Like the Greeks

I took my very first class in Byzantine chant today, during coffee hour after liturgy. It’s taught by our priest’s son who makes it sound so much easier than it really is. I play the piano and can read music, but this is unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. (And I was just getting used to the few Arabic phrases during the Liturgy.)

Byzantine chant. It sounds so, well, foreign. It is. And it’s one of the oldest musical systems in the world, or something like that.

When I first met an Orthodox Christian, my first thought was “Oh, like the Greeks.” Yep, like the Greeks. And the Russians. And in my case the Antiochians (Arabs).

As I tried to explain my fascinating encounter to those in Protestant land, I found myself saying “Like the Greeks” anytime I needed any kind of context. Sometimes I cheat and still do.

But that’s really a cop-out, and it allows those who want to ignore the claims of the Holy Orthodox church to do so under the argument that’s just an ethnic expression of Christianity. It is not. And for the sake of intellectual honesty, I had to be willing to accept my own practice of Christianity as one that shared certain ethnic roots as well.

My grandparents are, largely, German. And hailing from rural Iowa, they attended German Baptist churches. So we were also Baptists. Other Germans are, duh, Lutherans, and of course Catholics. The Dutch–well, they’re Reformed. English–Anglican. Scotch–Presbyterian. Italian–Catholic. And so on.

And our new mega-church inventions are equally ethnic. They are 100% an American construct, with a heavy emphasis on entertainment (we call it “seeker sensitive) and consumerism/product placement (only this time you’re consuming Jesus).

I don’t mean in any way to be sacrilegious or too critical, but we need, I needed, to be honest about this.

I had to come to the conclusion that Christianity, here’s a shocker, originated not when Luther nailed his little list to the doors, nor when Tyndale worked so hard on making Holy Scripture accessible. Christianity came to existence in the Middle East, where they eat cucumbers and yoghurt, pitas and falafel. Jesus WAS NOT likely blue-eyed and blond-haired. Nope. He was a Palestinian.

One of the things that was so hard to get over for me was that the Western way of doing church may actually not be the way that it looked in a post-Acts church. They probably didn’t have a “special” before the sermon, an altar call or pass out bulletins. And as I studied and read those who studied better than I ever could I realized that my uncomfortable hunch was correct.

The Scriptures were chanted–it carries the voice quite far without the need for fancy sound systems and it eliminates the presence of emotional inflection that can be misleading or manipulative. They believed the Eucharist was more than just a symbolic cracker crumb and shot of Welch’s. They had deacons, priests, and bishops.

Fr. Peter Gilquist, in his book Becoming Orthodox outlines the surprise of his Campus Crusade cohorts as they discovered all this stuff, and subsequently what they had to do about it. The more I read and studied, the more I knew I too had to do something about it.

It is easy to dismiss Orthodoxy as just an expression of the cultures that largely still practice it here in North America. But that is much too convenient. It’s much harder to say that maybe our post-Reformation, post-Enlightment, post-Great Awakening, and post-modern practices of it may not be the BEST way to do this Jesus thing.

And as more Americans join the Orthodox church, it will take on, probably, a little more Western expression (a little less Byzantine). It has happened in every culture that has practiced it. Greek chants sound different than Russian which sound different than Arabic. The Ethiopians in my church venerate the cross a bit differently than those from Syria. But don’t expect any change to happen too quickly, or for them to be big ones. We are, after all, still Orthodox. (Question: How many Orthodox priests does it take to change a light bulb? Answer {imagine spoken in a Russian accent}: Change? What is this change?)

I didn’t think the Western, Reformed/Protestant way was the BEST way. So now I find myself in our little choir loft, muddling through the tones.

Lord, have mercy.


Author: Rebecca

Orthodox Christian. Journalist. SAR K9 handler. All three of those are deeply related.

5 thoughts on “Like the Greeks”

  1. Bec, I’m a reader of your blog, and I find your narratives interesting. Sometimes with these things, you never hear from people. They read and don’t comment, but I thought it would be nice to let you know of at least one more connection you’ve made. Happy Thanksgiving. Cate

  2. Josh:
    Valid question, but as I was trying to convey in my post, the historic claims of the Truth of Orthodox outweigh (in my mind) any dismission of it as an ethnic expression. If you look at the history of the Church, early Christian missionaries translated Scripture and liturgical texts into the language of the countries they were in (hence the evangelization of Europe), but the core of the way the faith was practiced remained the same. There were many reasons for that, and they had nothing to do with a need to live in a religious/ethnic ghetto. There is a 1,054-year largely uninterupted history of Christian worship which looked almost exactly like the worship of the Orthodox Church today. The changes in the worship/theology came in after the theological changes that led to the Great Schism, and as it spread West. While there are certainly Middle Eastern elements of Orthodox, much of what it does in its style is beyond an ethnic expression but really is concerned with conveying the TOTAL truth of the Gospel of Christ.

    Someone who claims to be a practicing Muslim yet eats ham would not be taken seriously as a member of the Islamic faith, regardless of their race. But yet we have taken many of these things that the Church has always done as a practice of authentic worship and do them less and less (fasting, confession, more-than-symbolic approach to the Sacraments).

    Thanks for the post, and I’ll keep addressing this question in the future, for it is something that I had to work through.

    God bless!

  3. I’m slowly reading my way through your wonderful blog. Another punchline I’ve heard to the joke at the end of this post is that the Orthodox don’t have lightbulbs, as they’re still using oil lamps and candles.

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