Thursday, March 26, 2009

Towards a Southern Orthodoxy

About this time every year, I embark on my annual ritual of propagating oakleaf hydrangeas. Back in the mid 1990s, we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast at the Monteagle Assembly, perched on the edge of the Cumberland plateau in south-central Tennessee. This hidden enclave's turn-of-the-century neighborhoods caught my attention, to be sure. But I was more interested in the profusion of oakleaf hydrangeas in full bloom. To this Texas boy, I had not seen anything so beautiful, and I determined that I would introduce them back home--for they are not native here. I started with two from a mail-order nursery. Later, I found a retired gentleman in the area who had started selling cuttings at yearly garden sale. I was his best customer for a few years. Now I take my own cuttings, having 45 plants in my own yard, as well as pushing them on friends, family and neighbors. Someone walking down our street would not know that these lush, exotic shrubs were not native to this area. They have taken root here in the redland soil of East Texas.

The concept of "taking root" is what leads me to the current topic. The status and future of Orthodoxy in America is a favorite subject of conversation among Ortho-bloggers, with opinions running the gamut from wild-eyed optimism to gloomy defeatism. I like to think I fall squarely in the middle, a clear-eyed realist who hopes for the best but is not surprised at the worst....but then I am self-deluded in other areas, as well.

Among American Orthodox, if you are susceptible to being twisted into knots over machinations at the top, or jurisdictional squabbles, or intra-jurisdictional infighting, then there are certainly developments out there to view with alarm. The OCA has come through a rough patch, much better positioned going forward, but not out of the woods just yet. The Antiochians are currently undergoing their own turmoil, the full ramifications of which, I am afraid, have not yet come to pass. And then, if that wasn't enough, the Ecumenical Patriarch's representative just lobbed a theological grenade into the midst of American Orthodoxy--during Great Lent, no less. But there will be no links, here, for that stuff is easy enough to find if you are seeking it. It is not that these things don't concern me. They do. But it is like fretting about the budget deficit, there is little enough you and I can do about it, and in the meantime, life goes on. We never really "solve" anything, but we do muddle through, somehow. By focusing on these larger concerns, if we are not careful, we may miss the real news here. In my view, this is the formerly hothouse flower of American Orthodoxy beginning to take root in American soil, and--slowly--taking on an indigenous nature. Admittedly, we are still well under the radar screen. Our numbers are small, and will probably remain so. But Orthodoxy is patient, and takes a long view of things. The Church is digging in for the long haul. Evangelism is on-going. The webs of connectedness between far-flung parishes, missions and monasteries are in place. I can't speak for other parts of the country, but it seems that the South is one of the most receptive regions of the country. Several bloggers I follow (religiously, in fact) have commented recently on the course of Orthodoxy in the South.

The Ochlophobist reports in from Memphis, here, with some observations on parish life in that city.

I attend a parish now where there are a number of folks who are quite community minded, and make deliberate efforts to foster community life in the parish. This oftentimes works in our parish. But I am not inclined to think that it works when it works because of convert zeal, or former Protestant paradigms, or such things. I think it happens to sometimes work in our parish because of two things: we have some key parish members who are perfect icons of Southern hospitality, and, we have a pastor who is holy, who loves people, and exudes that love in a particular manner that encourages folks to be inclined to look after each other. With regard to Southern hospitality there is a quality to it that helps with community life. For all of the eccentric and, frankly, annoying qualities of Southerners, when they take you in, they take you in like you are family, and they tend toward familial styles of loyalty. Thus if you are the weird uncle or the screw-up cousin, you still have a place at the table. They might judge you, they might speak to you in a condescending manner, they might gossip about you like there is no tomorrow, but once you are "in," they will always welcome you, your place at the table will always be assumed to be constantly assured, and they will stand beside you in your trials. If there is one quality that I love about Southerners, Delta Southerners anyway, it is that they generally do not look away from suffering in the manner of Midwesterners who tend to change the subject when suffering comes up, or to desire to quickly provide an "answer" to the suffering. But I digress. With regard to holy priests I don't know how this relates to community exactly. I will use my usual cop-out and suggest that perhaps some priests simply have a charism - communities build around them because a particular grace is present in the life of that priest.

Fr. Stephen Freeman has recently posted a number of articles pertaining to Orthodoxy in the South. The first, here, is a tribute to the pivotal--no, essential--role that Archbishop Dmitri has played in Southern evangelism. Next, he writes of "Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South," here. This is a great favorite of mine, as it include Fr. Paul Yerger's talk on Flannery O'Connor, and particularly her story, Parker's Back. I tend to go on a bit about this author. (Not everyone "gets" Flannery O'Connor, not even all Southerners. My theory is that these people must believe that Southerners are normal people like everyone else. As a fan of Dr. Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture, I know that just underneath the thin veneer of hospitality, politeness and sweet tea lurks murder, mayhem and madness. Those that think likewise "get" Flannery O'Connor.) Fr. Stephen pulls it all together, here, in "Southern Orthodoxy: Personal Reflections." Finally, he notes the growth of monasticism , not just in the South, but in America as a whole. In my view, this development is essential, and with it we acquire a permanence that we would not otherwise have. This is also fresh on my mind, having recently visited Holy Archangels Monastery in central Texas, and also being aware of plans for the establishment of a convent in East Texas. Again, this is a very. good. thing.

And finally, just today I stumbled across what has to be my new favorite blog: Manhole Music Tea Room: Redneck Asceticism, with the coolest header picture. Any blog with a picture of "Parker's Back" (credit--America: National Catholic Weekly)in the header is a site I will be frequenting regularly. The blogger, who writes under the name Suleyman, chronicles his journey into Orthodoxy, by way of North Carolina. His posts are some of the best I've read anywhere, a veritable compendium of what it means to be Orthodox in the South.

In A Southern Orthodoxy, he observes:

First, I say southern culture because in my mind it is not only more germane to Orthodoxy than generic "American" culture, but I also happen to inhabit it and study it. Second, the very fact that Orthodoxy comes to us in a myriad of ethnic styles should give us heart, simply because Orthodoxy has changed wherever it has gone. Not in terms of theology, but in terms of its style. Let me be clear: I don't want Orthodoxy to make accommodations. There is no intent on my part to make Orthodoxy subject to the leveling impulse of the West. On the contrary, I intend to illustrate that the South is in many ways already almost Orthodox in its cultural leanings.

In The Building Committee, Suleyman addresses what an indigenous Orthodox temple in the American South could look like.

Suleyman's records his first Lenten Service in Parker's Back.

Antebellum Southerners on Orthodoxy is an eye-opening look at the ignorance, prejudice and presuppositions of our Southern forebears. I am surprised to find that they had any opinion at all on Eastern Christianity.

I saved the best for last--Suleyman's Men in Funny Hats. While working at a local Books A Million Store (a Southern Barnes and Noble), he engages in conversation with a black lady of the Pentecostal persuasion. And right there in the aisles of BAM, she lays hands on him and attempts to exorcise Orthodoxy out of him. Maybe this sort of thing happens outside the South, but I doubt it.

The woman confronts him about not speaking in tongues. "Then how do you know if you have the Holy Spirit?" she asks.


How do we know anything? How do we know God exists and that He created all things? How do we know that Jesus Christ is His only begotten Son? Except apprehend it by faith? When people say things like "How do you know if you have the Holy Spirit?" or "How do you know if you're saved?" it upsets me. Because it's a preoccupation with salvation, with the signs of election, than with what really matters, and that is loving God. A believer should not be asking him/herself such things, but rather they must love God, love their neighbor, pray without ceasing, repent, rejoice, and give thanks. But most of all give thanks for the gift of salvation....I honestly didn't know how to react initially, but as the evening went on and I thought about her words they only further confirmed me in my decision to convert to Orthodoxy. I thought, what could possibly deter me from the True Faith, from the Church, in which is Life? "Unadorned worship," is no worship at all. Worship is rich and elemental; gold, smoke, fire, water, bread, wine. To me the very notion of not being baptized into the Church was foreign. For all of my life of being brought up Christian, I had Christ, but in the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church I have seen Him. I have come to the fullness of Him. I thought about the words that are sung after communion every Sunday: "We have seen the True Light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit, we have found the True Faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us!" How do we know if we have the Holy Spirit? We eat the flesh and drink blood of Jesus Christ. I have come to the point on my journey where I think, why would anyone not want to be part of this?Perhaps only those who do not understand, or who have yet to "come and see." I wonder to what extent the ignorance of this woman with regards to the Orthodox Church - who I believe is a very sincere believer, and most certainly a much better Christian than I - is general among southern evangelicals?

Amen, brother.


suleyman said...


Thanks for the link, and the (undeserved) praise. It's good to know there are others interested and writing about these things.

Someone told me a story about (soon to be retired) Archbishop Dmitri. He was driving through his hometown, and stopped at a convenience store. He went in (wearing his vestments), and the clerk behind the counter took one look at him, cocked his eyebrow, and said, "You ain't from around here are you?"


Terry (John) said...

Yes, it is one of his favorite stories. I have heard him tell it. I think he was in a Dairy Queen or a cafe having coffee, and a guy came up to him and said that. But the punch line is the same. And the hometown was Teague, Texas.

Steve Robinson said...

If I had to choose a place to start a new mission it would be in the South. I miss South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas. Great post, John, and I'm checking out Suley's blog for sure.

Jared Cramer said...


This is a terrific post. And, as I'm interested in an approach to Anglicanism that is not mere boxtop Mainstream Protestant Christianity nor angry separatist, I find yours (and others) observations about the place of Orthodoxy in our country profound and worthy of deep reflection. To wit, I wonder what lessons we Anglicans might (continue) to learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters.

Terry (John) said...

Thanks, Jared…or should I now say Fr. Jared? Bear in mind that I do not and cannot) in any way speak for Orthodoxy. These are just the opinions of an Orthodox layman, and one of relatively recent vintage at that. That said, I see two tensions working within Orthodoxy in this country. One is the concern that Eastern ethnicism and little-“t” traditionalism—both European and Levantine—have too much sway within certain parishes. The other is that our non-ethnic parishes contain too much Protestant baggage and can be carried away by convertitis. Both concerns are real, as I have seen evidence of each. Obviously, here in the South, there is more danger from the second than the first. Perhaps we obsess about these concerns too much, at times. Our ethnic little-t traditions are not to be discarded out of hand. In so many ways, they have real value. But a sense of perspective is required. Also, the formerly Protestant sensibilities of we converts should not be squashed, but rather transformed--lovingly, patiently, gently—into a zeal that is truly Orthodox. We Orthodox bloggers are particularly susceptible to being alarmist at times, pointing to this or that portent of doom. That is in the nature of things. I just wish more attention were given to the transformation that IS taking place. And in the midst of this, the Orthodox faith in America is becoming less “foreign” and beginning to assume an indigenous nature here in the lower 48 states (I say that, for Orthodoxy has been indigenous to Alaska for over 200 years). At least here in the South, where most Orthodox are of the formerly Protestant variety, it can sometimes take on the feel of being in a close-knit, exclusive club. But the connections being formed between priests and laity among widely-scattered parishes, and then their common connections with the monasteries, is real and tangible. And most encouragingly, I sense this more so among our young people. The founding and expansion of our monastic communities is central to this maturation. From what I have observed and read, our monasteries are the touchstones of any authentic Orthodox culture, and their growth says as much about the health of the Church here as anything. We will never be, as you say, “boxtop mainstream” in this country. That doesn’t require that we fall in the other extreme of a circle-the-wagons remnantist attitude, either. I am, frankly, not encouraged by trends in this country. Our materialist, consumer-driven culture is becoming increasingly “unaffiliated” in the realm of religion. This loosening of denominational associations, is not, I am afraid, a move towards Christian ecumenicism, or to more authentic expressions of faith, but in reality, a way station on the road to unbelief itself. I could be wrong. But if I am not, these are the very conditions in which Orthodoxy thrives. As we chant in the doxology, “Lord, you have been our refuge from generations to generations.” That is what I have found in Christ and the Church…a refuge.

Ranger said...

Great post, I agree with mister Suleyman on seeing Him in the Orthodox church. I said as much to my Priest after my first confession preceeding my Christmation.
"Come, let us worship God our King! Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and our God! Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ Himself, our King and our God!"
This to me is such a central prayer to the fullness and capacity of Orthodox Worship. I have sought God, through Christ for the majority of my life, and nothing compare to bowing before Christ himself. He is in the veneration of the Gospel book, the vestments of our priests, the Christ centered hymnology of the church.
One of the newer "worship songs" that always irked me a little, was "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about you, it's all about you Jesus" I never understood that if it was all about Him, then why was I praising my astuteness at getting back to the heart of worship.
But a hymn that starts " Only begotten Son and Word of God, Who art Immortal....." that is the heart of worship, and I didn't get back to it, It was always there, in The Church, awaiting all who would venture to join into the Liturgy that is forever taking place in heaven.
Thanks for the many great Orthodox links John, i need to email you sometime and chat about mission churches.

Terry (John) said...

Amen, Ranger. To find Christ--that is the only real reason to become Orthodox, everything else is secondary.

I look forward to getting your email--my address is up on the upper left-hand side of the site.