Monday, 1/27/14

    1. Saint Jack
    2. Tendentious, unempathic hearsay composites
    3. Odd convert phenomena
    4. Dueling outrages at 50 yards


One of the, er, oddities among North American converts to Orthodox Christianity is that many of us take a Patron Saint’s name for Church purposes. There’s nothing exotic about my Patron Saint’s name, John, but we have in our little parish converts with new names like Silouan, Thecla, Theodora, Xenia, and Cosmos. That’s not mentioning all the Greeks and Russians who were given “old” Saints names at their baptisms as infants, rather than taking one as an adult.

Frederica Mathewes-Green in a recent podcast engaged Fr. Marc Dunaway’s article “Taking Orthodoxy to America,” which appeared in the In Community newsletter from St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. Fr. Marc apparently thinks that although we should all have Patron Saints (I literally delayed my entry into the Church to pick one), we shouldn’t take their names. The podcast includes an endearing anecdote, which I here elaborate (faithful to the core, though):

It seems that the late Fr. Jack Sparks (who I just learned played football at Purdue) talked to Metropolitan Phillip Saliba about this topic as he and his compatriot former CCC staffers were approaching Orthodoxy a few decades back. “Your Eminence, my given name really is ‘Jack.’ It’s not John or something else. There are no Saint Jacks for my Patron.” “Then you make ‘Jack’ a Saint’s name” was the reply.


Blessed are you when men shall … utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake.

W. Bradford Littlejohn is generally a pretty solid guy. I encountered him, after leaving Calvinism, as something of an authority on Mercerburg Theology (of which I’d not even heard when I was a Calvinist, so thoroughly had it been routed in the anglophone world by a much more sectarian Calvinism).

But he transgressed the Ninth Commandment badly blessed me and my fellow Orthodox converts  real good late last year when he made up a tendentious, unempathetic “composite” convert from Calvinism to Orthodoxy, hung on the slender thread of hearsay, and proceeded to recklessly gossip about how unworthy would be the sort of person who would convert for the reasons he fancifully “quotes.” If that sounds convoluted, it at least has internal consistency, internal consistency (if not, strictly speaking, sanity) being a hallmark of Calvinism: if such a type existed, it would be a pretty miserable thing.

When challenged, he defended himself by saying that, why of course they’d never put it in the words he made up because they’re deluded, you see:

If you mean that you’ve never encountered anyone who put things in terms of the quotes further on in the second paragraph—well of course not, that’s the point. No one actually thinking that way is going to admit to themselves that that’s how they’re thinking. And so it’s not surprising to me that most converts would deny fitting my description here. To be sure, we need to listen to the reasons converts are actually giving—and I am attempting to do that here, more than many I’ve heard who have tried to diagnose the cause of such conversions—but we needn’t take those reasons at face value. Quite often we are very poor judges of our own motives, often worse than others watching us, in fact. We are very prone to deceive ourselves and make ourselves sound much more patient and objective and rational and humble than we really are.

This really is a great example of the bogus sort of apologetics that sits in a quiet room, takes a snippet from somebody else’s theology, and spins out a whole elaborate “it logically must be like this” tapestry – a tapestry any actual adherent of that other tradition can’t recognize. But we don’t recognize it because we’re deluded about the eventuality of our beliefs; trust him on that, since he has immaculate perception. There’s not a chance that he’s deluded. No sir!

Determined not to fight anecdotal composites with composite anecdotals, Robert Arakaki (himself a former Calvinist, if memory serves) finds something more solid:

While Littlejohn’s assertion may come across as controversial and even objectionable, the main issue here is: Does he have the evidence to back it up?  Apparently not.  Are there any scholarly studies out there that shed light on conversions to Orthodoxy?

The answer is: Yes, there’s Amy Slagle’s 2008 dissertation “’Nostalgia Without Memory’: A Case Study of American Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (University of Pittsburgh, 2008).  The advantage of Slagle’s dissertation is we have here solid data for evaluating Littlejohn’s argument.  Note: Her dissertation is now available in book form: The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity (published by Northern Illinois University Press, 2011).

I’m uncomfortable with that “Spiritual Marketplace” metaphor, but never mind. Eventually, Slagle gets to some data-based types who corresponded pretty closely to me in my journey to Orthodoxy (about which journey I’m no doubt deluded; gosh, stalemated at every turn!):

One of Slagle’s priest informants told her at what point an inquirer was ready to become Orthodox: “They have to be at a point where they don’t have a choice.” (p. 179)  In other words, they are like Peter who said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68; OSB)  The Orthodox Church is not one among many denominations; it regards itself to be the one Church founded by Christ.  What you have here is not so much a “checking in of one’s brains” as the conviction that this is the capital “C” Church.  This is not so much mindless conformity, but intentional submission to the ancient wisdom of the Church.  This is much like an athlete training to compete in the Olympics who submits to the wisdom of the coach and conforms to the training regimen prescribed by the coach.

What many converts found appealing about Orthodoxy was the fact that they did not have to resolve complex theological issues on their own, again and again.  They did not have to revisit the thorny issues of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity, the two natures of Christ that early theologians wrestled with.

In mentioning lingering doubts that occasionally arose about church practice and teaching, such as veneration of Mary and the saints, Karen hastened to add, “I accept the authority of the [Orthodox] church to make these decisions and I accept that they are the ones who are right and that I’m wrong. And I’ve just gotten to that point because I trust the Orthodox Church so much. I’m not gonna say that, perhaps, I’m the one that’s right. It’s just not true. The Orthodox Church is correct and I’m wrong” (p. 216).

Converts found unexpected benefits in converting to Orthodoxy.  After engaging the writings and reasoning of the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils, they were able to direct their energies away from doctrinal questions to that of personal transformation via the Church’s spiritual and liturgical disciplines (p. 228).  They no longer needed to devote considerable effort to reexamine theological issues which they constantly did as diligent Protestants prior to their conversion.

Not only could informants dedicate themselves to such activities, but they said they could do so with the security and certainty that the Orthodox Church would never lead them astray through the impartation of inaccurate teachings. They could move about and explore their new ecclesial world uninhibited by concerns that what they might be heading in the wrong direction in their “search” for God.  … With the belief that the matter had been settled at the Council of Chalcedon, for instance, informants no longer had to devote their time to mulling over the nature of Christ (p. 228).

(Emphasis added) Littlejohn’s Mercerburg Theology, which I think he’s trying to resurrect, would be a great step forward if widely appropriated by Calvinists. It is more sacramental and more in tune with catholicity than the Calvinism I knew.

But a “step forward” implies a destination. I thought I was getting in touch with the ancient Church when I embraced Calvinism nearly 40 years ago (having mistaken Augustine for a Calvinist – I wasn’t the first and likely won’t be the last), and I was getting measurably closer. Littlejohn may, if he’s lucky, discover one day that Mercerburg Theology still isn’t quite right, and that “Church” and “denomination” are alternates, not synonyms. (Maybe his reckless slander is even evidence that he’s “under conviction.”) Then we’ll say “Welcome home. What took you so long?”


Although I’ve leaned more conservative theologically, I found myself drifting off, oddly enough, to the left end of the political spectrum, leaving all but my pro-life beliefs on the right side of the isle (sic).

(Darrin Thomas Rasberry, telling of his conversion to Orthodoxy from Atheism) The Atheism isn’t my story. Neither, really, is “the left end of the political spectrum.” But I’ve sure gotten clear about the quality of the New Clothes those Emperors in Movement Conservatism are wearing.


The 225,000 Michigan residents who the ad said received ‘cancellation notices’ were actually told that they could change to a better policy.

(New York Times editorial defense of Obamacare) David Bernstein mocks along:

You haven’t been divorced, you’ve been given the opportunity to change to a better spouse.

You haven’t been expelled, you’ve been given the opportunity to change to a better school.

You haven’t been evicted, you’ve been given the opportunity to change to a better apartment.

Meanwhile, in Sabine, Louisiana, a public school district is giving a Buddhist student an opportunity to suck it up and get used to mockery by teachers, convert to fundamentalist Christianity, or change to a more asian school elsewhere – leaving me and Rod Dreher both little choice but to root for the damned Civil Liberties Union.

Heck, we wouldn’t want our own kids or grandkids indoctrinated into young earth creationism. That’s not Christian; it’s fundamentalist. There’s a difference.

Remember “Sabine” the next time your hair’s catching fire over some photographer or custom cake baker. Lots of people have horror stories. Persecution of Christians isn’t the whole story.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.