Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cradle and Convert, II

The following is a comment I posted in the discussion that followed the first Cradle and Convert post, in which I was asked to clarify my argument. It was suggested that I reproduce it as a stand-alone post, which I do here (with a few typos corrected). It is a bit of a crie du coeur, so not always carefully or diplomatically worded.

Thank you all for your insightful comments. This post was indeed painted with broad strokes, so I’ll attempt to fill in the picture and try to define my terms more carefully, particularly what I’m encouraging, what I’m rejecting, and what’s motivating me to write about all this.

The force of my remarks was intended more to reject the division between convert and cradle than the terms themselves. There really is no way to avoid use of the term convert, and to recognize that converts have their own particular experience within the Church, at least until they’ve matured to the point that such a label becomes meaningless. One doesn’t go through one’s life being a convert. At some point one has to move from the present tense (I am a convert) to the present perfect (I have converted). The term “cradle” I find simply silly and patronizing. “Ethnic Orthodox” I reject wholeheartedly, since it assumes that there are some Orthodox who have no ethnicity; many Americans look at their own nationality as simply neutral (as, I suppose, do people of all nationalities; it’s always the other people who are foreigners. But even this term is difficult to avoid. There really is no way to avoid either these terms or the realities that they embody, but they are deeply superficial (!) and unnecessarily divisive.

I should also try to define more clearly what the sort of “American Orthodoxy” is which I’m busy denying. What I mean is that one cannot speak of American Orthodoxy in the same way that one can speak of Greek or Russian or Serbian Orthodoxy, in which faith, culture, history, and language are integrally combined. Certainly Orthodoxy exists in America in forms found nowhere else, and one could use “American Orthodoxy” as an umbrella term to cover multi-ethnic parishes, churches made up exclusively of American converts, and so on. But this is the way (or ways) that Orthodoxy is present in contemporary multi-cultural America, and not American Orthodoxy per se.

I hope this explanation covers the main points of comment and objection. I’ll now reply to more specific points.

Trevor’s comments and questions are especially well taken, for he’s asking how I’d imagine my propositions would play out in reality. I agree that one shouldn’t simply choose an ethnic tradition randomly. Not everyone has the opportunity or desire to join a strongly ethnic community. I do think, however, that nearly every parish in North America follows one local tradition or another, and it would seem reasonable to attach oneself to that expression. The OCA, for instance, for all its claim to be American, is based on the Russian tradition (although, of course, it has Romanian, Bulgarian, and Albanian sub-dioceses). My own impression is that the more OCA parishes recognize and try to embody a given “national/local/ethnic” tradition, the healthier they become. In any case, however, one can learn from anyone – clergy, monastic, layman – who himself has absorbed the Orthodox tradition, regardless of ethnicity or whether they are “convert” or “cradle.” I’m not sure how practical this response really is. Perhaps I’m trying to say that almost anywhere one can find mature Orthodox Christians, and its from them that one must be, so to speak, “traditioned.”

It seems that Iyov has unfortunately deleted his comment, which I read yesterday but to which I didn’t have time to reply. He, too, objected to my denial of American Orthodoxy, pointing out places like St Vladimir’s Seminary and some examples of Orthodox (Christian) and Jewish dialog. Again, it’s true that St Vladimir’s really does represent something new and unique. But it, too, is based on a Russian template. All the deans except Fr John Erickson were of Russian descent (as is the current dean, Fr John Behr, who himself comes from a long line of Russian Levites).

Iyov also observed, quite insightfully, that there must really be something behind this post. There certainly is quite a lot behind it, most of which I won’t go into here. Essentially, I feel that many Orthodox Americans are both cheating themselves from, and being cheated of, a full expression of Orthodoxy. There’s a sort of spiritual and psychological stripping of the altars going on, in which anything that’s judged “external” or “ethnic” is simply rejected – ostensibly because they overshadow the true inner nature of Orthodoxy. Fasts become optional, services are radically abbreviated, pious practices are pooh-poohed, traditional dress (especially for clergy) is done away with, etc. All of this really and truly makes the absorption and incarnation of Orthodoxy much more difficult. I’ve seen far too many Eastern Rite Protestants insisting that they alone know the real essence of Orthodoxy. The Evangelical Protestants who entered the Church in the last decade or two were rightly excited to have discovered Orthodoxy, and their missionary zeal is impressive and humbling. I often get the feeling, however, that they think there were the first people ever to discover Orthodoxy and that it is now their responsibility to spread it not only to the non-Orthodox, but to the Orthodox themselves, often becoming combative when Orthodox object to pamphlets with titles like “Facing Up to Mary,” accusing them of fundamentalism. (There was even a primer written at some point in the 1990s in which nearly every traditional expression of Orthodoxy were rejected as fundamentalist.)

What prompted me to write this post in particular is the appearance, and embrace of, The Orthodox Study Bible. I’m simply astonished by the vehemence with which many have embraced the OSB. I, for one, am deeply offended by the OSB. The claim seems to be that the publishes have for the first time made a resource available by which the Orthodox can learn about Orthodoxy, like they’ve finally rescued the Church from ignorance, rescued the Orthodox from themselves. Not only is the OSB really shoddily done, but it approaches Scripture in a fundamentally Protestant way, as if one were to learn about Orthodox doctrine by studying the Bible rather than the other way around. It’s very often implied that anyone who in any way criticizes the OSB somehow doesn’t “get” Orthodoxy, that such a person isn’t living in America in the 21st century, that he doesn’t have any interest in missionary work, and is simply nitpicky and superior. So, Iyov, stop deleting your comments!


Iyov said...

My apologies for deleting my comment before you had a chance to reply; I deleted it because I found flaws in my reasoning -- I wanted to take more time and develop my thoughts further.

I cannot help but notice, however, that most of your complaints seem to be about activities of members associated with the Antioch Church in the US. Do you feel that Church has fallen out of step on issues of "what is Orthodox?"

Felix Culpa said...

Good heavens, Iyov, if everyone online were so conscientious, the internet would be one vast, silent desert!

In response to your question, I can say this: I've made it a point not to write about church politics or to criticize individual jurisdictions. (Like Mr Obama, I'm a uniter and not a divider!) That said, it was the Antiochian Church that accepted the great bulk of Evangelicals in the early 90s. In fact, the very means of reception was deeply problematic: their Metropolitan received the Evangelicals en masse and then ordained a whole group of them at a single Liturgy -- something utterly forbidden by the canons. (Only one priest and one deacon can be ordained at any single celebration of the Liturgy).

So, at the risk of causing offense, it is true that the particular problems I've been criticizing are more concentrated in the Antiochian Archdiocese than in any other single jurisdiction in the US. All the same, I'm loathe to criticize it as a whole, or to say that it has fallen out of step with essentially issues. I don't belong to its jurisdiction, and so don't feel it's within the boundaries of
good taste for me to say much more.

All in all, I think it a mistake to "jurisdictionalize" these questions.

Kevin B. said...


Are there any pamphlets/literature suitable for having on hand when people ask for reading material about Orthodoxy? I live in a city 70 miles from the nearest Church, and yet I have many contacts who inquire about my Orthodox Faith. The Conciliar pamphlets appeared to be a good source to be able to hand to them, although I found a few of them to be much superior to others. I heard the criticism of "Facing Up to Mary"; I've seen, but never read, that pamphlet. Well, I just wondered if there were any resources similar to this that you or others recommended as well, or instead of, other resources.

the student said...

I came to the same question through reading these posts lately. It has been extremely helpful to read critiques because they help to reveal the Orthodox "worldview" in light of these varied phenomenons. I'm all for speaking the positive and the negative which I find rounds one's understanding of these issues, that is "this is what it means, this is what it does not mean".

That being said, two books that I have found to be beneficial in the early stages of Orthodoxy are Jordan Bajis, "Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian" and Fr. Michael Azkoul's,"Once Delivered to the Saints: An Orthodox Apology for the New Millennium". What has anybody else thought on these two and what other suggestions do others have? (Note is made that Dr. Payton's book has been advised. Hopefully it will be forthcoming from my local homing pigeon)

Anonymous said...

I have posted a few times defending the OSB on the basis that the project, although flawed, is an important step in evangelizing this country.

I am a "cradle" orthodox who received next to no Orthodox instruction growing up. It was in my mid 20s, once I had been confronted by various evangelicals - who "knew" their bible much more than I did - and was told that Orthodoxy is false. I started on a journey 13 years ago to learn about the faith and in the process I have learned to love it will all my heart!

The basic issue is that the situation the Orthodox Church faces in the United States is fundamentally new. Although we have the greatest wealth of spiritual literature and advice from the limitless well of wisdom passed to us from our Church fathers, we have yet to distill this wealth into a productive American dialog and mission. Just like the Russians needed to develop a written language for the Aleuts in Alaska, the Orthodox Church must develop an approach and resources that can work. What is so new about America? Here is my small list:

1) The requirement for all churches to be self-supporting and economically profitable enterprises (That is, free from state support) to continue in operation. This is a huge burden in America where property is expensive and where most clergy need to be paid enough to raise their families. (Is it possible that this requirement limits our clergy from preaching the true Gospel? Something to think about.)

2) Complete religious freedom, with hundreds of competing and false ideas, some of them created by the Enemy to destroy the church from within. This has created an environment where big money is behind false doctrines, with a secondary aim at discrediting traditional churches or at least blunting their effectiveness. The masses, believing these many false doctrines, pose a difficult problem. He myriad of different beliefs makes it hard for our clergy to discern who is a true believer, a heretic, or is simply misled. It’s even harder for our laity.

3) The strange belief buried deep into the American Psyche that we are a "Christian" and "God Chosen" nation. So many Protestants already believe that they are “saved” without having to travel on the path of repentance and purification, which are lumped into the category of “works”. Trying to get them to admit that their path – often deliberately chosen by themselves – is wrong is hard to do, and even harder for them to change when they do admit this.

4) A big hurdle for us is very relatively high literacy rate among those possibly interested. With lots of time already invested in bible or religious studies, these Protestants believe they “know” the bible (I have been told this so many times). Sadly, the Orthodox laity know very little about the scriptures and find it nearly impossible to have a worthwhile discourse with them. When confronted with these people in their schools, workplaces or neighborhoods, “cradle” Orthodox feel inadequate, unprepared and unable to defend themselves. This was my experience, even though I considered myself “Orthodox” and I could tell something was wrong. So many of our people are deceived!

5) The Orthodox have a history of adapting the truth to interface with local customs. But here the canonical situation – with so many different Orthodox jurisdictions, each with their own ethnic traditions, itself a another large category – this is extremely difficult. I think the OSB is a way of presenting the faith in a fashion that many parts of the Protestant country might understand. I made the point before that the Study Bible is a form extremely well used by most Protestants, like it or not. Of course becoming Orthodox is a life long process, and if using an ”Orthodox” study bible a path can be created to bring some of these Protestants to Orthodoxy, it will be a worthwhile venture. In my case as a “cradle” orthodox, the OSB is also helpful because I am able to physically “show” Protestants what Orthodox believe the Bible to be and develop some ammunition to defend the faith. But what about the Church Fathers? Unfortunately, the Protestants do not view their teachings or commentary as important or even valid, so it is very hard to use their works or references when speaking with them! I have tried so often, to no avail. But there is no doubt that the OSB is no substitution for these works.

Yes, it is obvious that there are technical and perhaps fundamental difficulties with the current OSB. Few of them would be detected by the average layman. Somehow, though, I detect a larger hostility to the whole idea of an OSB as a concept. In my opinion, this hostility shows that many Orthodox do not want to do anything to bring Americans and Protestants in particular to the Orthodox church, other that repeat over and over again to them that they are not the true church. To be successful, we will need to understand and emulate some of their methods – not to absorb them and change our own faith, but to package the faith in a way that it can be properly and successfully introduced to them. In the secular world, this is called Marketing. This is done by understanding the communication methods used by them and figuring out which objections to overcome. The Orthodox have to start by admitting that we lack these methods and need to develop them. The poor results we have to date in this country clearly demonstrate this. We can barely keep our young people in church, as so many are lost after they go to college, and so few go on to become Monastics or Priests. I suspect many of the methods we develop to create a productive dialog with the Protestants will create the ammunition needed to safeguard our own people from the wolves at the door!

Some of what the Antiochian Church is doing – since they are behind some of these new activities – is trying to develop these methods. This includes Ancient Faith Radio and to some degree the OSB project. They are somewhat successful, because they are growing their church! I am certain not all of the methods will succeed, and some might be realized to be non-Orthodox in time. I think, though, that by lumping the “Americanism” argument – along with these new methods - with a relaxing of the standards – that is pews, no fasting, etc. is an old argument and not entirely fair, accurate or productive. I have visited different churches during my travels through the country and can tell you from my experience that many of these Protestant “converts” are honestly trying to live according to the Orthodox faith as best as they can. At least they are trying to “get there from here”.

Certainly the danger of corrupting Orthodoxy with Protestantism is real, and I don’t mean to belittle this danger. But there is too much elitism in the Orthodox church, as displayed in the many blogs (although not necessarily yours) and certainly in the commentary, and this elitism is very damaging - it turns off potential converts, new converts and even life long Orthodox.

Personally, I feel that we Orthodox must have a deep understanding that we are the true church, and are responsible for communicating this in some fashion to the other faiths and accountable to God for the results. In the last days, our Church will be the only one to safeguard those from the Antichrist. Remember that people will take the mark of the beast because they are hungry. We will know when the time comes who he is. Our church – the only Church with a significant fasting rule – is the only one that can prepare the faithful for this test to come. Between now and those dreaded days, we must develop the communication methods, dialog and infrastructure to do this for all of humanity. We are responsible, and souls are at stake.

Gene B.

Gabriel said...


Your response is clearly very detailed and I apologize if I skip over something in my response. Due to a limit on time, I can only speak broadly to some of what you have said.

I do not believe critics of the OSB object to the idea of it, or even the intention. What has been troubling for some of us is that the final product is so underwhelming. If it is intended to be the Church's response to similar efforts by Protestantism, it might as well concede defeat right now. The fact that the OSB is a thinly veiled parroting of Evangelical-style "Study Bibles" (distinct from actual, academic, Study Bibles) only increases my disappointment with it. If one picks up the two-volume Orthodox New Testament produced by the Holy Apostles Convent to compare with the OSB, well, there is no comparison. Despite the fact some people chid the HAP text for being too literal and full of "Greekisms" (a not entirely unfair criticism), the inclusion of copious endnotes, traditional iconography, and other explanatory material sets it head and shoulders above the OSB. Now, this effort was produced by one convent which is appended to one splinter group; presumably their resources were much more modest than any mainline jurisdiction in America and certainly less than the combined efforts of said jurisdictions. So why is it so much better?

As for Protestants "knowing the Bible," you have to be careful which standard is being applied. No Orthodox Christian should feel compelled to "know the Bible" like a Protestant. I sometimes wonder if that is the great conceptual flaw in the OSB. They start with the premise that Orthodox "don't know the Bible," but they don't understand that it is a Protestant approach which sets the bar for "know." I suspect that someone with a PhD in Biblical Studies from one of the elite universities in the U.S. or Europe would say that Protestants and Orthodox "don't know the Bible," though what they mean by "know" is something radically distinct from both. Should their "knowledge" be the standard?

Now, you may object here and say that what I am getting at is a difference of interpretation and that what you are pointing out is more-or-less concrete knowledge of the test (e.g., names of the books, critical events/stories, etc.). That's fine, but the surface of things don't suffice in this instance since the text is not self-interpreting. Given the complexity and richness of the Church's reading of the Bible and even the expressions of those readings in her hymnography, it is difficult--if not impossible--to hold that beyond the level of "Bible Bowl Trivia," the Protestant "knowledge" of the Bible can in any way align with the Orthodox understanding.

As for "presenting the Faith," the model followed by some Orthodox is just flat-out wrong and, perhaps, dangerous. To take one example: When my wife was still a Protestant and considering the Orthodox Church, she was given a certain explantion of the Saints to help set her mind at ease about them. This explanation, while not entirely false, placed a considerable amount of emphasis upon their role as intercessors in Heaven for us. They were compared to friends whom we ask to pray for us in times of need. I have seen similar explanations offered, though typically as an apologetic device against Protestant critics who accuse Orthodoxy of neo-paganism. What is troubling is that in my wife's case and in some others I have noticed, this dusty, old, and ultimately unconvincing apologetic has become an evangelistic tool to make Orthodoxy appear less "toxic" for potential converts. Of course, once the Chrism has dried, they realize that the Saints and--more importantly--the Mother of God, hold places of esteem, veneration, and glorification in the Church. I have even seen some become almost scadalized by this after conversion since they were so sure that only God received "that type" of honor. Similar instances of "convert shock" due to poor evangelism have including outright revolts against fasting, personal displays of public piety as a "right expression" of "spirituality," and--as has been discussed a bit here--an abiding hostility towards anything "ethnic." I suppose one could also point to a decacy of form since--and this comes straight out of the Protestant playbook--only the "spirit" of Orthodoxy is important; everything else are "trappings."

On a final note, I agree with you that Orthodoxy should be missionizing this land. What I hold to is a much different model than that being offered by the most visible outlets. I fully believe Orthodoxy can go "toe to toe" with not simply Protestant or even Catholic polemics, but also the more dangerous myths of this age which lead more souls astray than any flawed Christian confession. With that said, of course, I do not believe every jurisdiction in the U.S. has the will and fortitude to engage in that effort. And some which I believe could do a very good job don't appear to have the resources to fully engage.

orrologion said...

In my little piece, "12 Things I Wish I'd Known as a Convert", my last point was: Convert Without Ceasing. It can be found at:


Trevor said...

the student,

I don't think I've read either of those two books. It may be neither here nor there, though I suppose it could be a bit confusing for a newbie--haven't both Bajis and Azkoul charted some less-than-normative paths? I thought I read somewhere that Bajis left Orthodoxy altogether (though after writing the book) and Azkoul is now in an Old Calendarist sect. Again, I'm not saying this devalues what they've written (though I suppose it might)--but it could raise issues best avoided with inquirers.

Fr. John Whiteford said...

From observation, I can tell you that many cradle Orthodox used the original Orthodox Study Bible extensively, and began to study the scriptures in earnest really for the first time as a result. Just about a month ago I had occassion to spend time with a Palestinian Family, and they had a Protestant Arabic Bible, and then the original OSB. In my parish we had quite a few pre-orders of the new OSB, and more than half of those who bought a copy were cradle Orthodox.

the student said...

Trevor - thank-you. I am familiar with the response of Azkoul's first book but haven't read any reviews of this one. Perhaps many didn't buy it due to his first one. I'm not sure but found it to be very informative.

I don't know what Mr.(?) Bajis is up to at present but note that he is "pastor" of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Colorado. http://www.holytrinitycommunity.org/ Otherwise I'm not sure of his credentials.

orrologion said...

His church's website notes that they "have no official administrative tie to any particular denomination". The other language on their ties to the Orthodox Church, as well as other denominations, makes it seems as if they are indeed not Orthodox.

Trevor said...

It appears to be a church without a bishop.