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Vol. 3 No. 3 - Dormition 2008

The Trinity and the Tricolour:
Cultural fetishism and the Church

"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." - Joshua 24:15

Where do problems occur when culture and Orthodox Christianity overlap?

It is easy to view the question as a linguistic one. It is also incorrect to do so. Liturgical language can be a barrier, but in parishes where the faithful behave like Christians, flexibility and Christian love can overcome linguistic obstacles. Much more serious, however, is the approach taken by those who mix the aspirations of their culture with the Orthodox Faith - or even worse, use the Orthodox Church as a vehicle to promote their cultural fetish.

Ethnically homogeneous communities are not Orthodox: they are the product of secular, socialistic multiculturalism, which seeks to keep Christ's Holy Church divided. What immigration patterns began has been entrenched by civic leaders, often for political reasons. Sadly, many hierarchs, clergy, and laity play along with this, thus bolstering phyletism, which is a complete association of Orthodox faith with a particular culture. It is manifested on a small level when individuals, raised and immersed in an "ethnically" Orthodox upbringing are at pains to understand how those from outside traditionally Orthodox cultures could be Orthodox. It is manifested on a broad level when individuals assume only certain ethnic or cultural identities are suitable to convey the essence of Orthodoxy.

The real issue is this: whom do you serve? Invariably, everyone is part of some kind of culture that informs their habits, their dress, the food they eat, the music they like, and the social circle they enjoy. In this limited respect, cultures (at least in most cases) are spiritually neutral. The trouble begins when the Orthodox faith becomes a vehicle for cultural ends.

Imagine an Orthodox parish where ostensibly faithful people gather in a Church basement several times each year for a concert. Imagine guests decked out in lederhosen and green felt hats. Imagine young people, months of practice under their belts, performing a series of songs from Gilbert and Sullivan. Imagine a sumptuous meal of Chinese cuisine, or an after-dinner presentation of break-dancing or salsa music.

A fun evening? Certainly! The connection with the Orthodox faith? Nothing! Yet this is exactly the reality in parishes of all Orthodox jurisdictions in North America - expressed in culturally different examples, to be sure, but merely cultural nonetheless. The crime in this is not that any of the dances, songs, ethnic costumes, or traditions are particularly sinful (although admittedly, some might be): the travesty is the reinforcement in the minds of faithful people that the Holy Orthodox Church and ethnic social clubs are an appropriate - even inevitable - mix. It would be virtually unimaginable to attempt to mix Holy Orthodoxy with any other mundane pursuit: an association of Orthodox Republicans, Orthodox Triathletes, Orthodox Line Dancers, Orthodox Lovers of Broadway, Orthodox Jazz Musicians[1], or Orthodox model train enthusiasts. Any of these would be thought odd, even inappropriate, and many would immediately attract the ban of a bishop as an unsuitable vehicle for the Orthodox Faith. Why? Not because any of the activities are overtly bad, but because of the confusion between the sacred and profane. This kind of confusion has a distracting and destructive effect on souls.

Where is the power? Is it in the culture? Does the culture take us into eternity? How can cultural fetishism stand us before the judgement seat of Christ?

Misunderstanding or stubborn stupidity might lead one to believe this is somehow a call to expunge culture from Orthodox life: it is not. How could it be? Culture is indelibly imprinted on all of us - we cannot escape it. It is also a constantly changing aspect of our lives, which leads us to the biggest problem of mixing Orthodoxy and culture. While the Holy Orthodox Church remains constant, culture changes. In the wake of cultural change, Orthodoxy too closely associated with any cultural influence is faced with two utterly unacceptable choices: either the Church must change to "move with the times" and the culture at large, or "Orthodoxy" must turn into a dry museum piece, repeating the same cultural dirges, dancing the same dances, wearing the same costumes "as we did in the old country". Frightfully, it was so-called Orthodox "old countries" that gave birth to poisons such as communism, neo-paganism, materialism, secularism, nationalism, and every force that has stood against Christ's Holy Church for a thousand years. To tie the survival of the Church (which is not our task, but God's) to the culture is not simply wrong - it is suicidal.

How should timeless Orthodox Christianity confront the tide of cultural change facing us in the world today? As Orthodox faithful, our answers must be rooted in the practice of the Church over two thousand years, and not the politics of our own time:

1) Our Orthodox citizenship must be our primary citizenship. This means viewing other Orthodox as brethren, whatever their culture or race. This means ceasing the use of national epithets when describing our faith. Practically, this means clarifying religious identity blurred by culture[2], and supporting Orthodox Christians who are persecuted for their faith[3]. Our parishes and our hierarchy must take active steps to reflect this unity of faith by cultivating harmony between parishes, and through canonical administrative unity and cultural openness. This could start with stripping national epithets from the signs and letterheads of Orthodox parishes, and by all Orthodox parishes sharing the same category in the yellow pages.

2) Our Orthodox citizenship must bind us together. Pan-Orthodox clergy committees in many cities already meet to support member parishes morally, spiritually, and in other ways. Seniors residences must address the demographic realities in North America through the spiritual and physical care of the elderly - ideally in an Orthodox environment with active chapel life. Similarly, hospital chaplaincy programs must be maximized, providing Orthodox clergy for a cross-section of lapsed Orthodox individuals, particularly those in critical care (including the families of terminally ill children) and the elderly.

3) Our Orthodox citizenship must be the basis of our preparation of the next generation. Orthodox children who go to public school stand only a remote chance of marrying other Orthodox. They stand about the same chance of themselves remaining practicing Orthodox Christians. Those who attend heterodox parochial schools stand a higher chance of marrying heterodox. Orthodox schools must be at the forefront of binding together the Orthodox community of tomorrow. Such schools must be built on Orthodox citizenship, and reject racist policies that cut to the heart of Christ's Holy Church.

Similarly, Orthodox campus associations must serve to spiritually feed and bring together faithful on university and college campuses, and to spread the Gospel as our Lord Jesus Christ commanded. Joint summer and Saturday programs, teaching the fundamentals of Orthodox belief, history, and prayer life must be initiated to prepare young Orthodox faithful, through genuine participation across jurisdictions.

It is no longer possible to speak of any culture in the world today as a "traditional Orthodox" culture. Several might be described as "historically Orthodox", but none have comprehensively maintained Orthodox Christianity as its underpinning in the modern world. Greece has been absorbed into European paganism, the Middle East is a hotbed of Muslim/Jewish political conflict, and the former Soviet Union suffers the deep effects of nearly a century of militant atheism.

We must turn the page on the notion of phyletism - the notion that the Orthodox Church can be associated with the identity of any one culture - to rediscover the how the Church Fathers, saints, and martyrs have been able to maintain Orthodox tradition, and the way in which we can maintain it in the environment in which we live, today.

[1] An ironic website has appeared in recent years dedicated to John Coltrane, the late jazz musician of infamous moral record. The page is a memorial lined to a religious group calling itself the "Saint" John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

[2] Increased rates of religious intermarriage are in the process of creating a generation that is orphaned in terms of the Orthodox faith. Orthodox Christian children from religiously mixed families - particularly from cultures with more than one dominant religion (such as Romania, Ukraine, and the Middle East) must be nurtured in their faith to the extent that when confronted with the question, "What religion are you, Orthodox or Catholic?" they would not answer, "Both." Those who drift between churches and chalices because "we are the same people" must be corrected, both in their mindset and in their practice.

[3] This is a domestic, as well as an international reality. The recent bombing of Serbia is a good example of Orthodox unity - not on an issue of politics, but on a matter of targeted attacks on Orthodox clergy, monastics, and holy sites. The persecution of Orthodox Christians in various parts of the Islamic world is another critical issue, often ignored as a result of the desire by Orthodox in the west to "fit in" with the culture at large.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Dormition, 2008)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.