The Brothers Karamazov is unarguably one of the greatest pieces of prose fiction ever written. It is also a distinctly Orthodox novel, that is to say a novel infused with the theology, customs, and culture of the Orthodox Church. Much of the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky fits this bill. Of course, Dostoevsky is low-hanging fruit in this way, the Orthodox C.S. Lewis one might say. There will never be another Dostoevsky, clearly. But it does seem worth asking where his 21st-century descendants are, even if they do not quite meet the brilliance of their ancestor, because we have much to learn about the state of our Church, and its relationship with the faithful and to the world, by examining the secular art it is producing. This is true of music, painting, and literature, but I want to focus here on prose fiction, both novels and short stories. First, that is where my own training and expertise lie; I am in no way qualified, beyond the qualifications of an enthusiastic fan, to comment on the merits of symphonies or oil paintings. Also, and more importantly (because when did someone on the internet ever refrain from offering an opinion due to lack of expertise?), it is in prose fiction that modern Orthodox art found its best and fullest expression, from the great writers of the Russian Golden Age to those lesser known in the West, like the Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamantis and the Serbian Borisav Stanković. It was, in the novel and in short stories, from the 19th-century onward, that modern Orthodox culture found what the Catholic tradition had found in painting and the Protestant one in music: a complete and aesthetically beautiful secular artistic expression, an artistic expression that grappled with faith, the human, and the divine in a way deeply embedded within the tradition and capable of speaking as fully to those outside the tradition as within. And yet, in the past fifty years, it would seem, virtual crickets.Continue reading
People really like Hell. Or at least they really like the idea of Hell. And many are positively gleeful at the notion of some or another of their fellow human beings being tormented forever in its fiery furnaces (that’s right, forever, for eternity, for an expanse of time the human mind cannot fully comprehend). Oddly enough, it is clear that, pious professions aside, even eternal damnation’s most ardent supporters do not believe themselves in line for torments everlasting.
I suppose I always knew this. I grew up in Colorado before Colorado was cool, in a time when the state’s political and cultural life was dominated by Focus on the Family and evangelical megachurches. And I have known plenty of people who believe that unless you are “born again” in a rather specific way, you are damned for all time. None of these people, to be clear, believed that the Orthodox baptism I received as an infant was of any effect and feared (one cannot help but believe honestly) for the state of my immortal soul. And let’s not kid ourselves. Though we Orthodox, in general, might take a slightly less legalistic approach to the question of salvation and damnation, the immense popularity of the idea of aerial toll houses over the past few decades gives proof to the fact that we are just as morbidly obsessed with God’s impending judgement and wrath as your run-of-the-mill televangelist.Continue reading
Before I go any further, let me say, I know the arguments for “closed communion,” that is, the practice of allowing only Orthodox Christians who have prepared through confession and fasting and have received the blessing of a spiritual father to receive the Eucharist. I am also aware that how this exactly plays out from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from parish to parish, varies widely. Finally, please trust me, if you get nothing else from reading this, rest assured that I have exactly the kind of personality that is predisposed to wanting to turn the Eucharist into an opportunity to sort out the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the bad. I am all about making participation in a meal the reward for being “enough.” For believing the right things and doing the right things. I am insanely comfortable with the idea that not eating, not partaking, is a way to repentance and to purification. For years, through most of my teens and into my early twenties (and occasionally my late twenties and early thirties, and frankly, occasionally now), as I struggled with an eating disorder that was my best thinking. It was my big idea. The big idea that consumed my thoughts day and night, that robbed me of any joy, that only caused me pain. The big idea that could have killed me. And it is exactly because I know what a terrible idea it was for me to have that I cannot believe that it was ever God’s idea. In fact, there is much in the Scripture and the Fathers to suggest that even Judas got to have the meal, got to come to the table, so different is God’s idea about who gets to eat from mine. It is by looking at whom the gospel writers tell us dined with the Lord that I draw my assumptions as to how God intends to issue invitations to His banquet. Continue reading
Yiayia Kay kept her scarves in the far upper right hand corner of the long light oak dresser. By the time I was old enough to remember, she never took them out except to garden. She would drape one of the silk covers over her perfectly coiffed hair to protect it against the dry winds of the Colorado high plains. As a little girl and even into her teens and early married life, these had been more than mere gardening accoutrements. They were the outward visible witness of her inner self, signaling to the world, not just that she was a Christian, but that she was a lady, modest and chaste. Then one day, around the time television became king, like so many Greek American women of her generation, she folded up the scarves and put them in the dresser.
The fact is that for most of my childhood in the urban, assimilated Greek Orthodox parish where I grew up, the head covering was completely absent. Continue Reading…