Month: November 2009

The Defamiliarization of the Christ

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Who is this man?

There are many times when I am speaking to someone about Christ, even within a church context, that I feel like I am speaking about an alien visitor from outer space. It is quite similar to the feeling I sometimes have when referencing some piece of history that interests me for which my interlocutor has no context or experience to make it meaningful.

I picked the above photograph for this post to illustrate this point. To the Orthodox Christians among my readership, this is clearly an Orthodox bishop. The more astute may notice that his hat’s particular shape marks him as belonging to one of the Byzantine (rather than Slavic) churches. And perhaps one or two of you who are historically minded in a rather specific way will recognize this as Archbishop Panteleimon of Neapolis, a bishop of the Jerusalem Patriarchate who visited America in the 1920s. But I think just about anyone else looking at this picture might think, “Oh, here is some professionally religious man, an important Christian of some sort.” But ultimately, he is meaningless and uninteresting to them.

This sentiment just begins to hint at the defamiliarization I sometimes feel, especially when I use the name Jesus or His title Christ. I think it is probably all made worse for me that I am a clergyman. It is expected that I play a certain role, that I mention this Jesus, but the clericalism of modern American piety keeps Him firmly on “my” side but just as firmly not on “their” side. It’s okay for me to be religious, and I’ll take care of the religion for other folks, too.

We live in such an atheistically informed culture—in which most people ironically identify as Christian but really are not interested in Christ—that unless there is a clear, mutual experience of being steeped in the Christian faith, even introducing the idea to another person, even within the Church, I have the sense of talking about a space alien. It’s telling, I think, that one form of mockery about the Christian faith refers to Jesus precisely in these terms, that He is a space alien Who has visited Earth and done weird things with His “science.”

What’s tougher about all this is that there is a kind of campy, obsolete quality to presenting Christian faith in modern American culture. The whole nation is such a “burnt over” district that very few really will catch fire any more. Christ is silly to people, a ridiculous, awkward sort of Disney character that they left behind in childhood, or perhaps when He was “revealed” powerless in the midst of their suffering, or when He proved irrelevant to their ambitions.

All this is why I think that street preaching, while very much a major part of what the Apostles did, is not (with certain notable exceptions) very effective in our time and place. I think most of us know this, so we solve this problem by doing precisely what we should not do: we retreat into our churches and just do services and expect that that will be enough.

While I was in seminary, I was told by a visiting priest whose job it was to head up his jurisdiction’s “Department of Evangelization” that “just being the Church” is the key. When I asked him what that meant in practical terms and he responded, my suspicions were confirmed. He was an “if you chant it, they will come” sort of evangelist. So much for that “go ye into all the world” business.

But it is so much the worse if we approach this question by trying to familiarize Jesus, to turn Him into a product of name recognition, some item to be bought or acquired, a bit of righteousness which goes nicely with the decor. Defamiliarization is a challenge, but familiarization is outright evil. Such a Jesus is a pathetic wimp who wound up on the wrong side of the first century Palestinian authorities and got killed for it, but that is not the Christ. The real Jesus essentially climbed up on the cross and continued to rule the Universe from there.

So what is the cure for the defamiliarization of the Christ? I am not interested in “strategies” so much as real experience. (This is a serious question, and I invite responses.)

In my own experience, I’ve found telling people not to come to church if they don’t believe in it to be remarkably effective. We’re so familiar with fake religious folks that it’s often refreshing to be told not to come to church. It’s not worth it to fake it. It’s actually more dangerous to come and act religious than it is to stay home and watch football instead. Please, stay home and watch football. At least you’ll be authentic. This is in line with Orthodox doctrine, too, because our whole theology is predicated upon man’s free will. Religion as obligation is the slow suicide of the Church. It’s a curious thing, however, what men and women will do when you set them free.

I also have found that telling the basic story of the Gospel has great power when used in public preaching and in private conversation. Most of us are familiar with the starting point, namely, that we are a broken and suffering humanity. If we know any suffering at all, then we can begin to hear the Gospel. (I have great concern for those who have never known any pain, want, or agony, because they see nothing that they need to be saved from.) Where we go from there—man’s true freedom, God’s compassion for us, the rustic reality of the Incarnation—is often the key for connecting people to the God Who is real. In other words, it’s about learning and living dogma. Dogma, you see, is not a bunch of esoteric religious concepts but rather an attempt to describe the real nature of God, humanity and the universe and practically to prescribe how they should be interacting.

Perhaps the defamiliarization itself is something of an advantage. So what, then, if we’re saved by a space alien? What makes it all even weirder is that it’s a space alien Who became an Earthling. Knowing the alienation of divinity from humanity is the starting point of knowing the Divinity through His incarnate humanity.

It’s time to meet Jesus again, to see Him not as a “tame lion” (to borrow the Narnian phrase) but to experience Him as the Lion of Judah, Who cannot be predicted or predicated. He can, however, be preached.

Reflections on Non-Ecumenical Podcasting

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The Seventh Ecumenical Council, A.D. 787

As the “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” podcast rolls on with publication on AFR (having been completed in “the real world” about a week and a half ago; all handouts are available here), I am receiving more and more email with regard to its contents. Most of the messages are just kind words of thanks, which are of course very nice to receive. Some few are outright denunciations, strongly worded. But then the bulk of the rest may be summarized by either or both of the following statements:
1. You did not cover my religious group with the sort of detail it deserves.

2. You are wrong about my religious group’s teachings. We’re actually right.

Many such messages are also strongly influenced by the fact that the commenter has not listened to all the parts of the particular lecture in question (AFR is dividing them each up into two or three parts, which turns seven lectures into at least fifteen episodes), so they’re not actually getting everything I said in that whole lecture which might be pertinent to their group. Others comments are a permutation of that sampling error, based usually on the fact that the whole series hasn’t been aired yet—I have some rather detailed comments to say in general about all religions vis-à-vis Orthodoxy in both the first and the last lectures of the series. That’s particularly important, since I don’t intend my remarks to be taken outside the overall educational and evangelistic purpose of the talks. But of course I acknowledge that those are hazards of the format, so I just keep responding with “Be sure to listen to the other parts of the lecture” and “Be sure to listen to the first/last lecture.”

In any event, regarding the two primary objections noted above, I find myself in my replies frequently repeating several observations. Again, it’s understandable that people should have these objections, given the format—after all, by submitting them for AFR’s editing and publication, I am removing them from their original intended context and allowing them to be apprehended by a diverse population whose presuppositions and experiences are likely far different from the original.

So here’s what a bit of I’m repeating:

    1. This lecture series is an “encyclopedia-level view” of the various groups in question, designed for parish education for people who are already Orthodox Christians. It is not meant in any sense to be a detailed examination of all the various permutations of each religious group covered (well over 100!). There is simply not enough time for that, given the design, and I rather doubt that the people attending the lectures would be interested, for instance, in an in-depth examination of Confessional Lutheranism or the less-hyper-than-hyper-Calvinists.

    This was a particular problem in dealing with Roman Catholicism, to which I dedicated an entire lecture. What the Magisterium teaches is not identical to what Catholics are hearing in the pulpit and in confession, nor is it identical to the vast world of Roman Catholic theology which has, it must be admitted, somewhat revolutionized Catholic life over the past century. In many regards, the Magisterium is somewhat “lagging behind” all those trends (and good for them!), some of which are in my opinion worth pursuing (e.g., the Eucharistic ecclesiology of Henri de Lubac), while others are very much not (e.g., Liberation Theology). But who am I, as an Orthodox Christian priest, to try to sift through all that stuff and declare which versions are the “true” Roman Catholicism, over and above the sorts of official statements in the Catechism? Not going there; don’t have the time for it, anyway.

    As a result of all this, I deliberately have simplified much of what I say about other faiths. No doubt many adherents would regard it as oversimplification, but I’ll at least say that I tried my best not to do that.

    2. These lectures are not evangelistic in their immediate purpose. That is, they were designed for Orthodox Christians to learn about and begin to engage people of other faiths. One of their ultimate purposes, of course, is evangelistic, but only in terms of helping Orthodox people understand other faiths better so that they can enter into conversation with their adherents. The other purpose of these lectures is to educate Orthodox people better in their own faith, by means of comparison and contrast.

    3. The series is deliberately non-ecumenical. Its purpose is not to enter into dialogue or debate, which I think is largely pointless on the “official” level but often fruitful on a personal level (see #2). This means that, for instance, when a member of one of the Reformed faiths tells me that his communion really was saying nothing new during the Reformation, just purging innovations accrued by Roman Catholicism, I am not going to agree with him. (If I did, I’d join their church!) The explicit purpose of these lectures is to present an Orthodox Christian view (note the “an,” not “the”) of these various faiths, which necessarily involves the use of critique, since Orthodox Christianity is not identical to any of the faiths being discussed.

    Honestly, I would hope that serious members of these faiths would regard their own faith in the same way—if it’s really true, then that means that, where other faiths differ, then they must be false. I’m not sure how one can otherwise have any religious integrity.

    In the past, I personally spent a lot of time debating with members of other religions, and I’m done with that now. So when I present a lecture on comparative theology, I deliberately favor Orthodoxy and make no pretense at being unbiased or neutral. I also make no claim to expert status on any of what I’m discussing. No one should be citing me in papers (though I just found out that a high school student at my home parish has done so!), and no one who is seriously interested in exploring any of these subjects should consider my little lecture series the last word on the matter. Go check out the handouts (each of which includes an appendix of sources) for further reading, and go beyond that.

Yesterday, my khourieh asked me if all this email was stressing me out. It’s not. I expected it, though I didn’t expect the volume that I’ve received (which has been manageable). I do find it fascinating, though, that so many of the responses can be sorted into the above two objections. I certainly didn’t expect that.

One of the reasons I talked with AFR about recording and publishing this series is that I think there is precious little being done along these lines. Very few Orthodox writers seem interested in doing work to help parishioners engage the theologies around them. Yet if we do not do this, we both risk losing people to these heterodox groups and we also cut the legs out from under many evangelistic possibilities. So I’ve thrown in my contributions. I hope others do far more detailed and better work than I.

My Emmaus

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Furnace Dam Park
Canada Geese take one last respite in the late Fall next to the willows at Furnace Dam Park, Emmaus, Pennsylvania

I remarked to my wife the other day that I now really don’t want to live anywhere but in Emmaus (we live in Allentown for the moment but hope that that will change in the next few years). I have started referring to this place occasionally as “my Emmaus.” (The genitive case is, of course, not merely the possessive.)

I’ve moved a good many times in my life and grown fairly suspicious (and sometimes cynical) at interactions with any sort of organization that might be deemed “official.” My assumption is typically that the Great Machine, whoever its local representatives might be, is not really interested in us. This is why it wants from us only what can fill out blanks on a form.

But one of the reasons I have begun referring to our new home as “mine”—that is, it is becoming “mine” in the manner that my wife is “mine” or my father is “mine”—is that a lot of “officialdom” hereabouts really does want more from persons than just fill-ins for blanks on a form. One example of this is that the local community event organizing bunch, the Emmaus Main Street program, will gladly advertise events happening at churches.

And when I say this, I mean that they’ll pass on word about more than just the latest secular self-help seminar that happens to be meeting in a church. They’ll actually put out the word about my lecture series comparing various theologies with one another or an upcoming outreach seminar we’re having on Orthodox Christianity and the created world (with a healthy dose of localism, sustainability, etc.). With my long-developed cynicism regarding any sort of officiality, this has me wallowing in just a bit of incredulity. But they do it. Really.

I really do love this little borough.

Images of Emmaus

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The Shelter House (1734)
The Emmaus Shelter House (Zuflucht Haus), built in 1734, is the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the Lehigh Valley. It remained occupied by private residents until the 1950s.
The 1803 House
The 1803 House, the home of Jacob Ehrenhardt, Jr., the son of one of the founders of Emmaus. He was briefly expelled from the Moravian Church for joining the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolutionary War, but then welcomed back when the war was over. (Moravians are traditionally pacifists.) It remained occupied until 1975.
Traditional Barn
A traditional barn and home, now part of the Wildlands Conservancy
Wildlands Conservancy Trail
A trail at the Wildlands Conservancy
Emmaus Moravian Church
The Emmaus Moravian Church, founded in 1747
God's Acre
God's Acre is the site of the area's first multi-denominational community church, erected in 1742, and its original cemetery. The first burial here was in 1743. Simply-engraved flat stones mark the graves of Moravian Congregation original members, two Indian girls, and Emmaus men who served in the American Army in the Revolution. 'God's Acre' (Gottesacker, literally 'Field of God') is an ancient Germanic term for a burial ground and now is the traditional term used for Moravian cemeteries.