Book Reviews: The Faith and Facing East

The Faith: Understanding Orthodox Christianity—An Orthodox Catechism, Clark Carlton, 1997, 286 pp., Regina Press, $22.95.

Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Harper, 1996, 245 pp.

Two books about Orthodox Christianity have been recently published, different in content and structure, and yet possessing an underlying similarity. Both works say something about Orthodoxy in America today, and what they say bears some attention.

Clark Carlton came to Orthodoxy in 1988 from a Southern Baptist background and is a graduate of St Vladimir’s Seminary. He wrote The Faith, he said, as "the kind of book I would like to have had when I was a catechumen." It has been widely advertised as being approved by all jurisdictions, (including the Russian Church Abroad), although in fact, the personal opinions of a number of individuals in different jurisdictions were sought and received, nothing more.

The Faith consists of eighteen chapters that deal broadly with the subjects of "The Doctrine of Christ" and "The Life in Christ" (as though these were two separate things). Each chapter consists of four short parts: the content of the chapter itself, a few quotations from the Fathers on the subject under consideration, a "Special Study" that focuses on a particular aspect of that subject, and a section called "Reflection," wherein the reader (or study group) is invited to ask and answer certain relevant questions about that particular chapter. The book has some other interesting features. One section, on the Ecumenical Councils, lists all of the Councils and gives a brief summary of each onea useful reference. There is also a brief but quite well written chapter on "Creation and Evolution." However, the book lacks an indexan indispensable tool for the reader of a text of this kind. And there are some other lapses.

It is ironic that Mr. Carlton, while making use of a Protestant pedagogic format (perhaps not inappropriate in a vast missionary territory such as North America; it has its uses), criticizes Fr. Michael Pomazansky's classic text, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, for having a Roman Catholic approach. This gratuitous criticism, at the very beginning of the book, is unfortunate, implying as it does that Mr. Carlton considers himself to be some kind of "authority" and his book superior to Fr. Michael’s. It conveys a tone of arrogance typical of some converts who think they "know better"one of the many spiritual diseases infecting the Church in this country today. The late Fr. Michael, by contrast, was an icon of humility, and a widely and deeply respected theologian, the product of a Russian pre-revolutionary theological education that was steeped in Orthodox spirituality and piety and formed by healthy monastic influences. He was an almost unerring barometer of what is sound and patristic and what is not.

Throughout his text, Mr. Carlton speaks of Orthodoxy in this country as though it were one united Church rather than divided into several troubled jurisdictions. The author speaks glowingly of the 2000 or so evangelical Christians that converted as a group in 1987, but he does not tell his readers that the disturbingly innovative way in which these sincere seekers were received into the Church was very controversial, reflecting a uniquely American kind of Orthodoxy, something consciously trying so hard not to be traditional and old world, that it is becoming something different from Orthodoxy altogether. For example, the author says that "the Orthodox Church has faithfully maintained the apostolic faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3), neither adding to nor subtracting from it." A fine statement, but one which is, in this context, at best an optimistic generalization, for some Orthodox jurisdictions have in fact departed significantly from the Faith "once delivered to the saints," as even a cursory study will reveal.

Although Mr. Carlton gives some of the reasons why Orthodox Christianity is not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, he fails to mention that at the very highest levels (patriarchs and bishops) some Orthodox bodies are in fact very closedangerously soto intercommunion with Rome; negotiations, discussions, and joint commissions continue to lay the groundwork for actual uniona goal that few would deny and many ardently await. Also, the chapter on Baptism fails to mention that in the New Calendar jurisdictions the traditional and historic norm for receiving converts by Baptism has now been replaced in this country by the exception to the ruleChrismation alonewhich was historically used only in cases of pastoral necessity, as an act of "economy" rather than as a standard practice. This abuse has created problems of conscience for some converts after they discovered that they were not united to the Church in the traditional way. This is also a matter of serious dispute between various jurisdictions in this country and abroad (for example, on the Holy Mountain, where reception into Orthodoxy is only recognized if it is done by Baptism).

Although Mr. Carlton speaks well of monasticism and encourages people to make pilgrimages to monasteries as an important part of normal spiritual formation, he does not acknowledge that much of what passes for monastic life in this country is unhealthy and, at times, even spiritually or morally diseased. Furthermore, in the Antiochian Archdiocese there are at present no monasteries at all, reflecting the vociferous anti-monastic views of its leaders (who insist that it there are going to be any monastics they must be "good-deed-doers"—viz, running homes for the aged, etc.and not "merely" praying).

The most problematic chapter concerns marriage and "The Mystery of Love" (with its special Study section, "God and Gender")a chapter which has generated some controversy and debate because the author has failed to understand the genuine patristic view of marriage and human sexuality. He has not taken fully into account the fact that we live in a sexually dysfunctional and obsessed society (where the word "eros" is commonly equated with "erotic" and "lust"), as a result of which anyone who seeks to discuss this subject must do so with a very careful and sober approach that is thoroughly grounded in the teachings of the Holy Fathers and the lives of the saints. To cite just one example out of many bewildering statements, Mr. Carlton says that "marriage is an end in and of itself"something that the Church has never taughtand that "the first purpose of Christian marriage is to focus our sexual energies on one person as long as we live"thus overlooking the Church’s consistent teaching that, in fact, the first purpose of marriage is for the partners to help each other gain the Kingdom of Heaven!

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Facing East was written by Frederica Mathewes-Green, a commentator on National Public Radio, a syndicated columnist for Religion News Service, and a writer for different publications. This is an account of her journey into Orthodoxy together with her husband (a former Episcopal priest) and their children (two sons, one daughter), who were Chrismated into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in 1993.

Mrs. Mathewes-Green’s book is interesting, well written, and at times quite entertaining. But there is a kind of "down-home" American casualness and glibness about the way she describes many of her experiencesa quality at once familiar and cloying, as though she were writing for Ladies Home Journal. One suspects that although it will be a best seller in some Orthodox circles, many Orthodox will, if their faith is deeply rooted, find this author’s work strangely alien.

This is not to say that Facing East is a "bad" book, only that it lacks a certain sober Orthodox worldview and "tone." For example, we are introduced to a number of liturgical novelties (such as paschal services in the morning rather than in the middle of the night), fasting rules that seem to be somewhat more flexible than traditional (i.e., dispensing from fasting on Thanksgiving, even though the Nativity Fast has begun), lots of kissing and hugging (Protestant-style), not being given a saint’s name (or worse, as in the case of a baby christened "Peter Aslan"* on page 92), giving one’s life "to Jesus" and taking Him "as your Lord" (as in a Protestant "born again" experience), holding hands when praying, etc. The author revels in statements like "Orthodoxy is a guy thing"as if somehow Orthodox Christianity is primarily for men. (Under the Soviet Yoke the Faith was preserved and transmitted from one generation to another primarily by womenespecially grandmothers!).

It has been suggested that this would be a good book to give to women potentially interested in coming into Orthodoxy. I think not.

Neither The Faith nor Facing East deals with the single most divisive and problematic issue in world Orthodoxy in the 20th centurythe Calendar Question, and its close fellow-traveler, ecumenism. These are, admittedly, difficult issues, especially for those in New Calendar jurisdictions to address. From a pastoral perspective, however, even an introduction to Orthodoxy should at least inform the reader that such issues do exist.

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The purpose of this review is not to criticize the sincere work of others. Rather, it is important to understand that two kinds of Orthodoxy are developing today, right before our very eyes. This has little to do with jurisdictions but a great deal to do with concepts of "traditional" versus "modern" Orthodoxy, "historic" versus "innovative," the "Faith of our fathers" versus the personal faith of this or that church leader (be he bishop, metropolitan or patriarch). Until we come to terms with this, our Holy Church remains deeply embedded in a crisis of nearly apocalyptic proportions.

Probably no one in our time understood this crisis better than the late Hieromonk Seraphim Rose. He wrote of the modern cultural milieu that produces books like The Faith and Facing East. He said that many now "are easily led into error, accepting customs which the Church has allowed out of her condescension or economy as if they were the best of Orthodoxy, and also improper customs of recent heterodox origin and inspiration, together with the pure and meaningful Orthodox customs handed down from the Holy Fathers."

Fr. Seraphim continued, "Far worse, however, is the state of those who, being unrooted in the true sources of Holy Orthodoxy ... in their ‘learned ignorance’ seek to guide [others] according to some fashionable intellectual current of the day ... who, being at home in heterodox modes of thought and life, dare to present the Holy Fathers themselves according to the disfigured modern understanding of them, transmitting neither their true message nor (much less) their Orthodox savor...

"We have today," he wrote, "a prevailing atmosphere of modernist heterodoxy and senseless ‘ keeping up with the times’ which has pierced the very heart of some Orthodox Churches so deeply that they will doubtless never recover, and their children are deprived of Orthodoxy without even knowing what they have lost..."**

The great challenge for Orthodoxy in the near future is not to find new and better ways of adapting to the dominant culture by assimilation and thus becoming "relevant"; the challenge is to establish and maintain genuine continuity with the Saints and Fathers of the past. This means more education, for ignorance of the Faith among many Orthodox today is appalling and is the single greatest factor in the crisis we are now facing.

In her book, Frederica Mathewes-Green observed that "I know I’ll never get to the end of Orthodoxy." This is true for all of us. But one must at least be positive that one is for sure walking a true Orthodox path that can eventually lead into the deeper experience of Orthodoxy; we must not be fooled into thinking that the fashionable, modern, and "relevant" Orthodoxy of some jurisdictions today is, in fact, the real thing.

Fr. Alexey Young


*Aslan refers, of course, to the Lion (representing Christ) in C.S. Lewis' classic series The Chronicles of Narnia.webmaster

** Fr. Seraphim Rose, Introduction to Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky by Schema-monk Metrophanes, 1976.

From Orthodox America, February 1997.