Archive for November 26th, 2007

Psalm 50(1)

November 26, 2007

The singing of Psalm 50(1) from Romania

Tuesday – the Day of the Forerunner

November 26, 2007


Tuesdays in the Orthodox week, are dedicated to St. John the Forerunner and Baptist of our Lord (to use his full title). For me he is one of the most remarkable figures in all of Holy Scripture. Referred to by Christ as the “greatest of those born of women” (yet “less than any in the Kingdom of God”), he stands as the end of one Covenant and the bridge to the beginning of another. One of my favorite details of his life is that he is the first human being to show devotion to the Mother of God (“the babe in my womb leaped at the sound of your voice,” his mother said to the Theotokos in her greeting).

Orthodoxy has a devotion to him that is largely absent in Western Christianity. His icon, in some forms of Orthodox tradition, is always to be found on the icon screen that frames the Sanctuary (altar area) of the Church. The Church’s devotion to St. John underscores the fact that Orthodoxy venerates saints of the Old Testament as well as the New.

It is a part of Church Tradition that St. John, martyred prior to the arrest and sufferings of Christ, entered Hades ahead of the Lord to prepare the way of His coming there (on Holy Saturday) just as he had prepared the way for His coming on earth. It is a wilderness indeed that heard the crying of his voice!

One of my favorite icons of St. John is also on the icon screen in my parish. There, in typical iconic fashion, the icon shatters all the limits of time and space and depicts the whole of St. John and his message in the image of a single icon. He is dressed in camel hair, the mark of his asceticism. He is depicted with wings, like an angel, for he is the “Messenger (Angelos in Greek) who will go before My face.” A tree with an axe is shown marking his prophecy, “Therefore the axe is laid to the root.” His head is shown on a platter as well in one corner of the icon to note the manner of his death. Over time I have come to love this icon and have offered many moliebens (a service of special supplication) before it for particular needs in my congregation and family. I also have a few treasured stories of the icon from the lips of parishioners over the years.

St. John, Baptist and Forerunner of our Lord, is a link of Old and New Testament – and in that capacity is among the many reminders that the faith is a fullness. The Law has not been abolished but fulfilled. We have not forgotten the Old but now see it in the fullness of its meaning.

Troparion of the Forerunner – Tone 4

Prophet and Forerunner of the coming of Christ,
although we cannot praise you worthily,
we honor you in love at your nativity,
for by it you ended your father’s silence and your mother’s barrenness,
proclaiming to the world the incarnation of the Son of God!

Mission and Worship – America and the Orthodox

November 26, 2007


The following post is an expanded version of a comment I wrote in a recent thread. The question to which it responds is the Scriptural mandate of St. Paul (1 Cor. 9:19-23):

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

 To what extent should the Church be “enculturated” in its presentation of the Gospel? The question grew out of a discussion occasioned by observations on the development of “niche Churches or services” in which a specific market niche (of music) is used to target a particular segment of our culture. The answer I wrote, I feel, bears wider reading than is generally found in the comments section of the blog, and worthy of wider conversation. I have also edited and expanded it.

Orthodox mission historically has always sought to “enculturate” the gospel – whether in antiquity or in modern times. The Russian mission to Alaska in the 1700’s and early 1800’s immediately developed native alphabets, translated texts and trained and ordained native clergy. In antiquity the Orthodox held steadfastly to this rule and developed an alphabet for the Slavic languages and missionized Eastern Europe and Russia. Today it is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa in a very successful mission under the direction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. This enculturation is, for the Orthodox, a matter of dogma. It is the Incarnation in practice in the life of the Church.

The American experience (as well as Western Europe to some extent and Australia) is slightly different. Here, much of the Orthodox population did not arrive as missionaries but as economically oppressed peoples who then went to work in mines and factories. They were not trained as missionaries. For them, the Church came first to provide pastoral care for a “diaspora.” Thus there remains an “ethnic” portion of Orthodoxy in America who have, to some extent, maintained ties with their native cultures. When converts or those interested in Orthodoxy first encounter the Church in such ethnic settings – it is easy to conclude that the Orthodox are not interested in mission or that St. Paul’s mandate is being ignored. Sometimes such parishes are the only Orthodox option within an entire city or even larger area. But this is only one aspect of Orthodoxy and one occasioned by unique historical factors. That it will eventually cease and take on a more normative form is simply a given. Time, language and shifting circumstances will bring about a change regardless of other events.

 There is also a strong Orthodox mission component in America very sensitive to the mandate of St. Paul. But in thinking of culture and enculturation, we should not confuse American culture with the music, etc., being marketed by mass media to various niche groups. My teenage daughter recently gave my wife and I an education in the various groups that constitute her high school including the fashions that mark them and what music they listen to. She is very ecclectic and had with her samples of almost every group. It turned a Thanksgiving trip into an Anthropology class in American Teen, 101.

What we heard is not folk culture – it is not even necessarily American culture – it is mass culture – produced and marketed to people’s passions to exploit in many cases the very lowest elements of their nature. It provides a manufactured identity which is naturally sought by teenage insecurity. But, as such, it should not be confused with culture.

Much American music (by no means all) is to music what pornography is to art. St. Paul did not adopt the pornographic culture of Corinth for the purposes of the Church but rebuked it. The Orthodox Church is speaking English (increasingly) and has already become American (if there are Orthodox who think the Church is not enough American yet, go overseas and you’ll see just how American we are already). The Orthodox are engaging the main issues of this culture as clearly as anyone if not more clearly than most.

No one says that mainline Episcopalians are not American, but they have a recent history of funding abortion, and endorsing the revisionism of Hollywood culture. Such practices present only a distortion of the gospel, wrapping liberal American rhetoric in theological jargon. Thus arguments in favor of women’s ordination, regardless of Scriptures cited, are inevitably rooted in American Constitutional thought and not theology.

Orthodoxy speaks English and says clearly that abortion is wrong and destructive to both mother and child. It speaks to our consumerist economy and says that consumerism has no place in the spiritual life of the Church. Rather it is destructive of the human spirit. Worshipping God primarily in a manner that you find pleasing isn’t spiritual, it’s just more consumer nonsense. The Scriptures tell us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1).

Of course the Church has to be able to speak to a culture. My Orthodox parish is full of converts (possibly as much as 85% of the congregation). It ranges from those with a high school diploma only to PhD physicists – from every background – atheist, wiccan, protestant, catholic, evangelical, you name it. We have probably 8 or more nationalities (out of 150 people). They have not had to embrace a culture foreign to America in order to be Orthodox, but have to embrace God who will transform this and every culture that it might become the Kingdom of God. 

Ascribing to the notion that we have to cater to the market whims of American music in order to reach people is simply not true. Such ideas are destroying the very evangelical movement that gave them birth. Finney (one of the fathers of modern evangelicalism) was wrong about a number of things – but the modern translation of his evangelical mandate into the culture morphing of the “niche” Churches is perhaps the worst use ever made of his ideas. “Praise” is used as a very large metaphor to cover much that is simply an indulgence of the flesh.

I have spent plenty of time with youth of both highschool and college years, who have been nurtured in Orthodox life. They’re not anti-music, etc. (indeed I like a lot of contemporary music and appreciate my children sharing it with me), but these same youth know what it is to worship God and when it is time to lay aside “all earthly cares” and offer God praise that is worthy (if any praise can be worthy) and in a spirit that is yielded to God and not something else. Presenting the Gospel to youth in America very much means to draw them beyond the boundaries of their own “niche” and into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

I agree that we have to minister to a culture, but I do not think that each age group’s niche music is the same thing as culture – nor many other facets of American life. Having drive-through communion, for instance, (which is done in some few Protestant places), certainly incorporates an element of American culture – but it borders on blasphemy. Where do you draw the line when it comes to enculturation? I draw the line at accepting the received Tradition of the Church and translating that into our culture. This, of course, is a difficulty with Evangelicalism in which the Tradition of the Church has been rejected in favor of modernist assemblies.

If the Tradition of the Church is followed it will certainly mean that worship will be liturgical (which is not foreign to American culture) and according to the form given us from the Fathers, though it will be in English and in music that is accessible to Americans (thus far, the range of music within Orthodoxy has been sufficient for American evangelism, though we continue to write more). But our lives will be focused on the Gospel, and the Traditions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as given to us by the Fathers (Orthodoxy and Orthodopraxis). This is the saving work given to the Church.

American pop culture (the “culture” produced by the entertainment industry) is one of our major exports. It exists not as culture but as an economic activity (all they want is your money). When the Church marries itself to one of these “cultural” forms and offers it as worship it inevitably becomes a missionary tool of the American economic enterprise. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of American “rock and roll” Churches in Russia being established to compete with the native Orthodox Church. I have no doubt that such strategies are successful – but successful at what? Attendance numbers are no measure of the spiritual life. American Protestants are surprised when Orthodox in these countries resist their presence and see them simply as “foreign agents.” Culturally they are.

St. Paul’s rule in 1 Corinthians 9 is what the Orthodox describe as “economy.” Under the economy of salvation, I may stretch the limits of the canonical life (the regular life of the Church) in order to bring salvation to others. One of my favorite examples of such economy is found in the original Orthodox Alaska mission.

Missionaries there found a tribe of Native Alaskans who lived exclusively on cariboo. There were no vegetables in their diet – only cariboo. The first conundrum arose with the question of fasting. It is traditional for Orthodox to fast from meat, fish, wine, dairy and olive oil during a fast period (such as Great Lent). What to tell these native Alaskans? The missionaries wrote back to the Bishop who responded: “During the fast, tell them to eat less cariboo.” A perfect Orthodox solution.

Orthodox worship represents 2,000 years of Christian practice. It not only embodies the Gospel and our worship of God, but also teaches, in an embodied form, important aspects of the spiritual life. Learning sobriety, humility, the reality of the communion of saints, the capacity for awe and the ascesis of prayer (prayer is work – and hard work at that), are all very deep parts of Orthodox worship. Their loss in much of Western worship (particularly in the liturgical reforms of the last 50 years) have guaranteed a weakening of Christian spirituality at a time when it is needed more than ever.

If our culture is ever to wake up from its enthrallment to Mammon and enter seriously into the life God has prepared for us – I can see no vehicle other than Orthodoxy that is prepared to teach such an awakening in an embodied form. I have no idea what the future holds for our culture or for world culture. God alone knows that. But I do know that whatever the future holds, knowing God deeply and learning the practices proper to the Christian life will be more essential rather than less. “Dumbing down” our schools is not working for education – spiritually “dumbing down” Christianity cannot be good for us either. We do not need less – we need more – we need the fullness. Why ask for less? To read more on this last question see my article: How much is too little? How much is enough?