In my previous post, I relayed a story about a Baptist blogger who recently accused a distinguished Orthodox Christian scholar of not being a Christian. The ensuing "dialogue" between the two was distinctly one-sided, the Orthodox Christian asking his accuser to dialogue with him, and the accuser refusing to do so on the assumption that he already understood enough about Orthodoxy. I don't think I've ever been quite as cocky as that blogger, but I do know what it's like to encounter people of differing views online, realize I'm not equipped to dialogue with them, then panic. And there's really no better word than panic for when people take the time to accuse strangers, but walk away when those accused presume to defend themselves.
There's a special difficulty in conveying the essence of Orthodox Christianity to Christians who have been formed in a western, Evangelical context. People on both sides of that dilemma will attest. When asked about "the atonement" by a Protestant, for example, an Orthodox Christian will struggle to relay the Orthodox view. I myself have struggled in the past to explain it. Part of this is due to a paradigm shift that must take place before some aspects of Orthodox theology can be satisfactorily digested. As to what that paradigm shift entails, it varies depending on what is trying to be understood.
But there's another, perhaps more central reason that Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals are so prone to talking past each other. It has to do with the week-to-week church experience of both traditions, and how that experience shapes the way practitioners of each tradition internalize and speak about their respective faiths.
Generally speaking, a Protestant Evangelical's church experience is going to be academic in nature. Sunday school might often involve uniform adherence to a Bible study curriculum--frequently topical in nature--chosen by the church's pastor or Board of Elders based on some set of self-imposed educational criteria. Participants in Sunday school may be expected to bring their own Bibles, pens, highlighters, and workbook, all of which will be used as reference and note-taking materials while a Sunday school teacher instructs. It's literally school. People learn all manner of Biblical facts, coupled with corresponding applications for daily life. And the pastor's sermon, when the entire church gathers together afterward, is often an extension of both the Sunday school topic and the format. Sometimes you'll even see sections in the weekly church bulletin dedicated to note-taking. From my own perspective, the entire experience can often feel like an exercise in applied Bible trivia. You learn the facts, then you're instructed in how to apply them in the field.
Life between Sundays is more or less the same. Protestant Evangelical piety is primarily measured by one's level of private devotion to Bible study. Visit an Evangelical Christian bookstore and you'll find aisle after aisle of Bible study materials, study guides, workbooks, video series, and the like. As daunting as all of this "work" may sound to a cradle Orthodox, it makes perfect sense within the sola scriptura paradigm of Protestant Evangelicalism. If the published scriptures are one's sole artifact of the faith, and if there is no ecclesial authority charged with interpreting and disseminating those scriptures to you, it's natural that your church experience is going to revolve heavily around the physical volume that is the Bible. Subsequently, it's also natural that all of this study and frequent reduction of the faith to useful facts for life--or propositions--will inevitably engender in many such students a reductionistic concept of what it means to do Christianity.
That Orthodox Christians (especially in historically Orthodox lands) don't treat private Bible study as a particular mark of piety will seem to an Evangelical onlooker like an anti-Scriptural posture. The Orthodox faith is experiential and participatory. If private piety is marked by anything, it is the life of prayer, which is guided at length by the Church in its Psalters and other prayer books. Corporately, Saturday nights are spent gathered in prayer in anticipation of Christ's death and resurrection, which is proclaimed every Sunday in the Church's liturgy. The Liturgy itself is a theatrical affair with a host of prayers, hymns, invocations, processions, and movements all oriented toward the reenactment of Christ's coming, His passion, His death, and finally His victory over it--and our victory in Him. Iconography covering the walls and ceilings of many Orthodox churches is meant to visualize many aspects of the scriptures' narrative, as well as the lives of saints who have come since. Not only this, but the entire liturgical calendar is itself an annual re-telling of the story of Christ, complete with regular feasts and fasts commemorating various events recorded in the Gospels. Daily scripture readings in the Epistles and Gospels, prescribed by the Church, serve to reinforce this re-telling. Even the priests and deacons who deliver the weekly homily during the liturgy are bound by these prescribed readings, so that teaching is kept grounded in the broader liturgical movement of the Church year.
Then there is Holy Week, which is a liturgical cycle all its own. Technically, Holy Week begins after Palm Sunday, but catechumens will feel it begins the day before, referred to in the Orthodox Church as the Saturday of Lazarus. This day is a common annual date on which catechumens, who've presumably been receiving instruction in the life of the Church for several months prior, are finally received into the Church through Baptism and/or anointing with oil (called Chrismation). In the Church's wisdom, catechumens are brought in immediately prior to the most liturgically dense week of the Church year, where not inconsequentially, the Eucharist is administered with the most frequency. You are thrown in the deep end as it were.
For some wonderfully vivid detail about Holy Week, you can read this account at First Things Magazine. But for the sake of brevity, I'll skip to Holy Thursday and quote from that article here:
When the faithful return to church on Thursday evening, they are in it for the long haul. Holy Thursday evening is perhaps notoriously known as the longest and most solemn service of the entire liturgical year. The nearly four hour-long service encompasses twelve Gospel readings recounting the final days of Christ, including his betrayal and Crucifixion; an iconographic re-enactment of the Crucifixion, wherein clergy affix an icon of the crucified Christ upon a cross in front of the altar; and the first of many “cinematic” moments in the weekend to come, when the lights of the nave are dimmed and the second half of the evening continues in candlelit darkness.
You can read more detail about that resurrection liturgy here.
As you can see, the church experiences of Orthodox and Evangelical Christians could not be more dissimilar. One is academically oriented, with an immersion in textual study and application of Christian data to life. The other is experiential, with an immersion in story and reenactment, not with the goal of helping the participant to internalize disparate, propositional, Christian truths, but rather to internalize the life of Christ itself. In short, the more immediate goal of the Orthodox experience is spiritual understanding, where the more immediate goal of a composite Evangelical experience is rational understanding.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of high theology writing to be found in Orthodox patrimony, and there are more than a few contemporary Orthodox theologians--to say nothing of the Church Fathers--who could run rings around the unhappy writers at Pulpit & Pen. So if you're theologically oriented and curious about the Orthodox Church, by no means would you be encouraged to divest yourself from theology upon entrance. But if you're an Evangelical who's ever been frustrated by an interaction with an Orthodox Christian, or vice versa, you can see how these respective church experiences will have a dramatic impact on how one thinks and speaks about one's faith.
The late Fr. Thomas Hopko said about the Divine Liturgy, "Don't wait 'til you understand the liturgy before you do it; do the liturgy so that you can understand it." This is the essence of the Orthodox experience. It is the reason why, when interrogating the Orthodox about our theology, an Evangelical inquirer is likely to be met with a friendly smile and the simple exhortation, "Come and see."
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