Monday, August 27, 2007

Evangelicals Head East

A recent article in the New Republic - strangely entitled “The Iconoclasts” - discusses the growing number of American evangelicals who have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. While the author of the piece, Jason Zengerle, expects us to be amazed by his findings, nothing in the article will come as a shock to those who pay attention to the religious scene in America. The Orthodox Church has gained a number of high-profile converts from Protestantism over the past few decades and it appears that the trend is only accelerating. Not surprisingly, when asked to explain their decisions, most of the coverts in the article cited their dissatisfaction with the insipid liturgies and anti-intellectualism of American evangelical churches, as well as their belief that the Orthodox Church comes closest to replicating the early church.

The article is most interesting when it discusses the trend towards Orthodoxy from a political angle:

Although the culture wars seem like a staple of evangelical life, the converts suggest that there is a growing fatigue with this worldly fight. One of the more striking things about the Orthodox Church is that it's not very political. That's not to say it isn't conservative. "As Orthodox, we don't believe that being gay is a legitimate alternative lifestyle, we believe it's an aberration. We also say abortion is murder," says Gillquist. But, unlike in many evangelical churches, these views--while strongly held--tend not to come up in the course of worship. As Daniel Larison, a conservative writer and Orthodox convert who attends a Russian Orthodox Church in Chicago, says, "As a general rule, the sermons are going to be related to the gospel and that's about it. Political themes and political ideas don't come into sermons directly. That's not why people are there. They want to keep that as far away as possible."

And, by keeping it far away, the Orthodox Church has been immune to the social and political conflicts that frequently flare up in the Anglican and Catholic Churches, where disaffected evangelicals once typically sought refuge. "In the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, there's a lot of dialogue with the culture: For instance, what do we do with the whole creation versus evolution thing? Where does science play in?" says Andrew Henderson, an evangelical-turned-Anglican who recently converted to Orthodox Christianity and worships at Holy Transfiguration. "In the Orthodox Church, with that Eastern mindset that's just so ancient, those questions haven't really arisen. It just isn't a concern."

I’m intrigued by that last statement – “those questions haven't really arisen.” Does he mean to say that things move so slowly in the Orthodox Church that issues like homosexuality, evolution, and women’s ordination just haven’t come up? If this is the case, I can understand the appeal of a church that is so isolated and so consumed with the gospel that it hasn't gotten around to fighting the culture wars. But with so many outsiders moving in, I wonder how long this "splendid isolation" will last.


Anonymous said...

As an Orthodox Christian, the move eastward has been going on for decades. I can tell you that many of us have mixed feelings about increased media coverage from rags like the New Republic. I read the story in its original and I cringed when the author described the Divine Liturgy as "Mass. Typically, reporters get aspects of most stories wrong. This is especially and particularly true of media coverage of religious issues. I too found the political spin of the story bothersome. One gets the impression that the reporter can't imagine a faith can be divorced from political issues. This is typical secular humanistic prejudice. From an Orthodox perspective, our remaining outside the realm of temporal politics is understandable. We view the purpose of chuch as communion with and the worship of the Trinity. For us, churchgoing is not even for fellowship with our fellow christians, nor is it for activism in some fashion. For us attendence is about deepening our own prayer life. many evangelicals visiiting an Orthodox Church for the first time may get put out by what they perceive as a "cold shoulder." We typically don't push ourselves onto visitors or make a huge effort at fellowship because we don;t feelthat church services should be about recruiting new members or fellowshipping. We tend to focus out energies on communion with He who foudned the universe. This attitude tends to bleed over into political activism on social issues. We are perhaps one of the most conservative christian churches one might find. However, we believe church should focus on eternity and our sanctification not the issue of the week. Interestingly many of the evagelicals who are moving into Orthodoxy are doing so with a sense that the traditinal evalgelical approach to spreading the Gospel message via crusades and revivals and mass movements such as say The promise Keepers are a failure. Given all the crusaades and revivals and the speeches etc.. the culture remains unchanged. For example, the divorce rate among protestant evangelicals is the same as the general population of unchurched. The perceptioin of many converts is that something ain't right with the protestant evangelical model because its fruits seem so small.bzfq

CPA said...

Anonymous Orthodox Christian,
Please spare us the sanctimony.

You may well be right that for the church you attend church life is "outsde the realm of temporal politics." Maybe it's even true for American Orthodoxy in general.

But as someone who knows a little bit about how Orthodoxy placed itself with trembling eagerness at the service of whatever was the Russian state's "issue of the week" (Buriat Mongols agitating about the seizure of Siberian land for resale to peasants? Send the priests in to baptize them into obedience!) I think your gauzy portrait has nothing to do with how Orthodox churches have operated when they are the majority.

Orthodoxy's record in politics is not all bad, by any means, but it's just as checkered as any other state-identified, national-church version of Christianity. The main reason things aren't like that in the US is because it's an immigrant church, that feels it ought to act in America, the very way that Orthodox feel Catholics or Lutherans should act in Russia: "pray all you want but don't presume to convert any REAL Russians or interfere in the way they run the country."

And yes, when "real" American converts increase to the tipping point, this will probably change.

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