by Robert & Bonnie Flanagan
Breck, John. Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.
Mathewes-Green, Frederica. The Illumined Heart, the Ancient Christian Path of Transformation. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2001.
Schmemann, Alexander. Our Father. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002.
In the days following the horrifying events of September 11th there was an upsurge in attendance at church and religious events of all kinds, including Orthodox. That surge petered out as many people became acclimated to the conditions of a post- September 11th culture, yet from conversations we’ve had with a variety of people and from our own experience there is a changed atmosphere unrelieved since that day but covered over by a thin membrane of forgetfulness and wishful thinking. The three books reviewed here are examples from the Orthodox perspective of the attitude and practices essential in both avoiding anesthetic forgetfulness and at the same time seeing such events in their proper place.
The attention of the heart, an attitude taught by Scripture and the teachers of the Church, is difficult to come by in modern culture even with the provocation of the events of last fall. We still need current masters to teach us the way to that attention, people who are familiar with the deceptions of our culture and can speak out against them while illuminating our minds and encouraging our fainting spirits.
Each of these three attempts to accomplish this goal are very different from the other.
The writings of Fr Alexander Schmemann have been an inspiration to the Orthodox Church in America. Our Father is the fourth collection of sermons given over Radio Liberty to listeners in the Soviet Union. Earlier collections focus on the Creed, the Church Year and the Virgin Mary. Like the others it delivers the essentials of the topic under discussion in short messages designed for an audience with limited exposure to the Church and Christianity and faced with constant propaganda aimed against its practice. This describes the Soviet Union of the 70’s and 80’s to which Fr Alexander’s sermons were directed, but it also describes the contemporary monolithic culture of the West. So it is timely for these sermons to appear, and important that they address the fundamental prayer taught to Christians by Jesus.
The tone of these sermons is very different than the theological texts of Fr Alexander. There is a warmer tone, a gentleness and patience that is not always obvious in the more academic works. At first the reader is struck by the difference wondering if one had come across a very different side of the author. Very soon though, one recognizes the same theme that was always so important to Fr Alexander: the fight for a full and complete understanding of the fundamental concepts of Christianity, the kingdom of God, the name of God, joy, sustenance, sin and evil.
This battle for right understanding is especially relevant to our time in one particular section – some words on the section of the prayer "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from (the) evil (one)."
The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, the full force of love. For it is by faith, hope and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.
Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at he time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation. (pp 78-80)
The Illumined Heart is a very different book sharing similar aims. It seems to be aimed at contemporary persons unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, and even unfamiliar with Christianity. The subtitle’s reference to the ancient Christian path of transformation seems to place the book in opposition to a ‘non-ancient way, or a non-Christian way, or a non-transformative way, and Mathewes-Green may have wanted all of those oppositions in play. What the book is, however, is an inviting and readable presentation of the everyday faith practiced by Christians of the fifth or sixth century. It presents simply but solidly the concerns of a couple of that time, all the while asking why the answers for them are not relevant for us. In doing so it highlights the basic themes of Christianity in a clear straightforward format.
Mathewes-Green avoids the question of how the difference in cultures and times affects the practice and life of Orthodox Christians and certainly that question needs to be addressed. It may be she is leaving that for others to do but it is an urgent question and needs to be addressed by non academics such as herself. On the other hand these are fundamental attitudes and practices that must be held on to regardless of the times and these are what she addresses. The author is trying to present to us the same mindset as in earlier generations. There can be differences in cultures but it is the same power of the Holy Spirit who works from generation to generation.
These two books are very different in tone, and addressed to different audiences. At this time, however, we are in need of the concentrated wisdom of Christianity, whether it be addressed in its fundamental prayer or in its traditional practices. Both books fulfill this need.
The one criticism that could be made of The Illumined Heart is the notable lack of encouragement to read the Scriptures. This is especially glaring because the title of the book is taken from the prayer in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom just before the proclamation of the Gospel: "Illumine our hearts, O Master…and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding of your Gospel teaching…." As a corrective to that omission Fr Breck’s Scripture in Tradition can be recommended. Especially relevant in this regard is the book’s fourth chapter, "In Quest of an Orthodox Lectio Divina." In this chapter Fr Breck uses texts from the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, including especially texts from the Philokalia, to encourage a serious and prayerful reading of Scripture by Orthodox. We realize how great a lack there is in this type of practice among the Orthodox so Fr John’s encouragement and instruction is important and needful.
Here, then, are three books that address the needs of today. They are the needs of every day so the teaching herein will be of use both in season and out.