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The Great Christian Sorting

Now is the time to find a church and a spirituality built on a solid rock

The other night an Evangelical friend e-mailed me a link to Jen Hatmaker’s podcast episode in which she and her gay daughter talk about being lesbian. Hatmaker, as you may know, is a progressive Evangelical laywoman who has a vast fan base. She’s quite influential among certain Evangelical women. I read the transcript of the episode, not expecting to agree with Hatmaker and her daughter, and in that I was not surprised. What took me aback, though, was how the entire thing — and it was long — was about nothing but emotion and affirmation, and takes for granted that churches that are not affirmative of homosexuality and transgenderism are mean, hurtful, and wrong. It was uncanny. There was no theology there, only feelz. It was as vivid an instantiation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as I’ve ever seen.

As I was reading the transcript on my phone, there was a pop-up ad for Hatmaker’s latest book. I found it on Amazon.com, and screengrabbed the cover:

Here’s the book’s description on its Amazon page:

No more hiding or people-pleasing up in here, sisters. No more being sidelined in your own life. It is time for us to be brave, to claim our gifts and quirks and emotions. You are set free and set up and set on fire.

NOW you can get busy doing what you were placed on this planet to do. NOW you can be honest, honest, honest about all of it, even the hard stuff, even the humiliating stuff, even the secret stuff. NOW you can walk in your convictions of faith and ask new questions unafraid. NOW you can be so free, because you are not searching for value from any source other than your own beautiful soul made piece by piece by God who adores you and is ready to get on with the business of unleashing you into this world.

In this book, I break it down into five self-reflective categories—who I am, what I need, what I want, what I believe, and how I connect—and by working your way through them, you will learn to own your space, ground, and gifts (they are YOURS, sister);

be strong in your relationships and lay down passive aggression, resentment, drama, and compliance;
say GUILT-FREE what you want and what you need; and

welcome spiritual curiosity and all the fantastic change that doing so creates.

You with me, beloveds? If we do this work on our own selves now, not only will we discover a life truly worth living, but we will free our daughters to rise up behind us, with spines straight, heads up, and coated in our strength.

Good grief, such celebratory egotism. American pop Christianity at its most spiritually poisonous. All of this is the total opposite of Orthodox Christian spirituality.

On Saturday morning I woke up early because my priest was having a special liturgy for the handful of members of our congregation who are either elderly or immunocompromised. It was the first time we had been to church since March. Our parish re-opened under strict guidelines (everybody wears a mask and stands six feet apart), but some of us didn’t feel that we could take the risk of being there even under those circumstances. So our priest celebrated a liturgy for us today. Before I left for church, I received a long email from a reader who told me about struggles in their and their spouse’s Evangelical megachurch. (I’m writing cagily because the reader does not want me to publish their e-mail or give details.) I’ll just say that the reader and the reader’s spouse have been shocked by how wokeness has invaded their church, and how destructive it has been.

It has rattled them, and made them reflect even more on how dissatisfying their church life has become. The reader indicates that that particular church is very big on emotions, but does little in the way of discipleship. The reader indicated that the ethos at the church is consumerist: that one comes to have an experience, but not to be changed in any but a superficial way. And now, with the Great Awokening washing over the culture, including church culture, they are looking for something deeper. The reader said that they are about to become inquirers at a local Orthodox Church, and asked for my prayers.

Well, you can imagine that praying for them was the first thing on my mind when I went to the liturgy at my little parish. It was so great to be back in church, hearing that gorgeous old liturgy, the chanted psalms, the Scripture readings. It is hard to overstate how important liturgical worship is to Orthodox Christians. As I was praying for them, I was trying to imagine how unusual Orthodoxy will no doubt seem to that young couple when they go to their first Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. One thing that people tried to tell me when I first became Orthodox fourteen years ago, but that I really had to learn on my own to understand it, is that Orthodoxy is less a body of doctrine than a way of living. Don’t get me wrong, there is doctrine in Orthodoxy (the name itself means “right belief”). The point is that Orthodoxy is primarily designed to get you out of your head, and to embody the doctrine in the way you live.

To be fair, all Christianity is like this to some degree, but it’s noticeably different in Orthodoxy. Believe it or not, watching a couple of Andrei Tarkovsky films this week helped me understand that better. Tarkovsky (d. 1986) was a Soviet film director, but also a believing Orthodox Christian. My first Tarkovsky film was Andrei Rublev, his 1966 masterpiece about the medieval Russian iconographer. I later saw Solaris, his sci-fi drama, which I didn’t much care for. This past Monday night, I saw his Nostalghia, which knocked me out spiritually. On Friday night, I watched The Sacrifice, his final film, which I didn’t like in terms of drama, but I cannot stop thinking about the images.

The only one of those films that is explicitly about religion is Andrei Rublev, but a profoundly religious sensibility suffuses Tarkovsky’s movies. He once said:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.

This is the way Orthodoxy approaches the Christian faith. One thing that impressed me so deeply about Nostalghia is how its protagonist, a melancholic Russian poet, is stuck with a divided and confused self. A holy fool helps him to see that his inner division has to do with his being weighed down by the things of this world, and that an act of faith could gather his scattered inner self and bind it. What is the difference between faith and madness, though? That is a question the incredible denouement of Nostalghia poses — and that arises again in The Sacrifice. Kierkegaard famously said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” But what is the thing one must will? Orthodox Christianity, of course, teaches that the will of God must be our own wills. All small-o orthodox Christianity teaches this, of course, but Orthodoxy trains its devotees to regard the entirety of creation as iconographic, as a sign, or collection of signs, pointing us to God. For the Orthodox, theosis — ultimate unity with God — is the goal of the Christian journey in this life. This is not something you can think your way to. It’s something you pray your way to, you worship your way to, you repent your way to, and you live your way to. There is no other way. Anything else is a trap.

It’s a lesson that I have to keep learning, myself. This is normal too. The Christian life is about falling down and falling away, coming back to yourself and to God, and resuming the journey. The thing about Orthodoxy, I find, is how timeless it is — that is, how out of time, how Orthodox worship really does make you feel that you are connected to something deep and eternal. Or rather, Someone.

I don’t want to go on too long here, because I do not want to proselytize. And in any case, do not go to Orthodoxy thinking it’s an escape from the problems of this world. Back at church for the first time in months, though, and thinking about the e-mail from the reader, I found myself so grateful that God showed me this way. The Divine Liturgy seems like the still point around with everything in this chaotic and dying world turns.

In his homily today, our priest said that faith is what saves us, but it cannot be faith that is merely an intellectual affirmation of propositions, or an emotional high, but it has to be something that is integrated into every aspect of our life. We are always living towards dying, if we’re doing it right. After the services, Father told our small group that since the Covid crisis, he has had more people contact him to inquire about Orthodoxy than ever. He said that there must be a rising awareness that things are getting worse in this country, and that Christians are going to go through a long and agonizing trial. People are looking for depth and seriousness, he said. We cannot waste this time God has given us to prepare for what’s coming, he advised.

He’s right about that. You Christian readers, whatever your church, take that to heart. I’m not going to tell you to become Orthodox, but I am going to tell you most emphatically to find a safe harbor on a solid rock, both in your own spiritual life and in your church life. Never, ever think that thinking the right thoughts, and feeling spiritually exalting emotions, are enough. Trust me on this — I’ve lived to learn what a dead end that is, and I keep having to learn that lesson, one way or the other. There is no way to the top of this mountain except around the arduous spiral path. We are all going through a great sorting now, a sorting that is going to intensify rapidly. A church and a spirituality that is in tune with the times will be swept downstream, like a house built on sand.

UPDATE: Here’s what I mean. It’s the first ten minutes of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. I encourage you to watch it. In it, the Russian poet Gortchakov and his Italian translator, Eugenia, have arrived at a rural chapel, where he wanted to see a Piero della Francesca painting of the Madonna of Childbirth. But when they get there, Gortchakov grumpily does not want to leave the car. Eugenia — worldly, modern — goes in, and finds a group of modestly clad country women praying in a candlelit chapel for fertility. She asks the sacristan why only women are praying. He says he doesn’t know. Don’t you want a child? he asks. No, she says, she’s only watching. He tells her that if you only watch, if you don’t go down on your knees in prayer, the things you want will not come to you. She leaves.

On one level, this might seem like superstition. But Tarkovsky is also making a serious religious point here: that you cannot stand abstractly apart from God and expect to know Him. You have to act with your body as well as your mind. Later in the film, Gortchakov is walking through the ruins of an abbey. We hear a female voice — the Madonna, it seems — taking pity on poor melancholic Gortchakov, and give him a word. God says that if he did speak to the poet, would the poet even listen? God says that he shows himself to Gortchakov every day, but Gortchakov doesn’t see.

To be able to see God and hear God requires faith. And faith requires humility, and commitment. You cannot know what the sea feels and tastes like if you will never leave the beach.