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How Not to Talk about Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church

What to do about LGBTQ individuals connected with the Orthodox Church (or who want to be connected to the Orthodox Church) is the biggest doctrinal issue we are dealing with today. The pat answers we have are inadequate to the questions we have because, while the mechanics of same-sex acts have not changed over the centuries (or so I imagine), the social conditions under which same-sex desires and relationships are lived out are drastically different. In Greek times, same-sex acts were tantamount to child abuse. In Roman times, it was about the exercise of power. Degrees of condemnation varied in Christian Europe, ranging from scolding youthful mischief to prescribing penance for marital infidelity or fornication. It was not until the Victorian era that “homosexuality” came to be considered a kind of diagnosable and thus treatable condition. Continue reading “How Not to Talk about Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church”

Why Write About Gay Marriage

A few days ago, George Demacopoulos, co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham and co-editor of the Public Orthodoxy blog tweeted the following:

 

 

Continue reading “Why Write About Gay Marriage”

Orthodox White Nationalism at the Charlottesville Protests

I wanted to ask my friend if she happened to see any Orthodox clergy standing with her, but I think I already know the answer. 

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Courtesy Jill Harms Photography

A friend of mine recently moved to Charlottesville. She was at the protests over the weekend, or I guess you would say she was a counter-protester. (I am hesitant to say “counter,” though, because it implies that the white nationalists had anything worth protesting.) A photo of her came across my timeline, posted by Jill Harms Photography. When Brandy (my friend) commented on this photo, she explained that they had just faced down a group of club-wielding white nationalists who were trying to access Emancipation Park, and they were steeling themselves for a second confrontation.

Continue reading “Orthodox White Nationalism at the Charlottesville Protests”

Lord, Bless These Store-Bought Grapes

Today is the feast of Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. Jesus hiked up Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John, and was transfigured before them so that he shone with the uncreated light of the Most Holy Trinity. Transfiguration comes near harvest time, and so a tradition has been established to bless grapes and sometimes other fruits and vegetables. There is a deep symbolism here. Grapes take their flavor from their environment—the soil and the rains where they are grown. The ripened grape is a transfiguration of the earth. The grape itself is transfigured into the Eucharist, when fruit of the vine becomes the blood of our Savior.

Yet much of this symbolism is lost in our society. The grapes my priest blessed this morning came from a store. There is a connection to the people when grapes are brought in from local growers. “This is ours.” In a way, “This is us.” “We offer the fruits of our labors to God.” But what is the fruit of our labor when we buy a bag of grapes from the grocery? Self checkout?

We no longer live in an agrarian society. While traditions should not be changed just because the times change (some changes are not good), the traditions of the church have changed with the times. (After all, every tradition started as something novel.) It is only as the once mighty institution of the Orthodox Church has found itself increasingly operating at the margins of relevance that anxiety has fostered in many an allergy to any change whatsoever.

transfigurationFundamentalism is a response to a threat. There is a story from Vedic times in ancient India that illustrates this truth. A man asked a priest if it was acceptable to eat beef. The priest replied, “Only if it is tender.”  The cow was a revered symbol of Hinduism in ancient times. It only became a sacred cow when the region was conquered by invading Muslim armies. (It is also at this time that the caste system became more rigid.) Threats create anxiety, and anxiety leads to the petrification of what were once more fluid cultural identifiers. As another example, in the Orthodox Church today, icons tend to look somewhat “medieval,” even if they were painted only recently. Ironically, one can find older icons that look more like the paintings of their times. The famous theologian and iconographer Leonid Ouspensky called such icons aberrations, but they were, in fact, the progression of holy art, which were arrested by anxieties about modernity. (Ouspensky also said there was no innovation in iconography, which is clearly and demonstrably false.)

But back to grapes. In some parishes, other fruits and vegetables are blessed along with grapes. This might be something that should be universally adopted, but only under the condition that the things one brings in to be blessed come from one’s own garden. This may help to re-establish the link between our labor, the earth, and our community, a link that tends to get lost in the markets of global capitalism. Thus I am proposing a kind of “lite” innovation that helps to strengthen what was intended in the blessing of the grapes itself.

Our liturgies are agrarian in context, and some aspects of agrarianism are important components of Christian identity and spiritual formation. Our connection to the earth was established in our original vocation in the Garden of Eden. We are “tillers” and “tenders” of the earth. When we dig in the soil with our own hands, we become more of the caretakers that we were in the beginning. Furthermore, we become better caretakers of the planet, which God intends us to be, rather than its abusers, which we more often are.

Buying from the store is a part of everyday life, but maybe it is not a part that should be blessed, at least not in its current form. God only knows where the grapes that were blessed this morning came from. God only knows if the calloused hands that harvested them belonged to a child who should otherwise have been in school. If nothing else, working with our own hands helps us to think about such things when we do shop at the store, and maybe it can help us to shop more responsibly—to shop more like Christians.

Global capitalism disconnects us from the earth and from each other. My children do not like to eat chicken roasted in the oven. They prefer their chicken boneless, skinless, and in a frozen plastic bag. They do not like to be reminded that what they eat was once alive. But perhaps they should be reminded of that as much as possible. Maybe if we reminded ourselves that we were eating things that once lived and scratched and pecked at the earth, we would take greater care when we do eat. Perhaps we would eat more like we would have in the harmony of Eden (minus the dead bird, of course). Such eating would bring us a little bit closer to the New Heaven and the New Earth of the Kingdom of God.

I have nothing against a global market, per se. “The market” is just a system for the distribution of resources. Trade across borders can be a good thing. In can enrich the lives of the exporters as well as those who purchase the goods. (I mean, olive oil!). But our global markets today have become omnipresent and omnipotent systems, justifying their dominance by nothing more than the tautological insistence that they must exist as they are. Global trade today often comes at the expense of local cultures and local flavors. Something holy is lost in this. The once innumerable varieties of seeds, adapted over generations to flourish in their local environments, form a polyphonous song of praise to the Creator God’s infinite glory. Now, field after field of Roundup Ready soybeans chant to scientific ingenuity in cold and lifeless monotone.

So I think we could stand to be a bit more deliberate in thinking about how the Feast of Transfiguration ties into the transfiguration of the earth in the harvest, and we need to be more deliberate in strengthening those ties. Or to put it differently, we should pay more attention to the ways modern life has severed so many of our once taken-for-granted ties to the church in the rhythms of daily life and the yearly agricultural cycle.

This has got me thinking that I need to recover the garden I once kept, to clear away the weeds, till the soil, and plan for the next growing season. My children need to learn, and in more than just a conceptual and abstract way, that food comes from the earth and sky and rains God has given us; they need to learn how food is transfigured by the power of God, joined to their own labor, into nourishment and life.

In light of the above, we might add another layer of meaning to the already packed symbolism of the blessing of grapes described in the first paragraph. If at the Feast of Transfiguration, we would bring the fruits and vegetables from our own backyard harvests, we might begin, in a small way, to transfigure the dominance of the global market itself, to make it more like the God who loves us and who died on a cross to save us from our own wayward arrogance and pride. In this way, our buying and selling might become more human, more humane, and more holy.

 

Inclusive Language in the Liturgy

Public Orthodoxy is making waves again, this time by daring to talk about…women.

Actually they aren’t even talking about women. They’re talking about Greek. The GOA (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) made it about women when they opted to approve a revision of the creed from “for us and for our salvation” to “for us men and for our salvation.” The problem with this revision, the authors (Aristotle Papanikolaou and John Fotopoulos) is that it makes gender exclusive language that was originally gender inclusive. Greek, like many other languages, has gendered nouns. Anthropos is a masculine noun. But that does not mean that anthropos is male anymore than German a German girl is an “it” (das Mädchen is a neuter noun). Anthropos refers to humanity in general. Anér means “man.” Continue reading “Inclusive Language in the Liturgy”

Academe Needs More VSA

 

As some of you know, my money-making job is basically something like an assistant to the academic dean at a summer boarding school for gifted high schoolers. It’s called Vanderbilt Summer Academy. In short, in the fall I recruit a diverse crew of academics to geek out about their respectively disciplines for a few weeks; in the spring I help them turn that geeking-out into a syllabus; and in the summer I do observations, feedback, and general support. It is about 18 months of work for about 6 weeks of magic. And the academy needs more of it.

The magic I am referring to is not the magic of learning. It is the magic of taking all those people you interviewed—engineers, theologians, writers, mathematicians—and having a few beers with them after work, or sitting with them around the lunch table, and listening to the conversations unfold. The thing about academics is that we are naturally curious people, but we spend most of our lives focusing our curiosity into a narrow set of problems or questions. There is nothing quite like watching the enthusiasm on a historian’s face as an environmental engineer talks about water polymers.

 

It is worth noting that Vanderbilt has a robust culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. Believe it or not, when you are a biologist studying antibiotic resistance, it helps to know a chemist. Even informal collaboration has a creative benefit. We all need to get outside of our own heads every once-in-a-while. During the summers, the faculty I work with have very little time to do their own research, yet they keep coming back. There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them say that working with our students helps them fall in love with teaching all over again. Their students are also very creative, and so a lot of our instructors come away with new ideas for their own work. I would also like to think that those lunch and happy hour conversations have a lot to do with it. At least, they do for me.

Knowledge is its own good. It is divine. I believe this is something most academics intuit (even the atheist ones). The natural enthusiasm that comes from conversations experts have with peers from other departments and other disciplines feels a lot like worship in some ways. It is an eschatological event of sorts. The kingdom of God comes to earth…over beers.

A Letter to My Sister on Her Birthday

Dear Toni,

Or shall I call you “Joan”? Sometimes it’s both. You are 37 now. And you are four months pregnant. Dude! For the record, I have this other open letter I’ve been working on, about how I think about you and pray for you when it comes to your new status as a mom. I just cannot seem to find the words. I have been struggling with that lately—finding the words—especially the closer I feel to a person. I guess it is that the closer I feel to someone, the more I appreciate the mystery that they are. The more depths and layers I see. They become more dynamic, less two-dimensional. Hence my struggle writing something to you. You are very dynamic.

I just want to thank you for making me a better person. You may not know you have. Most of us don’t realize the difference we make in other people’s lives, for good or ill. You have made a very good difference in my life, very good indeed. Apart from the fact that I just plain admire you, over the years you have also helped me to be more compassionate. You helped me to be more patient. You have helped me to face down some demons that I would have rather ignored.

There are a number of fond memories I have of you. Two of them stand out. I remember the night we left Indy. You and Dan helped us pack. You were crying. We had just gotten closer, you said, and now we were moving away. I think that was the first time I saw you cry as a grown-up. Then I think about when you made me cry as a grownup. You sent me a text and asked me to pray about something; I think it was the first time you had asked me to do that. I understand why. When I found Jesus in Junior High, I became kind of an asshole for a while. I felt like we had gotten over something when you asked for my prayers. I did pray for you, by the way, and I still do. Often. Pretty much every day. I’ve been asking Joachim and Anna to watch over you; I have asked the Mother of God to give you wisdom. I have asked St. Nektarios to intercede for you as well. He is credited with at least one fertility miracle. He was also pretty badass, like you.

Apart from my prayers and this post, I haven’t got you a present yet. You always get me such good gifts. You are so much better with that than me. I always struggle. What do I get the girl whose interests and tastes are so beyond me? What can I get you that you need and would appreciate? (Breast pump?) I will come up with something. It will be late, but I know you are okay with that, because you’re cool like that. I want to try to get this right. (Dan, if you are reading this, help!)

For now, Happy 37th birthday! You’ve not yet reached half of your life-expectancy! Congratulations! And my God grant you many, many years!

With love from Tennessee,

David