I have posted several articles recently about the relationship of the Orthodox Church to American culture – most of which have been critical of one element or another of culture. I want to look at the whole question from a different angle today.
First, it has to be observed and emphasized that, wherever Orthodox Christianity has existed in anything like its proper form, it has been productive of culture and will always be productive of culture.
Thus in Orthodox nations (or nations where Orthodoxy has existed for centuries) there is always a literature, music, all of the arts, indeed, the whole that we describe as culture – and it exists in a form that is not destructive of the Orthodox faith. One simple theological reason for this: if Orthodoxy is the fullness of faith, and leads human beings towards the fullness of what it is to be human – how can that humanity not be productive of what is completely natural for human beings? Human beings will sing the praises of God (liturgical music), but they will also sing of everything in their world: love, death, marriage, courtship, etc. Human beings will participate in the choreography of the liturgy but they will also dance – and do so for the fullness of their human life. Dancing will be expressive of the whole of their life. The same will be said of art and literature and of everything that is part of our life.
It has occasionally been the case in the history of Christianity that theology has set itself up as the enemy of culture. Thus Oliver Cromwell marches through England not only “purifying” the Churches by destroying much that existed of liturgical art, but also outlawing Christmas and much that had been normative in a nation that had embraced Christianity in the very earliest years of the faith (indeed, when St. Augustine of Canterbury came ashore with his mission to the Angles, as recorded in the history of the Ven. Bede, he is described as carrying “a portrait of Christ on a board, and a cross of silver.”)
There had never been a Christianity in Britain that was not productive of culture, indeed it largely baptized the culture of its native peoples. Thus the Book of Kells is uniquely British (or Celtic if you prefer), and properly so.
The madness of iconoclasm includes the destruction of culture (not just pictures). Orthodoxy in America, in its rush to embrace the fullness of the faith (I speak especially here to converts like myself), must not at the same time embrace an anti-American iconoclasm that would replace culture with Church (falsely conceived). Such a Church would not be the Church but would be an Apollinarian assembly (Apollinarius denied parts of the essential humanity of Christ), moving closer to gnosticism than to the fullness of Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Christians should write and paint and sing and dance. We should make movies and television shows. We should make clothes and produce textiles as art as well (the fullness of culture is itself too large to describe in a sentence, a paragraph or even a book). And in all these activities, they will be expressive of the fullness of our humanity without having to stick an icon on everything to prove its Orthodoxy. The hallmark of Orthodox cultural produce will be that it will not be destructive of human beings and the fullness for which we are created. Thus demeaning human beings, objectifying human beings, or reducing us to mere objects of sex or commerce, is not Orthodox. Where I have been critical of American culture is at precisely these points.
The Orthodox Church exists within an American culture that is indeed a mixture of many things. There are inherited elements of Puritanism in America that can trace their roots back to Oliver Cromwell and his religious cousins and forebears. These elements will not yield a Christian culture but a culture that diminishes our humanity and is, at best, a heretical Christian culture.
There are elements within American culture that have virtually no reference to Christianity – after all, secularism has a long history among us. We needn’t condemn everything simply because of its origin. But if we take up segments of the culture in which we live we must bring it into relationship with Christ. Ars gratia artis (“art for art’s sake”) if examined closely is likely not Orthodox, though the very same item of culture could be Orthodox. This is, to my mind, a matter of living in a one-storey universe.
As Orthodox Christians, we cannot agree to live with anything for which we cannot give thanks to God nor offer to Him as a product of His grace. Art for art’s sake is something for Nothing. We do not create for the sake of creating, but because we exist in the the image of the Creator and, like Him, take joy in the work of our hands (or minds). But Art for the sake of Christ need not be obviously “Christian” with the exception that it is not destructive or exploitative of what it means to be human in the image of God.
Years ago, before entering college, I lived for a couple of years in a “commune.” It’s roots were Protestant and Pentecostal, and had a number of Puritan strains within the theology that marked its life. I recall starting college very cautiously (some of this was unique to my own religious neurosis). At the end of my first year, it turns out that I had been and was a very good student. I was majoring in Greek and Latin (perhaps, at first, because they were acceptably “Christian”). I remember asking my fiancee (now my wife of nearly 32 years) whether she thought it would be acceptable were I to get a doctorate and teach college. Admittedly, I was pretty far gone as a Puritan. She laughed at me – as she has frequently over the last 32 years. Her laughter was part of the sound of the spell of Puritanism breaking its hold in my life. There were years of healing yet to come. But I have remained a friend of those who understand that Christianity, in its fullness, should indeed be evidenced by a fullness. The culture in which it dwells should be ever more reflective of Paradise for this is the vision that is whispered in our heart by the One who gave us Paradise in the first place.
I have noted with some satisfaction that the statement I made recently in one of the comments sections has been quoted far and wide in the world of blogdom: “There’s something wrong with a nation where people don’t sing and dance.” The Orthodox mission in America will show signs of how deeply it has taken root as it begins to yield the fruit of culture as well as building Churches and making catechumens. I have no idea what the fullness of God’s plan for Orthodoxy in America will be. But I do know that whatever it is, if we truly exist in this land as Orthodox Christians, we will be a source of culture to ourselves and others around us. If Orthodoxy could help us learn to sing in dance in a way that expresses the fullness of what it is to be human rather than some narrow market niche, sexual or commercial enterprise, then I for one will rejoice. There are times in my life that I would gladly dance with those around me. May God teach my feet!