big Russian polyphony probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.
    • Principle #2c: “Doing it right from the start” requires the will to do so from more parties than just the cantor or choir director.
  • Principle #3: Musicians are your friends. They are the ones trained to think about how musical matters need to be addressed, much as how an iconographer is the one trained to know how something is supposed to work with an icon or  an architect is the one trained to know how to design a building. If they hear something you can’t, that’s a good thing; that means that they’re doing their job.
    • Principle #3a: The best musicians will also be able to teach the non-musician how to do it properly. Let them.
    • Principle #3b: In the same way that you would expect to pay an iconographer or an architect, expect to pay your cantor/choir director. The worker is worthy of his wages. If this is simply not an option, then there needs to be some way that the value of the cantor’s job is expressed.
  • Principle #4: The amount of singing in our services, to say nothing of the number of “moving parts”, as it were, in any given service, means that rehearsal should be considered a non-negotiable point. If you wish to be among those singing in the choir, it is your responsibility to come to rehearsal. This is the “discipline” part of the equation.
    • Principle #4a: Along these lines, always be mindful of improvement; don’t be satisfied with maintenance. If we truly have God as the object of our worship, then there is no “good enough” as such.
    • Principle #4b: If you are fortunate enough to have a choir of people that can read music in multiple notation systems and four different languages more or less perfectly the first time, then you might be able to reconsider the need for rehearsal.
  • Principle #5: Another non-negotiable point needs to be provision of physical resources for the singers. At bare minimum, these should include proper acoustics, an intentional space for the choir, necessary liturgical furniture, and necessary liturgical books. Acoustics and space cannot be afterthoughts; a cantor who has to make up for a dead room will not be able to do so indefinitely — it really constitutes a physical danger to the voice, and I cannot stress that enough. In terms of space, people (and music stands) still take up space no matter how small your building is, and you must plan properly for that. There are traditional places for singers to stand, and generally those places work very well if planned for.
  • Principle #6: The various systems of modes and special melodies (and yes, even notation), as impossibly complex as they may initially seem, are actually there to help organize and simplify the cantor’s job. The better you learn them, the less stressful of a time you will have in the long run.
  • Principle #7: Good liturgy and good music aid each other. Good settings will do a good job of cooperating with the liturgical action that they accompany; clergy that are celebrating properly will also help good settings fit in naturally with the liturgical action. In other words, a good Cherubic Hymn will be long enough to cover what’s happening at the altar while it’s being sung, and a priest will find that a properly-set Cherubic Hymn means that he doesn’t have to rush through everything in preparation for the Great Entrance.

As I said, this has all come out of my experience as a church musician. As with the building principles, it’s a set of “core ideals” rather than a step-by-step guide — this doesn’t tell you when to schedule rehearsals or how to run them or what repertoire to choose and so on. These are all very, very important things, to be sure. This is, put simply, what I suggest as what the base assumptions should be.

So — thoughts? What am I leaving out? What do I have wrong?

Not an April Fool’s joke — a sincere invitation

I don’t know who you might be, or what your circumstances are. Regardless, if you’re an Orthodox Christian (or are in the process of converting) and a musician, I’d like to invite you to come to Bloomington, Indiana.

Maybe, it being college decision time of year, you’re a graduating high school senior who has grown up singing in your choir or chanting at your analogion, you’re trying to figure out which of your many college acceptance offers to take, and Indiana University is one of your options. Maybe you’re a grad student who’s considering coming here. Maybe you’re an adult who’s at a transitional point for one reason or another and Bloomington has something else you’re looking for. I really have absolutely no idea to whom this invitation might speak, but I feel like it must be extended.

I will be frank. I have absolutely nothing to offer you. I have no means by which to negotiate a recruitment package. My own stipend is modest at best, and it’s as much as can responsibly fit into the parish’s budget, so I have no way to pay soloists or section leaders. In the long term, I am working on a way that eventually there might be scholarships that we can offer to incoming students who are interested in Orthodox music and are willing to make a commitment to the choir while they’re here, but that’s a few years off yet at least. It’s a building that’s a challenge to sing in, to put it mildly. I will expect you to make music here a priority — at the very least, to come to rehearsals on Thursday evenings, and I will hope that you choose to come to Vespers and Matins as well as Divine Liturgy. You will need to have a car, because the parish isn’t accessible any other way.

However, we are trying to build something at All Saints. We’re trying to develop the music at All Saints into something we’re proud of, to turn All Saints into a home for Orthodox music fitting for the only Orthodox church in the town that hosts one of the best schools of music in the United States. Right now, for a number of reasons, we’re focusing on Byzantine chant, and trying to do that as well as we can with what resources we have available. We’re hoping that very soon we will have concrete developments that we can announce with regard to a new building that will be, if all goes well, the best place to sing in Bloomington. We’re not there yet, but we’re trying as hard as we can to get there as soon as we can. The St. John of Damascus Society — and we’re still waiting for our tax-exempt status to come back, which is why I haven’t made any humongous formal announcement about anything we’re doing quite yet — is part of how we’re trying to get there.

So, again, if you’re an Orthodox Christian with an interest in and an aptitude for our liturgical music, and you for some reason or another might be considering a move, I invite you to consider Bloomington, Indiana. There is an Orthodox church here, we’re hoping to be able to carry out some big dreams, and we need your help to do it, if you’re so inclined to take a leap of faith. I’ve got no idea at all who you might be that you are in a station in life where what I have to say might speak to you. There’s nothing to lose by trying at least — but if there might be people out there and I don’t try, then nothing will have been accomplished. So, if you’re out there, give it some thought and some prayer.

If you have questions, you can reach me at rrbarret AT indiana . edu.

Brief recap of recent travels

Last month I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, and present a paper at, the Patristic Symposium of the Florovsky Society at Princeton University. I had also been looking for the right opportunity to visit Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary for about the last year or so, and while I missed the opportunity that I had really wanted (I had wanted to coincide with Ioannis Arvanitis’ campus visit, but I wasn’t told it was happening until after it had already happened), I decided that since I was going to be out on the East Coast anyway, I may as well roll a trip to Boston into the travel for the Florovsky Symposium.

I had never been to Princeton before. It was reasonably easy to get there from Newark Airport via train, it’s a lovely little town, and the campus is quite picturesque. It was a good opportunity to see some people I don’t get to see very often; I was able to catch up with an old Jacobs School of Music buddy of mine, Ben Eley, who now works for the university in a decidedly non-musical capacity and whom I hadn’t seen since summer of 2006, and I also was able to stay with our friend Paul who lives nearby. Alexis and Eugenia Torrance, with whom I’ve crossed paths a number of times over the last few years, were there, as was Seraphim Danckaert, whom I first met in the summer of 2004 when he was studying Romanian here. Ioana Patuleanu, a former All Saints-er who relocated to New Jersey last year, was there. My friends John and Katherine, both students at Holy Cross, also came down for the conference, and I rode back to Boston with them afterward.

It was also a chance to finally meet Fr. Andrew Damick in person, with whom I have been friends in the digital world for the last few years. We met for breakfast at PJ’s Pancake House Friday morning before heading over to the conference, and I think found that we are reasonably like-minded on a number of points.

As we walked over to the conference, I saw Fr. Benedict Churchill and Dn. Gregory Hatrak of SVS Press unloading boxes of books. I had met them at Oxford last summer, so I made a point of saying hi and taking one of the boxes to be of help. Well, no good deed goes unpunished; as I set the box down where they told me to put it, I managed to catch something at exactly the wrong angle with exactly the wrong amount of tension, and ripped open the crotch of my trousers.

Do note that this was also the day on which I was presenting my paper. Since I was staying with Paul, whose house was some 5 miles away, there was very little I could do except make sure my jacket was draped strategically and deliver my paper from behind a lectern. This is the kind of thing that happens to me.

Nonetheless, the paper was well-received and got a couple of good, productive questions. The rest of the conference was really interesting, although it was a curious reversal for me; usually I’m a little too ecclesiastical in my focus to neatly fit in with my history colleagues, but here, I was clearly a historian amongst theologians. Well, there we go.

Saturday evening John, Fr. Andrew, Alexis, and I were able to help chant Vespers for the Princeton Orthodox chaplaincy — for that service, in no less of a location than the Princeton Chapel itself. That didn’t suck (although the choir director looked a little shell-shocked at the end and said, “It’ll be lovely to have you all in the choir tomorrow morning, but I think maybe we’ll do a little less Greek chant”). I also got to briefly see an acquaintance I had made in Athens 3 years ago, who just happens to now be at Princeton and was at Vespers (even though she herself is Catholic). Small world. Following Vespers, Paul, Fr. Andrew, and I had really good Indian food for dinner, and then it was back to Emmaus for Fr. Andrew.

Sunday morning, following Divine Liturgy at the chaplaincy, Paul, John, Katherine, and I had breakfast at PJ’s (I just had to do it one more time), at which point the New Jersey leg of the trip had to come to a close, and it was time to head to Boston.

Holy Cross was a great trip; I met some neat people, including fellow blogger Kevin Edgecomb, I had some very good and productive conversations with members of the faculty (I’m contemplating spending a year there while I’m writing my dissertation), I was able to sit in on a number of good classes, especially the Byzantine chant classes, I got to sing in the left choir for a handful of chapel services, and, as with Princeton, I was able to make some new friends and catch up with some existing friends whom I don’t get to see all that often. Something that was a little unsetting was that there were people I met who said, “Oh, I know you! I read your blog!” Well, there we go.

Alas, I wasn’t able to get a Holy Cross shirt; I was told that they only place one order a year, and the larger sizes go quickly, so thus is life. I had to get some item of HCHC swag, though, so I bought a scarf.

One of the great things about the Holy Cross visit was seeing the current level of Antiochian representation there amongst the seminarians. There are 12 AOCANA guys there right now who are all getting a good grounding in Byzantine chant from Grammenos Karanos, good liturgics in the chapel (including the experience of antiphonal choirs being normative), and exposure to Greek and Arabic. This all seems like good stuff to have happening. One of the Antiochian seminarians I met was Rassem El-Massih, whom I’ve heard about for years but had not yet met — he’s an excellent cantor from Lebanon and all around good guy, it seems, and we had a really positive conversation my last morning there. He had some very encouraging things to say about the future of traditional Byzantine chant in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and I told him a bit about the objectives of the St. John of Damascus Society. Hopefully the Society can be part of the efforts he was talking about.

By the way, if you’re a single person considering going to Holy Cross, do be aware that the dorm rooms are tiny. And I mean tiny. Word to the wise.

Anyway, after three far-too-short days in Boston (which, honestly, I didn’t get to see much of because the seminary trip took up all the time I had), it was time to take the train back to Newark and fly home.

And then it was time to start preparing for my next trip, this time to Emmaus, Pennsylvania to give a couple of talks on music at a Lenten retreat at St. Paul’s Orthodox Church, Fr. Andrew Damick’s parish.

I arrived at St. Paul’s the evening of Friday, 2 March, just in time to help sing an Akathist service. Their building is a repurposed valve machine shop; in terms of layout, it’s not unlike All Saints, low ceilings and all, except that enough surfaces are sufficiently reflective that it’s actually a reasonably decent acoustic environment. I was quite surprised.

Saturday morning I sang Matins and Divine Liturgy for St. Theodore the Tyro (we also did the Blessing of the Kollyva). The morning was pretty much up to me, and having such an uncustomary free reign, I sang an all-Byzantine liturgy. It was really nice to sing that repertoire in that room, I have to say.

Following Liturgy, I gave the first talk. There were about 15-20 people, and they had good questions (although some of the questions were such that, the frank way I had to answer them, it was best to omit the Q&A from the online version). Not bad attendance and participation, considering that Fr. Andrew made the mistake of putting my name on the flyer (see for yourself).

During the afternoon, Fr. Andrew gave me a bit of tour of Emmaus, and I have to say, as a town, the place is cute as a bug’s ear. I’d love to have more of a chance to get to know the place sometime.

After Vespers, I gave the second talk. There was about half the attendance, and about half of those people hadn’t been there in the afternoon. Again, some good questions, and all things considered pretty good given that my face was used for advertising. In any event, my job was done, Fr. Andrew took me out for Chinese food, and once again we had a great conversation over a wide range of topics.

Sunday morning, it was back to Kazan and their usual polyphonic mix of things; Gail Ortner is a capable choir director, and truthfully, it was nice to just stand there and sing and not have to worry about everything being my problem.

Thanks to a flight delay, I was able to attend the Lehigh Valley Pan-Orthodox Vespers for Sunday of Orthodoxy at St. Nicholas Cathedral (GOA). It’s a beautiful church, and it was a very nice way to end the visit. It worked out perfectly, and I got to the airport with plenty of time to catch my plane.

And now I’m home until May.

I’ll say this — getting to know Fr. Andrew a bit has been one of the real highlights of the last six weeks. He’s one of the good guys — he appears to have a genuine love of God, the Church, Tradition, and the people he serves; he is able to use his theatrical background and intellectual acuity to great effect (as opposed to great affect, which I’ve seen happen all too often); he seems to very much care about the place he is in and wants to serve it to the best of his ability; he seems to have a very good handle on where his parish is at and what they need to be doing; and — very important — he has a supportive group of parishioners behind him, and a really awesome family at home. I hope to have more of a chance to get to know him down the road.

So it has come to this.

As I suspected might happen, the talks I gave as a Lenten retreat at St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA this last weekend have been posted to Ancient Faith Radio.

A few things: I’ll have a full write-up of the Emmaus trip a little later, but I had a lovely time. Fr. Andrew Damick is a wonderful priest with a wonderful parish, and I very much enjoyed getting to know all of them.

Nobody needs to tell me that there are some baubles in both talks, certainly in the musical examples, and then there are a couple of points that I certainly simplified for purposes of time. I also got a couple of things wrong (Philotheos Kokkinos is in fact a saint, as Fr. Andrew pointed out to me afterward, and Timothy McGee appears to be Canadian, not American, but at least he’s North American, I suppose). Fr. Andrew also mentions in my introduction that I’m “fluent” in Greek, which I most certainly am not, but he was being kind. On the musical baubles, I was also there as a guest cantor, by the time the first talk happened I had already sung three services, and while I was just mentally waking up by the time I went on, I was starting to lose a bit of musical steam. I know, excuses, excuses. Nonetheless, on the whole, I’m pleased with how they turned out.

This does represent at least a “soft opening” for the Saint John of Damascus Society, and while we’re still waiting for our tax-exempt status to come back before we really unveil everything, I can say that http://www.johnofdamascus.org is registered and will be live once tax-exempt status is in hand and we can really be open for business, as it were. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by anything you hear in these talks, by all means ask me.

Dutifully following up…

Thanks to a couple of friends kindly sharing yesterday’s post on Facebook — I suspect that the ulterior motive in doing so was the opportunity to publicly display goodwill to the deranged — I saw a number of comments on the piece that were not actually posted on the blog itself. I replied to a couple of them, but I also thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to address them here.

What I found very curious about some of the criticism is that what they were objecting to was also what I was objecting to, or at least I thought I was. I grant that I finally hit “Publish” at close to 3am and it’s possible that what seemed like a clear, cogent train of thought at the time was actually me calling for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks. I’m also enough of a postmodernist, at least in terms of absorption of cultural surroundings, to know that authorial intent is in no way authoritative, so if you think that I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks, I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks (even if the words I actually used were “I prefer rhubarb pie, but only with a nice strong cup of Ethiopian coffee and a rose liqueur chaser”).

One comment went as follows:

I think that that way lies madness on two counts:

1) The approach discussed, answering peoples’ ‘Felt Needs’, is exactly the approach that has led to the decline, and now fall of the historic Protestant denominations in the United States. Speaking from my personal background, the Dutch Reformed Church started saying to itself, “People don’t have a Predestination problem…” “People don’t have a Total Depravity problem…” “People aren’t wandering around feeling guilty about the sin in their lives…” and slowly but surely, all of those distinctions went down the sewer pipe and the Dutch Reformed denominations, with Robert Schuller leading the parade, left Protestantism, then Christianity, and blended into the American religion.

2) There’s an exceedingly false premise in the midst of this piece, and that’s that the Holy Orthodox Church isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified in the United States today. I don’t know if its stated out of charity or ignorance of just how bad the religious landscape has become, but Orthodoxy is, frankly, the last vestige of Christianity available in the United States. Everything else has blended into the hydra that is Americanism, a kind of Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism. One head is Southern Baptist, one is Mormon, one Episcopalian, but at the core they’re teaching the same thing, a bland moralism, worship of patria, and whatever self help strategy is popular this week.

America is a threat unlike anything Orthodoxy has ever faced. We’re faced with a culture that believes itself to be Christian, but is anything but. A culture with no sense of history whatsoever, and which actively denies history’s relevance to religion. A culture whose religious experience is entirely subjective and individualistic. A culture that has fused this false religion with an overpowering Statism.

To my knowledge, the Orthodox Church was not seeking converts in Western European nations in the 19th century, nor in the fascist states of the early-20th century, and Communism of course left Orthodoxy in no state to seek growth until its fall in the lands afflicted. Those are the only places where She might have had a similar experience to attempting to convert the United States today.

The last thing I’m suggesting is that Orthodoxy blend into the American religion. However, I’m also trying to be realistic about the cultural circumstances that inform the problem, and I’m explicitly problematizing the approach of revising our visible, external practices as a way of making peace with those cultural circumstances. As far as the matter of whether or not Orthodox Christianity isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified goes, my point is that, even if this commenter is right that Orthodoxy is the only one, we nonetheless are in the position of having to fight to be heard over the din of everybody else claiming to do so, and the ways we try to distinguish ourselves in the midst of that dull roar are received more often than not as exercises in question-begging, at least from what I’ve seen. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s a personal anecdote that seems applicable to me. When I was a little kid, I had a Sherlock Holmes-style double-billed deerstalker hat, a trenchcoat, and a briefcase. I insisted on wearing them to school every day. My parents told me, “You can wear those if you want. You need to be aware that you will probably take some heat for it because you’ll probably be the only kid at school wearing anything like it.” I chose to wear them nonetheless, completely unfazed. Yes, I had a lot of problems getting along with some of the other kids at school as a result, but I stuck to my guns.

From where I sit now, close to 30 years removed from that set of circumstances, I don’t think it was right or wrong that I made the choice that I did. It was just who I was (and still am, to a certain degree), and the way people reacted to me was a function of who they were. To be who I was without those externals was incomprehensible to me. But I still got beat up (and worse, sometimes) and my hat still got stolen on a regular basis (but always recovered — I still have it, in fact). I could have saved myself a lot of grief by just choosing to fit in, but I didn’t want to do that. What I did to adapt, rather, was to do the best I could at the things I was good at and that I was interested in, and eventually my path became clear. (Not until I was 29, and then I was 32 before I could actually go down that path, but never mind that now.)

I have a friend who just very recently started talking to me about the prospect of becoming a priest eventually. It’s coming to him out of a sense of vocation, not to evangelize the United States with the One True Church, but rather — and I can’t say I’ve ever heard any of my various would-be seminarian friends and acquaintances ever put it this way before — to heal people’s souls. Wow. When I think about how rife our culture is with depression, and how much effort we put into possible solutions for it, some that might work and others that assuredly won’t — well, talk about a problem people actually do think they have, and that we as the Church actually can do something about. Is that an impulse that leads to Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism? My instinct is to say no, that it’s rather an impulse to do what the Church should be doing anyway, but maybe I’m wrong.

Here’s another one:

Myeh — he’s right, but he’s wrong. His rhetoric is good, but he dismisses alternate claims on a kind of wistful idealism only then to transition into a realist “let’s meet real problems” mode to throw you off his trail. Not biting, thank you. What’s frustrating is that we _do_ need to translate some things, but it can’t be the result of one generation’s engineering project of “inculturation.”

We do need the Liturgy in English, we also really should have music that taps into some kind of cultural memory (there is such a thing, even if it’s weaker than it is in other cultures — and even, contra the choir director in this piece, if it seems “arbitrarily chosen” according to critical standards…these “arbitrary choices” are the result of decisions that the entire culture has received, that this kind of music captures something primordial about who we are, and it is probably made on a host of very difficult-to-pinpoint resonances between the form of the music and the forms of a bundle of things — the feel of the land, the forms of historical events that are received as defining, etc.).

On the other hand, the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church should not be tampered with. I don’t know why people would think that these should change. If there are little changes in iconographic style or vestments or whatever that would translate the tradition better in our land, then these will accumulate slowly over time from deepened fidelity to what is received, and will not result from a program.

Finally, Orthodox people say lots of really silly things about what the West is and what Secularism is. (They also say silly things about what Protestantism is, or what Catholicism is — even converts from these traditions.) This all really needs to be straightened out. In every pre-modern Pagan people that I know of, they had the Gospel translated into the symbolic idiom they knew — so that in the Anglo-Saxon world, for instance, they had the Pagan mythology subtly re-configured to communicate the form of the Gospel. There is continuity, and discontinuity, and I don’t know that there’s any other way to graft something on. Unless someone can articulate the American mythology, we’re not likely to have much success other than pockets of people who’re faithful to their heritage and peculiar converts who can buck all kinds of countervailing forces.

What is there to be wary of in American culture, in the condition of Secularism we all find ourselves in? The shadowboxing will likely continue until someone can speak clearly.

I’m not certain what alternate claims I’m dismissing with wistful idealism, and it’s also unclear to me what he means by saying I’m trying to throw people off my trail. Dealing with the rest of it — I never said we don’t need the Liturgy in English; I said that English is important. What I suggested, perhaps clumsily in my 2:30am stupor, is something that seems to me to be well in line with what he says — that English isn’t functioning as part of a mission so much as part of a cultural agenda. The agenda is looking an awful lot like the tail wagging the dog, and it isn’t addressing what strike me, at least in my own limited experience, as the real pastoral issues that have to do with language and culture.

Unless someone can articulate the American mythology… well, somebody did that. His name was Joseph Smith. The particular genius of Mormonism, it seems to me, was figuring out a way to incorporate an American sense of place into its sacred history in a way that no Protestant group has really managed to do, and that Catholicism and Orthodoxy really struggle to figure out how to do. The way most Protestants seem to have solved this problem is to become semi-gnostic (at least) in their approach to place. I had a conversation with somebody about a year ago, basically a garden-variety Evangelical, about my experience in Greece and being someplace where particular events in Christian history are embedded in the cultural memory. This person looked very thoughtful and said, “Well, that’s interesting, but why does anybody actually need that? I don’t have a sense of place that has resonance with Christian history, but I’ve got Jesus, and I don’t see where I’m missing anything.” (Which again smacks of solutions looking for problems.) I’ve suggested before that the way American Orthodoxy will develop its own sense of place will be American saints who actually were born here and active here, but that’s not going to happen overnight.

(Incidentally, Flesh of My Flesh does medieval Germanic stuff, and I’m well aware of the Gospel being translated into the symbolic idiom that they knew — still, there are limitations there. The Germanic tribes stayed Arian for a long time, for example, and my wife has also talked about there being some very strange things going on with things like the Heliand, the Gospel harmonization written in Old Saxon.)

What is there to be wary of in American culture? That’s a question that I’m sure could take multiple dissertations to answer, but here’s where my brain immediately goes: I met a man once who was a mortgage broker. It wasn’t terribly exciting, but he was very good at it, and he was proud of what he did. “If you’re going to make shoes, make good shoes,” he said. It was a point of view that got me thinking, and I remember mentioning it to my dad, who promptly shot down the man’s attitude as naive and, mortal sin of mortal sins, inefficient. “If you make good shoes that nobody can buy, you’re not going to have a job,” he retorted. “Better to make shoes that are just good enough that the average person can afford them and feel like they’re getting a halfway decent product. Sell to the classes, eat with the masses. Sell to the masses, eat with the classes.” It seems to me that that’s a good place to start.


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