AD: Tell us about what led you to put this collection together
WCM: It is a common practice in the academy to honor or show one's gratitude to one's teachers and mentors. I have been longtime friends with Michael and knew that the 2013-14 academic year was a milestone for two major reasons: his thirty-fifth year teaching at Baruch College (CUNY) and his sixty-fifth birthday this past April. In late 2012 I sent out a note to some of his friends and colleagues telling them about my thoughts on a future essay collection and voilà, Church and World was born!
AD: Tell us a bit about the diverse contents:
This is a hard question to answer. On the one hand I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely the various essays fit together. I knew that the contributors came from very diverse ecclesial and academic backgrounds: clergy, lay, and monastic; male and female; Eastern Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran. There is even a former archbishop included as well! Some of us are parish priests and others are full-time academics. I tried to cover as many bases as possible reflecting Michael’s interest in diversity and ecumenism. Therefore I wanted the essays to reflect that ecumenical flavor and I think it worked out well.
I really cannot do justice to Michael’s theological and pastoral career in a brief interview as this. I’d point the reader to his wonderful chapter titled, “You want to be happy? My Carmelite Years” in his recent book Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time as well as his extensive and formidable curriculum vitae in the back of Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon for more information about his essays, articles, books, and life work. As I mention in the introduction to the Festschrift, Michael and his family have been a very important influence in my life starting back in 1995 when I first met them. I was assigned to St. Gregory the Theologian in
|Bright Monday (from the parish's Facebook page)|
|The Plekon Family|
AD: "One of these things is not like the other" as they used to sing on Sesame Street: one of the contributors is a former archbishop of Canterbury. How did he come to be in the book and why?
Years ago Michael turned me onto the writings of Roman Williams, especially his books on spirituality such Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. When reading Williams I got the sense that while he is a highly regarded scholar and thinker, he has a pastor’s heart which is evident when reading his sermons and essays. Furthermore, both Michael and Rowan Williams served on Brandon Gallaher’s doctoral committee at Oxford University, so it was a no brainer that I should invite Williams to contribute to the Festschrift. When I asked Williams to contribute an essay to the collection I was also aware that he was winding down his archpastoral ministry. I thought he would be too busy to reply to my email request, but not only did he reply within 48 hours, he also sent me a lovely essay. I was very grateful for his contribution.
AD: Michael Plekon does not often fall into the usual categories of what many expect an Orthodox priest and scholar to do. E.g., he has never taught full-time in an Orthodox seminary, and he writes appreciatively about non-Orthodox in his books. What lessons can Orthodox thought draw from such a diverse and unique career?
AD: And yet, there is something deeply Orthodox about his approach insofar as he's not just an academic but a priest active in his parish. You yourself have said that we need to bridge the gap between the academy and the parish today, to have the 'pastoral scholars' and 'scholarly pastors' like so many of the Fathers were. Does Plekon's life contain lessons for how to do that?
In my book on Alexander Schmemann's pastoral theology I critique a major problem within theological education, a critique which Schmemann alludes to in his writings (as did the late Aidan Kavanaugh as well), but which I make more clear, is the great chasm or rift between the academic study of theology (theologia) and its practical and pastoral application and implication in the parish (praxis). I find that theologians and seminary professors tend to write and speak to one another at their annual conferences and read one another’s articles in theological journals but this wonderful theology never gets incarnated in parish life. Likewise many of the problems, pains, issues, and questions among parish clergy and parishioners hardly get addressed in seminary training. There is a large gap in communication between the parish and the seminary, between the front lines and the training centers. This is not a particular problem among the Orthodox either, but among all Christian denominations.
Since Michael was both a pastor, first in the Lutheran Church (ELCA) as well as a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church (OCA) he knows the trials, temptations, choices, challenges, pains, and problems of pastors, their families and their parishioners. Likewise since he has been a full-time scholar, professor, and speaker he is fully aware of the same problems in the academy, specifically pertaining to the academic study of religion and its incarnation in daily life. It is one thing for example to study the Qu'ran or the Torah or the New Testament but quite another to see how these texts are “lived” and “thrive” today. So I think in many ways Michael’s writings, but also his own personal life, serve as a bridge between the Church and the world, between liturgy and life, between Christ and culture. The title of the essay collection was quite easy for me because when I think of Michael I immediately think of the Church and the world.
The very colorful icon of the Ascension, taken from an Armenian illuminated manuscript, was appropriate for the cover art because this feast reminds us that on the one hand Jesus ascends to his Father in heaven yet at the same he promises that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter into the world to guide, lead, and remind us that Christ will come again, emphasizing Church and world, heaven and earth together.
AD: As you know, Michael often writes about the Paris School and Mother Maria with her approach to being a monastic "in the city." He himself teaches in the very heart of THE city in North America at an enormous "secular" school. Is that where more Christians belong today, trying to influence things for the good, trying to find the "hidden holiness" in such places?
I couldn’t see Michael flourishing somewhere like Fargo, North Dakota or McAllen, Texas not that Fargo or McAllen aren’t nice places to live, but they are rather small in terms of culture, religion, and life. New York City is a major crossroads of peoples, places, and ideas. Since Michael’s own work focuses on the sociology of religion and its impact on society there is no better place than working in a city where differing opinions and ideas are the name of the game. We need to remember that early Christianity was an urban phenomenon as pointed out by Wayne Meeks in The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul.
Both Jesus and Paul were not strangers to cities. Jesus frequently traveled through urban areas like Capernaum as well as Jerusalem and Caeserea Philippi, a major pagan pilgrimage destination in the day. When reading the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters we know that Paul preached at the market in Athens and traveled widely to urban areas where a diverse audience would have heard him, Greek, Jew, Roman, as well as the rich and poor, free and slave, male and female. When reading the gospels and Paul’s letters one quickly realizes that we do not have to run off to a remote village or monastery to seek and live out a life of holiness, one can do it wherever one finds oneself--in the city, in the “burbs,” or in the far hinterlands such as Fargo. If one follows contemporary trends in pastoral practice one sees great works of faith and philanthropy accomplished in the urban areas. St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Fransisco, for example, supports a wonderful food pantry ministry right in the heart of the city as well as St. Lydia's new Lutheran mission in New York City. Likewise St. Raphael house in San Fransisco, an Orthodox Christian ministry to the homeless, has been around for a while as well as Emmaus House in New York. Across the country there are wonderful outlets for ministry, holiness, and sanctity, but one has to have eyes to see and ears to hear as Jesus says.
AD: Who should read Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon and why?
First and foremost any of Michael’s friends and colleagues will want to read this book. Second, anyone who is interested in an essay collection that pushes some intellectual boundaries and asks some hard questions regarding pastoral and liturgical reform, the perennial issues of freedom and the academy, and the interplay between holiness and sanctity should read Church and World as well. There are some very provocative essays in this book that ask really hard questions, especially for those of us in the Eastern Orthodox Church. At a recent conference the famous liturgical historian of the East, Father Robert Taft, said that one of the major problems among the Orthodox today is not the lack of theological or liturgical resources, but the lack of sufficient self-criticism--that we tend to point fingers at other ecclesial bodies, ideas, and theologies before looking at ourselves first! I hope that readers of Church and World will find this book both informative as well as provocative, pointing out some places where we could be better witnesses to other Christian bodies in the 21st century.
AD: What projects are you at work on next?
Recently I just completed a comprehensive article on the history and analysis of Schmemann’s classic For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy which will be published in the fall issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of For the Life of the World and in this essay I explore not only the origins of the book but also the conference held under the same title. It was a thrill using the archives at the Yale Divinity School Library too, a scholar's dream!
Currently I am working on two book projects, Walking With God: Stories of Life and Faith and Paul the Pastor: Models of Ministry for the 21st Century. Walking with God is a collection of pastoral reflections on various gospel lessons such as my other books, Encountering Jesus in the Gospels and A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal
The second project, Paul the Pastor, is a slightly different project for me. For the past few years I have been intrigued by the intersection and interplay of leadership and pastoral ministry. There are hundreds of theological books on this topic, but most of them are themes borrowed directly from the business world such as Jesus as CEO and so forth. As you can imagine many of these books are not theologically sound or lack a strong biblical foundation. I want to dig deep into Paul’s writings and look at how we, as pastors in the 21st century, can regain a biblical notion of what Christian leadership really means vis-à-vis Paul’s writings. I envision Paul the Pastor as a book for clergy and seminary students who want to learn more about pastoral ministry and how Paul viewed ministry as being cruciform and service- oriented. Paul identifies his own life and ministry with that of the crucified and risen Lord, as he says in Galatians, “It is not I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” I want to explore what a cruciform and servant leader looks like for the 21st century pastor through looking at key metaphors which Paul uses such as the pastor as sower, pastor as athlete, pastor as builder, pastor as preacher, and so forth. I am looking forward to digging deep into Paul’s world and writings and providing readers with something substantial for the years to come.