Conversations by E-Mail

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF's e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson -- [email protected] -- or Jim Forest -- [email protected].

Fear of Islam

As I read recent articles on Islam, more often than not I feel fear creeping in. "No, they can't take over. We must stop it. We could suffer if they take over..." But this is fear, fear of being the ones who lost, fear of the suffering that might come as a result. I reacted with a sense of security where I am, a relief that I'm safe here, at least for a long time.

But have we not already talked about power corrupting? When Christianity, a faith based on love, self-sacrifice, on grace, was (and still is) the "major religion," are we safer from the hate and cruelty that we do to each other? No, I think it's pretty rampant around us. Whatever the dominant religion, corruption will bring injustice and suffering. So what are we afraid of in this article? Why does this pose such a threat? Does the author write this because he is saddened by the loss of faith of the Christian west?

I do not like it when a fear of powerlessness in the face of a rising power encourages me to hate, to exclude, to be scared. We know that following Christ will be suffering, persecution, that it will be difficult. Is this what we are afraid of? It's going to come anyway. "In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world." And as we are formed by our faith, I think we begin to seek out, not the suffering for ourselves, but the places of suffering in the world, because we are called to mercy, compassion, to healing. We may be called tomorrow to go to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Sudan, to live lives of grace, forgiveness, peace, long-suffering.

I work in nursing homes. They are not fun places to be. Some people like them (not many), but that is not me. I go there because I have to. But I'm glad that I do have to. I'm glad that I am forced to get beyond the awful smells, the stigma of the discarded lives, the grief of what has become of these once capable people, the fear of our own possible demented futures. I'm glad because when I do, I often find it's actually a treasure of stories, smiles, laughter, and the sacred. But it is not a place of power. Those in power often abuse these hidden treasures as they seek profit, and there is very little "good" power that speaks out to protect them. Nursing homes, while not dangerous like strict Muslim nations, still are places from which we run away. St. Antony talked about the trials of the city and the demons of the desert. While the city had the distractions of people and temptations, the desert had vicious demons. We cannot run away from or keep out the dangers of Islam, if they do exist. They will merely take other forms.

Rather, can we dig down into our faith for answers to encountering "danger?" Maybe then people will begin to realize that we do have a religion of depth and truth and stop seeking it elsewhere.

Sheri San Chirico

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Personal response

Our response to Islam should be personal rather than general. It's easy to be afraid of a nameless, faceless foe, of an idea. These apparitions have no pity, no compassion, no mercy, no human qualities. They are ultimately non-human. And this makes it easier for us to justify acting in inhuman ways towards them: killing them, dropping bombs that maim children, banning them from our midst, excluding them from the good fortune that we desire for ourselves and our children. This is precisely how racist ideologies function: by dehumanizing and depersonalizing the other, by creating a caricature, a stereotype, that is really little more than a target for transferred rage.

In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky make the point that it is easy to love an abstract generalized humanity. I would point that statement in another direction and say that it is similarly easy to hate an abstracted foe, an extrapolated enemy.

The Muslims I know are like me. I saw the imam I know pulled over on the side of the road today, and stopped to see if he was OK. As he would for me. Why am I supposed to believe that people in Afghanistan or Iraq are any different?

I think we would do much better in this discussion, rather than focusing on vague notions and concepts, to focus on a more personal dimension, as Sheri has done.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

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Business and faith

After church four men in the parish and I engaged in a delightful discussion about politics. One man -- a businessman and tonsured reader -- said he'd tried to find a book about being Orthodox and a businessman: how to be Orthodox and a responsible businessman. He said he'd read Clement of Alexandria on the rich young ruler and also St. John Chrysostom on wealth and poverty, but that otherwise he'd been unsuccessful. Does anyone on the List have anything to recommend?

Greg Cook

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Work ethic

I read a book some years ago titled Calvin's Geneva that gave a side to this Western Christian that I had not known about -- his ideas about business and economic justice.

A central tenet, of course, is his "work ethic," which includes the notion that work is a vocation (sacred calling). To deprive someone of a job is not, to Calvin, having "to let you go." It is nothing less than "murder" -- taking away one's vocation is akin to killing the person (Compare to Orthodox critics of OPF who see killing civilians as less serious than "murder.")

Because work is sacred, all in Calvin's Geneva had work. Where the private sector could not provide work, the public sector was required to do so.

Calvin lived simply on a small stipend. In his last months he refused the stipend, for he was not capable of working. At the same time, there were no homeless or hungry people in Geneva, and medical costs were paid by the community for those who could not afford them.

As a young man I heard much about Calvin's doctrine of predestination, nothing at all about his economic views.

John Oliver

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Profit at any price

It seems to me there are some aspects of business that are incompatible with Orthodox teaching. The most significant is the "fiduciary responsibility" of managers to the owners/shareholders of the business. There is a legal principal that implies the fiduciary responsibility is "at any cost". If it increases the owner's value, you must do it, even if it harms non-owners (like employees) in the process. That principle seems to put a variety of stakeholders at odds with one another. The capitalist system, at its core, is selfish and has no place for concerns with the "other" parties to transactions. "Enlightened" businesses are those that understand their obligations to, and place in, society. Henry Ford once said he had to pay the workers enough to purchase the products they produced. We are rapidly moving to an environment where workers will no longer be able to purchase the products they produce, be they clothing, appliances, automobiles, or houses.

The ethic you demonstrate in life will reveal itself in the business world. Behavior in the workplace is probably the most telling about one's personal ethic, because there can be no separation of business ethic from personal/religious ethic.

Marty Watt

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God's Kingdom vs the world

I'm not sure the Christian faith is totally compatible with the business world as it is unfolding today. We want to live at peace with the world, however Jesus' teachings leave us in the world but not of the world. Jesus did not take away the tension between the Kingdom of God and the ways of this world. So rather than trying to figure out how to live comfortably as Christians in the world, we may always have to have that tension with the world to serve as our consciences and to help us desire something other than becoming satisfied with this world and what it has to offer us.

Once in a Bible study group I was in, there was an "ethnic" Orthodox who had joined us. He had been born under communism and never seemed all that "spiritual." But unexpectedly he had become a regular in th Bible study. We were looking at parables -- the sower, the vineyard owner who went on a journey, the fishers of men, the pearl of great value, etc. This man said a few weeks into the study, "One thing is certain, God is not a very good businessman. If these parables represent his way of doing business, he would be broke in no time."

We do pray for an abundance of the fruits of the earth, we do not pray for profits. The scriptures do have God blessing people with abundance and prosperity and good things and paradise, but this doesn't seem to be related to business success or a work ethic, but rather and more often with the grace of God.

A "Christian" business ethic includes honesty and integrity for God hates false scales and balances. But it also will have to include love, charitable giving and forgiveness of debt. Lending at interest is questionable as is taking over huge tracks of land. Lording it over others is not acceptable, failing to pay the laborers their wages too is not right. One should share one's clothes and food with those in need. And then there is Jesus' admonition to the soldiers (shall this be limited literally to them, or does it apply to all?): "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages." How many of those climbing the ladder of success could live by that?

Fr. Ted Bobosh

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Pietism and capitalism

On the subject of capitalism and Orthodoxy, I recommend a chapter from Christos Yannaras' book The Freedom of Morality: "Pietism as an Ecclesiological Heresy." Yannaras cites Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and goes on to remark:

"The initial historical link between pietism and capitalism is well known. The linchpin of the capitalist ideology may be identified with the pietistic demand for direct, quantifiable, and judicially recompensed results from individual piety and morality -- in this case, from hard work, honesty, thrift, rationalistic exploitation of 'talents,' etc. Work acquires an autonomy; it is divorced from actual needs and becomes a religious obligation, finding its visible justification and 'just deserts' in the accumulation of wealth. The management of wealth similarly becomes autonomous; it is divorced from social needs and becomes part of the individual's relationship with God, a relationship of quantitative deserts and rewards."

Yannaras goes on to make an interesting comment:

"The whole of mankind today lives in the trap of a lethal threat created by the polarization of two provenly immoral systems, and the constant expectation of a confrontation between them in war, perhaps nuclear war. On the one side is the pietistic individualism of the capitalist camp, and on the other the moralistic collectivism of the Marxist dreams of 'universal happiness.' At least the latter refuses to cloak its aims under the forged title of 'Christian,' while the name of Christianity continues to be blackened in the sloganizing of even the foulest dictatorships which support the workings of the capitalist system, upholding the pietistic ideal of individual 'merit.'"

Fr. Paul Schroeder

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The Puritan ethic

The author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is R.H. Tawney, a Christian socialist historian. The book was written in 1926. His principal thesis is that there is a link between Calvinistic theology (especially as understood by the English Puritans in the 17th century) and the development of capitalistic forms of economic management. As always, the thesis is probably greatly oversimplified, but no-one can doubt the apparent result, that the United States was founded on a Puritan religious ethic and that it has always since been the leading exponent of capitalist economics.

Seraphim Alton Honeywell

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America, the Parable

There once was a seed that took root in some new land, and the seed sprouted forming a new shoot which struggled to survive but once it took root, it thrived. And its stem became rich and thick, and formed a trunk which had many branches. And its roots spread throughout that land absorbing all the rich nutrients that land could provide. And that plant grew and became the most beautiful plant and luxurious plant around. Because of its extensive root system and its fine huge leaves, nothing really grew around it, thus ensuring its place on that land. But as it grew in size and strength, it needed ever more land to sustain itself, and its roots began to stretch far beyond its own land into other lands, taking the nutrients and resources of these other places in order to maintain its size and growth. And the native plants in these other lands became alarmed at the size, strength and vitality of this new plant, and its voracious appetite, always needing more to feed its massive size and strength. But this plant insisted to all the other plants of the world that it was right to keep growing and spreading its roots and its leaves, taking whatever it needed from whatever land its roots spread into, and shading with its leaves the land so that other plants were stunted if they could grow at all.

Is not this plant saying, Darwinism was true, it is survival of the fittest, even might makes right. What should all the other plants in their own lands do about this vital and growing newcomer, whose roots were invading their lands and "uprooting" the native plants? Had this plant proved that its very success and prospering meant it was in fact entitled to claim as much of the earth as it needed?

Fr. Ted Bobosh

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The state and anarchy

Regarding Romans and "the sword," my New Testament professor once pointed out to me that there are basically two images from the Scriptures that the Church has used historically to describe the state.

The first is the "minister of God" image from Romans; Romans was written by Paul in a time when his citizenship in the Roman government was offering limited protection in his proclamation of the Gospel.

But the second is the Beast of the Apocalypse, a book written during a period of state-sanctioned persecution of the Church, and which regards civil government (the "kingdoms of this world") as irredeemably corrupted by the principalities of "this age," its power as deriving from Satan, not from God.

Historically speaking, the Church has tended to use one image or the other depending on whether the state was assisting or hindering the Church in its mission at the time. One cannot simply point to Paul's image in Romans as if this were the only way to think about the Church's view of state power; in the pre-Constantinian church, it is the image of the beast that predominates when speaking about the state, not the "minister of God" image.

Regarding anarchy

I think it is fairly easy to detect an underlying stream of what might be called "Christian anarchism" within the Orthodox tradition. For example, the Desert Fathers frequently harbored fugitives from the law, to the point that some abbas advocated lying to authorities in order to protect those charged with capital crimes from the very "sword" that St. Paul refers to in Romans.

The coercive power of the state was mostly unenforceable in Scetis, part of the reason the monks chose to settle there, and the early monastic communities felt free to subvert or ignore that power, in part because their view of the state was more like that of the Apocalypse than that of Romans; as Merton once wrote, they saw the entire culture as "a shipwreck from which every person must swim for his life." They refused to identify the enemies of the state as their enemies, heeded no call to arms, and regarded themselves as citizens of no earthly kingdom.

It is interesting to note that imagery from the Apocalypse forms a dominant theme in the iconography of the monasteries on Mount Athos, something you find hardly anywhere else (books have been written on this subject). This imagery represents, among other things, the deep-seated mistrust of the monks of all forms of civic government as representative of the power of the beast, their absolute non-allegiance to the kingdoms of this world. The anarchist spirit of Scetis lives on in Mount Athos through the fact that Athos constitutes a self-governing entity, not under the legal jurisdiction of any state.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

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Back from Alaska

We got home yesterday, totally exhausted after a flight which took us across ten time zones in ten hours. We got our laundry done (just in time, too, because the washing machine broke after the last load), all the mail opened, house put back in order, etc., and now feel we're really back home.

Alaska is a wonderful place, mainly wilderness that stretches on and on and on. It still has a frontier-town mentality -- strip malls with "dancing girls" signs, people who live in the bush and thrive on moose meat and berries, people panning and digging for gold who look like gold miners of the 19th century. Roads are few and generally don't go far. The only way to get to many places is by air or ferry, though in the winter there is the option of snowmobiles and dog sleds. The museums are excellent. We found several good books stores. The food is great, as is the locally brewed beer, and the people are as friendly as you'll find anywhere. And the mountains! And glaciers! And wildlife! Not to mention the fact that Jim had no hay fever there at all, not even a sniffle. We told our hosts we were thinking of making it a one-way trip.

The main event was the five-day Eagle River Institute. The conference was wonderful. What fine people. The choir director of the Orthodox church at Eagle River, Steve Alvarez, is an Apache who works on the staff of the Native Heritage Center not far from Eagle River. There were lots of native Americans of various kinds. A beautiful, colorful group. Fr. Mel Webber from a Greek Orthodox parish in California -- though his home is England -- gave four challenging (and often funny) lectures on the mind and heart, drawing on the great teachers of prayer. Jim had four sessions, two on prayer with icons and two on icons that connect with the Beatitudes. I spoke on the home church, not so much as the ideal home we imagine other people inhabit, but the home as a place of prayer and hospitality.

Before the conference we had two nights at Denali National Park and the rest of the time in Eagle River, about 20 miles north of Anchorage. Denali Park was wet and cool when we went but still gorgeous.

Jim had a close encounter with a grizzly with photos to prove it. This happened during a "Tundra Wilderness Tour" by bus (the only way you can get into the interior of the park except for those who have a permit to camp and can enter on foot), with all the others in the group back in the bus and yelling, "Who is that idiot out there with the camera?" "My husband!" I said proudly.

The Russians brought Orthodoxy to Alaska hundreds of years ago, and it's still very strong among the native population. We visited the oldest building in Alaska, a tiny wooden Orthodox church at Eklutna surrounded by an interesting cemetery -- native "spirit houses," all beautifully painted according to family, with Russian crosses on them.

All in all, I hope we will one day have the chance to return. We've a lot to see -- Alaska is 36 times bigger than the Netherlands with half the population of Amsterdam. Not bad. Mt. Denali is so huge that we could often see it from the living room of the guest house in Eagle River, 150 miles away. The scope is astonishing.

Nancy Forest

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OPF's Mission

I read Timothy Beach's article in the latest In Communion and thank him for articulating these basic truths. I struggle working in a nationalistic Orthodox context in Romania where serving Christ for His own sake is an oddity. Most Romanians I talk to think I am very strange to have become Orthodox. They need this message, that their identity is fulfilled in Christ and in His service rather than in military service or getting to ride in an American tank. I have been back in the States for a couple months and have been thinking about this hypernationalistic church in America and I keep asking myself, "How can the Church be salt if it never transcends its context?" It seems like the same question you brought up of a "holistic, undivided self-identity." Only then can we hope to really be salt.

Joel Klepac

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A question was posted to the OPF List: "I have a friend who is interested in Orthodoxy but says now she's being drawn to Gnosticism. Do you have any articles that address gnosticism? She is an intense intellectual, she admits she might be getting herself in trouble."

Gnosticism and intellectualism are almost equivalent terms. Gnosticism is about having secret knowledge that other folks don't have. It is very often very appealing to people of an intellectual bent. They are good at thinking, reading, remembering, reasoning, etc. They are very often not so good at feeling, sweating, manual labor, etc. They might like music -- the music of the spheres, that is, something ethereal or mathematical--but probably not the furious pace of a folk dance. Ancient Gnosticism could not be reconciled with Orthodoxy because Orthodoxy kind of likes wine (even at Communion), sex (made it into a sacrament), food (feasting is a required discipline), and insists that the human body is so good that we shall be stuck with one forever.

People who are drawn to Gnosticism have grave problems connecting with the real world. They much prefer a world of perfect forms. Some of them feel utterly powerless in the real world--and compensate for it in the intellectual world where they have the illusion of power. I stress illusion here. Plato said knowledge is power. He was only partly right. Other folks drawn to Gnosticism secretly hate the world. They feel that they got a raw deal out of life and wish they were in some other world. Many of them did get a bad deal, to be sure. But retreating into fantasy, myths, sorcery, etc. doesn't make the deal any better. May even make things considerably worse.

The "cure" for Gnosticism is to get reconnected to the real world. For friends of people with Gnostic tendencies, that means staying connected to our Gnostic friends and not letting them go. Whatever our Gnostic friends think, we are flesh and blood, and we still love them. So flesh and blood can't be all bad.

Sadly not all are open even to such a love. Love is too often a disappointment, too great a risk. And so some retreat into the world of fantasy, never to return.

"But where can I go from Thy Spirit? If I make my bed in Hell, behold, Thou are there."

David Holden

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Distorted Truths

I just skimmed Lost Christianities by Bart D. Erhman. It struck me as I looked at his bibliography that this concern for "lost" Christianities which he shares with Elaine Pagels and a number of other Western scholars is something about which only Western Christians/atheist scholars obsess. There is something so intellectually and emotionally unrewarding, to say nothing of its distortions of the Truth, in the expression of Western Christianity that there is a ferocious struggle to drown it in scholarship. This is not a struggle I feel no sympathy for, but I think it also points up the need for Orthodox scholars to engage these writers/scholars in a dialogue. Why have we no such genre in Orthodoxy might be an opener.

Alice Carter

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Other gospels

Regarding the existence of other gospels, perhaps it is helpful to recall that Paul accused the Galatians of deserting to "another gospel, which is really not another" (Gal. 1.6-7), a way of saying that there is only one true gospel, so we really ought to distinguish between "the gospel" as the essential message of Christianity and "gospels" as texts. I don't find the existence of "gospel" texts other than the four canonical gospels particularly disturbing. From an historical standpoint they are fascinating reading. From a theological standpoint it is usually possible to discern why a particular text was not canonized. The fact is that a "gospel" does not always communicate "the gospel."

There is also a place in Orthodoxy for texts that are "useful for the soul," which means that they are neither canonical, nor anathema. The Protoevangelium of James, where we find the story of the Anna and Joachim, might fit into this category.

There are myriad "acts" of individual apostles out there. If the Church has only canonized the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke, it has nevertheless received certain stories from these other acts into tradition. Among the relatively few references to these non-canonical works in the Fathers, one occasionally finds an "orthodox" interpretation of a passage used by heretics to support their views. The Fathers did not always reject non-canonical works outright, only cautioned that they must be interpreted selectively.

The use of the term "Gnosticism" to designate a particular religious group with distinct tenets is really a fairly recent phenomenon, probably traceable to 17th century Protestant-Catholic polemics. In 1669 Henry More described Catholicism as "a spice of the old abhorred Gnosticism." More probably had in mind the heresies described by Irenaeus of Lyon in a work entitled Expose and Overthrow of What is Falsely Called "Knowledge," more commonly entitled Against Heresies (ca. 185 A.D.) (Karen King, What is Gnosticism; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 7).

The longer title of Irenaeus' work refers to I Timothy 6.20, where Timothy is warned against "knowledge falsely so-called." The Greek word for "knowledge" is gnosis, from which the term "Gnostic" derives. To my knowledge, neither Paul nor Irenaeus mention a specific group called "Gnostics." Irenaeus designates the various heresies by the name of their founder: Valentinians are named after the arch-heretic Valentinus, the Marcosians after Marcus, etc. Irenaeus does offer detailed descriptions of these groups, however, always with an eye toward discrediting them, so in modern usage the word "Gnosticism" became a kind of "catch-all" term designating a variety of heretical beliefs and practices, including:

  1. theological dualism (two competing deities, one good, one evil)
  2. cosmological dualism (two worlds, one ruled by the good deity, one ruled by the evil deity)
  3. anthropological dualism (soul = good, body = bad)
  4. strict asceticism (to the point of denigrating sexuality, among other things, either by abstaining completely or engaging promiscuously)
  5. docetism (the belief that Jesus only appeared to have a fleshly body)
  6. misinterpretation of Scripture and the use of sources outside of Scripture

Irenaeus occasionally mentions a particular text used by a given group, but until 1945 historians really only had his own polemical writings, those of other heresiologists, and a few scattered fragments of heretical writings. One can imagine the excitement caused by the discovery near Nag Hammadi, Egypt of 46 works in Coptic, including the previously unknown Gospel of Thomas, many of which seemed to have affinities with the heretical groups described by Irenaeus and others. Suddenly it seemed that we had the "other side" of the story: the point of view of the heretics. The works were quickly labeled "Gnostic," and the study of "Gnosticism" became a growth industry.

Recently, though, scholars have begun to question whether such an animal as "Gnosticism" ever really existed, mainly because the Nag Hammadi texts are of widely different characters and viewpoints, and many of them actually do not fit the characteristics of Gnosticism listed above. It is not immediately clear from reading the Gospel of Thomas, for example, that we are dealing with a text that espouses a radical theological and cosmological dualism, a docetic understanding of Jesus, and denigrates the body. In fact the Gospel of Thomas has no narrative structure whatsoever: no birth, no ministry, no crucifixion, no resurrection, no commentary on any of these things. It is merely a collection of roughly 114 sayings of Jesus, many of which have parallels in the canonical gospels. (In some cases the Gospel of Thomas even appears to preserve an earlier version of the saying than the canonical gospels, but that is, of course, a subject of debate).

The Gospel of Thomas presents Jesus primarily as a wisdom figure in the tradition of Solomon, not as the Crucified and Resurrected Christ. This is an incomplete understanding of Jesus, but is it incorrect or heretical? Now imagine a scholar with an axe to grind against traditional forms of Christianity. What might he find in the Gospel of Thomas? A text that calls itself a "gospel" without any of the elements traditionally associated with gospels: birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection. Incidentally, these elements tend also to appear in creeds, which are easily and, in my opinion, simplistically associated with stultifying hierarchies and the bald exercise of power. Voila! The Gospel of Thomas represents an "alternative" spirituality, a "lost" Christianity that existed before "orthodoxy" and "heresy," without canon, creed, and hierarchy. In fact these things were developed for the sole purpose of suppressing texts such as the Gospel of Thomas. Why else might a group of Pachomian monks have hidden it in a jar and buried it in the Egyptian sands?

But here's the problem: what does a spirituality based only upon esoteric sayings look like? How is it lived? What value has a religion with no narrative structure? Without any living links, how does one build a spiritual world around a text that has been lost for 1500 years? The Gospel of Thomas is appealing because it is challenging; it requires effort to understand and interpret it, but the fact that the Gospel of Thomas has no obvious and easily accessible structure means that a structure must be created for it.

Enter our disaffected scholar, who usually identifies with the allegedly disaffected people behind the text and attempts to make their world relevant to our own, but this really doesn't address the fundamental problem. After one has duly situated the text in its historical context and demonstrated its potential in comparison to the vapid religiosity of institutional Christianity, the real work of forming a living community begins. There are "Gnostic" communities out there, to be sure, but ironically they are facing the same problem traditional Christian churches have been dealing with since the 19th century: scholars are questioning their claim to historical continuity. The fact is, however, that most people never get around to the work of community-building, nor do they have the tools and the wherewithal to develop a rich hermetic spirituality. So our scholar's book is released to the rave reviews of colleagues and self-proclaimed "experts" on Amazon. com, enjoys its day in the sun, and quickly finds its way to the shelves of the local used bookstore.

Meanwhile, the rhythm of life continues in the Orthodox churches. The hierarchs continue to quibble with one another, the choirs continue to sing more or less out of tune, the faithful continue to recite the Creed without really understanding the words, but in the midst of it all is a narrative of such beauty that week after week it draws these same petty people together like moths toward a flame. Personally, I'd rather risk being burned than go it alone in the darkness.

Jeff Keiser

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