The Eastern Captivity of the Christian Church

The reason to become Orthodox is because it is the Christian Church. It is not simply because it is the “ancient faith”, it is because it is the Christian faith. Certainly it is not because it is Greek, and it makes no sense to say that it is because it is Russian. There is nothing about ethnicity or geography that makes Orthodoxy superior. It is not even because Western Christianity has flaws (the history of the East is also pockmarked); it is Christianity itself that compels such a change, not because “the East” is inherently better than “the West”.

I do believe that the Christian “East” has more effectively preserved true Christian worship and doctrine, but I would have stayed Protestant (as several others have) in order to effect similar beneficial change. I did not become Orthodox because they do things better than “Western” Christians.

In fact, the Orthodox do a lot of things worse than the other Christian confessions. We haven’t formed outstanding university’s like the Roman Catholic’s, the Baptists, or the Reformed Protestants. Consequently our children find themselves having to leech off of University’s of other confessions; leaving their training to others and forcing them to be “theological guests” during their formative years. Our voice is barely audible among the others that proclaim the good news. As institutions go we don’t have much worth mentioning.  I drive down the highway and I can see a Presbyterian Medical Building, a couple of Baylor’s medical plaza’s, and it seems that I cannot help but see Roman Catholicism’s pervasive influence our civilization. The other confessions are doing good works; works that speak highly of Christ and those who take his name. Everyday people’s lives are changed for the better by American Christians who are not Orthodox. Their good works are laudable; and if we are honest, it puts us to shame.

And yet we Orthodox often refuse to face up to our shortcomings, and Christ’s victory in the fragmented mess of denominations that surround us. Sure we’ve kept our hands busy with some good works, and I do not mean to diminish outstanding institutions like IOCC or Ancient Faith Radio, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a lot that we’re bad at.

Part of me takes pride when I see that our focus isn’t on certain troublesome standards of “success”. I like to joke about how ugly Orthodox websites tend to be – how we aren’t seeker friendly; we are too busy caring about the content rather than the package. And yet, this sort of pride tends to mask sloth and stubbornness. Is it a very big deal when Orthodox websites are simple and awkward? No. Is it refreshing to be around people who could care less about putting flash animation in their website because they are too busy praying and caring for people? You bet. But taking pride in my work because it avoids the failure of others is a dangerous way to live. This habit is sure to foster serious consequences.

In our case, the consequences have already arrived. Too frequently we talk about “being Orthodox” as if it were a club; when if it were a club it would be one that we would be ashamed of, and one I wouldn’t join. Too often we speak of the East, as if the East were redeemed while the West remains damned. Too much we relish our distinctiveness from those who devote their lives to Christ, and who – without the wealth divine grace that we have – are the tools by which Christ is drawing men to Himself. By calling ourselves “the East” as if that meant we are correct we have calcified what must be supple if the Holy Spirit is to move us. We grow out our beards, we drop the names of Saints, we cross ourselves, we buy more icons, we go to seminary, we call ourselves only by our Saint’s name, we buy a longer prayer rope, we read more books, we listen only to chant, we go to the services, and while standing the entire time we think only about being more Orthodox.

And Christ says to us: “I knoweth thee not”.

In the Orthodox parishes of this country, out of the blessed mouths of many good Christians, and from the hands of the pious one recognizes the dreadful prayer of the Pharisee: “Lord I thank you that I am not like this man”. These words, born from our own striving towards the Center of Orthodoxy, are our judgment and our shame.

The Church does not deserve her Husband, and therefore her voice finds sweet concord with that of the Publican: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”. The Church is the Church repentant, the Church is the humble child. This is the Bride of Christ, this is the heart of Orthodoxy, this is why I came here.  I fast and pray and fight, not because I am Orthodox, but because I am a Christian.  Slapping the identifying name “Orthodox” when it’s not necessary serves to convolute the divine Church with the human institutions that serves the Church’s bidding.  We are the one true apostolic Church, why suggest that we are anything else by dwelling on a label.

I know where most people are coming from when they speak of “the West” and “the East”. I appreciate books like Dr. David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West, and the specific misunderstandings of the Christian faith that are due to an unfortunate “western captivity”.  The distinction is one that is sometimes unfortunately necessary. Most of the time however it is used as a crass title for something more complex: personally it is often haughty, off-putting, unattractive, and unnecessary. Every time we use it we risk being un-Christian. How should we talk about this distinction is something to be addressed elsewhere, when we have taken care of family business.

I became Orthodox to be part of the Bride of Christ. I came here for Him. I came here as a child of the West, with my heart full of love for the West, and (this is obvious) as one living in the West. The West taught me to love Christ and to have the courage to be a Christian. So I became Orthodox. I have not fled the West; I will never flee the West. Christ has come to redeem the world, and thank God He redeems the West too, because otherwise I would still be wandering around the Slough of Despondency. When I found Orthodoxy I found myself ushered into a bridal chamber in which I did not deserve to be, and which continues to astound me. This is Home, not “The East”. This is everyone’s Home, and lo it resides even in the West.

The Diabolical Legacy of PZ Myers

If you have heard about the PZ Myers controversy, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about it. For those who have not had the misfortune of knowing what all this is about, well here’s what the Myers (scientist, ardent atheist/evolutionist, blogger) controversy started with (from his blog):

. . . I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.

As you might expect from his tone, Myers isn’t really interested in doing this in the name of science, but as an act of desecration just to piss off and irritate people who (apparently) irritate him. Apparently Myers’ enlightened scientific ideals don’t come with maturity. Or love. Or tolerance.

Also predictable was the maelstrom of web-reactions: from outraged Christians to applauding atheists. While the few sections of responses I read represented Christians well (far better than the scientists, whose objective faith in their project was undermined by their bullying insults and strong-arm proselytizing) I had to wonder: why spend words on people who obviously won’t hear?

For this (and the fact that I can bet Myers is loving his influx of web-traffic) I haven’t linked to his site from this post.

Yesterday, before attending Vespers, I read that the desecration had taken place. Apparently Myers went to a RCC parish, communed, and removed the wafer for his morbid “fanfare”. Technically, this was an act of theft; and the desecration of the object… well, I’m pretty sure there’s lots of technical terms for such an act, but I don’t see a whole lot of point in accusing Myers of something he just finds silly and everyone else just finds wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I am outraged. That is, I think I’m outraged. I’m very conflicted about the whole thing, but the conflicted response is still very strong. After a little self-reflection I realized what the dominant feeling was: sorrow.

Sorrow for Christ, sorrow for the Church, sorrow for the act, and most of all; sorrow for PZ Myers.

The sad little man who will be known for an immature, irreverent and horrifying act of aggression that revealed so much about his own anger, hate, and inhumanity. Regardless of divine consequences, this is a legacy I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I get to watch young men and women destroy themselves with drugs, distraction, and self-abuse: and you just have to pity their infirmities. Many of these kids have better reasons to be sick than Myers, and their sickness doesn’t run this deep. Poor man.

After Vespers I ran into Rod Dreher, and (this slowly starts paying off my debt for leeching off of his blog for info) told him that Myers had allegedly committed his desecration. The Archbishop walked by, so Dreher asked his opinion. Vladyka’s response was one of instant sorrow. “I don’t blame anyone for disbelieving,” he said. “I’ve been a disbeliever myself at times, but this moves beyond disbelief.” And calmly and sorrowfully he said, “God is not mocked”. Dreher pointed out that such desecration would be received with violence from different groups, particularly Muslims. “That speaks well of Christians then,” said Vladyka.

The conversation cemented in me the words of St. Isaac of Syria who told us to pray even for the demons. Apparently Dreher had a similar response, as his blog piece shows. He quotes from an autobiography of St. Silouan.

I remember a conversation between [the monk Silouan] and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction,”God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.”

Obviously upset, the Staretz [the Elder — Silouan] said,

“Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and then looked down and saw somebody burning in hellfire — would you feel happy?”

“It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,” said the hermit.

The Startez answer him with a sorrowful countenance.

“Love could not bear that,” he said. “We must pray for all.”

And he did, indeed, pray for all.

In the matter of P.Z. Myers, go thou and do likewise. There can be no doubt that Myers is an enemy of God, and of Christians. He wants to be. But from a Christian point of view, there can also be no doubt that he is a creature of the Most High, Who loves him, and that God’s heart would be grieved to lose this self-tortured man to eternity. St. Silouan teaches that we must take care not to do anything that interferes with a man’s salvation.

I think that this is the Christian response: sorrow, love, and prayer. Let that be our outrage. There is no room for anger.

Orthodoxy- the TestosterChurch?

I clearly remember in the Spring of 2006 when the Biola “Connections” magazine centered around an article about the “feminization of the church”. Without Orthodoxy even being on the map, I began several conversations about this problem, and one thing became very apparent: the more seeker-friendly the Evangelical church became, the more men seemed less interested. This held true even when men where targeted – where “pastors” were replaced with “spiritual coaches” and meetings were held in more masculine settings like gymnasiums.

To Biola’s credit, they did what they could to fight this feminization within its male student body. Residence Life worked hard to emphasize the manliness of the Christian life, and I saw male leadership sometimes exemplify strength, fortitude, courage. More often than that though were more obvious feats of manliness: bench-pressing and intra-mural sports come to mind. We were encouraged to yell, growl, and guffaw.

What brought this to mind is Frederica Matthewes-Green’s talk about the health of Orthodoxy’s male participation. Orthodoxy alone is stably male – it even seems that most of the converts are male, and they bring their wives.

And I remember once summing up what I appreciated about my turn to Orthodoxy by saying that “I’ve realized that prayer isn’t something relegated to women or pastel-colored Christian bookstores”. That seems obvious, but I know, despite of their best efforts, that most of the men I knew at Biola shared the same misconception.

So why are all other traditions becoming more girly? The wonderful Nancy Pearcy offers a possible reason (from the Biola “Connections” article):

Pearcey said industrialization forced men to seek work away from home, in factories and offices, which created a split between the public and private spheres of life. The public sphere became secularized through the new values of competition and self-interest, and the private sphere came to represent the old values of nurturing and religion, Pearcey said. Thus, religion came to be seen as for women and children and not as relevant to the “real” world of business, politics and academia, she said.

….

Men’s absence is especially noteworthy, they said, given that men were a strong force in the early church.

Leon J. Podles, author ofThe Church Impotent, offers another suggestion rather than Pearcy’s socio- economic one – a theological one. The tipping point, claims Podles, occurred when bridal imagery in the Christian life became applied to the individual as opposed to the Church. The error is thinking that you are the bride of Christ; not the Church.

A feminized spirituality began in the 13th century, Podles said in his book The Church Impotent. One cause, he said, was women mystics who popularized “bridal imagery,” the metaphor of an individual Christian as the bride of Christ. (The biblical metaphor is of the corporate church as the bride of Christ, not the individual person.) They also used erotic imagery to describe their soul’s relationship with Christ. This feminization explains the abrupt departure of men from the church beginning in the 13th century, according to Podles.

Today the bridal imagery continues. Many books, for example, have titles like Falling in Love With Jesus: Abandoning Yourself to the Greatest Romance of Your Life (Nelson Impact), released, ironically, by the publisher of Murrow’s book. This may be because Christian publishers know women are the main consumers of Christian books. Seventy percent of customers in Christian retail stories are women, according to Bill Anderson, the president and CEO of the Christian Booksellers Association and a member of Biola’s School of Business Advisory Board.

Thoughts?

One of the more interesting points that Frederica points out is the feminization of the icons of Christ. Compare.

The Harrowing of Hell

Sad But True

I teach at an interesting school, that much is certainly true.  But this just amazed me.  While telling a story about how missionaries taught children math, a kid asked, “What’s a missionary?”  I was dumbfounded.

Turns out that he was bothered by my use of the word “missionary” because he was only familiar with it in sexual references. Sad, but true.

“I hate all your show”

I finally managed to get Jon Foreman’s latest solo offering “Spring and Summer” (whose music I insist on purchasing as soon as I can). “Spring and Summer” is a two EP set that marks the completion of a four EP series each consisting of six songs for each season. While Foreman’s band “Switchfoot” has always offered honest songs centered around the Jon’s Christian life, his solo albums have given us a much more intimate look at his struggles and conviction. Several of the songs are simply Psalms and scripture set to music (“White as Snow”, “Your Love is Strong“, “The House of God Forever“) , often offering consolation to his darker thoughts and realizations (“The Cure for Pain“,”Learning How to Die”, “Lord Save Me from Myself“).

As you can surely tell by the song titles, Jon’s not trying to be too subtle here. Surprisingly I don’t find his work too obvious, crass, or blunt. Indeed, I find it refreshingly to the point and courageously sensitive. When I listened to “Summer” for the first time, one not-so-subtle song stood out to me. This song is called “Instead of a Show”, and it’s hard to imagine it not offending just a little bit of you. It’s rather – strident. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed poorly; bemoaning hypocrisy is rarely a symptom of spiritual health, but this song toes the line.

And no wonder, it’s based on Amos 5:21-24 and Isiah 1:11-31. What we need is Christian worship, full of love and life for the world.

Graham Greene’s not-so-Green Pastures

For years I’ve heard that I should read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and I finally picked it up this week. The previous week I had the pleasure of watching the BBC miniseries version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” which left me profoundly moved yet quite unsatisfied. Waugh was a great admirer of Greene, a fellow Roman Catholic novelist, and at one time defended three of Greene’s novels (including The Power and the Glory) from a bishop’s condemnation.

The Power and The Glory is much like Brideshead in its incessant bleakness, but in an greatly dissimilar setting. As opposed to the height of British civilization, the novel is set in a barren and sun-scorched part of Mexico. The book circles like a vulture around the exile of an unnamed whiskey priest  – with an illegitimate child whom we get to meet for the few precious moments the priest gets to spend with her.

Our unnamed priest is stuck in a Mexican state that has banned both the Roman Catholic Church and alcohol, so our poor protagonist is unable to participate in both his vice and his sacred duty. He’s the last priest in the region other than a cowardly priest who capitulated to the demands of the state, and as such has married and refuses even to offer up even the most necessary of public prayers, or hear confessions.

In the tenth year of the priests’ fugitive state the governor, discovering that a priest is still in his province,  offers a 700 peso reward for the priests’ capture (as opposed to the 500 pesos offered for an American bank robber and murderer). The most attractive character of the book, an ordered and cleanly lieutenant, is determined to catch the “treasonous” priest who epitomizes everything he despises about life. Of all the characters in the book, only the lieutenant seems to have any purpose or direction.  The majority of the book is spent as the priest moves from impoverished town to impoverished town; partly wanting to escape across the border – or die – but feeling compelled to offer what only a priest can offer. As he hauls his confused and haggard carcass around the police take hostages from the villages he’s been to; shooting those who have helped him. The pious despise him because of his sins, and the rest for all the trouble he brings. He wishes he could turn himself in, but he’s bound by a sense of divine duty: “It’s not about what you want, or what I want…”

While the book maintains a cool sort of distance from the priest, the real meat of the book is the intimate spiritual struggle that accompanies his ceaseless scramble from place to place. It’s as if the only thing that keeps him from settling into despair is the movement from place to place: peace and home might still be somewhere, and the process of elimination just keeps moving along.

He has no illusions of being a saint or a martyr, but his own sin and poverty have broken through enough of his pride to allow him to love in some way everyone he meets – though they are not saints either. Even the miserable fang-like half breed that continually plays the part of his Judas he holds in high regard, and when the times come when he wants to be captured, he refrains because he wouldn’t want to encourage someone to sin by betraying him.

There are really only two things that the priest thinks he is good for (even his prayers he thinks useless): the absolution he offers people at the end of confession, and serving the Eucharist. These graces are totally unmerited, “putting God in someone’s mouth” is a tremendous gift, and for this reason his identity as a priest is never compromised. The good life, decency, peace, and piety, in this world are all illusions, but the Eucharist… well that’s the center of reality, or at least the center of this man’s meaning.

It would be wrong to say that I didn’t like the book – I appreciate it tremendously – but I have some trouble agreeing to the reality that Graham Greene spins. First of all, I have to agree with RCC theologian Hans urs von Balthazar that the pervasiveness of sin in Greene’s world is misleading. Saints are real, but they are not the sort that Greene has ever met.  Though I appreciate the heavy theme of the glory of suffering, there’s a sickness to this thread, due to the immoderation of the theme. The victorious Christian life is not either the pietisitic pride of Greene’s Mexican spinsters, or the collapsing despair of his fugitive priest. And these are the only options available in this world.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is certainly true, but “Thou preparest a table for me in presence of mine enemies” is also true.  I found Greene’s depiction of the worthlessness of a purely pietistic faith convicting, and some true beauty in the weeping, sweating, and suffering priest.  But there is more purpose to the Christian life than suffering. There are walks in the cool of the day with God; the are green pastures that He makes us lie down in.

The sacramental life cannot be overemphasized, but the sacraments can be mistakenly pulled from their context.  They Holy Mysteries are nothing if not life-giving.  True they are the greatest instance of our unmerited relationship with Christ, but how can one separate them from the life of prayer? I think of the Russians – they know pain – but there is a joy in Dostoevsky and a mirth to Tolstoy that Greene cannot seem to take seriously. As blessed Chesterton would say, mirth is perhaps the one thing that we should always take seriously.