Great Captain, a fair
wind and the honey lights of home
are all you seek. But anguish lies ahead;
the god who thunders on the land prepares it,
not to be shaken from your track, implacable …
One narrow strait may take you through his blows:
denial of yourself, restraint of shipmates.
-- Tiresias to Odysseus, in Homer, The Odyssey, XI
News in Orthodoxy has not been idle, despite the fact that idle news is probably the best news. Henry James said it best that journalism is “the criticism of the moment at the moment.” The attention of the news is rarely good attention. Only the mentality of Barnum (and his circus sycophants in Madison Avenue) could conceive the notion that “any news is good news.”
It is a tragedy that Orthodoxy has been in the news with hijinks here and abroad.
It is, as most news is, a mummery, for the harlequin is fast at performing his greater works in the wings. The critics are fulminating. But they have noticed only the masque, and have been played the fool. They have been enraged by the fuddled inanities of the ill-advanced, and they launch tirades at tired old men.
But the criticism "sins," in the old archer sense of "missing wide the mark."
While the aged retreat into cloister, and rummage through shoeboxes of old accounts, and while the internet ecclesialists eructate into curmudgeon-space, Attila is at the gates. The Horde fills the horizon. The red dusk colors the dome of Hagia Sophia. And it is not a good sign today, as it wasn’t then long ago, on another evening in May.
What will happen?
Russia (and even Greece) will go the way of the West. Despite thousands in attendance at glorious liturgies, with the ecclesial pomp that warms the heart of even a former anabaptist bumpkin like me, there really has been no effective catechesis. It will be found that Schmemann was way off in his view that western-style education structures are oofy. It is not enough to call attendance at Divine Liturgy, Vespers and Matins a sufficient “multi-generational educational experience.” Because there was little practical age-based curricula and – gasp – Church School classes, two generations of Orthodox youth now lie completely vulnerable to the wolf-pack of egotistical materialism, which is now ravenously streaming into the confines of Mother Russia (and Rumania, Bulgaria, and much of the rest of the East of old).
The Evangelicals are looking at Russia even now as a mission field: and in their perspective – and mind you, as one of their former own, I know it well – they see Russia and the Slavic East as a people who are crying for their aid.
And they will go in. Like gangbusters. With youth programs. Sunday Schools. Modern Christian music. The usual upscale WalMart mega-church rot. Christian colleges and seminaries. Daycare centers. Hospitals and healthcare centers. Nursing homes. Bill Hybels will be invited to consult on the construction of Russian Willow Creeks.
If I were an Evangelical mission think-tank (these things do exist, by the way), I would design a campaign which involved big audience-draw things like celebrity speakers and Christian rock bands, and a concomitant flurry of new-church starts, each one of which should be an attractive blend of self-improvement and wealth-enhancement, evangelical kitsch, and a dose of icons and troparia to provide just enough familiarity to make the baba’s happy.
Oh, I’m sorry, someone beat me to the punch. The thing’s already being done.
The Russian Church will be diminished. It will shrink, institutionally, to a proportion very similar to Orthodoxy in America.
Eastern Europe will go the way of the West. Secularized. Islamicized. Evangelized. And we will have found, in Orthodoxy, that the exclusive choice of choirs over plain chant was a mistake; that the eschewing of Church School classes in favor of “multi-generational family unit” experiences did not answer; and that the insistence of St. Dionysios the Areopagite of the clerical orders corresponding to the three stages of spirituality should have been attended to.
But there’s another thing, closer to home. There is, under cover of critique, a creep of secularized ecclesiology into the big conversation. There has been an admirable (give the devil his due), constant advancement of feminism in church culture: witness the cause of the female diaconate. There also have been demands for American corporate-type decision-making and administrative structures in the Church. There have been clamors for regional and interest-group representation to be wedged into the center of “policy-making structures.”
There is a desire to sidle up with prominent blueblood mainline “Christian” institutions like the National Council of Churches. There is a wish to be current and well-respected in academic circles. There is the nodding of heads, like automata, at the mainline sniffings against creationism and pro-life hyperbole.
If we were old enough, and wise enough, as an American Orthodox community, we would recognize this sort of accommodation as just another in the line of many institutional appropriations by the culture of industrial finance capitalism. Every institution of the past -- rurality, small towns, the family farm, the pub, the club, the beaux arts, the belles-lettres -- is being consumed by Leviathan. After all, it was President Coolidge who once remarked, “The business of America is business.” Institutions that aid and abet this mission will be encouraged and appropriated. Those that do not, will not be.
There is much to say about the need for Orthodox Americans to mature, as a community, in their love for and ministry to America. Suffice to say, for now, that there is little understanding of America in Orthodoxy. There is, to be sure, a lot of accommodation. But understanding and accomodation are not the same, despite the claims of liberalism throughout the ages (well, at least since Robespierre and Foucault).
For the moment, it is clear, were the shady Tiresias to appear (and I, for one, do not wish to observe the ceremonies), he might say that catechesis is the thing. Not the Rogerian excresence that passed for catechesis during the sixties. But real practical stuff that, say, actually focused on the Creed … or centered on the physical acts (like making the Sign of the Cross) and explained them theologically … or told Bible stories and Saint stories dramatically enough so that kids could remember … or debunked crap like The Da Vinci Code or excreta like The Gospel of Judas.
Catechesis is just the thing for catechumens: why do we forget this? Frankly (sorry for the pun, Fr. Romanides), the catechumenate for all of us should have produced a class of Christians that knew their doctrine, and were practiced in the art of winning the struggle with the passions.
People who are co-opted by materialism (as they are here and in Russia) are people who know nothing about this struggle.
“Denial of yourself, restraint of shipmates.” Indeed.