January 5, 2012

Searching for a Narrative for Eastern Orthodox in America

December 8, 2011
Daniel Silliman

Watch American Religious Studies and American Religious History for even a little while, and you'll see a developing, evolving way of talking about different groups. Go back -- not too far, even -- and one finds almost all the attention given to denominational organizations, and everything framed in terms of continuity or discontinuity with Boston Puritanism.

It's not like that anymore.

Just in recent years, the account of Islam in America is growing and changing. It's now de riguer to note that the first Muslims came to America with the importation of slaves from Africa. Added to that is a new emphasis on the various ways Islam has come to the US: with the slaves, emerging out of the 20th century African American community, with immigrants from South East Asia, with immigrants from the Middle East, etc.

A similar turn has happened in accounts of immigrants in general. Talk about Judaism, talk about Catholicism, and you have to talk about immigrant communities. One of the results of this has been to break up the homogenity of these religious identities. One looks today, for example, at Catholics, plural, focusing on the practices and behaviours of lay Catholics, the way religion functioned in their lives and in their sense of themselves, rather than focusing on Catholicism as an abstraction.

One blank spot, right now, however, is the Eastern Orthodox in America.

This blank spot kind of gets poked at, but there doesn't seem to be a standard way to talk about this religion and this religious experience yet.

Part of this may be the numbers. Pew puts all the Orthodox Christians in America today at about .6%. Muslims also come in at about .6%, though, Orthodox Jews are half that, and Buddhists and Jehovah's Witnesses are only slightly larger, with .7%. All those groups have more established narratives, it seems to me.

When the Eastern Orthodox are talked about, it's often with this very general rubric of "immigrant," without any specifics as to how their experiences and histories were different, if at all, from other immigrant groups.

Charles Lippy, in his brief Introducing American Religions gives two paragraphs to the "wave" of Eastern Orthodox Christians who came in the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, "Adding to diversity." "Adding to diversity" is Lippy's thing, so by the time one is 100, 150 pages into his book, saying that this is what the Orthodox did is only slightly more enlightening than "they existed."

Most of his two paragraphs are dedicated to noting the countries the different groups came from, as well as the economic draws that brought them to where they ended up.

This is symptematic, more than a problem specific to Lippy. It seems like there's not really a story about the Orthodox that anyone knows. Where, with Jews in America, one talks about the Hassids, or Reform Judaism and Isaac Mayer Wise, with the Orthodox Christians, there's no standard story, no genrally know starting points, public moments or figures.

The second volume of Edwin Gaustad and Mark Noll's anthology, A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877 has the start of a story, and focuses on one very public moment in the Orthodox's American history. They give 6 1/2 pages to Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. This is a major improvement, though obviously still really limited. They include two documents, one Father John Veniaminov's "The Condition of the Orthodox Church in Russian America," the other a report on religion in the Russian American colonies and the Russian American Company, which was published in Overland Monthly in 1895. Both documents are really interesting -- Veniaminov, for example, writes that at first the Aleuts only believed in and prayed to "an unknown God" about whom they knew little -- but still only offer the tiniest sketch.

One would even be forgiven for thinking the Orthodox churches in America died out with "Russian America," or, that if it do still exist, it's in the form of left overs. In one editorial notes, Gaustad and Noll write "Russian Orthodoxy continued to be a major religious force in Alaska through the nineteenth century," and "Russian Orthodoxy was planted with sufficient nurture to endure to the present day."

Oddly, these are both statements sort of directed towards establishing the importance of the Orthodox in America. But kind of do the opposite.

I'm not knocking Gaustad and Noll. It's actually a really excellent anthology. The point is not that they somehow failed, but that, really, there's at best only a really limited and sketchy narrative of Eastern Orthdox Christians in America.

There's basically nothing, it seems, when it comes to contemporary times.

There's just sort of not a narrative here, and certainly not one that fits into any larger, broader narrative about religion in America. There's precious little actually on this subject (exceptions: John H. Erickson's Orthodox Christians in America ; Alexei D. Krindatch's work, including "Orthodox (Eastern Christian) Churches in the United States at the Beginning of a New Millennium: Questions of Nature, Identity, and Mission").

There should be, though. The more recent history of Eastern Orthodoxy in America is particularly interesting, I think (and not just because a number of good friends of mine are a part of it) and yet it seems basically absent from scholarly work on religious culture and recent history. The evangelical press, by contrast, has paid attention to and noted the movement of evangelicals converting to Eastern Orthodoxy since at least the '80s. Yet there's no standing, standard account of these conversions, and why (in aggregate) they happened, and what that says about American religion at the turn of the 21st century, and what that says about American culture in general.

Instead of a good account that takes this movement seriously (while not, as is sometimes the wont of the converts themselves, over-estimating it as seismic and history-altering), what one gets is along these lines:

"Some years ago a sizable number of American Evangelicals, perhaps in search of a more colorful version of Christianity, became Eastern Orthodox as a group. For some reason they chose to join the American branch of the Patriarchate of Antioch, one of the most ancient Christian bodies in the world. (Its liturgical language is traditionally Arabic. You can’t get much more colorful than that.) Apparently these refugees from Billy Graham embraced their new faith with a fervor that alarmed some who were born Orthodox."

That is Peter Berger -- the great Peter Berger, I would even say -- speaking out of the abundance of ignorance.

Even if it were the case these converts were merely seeking colorfulness, that's a remarkably unsympathetic, un-empathetic way to describe the longings of other people's souls. He could have easily just said the were "perhaps in search of more depth, history and tradition."

But, the point is, there's really no standard narrative of this event in recent religious history that could have been plugged in here by Berger. He's essentially summarizing word-of-mouth and arguments that have been made in Christianity Today and other such publications. He still could have given a better account -- this isn't an excuse -- but at least part of the problem is that the Orthodox story just isn't told.

Father Michael Oleska, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, recently issued a call to the Orthodox in America to start telling their stories. To themselves. To each other. He's urging the religious telling of stories, arguing for the importance of such stories to a community and a culture. He says, in the video-message, that the Orthodox should start telling their stories because "culture is the enactment of a story."

My hope is that as those stories are told, scholars of American religion pay attention.

Read further on this topic in the post by Matthew Namee titled "Toward an American Orthodox Historical Narrative".