November 8, 2009

the seducer's billboard

Excerpted from here:
The mainline churches which were culturally dominant until the 1950s are not even the majority among American Protestants, who themselves are only at bare majority. This may pose problems, as I agree with Winnifred Sullivan’s argument in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom that one of the ways in which the American religious injunction toward neutrality was made practicable was that religion qua religion was fundamentally shaped by a belief-centric (orthodoxy) Protestant model. Why did Roman Catholicism and Judaism not change that model? Because both of these religions in the United States were heavily “Protestantized.” The vast majority of American Jews do not adhere to the orthopraxy, a system of behaviors and actions, which defined Judaism for nearly 1,500 years. Rather, their Judaism is defined by an unadorned monotheism, a small set of rituals, holidays and taboos, and a “culture.” Similarly, American Catholics are very hard to differentiate from mainline Protestants in their beliefs & practices; the Americanist won over the long haul. In fact, they would no doubt be shocked at how Protestant American Catholics had become in their outlook.
This really isn't news, but it is interesting to see a source like this proclaim it openly. It used to be that secularists were very quick to note their debt to Protestantism–we may be Marxists, but we're Protestant Marxists!–but it isn't so usual, anymore.

However, the realization that American "tolerance" (such that it is) is founded on Protestantization is key, here, and the power Protestant modes have over other religions in America is notable. Orthodox often seem to believe in some sort of historical immunity from this; Protestantism is part of "the West" and the historical narrative that drives many conversions to Orthodoxy places much faith in some assumed immunity to Western problems. This is not just found in vulgar forms, either, but in highly intellectual ones as well; as much as I love Aristotle East and West, there is a problem with Dr. Bradshaw's confidence, displayed in the epilogue, about the roots of modern atheism being found due to the rejection of the Latin, rather than the Greek, conception of the Godhead. The fact that these movements took hold, and are taking hold, in Orthodox, as well as Latin, nations can only be partly explained by some sort of narrative of the Latinization of Orthodoxy. The confidence of some sort of inviolability worries me: Renaissance Neoplatonism-cum-Neopaganism was a Greek gift to the West, not vice-versa.

Similar confidence can be found among Catholic writers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The crypto-Protestants are outliers, they will tell you, Rome with her magisterium, tradition, etc. are a solid bulwark against such hogwash. If they could see things now, you can hear the reaction: Then again, maybe not.

The author goes on to say that America's tolerance is fictional, actually bound together by confessional similarities, a broad agreement which creates the "fiction" of "Judeo-Christian"ism. There are problems with the details of this analysis, but the big point is salient. (The author's embrace of the importance of confessional unity while simultaneously dismissing such unity as being based on "nothing real" is worth another discussion…)

Recently, I heard a priest say that we are not here to fight for the formation of an "American Orthodox Church", but a single "Orthodox Church in America". He did not mean this as some sort of endorsement of the OCA (even though he is an OCA priest), but as standing against the idea that we are to be Americans, in the sense of conforming Orthodoxy to the "American experience" on points where that experience is opposed to Orthodoxy.

Marketing culture is the uniquely seductive aspect of American culture; it is why our low culture has nearly conquered the world. It knows how to divide, conquer, and then unite all in one big embrace of the banal: buy this to show you mean that.

Naturally, Orthodox Christians have every right to be worried when marketing culture is adopted for Christian ends. The medium isn't the message, but it changes the state of mind. I find myself aware of this too often when blogging, and at times, I have slipped up.

Blogging encourages the quick, the reactive, the unfinished over the considered. While one of the strengths of blogging as a medium is the ability it has to shape and mature ideas by putting them to contest, that contesting mode can subvert any pursuit of wisdom that might be had through discussions in the blogosphere.

Similarly, the mode of marketing promotes–in both its enactors and its recievers–the perception that what is being marketed is just another product. It is the idea of religious confession as "product" that is perhaps the highlight of American ur-Protestantism. We choose from a marketplace of religions and denominations the one that best suits our "needs". As we continue to market our faith's lifestyle, or unique historical narrative or whatever, we first surrender the idea of its particularity, and then can surrender its Orthodoxy, preferring the bland confessional baby food of the American scene. (No offense meant to infants, who deserve better, as well.)

By my prior post on this topic, I did not mean to launch a personal attack on anyone, including the listener who wrote the objectionable material. Rather, I see that person as being not unlike the man I mentioned in my post, trying to posture their faith as a subculture and then using the "lingo" they were taught to express religious feeling in, whether the language is applicable or not.

American Evangelicals do not realize how parochial their uses of language are, and how silly they sound to outsiders*. That this behavior is carried into Orthodoxy, by conversion and by the influence of American modes on "cradles", is no surprise, but it does not make it neutral. That perhaps certain marketing trends within Orthodoxy support such abuses of language, such as using it simply as a marker of subcultural identity.

Simply put…

The idea that talking about these problems can be somehow illegitimate (especially by invoking some variant on the common Evangelical fallacy of "if only one person finds their personal relationship…") is ridiculous.

*Frequently, I have to turn to my wife for a translation of such talk.


  1. In conversation regarding the state of Orthodoxy in America, Met. Athanasios of Limassol told some old Cypriot friends of mine (and his) that to be a good Orthodox in American means to be a bad Greek. The priest who told me this knew I would like the phrase and told me I couldn't use it too much. I retorted quickly, to be a good Orthodox in America means to be a bad American, too. He didn't understand. He's a good man, a good priest, but very much caught up in the (Greek or Greek-American) culture of Orthodoxy and doesn't really understand what's outside of that culture, even if it is Orthodox. In the end, I fear he knows less of Orthodoxy than he and many assume, in a photographic negative of what I and many are all too eager to note that converts lack in our understanding of Orthodoxy.

  2. I'm not quite sure I'm parsing your last sentence correctly…

    But the line about being a good Orthodox means being a bad American is true; except that to be a good American or anything else (worth being good at, at least) for that matter is to be Orthodox. ;)