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Dutifully following up…

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

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

One comment went as follows:

I think that that way lies madness on two counts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9 Responses to “Dutifully following up…”


  1. 1 Owen White 9 January 2012 at 2:22 pm

    The Sherlock Holmes bit is worth the price of the blog. My favorite restaurant of all time was called Sherlock’s Home, but, alas it and its great wood casked hand-pumped beer are no longer with us.

    Just when I think I couldn’t possibly disdain the intellectual and spiritual cancer that is AOI more, I read a comment like the first one you quote in this post.

    Spot on about the Mormon bit.

    I tend to operate from the rhetorical posture that America is now post-cultural, or anti-cultural, and has been for some time. From an ethnographic point of view this doesn’t really hold, of course, but when dealing with macrocultural trends I think there is a great deal of truth to the notion that America eats cultures, but doesn’t become what it eats.

    Also, I think the assumption that a modern conversion, and/or a potential mass movement of modern conversions, could ever approximate the social form and the mass psychology of pre-modern conversions from paganism (or Arianism, etc,) to Christianity an exercise in astounding anachronistic naivety.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 9 January 2012 at 10:20 pm

      Here’s a thought — are cultures dependent on the notion that membership in them is somewhat mandatory? Your “America eats cultures” line got me thinking that maybe part of the issue is that participation in American culture is, as far as heritage is concerned, (largely) voluntary and a running away from something else. As much as we trumpet the virtues of voluntary association, is there something about it that can be problematic to how humans function in community? I don’t know, I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist, so I’m just spitballing here.

  2. 3 Abba Poemen the Ubermensch 9 January 2012 at 6:41 pm

    The last excerpt was me. I wasn’t replying to you only: I thought some of the responses to you were odd, or dangerous, and some other things besides.

    I confess I likely misread you on the language issue. Not only were you writing at 3 AM, but some of us were shamefully up that late _reading_ what you wrote at 3 AM.

    And the Heliand is beautiful. Read also the Junius 11 manuscript. And Beowulf. And the Prose and Poetic Edda for some background.

    Your observations about Mormonism are probably (partially) true. Thank you.

    • 4 Abba Poemen the Ubermensch 9 January 2012 at 7:44 pm

      You know, the more I think about it, I don’t think my knowledge of Mormonism is detailed enough to have an opinion.

      When I wrote that I think it was partially true, I only mean to say that I think there is more going on mythologically than Mormonism, and that some of the myths circulating are incompatible. I wasn’t trying to give you a backhanded compliment: forgive me for my tone.

      • 5 Richard Barrett 9 January 2012 at 10:15 pm

        I didn’t take it as such — no problem! I appreciate your comments.

        My wife does Old Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Gothic, Old High German, Middle High German, and Middle English, so all of those things you mention I’ve heard her talk about to some extent. Someday I’d love to take my own linguistic heritage seriously and learn Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse (as well as modern Danish, for that matter), but I’ve got my own PhD to finish. Someday…

  3. 6 Lauren 10 January 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Some of what you’ve said is over my head, but it seems like the 100-150+ parish, where the congregation also sings (and isn’t just waiting for the choir director to entertain them), has a decent church school for youth and does a great (pot luck) coffee hour is pretty much the bee’s knees. To me that suggests enough parishioners to start other missions, a congregation that gets the liturgy and isn’t just there to light their candles and leave, and understands both hospitality and charity and the importance of breaking bread together.
    Parishes that I have been to that seem to stagnate especially seem to avoid the last and it’s hard to get excited about people you don’t know who don’t make you feel welcome. I think much of the Gospel is not necessarily tied up in the language the prayers are in (though I prefer my thees and thous) so much as loving God, doing the liturgy, and loving your neighbors. To me that is the core of a flourishing parish…

    • 7 Richard Barrett 10 January 2012 at 2:03 pm

      I think it somewhat depends on given circumstances. ~100-150 is, from what I’ve seen, barely enough to handle a mortgage payment and a priest, let alone spin off a mission or do anything else terribly well. I think one also has to be really careful about prioritizing church school and “fellowship” activities — it’s easy to say, well, we’ll have a space where we can do those things well and get by for services, and having a good church school and coffee hour will then let us grow to a point where we can afford to build a real temple. That’s putting the cart before the horse. We need a church building designed to house Orthodox worship more than we need a Sunday school building and fellowship hall that also has services in it.

      You’ve also got to define your terms somewhat. What does it mean that “the congregation also sings”? Are there parts where it is not appropriate for the congregation to sing along? Is it appropriate for the congregation to improvise whatever they want to sing if they don’t happen to know what the choir is singing? If the choir is conceived as “leading the worship”, what does that mean? Does that mean setting a reverent tone that the congregation follows? Does that mean what is effectively a “lining out” of what the congregation already knows — i.e., functioning strictly as a mnemonic (and thus, I would argue, being a situation where the choir follows the congregation)? Regardless of how one decides to define any of this, how does the practice — whatever it is — get taught and reinforced?

      I’ve seen extremes where each of these points is concerned. I know of parishes where the congregation (or at least significant numbers of people in the congregation) routinely sing along with all of the priest’s parts. I know of parishes where they want the congregation singing everything, and the way they make this workable for festal seasons is to simply not incorporate any of the festal hymnody (like the communion hymn, megalynarion, etc.) I’m familiar with situations where the choir is singing monophonic music, and the people who are singing along from the congregation aren’t singing what the choir is singing, they’re improvising harmony parts (that may or may not actually work).

      In my own case, I’ve mentioned before that our current space is a textbook case in sound-deadening, which has in recent years necessitated the installation of a sound system to save voices. A couple of months ago, somebody came up to me after a liturgy and said, “Hey, the sound system is really distracting. Do we have to have it on? Can we just turn it off?” I explained the acoustic unsuitability of the room, and that we either use amplification or we have to be constantly singing at the extremes of our ability to project, which nobody is going to be able to do forever. This person looked confused. “But we don’t actually need to hear you,” I was told. “We just need to hear the first couple of notes of any given section of the liturgy so that we know what’s being sung, and then when we’re singing we’re not listening to you anyway. You’re trying to solve a problem we don’t think we have.” Part of me wanted to then suggest that the choir simply retire and we replace it with an iPod, but of course I didn’t say that.

      I’ll also say again that I think it’s a mistake to assume that a congregation that isn’t singing is either waiting for the choir to entertain them or “isn’t getting” or “isn’t doing” the liturgy. Participation and singing are not directly coterminous. The options are not a binary of “everybody sings everything” or “light your candle and leave”. I suggest that, if one looks at the rubrics of service books that assume an antiphonal choir setup is normative, and that aren’t translated with assumptions about what congregational singing “should” be, what emerges is a fairly complex and beautiful cruciform dance in which architecture, music, and people in various stations all interact with different functions. I’ve seen this dance in action, and while, yes, it means “the people” are singing less, from what I’ve seen, they don’t think they’re participating any less.

  4. 8 Teague 10 January 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Richard,

    I’m, of course, not conversant enough about issues within the Orthodox Church to follow 9/10’s of the last two posts. But I do appreciate your ongoing desire to live out an authentic Christian life. In backing up some old files last night, I stumbled on your account of your journey to Orthodoxy & re-read some of it. I was struck by the same thing as I read that–you don’t want some fake, go-through-the-motions faith. Jesus said, “Seek and you will find,” & I think you can testify to the truth of that. God bless 🙂


  1. 1 In which the author takes note of the BBC’s plan to take over the minds of American geeks « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 11 January 2012 at 9:51 pm

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