The following is my keynote address for the 2022 Ancient Faith Ministries Content Creator Conference (AFCon), delivered on September 19 under the title The Kingdom of Heaven in the Ruins of Christendom: The Present and Future of Orthodox Christian Media.
This is the description given to conference attendees: The commission given by Christ is to preach the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Orthodox Christians in the English-speaking world, how have we been doing? Where are we now? And where do we go from here? Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, AFM’s Chief Content Officer, shares both his critiques and vision for what Orthodox Christian evangelists, educators, and culture creators are and can be doing as citizens of the Kingdom of Christ.
I am what some psychologists call a “Third Culture Kid.” This term refers to children who are taken by their parents out of their native culture and into another culture during a formative period of childhood. Such children do not fully belong to the “first” culture of their parents, though that is the culture at home, because it’s not where they live their public lives. They also do not belong to the “second” culture into which they were imported, because they did not have the beginning of their life there and don’t have that second culture in private at home.
So they form a so-called “third” culture which is not exactly a hybrid of the other two. They don’t really feel at home anywhere, and they certainly do not have a hometown. Mom and Dad’s home culture isn’t really home, and it’s clear to the people in the “second” culture that they are outsiders there, too.
The advantage is easy movement between cultures and relationships. It is easy to make friends and to learn new languages and customs. And Third Culture Kids usually immediately and instinctively like each other when they meet. The disadvantage is that it is hard to keep friends and to connect fully with places. And no place will ever really be home.
Third Culture Kids are the children of military families, diplomats or missionaries. My parents were missionaries. And we lived on Guam from the time I was ten until about when I turned fifteen.
This formative element in my upbringing has made me feel quite naturally to be a critic. My culture is American, but kind of… sort of… not really. And no one from Guam would ever think I really was Guamanian. So I look at American culture with an eye almost like a foreigner’s yet also with a deep familiarity that even long-term immigrants aren’t likely to have.
That means it is natural for me to feel like I am looking in from the outside, not to take anything for granted, not to feel that the way my country functions is simply normal or the way it ought to be. Nothing is the default.
You can see how this could lead to a career as a pundit or, well, a preacher. And in some ways I am both.
I am also a member of Generation X, a generation not exactly known for loyalty to institutions or conventions. As the first generation of latch-key kids, coming home after school to empty homes while both parents were at work, we are a generation of critics and cynics. We didn’t invent the phrase “Okay, Boomer,” but we invented the sentiment for sure. It is unsurprising, I suppose, that it is my generation that brought social media into its own and that built the Internet infrastructure that powers it.
I mention all this not to fill you in on my biography but rather to explain why I have an almost instinctive sympathy for one of the modes of modern American culture and especially modern American Orthodox culture that we often take for granted – criticism.
As a religious minority in the twenty-first century West, Orthodox Christians have a lot of criticism for our culture. And boy does it need criticism. The insanity seems to grow every day, even every minute now.
Stuff that would have been super-nuts to most people even twenty years ago is now part of the conventional public conversation, promoted and perpetuated at all levels of public life. You don’t need me to list this stuff for you, I’m sure, but just imagine trying to explain to your great-grandparents just what the heck is going on in America in 2022. Or maybe even your grandparents or parents.
We take for granted these days that each generation will move the incomprehensibility window further along so that within a generation or two life will be almost a cipher to those who came before. But that itself is a new phenomenon. For most of history, the difference between one generation and the next was not that great.
As Orthodox Christians, we know that. Orthodox Christians have a relationship with history that is almost incomparable to other Christian confessions.
Through our liturgical life especially but also through pilgrimage and veneration of Christians before us, not to mention filling our churches and homes with their images, one could say not so much that we live in the past but rather that the past remains alive within us and all around us. Orthodox tradition is not only, in Jaroslav Pelikan’s memorable phrase, “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” but actually living in community with those departed who are more alive than we are.
We therefore especially feel that something is very deeply wrong, not just with the pace of change but with the nature of the change. Something very inhuman is happening. It is alarming. And the contrast between the world and the Kingdom of God grows sharper every day.
So as someone who feels on the outside of the culture anyway, and as someone whose footing in the culture defaults to the cynical, when one of my fellow Orthodox Christians stands up and says stuff like “Death to the world!” or “Orthodoxy or death!” I get it. I feel it.
But I’m also not going to go there. And that’s what this talk is about. But before we get to that, I want to take us back in time.
How We Got Here
In July 1997, I created an account on Amazon.com. The company had gone public just two months before, opening for business just two years before, and no one really knew at the time what a Behemoth–in more ways than one–Amazon would become. In 1997, it was still mostly just a quick way to get books you couldn’t find at your local bookstore. Amazon wouldn’t even turn a profit for four more years.
The first two books I bought from Amazon were C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism and T. S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture. That September, I bought a book that was eight years old at the time, published by Conciliar Press – Becoming Orthodox by Fr. Peter Gillquist. A couple weeks later, I bought The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, then a few weeks after that, The Orthodox Way and the first volume of The Philokalia. Eerily enough, Amazon remembers all those purchases.
There were of course other books on the Orthodox Church in English available at the time, but most of them were aimed primarily at clergy or scholars. If you got the Gillquist book and the two Ware books in the late 1990s, you really had the top trio of popular-level works available at the time.
Now, I am focusing here on popular-level work, but that is because it is what I know best. It is also because it is the material that reaches the most people, and it is a core element of Ancient Faith Ministries’ own emphasis. But that is not to say that non-popular material isn’t important. It very much is.
Anyway, with some notable exceptions, such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s enduringly relevant For the Life of the World (originally published in 1963), in the late ’80s and in most of the ’90s, most popular-level Orthodox works in English seemed to be aimed at a particular audience – Evangelical Protestants seeking for the True Church. And indeed, Schmemann’s book was used for this purpose.
In that same period, online outreach for the Orthodox Church was limited to a handful of OCF websites, a repository of patristic works called the “St. Pachomius Library,” some clunky jurisdictional websites, and almost no parish websites.
There were also several homegrown email discussion groups, including the infamous “Indiana List” where you could not only ask questions about the Orthodox faith but also read every bit of ecclesiastical gossip available online, as well as participate in flame wars with at least one Orthodox bishop. Even then, most of this was aimed at convincing Evangelicals to become Orthodox, sprinkled with apologetics against Roman Catholicism.
Publishers, particularly Conciliar Press, produced books designed to show how, in various ways, the Orthodox Church was the True Church. Another layer of publication was designed to help Evangelicals become familiar with the strangeness of Orthodox liturgical and spiritual life.
There was not a lot aimed at Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants or non-Christians. There was also not a lot aimed at teaching people how to build an Orthodox Christian life at home, especially for people who were already Orthodox–though we should mention the exceptional work in this regard of Fr. Anthony Coniaris and his work through the now-defunct Light and Life Publishing.
The narrowness in the 1980s and 1990s of popular Orthodox publishing in English is easily explainable. It is not that some Orthodox council of bishops met and said, “Let us now evangelize Evangelicals but not bother with anything else.” (Sadly, these kinds of initiatives in our day do not typically originate with the highest levels of Church leadership.) Rather, most of the people working in popular-level publishing in English were from these Evangelical backgrounds, and they thought about how they could encourage other people like them to make the journey that they did.
Many were new in the journey themselves, so they didn’t think too much yet about the question of “What do we do now that we’re Orthodox?” other than “How do we get more people to be Orthodox?” If any of you were Evangelicals, especially of the Baptist stripe, you know that that really is the main thing you’re supposed to be doing – evangelizing more people to be Christians.
We should mention that this period also did see some saints’ lives being published at the popular level, such as the work from the monastery in Platina, California. Indeed, their little book on St. Seraphim of Sarov was also one of the first Orthodox books I bought.
Now, Orthodox Christianity has been in English for a lot longer than this. When St. Cædmon of Whitby wrote the earliest known lines of English poetry in the late seventh century praising God’s creation in a text generally called “Cædmon’s Hymn,” we had Orthodoxy in English.
But this recent publishing history is what informs our current moment in Orthodox media in English. And it also explains why, when Orthodox podcasting began in the early- to mid-2000s, the first podcasts weren’t mainly apologetics and conversion stories aimed at Evangelicals.
Some of the earliest Orthodox podcasts included sermon recordings from Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, scripture reading and commentary from Fr. Thomas Soroka, basic catechesis and cultural commentary from Frederica Mathewes-Green, Steve Robinson and Bill Gould, and interviews from the late Kevin Allen.
Some of these podcasters were authors, but some weren’t. And one thing they all had in common was that they had been Orthodox for a while and were asking, “What do people do who are already Orthodox?,” with content crafted not only for the non-Orthodox but also for the Orthodox.
In the decade that followed, more Orthodox content creators began to publish on multiple kinds of media at once – people who podcasted, authored books, made videos, wrote blogs, gave public talks – often combining two or more of these platforms to connect with multiple audiences or the same audiences in different places. This multi-platform approach coincided with the rise of social media and its kaleidoscopic, multi-vectored content delivery format.
Where We Are Now
In 2022, it is hard to find an Orthodox content creator who isn’t using multiple platforms, who isn’t engaging in discussion on social media, or who doesn’t have his or her own website.
Further, Orthodox publishing and online outreach has exploded into speaking into almost every facet of Orthodox life, whether it’s outreach to potential converts, apologetics aimed at other Christian confessions or non-Christian religions, building Orthodox life at home, developing Orthodox education in parishes, schools and homeschools, resources on mental health, programmes for parish revitalization, training for ministry, and so on.
And now in just the past few years, we have seen an expansion into Orthodox culture creation – content focused on the making of music, fiction, art, and so forth. Alongside that, we also see content focused on cultural engagement – commentary on literature, music, pop culture, and current events.
We have every right to feel that we may be at the beginning of a golden age of Orthodox content creation in the English language.
But there is also a sense in which we find ourselves at a cultural crux, a moment when many of the old apologetics and modes of outreach are falling flat and failing. And internal catechesis is falling short nearly everywhere. Many parishes and whole Orthodox jurisdictions are hemorrhaging people and funds. Some have a growing clergy shortage.
Orthodox unity at the international level is cracking and even fragmenting. The canonical principle of “one city, one bishop” seems more and more like an unreachable ideal. The very real humanity and fallibility of major Church leaders is often on full display sometimes in the popular media, but it is discussed non-stop on social media, often with great bitterness and cynicism.
At this same moment in the broader culture, we see political polarization increasing. We see war in Europe between Orthodox peoples. We see popular culture telling more stories about anti-heroes, about the dissolution of community and the subversion of narrative, where what is traditionally on the margins is pushed into the center. We see the expansion of both gigantic mega-corporate content and the multiplication of independent creators, with the latter often focused on criticism of the former.
Likewise, many self-appointed Orthodox teachers are at the head of cynical audiences who are on the one hand deeply suspicious of cultural institutions and therefore running to the Church, yet on the other hand ready to engage in caustic criticism of the Church, its leaders and customs shortly after or even before they are baptized and chrismated. These teachers’ credibility is built on the posture of criticism and rebellion against bankrupt societal and ecclesiastical institutions.
The flipside of this phenomenon is found with people who often have grown up in the Church yet also have an allegiance to collapsing cultural institutions – usually academic. Yet instead of seeking to reform those institutions in terms of the Church and her timeless traditions, they want to bring the Church into alignment with the very principles that are leading to the collapse of the institutions they belong to – they want to change the Church’s teachings. Their credibility is built on credentials and a posture of seeking to bring the Church into the twenty-first century.
Almost none of these ventures have any kind of official church imprimatur. But that does not hinder their success, and in some cases, their opposition to the institutions or traditions of the Church is the very basis for their claim to authenticity.
So at the very same time that a renaissance of Orthodox content creation is happening, expanding into new platforms and providing insight and challenges for new fields of human life, there are marginal, extreme forces seeking to pierce into the middle.
Those who are simply trying to make something beautiful or catechetical or edifying may find themselves accused because of their faithfulness of being “fundamentalists” by those on the progressive margin. And likewise, because of their creativity and engagement they are accused of being “traitors” by those on the reactionary margin.
And the basic commands of Christ to love one another, to be humble, to struggle first with one’s own sins, to be formed earnestly and deeply by life in the Church – these are everywhere ignored in these accusations. The test for goodness and truth is an ideological datum, subject to “cancellation” as soon as some impurity is found. To satisfy the one margin, one can never be too “woke,” but to satisfy the other, one can never be too “based.”
So there is an ever-present temptation to be pulled or pushed in one direction or another, trying to be faithful to elements of Orthodox tradition that, if pressed, become opposed to other elements of Orthodox tradition. Love and truth are set up to be opposites, where the more you pursue the one the less you need worry about the other. You thus cannot be in the world but not of the world. You must pick one over the other.
So how is the faithful Orthodox Christian creator to function within this tension? Is there a via media we should be pursuing? Is the key to be “moderate,” and if so, what does it mean to be an Orthodox “moderate”?
The fundamental problem with the marginal extremes in Orthodox content creation is that they both treat the Orthodox Christian faith as though it is a series of truth “claims” that have an independent existence apart from the life of the Orthodox Christian.
That is why for the reactionaries it is a rigid, crystallized list of absolutes of theological expression and liturgics, culled into a spreadsheet of data that form a precise web of dogma. Fill out one cell in the spreadsheet wrong, and you are a heretic, a subversive trying to undermine the Church.
But the progressives are no less dogmatic in their insistence on the spreadsheet, only they have swapped some of the cells with the new dogmas of sexual self-expression and the essentialism of desire. If you violate those dogmas, if you get those cells in the spreadsheet wrong, you are a heretic, a tyrant trying to destroy human freedom and love.
Both of these approaches are fundamentally identitarian in nature. It is about defining the in-group and the out-group, about being on the right team, the right “side” of history. The Church is thus reduced to a human organization, and so the key to success is in capturing institutional leadership according to the proper identitarian dogmas. And there is no possibility for repentance, only capitulation and submission – not to God, but to faction.
A Vision for Engagement
I want to share with you a different vision. Many people seem to believe that polemic and compromise are the only two possible postures toward the world that the Church can take. If you are not a polemicist, you are a compromiser, but if you are not a compromiser, you must be a polemicist.
It is our posture toward the world that I am mainly speaking of today, because I believe that all our content creation these days and perhaps throughout most of Christian history can be summarized in these terms, asking the question, “What do we say to the world?”
One of my watchwords is this: Neither polemic nor compromise, but engagement.
Engagement is not a via media, a “moderate” position between extremes. I have spoken of being reactionary or progressive as extremes, and for the Orthodox Christian, they are, but they are actually simply not Christian. They’re over the line, which is why they exist on the margins outside of what Christianity is. Engagement is what Christianity is, though it is not just any kind of engagement but a certain kind.
To understand what I mean, I would like to share a longish quote with you from a modern saint, Justin Popovic, who died in 1979. In an article titled “The Inward Mission of our Church,” published in the journal Divine Ascent in 1997, St. Justin has this to say:
The Church is God-human, eternity incarnated within the boundaries of time and space. She is here in this world but she is not of this world (John 18:36). She is in the world in order to raise it on high where she herself has her origin. The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. “There is neither Greek nor Jew, their is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), because “Christ is all, and in all.” The means and methods of this all-human God-human union of all in Christ have been provided by the Church, through the holy sacraments and in her God-human works (ascetic exertions, virtues). And so it is: in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist the ways of Christ and the means of uniting all people are composed and defined and integrated. Through this mystery, man is made organically one with Christ and with all the virtues: faith, prayer, fasting, love, meekness, through compassion and giving alms, a man consolidates in this union and preserves himself in its sanctity, personally experiencing Christ both as the unity of his personality and as the essence of his union with other members of the body of Christ, the Church.
St. Justin speaks here of nationalism, but he could just as easily be speaking of any of the identitarian tribes of the elect that now plague our society at large and indeed our own Orthodox Church in the English-speaking world. He says that the Church “is in the world in order to raise it on high where she herself has her origin.” That means that the Church cannot be subjected to the small, petty, often political concerns of the moment. And it also means that the Christian has no right to sort himself into an identitarian faction of either the “woke” or the “based” or any other.
The Christian’s mission is not to reside somewhere between the two as a “moderate,” but in realizing that both these narratives are diabolical – known very well by their rotten fruit – and that the Church has her own story entirely. The Christian’s task is to be in the world but not of the world. And in doing so, Christ’s own holiness, His own personality and warmth, become manifest in the world and raise the world up to become Paradise.
This transformative presence of the Church in the world is nothing other than the original mission given to Adam and Eve in Genesis. They were told by God to fill the earth and to cultivate it (or “subdue it,” in some translations of Gen. 1:28). That means neither to destroy the earth nor to embrace its disorder. On the one hand is the demon of tyranny, Behemoth, but on the other is the demon of chaos, Leviathan. The Christian embraces neither demon but instead obeys Christ.
Engagement is therefore to keep one’s integrity in the Christian faith, to remain faithful, while entering into every place in the world. This entry is possible because Christ’s presence is transformative. He entered even into the darkness of Hades itself, the underworld of death, the abode of monsters, of giants, of spirits imprisoned because of ancient rebellion, and He broke down its doors and brought out the righteous into life.
Engagement is to be willing to talk with anyone willing to converse in good faith, not to worry that having conversations, even in recordings, will somehow taint oneself with guilt by association. It is a small-minded thing to believe, for instance, that conducting an interview with someone is to endorse everything that person says, whether in that interview or elsewhere, that it is to “promote” his work.
Jesus and the Apostles went on-record having conversations with people who taught and practiced evil, and they opposed them or corrected them or reasoned with them, according to what they perceived was for the salvation of all concerned. But they never merely hurled invective or collapsed into compromise. They kept their integrity, and they engaged.
Engagement is to do what the Church has always done – to seek out “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise” and to “think on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Even more, we not only think on these things but also speak on them, write on them, paint them, sing them, invite others into them, always showing how “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). There is no good thing that does not come from God. We may sometimes have to sift out what is evil or imperfect from what is good and perfect, but we do not abandon the good and the perfect simply because we find it in the presence of what is evil or imperfect.
This is why I say that engagement is Christian and that rejecting engagement is not Christian, because Christ came into the world to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).
Thus, we find the meaning behind a slogan we have heard many times: Beauty will save the world. What kind of beauty? It is the beauty that tells the story of Christ, Who He is and what He has done and is doing. It does not either react or compromise. Rather, this beauty heals because it raises the world up into Paradise by telling that story and showing how all other stories shall prove but the instrument of the Creator. This is that “light so lovely” (to use the phrase of Madeleine L’Engle) that draws all men to Christ.
What I Would Like to See
Okay, enough high-minded language and theology for a moment. What does this mean in practical terms? What does an applied vision for engagement look like for Orthodox Christian content creators?
First, it means being truly faithful to the Orthodox Christian faith. That means that we don’t get to edit it, even if there are parts we don’t like, even if there are parts we cannot understand. If there are parts that offend us in this way, then the call to us is to enter even more deeply to see the truth and love of Christ in the depths of Orthodox tradition.
Likewise, if we see someone else offended in this way, then we should see his struggle and honor it, because it is usually based on trying to be faithful to Christ in some way that does make sense to him. He or she may not see how a particular ethical teaching is truly about the love of God, or may not see how a particular pastoral approach is truly reflective of the dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils. That does not mean we honor the offense, but we honor the person in his struggle and affirm his love for Christ. And if we are able, we help him to understand the tradition more deeply.
This commitment works only within the community of the Church, the structures of accountability built into our ecclesiology. They don’t always work perfectly, because we are imperfect, but they do work. That is why, for instance, one of the expectations that Ancient Faith Ministries has for our contributors is that they have a blessing from their parish priest or bishop to contribute the content they propose to submit. It keeps us all plugged into that network of accountability.
Second, we should commit to being as good at our craft as we can be and to expecting the same of other creators. There is a feeling one often encounters in Church work that professionalism and high quality are not really needed. It’s “for the church,” so it’s good enough. This might be because we are cheap, because we think church work should be “out of the goodness of our hearts,” because we are lazy, etc.
But what this attitude comes down to is that, while we expect the very best in nearly every other facet of life, when it comes to our offerings for God and His Kingdom… well, “good enough” is good enough. It’s the thought that counts, even if the effort was lackluster. It should be apparent how wrong that attitude is. We should expect the very best of ourselves and those we work with, to offer to God whatever we have, but to offer it with our whole hearts, which means with a lot of effort.
Once we have made these two commitments, then, we can begin the work of engaging content. Here are some examples of things I would like to see or would like to see more of, in no particular order (this list is non-exhaustive!):
More culture creation: Most of us live in the United States, where Christian culture is anemic and often at the mercy of a vacuous forgetfulness of what came before. We are Orthodox Christians, though, and we have a full-blooded, incarnate faith that has for centuries filled out communities with music, story, and art, and become the shape of the imaginations of generations – not just the liturgical versions of these, though we need that, too. In addition to more liturgical hymnography and iconography, let’s have more novels, more short stories, more music, more poetry, more art, more architecture, and so on, that all speak of the glory of God and His salvation. To be faithfully Orthodox Christian artists, creators don’t have to be preachers or apologists – in fact, it’s usually better that they aren’t – but they have to love beauty.
More engagement with culture: We do have material out there that is talking about literature, music, pop culture, stories, etc. But it is not very much. Our world is telling a lot of stories. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are mixed. We cannot simply wave our hands at it and dismissively call that stuff “the world” and not talk about it. We could try to forbid our children and our flocks from listening to it, watching it, or reading it, but that is a fool’s errand. How about we instead follow the example of St. Basil the Great when he wrote about pagan literature, teaching how to engage with this material, to be the bee and find the good and bring it home for the sweetness of salvation?
Popular-level media on liturgical life: There are many scholarly books out there on Orthodox liturgical life, and there are a few popular-level books on it. But with a couple exceptions, there is even less in the way of podcasts or videos. We have educated clergy and other liturgical and musical scholars who have the gift of teaching that could be making this material accessible to the laity who are hungry for it. The liturgical tradition is vast. You will never run out of material to discuss, I promise you.
An Orthodox news service: In the English language, where do we get our Orthodox news? We get it through official statements, word-of-mouth, tabloid blogs, and gossip. Why isn’t there a stable, normal Orthodox news outlet that can break stories, give analysis, and even hold leaders accountable without fear of reprisal or without being captured by factional interests? I am not suggesting that we need to have an Orthodox press whose posture is to attack and criticize Church leaders, but what we have now isn’t great. It’s not even okay. If there is a major story or scandal that genuinely concerns the people of God, we shouldn’t have to find ourselves on some scurrilous blog or Facebook group to learn about it and understand it.
Orthodox radio drama: This pretty much doesn’t exist. We have some of the best stories in the world, especially in the lives of saints. If you are a playwright or script writer, consider turning some of these amazing stories into scripts that can be recorded with voice actors, some background music, and some sound effects, to be turned into a podcast. I listened to a lot of Protestant radio dramas when I was young, and I loved them and was enraptured by them. Let’s tell our Orthodox stories through this basically untapped medium.
Marital asceticism: One of the “good” problems we have is lots of monastic literature translated into English. But this becomes a problem when people try to apply everything in this literature to the life of non-monastics, especially married people. But marriage and raising children is its own kind of asceticism, and it is the asceticism most of us are called to. We do have some literature on marriage and child-raising out there, but it’s not a lot just yet, and there isn’t much that emphasizes that this is the asceticism that the average Orthodox Christian is called to. Likewise, we need content focused on the asceticism of the non-monastic, single life. This isn’t the same as life in a monastery, and it is in some ways even harder. And there’s almost nothing on this.
Scripture, Scripture, Scripture: Like it or not, your average Orthodox Christian is pretty ignorant of the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament. We need to work on this problem at every level. We need more Bible scholars, Bible teachers, Bible studies, and Bible stories being taught to our kids. We especially need to focus on all those Old Testament stories that are constantly referenced in our church services but that many people don’t know.
More honest, better educated apologetics: A lot of Orthodox apologetics over the past few decades have critiqued strawman versions of other religious groups’ teachings and practices. And many have also been based on a very limited education in the Orthodox tradition itself. If we’re going to do apologetics, let’s be trained, let’s read deeply, and especially let’s try to understand what other groups actually believe and practice. That will mean listening to them, reading their books, making friends with them, and seeing what they really are doing. And we need more apologetics as theology rather than merely as cultural confrontation or witch-hunting – this is what the Church Fathers did. If we’re engagers rather than polemicists or compromisers, then we can accomplish this while keeping our integrity.
More Orthodox stories from minority countries: We are blessed to have a lot of content from countries where Orthodox Christianity is the majority faith. These are beautiful and good for the soul. But there is very little about the places where the Church is the minority – despite the fact that, for most Orthodox Christians in the English-speaking world, we are also in the minority. I recently made a trip to my ancestral homeland of Lithuania to learn about the Orthodox Church in that country. I recorded interviews and took hundreds of photos. I’m putting them together as a podcast documentary. What other stories are out there from people we can identify with in this way?
More bishops: The apostolic office of the bishop includes being a teacher. Some bishops are gifted teachers. Almost no Orthodox bishop is a regular content creator, however – unlike some of their Roman Catholic counterparts. They can offer their gifts not only through the occasional book or retreat but also in podcasts, articles, videos, etc. Many of them are ridiculously busy, but perhaps their clergy or staff or parishioners of their diocese can offer to help them get recorded, transcribed, etc., so that their gifts can benefit their own flocks more effectively but also be received as the words of a good teacher by a broader audience.
More evangelism for non-Christians: I think the time of mass conversions of former Evangelicals is over. Even if it’s not, though, it’s time that we also focused on the bulk of the English-speaking population – who aren’t Evangelical. Most are still Christian, but even those who identify that way often have no real Christian education or formation. Let’s think more about converting people to Christ and less about pushing the fact that the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church. People won’t care about the true Church if they don’t know Christ. Preach Christ – like the Apostles did.
You could probably think of more – and I hope you do. I would love to hear about your ideas.
A Final Charge: Hope
At the end of the Divine Liturgy, we hear from the celebrant “Let us go forth in peace.” That is, having received Christ and communed with Him at His table, we are sent forth to bring what we have received into the world. It is a final charge. So I want to leave you with a final charge.
When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them a twofold charge – fill the earth and cultivate it. They had been given community with God Himself in the Paradise of Eden, and they were being sent forth to expand Paradise. Out there in the world was chaos and disorder. God had made order for them in Eden, creating the world for them. And they were being given the sub-creative mission to expand His work, to bring the world into Paradise, to make the whole cosmos into Eden.
They sidetracked that command by transgressing the commandment of God. They did the works of the devil. So they lost Paradise.
When Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, He restored and renewed the mission given to Adam and Eve. He returned the creation back to the path of creativity, the path of turning chaos into order, of turning the plain into the beautiful.
Some Orthodox Christians of our time look back on the past, at periods we identify as Christendom, and we seek to regain what was lost. We see it as, if not Paradise, at least more Paradisaical than what we have now. We look around ourselves and see the ruins of Christendom. So we pick up the stones and try to put them back in order. But often we find that not one stone will stand upon another. There is a great sense of loss and sometimes resentment.
Others look back at Christendom and see it as a woefully dark experiment, a time of brutal oppression, of limitation on human freedom. They point out historical collaboration of Church and State to conquer and to repress. They therefore see attempts to regain Christendom to be pursuit of these dark ambitions. To the sense of loss, they would say, “Good riddance!”
But Christendom is not Paradise. At best, it was an attempt to approximate it, and at worst, it was a dark parody of it. Either way, though, our call is not to figure out how to turn the clock back on a post-Christian world. The Christian goal was never Christendom. The Christian goal is, and always has been, Paradise.
Being oriented toward Paradise and not toward Christendom, we can never regard our world as being post-Christian. Until the Messianic Age finds its completion and we are in the life of the Age to Come, we are rather in a pre-Christian world.
In so many ways, we are in a time like the Apostles’ time – sent out as lambs among wolves, preaching the gospel of the victory of Jesus Christ over darkness and death, celebrating that victory and showing people what the coming Kingdom is about – all in the midst of confusion, brutality, and a multiplicity of religions, philosophies and ideologies.
That means that our mission is not fundamentally institutional but rather apostolic. This apostolic word is the vocation of the Christian.
Part of our vocation as Christians is to look at the disorder of the world and to critique it. But many Christians have taken that to be their whole vocation, becoming addicted to criticism. They look at the chaos around us, and they shout “Death to the world!” or “Orthodoxy or death!”
I know that those who use these slogans may not mean them to be about destroying the world or to imply that you stop being Orthodox when you get killed, but that is the messaging on their face. That is what people hear. Most importantly, though, these are not watchwords given to us by God. God does not say these things to us.
That is why, as I said, I cannot go there.
God says rather that we are to be “dead to the world.” We are to accept death as Orthodox Christians. Because that is what Christ did for us. And when we do that, then beauty begins to open up to us and from us, because that is what humility does.
Just as when we look upon our departed we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13), when we look upon the world, we should not grieve as those who have no hope. It is good for us to grieve, yes. But we grieve with hope.
The vision for Paradise given to Adam and Eve which they lost but which Christ has renewed is precisely a vision of hope. Hope is the basis for human life. A human life without hope is exhausting, dark, and damaging. It is nihilistic.
That is why, in the movements we see of those who endlessly criticize the world unconstructively or those who seek to alter the Church’s teachings, we do not see creativity. We do not see hope. We see banality. These are hopeless movements predicated upon the assumption that God’s light really cannot or will not shine in the darkness. All that is left is either to curse the darkness or to embrace it.
But we have not been called to either of these things. We are called to light up the darkness. We are called to Hope. We are called to beauty.
Though I cannot say in what way this is true exactly, I believe that the beauty we build in this life will shine forth in the glory of that New Jerusalem that is to come, that among its bricks and its towers and its gardens we will see things that we ourselves have made.
And as we gaze noetically upon that New Jerusalem, we should note that it is precisely a city. It is a community, a civilization that redeems and baptizes everything that is good about human civilization. It is finally the moment that the Church and Civilization become fully identical.
That is why our making should always point people ultimately not to become our followers and fans, but rather to the real community of the Church, to parish life where our salvation is worked out with fear and trembling. Whatever it is that we make is always contingent upon the holy community of the Body of Christ.
As those given the gift and task of culture creation, no matter our medium or our message, as Orthodox Christians, our task is fundamentally about Hope. And we can be confident in the integrity of our faith and the victory of Jesus Christ over the powers of darkness.
We bear witness to the rising of Jesus Christ. We bear witness to the Hope of the resurrection of all mankind. We bear witness to that great elevation of humanity to become, as Christ said, “equal to the angels” (Luke 20:36). We bear witness to the beauty that draws mankind and heals our wounds, that transfigures the whole creation with divine, uncreated illumination.
To finish, I want to read to you two stanzas from the poem “Mythopoeia,” by J. R. R. Tolkien. These follow one in which he declares “Blessed are the legend-makers.” And this is what he says of them:
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.
Therefore, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father Who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Thank you, and may God bless the work of your hands.