Living Against the Myths of Our Time

Churchianity vs. Christianity
By Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, pp. 138, $16
How to Be a Sinner:
Finding Yourself in the Language of Repentance

By Peter Bouteneff
St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, pp. 215, $20

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Review by Justin Lewis-Anthony

I often wonder if goldfish understand the concept of water: can anything so omnipresent and ubiquitous be comprehended by fish? How can goldfish separate themselves enough from their necessary and surrounding environment to ask questions about it? The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted the same phenomenon with humanity: “myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.” Our water, the myths we inhabit, is almost impossible to interrogate.

One of the great myths of our time is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, first posited by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton almost 15 years ago. According to MTD, a powerful and unacknowledged American religion, God exists, but he exists in order to allow us to grow into happiness and to feel good about ourselves. The tenets of MTD aren’t alien to Christianity as lived and practiced: indeed, I have heard people responsible for ministerial formation who spoke of their role as allowing students to complete a self-actualisation process: ordination as a personal growth programme.

Against MTD, St Vladimir’s Press is to be praised for producing these two slim, but rich, volumes.

I am unaware of how well-known Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh might be in the United States. I am fortunate that, as a student in London in the 1980s, I was able to hear Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, as he was known secularly, speak at my chaplaincy on numerous occasions. Here was a man, who was involved in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, and who became a Christian in exile from Russia, and yet who, patently and palpably, stood before God. Churchianity vs. Christianity is the transcribed record of a series of talks Bloom gave in London in 2000; like Rowan Williams, Bloom was able to speak in whole, eloquent, paragraphs, without notes.

Bloom’s stand against MTD, what he calls, following C.S. Lewis, “churchianity,” begins immediately. He condemns himself, and his long (successful?) ministry in the words of St Andrew of Crete: “The Prophets have spoken in vain. The Gospel lies idle in your hands. The writings of those who were inspired by the Spirit are bearing no fruit. Here am I — barren and empty.” He finds himself to be “below zero,” and after more than 75 years of life “aware of not having begun to be a Christian.” Too often, those who remain in the Church ignore the challenge “to cross from the land of death into the land of life.” We delight in the ceremonies and company of the Church, and still refuse to become Christians, to abide in God: “We do not live our lives on Christ’s own terms. We want God to live on ours.” We are content to live with a society which is less than the Church, and in order to overcome that, we need to acknowledge the ideal and how far short of it we have fallen. We protect ourselves from being known by others in the community, smoothing out relationships, avoiding anything that threatens our frailty.

But St Hermas said that the angels of God built the new Jerusalem from square stones with sharp angles: there is nothing safe there.  But by opening ourselves to each other, as we really are, allowing others to see us as God sees us, then we can find a way of treating each other as if we were in the presence of the Messiah. We will learn that we are not self-sufficient, and we find our abode in God when we seek it together with our brothers and sisters.

Peter Bouteneff teaches at St Vladimir’s Seminary, where he incorporates his expertise and interest in music, and especially the work of Arvo Pärt, into his teaching of systematic theology.

He begins his exploration of human sinfulness in How to Be a Sinner with a clear statement against MTD: “Everybody sins. We all fall short of the glory of genuine human life.” The book is an exploration of how a genuine human life might be the answer to such falling short.

This is more, and perhaps harder, than a “maudlin or masochistic” focus on a “sinner identity,” of which Bouteneff gives us three examples: “John” who is MTD personified; Joanne, who has been so badly damaged by her family and upbringing that she can’t honestly assess her efforts and failings; and “Paisios” who has adopted a baptismal name and persona that revels in being “The Wretch,” dresses in black, and who travels 250 miles to make his confession to a noted monk-confessor. Self-affirmation is not self-acceptance, but neither is self-hatred proper self-humility. As long as we maintain the measure of who we are and what we deserve, rather than allowing God to set the terms, then we will be trapped in one of these self-deceptive personae. This is where the teaching and practices of the Church, understood properly, and practiced with compassion, can help.

Interestingly, Bouteneff moves a discussion of the nature of “sin” to an appendix. This is a clearly stated, even eloquent, description of sins as disposition, action, and condition, all combining to make us miss “the mark,” which is the blameless one, Jesus Christ. The first step to retargeting the mark is an acceptance of the reality of our falling short: we can approach the reality accompanied by the assurance and compassion of Christ. This brings us a freedom from fear, and to live without fear is a great, rare and precious gift.

Bouteneff gives us a rich company of guides into truth: Rowan Williams, W.H. Auden, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pope Francis, the ascetic Fathers and Mothers of the Church, and, pleasingly, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. Despite the heft of these witnesses, Bouteneff presents his ideas and their teachings with a mild gentleness that is very attractive, compassionate, and humane. The book would make a good pattern for Lenten study, especially if undertaken in the company of a wise fellow reader.

Justin Lewis-Anthony is the former deputy director of the Anglican Centre in Rome.


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