Friday, June 22, 2012

This Week in American Religion

     I've been too busy lately to do much in the way of blogging.  We are having the coolest, wettest summer (for Texas) in many years.  Evenings like this are too precious to waste in front of a computer screen, and I can no longer stay up into the wee hours.  And so, my imagined essays mostly remain only that.  I did want to comment, however, on a couple of recent developments.
    I remain endlessly fascinated by the ever-changing American religious scene.  Last week, an outlier LDS professor in Memphis, David V. Mason, caused a little stir when the NYTimes published his "I'm a Mormon, not a Christian."  Apparently Dr. Mason did not receive the memo from Salt Lake on this one.  No one expects theological subtlety from Mormons or the Times, but this piece is even sillier than most.  Mason explains the difference between Mormonism and Christianity thusly:

For the curious, the dispute can be reduced to Jesus. Mormons assert that because they believe Jesus is divine, they are Christians by default. Christians respond that because Mormons don’t believe — in accordance with the Nicene Creed promulgated in the fourth century — that Jesus is also the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Jesus that Mormons have in mind is someone else altogether. The Mormon reaction is incredulity. The Christian retort is exasperation. Rinse and repeat.
     And it is that howler that has generated the most reaction.  I am going to be charitable and assume that even most Mormons have a better understanding of  the doctrine they reject than does this particular writer.  But as one astute observer and friend of this blog has noted on another forum--why should anyone give a damn about how badly this writer or the New York Times mangles Trinitarian Christianity, or how any theologian responds to it since the vast majority of even professing Christians in this country simply do not have a clue as to what the argument is all about?  Owen writes:  "It's long past time to accept that a public interest in or even acknowledgement of Christian doctrine is long past and it ain't coming back anytime soon.   I think he has a point.  And before I get on my theological high horse and whine about all this, I need to remind myself of my own background.  I spent 25 years in a restorationist/evangelical church, and not just a pew-warmer, but the heavy-duty stuff--serving as deacon and elder, teaching classes, giving the occasional "sermon," etc.  In all that time, I cannot ever once remember myself or anyone else using the words "theology," "Trinity," or Lord forbid, "Trinitarian."  Had I done so, I would have been accused of reading the wrong kind of books (that accusation, of course, came later on.)  And besides, such terminology is not found in Scripture and was to be avoided at all costs.  We basically worshipped the Bible (the "Word") which informed us about Jesus.  We didn't know what to make of the Holy Spirit, other than whatever it was, it wasn't what the charismatics claimed it was.  My halting engagement with any sort of theological concepts--Trinitarian or otherwise--has only come about in the last 9 years.  And so, I was no different than most everybody else, except for the fact that I should have known better.  The subject of Mormonism came up last year in a conversation with my wife (who remains Protestant.)  She questioned my off-hand reference to the fact that they could not be understood as a Christian body, in the traditional understanding of the faith.  I was now able to answer her in a Trinitarian context.  She maintains a very particular understanding of her faith, but even so, she is like I was, and as is most of the country--identifying the LDS Church with clean-living, secretive (and weird) rituals, abstinence from caffeine (Good Lord!) and their extraneous book of "scripture," but unable to articulate exactly why they fall beyond the pale.  I firmly believe that the LDS Church is on the fast-track towards full acceptance, taking its place in the broad mainstream of American religiosity.  This has much more to do with the sluffing-off of American Protestantism, however, than it does with the validity of Mormonism's claims.  
     Apart from Dr. Mason's Trinitarian muddle, I believe his statement of faith to be of some significance. 
I’m perfectly happy not being a Christian. My Mormon fellows, most of whom will argue earnestly for their Christian legitimacy, will scream bloody murder that I don’t represent them. I don’t. They don’t represent me, either. ...In fact, I rather agree with Richard D. Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who calls Mormonism a fourth Abrahamic religion, along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Being set apart from Christianity in this way could give Mormonism a chance to fashion its own legacy.

     There has been an obvious reluctance in recent generations to just come out and say this--first, I suppose, because most people simply don't care, and second, because Mormons are just so darned nice.  It makes it easier when one of their own states it so baldly.   Being calmly and dispassionately realistic about what they are would be a healthy approach going forward--which means there is little chance of this happening.
     Part of my fascination with Mormonism is wrapped-up in their Americanism.  Understanding the LDS Church provides a useful platform for comprehending what it is, exactly, we are as Americans.  They are so quintessentially American in every aspect of their faith.  Theirs is the American Gospel, or as they say, the "restored Gospel."  Restorationism  itself is a completely American phenomenon, of which the Mormons are only one group.  Of course, I always thought the Book of Mormon was just so much hokum, but give them their due--no restorationist church has pursued the concept with the wild, make-it-up-as-you-go abandon as have the Mormons.  The official church site is fun (for some reason, now blocked for me, but I think it is   They have an interactive timeline of church history.  The only years given are:  32  and 33 A.D, 70 A.D, bad stuff in 325 A.D., a nod to 1517, and then Joseph Smith in 1820.   The language is almost exactly the same as I used to see in Church of Christ treatments of history--just substitute Alexander Campbell and 1809.  It is all fantasty stuff, obviously, when it comes to the historical record, but fascinating how they employ similar narratives for their origins.
One commentator hit the nail on the head in a discussion of this article:  
     Mormonism’s existence is only justifiable if all existing “Christian” bodies prior to Joseph Smith had in fact, by apostasy –the Mormon term for it– ceased to be “The Church”. So asking “Are Mormons Christians?” is the wrong question. Any Mormonism that is honest and integral would have to ask, “Are Non-Mormon Churches Christian?” and answer in the negative. The contemporary whining that the LDS are being excluded from the fold is disingenuous. It is a “fold” that Smith’s revelation judge to be wholly bankrupt of the Gospel.
     But it is the Southern Baptists who have garnered the headlines this week from their convention in New Orleans.  First, they have nominated their first African-American as President of the Convention.  There seems to be widespread enthusiasm for Rev. Luter, and it is hoped this will help counter the image of a church founded in the slavery controversy and described as being "as white as a tractor pull."  Along those lines, the delegates voted to allow the use of the name "Great Commission Baptist" in lieu of "Southern Baptist," if so desired.  No one asked me, but I do not think this will catch on.  When my former church's true-believers used to describe themselves as "New Testament Christians," this was usually met with eye-rolls.  In their common culture, everyone knew what each church represented, regardless of the name they tried to use.  Maybe this will have some traction in their mission fields.  And, it can be seen in the light of the on-going non-denominationalization of this and other Protestant sects. 
     Then, there is a brewing in-house SBC squabble between the Calvinists on one side, and the Arminians on the other, with accusations of semi-Pelagianism being batted about.  If the headlines can be believed, there are even accusations of heresy in the wind.  The fear of creeping Calvinism is behind it all.  Nothing leaves me colder than Reformed Theology, so one of the great side-blessings of Orthodoxy is that we absolutely do not have a dog in this fight.  
     The Southern Baptists certainly had a full plate this week, as they even debated the "Sinners Prayer":
    I'm convinced that many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we've sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life....Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase, 'accept Jesus into your heart' or 'invite Christ into your life'? It's not the gospel we see being preached, it's modern evangelism built on sinking sand. And it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls."
     Even though this observation comes from one of their Calvinist ministers, I share his concern.  At the heart of it all seems to be a gnawing realization that there simply has to be more to it than what they have made of it.  And that may be a hopeful sign indeed.     

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday of All Saints

Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.  But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven....He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.  And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.  And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. (Matthew 10:  32-33, 37-38.)

Today is the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church, and the homily for today is taken from the above passage.  The confession our Lord references is much more than the weak tea modernity has made of it.  The context of the passage is nothing short of martyrdom, if need be.    One sure mark of the Church is that you can be killed for belonging to it.  History ebbs and flows, and persecutions flare-up and die down, but one thing is certain--the Church of our Lord was, is and will always be the Church of the Martyrs.  And on this day, the story and memory of young Evgeny Rodionov was never far from my thoughts.
     For a timely post on Evgeny Rodionov, check out Martyrium by Mark Hackard.  He links the young Russian's story with that of Tsar Lazar of Serbia, some 600 years earlier.  Hackard is an excellent writer, and I encourage the reading of his other articles, as well.
     I find Rodionov's story compelling, and I have a tiny icon of Evgeny on my shelf at work.  He was no aesthetic.  He did not leave any collections of spiritual wisdom and insight.  Evgeny was no one's elder.  In fact, he was at best just a young man--what we would call a "kid."  But Evgeny was called to confess Christ in the manner of Matthew 10:32, and in so doing, he is remembered today and always. 
     Evgeny was not raised in a particularly religious home.  His parents saw that he was baptized, more out of superstition than anything else.  But there was something different about him, even as a child.  At age 10, he put on his baptismal cross and it never came off his neck again--until such time as his neck was severed from his head.  His mother tried to convince him not to wear it outside, but he told her not to talk like that.  At one point in his school career, he became skilled at boxing, but quit this as he did not want to hit anyone in the face.  At age 18, if not before, Evgeny was conscripted into the Russian army and eventually deployed to the Chechen conflict. 
     The action of the Russian government in regard to Evgeny's fate, and other young soldiers like him, is both despicable and without excuse.  Treated as less than cannon-fodder, he and 3 other young soldiers were placed in a remote checkpoint, then abandoned, without weapons.  In short order, they were captured by Chechen guerrillas.  The 4 young men were held and tortured for 100 days.  According to the later confession of his executioner,  they offered Evgeny his life if he would take off his cross and embrace Islam.  He steadfastly refused.  On his 19th birthday, Evgeny Rodionov was gruesomely butchered and beheaded. 
     To my knowledge, he has not been canonized (which is a whole different process than in Catholicism), and may never be.  His veneration is widespread in Russia (and elsewhere,) however, particularly among the military, who feel equally abandoned by their government.  To the non-Orthodox, this must all seem odd and cultish.  Perhaps.  But it is what we do.

Memory Eternal to all Martyrs.

A View from the Garden

My little postage-stamp of a garden out behind the chicken pen is going gangbusters.  I planted tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, watermelons, gourds and sunflowers.  Last year's crop was pretty dismal.  But this winter, the wife and I hauled dirt in from a creek bank off our farm and built-up the soil.  This has made all the difference in the world.  The adjoining chicken pen hosts 3 Buff Orpingtons, 4 guinea fowl, 2 Chinese Owl pigeons, and--a pair of peafowl, just because.  I got rid of my rooster and guniea cock.  They were a couple of troublemakers.

Peacocks are wonderful fowl--calm but inquisitive, majestic, and a perfect reminder of the Resurrection.

Sunflowers and gourds aplenty

                                                                Tomatoes coming on

                                                                        And eggplant


 Cherry tomatoes are the best

                                                       Le Arc de Cocombres

You cannot beat Buff Orpingtons
Guniea eggs work just like hen eggs--just use 3 for every 2 chicken eggs.


The flock
Prize gourd
Melon on the make
Every afternoon after I get home, my dog and I go out to the back of the yard and take care of this enterprise.  I give the poultry the table scraps for the day (they will eat anything), check their water, put out some laying pellets if need be, and gather the eggs.  I briefly scold them for eating the Morning Glories that are trying to wind up the side of their pen.  Then I check the garden.  I pull any weeds that need pulling, then pick the ripening tomatoes, and the cucumbers off my trellis.  I check on the status of my young melons, and hope the crows haven't spotted them just yet.  The burn barrels are close at hand, and I often burn our paper trash and the pecan limbs that fall most every day.  I cannot tell you how therapeutic all this is.  Of course, when you consider the price of the pen, the feed, and all the costs in getting my garden set up, it will be years before we come out ahead.  But that is not the point, is it?  I suppose if times get too hard, then we can get by on guinea eggs and sweet pickles (24 pints so far.)  Now I just wish I had paid more attention growing up the son of a farmer.  I will not have much time for writing before long--the figs are about to make. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

Two Views of American Orthodoxy

I recently came across Rod Dreher’s Eastern Right:  Conservative Minds Convert to Orthodox Christianity in the current issue of The American Conservative.  Let me say that I am a fan of the magazine.  The conservatism espoused there hearkens back to a much older way of thinking, and would be anathema to all but a tiny segment of today’s GOP. Primarily, I read it for their foreign policy insight.   They have been a consistent voice--opposing American adventurism abroad and the neo-conservative agenda of both political parties, as well as asking the hard questions of our unthinking American Exceptionalism.  I particularly enjoy the writings of Daniel Larison and Andrew Bacevich.      One article by the latter is generally worth the subscription price.  I am less enthusiastic when their attention is turned to domestic policies and politics, or some social issues, as I am generally distrustful of libertarianism. 
And so, while I was certainly interested to read Dreher’s article on American Orthodoxy, it is not what I open this magazine to read.  And yet, the concerns of the Orthodox faith in this country are such a small affair in our broad culture that one part of me is a bit proud that the piece reached a national audience (though admittedly, the TAC readership does not exactly blanket the nation.)

Dreher notes the importance of Roman Catholicism in the history of American intellectual conservatism, and suggests that Orthodoxy now also offers an increasingly attractive alternative.  He suggests that a number of intellectual conservatives have already opted for Orthodoxy, and others are considering it.  Perhaps.  I do not see any empirical data that indicates a trend in this direction, just as there is none for the population at large.  Converts will climb aboard here and there, and no doubt some of them are “intellectual conservatives.”  I hope the Holy Spirit proves me wrong, but I doubt that Orthodoxy will ever be “the next big thing” in this country. 

The piece may serve some purpose, in a very general way, for readers ignorant of the Orthodox faith—such as my friend from years ago who described the monks at one of our monasteries as “dirty Catholics” (this years before I converted.)  For such people, who think of the Orthodox as just some sort of quasi-Catholic offshoot, then this piece could hint at the real and substantive differences between the churches.  The Orthodox rightly emphasize the unchanging nature of the faith.  To the general reader, Dreher offers some insight into why (broadly speaking) this is not idle boast.  In this regard, a quote by an unnamed “Orthodox professor” is instructive-- “It’s not true that Catholicism is conservative. It is, in fact, the mother of all religious innovation, and has been for more than a millennium.”

Dreher observes that the conservative intellectuals he spoke with expressed their appreciation that the Orthodox Church avoided the “Republican Party at prayer” feeling that characterizes Evangelical churches.  Ideally, when we are at our best, this is certainly true.  The problem is that often we are not at our best.  If you look around, evidence of Movement Conservatism is not hard to find in American Orthodoxy.  Some jurisdictions are more susceptible than others.  From my own observations, the Antiochians are rife with it, but I fear the OCA is not far behind.  Mind you, I believe Orthodoxy is for everybody—intellectuals of any stripe, cranks, malcontents,  screw-ups and misfits, know-it-alls and know-nothings—come one, come all.  The problem can be, however, when converts view the Church as a comfy place to park their social conservatism (or liberalism.)  Approached thusly, Orthodoxy can be viewed through the prism of a particular ideology, instead of the other way around.  Considered here and there, it is not such a bad thing, as Orthodoxy has plenty of room for quirkiness.  But if such attitudes start gaining critical mass and become normative, then we Americans have done what we do best—changing that which should not be changed and restyling according to our preferences.

Dreher quotes from Frederica Mathewes-Green, whose conversion story is familiar to many.  I know there is more to the story, but his accounting makes it sound as if she considered Catholicism, but then chose Orthodoxy as it was a more comfortable fit for their social conservatism.  Like I say, I know there is more to their story—I’ve read it before—but casting it in this light is a bit dangerous, if it encourages people to embrace Orthodoxy for that reason.  There is only one reason for anyone to become Orthodox—it is because that is where you find Jesus Christ and you come to believe the claims the Church makes of herself.  I had an early friend in Orthodoxy who converted shortly before I did.  He was brilliant in a number of areas, including history.  But his attraction to Orthodoxy was all on an intellectual plane.  He did not stay long and moved on to Catholicism.   I have seen others come and go as well, leaving me wary of some peoples' motivations for becoming Orthodox. 

I fault Dreher for a totally unsubstantiated and unnecessary swipe at St. Nicholas OCA Cathedral in D.C. –a cheap tactic meant to drawn Orthodoxy into the public fight over homosexuality.  I believe that overall, the Church’s low key approach has worked quite well, thank you very much.  This reference mars the piece as a whole, leaving a nasty aftertaste. 

Dreher may be on to something.  Perhaps there is a movement (as yet imperceptible) in our direction.  I pray that this is true.  Just leave your ideology outside the narthex, please.

A favorite site of mine is Fr. Jonathan Tobias’ Second Terrace.  I love the way he writes—his clarity and gift for getting at the heart of things.  In a recent post, he addressed nationalism, American and otherwise.  And along the way, he looks at the state of American Orthodoxy--past, present and future.  You might say that he sees our prospects in a different light than does Dreher. 
He opposes American nationalism and exceptionalism with a “simple neighborly and land-loving patriotism.”  Fr. Jonathan reminds us that it is “never good to count ourselves blessed at the expense of other nations” and that “The Church -- not the nation -- is the city set upon a hill.”  Indeed:

Jesus is not going to use America to shape an end-times narrative. He is not using it now to defeat Islam and other religions. He is not utilizing America to fend off trends of immorality and secularization. Current experience presents something of a conundrum for nationalists who believe fervently in such divine fending-off, because they would like to wave their civil religion flags against Muslims and gay pride parades at the same time: at even a cursory level of comparative theology and ethics, such simultaneous flag-waving comes off as at least mildly inconsistent. Jesus is not using America as an instrument of safeguarding a Biblical faith: preachers can throw up the American flag behind the pulpits and powerpoints all they want, but America is not the hope for the nations. The Rapture is just as much part of the American dream as is the hope of building so many new barns for rich fools -- who, when they discover the reality of the soul only at the late moment when it is “required” of them, find that the Rapture and the Dream were mere spectral fantasies indeed.

America did not bless Christianity. Christianity did not improve when it got to these shores.
God, as Creator and freely distinct from His Creation, does not need America.

America, surely, needs God, and the reality of His Church.

Orthodox Christianity did not improve, either, when it got here. .
Fr. Jonathan also has some thoughts on our future in America:

I am note sure whether America ever occurred to Orthodox prophecy. If there is a place for America in a real eschatology, it will be that in this civilization, America is where history goes to die. (emphasis mine)

America said it wanted a respectable and successful religion.
Orthodoxy tried too much to give America what it wanted, and in doing so, it failed to give America what it needed.

“Need” is the only business of true religion.
“Want” is ever the stuff of the imperial cult, throughout the ages.

Let me utter a simple prophecy here. In this decade and the next, Orthodoxy will become more and more solitary. The coalitions may or may not survive, depending on whether the other groups become more or less Orthodox.
And Orthodoxy will move from its uncomfortable associations with imperial religiosity and become more like it was before Constantine. The Constantinian age is drawing to a close, with the complete rise of this a-historical and anti-sacral civilization. The eschaton, as it draws closer, will scour away the unrealities that are now clogging and burdening the church.

And you will see, as clear evidence of this scouring, the signs of clearer proclamation from the Church. Its language will become more Christological and Trinitarian and less the marketing speech of the agora. Its critique will become more continuous with the prophets about justice, in defense of the poor and the powerless. Its leaders will lead to deification largely through their own experience of deification: as in “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
In the light of that day, the Orthodox American may patriotically and faithfully say “God bless America,” and know in his heart that He has, surely, through the presence of his Church.

Fr. Jonathan's future is bleaker and more sobering to our American sensibilities--but it has the ring of truth to it.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Just Like the Greeks, huh?

Well, that was certainly interesting.  We had about 8 to 10 visitors--all young people--at Vigil Saturday night.  The prospective bishop for our diocese was visiting, so I assumed they came because of him.   When none went forward to venerate the Cross, I knew differently.  These visitors were clearly not from around here--all tall, blond and well-scrubbed--seemingly the nieces and nephews of Garrison Keillor's Norwegian bachelor farmers.

Come to find out, these young people were a contingent from the local Youth With a Mission (YWAM) campus.  This group, and any number of other evangelical organizations have set up headquarters in the rural northwest part of the county.  YWAM and Teen Mania are the most well-known--and of the two, the former is slightly less cultish than the latter.  A number of straight-forward missionary efforts, such as Mercy Ships, also headquarter in the area.  We were talking to some of the young people out on the front porch (excuse me, exo-narthex) and discovered that this was a team, in preparation to "take the Gospel to Greece."  Their instructor at YWAM sent them to our mission so they would know what to expect when they arrive in an Orthodox country.  Ho-boy.

I suppose we should be flattered, but the irony was lost on none of us.  They are making assumptions about Orthodoxy in Greece based on visiting a convert OCA parish in East Texas???  Such naivete is somehow refreshing--for they are too young for it to be labeled as hubris.  That will come later.

The team leader clutched his Holy Bible to his chest the entire time, as if to ward-off anything that might be catching from Orthodoxy.  He talked a bit about Greece and how they planned to hand out Holy Bibles and evangelize there.  He was surprised, or at least interested to learn that several in our group had been there.  He asked my son if he was Greek (ha!), and when he found out that he was not, he asked if the Greeks were "dark."  Somehow the discussion turned to Patmos, and the team leader looked at my son and said, "Did you know that it was on the island of Patmos that the Apostle John received the Revelation?"  For some unknown reason, my son can be a bit sarcastic at times.  I give him credit here--he did not say anything but simply smiled and nodded.

We convinced 4 of them to stay and eat with us in the hall.  Theophan and I set down with 3 of them, both of us interested to see where the conversation would lead.  They had a number of questions, even the dream question that all converts long for.  One of them asked me, "What made you choose Orthodoxy?"  Well, first I had to turn the question around and and take my answer out of the American religious cafeteria.  But then, I was able to do an abbreviated "conversion story."  (Remember, it is okay to tell--but only if you are asked!)  Anyway, the conversation was respectful, but spirited--with Theophan doing the heavy-lifting.  They seemed interested, or maybe they are just taught to strike that pose in their classes as YWAM. 

I wish the young people well.  Travel changes a person (or at least it should.)  My wish is that their experience in Greece is absolutely nothing at all like they expect it to be.