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Make Christianity Weird Again

Finding a silver lining in the faith's collapse
Detail from a 16th century icon of St. Zosimas the priest giving communion to St. Mary of Egypt (from Orthodox Arts Journal)

Peter Ormerod, writing in The Guardian, finds a silver lining in the demise of Christianity in Europe. I know, I know, a Guardian writer taking comfort in Christianity’s expiration … but look, he’s onto something. Excerpt:

In the past few decades, some parts of the church that tend to reject the trappings of religion have tried desperately to appear “normal”. But for a generation that prizes authenticity, maybe that’s just a turn-off. Rather than being just a slightly rubbish version of the rest of the world, with slightly rubbish coffee and slightly rubbish music, maybe it needs to embrace its difference, its strangeness, its weirdness, its mystery. Christianity as a norm, gone for good? Maybe that’s good news for everyone.

Over at the UK’s Church Times, they’re talking in the same vein, regarding the new report on the decline in Christianity in Europe that I blogged about yesterday. Look:

Yet within some of these countries, the small minorities who identified as Christian reported relatively high levels of practice. Of the seven per cent of Czech young adults who identified as Roman Catholic, 24 per cent reported weekly attendance.

“The few people who do call themselves Christians are doing it not out of some cultural family nostalgia, but for a reason,” the study’s author, Dr Stephen Bullivant, Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said on Monday.

“If you are in your twenties and still going to church every Sunday, that is not something that is normal in your peer group, and what you hopefully find is some other people who are there for a reason, swimming against the tide. . . That is when you start to see personal deepening of ministry.”


Examples of growth and vibrancy in churches did not disprove secularisation, but were a byproduct of it, Professor Bullivant said: “The few Christians who are left are going to find each other and feel more committed, precisely because they are counter-cultural, and that motivates them. . . Christianity was originally very weird, and it’s probably good for us to feel a bit weird. . . It isn’t something that we should just regard as normal stuff that you can nod along to.”

Yes indeed.

These words made me think, with gratitude, for the weirdness that is Orthodox Christianity. Here near the end of Great Lent, we Orthodox celebrate the life and witness of St. Mary of Egypt. She was born in Egypt, in either the fourth or fifth century, ran away at age 12, and led an extremely promiscuous life. She would sleep with anybody, and didn’t even want to be paid. Once, she went with a group of pilgrims to Jerusalem for a Christian feast, hoping to find more men to party with. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, something supernatural happened. She converted, and went to live in the desert as an ascetic. That’s when things got really weird. But you need to read the story of her life to find out what happened.

Tonight in evening services, we will read that story aloud, as we do every year in this service. Even the children hear it. St. Mary is considered an icon of repentance. Orthodox Christians have been telling this story during Lent for well over a thousand years, and learning how God revealed something of Himself to us in the bizarre story of a repentant whore who, by the grace of God and her total surrender to Him, became a miracle worker who lived naked like a wild woman in the Judean desert.

We Orthodox are keeping Christianity weird. I’d say there’s a good argument to be made that Orthodoxy is the most unworldly, countercultural form of Christianity you can find in the West. And the worship is so, so beautiful. Y’all come see for yourself.

UPDATE: We just returned from evening services, in which the entire life of St. Mary of Egypt was read. It’s really something. Every year we read this, and it doesn’t get any less freaky or glorious. I love the Orthodox Christian faith so much. It makes you feel so connected to these figures from the first few centuries of Christianity, as if they were with us all the time — which, from our point of view, they are.

A reader e-mails this evening:

I was struck by the timeliness of your recent post “Make Christianity Weird Again” as it coincided with an experience I’ve just had. A bit of background on me: I’m a strategy consultant with a law degree and an MBA from a top-10 program, and work almost exclusively with people who are highly educated and materially successful (I say this not to boast, just to give you some context of the crowd I spend most of my time around). Of the several dozen people who work at my firm across multiple offices, I’m the only practicing Catholic and one of maybe 3 practicing Christians (I believe the others are evangelicals, but I’m not sure). I’m not boisterous about the fact that I’m a Catholic, but I don’t hide it either (I’ll come to work with ashes on Ash Wednesday, have spoken about my kids’ baptisms, etc.).

I was on a car trip recently with a colleague of mine. He is mid-late twenties, Ivy league educated, and a lapsed Catholic from New England. I mentioned my plans for Easter, to go visit my in-laws, which prompted a question from him about “how religious” mine and my wife’s family are. I told him we are practicing, and left it at that. He then referred to my two Christian colleagues and said “I’ll never understand how such smart people can think in any logical way about religion and still let it play such a large part in their lives.” When I responded with “why not? I’ve done exactly that,” he didn’t know what to say. He asked if I actually believed it or if I just sent to church for the community and tradition (which would have been more socially acceptable).

I think that he knew that I was Catholic, but assumed that I was just going through the motions of it like most other people he knew, as though going to Mass and celebrating the sacraments was a “just in case God is real” kind of thing. That last part isn’t just speculation, either. He held out as an example of someone who “has got it right” a Jewish colleague who observes all the holidays, rituals, etc. but when pressed admits that he doesn’t really believe any of it, but you can never be too careful.

The funniest (saddest?) part of this is that my colleague was raised Catholic, he attended very good Catholic schools in New England throughout his formative years, and he STILL couldn’t comprehend how someone intelligent and outwardly successful could really believe all that stuff. Even though it was something he was familiar with, ingrained in even, it was strange and beggared belief that in the 21st century someone could actually believe in “ritualized magic” (his words).

All of this is to say that, yes, authentic Christianity is and should be weird. Cultural Christianity that imposes no duties on the practitioner, that encourages him to go through the motions but reassure his peers that OF COURSE he doesn’t actually believe all that stuff will always be socially acceptable and it will always be false. In the words of Antonin Scalia, we need to “have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.”