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Xenophobia, xenophilia, and watching what everybody else is doing

There’s a C. S. Lewis quote from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer that Orthodox love to pull out:

What pleased me most about a Greek Orthodox mass I once attended was that there seemeed to be no prescribed behaviour for the congregation. Some stood, some sat, some knelt, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing. (p. 10)

My instinct is that the reason why this dynamic worked is because except for him and his wife (elsewhere he mentions attending the Divine Liturgy when they were honeymooning in Greece), everybody and their families had been Orthodox as long as anybody could remember, and it was an entirely natural thing to be there and to be doing whatever they were used to doing.

I suggest that we Orthodox Christians in America, cradle and convert alike, have been less successful in reproducing this dynamic, and it seems to me there are a number of reasons for this. For us converts, we’re new to this, everything is totally unfamiliar, and we’re all here because we think Orthodox Christianity is Right and therefore we want to do things the Right Way.

I might also suggest that the presence of pews or rows of seating otherwise in many American churches, contributing to the sense of passive participation as it does (see article by Paul Meyendorff here), also makes us even more afraid to do something different from what the congregation as a whole might be doing.

So, to some extent, we think we have to take notice of everybody else; we’re all sort of nervously and self-consciously glancing sideways at the rest of the congregation, not wanting to stick out like a sore thumb and wanting to Do Thing the Right Way.

Among cradles, I’ve seen definite reactions to what they perceive as “things only done in the Old Country”; I’ve seen ethnic Arabs freak out when fasting gets talked about, or when there’s a conversation about possibly removing chairs from the nave, for example. I’ve also seen a Romanian woman get very nervous and almost confrontational when it seemed like women wearing headscarves was something that might catch on at a particular parish.

I’d say that for both cradle and convert alike, there can be a worry that, if you do something that I don’t, it’s because you think that you’re holier than I am, and if what you do catches on and becomes normative, I’m going to be judged because I don’t. Another nuance could be that there’s something disingenuous-seeming about somebody telling you how non-legalistic and non-clericalist Orthodox Christianity is, just before that same person, say, does three metanias before asking for a priest’s blessing, kissing his hand, and then looking at you expectantly to see if you’re going to do the same thing. (In the interest of clarity, I don’t shake priests’ hands, I kiss them, so this is not a knock against that practice by any means.)

It’s an odd mixture of self-consciousness and pride. Is that uniquely American? Could be — I’m not sure.

There’s a deeper aspect to taking too much notice of what other people are doing, however, and that’s a particular xenophobia, as well as its twin, xenophilia, that can occur with converts. There’s the person who wants to be Orthodox for convictions of faith, but upon encountering anything the slightest bit Greek, Arabic, Russian, or otherwise non-Western, gets extremely uncomfortable and wants to write off all of these things as ethnic custom, “little-t tradition,” that we should jettison as quickly as possible and replace with practices which seem more “American.” There’s also the exact reverse of this person, who will tell you why the Orthodox traditions of <fill in the blank with a country name> are actually the “purest” version of Orthodox practice, and anything else is a deviation.

These are two manifestations of the same overall problem: preoccupation with something which seems exotic, which we could restate, in keeping with our present theme, as preoccupation with what somebody else does.

Realistically, this is going to take a few generations to work out, but I think figuring out how to be Orthodox Americans in a non-self-conscious manner is going to be a necessary step towards unity, and, to get back to what I was saying yesterday, I think having our own saints, our own indigenous models of sanctity, will be one of the major things that helps us do that.

One other thought along these lines — as some have pointed out, there is an irony to a foreign-born hierarch telling American-born priests what is American and what isn’t. Surely, as the natural reaction to this goes, this isn’t 1970 anymore, and people aren’t going to make negative assumptions about somebody with a beard these days.

Here’s where I think the disconnect is — I think Met. PHILIP and company have a very Wall Street-level perspective of what “being American” is. I think the question they’re asking is, “What do wealthy, powerful Americans do, how do they dress, how do they act?” This is not totally unexpected, given that Met. PHILIP has made it clear that those are the very people he wants to be able to influence. Those are, nonetheless, exactly the people who don’t care about Orthodox Christianity, simply because they are least likely to have any reason to care. What we do will be far more effective in the long run, I am convinced, if we ask ourselves what the urban poor, the lower class, and the rural would do and to what they can relate. If you’re going to build a big church in a bad part of town, throw your doors open to your neighbors — don’t do everything you can to keep them out. Minister to the masses, and the classes will follow. Minister to the classes, and the masses aren’t going to care. Isn’t that what Christ told us to do in the first place?

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5 Responses to “Xenophobia, xenophilia, and watching what everybody else is doing”


  1. 1 David Dickens 19 November 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I’m glad you linked back to this article. I can’t help but say I like you. Because you’re like a much better version of me. Or what I could have been, if.

    For this self-conscious convert it’s easy to be thankful when the Spirit shows me something that I can comprehend as comforting. When I read you or Och or certain others, it relieves much self-imposed pressure (as you can see I am not immune to, in my earlier comment today). Thank you.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 19 November 2009 at 7:30 pm

      I’d be happy if I could just be a better version of myself, but I appreciate you saying that very much. Thank you.

  2. 3 David Wooten 26 March 2011 at 4:45 pm

    “I’d say that for both cradle and convert alike, there can be a worry that, if you do something that I don’t, it’s because you think that you’re holier than I am, and if what you do catches on and becomes normative, I’m going to be judged because I don’t.”

    I know this is an old post (hey, it came up in a Google search), but this is just spot on.

  3. 4 Fr. Anastasios Hudson 15 March 2012 at 4:06 pm

    I don’t have hard numbers on this, but I think that I recall reading that the Orthodox Church in India initially ministered to the poor, and this led to many conversions, but once they got rich people coming in, they admitted some aspects of the caste system after a few hundred years, and hence why they did not ever reach huge numbers like Islam did (granted Islam benefited from being the conquerers’ religion, but there are I believe large numbers of Muslims even in areas that were only marginally under Mughal control, and not for very long).

    Now, apart from the question of whom to target class-wise, there is the question of whether our long flowing robes will preclude us from reaching out to Americans. As I alluded to in my post which you linked to, https://triangleorthodox.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/can-americans-really-be-at-home-in-the-orthodox-church/, I have had success in the South working with people in rural areas, and yet the people who have told me that we will never reach “Billy Bob” when wearing black robes are not the people actually out there talking to Billy Bob!

    Another favorite quote: “American Orthodoxy is not about English liturgies only. It’s about hamburgers and hotdogs being served at coffee hour, not falafel.” Yes, an Antiochian priest actually said this to me(!). That’s ironic because as far as I know, they don’t do “coffee hour” in the old country (at least not in Greece) and there are a large number of Americans who would rather eat falafel over hamburgers hehe. I was too dumbfounded to speak, but I wish I had said to him: “Why not both?”


  1. 1 Ochlophobist on the dilemma of being “young, male, and Orthodox” « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 19 November 2009 at 9:02 am

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