Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I haven't said too much recently about what I'm reading. (Guess I've been spending so much time reading, that I haven't had as much time to write.) I was able to buy several books with Christmas money. (No one bothers to buy me Christmas gifts anymore--just assume I'm going to want books and know where to find the best deals myself.) I bought The Arena, which I'd already read before but wanted to own for future reference. Also, Journey to Heaven by St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, which I hadn't read and was very good. My Godfather bought me the first volume of Fr. Michael Azkoul's The Teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church, which provides a good overview, and also loaned me The Soul, the Body, and Death, by Abp. LAZAR (Puhalo), so I could get a better handle on some of the different perspectives I've seen and heard articulated by Orthodox sources. As an afterthought, I was able to track down a very affordable copy of On Spiritual Unity, which includes writings of A. Khomiakov.

Finally, after plowing through all that, my order from Amazon showed up, including Touching Heaven, by (now Fr.) John Oliver. I'd been wanting to read that one for a while, after listening to some talks he gave, I think last year at Holy Cross. I liked his talks, and the topic of the book also looked interesting, which was a pilgrimage to Valaam. It's probably on my short list of places I'd like to visit before I die. It's not quite to the Arctic Circle, so the cold and dark thing is one positive. It's Russian, but practically in Scandinavia--a couple of other good hits. Plus, it's significant historically for American Orthodoxy, since the original band of missionaries who came to North America was from Valaam. If all that isn't enough reason to buy the book, it's got a cool cover design. It was an enjoyable read and something I might pick up again further down the line, so it was worthwhile.

The other book that arrived most recently and the one I'm just getting ready to start is Fr. Dumitru Staniloae's Orthodox Spirituality. It looks like enough substance to keep me busy for a while (400 tight-margined pages)--maybe even into Lent. I shouldn't omit the online reading either--in addition to the usual stuff, I've run across Holy Trinity Orthodox School, which has an incredible amount of material under the Textbooks link. I've also started collecting whatever patristic Bible commentaries I can find online--Chrysostom and Augustine, of course, from the NPNF series, and Cyril of Alexandria on Luke and on John.

The three commentaries on the Gospel of John might come in handy, as we're starting to meet with a small group from Bethany, and the first study will be on John. (I should explain a bit about this group. Bethany Community Church, where Julie and I have attended for years, is starting a small group ministry that will mostly meet in homes. Some good friends of ours who live nearby are starting one, and since Bethany is still very much Julie's church, we're going to participate. I plan to be very up-front, though, about my own inclinations, including giving the Orthodox perspective on whatever we're studying.)

Well, enough writing about reading. Staniloae's book is calling to me . . .

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

counsel to a king

From today's reading in the Prolog of Ohrid, St. John of Rila's message to Tsar Peter the Bulgarian:
If you desire the heavenly kingdom, be merciful as the heavenly Father. Do not trust in injustice and do not be covetous; be meek, quiet and be accessible to everyone. Do not accept praises from your noblemen. Let your purple robe radiate with virtues. May the remembrance of death never depart from your soul. Humble yourself before the feet of Mother Church; bow your head before her prime-hierarchs so that the King of kings, seeing your sincerity, reward you with goodness such as never entered into the heart of man.
What I wouldn't give for a national, state, or local leader today who at least tried to follow such a standard! But then, I'm reminded of something I read by G. K. Chesterton about the problem with a republic. At least a person who's born to nobility recognizes somewhere deep down that his position is nothing more than an accident of birth--that he himself did nothing to attain it. But in our system of government, you have to start by winning the most difficult popularity contest we can conceive. By the time you get there, you can really come to believe that people chose you because you're better than others, because of something you achieved. I find it difficult enough to maintain humility while seeking to move up in my career, and that's in the fairly non-competitive world of low-level bureaucracy. I can't imagine what it would take to succeed in American politics and remain humble.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Augustine's little balls

Get your mind out of the gutter! :-)

Ian's into playing with cards right now. He has several packs--some regular playing cards (boo, hiss), an Old Maid deck, a couple of matching games, a Thomas game, and some Bible cards that my aunt got him as stocking stuffers. Yesterday, I gave him a pack that I've had around for a while but wasn't doing anything with. Sometime shortly after I told one of my Evangelical friends about my interest in Orthodoxy, he gave me a card game he'd downloaded and printed. (Sorry--I don't remember what the site was.) It's a patristics game that I think someone developed as a study aid for a college class. Each card has a picture of a figure from Church history--typically an icon, or a more Westernized picture; in a few cases (Montanus comes to mind), there was apparently no picture readily available, so a cartoon figure was inserted. At the top, it gives the figure's name, and at the bottom, it identifies various attributes--whether they were orthodox, heterodox, or ambiguous; ecclesiastical rank; date of death; whether they were martyred; and whether, in the estimation of whomever developed the game, the story about them was mostly fabricated. If I recall correctly, the game can be played in various ways, but basically you work on trying to acquire a set of cards that share a particular characteristic.

Anyway, I've never actually played the game, but I couldn't bring myself just to get rid of the cards. I figured Ian would get a kick out of them, and if he keeps at it long enough, he might learn something along the way. Of course, his initial assessment was that they were from church. That didn't seem to be too big a problem. He soon decided that it was some sort of matching game and spread out the cards face down. As he would turn a card over, he would show it to me and ask who it was. (Fortunately, this was more of a reading exercise than a test of my patristic knowledge--I wouldn't have been able to identify very many of them by sight.) Sometimes he would try to repeat the name back to me; other times he'd just say "right" and move on to the next card. He also practiced counting the cards he'd turned over.

Most of the names he had no particular reaction to, but when we came to "Augustine of Hippo" (that's what it said on the card, and I just read it as it was), he immediately started to process what the "hippo" part meant. His mind quickly turned to his Hungry, Hungry Hippos game, which he got for Christmas. After that, about all he could associate with Bl. Augustine were the "little balls" you try to collect in the game.

The other interesting note on this game is that I happened to notice it designates Constantine as heterodox. I guess I hadn't thought of it before, but it's an interesting point to ponder. Constantine is designated as a saint in the Eastern Church at least, and he convened the first Ecumenical Council and enforced its judgment against Arius. On the other hand, he later changed his position, pardoned Arius, and exiled St. Athanasius. Is it, then, that we have in Constantine a heretic saint? Seems like an odd idea, but probably not so far-fetched either.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

little mr. cloudy

Julie and I watched Little Miss Sunshine last night. I think we both agreed it had a similar feel to Garden State (and wouldn't you know it--there was a preview on the DVD for the latter film), which we liked enough to buy. (I should clarify that most of the DVDs we own are because Julie likes them. Not that I don't watch my fair share of TV and movies, but I rarely want to own them--we belong to Netflix anyway, so I figure if I really want to see it again, I can just put it back on the list.) Thinking of it as entertainment and as art, I would also have to agree with Julie that LMS is quite good, and probably at least as worthwhile to own as most of our collection. But that wasn't my fundamental reaction when we finished watching it.

I have to be careful here, because I have always tended to criticize stuff (thinking mostly here of movies, but also sermons, commercials, etc.), even though the kind of criticism hasn't always been the same. It might be a wrong use of "there" for "they're" in a printed advertisement. It might be a fallacious equation of PCs with Microsoft in a Mac commercial (which leads me to make judgments about the intelligence of the target audience). It might be an inconsistent treatment of time travel in a sci-fi movie. I guess inconsistencies are a big thing for me; it particularly annoys Julie when I point them out in TV shows or movies that obviously are not designed to be "think-pieces." I've also always been big on themes--especially religious themes--in entertainment. For instance, ask me why I like Rage against the Machine so much, and I'll tell you it's because of the substance in their lyrics--agree with it or disagree with it, most of today's music lacks conviction about anything. (This is also one of the reasons I've generally been torn over rap as a genre. I respect the political type, but when it drifts too much into the cruder elements of "gangsta" life, or gets downright sexual, I lose interest.)

Now, once upon a time, I probably would have appreciated the message of Little Miss Sunshine. Like all great literature, it addresses the problems of life in their stark reality. There's a messed-up family of messed-up people living messed-up lives, and by the end, they've learned to accept each other and themselves, as they are, and drawn some sense of community from their shared marginal existence. They learn to prioritize relationships, reject conformity, and not get too hung up on worldly success. Sounds good so far, right? And as far as all that goes, I do appreciate the message. But there's a darker side. The hedonist grandfather never stops being a hedonist. The homosexual uncle never stops being homosexual. The family rejects the superficial world of child beauty pageants, but in doing so they bond over the young daughter's striptease routine, which her grandfather had helped her prepare.

In short, the film articulates that core Western value--everyone is OK, no one needs to change. The only ideal to pursue, the only goal to strive for, is learning to accept how messed up we all are, and how normal and real that truly is. We've rejected external conformity, putting on a good show, upholding social norms on the outside, because we recognize that externals without internals are fake and meaningless. But instead of shifting our focus to bettering what we are on the inside, truly, deep down, we've settled for accepting ourselves as broken beyond repair. In fact, we revel in our brokenness. We fight for our rights to be broken, and to stay broken, and not to have anyone call it broken, because that's just imposing some societal norm.

So the message of the film at first glance is a good one--we're all broken people, so we need to love each other as we are. The danger is in the underlying message, which is dangerous because it is not right out on the surface. While we rejoice at the end over this family learning to love and support each other, we subtly buy into the lie that lurks underneath--that we're all just warped in different ways, and universal tolerance is the only reasonable answer, because there is no actual standard beyond societal norms. I don't want to seem judgmental here, because I'm not. I'm as broken as the next person. And yes--we need to love each other in the midst of our brokenness. But there is a standard, there is right and wrong, and there is hope and a way to become better.

Maybe I'm just tired of seeing the same message repeated over and over again. Maybe I'm just frustrated that this is the message coming from a culture that somewhere in the recesses of its past knew the Gospel. Maybe I just feel less sympathetic than I used to, because in Orthodoxy the hope is more tangible. I don't want to say that Protestants have no hope. That would be unfair. But it seems to me that the hope for real change is diminished in Protestantism. It settles for positional justification, positional sanctification, and the barest minimum of faith in Christ as the critical elements in our salvation. It emphasizes the fallenness of humanity, including the biblical heroes (it does not call them "saints" for that very reason). It diminishes the humanity of Christ with its iconoclasm (when it doesn't diminish his deity with its "historical Jesus") and rejects the divinity of redeemed mankind. It thereby creates a gap between God and man that should have been bridged--that was bridged--in the incarnation. As the saying goes, what Christ did not assume he does not redeem; and in Protestantism, the hope that our lives can truly change--that we can become saints--is seriously weakened.

Again, these are subtle things. There is no overt denial of the core teachings about Christ (at least, not among most Evangelicals), but the implications have been whittled away, and the overall structure has weakened. Protestant Christology lacks the power to infuse its culture with a lasting hope of redemption in real life, and over time, Western culture has lost whatever hope it had. It retains its honesty about our present condition--and that is an important foundation to start from. But it rejects anything that can be called a gospel--good news of a better way.

So I criticize. I guess I feel like, if I can identify the wrong message that's there, if I can name it and describe it, I will not unconsciously accept it. Maybe I should just keep my criticisms to myself, so I'm not raining on anyone's parade, but I'm not sure I can do that. I'm not sure it would be right to do it. As I told Julie last night when she asked why I criticized, "Someone has to." Otherwise, the message just slips right in with everything else, and what seemed like just a fun bit of entertainment becomes a subtle retraining of how we think about things. I'm not sure it's such a good idea to let that happen to the people around me.

everyone else is doing it . . .

In the past few days, two of the Orthodox blogs I read have had something to say about transience. First there was Godmother Laura's musing on her own background, which I discussed a bit with her off-line, since she doesn't normally allow comments. Then, this morning, Fr. Stephen posted about loneliness in our present culture. I started to write a comment but realized it was getting too long for a mere comment, so figured it would be better to post my own thoughts here. I'm sure I've said something similar before, probably multiple times, but since everyone else is doing it, why not . . .

We moved around a lot growing up, and although my wife and I knew each other throughout high school and college, as soon as we got married, we moved away from our home in rural upstate NY, and have lived in the DC area ever since. My in-laws grew up in adjacent towns and have lived for decades in the same house, two blocks away from both sets of grandparents. Here, churches regularly joke about running their own moving companies, since loading a truck seems to be the most often-provided service to each other. There are a lot of military personnel in the area, so they often don't stay more than a few years. Those with Federal civilian careers might put in their time here but get out as soon as possible. Who can blame them? (We'd do the same thing if we had a good opportunity.) It's an expensive area to live, with one of the worst commutes in the country. When you drive 90-120 min. each way to work, you might make friends there, but they probably don't live close enough for outside interaction. (Check a map sometime--how far apart are the co-workers from Annapolis and West Virginia?)

Anyway, I long for rootedness. I read one time about the three major factors that help people put down roots--family, land, and religion. My family is scattered. We spend our life in cars and buses, surrounded mostly by concrete and asphalt. And at some point, I discovered that Evangelicalism fits hand-in-glove with Western transience. It is the spiritual embodiment of our rootless culture. Always keep moving. Never leave anything alone long enough to become a tradition. Re-invent. Re-discover. Scrap the old songs for new ones, the old methods for something more flashy, the old doctrines for the latest book. And if none of that goes your way, just pack up and move on to the next church.

Unfortunately, Orthodoxy is not completely immune to Western transience. Now, instead of driving 20 min. to the Evangelical church, I get to drive 30 min. to the Orthodox one. There may not be 20,000 denominations, but there are several jurisdictions to choose from in America, and a hundred shades of variation between the cultural ghetto and the fully Westernized. And of course, the people can come and go just as they can in other churches. Still, I appreciate the ideal that is there, and the still-glowing cultural memory of a world where church is a fixture of the community, where this parish is your parish, because it happens to be the one in your neighborhood or village, where "catholicity" really means what it should.

It was by no means my only attraction to Orthodoxy, but it was an important one. If I can change nothing else about my situation (although, trust me, I'm working on the other factors too), at least I can find rest from my wandering in the Church. At the same time, there are things I do appreciate about my transient life. I think it's enabled greater cultural sensitivity and understanding. It's given me a chance to appreciate things that I might otherwise have taken for granted or even resented if I'd stayed in one place my whole life. And in a very real way, it seems to have been indispensable for my journey to the Orthodox Church. Where would I be today if we'd settled down in one geographical place, or if I'd been more content with my Evangelical faith? I don't know if I would ever have met an Orthodox person, or come to a place where I was ready to consider Orthodoxy as a valid Christian expression.

As I find myself saying a lot, the last Evangelical thing I need to do is become Orthodox. It's the last step of my wandering, the last decision based on my own best judgment, the last time I solve my problems by moving on to something new. (I'm not trying to discount the many other factors that have come together to bring me to this point, but it's still a personal decision that I'm making--to judge the Church on its merits and accept or reject it based on what I consider to be the most reasonable course, rather than to believe and to do what the Church tells me, because it is the Church.)

But I've added a parallel idea--that the last physical move I will ever need to make is the one that takes me to a place where I can put down roots. Perhaps I can do that here. I don't rule it out. Perhaps I can find a job and an Orthodox parish that are so close together that I can live in one place and walk to both. Perhaps that one place will have affordable housing, so that I can buy a home and not have to move every time someone decides to raise the rent out of my range. Or perhaps (and I feel like this is more likely) I will somehow learn to feel rooted while commuting long hours to work and to church. But more likely still (it seems to me) is that the search for a more stable life will take us out of this area and closer to family. And if God provides what we're looking for, I'll happily move that one last time.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

more from The Pillar of Fire

A couple of months ago, I reflected on some of the early material in Karl Stern's The Pillar of Fire. I didn't cover much ground after that, as I spent most of the Nativity Fast reading Orthodox literature. Thanks to President Ford's death last week, I ended up with an extra-long weekend and had time to rush through the remainder of the book. It's very good--I would like to have had the leisure to digest everything in it, but I was able to get the gist and devote significant attention to the more religiously-focused parts. I found interesting his assessment of Jewish racism:
Now I was shaken out of my inner sureness by the following fundamental and indisputable facts. Firstly, there were two parties who unanimously and in perfect agreement maintained the racial wall around the God of Sinai--these were the Nazis and the Jews. Let there be no mistake. Jewish religion up to this day is based on the axiom that Revelation is a national affair and that the Messiah to the Nations has not been here yet. Do not be misled by the fact that Jews in their personal ethics are anything but exclusive and racist. Do not be misled by certain noble Talmudic principles such as "The just of all nations have a share in the world to come." This latter idea has no bearing on the question discussed here; it deals with what to Jewish antiquity was the "invisible church." Do not be misled by fine cosmopolitan sentiments and actions of reformed Judaism which are often prompted by noble hearts but at the same time by much vague thinking and by a lukewarm dilution of the most profound and world-shaking elements of the Judaic treasure. No, there is no getting away from it. Revelation was still contained within the precious vessel of the Nation; I only had to look at our liturgy to see that this was so. Jewish religion was racial exclusiveness. Mind you, it was racial exclusiveness in its noblest, most elevated form--in its metaphysical form, so to speak. It was a racism exactly opposed to that of the Nazis, but it was racism just the same. It was racism with the highest, divine justification--as long as its one basic premise was correct, namely that the Anointed One was still to be expected (172-73).
I've seen this sort of analysis before (interestingly, from another Jewish-Christian convert), but it was interesting to see it repeated here.

Also interesting was his perception of continuity between Judaism and Christianity:
It was really the spirit of Judaism I rediscovered in this strange [Christian] setting, enriched by remote peoples, and cleansed of its purely ethnic elements. . . .

Christianity confirmed and believed everything which Jewry believed but added one fundamental assertion which Jewry rejected. Heresies are based on denials. In this sense Christianity was no heresy from Judaism; it rejected nothing essential but made a new positive claim (177). . . .

Today I know that there was actually nothing I had to give up. On a spiritual plane Christianity is Jewry. It is Jewry led to its fulfillment. There is no essential truth of the Old Testament which the Christian denies. . . .

I saw then that the fate of my people was intimately associated with the fate of Christ in the world, that there were people around me who held in their hearts the God of Israel, although they were not Jews; and in the intensity and profundity of their lives I saw the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled. This was the beginning of a new outlook on life. Something old had burst, though I did not want this fact to be true. Something new had sprung up. I did not know where I was being led. But I felt that insight meant obligation. I knew that there would come a time when I would have to make the big jump into the unknown (188-90).
One of the struggles I have had to deal with in my own story is how I seem to have bounced around from one viewpoint to another--first Evangelical, then agnostic, then Orthodox Jewish, then Messianic Jewish, now Orthodox. More than one Evangelical friend has suggested that this too might be a passing phase. But as I see it, there is an underlying continuity in the path I have taken. Stern's observations about Judaism and Catholicism resonate with my own reflections.

Stern also relates his struggle over the disparity between Catholicism as he saw it portrayed in books and in the lives of isolated acquaintances and the less appealing form that he saw around him:
The Catholic Church is a church of the multitude. Consequently the outsider, approaching her, faces a thick layer of mediocrity. We have associations of thought built chiefly on magazine articles, radio items and newspaper headlines. Whoever has experienced supernatural charity during the persecution on the Continent may stumble across a bigoted or anti-semitic priest--and with one such experience the vision of the Church seems forever gone. . . .

Thus, it took us some time before we saw the immense hidden treasure of anonymous sanctity in the Church; the spiritual power that flows to and from thousands of unknown souls every day. The stream of sacrifices made, for supernatural motives, by a multitude of working-class people, by religious in their communities, by priests and lay-people alike. In one superficial respect there is again a strange resemblance between the Jewish people and the Church: the misdeeds of one member are more broadcast than the sanctity of a hundred others (247-48).
I think very much the same thing could be said about Orthodoxy, and it is a particular issue coming from Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism tends to be about constant reform, constant reinvention, constant purification or separation from what does not fit. It can be difficult to adjust to the look and feel of a catholic tradition, where the Church is truly for everyone.

Finally, Stern relates the way in which the Church contains all that is good in other religions, philosophies, etc., without requiring that one add anything repulsive:
I have said that in entering the Church one does not have to give up any single positive value one has ever believed in. You think of yourself as a traitor to your past. You think you have to leave Goethe behind, or Tolstoy, or Gandhi, or Judaism, or what-not. But there is nothing which is good in all these things which you do not find again in the Church. Now it is ordered and synthetized. It is molten in Christ. Moreover, you do not have to accept anything which is repulsive to you in the Church, on a political or social plane. Nobody wants you to accept a totalitarian politician, or a priest who is obsessed by racial prejudice. All you have to accept is Christ and His Sacraments (261).
I appreciate this remark, as I find it to be true not only of entering the Church from another religion like Judaism but also of entering Orthodoxy from Protestantism. I wish Julie could see, as I do, that all that is best about our Evangelical past is only augmented in Orthodoxy.