A World of Speculation

Andrew Stephen Damick tells why I became Orthodox in “Notes towards a Definition of Orthodox Christian English Literature,” for the Fellowship of St. Caedmon.

It sounds weird, maybe heretical, even to me, converting on the basis of a literary theory–a literary theory I have never heard so well summarized till now.

Damick captures the literary side of Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, that there’s no division between “the spiritual life” and “real life,” that divisions along the lines of “spiritual” vs. “material,” “sacred” vs. “profane,” and “supernatural” vs. “natural” are based on asking the wrong questions.

Damick writes:

Christ’s incarnation made real the possibility of our salvation, and . . . He even took part in a religious and cultural life. Our Lord’s time on this Earth did not solely include prayer and meditation on the truth of God. Rather, it was a time of active engagement in and with culture . . . . It is this incarnational approach to faith that . . . is at the heart of our desire to do literary work as Orthodox Christians. Let us therefore fill every moment with a culture transfigured by the Gospel, whether it be in icons, chant and Holy Mystery or in literature, cooking and child-rearing.

The idea that every human pursuit can be made holy and life-giving is the rebuttal to the internal Taleban, which demands that every action have some measurable impact for the Kingdom. Nobody ever fulfills those demands (probably not even of the physical Taleban, backed up with lashings and beheadings), but its unrealistic requirements lead to self-deception and hypocrisy more often than they lead to a disciplined and productive life.

Schmemann says, “The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. . . . And even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called ‘sacred’ . . . — as opposed to the world as ‘profane.'”

It makes sense, then, that in the search for an Orthodox aesthetic, we don’t make “Orthodox” literature yet another small ghetto separated from the wide “profane” world:

With all this in mind, I would suggest that we as Orthodox Christian students of literature avoid two things. First, we should avoid the creation of an Orthodox niche for the market to take into its commercial grasp. . . .

We do not have to try to “make” our work Orthodox. It should flow out of and be informed by the mind of the Church, to be sure, but we should not try to make it distinctly Orthodox by making sure that we include enough Easternisms other such things to distinguish it from other Christian art or even from art in general.

Literature will flow out of and be informed by the mind of the Church to the extent that it is true and to the extent that the artist is informed by the mind of the Church–that is in the meaning and mode of the writing. In the meaning, because non-Orthodox, non-Christians, non-believers frequently observer big truths about “life, the universe and everything.”

It’s why in the ancient world pre-Christian philosophers were sometimes painted in the narthex–or entryway–of the churches, because, in pointing to realities beyond what they had been taught, they led people to the Kingdom.

Last Sunday, a friend and I were talking about portrayals of Christ in the movies: she knew someone who had been led toward faith by The Last Temptation of Christ, and I recalled that Jesus Christ, Superstar had the same effect on me. I wouldn’t take a middle-school religion class to see either movie, but sometimes these seeds of Truth travel in surprising carriers.

Faith will inform the mode of the work to the extent that the artist has structured his internal life around the seasons and Liturgy of the Church. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a good example of that, as he structures his action-adventure Passion Play on the Via Dolorosa. But as Damick says, an “Orthodox” structure has to fit the work like a skeleton in a body, or it will be hybrid monster. It may take time for the artist to acquire the inner conversion, and the artist’s works may show this structure without the artist’s being aware of it.

The second thing for avoidance . . . is ideological theories of literature. . . . The last thing we as Orthodox Christians need is yet another rationalistic theory of literature, and even more dangerous for us is the formation of ideology. . . . Our life in Christ is not a systematized series of rational models and dialectics machined to logical perfection. Down that way lies our enemy of totalitarianism.

Yes, because it eliminates the possibility of either the human or the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the artistic process–with all the messiness and surprise those partnerships entail.

Since we’re not codifying “Orthodox” literature according to an ideology, Damick says, “Therefore, from Chaucer to Sidney to Shakespeare to Herbert to Coleridge to Keats to Whitman to Eliot to Lewis to Tolkien, let us revel in the beauty and truth which are available throughout all times in English literature.”

I would make a parallel list: Chaucer, Mallory, Shakespeare, Fielding, Austen, Shelley (Mary), Mark Twain, Faulkner, Vikram Seth. We’re on parallel lanes of the same highway, because where poetry puts its main emphasis on image at the level of phrase and line, ficton builds image at the level of myth and character interaction. Each has its own superiorities, but the remarkable artists are the ones on both lists.

Another essential element of our incarnational faith is that its working out proceeds from and within community. . . . It is also manifestly the case that language itself assumes a relationship. . . . Language has inherent to it the quality of creating connection and communion between persons.

One of the marks of our individualistic culture is how often people forget this simple truth, especially young writers who have been trained that writing is “self-expression,” as if without community there is any “self” to “express.” These errors get a natural correction, though, as readers adopt the time-honored response of throwing the book against a wall.

The Church’s sanctification of culture does not proceed from a sensibility of replacement, eradicating previous culture and supplanting it. Rather, the Church saturates a culture, transfiguring it and baptizing all things within it, purifying and sanctifying the whole of it. . . . We are all called to be the priests of God’s creation, taking that which He gives us and offering it back up to God as a sacrifice. He sanctifies it and returns it to us, filled with Himself. Our work as writers and readers is nothing less than this common priestly vocation. We therefore seek to participate in God’s sanctification of the English language, bringing it to Him for His blessing and then with it openly proclaiming the Incarnation to all.

A frequent prayer in the Orthodox Church is one to the Holy Spirit: O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth: You are everywhere present, filling all things . . . .” Recognizing that reality can make a grocery list luminous.

The Fellowship of St. Caedmon is a new group, still laying its groundwork. It has 18 members by my count, including some names I’ve seen on bookshelves and in the blogosphere. When I think about the number of people interested in literary topics even in our small local Orthodox community (Oregon tends to be a fairly literary state), it seems that there’s a lot of room for the fellowship to grow, and being on the ‘Net, it’s already international. The organizers are giving us the opportunity to see what unique perspectives Orthodoxy can bring to the literary pursuits.