Lessons from Silence: Culture-Wars Orthodoxy

I announced last month that I would be taking a short hiatus from the blog because I learned that some of the heat I occasionally get has been singeing other people. (You can read the full post here.) I was planning on a much shorter break, but I got bogged down with an essay I was submitting for an academic journal. Over the course of what turned into a month, I did learn some lessons.

My plan in this post was to explain some of what I would be doing differently, including learning to stop feeling responsible for the way others write, to stop allowing individuals to post links that focus more on my “ulterior motives” than my arguments. But after writing all that I kept coming around to one basic point.

My critics and I are writing for the same reasons.

Sure, I disagree with their logic. In my opinion they have misdiagnosed the problems with society. I also think they need to learn to read less prejudicially (which, of course, I never do), and they need a less vitriolic tone. But I think I get where it comes from.

(Let me say for context that I am talking about my critics here because my “intel” suggests that it was not my writing that affected those I care about as much as it was what other people were writing about my writing.)

Some quarters of the Orthodox Church have taken a hard right in recent years. I think this has a lot to do with the convert phenomenon. (Being a convert myself, the irony of this comment is unavoidable). Many people have come to Orthodoxy because they felt their old traditions were too theologically /politically/socially liberal. I think they might be afraid that if I do not parrot the same culture-wars tripe as them, then the inevitable result will be to make the Orthodox Church become what they left behind.

I worry about the same thing – that the Orthodox Church will become what I left behind. My old church was in many ways just a wing of the Republican party. One of my first visits to an Orthodox Church was during the run-up to the Iraq War. When the priest called his congregation to “pray for sanity for our leaders,” it was like a breath of fresh air. I knew Orthodoxy was not “liberal,” but it need not be “conservative” either. I saw that Orthodoxy can transcend shallow binaries of Culture-Wars Evangelicalism.

So my “opponents” and I write for the same reasons. Neither of us wants the other to make Orthodoxy into what we left behind. It makes sense to me that some will want me to stop writing because they fear I will make us like the Episcopalians or something. But I will keep writing for a similar reason: I don’t want us to become Evangelicals with incense.

7 Comments

  1. Eugene Durkee May 21, 2013 1:29 am  Reply

    Just wanted to say I've recently discovered your blog, and like it very much… "evangelicals with incense." I know what you mean. I tend to be a "liberal" in the sense that other people's behaviors or political views don't interest or bother me much; I'm not interested in culture wars, from either end of the spectrum; and I came to Orthodoxy (27 years ago) because it was the best possible place to pray. And to learn. Keep it up! I like what you say in this blog.

  2. Eugene Durkee May 21, 2013 1:29 am  Reply

    Just wanted to say I've recently discovered your blog, and like it very much… "evangelicals with incense." I know what you mean. I tend to be a "liberal" in the sense that other people's behaviors or political views don't interest or bother me much; I'm not interested in culture wars, from either end of the spectrum; and I came to Orthodoxy (27 years ago) because it was the best possible place to pray. And to learn. Keep it up! I like what you say in this blog.

  3. Dave O'Neal August 20, 2012 2:39 pm  Reply

    The fact is that the church in America has been turning into “Evangelicals with incense” for a while, so we’re already a good part of the way there. Many of the people you speak of certainly left nothing behind at all when they left their various churches. I personally feel like the evangelical movement that’s the descendent of the first and second American “Great Awakenings”–with its “salvation” as some magical, emotional event after which an entire system of belief (as sold by some preacher claiming it’s all in the Bible) is uncritically bought into–is a pretty major evil. Not benign at by any means. That this mind set isn’t left behind –or rather, repented of—when these people come into the Orthodox Church is the problem. Another aspect is the naivete of people like Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory who had some idea they were somehow creating a purer, more intentional version of the Church of the Fathers here in North America that would naturally soften the hearts and enlighten the minds of American converts on contact. I think their descendants are still shocked that that it didn’t work.
    The other problem is that a mind akin to that of the Evangelicals’—call it fundamentalism or call it idolatry–is prevalent in Orthodox Christianity as it is in all organized religion. Those who get past that mind never seem to be a majority, even though they’re the heart of the Church. At their best, they’re the compass, the rudder. They might be said to leaven the dough. It works better (to press that analogy) when the lump of dough is really big, like, say, Russia. It’s much more difficult with a mini-biscuit like the Orthodox Church in the U.S. It seems to me one must remain there, bearing witness to the truth one has seen in the person of Christ in the face of all the idolatrous versions of that truth that get sold. One can likely expect crucifixion rather than “success.” But then, the greatest truth always seems to lead to the Cross, eh?
    .

  4. Joseph Clarke August 20, 2012 2:12 pm  Reply

    I’m delighted that you’re back and I sympathize a lot with this. I would be careful, though, not to seem to be arguing out of fear or paranoia about what the Church might become — isn’t that the mistake some of your critics make? — but rather out of joy and love for Christ and what the Church is by His grace, despite the failings of its mortal members. You articulate this well in your point that the Church transcends shallow binaries.

    • davidjdunn August 20, 2012 9:29 pm  Reply

      Good point, Joseph!

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