Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 16, 2010

Orthodoxy and America: Between Friends

I’d thought to write some of my bits here as a follow up to an earlier item, but then stumbled on this piece on Sailing Anarchy that again, if you change the word “sailing” to “Orthodoxy” or “Christian spirituality” seems to read pretty well in my eyes as to what it really takes to evangelize. The fact is that going to church, faith in God and living a christian life at your center begins as a family activity – whether you bring your family along or not, whether you go in leadership or in reaction… the engagement is the beginning of something that in one way or another involves the whole family.

I recognize sailing is something remote for many… but substitute any outdoors activity that forces you to surrender the day to living according to nature’s whims… and you have a pretty good substitute. Hunting, fishing, camping, hiking… these all pretty much follow similar paths, and experience within the family has generally been the mechanism for its transmission. As apparently the Army learned in training folks for World War II, woodcraft is as hard to come by as anything else. But the point of commitment and its engagement within the family… even those who do not themselves directly participate… is central. And every one of these activities in this modern age has suffered in the rush of urbanization and growth these past 25 years, and the couch potato syndrome has replaced the active life… including the active life of prayer and worship in so many ways… that I find it helpful to see the sort of plea we so often read in our church magazines, but made in support of another activity. Life is full, and cross polinizatoin is fruitful.  See what you think.

But one opinion piece caught my eye the other day. A sailor blogs: “the idea of mentoring, mostly within sailing families, seems grossly inadequate for keeping sailing from shrinking.” This is followed by a genuinely and constructively crafted list of marketing and programming ideas meant to attract more to the sport. Many of them good ideas, in my view.

But the suggestion that the family is inadequate can’t go unaddressed.

To start, the book isn’t about numbers. It doesn’t care about quantity or popularization or marketing. Indeed, I found ample evidence that marketing, in the case of sailing, is often a cause, not a solution to the problem of decline. For the vast majority of its participants, sailing isn’t a business, a consumable, or a spectator sport; it’s a commitment between friends. When marketers get out of the way and let it happen on grand and personal terms, sailing finds its equilibrium.

More to the real issue, Saving Sailing laments, and offers solutions to, the dearth of quality time for things like sailing for the vast majority of Americans, especially those in families faced with debts, commutes, 24/7 media addictions and the false notions that kids must be peak performers in all things they do, that they should do all things, or in the most extreme case, that they should aspire to be reality TV contestants or idols.

Research shows that within a modern family, if anyone sails at all, it is usually just one or two persons. Everyone else accommodates and watches, sometimes wistfully, from afar. Most often, no one leads others to it. The rest might like to be there too, but the formats are wrong: schedules don’t jive, skill levels are too varied, time too cluttered, or the program or the fleet doesn’t allow mixing. Due respect to my blogging friend, he has underestimated the massive power of the family and the mentor. In fact, the simple idea of a family sailing and learning together has the potential to instantly multiply the actual number of active sailors. And of course, if your kids sail with you, their friends are next in line. Simple math says that if we make small changes, sailing will almost overnight become as popular as it was at its apex thirty years ago. It’s so simple, we’ve missed it.

But we can do it, and we can start now… (and) whether in a program, a race, or a simple boat ride, the shared experience of family sailing improves the tenor of the activity, promoting it far above just game or skill to its due status: a way of living richly. … and … prevent the entire place from going to hell.

If I had a nickel for every blogger who lamented the marketing of Orthodoxy, for every priest that suggested that evangelism was “something between friends”, that it’s not a numbers game, that there has to be an effort to distinguish between true faith and something less, that we have to counsel equilibrium, that if you “…save your own life, then a thousand around you will be saved…” then I guess I’d have a lot of nickels. So a lot of this just sounds soooo familiar.

And if it is, then perhaps there’s a suggestion here that it is not just Orthodoxy that we should be building for ourselves, but that our whole notion of life around us has been impacted by our inattentiveness, and it is this for which we seek renewal because the whole that is at stake… not just for sailing, not just for Orthodoxy, or for America… but an integration of the whole.  Then I think maybe we are more about Christ’s work as we find it in our everyday lives rather than where we think we choose to find it… and leave it alone for the rest. I simply don’t find these things unrelated. Life … even and especially an Orthodox life…. is so much larger than we think.


  1. For some reason evangelism has been on my mind these last few weeks. You bring up something very important – we must come to understand how drastically all of life has changed.

    We find ourselves in the middle or end of a huge shift, a full blown apostasy. To complicate things further, add to this that the vast majority of those trying to salvage what is left of Christianity, they have aided and abetted the enemy of our souls (knowingly or otherwise) by redefining the meaning of the Christian message.

    All this to say that the task of evangelism has changed. These redefinitions need to be debunked first, before anything meaningful and lasting can be established.

    What do you think?

  2. Amen. We casually trot out “Our Life in Christ” and “Christ is my life…” etc. etc. when what we really mean is Christ makes me fast, go to long services, wear funny clothes and listen to Middle Eastern music and think I’m now a different person to everyone around me and to myself…and to God. Until Christ transforms every moment of my existence in relationship to every thing and body around me, evangelism is merely techniques to be argued and pontificated about.

  3. Ah… Robert… I think you may give me too much credit! As if we can identify the answer in the problem… I’m still back at the beginning. But I’ll take a crack at expanding what I see in your very good thought if I may:

    I do believe life has changed and changed dramatically in the last 50 years. It’s as if the splitting of the atom has atomized our lives, or as if the nuclear accelerator has accelerated life to a point where we no longer have a context in common, and sadly in so many cases, folks don’t understand or stand still long enough to care… they literally don’t know what they’ve not seen, so they don’t miss it. But that seems only the tip of the iceberg of change.

    I wonder that full blown apostasy in some respects assumes a level of awareness that I find difficult to credit: can you be an apostate if you never believed, or had no experience or knowledge of what it is that was or should be believed? You can behave “as if”… but I find it difficult to know where to assign responsibility… which is probably why it’s above my pay grade 😉

    I think the level of illiteracy of authentic documents of not just faith but just about everything (math, history, literature, geography, science, etc)… makes the task of conversion… (and when we think of it…even the task of more basic civilization)… much more difficult than it has to be. What people think they already “know” from pop cultural two-word short-hand is very hard to get them to engage and reconsider. I have read that the post-World War II phenomena is that vets wanted to remake the world so they wouldn’t experience -again – what they’d just been through. They rejected the old as responsible for the mess, and embraced the new no matter how innane as unlikely to be any worse, and though the context of the remark was shift from steam engines to diesel engines on railroads, the power of the metaphor and the desire for a common life was so strong… that even the steam engineers wanted to dress like the rest of us even at the expense of sacrificing their near god-like hero status (to little boys everywhere)… that we who have come later and long for those steam engines… can’t fathom even a hair of it. But that is very key to me: Even the heroes wanted to be just like everybody else, dress like everybody else… and maybe have no more responsibility than the anonymous “them”.

    So yes, the task of evangelism has changed. And I would tend to agree with you that if “popular” christianity is the measure of efforts over the past 50 years, then as much as it has succeeded in numbers and as much as it has preserved something of faith, it has transformed it from a serious engagement to something less, to something like an exercise program (lose 50 lbs in 50 days!) or like a piano book (play 10 bars of Mozart in 10 minutes!). To paraphrase John Lennon: “Instant Jesus …gonna git you!”

    Leadership is important. Unfortunately, so many good christians are led and characterized by people who are willing to lead – though rarely by the selfless, but unfortunately these same folks don’t know where to go because they are cut off. And I find the press mischaracterization of these folks on the basis of the foibles of their leaders is unworthy of the goodness these people actually have. Yes there are “nuts” in this group, but the fact that other folks don’t align themselves with some sort of group doesn’t make the others any less nutty… only less identifiable.

    So it may be that what our task as Orthodox is fairly simple… so simple that our gut response is we don’t want to do it, or can’t… not that it’s wrong. Our task may be simply be to do none other than constitute a visible body of Christ in all that this means: Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy. I think I’m still needing a LOT of formation to “git” just what this is… I’m working on it… but only “just”.

  4. I am the author of the article that you cite, and the book Saving Sailing, which is it’s source.

    Other readers of my book have connected its concepts to their spiritual lives. In fact, one chapter is called Shared Beliefs, with intergenerational transmission of cultural themes as its key theme.

    I might add with irony: my Grandfather was a Greek Orthodox priest with a deep and durable love of the sea, that I happily inherited.

  5. James,

    I don’t disagree. Do you think we can substantiate the “just be” approach from the Fathers?

    As far as apostasy, I am referring to the cultural shift at large and what has occurred within Christianity itself.

  6. NDHayes: Thanks for visiting… will have to come by a copy of your book! Always thought of sailing, the sea and all that as very Orthodox, fish, greek fishermen and so on.


    As to apostasy, I guess I just leave it to others better equipped to decide the apostasy biz rather than venture more than already listed here. Point is, there is the look of it, but the look of it hardly seems sufficient if we insist that only God in truth knows what is in a person’s heart. As a pair, I think we have a problem if we pair our thirst for evangelism with our desire to cure our brother’s apostasy. So whether it’s there or not… maybe we’re better off to focus on ourselves… the old “be attentive to yourself” bit… seek after holiness (and I’m by no means a particular example here of any merit… so you first!!! LOL) and let that speak.

    Regrettably, I’m also not any better equipped to answer the “will it conform to the Fathers” as you can probably be certain they’d: 1) like something more forthright, and 2) suggest Thickheaded suggestions be enthusiastically disregarded. This is of course my way of indicating that my copy of the Philokalia remains unread as a bit above my station as of yet, and my reading of the Fathers… well… others are better equipped there, too. I think there are many forms of evangelism. The tendency to use words in the effort perhaps tends to be so over-tried due to its apparent ease of initiation that perhaps we might consider the West has by now been trained to a well practiced immunity on this account and the untried non-verbal approach may in this case be more effective.

  7. James,

    Back to my cell……

    I should not have used “apostasy”, as it is not really what I was trying to communicate. (I use the word here to describe the general falling away, the departure from theism towards secularism). My main point being that we find ourselves in a different spiritual milieu given the “post” aspect of the so called post-Christian era. Just my musings.

    I have no aspirations to cure anyone, so much as I am thinking along the lines of the Forerunner’s calling. No way about it, words were used by him and the apostles, so it would seem to me that an either/or approach (either verbal or not) is not good.

    I am just brainstorming here, not saying it is this or that. Just exploring.

    • Robert:

      Forgive me. Response was not meant to be harsh so much as to address something I haven’t had much of an answer for… and I suppose that shows here in my clumsiness So if my note came out harsh… and it did… and I worried about it before you responded, please don’t take it as reflecting on you but as reflecting my limitations. Wish I could offer more. I think this is much more of a general problem and you’re on to something, but it is very difficult to approach without getting ourselves into a dangerous mindset. I think my first reaction was pretty much along the same lines of how do you tell folks about the real thing… without calling them a bunch of heterdox, heretics, apostates, unbelievers, etc. Kind of makes one into the sort of jerk one doesn’t want to be. So don’t go there. So learn from my errors and don’t go there, or back to your cell either. You forced a good thought or two… and I’m still interested at what you’re trying to say.

      Fact is that I think we’re all trying to figure out how do you share something that seems to be great, but no one else seems to give two hoots about it. I don’t have an answer. The analogy by example does seem to work. Every now and again someone will come along and light a fire in others… by example. Seems to work with sailing, hunting, painting, hobbies… work !!! my gosh!! … so why not here? I think that’s all I can think to suggest in the end. And if it looks like “fun”… however and in whatever way it is defined in that case… then your example will pull others in. Some will be good at this, others of us will simply do our bit and support them.

      Let me say that I agree with the different milieu. I probably am an exception in that study of history suggests to me that apostasy, unbelief, and the like is not really new… even in a rather widespread way. I think that’s something of a myth. There were lots of folks who looked more like believers back in the day… but they weren’t necessarily. Sometimes it just seems too much of a “gimmie” for us to claim how hard it is today. I’m not saying it’s easy… just that it presupposes a lot about the past. Today is different… but I’m not so sure we know how it differs as much as we think it does. What may be more new is the sense that there is no divine presence, alienation, isolation, etc. … but you have to define the “start” point of reference, and then look carefully. People are people, we’re stiffnecked, we’re lazy… and it’s just what we are.

      Wish I were better at brainstorming… but that’s about all I’ve got. Maybe S-P has a better idea?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: