In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m Orthodox. For the past few days, I’ve been in a conversation with an Orthodox friend about whether there’s any such thing as Orthodox culture in America.
This is a complicated question.
I had one thought about it this afternoon, and here it is, as the beginning of my attempt at answering the question.
If you want to know what a faith-inspired culture looks like around here, go find the Evangelicals. Evangelicals have it ALL. Books, movies, music, clothing lines. It’s a world, and it’s all theirs, and it supports who they want to be and what they hope others will learn to believe in and love, as they do.
The Catholics are pretty good at this too. EWTN, anyone? To say nothing of publishers.
But what about us Orthodox?
You can’t talk about our culture without walking right into the fact that for many of us, our church culture is inextricably mixed with Greek culture, or Russian culture, or Arab culture, Serbian culture, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, and the list goes on. We have often, in our history, been a state church. Ever since Constantine decided to stop persecuting Christians and become one himself. When Orthodox people came to America, they brought their faith with them and re-established it here, just as they had practiced it at home. And that’s why you have churches in the same denomination all speaking different languages on Sunday.
I think this means that for a large percentage of Orthodox Christians in America, the simple answer to our question is, “Of COURSE there’s Orthodox culture.” We have it every week at church, and if the Sunday school program and the Greek dance program have equal footing, nobody finds this strange.
This can make Orthodox culture difficult to enter if you don’t happen to be a member of the same ethnicity as the other people in the church you chose to attend. But despite the obstacles it can create, there is also something beautiful about it. It can be a wonderful manifestation of a lifestyle in which a person’s faith and his/her identity are completely blended. Shouldn’t the people you worship with be the first people you want to dance with?
But as Orthodoxy continues to flourish and take in new converts, the question of culture becomes more pressing. What if you aren’t Greek or Russian or Arab? How can you distinguish the Traditions of the faith from what my friend calls the “Yiayia traditions,” the accumulation of family lore and memories that make up all the parts of national culture that didn’t originate from divine revelation? How can you join a culture that you are outside, by definition?
Many Orthodox converts come from an Evangelical background, and if you recall how successful the Evangelicals tend to be at culture-making, you might wonder why they don’t “make” an Orthodox culture. Many of them try, but this is where our conversation got complicated.
If you surf through the Orthodox blogosphere, for example, you will find that many of the blogs seem to be devoted to teaching or reflecting on church doctrine, or offering tips on the Orthodox lifestyle (and who defines what that is?). Is this culture, or is it simply the dissemination of information, or a way of recording one’s own experience in a new world?
Orthodox publishers could be taken as another measure of Orthodox culture. In my estimation, most of them are publishing the same three or four categories of books: theology, conversion stories, children’s books, and maybe another genre I’m forgetting. There are exceptions, but they are few. There are plenty of academic books also. But again, what is culture? How much do academic books reach “the common man” part of our world? Do books of theology constitute or create culture?
Where are the Orthodox art galleries? Novels? Musicians? Dance troupes? Craftsmen? We have a few of each, but how much of a voice do they have in our part of the US population? How much in the population as a whole?
Still thinking about this. How about you?