Wednesday, July 25, 2012

American Orthodox Culture

Melinda Johnson at St. Lydia's Book Club has posted a question about American Orthodox culture: why we don't have one and what it might look like. There have been a couple of good responses so far. I began writing mine, then decided that I should just make a blog post of this rather than clutter her comments.

I think that Katherine makes an excellent point in her comment to the effect that other countries that have a distinct Orthodox culture have had centuries to form them. We also have to think about a temporal difference in how culture is incubated now versus in the past. In the past, when all effort was geared toward essential functions (growing, harvesting, preparing and preparing food; building essential tools, etc.), recreation had more of a utilitarian aspect. Barn raisings, quilting circles, cooking, etc. provided an opportunity to reinforce values through direct mentorship and apprenticeship. The food and materials available locally to a group of people and the pattern of their use incubated what we think of as cultural practices.

With the rise of industrialisation and a population shift toward urban areas, people lost connection with the practices and stories that made their heritage unique. Many of our jobs do not require the same kind of consuming attention that a homestead and a skilled craft would require, so we have to create diversions such as television, movies, sports, music, etc. We have created a "permanent present" where there is "no organic relationship" to the past; our understanding of the past is not experiential, it is factual or declarative. Engaging in traditional cultural practices, now (for most of us), is almost voyeuristic because the practices aren't essential to our way of life.

St. Moses the Black
St. Moses the Black - image from the
Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black
Since Orthodoxy is experiential in nature, to think about an American Orthodox culture would require that 1) we agree on what it means to be Orthodox, and 2) those values would permeate our living and not just be window-dressing. There are a lot of cultural movements I see around me that seem to be harmonious with what I understand to be an Orthodox lifestyle, such a shift away from consumerism, a movement toward a plant-based diet, caring for our communities (especially for those most needy), building a culture that affirms and protects Life for everyone (and all of the implications here: abortion, war, death penalty). These don't map neatly onto the way that people assign themselves to social/political opinions. Indeed, most of us make very clear distinctions between our work lives, our home lives, our social lives, and out church lives. To create an American Orthodox culture (presuming we want one), the Orthodoxy will have to permeate all the facets of our lives.

As I've written before, I think that an American Orthodox culture would mirror broader American culture in the way it is formed. Borrowing from cultures all over the world, Americans (at our best) select the best of what everyone brings to the table and reinterpret it as part of a pastiche. Since culture is (in my opinion) primarily a way of teaching value, what I find most exciting to think about is the great wealth of examples that such a pastiche culture could offer. Not only do we have the ancient mother churches and their traditions to draw on, but we also have enterprises such as the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black and the Ancient Christianity and Afro-American Conference that draws on the redemptive suffering of American chattel slaves. Matthew Namee's work with the Society for Orthodox Christian History in America and the podcasts he does for Ancient Faith Radio are a wonderful way to help discover this past and incorporate examples (good and bad!) in our understanding of ourselves as Orthodox Christians and Americans (for example, were you aware that the first naturalized American was Orthodox?).

Melinda Johnson has done an excellent job helping to create a groundswell of Orthodox artists and writers who are expressing their Orthodoxy in their work. Her guidance with The Sounding blog at OCN has also created an opportunity for Orthodox commentary on the whole range of American experience. I hope and pray that we continue to see this work grow!