Posts Tagged 'we need more american saints'

Fr. Oliver Herbel’s Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church and other thoughts about West being West and East being, at the very least, “not West”

My professional categories are sort of screwy. I have an undergraduate degree in music performance, a Masters degree in History with a PhD on the way, specializing in late antique Byzantine history. I am also a practicing church musician who has made a few professional-level contributions in that field, such as it is. My day job as a historian, in which I study the social and political context of liturgy, is informed by my lived experience as a church musician; both of these categories are informed by my conversion to Orthodox Christianity, which itself was informed by musical and historical endeavors. I’m not a historian of American issues as such, but as a historian who is an Orthodox Christian in an American context, I wind up thinking about issues of “American Orthodoxy” a fair amount, and this blog winds up being where those musings wind up. My efforts where the topic of “American Orthodoxy” is concerned aren’t really formal enough to be considered “research” or to function well as journal articles, but the blog is a fine enough outlet for the level of what I do, and probably winds up having appropriate readership numbers as a result (i.e., slim to none). If somebody came to me and wanted to do an essay collection, I wouldn’t sneer at it, but I certainly don’t see that happening anytime soon, so the blog it is.

On this topic, I’ve commented about the problems the topic of “American Orthodoxy” has as a scholarly category, particularly when tackled by people who aren’t fighting their intellectual weight and who have a strict ideological/confessional narrative that they want to support rather than an objective of honest inquiry. I’ve pondered the category errors that converts to Orthodoxy seem to represent for some people. I’ve talked about the struggles that some Americans seem to have distinguishing between cultural encounter and religious encounter in Orthodox Christianity — both in terms of not differentiating enough between them, as well as differentiating too much. I’ve asked the question, both as an American and as an Orthodox Christian, is Orthodoxy ultimately a solution for a problem America doesn’t think it has? Is Orthodox Christianity just fundamentally in the wrong “key”, as it were, for it to be taken on its own terms in an American context?

I have struggled with this question both on an intellectual level and on a personal level, and I have struggled with it at levels micro and macro, internal and external, local and regional. It’s a question that people make about music and language and architecture and heritage and so on, but it’s not really about any of those things, I don’t think. Translating the services into English isn’t enough. Building Orthodox churches that look like Methodist churches with domes isn’t enough. Adapting to an Anglican-style choir-and-organ musical model isn’t enough. Welcoming converts isn’t enough. There’s still something wrong, some people tell me, there are still ways it’s just too “Eastern” for me to not feel like I have to pretend to be something I’m not. So what’s the deal? Where does this sense of things being a put-on come from? Why is it that when a Roman Catholic or Anglican priest vests he’s, well, vesting, but when the Orthodox priest vests, he’s putting on a costume? Where does this sense of English services coming across as defective Greek or Slavonic services come from? How do you adapt for American culture without it feeling so self-conscious that it doesn’t really matter if it’s a good or a bad adaptation, it just feels wrong for some people?

What’s the end vision for what an “American Orthodoxy” will look like? Democratic? Run by lay committees and commissions? English-language — but which register? Liturgically redacted and shortened, if not completely revised? The Synaxarion and festal calendars started over more or less from scratch except for a few “greatest hits”, so that we can hopefully have room for Ss. Joe and Bob and Amy and Jennifer down the road and we can stop hearing so much about Photios and Paphnutius and Varvara and Thekla? Musically simplified, maybe using Gospel music or Sacred Harp or some such? Iconographically simplified, so that we don’t have all that gaudy stuff hanging around that looks like the Renaissance never happened, but then we don’t go to the naturalistic extremes of the Renaissance either? Architecturally simplified, so that we basically go with whatever size big concrete box that we can afford? Maybe we pull out historically relevant Byzantine or Russian prototypes of various things to emphasize particular feast days, but on the whole we recognize that to do it all every single service is just overdoing it, plain and simple, and we dial everything way back? Will it all feel “Western” enough if we do all of that? Will it feel enough like Orthodoxy actually belongs in twenty-first America if it does all of that? Or is the issue still something else?

I don’t have answers to any of that, but all of those are things that I’ve heard people say, converts, ex-converts, and ex-inquirers alike. In some cases, the people I’m thinking of seem to have realized that what they meant by “Western” was “Anglican” or “Catholic” or “Baptist” or, for that matter, even “unaffiliated”, and subsequently went to those places. It’s enough to raise the question — in an American context, can ecclesiology ever really trump “culture”, whatever we mean by that? What would it look like for it to do so? We value heritage in America, we tend to treat religion as a category of heritage, but then we also treat religion as something one self-identifies as, which you can’t really do with heritage. We also have a culture of pluralism where both are concerned, which means that no religion or heritage is (theoretically) any better than any other. So then what happens when somebody self-identifies, that is to say self-consciously identifies oneself as, a particular religious category that somebody else identifies with in a non-self-conscious way as a result of heritage? Ostensibly the religion is the same — but it doesn’t mean the same thing. Eventually the people self-identifying either isolate themselves so that they’re only interacting with other self-identifiers, they make some kind of peace with the issues of heritage, or they decide that heritage really is the determining factor after all and seek out a religious category where their heritage seems more appropriate. Various flavors of Anglo-European being the dominant heritage in the United States, it’s less of a weird thing, perhaps, for a Greek to become an Anglican or some other flavor of Protestant, because that’s a minority assimilating, as is, some might argue, not only appropriate but respectful to one’s “host”. For an Anglo-European American to become Orthodox — well, you’re not assimilating, and you’re self-consciously embracing abstractions that the heritage practitioners may or may not relate to, so, yeah, sorry, that’s just weird, and you’re really playing spiritual dress-up at the core of things. Go back to being whatever you were. Go be a Catholic, since that’s probably what you really want to be anyway, you just don’t want to be one those Catholics who sings “Gather Us In”. Ecclesiology has nothing to do with it — this is America, and ecclesiology is basically irrelevant here.

Is that basically what it boils down to? I don’t know. To reiterate something I’ve noted elsewhere — as Neo says, the problem is choice, or at least pluralism. What does it mean to choose a religious tradition that self-identifies as an exclusive truth in a context of inclusive religious pluralism, and then what does it mean when our weird American heritage and identity issues appear to create a conflict with that choice? How do you resolve the problem without factoring out lived experience and reducing the religion to a set of abstractions, or feeling required to “go native”, or effectively choosing one’s own adventure and creating a “personalized” version of the religion? Can you resolve the problem, or is one of those three choices effectively inevitable (with the tacitly expressed fourth choice being that you throw up your hands and walk away)?

This brings us to Fr. Oliver Herbel‘s book Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church (Oxford, 2013). Fr. Oliver contributed some excellent essays to the site OCA News, he was a co-founder of the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas, and he also became a bit of a folk hero in some circles for taking a rather unappreciated public stand with a particular hierarch. Both his writings and his questioning of this bishop managed to annoy, shall we say, the right people, and his work influenced, in no small part, this piece of mine on historiography of Orthodox Christianity in America. The publication of his book, if nothing else, means that there is now on the shelf a serious monograph on the history of Orthodox Christianity in America by a serious Orthodox scholar, rather than, well, less-than-serious books by less-than-serious people who may be Orthodox but are obviously non-scholars.

Fr. Oliver’s book is, effectively, a collection of case studies of conversions in an American context. First, he looks at the now-St. Alexis Toth, the nineteenth-century Carpatho-Rusyn Eastern Catholic priest who converted to Orthodoxy after he moved to America and found the Catholic scene here rather less-than-welcoming for “Uniates”. Toth evangelized many of the Carpatho-Rusyns in this country, convincing many of them to convert (and ultimately laying the groundwork for what would become the Metropolia and the OCA). He also looks at the case of Fr. Raphael Morgan, an Englishman of African heritage who was baptized and ordained in Constantinople in the early twentieth century, and traveled back to the United States to evangelize about Orthodox Christianity to African Americans, providing something of a counter-narrative to Marcus Garvey. In this context, Fr. Oliver briefly discusses the “African Orthodox Church” that attempted to establish a distinct presence in, among other places, Uganda, only to fall apart and eventually become Greek Orthodox. He then studies the conversion of Fr. Moses Berry, who identified his experience as a black American with the experience of late antique Egyptian Christianity, and eventually became Orthodox via a path that included the Holy Order of Mans. Finally, he spends two chapters on the Evangelical Orthodox Church, who would notably join the Antiochian Archdiocese via a mass conversion in 1986; in particular, he complicates the “sanitized” narrative of the EOC’s journey to canonical Orthodoxy as presented by Fr. Peter E. Gillquist in his book Becoming Orthodox.

This is what amounts to Fr. Oliver’s thesis:

In many respects, the idea that such a traditional church in America [such as the Eastern Orthodox Church] would attract outsiders seems counterintuitive… paradoxically, what one encounters in the West… is a tradition of change, or an anti-traditional tradition, as found in the scientist, whose duty it is to find a flaw in the tradition that has gone before. The point is not that an exemplar of the anti-traditional tradition will reject any and all aspects of what went before, but rather that he or she may select some individual part of the preceding tradition in order to enact something entirely new or at odds with the tradition itself. American religion is also characterized by an anti-traditional tradition. As a phenomenon within American religion, it is denoted by a long tradition of mavericks who engage in religious choosing and novelty-creation by selecting and emphasizing a part of the religious tradition they inherited to create something new. The result over the last two centuries has been that the American religious scene has become ever more diversified and complex. Indeed, here one ought to think of the many restorationist movements dedicated to restoring, or re-embodying, the early Christian Church.

[…]In the converts studied here, their conversions demonstrated their Americanness in two different (though overlapping) ways: as a response to oppression and as an ironic species of the anti-traditional tradition… Though intended as a break from the anti-traditional tradition, by utilizing restorationism, the turn to tradition becomes an expression of religious identity creation in a very novel way. The conclusion (Eastern Orthodoxy as the Christian Tradition over and against a diversified, fragmented American Christian landscape) may at first appear rather un-American, since it is not the creation of a new subset of Christianity, much less a new religion, but the road to that conclusion is, ironically, precisely an expression of the anti-traditional tradition. Furthermore, inasmuch as these converts are seen as exemplars for other other converts, these conversion patterns themselves establish a tradition, one more tradition built out of the anti-traditional tradition. (pp3-6)

In other words, the way of solving the problem in an American context is to appropriate the cultural anti-traditional instinct (exemplified by a church called The Salvage Yard on the south side of Indianapolis that, when it opened, had as its motto “No Traditions, No Politics, No Baggage”, but then after six months or a year it took the sign down, presumably because it realized that it couldn’t honestly advertise those absences after a certain amount of time of being in operations), re-analyze it as its own tradition, and redirect the effort towards restoring the historical imaginary of the “early church” under some kind of rubric of “authenticity” rather than joining a lived tradition. No, we’re not becoming Orthodox; we’re restoring the real — or perhaps “authentic” — Apostolic Church in the West, and the Orthodox Churches are just being smart enough to validate our efforts. The EOC was hipster Christianity before there was such a thing as hipster Christianity, one might say.

(The thesis, by the way, reminds me of this essay that I wrote some six and a half years ago. There are a few things I’d perhaps put differently today, but this is a pretty good snapshot of how I was expressing and working through some of Fr. Oliver’s questions myself after maybe four years of moving in Orthodox circles.)

In terms of the thesis of anti-traditional tradition — I’m also reminded of this piece, specifically the part about the “culturally Western” critique of Byzantine chant. Basically, so some would argue (like a former EOC priest, for example), the received tradition of Byzantine chant itself isn’t “authentically” Byzantine but rather Turkish and Arabic (an outdated scholarly argument, but never mind for now), so re-appropriating parts of it, doing something new with them, and throwing out the rest isn’t just okay, it’s actually more authentically Orthodox to do so, because “real” Orthodox Tradition adapts to the culture it finds itself in. So, we don’t just get an Orthodox music that’s “more authentic”, we get an Orthodox music that’s “more American” at the same time. This is wrapped up in a number of concerns like Orientalism, a search for some kind of “original purity” (manufactured for the here and now if we can’t find it organically), and also a desire to assert some kind of American national identity in a religious context that claims catholicity but, practically speaking, has a sacred history that ends 39 years before Columbus sailed to the New World.

Anyway, the point is, it seems to me that implicit in the embrace of Orthodoxy in a context of anti-traditional tradition is an assent to the content while also including a critique of the form. To a certain extent, that critique may be legitimate in an American cultural context; the combination of how religion works in this country with how Orthodox Christianity came here deals a pretty crippling blow, at least for now, to Orthodox ecclesiology, and I don’t see that ideal managing to reconcile with the practical reality on the ground any time soon. If you’re in a country like Greece or Russia, then you can see the diversity that exists in those places as a deviation from a strong mainstream; a diversity in unity, if you like (while acknowledging some outliers like the Old Calendar breakaway groups). Here, though, while the cultural ideal is perhaps unity in diversity, what we actually kind of have is a plurality in diversity. It seems to me, anyway, that there are, in effect, multiple “Orthodoxies” in the United States with no strong mainstream holding them together.

In terms of Fr. Oliver’s EOC material, I must say up front that it’s a bit awkward for me to say much knowing personally some of the players involved, but I will say that there was very little in the EOC material I hadn’t heard before (Becoming Orthodox being a sanitized version of the EOC’s history, the EOC was authoritarian and cult-y, etc.) and there were a couple of things I was somewhat surprised not to see; new to me was how Fr. James Bernstein’s departure for the OCA in 1981 was handled (that is to say, poorly), the EOC’s welcoming of a cleric (I assume he means Fr. David Anderson) disciplined by the OCA being the reason why the OCA seemed not to be on the table as a possible entry point for the EOC, and Fr. Thomas Hopko’s involvement in the inter-episcopal discussion leading up to the EOC’s reception by AOCNA. Over the years, a couple of knowledgable individuals in the Greek Archdiocese have told me that, in fact, Constantinople had given the EOC a conditional “yes”, but the sticking points were that the EOC clergy would have had to go to seminary, and Fr. Peter was insisting on being received as a married bishop (something alluded to, but never explicitly stated, in Becoming Orthodox). The trip to Constantinople, according to them, was the EOC’s attempt at an end run around these logjams. If that’s true — oh, how much hair-pulling and sorrow perhaps could have been avoided if they had gone to seminary! Again, if everything had been normalized from the get-go in the context of “living tradition”, with a full dose of having to co-exist from the start with clergy who had always been in that living tradition, rather than being allowed to persist in what amounted to “American exceptionalism” turned into its own vicariate, we would be having a very different conversation right now about so many things.

Fr. Oliver does a nice job, I think, of setting up studies of a number of subsequent questions. What are the forces at play in terms of a group like the EOC, or HOOM, or the African Orthodox Church wanting to “become Orthodox” but insisting on doing so on its own terms? If they want to be Orthodox, what’s to stop them from converting as individuals instead of being “received” as a group? Why the necessity of preserving a distinct group identity? What are the cultural dynamics at work, with a predominantly white, Anglo-American group like the EOC being under the ecclesiastical authority of Arabs/Arab-Americans?

How does the “restorationist” impulse cast Orthodox converts in comparison to explicitly “restorationist” Protestant groups? At least here in the Midwest, there are a lot of converts from Campbell/Stone circles — and they all say the same thing, some variant of “You’re brought up to believe that you’re in the one true church; you realize very quickly that this isn’t true if you think about it for more than few minutes, but then you’re left with the conviction that such a thing ought to exist.”

How are forces of anti-tradition traditionalism and restorationism at play in the various American jurisdictions even without the issue of converts? He briefly looks at this at the very end, and I think it’s worth its own treatment. For American cradles who are accustomed to Orthodoxy as a lived tradition rather than a self-conscious “return to the early church”, “restorationism” can mean restoration of an “authentic” national Orthodox practice. In the Antiochian Archdiocese, for example, “Antiochian tradition” is a very complicated term that can mean one of four things — 1) “authentic” Patriarchate of Antioch tradition as practiced in Syria and Lebanon, 2) the parish practice of an “ethnic” parish in AOCNA (which is somewhat redacted from the first definition, and also depends somewhat on whether or not it’s a parish that was under Toledo or Brooklyn before 1975; those under Toledo seem to have been rather Russified, perhaps for obvious reasons), 3) Antiochian Village camp practice, and then since 1986 there’s definition 4) — practices imported by the EOC that have spread and been somewhat normalized. In the Greek Archdiocese, there are “restorationist” arguments about Byzantine chant, language, and so on — but at the same time, you have Greek-Americans for whom the music of Frank Desby and Tikey Zes are their “lived tradition”, not Byzantine chant. There is, of course, the issue of calendar and the “restorationist” overtones where that’s concerned; apropos to the book, I’m not sure that most of “continuing, real, authentic, Church Abroad in Exile” people who left ROCOR after they made nice with the MP in 2007 aren’t converts with a “restorationist”, or perhaps a “purifying”, impulse. Greek Old Calendarists are a somewhat different matter, but they’re certainly in the mix too.

I think there’s a bigger question too, of what “restorationism” means for people who convert. Is Orthodoxy in fact the intended end? Or is its function simply instrumental for another end? If its value is instrumental, why Orthodoxy in particular? Is it its relatively low profile in this country, making it attractive as something that can be “made over”, as it were? Is it a kind of paternalistic Orientalism, the taming of the exotic East by sympathetic Westerners both for its own good as well as for the good of other Westerners? Something else?

And, while I’m thinking about it, I will say that I’d be very interested to know what somebody who’s more up on race than I am as a historical category would make of Frs. Raphael Morgan and Moses Berry.

I still think that the definitive history of the EOC has yet to be written, but Fr. Oliver’s treatment of the material certainly outlines what I think some of the contours probably need to be. An idea that he outlines but never explicitly states is that one of the ways Gillquist sanitized the EOC’s history was to give the EOC’s objective, more or less from the start, as putting itself out of business and joining up with a canonical church. It’s clear from people I’ve talked to that this may have been a majority view, perhaps (and I do say “may”), but it was never universally held, and there were a good number of EOCers who wanted the EOC to be its own thing and to remain separate from the canonical churches. Some of this may have boiled down to xenophobia (something I still notice in a lot of oldtimer former EOC people), but I think some people just genuinely didn’t relate to the ecclesiological issues that Gillquist et al. were trying to push. I think on the whole there’s a lot more to be said — response to the ’60s hippie movement (it is very strange to me that nobody has done a scholarly comparative treatment of HOOM and EOC — same time period, same end more or less, but very different ideological starting point, different cultural context of NoCal vs. SoCal, and very different means to the end), Evangelical infighting (as Fr. Oliver points out), appropriation of “community” in a culturally conservative context (a former EOC cleric once told me that EOC communities were basically “right-wing communes”, and surely there is some hay to be made about the “fateful” meeting concerning the direction of the EOC in the early ’70s being entirely a group of middle-class white Protestant men), and the question of what “American identity” actually, particularly when counterposed with “Orthodox identity”. For the EOC, “American identity” seems to basically refer to the middle-class WASP, and they’re ultimately more liberal and syncretistic in terms of ecclesiastical practice; by contrast, former HOOM folks seem to be more inclusive in terms of race and class (Fr. Moses, Fr. Jerome Sanderson, etc.) but they embrace a far more conservative vision of Orthodox church praxis and polity. I think the lesson with both groups is “don’t receive groups as discrete bodies; receive individuals, period”, although obviously there are good things and good people that have come out of both (the priest my current GOA parish in Indianapolis is former HOOM, for example, and he’s wonderful; nothing guru-esque about him, to say the least). Indianapolis is an interesting case for all of this, actually; it’s very representative of the various Orthodox jurisdictions (except, curiously, cradle Russians; there’s a Bulgarian parish, a Serbian parish, and a Romanian parish, but no “mainstream” OCA parish or ROCOR parish — the cradle Russians all seem to have wound up at the big Antiochian parish over the years, which is perhaps not surprising given its status as a “Toledo” parish). Indy was home to an EOC as well as a HOOM community, both communities eventually became Orthodox (although the EOC group was one of the holdouts in 1986 and didn’t come in until later, and then under the OCA), and today there’s a lot of going back and forth between the two parishes. Indianapolis is also home to one of the splinter EOC remainder communities, and I’m told that the individuals who make up said remainder community are an interesting reminder of just how idiosyncratic these groups actually were.

I will note that I’m speaking from the point of view of presently being at a GOA parish, and that’s after I spent nearly a decade at an AOCNA parish that was never part of the EOC and was started by Greeks and Arabs, but functionally treated as an AEOM community because of its location in south central Indiana, ultimately becoming home to a plurality of Hoosier locals instead of the Greeks and Arabs who founded it, as well as sort of a home base for a big chunk of the Gillquist family. From my perspective, I once again say that it’s too bad that the EOC wasn’t “normalized” from the get-go. The idiosyncrasies introduced, and the way those idiosyncrasies have contributed to and exacerbated personal problems, have been counter-productive. Maybe it’s been a way to “engage America”, but I think it’s also set up false expectations about what Orthodoxy is and what it looks like.

Fr. Moses’ “flowers in God’s garden” image is actually really interesting in the light of the arguments about how to “Americanize” Orthodoxy. It’s fascinating to me that somebody like him can look at late antique Egyptian Christianity and see the continuity with Orthodox Christianity as well as with contemporary African American existence. And yet, we “Anglo” types are constantly wringing our hands over Orthodoxy not being “Western” enough or “American” enough or whatever. Somehow, Fr. Moses is able to see the flowers that look like him, so to speak, in Orthodoxy, where many Westerners cannot, or at least will not, see the flowers that look like us. What is that saying? Does it have more to do with Orthodoxy or with us? Is that, perhaps, a manifestation of white, or at least Occidental, privilege that we expect to be catered to and for things to be customizable for our ends? Again, does it boil down to a form of Orientalism and/or xenophobia that’s just culturally ingrained?

From a practical, pastoral standpoint (insofar as I have any business claiming such a perspective), much of what Fr. Oliver has to say about anti-traditional tradition is why I find myself at this point really resistant to self-conscious “Americanizing” efforts. How is it going to be helpful to make “American Orthodoxy”, whatever we mean by that, more idiosyncratic rather than less? Multi-generational models of lived experience are needed for the convert, I think, not reconstructions and restorations done by people who are still drying off from their baptism. The trouble with that, though, is that it’s counter to the American instinct to “do it yourself”, and for reasons I’m still not sure I understand, it seems that a good number of people think that the practical upshot of what I’m suggesting is that they need to “pretend to be Eastern”. I go to a Greek parish, I speak some Greek, I chant partially in Greek, and so on, but I don’t think of myself as “pretending to be Greek”; as far as I’m concerned, I’m just trying to understand how to be Orthodox, what that means and what that looks like, from people who have been Orthodox all their lives and whose families have been Orthodox for as long as they can remember. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference; your mileage may vary.

A more immediate practical concern than “Americanization” is — yes, converts need multi-generational models of lived experience. Are we going to able to produce them ourselves if we experience them? To put it another way, is there a second generation that will come about by births, or is “American Orthodoxy” effectively the Shakers without celibacy, hoping to grow by conversion rather than procreation? I know my share of kids of convert priests who either left or are simply indifferent, and then geographic mobility means even if you stay, you’re probably not at the parish Mom and Dad went to/converted at/helped establish/etc.

Which brings me to this talk by one Fr. John Bakas of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, delivered in November 2010 at a conference of The American Hellenic Institute Foundation. The talk is titled “The Challenges Facing the Greek Orthodox Church in America”.

So, here we have a cradle Orthodox expressing perhaps exactly the opposite concern of the individuals studied by Fr. Oliver. Here is not restorationism, but the question of how to rearticulate a lived tradition in a new cultural context in a way that is distinctive but inclusive — and doing so to ensure survival, so that it doesn’t have to be “restored”. While I grant that Fr. John’s use of the word “Hellenism” probably will go over like a ton of bricks for some, but I think what he’s saying needs to be understood properly. To me it’s clear he’s drawing a contrast between “Greekness”, Greek heritage as simply Greek heritage, and “Hellenism”, which he’s using here in a very Byzantine way, to mean the best parts of “Roman” culture which both provided a framework for Christianity and which were also transformed by Christianity — and it’s telling to me that he uses “converting the Russians to Christianity” and “Hellenizing the Russians” interchangeably. (I recently read the Greek life of St. Maximus the Confessor, and one of the things it says is that St. Maximus leaves the service of Heraclius’ court to pursue “philosophy” — a very Byzantine way of repurposing the word for an aspect of Hellenic culture to describe something in Christianity — i.e., monasticism.)

I’m not going to disagree that this sounds way off-key to American ears, but again, in terms of what I think he thinks he means, I actually think he could do a lot worse. One can argue about it being an effective strategy for evangelism; “translated” properly, shall we say, he might have a point. I think he’s also explicitly agreeing with the statement “You don’t have to be Greek to be Orthodox” (which itself is a paraphrase of Isocrates saying in the Panegyricus that one is Greek by education and culture, not blood), as evidenced by his example of the African-American cathedral parishioner at the end.

Okay, fine, I can get that, but is that going to be a meaningful distinction, or paint an attractive picture, for anybody else? Is even an inclusive “Hellenism”, that is to say an inclusive lived tradition of Orthodox Christianity, going to look inclusive enough to mean anything to the person who can’t handle how “non-Western” it is once he/she sees Greek or Slavonic script (and let’s not even bring up Georgian or Arabic), or a three-bar cross, or a Byzantine-looking icon? Are restorationism and anti-traditional tradition really the only ways forward? Can it be “Yiayia’s church” and my church at the same time, or are those always going to be mutually exclusive categories?

Enough for now; we’ll talk more soon.


Greek Orthodox Archdiocese releases standard version of Paschal apolytikion

About a year ago, Vicki Pappas, national chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, circulated an e-mail asking for people to send her the English translations of the apolytikion for Pascha (Χριστὸς ἀνέστη/”Christ is risen”) that were used in their parishes. This would be in aid of a standard English text for the entire Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Despite not being at a GOA parish, I sent her the translation we use at All Saints.

Somewhere around late fall or early winter, following a St. John of Damascus Society board meeting, she asked if I would be willing to round up a few of my choir members to record the version that they were trying to settle on as the final draft. The recording would serve as a model, principally for priests. After Christmas, I put together a quartet, we learned it and recorded it, Vicki liked it, and said that the Synod still had to decide if it was the final version or not.

Earlier this week, the standard English version of the hymn for GOA was released. You can find it here. Alas, that’s not us singing on the model recording — it would appear that it went through at least one more round of revision, because that’s a different text than what we had, but oh well.

I am appreciative that a Synod would take the time to try to get everybody on the same page with respect to a particular hymn text, and I suppose this is as good as any to start with. I am also appreciative that GOA would go to the trouble of making sure that it is available in both staff notation as well as neumatic notation. There has been some discussion in some circles about how closely it follows proper compositional conventions; I would never dare to argue proper application of formulae with some of the people talking about this, but my guess is that the main point raised was probably known, and that preference was given to where people would be likely to breathe. It’s an issue that I suggest stems from the translation more than anything, and from what Vicki has told me, every nuance of the translation was discussed thoroughly, so what I think I know at least is that it’s a version of the text that says exactly what the Synod wants it to say. I’ll acknowledge that I don’t find this text to be note-perfect compared to how I might translate the Greek; to begin with, in modern English, “is risen”, while it used to be how you do a perfect tense in English, doesn’t really convey the same sense of the action as preterite ἀνέστη or even qam for the Arabic speakers — “Christ rose” would be the literal sense, but that doesn’t really “sing” the same way. “Christ has/hath risen” is an acceptable compromise, since the distinction between simple past and perfect is muddier in English than it is in Greek. And “trampled down upon” seems to me to be a little bit overthought as a way of rendering πατήσας. Still, I’d much rather sing this version than the one that’s normative for my parish, where the Greek melody is left as is, requiring “Christ is risen from the dead” to be repeated, usually with a rhetorical, campfire-style “Oh!” thrown in beforehand — “Christ is risen from the dead, oh! Christ is risen from the dead!” etc. Ack.

In any event, between being willing to argue about a standard text and acknowledging the neumatic notational tradition, there is much I wish the Antiochian Archdiocese would emulate here, and I congratulate GOA on taking the time and energy to at least make the effort, even if there wind up being tweaks down the road. I’m a little disheartened by the response I’ve observed in certain fora that basically criticizes GOA for making their standard version a brand new variant that nobody outside of GOA will ever use, that that’s hardly a unifying move across jurisdictions, not when there are translations that are common to both the OCA and AOANA. Well, maybe, but kudos for GOA for at least trying to get their own house in order first, even if maybe it winds up being a beta test.

Reminiscences from PSALM, Chicago, 2-5 August 2006

A comment prompted me to look up a series of e-mail I sent to the members of my choir from the thus far one-and-only PSALM national conference held back in August of 2006. This was back in the days before I had a blog. I sent these to my choir partially because I wanted them to engage some of the things I was hearing while I was there; truth be told, I’m not sure they all understood why they were getting long e-mails from me. Such is life.

Reading through them, it seemed perhaps worthwhile to share some of those notes here. My perception — and someone can correct me if I’m wrong — is that PSALM peaked with this event; I think there was talk back then about trying to set up regional PSALM identities and events and then do a regular national conference every other year, but none of that ever happened, for better or for worse. My experience with the PSALM Yahoo! group in its present form is that the ideals expressed five and a half years ago are by no means universally held these days, or even necessarily approved of. I can’t really say for sure I understand what’s going on there, but there we go.

Anyway, without further ado —

Day 1: Hello from Chicago! Day 1 has been packed with a lot of stuff that hopefully will be useful for all of us in the long run, and the days to come look similarly stuffed. The Indiana representation has been significant: the opening remarks were from Fr. Sergei Glagolev, an Indiana native; Vicki Pappas and Fr. Joseph Morris (from Ss. Constantine & Elena in Indy) were both part of a panel discussion; the Paraklesis service was sung by IU alum Jessica Suchy-Pilalis; and I finally had the occasion to meet Lori Branch, about whom I have heard so much over the years. She sends along her love and best wishes to all who might remember her.

We had a rehearsal for the Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, and about two-thirds of the conference participants are making up the choir–that is, probably somewhere around 100 people. It’s like the Sunday of Orthodoxy choir, only about four times the size. In the enormous nave that St. George in Cicero has, one is bathing in the sound when all of sing. It’s quite something. Mark Bailey, one of the instructors in liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s, is conducting the conference choir–and it might be worth mentioning that, when we looked at the “Lord, have mercy” sections, the first thing he did was tell us to drop the r in the word “Lord” so that it came out “Lohd”. Just so you know that it’s not that I’m crazy. (Well, not just that I’m crazy, anyway.)

The Paraklesis service was lovely–unison women’s chant from Dr. Suchy-Pilalis and one other. Really very beautiful.

I’ll have a full account of all the goings-on later, but there are a number of things panelists and clergy said which I’m chewing on already. Some of them are pretty challenging and clear-cut in terms of communicating a strong point of view and expectation:

“There is no such thing as a quick fix, only hard work… We have to have the ability to change, because when things don’t change, they’re dead.”–Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Fr. Sergei also challenged us to think about what we want to pass on to the next generation in terms of singing in church.

Fr. Joseph stressed the need for the choir to be dignified and sober, and to have a servant mentality–that we come on time, and we are prepared. “If you can’t make it on time, you can’t make it on time,” he said. “Better to sing with the faithful in that case. You’re not a bishop.” He also noted that, in his parish, there is the expectation that the singers treat Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy as one piece–that is, if someone is singing in the choir for Divine Liturgy, he expects them to have been there for Vespers and Matins as well. “My expectation is that my singers are Orthodox in practice as well as name,” he said.

Valerie Yova, PSALM president, observed that, in general, there is a lack of effective musical leadership in the Church in this country, and noted the following symptoms/factors:

  • Choirs are shrinking and aging
  • People are living further and further away from where they go to church
  • School music programs are dying
  • Parishes are falling into financial trouble
  • There are an almost impossibly small number of places to be trained as an Orthodox church musician
  • The old chanting masters are dying and not being replaced
  • The musical element of worship is being devalued

The panel discussion (David Drillock, Fr. Joseph, Fr. John Rallis, Fr. Lawrence Margitich, Fr. John Finley, Alice Hughes, Carol Wetmore, Rachel Troy, and Vicki) observed that synergy between choir director, singers, and clergy requires time and regular effort, and e-mail cannot be all there is. To that end, not only are regular rehearsals vital, but clerical involvement in rehearsals on some regular basis is also important. Vicki Pappas made the point that volunteerism cannot be an obstacle to excellence, that church musicians have a sacred role, that of being responsible for leading the people’s worship, and that this should inspire us to better things. Fr. Joseph followed this up by saying, cf. St. John Climacus, “If it is possible for one, it is possible for all.” One priest (Fr. Lawrence Margitich, I think) put it this way: we shouldn’t confuse volunteerism with stewardship. As church singers, we are stewards of God’s talents, not mere volunteers, and we should act and think of ourselves accordingly. David Drillock, choirmaster emeritus at St. Vladimir’s expressed this by saying that being in the choir should be a “high calling”.

Other nuggets from the panel: if we as singers are truly connected to the text we’re singing, it will be communicated to the congregation naturally. Also that the church school should be excellent recruiting ground for the choir. Fr. Joseph also suggested that congregational singing should not drag the Liturgy down; it should appropriately done and led. Dovetailing onto that, Vicki suggested a clear intent with respect to which sections we should encourage the congregation to sing, and those which we intend the choir to sing. Having said that, the panel followed that up by saying that it is foolish to replace something people love unless one knows it’s being replaced with something they’ll love at least as much.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s, minced no words: “I disagree that dead things don’t change. Rather, dead things become more rotten, corrupted and stinky.” He also issued a rather direct challenge: “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.”

In aid of this sentiment, he told the following story: a parish started talking about buying a new chandelier. It came to the parish council, and one person stood up and said, “I am absolutely against this. We don’t need a chandelier, we don’t want a chandelier, and we can’t pay for a chandelier.” The priest asked, well, what do you mean? “It’s too expensive,” the man said, “and we don’t even know where to buy one.” (Scattered laughter from the audience.) He went on: “Plus, there’s nobody in the parish who can play one, and it’s not even part of our tradition anyway.” (More laughter from the audience.) He finished by saying, “I just can’t understand why we’re talking about buying a chandelier when what we really need is more light!” (Peals of laughter from the audience.)

Like I said, all very challenging stuff, but there was a truly remarkable consistency to the message I heard today. It’s going to take me a while to process all of it, but there was one more thing that was stressed today, and I’ll close with that for now–

Fr. Thomas Hopko also said that, as church musicians, in terms of purpose and practice, we must start no other place than Christ crucified and glorified, that it is only by starting there we will end up in the right place. In the same vein, the panel also reminded us of Metropolitan +ANTHONY Bashir’s insistence that, once love is manifested, all things are possible.

All of these things are worth thinking about, and I encourage you all to do so as well.

More to come on Day 2.

Day 2: Again, too much to summarize in one e-mail, but a small handful of highlights:

First two presentations this morning were from Fr. Ephrem Lash, who looks and sounds like Gandalf as portrayed by Ian McKellen (and who has a wonderful website,, who is also a scholar from England (I believe he is a colleague of Bp. KALLISTOS Ware, but I could be mistaken) who has quite a bit to say about translations of the Bible and liturgical texts into English, and Mark Bailey, instructor of liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s. The topic for both was the fittingness of English as a liturgical language, the necessary approach to translating texts, and then how best to set these texts to music so that a) the meaning is communicated and b) the musical tradition is carried on. Both had wonderful things to say about the necessary principles to make these things work. Before the first presentation, we sang “O Heavenly King”, and Fr. Ephrem noted that the setting took the word “impurity” and placed the stress on the last syllable, making it “impuriTEE”. “In the language I speak, English, it’s pronounced ‘imPURity’,” he observed. Mark Bailey had all kinds of fantastic practical examples of good text-setting and bad text-setting, and further suggested, “We’ve gotten our parishioners and singers too used to bad settings, and they’ve become attached to them as a result.” Fr. Thomas Hopko then commented, “Most of our churches are just copying what they’ve heard on recordings. Can we put out new recordings that do it the way you’re talking about?” Something to think about.

The second morning session consisted of presentations from the various heads of jurisdictional sacred music departments as to what they’re up to–Chris Holwey from the Antiochian Archdiocese, David Drillock from the OCA, and Vicki Pappas from the Greek Archdiocese. While interesting, I found it fascinatingly unnecessary to have such redundancy. All three of them are essentially doing the exact same job, providing the exact same resources in exactly the same manner. One fervently hopes that eventually there will be no need for multiple separate departments of sacred music.

The afternoon panel I attended was on the topic, “Educating Liturgical Musicians in the 21st Century.” Vladimir Morosan, a musicologist who specializes in the Russian repertoire, was the moderator. He framed the panel discussion by asking, “How do we explain that the oldest and richest singing tradition in Christendom does so little to formally prepare liturgical musicians? What do we do about it?”

Anne Schoepp, a choir director in the OCA in California, argued passionately that Orthodoxy is a singing culture, and we need to do everything we can at the parish level to start our kids singing and to get them used to singing and loving singing. Fr. John Finley of our own Archdiocese suggested that the model of the Classical School that is starting to pop up in Orthodox circles could be a way to disseminate this kind of curriculum; I suggested that there’s an even more obvious answer, the tradition of the choir school as it still survives in England and even some places here in the US like the St. Thomas Choir School in New York and the Cathedral Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. “Let’s talk,” Fr. John said.

However we do it, the panel continued, people need to be immersed in good liturgy in order to be able to do good liturgy–it must be soaked in, the liturgical aesthetic must be ingrained in us. To this end, one panelist said, the power of the priest cannot be underestimated in terms of cultivating potential–kids as well as adults need to come to events like this, for example.

After the afternoon panel was choir rehearsal; Mark Bailey is very exact, and it’s a real learning experience to watch him conduct. It continues to be something else having a 100-voice choir singing in a church where the acoustics are as favorable as they are here. Then Vespers, where a small ensemble sang the stichera and whatnot, not dissimilar from what usually happens at All Saints.

After dinner was a concert performed by a group called the St. Romanos Cappella (as opposed to Cappella Romana, a completely different ensemble), singing a program entirely of music by modern Orthodox composers–all but one of whom were in the audience. Tikey Zes (who composed our All Saints troparion), Ivan Moody, Kurt Sander (formerly of Indiana University Southeast), James Green (the one not in attendance), Mark Bailey (man, the guy is everywhere), and Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Each one of them brings something different to the table, but it was all wonderful. It would be nice to learn several of these (particularly the Glagolev, Sander, and Bailey material), because it would be a shame to have all of this beautiful music out there representing a living continuation of the tradition and then have it never actually be sung in our churches. It would also be especially nice to finish learning Fr. Sergei’s setting of Psalm 103/104 for Vespers; now having heard what it actually sounds like in a church and not just on a recording, I’m more convinced of this. (And Bp. MARK already approved it back in December, which is handy.) Besides Psalm 103/104, they also sang one of his settings of the Cherubic Hymn, the Anaphora, the Megalynarion, and the Alleluia before the Gospel (including the refrains), and it was made very evident what a treasure trove his liturgical music actually is. He received a standing ovation at the end of it–surely every composer there deserved one, but he was quite appropriately the man of the hour. It was very moving.

After a looooooooooooooooooong, far-reaching conversation with Dn. Kevin Smith, choirmaster at St. Vlad’s, we managed to miss the shuttle back to the hotel and had to get a ride back from a Bulgarian woman named Danielle. And now it’s time for me to fall over and go to sleep. More to come tomorrow.

Day 3: There was a lot of theoretical stuff talked about today. I found it fascinating, but there’s little I can just summarize into an anecdote. Mark Bailey again had interesting things to say on a variety of topics; one issue he described was that of a common faith not necessarily uniting the Orthodox into a common sense of heritage. In terms of what that means musically–well, for many of us who are converts, “all Orthodox music is music for all Orthodox”, but that’s a very unique attitude to some (by no means all) American converts. He noted that in Russia right now there’s an argument over what kind of liturgical music from their various indigenous traditions (common chant, znamenny, etc.) will adequately represent the Russian culture. In this country, we have the opposite problem–we as yet have no indigenous Orthodox musical tradition, and so are trying to determine what bits and pieces from other national practices will best express Orthodoxy as it exists in America. Do we do a little bit of everything and make it a “checklist”-style approach? Do we pick one thing–Byzantine chant, Russian 4-part chant, whatever–and try to make it our own?

Mark Bailey is really big on liturgical singing doing no more and no less than supporting the liturgical action. That is, that liturgical singing either prepares for, accompanies, or is a liturgical action or rite. To do something other than one of these three things is, therefore, not liturgical and therefore spurious as far as this context is concerned. To that end, he says, musical form should elaborate on, and therefore draw the member of the congregation in to, a sacred action. At the same time, David Drillock two days ago reminded us that a large part of what we do is “proclamatory”–the exact opposite of drawing somebody in. I’m coming to the conclusion after hearing all of this discussed for two days that, as is so often the case in Orthodoxy, it cannot be “either/or”–it must be “both/and”. Part of its musical beauty come from the way in which the liturgical event is supported, and part of its ability to support the liturgical event must come from its beauty.

See what I mean about a lot of theoretical stuff?

One really practical thing he said with which I really agree is the idea that we need to not turn antiphons into anthemic pieces–they are a liturgical dialogue, not a big choral moment. What does that mean for us at All Saints? I don’t know yet; as it is we have a soloist sing the verse followed by the choir singing the refrain. What about this–rather than soloist plus choir, maybe it’s something like having the men intone one verse, the choir sings the refrain, the women intone the next verse, choir sings the refrain, etc.? We will play with possibilities at future rehearsals.

The afternoon panel, “Where do we go from here?” was interesting. People talked about a number of things, from PSALM formally getting behind issues like jurisdictional unity and a standardized English translation, to spearheading an English musical setting of the entire Octoechos (using, of course, this as-yet nonexistent “American chant” as the medium), to devising a music curriculum for use in parish schools. I think there are all kinds of things we can accomplish, we just need to think big. One of the issues, of course, is that in the past it has been possible for these issues to be solved in a “top-down” manner; the patriarchate or synod or whatever ruling body standardizes the practice/text/chant/whatever and promulgates it. The reality in this country, however, is that we’re having to solve many of these problems from the grassroots level on up. There’s a lot of “rolling our own” that takes place (as I found out earlier this week when I thought I needed a hierarchical “Before Thy Cross” and couldn’t find one to save my life), simply by necessity, because if we don’t do it, nobody else will.

Vespers was lovely. The large conference choir sang everything, and it was something. Being able to worship together (and commune together, tomorrow morning) is what makes this more than just a conference.

The evening panel, on composing liturgical settings for the English language, was made up of Ivan Moody, Fr. John Finley, Fr. Ephrem Lash, Mark Bailey, Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Vladimir Morosan, Tikey Zes, and Nicolas Resanovic. All I can say is–to have all of these people in one room was simply stunning. Not just their brilliance and talent, but their clear love for God and the Church as well. Ivan Moody provided a deft touch of dry, droll Englishness as the moderator. He provided a wonderful quote from St. John Chrysostom: “The tongue is made holy by the words when spoken by a ready and eager mind.”

There was a question where somebody described the situation of somebody coming up to the kliros or into the choir and being told, “Here’s the music for this service. We don’t actually do it that way, but here’s the music.” Big understanding laugh from the audience.

There was a fascinating moment where someone stood up and said, “You know, I’m from the Deep South. The South is a ripe field for Orthodox evangelism–the people there are crying out for the truth. Culturally, however, if we don’t bring it to them in English, their English, they are not going to care what we have to say.” This prompted Mark Bailey to remind us that, in this country, we are a missionary church with a missionary imperative, and that must inform what we do musically.

And then that, as they say, was that.

Day 4: Day 4 was short and sweet. With a 7:30am Matins service, I had to wake up at 6 to check out of the hotel. They did Matins and Liturgy as separate services, as opposed to Matins running right into Liturgy. There was a pause of a few minutes as Mark Bailey got set up to conduct the conference choir, and as the octet (into which I was roped) got into our places.

I may quibble with some (but by no means all) of the settings that were selected (I’ll be honest–the Russian chant in English is very jarring to my ear), but I have to say, having that 150 piece choir singing most of it and getting to sing in the octet that did the rest, in that church, with that conductor, was absolutely something else. I wish you all could have been there to take part, and my hope is that when this happens again, perhaps more of us can go. Fr. John Finley celebrated and homilized; it being the Pre-Feast of the Transfiguration, that was his topic. He started out with the quote from the Gospel reading, “It is good to be here.” It was quite apt. He exhorted us to “embrace the struggle” that we have adopted over the last few days, which was well-taken.

And that was that, more or less. There were some parting remarks at breakfast, and I think a lot of people are coming away from this event feeling like it was something seminal, that there has been good seed sown. Time will tell how God’s hand is in all of this, but one way or the other, it seems that the conference has exceeded everybody’s expectations.

A funny anecdote and a really cool thing: I went up to Fr. Ephrem Lash (the priest who looked and sounded like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf) and asked for a blessing. He sized me up and said (you’ll have to imagine the Ian McKellen-like voice), “Young man, did you receive Holy Communion this morning?”

“Yes, Father.”

“You never ask for the priest’s blessing after receiving Communion. You never ask for a blessing or kiss an icon. You have the Lord inside of you, so what can they possibly add? The Russians and the Arabs have gotten very bad about this.” I took it in stride, because I’m aware that it is an issue where there is not uniformity of practice or opinion. It was funny nonetheless. I then told him that I found his talk very edifying and he said, “Ah, ‘edifying.’ I never mean to edify, my boy; I only wish to make people laugh.”

So there we have it. Thanks for reading my ramblings; I just wanted to make sure that you all knew for sure I was where I said I was going to be, and hadn’t just taken off for Hawaii or something for a few days. If anybody wants to know more about anything I’ve talked about (or anything I haven’t, for that matter), let me know, I’d love to talk about it, particularly now while the memories are all still fresh.

In Christ,



An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

Dutifully following up…

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

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

One comment went as follows:

I think that that way lies madness on two counts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Encounter” vs. “reception” vs. solutions looking for problems

As has been our custom for the last seven years, New Year’s found me and Flesh of My Flesh in the company of our dear friends Benjamin and Paul for a long weekend of food and movies. We all started out in Bloomington at about the same time, and we all converted to Orthodox Christianity within a year of each other. During academic year ’05/’06 Benjamin and Paul were roommates, and for all intents and purposes there was something of a miniature commune between our two residences, with at least one shared meal virtually daily at either our place or theirs. When they both departed for broader horizons in summer of 2006 — Benjamin to take an adjunct voice teacher position at his alma mater in Cleveland, Paul to pursue different opportunities in New Jersey — we made a point of continuing to spend New Year’s together, and save for ’10/’11 when Megan was in Germany for the year (and therefore I was overseas visiting her for the New Year), we have done so every year since. ’06/’07 and ’07/’08 were in Cleveland, ’08/’09 was here in Bloomington, and then this time we all made the trek out to New Jersey, since Paul has always been good enough to come out to see us in past years. This year the menu was French food, largely inspired by Benjamin and Paul’s respective travels; the films included The King’s Speech (I’d seen it before; it’s good but I can’t say I found it life-changing or worthy of Best Picture) and The White Countess (excellent on every level, and I was left wondering why in the world I’d never heard of it before). I also had the pleasure of introducing Paul to the Steven Moffat/Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman Sherlock, and I have to say that I have yet to show anybody the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” who hasn’t both been glued to their chair for the rest and bugging me for the next two or three days about watching the other two episodes. This means I’ve seen “A Study in Pink” now about ten times, but that has yet to be a problem. I will have to write later about how Steven Moffat, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Matt Smith have gradually taken over such TV viewing habits as I have; suffice it to say for the time being that I’m not pleased that I will have to wait until May for “A Scandal in Belgravia” and God-only-knows-when for Series 7 of Doctor Who.

A visit to Paul’s current parish Sunday morning was interesting for a number of reasons. Among them was the choir situation; they appear to be quite blessed with a volunteer choir that can pretty much sing whatever the director puts in front of them, and the director himself is a very capable conductor. He’s given them all very thick binders with multiple options for everything, and he apparently chooses everything on the fly during the service based on whom he happens to have that particular morning. He’s not shy about giving them tougher stuff, either, or about making some, uh, unorthodox musical choices, like Sarum chant and William Byrd.

We had, to say the least, a lively conversation following the Divine Liturgy, prompted in no small part by the director’s mention of the recent publication of the Suchy-Pilalis first Nativity Canon. He brought it up, mentioned that he saw that it was a new melody composed using Byzantine principles for the Lash translation, and I was about to say, “Yes, it’s great work that is one of a few things like that pointing the way forward” when he surprised me with his adamant insistence that it was nonsense. He asserted rather bluntly that composing for English texts using Byzantine compositional principles is no better than keeping an existing melody, whiting out the Greek, and shoehorning in the English. He said over and over again that you absolutely cannot do that — I think he may have even called it “unconscionable” that anybody would think that it’s an acceptable approach. His stance was that Byzantine compositional principles assume an inflected language with particular stress patterns for particular kinds of cadences, and that English doesn’t work that way, so it’s just another way of shoehorning English texts into a context they were never meant to fit. Plus, he said, even if you recompose for English, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re talking about a musical idiom that has zero cultural resonance whatever for the native English speaker, and thus utterly fails in terms of mission. In all fairness, he didn’t really single out Byzantine chant; he seemed to be suggesting that virtually all received forms of Orthodox liturgical music need to be consigned to the dustheap for purposes of English. If they’re going to survive at all, he said, they need to be adapted “organically” for purposes of a culturally American, English-language context, but even when pressed it seemed unclear exactly what he had in mind.

I found myself even more perplexed when it came to what he saw as a better alternative. He was as unsympathetic to the idea of using existing American vernacular musical idioms as a starting point as he was to anything else; “You’re just arbitrarily historicizing something else that way,” was his response. He made it clear that he wasn’t suggesting that we look to Eminem for a example of what “the music of the people” might sound like, but exactly what he thought we should be looking to was never articulated precisely.

He also had unmitigated wrath for anybody who might preserve any kind of Jacobean-style English, arguing that the style has the exact opposite effect from what it was intended to have. Thees and thous were supposed to be familiar, he said, and we now use them to distance ourselves from God and place him higher than ourselves rather than to address him with intimacy. Megan tried to express some appreciation for the style and he would have none of it; “You want Christ’s crucifixion to be meaningless just so you can have your thees and thous!” he told her. (A friend of his started to intervene at this point, only to have him yell, “WE’RE NOT ARGUING!”)

Now, lest I be misleading, I should say that while I intensely disagree with this gentleman on a number of points, he was — believe it or not — good-natured and friendly throughout the conversation, and very well-informed on the whole. There were a couple of things he said where I’m not sure where he’s getting his information, but it’s safe to say that our disagreements are generally informed disagreements, and those are the kind I’d rather have with people.

Megan also asked him, “Why do we need to reinvent the wheel when the wheels we have have done pretty well in every other situation for at least the last 1500 years?” His answer? “Good question. Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.”

Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.


Matthew Namee’s recent piece over at SOCHA, “Toward and American Orthodox historical narrative”, looks to the concept of “encounter” as a way of talking about American Orthodox history — “Encounter between Orthodoxy and the West; encounter between long-isolated Orthodox ethnic groups; and encounter between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.” He expands on the notion of the encounter with the West using Orthodox youth as an example:

From the beginning, American Orthodoxy has struggled to retain its young people. It didn’t help that, for decades (and in some churches, up to the present) Orthodoxy was treated as more of a cultural artifact than a living faith. Old languages were preserved, and English was resisted, and most young people didn’t care about the misguided justifications for using only Greek or Slavonic or Arabic or what have you. Who wants to worship in a language they can’t understand? And no matter how beautiful a language is, if the people can’t understand it, it has failed in its fundamental purpose: to communicate meaning.

He wraps up the “encounter with the West” idea thus:

We encountered the West, and we didn’t know what in the heck to do with it. We weren’t prepared. We flailed about, dancing with the Anglicans, wallowing in our nominalism, ordaining every male American convert who expressed the faintest interest in the priesthood. All too often, we have lacked a vision for our mission in America, and even our identity as the Apostolic Church — the Church. Sentimentalism, ethnic pride, a desire for acceptance, a pleasant feeling of surprise when we are accepted — these things all can be good, and they can have their place. But they can also be our downfall.

The “encounter with the West” notion seems to agree with this New Jersey choir director that “those wheels don’t travel on our roads”. What we had doesn’t work here, and the more we try to make it work here, the more it underscores how badly it doesn’t work here. From a musical point of view this problematizes the whole notion of a “received tradition”; you can’t speak of a “received tradition” when nobody’s receiving it. This appears to be what the New Jersey choir director is getting at: reception isn’t happening, and the more you try to make the existing idioms get along with our language and culture, the more it emphasizes that it can’t be done.

As far as Matthew Namee’s piece goes — I like a lot of what he has to say, and I think what he has to say about the dangers we’ve set up for ourselves with convert clergy being ordained too lightly and too quickly is probably exactly right. Still, there are some over-generalizations that bother me. The language issue — and I’m not even going to go near the bit about the “fundamental purpose” of language, because that’s a significantly complicated matter — certainly gets its exercise in almost any conversation about this stuff, but the flipside is the phenomenon I’ve seen of people who’ve grown up in parishes where a non-vernacular liturgical language is preserved and for whom hearing the services in English is a cheapening experience. It’s great that it’s in English, it’s great that I can understand this or that part of the service, they say, but… something’s wrong. It sounds like English, but it doesn’t sound like church. What I have come to understand from what I’ve experienced in non-English parishes is that, for a significant portion of cradles, it matters that the language they hear in church is the language in which they remember hearing their grandmother pray. It matters because liturgy builds, maintains, and transmits religious identity, and to the extent that liturgy feels like a “family affair” in a broad and a narrow sense of the term, it’s going to be difficult for such people to separate their earthly family from their church family. I recently met an older Greek-American who lives here in Bloomington and was part of what became All Saints in the early days but who declined to continue to be part of it when the community incorporated under the Antiochians. He said, rather bluntly, “Forgive my ethno-centrism, but I just can’t do it. What a Greek person gets out of going to a Greek church is very personal, and it’s not something you can just transplant or translate.” A somewhat more flippant Greek-American friend of mine recently put it, “So often, you just want to say, ‘American Orthodoxy — you’re doing it wrong.'”

But let’s be honest — that’s what’s at the core of King James-style English, too. Even we as English speakers want church to sound like church. That’s the Lord’s Prayer the way we were taught it as kids — once again, the way we we remember hearing our grandmother pray. And the New Jersey choir director is right, sometimes that means the meaning has shifted — take the Paschal greeting the way it’s typically rendered into English: “Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!” And we hear things about how that means that Christ is risen now, today, that it’s an ongoing reality — but that’s not actually what “is risen” means. “Christ is risen” is an archaic way of saying what we would now express in English as “Christ has risen”. It’s a perfect tense — think the Christmas carol “Joy to the world” — “The Lord is come“. It’s still the way you do perfect tenses in German — “Christus ist auferstanden!” — but in English it’s an archaicism, and one we don’t readily grasp as being so. If you translate Χριστὸς ἀνέστη literally, it’s something like “Christ rose”; it’s an aorist tense, past time and simple aspect — the narrative past tense, if you like, which establishes it as a once-and-for-all historical event, which is something very different from understanding “Christ is risen” as being in the present tense. But if we started saying “Christ arose!” on Easter, I’m guessing it really wouldn’t work for most people.

If archaic language is keeping youth out, but English isn’t necessarily solving the problem, then there is more of an issue here, and maybe Namee gets more to the point when he says that Orthodox Christianity “didn’t know what the heck to do” with the West.

Here’s what I think is the hard reality: Orthodox Christianity in the United States, at least as presented up to this point, is a solution looking for a problem.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say that Americans, by and large, have no interest in being part of Holy Russia, have no interest in re-establishing the Roman Empire, and have no real interest in Russian or Greek cultures except when they can get good poppyseed rolls or have a gyros while watching some kids re-enact Zorba’s dance. Yes, fine, we all know that. Americans want to be Americans.

But you know what? From what I’ve seen, I don’t think Americans, for the most part, have any particular interest in being part of “the one true Church” either. America, like it or lump it, is culturally Protestant, and as soon as you start using that kind of language, you’re already making assumptions that were rejected by our forebears centuries ago. Most Americans are not looking for a “more authentic” liturgical experience; most Americans are not looking for anything “traditional” or that constitutes a “deeper Christian spirituality”, or whatever the other buzzwords are that we all like to use. I have seen with my own eyes what can happen when certain kinds of American Protestants try to speak in that language, and the result is something like theatre for the deaf. Americans, at least some of them, can be well aware of the consequences when those elements of Christianity with even the vaguest of historical roots are traded for a mess of pottage, and in a way this can be seen as a manifestation of the same problem as language — church seems too distinct from your everyday life, which might be a problem, but in updating, it loses an important distinction from everyday life, and thus there ceases to be a compelling reason to go. But, by and large, these are pretty rarefied problems from the standpoint of most Americans trying to figure out where they might go to church on Sunday morning. Even the apparent cultural impulse in which Orthodox Christianity subsists of gilding and ornamenting the things you love and think are important falls totally flat in a culture that thinks you need to strip the things you care about down to bare essentials. As marketed and described, at least, Orthodox Christianity, frankly, is just in the wrong key for American culture, no matter what melody you try to write in that key. It may very well be what America needs, but that’s something completely different.

Orthodox Christianity, in order to succeed in any kind of an American mission, doesn’t first and foremost need to find a musical idiom that will have cultural resonance, it doesn’t first and foremost need to be in English, and it doesn’t first and foremost need a simpler liturgy or reduced vestments or married bishops or anything like this. I have a lot more faith in what has been passed down than that — those things have survived this long under wars and occupation and servitude and so on, and I’m not convinced that America is a worse threat than any of those issues. Does Orthodox Christianity need to preach the Gospel, Christ crucified? Yes, but it’s going to be painfully obvious in doing so that we’re not the only ones who are, and being “the one true Church” isn’t going to sufficiently elevate us over the competing ambient noise, I don’t think.

What Orthodox Christianity needs to do is actually have a way of addressing real problems real people have rather than thinking that Joe Average is going to care about Arianism or Iconoclasm. I think I’m on safe ground in saying that most people don’t think they have a “true Church” problem. Most people don’t think they have a liturgy problem or a filioque problem. Most people these days are just trying to get through the day with some amount of sanity and dignity and without going broke, and when they go to church they want to feel like they’re getting comfort of some kind. Solace. Some sense of belonging, of acceptance of and respite from their daily struggle the rest of the week. Some sense that God’s in control even if they’re not.

How does Orthodox Christianity do this? I don’t know. Our services don’t really do catharsis, and I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves or anybody else well to try. I don’t think we do it via self-conscious “accessibility” efforts; I could say something really obvious and pithy like, we have to do it by loving other people, and while that’s true, what does that look like so that, as C. S. Lewis might have put it, in aiming for it, the ecclesial, liturgical, and spiritual issues get thrown in? Certainly organizations like IOCC and OCMC already perform valuable social services and missions and so on, but the narrative of “Orthodoxy doesn’t do those things” already exists, rightly or wrongly, and efforts in those areas are seen as confirming their scarcity rather than speaking to their abundance or efficacy.

By the way, what I’m not arguing here is that we somehow need to come up with a “strategy”. I’m actually trying to say that the strategies we’ve come up with up to this point aren’t actually accomplishing what we think they should be. Some of you may recall that over a year ago, I was trying to get an Orthodox IU alumni association going. Well, we put together a mailing list of 500 people, and somebody got involved who himself had a lot of experience at what he called the “science” of marketing and fundraising. He gave a lot of specific advice about what the mailing should and should not do and look like, and what actually went out in the mail, even though it bore my signature, was more based on his concept than mine. In any event, he believed very strongly that what we sent out should have really grabbed a lot of attention and gotten a lot of people involved. It was a well-strategized effort, to say the least — and there was absolutely zero response. Zero. The strategy accomplished nothing. Why? Again, because we were a solution looking for a problem — for a good chunk of the people we were trying to reach, there would be no association of Orthodoxy with their time at IU because there was no church here in those days. There would be no reason for them to be sold on an Orthodox alumni association if they were already members of the regular alumni association and didn’t have any particular already-established goodwill towards the parish here. Strategies do nothing if you aren’t actually addressing an issue somebody has, unless you’re Steve Jobs, in which case you are magically able to convince people they need something they’ve never heard of before. Orthodoxy in this country has not had a lot of luck being Steve Jobs, although the reason why he was so good at it was because the designs produced under his name were useful and elegant and beautiful. We haven’t yet convinced ourselves that we have the resources to do all three of those things the way they would actually need to be done.

To come back to liturgy and music — I myself do not play to English exceptionalism. English is important, yes, sure, fine, but catering to it to the extent of throwing out large chunks of historical practice with the justification that we have to do it because it’s English can hardly be priority zero. (I’ve already said what I think about the textuality of the liturgy.) I don’t hear anybody arguing that icons need to look more like Norman Rockwell painted them. I think the wheels we have do travel on our roads — I think the simple fact is that we aren’t building the wheels well enough for the most part. If we’d actually build them as designed with skill and attention to quality, they’d work just fine. We need to do what we do and what makes us distinctive as well as we possibly can, not decide for everybody else that they won’t like it anyway. What form of music will play in Peoria is, honestly, a side issue. If the Orthodox Church can actually reach an average person in Peoria who is struggling with just getting through the day, love that person unconditionally, and proclaim the Gospel to that average person in a way that sticks, then that person isn’t going to care that the music is Byzantine chant — rather, he or she will associate that music with the difference that is made in his/her life. (That’s something I have seen, I should hasten to add.) If we don’t take our own practices seriously enough to do them well and with care, then such a hypothetical person will sense that we don’t care about them, and he/she won’t care about them either.

Anyway — all of that is to say, Orthodoxy in America as a solution looking for a problem. Discuss.

Is there any more militant “anti-” than an “ex-“?

Blogging has been light for much of the last year or so. This has been because I’ve been, well, busy. Flesh of My Flesh was in Germany on an academic exchange from the middle of September 2010 to the middle of August 2011, and trying to maintain a two-person household and lifestyle as one person, while also being a full-time grad student, while also having some level of teaching responsibilities for the first time, while also still being responsible for musical duties at All Saints, while also planning a big to-do last fall, while dealing with some personal issues that required a good amount of attention (to perhaps be told someday in another blog post), while also making a couple of semi-lengthy trips to Germany myself, meant that every last second of my time was spoken for, and I had absolutely nobody around to share the load or to delegate to in any meaningful or consistent way. Granted, there were lots of people around for much-appreciated moral support, but by and large I was on my own.

Another reason why it’s been light, however, is because there have been things going on in the circle of blogdom of which I am some kind of marginal member that have prompted the thought, “Maybe I should respond to that,” and ultimately I’ve chosen not to. I don’t like blogging pissing contests; to my mind they don’t resolve anything, they engender bad will, and tend to create (to say nothing of harden) battle lines. I’m at the point where I feel like there are some things that need to be said, however, and while I want to be frank, I also don’t want to pick a fight, so I’m going to keep things reasonably specific but nonetheless as abstract as I can make it. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know what I’m talking about; if you don’t, a Google search on some of the issues I raise should be reasonably fruitful.

Converting to Orthodox Christianity is a tricky business, perhaps a bit moreso than Roman Catholicism. I’ve heard it said that getting married isn’t just saying yes to one woman, it’s saying no to all the others, and that seems applicable here. There’s a way in which it seems to me that converting to Roman Catholicism is saying yes to one communion while at the same time construing all the others as being more or less part of yours, so you’re not really deciding against them in the same way. Choosing Orthodoxy, however, involves some more serious overtones of rejection, I think; when I converted, I told myself that in Orthodoxy Christianity I found fulfillment of many of the ideals I had as an Anglican, and that had also led me to read some Roman Catholic apologetics, but there was nonetheless a line, I was choosing a side, and the only for me to un-choose it was to be for all practical purposes an atheist. From people I’ve talked to, that kind of “double-or-nothing” mindset is fairly common, and for my part, I don’t know what the alternative is that isn’t converting for what amount to warm and squishy reasons.

If that’s the case, however, and you find, for one reason or another, that you can’t stay in Orthodoxy, then I suppose it’s not all that surprising that some do effectively become atheists who are nonetheless left with a particularly dogmatic approach to their atheism. There have been some rather public (as far as this niche of the blogging world goes) departures from Orthodox Christianity recently where this has happened, despite an initial assertion that they were going to a different communion, what they really appear to have embraced is an atheism that allows them to maintain a dogma about the things that they’ve decided they really care about. The irony, inevitable though perhaps it is, is that these were some of the more militantly Orthodox bloggers in their day; calling out bishops, parishes, and whomever for not being Orthodox enough, reading all the Right Theologians and so on, and certainly putting on a show of fighting the good fight. The militancy remains; only the Orthodoxy is gone, and the vacuum seems to have filled itself rather violently with other things — secular metanarratives of Marxist-style class struggle and revolution (highly ironic, since in one case I’m thinking of the person, while Orthodox, famously claimed to despise metanarrative) being one significant example, and their new “orthodoxy” tends be tinged by an ongoing and rather world-weary intellectual dismissal of the Christianity they’ve found wanting.

You know, I can respect that somebody for whom Orthodoxy “doesn’t take” is left without a lot of intellectually honest options that actually retain some veneer of Christianity. It strikes me nonetheless that there’s something far deeper going on here, and what it really seems to boil down to is an issue with people rather than an issue with the faith. How in the world can people like that be allowed in by anything less than crawling over broken glass covered with cow excrement, the reasoning seems to go, when I have this other category that tells me we should treat them as undesirables, if not outright enemies? Why should it be acceptable that the people who are becoming Orthodox are people I don’t like? Surely that’s a flaw in the faith itself. But even that, I think, is to overthink it — what it really boils down to is that, whatever song and dance we like to put on about catholicity, we want to go to church with people like ourselves. When we don’t find people like ourselves in sufficient critical mass, then we assume that it’s not for us. If this happens after we’ve already made a spiritual commitment, then the road out seems to be paved with bitterness and sour grapes. Smash the icons, burn the books, it wasn’t what I hoped it would be, so it must be all bad and full of pathological wackos.

Let’s be honest — for all the jawing converts like to do about “ethnic enclave” parishes, converts often tend to function as their own ethnicity. And, since most converts are white (note I said “most”, not all), and it’s socially unacceptable to claim to be a “white” church in the same way that a Greek/Russian/Arab church can claim to be a Greek/Russian/Arab church, the unifying factor tends to be cultural class, subsequently and quietly reinforced by race. Ethnic parishes, from what I’ve seen, tend to be more “catholic” in terms of class, because the ethnicity is able to explicitly function as the glue. Yes, fine, the Christian faith is supposed to be the glue, but for converts and for cradles it’s more complicated than that. We converts are choosing something that is on some level countercultural, and we want to know we’re not crazy, so we want to see the people like ourselves who make it work without it being contrived, some kind of a put-on. I have a dear friend who has expressed being self-conscious in a lot of parishes just by virtue of the fact that he has red hair, immediately and unmistakably marking him as somebody who doesn’t come from a traditionally Orthodox heritage. For cradles, they come from a background where being Orthodox is simply the default option, and there is nothing to reinforce that in a North American cultural context except ethnicity. One way or the other, whether you most strongly identify with class or heritage, if you go to church and don’t see people you can identify as being like yourself in your preferred category, you’re not going to feel comfortable. I suspect that no matter how much we want to talk about “catholicity”, that’s just the reality of being human. We can be taught to like the idea of cultural or ethnic pluralism, but in the ordering of our own lives, that’s not going to be a practical reality most of us will choose to embrace. Catholicity, I suspect, is an ideal to be supported on a macro-level; on the local level, most people will choose homogeneity. If pressed, I think some people would even go so far as to say that catholicity is great, as long as it doesn’t include those people.

The stones the “ex-“es who are now “anti-“s choose to throw I must take with a boulder of salt. Surely we all know that just because a monk says it doesn’t make it necessarily a) so b) universally applicable even if true. Surely we all know that someone being proclaimed as a saint doesn’t necessarily make them perfect or not subject to various historical circumstances and forces, and I would hope that the easy categorization of “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” is something most people would see as deeply problematic from a Christian standpoint, any Christian standpoint, no matter how much critical theory and class struggle-infused rhetoric one tries to throw at it. The recent assertion by one such person that “a mature Christianity is a nominal Christianity” and that Orthodoxy constitutes “the Byzantine slammer” must be rejected with frankness, yes, but also seen as part of what, I think, is best considered a grieving process. A mature Christianity might well perhaps be a humble Christianity, but by the same token, a mature secularism must also be a humble secularism.

To wrap this up for the moment — I heard it said while I was converting that the trouble with thinking your way into a religion is that it’s then no difficult task to think your way right out when your premises change. It’s perhaps particularly easy to do when one finds that the reality on the ground is harder than the marketing materials may have suggested. For those of us who haven’t fallen prey to this, thank God, but I’ve seen enough people leave for such a variety of reasons, some surprising and some not, that you just never know what’s going to challenge you next.

Richard’s Twitter

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