Friday, August 31, 2007

On Becoming Orthodox

Well, summer vacation is over and it's time to start blogging again. If anyone still reads this blog it will be proof of divine providence. Only the Holy Spirit would keep people reading this blog after such a long absence.

Anyhoo, over at WithoutAuthority I read about this article in the New Republic about the movement of evangelicals to the Orthodox Church (in this case the Antiochian Orthodox Church) . It's an interesting read and quite illustrative of where some postmodern evangelical worshipers are headed.

The motivations for this exodus are fascinating....

The first seems to be an exhaustion with the secularization of the evangelical protestant worship. As I've blogged about before, this secularization (mostly to grow attendance) is ultimately a dead-end. Eventually, these churches will cease to be contemporary and when that happens their main reason for existing disappears. Marketing and entertainment for the sake of growth needs to be constantly relevant (read, changing) to feed that growth; especially in today's overly marketed culture that demands the new over the old. Apparently, this constant churn is wearing folks out.

The second is the need for a more contemplative, thoughtful, and stable worship. Of all the attributes one can say about evangelical worship, contemplative isn't generally one of them. This movement back to more ancient worship forms is a reaction, I feel, to postmodern society. When I blogged about this last year I thought it was mostly younger people who desired this movement to older worship forms but I've changed my mind. Whether young or old, our lives are in constant flux. We accept this flux as a cost of living in a postmodern world but we yearn for something more stable, deeper, and bigger than ourselves. I seen this yearning in my own church most Sundays as I watch visitors at my church receive Holy Communion. The very fact that they are attending worship that is not contemporary makes me hopeful. Only time will tell if this is a permanent trend or just a fad.

The third was the desire to separate worldly political issues from religion. Considering that these folks are disaffected evangelical protestants who's religious fervor has been used and manipulated by others for 30 years for political gain (with little to show for it), it's no surprise that they want a break. Oblique political references in worship are OK when they relate to the lectionary text for that Sunday but that was certainly not what these folks were experiencing. I feel that church ought to be about communion with God in the midst of our bothers and sisters in Christ. There is plenty of time to discuss how our faith should play out in the world before or after Mass. Let's give God some time just for God. We can work out how we further his kingdom on our own time.

Now of these three motivations, it's number two that I'm most interested in. Protestant churches, and especially Lutheran congregations, can learn a thing or two from our Orthodox brethren. Being relevant is a laudable and salutary goal. We should do this when ever possible. But unless these changes are informed by our heritage and the New Testament witness it's just another form of secularization. And in some cases can be gratuitous. Ultimately it could lead us away from God in Christ because we feel our own ideas are better than the received tradition of the faithful before us. Hopefully, there are enough wise men and women to gently guide us in the right direction.


  1. Relevance -- what an issue! I don't read the literature of "missiology" in which people reflect on the meaning of speaking the gospel in the thought-patterns and styles of a culture that is out of step with the Western, post-Enlightenment bailiwick. And I think I may regret saying this openly, but I really don't care to start.

    What interests me are the efforts precisely within that bailiwick (where we live and move and have our being) to bring the Gospel into contact with the unbelieving society in terms the unbelieving society can understand. And I wonder, frankly, whether we don't do entirely too much worrying about that. Specifically, I wonder whether we don't downplay the importance of the "newness," the un -familiarity, the dissonance, the alienness of the Gospel. And I wonder whether that otherness doesn't need to seem rather irrelevant to the wider society.

    If it is the Gospel we wish to proclaim, then there is only one message: It is a claim about Truth, about who the true God is, about where we fit into that God's schema of intention and completion. To seek to make that palatable to people by allowing them to remain within the thought-world where they start is to de-mission the Gospel.

    I think we get rather caught up with the notion that "evangelism" is the key task of the Church and that that "evangelism" is a kind of tonic for what ails people. In order to get them to swallow this tonic, we must sugar it up "for a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." But that sugar is poison as far as the Gospel is concerned.

    In some sense it is undeniable: It is not the Gospel that must be rendered relevant to humanity, but humanity that must be rendered relevant to God. Orthodoxy seems to have understood that better than Western traditions and to have fought that battle on different grounds, with the current result that they don't have the relevancy issue. (That's not to say that they don't have other issues -- but that's for a different time and place).

    In another sense, the Gospel begs to be rendered relevant to my life -- better: to our lives and our life together. But that's because it already is.

    And, oops, I've ranted on longer than your original post.

  2. Dwight, I concur on the relevancy issue. As Christians, we are to conform our lives to the Gospel message; not the other way around. But it's precisely the "alienness" of the Gospels that is at issue here isn't it? Instead of accepting and embracing the dissonance (I like that phraseology) and alienness we try to co-opt it to our needs instead of God's. (This includes both doctrine and liturgy btw). So then, the question is: how do we preach this alien message, this Good News to a world that is at best ambivalent? Not only to "a world" but more importantly to folks who confess this Gospel?

    As to whether we get too caught up in evangelism? Certainly non-denominational churches do; as do some mainline protestant congregations. But I can't say most Lutheran churches do much evangelizing. At least not of the proselytizing variety. But the "sugaring up" is a worry. But having said that, I don't feel that evangelism has to be necessarily a dirty word. We are commanded to spread the Good News. And Good News it is. But how? By what methods. If someone asks me about my religious beliefs (as someone did on Saturday) what I say ought to be relevant otherwise what's the point?

    Strangely enough, it's for these reasons (among others) that I've been reading (well, not reading perhaps but perusing) books on Lutheran doctrine to get a sense of whether this doctrine still has any thing "relevant" to say without being so technical as to confound me theologically or bore me spiritually. So far it's mildly encouraging.

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  4. Steve,

    You got a link to the full Zengerle article? Seems like TNR articles always disappear into the clouds of fee-based subscription services. Nothing wrong with that (I love capitalism as much as the next American), but it's tough to share the article with people who may not happen to have a subscription.

    By the way I agree with your points in your comment. When we go to heaven for believing in Jesus and our neighbors go to hell because we could have told them about Jesus and didn't, what will we say then? Believe me, I'm as guilty as any of not doing enough evangelism!

    But the reason I am looking at Orthodoxy again - in addition to my somewhat unusual view that good religion must actively confront evil - is due to the lack of respect for the sacred that I've found in today's evangelicalism, not necessarily the evangelical's desire to win more souls.