Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cradle and Convert, V

Long-suffering reader Iyov left the following extended comment to the last installment of Cradle and Convert. I am posting it as a main entry inasmuch as his questions and observations are eminently worthy of discussion, comment, and argument (of the civilized sort, naturally):
(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?
Hop to it, folks!


Fr. John Whiteford said...

Some years back I heard Fr. Peter Gillquist say that the two mostly converts to Orthodoxy in America were disaffected Episcopalians, and Charismatics. In my neck of the woods, the converts I have seen have included a fair number of former Catholics, some former Episcopalians, some former Reformed, and lots of Baptists and Charismatics.

Also, while not disagreeing with most of what you say about the distinctions between cradle and convert Orthodox, the fact is that from a pastoral perspective you do tend to see different issues between the two groups. Also parishes that tend to be all one or the other in America tend to have imbalances that reflect those issues. I think it is especially important for converts from a heterodox faith to understand that they need to go through a process of re-learning and unlearning that takes time and effort. I talk about that a bit in this article:

orrologion said...

The Orthodox Church, in practice, has a hard time just getting people to the services on time or apart from Sunday mornining much less educating them on the Scriptures beyond the Sunday pericopes, which are limited in scope and regularly repeated.

That being said, there is a wealth of information on the Orthodox view of Scripture available for the interested Orthodox Christian or inquirer.

Manley's "The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox" is a wonderful resource combining (all?) pericopes for the various Orthodox services together with patristic comment. the only problem is its typesetting which is very difficult to read comfortably.

Theophylact's commentaries on the Gospels are in print.

Also, Catholic, Protestant and academic sources have made available a wealth of patristic commentary available, which is Orthodox. CCEL has Schaff's entire series available for free online, which is a great way to get answers to questions one might have on a particular Bible passage.

I have also found the ACCS series edited by Oden to be a very interesting look at how particular Bible passages were understood in the patristic age. (The only fault being the introductions to the sections, which are usually slanted to some degree on contentious issues and to the inclusion without note of writings by Fathers deemed heretical, e.g., Pelagius, Theodoret, Origen).

Personally, I would like to see translations of more recent, Orthodox commentaries of Scripture, e.g., I understand St. Theophan the Recluse wrote extensive biblical commentaries.

Anonymous said...

As far as educating the people, I have to be honest and say that the "cradles" in my parish are woefully ignorant about their faith. It is not simply that they can't quote chapter and verse like many "converts" of the evangelical ilk. They might not even know that there are two Testaments in the Bible, how many Gospels there are and who wrote them, often have little or no grasp of Church history, the councils, etc. Often the things that are most representative of their Orthodox faith are the local customs and traditions that they remember from childhood: pysanky eggs, Pascha baskets, etc. Often their faith borders on the superstitious. In other words, they tend to major in the minors.

Do not get me wrong: I am not downplaying these local traditions and customs nor poo-pooing them. But it is usually these "cradle" Orthodox folks who lack a basic understanding of the Scriptures, Church history, etc. who are the most secularized.

The irony is that the "cradle Orthodox" in America are much more likely to be relativistic, secularized, universalist, whatever-works-for-you Americans than the "converts" who have come to the Orthodox Church because they are fleeing all of that stuff and looking for The Church.

I grant readily that the "converts" have their own issues to deal with, and there are real problems there. I have come to believe that there is no solution but prolonged exposure to the Church as a living, practicing, liturgical community. (The real danger with converts is that they think if they have read 20 books they have it, all the while making excuses for skipping services, confession, etc.)

I am withholding my name so as not to offend any of my dear folks -- cradle and convert -- who might happen upon this site.

In Christ,
an anonymous Orthodox priest

Ps: Love the blog!

Tyler said...

Do the Orthodox REALLY want to defend their theology and faith? I mean, I come from a denomination within Protestantism (Reformed Calvinism) in which it is highly admired to be a bulldog of a defender of the doctrines of the Reformed confessions (Westminster, Heidelberg, Belgic, Dordt, etc.). Nowhere in Orthodoxy (thus far) have I seen the same zeal for systematic bullet-point defending like I saw within Reformed circles. I just don't think it's part of Orthodoxy. Everywhere I turn to get a good summation of what the Orthodox hold to, it's always, "Well, this book isn't 'systematic' like you're used to," or some such line. So, I've just come to not expect much of a defense for Orthodox theology. Or, perhaps the defense I have seen just looks different from what I'm used to in the Reformed camp.

The poster is right in that most Evan-jelly-cal authors and books are aimed low and don't have much meat, but for a while there, when I was doing my first reading into Orthodoxy, there weren't many "scholarly" articles or books out there that I could find. I think the first real attractive writer I found was Florovsky. I read one of his articles on or whatever the site is and was finally assured that there are some scholarly Orthodox writers out there (and then of course later I started to read Schmemann and the like), but Florovsky was what seemed like my first introduction to real scholarly Orthodox writing. So, I think the argument can go both ways and that you get lower quality writing in both the Orthodox and Protestant.

And this is not meant to be a bash on either the Orthodox or Protestants; just something I've noticed.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I had been a lapsed Catholic (through sloth and youthful indifference, mostly, not outrage) for many years before coming to learn more about Orthodoxy. What I found interesting was that, as Fr Gregory Jensen mentioned in the other post's comments, was that I certainly experienced more of a recognition of Orthodoxy as a fuller expression of what I'd always believed, rather than a different and better one. Specifically, I didn't know various of the doctrinal differences that well at all as a Catholic, and came to find that in a couple of instances, my reading had revealed that I had an Orthodox understanding of them all along, which would've been categorized as misunderstandings in a Catholic context. This was about ten years ago, and I was happily received into the Church a couple years later.

I don't hold any rancour toward my Catholic upbringing at all. I'm still fond (as readers of my blog will have noticed) of some of the older pre-Vatican II expression of American Catholicism and Catholicism in general. "Modern" Catholicism seems quite different from that older kind that I'm more familiar with, because it's closer to what I grew up with, and it's also, frankly, much closer to Orthodoxy, in its expression, rigour, tenor, and in that indescribable flavor of it.

Tyler, there is still much out there. I'd recommend a subscription to ATLAS Full Text Plus, which'll give you access to the back catalogue of the Greek Orthodox Theological Review and Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly. In addition to Florovsky (whose Collected Works are inexplicably out of print), there is, of course, Lossky, though I think much of his work is still only in French. There is also Zizioulas, Louth, and Pelikan (the latter two converted). None of these are even close to fluffy. Fr John Chryssavgis too. There are quite a few such, though these come first to mind. I just don't think much of it is available online. Also, the more populist writers naturally gain more attention through being hawked more prominently. I'm sure others can contribute to such a list. But also it all comes back to the primary foundation of every one of these power-hitters: the Church Fathers are the base, the foundation of all that they write. Familiarity with them is absolutely paramount, as this is the key to Orthodox theology. And there are always more of them being translated. Happy reading!

orrologion said... 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?

I often quip to the priest at my Greek church that Orthodox Sunday School is called Vespers and Matins. Lack of attendance at these services and their performance in tongues even foreign-born Orthodox usually understand little of means that we are educating the laity on how to not pay attention, let your mind wander and focus on the aethetics, the feel of a service, the quality of the chanter/choir, etc. No wonder everyone shows up late: standing around incomprehensibly for 2 hours doesn't seem a good use of time, might as well come in time for Communion and antidoron. Put that together with a laxening of requirements for communion and the other sacraments, positions of authority in the church, etc. and the knowledge and deep practice of the faith is killed by a thousand economias.

Gina said...

Most of the converts I know personally are of evangelical or charismatic background. Lots of Baptists. Some make pitstops in Protestant liturgical churches on their way to Orthodoxy.

Tyler said...


Yes, i've heard of Lossky and some of the others you've mentioned. Unfortunately school reading takes up most of my time during the school year, but I will look into those you've mentioned this summer. Thanks!

Mac an t-Saoir said...

Forgive me all, because this is less of an answer and more of a concern.

As I'm watching this conversation unfold, there's something rather unsettling which seems to be at the root of a lot of this. By "this" I suppose I have in mind particularly the OSB and its stated project, and the now, ever-present call for the church to find new and improved methods of teaching and evangelizing. And let me be clear, this is coming from my own personal experience and isn't directed towards anyone in this conversation.

What I find so disturbing in all of it is that there seems to be a kind of unstated urgency to reformat or somehow refurbish the Church's teaching to make it more palatable for the contemporary Orthodox Christian or inquirer. I wonder if the the terms "cradle" and "convert" aren't somehow related to this project. It feels as if there may be a bit of "sizing-up" going on in oder for the Church's theology to be re-fit for the modern man.

I have to say, I admire the intention of the project. But what I don't understand is that if this is indeed the way it works, how can the Fathers of the Church be of any value to us Orthodox living in the present-day culture. Would a person reading any particular Father not simply get incredibly mired down in deciphering through the cultural lingo employed by the theologian. And for what purpose would one do it, if the value of the particular Saint was contained in how well he had managed to appropriate Orthodoxy to the culture in which he was immersed.

I think its clear that generalizations could, and even must, be made about the problems faced in any culture or subculture (I have in mind here 'cradle' and /or 'convert'). But isn't it the case that Christianity is primarily about the restoration of the particular person, within the context of a relationship to his Creator and his fellow human beings, and therefore to his culture?

What I'm very poorly trying to get at is that I think Orthodoxy is concerned with people, who just happen to be in some culture. I do not mean to downplay how important a part a culture plays in the life of an individual. But I think the Fathers of the Church spoke to real people, who struggled with real passions, in the real pursuit of virtue just as any one of us does today, however that may be expressed within the cultural context.

I guess I simply feel somewhat marginalized by things like the OSB and this revamping project I hear rumors of. I would like to think that I am simply another man who is struggling, by the grace of God, in his church just as every Orthodox Christian has for last two millennium.

All this to say, I don't think the Church's teaching or method of teaching (whatever that means) needs to be remodeled in order for me or any other person of this day to experience the full relevance or depth of it. I have a suspicion that what we're really looking for here is simply a living, modern Saint.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. "Anonymous",
While I would grant that some of what you say about the "cradles" in your parish is true, perhaps we need to step back from what one needs to be Orthodox. Let us take my grandfather for instance, who was born, lived, and died in a small Serbian village (apart from 1912-1918 when he was fighting). I would be willing to bet he could not tell you what the issues at each of the Ecumenical Councils was, he did not have a bookshelf groaning under the weight of patristic commentary, lives of the Saints, or the other various tomes most converts seem to think they need. I spite of all these gross handicaps, I would ask you, was there something keeping him from living as a faithful Orthodox Christian? God knows most of the villagers during that time were illiterate, did not owning or hearing the scriptures read outside of the services of the church make them not Orthodox?
I'm not advocating willful ignorance, but the BIGGEST problem I notice in most converts is a lack of obedience and trusting Christ's Church. Very simply, when a convert is told something, instead of accepting and obeying, they need to know why. So they immerse themselves in the theology of the matter, the history of the matter, the patristic commentary of the matter, when they would be better off simply doing as they are told and being obedient.
The best analogy I can use is a military one. Foot soldiers in the army are not expected to know strategy, and worry about things beyond their duty, they are given orders and enough training to carry them out, the why of it is not for them to worry about.

orrologion said...

I wonder if your Grandfather could understand the Slavonic of the services. He may very well have if he grew up in the Church services from an early age, and perhaps Serbo-Croatian was yet closer to Slavonic (or has always been). So, he could hear the readings from the Bible and the Fathers, he could understand the hymns. This is the theology of the Church and he had a lifetime of graduate seminars - assuming he regularly attended services beyond simply Sunday morning Liturgy.

In America and the West we have a different problem since we have a mixing of peoples: those that grew up in the continuity of faith and those entering from a different paradigm. We also have a break in continuity within communities and families of people that have been Orthodox for centuries as they immigrated to non-Orthodox countries, lost the faith support of the community and had to learn how to 'choose' to be and act Orthodox in a very different way. Most important, they lose profiency in the language of their forebears, which offered them at least a rudimentary foundation from which to easily learn the liturgical language of their Church. Add to that the fact that a given Orthodox Christian may have settled in an area with no Orthodox churches or with an Orthodox Church that is trying to maintain their own local Orthodox traditions and language and you have a total breakdown in the process of Tradition.

My personal preference is for our services to look just like the services in a parish in a traditional Orthodox country in a community similar to whatever ours are here (urban, rural, affluent, suburban, poor, mixed ethnic, mixed religion, mixed race) - except in English. We should try to emulate the piety, emulate the stance, practices, etc. to swim in the very element of Orthodox with understanding. The fact that we are Americans, immigrants of children of immigrants, converts from nothing or something in particular will, of course, leave its stamp on how well we emulate our fathers in the faith. This was true of the Greeks accepting the faith from the Jews, the Bulgarians and Russians accepting it from the Greeks and the Aleuts and we modern-day, mongrel Americans accepting it from the Russians or the Greeks or the Arabs or... But we will have tried our best to be just like them in the practice of their (now our) faith. It is only by looking back or around that we can figure out whether and what the 'essentials' of the Faith might be, but our task is not to minimize and slide by but to fully, completely conform ourselves to living witnesses to and bearers of the Faith.

Trying to make the Church 'seeker friendly' by focusing on commonalities or luring them in with 2D caricatures of Orthodoxy is simply setting them up to leave the Faith once the evil one starts to attack, once we are confronted with Orthodoxy beyond our parish or jurisdiction or country, once we hear the services and read the Fathers. I think it is better people not convert, rather than convert to a mirage of Orthodoxy and later be tempted to apostatize.

That being said, I don't think any of us would demand that parish life be equated with monastic life. We all require, give and expect a certain degree of condecension. We don't demand babies earn their keep. What we are really all discussing is how much economia is too much economia, how much akrivia is too much akrivia, have we gone too far, have we not gone far enough, are we on the wrong track?

Anonymous said...


Glory to Jesus Christ!

The example of your grandfather highlights well my concern for the "cradle" Orthodox Christians in my parish and elsewhere in the diaspora. But first of all remember we were talking (or at least I was) about "cradles" in America and the diaspora, not those in their native Orthodox cultures. That is a different matter altogether. What I am talking about is the descendants of people like your grandfather who leave their homelands and who live now in a vastly different situation and culture from the village. Surrounded by everything from the hedonistic materialism of the modern west to the heterodox forms of "Christianity" that use many of the same words as the Orthodox Church but with differing shades of meaning, these Orthodox Christians most likely will not be able to maintain the same sort of simple "village" piety as their ancestors, a piety that can be quite holy. Literacy is no prerequisite for holiness, and our hymns often refer to the simple fishermen (the apostles) as the true theologians.

In the new context, however, the descendants of these simple believers will almost certainly need to be better educated about their faith in order to even maintain their faith in the new world. The big question is how best to educate. I, for one, think that there is no replacement for being steeped in the Liturgical life of the Church. But reading the Bible, the Fathers, attending good instructional "classes" with a knowledgeable priest or deacon (or a lay Christian who is truly instructed and not just well read) are also important.

I would hazard an opinion that this is not only true in America and the West but in Russia and Serbia, etc, since the end of the Soviet era. Like it or not (me: not), the likelihood of the return to the village is not very good anywhere in the internet age. I hope I am wrong.

In Christ,
Fr "Anon"

Anonymous said...

The above esteemed commentators all have raised excellent issues. I would care to address Felix Culpa's question, "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?" in light of his second paragraph entitled, "From whence converts".

What Mr. Culpa is observing is the reluctant disconnect from the convert's heterodox past. This is especially true amongst the Western Rite Orthodox (note: there is at this time in history no such thing as "Western Orthodoxy" since its demise shortly after 1054). This observation is unfortunately reserved for the Antochians. I do not see in the Western Rite communities of either ROCOR or the Milan Synod a clinging to a heterodox past, at least to the dramatic degree demonstrated by Antiochian Western Rite Orthodox. They have been criticized elsewhere –and the hierarchy who have allowed this to occur—to being not true converts to genuine Orthodoxy but Episcopalians/Anglicans disgruntled by the direction of their heterodox community having found “safe haven” for their traditional Anglo-Catholicism in the Antiochian Archdiocese. There has been marginal efforts in restoring a pre-schism Western liturgical life; instead great condescension and allowance has been given to the Book of Common Prayer as their liturgical foundation towards what is ironically referred to, even if honorifically, as St. Tihkon’s Liturgy. I give greater credit to those communities observing the Liturgical ordo (typikon) of St Gregory the Great. However, even here, many if not all have settled for the Tridentine version instead of utilizing scholarly labors to recover the pre-schism Orthodox ordo of St. Gregory. The Antiochians have watered down –hence compromised—Holy Orthodoxy by their acceptance and fellowship with the non-Chalcedonians (Oriental “Orthodox”) and I believe the en masse conversions of the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil (SSB) communities and the Evangelical “Orthodox” communities have directly contributed. Look at the leadership of Antiochian Archdiocese’s Department of Missions & Evangelism. One of their goals is specifically to “Cultivate relationships with independent (generally Protestant) communities which desire to become Orthodox” [ see here ].

The bottom-line here is in the quality of the Church’s catechesis. How prepared are potential converts prior to their Baptism and Chrismation? And of those who wish to maintain a Western liturgical life: does their liturgical corpus adequately teach the ancient Faith as held and preserved by the Church Fathers? There are many more contributors to the compromising of the Faith by “world Orthodoxy”: namely, political ecumenism, masonry, syncreticism, the application of papal authority to Orthodox Patriarchates and the heterodox mindset of thousands of “converts” who have yet to be catechetically transfigured.

Fr. Stavrophoremonk Symeon
Hermitage of St. John the Theologian

Anonymous said...

Orologian is right, it's about Matins and Vespers, and if folks can't or won't attend then they do lose out on Orthodox fundamentals.

In the past I'm sure there were very good Christians,like Radoje S's grandfather, who did not read about the saints ,patristics or even scripture, but I'm willing to bet that they paid attention to what was going on during church services and had knew much scripture and even the lives of the saints by heart from constant,attentive and frequent church attendance.

Nowadays we're blessed to be able to read and own bibles and learn more about the saints and Church Fathers,so why not as long as it aids us spiritually and isn't just accumulated knowledge taking up headspace.

After reading Mac an t-Saoir's comment I have to wonder if it is possible that Western Christians might be in danger of trying to westernize the Orthodox church? How do good,true cradle Orthodox Christians living in America get that way? Also, Radoje's comment that converts need to know the why to everything rather than simply obeying is an excellent point too. I explain some things to my children, but I do expect obedience at all times regardless of whether or not they understand my reasoning. In fact, in an emergency it's imperative that they simply trust me and do as i say.