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Archive for October, 2009

Conceptualizing the “liberal bias” of academia

Have I mentioned I’m glad I’m not a modern historian? Seriously. So much of the scholarship of modern history I’m reading in my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course is angry, ultra-liberal work that arrogates to itself a point of view of objective correctness, using theory as a blunt instrument against people, institutions, and events with which/whom they might disagree politically. Anything that might discuss an event or institution without criticism is nationalistic, conservative, anti-intellectual nonsense. There’s a strain I perceive among some of my cohort of choosing to be a historian because of a particular anger about a particular issue — colonialism, nationalism, treatment of one group or another, and so on.

But hold on. Is that really what’s happening? What is the “liberal bias” of academia, really? Does it actually exist? Would those whom conservatives accuse of having a liberal bias actually see it that way themselves (and, alternately, would those conservatives recognize a corresponding conservative bias)? What’s really going on?

What I’m starting to wonder is this — is what some perceive as a “liberal bias” not much more than the very human reaction to the horrible things of the 20th century, but that reaction occurring in a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, postmodern world? Is it as simple as a group of well-meaning, intelligent people saying, very understandably, “These are awful, evil things! How do we explain them, understand them, and prevent them?” Except with the caveat that the structures that might exist to help explain them, understand them, and prevent them, are no longer seen as reliable?

Perhaps we’re in an age where what we’ve got is “choose your own adventure humanity” — there’s no reason for society to assent to a particular religion, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to recognize as legitimate any particular power of the state, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to acknowledge and privilege any of the constructs society used to acknowledge and privilege, but go ahead if you want. Don’t agree with X? Great, don’t do it, but don’t tell somebody else they can’t, because there’s no legitimate framework to do so. As a consequence of these points, there’s no reason for any particular group of people to have any particular advantage or privilege, perceived or real, over anybody else; not only that, but there is no legitimate definition of a difference of function that asserts a lack of difference of privilege, because there is no institution privileged to make that distinction, and any institution that would assert the privilege to make that distinction must automatically be seen through the lens of power relationships.

The end result is very well-meaning, very humane people trying to solve humanitarian problems out of context, which winds up being perceived as “liberal bias”, but it isn’t, really. It’s just that they’ve backed themselves into a theoretical corner. From a Christian standpoint, what we might say is that these people can perceive — and quite unmistakably so — the effect of the Fall, but they don’t have any means of actually discussing it meaningfully. The anger I sense in the scholarship I’m reading and in some of my colleagues is maybe not poorly motivated, but the only way they have to talk about it is to say is in terms of historical constructs like colonialism, nationalism, racism, gender inequality, and so on — Foucauldian language regarding power and domination emerges as a seemingly sensible way to discuss historical problems.

Christians also wind up being backed into the same corner, and have to at least discuss problems that are a result of the Fall as though the Fall never happened. Even Christianity has to function according to the rules of a postmodern, post-Christian world, in other words.

Is this an impasse? Perhaps to some extent. Bad things continue to happen; people continue to have a very human response to said bad things. It’s not a liberal vs. conservative problem; the problem with conservatives is that the potential is there to go to the opposite extreme — “Oh well, it’s a fallen world, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, nothing you can do about it except be thankful if you’re on the winning side and hope the Second Coming happens before things get much worse,” being how I might broadly sketch out such an extreme.

Understanding the problem as a liberal bias is not ultimately going to be helpful, I don’t think. I think we can assume more often than not that people take certain positions in good faith and with good intentions (although by their fruits shall ye know them, of course). Kicking against the goads of a perceived liberal bias isn’t going to change anything; what might change some things — and more importantly, what might change some minds and hearts — is providing well-reasoned persuasive arguments for alternative theoretical understandings, and doing so within the context of a genuine Christian witness. At times that may very well mean having to be a witness in the sense of “martyrdom,” but it’s hard to deny that that can be necessarily part of the deal.

Which reminds me — I still have more to say about Foucault. I haven’t forgotten about that, and I’ll talk about that reasonably soon.

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Notes on Arab Orthodoxy on The Antioch Centre

Samn! provides an interesting piece on The Antioch Centre, the project of an Oxford-based monk to catalog the manuscripts of the Patriarchate of Antioch. I found this part particularly interesting:

Another important aspect of his work is uncovering more information about how long the Syriac language remained in use Orthodox Christians in Syria and Lebanon– in some regions, the lectionary readings were only translated from Syriac into Arabic in the 17th century! Orthodox Antioch’s Syriac heritage has long been sadly neglected, but this is now starting to change…

So if the lectionary was in Syriac, what liturgy were they using? Archdale King’s The Rites of Eastern Christendom seems to indicate that the Divine Liturgy of St. James has always been the normative Syriac rite — so was the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom a later development for Syriac speakers in Syria and Lebanon?

Funny but true story — somebody at All Saints suggested to me that it might be nice to include a round of “Lord, have mercy” in Aramaic. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but the suggestion was made in a very public forum by somebody who made it clear they didn’t want to be ignored. Syriac being a dialect of Aramaic, I figured, I dutifully added the Syriac translation (“Marya rahem”) to our list. Because there are already five different languages represented (English, Arabic, Greek, Romanian, and Slavonic), it was rare we would ever get to it, but I could go back to the person who suggested it and say, “Look, I heard your request and responded to it.”

Then I found out that in an actual Syriac language liturgy, for the petition responses they just say “Kyrie eleison” (and there’s a good chunk of their liturgy which is in borrowed Greek). As it works out, it looks like the same thing happens in Coptic too. The Syriac rendering was quietly removed from use at All Saints.

Draw your own conclusions about the pitfalls represented here.

(Thanks to Lucas Christensen for bringing this to my attention!)

The division of disciplines and the implications for people like me

Registration time is upon us, and next semester, I’ll be diving into the deep end of the actual History pool, taking a colloquium titled “Essential Readings in Early Medieval History,” and a seminar called “Greek Democracies: Athens and Beyond.” The former is with one Prof. Deborah Deliyannis, from whom I took an undergraduate course in medieval history four years ago and who has been a great source of encouragement and help every step of the way ever since. I’m looking forward to finally getting to take a graduate course from her (and also reading some Latin under her supervision).

As we start to enter the last few laps of this semester, I’m starting to see some interesting challenges relating to the notion of interdisciplinarity. My academic interests center around the interaction of liturgy and history; the way I’m approaching the matter is necessarily interdisciplinary, so I’m doing things like sitting in on art history and ethnomusicology courses. I’m also pretty much having to go through yet another department — Classical Studies — to work on my languages, so there’s an interdisciplinary component there, too. The issues I’m starting to see appear to have to do with differing methodologies, different kinds of evidence producing different results, and different departments being protective of what they see as their own intellectual territory.

For example, in Art History’s “Problems in Early Christian Art” course for which I’ve been attending the lectures and discussions, I have been somewhat taken aback at how some of the students appear to be totally disinterested in textual sources. Now, I state that as somebody who is not an art historian, so I assume that what we’re talking about here is a methodological difference between disciplines, except that both the professor (as well as one of the other candidates whom I heard do a job talk for the position last spring) seem completely comfortable dealing with textual sources and actual historical context. This has manifested itself in a couple of different scenarios; a couple of weeks ago, when students were doing initial presentations on their paper topics, what seemed to be the common methodological approach was first to pick an image or set of images, track down as much secondary literature about the image as possible, and then construct an argument on that basis. In other words, the only relevant primary source is the image with which you are working. I asked one or two of the presenting students if they planned on tracking down any contemporary literary sources related to their topic, and all I got was a shrug, with an answer amounting to, “Sure, I could see how that might be useful. Maybe if I have time I’ll look into that.”

This week, our readings dealt primarily with literary sources. I was part of the group that was “leading the discussion” (what seems to be a euphemism for “doing the reading so that the rest of the class doesn’t have to,” given how involved in the discussion the rest of the class seemed willing to be), and the reading I was discussing was the an excerpt from Robin Cormack‘s book Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and its Icons. Cormack examines how images function in the Byzantine world of Late Antiquity, using as evidence the Life of St. Theodore of Sykeon and then the Miracles of St. Demetrios of Thessalonica. I also put together a small slide deck about St. Nectarios’ monastery on Aegina as a contemporary example of what Cormack talks about.

The reactions all around were fascinating; they ranged from indifference towards using literary sources to what seemed to be active hostility towards what Cormack was trying to accomplish. “It’s really dangerous to be relying on these kinds of sources for what we do,” I heard more than once. The argument seems to have been that literary sources can only interpret the image for you, and art historians need to be able to see them with their own eyes. Historical context is a nice-to-have, maybe, but ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant compared to actually being able to see what you’re dealing with and to do one’s own analysis of the visual material. Never mind the open criticism I got from one student for trying to relate what we were talking about to a contemporary example, saying point blank, “You can’t do that” — even though Cormack, in the body of the text, invited exactly such an application of his analysis to other scenarios. The professor appeared to understand what I was doing, and tried to bridge the gap between the concerns and what I was actually saying, but my colleague seemed unimpressed and, curiously, quite upset. It was a very odd class session, and I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it. Is Art History, at least as taught here, just adamant about wanting to be Art History, rather than “History of Other Things Where We Occasionally Use Pieces of Art as Evidence”? Like I said, it not being my field, I don’t know exactly what to think, particularly since the professor herself seems to be somebody who is more than adequately conversant with matters of historical context.

Another example I’ve run into has to do with the relationship of Classical Studies to other departments that routinely refer to texts that are in the languages they teach. In History, for example, I have to prepare a reading list with a decent number of texts in both Greek and Latin for my exams; the trouble is that there is not a fantastically economical way of preparing these lists in the context of coursework. Readings courses are difficult for professors to make time for on the History side, and there just isn’t anybody in Classical Studies who is interested in much later than 100 B. C. The forensic oratory and rhetoric course I’m taking this semester starts to approach relevance (and I will be able to include all of these texts on my reading list), but that’s about it. I am reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a faculty member on the Greek side; I told him my interests and asked if there would be a way of pursuing them in Classical Studies, and he just said, “You’re outta luck, kid. The last person here who was anywhere close to your interests retired ten years ago.” Along the same lines, I am told that the instructor for 2nd year Greek had originally included St. John Chrysostom in the curriculum for this semester, but dropped it almost as soon as the term began. Now, just as was the case when I took the same class from the same instructor two years ago, all they’re reading is Plato’s Ion.

Even if it the History faculty did have the bandwidth to do readings courses, so I am told, Classical Studies would oppose such offerings; they are very protective of Greek and Latin and don’t want anybody else going near them in a classroom setting. The only reason Religious Studies is able to teach Syriac and Coptic is because they have a course number coded as “Readings in Early Christian History” that can be used. It theoretically could be used for reading Greek texts, but not, it seems, without drawing the ire of Classical Studies, so it just isn’t done. Students can do individual readings if a faculty member has time, but good luck with that.

Now, on the one hand, I think I can understand some of where Classical Studies might be coming from. If I had to guess, I’d say that, not dissimilar to Art History, they want to remain distinct as Classical Studies, not “The Guys Who Teach Greek and Latin to Other Departments.” Thing is, they still make everybody else come to them to learn Greek and Latin anyway — and then they make it clear they don’t take the texts other people want to deal with seriously. There was the snarky remark I heard from one of their faculty once about “undergraduates who enroll in first-year Greek because they want to read a certain famous text that is decidedly not part of the Classical corpus”, and then there was the whole way said text was treated when I took second year Greek — we spent all of two or three weeks on it, the instructor was sightreading, they clearly weren’t familiar with the text at all, and constantly made remarks like, “Yeah, that’s not real Greek” and “Why is is this guy making comments about bridegrooms and all that? I tell you, you can’t make this stuff up.” (Frighteningly enough, this person went to a Catholic university for undergrad.) One solution might be to make people in History or Religious Studies adjunct Classical Studies faculty, but it sounds like that’s a way they don’t want to go. They don’t want to teach the texts we’re interested in, but they don’t want anybody else to teach them, either.

I’m told that right now, there just aren’t enough History students who need Greek to be able to influence Classical Studies’ thinking on the matter, but we’re close — sufficiently close that if we have the same rate of growth over the next couple of years we’ve had over the last two (that is, from zero to close to ten or so) the game could easily change.

Interdisciplinarity — it’s a nice buzz word, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself to make it work, it seems. I assume that will be part of my education.

Reflecting on shame and identity

Rod Dreher has what is, at least for me, a very thought-provoking essay over at Crunchy Con. Actually, “thought-provoking” is a euphemism. I’ll be blunt — it hits what is, for me, a permanently raw and open nerve. The next 3200+ words will reflect this. Turn back now if you don’t want me to take you there.

Mr. Dreher begins with a discussion about shame, obesity, and race, and how he has personally experienced them function and interrelate as someone who considers the American South home. He takes it someplace else, however, and the key part for here at the conclusion:

A fellow Southern exile once said to me that it’s so easy to love where we’re from when we don’t live there, because we can edit out the stuff that’s hard to live with. That’s very true. And yet, I confess it’s hard for me to feel quite at home anywhere else. When I go back to visit, there’s something about the place and its people I dearly love, and treasure as part of myself. […] [However,] I chose to separate myself from it (and anybody who thinks Dallas is the South is sadly mistaken; it’s the southernmost Western city)… [F]or me, [what motivates my writing is] a sense of cultural rootlessness, and a craving for a sense of belonging to a place. Too much has happened to me over the years to form the kind of man that I am to make me feel at home in my actual homeland. And yet, when I’m away from Louisiana, I think about it a lot, and long for it. True story: I used to walk around Brooklyn romanticizing Louisiana, then go back to Louisiana and after a few days, start pining for my old borough home in Yankee Babylon.

[…] For me, displacement and a resulting craving for authenticity. But the fact that I chose displacement and exile adds a shake of shame about disloyalty into the cocktail too. […] Me, I don’t have anybody to show anything to (this was the greatest gift living and working in New York City gave me). When I sit down to write, almost always I think not about showing myself, but about finding myself.

I’m somewhat circumspect about elements of my personal life in this forum. This is not out of any sense of needing to protect anything, exactly; leastways, it’s not about protecting myself. Anybody who happens upon this blog knows my real name, my wife’s name, and more or less where to find me; this may or may not be wise, but there we are. There are certain things I have not discussed here, like politics, because I don’t want to detract from my main objective — namely, some record of my path as an Orthodox Christian on the way to something vaguely resembling an academic career. It’s also, by far, primarily for my own use, rather than being intended as any kind of a public news service. So, since I find myself heavily burdened talking about politics — feeling in the main that I ultimately can’t pick a side because I’m not at all sure anybody is on my side — I just don’t go there for my own sanity.

Other things I haven’t discussed simply out of respect for the fact that the blog is public, and I have to be mindful of what that can mean. I was stuck in a horrible, horrible, horrible employment situation until April 2008 that I could not (and can’t) discuss here, because if certain parties were to run across my blog, it would only make things quite a bit worse. Even once I was out of that situation, I had to be careful about how I discussed the unexpected ways my grad school opportunities were developing, because out of respect for my new employers, about whom I cared very much, I needed to time how I told them what was happening in a particular fashion.

All that out of the way, Dreher’s essay hits home for me in a number of ways, not the least being shame over the struggle with weight I’ve had as long as I can remember, but even more in how he discusses his sense of displacement. Unlike him, I have no particular pride in any particular place as home — but I’ll talk about that in a bit.

There’s not much to say about my weight that’s, um, earth-shaking — as I’ve said before, my ancestors were swinging battleaxes in northern Europe; I grew up swinging a backpack full of books, there was never anything about sports that was terribly attractive to me growing up, and I have spent much of my adult life behind a desk of some sort. My parents both had weight struggles they didn’t want me to have, which unfortunately meant that my weight as a child was monitored with the unapologetic and militantly nasty use of shame as a motivating tactic. (This is still hashed over yet today from time to time, and the parent who primarily engaged in this practice continues to defend their techniques, saying that they did these things because they wanted me to be healthy, and the only alternative they saw was to simply not care. That what they did didn’t actually work is only evidence to them that they didn’t do it enough for it to truly be the behavioral deterrent it was intended to be.) A growth spurt in junior high made me tall and reasonably thin (not skinny, I guarantee you — my frame does lend itself to skinniness to begin with) for the first time in my life, and I mostly stayed that way strictly by virtue of having a teenager’s metabolism. I put on a lot of weight my sophomore year of college as a result of various stresses (which I will discuss), lost it the next summer from even more stress, gained it all back (and how) once the school year started up again, and then got back down to my freshman year weight (more or less) about ten years ago. It stayed off roughly until my wedding, at which point it crept back on. When I moved to Indiana, a fencing class and a soccer class my first semester here took care of a good chunk of it, but then required courses edged further such intentions off of my schedule, and it came back on. For the last fourteen months, I have diligently made use of a treadmill, which between August and June took about ten pounds off very slowly; walking around Athens for two months got rid of another fifteen, and while much of it came back once I returned to the States, the addition of hand weights and other exercises to my routine has gotten me down to within five pounds of where I bottomed out in Athens. I am down two belt holes from where I was in August of 2008 one way or the other, and while the weight loss is slow, there is some very clear weight redistribution happening, as well as a development of muscle tone that didn’t used to be there. It’s a problem that anybody who has known me for any length of time knows I know about; the irony is that I am not sedentary by any means — I walk everywhere I can, in addition to the intentional exercise I get — but I also still eat the teenager’s portions of an adult diet, so I have to be very intentional about being active. This is more difficult when I’m not happy about large chunks of my life, and that’s been the case for most of the last six years. In the last year that has changed in some big ways, and my hope is that the physical aspect will also change concurrently. So that’s that.

The displacement issue is more complex. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, which is where both of my parents had been born and raised and where the vast majority of their respective families were; when I was four, due to some disagreements over business matters within the family, we moved to Wenatchee, Washington where my dad tried to reinvent himself as a small businessman. Wenatchee wasn’t an active enough town for him, however, so we moved to the Seattle area when I was seven, he bought another small business that he was going to try to grow, and we built a big house with the intent of it being the family homestead. Four years later, a combination of factors, including economic collapse in Alaska and further business disagreements within the family, led to us basically losing everything. Over the next five years, we bounced from rental house to rental house, my mom went back to work, and my dad poured more and more of his soul that he wasn’t going to get back into a business that really couldn’t exist anymore (namely, office supplies) given the initial appearances of big box competitors in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

In 1993, Dad moved back to Alaska, having been offered a job by an old friend. As he likes to say, he was lured back to Anchorage with one word: “Saturday.” It was my senior year of high school, so the plan was for Mom and I to stay in Washington until I graduated, after which she’d move up there with him and I would start my freshman year of college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

My senior year was a real struggle; not having a father at home, that year of all years, was a nightmare, and it wasn’t easy for any one of the three of us. It wasn’t easy for the two of them getting along with each other, and it wasn’t easy for me getting along with either of them. It was made worse by the fact that I started dating for the first time that year, and I also developed a close relationship with a couple of male teachers as sort of surrogate father figures, all developments my parents had trouble regarding with anything but suspicion and resentment.

The day before I graduated high school (Inglemoor High School, class of ’94), my dad flew into town. The day after I graduated high school, he and my mom flew back to Alaska, leaving me behind to supervise the load-in of their moving truck. I spent the summer going back and forth between Anchorage and Seattle, decidedly not feeling at home in a place of which I had no particular memory, and not being allowed to feel at home in the place that had been home for the previous ten years.

Freshman year at Western was a disaster. I had been to the campus all of once before; we lacked the resources, in terms of time or money, to really launch any kind of a school visitation effort, and the main reasons we picked it were because it wasn’t University of Washington, but it was in-state, close enough to home, and yet far enough away. With my parents’ move, however, none of these really meant anything anymore. I was at a school with no good reason to be there. I had no family left in the place that I had considered home for two-thirds of my life, and had no place to go back to that I could really call home. The place where my family now was, despite being my birthplace, was unfamiliar, and being now at the beginning of adulthood I had no compelling reason otherwise to be where they were. In short, I felt like they had left me. Unfortunately, when it became clear this arrangement wasn’t making any of us happy, the rhetoric that I heard more often than not was that of me having left them.

I no longer belonged where I had grown up, so I was being told, and where I was being told I belonged by virtue of my parents having moved there just as I was starting college was not anyplace that felt like home, and since the end result was that I felt like I had no home, I never really felt comfortable at Western. My two and a half years there were a miserable attempt at trying to eke out an undergraduate existence with no familial or financial support; lacking any particular guidance, I made very poor decisions during that time regarding money, my heart, and school (among other things). I spent the summer after my sophomore year in Anchorage trying to figure out how to put my relationships with my family back together, and found that at that particular point, there simply wasn’t anything to reassemble. My parents couldn’t deal with each other at that stage of the game, let alone me, and that summer was the lowest I had ever been up to that point. I lost weight simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t eating or sleeping for about a month; eventually a psychiatrist put me on both Soma and Serzone, and things evened out enough to be able to survive the rest of the summer. (I took myself off of both as soon as I returned to Bellingham.) After one quarter back, however, it was clear that college was something I just wasn’t in any position to be able to pursue properly, and I dropped out after having thoroughly ticked off virtually everybody in the Department of Music with my inability to cope and what had become a tendency to lash out.

I now had no particular reason to stay in Bellingham, I wasn’t going to move to Alaska, and that left me with no real place to go except back to Seattle. I started job hunting, selling classified ads in Bellingham for the time being to at least have some way to live, and after a year finally had the opportunity to take a contract position (which was fulltime within a year) with a Major Software Company.

Life settled into enough of an equilibrium over the next year, and my parents appeared to have put enough of their own lives back together, that there seemed to be some kind of peaceful relationship that could exist with me in Seattle and them in Anchorage. They still nudged and wheedled me to consider moving to Alaska, but the fact remained that beyond the two of them, there just wasn’t any reason for me to be there. I sometimes thought that maybe once they’d retired, they would move back to Seattle; I dreamed that, having made my initial couple million working in the software industry (with subsequent millions to be made as the Great American Hope of lyric tenors, of course), I could buy back the house they built that was supposed to be the Barrett family home and give it to them.

Except that, about the same time that Megan and I started dating, in the early spring of 1999 (she and I having met freshman year at Western, so I guess it wasn’t a total disaster), my parents announced that they were getting a divorce. This was not the first time they had made this announcement, but this time it was final. The one time my wife ever saw us all together, apart from our wedding day (when they studiously avoided each other as much as possible — the family photo has them at opposite ends of the line), was a few days before the divorce was finalized, and they were yelling at each other over a snowblower.

By 2001, we were married, and shortly thereafter my dad left Alaska to spend a couple of years in West Virginia. By 2003, we moved to Indiana so that I could finish my undergraduate degree; part of the idea was that we’d be five hours away from Dad, which would have been the first time in a decade that I had lived within driving distance of a parent. Shortly before I left for Bloomington, however, he headed off to Phoenix, Arizona to be near the older of his two daughters (from his first marriage) and her children. Living near family was simply not to be.

Six years later, we’re still here. We’ve lived in our little rental house for a tick over four years; at 32 (less than a month away from 33), it is the longest I have ever had the same address. Ever.

My dad is still in Phoenix; my mom is in Wasilla, Alaska. Megan’s family is in the Seattle area. There is no one place we can ever live and be reasonably close to everybody.

Jaroslav Pelikan once quoted Robert Frost in saying that “home” is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you, but “home” has come to mean, at least for me, where my wife and I are able to share a life. It has no meaning relative to roots or family, at least not for me; for it to take on that meaning would mean choosing between my parents individually, or choosing between her family and mine. Everybody has an argument for why we should do one thing or the other, but there’s nothing we can do without having to make a painful choice. In some ways, it seems best to live near nobody, thus treating everybody equally.

Like Mr. Dreher, I crave roots and something authentic, but unlike him, I feel at home precisely nowhere. I have never walked around Bloomington pining for Anchorage (or Seattle, for that matter), nor vice versa. My parents both live in houses in which I never lived, in zip codes I never visited until after I was an adult. The place where I grew up has exactly nothing to offer me now. I have lived for years with a lot of shame and pain because I belong nowhere, but not because of a sense of disloyalty — unlike Mr. Dreher, I didn’t choose this displacement. Ironically, my displacement is precisely because I didn’t choose it. Rather, my parents moved away just at the very moment I needed them to stay put. (I will emphasize that I say this descriptively, not to assign blame; they did what they had to do. This has not made it any easier over the years from an experiential standpoint, however.) No, my shame is that I have no roots, no sense of home, to pass on to my own children once I have them. I have nothing to give them but the culture of a stray, a transplant. A stray who married up and who gets to eat pretty well for a stray, but a stray nonetheless.

Like Mr. Dreher, much of the work I have chosen is implicitly a means of trying to “find myself”; unlike Mr. Dreher, I’ve been trying to “show them myself” for years — to show “them” that I’ve risen above the rootlessness, the struggles with finding a path, the forced independence, the displacement, the lack of any visible connection to anything except a woman who loves me with all her heart, the confusion about how to simply be that burdens me from lack of guidance. I’m still trying to “show them,” which I guess means I haven’t actually accomplished rising above any of those things yet.

I don’t know if this pain ever goes away. I managed to get saddled with it at 17, and I keep waiting to feel normal again, keep thinking that understanding of the last several years is right around the corner. I at least feel less stuck than I have in years, like I’m working towards something now, something productive, so maybe it really is right around the corner. I don’t know.

In which the author laments the state of English language liturgical books

Last Saturday, it being Great Vespers for the Feast of St. Luke, there were Old Testament readings appointed for the service. I normally leave those to other people so as to save my voice, but I got asked to do one of them anyway since we were short some people we might otherwise have had. “Just read off of the printout of the liturgical guide?” I asked. Yes, I was told, since the parish doesn’t own a Prophetologion.

Well, long story short, nobody owns an English-language Prophetologion, because it doesn’t exist. There’s Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash)’s draft version online, and I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that if I were to be involved in starting a mission I would argue passionately for the use of his translations, but obviously an electronic version just isn’t quite the same thing as actually having a printed liturgical book. Besides which, Fr. Ephrem has done the exactly right thing of translating liturgical texts as a self-referential whole, being aware of biblical references, internal references to other liturgical texts, and so on and so forth — and while this is exactly right, it also renders his liturgical texts somewhat difficult to use unless you’re using them exclusively.

Which gets us to the broader question of English language liturgical books, and the practical situation in various parishes.

The situation at All Saints is interesting, and I expect reasonably common — we use Nassar as the spine, but not everything is in there, and there has been cobbling together of things from various sources over the years. This effort has been by necessity a real “do it yourself” matter by many people, for reasons I won’t go into here but I’m going to assume can be guessed by a sufficient number of people in similar situations. As a result, we use one translation for the proper texts for weekday services, a different translation for Great Vespers, Sunday Matins and Sunday Divine Liturgy, and still another translation for some of our Lenten texts. Sometimes we use the HTM Psalter; sometimes we use the KJV/NKJV variants that are used in the Antiochian service books. For the epistle reading, we have the Holy Cross Apostolos, which we bring out during services, but we insert a sheet with the NKJV text into the book so that the reader is actually reading from that and the book itself is really for show. In other words, we have a fundamental disunity of English translations, thereby achieving a fundamental disunity in the texts themselves. It used to be worse; our Divine Liturgy music used to be a patchwork of things from all over the place, so that there was no textual consistency whatsoever within the service — “Thee/thou” in one section and “You who” in the next. I am also told that for awhile we were trying to use the Orthodox Study Bible liturgically, but since it’s not arranged as a liturgical book (i. e., no prokeimena etc.), that was a non-starter from a practical standpoint.

These are the moments when I see an excellent argument for sticking with ecclesiastical Greek or Church Slavonic.

(On the matter of the HTM Psalter — HTM obviously publishes liturgical books that a lot of people use. I will note for the record that I find the use of liturgical materials by schismatic groups problematic, but I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me.)

I’m not sure what the solution is; what I’d hate to see is the worst kind of “by committee” translation, where all of these texts which were composed by saints and monks are rendered into bland, inoffensive, artless English. There are good “by committee” translations, like the Thyateira translation of the Divine Liturgy, but on the other hand, their committee includes Fr. Ephrem as well as Metropolitan Kallistos.

Maybe if any of our seminaries start offering doctorates, the problem of establishing a fundamental unity of English language liturgical books, and doing it right, can be taken on as a dissertation — or rather, several dissertations, more than likely. Best of all would be if modern-day Ss. Cyrils and Methodiuses would make themselves known for the English-speaking world. I understand that a hundred years ago for the most part the books didn’t just exist, and thus we’re better off than we used to be, but I’d like to think that we’re at a point where we can respect the efforts that have been made, re-assess where we’re at and try to move forward from here nonetheless.

Is a unified English translation of all the liturgical books a realistic goal? Or is the hodgepodge one of those things where we need to accept that it’s not going to happen because Things Are Different In America?

Any comp lit folks looking for a dissertation topic?

How about this: J. R. R. Tolkien and St. Dionysius the Areopagite: Celestial Hierarchy in Middle-Earth. Save for a brief mention in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (Michael C. Drout, ed.) in the entry on “Angels,” I’m not finding any dissertations, articles, or books that do anything with this. Seems like it could be promising for the right person.

When, evidently, unity in Christ is not enough

Some bloggers are having an argument right now. (What a surprise.) I’m really hesitant to name some of the parties or link to them, because up to this point they’ve mostly ignored me (with one exception), and I’ve really enjoyed not being on their radar. More than that, I am really reluctant to give any of them referral traffic. Rather, I will link to this person, already on my blogroll anyway, who is discussing the matter rather succinctly (and accurately, I think). You can find a link in his post that will take you into the heart of the conflict.

(Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at some point explored the implications of treating monasticism as a track of apostolic succession parallel to the episcopate; I am wondering if perhaps we have reached the point where we need to posit yet another parallel track, that of the blogger who has taken it up on himself to exercise the prophetic office. But I digress.)

I’ve met a lot of people during my time in Orthodox circles who have absolutely no problem being hostile, implicitly or explicitly, to other Orthodox Christians. I’ve met “ethnics” and “cradles” who have absolutely nothing but contempt for the American who presumes to convert; I’ve met converts who think that it’s okay for them to be dismissive of “ethnics” as being Christ’s lost causes. Thankfully, there are fewer of either type than many might assume, but those who are out there are disproportionately loud and obnoxious, and I don’t mean exclusively in blogdom. I have had the misfortune of having to spend large amounts of time with people of both types, and have had to experience their open and very real hostility, either towards me or towards others.

The implication from either side that somehow there’s a second class citizen status among Orthodox Christians depending, positively or negatively, on heritage, is simply astounding to me. Is there a Christian birth certificate other than baptism?

To move to another facet of the problem for a moment, it has been suggested that part of why it’s acceptable to hostile to converts is because they aren’t really Orthodox Christians; they’re Protestants playing dress-up according to things that they’ve read in books rather than actually receiving a lived tradition of Orthodox Christianity from a living source. Presumably this line of reasoning is how such people justify showing disrespect to ordained clergy and consecrated bishops by calling them things like “Mr. Paffhausen” or “Mr. Freeman,” for example.

While I would concede that there’s a real problem being identified in such a statement, the extremity of the response to the problem reveals another problem or two.

There’s an ancient heresy called Donatism. You can look it up for yourself, but I don’t think it’s misstating the position to say that it was basically a macho movement within the Church gone horribly wrong; e. g., “If you’re not at least as rigorous or pious as we are, you’re not really a Christian, and there’s not any room for error.” They reserved the right for themselves to judge the validity of Mysteries of a priest or bishop whom they deemed less rigorous than they were; in effect, much like certain parties today, they were big on saying, “We’re more Orthodox than you.”

Origenism and Arianism were also early heresies (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that it was not until he had been dead for three centuries that Origen’s “fabulous” and “monstrous” views were anathematized), and the trouble there can perhaps be summed up as Origen and Arius trying too hard to make Christianity palatable for the educated elite of the day — to make it possible for a respectable philosopher to be intellectually honest with himself and be a Christian at the same time, in other words. For God to truly be God in the worldview of Greek philosophy, one could not meaningfully discuss the homoousios of the Son with the Father; Christ had to be something fundamentally other than God, however exalted he might otherwise be, or else God was not God.

Now, be these as they may, there is not necessarily a fundamental error of intent in either case. Being rigorous is not in and of itself a problem; neither is trying to have a Christian intellectual culture. Monasticism is perhaps one of the correct expressions of a rigorousness that might otherwise be inclined to Donatism, and without Origen, our tradition of Scriptural exegesis would be much impoverished. The trouble is the extent to which these intents are realized; the Donatists could not stand to be in a Church where there might be worse sinners than themselves, and Arius and Origen ultimately were catering to a target demographic.

One can legitimately argue that learning the Orthodox Christian faith from the works of Schmemann and Ware, the Popular Patristics series, and maybe even Pelikan and Rose for that matter, is, as a substitute for receiving a lived tradition, rather thin gruel. There is a problem there that is most certainly worth discussing, a problem which perhaps lends itself to Origenistic or Arian developments down the road — an overly-intellectualized Christianity that finds itself at variance with the actual faith. However, to then determine that problem invalidates at a sacramental level the chrismations, ordinations, and consecrations of individuals itself suggests an issue of Donatist proportions.

At a practical level, that attitude assumes that there are alternatives of which the “konvertsy” simply hasn’t availed himself, when that’s just not the case, many times. It’s not exactly like there are large ROCOR or Serbian parishes or monasteries everywhere one goes (and even that’s not necessarily a guarantee of “real” Orthodoxy, evidently, given a particular person’s ongoing disdain for Fr. Seraphim Rose and anybody who ever had anything to do with the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood). A particular person commented to me yesterday that of course I was the “bad kind” of convert, since “I’m Antiochian.” Now, in all fairness, I acknowledge that this exchange was intended to be humorous, but as I told this commenter, it’s just not funny right now. It’s not funny coming from this particular individual given the kinds of negative comments they’re typically inclined to make (however cleverly and humorously formulated), it’s not funny given some of the current issues facing the Antiochian Archdiocese, and it’s not funny for the simple reason that actually, no, I’m not “Antiochan”; I’m an Orthodox Christian who happens to go to an Antiochian parish because that’s all there is locally, and I do so in spite of whatever reservations I may have about the AOCNA. Bloomington, Indiana isn’t exactly a hotbed of traditional Orthodox ethnicities and activity; all there is is the little group of people trying to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. There’s a little bit of everybody — Russians, Romanians, Arabs, Greeks, and us “konvertsy” — but not enough of anybody to constitute any kind of a critical mass. I guarantee you there are individuals in every ethnic group in this community would be more comfortable with a church of “their own people,” but that’s a luxury nobody can afford. It’s All Saints or nothing. I’d go so far as to say that our situation is absolutely fantastic relative to that of, for example, Fargo, North Dakota.

I am disheartened by people who jeer at Americans who are trying to live out their faith doing the best they can with what they’ve been given by Mother Church, which in many cases is next to nothing. I am not amused by those people when they insist that those Americans trying to do this or that in order to live out their faith and their calling more fully are not in fact Orthodox, but then refuse to offer any kind of a practical alternative. I can only conclude such people really mean that the Americans they are deriding are simply “not as Orthodox as they are.”

At the same time, I am disheartened by Americans who regard people of Greek or Russian or Arabic or whatever heritage with suspicion automatically, claiming that all of our problems stem from “foreign bishops” and culturally unintelligible practices, and assuming that such people probably don’t pray, don’t fast, don’t confess, don’t commune, don’t go to Vespers daily, and most importantly, don’t buy books or liturgical music recordings, and are only in the Church by an accident of birth, rather than Having Truly Grappled With the Big Questions the same way that they, being Godly Americans in a Godly Country, have done.

I am disheartened by people who would say that American converts are rigorous about all the wrong things and can never understand what Orthodox Christianity actually means in a lived cultural context, and use that as an excuse to disrespect the Mysteries those converts have received; I am just as disheartened by Americans who seem bent on proving exactly those points in order to demonstrate they’re better than the so-called “cultural Orthodox”. At some point, the sides start insulating themselves from each other, and then the snake is eating its own tail.

All of these things dishearten me because it would appear that unity at the Chalice, unity with Christ through Communion with Him in His Church, is simply not enough. It is evidently so meaningless as to in fact have it’s very existence be something that should be denied.

Tell me, why are we Orthodox Christians so inclined and eager to judge other Orthodox Christians so quickly? Are we not already small and scattered and minimized in this country, that it is necessary to try to splinter ourselves from each even more?

Is that love?

Is that Christlike?


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