Reading “Catcher In The Rye”

by Fr. David L. Bozeman

I don’t suppose you want to hear about how great Salinger was or how instrumental Catcher was in shaping me as young person in the modern world. Maybe he was great. Maybe it was instrumental. Maybe not. Who can say? I didn’t care for The Catcher in the Rye the first time I read it. Holden Caulfield was obnoxious. And reckless. Nobody is that reckless. They couldn’t stand to be. Perhaps some people are that obnoxious so maybe Salinger had something there. No, it wasn’t Catcher that got me, but Franny and Zooey – those surprising short stories for any Orthodox who recognize the “Jesus Prayer” and The Way of the Pilgrim. Yes, Zooey, half of which takes place around a bathtub, did it for me. Salinger knew words. He knew characters. They could talk real good. They weren’t phonies. And who wants to read about phonies anyway?catcher-in-the-rye3

So, I tried The Catcher in the Rye again, years later, after Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction and Nine Stories with the crushingly good “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I had gotten to know Salinger by reading Salinger. And isn’t that the way of it? We can hate ideas. We can hate the idea of an obnoxious, rebellious, reckless young man kicking his way around New York City for a weekend. We can be offended by him. We can even be jealous of him in some ways and his apparent disregard for doing the right thing. And then we meet him. We get to know him. And he remains the same but we can’t hate him as an idea any longer because we know him. We may learn compassion. We may even start to love him.

So what do we do with it all when we are pressed upon by some sort of inclination to “deal” with these stories as Christians? What do we do with Holden as a character or his immoral antics? What do we do with every “goddamn” he utters or the way Zooey calls his mother “fatty” or calls her constantly by her first name? What are we to do as Orthodox Christians? Is there any redeeming factor to this kind of story? Should we even be looking for one? This is always the question for us: how do we live in the world and yet not be of the world?

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I take a clue from Zooey himself as he talks to his sister Franny after she finds herself incapacitated by living with the “world” and all of its troubles and phoniness. She has retreated onto her mother’s couch where she silently repeats the Jesus Prayer hoping for some relief, for some escape. And Zooey says to her:

The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back…you’re misusing the prayer, you’re using it to ask for a world full of dolls and saints and no Professor Tuppers (Franny and Zooey, 170-171).

As Christians, we are never called to escape, to set up a “little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage.” Rather we are called to be a light in the darkness. How often do we prefer our own little ghetto where we only see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear? We try to sanitize our way through life. I don’t believe that is very helpful to us or the world. Our calling rather, is to baptize and offer transcendence, to fulfill that which is lacking.

And it begins by rooting out our own phoniness. You can live your whole life as a phony if you want to. You can settle into it, get used to it. You can live with a heart of stone. It’s possible. It’s easy. But it won’t save you. It isn’t the narrow way. And I think that is what Salinger and so many other “recognized” writers were concerned with. They may not have had the answer, but they could sure ask the question.

And so I read Salinger. I read The Catcher in the Rye and all the others. I recognize the disgust that he was disgusted with. I see the phonies that he saw. And it speaks to me. And I am challenged once again to respond to the same phoniness, to the disgust, to the evil of the world as a Christian; to, as Hemingway famously said, “write one true sentence.” And if I can offer one true sentence in response, if I can make my whole life one true sentence, then maybe others will see that good work and glorify God in heaven.

Memory Eternal: “Waiting for Godot” and Christian Hope

By Fr. David Wooten

“To every man his little cross. (He sighs.) Till he dies. (Afterthought) And is forgotten.” – Vladimir, Waiting for Godot

I was asked often what it was that attracted me to the plays of Samuel Beckett in high school and college; Cold War classics like Waiting for Godot and Endgame seemed rather odd and dreary fare for a young man who was known to profess Christian faith. Godot‘s two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, exist in a unending loop wherein they are condemned to a silence and motionlessness that they can never, ultimately, escape. Such hopelessness””expressed as it is in absurdist minimalism with frequent pauses and stream-of-consciousness dialogue””stands in stark contrast to the glorious hope of life in Christ that we experience in the Scriptures and the Divine Liturgy. What was it that kept me coming back to these trapped, tormented souls?

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Beckett and his audiences were just emerging from the horrors of the World War II, and while many people were immersing themselves in family life and newfound western prosperity, many had to reflect on the trauma of the world’s citizens’ slaughter of one another. For them, the contents of daily life were only distractions from the cold reality that they saw: nothing in this world ultimately matters, and we are stuck in a nihilistic experience that can barely be called a “life”””more like mere existence with no ultimate rhyme or reason to it. They were determined to call out the absurdity, tragedy, pointlessness, and injustice in the world around them, yet concluded that there really was, as the tramps say repeatedly in Godot, “nothing to be done.” The one for whom they waited, Godot (who, we should note, was not a metaphor for God by Beckett’s own admission), never came; the utopian vision of humanity never materialized and they were left, waiting, for what would never come.

When I reflect on this dark evaluation of life, it serves as a reminder that “in the beginning, it was not so,” that man was not in such a predicament at the time of his creation. Yet man, having the opportunity to grasp and take to himself the knowledge that only God could help him control, namely that of Good and Evil, chose to try and create Paradise without God, and became the prodigal with the Father’s inheritance, foolishly squandering what the Father had wisely invested. In short, man created an unwitting parody, a cheap copy, of what the Father had originally intended. The three aspects of Godot that most completely mark the work””timelessness, silence, and stillness””are all aspects of our walk with Christ that we as Orthodox Christians are called to embrace and live. Yet, as Godot clearly shows, when this life is lived for itself instead of in function of and relation to the Kingdom of Heaven, these three qualities become parodies of themselves, cheap imitations that mock us by reminding us of what we are not experiencing.

When Godot opens its second of the two acts, Estragon has absolutely no memory of the previous act’s event (indeed, we don’t know if it was a day or an eon before Act II when Act I occurred). And because this is the case, all people are treated with the same amount of disregard for their unwilling participation in time.  Thus, the one hope to which man can look forward in Godot is that of being forgotten, just as he himself forgets and thus eliminates all meaninglessness around him. What a sad thing today that so many people live what they believe to be “disposable” lives””no more important that the paper we wrap our hamburgers in””with one day following another without any kind of rhyme or reason. Our life in Christ doesn’t (usually) change what happens in the time we have, nor does it make time go faster, but it does give us a change of perspective. Instead of crying “Forget this!” or believing we would or should be forgotten, Christ is our Godot (even if he wasn’t Beckett’s) and it is to Him we cry, “Remember! Remember me, O Lord, in Your Kingdom!” The timelessness which will know no end and always have a reason can inform us now, even in absurdity.

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Silence is used as an avoidance technique in Godot.  One of its appearances early on in the play, however, does not take the form of a drowning of the dialogue as much as it is a tool purposefully and consciously wielded by Vladimir to silence Estragon’s dreams. However, having silenced the voices of fear and despair, they are now are left with the horrifying meaninglessness within themselves.  They embody Blaise Pascal’s observation: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Yet many Fathers of the Church teach us that when we silence our surroundings and our own thoughts, we are led to encounter, not the nothingness of a futile existence, but the God who resides in the human heart, as St. Macarius the Great told us.

Then there’s stillness. The most well-known stage direction of Godot is They do not move.  The irony of this stage direction is its continual juxtaposition with an expressly stated desire to do just that.  The first example of this is when Estragon and Vladimir are discussing the natures of the two thieves on either side of Christ at the Crucifixion:

Vladimir: One is supposed to have been saved and the other…(he searches for the contrary of saved)…damned.
Estragon: Saved from what?
Vladimir:  Hell.
Estragon: I’m going.
He does not move.

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This double meaning is especially powerful, for Estragon’s statement of “I’m going” could have more than one meaning.  Upon hearing that one would be damned to hell, Estragon possibly could have evaluated his own, already hellish existence and thought that hell would be the natural conclusion of such a trapped life.  On the other hand, Estragon could have become a bit unnerved by his companion’s topic of conversation and desired to leave so as to try to flee this eternal destiny.  At any rate, he is unable to move in all reality, and Estragon is either resigned to or forced into (respectively) having no power to shape his own destiny, be it eternal or temporal. The paralysis of our age is one of hopelessness, of fear, of futility. In the midst of this our God did not offer a Purpose Driven Life of motivational speeches and fairy godmother solutions. He came in and He suffered in a way that encapsulated total vulnerability and (apparent) futility perfectly.  His reminder from the Cross is that the only real way to find rest is to cease from striving against the will of God and be still in His presence, not needing to run to this place or that person or that career path, but letting Him be enough for us, right where we are.

IMG_7223My professors always told us, “There’s no Pascha without Holy Friday; there’s no joy without sorrow; there’s no union with God (theosis) without self-emptying (kenosis) beforehand.” Sometimes, I’ve found, in order to appreciate anew what Christ has come to deliver to us, I have to look into someone’s darker point of view, someone convinced that God has forgotten, that His silence is really from a cold, barren cosmos, that we are abandoned beyond any help of deliverance. Sometimes it helps to remember when I’ve felt that””to be honest when I do feel that. Because if we can look even a moment into the abyss of the world’s cruelty and still bless the Lord for something, we’ve begun to remember the timeless One, our Godot, Who in silence and peaceful stillness speaks peace to weary prodigals and bids them trade in their struggles for their Eternal Father’s house.

A Christian Look at “The Great Gatsby”

By Catherine Addington

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God””a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that””and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

The narrator of The Great Gatsby, the title character’s next-door neighbor Nick Carraway, gives us this description after finally unveiling his friend’s early history. It is one of the only uses of explicitly Christian language in the novel, and it is shakily Christian at that, presenting Gatsby, and by analogy Christ, as a man whose intensely idealistic self-image does not match up with reality. And yet it is precisely in that exploration of superficial grandeur that the novel’s tragic message can most speak to Christians.

great-gatsbyThese few sentences strike at the tragedy of Gatsby, a man whose single-minded passion could have been considered virtuous had it not been committed to the wrong ideal. Throughout the book, Nick uses faithful language to describe Gatsby’s drive for his version of perfection: for Nick, Gatsby was “the most hopeful man I’d ever encountered,” a man who maintains a religious belief in the “future that year by year recedes before us.” He simply misorients all of that hope, looking to a blissful future in a material world that was not just fading in the eschatological sense but in a short-term socioeconomic one as well.

As Nick rightly observes, Christ was a servant of beauty. He sought it in the faith and perseverance of the poor and the afflicted, and he had his hope in the knowledge that his kingdom is not of this world. Gatsby perverts that search of beauty, reducing it to materialistic allure alone. Christ’s model of selfless love, promising holiness and eternal life rather than kingly power as its reward, finds no place in Gatsby’s conception of the world. Gatsby assumes love is a function of impressing someone with sufficient material pleasure, so he builds up his wealth and style in the belief that this alone will be enough to win over his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. It is not that he misunderstands love, exactly, but that love is not what he is going for. Daisy functions not as a person but as a symbol of the easy luxury and charm that he longs desperately to escape into.

For a fair amount of the novel, that seems to be working. Gatsby executes that illusion of wealth ”” arrived at by bootlegging and organized crime ”” so well that the novel reads like a success story before it becomes a melancholy reflection. He throws opulent parties, catches Daisy’s eye once more, and is much more of a legend than a protagonist for more than half the book. By drawing the reader into Gatsby’s world, Fitzgerald plays on a deeply held American ideal, as Jackson Cuidon and Alissa Wilkinson pointed out in their review of the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. “We love this kind of thing, the person who comes from nothing. It tells us that anyone from anywhere can make his mark in the American landscape””that anyone can change the world. But what’s it like to be on the other end? … Do you want to be the self you made?”

That remade self stems from a self-loathing that Gatsby never seems to escape. The “American dream” that Fitzgerald invokes, and the fantasy life of Jay Gatsby, depends heavily on the assumption that it was not worth living life as James Gatz, the rural North Dakota veteran who had to pay for college by working a janitorial job on the side. It assumes that with wealth comes a more meaningful life, a more emotionally and spiritually fulfilling one, not just a materially easier one.

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It is fundamental to the Christian view of humanity that we are made in God’s image and likeness. As Orthodox Christians, we consider one another icons of God for this exact reason, that we are manifestations of His beauty. It can be tempting to conflate that analogy with a worldview that prizes physical and material allure over spiritual truth, the way Gatsby does. It can also be tempting to interpret Christ’s command that we be perfect using the world’s, and Gatsby’s definition of perfection, dealing in earthly success alone. But The Great Gatsby dwells on the falsehood of this material “American dream” in much the way that Christ eschewed earthly cares. As we read Gatsby’s story, we should be mindful of the ways we ourselves confuse earthly and heavenly perfection. Let us not forget that the Christ who is now king of heaven spent his time on earth as a poor, traveling rabbi in backwater of the Roman Empire, and let us ensure that the James Gatzes of this world hear that message with loving care.

A Picture of the Soul; A Reflection on “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

By Nathan Jekel

If you have ever been a student, chances are you have been instructed to read a book that you had no interest in. One such book that is often assigned to students is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though this may seem at best a waste of time and at worst a pernicious attempt to disrupt your life, I am going to suggest that in reflecting on certain themes that it raises, you may reap spiritual benefits from Oscar Wilde’s novel. By interpreting the story of Dorian Gray through the lens of our faith, we can gain insight into how indulgence of the senses harms the soul the how one can receive spiritual healing.

dorian grayThe novel takes place in London in the late 19th century, chiefly among members of the upper class. The story begins as Basil Hallward, an artist, finishes a masterful portrait of Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man whom he has recently met. When Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton, sees this portrait and expresses a desire to meet Dorian. Basil is reluctant, but Lord Henry soon achieves an introduction. Lord Henry is fascinated by Dorian’s innocence and avails him of his own worldview wherein the distinction between good and evil is unimportant and the purpose of life is the pursuit of sensual pleasures. Dorian, being young and naïve, is quickly captivated by Lord Henry’s lifestyle, and we see him begin to live solely for the indulgence of his senses.

The senses are our means of receiving information from the world around us. Every good thing and every evil thing that we encounter enters us by way of our senses. St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain says this in his Handbook of Spiritual Counsel: “Life enters when [the senses] are governed well and do not partake of their usual passions. Death enters when they partake of “corpses” as do the birds of prey; …when they eat rotted food as do the flies.” If we expose our senses only to good things – e.g. nature, scripture, and the divine services – we keep our minds and souls pure and unblemished. If we allow our senses to be barraged by the evil things of this world – e.g. violence, sensuality, and idle gossip – then we become enslaved to passions and worldly lust.

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As Dorian becomes thus enslaved, he begins to destroy people’s lives through his cruelty and selfishness. He notices that for every terrible act he commits, his portrait – with which Basil gifted him – undergoes a physical change. Scars appear on the painted visage and the expression becomes cold and cruel. As the years pass and Dorian blackens his soul with wicked deeds, the portrait – which Dorian hides away in his attic – becomes ever more hideous, while Dorian himself remains unnaturally young and beautiful. How relevant this is to our own lives! The things of the world appeal to our senses, but under the surface they are “corpses” and “rotted food.” Likewise, the world teaches us to care painstakingly for our outward beauty and to ignore the corruption that lies within us. Let us waste no time in denying the world and confronting ourselves. As St. Isaac the Syrian says, “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”

When Dorian finally faces the reality of his situation, he does not repent but attacks his portrait in anger and despair. Like Judas Iscariot, who, racked with guilt for his betrayal of Christ, hung himself, Dorian felt remorse for his actions but did not seek forgiveness. St. Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance… For Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, …but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). When we examine our souls and see our sinfulness, we pray for Godly sorrow that we might repent and be forgiven. “Are you a sinner? Do not become discouraged, and come to Church to put forward repentance” (St. John Chrysostom).

The Church’s message to sinners – let us not tell ourselves that we escape this category – is not one of condemnation, but of hope. Christ himself said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “I do not will the death of the ungodly man. So the ungodly man should turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). The Church gives us many opportunities to retreat from the sensuality of the world and examine our lives. By following the prescribed rules of fasting, prayer, and scripture reading; and by attending the divine services, we will begin to detach ourselves from earthly cares and instead fill our senses with “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).

Having explored The Picture of Dorian Gray from the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, we have found that it has relevance to our own spiritual journeys. By enumerating Dorian Gray’s mistakes, we can be on guard against making similar ones in our own lives. So, whether you are a student faced with a reading assignment or anyone with an obligation to read a book, I encourage you to approach your reading with a mind that is open and yet firmly grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Volume 6, Number 1: Authors and Contributors

Fr. David Wooten is a priest in the OCA Diocese of the South. He is currently involved in reading seven books at one time, as he is wont to do.

Nathan Jekel grew up in Camp Hill, PA. He is a member of Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission in Mechanicsburg, PA and studies Mathematics Education at Penn State University, Capitol Campus. He also enjoys, reading, music and puns.

Catherine Addington is currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her writing has appeared in “The American Conservative”, “First Things”, and “NYU Local.” She will graduate with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from New York University in May 2015. 

Fr. David L. Bozeman is rector of Saint Nektarios Mission in Waxahachie, TX. He was formally an English teacher and is currently also the father of two high-school aged boys. 

Sign-Posts or Ortho-Speak?

Sign-Posts or Ortho-Speak?

Mr Andrew Boyd

Our salvation is in and through Jesus Christ.  As we hear our Lord and Savior tell us in the Gospel of John, “I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). This Door, however, is not meant to be a secret known only to a select few, but to be shared with the all the nations (cf Mt 24:14). We Christians have the duty to point the way to that door, to be signs illuminating and revealing it.

signsLanguage is the most basic way that we preach the Gospel, and in our ever-changing culture, our language is becoming less effective as it blends more into the noise of trending social media topics, cable-news-led fear-mongering, and interest-group-based truthiness. Words are reduced to characters, conversations reduced to tweets and texts, and eternal truths reduced to sound-bytes.

On the opposite side of the same coin we are seeing increasing complexity and exclusivity within a group’s shared language. New terms are invented in pursuit of efficiency or because of a perceived inadequacy in past expressions, and in the culture where such a phrase exists, the fastest adopters are rewarded.  Society is constantly finding newer “politically correct” labels for people and events. Those in the medical industry have long complained that their dialect is a nonsensical slurry of three-letter acronyms. And the business world is a veritable linguistics factory, constantly churning out new ways of expressing “value-added” over and over again.

Exhausted_man_holding_headAs someone who works in corporate communications, I spend a good part of my day waging an uphill battle against “business speak,” coded phrases that mean little and make everyone feel part of a safe and special club. Phrases like “game-changing” “value-added” and “deferred success” are either lazy place-holders for original thoughts or fancy-sounding euphemisms (“deferred success” means failure). Although these expressions reach new heights in modern business parlance, such terms permeate our culture. One of the worst instances of this deliberate encrypting was the downright Orwellian “Failure to Thrive” diagnosis I once read on a hospital chart.  There is no reason to believe that tweets, texts, sound-bytes, acronyms, or clever amalgamations can  actually help us communicate more effectively. Only more exclusively.Meanwhile, so long as the speaker understands the point of the communication, it doesn’t even matter whether the message was actually received and understood.  I told them exactly what I meant. They just didn’t understand!

We Orthodox Christians fare no better. We have our own terms and our own ideas which, when taken to the extreme, serve to form our own safe and special club. Though most of us are capable of setting these phrases and ideals aside from time to time, it’s discouraging how quickly these themes surface in conversations on our faith.

Typically we share about our faith in five different ways. Each is perfectly understandable, but each one tragically misrepresents or outright ignores the centrality of our faith in Jesus Christ. Each is a lost opportunity for sharing the Gospel with another person in our lives, and it is critical that we recognize where (and how easily!) we often go astray.

1. Ooh! It’s sooooooooooo  Pretty.
We love to show off how beautiful our faith is, which is not really a bad thing, but neither is it preaching or missionary activity. Despite one account of St. Vladimir’s conversion (you know the phrase: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”), few in our faith are here because it’s “pretty.” We’re here because of Christ. That’s not always a pretty thing, at least by conventional standards. Christ’s saving work on the Cross is to us the most beautiful Door towards salvation, eternal life, and the loving embrace of the Father.

history_lesson2. “Well you see, back in 1054…” 

Few are the people who want a history lecture, but this is the most common thing I hear when people start to answer any question about their faith. It’s right up there with the dreaded “We’ll we’re like the Catholics but… ( insert your difference du jour:  married Priests, leavened Eucharist. Filioque).” Our faith, our story of salvation did not start in 1054. Neither do we identify ourselves as “like those other people, sort of”. Christ is not a door to Byzantine history or sectarian identity.

3. “Is Outrage!” 

“I’m an Orthodox Christian so I find (x) to be a complete outrage”. In this equation, (x) can stand for anything from a specific social policy or politician, the current tragic situation in the Middle East, the movements of the moon in relation to the Earth (cough, calendars), the fall of Constantinople, really anything. This is a very tragic type of sharing because we use our faith to join the “look at me” culture instead of transforming culture and being in myself a sign pointing towards the Door.

4. “I’m Welsh, so of course I’m Orthodox”

We all know this one too, when we define our faith first by an ethnic culture. By doing that we but boundaries on the preaching of the Gospel that shouldn’t be there and anyone hearing or reading this kind of language is bound to react with “Well, I’m not Welsh, so I guess that’s not for me, those food/dances/music sure do look nice though.” This door reads “Welsh Only”.Blue Doors Locked

5. “Well, my Antiochian archimandrite said I should refocus my nous away from Patristic theologoumena

This is the most pernicious of all the ways we speak about our faith because not only does it rob the Gospel of its catholicity, but it makes us into gnostics. When we use these coded “Orthodox-only” phrases we, knowingly or unknowingly, tell the world that we are smarter and know more than they do, and that anyone who doesn’t know this specially coded language is on the outside. It’s reminds me always of all the questions that the Pharisees and other religious authorities tried to stump Christ with in the Gospels. Witnessing this way doesn’t just remove the sign from the Door, but dismantles it and throws away the instructions for rebuilding it (which in this extended metaphor are those very nice instructions from Ikea in multiple languages with efficient, Swedish pictures.)

These five ways are the most common types of how we speak about faith publicly, in conversation, at coffee hour, in social media, that I have encountered. They may have their value, but mostly they simply give us something to speak about besides Jesus Christ. Challenge yourself the next time you identify as Orthodox in public not to answer with anything but the good news of Jesus Christ. Take the social risk, don’t fall back on history, culture, coded language, outrage or aesthetics.

madisonI feel this challenge every day when I walk up Madison Avenue to my office. Today, will I have a genuine encounter with someone on the street? Will I preach a good word to them in language or action? Will I follow Christ’s example and step outside of social norms and comfortable religious definitions and meet a Samaritan at the well? Or will I do what I do most days, blast Byzantine chant on my iPod and complain under my breath as I push European tourists out of my way.

The choice is mine every morning.

 

 

 

Living Translations

Living Translations

Fr. David C. Rucker
OCMC Mission Specialist

 Therefore, since we have been given this ministry of loving others, because we have received unconditional love from God Himself, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. … But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. … For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.          — 2 Cor. 4:1-12

St-Paul-Preaching-in-AthensAs an apostle (missionary), St. Paul was learning how to live and tell The Story of who God is and who we are created to become to a new generation, in a new culture, in a new location. That, by the way, is what Christian Orthodoxy is about: Who is God? Who am I? It is Truth and Reality in all its fullness. This is why the story is called “Gospel”, which means “good news.”

But the original context of the term “gospel” was not just “good news” in some generic, mild sense. It was fantastic, anxiously-awaited, life-changing and life-saving news! When a city or kingdom was being attacked by invading enemies, the people in the path of potential destruction would be waiting to hear if their king’s army had been able to defend and defeat those threatening them. If the message came that the enemy had been defeated, that meant a village would not be burned to the ground, that mothers, daughters and wives would not be raped, that sons would not be sold into slavery, and that men would not be brutally murdered. When the “gospel” arrived by emissary with the announcement of the king’s victory, this was the best news of a life-time!

If we are not living and sharing the Christian Gospel in a way that elicits this kind of response in people ready to receive “good news,” we ought to ask ourselves some hard questions. What news are people hearing and seeing from us? Have we resorted to a prepackaged presentation of the Gospel that disregards the hearer’s language and culture?  Are we mistranslating the message either with our words or actions?

There is only one story: The never-changing Gospel

There is only one story: The never-changing Gospel

There is only one Story, the “never-changing Gospel.” The Good News is that we were meant to share in the divine Love and Communion of the Holy Trinity and that although communion is broken, it can be healed and harmony restored between us and our Creator, between us and other persons, and between us and creation. The closer any movie, book or person comes to telling or living The Story, the more it moves our hearts.

This is true for every people group in the world. All share a sense of failing to live up to the Ideal as understood in their society.  In some cultures The Story has been virtually forgotten””the people have become blinded (the Piraha people of the Amazon might be an example, but the disillusioned Protestant missionary who attempted to translate the Bible with them might be an even better example), while others have kept parts of the story alive through oral tradition, with a longing for more (for example, the Santal of India, the Karen of Burma, the Lisu of China, and the Asmat of New Guinea).

But don’t look for one single method of telling The Story (proclaiming the Gospel). The methods are as varied as the people who share and the ones who hear. After all, the Good News is not a religion, philosophy or school of thought. The Good News begins with a personal encounter and ensuing relationship with Jesus Christ, Who is unconditional Love Incarnate. If we believe Jesus is The Way and The Truth and The Life, we can expect the Gospel to be lived and shared through each one of us in unique and unrepeatable ways that are just right for our own culture, language, and time in history. Culture and language are always changing, and so we change as well. We really do have this message “in jars of clay.” Contrary to what many think, Orthodox really do believe in “change.” After all, repentance (healing) means change!

St. Paul points out a common experience which is required of each person to effectively incarnate (live and tell) the Gospel to others. Each person must be “delivered to death for Jesus’ sake”, or, as he wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians, “…I die daily…” (15:31), and to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ…” (2:20). The deep wounds of sin, death  and the devil (broken communion, fear of never becoming a Person or genuine human being, and the constant accusations of the Liar and Deceiver) which are manifested in pride, self-love, and vain glory can only be healed by a violent death of all my rights and expectations. To believe in the Christ of the New Testament means nothing less than trusting my whole life and all I have and all I love to Him. I will only discover how much I have truly done this as those things I hold most dear are threatened or taken away. And it is in the middle of that pain and suffering, actually in death itself, that I become most like Christ and experience the Incarnation in my life. Those are also the times when the Good News will be proclaimed in my ever changing culture in the clearest, most authentic ways to people whom I have grown to love. Any motive other than the love of Christ is suspect, and can be quite dangerous to myself and others (2 Cor. 4:14).

220px-Tikhon_of_MoscowWe have recently celebrated the glorification of a number of our American saints, including St. Tikhon, Enlightener of North America and Moscow (9 Oct). After nine years of serving as the hierarch in America, and having assisted in raising up new hierarchs such as Innocent and Raphael, he was transferred to become the Metropolitan of Moscow, and as such, presided over the All Russia Council (1917-1918), in which the Patriarchate of Moscow was restored, more than two hundred years after Peter the Great abolished the position in 1700. The council members knew that whomever was elected would face tremendous challenges and persecution from the Bolsheviks. Revolution and civil war seemed inevitable. Metropolitan Tikhon’s name was drawn from the lots and during the service that immediately followed the Patriarch-elect declared: “From now on, my duty shall be to take care of all the churches of Russia and to die for their sake every day. May He who has called upon me grant me His divine help and His all-powerful blessings.”

Translate Computer Key In Blue Showing Online TranslatorOur calling and the cost to live out the never changing Gospel in an authentic, culturally accurate way is no less today. You might well be the only translation of Orthodox Christianity that one of your friends or acquaintances get to see or experience this week. Will your translation be Good News to them?

Unto Ages of Ages

Unto Ages of Ages

Mr Alexander Titus

We frequently hear about the “secular” worldview, “secular humanism,” or simply “secularism,” set in contradistinction to the “religious,” “faith-based,” or, as is the typical case in the West, “Christian” worldview. However, it’s always extremely important to define our terms carefully, especially when dialoguing with those whom we disagree, lest we talk past each other. With this in mind, I actually think it’s this very word, “secular,” that can help us understand the place of the Gospel in our ever-changing world. In short, I want to suggest that the term “secular” is in reality a deeply Christian word, and one which we shouldn’t let so easily go to the media pundits.

We frequently hear about the “secular”  in contradistinction to the “religious" ...

We frequently hear about the “secular” in contradistinction to the “religious” …

Etymologically, the word “secular” derives from the classical Latin saecularis, the adjectival form of the noun saeculum, the rough equivalent of the English “age” and the Greek Î±á¼°ÏŽÎ½ (from which we also get “aeon”). Thus the formula in saecula saeculorum is the literal Latin translation of the Greek εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων, or in English, “unto the ages of ages.” The phrase, besides serving as the conclusion to the most common and recognizable Orthodox doxology (“Glory… now and ever…), finds its origins in the letters of St Paul. Unfortunately, many Biblical translators seem to believe that it is merely a poetic way of saying “forever and ever,” and render it as such in English.

While it’s certainly true that “ages of ages” has the sense of “eternity,” the more literal meaning also contains a connotation of immediacy. That is, when we glorify (“doxologize”) God using this language, we aren’t simply making a declarative statement about his “timelessness.”Rather, we are formulating, in a sense, his glory as an evangelical proclamation in our own saeculum and in every saecula. In other words, we call ourselves accountable to make God’s glory, mercy, and love known in and throughout every age. Similarly, the Gospel, as the annunciation of this glory in the world, is not only “timeless” but fundamentally “timely.”

We are the beloved disciples unashamed at the Cross in saecula

We are the beloved disciples unashamed at the Cross in saecula

Our God of course isn’t one content to “exist” in timeless eternity, but one who makes himself known in his creative activity and throughout history. So too the Gospel cannot simply “exist,” but requires the participation of human beings to become manifest at all times and in every place. I would contend, therefore, that Christians are called to be “secular” precisely in this sense: not of the world, but in the world, timely as well as timeless. We are the midwives at the Nativity in saecula, the beloved disciples unashamed at the Cross in saecula, and the Apostles sitting beneath Pentecostal tongues of fire in saecula.

Yet what could this look like in specific, concrete terms? When I was the OCF director at my home parish before I came to seminary, I tragically never thought to implement the idea which I’d like to suggest now to any young adults, and especially college students:

Many suburban and urban college campuses have a large block of public space, usually a grassy quad, which, if memory serves, is heavily populated during typical weekend evenings with people going to and from various bars, clubs, and parties. If this is the case, consider gathering together on Friday evening to organize a food and/or clothing distribution for the needy, right in the midst of this space. I hope this wouldn’t be an attempt to shame the partiers, but rather gently and humbly to show them an alternative. In this act of charity, you’re visibly taking your “party” evening, which modern “college culture” says you should take for yourself to drink and make merry, and using it solely for the service of others.

Christ identifies himself quite literally with the poor and downtrodden: “I was hungry and you did not feed me” (Mt 25.42). I don’t think this is simply a call to be “humanitarian,” but in fact is a very real and timely Gospel proclamation. Hence if we take seriously the notion that we are to make God’s glory known “unto ages of ages,” witnessing (μαρτυρώ – as in ‘martyr’) to our fellow human beings in this secular world is a good place to start. This is, after all, the only world we have.