The Untold Story of St. Mary of Egypt

As I write this, it is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, the Sunday when we commemorate the life of St. Mary of Egypt. The story goes like this: Once there was a girl named Mary. When she was 12, she left home to pursue a life of “sin and debauchery” (Orthodox code for “lots of sex”). But then one day, as a young woman, she tried to follow a group of pilgrims into a church in Jerusalem, but she was prevented by an unseen force from going beyond the doorway. She realized that her sin was the reason, and so she fled to the desert to pursue a life of asceticism and penance. (Click here for the full version.)

I have a problem with this story as it is told. On the one hand, coming in the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of St. Mary of Egypt is a reminder that none are so far gone that God’s grace cannot find them. On the other hand, it is a cautionary tale against being a slut. But what the story glosses over is Mary’s age. She was 12. A tween girl ran away from home and started having a lot of sex with a lot of different men. What kind of child does that?

A child is not capable of consent. Today, if a man had sex with a girl that age, he would be a pedophile. He would have committed an act of rape, even if the girl had somehow initiated it. It was not the law at the time, of course, but it is today because we understand that a child who has been hyper-sexualized is a child who is herself a victim.

Mary was a victim of rape. That is the common denominator among most 12 year old runaways. Mary was fleeing her rapist. The fact that she then is said to have pursued intercourse with countless others is consistent with the behavior of such victims. Girls who have been repeatedly abused often locate their self-worth in their sexuality.

(I recall having read a number of years ago a version of this story as told by St. Jerome, in which Mary flees from the desert to a brothel after being raped.)

From this angle, Mary is no longer the “slutty” sinner. She is a victim, a survivor. Is she still a sinner? Sure. She is not guiltless. But neither is she wholly guilty. Mary’s adult sins were established by those of (most likely) a family member’s horrific and repeated acts against her when she was still a blameless child, and those acts definitively shaped the woman she was to become.

I probably need someone with better pastoral sensibilities to weigh in on the spiritual implications of this consideration, but it seems to me that the story becomes less about the repentance of a sinful woman and more about how little judgment such “sinners” deserve. Perhaps she was prevented from entering the church not because she was impure, but because she was still caught, as if by a net, in a sinful system. We all make victims of each other in some way. Our sins are never wholly our own. And yet, the responsibility to repent still is.

In this way, the triumph of Mary is not a triumph over her personal sin as much as it is a triumph over the effects of the sins of others. And this, so it seems to me, is more in keeping with the message of Pascha itself. Christ is risen; death is trampled; and new life is bestowed upon those who were made, through no fault of their own, sin’s victims.

Baaalderdash! We’re All Just Sheep Here: A Response to Fr. John Parker’s LGBTQ Fearmongering

Orthodoxy Today, that bastion of theological internet civility, recently published an excerpt of a presentation Fr. John Parker gave at a conference on pastoral care in a digital age. In it he accused the editors and writers of Public Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy in Dialogueand The Wheel of prowling around like wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on an unsuspecting catechumenate to sow division, discord, and confusion. They pretend to promote dialog, when really they have diabolical motives, mostly having to do with making the church more welcoming to LGBTQ people. It is a tired and thus boring accusation, a thesis plagiarized from a myriad of internet blog comments and coffee hour conversations with like-minded people. More importantly, it is a hypocritical thesis. Fr. Parker accuses the above sites of trying to sow confusion, when in fact he seems to do precisely the same thing.

I know in some way the editors of Orthodoxy in DialogueThe Wheeland Public Orthodoxy. I myself have contributed a couple of articles to the latter. The blanket accusation of a general, almost conspiratorial intent to sow confusion is both offensive and false. It is offensive because, speaking for myself at least, that is not the case. It is false because there are contributors to those sites who share his same views on gender and sexuality and because the active solicitation and publication of authors who share those views bellies the any supposedly nefarious intent on the part of those who run the sites.

(I should say here that I am speaking from my experience with Orthodoxy in Dialogue and Public Orthodoxy. I am less read in The Wheel.)

The problem with accusations like Fr. Parker’s is that they assume a great deal about the inner motives of those who have taken the time, effort, money, not to mention loads of personal abuse, to start and keep those sites running. To write and publish something even remotely affirming of LGBTQ individuals is to douse oneself in troll pheromone. That is a whole lot of work for something so nefarious.

A more charitable, dare I say “Christian,” presumption would be that those who seek to engage in dialog over controversial issues really do want nothing more than dialog. Perhaps they do not seek confusion but understanding. They have studied enough history to know that Orthodoxy today is a lot more reactionary than it used to be. We have lost political power (thanks be to God) and cultural influence, and so out of fear, like caged animals, we lash out at those who seem to represent that which we falsely perceive to threaten us.

Those whom Fr. Parker derisively accuses of considering themselves to be “teachers” of the faith would be more inclined to call themselves “students” of it. They have questions, and the church has provided no answers, or at best bad ones. We have had too many conversations with people that have gone something like this:

Person 1: The Orthodox Church has always opposed homosexuality. 

Person 2: Yes, but to what extend do–


Conversations with those not interested in dialog are both frustrating and at times infuriating. The other party provides a scripted answer and gets frustrated with the person who keeps having more questions. Perhaps if an answer does not satisfy the person asking the question, then the answer is not a very good one.

It is not as if those who draw the ire of the Orthodoxy Today crowd are any less committed to the church’s survival. They perceive the threats differently. For the one, the main threat to Orthodoxy is modernity; for the other, it is failing to take modernity seriously. Modernity has questions, and the Orthodox Church must have the courage to provide good answers. And good answers, as any moderately competent teacher knows, requires the willingness to question oneself—the courage to be challenged. For some people, far too many actually, that prospect is absolutely terrifying.

That is why I call “hypocrisy” on Fr. Parker’s accusations of diabolical intent on the part of his online bogeymen. He says their intent is to sew confusion, but that is the very thing Fr. Parker is doing. People are not asking questions Fr. Parker does not like because they want to cause confusion. They ask questions because they are confused. They do not seek discord but conversation and eventually clarity. What Fr. Parker would like is for people not to have questions to begin with, to stay in darkness, or to argue themselves into disingenuous belief, faith that is more an act of stubbornness than a gift of God’s grace and love.

Fr. Parker is sowing confusion because he is sowing fear. “Be afraid of the wolves!” Get the adrenaline pumping. Make people react emotionally, even violently (if not in real life then in words, thoughts, and tweets). A priest should do his best to avoid stirring up people’s passions. A priest should not encourage the trolls.

I cannot speak for all people, of course, but I have yet to come across any wolves. We are all just sheep here, doing our best to follow our Shepherd. Our pastors would do well to lead us toward him without fear, not to bark at us like border collies, nipping at our backsides to get us to fall in line.

Getting a Job with a “Useless” PhD

If you have an advanced degree in a field everyone else questioned, like theology, philosophy, or literature to name a few, then you are an individual who is passionate, reasonably intelligent, and above all else determined! What you may not be is employed. Tenure tracks are out! Adjuncts are in! Those fortunate enough to do a lot of teaching still need side gigs to pay the bills. The good news is that you have some pretty valuable skills to offer an employer outside the academy.

I am writing this from my experience as a man who earned his PhD in theological studies from a top-tier university in 2011. I was an adjunct for a bit at a small college and a program administrator at a big university. Now I am the director of a local learning services organization. Each path is unique, but my own path has taught me a thing or two about skills my professors never knew they were giving me. I am going to extrapolate some of those skills from my own experience and offer a few “success stories” of their use. I apologize if it sounds like I am boasting sometimes. My purpose is only to make the theoretical or hypothetical a little bit more concrete.

You Are a Creative Problem Solver

You have spent the better part of your adult life learning to see subtle things, things that most people miss. You can digest the finer points of complex arguments, see where things do not quite fit together, and propose more consistent and desirable alternatives. A PhD in the humanities is a PhD in problem solving.

You have a proven track record of creativity. Indeed, novelty is one requirement of your dissertation. You would not have passed your defense if your work had not been new. Such creativity is all the more impressive when you consider all the thousands of people in your field competing for a limited number of opportunities for publication.

Back in 2012, I had noticed that our organization was still doing manual data entry and spending loads of money on paper catalogs and applications. So I asked if I could investigate getting an online application system. My executive director gave her approval, but she added, “We looked into that a few years ago and were quoted an initial startup cost of $50,000, not to mention yearly upkeep in the tens of thousands, minimum.” But within a month, I had constructed a system out of resources nobody had known about and thought to put together. There is nothing quite like telling a potential employer, “I increased productivity and customer service while saving our organization about $200,000 over the long term.”

You Are a Skilled Reader

Exegesis refers to the art understanding, interpreting, and explaining a text. It is generally used in the context of holy writ but applies equally well to Shakespeare, credit card terms of service, tax law, and institutional policies. As someone with a doctorate in the humanities, you have honed the ability to decipher the arcane, the obtuse, and the poorly written. You can understand text and subtext, find fallacies, and leverage reasonable ambiguities to the benefit of your organization. Your skills as an exegete go beyond your own field. The intellectual “muscles” you have strengthened over the years have given you powers to interpret a wide variety of texts.

For example, a number of years ago my supervisor came into the office with a document in hand stating that, from now one, there must be one adult supervisor for every ten minors on campus. She was upset because, while it is a good policy for younger kids in a day program (it was our policy for younger kids in our day programs), it would not work for teenagers in residence. (For instance, it would require an adult to be stationed outside the showers every morning; and it meant a kid who got sick in class could not go see the nurse.) It was a dumb CYA (cover your ass) policy written by lawyers who cared more about not getting sued than protecting kids. I asked to see the wording of the text, then ran some quick numbers. Overall, our student:staff ratio was around 7:1. I pointed out that the wording of the policy left enough room for interpretation so that we could reasonably argue we were already in compliance. My supervisor read the policy and saw the probable intent of the drafters (none of whom worked with kids). I looked at the policy and saw the loophole.

You Are a Shrewd Negotiator

Chances are, your advisor was a mentor to you in more than just the subject of your dissertation. She also helped you learn about people and the internal politics that can get in the way of your success. The fact of the matter is that diplomacy is just as important to getting your degree as a strong dissertation. Over the years, you have learned that your best ideas are the ones people in charge think they came up with and that getting things done requires giving the right people “cover.”

Professional environments are not that different than universities when it comes to the politics of the people in charge. The higher up the organizational ladder you climb, the bigger are the egos of the people you encounter, and the more delicate the relationships you need to maintain. Getting things done requires moving laterally without seeming to go outside the system or going over the heads of superiors without seeming to be insubordinate. You need to clear roadblocks without rolling over others, and you need to convince the people in charge that your best ideas are the ones they helped you come up with. Every academic needs to be just a little bit Machiavellian.

Somewhere around 2013 my program tried to hire a professor to teach a literature class for a weekend event, but we found ourselves blocked by a dean who said that she could not teach for us because 100% of her “effort” came from her own department. So we could not hire her. But I noticed a loophole. This person worked for another program that involved mentoring new students. The reason for that inconsistency, the dean explained, was that the provost considered that program to be a “priority program.” Within a couple of months, our own dean (who was quite powerful) had gotten us declared a priority program as well. Problem solved! We were able to be right while allowing the dean who had stood in our way to save face by enlisting him to become part of the solution to the problem he had initially created.

You Are an Effective Communicator

People with advanced degrees in the humanities spend a great deal of time arguing with their peers. Sometimes these arguments are little more than “pissing contests” (a crude colloquialism with masculine implications because it is often male academics doing it), but more often than not these are arguments among friends. There is a genuine interest in understanding the point the other person is making, if for no other reason that that it informs your own counterpoint (hopefully, though, the willingness to change your own mind is also involved). The complexity of the topics discussed, and their multifaceted implications, require avoiding distractions and red herrings, maintaining an even temper, and keeping your attention focused on the fundamental issues under discussion. This skill will serve you well in all sorts of meetings.

Meetings are the mainstay of the professional world. People get together and disagree with one another. Meetings are also a place where feelings get hurt, leading to gossip, long-term frustration, and a toxic work environment. As an academic, you are well-practiced in the art of maintaining harmony while moving discussion forward to the main goal. When two people start to disagree, you can keep the peace by pointing out how each different view subtly affirms the other. You can help create distance between the issues discussed and the personal stakes people have in them. You know how to “bracket” what does not matter to keep the objective in sight.

I was recently involved in a meeting involving the implementation of a new technology. The people who worked hard on the technology had opinions about the way it should be implemented. Those of us who were more on the operational end of things had some concerns. One individual said, “Shouldn’t the people who are teachers be able to do this if they are so smart!” I agreed that they should, but the fact was that they wouldn’t. They would be distracted, busy, and cause errors. When I was talking through one scenario, a colleague said, “Well what happens when [X].” I replied, “Good point. Let’s hold onto that for a second because we are trying to figure out [Y] first.” After 90 minutes of this, we had a plan in place, and we all still liked each other after it was over.


Of course, these skills only come into play after you have a job. Getting a job is another matter. I will offer some practical tips for that in another post. In the meantime, I recognize that, because I am drawing on my own experience, there is a lot I may be missing. For other humanities academics who have found success outside the standard (and rare) path of the tenured professor, what skills have you found you possess for a job outside academe?

The Failure of the Pope’s ‘Letter To the People of God’

In response to a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis wrote a recent pastoral letter “to the people of God” in which he again acknowledges the sins of the church and asks all the faithful to take part in “the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need.” It is a response that few have found adequate.

Not a year has gone by in my entire adult life when I have not been involved in some way with the care and supervision of young people. I have been a youth pastor, a classroom teacher, a pre-collegiate program coordinator, and a private school administrator. I have been a witness at the deposition of an individual accused of sexual abuse, and I have been involved at every level with crafting policies and procedures to keep anything like that from ever happening to any child under my care. At every point along the way it has been my job to communicate to my volunteers and staff the importance of protecting the safety and integrity of children, and to make sure parents were assured of the same.

Reading the letter of His Holiness, I think I understand why it landed so weakly and pathetically, like a slab of beef hitting a linoleum floor. It fails to communicate that the church understands the seriousness of the situation and thus that the children it takes into its care are protected. Consider how it opens:

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26).  These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.

Continue reading “The Failure of the Pope’s ‘Letter To the People of God’”

Going to Girly Church: A Brief Response to Rod Dreher’s Asinine (Half-Plagiarized) Article

Three things need to be said immediately about Rod Dreher’s recent article in The American Conservative on “The Feminization (and Decline) of Religion.” One, it is half-plagiarized. Two, it is stupidly sexist. Three, it is wrong. After a brief summary of the article, I will address each point in turn. Continue reading “Going to Girly Church: A Brief Response to Rod Dreher’s Asinine (Half-Plagiarized) Article”

An Open Letter to Matthew Heimbach

Dear Matthew,

May I call you Matthew? I would prefer that over “Mr. Heimbach.” When you are “Heimbach,” you are a white supremacist SOB. When you are “Matthew,” you are a young man who is going through hell right now. So I am going to call you “Matthew” to remind me, in my weakness, to act like a Christian.  Continue reading “An Open Letter to Matthew Heimbach”