"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Orthodoxy in the Spiritual Marketplace

Twice in as many years, I have heard lectures by Amy Slagle of the University of Southern Mississippi, and both were fascinating. Both were delivered in the context of the ASEC conference, which is really one of the most outstanding academic conferences I've attended, marked by a wonderful spirit of collegiality, thanks in no small part to the leadership of the lovely and delightful Jenn Spock, an historian of Russian monasticism teaching at Eastern Kentucky University under whom the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture (ASEC) goes from strength to strength. At the most recent conference, held at Ohio State University (whose Hilandar Research Library and Resource Centre for Medieval Slavic Studies, under Dr. Predrag Matejic's leadership, really is an outstanding place) October 7-8, Slagle gave another paper on the role of Seraphim Rose in contemporary American Orthodoxy.

Slagle has just recently published her first book, based on her doctoral dissertation: The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity (Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 207pp.

This is a superlative study, and I warmly recommend it. I think that sociologists of religion, anthropologists studying religious communities, and of course Eastern Christians themselves, perhaps especially pastors and hierarchs looking to understand the mindset of many converts to Orthodoxy today, would benefit greatly from reading the only study of its kind in North America today.

One of the several happy aspects of this book is how wonderfully it is written. Slagle--unlike too many people trained in the methods of the modern social sciences--writes with great lucidity and cogency, eschewing the often jargon-laden, leaden, and lethal prose one so often finds in social-science journals and books. Slagle herself said to me that the book is a fast read, and indeed it is; but one should not allow the speed with which the pages turn to distract one from the many and significant insights she weaves into her analysis of the fascinating stories of the forty-eight converts to Orthodoxy whom she studied in different parts of the country and in different Orthodox churches. This is a ground-breaking book, and in its care to tell stories honestly and analyze them without imposing an ideological agenda, Slagle sets the bar high for future studies--and notes the need for such studies because hers has not, she is at pains to say, been "a complete, comprehensive, or generally representative portrait of  'the conversion experience' of American-born converts to Orthodox Christianity" (37).

After two introductory chapters--the first on Orthodoxy in general, the second on Eastern Orthodoxy in the context of late-modern North American pluralism--Slagle turns, in chapter three, to the diversity of practices used to receive converts into Orthodoxy, depending, inter alia, on whether they were baptized before or not; and if so, from which tradition they may be coming. There is, as John Erickson and others have noted, no consistent practice on how other Christians are received into Orthodoxy. Chapters 4-6 are the heart of the book, exploring the meaning and motivation of conversion, the perspectives of converts on Orthodox liturgics and ritual, and then the convert's perspective on the question of ethnicity in Orthodoxy.

One of the many fascinating insights Slagle uncovers through structured interviews with her subjects, and through participant-observation of Orthodox parish life, is that "even in their embrace of Orthodox tradition, converts retain generalized American assumptions that religion should promote interior growth, fulfillment, and psychological comfort" (15). Many of them come to embrace Orthodoxy through a quintessentially modern American method of  "church shopping" in which "church affiliation [is] more a matter of personal taste than an imperative to find the doctrinally true" (47). I was especially fascinated by Slagle showing that even for those converts for whom some notion of objective truth was ostensibly their motive for converting, a "subjective view of religion as a kind of handmaiden to the needs of the self was not easily shaken" (48). The paradoxes of modernity, and the The Triumph of the Therapeutic, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to outwit. (In the memorable words of the late Richard John Neuhaus in his The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World, converts are often those who "exult in the freedom to submit to authority with wild abandon"!) This idea of "religion" as therapeutic, aimed towards my happiness, runs smack into "one of the most common informant responses to the question of difficulties they [coverts] had encountered in becoming or being Orthodox," namely fasting.

Slagle's chapter on ethnicity and converts is full of surprises (as are her findings of the differences in how converts by marriage are treated vs. converts who come as seekers from other traditions) on the part of the attitude both of the converts, and of the parishioners and clergy in their new-found communities. The stories of converts, and the reactions of priests and cradle members of parishes, are all told with Slagle's careful, unobtrusive, and very even-handed manner.

In her conclusion, Slagle notes that "these conversions defy simple characterizations" (157) and are often not the end of the story: "many converts...leave the Orthodox Church for other religious options" (161). Let us hope that Slagle will next turn her hand to exploring these converts who leave Orthodoxy, and their reasons for doing so, for that would make for another welcome book, as likely as fascinating and well-written as The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity.

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