The Defamiliarization of the Christ

Who is this man?

There are many times when I am speaking to someone about Christ, even within a church context, that I feel like I am speaking about an alien visitor from outer space. It is quite similar to the feeling I sometimes have when referencing some piece of history that interests me for which my interlocutor has no context or experience to make it meaningful.

I picked the above photograph for this post to illustrate this point. To the Orthodox Christians among my readership, this is clearly an Orthodox bishop. The more astute may notice that his hat’s particular shape marks him as belonging to one of the Byzantine (rather than Slavic) churches. And perhaps one or two of you who are historically minded in a rather specific way will recognize this as Archbishop Panteleimon of Neapolis, a bishop of the Jerusalem Patriarchate who visited America in the 1920s. But I think just about anyone else looking at this picture might think, “Oh, here is some professionally religious man, an important Christian of some sort.” But ultimately, he is meaningless and uninteresting to them.

This sentiment just begins to hint at the defamiliarization I sometimes feel, especially when I use the name Jesus or His title Christ. I think it is probably all made worse for me that I am a clergyman. It is expected that I play a certain role, that I mention this Jesus, but the clericalism of modern American piety keeps Him firmly on “my” side but just as firmly not on “their” side. It’s okay for me to be religious, and I’ll take care of the religion for other folks, too.

We live in such an atheistically informed culture—in which most people ironically identify as Christian but really are not interested in Christ—that unless there is a clear, mutual experience of being steeped in the Christian faith, even introducing the idea to another person, even within the Church, I have the sense of talking about a space alien. It’s telling, I think, that one form of mockery about the Christian faith refers to Jesus precisely in these terms, that He is a space alien Who has visited Earth and done weird things with His “science.”

What’s tougher about all this is that there is a kind of campy, obsolete quality to presenting Christian faith in modern American culture. The whole nation is such a “burnt over” district that very few really will catch fire any more. Christ is silly to people, a ridiculous, awkward sort of Disney character that they left behind in childhood, or perhaps when He was “revealed” powerless in the midst of their suffering, or when He proved irrelevant to their ambitions.

All this is why I think that street preaching, while very much a major part of what the Apostles did, is not (with certain notable exceptions) very effective in our time and place. I think most of us know this, so we solve this problem by doing precisely what we should not do: we retreat into our churches and just do services and expect that that will be enough.

While I was in seminary, I was told by a visiting priest whose job it was to head up his jurisdiction’s “Department of Evangelization” that “just being the Church” is the key. When I asked him what that meant in practical terms and he responded, my suspicions were confirmed. He was an “if you chant it, they will come” sort of evangelist. So much for that “go ye into all the world” business.

But it is so much the worse if we approach this question by trying to familiarize Jesus, to turn Him into a product of name recognition, some item to be bought or acquired, a bit of righteousness which goes nicely with the decor. Defamiliarization is a challenge, but familiarization is outright evil. Such a Jesus is a pathetic wimp who wound up on the wrong side of the first century Palestinian authorities and got killed for it, but that is not the Christ. The real Jesus essentially climbed up on the cross and continued to rule the Universe from there.

So what is the cure for the defamiliarization of the Christ? I am not interested in “strategies” so much as real experience. (This is a serious question, and I invite responses.)

In my own experience, I’ve found telling people not to come to church if they don’t believe in it to be remarkably effective. We’re so familiar with fake religious folks that it’s often refreshing to be told not to come to church. It’s not worth it to fake it. It’s actually more dangerous to come and act religious than it is to stay home and watch football instead. Please, stay home and watch football. At least you’ll be authentic. This is in line with Orthodox doctrine, too, because our whole theology is predicated upon man’s free will. Religion as obligation is the slow suicide of the Church. It’s a curious thing, however, what men and women will do when you set them free.

I also have found that telling the basic story of the Gospel has great power when used in public preaching and in private conversation. Most of us are familiar with the starting point, namely, that we are a broken and suffering humanity. If we know any suffering at all, then we can begin to hear the Gospel. (I have great concern for those who have never known any pain, want, or agony, because they see nothing that they need to be saved from.) Where we go from there—man’s true freedom, God’s compassion for us, the rustic reality of the Incarnation—is often the key for connecting people to the God Who is real. In other words, it’s about learning and living dogma. Dogma, you see, is not a bunch of esoteric religious concepts but rather an attempt to describe the real nature of God, humanity and the universe and practically to prescribe how they should be interacting.

Perhaps the defamiliarization itself is something of an advantage. So what, then, if we’re saved by a space alien? What makes it all even weirder is that it’s a space alien Who became an Earthling. Knowing the alienation of divinity from humanity is the starting point of knowing the Divinity through His incarnate humanity.

It’s time to meet Jesus again, to see Him not as a “tame lion” (to borrow the Narnian phrase) but to experience Him as the Lion of Judah, Who cannot be predicted or predicated. He can, however, be preached.


  1. It seems saying what is evil is easy: easy to describe, to give examples because we are constanting reminded by the media in print and sound. Saying what is good is difficult: how does one describe to others (who may not really want to know) the release of pain, the witness of salvation. In protestant religion (s) I was taught that the devil is the master of the air. I try to exclaim God’s goodness by beginning with “I believe” and “The Orthodox Church teaches”. You speak so eloquently and with such “wit” and are a arduous student of Orthodox history. I learn many things from you. I pray the simple Jesus Prayer and hope our God knows my needs and leads my actions for his glory. His love guides me.

  2. Excellent thoughts, Father. As I told the folks at Conciliar Press a few years ago, they need to rework their “tract rack”… and we need to rework our thinking about what the Gospel is, who can recieve it and how to preach it.

  3. Steven,

    I agree regarding CP’s tracts. I think they’re of course good and should be available (especially in terms of introducing Evangelicals to Orthodoxy), but there’s precious little there about the very basics—introducing people to the “one thing needful.”

    With my friend Fr. Alban Waggener, I was once talking about the utter lack (at least in my own knowledge) of basic presentations of the Gospel from the Orthodox perspective, and he challenged me to come up with something short and direct that could be used in a variety of contexts. This was the result. (And I’ve released it to the public domain if anyone else wants to use it.)

  4. Interesting and poignant, Father. It really has touched home with me.

    I personally have experienced this kind of attitude, not only in my parish assignment, but in my own family as well.

    Most of my family comes from Southern Baptist or Roman Catholic stock, many of whom have had their Christianity “Oprahfied” – believing that Christ was a really good man, a kind of hippie, really. And because this Jesus was such a “nice guy” we should be nice to the point of tolerating what everyone does, even if we find it morally repugnant. And ultimately it doesn’t matter what brand of Christianity you tout, just be a nice person and pray – communal worship or church isn’t necessary.

    If you do go to a church, it is something to make you feel good. Before I went to seminary, I had a talk with a family member of mine about Orthodoxy. She has been in and out of the Roman Catholic Church, so I felt that Orthodoxy, with its liturgical worship, would be something familiar to her. I invited her to church with me. She told me that she was much more comfortable staying at home watching Joel Osteen on the television on Sundays. His message is more “real” to her (afterall, television is much more real than real life!). This is a church service that mentions Jesus very rarely. If He is mentioned, it is like an opiate coated in sugar – a kind of “feel good” pill to take the edge off of life. Jesus is a magical fairy who prances with unicorns, showering riches and prosperity, hugs and kisses, wherever He goes.

    I’m reminded of the movie “Dogma” and the Roman Church’s new take of Jesus Christ in the form of “BuddyJesus.”

    It’s very much alive and well.

  5. Thank you for this this thought provoking and deeply honest post. It is most helpful. /Swedish reader

  6. First, let me say that I REALLY enjoyed reading your article. But I was particularly stricken by your statement that “I have great concern for those who have never known any pain, want, or agony, because they see nothing that they need to be saved from.”

    Suffering is something that we often don’t understand. In some cases, it even causes people to doubt God’s mercy. I just taught a Sunday School lesson in which this very topic came up (the broader topic was euthanasia/suicide). We were talking about the meaning of pain and why we suffer physically and emotionally.

    I asked the class what they thought life would be like without pain. They quickly reasoned that it would be disastrous because physical pain signals that something is wrong with our bodies. If we didn’t have that mechanism in place, our bodies might be destroyed before we realized anything is wrong. Psychological or emotional pain is the result of a different kind of illness: a spiritual sickness. Just as physical pain signals us to seek the care of a medical doctor, emotional or psychological pain reminds us of our frailty and signals us to seek Christ, the Physician of our souls and bodies. The capacity to feel pain is a gift. If we can learn to embrace our suffering as a tool that directs us to the only One who can bring us true and lasting peace, then we can begin to walk the path. We are here for a single purpose: to unite ourselves with Christ. Nothing else matters.

    I had a friend who died of prostate cancer a few years ago. He wasted away to the point that he could no longer stand, but only days before he died, he said, “I feel more at peace than I have ever felt in my life.” The process of coming to terms with his cancer is what brought him closer to Christ. If he had been deprived of that opportunity to suffer, perhaps he would never have found that peace.

    I am personally grateful for the suffering that led me to the Orthodox Faith. I was agnostic at the time but had become so tortured by the emptiness of that existence that I finally swallowed my academic pride, fell to my knees, and prayed a desperate prayer to a God I didn’t even really know was listening. I simply said, “God, if You are there, please help me.” A funny thing happened. I felt suddenly calm, I got up, went to my computer, did a search for the nearest Orthodox Church, and immediately sent an e-mail to the priest telling him I was interested in learning about the Orthodox Faith. That moment changed my life and put me on the path to knowing Christ. As you once reminded me, God is with us even in our darkest hour, and all we need to do is open the door of our hearts and let Him in. When my friends ask me why we suffer and where we can find God in our suffering, this is what I tell them.

    Your article reminded me of this. Thank you!

  7. Thank you so much for your directness and insight. For me though, I thank you for proclaiming the name of Christ, Jesus! So many Orthodox discuss Orthodoxy and never mention the Christ.
    Recently a law student who assists at the Altar and is very much an Orthodox, was condemning other traditions, and so I asked him “do you know Jesus” he reply “how can I!” Another, a cantor said a few months back ” I wish I could share my faith, on my touring holiday” There is a hunger, and there is a lack of knowledge. As we know, only Jesus can fill this void! May God continue to bless and use you.

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