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Φωνη βοωντος εν τη ερημω: ετοιμασατε την οδον κυριου

This is meant as an informal blog.

When it comes to religious items, I would stress that these are my personal opinions, and not those of the Russian Orthodox Church which I belong to.

Most of what I write is 'friends only' (pod zankom). This is because the informal rules governing public questioning of Church positions are considerably tighter in Russia than they are in Western Europe. There is no tradition of 'loyal dissent' as there is in the Anglo-Saxon world. Which is why I am fairly careful before opening the door.

Russian friends: feel free to comment in your own language... I read Russian, but writing is just too difficult...

Для русских гостей -
Вы можете оставлять комментарии на русском языке, избегая слишком сложных и слэнговых оборотов.
Также в ответ на мои комментарии на английском можно отвечать по-русски.

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who answered my question on recent Orthodox authors. It rather confirmed my observations that there is a shortage of creative Christian writing in Russia today. At the same time it opened my eyes to reasons. A large part of creative writing in western Christianity, and in particular in English, revolves round the idea of doing Christianity differently, of finding alternative ways of prayer, liturgy, organisation of Christian communities. Some of it also revolves round redefinitions of morality, including changing sexual mores. Public discussion of ‘doing things differently’ is clearly not ‘on’, in Russian Orthodoxy, at least publicly. Also, there remains a great deference to the spiritual ‘super-figure’, mainly in the format of a staretz. While I have great admiration for real top grade startsi, I wonder whether there is not an unhealthy element in this, and that paradoxically, attention to them as much blocks as carries us forward on the Christian road, that spending too much time in their company in book form can become an alternative to struggling to become fourth class startsi ourselves. 

I will taking a few names for when I next hit Russia and a church bookshop.

Roots of a radical

John AT Robinson (1919-1983) was an Anglican scholar and writer, who as Bishop of Woolwich hit the headlines in 1963 with his book ‘Honest to God’. Drawing heavily from Tillich, Bonhoeffer and Bultmann, it challenged the ‘God out there’ of most English-speaking Christians of his day. It must have been read by every Anglican cleric and intellectual of the 1960s, including me as a teenager.

I picked up recently his 1980 ‘The Roots of a Radical’, in which he sets out his position on different subjects twenty years on from Honest to God, and shortly before his death from cancer. I enjoyed it immensely. It is the writing of a highly intelligent and, I believe, deeply believing man, rooted in the best of the intelligent Anglican tradition. 

It includes some superb lines, which I share:

‘For a radical has to be a person of roots and deep roots, with the freedom and courage, as Jesus did, to go to source and speak from the centre. For this the centre must be strong, as it was for him, hidden in his relationship to Abba, Father. Without that, as Luther put it, ‘we nothing can’. (p. 5)

Quoted from one of his father’s books: ‘Large souls do not try to impose themselves on us…. In their presence we spread, and feel strangely at home’ (p. 21)

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A request to my Russian-speaking church friends

Are you able to name me three books, written by Russians in the past five years, which you have benefitted from spiritually, and which you would recommend to educated people who have passed beyond the neophyte stage of Christian life.

If you unable to name any, please let me know equally.

I insist that they be i) originally Russian (not translations) and ii) not history or biography, i.e. freshly baked from contemporary spiritual experience.

You can also include people who maintain regular websites which you visit. 

Thanks a lot.

Full circle
I am where I was 55 years ago.

In the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral at an Anglican liturgy followed by the blessing of an icon painted by a good friend of ours.

The icon we came to England for - painted by Amanda de Pulford

In the 1960s, my father, a travelling salesman, would bring me as a teenager to Canterbury and leave me to wander round the cathedral on my own. I was fascinated by medieval architecture, and Canterbury has a full range of styles from Norman Romanesque to late Gothic. There was also a sort of numinous presence, especially in the crypt, which helped mould a sense of Christian vocation – at the time, I thought, via Oxford or Cambridge, to the Anglican priesthood.

It did not turn out that way.Read more...Collapse )

On sin and glory
I wonder whether as much damage is done by constant discourse on sin as by sin itself.

If we need a constant discourse on sin – beating our breasts as sinners – as part of our Christian praxis and identity, something is going wrong. Discourse on sin is right only when preceded by the call to glory. It is only in the light of that glory, and of our redemption, that we rightly see ourselves as sinners, that is ‘falling short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). We undertake metanoia (literally: change of mind, change of direction), adapt our behaviour where necessary (Let him who has two coats give to him who has none) and rejoice in the grace given to us (where sin abounded, grace did much more abound – Romans 5: 20). Yes, after the initial, major metanoia (‘being born again’) there are other ‘aftershock’ metanoias as part of the cleansing process (Search me, God and know my heart … Look well less there be any offence in me – Psalm 139: 23,24), as God points us to these weak points deeper and deeper in our hearts that need His cleansing and healing. But this in a context of respect and grateful knowledge of our Sonship, not of grovelling or self-flagellation. We look forward to glory, not back on our – forgiven and put away – sins.

I suspect that there is a real temptation for those in power to use constant reference to sin and calls for repentence (and sacramental confession) to keep those of whom they have spiritual charge in subjection to them and their systems, and in so doing maintain their own identities and positions within the system. But this is to deny their charges their full status as free children of God and will surely not go unpunished.
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"Christ in the Church is not needed"

Theodoor Van Loon - Adoration of the Shepherds - Currently at BOZAR, Brussels

I was struck by a recent comment by a competent icon painter in my blog: “I have long been convinced as an icon painter that Christ in the church is not needed” in a context where people have religion instead of faith.

This seemed to echo with an observation I made at the current exhibition in Brussels (BOZAR) of the early 17th century religious painter Van Loon, that the only Christs that Van Loon paints well are either infant Christs (Adoration of the Magi) or dead ones (Pietà, Descent from the Cross). His adult Christs, whether The Woman Taken in Adultery or the Supper on the Road to Emmaus fail to convince and one senses a difficulty in ‘capturing’ them. Indeed the most convincing male figure in his work is Joseph, much younger than the old man of Orthodox tradition or pre-Reformation RC tradition. And not just with Van Loon, many religious painters from the Counter-Reformation onwards seem to do a much better adult Joseph than an adult Christ.

I would suggest the following logic which underlines both situations;

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Bulwarks and buffers
I have not been a very good Live Journal correspondent in recent months. Yes, time is at a premium and I read Russian only slowly.

It is also as if I sense a deep turning of the tide inside me, including moving away from traditional Orthodox discourse, both in terms of methodology and on individual points. I have tried three times this week to get this into writing. It refuses to gel, and sounds too much like another jeremiad among many. But two paragraphs sound right, which I offer already:

"In most Orthodox discourse, and certainly in Russia, ‘unchangingness’ seems to feature large: we are an immovable bulwark, a sure reference point, with unchanging values in a surging sea of change. I challenge this assumption: nothing tells me that God created the world once and for all to work in a certain way, and that his Spirit cannot or should not move to change the way we view the world and our place in it.

For me, post-1988 Russian Orthodoxy has hit the buffers, and is beginning to turn around in circles and lose energy and adherents. A quantum leap forward is needed, and we cannot find it. The road or roads are not signposted. I believe such roads exist, and indeed I dare to believe I have found one such road, but I have had to go outside Orthodoxy into the wider Christian world to find it."

More perhaps later...

New reads - Gustav Frenssen

Just occasionally an author grabs me and I read one novel after another. After German author Ernst Wiechert, almost the only writer I have ever read twice, there is his countryman Gustav Frenssen, whose Otto Biebendeck and Der Pastor von Poggenpohl I have both devoured during the past couple of months.

Gustav Frenssen (1863 to 1945), the son of a cabinetmaker, was a Protestant pastor who, when an early book,
Jörn Uhl, became a best-seller in 1901, quit to devote himself full-time to writing.

Frenssen lacks the depth of his near-contemporary Ernst Wiechert (1887-1950), but spins a better yarn, and also has stronger female characters (Wiechert is weak here). Both share a common Protestant background, but one senses a greater sense of spiritual struggle with Wiechert. Wiechert went against the Nazis, and it was a near-miracle that his most famous work ‘Das einsame Leben’ was published at all, while Frenssen’s religious-nationalism took him towards the Nazis and he has been sharply criticised for his nationalism and anti-semitism.

Otto Biebendeck is the life of an orphan boy in northern Germany from around 1880 through to just after WWI. A dozen characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, in the countryside and small towns, some better drawn than others (his wife Gesa vom Gang, a passionate sailor who eventually drowns, or the drunken artist Eilart, are particularly well drawn) and with a few jumps which test the limits of probability, like Otto’s journey to the USA in 1917 or his meeting up with nearly every male character at different places during the war. But the plot moves at the right pace and, simply, Frenssen is a good raconteur: his characters continue to play through my mind a week after finishing the book. Underlying it all is a deep sense of humanity – curiously similar to Dickens – which leaves one feeling better for having read the book.


As I said to my son .....

If Christianity is not about freedom and joy, I'm on the wrong train .....