Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 2, 2011

Thinking About Orthodoxy for Dummies

Being a dummy, I’m struggling with the notion of “Orthodoxy for Dummies. No, not the book, because there is no such book, but maybe something more like “My Orthodox Life and How to Live It“. Ought to be about the same thing. I imagine the reason we find neither is that among those of us who don’t “get it”, we also aren’t really much on admitting to ourselves (let alone others) that  we’re pretty much stuck at the starting line. So no one would buy this puppy.

In my imagination, I can envisage one of those broad sweeping trends where it suddenly becomes chic to go for the “Fools for Christ” thing, and it becomes so insanely stylish to positively assert one’s humble virtue… in a humble, mass produced way by buying a paperback titled, “Orthodoxy for Dummies” that it sells out and is unavailable almost from the moment it comes out until the thirtieth printing. But since most of us know our humility “gig” is not exactly lighting the world on fire either, maybe that leaves me with trying to re-spec what I’m after.

Surely what I’m after hides under another name or two. Which leads me to the observation that for a church that seems as curiously dependent for converts as it is on the quirky, but determined lot of readers with the ferocity to manhandle themselves into reading enough books… that they really can brainwash themselves into something they encounter strictly as someone else’s church as if they were entering a Jasper Fforde novel, it seems rather odd that there aren’t more. But of course you think, “Ah… but there might be… only once you read it, you’d cease to think of yourself as a dummy, and then rather than making yourself in-the-know, you’d tend towards becoming part of the borg, that impenetrable fortress for whom an idea foreign to their notion of “how it ought to be” would make one unteachable… incurable… and the very antithesis of the Orthodoxy we think we’re seeking.”

Maybe. But if that’s the case, then how strangely quixotic this quest becomes: To inspire the ravenous mind with its antidote – the heart – and to chill itself into becoming part of an Incarnational spirituality that promises to save it from itself. And yet I think that this seems exactly the sort of what I’m looking for… and as a loaner… to give out… to all those loners who’d rather be part of something… or someone… only they’re not sure what.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t left wondering how we respond to the “Not-Ready-to-Visit Prime-Time Players” for whom “Come and See” is the equivalent of “Come and Die”. Maybe the latter is in fact the acid test, and yet there must be a less threatening place to start. I mean after all, they did call it the “Good News” rather than the “Good News – Bad News”: “Good news, we’ve got a way to save your life; bad news, you have to give it up first.” Yeah, not sure that as a place to start, we want to have an ante so high we scare off all the takers.

So maybe instead of “Dummies“, we’re looking for something simpler and more common: “Beginners“.

I know of more than one person who suggests the best way to start is with sayings of the Fathers or the monks. Lots of these out there, and I have my share (as well as the Philokalia – which is definitely not a beginner book), but I’m not sure I’d know what’s best, or that this alone is the most fruitful. Then again, though I know there are excellent catechesis books out there, but this seems way ahead of what I think we need. So it’s off to considering the excellent “Intro” books. Two stand-out candidates are Archbishop Kallistos Ware’s “The Way” and Archimandrite Meletios Webber’s “Bread & Water, Wine & Oil“. A third I haven’t read might be Fr. Stephen Freeman’s new book, “Everywhere Present“, but I haven’t even seen any reviews either.

What strikes me is that if someone wants exposure to Orthodox spirituality first, and then to decide on the Orthodox Church later, that seems okay to me. Horse before the cart and all that. And sometimes, folks need to warm up to the Church as a necessary instrument for our salvation… but to do this, need to understand where it fits first. This suggests that perhaps meeting “the Family” might be a better approach, meeting Jesus Christ, learning about those wild and wooly first, ancient christians, and appreciating a way of life before they return to the notion of the more familiar… the church bit. The church so many of us knew isn’t the Church we came here to experience… and if it is an “invisible thing” (as protestants insist – I know because I was one)… it’s because its Holy and Mystical… and crucially important (but I doubt they’d admit this second part). There’s plenty of time to show the endless resources of the ancient faith available to feed that life, and then perhaps move them towards the Church as we understand it where these resources exist in their fullness… but that would be the patient thing of letting God speak when instead folks like me want instead to rush the job… and usually blow it.

So I’m wondering what you think. What works? Suggestions?


  1. One thing that in the end helped me (I am still in need of help, almost 7 years ‘in’ now) is knowing Orthodox Christians from Orthodox countries. Also going to healthy monasteries. But to begin with it was converts at a local Orthodox church who were loving and welcoming and who listened to me talk about my current life and experiences without challenging me to change and be Orthodox. Knowing my tendency to not want to do what others tell me to, I may have never become Orthodox if anyone had told me to! (not that that is a good thing, just the truth of the matter)… The beginning of Met Anthony Bloom’s book _Courage to Pray_ converted me pretty much on the spot when I read it and knowing that the Orthodox church was not like the Anglican diocese I was then in…

    I have other friends who needed to read a lot first. I think it depends on the person and what questions they have and if they are happy where they are. It can be really gradual, God’s preparation of a person to come the first time to an Orthodox church.

    I find that many people need a lot of time, gentleness and patience given to them as they try to navigate their journey.

    • Elizabeth: Thank you… ah yes… another Anglican escapee: I might say “We are legion” but that has another context I don’t mean to imply… and so I’ll simply say thank you again for visiting. Met. Anthony is one of my favorite authors. I think the care and patience you suggest is indeed good. Hope I can navigate being helpful without being pushy.

      • You’re welcome for my visit! 🙂 Yes… I never was confirmed Anglican but this was my main church for a few years before I became Orthodox… yes, there are many of us!

        Yes, not pushing is vital. A book that helped me navigate where I was once I was ‘in’ is the book _Christ is in our midst_ by Fr. John a Monk published by St. Vlads. Fr. John advises not pushing… 🙂 It is hard but important. To speak the right word at the right time… ; Lord help us!

  2. I used to believe, before I was Orthodox, that I was an evangelist and an apologist for Christ. I know better now. I think it is something people are gifted with and not something that can be packaged or published.

    This doesn’t mean that there aren’t worthy books or seminars. It means that these things should never seek to be what they cannot be. I believe this is the strength of BWWO and Father Stephen’s blog (which I assume is the bulk of the content of his book).

    There are numerous good books I read when I was inquiring. There were a few bad ones, some of which are by “famous” and “popular” folks who I get criticized for criticizing (but they are really bad, I’m talking to you Matthew Gallatin). But even with the bad ones, there are plenty of good ones that Amazon readily whips up into a list if you but do a quick search.

    The one thing I would say that I wish folks would listen to is that converts especially (and some “positivist” cradles) need to avoid is the tendency to romanticize the Church (not to be confused with Roman-ticizing.. heh). Frankly, the Church as a body of people is a mess and it always has been a mess and folks (even sober folks like myself) are tempted to find a place free of the mess in our personal and spiritual lives and that is not the right appeal. It is dangerous and results in the worst sorts of revolving door conversions. St Seraphim once said not to worry about the Protestants because God loves them too, but worry yourself about having the great jewel of Orthodoxy and falling away.

    So then whatever we do, whatever books we right, or blogs, or pamphlets, the absolute WORST thing we could do is convince someone to Taste and See without proper catechism, the sort that gives the best chance of this very personal, death, burial and resurrection “stick”. This isn’t about Wednesday night classes, or waiting three years to baptize people or any other rule of thumb. This about something of the heart that a spiritual father with a real relationship and sponsors with a real relationship and a parish community with a real relationship need to be accountable for in the early years of convert life.

    Because I fear we will be called to answer for the souls of those who we manipulated into sitting down to the table who later left the feast in despair.

    • David: Amen. Made me laugh in so many places, thank you! Nah… like I said, I don’t know that we need another dude/dudette or that they need us. In fact, in another place, I’ve been cautioning a fellow about what it will be like when he actually meets us face to face and discovers… we ain’t up to to par. Maybe even batting waaaay below even minor league expectations. And yes, yes, yes… I’m a mess and should probably be forced to wear a T-shirt that designates something about my membership in the lunatic fringe. So thank you very much for visiting and for your comments.

  3. I was recently chastised for my blog being sarcastic and offensive, and that I should not parade my doubts about miracles and my observations on clerical and lay weirdness and that I should, as a “leader” in the Church, be more positive (ahem… you mean more like Our Life in Christ?). Hm. I don’t know which one of me is the lunatic fringe.

    • Maybe, like me, you’re that part of the lunatic fringe constituted by one of those little pom poms that my mom hung on the bottom of the curtains she picked for my room way back in the day. Gee… thanks mom! Sooooo 1960’s… the curtains were street signs. Sooooo much like my mom and so many of her sweaters, too. Only deal was, it wasn’t really good for the macho thing I thought I was working on… which as the smallest kid in the class, is kind of a moot point anyway. But I was going to be John Wayne in a John Ford movie or die trying. So I moved to the room in the house down the hall where the curtains were burlap bags. Typical thankless kid.

      I think the hard part is admitting I’m STILL part of the lunatic fringe. I mean, it was way cool and I liked it back when I was a teenager and puzzles were fun (and obviously it is still part of my sense of fun). And as a lunatic, you could actually come up with something to say to people you hardly knew that was a puzzling as life seemed to be simply admitting the obvious awkwardness. For those of us who grow up slowly and give up playfulness grudgingly, it just seems hard to be so all grown-up and all everywhere, all the time. But then I fell in love and things made more sense, and I wanted to be grown up for someone else. And I’m still in love, but then my kids went off to school and the “it all makes sense” bit vanished… as I tried to figure out which shelf in the attic to put myself on. And so perhaps that next bit of being all so grown up and all didn’t have the same appeal, or look so playful until I was drawn in pieces and in tears toward a deeper Life in Christ. Finding out that (contrary to rumor), the doors weren’t bolted on the inside to this place, and that through your podcasts… and that there actually were normal people (whatever that means) doing this… and doing it with some sense of playful awkwardness and joy… made taking those first steps possible. So thank you!

      And while pages could be written on the problems of Positivism (“Everything everywhere is getting better and better”), humor can have its cost, too. People hear things differently. I wonder that the problem with the reaction expressed seems misdirected at the author rather than with beginning with the obvious disconnect… that there is a phenomena, a person and a problem of understanding. These don’t suddenly go away because they’re not positive…. in fact, that’s probably how our leaders go off the rails – by burying their doubts because somehow they’re leaders and this isn’t legit for “someone in their position”. Hogwash.

      Specifically with relics and weeping icons, the truth is that our cultural heritage of these in this country is just darn flat zero or close to it (Folks will now proceed to name the thousands I don’t know about). The expectation that one wouldn’t have problems here is the surprise. Think if Jeff Gordon’s Goodyear tires on his parked race car began to “weep” winner’s circle champagne… and the NASCAR fans began showing up in zillions and paying to get closer, wouldn’t folks tend to be a little skeptical when suddenly Junior’s tires began doing the same thing one day? Ah… but as much as we might suggest… these are different… the land of P.T. Barnum is surely going to raise an eyebrow. Both might go up as soon as Kyle Busch’s tires start weeping, and inevitably “weeping tire” events start getting advertised on TV. So it would seem to me a far, far, far greater wonder to NOT make a deal… or at least not allow it to be a moneymaking opp (I don’t know that donations are asked for… because I’m that far back the curve). I think the problems we face on this is that when you study the NAACP and the Civil Rights movement you have to be so very, very, very impressed how careful folks were with their leaders, their appearance, and how conservative in their energies. Are we even close in our holy struggle to the holiness with which these folks waged a secular struggle against their bondage? I doubt it. All of America has become far less careful and sloppy about these things: We tend to think our virtues self-evident…. because… well… because they’re ours. The Church needs to “man up” as they say, and we need to step into the mystery somehow, too.

  4. Is there a difference between being a “leader” and “having followers”? 🙂

    • Good question. Are readers really followers? When Jesus asked the Apostles a question, did someone say, “Hold on… would you Tweet that again?”

  5. For me, I didn’t start by visiting the church. I read for several months on my own, but I might be unique in that I’m an obsessive Googler and love research. The first book I read was Gallatin’s “Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Waters” and that convinced me. But from there, we attended a parish full-time for a year and a half before we finally chrismated.

    I think being a part of parish life is absolutely crucial. It’s hard to know how much to reach out to new people, since so many come once and get scared off. Orthodoxy is best learned by doing. I think that’s what I’d say to someone now. Yes, there are lots of books to read, but being in services is the best way to absorb it all, in my mind. It’s obviously also important to speak with others who have walked this path, like a priest and other mentors, but others already mentioned that.

    • Thanks for your visit and very good suggestions. Don’t know Gallatin’s books… but apparently there is some divergence of opinion there 😉

      I think I read the Ware books first, then went and gave it a side-by-side Roman Catholic mini-Mass (Saturday morning) vs an Orthodox evening vespers. When I think of it, what I thought I was looking for at that time was something similar to Fr. Stephen Freeman’s line that I wanted to know “that somehow the prayers were real, that they mattered, that they were heard”… and I think I tried to sense this from the reverence of the services, the piety of the people, etc. And on that lone day, it so happened there didn’t seem to me to be any comparison… which I think I would be very hesitant to suggest was a “good”, “fair” or more than random sense of things nowadays.

      But that was then… and I felt under some pressure to find something and was probably more rushed than a good listening process might otherwise have been. And so at the time, it was enough for me to commit to Orthodoxy until it either fit or didn’t, and I began visiting Orthodox churches exclusively… where I saw very much the same faith, the same worship… over and over. And it meant something. I didn’t know what it all was, but the words of the Great Ektenia did it for me… so long as it was in English. Would it have been easier if I’d swung the Roman Catholic way? Here? Sure. I’m not sure whether I’d have stuck with it, nor in fairness can I say I will here… having seen bloggers seemingly rail right and left and then ricochet out of here.

      The problem here in some respects is close to home: someone in the family who might even deign to look, asked for a book. And as some would say, you wanna hesitate with the cartwheels long enough to not over-process and over-do a response. So caution is the way of the world… and double caution for all the usual the “parents can only muck it up” issues.

  6. I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned Gallatin by name. His book was a real problem for me in coming to Orthodoxy. In fact, I’d say his portrayal of the unity of the Church was second only to getting over my problems with the Theotokos (as a protestant Marion devotion was always at the top of my problems with any liturgical tradition).

    His position is dangerously close to Donatism (and this is dangerous waters for most converts coming from a strong intellectual tradition) in that he asserts that the Church is kept theologically perfect by the actions of the Holy Spirit in history. (And so it would go that if it were imperfect, it would not be the Church.)

    It is also demonstrably false (unless you want to build another invisible “true” Orthodox Church to replace the protestant one). Even the “majority” of bishops have been wrong on a number of occasions (Arianism, Iconoclasm, the False Union of Florence, some would say Ecumenism…).

    Even if he has a defense for why what he said in the precise way he said it is technically true or that he means that the unity is of an order of magnitude greater than among protestant Christians, it is better to confront the messier historical record than speak in theological language that an inquirer can misunderstand.

    Heck, whether sitting in a parish council meeting or being a fly on the wall at a meeting of the Holy Synod, one would wonder what exactly the Holy Spirit calls unity may be very different from my definition.

    Anyway, I don’t know the man. I’m only talking about the stumbling block I found in the work that I know has been a blessing to many others.

    But this is, in fact, the essence of my point. You cannot package conversion. It is personal. One man’s medicine is another man’s poison.

    • Actually, I think it helps to be candid, and I thank you for it. Indeed, sounds like firmly considered, fair objections – nothing petty, personal, or style driven.

      One of the things I like about Fr. Mel is he doesn’t hide the mess. And so he distinguishes between the church (small c that we see every day), and “The Church” (on those rather rare occasions when it is actually behaving as it’s supposed to). Reading the lives of the saints is pretty good tonic for “My church is way messed up and I can’t take it anymore!”

      As to the personal part, I think you’re right there. So often we read the same things, only our reactions vary widely. The faith journey can be something like learning to play a musical instrument: Some will be led by their ears towards that which is within their ability and beautiful, others may be after something entirely different. For some it can be gymnastics and almost athletic rather than aesthetic. Fact is that there’s plenty “music” where one uses the term loosely… and its really just an exercise in technical virtuosity… but excruciating to listen to. Witness some of the modernist stuff orchestra’s thrill to play and audiences endure with cotton stuffed ears. Then again, I’ve played pieces that were meant as teaching exercises but written with performance quality musicality… that are just a joy to play into the ground, or use as warmups.

      I’d agree you can’t package conversion. My interest is conversion to Christ first, Orthodoxy… if we can. Even there, I agree with you. I just happen to think Orthodoxy has the cool stuff. But then again, we have a lot that only a mother could love, too. Which brings me to underscore your point with the Theotokos: My own journey began with wondering where she fit… what was the deal… and ended up putting more value on her than I would have ever suspected. Looking back, my curiosity kept tugging me in until it stuck, and then it began to grow as it continues to do, and become more and more important, rather than, “Oh and there’s still t-h-a-t.”

  7. “My personal choice of ten (and only ten) ‘Must Read’ books of Orthodoxy would be, in alphabetical order:

    1. Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Daniel Clendenin
    2. Father Arseny, 1893–1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father by Anonymous, tr., Vera Bouteneff
    3. Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works by Hieromonk Damascene (Christiansen)
    4. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
    5. Saint Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) – especially the first part of this book which was originally published as The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938.
    6. Orthodox Church, The by Bishop Kallistos (Ware), formerly known as Timothy Ware, now a Metropolitan
    7. Orthodox Faith, The, vols. 1 – 4, by Fr. Thomas Hopko (also known as the Rainbow Series)
    8. Orthodox Way, The by Bishop Kallistos (Ware), formerly known as Timothy Ware, now a Metropolitan)
    9. Way of a Pilgrim, The by Anonymous (I still like the translation by R.M. French the best)
    10. Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander”

    More on why, as well as other books, is available in this post:

  8. I’m somewhat hoping that my own bit of contribution might make it onto such lists at some point. (Not just because I want to sell books; I have no delusions I’ll be striking it rich!) I certainly had not just “beginners” in mind when working on it, but indeed “people inclined not even to care,” a demographic expanding significantly in our time.

    But of course whether Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy succeeds in that will depend on the rest of you.

    • Fr. Andrew: Thanks for visiting! I appreciate your comment, and have followed your blogs and podcasts for sometime. Remember the podcasts especially, and recall that they were helpful… and some times I think the distinctions you made then were helpful especially in sticking with it… once in…. through all the “I signed on to/for this?” moments. Do you think this would be more important as part of cementing conversion, or do you find it is the place many folks start? My experience is a sample of one, and the case in point this go-round seems at this point closer to a beginning of a drive to discover the heart I think… closer to the beginning of spirituality… and I’m not sure what’s best in those cases.

      I remember hitting this point as a college kid but then hit the wall as well and was soon overwhelmed with years of simply trying to figure out how to make a living. Wonder whether perhaps the fortunate break through with some help… if the person is genuinely open to help, or like me… find themselves stuck as so many “just church-goers”, or give up. Guess I wasn’t that open for a long time… or just too busy with the rest… and think that had to do with a sense that things had gone adrift in my old mainline denom… and was uncomfortable with being taught there. Eventually started a search for where one might trust the teaching, but it was a long time in happening. I think in so many ways we’re like the fellows on the Island of Lost Boys in Pinnochio… and we have to wake from the dream of “having it my way” before it’s too late. Hard to know where to start. Wonder whether they prep you for this in seminary?

  9. I don’t know — I think a lot of it depends on where you are coming from. A Southern Baptist needs quite a different “education” than a Lutheran (as a former of both traditions myself, I needed yet a third way). A Calvinist will have different issues than a Methodist. Etc. I think the best way is to put it all out there and let people get recommendations from their friends who know them and know what their concerns are.

    For me, coming from the WELS via LCMS, I needed to sort out issues of faith and works, original sin, free will, etc. Books that I read that I considered instrumental were:

    Fr. Coniaris’ “Introducing The Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life”
    Bishop Kallistos’ “The Orthodox Church,” “The Orthodox Way” and “How We Are Saved”
    Fr. Gilquest’s “Becoming Orthodox”

    Probably more instrumental were blogs and podcasts, including:

    Kyrie Eleison (Anastasia Theodoridis)
    Energetic Procession (if it doesn’t give you a headache, this one was HUGE for me)
    Ad Orientem
    Glory to God for All Things
    Our Life in Christ
    Saint of the Day
    Speaking the Truth in Love

    Of these, Our Life in Christ and the first 2 blogs I listed were probably the most instrumental for me. They all do a great job breaking down the Orthodox Faith in a way that is both accessible and friendly to Protestant converts.

    Having said that, I wish Father Andrew’s book and podcasts were out before we were converting, and I also think Father Freeman’s new book “Everywhere Present” would be great for converts.

    I’ll also say none of that really prepared us for converting. They just put us in a place where we could consider it without being put off. We needed a “push” out of the Lutheran tradition to be willing to even look at Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy wasn’t the only tradition we considered. In the end, I think a bit of preparation consisting of talking with people you invite about the Saints, the Theotokos, faith and works, etc., and then saying “come and see” is still probably the best way.

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