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Raising Authentically Christian Children: Good News and Bad News

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Palm Sunday procession in Emmaus
Palm Sunday procession in Emmaus

My friend Seraphim Danckaert published an article today on the O&H site that I think every Christian (Orthodox or not) should read: Losing our Religion: On “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church. Why? Almost every kind of church throughout America is losing kids. So read it first before reading the rest of this.

Okay, done?

First, some bad news: If you’re counting on your church having awesome programs for your kids to make them be and keep them being good Christians, you’re going to be let down. There is only so much they can do, and expecting that they will do all the heavy lifting in your child’s spiritual life is extremely unrealistic. On a personal note, I’ve spoken with many 20- and 30-somethings who were very active in youth groups, Bible studies, outreach projects, etc., who all checked out of church after they left home. Their problem wasn’t that they weren’t active in public religiosity. It goes deeper, to the day to day stuff. Follow the path home. That’s where they learned to be adults. If the faith isn’t visible at home, which should be regarded as a “little church,” then it’s not going to be visible when your children start their own homes. You cannot outsource the spiritual side of parenting. And simply taking them to Sunday School (even consistently, which itself doesn’t seem to happen often any more) isn’t enough, either.

Okay, some good news: This piece is good news for all those parents who are striving to make their faith real in the home. Mothers especially are the heroes here, but fathers are critical, as well. Pray together with your kids, and not just over meals. Pray before they go to bed and at other times. Read the Bible to them. Read saints’ lives to them. Talk with them about what you read. Let your kids hear you talk about your faith, your hopes, your trust in God, your wish that you could spend more time in church, more time in prayer. Let them see you reading the Bible and other spiritual books. When you’re alone in your study and praying and your toddler sneaks in to play with forbidden things, pick him up and keep praying. All that agonizing you’re going through to make faith alive in your home is not in vain.

Another obvious conclusion is that you shouldn’t choose godparents for your kids based purely on familial or friend relationships. Your child needs to have an adult spiritual mentor who will model adult faith. Your pastor probably cannot be that person, not just because he cannot be an at-home part of your child’s life with great frequency but also because his status as a clergyman puts him outside the “role model” world for most kids. Most kids don’t imagine themselves as clergy, but they are more likely to imagine themselves to be like an aunt or uncle or close family friend. Imagination is critical in terms of spiritual possibility. If a child knows what it looks like to be a serious Christian adult, he’s more likely to be able to do it.

Regarding Seraphim’s third point, that a child needs not only authentic home spiritual life and a non-parent spiritual mentor, but that he also needs to have a spiritual experience of some kind before he hits his late teens, well, that can be a bit harder. You can’t make a kid experience the grace of God. But one thing we can count on is that there will be crises. And the direction we go when we experience a crisis will very much determine whether we experience grace. Do we model for our kids that we take such things to our pastors and into the sacrament of confession, that our first remedy is prayer and fasting? Or do we look for other solutions? (This is not to say that sometimes medical help may not be validly required, but it shouldn’t be sought out to the exclusion of spiritual guidance.) Someone who is raised going to confession regularly (not just once a year!) will likely think of his confessor as a go-to resource for dealing with a crisis. And while there’s no guarantee, he’s more likely to experience God’s grace there than if he turns to some other remedy.

I write all this in the context of working on the youth ministry in my own parish. It seems to me that it should probably mostly be geared to teaching how to make all these things a part of daily life, not just making time to get together and be spiritual and/or religious for a while and then go home. I also write this in the context of learning how to be a better father to three little Christians. I’m no expert. But I’m working on it. And I’m glad my wife is working hard on raising our children as Christians, too.

Ten (Possibly) Surprising Facts about Fred Phelps

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fred-phelps
Besides being a heretical hate-monger who pushed the envelope of the definition of constitutionally protected speech, Fred Phelps, the late leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, had a number of perhaps surprising facets to his life. Here are ten of them, all culled from the Wikipedia article dedicated to him.

1. In the ’60s and ’70s, Phelps was a notable civil rights lawyer in Kansas, defending African-Americans against the “Jim Crow establishment” in the police and school system, as well as in public utilities and universities. He once said of his efforts, “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town.”

2. In the 1980s, he won awards for his civil rights defense work from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP.

3. He once sued Ronald Reagan for appointing an ambassador to the Vatican, arguing that such an appointment violated the separation of church and state.

4. He was a Democrat, running for office in four different primaries (all lost), garnering as much as 30% of the vote in the Democratic primary for senator from Kansas.

5. He strongly believed in Five Point Calvinism, calling the Arminian doctrine opposed to it within Protestantism “worse blasphemy and heresy than that heard in all filthy Saturday night f*g bars in the aggregate in the world.”

6. He worked on Billy Graham crusades, though later denounced Graham as the “greatest false prophet since Balaam.”

7. In 1993, Phelps had a big blow-up on the Ricki Lake Show.

8. In 1997, Saddam Hussein gave Phelps’ church permission to come and preach in Baghdad. After Hussein’s execution in 2006, Phelps announced that Hussein was in Hell along with Gerald Ford.

9. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed multiple lawsuits defending Fred Phelps and his church for their picketing activities.

10. He may have been excommunicated from his own church in August of last year. No one seems to be saying why.

Given some of his earlier and more charitable history, is it possible that the excommunication was because Fred Phelps repented before the end? We may never know. One thing I believe, though, and that is that God loves Fred Phelps. Because He loves everyone, no exceptions.

Also: People are complicated, even people who present themselves as caricatures. We all have both evil and good within us. May God forgive and heal us of the evil and magnify the good.

12 Reasons Why I Became and/or Remain an Orthodox Christian

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paul-conversion

Lists like this are usually so much clickbait, I know, but I thought it was nevertheless worthwhile to compile a list of most of the reasons why I became and/or remain an Orthodox Christian. Some of these things were not really on my radar when I became Orthodox in 1998, but they are part of the reason why I genuinely do love belonging to the Orthodox Church (which is why “and/or Remain” is in the title).

The nature of lists like this is such that they can’t constitute apologetics, really, nor is this one (at least) intended to be universally applicable — these are my reasons. They may not be someone else’s. It will also become apparent that my background as an Evangelical prior to becoming Orthodox is a major factor here. So, all that said, here’s the list.

1. I believe the Orthodox Church really is the one, true Church of Christ.

There’s a lot that could be said here, but the reason why I believe this is that I examined both the Scriptures and the early history of Christianity, and I became convinced that the only church that matches them both is Orthodoxy. Particularly formative for me were the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John. The church life he described was definitely not what I saw in Evangelicalism. Since he was someone who learned how to be a Christian from the Apostles themselves, I wanted to be in his church.

Orthodoxy takes history seriously and doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff. It also doesn’t pick and choose from early Christian witness to develop a streamlined “system” of theology that is easy to swallow. Rather, because Orthodoxy is truly the community descended from the Apostles, within its theological memory are centuries of dogma, doctrine and theological reflection. Not all of it is totally consistent or easy to sort out, but it is nevertheless one great river of truth with an overall unified direction. One doesn’t see that in the same way in Roman Catholicism (there are several major turns in history), and it is impossible to find that in Protestantism. Most Protestants aren’t even concerned with it.

None of that means I regard non-Orthodox Christians as damned, nor do I even regard all Orthodox Christians as definitely destined for eternal bliss. And Orthodoxy’s truth is no testament to me. Orthodoxy is true, but not because of me.

2. Orthodoxy gives me something to do.

I don’t mean that I was bored and needed something to entertain me. I mean that the Christian life as I had been taught it prior to becoming Orthodox was essentially non-critical. I had been “saved,” and there was really nothing critical to do after that. I should try to be moral, of course, and get other people to get saved, too, but those things weren’t really necessary to the big question, which was: “Do you know what would happen to you if you died tonight?” Well, I knew. I was “saved.” I was going to Heaven.

But what if spiritual life is actually all critical? What if you need to endure to the end to be saved? What if being a Christian means working out your salvation with fear and trembling? Orthodoxy provides a full-bodied, full-souled spiritual life that assumes that everything you do as a Christian makes you either more like God or less like Him, and because becoming like God is what salvation consists of, that means that everything you do is critical. You haven’t “arrived” in this life. You should be moral and you should be evangelistic not because they get you bigger rewards in Heaven but because those things are part of what it means to cooperate with God so that you can be saved.

3. Orthodoxy gives me a way to see and touch God physically.

The Son of God became the Son of Mary, and that means that He became visible and touchable. In Orthodoxy, the implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation are that the divine presence — holiness — actually becomes present in the material world. Now, one can argue that that presence is uniquely present only in one physical place — the human body of Jesus — or one can be consistent and see how holiness shows forth in lots of other physical places both in the Bible and in subsequent Christian history. Saints’ bones, apostles’ shadows and even handkerchiefs touched by apostles have all showed forth the power of God.

Within that context, when Jesus said “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” it makes more sense to take Him seriously and not just metaphorically. That’s why St. Paul warned that people who received Holy Communion unworthily could get sick or even die. If it’s “just” a symbol, why would it do that?

The physicality of Orthodoxy — sacraments, incense, vestments, church architecture, icons, etc. — don’t get between me and God. They put me in touch with God. A bridge between two cliffs does not get between the cliffs but rather connects them. Orthodoxy’s many physical elements not manmade magic, but the working out of God’s gift of the Incarnation, the reconnecting of God and man.

4. Change is really hard.

People sometimes joke that Orthodoxy is not really an “organized religion,” with emphasis on “organized.” There is no pope handing down uniform instructions to the whole Church; our chiefest prelates often can’t seem to get along; and it seems like we’re never going to get around to holding that Great and Holy Council we’ve been talking about for nearly a century. But all those things don’t bother me. For one thing, it means that sheer logistics make it nearly impossible for us to alter what we do.

And if all that Eternity and Truth stuff is really true, why should we even think about altering it? It can’t get voted on democratically, and it can’t get imposed monarchically. So change doesn’t much happen. That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Orthodoxy is not going to change out from under you.

That lack of organization also leads me to love Orthodoxy for another reason, too:

5. Orthodoxy really is one Church.

Unlike the denominationalism of the Protestant world, the various churches of Orthodoxy really do have to talk to each other and work things out. A Presbyterian and a Lutheran may each recognize each other as Christian, but they have almost no stake in each other’s internal church life. The same even holds true of someone belonging to the PCA and someone belonging to the PCUSA (both Presbyterian denominations). They don’t have to work anything out between them. A PCA church plant does not in any way infringe on the territory of the PCUSA, because they’re not the same church.

Orthodoxy may often bicker and fight (though most parishioners never see this unless they happen to be in a dysfunctional parish), but the fact that we have such bickering and fighting with each other means that we recognize in each other that we are one Church, that we have a problem and that we need to fix it. Protestants always have the option of just splitting (and once splits occur, they don’t have to bother with each other), while Roman Catholics can ultimately appeal to the Vatican, who can impose solutions that work for the Vatican but might not work for everyone else involved.

6. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole life.

Because Orthodoxy comes with a vast set of expressions of its tradition, you can never exhaust it all. There is always something new not just to learn but to become. While we don’t really “arrive” until the next life (and I’d argue even that is not an arrival; that is, it’s not the end of the road of salvation), there are many way-stations in this life that delight and grant joy. The difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in this regard is that I’m talking about not just growing in wisdom, which is common to all religious traditions, but that Orthodoxy tracks many stages of spiritual development throughout a whole lifetime.

I remember one time hearing a monk explain the response he got from a holy elder on Mount Athos after asking him many questions. The elder replied that some things just wouldn’t make sense to him until later, until he’d received some level of illumination (theoria). It’s true. One cannot read a “Statement of Faith” from Orthodoxy (not even the Creed) and say, “Ah, yes. That is everything Orthodoxy teaches. I understand it now.”

Again, that’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Yes, we like things to be simple, to be readily accessible to everyone, but any faith that is not complex enough to address all the complexities of human experience is not worthy of the dignity of mankind. Orthodoxy provides that in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else.

7. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole world.

There are no “target demographics” for Orthodoxy. We don’t do market research to figure out how to attract young people, old people, urban people, suburban people, or whatever particular demographic we might desire for our parish. A parish can often have a certain degree of commonality among members, but that isn’t by inherent design. There was no committee that met saying, “How do we get the 30-something suburbanites?”

Yes, Orthodoxy is sometimes plagued with ethnocentrism. But that’s a distortion of Orthodoxy, not faithfulness to it. And it’s not everywhere. I’ve belonged to both more ethnically focused and less ethnically focused, as well as ethnically non-focused Orthodox parishes, and none of them had an ethnic membership card check at the door. Orthodoxy is really a universal faith that has shaped numerous cultures and languages over many centuries.

If people as diverse as Arabs, Greeks, Serbs, Georgians, Russians, Estonians and Finns can all sing the same faith, and if both their young and old can sing it together, then truly, anyone is welcome. (Some Orthodox need to remember that more than others, though.)

8. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole person.

Mankind is not just emotionally moved by beauty, but he aches to be near it, to create it as much as that is possible. More than any other iteration of Christian faith, the Orthodox Church knows how to envelop the worshiper with beauty in all five (or more!) senses, both otherworldly beauty that transports the worshiper and otherworldly beauty that transforms the earthly.

One might describe this as aesthetic, but it is not “mere” aesthetics in the sense of something that appeals only to the senses, perhaps for entertainment value, but goes nowhere in particular. This is aesthetic in the sense that God Himself is beauty. That is why Orthodoxy, while sometimes homely or homey, is never cheesy. It is timely and timeless, but not “contemporary.”

The beauty of Orthodoxy addresses the whole human person in multiple ways. It is not a faith just for the “soul” or the “heart,” but for the body, as well, including our ability to apprehend beauty.

9. God really does love you the way you are, and He loves you so much, He won’t leave you that way.

There seems to be a constant battle these days, especially within Protestantism, over whether God should be perceived as loving or as a judge. Even those who preach that God is love still tend to preach a God Who is angry at you for your sins and has to be appeased. But Orthodoxy preaches the God Who is consistently loving, a God Who loves with such strength that His love will change you, if only you will cooperate with it. The change won’t be lousy, either, turning you into some goody-goody prude. Rather, it will be a change into authentic personhood, where virtue is striven for because of communion, not because of adherence to arbitrary rules.

10. Orthodoxy is both mystical and rational.

Some Orthodox will oppose the mystical to the rational, but that’s a mistake, I believe. For all the apophatic theology (theology which emphasizes our inability to know God with our minds), there is also a lot of cataphatic theology (theology that makes clear, positive truth claims) in the tradition of the Church. We don’t have to choose one or the other, nor are the two really alternatives to each other. Apophatic theology is also not merely a “corrective” to cataphatic theology. Rather, both are simply ways of talking about theological emphases within Orthodoxy.

It is not as though, when I am serving the Divine Liturgy, I switch on the “rational” part when preaching the Gospel and then toggle the switch to “mystical” when I drink from the Chalice. All these things are in play simultaneously. I love that, and I haven’t really encountered that anywhere but in the Orthodox Church.

11. Orthodoxy is ascetical.

No Christian body takes asceticism as seriously as Orthodoxy does. Roman Catholicism has it in its tradition, but it is mostly ignored. Yet Orthodoxy expects all Christians to fast, to stand vigil, to be as non-possessive as possible, etc., and it provides a programme for how to do that. You don’t have to make it up for yourself, because the tradition is already established. And it’s also customizable according to the pastoral discernment of your father-confessor.

Asceticism is a way to do real battle with the broken modes that the human will functions in. It allows a man to take control of himself in a powerful way so that he can redirect his God-given powers and energies back toward God and away from his base appetites. Asceticism doesn’t save anyone, but it certainly does help. Why? Because we are only saved to the degree that we want it. Asceticism helps us to want it.

And as anyone who has really fasted for all of Lent and then tasted that first taste of roast lamb at Pascha can tell you, asceticism actually makes the good things of this earth taste better. Far from being a denigration of God’s good creation, asceticism returns the creation to us and opens up its beauty in ways that consuming it without restraint cannot ever do.

12. Orthodoxy aims higher than any other Christian faith.

While theosis (deification/divinization) is not the only model of salvation in Orthodox Christian theology, it certainly makes some of the strongest claims. There are hints at doctrines of theosis in Roman Catholicism. (I am not aware of any Protestant groups that teach it.) Yet it is only in Orthodoxy that one is taught that salvation means to become by grace what Christ is by nature, that “God became man so that man might become divine” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation) that becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) is actually expounded upon. “I have said, ‘ye are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High'” (Ps. 82:6) is taken very seriously. You won’t find that anywhere else.

Even Pentecostals who teach that you can be chosen by God, spoken through by God, etc., aren’t really teaching that you can enter into such union with God that you begin to take on the divine attributes. But that is exactly what Orthodoxy teaches, that the transfiguration, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ are all what it truly means to be a Christian, that mankind is now seated on the very Throne of God Himself, and being in Christ means being seated there, too.

Pretty daring. But why settle for less?

So those are some of my reasons. What are yours?

A Tolkien-Shaped Mind

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The Last Homely House, by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Last Homely House, by J. R. R. Tolkien

I do not know how aware most folks are of what books shape their basic imaginations—the formation that to a large part determines what brings them delight, what strikes them as worth attention, what gives them a vocabulary for the world. For me, there are really two sources that give me that shape—the Bible and the fiction works of J. R. R. Tolkien. This post is about the latter.

Today would have been his 122nd birthday, so I’m thinking about him especially today. Now, I know that he has been so much talked about that I am sure I cannot say anything original about him, but I did want to mention how what he wrote has shaped me, at least in some points, and perhaps that might be of interest to a few readers.

It’s not so much that I see hobbits and dragons everywhere, mind you (though it is arguable whether there are still dragons about). I think most of what I’ve unconsciously absorbed from Tolkien is his use of language. I don’t use Commonwealth English spellings, to be sure, but I still have an inner feeling, for instance, that the plural of dwarf should be dwarves and not dwarfs (a usage that put Tolkien at odds with his contemporaries and countrymen). (He also insisted on elven over elfin.) And I will also admit to indulgence in archaisms, as well, not because I think they make the user sound smart or artful, but just because my inner sensibility is that this is just how language ought to sound at its best.

But there are other things, too. I recall when I was a teenager and then in my twenties, that a young lady who seemed most attractive to me was best described for me as an elven-maid. No doubt some of my belles didn’t quite get the level of compliment I was paying them, that I was comparing them to the race that was highest, most beautiful, most noble and immortal. Mind you, men have been calling women that kind of thing since at least Petrarch, but for me, there is something specifically elven about that business. And though my wife would probably find it silly, there is certainly something for me that is elvish about her, though there is also quite a lot that is hobbitish about her, too. She is a civilizing person in the sense peculiar to both those races.

I really don’t remember the first time I read The Hobbit, though I think I was quite young. My family owned a large illustrated edition put out at some point in the ’80s (long ago fallen to pieces), as I recall, using pictures from the Rankin-Bass cartoon that I still love. (To this day, when I read Tolkien’s Middle-earth books out loud, the voice I do for my kids for Gandalf is not Ian McKellan but rather John Huston.)

My dad had old paperback editions of The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings from the ’60s that were yellowing and adorned with Tolkien’s own illustrations on the covers. I received them all at some point. They are too brittle to be read, but they still have a pride of place on my highest shelf, next to several “reading” copies of the same books, and a couple large “heirloom” copies in slip covers.

I don’t think I finally read The Lord of the Rings until I was in high school, and I’m not really sure why. Certainly The Hobbit had always delighted me. But perhaps my imagination was not quite ready for the degree of complexity that the latter book has in comparison with the former, shorter volume. In any event, I came away from my first readings of the three-volume book with a sense that Middle-earth was a place I very much wanted to go and even to live.

And what I received most from those books at that time was something that has long stayed with me—a sense of longing for what has been lost. Loss is a major theme especially in the larger story, and it’s touched on particularly by Aragorn and the Elves, who all remember much that has been lost and mourn it.

It may well be that this sense of desiring what is ancient and powerful had a strong influence on my first encounter with Orthodox Christianity in my early twenties. Here was contact with what was not only older than my world, but very much better. Yet unlike in Tolkien’s world, what has been lost for the Orthodox Christian can actually be recovered and restored, yet it can only be recovered to the degree that we internally realize we have lost it—not “Holy Russia” or “the glories of Byzantium,” but rather the loss of innocence and purity in the human soul. Some writers have called this aspect of Orthodox spirituality “nostalgia for Paradise.”

This thing more than any other from Tolkien is what shapes my imagination and informs much of my thinking and even feeling—a kind of melancholy of remembrance. But unlike Renaissance melancholy with its dark obsessions (which very much interested me in my undergraduate days), it is a remembrance that brings beauty into the present.

And for that, I will always be grateful. And I will also teach it to my children, mainly just by reading to them.

The Tolkien Legacy

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Christopher Tolkien in 1996

It’s a rare, if not exceptional, case. In an era where most people would sell their souls to be talked about, Christopher Tolkien has not expressed himself in the media for 40 years. No interviews, no announcements, no meetings — nothing.

It was a decision he made at the death of his father, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), British author of the hugely famous Lord of the Rings (three volumes published in 1954 and 1955), and one of the world’s most-read writers, with some 150 million books sold and translations into 60 languages.

Was this long-held public silence simply a whim? Certainly not. The 87-year-old son of the great J.R.R. Tolkien is the calmest man imaginable. A distinguished Englishman with quite an upper class accent, who settled in the south of France in 1975 with his wife Baillie and their two children. Has he kept mum because he does not care? Even less likely. During all these years of silence, his life has been one of incessant, driven, almost Herculean work on the unpublished part of his father’s oeuvre, of which he is the literary executor.

The “money quote” that’s been going around from this first interview ever by Christopher Tolkien, his father’s literary executor, is this one, which lends the article its title (“My Father’s “Eviscerated” Work – Son Of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out”):

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

The headline is somewhat misleading, since the bulk of the article is really just about the enormous place of Christopher Tolkien in his father’s legacy. That said, I can appreciate his family’s unhappiness with the popularization of that legacy in film, though my own sense of it is that it has served to introduce more folks to the “real” thing in the canonical Tolkien works. After all, there have been mondo-gigantic boosts to book sales following the release of the films. More people are reading Tolkien than ever. And that is an encouraging thought.

Read the whole thing.

Orthodoxy at the Emmys

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Not that I watch awards shows more than perhaps once every five years or so (and I didn’t see this one, either), but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the first time that Orthodox Christian monastic enclave Mount Athos was mentioned in an Emmy speech. This is Jonathan Jackson winning his fifth Emmy.

Readers may recall my interview with Mr. Jackson shortly before he and his family were baptized into the Orthodox Church earlier this year.

I know that some may greet this sort of thing with skepticism, especially since fame is not exactly conducive to salvation. The value of these kinds of moments, though, is that Orthodoxy is making its way into the public square.

Of course, this can be done badly, and fame can be a temptation in at least two ways: The first is the more obvious, and that is that fame can destroy humility. I’m not sure that many Orthodox people would therefore argue that acting, politics, sports, writing, broadcasting and almost anything which puts one’s work into the general stream of the culture should all be professions avoided by Orthodox Christians. (Some would, I’m sure.) I talked about the intersection of Hollywood acting with genuine faith and its problems for humility with Mr. Jackson in my interview with him. That, for me, was one of the more fascinating parts of the talk.

The second temptation that fame gives for the Orthodox Christian is like unto the first, but moves in a different vector, and that is to cheapen the faith by turning it into a selling point or an exotic accessory for the media personality. That can be done, and I think it’s probably happening in countries where most people are at least nominally Orthodox Christians. (Think, for instance, about the accusations Russian politicians get when they are visibly photographed in church.) But there is also a way publicly to witness to the Orthodox faith without cheapening it, even if that witness is sometimes only a hint. You may not agree, but I think the above video is a good example of this more genuine approach.

I honestly wonder (and I don’t say this in some sort of romantic way) how many folks watched Mr. Jackson’s speech and asked themselves who the monks of Mount Athos are and what it means that they pray for the salvation of the world. And perhaps a handful of them googled them, and perhaps a smaller handful started to read about their faith.

It’s possible.

Update: As I imagined could happen, this post got a spike in hits over the past few days, mainly from people searching for some combination of “Jonathan Jackson” and “Orthodox” or “religion.” It seems he got a few people wondering.

Why can’t God love me the way I am?

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One of the perhaps most pressing theological questions of our time and place is answered beautifully in this post from Jim John Marks:

The question is not “why can’t God love me the way I am”, the question is “why can’t I love God the way I am”.

And it is the pursuit of the answer to that question which opens the door to a discussion about why our behavior, and our doctrine, matters. It ends the false conversation around whether or not specific behavior or doctrine is necessary to be “good enough” and so undercuts the contemporary appeals to relativism. The conversation then becomes about what the specifics of a relationship to God look like and why.

The whole post is so good that I really wish I’d written it. So go read it.

The Mass Cult of Big

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The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California

The following is essentially a piecing together of selections from a Facebook thread in which I participated today. The following quotation led off the discussion:

We have become fascinated by the idea of bigness, and we are quite convinced that if we can only ‘stage’ something really big before the world, we will shake it, and produce a mighty religious awakening. – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, 1958

This response was given by a poster:

“Doing something big, for bigness sake is silly and egocentric… however we shouldn’t fear something becoming something big…”

This was followed by a back-and-forth discussion. Here are my responses, more or less, stitched together and revised a bit:

I don’t fear big. But I am deeply suspicious of it.

Why? “Big” almost always means systems and ideology, but rarely attention to persons. It is typically about marketing, not about communion. It almost always means vanity (though usually is not advanced enough for real pride), but almost never any humility. It is usually about control and not about freedom. That’s why.

I am not talking only about church size, but about more than that, i.e., philosophy, politics, economy, architecture, education, etc. But even if we were talking solely about church size, a church designed to be big is automatically subject to all those problems. It is so prevalent one could almost assume that it’s written down in some sort of mega-church mega-manual. But such things are by no means prevalent on the much smaller scale. Why? Because human beings can only truly know so many people. After one’s communal capabilities are saturated, the only way to maintain things is through ideological and technocratic systems. Even the mega-churches at least sense this, which is why they do “small groups” to try to offset their technocratic leviathan.

Yes, some little church communities do indeed exert a kind of control over members, but that is rather the sectarian/cultic impulse, which is not really about the question of big/small or systematic/local, but rather of fierce personal loyalties. The fact that a mega-church cannot command such loyalties is precisely because of its inherent weakness—it is not about incarnational communion, but about marketed, corporatized consumption. Loyalty is created to a product, to programmes (which are a kind of product), not to persons.

If a mega-church is less susceptible to cultic-style control, it is essentially because it is a corporate entity that does not and cannot care. But it exerts a far more subtle and pernicious kind of control over its clients. It is one vast system, and if the mice wandering around in the maze do not realize they are in a maze, so much the better! The control here is essentially the control of the consumerist market, keeping consumers trapped in their own passions and desires. The rules it enforces are the demands of ideology and system—why do you think mega-churches need so many signs, ushers, automated check-ins for kids, etc.?

At least a little cult-like religious community still maintains the clear sense for its members that it is a set-apart elect. Members can more easily leave such a group, because all the control is usually focused into one or two people, and members may more easily have full social networks that are not comprised by the sect. And at least there is the possibility for repentance of the leadership. In a mega-church, if one head of the hydra is cut off, no one particularly questions the whole system. They just find another head to run the monster.

Loyalty should be only to Christ, not to personalities or religious products or programmes.

Yet “big” tends to lead in such directions almost without fail. “Small” actually quite rarely does. Very few small churches are cults of personality. But big ones quite often are, and they are more often (and sometimes simultaneously) cults of religious product.

It is telling that, in the early years of the Church, when congregations started becoming large enough that not everyone in the same city could easily join together for worship, the bishops began delegating their authority to presbyters to lead spin-off congregations.

And then when the faith was finally legalized in the early 4th c., there wasn’t a sudden move to building gigantic church buildings so that the full Christian population of cities could recombine.

The general rule was always small and local, even when necessity did not require it. It was because of a theology of the Incarnation and the communion that it creates, something that simply cannot scale up indefinitely, because of the God-made limitations of human personhood.

A desire to scale up indefinitely is indicative of a defective theology of the Incarnation, usually one that is devoid of any ecclesiology. Church is conceived of not as communion, but as rock concert.

It is true, of course, that some 3,000 people were baptized into Christ on Pentecost. That’s actually a fascinating and telling example, though—the Apostles were clearly perfectly capable of attracting a mass “rally” of sorts, but there’s only one example of such a thing ever happening. This exception proves the rule.

It is one of the great (at least linguistic) ironies of modern American Christianity that it has become a mass religion—a massive religion about masses of people, but without any hint of the mass.

Ite, missa est.

Conversions

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Ten years ago today—April 26, 2002—I first sat down and had coffee with the beautiful woman in the picture above. This picture was taken about sixteen months later, on our wedding day.

Our pairing was (and in some ways, remains) unlikely. When I met her ten years ago, she was actually an atheist with a Lutheran background she had left behind in her teens. Although when I met her I was quite interested in her, I never attempted to convert her to anything, though of course I invited her to church (at our first meeting, in fact). She came, and she stayed.

I proposed to her a little less than four months later, while she was doing dishes. I was fairly sure of her response before I began (by reading her a poem and giving her a ring with an amethyst), especially since she already had her wedding dress purchased. (It had been the tax-free weekend, you know.) We had also actually arranged a wedding date with the priest. I don’t remember when that was, to be honest, so I don’t really know when we had essentially agreed to be married, although without yet going through the ritual of proposal.

We were also something of an unlikely pairing because, although we never really explored it very much at the time, we were probably initially worlds apart politically. We’ve both changed a lot in that regard since then, and now we have nearly identical opinions about politics and even work together to figure out how we want to vote.

Probably the biggest unlikelihood of our courtship and marriage was cultural: I was raised Midwestern/Southern/Missionary/Evangelical, while she represents a hybrid of upper-Midwestern/Lutheran and immigrant/Palestinian/Lebanese/latent-Orthodox, favoring the latter in many respects, though of course she still says melk (rather than milk) like her Wisconsin relatives and was raised with their religion. The curious mix of communication styles that come with each of our backgrounds (not to mention, the basic fact that we are a man and a woman) have made for challenges over the past ten years, but I do think that we’ve largely acquired something of the best of each other’s worlds, especially in our better moments.

I was an Orthodox Christian when I met her (though only about four years into it), and of course now we both are, as she was received into the Church just a few days before our wedding. Yet while we are both Orthodox Christians, we are different kinds of Orthodox Christians. From my pastoral experience, I can see that these differences are partly just the differences that come because we are a man and a woman, though they also come from the different paths we took to get into the Church. Hers was always communal, whether from her father’s childhood background in Orthodoxy (and even her Middle East relatives’ sense of membership that doesn’t much include actually going to church) or her reintroduction to it through the guy she decided to date and marry, while my path was (and in many ways, remains) a kind of personal quest, the quest for beauty.

We still have many differences, and some of the things we used to have in common we don’t have in common any more. But we also have new things in common. And what we truly share between us is life—in all of its rugged, ragged, rickety glory.


As I write this, she is now quite expectant with our third child, a second son. The due date is less than three weeks away, which puts us in the “any day now” stage. (Inexplicably feel like buying us something for this event? Go here.) She took to motherhood quite a bit more rapidly and with surer commitment than I took to fatherhood, something I think is probably true in many families, if only because of the essential and deep link that is shared in the initial period of life between a child and his mother. But as the children gain more and more interface with the world outside our home, I find that fatherhood is making more sense to me, that I am becoming more a father. So I am slower at this than she is, but God gives His grace in His ways and times and completes that which is lacking—and if there is anything fatherhood reveals to a father, it is that he is lacking.

I think that what we most have in common—though often with different iterations of it—is a deep and enduring longing for home. We are both children of itinerant families and have nearly two dozen residences under our belts, and we are weary of moving, of uprooting and restarting. We want to know this place and remain in this place until our deaths, and our prayer is that our children will desire the same thing. And we mean home for all that the word means, both earthly and heavenly.

I have titled this post Conversions, because that is what it is about, really. Over the past ten years, we each have had to convert on a number of occasions—not just trying to put on an idea of what we think we ought to be, but actually having to become different people in order to meet the new demands of communion.

One of the singular insights of Orthodoxy is that man is not simply a lone hero on a quest, searching for his absolute identity and trying to acquire it or to authenticate what he suspects is his true essence. Rather, man is a dynamic being, dependent for identity not only on God but even (as dangerous as this may feel) on other human persons. He is capable of repentance. He is capable of conversion. He is capable of communion. He is capable of union with the Other.

For all of this and in all of this, I am and will always remain grateful to the Creator for my beautiful, beautiful wife Nicole. Her spunk, longsuffering, flexibility, patience and ingenuity are all elements of her beauty. She is a woman brightly-adorned by her Maker. I do not know or wish to know what my life would have been like without her. But from that moment, ten years ago today, when our communion began, I knew that I had found beauty—and that I would, even in my imperfection and frequent failure, try to be with her always.

Evangelicals at the Eucharist

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The Parakatathiki ("Charge"), when the Eucharist is placed in the hands of a newly-ordained priest by the bishop, and he is charged by him to guard it until the Second Coming of Christ. This picture is from my own ordination.
I was fascinated today to run across this call to the Eucharist, written from a Reformed perspective, by Peter J. Leithart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and an eminent Evangelical theologian. (Seeing this, along with my recent posts on Evangelicals observing Lent, I’ve decided to create a new category for posts on this weblog: Evangelical Appropriation of Tradition.)

This is a fascinating self-criticism from within Evangelicalism, but I have to admit that after I got to the end, I had hoped there would be more to it. There is something very much missing from this, and as I attempted to remember how I would have read this as I would have as an Evangelical sixteen or so years ago, it came to me. There must be Evangelicals who read this piece and are thinking: Why?

The argument that Leithart makes here for Evangelicals to put the Eucharist at the center of their worship is really pretty weak: It helps Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, well, we can remember such things in other ways, can’t we? If it’s really just about remembering, why should we have to break out the wafers and grape juice all the time? (And, you know, we have to vacuum the carpet afterward.) What does all that ritual actually do, anyway?

Mind you, I think Leithart is actually right about all the criticisms he levels at the results of a de-liturgized worship life. There can be no Church without the Eucharist. Christians are politically vulnerable without the Eucharist. Christian life is reduced to fads and programmes without the Eucharist; or, in the words of Fr. John S. Romanides, “When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”

But, why? Why is a de-liturgized worship so vulnerable to all these distortions? Why do Evangelicals largely not see the point in the Eucharist?

It is because the Evangelical Eucharist is, to use Leithart’s term, merely a Sign. If it’s really just a reminder—a sign—then once I feel like I’ve gotten my memory in order, I don’t need the reminder any more. (And let’s not forget that doing communion all the time looks suspiciously Catholic.)

But now, if the Eucharist is actually real, if it’s actually what Jesus said it is, “food indeed” and “drink indeed,” if eating and drinking it actually put life into you, if it’s really so serious that you could get sick or die if you partake unworthily—well, that’s something else. When you’re given the opportunity to eat and drink God, then of course you will put that at the center of your worship.

And when that Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of God Himself, then there is no way you could ever stand to surround the act of communion with anything remotely faddish (if you do, it will clearly be a blasphemy). Eating and drinking God requires a dignity and power and reverence that are entirely beyond whiting out the lyrics of the latest Lady Gaga song to be replaced by what a friend of mine calls “Jesus is my girlfriend” music. There’s a reason why, when most of us picture Heaven (including the Biblical writers), we do not think of a pop concert.

And if you are eating and drinking God, and that’s putting life into you, then you are going to be granted, quite frankly, an otherworldly power that will not only make the unity of the Church utterly critical (not to mention, obvious), but you will also not be beholden to the temporal, transient temptations of this world, whether political or in other cultural ways.

In traditional Christian theology, the Eucharist creates an extension of the very incarnation of Christ. But in the Evangelical theological world, where associating physical matter with holiness is just idolatry, then you are creating an incarnational no-man’s land where holiness cannot touch. But you still have to live there, so you fill it up with programmes and politics, not to mention emotion and intellect.

A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.

Leithart also speaks of the priesthood of all believers (and, indeed, the Orthodox believe in that, too), but what is the point of a priesthood who really aren’t offering up any real sacrifice? A priesthood of “signs” is really just a priesthood of pretense, of pretending. No one puts on costly vestments and takes up golden vessels if he believes that what he places into them is just a symbol of something that’s not really there. (Well, some do, but eventually, their theological descendents always eventually start to put those things off, because they just don’t see the point any more.)

The problem with Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to come back to the Eucharist is that he doesn’t give them any overriding, compelling, positive reason to do so. His negative reasons are good, but theology has to have its own inner purpose beyond preventing or addressing dysfunction. The Eucharist’s purpose is not to hold back these distorting tendencies he identifies so concisely. Rather, its purpose is for those who receive it to become partakers of the divine nature.

And when you’re doing that, well, that changes everything.

Update: A friend points out this piece which examines all these issues in terms of their Augustinian theological background from an Evangelical (but apparently non-Zwinglian) perspective. He also rightly points out that Leithart himself probably would not embrace the fully Zwinglian “pure sign” sacramental theology I make reference to above. But of course Zwingli’s ideas about the sacraments are the context for almost all Evangelicals, and Calvin’s Eucharistic theology (from which Leithart is drawing) has its weaknesses precisely for the reasons outlined in the post on Augustine’s sacramentology.

Another point well-made by my friend is that the real reason why there is not likely to be any sort of Eucharistic revival among Evangelicals is that they really have no actual priesthood. It’s not something that can simply be started up by people who read some books. If you have no connection to the ancient traditions of Christian priesthood, what would actually make you think that the prayers of your newly-created priesthood actually would be the means by which God transforms bread and wine into body and blood? Ultimately, the various elements of tradition that are being appropriated here by some Evangelicals will necessarily be distorted, because they have been removed from the context of the tradition that gives them their power and meaning.