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The Emerging Church and Orthodoxy

[Precipice Magazine, July 2007]

1.) Can you offer some insight about how the Orthodox Church understands evangelism? Do you feel that, overall, it is considered a priority when compared with Protestant Evangelicalism?

The Orthodox Church has a beautiful history of evangelism — but, unfortunately, it is largely history. A factor we tend to forget, which has made the path of Eastern Christianity so different from that of the West, is that for the most part they have not been free. Many Orthodox lands have been under Muslim rule for over a millennium, virtually since Islam began. (Was it Chesterton who said, don’t ridicule the Balkans for being so bellicose; if they hadn’t fought Islam to a standstill, we’d be fighting the same battles in Paris.) Russia and the Slavic countries, on the other hand, just emerged from nearly a century of Communism—20 million Orthodox died for their faith, including hundreds of thousands of pastors.

Orthodox who immigrated to the US thought of themselves as outsiders for a long time. You see a bit of this in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” where the child Toula compares herself unfavorably with the slim, blonde girls in her school. Orthodox for the most part are not European, their languages don’t use the Roman alphabet, and they eat very different foods, so they are inclined to cling to each other. (The branch of Orthodoxy my family joined is Arabic, which must bear an extra degree of ethnic prejudice.) Setting out to evangelize their neighbors just wouldn’t occur to them.

(An aside on that: all Orthodox Churches teach the same faith; even the ancient theological misunderstanding between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches has been bridged. So we could say that today’s Greek, Indian, Ukrainian, Ethiopian, Russian, etc Orthodox are akin to the Italian, French, German Catholic churches a century ago: different ethnic expressions of a single faith.  As time transform immigrant identity into a full sense of citizenship, the prospect for a single, united American Orthodox Church continues to rise. But, unlike those 19th Roman Catholic churches, Orthodox don’t expect to be ruled by a single world-wide ruler, like the pope.  Orthodoxy is organized at the level of “people, tribe, tongue, and nation,” and that is felt to be just about right. Unity comes from common belief instead of external organization—an endoskeleton rather than an exoskeleton. Rome and western Europe were part of this arrangement until roughly a thousand years ago, when papal claims to rulership could no longer be ignored.)

There is an American organization to support missions at home and abroad, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center , as well as a relief organization, the International Orthodox Christian Charities . Both great organizations, but certainly not as developed as Protestant and Catholic missionary and relief efforts.

The historic pattern or style of evangelism is interesting, however, compared with the West. While Rome decided to do everything in Latin, in order to guarantee uniformity, in the East the emphasis was on making the faith understandable. So the Scriptures and liturgies were always translated into the vernacular, and where there was no written language, missionaries would devise one. In the 4th century, St Mesrops Mashtots developed a language for the Armenians, and (I love this) he based it on the decorations he saw on their homes and around their windows; he wanted to give them an alphabet that they would find beautiful. In the 9th century, Ss Cyril and Methodius developed an alphabet for the Slavs, and in the 19th century, Russian missionaries who crossed the Bering Strait to evangelize the peoples of Alaska ended up devising alphabets for 6 different dialects. Orthodox missionizing prefers to retain and honor elements of native culture as far as possible, which in Alaska, eg, included retaining totem poles. The book “Orthodox Alaska” by Fr. Michael Oleksa does a good job of using the Alaska mission as a template to explore what Orthodox evangelism is like.

2.) I have found that many Evangelicals are surprised to hear that the Holy Spirit is so central to the experience within the Orthodox Church. I think this is because they equate a “spirit-filled” church with a charismatic, Pentecostal context. Can you describe the Orthodox understanding of what the moving of the Holy Spirit amongst the community looks like?

It’s funny, but I’ve noticed that people who come into Orthodoxy from a Pentecostal or charismatic background can be the ones who have the easiest transition. Orthodoxy is, after all, a pre-modern church—so it includes a natural expectation that there are miracles, healings, angels, and so forth. When you start expecting those things, they start to happen. A few years ago we had a family visiting that included a 3 year old girl. During coffee hour she saw my husband (the pastor) and told her mom, “There’s the man who was singing with the angels!”

We also have an ancient liturgy that gathers the community to pray over the oil that will be used to anoint for healing during the coming year. My husband told me one year that he knew of three people who had arisen from deathbeds after being anointed with this oil.

The worship, of course, is not “free” like it might be in a charismatic church. The thing that struck me about the liturgy when I started attending was how *intimate* it is. There is a real theme of humility, tenderness, and intimacy that you don’t get in Western formal worship. In fact, it is not “formal” in that sense. There’s much less fussiness than we had in our Episcopal “high church” worship. The worship is gorgeously beautiful, but not stuffy; the kind of beautiful, joyous combination you aim at for Christmas dinner or a wedding reception. And a service like the one for the anointing oil puts in the priest’s mouth prayers that are almost embarrassing, as he stresses to the congregation that he is a sinner, that his thoughts are sinful and unworthy, that the power does not come from him but from God alone.

Orthodoxy also expects that there are evil spirits. I was talking with an Emerging Church leader a couple of weeks ago who told me he had “difficulty with those conceptions of reality” (not all Emerging Church folks have a problem with the “supernatural”, I understand). Orthodoxy is not so interested in exorcisms and demonic possession, however — while that no doubt still exists, it’s extremely rare. But there are all those other references to the devil or evil spirits in Scripture, eg, “I saw Satan fall like a lightning bolt from heaven,” or Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness—there were no witnesses to that, so we know about it only because Jesus decided to tell his disciples the story. He must have wanted to equip his disciples for such attacks. St. Paul and St. Peter also stress the presence of evil spirits and how to guard against them, and those passages aren’t about exorcisms or poltergeist tricks. It’s a shame to toss all that good advice overboard, when virtually every generation of Christians before us has taken it soberly and seriously.

So, yes, demonic apparitions and tricks are very rare. The most common way evil spirits work is by insinuating thoughts, which may entice but might just as well cause despair, self-hatred, fear. Hebrews 2 says that the evil one has always controlled the human race through fear of death. Being alert to disabling thoughts, and knowing how to repel them, is a large part of Orthodox spirituality. Even if you stumble at the thought of evil spirits, everyone believes in the existence of unwanted, debilitating thoughts. The content of Orthodoxy is a “science” of spiritual growth, a set of spiritual disciplines that heal the “tree” from the roots, so it can bear good fruit. The whole aim of Orthodoxy is to saturate the entire person with the presence of Christ, so that we are literally Christ-bearers. The word for this is “theosis” — like a cloth soaks up dye by osmosis, we soak up Christ by theosis.

By the way, a good book that gives an “inside view” of what this spirituality is like in practice, with all its “spirit-filled” elements, is “Mountain of Silence” by Kyriacos Markides. I should warn that the author is coming from a very idiosyncratic place; he is a sociology professor who has come to fervent belief in miracles, evil spirits, theosis, and he is profoundly in awe of the wisdom of the Orthodox Church. What he doesn’t get so much is Jesus. In his subsequent book he makes it even more clear that he thinks we need a version of Orthodox spirituality that acknowledges that it is divisive to insist on the necessity of Jesus Christ, and recognizes the universality of the path to enlightenment. Strange, isn’t it? Lots of people say, “I like Jesus but I have no use for the church” — he’s the opposite. Anyway, what makes this book so valuable is not the words of the author, but the transcripts of taped conversations he had with a very experienced, though pretty young, abbot. The book has become very popular among Orthodox because of the way this abbot explains Orthodox spirituality and practice; there really is no other book that is as accessible to contemporary non-Orthodox readers. So I recommend it, but read Fr Maximos closely while taking the connecting authorial material with a grain of salt.

3.) In At the Corner of East and Now you mention that while Protestants tend to see Orthodox and Catholics as closely related brethren, Orthodox tend to see Protestants and Catholics this way. Can you explain the difference in understanding?

It’s funny, but I remember when my editor was going over that chapter, he wrote in the margin that I needed to give some examples of what Protestants and Catholics disagree about; as a Jewish man, he didn’t know what they were.

It took me a very long time to grasp how Orthodoxy is different. As I said above, there is really no book that encapsulates it. I learned, I guess, the old-fashioned way, the way people have assimilated this faith from the beginning, by going to worship and listening. The words of the services are very rich and full of teaching. The feast in early June of the Council of Nicea, for example—the hymns recount it all thoroughly, explain what Arius taught, why he was wrong, what the council decided, etc. Since worship has been in the vernacular through history, even illiterate peasants could get a thorough theological education, just by going to church and listening.

Gradually, gradually, over several years, I began to grasp how it differed from both Catholic and Protestant traditions. First, there is an expectation that every Christian (every person, actually) is called to this transformation in Christ. It’s not just for “mystics” — in fact, there is no word for “mysticism” in Orthodoxy. There is just the normal Christian life. We don’t have pietistic (some would say narcissistic) “spirituality”, because the essential test of growth in Christ is humility and active love for others.

Another difference from Western Christianity is that this transformation includes the body as well as the soul. There isn’t the dualism that keeps troubling the West. This is why, in the early church, they gathered the bloody remains of martyrs and placed them under the altar (in Revelation, John hears the voice of the martyrs crying out from beneath the altar). The body of a Christian, not just his mind or soul, literally participates in Christ (“partakers of the divine nature” says St Peter), which is also evident from their belief that the Eucharist is really Christ’s Body and Blood. Post-Communion prayers speak frankly of the physical Eucharist passing “through me, to all my joints, my kidneys, my heart” — un-squeamish about that. Perhaps Platonic dualism didn’t take root in Eastern Christianity because early Christians were so often in debate against “philosophers,” who were recognized as pagans. We still use many ancient hymns that celebrate the victory of Christians over “philosophers.” (Also, regarding dualism, St. Augustine had virtually no role in Orthodoxy, and his explication of Original Sin doesn’t fit Orthodox understanding of the Fall’s effects.)

A big factor is that Western theology was based on the Scriptures in Latin translation, and as radically as the Reformers broke with Catholicism, they still unknowingly built on the same Latin-language thought-world. (St. Augustine could not read Greek well, and was led astray by a mistranslation in Romans 5:12). An example is the NT Greek word “energeia,” energy, which appears all through St Paul, eg, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is energizing in you, both to will and to energize for his good pleasure.” But there was no Latin equivalent, so when Jerome made his translation he used “opus,” work. A sculptor creates a statue and that is his opus, but it is separate from him; he’s not “energizing” within it. So you see that this creates a very different sense of whether and how God is present—the reverberations go on and on.

In Orthodoxy, salvation is a free gift, entirely by grace (grace is an aspect of God’s “energy,” rather than a separate created thing). We are saved by being rescued from the power of death and the evil one, like the Hebrews rescued from Pharaoh—not by Jesus making a payment to the Father. That theory didn’t develop till the 11th century, after the East-West split. Substitutionary atonement strikes native Orthodox as strange and somewhat repellent. Though, as I said, they emphatically believe in salvation by grace, so you see how it cuts across Western categories.

Those are just some of the examples of where Protestants and Catholics have a theological “family resemblance” that Orthodox don’t share. It gets even more complicated when the terms have just a shade of different meaning. I’ve been Orthodox 14 years and I’m still learning. Sometimes I think I’ll try to write the book that would sum all this up, and sometimes I think it can’t be done; you can’t get it any other way than by living it, soaking in it.

4.) Can you name a couple of the most common misunderstandings/misrepresentations you come across- in terms of North American conceptions of the Orthodox Church?

Probably the major misunderstanding is to visualize the early church as united under the rule of Rome. In that view, the Orthodox broke off to become a smaller, headless, inconsequential group—identical to Rome in every way, except frozen in the past. But a moment’s reflection show the early church wasn’t like that. All of the 7 “Ecumenical Councils” were held in the East. The great majority of early Christian documents—the Desert Fathers, the Church Fathers—are written in Greek (including the New Testament). Constantine the Great was ruler over the Roman Empire, after all, and though he moved his capital to Byzantium (which he renamed Constantinople), it continued to be the Roman Empire for another thousand years. In Turkey today, Christians are still known as “Rum.”

Of course in the West, the version of the story where Rome is the center of everything is the only version people hear. It was frustrating during the “DaVinci Code” furor to hear this reflexive elision, that there were Christians in Jerusalem, and then everything vanishes except in Europe, and then we’re talking about a painter who lived 1500 years later. The entire Eastern side of the story, where Christianity goes into Africa and Asia and flourishes, is ignored. Also, much of what the Reformers reacted against in medieval Rome is not part of Orthodoxy. In my new book, “The Lost Gospel of Mary,” , I try to discover through ancient texts how the Virgin Mary was originally seen, and as I say in the Intro, “the early middle-eastern church was not the medieval European church.”

As one Orthodox priest says, when he went back and checked his Church History notes from Lutheran seminary, they covered the centuries between the Apostles and the Reformation in 3 pages. I guess if I could just persuade people that they don’t know what Orthodoxy is, I’d consider it a good start.


5.) Eastern Orthodoxy is a fast-growing religious movement in North America. Why do you think this is the case?

Orthodoxy is fastest-growing in terms of percentage growth, but not in terms of numbers, I believe. The growth is undeniably due to conversions. In the jurisdiction (not denomination) that I belong to, the Archdiocese of Antioch (middle-eastern background, headquarters in Damascus on the “street called Straight”), the clergy are now 78% converts. This influx of educated, enthusiastic converts, lay as well as clergy, are bringing revival to the church. Historically, the church represented home-away-from-home for new immigrants, where they could speak the familiar language and eat familiar foods. I can sure understand that, when I picture living as an immigrant in Asia; the church attended by other Americans would be such a haven. But there is the danger that the church, obliged to fill so many roles, becomes a cultural emblem rather than truly a church. Praise God, I don’t see revised, “updated,” fashionable theology in Orthodox churches, but I sure do see nominalism (I don’t mean philosophical nominalism, of course, but practicing the faith in a nominal way). When I travel and speak in Orthodox churches, longtime church members often tell me, “You converts are teaching us about our own faith, things we never knew.” So there is renewal in Orthodoxy, though not at the numbers “fastest-growing” might suggest.

6.) Can you explain why a postmodern generation might be attracted to Orthodoxy in ways that their parents and grand-parents might not have been?

Something generational is happening with Evangelicalism, and I suppose we don’t yet know quite what it is. There is persistent restlessness—I keep getting books from writers who are trying to define the problem and solve it, and everyone has a different theory. So I think one of the reasons postmodern folks are more open, to Orthodoxy as well as other alternatives, is that current Protestantism is less satisfactory than it used to be.

Orthodoxy itself is appealing, I think, initially because it is visibly beautiful, and because it is rooted in something other than a Baby Boomer’s bright idea. As an explorer draws nearer, he finds that it is more guileless and unstudied, less “organizational”, than Roman Catholicism (Orthodox projects can be *very* disorganized, compared with Western standards. There’s a saying, “I don’t believe in organized religion, I’m Orthodox.”) Eventually he sees that the center holding it together is a way of life in Christ, a “Way” to nourish the presence of Christ inside as it grows and overflows.

At that point of exploration, everything reverses — the icons, chant, prayers and so forth are no longer seen as appealing accessories, but as elements, outgrowths, of an organic life, the life of Christ’s people continuing without interruption from the earliest days.

The problem is that the person, a pastor or worship leader, who gathers some of these elements and places them in their own Protestant context, discovers that they immediately begin to fade. The reasons these worship elements have power in the first place is because they are rooted in an organic, continuing life. They have authority because they are part of that larger, communal, life. But when a person chooses and removes them, like cutting roses in a garden, they begin to die. The authority is no longer the living community, but the “chooser”, the expert or worship leader who made the selection. He can’t help but interpose himself, standing between the ancient community and the attendees at the worship he designs.

I hasten to say that of course not everyone is going to pack their bags and become Orthodox. Nor do Orthodox believe that you have to do that in order to be saved, not at all. I’m just recognizing an inevitability. You can’t choose some elements of Orthodoxy without being a chooser. It’s like recognizing that you can buy spices on your trip to Nepal, and try to cook the same dish when you get home, but it’s not going to be the same. We are so plagued with the life-style, thought-style of being consumers. The expert chooses and removes worship elements, and each worshipper who comes in the door browses through what he offers and does the same thing. Profound community doesn’t quite gel, not the way it does when you immerse in a continuous timeless faith. It remains a gathering of separate people who have chosen to be there, and who choose what they like and dislike.

No wonder there is such loneliness. When I give speeches, I see the most audience reaction (chiefly, a kind of freezing-up and going silent) when I say the word “loneliness.” But on the other hand, overcoming that by plunging into an ancient community will necessarily mean surrendering a lot of freedom, and surrendering your right to chart your own course, accountable to no one. I don’t want to trivialize the difficulty of that choice, and again I’m not saying it’s necessary to salvation. But it has been a blessing to me. I increasingly think that no one *can* chart their own spiritual course. You will inevitably go in circles, guided solely by the things you *already* think, the myriad unseen prejudices you already hold. I have become convinced that Orthodoxy continues the consensus of the original church, so it feels like a safe place to me.

Oh, another thing — back to what I said above about miracles, healing, evil spirits — speaking of postmodernism. Pomos are famously wide-open to spiritual things, but I expect them to draw the line well before *that* point. It will be an element of Orthodoxy that they find hard to take. The so-called “supernatural” (it’s not “super”, of course, but just God’s energeia active in creation) is likely to make a postmodernist feel, more than anything else, embarrassed. Educated, sophisticated people just can’t believe that. They may turn out to be more modernist than post-, on that point. There is more peer pressure flowing around nearly every decision we make than we recognize.


7.) In your review of Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, you identify concerns about the portrayal of Mary Magdalene; understandably suggesting that the portrayal was not rooted in a biblical history. I wonder- what do you do with Orthodox understandings that differ with the consensus of biblical scholarship on a certain issue?

Here’s an example of something that I’ve only recently begun to grasp about Orthodoxy. It’s that the early church was singularly uninterested in the historical basis of the Old Testament. All they wanted to know was how it spoke of Jesus—“you search the scriptures, and them they are that speak of me,” as Jesus said. They essentially went over the OT with a metal detector, looking for foreshadowing of Christ, and they went over it inch by inch, not the way you do when you’re reading for story. An example is, Gabriel’s word to Mary that the Holy Spirit would “overshadow” her is seen to be foretold in Habbakuk 3:3, the Holy One coming forth from a “dark and shadowed mountain”. I think you’d have to read Habbakuk a whole lot of times before that occured to you. Perhaps it helped that they were hearing it read out loud in worship, chanting it; maybe that made similar words pop out.

So the Orthodox understanding is often likely to be different than the consensus of biblical historical-critical scholarship. There is an expectation, as we’ve noted above, that miracles can happen and that angels and spirits exist, so such passages aren’t automatically re-interpreted (though some passages are understood as mystery rather than history, eg, the 6 days of creation). In general, Scripture holds a very high place of authority—the highest written authority, and as the retired dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary says, Orthodox tradition is defined as the Scriptures rightly interpreted. Scholarly critiques would take a far back seat to that.


8.) What do you personally find the most challenging about Orthodoxy?

I keep finding that I have so much further to go. Well, to step back, the most challenging thing about Orthodoxy is that it dumps you right out at the place where it’s you and Jesus and nowhere to hide. You have to deal with him. No excuses, no lies — lies come from the evil one. As I continue to use the “workout routine” of the spiritual disciplines, I continue to discover that I am still lying to myself about so many things, I am still afraid, I am still lonely, and stubbornly choosing lonely freedom over loved humility. It’s an endless struggle. I have been practicing the Jesus Prayer for 12 years, and I am still so far from “pray constantly.” It’s not a matter of feeling guilty, but more like recognizing that you are still flabby and out of shape and not ready to run the race. Orthodoxy keeps emphasizing God’s compassion—that’s another thing I noticed early on, that it keeps stressing that God forgives us freely and welcomes us like the father of the Prodigal Son. But I keep holding back. That’s the most challenging thing.

9.) Do you feel the freedom to disagree (agreeably) with certain issues of doctrine within the Orthodox Church? How might you handle this differently now, compared with when you moved in Protestant circles?

I guess as a Protestant, and a graduate of Episcopal seminary, I felt an “appropriate” (ha) pride in my own intellectual vigor. There is a vibrant tradition in Western theology, perhaps from the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, of theological debate. The problem, as one seminary prof explained to me, is that eventually all the possible new ideas have been thought of, so a person who wants to make his name has to advance a theory that is outlandish if not impossible. Anyway, as a Protestant, I not only felt free to disagree, I felt invited to disagree, and that not disagreeing would be intellectually lazy. It’s a funny thing, hard to express.

In Orthodoxy there’s a different history. It’s more collaborative. It’s as if the expectation is, we all want to grow in Christ—that’s the only goal, there’s no goal of theological exploration for its own sake. So anything anyone expresses is intended to be a contribution to that goal. At its best, when Orthodoxy is functioning well, the good stuff gets picked up and included, and the not-so-good (it’s all well-intentioned; there is no intention of “making a name for myself”) might percolate a while before being discarded. Someone told me early on that, no matter where you dip into Orthodox history, no matter what nation or century, the writings sound the same; the writing style is the same. Strange but true. So there is this impulse to collaborate, pull together, to work on this one thing that unites us—rather than an impulse to pull away from the herd and be original and independently brilliant.

There are some things Orthodoxy is united on, and when it comes to those I either agree, or hope to understand better. I can’t think of anything that is a serious problem for me. Before we became Orthodox we believed in women’s ordination, and I still have no problem with women being ordained in other churches, but I recognize tht they aren’t in Orthodoxy. I don’t understand fully. Apparently it has never been controversial, in all 2000 years, which alone tells you something, so there’s no explication. However, Orthodox women saints have been preachers and teachers and theologian, they’ve acted as pastoral counsellors to both men and women, they’ve gone into new nations and single-handedly evangelized the people. I’ve given Sunday-morning sermons from Orthodox pulpits all over the country. So Orthodox women do as lay people a lot of things that might require ordinaiton in a Protestant church. I wrote an essay on this in last January:

But not everything in Orthodoxy has that kind of unanimity. EG, there was a time when the church was completely pacifist, and then, after Constantine’s conversion, war was permitted (we don’t believe in Just War, however. War is always tragedy and sin, but sometimes it’s just going to happen.) I tend to be a pacifist, but I recognize that I can’t prove this viewpoint consistently in the Church. So I’m on the board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and this view is represented there. This is not really the same thing as “disagreeing” but it is navigating an unsettled point. It’s strangely enough another one of those paradigm shifts in the east — the noble responsibility to disagree, the honoring of the rebel, is a (relatively recent?) Western idea that doesn’t occur in the East, because we see ourselves as partners in each other’s process of transformation. Collaboration rather than disagreement.


10.) How might an Orthodox see salvation in a different light than a Protestant Evangelical?

I think I covered a bit of this above—I guess I’d say first that in one sense the view is the same, that is, the moment you believe in Christ you are “saved.” If you died that moment, you would end up in heaven. But most of us don’t die that moment. We have all this time left over, days and years, in which we must choose moment by moment either to be surrendered to Christ or to withdraw. In Orthodoxy we are always being reminded of the example of Judas, who had every advantage of being in Christ’s presence, Christ even washed his feet, yet he withdrew and fell. If he’d repented again he would have been saved, but he remained locked in his rejection. So we have a strong teaching that it is possible to “lose salvation,” in the sense that you can fall away and reject it later on. This doesn’t happen suddenly but gradually, as your commitment weakens, one little tempting thought after another. So there is strong emphasis on clinging to the Lord and admitting your weakness, being humble and not proud about spiritual strength.

There are two senses of “salvation,” then. One is the right-this-instant sense, and another biblical figure that Orthodox regularly recall is the Good Thief (also known as the “Wise Thief”), who was saved apart from any effort of his own by God’s grace, just by calling out to Christ in humility. But another sense would be that day by day you are “growing in” salvation. By God’s grace, on the last day you will endure to the end, and be one of the saved at his right hand. An Orthodox reply to “Are you saved?” is “I have been saved, I am being saved, I hope to be saved.”


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