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“Why are you here?” as a research paper

The mandatory class for first-semester History graduate students was an interesting exercise. It was, as I’ve said before, largely the opportunity to read a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise read, and to get a sense of whence certain ideas originate. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities was worth thinking about, and popped up a couple of times in interesting contexts; one of the books I read for my Readings in Ancient Greek Forensic Oratory course referenced it, and it rather slapped me across the face when I volunteered for the Indianapolis International Fair last month (which should eventually be its own blog post). Foucault I still have more to say about, as I keep threatening.

For the final paper, there was a temptation to write a detailed response to Foucault, expanding on some of the ideas I discussed earlier. However, my final response paper, along with watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies in chronological order (which should also eventually be its own blog post), suggested a different avenue that would be more interesting.

A rubric for the final paper which the professor offered as an experiment was to answer the question “Why are you here?” as a historical research paper. Using the last response paper as a jumping-off point, as well as drawing from the readings for the last week of the course, I decided to try to formulate the answer in a way that would examine the nature of my own memories. Foucault still wound up making an appearance, but it’s really only a cameo, and played for laughs.

It’s long; the assigned length was 15-20 pages, and with notes and bibliography I turned in something that was 32 pages long. (I turned it in five days early, however, so hopefully that gave the professor time to deal with it.) The title and the structure definitely reflect the influence of Christopher Nolan, but I really hope that it comes off as more than a party trick, because I don’t mean it as such.

Something I found out that surprised me was the direct role that the oil industry played in some of the circumstances of my life; I suppose, given my Alaskan origins, this should not have been a total shock, but I truly had no idea.

Anyway — here’s that up with which I came. (Or something. Sometimes not dangling one’s prepositions is awkward.) I can’t imagine I would have much of a venue for it otherwise.

(By the way — even if you don’t normally read notes, read notes 4 and 38.)

Memento Mori:

The Question “Why Am I Here?” and the Unintentionally Unreliable Narrator

By

Richard Barrett

Historicizing one’s own memories is a tricky proposition, for we are too often our own “unreliable narrator.” We may very well make our own history according to Marx,[1] but as Margaret MacMillan observes, “Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events; indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.”[2] For one thing, if one is working with their own memories, then by definition one is already dealing with an unfinished, ever-changing product – “a perpetually active phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present[.]”[3] To put it another way, if you have memories, you do not have all of the memories you will ever have – but if you lack the ability to make new memories, then you are either dead or there is something else wrong with you that likely renders you unable to communicate your own memories in a sustained, systematic fashion. History is the story of something that has already happened, but one’s memory is something that is still happening. A concrete example is this very essay; I do not yet remember having finished writing this paper, or turning it in, or getting it back with a grade. I cannot thus incorporate this essay into its own subject matter, at least not in full – but without the ability to make new memories, I would not be able to write the paper. This, combined with an inherent lack of objectivity dealing with personal memory, should give significant pause to the historian considering such a method.

This is not the only problem, however – how does one document their memory in a truly reliable fashion? At best, a historian can make the argument that somebody has claimed to remember something, but there is no empirical method by which one can actually verify the truth of that claim. I can claim that I remember what I was doing on 23 June 1989,[4] and perhaps somebody can even verify that I was doing what I say I remember doing, but nobody can prove that I remember what I claim to remember – the flipside to the problem of somebody claiming to not remember something, which is equally unverifiable.

Still more is the problem of making individual memory historical in and of itself. Is an individual’s set of memories a history? Or is real history a sorting through of the memories of a collective? Even then, what if one is the sole survivor of a particular community, and their memories are the only possible source of a particular kind of data – such as Jussi Huovinen, the only remaining “rune singer” of the Kalevala, the mammoth collection of Finnish poetry that represents their own collective cultural memory? While it is true that the text remains in print, he is the one man left alive who remembers this body of work incorporatively and not only inscriptively.[5] When he is gone, what will be lost?

What I aim to do with this essay is to examine the role of memory in the formation of an individual’s personal narratives. Personal histories, by definition, can only be constructed after the fact – we cannot remember what has not yet happened, and trying to do so is perhaps best called “conjecture,” or depending on how one spins that conjecture, “fear” or “hope,” which may well often (but not necessarily) be at odds with history. These personal narratives must also be reconciled with the histories of the communities with which the individual interacts – but how to best do this? As Elazar Barkan asks in the issue of American Historical Review current as of this writing, “Does constructing a ‘shared’ narrative mean giving equal time to all sides?”[6] How does the historian engaging in a self-reflexive historical study “[maintain] credibility and the appearance of historical impartiality[,]” particularly given the problem of memory and community?[7] Is it possible to “preserve the goal of not distorting the data to fit one’s conviction” when one is both subject and object of the study?[8] To put it another way, how can I, the individual historian, explore how I use my own memories to negotiate a place within the various communities I have had to exist in over the years, and in doing so “put the subjectivity of history not in the service of controlling or reversing the past, but rather to the delicate task of narrating the past in a way that enriches the present”?[9] How can I answer the question Why am I here? and know that I am in fact giving a truthful and complete answer and minimize the possibility of being self-serving, self-pitying, self-congratulating, and self-deceiving? What are the broader implications for the methodology of any historian of any period and any subject?

I seek to do this by constructing a narrative out of my memories that asks exactly the opposite question asked by most narratives. If “history binds itself to strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things,”[10] then by unhooking memories from that continuity, perhaps it will create a space in which memory may be examined as memory rather than as a point along a progression. Therefore, rather than providing a series of events that prompts the reader to ask, “What happened next?” I will arrange the chronology of the account so that the reader instead should ask, “What happened before that?” I argue that narratives are in fact initially constructed by the narrator looking backwards in the first place; that is to say, for the historian, causality may only be seen in reverse. Foreshadowing is a literary device, not a historical method. We remember an event and muse about why it happened, prompting the recollection of a previous event to contextualize that one. The tapestry must be unraveled before it can be woven back into one piece; thus, the goal here is to examine the threads as they are pulled out – that is, before they are re-synthesized into a bigger picture.

Where possible, I will refer to primary sources – letters, diaries, blog posts, and other pieces of evidence from the period of my existence. Perhaps this will lead to an experience such as Timothy Garton Ash’s, where what I claim to remember now is different from what I claimed to remember then.[11] Where appropriate, I will also aim to provide a greater historical context, both in terms of the greater world as well as the state of the historical field contemporary with the events being described, seeking commentary and context from an issue of American Historical Review contemporary with the events being narrated, as well as other literature as necessary.

If I am answering the question Why am I here? then it is necessary to define what the question means, which to some extent involves an inventory of current memories and ways of constructing my identity. “Why” is a question that for present purposes will assume the current state of things as a telos, subsuming the question of “how” but also assuming the existence of some kind of impetus forward. “I” means a thirty-three year old man, married to another full-time graduate student, no children yet, living nearly three-quarters of the way across the country from where I grew up. “Here” means at the end of my first semester of graduate school as a matriculated, full-time student in the Department of History at Indiana University.

Previous to this semester, the memories closest at hand which appear relevant center around 20 February 2009, when I returned after lunch to my then-day job on campus as Office Services Assistant at the Archives of Traditional Music. Checking my e-mail, I discovered a message from Edward Watts titled “Re: Good news from the History department.” “Dear Richard,” Professor Watts wrote. “Congratulations! I am very happy that this has come to pass…”[12] Congratulations? Why? Wait – this was a response to something else, but what? I scrolled down, to find the original e-mail “Good news from the History department” from Wendy Gamber. “Dear Mr. Barrett,” the e-mail began. The key information was in the very first line:

Congratulations! I’m delighted to inform you that you have been admitted for graduate study to the History department with a multi-year funding package.[13]

Good news, indeed – my wife Megan was perhaps even more thrilled than I was, crying tears of joy when I told her – and it was only the beginning. I had also been admitted to the West European Studies M. A. program starting that semester, but I was still a part-timer, and WEST was more of a way to put a Masters degree together out of the thirty-plus graduate credits I already had so as to not leave IU with a jumble of hours that could never transfer anyplace. Nonetheless, within a couple of weeks of History’s offer, WEST also awarded me a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship for both the summer and the next academic year, meaning I now had a funding package with two fellowship years, and I would be spending my summer in Greece. With all four of these possibilities having come to fruition – WEST, History, and both FLAS awards — I had an undeniable embarrassment of riches. No longer was I to be “de-territorialized,” a “diasporic [person] [rooted] physically in [his] ‘hostlands,’ but… [being] refused assimilation to [it].”[14] No, I now had unambiguous permission to make myself at home at Indiana University. My blog from March reads:

One way or the other, this has all been a rather stunning turn of events for me. Although my path has remained less-than-linear, to say the least, it’s been a real game-changer of a year, let me tell you. Δόξα τῷ θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν![15]

Four eggs, four hatched chickens. Ricardus est insufficiens petitor neque enim, Deo gratias.[16]

My employers were thrilled for me, and the sadness for everybody was that it was a position in which I had jelled nicely during the year I had been there – for me, a singular occurrence at Indiana University. On the 5th of June I left the Archives of Traditional Music for the last time, and I posted the following:

I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and with whom I’ve worked, I leave on good terms with all of those people, I leave not having counted down the seconds till I could quit, and without anybody saying to not let the door hit me where the good Lord split me. To put it in show business terms, I’ve been able to leave ‘em wanting more, and in a good way. It’s a really nice feeling. I close this chapter excited to see what happens next, but sad to be leaving this behind. I am moving on to the next thing without desperation for perhaps the first time in my life.[17]

On 10 June 2009 I got on a plane and flew to Greece, returning on 5 August; orientation for the fall semester started on 24 August.

Teasing out the thread of memory a little further, I come to Thursday, 16 October 2008.

Before I explain the significance of this particular date, I must explain that my original schedule for the fall semester of the 2008/2009 school year had me taking second year Syriac and first year Coptic. However, in a fit of despair over the apparent improbability that I would ever find a path that would make use of those languages, I consolidated those two courses into one, trading them for first year Modern Greek.

J. B. Shank’s assertion in the October 2008 issue of American Historical Review that “approaching the notion of historical change through the notion of crisis is not entirely misguided”[18] does not exactly inspire confidence, but he nonetheless concludes the following:

Accepting that historians are not empirical natural scientists but practitioners of a particular kind of hermeneutical science, one with deep connections to storytelling, the question, then, is not whether they are warranted in deploying the concept of crisis at all, but rather the kind of deployment that is appropriate.[19]

Certainly, the outcome of my own crisis was indeed a marked historical change for me. I discovered quickly that my study of Ancient Greek greatly facilitated the speed at which I was able to absorb the modern vernacular, and that the coursework I already had would be easily applied to a Masters degree in West European Studies. I would perhaps require two classes and a thesis to finish the program. The Greek instructor, an earnest, supportive man looking for graduate students to help build a program, was more than encouraging of my application. I began to contact professors for recommendation letters.

Professor Watts’ response took me rather by surprise. He said yes, that he was happy to write me another letter, but had I considered re-applying to History? We made an appointment to meet and discuss the matter further, and so I found myself in his office the morning of 16 October.

I was up front with Professor Watts; I had not considered re-applying to History, since the faculty member who had spoken with me when I was rejected the first time had said rather unambiguously that I need not consider that an option. “Well, I know you now, Richard,” he replied. “I’ve taught you, and I know how you think. You’re far more sophisticated than you were when you first came to see me three years ago, and you’ve got a lot more that you can prove you have to offer. You’re plenty competitive now, and I will advocate for you as much as I can. I can’t promise anything, but I think it’s worth the fifty bucks for you to throw your hat into the ring.” He suggested that I talk with Professor Deborah Deliyannis about what we had discussed, so that she could know what to say in her letter of recommendation as well. When I met with her, she was very much on board; on the other hand, as accustomed as she was to having those conversations with me by this point, she teasingly referred to me as a “professional applicant.” I had to admit I knew what she meant.

A blog post from the end of that month makes the following reference:

I’ll wrap this up for now by saying that my application for West European Studies has been submitted, and that now it’s just a matter of my letters of recommendation rolling in. Hopefully I’ll know something soon. In the meantime, another option has come up in terms of a departmental home, and the person who suggested it did so unprompted. I don’t want to say much more about it for the time being. For right now I’ll just say that I’m flipping two coins, West European Studies and this other possibility, and we’ll see what comes up. Maybe both will come up heads, in which case I’m decidedly not opposed to leaving IU with more rather than less. Maybe both will come up tails, and I really will have to leave here with 30+ worthless graduate credits. We’ll see. Meanwhile, a near-annual conversation with a particular faculty member about said options has led to this person dubbing me a “professional applicant.” I suppose he/she isn’t wrong.[20]

The next thread of memory picks up seven months earlier, on 3 March 2008. Work was miserable, as was now the daily norm, with my support staff position in one of the campus recruitment offices having grown unbearably precarious over the previous year. I had not started looking for other jobs because I hoped to be a full-time student in the fall anyway. Still, e-mail had brought no good news yet, which meant that every day I checked the postal mailbox when I got home to see if bad news had come instead.

On this particular Monday, I flipped up the lid of the box on my front porch, and saw an envelope from the Indiana University Department of Religious Studies. I knew what it contained before I even opened it, and I almost threw it away still sealed rather than force myself to read the words.

“Thank you for your application…due to a high number of strong applicants…” I stopped there, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the trash. I sent a confused e-mail to the faculty member in Religious Studies who had encouraged me to apply, called in sick the next day, and started applying for other support staff positions.

I posted the following to my blog a week later:

So, Cheesefare Week, as noted earlier, started off with some bad news. I had been obliquely informed about a month ago that good news would come via e-mail, and bad news would come via postal mail; therefore, when I saw the envelope in my mailbox on Monday, I knew exactly what it contained before I even opened it. Bottom line: I will not be a matriculated graduate student this fall. Ricardus est insufficiens petitor.

Exactly what is next for me is unclear. I was instructed to thank God for keeping me from going down this path since He obviously has something better in mind for me, so I’ll start there. There are some well-placed people who have told me they absolutely believe I can do this and want to talk about what happened and what they think I can do from here; I’m more than happy to listen, but in the meantime, I am beginning to consider what my other options are, up to and including the possibility that, being 31, perhaps my window of opportunity just isn’t open anymore.[21]

The next month was a series of very understanding nods and deep sighs from the well-meaning people who had written my letters for this application. What I tended to hear, including from the faculty member who had suggested that I would be welcomed with open arms in the first place, was that whatever impression I might make in class, whatever my grades and test scores were, whatever my letters might say, the details of how I looked on paper were problematic, at least as far as an admissions committee for a humanities program at a big liberal arts university was concerned. “If you spoke to our Director of Graduate Studies right now, she’d probably sound a lot like History did a couple of years ago,” one person told me. “You’re just going to have to go someplace where they aren’t freaked out by a music degree,” said another. I recount one of these conversations in my blog:

So, I had a conversation a couple of days ago with one of the people who wrote letters of recommendation for me. This person wasn’t directly involved with the admission process, but had knowledge of what had happened, and was pretty up front with me about it. I wasn’t told anything I hadn’t already figured out, but this person remained encouraging, and had some concrete suggestions about better paths for me.

The bottom line seems to be this — there’s not really a way to make me look like a conventional applicant on paper… It’s one thing for faculty members to say, “Well, he doesn’t fit in this particular box, but he’s very capable, he’s a known quantity and has proven himself,” but when it comes down to having to make hard decisions, admissions committees have to look at me and say, “He may be capable and a known quantity, but he doesn’t fit into the same box as everybody else we’re admitting.” Without a liberal arts undergraduate degree, my application goes into a different pile than those who do, and that’s not the pile which makes it to the next round of cuts, regardless of my other qualifications. There was the hope on the part of those who supported me that I would be able to transcend these limitations, but sheer numbers did not allow for that.

As I said, this wasn’t anything I hadn’t already figured out. Two years ago I was told what ducks I needed to get in a row for grad school, but the person giving me this advice also said, quite bluntly, “Even then, if it’s somebody like me reading your application, you’re not going to have a lot of luck.” With a non-liberal arts background, plus the fact that within five seconds it becomes clear that it took me eleven years to finish a four year degree (i.e., I was a dropout), I was told, my letters of recommendation appear to be talking about a totally different person and can’t be seen as reliable. The person I was talking to on Tuesday told me that, unfortunately, all of that may be harsh, but it is not necessarily wrong, particularly when a humanities department is faced with more graduate applications than they’ve ever had before. “The reality is, we’re admitting people who have the option to turn us down to go to Princeton, Yale, Duke, and Columbia,” I was told. There is also the issue that my particular academic interests are generally more specifically addressed at religiously affiliated institutions, not big liberal arts universities. Being a “non-traditional applicant” combined with my interests being, in the long run, not the greatest fit in the world for how things are done here, and the work I’ve done over the last couple of years simply does not level the paper playing field.

So what will? In an ideal world, my interests would have been identified, encouraged, and fostered during my early teens, I suppose, but this isn’t what happened, and in the woeful absence of a Time-Turner, I must find a different path.[22]

My employment situation reached its nadir towards the end of the same month; thankfully, I was offered another position just as that crisis peaked, and I started at the Archives of Traditional Music on 21 April 2008.

Among my duties at the Archives was to schedule use of a meeting facility in Morrison Hall known as the Hoagy Carmichael Room. On 23 April, I received an e-mail from Debra Melsheimer, graduate secretary in Religious Studies, cancelling one of the two reservations they had for the room during the coming Fall Orientation. “Since we will have no ‘new’ incoming graduate students for the AY 2008-09 we will only need to hold one (1) meeting time…”[23] I politely confirmed the cancellation and angrily forwarded the e-mail to friends of mine in the department, asking if they knew what was going on. In short, everybody to whom they made offers were, as I was told, prospects who could turn them down for schools such as Yale and Columbia, and that is exactly what all of them did. Unfortunately, nobody turned them down in time for the department to be able to make other offers.

Thursday, 19 January 2006 is the next point along the timeline to which my memory turns. I had graduated from the Indiana University School of Music with my B. Mus. the month before at the age of twenty-nine, having taken eleven years to finish a four-year degree. My entire final semester of my undergraduate career, my focus was taking a wild turn from the operatic career I had come to Indiana University in 2003 to pursue. I spent the term embracing my new identity as a scholar who happened to sing rather than a singer who liked to read, and my course on Early Music History gave me plenty of opportunities for this – as did an undergraduate survey course on Medieval History taught by Professor Deborah Deliyannis. Much of the personal reading I had done over the past three years came in handy in both classes, to say nothing of the experience of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical cycle (enhanced by taking on choir directing duties the previous summer). Perhaps my areas of interest and the approach I found myself taking meant that I was complicit in “failing to break the grip of a history that roots humanity’s origins in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago” at a moment when there was “an intellectual and moral imperative” [24] to not fall into that trap, but so be it.

A conversation one day with Prof. Deliyannis led both of us to the conclusion that if I was looking for a post-opera path, perhaps History was the way to go. She said she was willing to write a recommendation, and she thought that it would probably be no particular trouble to admit me as a terminal Masters student, given what she had seen in class. She suggested I talk to Professor Ed Watts, and also said it would help if I could find a summer Latin program somewhere, but encouraged me to go ahead with the particulars of the application.

I took the GRE. I asked for letters of recommendation from the instructors for my more academic courses in the School of Music. I met with Prof. Watts. I found a summer Latin program at University College Cork in Ireland. I submitted my application to the Department of History.

Graduation came and went, as December graduations do. In January, I took a job as a bank teller, figuring I wasn’t going to be there past June if I was going to Ireland for the summer.

Then, an e-mail from Prof. Deliyannis came, strongly suggesting that I set up a meeting with a particular professor regarding my graduate application. I entered this person’s office on 19 January with knots in my stomach, knowing that this likely was not a promising development.

In short, what I heard was, “I don’t think you can get there from here.” Prof. Deliyannis had meant well, I was told, but was unfamiliar with the particulars of how the History department handled graduate applications. In the first place, History did not offer a terminal Masters. In the second place, History did not admit anybody they did not fund. In the third place, whatever my letters might have said about me and whatever my grades and test scores were, a B. Mus. simply could not be given the same weight as a B. A. and thus my letters and my grades could not be taken as seriously as they might be otherwise. In the fourth place, I needed at least some Greek and Latin before I could be admitted.

So what do I do? I asked.

“If I were you, I’d take classes as a non-matriculated student for a couple of years, and then apply elsewhere,” this person told me, stressing the word. “If it’s somebody like me reading your application, there’s very little you’re going to be able to do to make yourself competitive here.”

I left that office devastated (to say nothing of late for work). I had no idea that History would be so fundamentally different from the School of Music, where essentially the non-funded students paid for the funded students. Well, there was nothing for it; if I had to make myself a better applicant on paper, then that was exactly what I would do. By June I had found an on-campus job that had a tuition benefit, and fall of 2006 I started first year Ancient Greek.

A letter I wrote to a friend at the end of February 2006 provides this account:

I graduated in December. It only took me eleven years to finish a four year degree, and I am now sufficiently B.Mus’d (bemused). I don’t know exactly what’s happening with me next; I’m not doing another music degree here, and it frankly seems unlikely that I will be doing another degree at Indiana University, period. Megan’s program is opening all kinds of doors for her; she’s spending seven (paid) weeks in Germany this summer, she starts her PhD in the fall, and so on, but all of my attempts to figure out something useful to do in this environment have failed miserably. Medieval History seemed like a quite likely candidate (and it still does, just not here); I made a wonderful impression on a professor in a non-School of Music class last semester, and she started recruiting me. It seemed like a good fit (and still does), given my natural interests and proclivities, and I was able to get some strong letters of recommendation. Well, I can’t say that I know exactly what happened, except that in January, I was suddenly whisked into the office of somebody higher up in the food chain of the History department, who in no uncertain terms told me that the department’s interest in me had been vastly oversold, and that I needed to look at ways that I could make myself an attractive candidate “someplace else.” Like I say, I don’t know exactly what happened; the most I could get out of this person was that my recommendations didn’t really match the background my transcript showed, and that the recommendations aside, I’m just not competitive “on paper” as far as they’re concerned, coming from a music background. It rather came across as, “On paper, you look like an intellectual lightweight trying to change fields on somebody else’s dime.” What the professor who had been recruiting me said was, “I know what you’re capable of, I know your abilities, I know how you think and how you work, and I think you’re plenty competitive—but it’s not up to me.” I don’t know if, at the end of the day, my research interests…just didn’t match up well enough with those who actually had power to make decisions, or if this was more of an internal political conflict, or what. The plan of action from here, insofar as there is one at present, is to take a class or two a semester as a non-matriculated student for the next two or three years, and then when Megan is done with her coursework and exams, we can try to find a program where I can do my graduate studies and she can do post-doctoral work. I have to say, after the humiliating disappointment of my three years at the School of Music, this whole thing really took out of me whatever wind I had left in my sails.[25]

As we get farther away from the immediacy of the present, however, my memory is increasingly, but less-intentionally, elided. The same letter also contains this section:

To briefly sum up the various happenings of the last nine months… I am not at St. Vladimir’s. The idea was always that it would be fall of 2006 anyway, not fall of 2005, but that is not likely at this point. Perhaps fall of 2009 or 2010. In short, I visited there in October and loved it. Everything about the place impressed me—the location, the faculty, the campus life, the educational environment, the pastoral approach, and so on. Most especially, the centrality of the chapel in the rhythm of campus life just blew me away. However, two things happened—first, Megan, quite correctly and justly, decided that she was enjoying teaching and did not want to walk away from the remaining three years of her funding. Second, every person I talked to at St. Vlad’s gave me the same advice: wait as long as you can before coming. The answer was motivated in different ways by different people—the liturgical music professor said that they’re revamping the program so that it is aimed more towards people with a solid musical background, but that it’s going to be another five years or so before they get there. The dean of students said that spiritual maturity was going to be vital to one’s survival and education in that environment, and that a few years’ worth of time for things to settle would only help me. A student told me, “They will challenge everything you think you know, and your faith will need to be solid as a rock to withstand it. Let as much water run under the bridge as you can manage.” Excellent advice, all of it. I took it to heart, and combined with my wife’s circumstances, I hope to wind up there at some point in some capacity, but it won’t be this next year.[26]

Reading this section of the letter, I remember an entire series of events surrounding a campus visit to Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in October of 2005 and the exploration of the possibility of the priesthood. It was a trip that seemed so seminal, exciting, and which pointed an unmistakable way forward, but which rather spectacularly came to nothing in the end. Even so, it seems like I would at least remember it without prompting for purposes of a footnote, but it does not occur to me to remember it until faced with its record.

Tracing backwards from there, I am led to 13 February 2005. It was my fourth semester at the School of Music, and my penultimate term as an undergraduate. I had auditioned for the Masters program in Vocal Performance and was admitted, and I was still waiting for word on my funding to come through. My audition was good; it showed clear improvement during my time here in terms of range and musicality, and there was the matter of my article in The Journal of Singing making me the first School of Music person in some years to publish in the professional publication for voice teachers. At the beginning of March I was traveling to New York for the first time, having been invited to audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and I felt like I was singing well enough to feel good about such an opportunity.

It was in the midst of these hopeful circumstances that my wife and I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity on the second Sunday of the month, the day before Valentine’s Day. Our first confessions were heard, we were anointed with oil, and we received Communion for the first time. With some irony, the only family either of us had in attendance was my decidedly atheist father.

Larry A. Braskamp suggests that the interest in religion for students represents a “[search] for meaning and community… [which] often leads them away from the organized religious practices and beliefs of their past, [but] is… [nonetheless] a journey toward a more complex spiritual and religious identity.”[27] I can agree with him, but only partially; the “more complex spiritual and religious identity” in this case was far more organized and equipped with beliefs and practices than those of our past. It was amidst the collective memory of the Christian East, a memory both inscribed and incorporated, that I was faced with the “essential historicity of Christian religion,”[28] and I saw – or was shown? – that I had no other option than to find that compelling.

A handwritten diary records the following:

He [the priest] very nearly forgot to anoint our ears. Somewhat ironic, given what we do.

I am fighting a cold and sore throat, so I wound up not singing at all. However, several parts of the homily stuck with me. Deacon Lawrence preached, and he quoted several Church Fathers on the matter of choosing God’s will over one’s own. There are three options, one wrote. God’s way, our way, and the Devil’s way. The man who has not chosen God’s way is somebody who will clearly be ill at ease, who will find everything to be not right, who will not truly be at peace with anyone. That simply describes Dad to a “T”, I’m sorry to say.

Communion was very nearly over before it began; I carried my chrismation candle up to the Chalice with me, which was a touch awkward, and the spoon was in and out of my mouth before I really realized what had happened. No neon signs flashed in the sky, and truth be told… I didn’t need them to.

[…] While describing to Dad the night before just what he’d be seeing, it occurred to me that in many ways it would look like our wedding—we’d process to the front of the church, we’d answer questions, take some vows, and have jewelry put on us. As it worked out, gifts were also another similarity. We both now wear crosses that were given to us by our sponsors; my mother gave us a lovely pewter candle-snuffer; several of our friends made donations to All Saints’ building fund in our honor; the parents of our friend Benjamin also gave us a large ceramic pigeon we’ve named “Melvin”.[29]

It was after this affirmation and proclamation of faith that everything fell apart. The School of Music offered me less financial support than I had received as an undergraduate. My voice teacher pleaded with whom he could, but the most they would do is put it back to my undergraduate level, and they indicated to him that I should feel grateful for that. My New York trip was a fun first visit to the Big Apple, but that is all it ended up being – the audition yielded nothing. The final nail in the coffin was the audition for the fall’s operas, where inexplicably I simply had no high notes anymore. If I were to take my newly professed faith seriously, it would appear very much that God was closing the doors through which I was not supposed to venture.

Thinking that perhaps I could still stay in Music, I spoke with faculty members I knew in Musicology and Choral Conducting. Perhaps these would both be disciplines where my faith and how I practiced it could inform what I did without needing to be fundamentally challenged. As I would be studying specific practices rather than institutions or development of particular beliefs, I hoped that somehow I could be free of questions of “What is ‘religious’? How do we align our definitions with those of the persons we study? Where do we draw the disciplinary boundaries of ‘religious history’?”[30] Both departments told me the same thing, however – we would love to have you, they said. You would be a natural fit in either program. Unfortunately, we have no money at the Masters level, and if you come in as an unfunded student, it would hurt your chances of getting funding at the doctoral level.

Another letter from me to a friend reports the following:

Given how the graduate funding issue shook out, I decided to not accept the slot in the Master’s program here… [B]eing on the cusp of my thirties (having turned 28 this last November)… I do not feel like I can responsibly continue going into an indefinite amount of debt for an indefinite amount of time, while having no solid career prospects on the table. That raised the question, however, what are the implications of that for my career path? The blunt reality is that I don’t really have a career path at this stage of the game. By March of this year, in every respect, it had become quite plain to me that I could not, realistically, get “there” from here.[31]

The last (or is it the first?) of my memories to be strung along this thread is Saturday, 11 June 1994, the day of my high school graduation, being seventeen years old. There was so much to do, and the plan for the weekend had been formulated along very strict lines. Dad would fly in from Anchorage on Friday, the ceremony was on Saturday, there would be a family celebration following, and then he and Mom would fly to Anchorage together on Sunday, leaving Seattle for good. On Monday, I would supervise the movers as they packed up our house. A couple of weeks after that, I would fly to Anchorage myself, returning in the fall to start college at Western Washington University.

Dad had returned to Anchorage in the fall of 1993 to see if his luck might be better in the place where he had made his fortune to begin with; the idea of things getting any worse in Seattle was terrifying. His money had been too tied to Alaska for it to survive the so-called 1986 Oil Price Collapse,[32] and he had never sufficiently planted professional or financial roots in the Pacific Northwest to ride out the crisis. Since taking a loss of $100,000 on the house – to say nothing of having to sell virtually everything else that was not nailed down – in 1988, we had bounced more or less annually from rental to rental, each one less expensive than the previous, hoping that somehow things would turn around. Unfortunately, the rise of big box stores like Office Club, Office Depot and CostCo[33] were making it very difficult for the small office supply retailer to be competitive. Ironically, if we had just been able to hold on to the house for another six months, we would have caught the beginning of the suburban real estate boom in Seattle.[34] After five years of struggling unsuccessfully to make it work, returning to Alaska seemed to be the only option. My mother stayed behind so that I could finish high school where I had started, and since I was going to be starting college anyway, it seemed like a natural break.

The plan was executed neatly and efficiently, point by point. Dad flew in on Friday, I walked on Saturday, and they left together on Sunday. I drove my parents’ car back to our townhouse from the airport, which in its strewn-with-boxes state was no longer really “ours” except that I still lived there for one more day, and went to sleep that night as its sole occupant. The next day, the movers came. In the late afternoon I watched them drive the truck away with everything we owned in it, including my parents’ car. With it went any sense I had of any particular place being “home”; my parents now lived someplace I did not, and while it did not follow that I now had a new home as well, my old home (which itself had only been “ours” for nine months) was no longer mine to occupy. While surely not exactly what Steven Ruggles had in mind when he made this argument, I could have nonetheless independently confirmed his thesis that “a rise in economic resources of the elderly” – to use the term broadly – “…would have resulted in an increase of residence with kin[.]”[35] His larger argument that “the past century has witnessed a radical transformation of residential preferences [of families]”[36] was surely something to which I could also attest, having experienced the bizarre reversal of growing up, graduating high school – and having my parents move away.

Much as I began by observing that I cannot remember this project’s completion and outcome while still working on it, I must end with something else of which I can have no memory and must rely on the memories of others – or, rather, my memory of their memories. (Or, even more to the point, my claim to remember what they claim to remember.) My parents met in Anchorage, Alaska in 1974. In the same year, Lynn White, Jr. wrote that “[p]eople are organized… by the basic presuppositions – often unverbalized – that they share: their axioms.”[37] If this is true, then perhaps it is no real surprise that my parents were always disorganized. Both had been born in Alaska, but there the similarities effectively end. Dick, my father, was the second youngest of a large merchant-class family; his own father, Jack, had owned the first Piggly-Wiggly grocery stores in Alaska.[38] My mother was from a working-class family; her father was a truck driver for a dairy (ironically, a supplier to my other grandfather’s stores). The family business, of which my father was president, was Barrett Office Supply, a thriving supplier of office furniture in an economic environment fueled, as it were, by the 1968 discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay on the state’s North Slope.[39] My mother had started working as a receptionist for Barrett Office Supply at nineteen shortly after her first divorce; my father was also recovering from his own first divorce.

The ferment of post-1960s sexual mores being what they were, it seemed like a good idea to the office to try to cheer Dick up by sending him to Hawaii – with Shirley, with whom he had never exchanged more than a few, intimidating (by her recollection) words. It is tempting to digress here into an examination of how the supposed liberation from the bourgeois repression of sexuality, in reality, set up an environment in which it was acceptable for a man and a woman to cede sexual agency and be “drafted,” more or less, into a sexual relationship which not only resulted in consequences not intended by the “drafters” (such as this author), but also in which were located many axes of power – an eight year age difference, inequality of family status, a status/power difference at a mutual place of employment, income disparity, and so on.[40] However, this would not further discussion of the main point at hand. Suffice it to say that shortly after their return from Hawaii, they moved in together. In 1976, the year the French language edition of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction was first published, a second trip to Hawaii in February led to my birth on 21 November. They were married on 13 May 1977 – a Friday the 13th, incidentally, and just over a month before the first barrel of oil would be pumped from Prudhoe Bay into the newly completed Trans-Alaska Pipeline on 20 June 1977.[41]

Thus is the chain of memories upon which I draw to answer the question “Why am I here?” – but do any of them really answer the question? Can these disparate pieces actually be synthesized into a historical argument, or do they represent a draft of Richard Barrett, The Early Years: A Reader? Can I actually answer that question myself, or will it require a later historian to assemble the fragments into a mosaic? Would the picture that historian might assemble look like anything I would recognize myself as my own life? Is it my responsibility to remember in a way convenient for the historian? If the references to American Historical Review as a sort of historian’s Greek chorus show anything, it is that  how I remember things and what the discipline of history would like me to do with those memories are not always the same thing – for example, whether or not historians are entirely comfortable with the word “crisis” does not impact my experience of an event as a crisis. Good historians analyze memories, better historians synthesize them, but it does not follow that what they (or we, as I must remind myself) need to accomplish those tasks will instill a sense of obligation in the individual recounting their own memories to remember the way the historian would find ideal.

What forward-looking narratives might be assembled from these pieces, anyway? Am I here because God ordained it? Am I here because of how fluctuations in oil prices in the mid-1980s interacted with suburban expansion? Am I here because of how the Sexual Revolution manifested itself in Anchorage, Alaska? Am I here because intense feelings of abandonment led me to seek out community and identity in a highly structured religious environment, rich in traditions and practices that lend themselves to study? Am I here because my great-great-grandfather won at Palmetto Ranch? Am I here because I just plain was too dumb to know when to give up? All of these things? None of them? Even if I, as a Christian, lean towards the first of those explanations, it is incumbent upon me to remember that “the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer.”[42]

Can I be trusted to be reliable with my own memories? I already know that some of the other parties involved recount some of the same events differently from how I do, but that does not change how I remember those events. In any case, it should be clear that I have elided, compressed, omitted, selectively emphasized, and otherwise edited my memories for public consumption, even if I have not done so intending to mislead. There is the matter of the abandoned pursuit of the priesthood, which I had entirely forgotten to remember until I saw my own words describing it. Did Professor Deliyannis really “recruit” me in 2005, as I told my correspondent? I thought that word appropriate at the time, but now I am not certain. It is unambiguously fitting for Professor Watts, who suggested of his own volition that I apply, and there is the not insignificant matter that I was actually admitted this time around. As well, the memories presented here certainly do not answer all questions about everything, and substantial gaps are left. The simple fact is that to “tell everything” can only be a pretty-sounding fiction.

Even within the convention I have attempted to follow of presenting memories in the order in which I access them, it is still necessary to contextualize and construct and narrate, to tell things in the order of before and after at least to some extent, in order for them to make sense. To the extent that there is such thing as “purity” of memory, it would seem that it might only be preserved as long as the memory does not need to be communicated to anybody else. That this problem begins to touch upon and intertwine problems both of an epistemological as well as an ontological nature greatly concerns me, but what to do about it? It suggests that I can only truly know what I think I know as long as I have no need to pass it on, in which case it becomes what I claim to know and must be held in suspicion by, above all, myself. However, if I cannot exist without some need to communicate with others, than what I think I know is constantly in tension with what I am, or perhaps what I need to be. The problem here is that I am neither philosopher nor theologian; I cannot dwell on such questions for too long without my head starting to hurt. I know what I know, and I remember what I remember, or at least I think I do. What can I say except “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it”?

“The power of memory is great, exceedingly great, O God, a large and limitless inner hall,” writes St. Augustine. “Who has come to its foundation? Yet it is a power of this my soul, and it belongs to my nature, but I myself do not grasp all that I am.”[43] Maybe I am unable to answer the question “Why am I here?” I can produce my memories of what I think are the relevant events that led up to being here, but I cannot myself yet see the beyond the present moment sufficiently to synthesize those events into a meaning. Perhaps it is also telling that the greater the distance from the event being remembered, the easier time I have putting that event into a historical context – thus, again, I am too close to now to be able to see it in perspective. If I am so unfortunate as to draw the attention of another historian – or worse, a biographer – down the road, then perhaps that person will be able to construct a forest for the trees.

Which is all to say – that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Works Cited

Ames, Christine Caldwell. “Does Inquisition Belong to Religious History?” American Historical Review 110, no. 1 (2005): 11-37.

Ash, Timothy Garton. The File. New York, NY: Random House, 1997.

Barkan, Elazar. “A. H. R. Forum: Truth and Reconciliation in History. Introduction: Historians and Historical Reconciliation.” American Historical Review 114, no. 4 (2009): 899-913.

Barrett, Richard. Letter, 26 February 2006.

———. Letter, 15 May 2005.

———. “13 February 2005.” Personal diary. Bloomington, Indiana, 2005.

———. “Counting Hatched Chicken #4.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “Counting Hatched Chickens, Nos. 1-3.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “In Which the Author Finds Himself Intentionally, Joyfully, and yet with a Tinge of Sadness, Unemployed.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “More on the Alleged Plurality of Means by Which One May Remove Flesh from a Feline.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “On Forgiveness Sunday, the Alleged Plurality of Methods by Which One May Relieve a Feline of Its Flesh, and Other Musings.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

———. “Things You Think About When You’re Trying Not to Fall.” In Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist. Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009.

Braskamp, Larry A. “The Religious and Spiritual Journeys of College Students.” In The American University in a Post-Secular Age, edited by Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, 117-34. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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

Florovsky, Georges. “The Predicament of the Christian Historian.” In Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, edited by Walter Leibrecht, 140-66. New York, NY: Ayer Publishing, 1959. Reprint, 1972.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Reprint, 1990.

Gamber, Wendy. Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.

Hippo, Augustine of. “Confessions.”

Hunt, Jeffrey. The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Koepp, Stephen. “Cheap Oil!” TIME Magazine, 14 April 1986.

Lee, In. “Office Depot’s E-Commerce Evolution.” International Journal of Cases on Electronic Commerce 1, no. 2 (2005): 44-56.

Lynn White, Jr. “Technology Assessment from the Stance of a Medieval Historian.” American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (1974): 1-13.

MacMillan, Margaret. Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History. 2 ed. New York, NY: Modern Library, 2008. Reprint, 2009.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594-617. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978.

Melsheimer, Debra. Electronic mail, 23 April 2008.

Naske, Claus-M, and Herman E. Slotnick. Alaska: A History of the 49th State. 2 ed. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations no. 26 (1989): 7-24.

Parra, Francisco R. Oil Politics: A Modern History of Petroleum. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.

Peirce, Neal, Curtis W. Johnson, and Betty Jane Narver. “The Peirce Report: 1. Congestion and Sprawl: A Thousand and One Delayed Decisions Are Taking Their Toll, and Environmental Time Is Running out Fast in Puget Paradise.” The Seattle Times, 1 October 1989.

Ruggles, Steven. “The Transformation of the American Family Structure.” American Historical Review 99, no. 1 (1994): 103-28.

Shank, J. B. “A. H. R. Forum. Crisis: A Useful Category of Post-Social Scientific Historical Analysis?” American Historical Review 113, no. 4 (2008): 1090-9.

Smail, Dan. “In the Grip of Sacred History.” American Historical Review 110, no. 5 (2005): 1337-61.

Spiegel, Gabrielle M. “Presidential Address: The Task of the Historian.” American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (2009): 1-15.

Watts, Edward. Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.


[1] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978)., 595.

[2] Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, 2 ed. (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2008; reprint, 2009)., 44.

[3] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989)., 8.

[4] It is not relevant to the discussion – or is it? – but I was at the Luxury Alderwood Theater in Lynnwood, Washington, seeing the movie Batman on its opening day.

[5] Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989)., 72-104.

[6] Elazar Barkan, “A. H. R. Forum: Truth and Reconciliation in History. Introduction: Historians and Historical Reconciliation,” American Historical Review 114, no. 4 (2009)., 903.

[7] Ibid., 908.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 913.

[10] Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.”, 9.

[11] Timothy Garton Ash, The File (New York, NY: Random House, 1997)., 9-11.

[12] Edward Watts, Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.

[13] Wendy Gamber, Electronic mail, 20 February 2009.

[14] Gabrielle M. Spiegel, “Presidential Address: The Task of the Historian,” American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (2009)., 12.

[15] Richard Barrett, “Counting Hatched Chickens, Nos. 1-3,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009). The Greek means, “Glory to God for all things!”

[16] ———, “Counting Hatched Chicken #4,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009). The Latin means, “Richard is no longer an unworthy applicant, thanks to God.”

[17] ———, “In Which the Author Finds Himself Intentionally, Joyfully, and yet with a Tinge of Sadness, Unemployed,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009).

[18] J. B. Shank, “A. H. R. Forum. Crisis: A Useful Category of Post-Social Scientific Historical Analysis?,” American Historical Review 113, no. 4 (2008)., 1096.

[19] Ibid., 1097.

[20] Richard Barrett, “Things You Think About When You’re Trying Not to Fall,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009).

[21] ———, “On Forgiveness Sunday, the Alleged Plurality of Methods by Which One May Relieve a Feline of Its Flesh, and Other Musings,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009). The Latin means, “Richard is an unworthy applicant.”

[22] ———, “More on the Alleged Plurality of Means by Which One May Remove Flesh from a Feline,” in Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (Bloomington, Indiana: WordPress, 2009).

[23] Debra Melsheimer, Electronic mail, 23 April 2008.

[24] Dan Smail, “In the Grip of Sacred History,” American Historical Review 110, no. 5 (2005)., 1361.

[25] Richard Barrett, Letter, 26 February 2006.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Larry A. Braskamp, “The Religious and Spiritual Journeys of College Students,” in The American University in a Post-Secular Age, ed. Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008)., 133.

[28] Georges Florovsky, “The Predicament of the Christian Historian,” in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, ed. Walter Leibrecht (New York, NY: Ayer Publishing, 1959; reprint, 1972)., 141.

[29] Richard Barrett, “13 February 2005,” (Bloomington, Indiana, 2005).

[30] Christine Caldwell Ames, “Does Inquisition Belong to Religious History?,” American Historical Review 110, no. 1 (2005)., 13.

[31] Richard Barrett, Letter, 15 May 2005.

[32] For a contemporary account of the issue, see Stephen Koepp, “Cheap Oil!,” TIME Magazine, 14 April 1986.

[33] For background on Office Depot and Office Club as an example, see In Lee, “Office Depot’s E-Commerce Evolution,” International Journal of Cases on Electronic Commerce 1, no. 2 (2005)., 45.

[34] For a contemporary account of the economic situation in the greater Seattle area in the late 1980s, see Neal Peirce, Curtis W. Johnson, and Betty Jane Narver, “The Peirce Report: 1. Congestion and Sprawl: A Thousand and One Delayed Decisions Are Taking Their Toll, and Environmental Time Is Running out Fast in Puget Paradise,” The Seattle Times, 1 October 1989.

[35] Steven Ruggles, “The Transformation of the American Family Structure,” American Historical Review 99, no. 1 (1994)., 126.

[36] Ibid., 127.

[37] Jr. Lynn White, “Technology Assessment from the Stance of a Medieval Historian,” American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (1974)., 1.

[38] Jack’s own grandfather (my great-great-grandfather) was something of a footnote in Civil War history, being Colonel Theodore H. Barrett of the Union, commander of the 62nd U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment, winner of the Battle of Palmetto Ranch, the final conflict of the War Between the States – over a month after Appomattox. See Jeffrey Hunt, The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002).

[39] For a brief overview, see Francisco R. Parra, Oil Politics: A Modern History of Petroleum (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004)., 269.

[40] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1978; reprint, 1990)., 120-7.

[41] Claus-M Naske and Herman E. Slotnick, Alaska: A History of the 49th State, 2 ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)., 265.

[42] Florovsky, “The Predicament of the Christian Historian.”, 166.

[43] Augustine of Hippo, “Confessions.” Book 10, ch. 8. Translation mine.

At the start of week seven — catching up, and the beginning of some ends

That centermost white dot is Tom Hanks.

I’ll get back to that.

Obviously, much has happened in the three weeks or so since I was last able to post a chronicle of my time here. It’s also enough time that certain chapters are closing, or have in fact already closed; I have less than two weeks left here in Greece, my second class at the Athens Centre comes to an end tomorrow, Flesh of My Flesh arrives Monday afternoon, at which point my residence will shift for a few days, my IU colleagues have headed back to the States, and Ioannis Arvanitis has gone on vacation until the end of next week, meaning that last Friday’s Byzantine chant lesson was probably my last.

When last I was able to post, my first 3-week class at the Athens Centre was over and the new one had not yet started. This has been a good class, and it has certainly been more of an immersive language learning environment than the first managed to be. There are only two others in the class — Jim, a schoolteacher from Vancouver, B. C. who married a Greek woman and who is hoping to raise bilingual kids (if not just move here altogether), and Jan, the ambassador to Greece from Slovakia. We’ve jelled well. The good thing is that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but they tend to complement each other. Jan is an experienced language learner, but speaks Greek with a thick Slovak accent. Jim has never learned a foreign language before, and as a result grammatical concepts take him some time, but he absorbs vocabulary very quickly, and his listening comprehension is vastly aided by having had Greek in-laws for the last decade. For me, grammar and reading comprehension are things which come quickly, but vocabulary takes me a bit longer than I’d like, and while my listening comprehension is vastly improved from where it was, I’m still sometimes painfully aware of how slow my ear is. With our forces combined, we’ve nonetheless been able to speak predominantly Greek in the class — let’s say between 80-90% on average, but often getting closer to 95%.

A couple of weeks ago, I went with Frank (my Greek teacher at IU), his wife, and my fellow student Stefanos to see Phaedra with Helen Mirren at the ancient theatre of Epidauros. It was a really wonderful day all around; we first went swimming at a beach in Loutraki, a seaside town on the Peleponnesian peninsula — and let me say, swimming in the Gulf of Corinth ain’t bad. I think that’s the first time in probably eight years I’ve been in a body of water of any size, or salt water for that. Following the swim, we drove to the port town, and former Greek capital, of Nafplion. We ate a late lunch at a taverna called Vasillis (hey! That’s “Richard” translated into Greek! Perfect!), walked around the square, and also drove up to Palamidi, the Byzantine/Venetian/Ottoman mountaintop fortress which overlooks the city (“Real cities have medieval castles”).

By that point, it was time to head up to the theatre. After being seated (by the way, bring something soft to sit on — the stone risers are pretty much exactly as they were carved 2500 years ago), I heard an American couple talking behind me — “Seen Tom Hanks yet?” I wasn’t sure if they were joking, but I kept an eye on the entrances, just in case.

Sure enough, he and his wife showed up and were seated in the center of the front row. That picture at the top of this post was the best I could do, with distance, light, and camera all combined.

The play was good; it was a bit weird, seeing a French Baroque playwright’s adaptation of Euripides, translated into English by a modern author, with Modern Greek supertitles, but there we are. It was very nearly a bare stage, with only a few chairs, some sort of small circular platform in the center, and a shell around the back of the stage with ramps leading off and on. Dress was modern, with Hippolytus pacing around the stage in a wifebeater in the first scene. Stanley Townsend was a larger-than-life, aged Theseus; for all of you IU kids reading along at home, think Tim Noble. Helen Mirren, naturally, owned the stage every second she was on it, and was downright creepy for much of the evening. I tend to think that her death scene didn’t have a ton of impact, but that seemed to be a bit of awkward staging more than anything.

I will also note that the acoustics at Epidauros are everything people claim them to be; it takes the ear a second to adjust, but once it does, you hear every word without any difficulty whatsoever.

The very next day, Giorgos took me for a drive along the coastline to Sounio — in myth, the place where Aegeus threw himself into the sea, and where there is a temple to Poseidon which is said to form an equilateral triangle with the Parthenon and the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina. The point where Aegeus is said to jumped is very rocky and uneven with a lot of loose stones; to be honest, if there was an Aegeus, I find it more likely that he just tripped and fell, black sails or no black sails. I was wearing Birkenstocks instead of my Merrells — bad idea.

On Sunday, at Divine Liturgy at St. Irene, I saw somebody else in the Communion line who looked remarkably like St. Vladimir Seminary faculty member Dr. Peter Bouteneff. As it turns out, it was, in fact, Dr. Bouteneff, explaining why it looked so much like him.

The following Monday, I went to an event called the Athens Grand Prix Tsiklitiria, a big international track and field competition. It was a chance to see the 2004 Olympic Stadium in action; I got to see the men’s steeplechase, some of the men’s javelin, men’s high jump, and some of the women’s sprinting events. One very interesting thing is the pit of razor wire between the seats and the field; they are evidently are various serious about not wanting fans to rush the pitch — not surprising, since it’s also used for soccer.

Throughout the week, I did some gift shopping; I discovered that there are a couple of city blocks right off of Annunciation Cathedral where there is nothing but ecclesiastical supply shops. I spent some time browsing through these establishments; as with Apostoliki Diakonia, the answer to just about any question beginning with “Do you have…” is “Yes, what kind are you looking for?” It’s quite something to see such places with your own eyes when you’re accustomed to there being only one or two places in the United States which carry these things at all, and then they usually have to import them. I will be going back for a few gifts; there is a bookstore (which I decline to name) which will not be among the places to which I return, however. When I walked in to browse, somebody was immediately following me, asked if they could help me, and when I said I was just looking, they didn’t leave me alone. It was clear they didn’t want me in there (and I’m not altogether certain why), so I won’t burden them again.

By the way: a useful phrase in Greek is, “Μήπως μπορείτε να μου κάνετε μία καλύτερα τιμή;” (Mipos boreite na mou kanete mia kalitera timi?), which means, “Maybe you can give me a better price?” People will haggle, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Also — engraving is quite inexpensive here. I had bought a brass cigarette lighter as a gift, and I wanted to have the person’s name on it. There is an engraver at 9 Havriou Street who does beautiful work; it took less than an hour and cost all of 5 Euros.

This last Saturday I went to the island of Aegina — this will be its own post.

Sunday, I met Joshua Robinson, the Byzantine Greek student I was supposed to go to Petraki with a couple of nights ago. We had e-mailed a bit the week previous, and he met me at St. Irene. He joined Arvanitis and me for what has become our customary coffee after Liturgy, after which we went to Thanassis for lunch and traded stories. Very sharp and nice guy, and it’s good to know that he’s only a short drive north once I’m home — I hope to get to know him better on the other side of the ocean.

Monday of this week, Stefanos (Anna’s brother, not my IU colleague) and Liana took me to a play at the public theatre here in Halandri called Babylonia, by the 19th century Greek playwright Demetrios Byzantinou. The key conceit of the play is that each character is speaking a different dialect of Greek and they have trouble understanding each other; I actually understood more than I thought I would, and perhaps what I understood would be different from what everyday Greeks might understand. Of the two characters I understood most, one speaks katharevousa or the “purifying” speech, which is an elevated dialect quite close to Ancient Greek, and another speaks a dialect with a good amount of Italian mixed in. Even if I didn’t understand everything, I found it fascinating and highly entertaining, and had some unexpected laughs at moments when nobody else was laughing. For example, the scholar who speaks katharevousa has a speech where he walks a verb from the Attic form through the sound changes to what it looks like in “the Italian dialect”. I understood exactly what was going on, and I thought it was hysterical. There’s also an exchange where the Anatolian is dictating a letter to the katharevousa speaker, and in asking what the letter should say, the scholar uses a verbal adjective form, something rare which I’ve only ever seen a handful of times and would have trouble constructing if somebody held a gun to my head, but to my own surprise I got it, and immediately thought to myself, “Hey! That was a gerundive and I understood!” Shortly thereafter, the Anatolian, after hearing what the scholar has written, tells him, “You’ve written a troparion.”

Anyway, I was inspired enough to seek out a copy of the play, and I found one easily enough. It seems a worthy exercise for the person taking old and new Greek seriously to try to read some of it — we’ll see how it goes.

My chant lessons have been extraordinarily valuable; Arvanitis told me this last Sunday that we’ve worked through in a month and a half what he usually takes a year to teach. I am going back to the States with a decent grasp of the basics, close to twenty hours of lesson recordings for reference, and some books of repertoire that are difficult to get on that side of the water. We’ll see what I’m able to do with all of it once I’m home — I definitely have some ideas.

Okay — on the whole, this catches us up in terms of the travel narrative, save for Aegina, which will come later. Other thoughts and reflections to come.

Less than two weeks. Sheesh. Where does the time go?

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?”

Who’s your religion service provider?

A couple of years there were some pieces in the news which prompted an essay from me which I shopped around a bit to various publications. It was entitled “Who’s your religion service provider: resisting the commoditization of the Christian faith.” I got some interest, but ultimately not a sale, and so it’s been sitting on my hard drive gathering dust. However, Terry Mattingly’s current column tells me the topic is even more relevant than it was when I wrote it. The “service provider” mentality is now assumed by the larger churches, for all intents and purposes; it’s just a question of which features and options you want to have come with the package.

So, without further ado—

* * *

Consider the following:

• A front-page, above-the-fold article in the 20 March 2005 Indianapolis Star called “Daunting mission: finding a church”, which asked the question: “Christians can find a church on almost every street. How to pick the right one?” Amidst photos of gift bags being given to visitors, talk of what’s “effective”, the importance of “the warmth factor”, having “welcome centers” and making sure people have a “growing experience”, there’s a modicum of column inch space devoted to what a given church actually teaches. “[S]ome issues might be non-negotiable for a churchgoer,” the article thoughtfully posits, “such as the authority of the Scriptures… [therefore] people should should think about where they stand on matters up for debate [before visiting a church].” A helpful sidebar called “Advice on finding a place to worship” lists the important factors to keep in mind—and what are the top four? In order—geography, child safety, youth programs, and music. And where do faith and teaching fall on the list? Actually, they don’t. Worship is number five and preaching is number six, but these are both referenced in terms of style.

• A piece in the 21 March 2005 issue of Newsweek, “The battle for Latino souls”, which speaks of the “marketing savvy… often associated with corporate America” with which Chicago-area Hispanic Catholics are being recruited by Pentecostals. One such congregation is described as having “an inviting sanctuary with amenities for all, like a new youth center stocked with games and computers.” A founder of the community is quoted as saying, “People are looking for service… it’s like a business.” The writer asserts that “Catholicism will never match the aggressive evangelism of rival churches”, and quotes Richard Simon, “Cardinal Francis [sic] George’s liaison for charismatic renewal”, as saying, “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.”

• The 4 June 2005 issue of The Spectator, referring to Pope Benedict XVI as believing that “a smaller Church could be a better Church, offering the world a superior product and therefore eventually increasing its market share”, noting that “Benedict himself does not employ this commercial analogy, but it works surprisingly well—not just for Roman Catholicism, but also for religion in general.”

• The description, from the website of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington, of a brand-new worship service ILLUMINATE: “ILLUMINATE is a dynamic, PASSION-filled, awe-inspiring, movement of God. We’ve combined the elements necessary to create an inviting, exciting, and life-changing atmosphere in our Sunday Morning service. ILLUMINATE values ENCOUNTER, where you will meet the God that loves you through music that moves you, a relevant message that inspires you, and the company of others that touches you. ILLUMINATE welcomes all life stages and ages, and those along every point of their spiritual journey. Illuminate [sic] is light for the road. […] Being a BEACON to the culture with an incarnate message of God’s love, FUSING into loving relationships, ENLIGHTENING the practice of faith, IGNITING the use of gifts for serving others and God, and living on FIRE for Jesus in all areas of life.”

• And finally, economist Laurence Iannaccone’s paper “Why strict churches are strong”, from the March 1994 issue of The American Journal of Sociology, in which he argues that “[i]n the austere but precise language of economics, religion is a ‘commodity’ that people produce collectively… The pleasure and edification that I derive from a Sunday service does not depend solely on what I bring to the service […]; it also depends on how many others attend, how warmly they greet me, how well they sing or recite […], how enthusiastically they read and pray, and how deep their commitments are.”

Assuming that the previous examples represent a pattern of thought and behavior throughout congregations in the United States and even worldwide, it is time to remove Iannaccone’s quotes from the word “commodity” and acknowledge that, in fact, our faith has become one more profitable good to be bought and sold in the popular marketplace. The above items suggest that the churches in question might just as well have Internet access as their “product”, because following this mentality, what is a church but a “religion service provider”?

In all fairness, a very real and concerning question faces Christendom these days, to wit: how does one engage and challenge the prevailing culture in a language they understand without obscuring Christian truth? To put it another way, how do we be “in the world but not of it”? Surely that’s what places like Overlake are trying to do, but they miss the mark by making a false idol out of “relevance”, obscuring the countercultural distinctives of historical Christianity rather than standing fast on them. As such, people come and go from the churches for the wrong reasons. When even the Roman Catholic Church tries to operate like a secular business, like it’s just another “service provider”, the faithful clearly know something’s amiss: “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.” You don’t say.

In truth, this is a problem that has faced us–that is, all Christians–as far back as the Council of Jerusalem, when the Apostles had to decide if the Law of Moses was a burden that needed to be borne by the Gentile Christians. Nonetheless, it is especially acute in a world where many of us have five hundred cable channels, the Internet, talk radio, and omnipresent advertising competing for our attention and their money, bombarding us and our children with more images and messages than any other society has ever produced. They purport to provide “pleasure and edification” in plenty, and they’re readily available with next to no effort–so is it any wonder that Christian bodies feel compelled to compete for our time and attention on the same level? In order to solve the problem, however, we must first honestly name the source of this fierce, underhanded battle for our souls and tell him to get behind us.

This year, on the first Sunday of Lent according to the Orthodox calendar, Fr. Ambrose (formerly known as Fr. Alexei Young) of the St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Ohio, told the Indianapolis congregation of St. George Orthodox Church that “[s]ecularism…takes over when people start to think that the Church is just one more agency or social organization with some ‘more or less’ good ideas.” Dr. Gerald Bray, Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, echoes this sentiment, writing in the winter 2004 issue of the journal Sobornost that “if the Church is no more than a social welfare agency, it has no particular reason to exist, and its functions might be better performed by others.” The message is clear: churches need to stop thinking and acting like secular businesses and start acting like churches again. If that means smaller buildings with smaller mortgages, less flashy audio-visual equipment, and (dare I say it) less money and a smaller, more local community, so be it. The early Christians, as well as many Russian Christians of the last century, met in catacombs and focused on Christ, not rear-projection screens or “the warmth factor”; how can we with our 16,000-seat (like Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas), air-conditioned buildings and “welcome kits” do any less? If we have to, we should be able to come together in the catacombs again and be overjoyed about it.

Even moreso, we the laypeople must recognize our own contribution to this commoditization of Christianity. “[T]he Church has life itself; indeed, the true life,” Fr. Ambrose also said, “which is man’s communion with and transformation by God through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ Most of us act as though we never heard this.” It is possible to eschew Christ’s transcendent Truth either internally or externally; in either case, we’re placing our own personal preferences ahead of the Gospel, saying that we prefer our own interpretations to those of the Church, or saying that we prefer our own “prayer style”, our own “taste”, to that of the Church–then telling the local and national organizations to compete for our “business”. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Some would argue that it is the job of the Church to meet people at their level, and that particularly today, we need to at least appear to be “keeping with the times” in order to keep people in the pews. However, Christianity teaches that God already met us at our level when He became human, died and was resurrected. Especially in our media-saturated society, we must resist the urge to “keep with the times”, that is to secularize, and now allow God to raise us up to His level.

Christianity is becoming a secular business because we have made an idol out of our own personal, subjective experience, rather than submitting to the communal, sublime union with God that is the Church. In doing so, by seeking “relevance” rather than transcendence, temporal thrill instead of Heaven’s eternal spiritual joy, “service” rather than opportunities to serve, by going where we will be “built up” rather than where we will be crucified to ourselves, by asking for affirmation in who we already are rather than submitting to transforming power of our Lord, we’re really looking for a god made in our own image rather than acknowledging that we were made in God’s image. As a result, we have stunted our own growth in Christ, and reduced our local churches to a set of neighborhood social programs.

Worst of all, we claim (at least on some level) that we do this to reach those in the world, but that’s exactly what we have failed to do, because in doing all of this, we do not challenge them. We present them with a safe, unobtrusive Church that demands nothing outside of their comfort zone, nothing that looks any different from their normal existence, rather than a Church that demands their entire life. “If the early Christians had been just like everyone else,” Fr. Ambrose said, “there would have been no persecutions, no martyrs, and, in the end, no Church, either.” Dr. Bray concurs: “[O]nly by recovering and emphasizing the spiritual dimension have we any hope of making a lasting impression on an unbelieving world.”

The Church is not a faith-based utility, one corporation among many with whom we choose to do business in our everyday lives. Rather, She is the Bride and Body of Christ, the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As Christians, we need to return to treating Her as such if we truly wish to “make disciples of all nations” and be disciples ourselves.

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