Tag Archives: Christianity

Free to Be Bound

Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color LineFree to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s undeniable that we have a history of racial oppression in the United States. But in the context of personal salvation and personal responsibility, so it goes in the mind of many, we need to just let this go, move beyond it, maybe even stop dwelling on it and discussing it so much. Blacks and whites, the argument is sometimes made (usually among whites), have opportunities that are theoretically equal and cultures that are different. The fact that we worship differently, in different places, is simply historical and cultural contingency and doesn’t reflect on the nature of the Christian church itself.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove doesn’t agree. Wilson-Hartgrove is part of a growing voice in evangelical circles calling for the Church to address systemic sins, institutional injustices, things that we’ve inherited and for which we’d like to continue telling ourselves we bear no responsibility. He’s certainly not alone in this. If I had to pick one thing that’s changed or is changing on the evangelical landscape in America it would probably be this: a growing awareness that salvation isn’t a personal issue, that there are a host of things we simply can’t shrug off with an attitude of “Oh that’s too bad but don’t make me feel personally guilty about it because it’s not my responsibility.”

That approach– the understanding of salvation as being this entirely personal thing between me and Jesus– doesn’t work anymore (if it ever did). It doesn’t work for the environment. It doesn’t work for the context and the consequences of consumerism. It doesn’t work for rampant militarization. And it doesn’t work for race. We’ve inherited structures not of our own devising, it’s true, but by accepting them as inevitable or as too overwhelming or entrenched to address– be that environmental degradation, a disposable economy, a self-perpetuating War on Terror, or the racial injustices that continue to create a stratified society– we add our culpability to their perpetuation.

This is a book about one of those systemic sins, racial prejudice and segregation, but it’s also a book about how to understand Christianity. As Wilson-Hartgrove argues, there are two strands in Christianity relevant in talking about race: one that says to live quietly doing good works, and another, revolutionary strand that says the Kingdom of God exists in opposition to racial injustice now, not in some apocalyptic hereafter. The battle against principalities and powers, according to this second strand, is the battle against systems in which lives are devalued, exploited, and destroyed because of skin color.

Of course Wilson-Hartgrove’s position (in as much as he takes a position in this work, which is largely a narrative of his own experience in a black community and congregation in Durham, North Carolina) is a bit more nuanced than simply a call to arms or a condemnation of the Church’s implicit acceptance of these power structures in our history. Indeed, he talks about the danger of believing that we as privileged white Christians can rush in and fix things with programs and good intentions, especially things as thorny as racial injustice. Usually our best intentions find us simply making the problems worse or perpetuating the hierarchy of power.

What then is to be done? This is where the author’s position becomes truly radical and hard to swallow– not so much because of its enactment as its implications. The book is Wilson-Hartgrove’s story of becoming a part of a black church, of a white boy from the south living, worshipping, and serving in a black community not in an attempt to fix anything apart from his own view of Christianity. He is there (with his wife) simply to learn. The idea, he would say, of successful racial reconciliation, of “crossing the color line,” is to do so in a spirit of submission, to be powerless and humble, to simply live in community and learn.

I think he’s right, and It’s clear he’s done this, both through his own scholarly work at Duke (though this book is an entirely accessible popular account) and his experiences. The text is filled with episodes from his life in Walltown and with history and literature from the black experience in America. It’s not a “how to” book, as the author admits, on anything. It’s simply an account of one person’s attempt to understand race and what it’s meant for the Church.

What’s harder to accept though are some of his conclusions from his experience, namely that Christianity in America has been defined by the question of color, that there is truly a black Christianity and a white Christianity, and that the most genuine Christian experience in America– the experience that has been closest to persecution, abuse, and brokenness– is the black experience. White Christianity, Wilson-Hartgrove maintains, lost its credibility by participating, perpetuating, and even justifying first slavery, then segregation, and now enduring prejudice and systematic injustice. The true miracle of Christianity in the New World is that blacks took from their oppressors the genuine parts of Christianity while rejecting the hypocrisy. If you want to know real Christianity in America, the place where Christ has been and remains with the despised, outcast, and down-trodden, you have to go to the black church.

This book makes me sad like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus but went away because he was very rich. I’m the young ruler, and I’m very white. And though I can see the truth in what Wilson-Hartgrove is saying, I resist an exclusionary interpretation of his claims. He seems to be saying that it’s all about black and white, that in the American church this is the problem, and that in America this particular instantiation of Christianity (the black church) is most genuine. That seems dangerously reductionistic. What about the Christianity of the reservation? What about the Old World liturgy of the immigrant– be it Greek, Armenian, or Hispanic? An uncharitable reading of this book might be that you have to be black to genuinely know Christ in America, or at least be bound to a black community and congregation.

I hope this isn’t true. If it is, it’s something I’m going to have to wrestle with for a while. For now though, it’s enough to accept a weaker version: that at the very least we need to know the black experience, that we need to learn it– ideally through relationship with people who have lived it– to understand a very large and an enduring piece of the puzzle of Christianity in America today.

The Orthodox Liturgy

The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine RiteThe Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite by Hugh Wybrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend and I have been having an enduring, good-natured disagreement on the nature of the Church and Christianity. He sees the history of Christianity as the accumulation of dogmatic and hierarchical barnacles that must be scraped away in order to get back to the pure, original Christianity of Christ and the first apostles. If you look at the history of the institutionalized church, he says, you see accretion, abuse, and general messiness that wasn’t an initial part of what Christ intended. The history of the Church, I think he might say, is a long history of missing the mark.

There’s certainly some truth to this. But if we’re using the analogy of barnacles encrusting something original and true, my answer to this metaphor is that I don’t think Christ came to entrust the apostles and the early Church with a boat. That is, I don’t think His purpose was to create or deliver something whole and entire that was supposed to be passed down, static and unchanging.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Christ did not come to deliver the truths of the kingdom of God or that those truths evolve or develop over time. I’m talking about the Church itself. It did not spring whole and mature at Pentecost like Athena from the mind of Zeus. Christ did not deliver a boat that we have to scrape the barnacles off to get back to the original shape. Rather, something was born at Pentecost, something given life by the descent of the Holy Spirit, and that thing is better represented (in my mind) as a thing living and growing in history (like a tree) than a shape or structure that needs to be restored.

This difference comes out most clearly when we talk about the actual practices of the Church. What is it here to do? My friend might say that all the dogmatic and ecclesiastical elaborations— incense and vestments and hierarchy and everything else that goes with liturgical worship— are examples of encrustations that need to be cleared away. It’s obvious these were not what the apostles were doing in the generation or two after Christ’s ascension.

On the other hand though, neither was the Canon of Scripture established, the dual nature of Christ articulated, or the trinitarian dogma formalized in those first generations. These were things the Church did in response to the historical events of the life and resurrection of Christ. They didn’t fall out fully formed and articulated. They were the result of the Church wrestling with what they knew to be true under— we believe— the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Christ didn’t deliver a body of beliefs or a structure of worship; he birthed a Church: a living, organic, growing, evolving thing.

To me, this view is necessary for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in the narrative of history. It’s never made sense for me to see the Church as almost immediately “going wrong,” though proponents of this view often disagree about just when it started to depart from the “pure” faith of the apostles. If, as many do, they point to the reign of Constantine, this is also the same point at which the Nicene Creed is first articulated. So if we want to throw up our hands at the Church getting in bed with Imperialism, we also have to throw up our hands at the first attempts to formalize statements of Christian belief, which came about by the instigation of the Emperor.

I say all this to say that whichever view you take— barnacles or growth— will influence how you interpret the work of Hugh Wybrew in The Orthodox Liturgy: the Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite. Either it’s a story of how multiple encrustations of liturgical worship grew up from the first to the fourteenth century to obscure the Church’s early and pure form of worship, or its a story of the development of the liturgy to the rich, vibrant form it has today. Enrichment or encrustation is a matter of perspective and teleology.

Wybrew, former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, offers a comprehensive, in-depth survey of the development of the liturgy in the East— the liturgy celebrated by Orthodox Christians each Sunday around the world— from the the earliest Christian documents until its more or less fully developed form in the fourteenth century. One the one hand, you can’t read this book and then maintain that your Church worships in the same way as the apostles, or in the first generations after them, or even as the Church did in seventh century Byzantium. The liturgy has evolved. On the other, you’ll find surprising consistencies throughout. Wybrew follows both these aspects, change and continuity from the apostolic days until the fourteenth century, in this work.

The study is chronological, drawing on surviving documents and accounts to give a representation of liturgical worship (which, it needs to be pointed out, was not simply one way of worshiping but the structure of Christian worship) in different periods in the Byzantine Empire. Early on there are different forms of the liturgy, all with certain common traits, but by the seventh century the form practiced in Byzantium comes to dominate and become the standard throughout the Eastern Empire. Here the book’s focus is delineated: Wybrew isn’t looking at the rites of other non-Chalcedonian Christianities, nor is he doing a detailed comparison between the liturgy of the Greek East and the Latin West. It’s the evolution of a single species, albeit one that for various reasons became the dominant form of worship still practiced in almost all Orthodox churches around the world.

Wybrew— himself not an Orthodox— does not idealize this process, though he clearly sees the liturgy itself as a meaningful, historically rich, and important aspect of Christian worship. He points out places, for example, where changes over time have obscured the ritual’s original form, where certain important practices (such as Old Testament readings) have been dropped, or where vestigial practices (for instance the intonation of “the doors” before the reading of the Creed) have lost their original meanings. The most problematic trend that Wybrew sees though is the move throughout the centuries to separate the clergy from the laity, making the liturgy clergy-centric to the exclusion of the common people. Aspects of this include the practice of saying certain prayers inaudibly, closing off of the alter from the rest of the church, and infrequent communion by the people. All of these things served to separate the laity from the liturgy itself and make them more and more simply spectators of things they couldn’t fully hear or see or understand. (This perspective though also helps one appreciate how important are recent trends to correct this.)

Another helpful part of this work is that Wybrew doesn’t only provide a historical narrative of how the liturgy developed; he also outlines a history of its interpretation. That is, as the liturgy developed, it became something itself interpreted by theologians, linking the different aspects of the liturgy with scenes from the life of Christ, for instance, or with various representations. Like Scripture itself, the liturgy has an superabundance of meaning. The Great Entrance, for example, may historically be a vestigial practice that grew out of bringing the bread and wine from a separate building where they had been deposited by members of the congregation to the church itself, but today it is seen as also symbolizing the entrance of Christ into the temple, for example, or the beginning of His earthly ministry, or more generally simply the coming of the Word of God into the World.

Which illustrates something important about the Orthodox Liturgy, and something that brings us back to the idea of barnacles and boats. Is something like the Entrance a piece of encrustation that obscures the original practices and life of the Church? If by this question one is asking whether it’s something that was practiced from the very beginning or something vital to an understanding of Christianity, then the answer is probably no. So should it then be abolished? An Orthodox Christian would say no, because it’s a part of the organic growth of the practice of the Church. It has a place and a significance and a meaning. The Holy Spirit was the gift of God to the Church at Pentecost, and that Holy Spirit has been continually creating the Church and its realities in our world since. Things like the Entrance are part of a living heritage of faith.

The liturgy, as Wybrew shows so well in this text, has been a process of growth and development. It has been an evolution. It continues to evolve. It’s alive.

A random and perhaps theologically-flawed analogy: in some ways my view of the Church is like my view of marriage. Sure, I want to remain focused on the faith and the promise of my marriage and at times work to get back the simplicity of love that drew my wife and me together. But marriage isn’t something static; it’s the beginning of a unified life. I don’t look on everything that’s developed over our years together, all the practices and realities of a relationship and family and the traditions that have grown up in our home, as barnacles I need to scrape away to get back to the true purity of our original wedding day. I wouldn’t even know what that means.

A theologian could probably point to flaws in my analogy, and Wybrew’s work is certainly not an argument toward this understanding of the liturgy or the faith itself. Wybrew’s work is simply information: a comprehensive and well-researched outline of how the liturgy has developed and been interpreted over the centuries. How you view that information— as illustrating pointless accumulation of dead ritual or organic growth of living worship— is up to you.

Christ, Our Way and Our Life

Christ, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite SophronyChrist, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony by Archimandrite Zacharias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are persuaded that man’s vocation is incomprehensibly wonderful and great. (99)

What do we do with this idea of holiness, the ideal of saintliness? The belief that in this life one can become like God in humility and love and empathy and prayer is one of the things that holds me in hope to Christianity.

Yet different traditions understand the concept of holiness in different ways. In many traditions, holiness and salvation are an either/or, on/off, you have it or you don’t, sort of thing: you’ve either been granted salvation and subsequent holiness by the grace of God and your faith therein, or not. In Orthodoxy, however, the process of theosis– of becoming like God– is not a thrown switch. It is certainly possible, by the grace of God, but it is claimed by few (likely no one, least of all those who approach it) and seen only as the fruit of a long process of ascetic practice and discipline.

That’s not to say holiness is only for monks. But it is to say that Orthodoxy recognizes holiness as a gradual process, an organic and often painful growth, a “ladder of divine ascent.” It doesn’t mean the only people going to heaven are the Mother Teresas of the world, but it does mean there are degrees of holiness and there are those who have advanced much farther along that road than others. And sometimes it’s good to take a long look at the abyss that separates someone like us (me) from someone like that.

For a time I used to regularly read the blog of Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest living and working in Tennessee. In his excellent posts he would consistently make reference to the works of Archimandrite Sophrony, an Orthodox monk whose life spanned much of the twentieth century. In particular, Father Stephen would quote from a study of Sophrony’s life entitled Christ, Our Way and Our Life, written by another monk, Archimandrite Zacharias, originally as a PhD dissertation and translated into English in 2003.

Sophrony and his mentor, St. Silouan, spent their lives in the pursuit of holiness. They devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation, and they said things like, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” and “Stay on the verge of despair, but when you see that you are going to fall over, draw back and have a cup of tea.” They lived in chastity and obedience, poverty and humility, and they attempt to forsake the priorities of this world completely. What’s the point of such endeavors? If salvation is by faith alone, are they missing the point of Christianity? Or are they of the handful of faithful few on whom the salvation of the world rests?

These are deep waters, and I waded out onto them with some trepidation. I’m no mystic, but I tried to wrap my mind around the themes of their theology. Those themes included utter humility and self-loathing to the point of despair to reach the point at which one can truly pray for the entire world. Sophrony believes this is what Christ did and that the ultimate goal of a Christian is to be able to truly pray on behalf of all (something embodied in the liturgy we celebrate each week).

No one besides monks are much into self-loathing or humility today. Yet Sophrony and Silouan maintain that a form of self-loathing is necessary to gain true repentance, that we need to see ourselves as we actually are in comparison to the love and purity of God, and that only by living through the pain of this self-knowledge (which led the publican to beat his chest and cry, “Lord, have mercy”) can we know the extent of redemption and love of God.

Most of us, I think, would prefer repentance and salvation be quick and painless. But for the Orthodox ascetics, it’s painful. It’s a burning. It’s something that’s achieved with rivers of tears. The more we know who we truly are, the more we know the extent of our own sin, the more we understand the love of God.

If they left it there though, it wouldn’t be much in the way of good news. For Sophrony and Silouan, despair over our own condition– and then beyond that, despair over the condition of the human race itself– is necessary to be like Christ. They understand the entire life of Christ as a descent– from the right hand of God to a lowly place on Earth, and then from Earth to Hell itself. Christ sits at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of creation, occupying the most lowly, painful, humble position, and from that position bearing the sins and weight of the world. When we embrace the painful humility of our own brokenness and start to feel the weight and pain of the world itself in our prayers, we are following the path of Christ. Salvation is not upward toward heaven and redemption– or at least not initially; it is downward toward the pain and humiliation of Christ.

“Keep your mind in hell,” are the words reported to have come to St. Siluoan from Christ Himself, meaning we must live in that struggle and that pain, that in taking up the suffering of our own sins and the sins of humanity, we are with Christ. “Keep your mind in hell,” he was told, “and despair not.” Despair not, because Christ did not remain in Hell, and by taking on the sins of the world He was able to redeem the world and conquer death. But, Siluoan and Sophrony would say, we focus too much on this second part alone, but we neglect that Christ only ascended by first descending and that we must follow the same path.

Christ did not descend so that a switch could be flipped and we could live the rest of our lives in redeemed comfort. He came so that we could emulate Him in taking on the burdens of the world and offering them up to God. Generally speaking, man bears witness to his kinship with God when, in every aspect of his life, he thinks, feels, and acts with the consciousness that God has placed all of creation into his care. (63) For them, this is a very real, ontological act centered in prayer, not simply in a role of stewardship of nature or talents (though that’s certainly a part of it).

If this repels, reflect on the saints. Who are the saints, in whatever tradition you find yourself? What makes them saintly? Is it simply that they’ve been saved and sanctified, or is it that they recognize this salvation as a means of taking up the pain and the burdens of others and by doing so sanctifying them to God? And how are they able to do this? By recognizing their own brokenness, by living at the edge of despair and not yielding to it, and by constantly orienting themselves toward humility, patience, and descent.

That seems pretty difficult. And right.

For those who have not been given such a state, copying his way of fulfilling St. Silouan’s word may prove unbearable. A lighter form of this teaching may, however, be realized by anyone, if he gives thanks to God at all times for all He bestows upon him, acknowledging always his own unworthiness. Continual thanksgiving makes up for what is lacking in us. (273)

The Supper of the Lamb

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary ReflectionThe Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Farrar Capon can come across a bit pompous, even pretentious, I admit. There were several times I cringed or rolled my eyes reading this work. He writes with a spirit of absolute confidence, and his tone is not mitigated (or only slightly mitigated) by the fact that he is so absolutely, insufferably, correct throughout.

That intro almost makes it sound as if I didn’t love this book. This is a cookbook that will change your life, and anything that changes your life– especially something that gets you to admit you’re only half awake and missing most of the important things transpiring around you because of your own laziness, ineptitude, and pure inattention– is going to be something that might rub you the wrong way a little bit. This is a book both glorious and terrible, but the older kind of terrible, when it meant something that could chew you up, not necessarily something simply of poor quality.

Capon is a materialist in the grandest Christian tradition. For him, the world is holy. Material things are holy. We are not saved from the world, he writes, we are saved through the world. And the book itself, a melange of prose, recipes, reflections on life, and exhortations to excellence, is a celebration of the reality and the wonder of food and its preparation. It is Michael Pollan meets G. K. Chesterton, and it reads about as wonderfully and heavily as you would expect such a combination. Read it slowly. Try to put aside– as was difficult for me– the feelings of inadequacy next to Capon’s grandiose claims for kitchen life and entertaining.

Read this book. We live in an age dominated by two great heresies: on the one hand are the spiritualists who tell us (and many of whom claim Christianity teaches) that the physical world is insignificant. On the other hand are the consumerists who see in the physical world only material to be used, marketed and exploited. (Often these two hands are one and the same.) Against this stand the Christian materialists, in a long line upon the modern branches of which you will find Tolkien, Chesterton, and Lewis, among others. This is Capon’s lineage.

By the second chapter you know where Capon stands. He calls us to meet an onion– to actually look at it, examine it, spend time with it, and reflect on the wonder that it represents. After this there will be plenty of time for the ins and outs of how meat should be prepared and why knives today aren’t as good as they used to be. But the theme that begins here is central: the world exists to be appreciated, and man exists as the priest of nature, lifting it up and offering it up with thanks and humility to God. (If this sounds a bit like Schmemann, you’re not far from the mark.)

There is much to say, but perhaps it is simplest to trust to Capon’s own distinctive voice, from the concluding chapter, in which he offers his own solution to physical heartburn and then reflects on the deeper burning of the heart that will be familiar to any readers of Lewis:

For all its greatness, the created order cries out for further greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.

You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself– and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great. (my emphasis)

Read this book.

Ian Morgan Cron

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's TaleChasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I came to a realization reading Ian Cron’s work: Mystics are empiricists. They’re trying to meaningfully express experiences. I’ve always been a theorist. I try to fit my own experiences and those of others into pre-conceived patterns and structures. I had always imagined (without much thought) that this was the other way around. I imagined the mystics were the theorists and that my own thoughts were grounded more firmly in empirical evidence. Meeting and reading Cron made me realize that the true mystic always speaks from experience.

I say all this because I do believe Cron is a modern-day Christian mystic. He came and spoke at my university at the beginning of this semester, and I had the privilege of meeting him as he visited and had lunch with one of my classes. He is deeply passionate, well-spoken, and kind. His words and vision are compelling, and he left behind stirred minds as well as hearts, a campus buzzing with what he had expressed, and a stack of his books generously gifted to my class.

So it was I found myself reading Chasing Francis, a book several of my students assured me was “the best book they had ever read.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but within the first chapter I realized it wasn’t this: Francis through the lens of the fictional disillusioned, burned-out megachurch pastor Chase Falson. Though my opinion on the text differs significantly from that of my students, I believe what Cron is doing here is excellent and immensely important: unpacking aspects of Catholic mysticism and social gospel through the eyes of a mainstream evangelical.

The basic premise of the novel (Cron calls it “wisdom literature”) is that a pastor of a successful megachurch has a crisis of faith and finds himself traveling to Italy to spend some time with his uncle, a Franciscan. In the company of his Uncle Kenny and a few other jovial monks, he lives for a time as a spiritual tourist, shuttling back and forth through the Italian countryside visiting historic sights linked to the life of St. Francis and taking up a correspondence of sorts with the saint through his journal. New characters are introduced as needed to explain to Chase aspects of the Catholic spiritualism Francis exemplified: the love of artistic beauty, community, peace-building, and service, for examples. Chase learns there is a lot more to being Christian than the conservative, consumeristic view of the Church he previously held, and he returns to his church a changed man.

First, the value of this book: if you want to learn about the life of Francis, there are better ways. If you want a tour of Italy and Church history, there are better ways. But if you don’t know much about either and if you’ve been raised in the kind of Christianity Chase’s character represents, this might be your window into a new world. For me, this is why– despite the flat characters and the forced plot-line– it’s still gratifying when my students tell me they enjoyed reading it. Because the perspectives they take away from that are important. For someone, for instance, who sees in the symbols and practices of liturgical worship nothing but empty form or at worse harmful superstition, Chase’s realizations are going to be essential.

These themes aside though, the story itself is a bit tedious. The characters– most particularly Chase himself– are caricatures. They have conversations about spirituality and faith and beauty, but they’re simply observers, even the group of Franciscans. Even the most emotionally powerful portion– the account from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide– is staged and somehow sterile: we’re sitting beside Chase as he listens to a lecture at a peace seminar. The entire book is like this: Chase is staring through windows, meeting people who deliver information and perspective. This sense of disconnect reaches its climax in the chapter on beauty, when Chase happens to meet a concert musician, and then they happen to meet an Anglican priest conductor who gives a lecture on the role of beauty in theology, and then they all go out for dinner.

There’s a deeper problem here though, and one that caused a nagging worry as I continued to read. Chase begins the story as a self-centered individualist who realizes the answers he had are no longer working. For the duration of the story he functions as a self-centered spiritual tourist (Cron uses the term “pilgrim,” but I remain unconvinced. Chase is a tourist. He never abandons the Western tourist mentality.)

Chase’s church had been the “Chase Falson” show; he returns to it with new and transformed ideas, but his goal upon his return appears to be to simply reinvent it into the new, improved Chase Falson show. Nothing about his idea of church has essentially changed. He has absorbed apparently nothing from the Franciscans about humility, menial service, church hierarchy, or putting oneself under the authority of a spiritual superior or mentor. Chase’s McMegachurch is certainly transformed upon his return– and some of the twists here will be familiar to anyone who has experience with church politics– but it’s not a transformation away from the dominant paradigm of one man with a dedicated cadre of followers. As the final scenes make clear, this will still be the Chase Falson show, now simply informed by some ideas of St. Francis.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir...of SortsJesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir…of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ian Cron is a bridge between multiple worlds. He’s a bridge between mysticism and everyday evangelicalism. He’s a bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism. He was raised in one world and now, from what I can see, identifies strongly with the Via media of the Anglican church. And in that position he can mediate between many of the traditions and denominational languages of contemporary Christianity. I saw this at my own university, where Ian on the one hand led our chapel in an ecumenical eucharistic service and on the other listened and tried to understand students expounding on the Nazarene view of holiness.

Wherever we are among these different worlds, we need people like this.

If Chasing Francis, his first book, felt flat and unreal even as it communicated important ideas, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me is alive. In this memoir Chase Falson, the omni-man protagonist of Chasing Francis, is replaced by Cron himself, and the writing that had only a constrained glimmer in Chasing Francis explodes into three-dimensions in this memoir. Here is someone writing about something real. Here is a true mystic expressing true experiences.

The title of the book, as Cron relates in the first chapters, comes from his realization upon his father’s death that Cron knew very little about his father’s actual career, which apparently included time as a CIA operative. His father– an emotionally abusive alcoholic– remains one of the primary threads woven through the work, and it is clear a primary impetus in the writing was Cron grappling with his memories of his father and the way they shaped his childhood. This makes the book’s conclusion– which seems at first glance disconnected from the rest of the narrative– a powerful commentary on fatherhood in general and the lasting repercussions of both wounding and redemption.

Cron calls the book “a memoir . . . of sorts,” but this hedging seems to me to devalue the work itself. He writes in the beginning that he feels the need to qualify this because not every conversation is written from memory and many are recomposed in his mind as he believes they would have happened. But can any memoir be any more than this? Considering the blending of history and fiction that characterized his prior book, I was left by this qualification with a shadow of doubt about whether Cron had taken more than usual artistic liberties with his representations of his past. Otherwise why insist that it was only a memoir of sorts? This would be disappointing, as the whole thing has a vibrant feel of realism and honesty.

The book bounces around chronologically, beginning with his father’s deathbed and funeral, jumping back to Cron’s childhood and teenage years, and chronicling his own battle with alcoholism and his life as a father today. In between he writes about his first communion and the power and transcendence of that experience, which comes full circle as he recounts his own first officiating as an Anglican priest. The stories along the way range from hilarious to deeply troubling, but there is a constant theme of wonder, humility, and gratitude. The language, which seemed forced in Chasing Francis, flowers here into something much deeper.

Cron writes, speaks, and lives well. I hope he comes back soon.

The Open Door

The Open Door: Entering the Sactuary of Icons and PrayerThe Open Door: Entering the Sactuary of Icons and Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Icons are strange. To an outsider, they are certainly among the most foreign aspects of Orthodox spirituality and praxis. The strangeness is only magnified by their centrality: these aren’t simply decorations or “devotional aids.” They get at something central to Orthodoxy: the intersection of the physical with the divine. The Orthodox Church devotes an entire feast to their celebration, and every other feastday, indeed every Sunday, they figure prominently. Understanding icons and why they play such a central role (especially when prayers before them touch at a fundamental divide between Orthodox Christianity and American evangelicalism) is thus key to gaining insights into Orthodoxy itself. In The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer, Frederica Mathewes-Green offers an accessible, engaging, and conciliatory glimpse into this world.

This is not a scholarly, historical, or theological treatise about icons, though those books have been written and Mathewes-Green offers references to some in a succinct list at the book’s conclusion. Instead, her work is much more a short devotional guide. Indeed, there is no introductory essay explaining or setting the context for icons in Church worship. She begins by inviting us into a church, and the book is the process of her introducing and reflecting on various famous icons (four of which are illustrated in color plates at the book’s center, whereas the rest are unfortunately black and white). The subtitle well illustrates her approach. She’s introducing the physical and spiritual space of Orthodox worship. Indeed, the book begins with a diagram of an Orthodox church, showing where the various icons are usually displayed. We’re given both a tour of the church’s interior architecture as well as the cycle of the church year itself, as some icons are fixed in space whereas others make their appearance at specific times throughout the church calendar.

The book is light reading in one sense. The chapters are short, and the book itself quite thin. But it’s not meant to be read straight through. Instead, it might function best as a devotional primer, with the reader reading and then reflecting on each individual chapter. These are images that have been vital to the life of the church for hundreds of years, in some cases over a thousand years. Each chapter is a response to an icon, accompanied by scripture, hymnology, and prayers. Certain chapters are used as vehicles for explaining church doctrine, as for instance the second chapter on the Virgin of Vladimir in which Mathewes-Green addresses and explains the Orthodox view of prayers before icons as well as to the Theotokos herself. Throughout, the tone is inclusive: she’s not writing for an Orthodox audience alone.

Icons are certainly mystical– as mystical as any truly physical thing is, a wonder of pigment and surface and reality. If you’ve ever been in an Orthodox church (or the home of an Orthodox friend) and been curious about these images and their use– not simply the theology or history behind them but looking for more of a glimpse of what may go on in the mind of the person standing before them– this book is indeed an open door.

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of GlobalizationScience and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization by Efthymios Nicolaidis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The complete history of science in the Christian East remains to be told. But it is certainly a narrative the broad strokes of which need to be outlined, if only because Orthodoxy remains a lacuna in most generalized histories of scientific thought. There are a lot of writings about Greek science, about its transmission, appropriation, and development in Arabic and Islamic contexts, and about its reintroduction to Western Europe. Yet about the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured more or less until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, very little has been said, even less in popular surveys for a non-specialized audience. (One popularization treating the topic, though not focusing specifically on science, is Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium.)

The essential difference between science in the Greek East as opposed to the Latin West is that whereas Europe lost linguist links to the corpus of classical Greek texts, these works were never lost to the eastern, Greek portions of the Roman Empire. The interplay between this knowledge and the rapidly Christianized culture of Byzantium has often been portrayed negatively with the assumption that Greek learning was neglected because it was seen as inconsequential or hostile to Christian theology. Greek culture, so the narrative goes, was decadent, and the scientific knowledge soon flourishing in the Arabic world was stagnant or forgotten in the empire of Constantinople.

As with anything else in history, the closer one looks the more complicated the true picture becomes. Even the high-altitude overview provided by Nicolaidis’s Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization has plenty of room for the wide range of reactions and reassessments of science taking place during this period. Indeed, the relationship between the state, Christianity, and science is the true theme of Nicolaidis’s survey. In this he is consciously following the footsteps of Numbers and Lindberg, and in some respects this volume could even be considered a companion to the two volumes that Lindberg and Numbers have co-edited outlining the relationship between science and Christianity in the West. However, whereas those are collections of essays treating the topic from a broad range of chronological and thematic angles, Nicolaidis’s work is a chronological survey.

The extent of this survey is quite impressive. Nicolaidis begins with the hexaemerons– commentaries on the six days of creation– by the early Christian fathers Basil and Gregory. He hits the familiar points of Byzantine history: the impact of the iconoclastic controversy, hesychasm, and the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204. This final event, Nicolaidis argues, actually had a positive effect on Orthodox science, illustrating the possibility of radical social and cultural change and ushering in the first Byzantine humanist revival as rulers in the new capital of Nicea built a cosmopolitan group of administrators who valued classical learning. The narrative continues all the way into the modern period, chronicling the Orthodox Church’s largely conservative stance toward modern science (Darwinism usually equated with materialism), primarily because it and the modern ideas accompanying were seen as potential threats to the privileged status Christian enjoyed in the Ottoman empire.

In some respects though, this detailed account simply proves the initial assumption that there wasn’t such a thing as Byzantine or Orthodox science. Instead there was a tradition of commentary and preservation of the classical body of Greek learning, at times appreciated and shared and at times viewed with suspicion, depending on the vicissitudes of church and state policy. Nicolaidis’s account is full of Greek scholars from all periods, explaining who they are and what they taught and how in many cases they were essential for transferring texts and knowledge to the West. But true “scientists” or natural philosophers are distinctly lacking. This doesn’t mean that they are not necessarily there, and this account gives lots of potential leads to pursue in a body of work that is remains largely unexplored. Unlike a popular account of Chinese or Arabic science though, which would be rife with examples of breakthroughs or technological developments, the story of science and Eastern Orthodoxy is largely that of continuity, preservation, and tension (albeit not always a negative tension) with the Church.

As an overview, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy is an invaluable introduction to the topic of Greek learning in Byzantium, the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire, and its successor Balkan states (with the focus on Greece) and the interaction between natural philosophy and Christian thought in these contexts. There are dozens of useful references and sources if one wants to dig deeper into any of the various topics, time periods, or individuals surveyed. For an English-language introduction to the history of science in the Christian East, this is the place to begin.