Archive for January, 2008

Thursday and all’s well

To follow are what would normally be inline asides on a blog which uses them. I don’t yet, because I’m not convinced I want to pay for the privilege of editing the CSS, particularly with WordPress’ upgrade to 3GB of free space in the last couple of days. So, bear with me.

I’m waiting right now. Some of you know what I’m waiting for. It is unclear how long I will be waiting. One person who went through this exact same process told me he knew within a couple of weeks; another told me it probably won’t be until the middle of March. I will be happier when I am no longer waiting, regardless of the outcome.

I’m starting to lose a battle against a sore throat. I was in Michigan last weekend with many of our parish’s youth, and between the quite cold weather and being around lots of kidlets, I think I’m set up to come down with something. I always know I’m getting sick because coffee (without which Richard ain’t a happy man, folks) tastes terrible to me when I’m sick; this morning, the coffee wasn’t tasting very good. Sigh.

Now having dipped my toe into three different dead languages over the last couple of years, let me say that one of the gifts of studying a lingua mortua like Latin or Greek is that, without doubt, tons and tons of time and resources have been spent putting together usable materials. This would be as opposed to Syriac, where tons and tons of time and resources, well, haven’t.

For example, one can reasonably expect the following about your standard Greek New Testament:

  • It will have a decent glossary.
  • It will be typeset in a very readable fashion.
  • It will have an apparatus so you know where the text came from.

Whatever one’s disagreements might be regarding the use of the Nestle-Aland critical text, $25.05 for all of the above is a danged good value.

Now, the Syriac New Testament, the ABS edition which is really the only one available, by contrast to the above:

  • doesn’t.
  • isn’t.
  • doesn’t, so you don’t.

Where dictionaries are concerned, you have a bit of a choice: the three-volume Payne-Smith lexicon which is big, expensive, and in Latin; the one-volume Payne-Smith lexicon which is big and moderately expensive; and finally, the much smaller but not much cheaper New Testament lexicon.

So, when reading the New Testament, one way or the other you’re constantly having to look things up in a separate book, and you’re not always sure what you’re looking up because Syriac adds both suffixes AND prefixes to words depending on how they’re used, plus they can go through all kinds of fun changes depending on how they’re prefixed, and, well, the typesetting sucks.

Oh, and the typesetting of the dictionary also sucks. The plates are just old, old, old. You can see what I mean by looking inside the one-volume Payne-Smith on Amazon here. Eventually somebody needs to go through and redo it digitally; I refer anybody to the glossary in the recent `Enbe men Karmo Suryoyo (Bunches of Grapes from the Syriac Vineyard): A Syriac Chrestomathy compiled by Martin Zammit to see what this stuff can and should look like in the age of digital typesetting.

Of course, it’ll still be hella expensive, since there are like forty people in the English-speaking world who care about these things, this being why it won’t happen in my lifetime. If I were a more ambitious and serious Semiticist, maybe I’d entertain the notion of figuring out how to attach myself to such a project and help do it the way it would need to be done, but I’ve no real intention of being that kind of scholar. I am but a beachcomber along the shores of the Semitic ocean, not a deep-sea diver…

…aaaaaaaannnd that was the sound of you (both of you) rolling your eyes simultaneously. Sorry.

At the very least it would be nice to have a standard textbook which isn’t inherently problematic in many respects (both the Coakley and Thackston grammars are, shall we say, no Hansen and Quinn), and/or an English version of the Brockelmann grammar with the chrestomathy (that’s a fancy word which means “reader”), and/or an edition of the Syriac New Testament that is a comparable package to your average Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. I hear rumors of a thing such as the latter being done at Notre Dame, but it also sounds like there’s going to be a thick, expensive volume for each book of the NT the way they’re going about it. Oh well.

Well. That wound up being a bit more than an aside.

I don’t normally talk about politics here, but this whole business about tax rebates–didn’t we do this back in 2001 or thereabouts? And didn’t it, er, not work, exactly? I mean, I’m not going to beat away with a baseball bat a couple of checks for $300 or $600 or however much they are for our household, but this whole thing sort of comes across to me as, “Now, don’t worry, just go buy a Blu-Ray player and a couple of movies, you’ll feel better.” Am I wrong?

Still waiting.

More from Alden Swan

Swan has some interesting things to say on the relationship between post-Reformation church and Modernism, as well as the question of by which authority we not only interpret Scripture, but by which authority we determine the canon of Scripture.

For example:

One of the most irritating qualities of Modernism is the almost essential arrogance that comes from the belief in progress; that is, that “new” is better than “old.” Evangelicalism seems to exhibit the same tendency to believe in theological “progress,” as well as the resulting sense of arrogance in how they deal with past theological positions. While many would argue, especially in the case of fundamentalists, that this is absurd, I think in the “big picture” it makes sense.

With Evangelicalism, there are some basic presumptions that may not be true. One such presumption is that it is an advancement to think of theology almost as a science, being able to break large concepts down into minute detail and argue over the fine points. This scientific approach has, as Webber points out, reduced theology to a set of facts or propositions which can – and must – be believed. This systematic approach appears to have a goal of eradicating any sort of mystery from theology, believing that we can reason our way through our faith. Our faith (as Webber also points out) can then conceivably be conveyed to others in a logical, reasoned way, what we think of a “apologetics.” Evangelicals reason their way to truth, whereas the reformers simply proclaimed it.

To restate one of his points, Christianity is reduced by this approach to an ideology and a philosophy, rather than a means by which the faithful live their lives. By believing we can simply reason our way through our faith, the opposite has been greatly enabled–one can also very easily reason one’s way right out of their faith, too. I recall no examples from Acts or the Epistles of anybody coming to Christianity through a well-reasoned argument. Truth is a Person whom we meet in Christianity, not a set of precepts. To put it another way, it is not the case that the more one knows about God, the closer one is to God.

I would also tweak his last sentence–the reformers proclaimed the truth which they believed they had found while rejecting the truth which they had received. To understand what I mean by this, it is necessary to jettison the baggage most of us have with the word “tradition”, that it means “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way and we don’t have a better answer than that”, as typified popularly everywhere from Fiddler on the Roof (a humorous example) to the Shirley Jackson short story “The Lottery” (a horrifying example). It is a given that “tradition” is used in both a positive and negative light in Scripture; there is of course the admonition about “traditions of men” but then also there is 2 Thess 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our epistle” (compare to 2 Tim 1:13–“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus”) and 2 Thess 3:6, a reference to “the tradition which you received from us”. The Greek word here is παράδοσις paradosis, derived from the verb παραδίδωμι paradidomi, “to hand over, to transmit”. So, literally, παράδοσις is “that which is handed down” or “that which is handed over”. “Tradition” is simply the Latinate form of the same word; it is from “traditus”, the perfect passive participle of “tradere”, “to hand over”.

So what was passed down? “The faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). “Delivered” in Greek here is again a form of παραδίδωμι, so this is the faith once “traditioned” to the saints. That faith is “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), and the apostles had been told that the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), that truth of the which the Church is “the pillar and ground” (1 Tim 3:15).

Tradition, therefore, is the truth, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the Church which is both Body and Bride of Christ, Christ who is Himself the Truth. Tradition is not what we do because we’ve always done it and don’t have a better reason, but rather it is the the faith once “traditioned.”

So, from this perspective, the Reformers rejected that which had been “traditioned” to them while proclaiming what they believed to have been the truth they found, rather than received, by narrowing the list of acceptable sources.

By contrast, what we might generally refer to as “the catholic tradition” proclaims the truth which it receives. I don’t mean for that to sound arrogant (although it inevitably will); rather, that’s what the Greek Orthodox priest to whom Swan was speaking meant when he said that, on the inerrancy of Scripture, “we don’t think that way…we’ve just never questioned it.”

Still, there’s more of a context to his statement than just that, which brings me to Swan’s other piece:

As I think I’ve mentioned before, it is interesting to note that based on what we read in the New Testament, the “Word of God” does not seem limited to anything which was written down, and in fact, seems to speak of oral testimony.

Exactly, per 2 Thess 2:15, as quoted above. This again gets to the heart of the what the priest was saying–the New Testament is a witness to the tradition, to the authority, to the life of the Church already ongoing, not the instruction manual and not the source itself. More specifically, the Gospels and the Epistles are the Truth proclaimed and witnessed to in community–that is, liturgically, since they were written to be read to the assembly when they had gathered. To remove Scripture from this context and try to make it its own discrete source of authority is to obscure its meaning and reduce its authority, not to clarify it.

To relate this to an earlier point, Christianity is not a philosophy derived from a text, it is new life through an encounter with a Person who is the Truth. By being reduced to adherence to a set of precepts found in a text without the continuity of the life of the Church which has been ongoing since Pentecost, Christianity has been severely weakened.

What St. Ignatius wrote to the Philadelphians comes to mind: “When I heard some say, ‘Unless I find it in the official records–in the Gospel I do not believe’; and when I answered them, ‘It is in the Scriptures,’ they retorted: ‘That is just the point at issue.’ But to me the official record is Jesus Christ; the inviolable record is His Cross and His death and His Resurrection and the faith of which He is the Author.” The Scriptures witness to the Faith, not the other way around.

Um, that’s Lisbon

…and speaking of Anthony of Padua, can somebody please get rid of the nonsense in the first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry which somebody apparently thought was funny? Many thanks.

UPDATED, 6:54am 24 January 2008: It’s gone now. Thank you to whoever fixed it.

St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around…

One thing I’m hopeful that Delicious will do for me is cut down on the number of books I lose because I loan them out to somebody and forget who. This is not to offer any rebuke to those to whom I have loaned books and who have forgotten to return them or moved away or whatever; Lord knows I’m guilty of same, probably far more than I’m aware.

That said, if I loaned you my copy of Fr. Andrew Phillips’ Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church, or you know where to find an actual printed copy, could you please drop me a line at richard_barrett (AT) mac.com? This one stings more than some others because the copy I had was extraordinarily difficult to find to begin with, and it has been thus far impossible to replace. Yes, I know Fr. Andrew has made it available as a pdf; you’ll notice I linked to it. For the life of me I cannot remember to whom I loaned it, but I must have loaned it to somebody, because I’ve gone through literally every book in the house–it ain’t there, kids. I don’t mind buying another one if that’s what I have to do, I just don’t have a source through which to do so at present.

If you can help, let me know!

Roman fever and so on

This is over a week old now, but this is the first chance I’ve really had to say anything about it.

Please refresh your memory on what I have said before regarding Orthodoxy and anti-Catholicism.

With that in mind, consider this posting, plus all the comments, over at Cathedra Unitatis.

Personal engagement of one’s faith is a really tricky thing. We are well past the days, for good or ill, when you simply were whatever your family was when you were born and you could count on your parents being the same thing, at least nominally, because they would have to be in order to get married. I would never have been born under such a societal expectation, because my parents have wildly divergent religious beliefs, and neither of my parents really are exactly what they were raised. Mom was raised Lutheran and left that in her 30s for Evangelical shores; Dad was raised nothing exactly, but my grandfather apparently believed in God at some level, and Dad, well, doesn’t. Mom had me baptized Lutheran, we were both baptized again by the non-denominational congregation she chose when I was seven, we drifted through Baptist waters briefly when I was a teenager, I received adult confirmation as an Episcopalian, and was received into Orthodox Christianity by chrismation. Call it “church shopping” if you want, for me, or Mom, or Dad. I call it doing the work of figuring out what you believe and taking it seriously. My father is an atheist because he takes very seriously his beliefs about the nature of the universe, and those beliefs make God irrelevant at best, assuming He even exists. My mother became an Evangelical because she became committed to the things which are distinctive to Evangelicals. I was confirmed as an Episcopalian because I found myself having to take seriously the concept of being in continuity with the Christianity of history when it was manifestly obvious to me that mainline American Christianity did not care about that continuity; I left the ECUSA because it was clear to me the ECUSA as a body was no longer actively interested in maintaining that continuity or even passively allowing for it.

Truth be told, however, I suspect a lot of people, if they were honest about it, would ask, “Why bother?” I’ve read opinions before from people who say that apologetics and convert stories are inherently unconvincing to Joe Average because they’re written from a point of view which already takes this stuff far more seriously than most people ever will. It’s extremely unusual, so the argument goes, for the average person to actually engage faith on such a level–more often than not, people will just fall away rather than attempt to go deeper. Maybe that’s true; I don’t know. So, sure–“why bother?” I can’t really speak for either of my parents, but I bother because my belief that Christianity is true compels me to engage it and take it seriously. It is, as I like to say, that simple and that complicated.

Still, it’s all well and good to say, as I have elsewhere, that I became an Orthodox Christian because I believe it is true (or as Fr. Stephen Freeman likes to say, it is the truth in its fullness). That doesn’t alter the cultural reality that the questions I had are, in this country, far more easily and readily answered by Roman Catholicism, or the personal reality that I was already quite far along on my path to Rome before a couple of chance occurrences redirected my steps towards Constantinople. At the time I realized I couldn’t remain an Episcopalian, Orthodoxy wasn’t even a blip on my radar, and all sights were set on the Vatican. Save for a couple of chance occurrences, I could very well have attended Mass at the various churches I visited in Europe last summer as a communicant. (Yes, yes, I know that as far as Rome is concerned, I still can. As far as the bishop under whose jurisdiction I fall is concerned, however, that’s not the case.) People far wiser than myself have chosen to swim the Tiber; others, also far wiser than myself, have chosen to swim the Bosphorus. I cannot argue with or judge either choice, because various factors make it difficult and painful either way. Whenever somebody suggests that Orthodox converts are inherently anti-Catholic or people who just ultimately couldn’t set aside a cultural anti-Catholicism or people who didn’t consider the evidence with enough faith, I want to both laugh and cry.

I said something about a cultural reality in the last paragraph. I have an Orthodox friend who has periodic bouts of what he terms “Roman fever.” He spent a number of years examining the arguments on the Catholic and Orthodox sides, and ultimately found the Catholic argument unconvincing. He spent a bit longer evaluating the Rome vs. Constantinople case than it really took for him to be convinced because, as he says, he didn’t want there to be any historical or theological “gotchas” that could take him by surprise later–and there haven’t been. What there have been, however, are spiritual and cultural “gotchas,” and those have been much harder to deal with. As he says, it gets hardest around the Nativity Fast and Christmas–it occurs to him, as he’s at the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity listening to texts and music that bear zero relation to anything which has been familiar to him, that just down the street at the Roman Catholic parish is a Christmas service that is using the prayers and carols he knows as somebody who is culturally Western, and he begins to wonder if Orthodoxy isn’t, in practice, really some kind of society for the preservation of Byzantine culture. How in the world does the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom have anything to do with the modern world, the here and now? What impact on our culture can these alien externals of icons, incense, chanting, vestments, and so on actually have when it seems like we’re basically ignored by most people as “an ethnic thing”, and converts can go off the deep end in terms of embracing ethnic customs that aren’t really theirs in any kind of an organic sense? The history and theology keep my friend where he is, but not without significant and ongoing cultural pain.

Truth be told, while I haven’t had the same issues adapting to the Byzantine Rite, I’m not unsympathetic to any of this. Those of us in the West who convert to Orthodox Christianity are culturally Western; there is no getting around this, and I don’t agree with those Orthodox who would take a stance which amounts to “all things Western are of the devil.” Despite the differences, Western and Eastern Christianity grew from the same seed, and that common origin is more than evident. (See Fr. Stephen Freeman’s excellent posts which relate to this here, here, and here.) It is the various Western liturgies and chant repertoires which are, even from an Orthodox point of view, the spiritual patrimony of pre-schismatic Western Christendom, not the Byzantine; one can go on and on. From this standpoint, I’m very much in favor of the use of the Gregorian Mass by Western Rite parishes. If you take a look at my CD collection, I’ve got recordings from the St. Gregory Society, Westminster Cathedral, and so on. I’ve got books by the current pope from when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I have my own copy of the Liber Usualis. If I can ever get my blogroll to display again, you’ll see I link to many Catholic blogs, all of which I read regularly. Images, incense, chant, and vestments, up until the last generation or two, were universal throughout what I might call “catholic minded” communions–Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, even Lutheran. (In fact, the first time I ever experienced incense in church was at an LCMS service.) That which seems “Byzantine” now perhaps seems so largely because it’s far more rare than it used to be (although it is to be hoped that Summorum Pontificum will in the long run make this less the case).

The truth of the matter is, at the level of externals, traditional Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy aren’t all that dissimilar–with the subsequent irony that this makes the differences which seem minor all the more serious. I’ve got a Roman Catholic friend who has made the comment, “I have to keep reminding myself you’re not Catholic,” to which I’ve replied, “I have to keep reminding myself you’re not Orthodox.” Nonetheless, when he visited my parish, while saying the Divine Liturgy was basically the same as a High Mass, he did not genuflect at the altar; I understood why, and I didn’t expect him to. I don’t genuflect at a Roman Catholic altar, either–not out of spite, not out of any kind of inherent anti-Catholicism, but because whatever anybody else may say, we’re not in communion. I do not claim Rome is “utterly devoid of grace” as some do, but neither can I positively affirm Rome’s Mysteries, any more than I would expect my Roman Catholic friend to affirm ours. That isn’t anti-anything; that’s acknowledging the truth, however painful, of the state that exists between the Patriarchate of Rome and the Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, Moscow, and so on. If we all believe what we say we believe about Holy Communion (Orthodox and Catholic alike), it can hardly be otherwise. It’s not hostility, it is the tragic reality which must be respected until the reality changes.

So, to relate this back to Cathedra Unitatis’ update, the comments, and my own earlier post…

As with the friend I mentioned earlier (and for all I know, my friend is Cathedra Unitatis, since CU is thus far anonymous), I am sympathetic to the journey he has taken over the last year in the hard task of personally engaging his beliefs, and I find that I would have been unable to judge him either way he went. Do I think CU made the right choice? Yes, I’m Orthodox, so of course I do, but this whole business in the comments of it now becoming an issue of “whose ox is gored” is absurd. There is, apparently, an unfortunate double standard among some on both sides–if you argue in favor of your position, you are being hostile towards my position; if I argue in favor of my position, I am only doing what is my unquestionable duty, and you disagreeing with that only shows how hostile you really are. Maybe that’s unavoidable, and a symptom of how deep the issues actually go; I don’t know, but I know I don’t want to contribute to the problem, and I would hope that none of my fellow Orthodox would either.

I support CU’s current focus on trying to play his own small part in building Christian unity, which is something we should all be doing–with the caveat that unity cannot be based on false pretenses, on a “wishing away” of the genuine differences and issues which need to be worked out. An ecumenism which is based on a wink and a nudge or a papering over of problems is a false ecumenism, and false ecumenism is a cure which is ultimately going to be worse than the disease. Let us embrace each other as brothers, let us mourn together the fact that we may not gather around the same altar at the present moment, let us talk and work together to solve the problems which divide us, but let us not simply pretend those problems don’t exist, and let us not assume our brother wishes us ill because conscience will not let them cross a line–charity demands better of us. There are, without question, Orthodox who are nastily anti-Catholic, and there are also, without question, Catholics who are nastily anti-Orthodox; it is our job to not let those people control the conversation–but it is also our job to be discerning about what is hostility and what is an honest sticking to one’s guns.

The paradox is this–as laypeople, we have to be obedient to our bishops, and as such, we can’t just take it upon ourselves to ignore the question of with whom we are and are not in communion. However, neither can our bishops impose Christian unity from the top down if it is to mean anything–they can only formally recognize a unity which already exists in the hearts of the laypeople. The Council of Florence should have taught us all that. As I’ve said before, I think the key here is to set aside concerns of concelebration and communion and forget about “dialogue”–those are all things about which our bishops need to be doing the worrying. The focus of those of us on the ground should be on cooperation and conversation–the “beer and pizza rule,” as Rod Dreher likes to put it, implying a willingness to lay aside the assumption that the other party intends for us the worst.

Judging each other harshly is a big part of why Christian disunity exists. Let’s not be in the business of repeating the same mistakes.

We seal a dial, she weans a Liam…

I am slowly but surely cramming the Latin verb system back into my head. Today, in class, I realized why I was having trouble distinguishing between second and third conjugation verbs based on the infinitive form: we weren’t using macrons anymore! With saintly patience as though explaining it as though to a four year old, my instructor reminded me that you pretty much have to go to the first principal part to tell the difference without macrons; -eo being the characteristic ending of the first principal part for the second conjugation. And then, of course, for the vowel change in the subjunctive, “we fear a liar.” “He eats caviar.” Or something.

I love being thirty-one and being more-or-less newly at an educational level which, ideally, I would have been at when I was twelve or thirteen.

On the other hand, Syriac was good fun yesterday; we’re reading the Gospel of St. Mark now, and it’s not bad. I do sincerely wish there was an equivalent of the Nestle-Aland critical New Testament for the Peshitta–i.e., with an apparatus and glossary; alas, the UBS edition has none of that, and is extremely hard to read. Sounds like somebody up the road might be working on something like this…? Anybody know?

While I’m thinking about it, anybody know how to get my blogroll displayed using this template?

And yes, I know that my notes for Unit 2 of Hansen & Quinn aren’t posted yet. I’m working on them–the last month or so has just been busier than I would like for such things.

More later.

Varia

latin_ms.jpgI’m slowly getting back in oscillationem rerum with Latin. The grammatical concepts are all more or less there, it’s just little things like, oh, vocabulary and the whole freakin’ verb system I have to cram back into my head. Optare, optavisse, optaturus esse, optari, optatus esse, optatum iri… if you see me on the elliptical machine at the gym looking like I’m having a very agitated conversation with myself, I’m reviewing Latin.

Fr. Stephen Freeman has an interesting look at the the word “fullness” and its implications within Orthodox Christianity. It is very much worth reading in its entirety, but a couple of points jump out at me:

Fullness means more than being correct. It is possible to be correct about something, and yet be empty and lifeless. Fullness is correct because it is a true reflection of God and not because it can be measured against the law or a set of rules (or the canons, etc.).

“It is possible to be correct about something, and yet be empty and lifeless.” So true as to not require any comment, only repetition.

Fullness implies a completeness.

The word Fr. Stephen is hinting at without saying is catholic–from κατά + ὅλον kata-holon, “according to the whole.” Catholicity, while a much-debated word, really boils down to the state of lacking nothing. The fullness of our faith, in other words, is where our catholicity is to be found–but this brings us to an irony:

I do know, and have said elsewhere, “Why would anyone want something less than the fullness of the faith?”

The irony here is that the very claim of “the fullness of the faith” is exactly what turns away some who I’ve known. Even if it’s true, so some have said to me, that shouldn’t be anything we care about if we are to preach only Christ, and Him crucified. If you think you’ve got the fullness of the faith, in other words, that’s proof that you don’t.

Isn’t epistemology fun?

Get Religion has a good post on political writers ignoring Roman Catholics. The last line sums it up well:

Yes, there is a longstanding antipathy between intellectuals devoted to the Enlightenment and Catholics devoted to Rome. Yet magazine writers wrote about Catholic voting trends. So why don’t political reporters?

I’m reminded of how in 2004, something of a big deal was made about how the Catholic vote was important enough to the Republicans that Bush paid a visit to the Knights of Columbus. I remember thinking to myself, “Do the Orthodox even have a comparable group for any of the political parties to snub?”

And, well–no, we don’t.

Not yet.

Essay: Like a Jesus fish out of water

A series of events inspired this piece, which I wrote last fall and for which I presently find myself without a publisher. Enjoy.

A couple of years ago I was invited to a friend’s wedding across the country. It was somebody who I had known since the third grade, and it was important to me to be there. Nonetheless, I had a little bit of a scheduling issue of which I needed to make her aware: it was Easter on my church’s calendar.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Easter is the month before.”

“Not for us.”

“Oh,” she said. “I understand—you’re pagan, right? It’s the solstice?”

“Er, no. I’m Orthodox,” I explained.

“I don’t even know what that is,” she said, “but as long as you’re there, that’s cool.”

The day of her wedding, I was lucky to be awake for the food, let alone the ceremony. Talking to the mother of the bride, I explained that I had been at church at four in the morning for an Easter service.

“How does that work?” She was clearly confused. “Wasn’t that a while ago?”

“Not for me,” I said. “I’m Orthodox.”

“Orthodox?” she asked. “Orthodox what? Jewish?”

Right, I thought. Because Easter is a Jewish holiday. “No,” I told her, “Orthodox Christian.” She stared at me. I might as well have been speaking Uyghur. “You know, like Greek Orthodox? Russian Orthodox?”

“Oh, I didn’t realize your wife was Greek! I guess she’s got dark hair—”

“She’s not. We converted.”

Mother of the Bride narrowed her eyes, started to say something, then changed her mind. “Well, I just hope that doesn’t mean you’re one of those fundamentalists the Republicans have sold out to,” she said, and moved on to the next guest.

Orthodoxy is a tough thing to explain to most Americans. It’s the world’s second largest discrete body of Christians after Roman Catholics, but it is largely unknown west of Greece. If people are aware of what it is at all, it is knowledge likely derived from passive contact—maybe they’ve been to an Arabic church festival and seen icons while munching on baklava. Possibly they’ve got a Russian friend who wears their wedding ring on their right hand. Maybe somebody’s been to a friend’s wedding or a baptism, and came away from the ceremony thinking that the whole thing felt weird and old. Beautiful, maybe, but still pretty alien and ancient compared to our own prefabricated, whitewashed, auditorium-style church culture.

Most likely, they saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding where that guy from Northern Exposure was baptized in a plastic kiddie pool.

What’s even tougher is trying to explain to your average White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or whatever else they might be, that you’re Orthodox when your last name doesn’t end in “-opoulos” or “-evsky.” As with my friend’s mother, there’s often an assumption that there must be an external cultural force operating on you—you had to convert to get married, or your dad did, right? Or your grandparents had to change their names when they came to this country? Don’t you have to be born or get married into Orthodoxy, like Judaism? One or two people might have read something in Christianity Today about a group of a couple of thousand Evangelicals converting to Orthodoxy back in the 1980s—and also might have read something in the same magazine about a convert or two having buyer’s remorse sometime later.

As well, any sense of what Orthodox Christians actually believe is in all probability a bit murky. When I was involved in an Orthodox college ministry, we were often asked by people from other groups—“Do you guys believe in Jesus Christ?” Or, “Are the Orthodox saved?” There was one friend with whom I was discussing this who became visibly uncomfortable when he heard the words “Eastern Orthodox.” He stopped chewing his hashbrowns, squirmed a bit in his seat and said, “I’m not really sure what that even is.” Well, no. Most aren’t. I often get asked—it’s Roman Catholicism without the pope and in Greek instead of Latin? Something like that? More often than not, I know they just want the short version of the story, the bumper sticker rather than the divinity degree, so I smile, shrug, and say, “Something like that.” I’m bad at telling short versions in the first place, and any short version I come up with for this is going to make people more confused, not less.

Then there are the times where somebody seems genuinely interested in a real answer, and sometimes the outcome of providing that real answer surprises everybody. My wife and I were having Benjamin, a friend from school, over for dinner once when we were still getting to know him, and he asked about what we believed as Orthodox. I handed him a book called The Orthodox Church, written by Timothy Ware, a bishop and a much wiser man than I, saying, “Read this. He says it much better than I’ll ever be able to do.” Three years later, Benjamin is preparing to become a priest.

Truth be told, someone walking into an Orthodox church that’s been around for any length of time will quite possibly feel like they’ve happened upon an archaeological dig. There are icons, candles, and incense everywhere, the liturgy is chanted, the priests wear a lot of vestments and face the altar rather than the people, and so on.

Add to this that many perceive it as a “Greek thing” or a “Russian thing” or a “Lebanese thing” and just in general “not an American thing,” and even if you are successfully able to explain to somebody what Orthodoxy is, you’ve still got the uphill battle of justifying its relevance, how it fits in with a national understanding of Christianity shaped more by various opinions of Jerry Falwell than relative obscurities like the minutiae of the early Ecumenical Councils, and explaining why in the world an American in the twenty-first century with no direct ties to those cultures would care. Talk about feeling like a Jesus fish out of water. Maybe kiddie pools in ethnic-themed comedies are at least a place to start.

Even me—I’m a convert, so somebody had to explain it to me at some point in a way that made sense, right? That’s true. In a nutshell, I met somebody willing to give me a meaningful answer to the question “What is Orthodoxy?” at a time in my life when I was willing to listen to it. I didn’t convert immediately, but it was the right moment for me to start thinking about some things.

See, if I was raised anything, I was raised an Evangelical, but my dad is an atheist. He’s always asked me, “If Christianity’s the real deal, why can’t you all get your story straight?” It’s a legitimate question. Some estimate 26,000 Christian denominations, most of them mutually exclusive in terms of belief and teaching. The New Testament doesn’t make any mention of Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, or—it can’t be denied—Orthodox. It speaks of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” and a faith “once delivered to the saints.” There was one Church, not thousands of denominations. What happened? Was it really just Martin Luther’s misadventure with a hammer?

Well, I reached a point in my lifelong journey as a Christian where I had to answer my dad’s question once and for all or lose my own faith. In reading Christian history, I found that this organic, single Church that emerged from apostolic times survived for quite a while. Where is it now? I wondered. Christ Himself said that the gates of hades would not prevail against His Church, and surely, if it still existed, as a professed Christian I would want to be part of it.

There was this friend of mine, Mark, who I knew to be Greek Orthodox. I had absolutely no idea what that meant except that he wore his wedding ring on his right hand and celebrated Easter on a different day. We got into a conversation one day where I found myself asking the question, “What is Orthodoxy?” I had to buy him dinner, but he was willing to give me a meaningful answer—basically telling the history from an Orthodox perspective, which I found answered my dad’s question and then some. It was a very compelling case indeed.

And after going our separate ways that evening, I completely forgot about it.

A little over a year later, there was an invitation from Tatiana, a Russian friend, to my wife and me to attend part of an Orthodox Easter service—just the food blessing, really. The priest looked like Rasputin with his long hair and beard and black robes, the Easter eggs were only one color—blood red—and everything was in Old Church Slavonic. I suddenly remembered everything my friend Mark had told me, and I found myself captivated.

The food blessing was in the social hall, and afterward Tatiana asked if we wanted to see the church. Yes, we said, of course. Walking into the church was very much the “archaeological dig” experience I mentioned earlier, and it put all of the pieces together for me—two thousand years of Christian history were brought to life at once. It was a sense of the presence of God I had never encountered before, and all I could do was light a candle and pray.

Then I promptly went back to the social hall and dropped sixty bucks at their book counter. And, while I’m not going to teach a catechism class right this second or go into the full blow-by-blow, two years later, we converted.

My conversion story isn’t really the point; all of this is just to say—people can and do convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, I did convert, and there were even good reasons why I wanted to do so. You most definitely do not have to be born into Orthodox Christianity or marry into it. (For that matter, you don’t with Judaism either.) I didn’t marry into a Greek family—my wife is Scotch-Slovak. It’s not likely my grandparents changed our name—Richard Raymond Barrett is about as post-Norman Invasion English as you can get, and there’s no possible permutation of it that could be made to sound Greek or Russian. (Barrettarides? Barrettaninoff? I don’t think so.) In the United States, a lot of converts don’t even go to Greek or Russian churches—they wind up in communities under the Church of Antioch (ethnically Lebanese and/or Syrian), which have made themselves very convert-friendly in the last two or three decades—to the point where a lot of ostensibly Arabic churches are made up mostly of converts.

We’re not exactly Roman Catholics with a Greek Mass and who don’t have a pope, but there are reasons why people might see it that way. We take the Nicene Creed very, very, verrrrrrry seriously, so yeah, it’s safe to say we believe in Jesus Christ. Are we saved? Sure, and that’s not all: we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.

But all of that, even, is just surface stuff. Orthodox Christian spirituality explicitly recasts the entire relationship with God in such a way that seems foreign to many Christian expressions prevalent in America. Rather than either an angry Divine Parent who needs to kill somebody in order to satisfy offended justice and who settles on His Son, or a disinterested Creator who really doesn’t care what we do (to name but two extremes), Orthodoxy Christianity presents the Church as a hospital to treat the diseases of sin and death to which human nature are subject. God, as the Orthodox understand Him, doesn’t need to punish anybody—rather, He seeks to heal everybody.

On the other hand, try explaining that “everybody” part to some Greeks, Russians, and Arabs. Sometimes, explaining to your Presbyterian next-door neighbor that you’re Orthodox is easier than convincing other Orthodox, particularly ones whose last names do end in “-opoulos” and “-evsky.” Plurality of religion in this country means that, for better or for worse, the different Christian communions compete with each other (not to mention everybody else) in a marketplace of ideas, and none of them co-terminate with a mythical, monolithic “American heritage,” much less the state; this can be hard to understand for a person whose religion does run parallel to their ethnicity. As a result, sometimes it feels like some of them have forgotten that even their own people were new converts, once upon a time.

A Ukrainian woman I worked with for awhile saw the three-bar crucifix I wear, a gift from my godfather when I converted. “Hey,” she said. “That’s an Orthodox cross. What are you doing wearing that?”

“I’m Orthodox.”

“I didn’t know you were Russian!”

“I’m not.”

“But you said you were Orthodox!”

“Right. I converted.”

She looked really confused, and pursed her lips. “How?” She swallowed. “Why? What would make you want to… to become part of that faith?” It was as if her mouth wouldn’t cooperate in saying the word “convert.”

“It’s a long story,” I said.

“You’ll have to tell it to me sometime,” she said. The chance never arose to tell her, as I quit and she moved out of state shortly thereafter.

Another time, a Greek gentleman with whom I was having a conversation noticed the crucifix. “You’re wearing an Orthodox cross,” he announced, perhaps thinking he was imparting new information. “Are you Russian?”

“No.”

“Are you Greek?”

“No.”

“Are you Orthodox?”

“Yes.”

He searched my face for a moment, trying to see if there was some chance I was putting him on. Finally he said, “Well, good for you,” and quickly changed conversation topics.

Doubt and curiosity aren’t always what I encounter; at one point I worked as a bank teller, and a Russian truck driver came through my line. “You’ve got an Orthodox cross on,” he said as I was processing his transaction. “It’s a lot like this one.” He pulled out his own from under his coat. Before I could say anything he asked, “Are you Orthodox?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Did you convert?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Why?”

As noted earlier, I’m terrible at short versions of stories, but sometimes time constraints, such as a line of customers looking increasingly impatient, force me to come up with something. The shortest and most factual sentence I could come up with was, “Because I came to the conclusion it was true.”

“Well, then.” He smiled at me. “Thank God!” He never once asked me what my heritage was.

My friend Anna was born in Athens and divided her time between America and Greece growing up. She was baptized and raised Orthodox, but by the time she started grad school, she wasn’t involved overly much. I met her at my home church during the last semester of her Masters in Library Science program, and watched her as she decided to take her faith seriously, seize it by the horns, and take ownership of it. When she went back to Greece after graduation, her dad gave her a hard time about going to an Arabic church in the States, but she hasn’t let that get her down. The truth is that by virtue of being Greek but rediscovering her faith among American converts, Anna straddles both worlds. She likes to call herself a “revert.”

It can get interesting sometimes for converts traveling abroad. Maggie, a dear friend of ours, spent a summer in Jerusalem once. She made a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where some Orthodox at the door tried to chase her away—“Exo, exo,” they said in Greek (meaning “out”), making it plain that only Orthodox could be in there. She attempted to explain she was Orthodox, but they really didn’t get it—“You’re not Orthodox, you’re American,” they said. They were completely unaware of the phenomenon of American converts; after a little bit of back and forth they let her stay, but with distinct unease.

Last summer, my wife spent seven weeks in Germany, and found the Church of the Holy Spirit, a Greek church where she was staying. This summer she went on the same trip, and I got to spend the middle third of it with her, it being my very first time abroad. She took me to the Church of the Holy Spirit a couple of times, and all things considered, the service itself was not a much different experience from my usual Sunday morning. The Liturgy was entirely in Greek, including the homily, but that wasn’t really a problem; I’m familiar enough with the services by now that I knew where we were at, and I’ve had enough Greek that I was able to piece it together if I got confused.

Still, what was different were the people. Nobody said “Exo, exo” to us, but really nobody in the congregation said much of anything to us at all. The priest, Father Irodion, was a dear old man who was delighted that we were there, and seemed to have some understanding of why two non-Greek Americans would be seeking out their little church on the Rhineland. It also helped that they had a cantor who had been educated at an American seminary. Still, when we went up to receive Communion—of which only practicing Orthodox Christians may partake—body language and facial expressions of those around me suggested that a lot of them were thinking, What just happened here? At the coffee hour, we tried to introduce ourselves to a woman sitting right across the table from us. She said, “Nice to meet you,” and did not offer her name or say anything further.

It would have been easy to be frustrated or feel alienated, but I was prepared for it. Being ignored stuck in Megan’s craw, however, particularly since she had been there a number of times by now. “Well,” I said, “if you keep going, eventually somebody will make the adjustment and start talking to you of their own accord. Probably by the time that happens they’ll all already think of you as part of the family, you just won’t know it yet.”

I know from the conversations I’ve had with my own “Old Country” friends at church that sometimes they truthfully do not know what to say to us crazy American converts. It’s not a desire to be rude or push us away; in fact, they often don’t say anything because they’re afraid that they’ll come across as rude inadvertently. It’s a cultural miscommunication and nothing more—hardly anything malicious. Besides, the idea of faith and heritage being inextricably linked is hardly limited to the Orthodox; “Scandinavian” and “Lutheran” may no longer be as synonymous in the United States as they once were, but that’s just because they’ve been around longer and we’re used to it, not because it’s any less true. As someone with a lot of Danish on my mother’s side, believe me, I know.

A few days after my first time at the Church of the Holy Spirit, I took a brief trip to London. I happened to find myself at dinner one evening with three people who attended the Greek Orthodox cathedral in London. One gentleman was a native Englishman of Greek heritage, another man was a Greek native, and the third was his Romanian fiancée. They were some of the friendliest fellow Orthodox I have ever encountered, and while it was a surprise to them to run into an American convert, it wasn’t a stumbling block, and we had a lovely time. They insisted that I see the Cathedral during my stay, even though I wasn’t going to be around long enough for a service.

I got to the Cathedral with a bit of a difficulty—the Tube line that serviced that part of town was down that day, so I had to take a bus. Then, after walking up and down the street it was supposed to be on and not finding it, I stopped at a neighborhood library to see if they could give me directions. They had never heard of the place—making the Cathedral the first church I had been to in England where the immediate neighbors couldn’t give me an intimate history of every brick—but were able to print me off a map from the Internet. Once I found it, I was quite happy I did; it’s a beautiful church that was clearly built with a lot of care.

On my way out, a priest seemed to materialize—Father Nectarios, who I later found out had recently arrived from Greece. He was clearly confused by my presence, and asked in somewhat broken English if I was Russian; “No,” I explained, “I’m an American, but I’m Orthodox.”

He apologized for his English, but asked who my bishop was. “I’m under the Patriarch of Antioch,” I said.

“Antioch?” He looked more confused. “I don’t think I know what that is.”

“Patriarch Ignatius IV,” I said, hoping that that would make sense.

He thought about that for a moment, and then his face lit up. “Oh! Ig-nah-tee-os!” he exclaimed, pronouncing the name in Greek fashion. “Yes, we are the same. And you are Orthodox?”

“Yes, Father. My wife and I converted.”

“That’s wonderful! Congratulations and God bless you!” He motioned me back into the church. “Come, come.” I had a plane to catch, but I figured I could always catch the express train to Heathrow if it got too close to the wire.

Father Nectarios showed me around the church, explaining some of their history and distinctive features as best he could. Finally he said once again, “God bless you,” and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. As it happened, I did take the express train, and then my flight was delayed an hour.

I’ve found that self-definition is tricky. It’s can be quite tough to explain what Orthodox Christianity is without having to define ourselves in terms of what it is not; we’re Catholic but not Roman, but not Roman while also being not Protestant. Confusing, isn’t it? Making it a “Greek thing” or a “Russian thing” is one way around that, but if you’re an American convert like me who doesn’t have a drop of Greek blood in his body, that doesn’t work and you have to rely on abstractions that are going to seem obscure to most people. Not only that, without ethnicity as a factor, some Orthodox aren’t going to understand, either.

The Sunday after I returned to the United States, I was back at my home church and Megan was once again at the Church of the Holy Spirit. Father Irodion asked if I had made it home safe. “I love that you Americans look for us when you’re so far away from home,” he said. “There are a lot of Greeks here I can’t convince to come.” Also, out of the blue, a woman named Tepi introduced herself—she was a Greek woman who grew up in Germany, and when she married a German man he converted. She translated a lot of the conversations going on at the table for Megan, and made her feel more at home.

This morning, my doctor noticed my cross. “That’s beautiful,” he said. “Is that an Orthodox cross?”

“Yes.”

“Did you get that while you were in Europe?”

“No, I’m Orthodox.”

“Oh,” he said. “Are you Russian?”

Urbs, urbis, urbi, urbem, urbe…

Back to Latin today, and tomorrow morning back to Syriac. Blogging may remain light for a few days while the rust shakes out.

2007: A pictorial year in review


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