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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"Encounters with Orthodoxy" (John P. Burgess)

TITLE: Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again
AUTHOR: John P. Burgess
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (226 pages).

Why would a North American theologian and professor of an evangelical seminary spend sabbatical time at an Eastern European culture and a Eastern Orthodox environment? Why Russia? Why pull up the whole family from a familiar and comfortable West and plunge into an unfamiliar and sometimes discomforting East? John Burgess begins with at least three reasons: The first is growing discontent with the North American Church scene. The second is the frustration with an academic environment that hems one at a superficial level of intellectual inquiry rather than deeper levels of human existence. The third touches on something that represents Burgess's deep hope, that there is much evangelicalism can learn from the Orthodox Faith. So Burgess and his family boldly embark upon an immersion experience to encounter personally Eastern Orthodoxy. The journey began not in Russia but in America itself, with the whole family having to grapple with immigation visas, fund-raising, air tickets, educational needs, language learning, and various travel logistics. Then there are the Russian details where they need to look for a place of worship, a place to stay, and someone to guide them. From rat infestation encounters to being assaulted, the Burgesses had also to deal with the local people's suspicions of Westerners. They learn firsthand that language matters a lot.  Not knowing Russian well makes one extremely vulnerable. Despite a discouraging first month, the fruits of the effort are about to start. Burgess describes how entering into Eastern Orthodoxy is like moving from a black/white world into one that is full of colour. He appreciates the historical background that made Russia what it is today. Although Russia is still considered a very secular society, more than eighty percent of the people consider themselves as part of the Orthodox faith. For Burgess, the sabbatical in Russia has reaped many fruits. For instance, he has learned to appreciate his own Church tradition as well as the significance of the liturgies. He brings in a more experiential component to his academic life. He is more sensitive to the complexities when the secular and the religious contexts interact. Likewise, it is entirely beneficial if both the Western Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox Church can learn from each other.

He focuses on seven broad Orthodox religious practices in this immersion experience. First, in holiness, Burgess learns how sensitive the Orthodox faith is to the presence of God in a complex and confused world. Although the general infrastructure of Russia are not near the level as the United States, there is an acute sense of focus on the vertical relationship between God and people. With first-hand observation of the religious moods and practices, Burgess experiences the enormous atmosphere of reverence and awe of the Presence of the Holy in the holy places and holy things. The chief experience is not to see the mere brokenness of the world, but to see that God is among the broken, through a constant focus on Christ. Second, one needs to experience the liturgy in order to understand more of its significance.  In contrast the our familiar Western study, analyze, and research methodology, knowing the Orthodox faith requires one to go through the uniform rituals of the Orthodox way of worship. In doing so, Burgess sees how "ritually impoverished" the Western Church had become. There is a unique way in which the rituals "open up" a whole world of religious experience. There are rituals surrounding the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the Confessions, Prayers, Blessings, together with bodily gestures by all the participants. Crossing oneself is an important act of worship. Participation is expected for there is no place for observers or spectators. It is not empty ritualism but "embodied rituals." It helps one to belong to something bigger than self. Burgess closes by considering some of the protests against Orthodox rituals. Third, Burgess reflects on beauty. The churches and monasteries in Russia provide a welcome relief from the inefficiency, the chaos, and the corruption of the world. The Orthodox believes that beauty begins from the inside out in contrast to the outside-in perspective of Westerners. The presence of icons, structures, and images, help point one toward the Divine. Amid the busy world, one icon itself can usher one toward an awareness of the presence of God. This transfiguration is experienced through "reverse perspective" in which it is the icon that observes us rather than us visualizing the icons. In other words, it is being present to God as if the icons are windows which God looks at us. Fourth, Burgess manages to nuance the different understanding of miracles, and is able to acknowledge profound respect for the use of the Theotokos, and how Orthodoxy believes God enters into matter and reveals to humans. The deification process is not exactly people becoming gods but a human participation in the divine life. The fifth aspect is about monks and monasteries where the author relays his experience and uncertainty as he tries to find ways to live with and to learn about the way Orthodox monks live. He concludes with a renewed desire to avoid both the romanticizing or the condemnation of  monasticism. Sixth, he sees how the Orthodox Church treats the Eucharist as the sacrament of sacraments, for it is this one ritual that joins Church and Christ. It is this one liturgy that enables believers to see the world through Christ, and to see the divine God in Christ. With the Orthodox way, Burgess learns the importance of preparation and participation. Finally, the area of Church is explored where Burgess feels both an insider as well as an outsider in both the Orthodox as well as Protestant circles. It is here when he returns to the United States that he begins to sense what Protestant worship is lacking and how it has become more humanistic as many Protestant churches swim in the seas of relevance over reverence.

This is a beautiful book filled with personal experiences and honest reflections of Orthodoxy from a Western Protestant perspective. In one volume, readers get many glimpses of the Orthodox religious practices, rituals, and theological significance. Many Western Christians have failed to understand the background and traditions of Orthodoxy, choosing instead to assume a position of religious superiority. In doing so, one may have unwittingly thrown the baby out with the bath water. Burgess has given us a wonderful snapshot and interpretation of Orthodoxy so that we in the West can appreciate Orthodox culture and theology more. All the seven encounters of Orthodoxy are invitations for us to consider the meaning and the significance of learning to see God more present in our lives. For all the past disagreements over practice or theology, I think it is time that Christians in the West, both Protestants and evangelicals, keep an open mind, to interpret the Eastern Orthodox faith with generosity and love. They too love the Lord Jesus. They too honour God. What then is there to prevent us from learning from them? Personally, I think Western Christianity has more to gain by learning from Orthodoxy. John Burgess has paved the way for greater cooperation and unity. Avoid hyping up the misunderstandings and the problems of the past. None of us can lay claim to having the only correct perspective or interpretation. We need one another. In the context of this wonderful book, Western Christianity needs to learn from the Eastern Orthodox faith, and vice versa. There is more to gain.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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