Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cradle and Convert IV

My original Cradle and Convert post made a few very modest arguments: a) that dividing Orthodox Christians into "convert" and "cradle/ethnic" camps is unnecessarily divisive; b) that the terms themselves are misleading (at some point one stops being simply a convert; none of us are ethnic-neutral); and c) that there isn't an American Orthodoxy in the same sense that there is a Greek or Russian Orthodoxy. None of these points seemed particularly radical or controversial as I was making them. Much of the ensuing discussion, as well as my subsequent posts, has had to do with the practical implications of these modest theses, and has grown rather contentious at times. Here are a couple of thoughts that have occurred to me while reading comments:

1) Convert = former Protestant. In all recent discussion on this theme, both on this blog and others, it's been taken for granted that "convert" means "former Protestant" (or, more specifically, former Evangelical Protestant); therefore, all potential converts are themselves Protestants. Hence the conclusion that Orthodoxy needs to be packaged and advertised to appeal to Evangelicals. This overlooks that people convert to Orthodoxy from a wide range of different denominations and religions; that not all Protestants are Evangelicals (what do High Church Anglicans and snake-handlers really have in common?); and that the majority of Americans are in fact not Evangelical Protestants. Is it really wise, then, to advertise Orthodoxy as an ancient form of proto-Evangelicalism? (Recall the dust jacket of the OSB: "Prior to the Reformation of the 16th century, the great voices of the historic Church were...")

2) Convert vs. Convert. Why is it that, if two "converts" disagree about something, their arguments necessarily cancel each other out? If you don't want your own arguments dismissed because you're a "convert," then don't dismiss others' arguments for the same reason. If you're Orthodox, treat both yourself and others as Orthodox. As I keep repeating, at some point one stops being simply a convert; if one thinks of oneself first and foremost as a "former Protestant," then something is wrong.

3) Quantifying Evangelicalism. It's been suggested a number of times, here and elsewhere, that the success of mission can be judged quantitatively. Those who convert more people "win," and Orthodoxy in America owes its continued existence to the conversion of Protestants. This sounds to me like a revival-meeting standard: the more souls one "saves," the better.

4) False dichotomies: convert or cradle; external piety or internal belief; ethnic or non-ethnic; diaspora or mission; evangelicalism or guardianship; Tradition or tradition.


Tyler said...

"if one thinks of oneself first and foremost as a "former Protestant," then something is wrong."


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Well, because, Tyler, in this case one should think oneself Orthodox, first and foremost.

Secondly, when will someone like that ever let go of their past, if it's a label that they prefer to wear? When will they become, in their own minds, Orthodox? They need to believe that they're Orthodox! That's something that as converts they should be thinking right now, from the moment they enter into the Church and onward into the future, not always looking behind at what came before.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Or, as the ever-memorable Archimandrite Lazarus Moore once said, when we come to the Church, we must must not come looking back and screaming, but looking forward and singing.

Iyov said...

OK, now I am confused.

(1) From whence converts

I was under the impression that in the US, at least, converts to Orthodoxy were high-church Protestants and Catholics -- who had felt that their own churches had become too corrupt or liberal. I was under this impression because of sites such as Lancelot Andrewes Press, connected with which is reprinting Neale's psalter and Monastic Diurnal and is connected with; or because of the interest among some Western Rite Orthodox in praying versions of the Divine Office (besides the Monastic Diurnal, there is extensive discussion of the use of the Anglican Breviary by Orthodox (including a review in an Orthodox publication listed on their front page), the existence of Benedictine Orthodox monasteries in the US (adding a whole second meaning to OSB), etc. Am I wrong -- is it Evangelicals primarily moving into Orthodoxy?

Study Bibles

As far as Study Bibles go, I think that Study Bibles have great potential -- for example, I am very interested in Study Bibles that address linguistic issues with the source text or reception history. Reading such commentary can substantially enhance one's appreciation for the text (although they are not a particularly good way to learn about a religion -- they can be a good way to learn how a particular religion reads Scripture.) Now I must say that a number of Evangelical Study Bibles are often little more than extended pericopes (explaining the "action" in the text as if the reader were too dim to grasp it) and usually error-ridden. It seems to me that the OSB NT was a bit like this (although the accompanying essays were more informative). Some recent Evangelical study Bibles read like magazines with colorful photos and brief little 100-200 word essays. Still, I don't find any inherent problem with the idea of a study Bible, just in the execution. (While one may disagree theologically with mainline, Catholic, and Jewish study Bibles, they are usually addressed to a more educated audience and present more sophisticated material than Evangelical study Bibles)

The challenge of pedagogy

Having said all this, I do think it is a fair pedagogical question of how best to teach members of faith community about issues dealing with Scripture, history, mysticism, theology, etc. And it is not clear to me that the Orthodox Church has shone in this area. If Evangelicals succeed in teaching, perhaps it is become they often seem to aim low (if you ever read popular Evangelical books, or watch Evangelical TV, or listen to Evangelical radio, you will know what I mean). But where are the great Orthodox success stories in outreach and education in the United States? For example, what fraction of Orthodox not born into Greek or Russian speaking households master Koine or Slavonic? I suspect at least among traditional observant Jewish communities, a larger fraction of the congregation learns Hebrew. I sometimes think that Orthodox aim very high, but most fall by the wayside and many treasures of the religion are esoteric to the majority of Christian Orthodox.

To put this in the form of a question, I ask all those who read this, how good a job do you think Orthodoxy is doing in educating a wide fraction of its population about Scripture or theology or history or mysticism? What could Orthodoxy do better?

Felix Culpa said...

Iyov's comment is worthy of a full post, so I have designated it Cradle and Covert V (sounds like a bad horror flick, doesn't it?). Please comment there.

Fr. Gregory Jensen said...

Before my wife and I joined the Orthodox Church we were Catholic. Somewhat confusingly to many who seem to be fleeing their original tradition, we saw in Orthodoxy the fulfillment of the best in Catholicism.

It is only in recent years that I have come to appreciate that many come to the Orthodox Church for negative reasons. This doesn't negate their conversion, but it does rather color their experience of the Church. While I appreciate the work that has been done reaching out to Evangelical Christians, I think that we have done ourselves and potential Orthodox Christians a great disservice assuming that "convert" means someone from an Evangelical background.

Most of the materials published by Conciliar Press, for example, have been less than helpful in my attempts to explain Orthodoxy to all but a small segment of inquirers. This materials seem to assume, wrongly, that people are interested in Orthodoxy because we are unhappy with their own tradition. But, as I said above, there are some of us who are attracted to the Orthodox Church as the very positive fruit of our original tradition.

Focusing on unhappy or disaffected or disappointed in other Christian traditions is simply not healthy. Worse still I think it fosters in the Church a attitude--albeit a subtle attitude--that leaves outsiders with the impression that our Orthodoxy is fundamentally a rejection of Protestantism and Catholicism. While there are points of difference and disagreement to be sure, defining ourselves by what we DON'T believe just pushes away the vast majority of people who might otherwise enter the Church.

Thanks for the thoughtful post and comments.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory