Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Western" Approaches to Eastern Christianity

Gordon Atkinson, aka Real Life Preacher, has become something of a celebrity in Texas Orthodox circles after having blogged about his first contact with the ancient Christian worship at St. Anthony the Great church in San Antonio, TX as part of his sabbatical leave from Covenant Baptist Church, also in San Antonio.

Reading Rev. Atkinson's description of his first visit, I was reminded of the statement of Prince Vladimir of Kiev's envoy, after visiting the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the late tenth century
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.

Seeing Orthodox worship new again through Rev. Atkinson's eyes, I was moved to tears at the overwhelming beauty of the Liturgy, as well as its strangeness to the western ear and eye. He did an outstanding job of relaying that sense of being part of something bigger than human scale, something that isn't necessarily easily comprehended by human intellect or senses, because its not intended or directed toward us.

Rev. Atkinson seems somewhat amazed at his reception and celebrity in Orthodox circles. Permitted to speculate, I think that he is seen as a convert on the brink. What we know that Rev. Atkinson might not yet understand is that once you start engaging the historic church, you either end up in an Apostolic communion, or leave Christianity altogether. We American Orthodox are particularly interested in high-profile stories of conversion because, like the consumer-driven lifestyles we lead outside of church, we are looking for celebrity endorsements of our own desires. (It's OK, go Google "Celebrity Orthodox Christians". I'll wait).

I was discussing this phenomenon with a friend several weeks ago, and we both felt that this trend was regrettable. To be clear, I'm always very happy when someone finds their way to the Orthodox church, but the emphasis on the high-profile convert seems antithetical to the conciliar heart of Orthodoxy. More to the point, the celebrity endorsement par excellence is the Pope. This economy of endorsement and reinforcement is Western in approach.

Finally, to get the point of this article (which ultimately has nothing to do with Rev. Atkinson, though he was a convenient vehicle to get to the point) is that I propose a different phraseology to delineate orthodox from non-orthodox thought. I fervently pray every day for the unification of Orthodox churches in America. I expect that this will ultimately result in an uniquely American expression of the Orthodox faith (as has been the case in Greece, Russia, Albania, Serbia, etc.). While an American church would encompass Canada and Latin America as well, certainly the United States will have a huge impact on that expression. I've long held that the U.S. is a system of government founded on economic freedom and entrepreneurship. Part of that entrepreneurship is adaptation and pastiche. U.S. culture is at its best when it has adapted and adopted beautiful cultural expression from elsewhere. I hope that an American Orthodoxy would do the same (as a very small example of this, my family has adopted the Serbian tradition of Slava to pay homage to a Christian heritage that was not Orthodox).

So, if there is to be an American Orthodoxy, it will be western, so "Western" is no longer as useful a term to denote something that is non-Orthodox. I would propose that most of what is antithetical to the Orthodox faith in western culture arises out of post-enlightenment thought, and so I'd suggest "Post-Enlightenment" as a useful substitute for "Western." Getting back to my example, a consumerist approach to celebrity "endorsement" of Orthodoxy is a post-enlightenment approach to faith. It begins in my presuppositional authority and looks for a faith that fits me, instead of my submission to objective Truth.

I'm guilty of this. My entree to Orthodoxy was Frank Schaeffer's Dancing Alone. I found it (and more importantly, read it) because Frank is Francis' son. I became intrigued by Orthodoxy because it satisfied my own longing for room in my faith tradition for the mystical. We American Orthodox, by and large, are protestant in the way that we approach the faith. We have an embarrassment of riches with respect to the number of parishes, and so we pick and choose (I like that priest, or I like the politics of this parish) where we will worship or even if we will worship (there isn't a church of my jurisdiction locally).

My hope and desire for Rev. Atkinson is that his struggles will pay dividends for his family and his church, and I hope that along the way, the blemishes of American Orthodoxy don't get in the way of simple Orthodoxy.

True to each other as Aggies can be...

I'm incredibly disappointed that the beef between Texas A&M President Elsa Murano and Texas A&M University System Chancellor Mike McKinney has resulted in Pres. Murano's resignation. Murano's announcement comes just one day before a special meeting of the TAMU Board of Regents called specifically to discuss the continued employment of executive-level leaders.

The scheduled meeting marked the first official action on the part of the board since McKinney started the public beef by making a statement to the press regarding his contemplation of combining his position with that of Pres. Murano's. A public records request by KBTX the following week revealed that McKinney had rated Murano poorly in an off-schedule review and that Murano took exception to the ratings and had rebutted them point-by-point, copying the entire board.

I must admit that when Murano was named to the presidency, I was incredibly skeptical of her qualifications. The presidential search committee--composed of current students, faculty, former students, community members, and members of the board--forwarded a list of three finalists in August 2007, none of whom were selected. The search committee was unceremoniously disbanded with no clear way forward.. In the background of this process, rumors surfaced that Governor Perry had hand-selected a candidate with ties to the military and his undergrad years. Of a sudden, in a hastily-called meeting in late November 2007, the Regents apparently decided to offer the job to Murano, a decision announced about a week later. Murano took office on January 3, 2008.

The university community was understandably guarded about Murano with her hire in this context. A number of personnel changes in upper-administration did nothing to ease concerns, and the unceremonious firing of Dr. Bresciani from the position of Vice-President for Student Affairs (where he was a much-loved fixture) and the selection of the arguably under-qualified Gen. Joe Weber painted Murano's decision-making in a poor light to many at the university.

Fast-forward to the controversy this month, and I have to say that despite my previous evaluation of Murano, she acquits herself well in her rebuttal of McKinney's review. I find that, though I've not agreed with all of her decisions, I think that A&M is better for her having been president (as opposed to, say, McKinney). Paul Burka at BurkaBlog speculates that Murano got in trouble by stepping out from beneath the Perry/McKinney thumb and poking into shady political dealings. I think that that makes the whole situation stink worst of all.

Updates Coming Soon!

Howdy! And Happy New Year (seeing as how this is my first post of 2009)!'s a few quick updates:

Our Summer Honors Invitational Program (SHIP) is keeping me busy this summer, along with thirteen New Student Conferences for the largest freshman class in TAMU history.

Baby K #2's arrival is imminent. The due date is July 9, but Noah came at 37 weeks, which would be this coming Friday.

Also, this Friday is Ashley's and my tenth wedding anniversary. Happy Juneteenth! We've invited friends and family to join us in celebration as we (finally!) have our marriage blessed in the Orthodox church. If you missed it, here's the invite:

Those following Texas A&M in the news know that there is a lot of foolishness at the executive leadership level. Pres. Elsa Murano, the first woman and first Hispanic (Latina? What appellation do Cuban expats prefer? Weigh in on comments) submitted her resignation today in what will hopefully only be the start of changes at the top...I'm hoping that the BOR shows McKinney the door tomorrow. So long as "governor good-hair" doesn't get the spot I'll be happy.

Look for new blog posts on all of the above (well, perhaps not on SHIP and incoming freshman) soon. Also, I plan to weigh in on the Real Live Preacher's sudden celebrity in Texas Orthodox circles.