I started working as an editor nearly twenty years ago. SInce then, I've edited and revised hundreds of books. One of the biggest projects I was a part of included editing various Puritan texts by updating the language to make them more readable to my Protestant clients.
Basically, this just entailed modernizing archaic language, the "thys," "thees," and "thous." It might have also involved breaking up complex sentences needlessly prolonged with semicolons and em-dashes. I edited and revised about eighty books in this manner, and it was a successful venture.
So it seemed like a no-brainer a few years ago when my brother suggested we do the same thing now for Orthodox Christians. We had both been received into the Orthodox Church, and we both were familiar with Saint John Damascene's Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. We decided that would be a great book to work with, and of interest to almost every Orthodox Christian in the English-speaking world.
The problem is that we lacked the capital to invest the time and energy in such an endeavor. So, I started a Kickstarter campaign both to raise money to justify the work, as well as gauge how many people would buy the book. Anyone donating to the campaign would of course receive their own copy. My brother got lists of names of clergy throughout the United States, as well, thinking they could share the project with their parishes. I worked hard on an appeal letter, delineating St. John's value to Orthodox Christians, and began the arduous work of sending out emails.
It would be an understatement to say the response I got shocked me. An overwhelming number of people seem to think that St. John wrote his Exposition in Shakespearean English. They apparently regard the "thys" and "thous" as sacred, and more important than understanding the meaning of the text. The head of the Liturgical department for the Antiochian jurisdiction in the United States summed it up when he wrote simply: "A very bad idea."
It occurred to me that maybe I was misunderstood, and that people thought that I intended to interpret the text and completely rewrite it, a "dumbed down" version of St. John Damascene "as told by" this dumbass guy in Oregon. That was absolutely NOT my intention. The text would have remained intact with archaic words updated. If we ran into trouble, I had connections with scholars who might help, but having read the book, I was pretty sure there wouldn't be that kind of trouble. The sentences in translation would remain as they are. The idea was just to clean things up and present St. John in clear type speaking to us in easily understandable English, a language he never knew in any form anyway. I was not offering a new translation or a new interpretation at all.
When I explained this, most respondents did not further engage me (such as the Antiochian guy), but there was some response, still marked with suspicion. "Well, that's all fine and probably okay," I was told, "but who the heck are you to do this? What qualifies you?"
The question baffled me and my response fell on deaf ears. "I am an editor with years of experience revising and updating old religious texts." But that did not satisfy because that is not what they meant. They wanted to know what kind of theological degrees I have, which seminary I attended, whether I was a priest or at least a deacon, or if I had the "permission" of clergy. I couldn't just go off and do such a thing on my own, could I!? (I did in fact have the blessing and encouragement of my priest. Just sayin'.)
It slowly dawned on me that the Orthodox Church in the United States by and large has an extremely distorted perspective regarding authority. In fact, it's a viewpoint that one might call authoritarian as well as, unfortunately, "unorthodox"; and it's bad. And by bad, I mean, it's toxic and destructive. Needless to say, it was also bad for my plans; we never did publish an updated version of St. John's Exposition.
Look, I'm no dummy. I know where this reaction stems from, and to some degree it's understandable, or would be anyway if it wasn't such an old religious trope found right there in the New Testament Gospels. We live in a culture where it takes little more than buying a license to set up church in the next strip mall, and you can likely round up people who will come every Sunday, too. We live in a fragmented and atomized era. A lot of people, including myself, came to Orthodoxy trying to get away from the sense of dislocation and ennui that can eventually settle in. It can feel like you are out at sea, and Orthodoxy offers stable ground.
This is especially the case if you, like many American Christians, are confused about what the church is supposed to be, and have it somehow twisted up and conflated with political ideology. When that seems fragile on this aforementioned metaphorical ocean, and the waves are getting dangerous, authoritarianism becomes even more attractive!
Needless to say, Orthodoxy does offer more stability, dogma, context -- but it's not embodied in authoritarian hierarchial structures in which someone with greater gravitas than myself hands down The Orthodox Answer to every question imaginable. There is hierarchy in Orthodoxy, but its an inverted pyramid, according to Jesus anyway, and its apex is "the servant of all." That would be, of course, Jesus as we see him in his profound humanity. And there are Answers in Orthodoxy; they have been expressed dogmatically through the conciliarity of Ecumenical Councils. "What books should we regard as sacred compositions that are edifying to the Church and should be recognized as canonical?" is, for instance, a question that is answered (First Ecumenical Council in the 4th century). The Trinity. The Two Natures of Christ. These are questions we can affirm because of the authority of the Church.
I hate to tell you this, though, we don't get to stand on dry land right away. God sends a big fish who swallows us whole instead! Holy smokes! It's totally disorienting, isn't it! (Jonah thought so too!) I know it's not exactly what I had in mind, but its secure, and its salvific, even if it doesn't feel certain, and its dark in here.
Look, not every question has been Answered, and in fact, most have not, and even the way some of the questions that have been answered are interpreted and espoused now may be problematic. The whole point, though, of Christianity is not to answer all of our questions, anyway. It's not a school of philosophy or scientific inquiry. On some things -- well, on many things, actually -- we have to figure stuff out. It's not all revealed. We have the authority to do so.
I have authority to apprehend the person and Truth of Christ because I have entered the Church through its mysteries, and as a member of the Church participate in its life. If you have also entered the Church, you have the same authority not only to know God personally, but wrestle with him, to pray, and to speak the truth as the Holy Spirit leads you.
When I was working on the doomed Damascene project, trying to drum up support, and feeling a little depressed as I saw my brothers and sisters warily begin to light their torches and fondle their pitchforks, I advertised on Ancient Faith Radio. It occurred to me at this juncture that I could do my own little podcast, and talk about my personal experiences as an Orthodox Christian, particularly in reference to the Beatitudes. So I started "Seeking Peace." This was a good sign. They were going to let me talk about my experiences in my own podcast even though I never went to seminary, I did not have a degree, and I didn't know anything more than the other average theologian praying next to me during Divine Liturgy!
After having some success doing the podcast, during which I talked about the insights I gained from each Beatitude about living as a Christian and seeking peace as such, I was approached about the possibility of writing a book. I have always desired to be a writer since before I knew how. It is my calling, an aspect of my identity. So I said, "well, sure. I will put together a few chapters and outline."
I will confess right now that the book I proposed was not feasible, and not very good. It was scattered, a hurried, overwritten, scary first attempt, based on my podcasts. I am grateful that whoever rejected it at Conciliar Press did so. However, again, I ran into an odd idea buried in the paragraph of my rejection letter. Someone thought I was "trying to give advice." This was new to me, since that wasn't at all my intent, but I definitely may have come across that way as my writing sometimes tends to turn south and becomes more didactic than reflective.
I am still not sure what I was "giving advice" about....I talked about my childhood, my pilgrimage to the Orthodox Church, thoughts about identity, what I knew about the importance of baptism as a mystery of the faith, how I felt revivalistic religion is a poor man's substitute for resurrection, and so on.
But what if I was inadvertently giving advice, rooted in my own experiences? Why would that be a problem?
The answer is obvious. Who the heck am I to give advice! Even if the advice came down to "go check out the Church and see what's happening" or "get baptized" or "be loving to your kids" -- all subjects I wrote about -- what's the big deal? While it was not my intention to give advice, and I balk at the very thought (advice is a bad word in my estimation, especially unsought advice), so what if I slipped? Where's the error?
The implication is, again, that I am not qualified to advise anyone, even if it is offered in the context of my own experiences. This bothered me because it, again, represents an unorthodox authoritarian view of conciliarity, as though advice giving is completely under the rubric of bishops and priests (and possibly qualified professional mental health workers to whom one might be referred by them).
The fact is that as a human being made in the image of God, who has had more than forty years of conscious, remembered experiences, I have the authority to talk about them and to give advice, especially if someone asks. If you are reading this, you have the same authority. If I get the sense you don't know what you are talking about, I won't follow your advice, and you shouldn't follow mine. I'd even advise you (there I go again) not to ask me for advice. But if some happens to slip out, that's okay. We should take each other with a grain of salt. It's only under authoritarian regimes that people do not understand that. It's only under authoritarian structures that you have to worry about what the masses are subjected to. It's only authoritarian religion that suggests that only those in power have the authority to advise others.
I would need to be initiated into the priesthood to hear your confession as a sacrament (I could still hear your confession as a close friend, of course, with more limited benefits) and to offer divine forgiveness (which I could not do as a friend). I do not have the authority to do that, nor to baptize anyone, nor to marry anyone, nor to perform any of the sacraments that are readily available to all. The servants of the Church, the clergy, due to their humility, or at least the implied humility of their position, and through consecration by the Holy Spirit, are given the power and authority to do that stuff. But that doesn't mean that they alone have the authority to brush our teeth for us.
I think we tend to get power and authority confused anyway. I don't personally have any power. Our servants, the clergy, do have power as well as some extended authority I do not have. But we all have real authority, which is why those who have political power outside the Church are deeply invested in trying to convince us that we do not. We have authority as Christians as well. And we have authority as human persons who are made in the image of God.
So that's why I am starting this blog, not because I am more important than anyone else, and not because I have any more gravitas than anyone else. I know neither is the case. This is a personal blog, rooted in my own personal, ordinary gravitas, as someone who has had experience with God, however crazy that seems, and as someone who has experience as a human being.
Also, because I can write, and as I previously mentioned, that is my calling and occupation, and I intend to write personally about the things I care about.
And for what it's worth, its dedicated to St. John Damascene. Because why not.