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Orthodoxy and culture

17 August 2012

“Orthodoxy and culture” is a huge topic, and it is impossible to do justice to it in a single blog post. That’s why it is a good topic for a synchroblog, in which it can be examined from different viewpoints. But even of fifty or a hundred people blog on it simultaneously, I doubt that we will have exhausted the topic.

“Culture” is usually defined by sociologists as ways of behaving and thinking that are learnt from other people, rather than being passed on by genetic inheritance. In that sense it is closely related to tradition, which is the transmission of values and patterns of behavious from one generation to the next. Though it is interesting how blurred that distinction can get in modern culture. People speake about organisations having DNA, when what they actually mean is corporate culture.

And like other human organisations, the Orthodox Church has a corporate culture that some may have have described (inaccurately) as DNA. Or, to be more accurate, the Orthodox Church has several different cultures, as it has inculturated itself into different human societies, and some traditions vary from place to place, but there is also a core culture, which we call Holy Tradition (with a capital T). But even Holy Tradition is not DNA, though the analogy comes a bit closer, because Holy Tradition is that part of Orthodox culture without which the Church would not be the Church. But unlike DNA, it is not passed on automatically and biologically. It is passed on by teaching, as St Paul notes (2 Tim 2:2), which is the essence of tradition. If Orthodoxy were in the DNA of the Church, then there would be no need to baptise the children of Orthodox parents, because they would have inherited it in the same way as they inherit hair and eye and skin colour. But as it is, the children of Orthodox parents are baptised (with four exorcisms beforehand) in the same way as those whose parents were not Orthodox, and are the first in their family to become Orthodox Christians.

But the Church lives in the world, and the world has its own culture, and when we speak of “Orthodoxy and culture” we are usually thinking of how Orthodox culture relates to the world’s cultures. This is a topic that has interested missionaries and missiologists a great deal. How does Christian culture relate to secular culture?

Lots of books have been written about that topic, and it would be impossible even to try to summarise then here. What I will try to do is to give a few exanples that may illustrate a few aspects of the theme of Orthodoxy and culture.

Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of MissionIn the book Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission by Michael Oleksa we can see something of the encounter of the Orthodox Church with people of a different culture. Orthodox mission in Alaska came at a time when Western Christian mission tended to be culturally pushy, and western missionaries often engaged in social engineering, setting out to make other cultures conform to Western norms. In Alaska this is particularly noticable, as Western missionaries followed Orthodox ones, and the contrast in their methods was easily seen. In his book Fr Michael Oleksa explores some of the theological and missiological reasons for the difference, but it is interesting that even secular social scientists — sociologists and anthropologists — have observed the difference and remarked on it.

The missiological point here is that Alaskan culture became Orthodox, and though in some ways Orthodoxy transformed Alaskan culture, it did not conquer it.

Something similar happeend in Russia, though it took many years, centuries even, from the first missionaries to the appearance of a culture that could be said to be Orthodox. The transformation was not complete, yet there was a sense in which people could speak of Holy Russia. The Emperor Peter the Great did not much like this, and sought to replace Russian Orthodox culture with Western modernity, a process that the Bolsheviks tried diligently and energetically to complete, often with the use of force. For much of the 20th century there were culture wars in Russia between Orthodox culture and Bolshevik culture.  But Orthodoxy had become so embedded in Russian culture that the Bolsheviks could not eradicate it without destroying Russian culture.

In 1995 I visited Russia to do research from my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods, and spoke to a Russian missiologist, Andrei Borisovich Efimov. He said that the task of re-evangelising post-Bolshevik Russia would best be accomplished by the main thing that had overthrown Bolshevism, namely Russian Orthodox culture.

I was not so sure.

In the Boshevik period there had seemed to be a binary choice: Bolshevism or Orthodoxy. In the late Bolshevik period many people, despairing of the spiritual bankruptcy of Bolshevism, came to Orthodoxy. But I wasn’t sure if it would work in the post-Bolshevik era. I had passsed bookstalls outside the Metro stations in Moscow, and most of them were selling Russian translations of the works of authors like the American novelist Stephen King. The post-Bolshevik Russia was rapidly becoming multicultural, and reevangelising Russia was going to require a multicultural approach.

One of the cultures that needs to be approached is the punk-rock youth culture I mentioned in an earlier post — Pussy Riot: a cultural revolution? A Punk group, calling themselves Pussy Riot, put on an univited performance in the main cathedral in Moscow, after whicvh they were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, or hooliganism, depending on which media reports you read. I have a certain fellow-feeling for the members of Pussy Riot, who were also accused of blasphemy.

Back on 9 June 1969 the Natal Mercury carried a banner headline on the front page: ‘Church profaned,’ says Bishop. The bishop was the Anglican bishop of Natal, the Right Reverend Thomas George Vernon Inman, and the one responsible for the profaning of the church, according to him,  was me. If you’re interested in knowing what provoked the bishop’s remark, you can read more about it here: Notes from underground: Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages.

In the Pussy Riot case the dialogue, if it was a dialogue, was initiated by the punk rockers. They had performed in at least one other church before, so they obviously had something they wanted to say to the church. I would be interested to know what the response of the church was, though such things are not usually reported in the media. The Patriarch of Moscow has promised to make an official statement after the court case is over, but that is not the kind of dialogue I am thinking of. Have any priests, or other Orthodox Christians, visited them in prison? Has anyone from the church talked to them, rather than talking to the media about them? Maybe they won’t want to listen. Maybe they do not want a dialogue at all, but rather a monologue, in which they do all the talking and the church does all the listening. But one doesn’t know that until one tries.

The members of Pussy Riot have been facing the court, but there is also a sense in which the Church itself is on trial, and the followers of the punk rock culture will be giving their verdict. And it’s not as if it has never been done before — see here, for example: Punks to Monks: Eastern Orthodoxy’ s Curious Allure — Mind and Body — Utne Reader

My parish priest and colleague, Fr Athanasius Akunda, recently wrote his doctoral thesis on “Orthodox dialogue with Bunyore culture”. The Banyore are the people of his home district in western Kenya, and their encounter with Orthodoxy has taken the form of a dialogue, as it did in Alaska.

We live in increasingly multicultural world, in which different cultures, which might never have encountered each other in the past, meet each other.

Orthodox culture is a kind of dual culture. Since the church is made up of human beings, the Orthodox Church has a human culture, but it also has a culture that emanates from God. In this the Church reflects the incarnation of its Lord, who had a divine and human nature. The human culture comes from the people among whom the church finds itself, and human cultures, like human nature, are fallen cultures, and have fallen away from God. But they do not need to be destroyed and replaced by some heavenly culture. Rather they need to be restored and transformed. It is the mandate for this that Father Michael Oleksa finds in the theology of St Maximus the Confessor.

Because the world’s cultures are fallen, there is always a sense in which Orthodoxy is countercultural. But there is also the hope of restoration and transformation. Sometimes it is difficult to see how this can be done, as in the example of the Izikhothane, which I wrote about in another of the lead-up posts for this synchroblog: Izikhothane — a new word for an old fashion. The behaviour of the Izikhothane is like a religious ritual, a ritual of sacrifice to Mammon. In rural areas people might offer a bull or a sheep or a goat from their herds as a holocaust, a whole burnt offering. Trampling on a bucket of Kentucky fried chicken is an urban version of the same ritual. Love of riches is far from Orthodoxy, and yet the sacrifices of the Izikhothane show that they despise and are somehow above the riches of this world. Is it all that big a step from that to rejecting the riches of this world to show that they have treasure in heaven?


This blog post is part of a synchroblog (synchronised blog) on “Orthodoxy and culture”. A synchroblog is when different people blog on the same general topic on the same day, and then post a list of links to each other’s posts, so you can surf from one to the other, and see the topic from several different points of view.

Here are links to other posts on the topic, and more will be added as other synchrobloggers post their contributions:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 August 2012 2:09 am

    “But as it is, the children of Orthodox parents are baptised (with four exorcisms beforehand) in the same way as those whose parents were not Orthodox, and are the first in their family to become Orthodox Christians.”

    Steve, I’m really struck by this observation. I’m not sure yet if I agree with the idea that Orthodoxy is not in the DNA of the Church, but calling to attention that Orthodoxy is not in our DNA is a novel concept to me. As an adult convert (and, because of my evangelical background, a convert anxious not to be stricken with convertitis) I have been deferential to the opinions and observations of “cradle” Orthodox, realizing that they have a lived experience of the faith that cannot ever be duplicated by book learning. It hadn’t occurred to me that part of that lived experience was the change being wrought in the person by the sacraments. Thanks for this post and for getting this synchroblog project started!


  1. Pussy Riot — the verdict « Khanya
  2. A taste of their own medicine? « Khanya

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