Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cultures: From Kitch to Curandero

The Ochlophobist has recently posted a whopper of a post (an article of some length, really) "against a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus" which speaks of "The anglo-American Evangelical ritualization, psychologicalization, and socio-religious construct known as a 'personal relationship with the Lord Jesus'" as "a mechanism designed to convince persons of divine affirmation of their own personalities, adjusted as needed to evoke the convincing." What that gets you, I think, is something akin to this. Caveat spector.

Och has also quoted Arturo's Cultural Catholic Serendipity as a bit of a piggyback: "A soccer player making the Sign of the Cross before coming on the field is far better than the social critics who think that a Puritan God showers His decent bourgeois elect with earthly blessings."

Leaving aside the fact that I have known several Latin American soccer players whose off-the-field peccadilloes would leave the great ascetics just as horrified, sign of the cross or no, as would the shallowness of many Protestants, we come here to a common critique of Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy or Catholicism: that we're trying to transform it (or that we mutate it without even knowing it) into some sort of freakish hybrid of Byzantine Rite health/wealthism, hopelessly attached to middle class, bourgeoisie trinkets and morality as superstition.

And I get where the sentiment is coming from, I think. In general, the folks here at SVS who grew up OCA or AOCANA or whatever are WAY more laid back about the faith than most of us converts. And, generally, I mean "laid back" in a good way; most of us converts, even after a decade or more of being in the Church, have times where we're still obviously trying to find and fit into our skin (insert pun about Orthowine in Evanjellyfish wineskin here).

But it seems to me a mistake to think that Evangelicals (or the converts therefrom to RCC or EO) are motivated to attempt to read from Scripture--and thereafter, keep--the commandments of Christ out of some desire for temporal rewards, be they foreign policies or constitutional amendments or LandRovers with Daddy/Mommy/kiddo ιχθυες swimming kitchily on the back hatch. Furthermore, it seems unwise to point to the rather syncretic, "Orthodoxy/Catholicism-as-culture" approach as an antidote to this.

Och quoted Abba Antony as saying "always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it." It seems to me that both the Evangelische kitch movement and the juxtaposition of Sán Judas Tadeo candles with the smutty novelas Arturo mentioned seem to be a betrayal of "God before your eyes...according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures." Whether or not one can "quote an address" in Scripture to justify one's participation in or abstinence from activity x is immaterial; such an ability is not "knowing the Scriptures" anymore than an ability to do so is ignorance thereof, as Och points out at the end of the "personal" post. Yet enough of a consensus has come down liturgically, scripturally, patristically, and iconographically throughout all branches of Christianity to make it perfectly clear that the vast majority of pop culture--whether the whitebread version wedded to Evangelicalism or the "progressive" relativism of ECUSA or the "Mi Vida Está en Tus Manos" sticker in Gothic font on the back window of the pickup truck with Calle 13 blaring rhymes about ass-shaking out the back--is incompatible with the ascetic ideal.

So "Going to Mass once in a while" may be great if one goes with an idea that something is..."off"...and that this "thing" which is primary helps bring it in line, sure. And I get it that most of the time, you take what you get from parishioners; I'm not under any delusion of a sea change in this reality an time soon. But saying that confirming the Eucharist with some desire to obtain knowledge of--and, of course, ascetic fulfillment of--the commandments of Christ is somehow not better than just receiving the thing itself is just plain wrong. Moreover, the assertion that the only other alternative to cultural reception of "the thing" apart from "how you believe in it and how you employ it" is what those neo-trads do, namely, "going to Mass under the pretext of being the 'last good Christians on earth', or of social conservative engineering" is disingenuous. So let's not pretend that those are the only options. Neither let us pretend like anyone who engages in crass "Charismercialism," to coin a phrase, lacks even a modicum of depth, nor that those with a rosary around a TV blaring José Luis is somehow "better," or at least excusable, because of culture, nor worse because of "nominalism."

Och is right on in avoiding buttonholing every other person into making a decision for Christ, but if that's the diagnosis, what's the cure? The 55 Maxims Och referenced mentioned plenty of concrete activities and disciplines that lots of eager converts do, and do loudly; apparently, we're fine with having our reward. They also referenced things--really, they are many of the same things--that often get excused or neglected to our own ruin for love of "culture." We ought to mind these little things, yes. And we ought to mind them quietly.


Moo! said...

"Minding them quietly"... Make that 56 Maxims. :)

Darlene said...


So, I take it that you have no problem with Hopko's 55 maxims, right?

I must agree that the Protestant Evangelicals have a monopoly on that phrase "personal relationship with Jesus." I've gotten to the point where I'm suspicious of most Christian catch phrases. Bumper stickers are at the head of worst offenders. I saw one today that read, "Real men love Jesus." what sort of effect is that supposed to have? Yet, many of these folks who slap a sticker on their car think this falls into the category of "evangelism." Oh, well, such is the mindset within commercial Christianity.

David B said...


Right. I posted them as exemplary maxims for the Christian life.

I've often thought that cliches are just the truth stated without conviction. Doesn't stop them from being the truth, but it robs them of their power.

Darlene said...

Hmmm...So you like the phrase, "Real men love Jesus?" :) And why as a bumper sticker?

I recall once how I put a sticker on my bumper which said, "Isn't it time for Jesus?" It was meant to be an evangelistic tool. I thought I was being unashamed of Jesus and risking rejection from the world to be so bold as to have a Jesus sticker.

All of this smacks as religious sentimentalism or worse yet, self-righteousness. Just my take on it.

The Ochlophobist said...

Charismercialism is one to remember.

But saying that confirming the Eucharist with some desire to obtain knowledge of--and, of course, ascetic fulfillment of--the commandments of Christ is somehow not better than just receiving the thing itself is just plain wrong.

Arturo's project has its nuances and ebbs and flows and occasional contradictions, but in the end he is not saying that. His principle point relative to this discussion is that 'cultural Catholicism' is no worse a spiritual game in which something other than God is set in the place of God than such banalities as 'Evangelical Catholicism' and is, at a quite nominal level, occasionally better only in that sense that the soccer player who crosses himself, however much a reprobate he may be, is not necessarily trying to sell you his God (though, of course, he may be), whilst the "Evangelical Catholic" by their own definition, always is.

I don't always agree with Arturo, and lord knows he does not always agree with me. I use Arturo here to help with comparing and contrasting competing ritual points between the Evangelical converts and those they hold in such disdain (and let's face it, those 8 principles are clearly meant to point to a 'real' and 'authentic' Catholicism that is clearly contrasted to lesser Catholicisms that are disdained - the boldness of converts!). For the record I do not hold that every convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism follows the path to Evangelical Catholicism or Byzantine Rite Orthodoxy.

That said, a central component of our society, and one which is seen in the Church not much less than outside of it, is the increasing homogeneity of lifestylizations. Things such as AFR, the OSB, the styles adopted by various pan-Orthodox ministries (which increasingly mimics the styles of Evangelicalish ministries found among Mainline Prots and RCs and, of course, Evangelicalism itself), the new missions center at Holy Cross where one can learn Fuller missiology, the Orthodox trinket outlets, etc., etc., all of this leads to an increased homogeneity of spiritual posture, one that is formed by spiritual forces outside of the Church.

American Orthodoxy is still a place where one can find, per capita, a greater number of eccentrics than any other small end of mid-size Christian environ in America. But in the 18 years I have been attending Orthodox parishes in America that room for eccentricity is waning and the homogeneity of which I speak increases. This is not because of increased growth. Growth has declined in recent years, and like many Mainline churches, the cult of relevance and its styles and machinations has been brought in out of desperation and to give ecclesiocrats and would be ecclesiocrats something to do. Eccentricity is not in and of itself a virtue, but it beats the heck out of anti-human market research driven homogeneity defended by those convinced that their brand of enthusiasm is the 'real' Orthodoxy, and the best suited for America.

Ah well.

David B said...

Darlene - I think you're conflating things. I like the maxims of Fr. Tom, yes. Bumper sticker slogans, not so much, even though the actual statement could be stated truthfully (and has, in centuries past, by men who did, in fact, love Jesus). Certainly imaginary men cannot, in fact, love Jesus. The phrase, while also an opportunity to make homoerotic jokes about people who are almost always the most vociferously homophobic people out there, is true -- loving Christ makes one a "human being fully alive," fully real, to the glory of God.

Och -
"Arturo's project has its nuances and ebbs and flows and occasional contradictions, but in the end he is not saying that."

Chalk it up to my lack of overall familiarity with his blog at large, then.

"Eccentricity is not in and of itself a virtue, but it beats the heck out of anti-human market research driven homogeneity defended by those convinced that their brand of enthusiasm is the 'real' Orthodoxy, and the best suited for America."

I'd agree; sometimes you need someone just a bit out of touch with social/cultural norms to remind you what posers most of us are.

Question is, now: given the willingness of dang near everybody these days to fit in to commercially-sanctioned ethnoi, what does a local community do to 1) bridge the gap between various ethnoi present in a given parish and 2) awaken the faithful to the identity in Christ which is both distinct from "earnings as self-identification" and common to all?

Would your problem be less with the fact that commercial means are being used than with the idea that the image being put forth through said means is inauthentic?

David B said...

...and, inauthentic, perhaps, due to limitations of scope?

Darlene said...

So then I ask, what's an Orthodox convert to do? If I understand Och's concerns correctly, almost no one, anywhere, in these United States is authentically living the Orthodox life. If that be so, what's the point of being Orthodox if all's so hopeless? (in Och's mind, not mine) Maybe I should sneek off to Mt. Athos or some holy place in reviving Holy Russia. :)

I believe that God is merciful and He accepts us with all of our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, I came from an agnostic/atheist home and virtually knew nothing about Christianity when I first encountered Christ. Nonetheless, in His love He revealed Himself to me and has continued to do so since then.

In a nutshell, I think Christ accepts me, unworthy Orthodox convert that I am. If it is true that it takes YEARS for one to actually become truly, and authentically Orthodox...well then, I'm biding my time. I expect that the Holy Spirit will slowly change me into His likeness and that theosis will have its effect.

In the meantime, I should follow the Orthodox pattern: pray, fast, give alms, partake of the Holy Mysteries, and...oh yes.....LOVE, love God and love my neighbor.

David B said...

Darlene -

I think the point Och and Arturo were trying to make is that there are groups that surface from within a religious confession that claim to be the right way to go about practicing that religion. Group x thinks group y should be more rigorous in its "knowledge" of the Bible; group y thinks group x should just get over itself, relax, go to liturgy, then have a beer while watching the soccer game, because knowing stuff about religion is what we pay the priest for.

We've all got our backgrounds and our biases. The former we should all be grateful for; the latter we should all be suspicious of, it seems to me. Just because we're walking the path with mixed motives and hangups, though, doesn't mean we should just throw up our hands and quit walking (Athos wouldn't take you, anyway! **wink**). Seems to me that all this talk is an exhortation simply to acknowledge that we all have some kind of limp as we go down the path.

Your last sentence, I think, is a good way to keep going, limping though we may.

The Ochlophobist said...

I no longer use the word 'authentic' in these contexts. I have come to believe that it is too 'loaded' a word. I am increasingly suspect of anyone selling an 'authentic' (their word) Orthodoxy that is juxtaposed against what is deemed a lesser Orthodoxy (whether it be ethnic, traditionalist, etc.). Part of the point here is that the Evangelical ethos when found in Catholicism or Orthodoxy, despite claims to simply be the full and right expression of 'authentic' Catholicism or 'authentic' Orthodoxy is a niche subset within RCism or Orthodoxy and one that fabricates its own ethos of 'authenticity' in an attempt to win an ideological and cultural struggle of some sort.


I have had folks tell me before that they bet I am not at all in person like I am online. In fact a person at church told me this, based on the fact that I don't debate issues at church. My wife always laughs at this suggestion. I told that person at church that if the parish held a debate on any of the matters I discussed online, they could be assured of my participation. I believe the internet is the appropriate forum to debate certain issues, and I am thankful for it.

I say all that because I think the issue is somewhat analogous to the question what's the point of being Orthodox if all's so hopeless? and the notion that I believe that almost no one, anywhere, in these United States is authentically living the Orthodox life. An interesting phenomenon – when I write about issues pertaining to the growth of the American Religion within Orthodoxy (and Evangelicalism, broadly speaking, is the fullest expression of the American Religion aside from Mormonism – the American Religion is health&wealthism, hard or soft, mixed with that peculiar American Gnosticism identified by Bloom and others) the people who tend to agree with me come from two camps – traditionalists (and neo-trads such as Aaron Taylor at Logismoi), and, for lack of a better term, Orthodox liberals, or liberal-leaning Orthodox (from SVSers who like Hauerwas to Greeks who like Valerie Karras, etc.). Ethnic clubbers largely don’t care, or think that the little trinkets and convert doings are neat if one is into all that, and mainstream SCOBA converts are more often than not in disagreement with me, or think I greatly overstate my case. The ideological demographic of my responders vis-à-vis the responses has caused me to think about the fact that it is in “liberal” OCA and Greek parishes and also in traditional or traditionalist parishes where I have found the least traces of the accouterments of the growing Evangelical machine within American Orthodoxy. It is both the liberal and the trad parish settings where you generally do not find promotion of AFR, the OSB, the Ortho-trinkets, Evangelical missiology and evangelism games, FMG books and pamphlets, and the like. Thus, one can find Orthodox places in the United States where the sorts of things I criticize are not found, or found much less than in other places, and not only in monasteries. That said, there is an increasing ideological fragmentation in American Orthodoxy, and, ironically, it may be that Evangelical minded folks striving for greater hegemony (both structurally and in terms of the creation and sustenance of a prevailing ethos in American Orthodoxy) fester as much fragmentation as other causes. I suppose I am odd in this posture, but I would rather my daughters grow up to either embrace a trad posture or a ‘liberal’ posture within American Orthodoxy than I would see them grow to embrace Byzantine Rite Evangelicalism.

The Ochlophobist said...

Rdr. David,

given the willingness of dang near everybody these days to fit in to commercially-sanctioned ethnoi, what does a local community do to 1) bridge the gap between various ethnoi present in a given parish and 2) awaken the faithful to the identity in Christ which is both distinct from "earnings as self-identification" and common to all?

There are a number of ways to approach this question, and I suppose I would start at the most base level – utility. My father was an American Baptist pastor. While serving at a suburban parish outside of Detroit (which was quite typical of ABC churches in polity and temper and practice), he got an associate pastor for some years who was very concerned that the church was not growing enough because it was not keeping up with the church Jones’ in the relevance game. This associate pastor, at various times, convinced my father to try a contemporary worship section within the main worship service, and then a contemporary worship oriented service after the main service and every other Wed night. There is a rule I have learned: American Baptist churches stink at CCM praise&worship. On those few occasions when they do not, you find a parish that will not remain AB for much longer. Now, with regard to those ‘young people’ who go for the CCM praise&worhip routine, there is another rule: not having any praise&worship at all is better than having it and doing it poorly. Before doing the praise&worship bits, the church had some young people who were interested in that sort of thing, and would occasionally go to other churches to have that need met, but continued attending my dad’s church for various reasons. Once dad’s church started with the p&w game, however, there was no point for many of that sort to continue – they did not go to that church for that game, and if that church was going to do it poorly, they may as well go somewhere else. We see the same principle involved in RCC and Mainline Prot appropriations of Evangelical techniques. It sometimes provides short term growth, but the obvious soon enough comes into play – nobody beats the Evangelicals at the Evangelical’s game.

The Ochlophobist said...

- cont'd -

The rituals I make mention of in the post, the techniques, the rhetorical tools, the techno-apparatus of Evangelicalism – all this suits the theology of Evangelicalism. The same is true with Evangelical philosophical mechanisms. I recently heard a talk by Bobby Maddex in which he was making use of 90’sesque Calvinist side of Evangelicalism worldview theory, and he even used Francis Schaeffer and Nancy Pearson as exemplars – but as he was doing this the inference was that 90s era worldview theory is very much in keeping with Orthodox thought. I am not suggesting here that all or most non-Orthodox thought is incompatible with Orthodox thought, though I think we might be somewhat cautious with our importations. I was struck at the conference (which, though at an Orthodox church, began with an extemporaneous prayer prayed by a layman) that I was seeing from the AFR set the wholesale adoption of Evangelical techniques, spiritual postures, rhetoric, and philosophy without the slightest hint of whether or not there had been any struggle to discern what of this is compatible with Orthodoxy. I have discussed Orthodoxy with Evangelical friends for many years now. Some have converted to Orthodoxy, some are catechuman, most will never convert. I am convinced of this – for every one convert to Orthodoxy who is encouraged and sustained in their Byzantine Rite Evangelical faith by this importation of Evangelicalism into Orthodoxy, there are twenty Evangelicals (or former Evangelicals who are not yet Orthodox) who, when or should they inquire of Orthodoxy and see than importation, immediately think “why bother?” and go about their religious shopping elsewhere or have a short to mid term flirtation with Orthodoxy which comes to wane (some of these, unfortunately, get Chrismated before the waning and their eventual departure). The best vehicle of long term growth for American Orthodoxy is to rebuke the American Religion, and not to cater to it even to the point of assimilating it into Orthodox praxis and teaching (and yes, I have heard overtly Evangelical sermons from former Evangelicals turned Orthodox priests – including how an ‘authentic’ Orthodox marriage, which can be achieved in three easy steps, will result in no divorce and a successful life). I honestly think that a soft and gentle traditionalist (neo-trads) and/or a ‘liberal’ Schmemanndorf/ParisSchool/Zizioulas will both result in better utility with regard to long term growth than Byzantine Rite Evangelicalism.

It is interesting to note that one of the hallmarks of contemporary Evangelicalism, despite a surface multiculturalism, is that it breaks communities up into the late modern equivalent of distinct ethnoi (the nations have become identity groups) and heavily succumbs to identity politics and identity socio-economic, age, race, sin (ministries which section off homosexuals, alcoholics, the divorced, etc.) and other demarcations. It seems to me that any successful attempt to acquire a common identity in Christ would have to deal with the fact that identity in late modern America is very much a creation which is choreographed to appear as individualistic when in fact it is usually coerced by dehumanizing, corporatist institutions. I think among the hardest of Hopko’s maxims for contemporary Americans is to simply be yourself. The selves of most Americans are a hodge-podge or market-created identity markers. It seems to me that Orthodox ‘pre-evangelism’ would involve work that helps folks to strip away these false identity markers and begin the process of discerning who they really are. It seems to me that the best Orthodox methods for bringing this about are the most traditional ones. But conveying the truth and utility of those methods might involve a priest explaining to a parishioner why he should do his evening prayers with the internet Orthodox radio off, and other such rebukes of technotheosis.

Darlene said...

Mr. O'Phobist,

It'll take a while for me to grasp all that you have written. Like snow, me thinks it will eventually melt and sink in.

I don't fancy technology in particular. Yet oddly enough, I've learned quite a bit about Orthodoxy on line. So technology has its place.

As far as importing an Evangelical ethos into Orthodoxy, I'm not convinced that all praxis from that culture should be chucked. And by practice I'm referring to certain kinds of behavior, not doctrine. For example, the personal quality of human interaction that many Evangelicals have is not a bad thing at all. Now if it becomes intrusive and crosses boundaries, that is something different entirely.

You see, I keep telling myself I've gotta put that Protestant whipping boy to death. (Yeah, got that from another blogger. ;) And harping on all the negatives that American Evangelicals possess and/or import with them into Orthodoxy will keep that whipping alive.

Hey, come to think of it, aren't we Orthodox to think of OURSELVES as the foremost of sinners?

The Ochlophobist said...


I have been critical of the importation of Evangelical rituals, religious psychologies, and socio-religious constructs into Orthodoxy.

This had absolutely nothing to do with the demand upon the Orthodox Christian that he think himself the foremost of sinners (a notion to which we should be careful not to apply too literal a hermeneutic).

Think about the logic involved if I were to assert the opposite: if critiquing a non-Orthodox ritual necessarily means that I am elevating myself above another, then humility would require that I hold the rituals of faiths other than my own in higher regard than the rituals of my own faith.

Consider this saying:

It was said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him, having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper, they said to him, "Aren't you that Agathon who is said to be a fornicator and a proud man?" "Yes, it is very true," he answered. They resumed, "Aren't you that Agathon who is always talking nonsense?" "I am." Again they said, "Aren't you Agathon the heretic?" But at that, he replied, "I am not a heretic." So they asked him, "Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated this last insult." He replied, "The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God." At this saying they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.